It was graduation at the university. With more than 2,000 graduates, ceremonies were in the sports stadium. Graduates and the platform party sat on the bleachers, while families and friends gathered under large tents on the field.
Partway through the program I saw men suddenly jump up, grab large sledgehammers, and run among the tents, pounding the stakes. Glancing toward the horizon, I saw a rapidly approaching wall of dust and sand.
When it hit us, pandemonium broke loose! Tents flailed violently, people shrieked, and graduation caps went airborne.
And then, just like that, it was over. We were covered in grit, but not one tent had collapsed.
Pan back some two and a half millennia. It is a time of uncertainty and anguish. God’s people are captive, prisoners of war in a foreign land. The future is bleak. Hope has vanished. Life seems pointless. Then the prophet speaks: “Enlarge the place of your tent, stretch your tent curtains wide, do not hold back; lengthen your cords, strengthen your stakes” (Isa. 54:2).1
For those quarantined in Babylon, the metaphor was apt. The patriarchs—Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob—lived in tents, moving from place to place in the land to which they had been called.2 The children of Israel, when they departed Egypt and journeyed to the Promised Land, also lived in tents.3
As with the patriarchs (Heb. 11:13), Peter notes we are pilgrims on the earth (1 Peter 2:11). We also are called to leave Babylon4 and travel to the Land of Promise. On this journey, we live in tents—movable, temporary.5
In the patriarchs’ days, tents were made of five main components: (a) the covering, typically woven from goat or camel hair, a material known as sackcloth;6 (b) poles to support the covering, the tallest often in the center of the tent; (c) curtains, typically wide strips of recycled covering, hanging down at the sides of the tent; (d) ropes, which attach to the poles or covering and extend beyond the tent, providing stability; and (e) stakes, pegs driven firmly into the ground, to which the ropes are anchored.
Interestingly, there are also five imperatives in Isaiah’s directive.
“Enlarge the place of your tent”: Why do we need to “enlarge the place”? Simply, a wider space must be readied because a larger tent will be needed. The family will grow!
We notice in the preceding verse that the charge to expand the tent comes while the woman is barren. Isaiah, however, urges her, apparently desolate and forsaken, to break into singing before she has any children. And now she is instructed to prepare for those children.
Sometimes, God calls for action before we see reality. Noah built the ark and entered it before the rain fell (Gen. 6:13-7:5). Abram left the familiar, not knowing where he was going (Heb. 11:8). The priests stepped into the Jordan, and then the waters parted (Joshua 3). Responding to God’s call, to His plan, requires faith.
What does enlarging the tent mean in our lives? Maybe it means that we exit our small boxes—our cramped thinking, our limited view of God.7 Perhaps it means that we widen our hearts to make place for others.8 Fundamentally, it means that there will be change and that that change will involve us personally.
The problem is that the status quo feels secure. Our routines are comfortable. Our boundaries are defined. “Enlarging the tent” is inconvenient and often messy. But God directs, “Enlarge the place of your tent” (Isa. 54:2). I have plans for you (see Jer. 29:11). What I want to do in you and through you simply will not fit with your existing space or mindset. Do not draw limits on your life. I need you to think big, to dream outsized dreams. I need you to make room for a God-sized future.
“Stretch your tent curtains wide”: When the tent is enlarged, its border also expands. That means that you must add material to the tent, including the curtains around the perimeter.
And there is more: to stretch the curtains means to lift them up and out. This extends the shade of your tent, providing space for more people to stop by, rest, and visit.
Do not hold backis also a reminder that both the enlarging and the stretching will take time, effort, and personal resources.
Stretching your curtains may mean making room for new people in your life who will stretch you. Some will stretch your patience; others may stretch your nerves. Perhaps all of them will stretch your prayer life.9
But when you lift and stretch wide the curtains of your life, it will broaden your horizon. You will see God’s vision better.
“Do not hold back”: “Think big!” Isaiah urges (Isa. 54:2, Message).10 “Spare no expense!” (verse 2, NLT).11
When a tent is enlarged, additional supporting posts are needed. But that is not all. The center posts must also be raised. And for that, more robust timbers are required.
We are sometimes prone to say, “Everything is quite all right. What we have is good enough.” But God says, “Don’t be meager. Plan with audacious vision. Work with bold abandon.” We are not to limit our imagination, our dream of how big the tent may need to be. God wants us to have unconventional optimism for growth.12
“Do not hold back” is also a reminder that both the enlarging and the stretching will take time, effort, and personal resources. After all, a tent requires support.
“Lengthen your cords”: Success is not only about expansion. It is also about preservation. Expansion and preservation, however, are linked. We cannot enlarge a tent without adjusting the cords. The larger the tent, the longer the ropes that are required to keep the tent secure. Cords are key to preservation.13
Cords are also about connections. Notice the expanding circles of influence: enlarge the tent, stretch out the curtains, lengthen the cords. Not just Jerusalem, but Judea, Samaria, and beyond (Acts 1:8). To secure the tent, we need cords, not just on one side of the tent, but on all sides, reaching out in every direction.
To lengthen our cords means that we reach out beyond the familiar, beyond the farthest perimeter of our tent. It means that we venture into the unknown, that we touch other lives.
God’s plans go beyond us. “For God so loved the world” (John 3:16). And we must love as He loves. This preserves the tent. When we engage in service and witness beyond the tent, our faith and commitment are strengthened.14
“Strengthen your stakes”: As you enlarge your tent and lengthen your cords, you must also strengthen the stakes. “Drive the stakes down deeper,” Isaiah instructs (Isa. 54:2, NIrV).15
Strengthening is essential for preservation. You cannot keep the same stakes and keep building a bigger tent. The larger the tent, the more wind it catches and the greater the potential to topple or collapse. A larger tent, then, requires stronger and more firmly planted stakes. It is like a tree—the more the branches spread, the deeper the roots must grow.16
God knows that winds will blow, that storms will unexpectedly lash the tent. So He asks us to prepare, to pound the pegs more firmly into the ground. Strengthening the stakes means that we become more firmly grounded, anchoring our lives in God’s truth through deep Bible study and secluded time with God.
Corporately it means that we are not merely to seek new converts, as important as this certainly is. We must also strengthen those already in the faith. Acts 2:42 reports that in the expandin
g early church “they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (KJV).
What happens when we fulfill the divine imperatives in our life? The prophet concludes, “You shall expand to the right and to the left, and your descendants will inherit the nations, and make the desolate cities inhabited” (Isa. 54:3, NKJV).17
There will be growth on every side. People will come to the faith. And what seemed to be a desolate tent will be filled with a multitude of God’s children. Our church, our lives, “will be like a tent whose ropes are taut and whose stakes are firmly fixed” (Isa. 33:20, NLT).
If life feels unfruitful and unfulfilled, if we feel that God cannot do anything in or through us, then God’s directive gives us hope. Isaiah’s message is ours: “Enlarge your tent. Stretch the curtains. Do not hold back. Lengthen the cords. Strengthen the stakes.”
John Wesley Taylor V serves as associate director of education at the General Conference. He may be contacted at [email protected].