Is The Path of the Righteous Really Level?

Isaiah 26:7-8 doesn’t just say God can, or will, make the way of the righteous level, but that their path actually is level. Is that really the case?

The path of the righteous is level;
you make level the way of the righteous.
In the path of your judgments,
O Lord, we wait for you; 
your name and remembrance
are the desire of our soul.

—Isaiah 26:7-8

Many of the promises God has given his people deal with his guidance and preserving grace. Scripture assures us that our God is faithful; we know he will never leave us nor forsake us (Josh 1:5; Heb 13:5); he guards the feet of his faithful ones (1 Sam 2:9); our steps are established and the Lord upholds our hand (Ps 37:23-24); he directs the path of those who trust in him wholeheartedly and refuse to lean on their own understanding (Prov 3:5-6).  These are the promises that we cling to in our darkest days.

In Isaiah 26, we see a similar confession of trust in God. What is striking, however, is the level of confidence expressed by the prophet, considering the context. God’s people are in distress, facing trials and the discipline of God. Yet the prophet not only says God can make, or will make, the way of the righteous level; the prophet says their path is level.

How are we to interpret this passage? Was the path of God’s people level? Is the path of the righteous really level?

The Voice of Faith

The unanimous experience of Christians throughout history is that our path seems to be anything but level. There’s not one believer who has experienced a pain-free, worry-free path without dips, bumps, sharp turns and dead ends.  Even the path of our Lord and Savior, the only perfect and innocent Person who ever lived, didn’t seem to be level. So what are we to make of the prophet’s bold claim?

In his excellent commentary on Isaiah, Alec Motyer provides illuminating insight into these verses. He writes:

This is the voice of faith, not a description of experience. It is how those who are “right with God” look at life…Life is in the hands of the Lord; the path runs in a direct line from conversion to glory (Ps. 107:7) and places rough in prospect are smooth in retrospect (The Prophecy of Isaiah, 215).

The prophet knows the path of God’s people is not level from an earthly perspective. He knew Israel was in great distress and experiencing divine judgment. However, with the eyes of faith, the prophet was indeed right to see the path of the righteous as actually level.

Our faith, like Israel’s, is not based on what we see from our limited earthly experience. From our earthly perspective, our paths might be nothing but sharp turns, potholes, and steep climbs.  Yet, Motyer points out that this is the voice of one whose eyes are set on things that are above, one who has been made righteous through faith in Christ, who knows all things work together for the good of those who love him and have been called (Col 3:1-4; Rom 8:28; 1 Peter 1:3-5). Despite suffering, struggles with sin, or discipline from our Father (Heb 12:4-12), our path is, in a (heavenly) sense, truly level.

We Wait for You

In our darkest days , when we feel like the road is the opposite of level, we often pray for our circumstances to change. But that’s not the case with the people in Isaiah 26:8. In the midst of their distress they desire nothing but God himself. Looking at verse 8, Motyer writes the following:

They do not long for altered circumstances but for full experience of him. To desire his name means that true experience is controlled by revelation (the name of the Lord is what he has revealed himself to be). His renown [“remembrance” in ESV] is the preservation of his memory of what he has revealed himself to be. (215)

The saints’ comfort is remembering who God is and what he has done. To desire the name of the Lord is to be satisfied with knowing who God has revealed himself to be: faithful, rock, redeemer, protector, friend. In their suffering and adversity, they “wait” for the Lord and desire more of him. Waiting is patiently believing God will fulfill his precious promises in his own time; it is a confession of one’s total inability to control and direct history.

Alternate Responses to Waiting

There are two alternate responses we can have on rough paths rather than waiting on the Lord. The first is using these verses to “declare” that our path will be smooth. We think we can command God to give us the easy life we think will be best for us. If you just have enough faith and think “positively”, you can just speak to your path and it will straighten out! However, this usually is the result of someone wanting a level path from an earthly perspective, a path without sickness, sorrow, or problems, a path not promised to us in Scripture. They want the road from conversion to glory (Rom 8:29-30), to look like the American dream. Ultimately, this shows a lack of true faith in God and his sovereign plan.

The other response is to rush out ahead of God and take matters into our own hands. Our old works-righteousness mentality can kick in, making us think we can make our own path level without God’s help. We think if we just had enough fame, success, and money, or did more good deeds, we could have a smooth and bump-free journey. However, as Gary Smith writes, “This ‘level path’ is not something that people can hope to achieve through power, money, or the manipulation of circumstances; it is something that God prepares for believers though his divine intervention”  (The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1–39, 445).

When faced with an uneven, winding, and bumpy path, our response should be one of trust and delight in our good, wise, and sovereign God. Even when our path is smooth from an earthly perspective, our response should be the same. As we wait on the Lord, clinging to his promises, we will be renewed in our strength (Isa 40:31), and will be kept in perfect peace (Isa 26:3).

The Path of the Righteous is Level

Do these verses characterize us in our suffering and trials? Is the name of the Lord our desire when our path is full of ditches, uphill climbs, and hairpin turns? Do we run to his Word, waiting patiently and clinging to the promises he has given us? Or do we run from his Word, twisting it and taking matters solely in our own hands?

The Apostle Paul says that believers are “afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed” (2 Cor 4:8-9). That is the voice of one who waits on the Lord, one who knows his path is ultimately level, even if it seems the opposite from his earthly perspective.

When the path of salvation for God’s people brought them to the Red Sea, they physically saw God make their way straight and level (Exodus 14-15). While that was a unique event in Israel’s history, the good news is that we serve the same God; he has delivered us from sin and death through Christ’s death and resurrection and has made us righteous. Therefore, we can wait patiently, knowing that he will lead us by a straight way until we reach our heavenly city (Ps 107:7).