Passing on the Comfort – Isaiah 40:1-11

INTRODUCTION

How do you comfort the grieving? I suppose it is something that everyone must ask themselves at some time or another, since we all must deal with a grieving loved one on occasion. A world as wicked and as sinful as ours creates countless situations every day resulting in grief, and by extension, the subsequent need for others to extend comfort. Usually it comes in the form of showing extra love to the person in need of that comfort. It may come in the form of a gift, such as flowers. Perhaps you can remember the newspaper or magazine photos of the thousands of flowers lying outside the gates of Buckingham palace after Princess Diana was killed. Comfort may be found in a sympathy card.

During the weeks following the September 11 Attack on America the Capital Area Chapter of the American Red Cross gathered over 42,000 signatures from area residents and school children on 120 large (3 X 5 feet) and 14,000 smaller (8.5 X 11 inch) Sympathy Cards. These Sympathy Cards were sent to New York City where they were posted at the Respite Centers located at ground zero and in Services Centers throughout southern Manhattan.[1]

But I suppose the best type of comfort is the kind that removes the reason for grief altogether. I remember being little and my father fixing a toy of mine that I thought was would be forever useless. I’m sure many of us have been in the situation where we were away from a loved one for an extended period of time, but were comforted upon that person’s return.

It is this final form of comfort that we read about in Isaiah 40:1-11. In these verses are the comforting words of assurance that the dreadful situation which has long since resulted in Israel’s grief has finally come to an end. And not only do these verses provide words of comfort for Israel, but they should also be as comforting to us as well as we find ourselves in a similar situation in our own day.

ISAIAH 6-39

Isaiah 40 makes the most sense if read only after the previous 39 of the same book. I don’t suppose that many of us would find much benefit picking a book off the library shelf, randomly selecting one page in the middle of the story and think that it’s meaning will just come naturally, and we probably shouldn’t think that doing this with a book of the Bible will be any different. Unfortunately, those are 39 chapters that we do not have nearly enough time to read over, and so the best we can hope for is picking up a few of the important points that will make the most impact on these 11 verses.

Isaiah describes his call by God to the prophetic ministry in chapter 6 of his book. In that chapter he has a vision of the Lord sitting upon his throne in the holy temple, asking for a volunteer who will go out and speak to the people on his behalf. Isaiah famously says, “Here am I! Send me” (v. 8), upon which the Lord commissions him with a ministry that not only will fail, but is actually meant to fail.

9 And he said, “Go, and say to this people: “‘ Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’ 10 Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.” 11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said: “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is a desolate waste, 12 and the LORD removes people far away, and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land. 13 And though a tenth remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak, whose stump remains when it is felled.” The holy seed is its stump.[2]

The people in Isaiah’s day were ready for judgment, and the judgment would come in the form of further spiritual blindness and deafness, leading to the near complete destruction of the nation. According to v. 10, Isaiah’s preaching ministry was to make their hearts full, their ears heavy, and their eyes blind. That way, when the opportunity to repent comes along, they will be too incompetent to do so. Not exactly the type of ministry anyone would get excited about, Isaiah wants to know for how long this is to continue (v. 11). The Lord’s answer is, that it must continue until all of Judah’s cities have been destroyed, all of Judah’s land has been wasted, and all the people have been sent far away. Even after this judgment, if there are even a 10th of the people remaining, the Lord will send yet another judgment to eliminate these as well.

The primary instrument of the Lord’s judgment is the Assyrian empire, and in chapter 7 the Lord sends Isaiah to tell King Ahaz to trust in the Lord for his security. Yet, in keeping with chapter 6, the heart of Ahaz is hardened and he rejects the word of the Lord, resulting in Judah falling under Assyrian control. Further on in the book, Isaiah tells the people of Judah not to enter into an alliance with Egypt in an effort to rebel against the Assyrians. Yet, in keeping with chapter 6, the Assyrian army invades and destroys all the cities of Judah except Jerusalem which the Lord saves because of King Hezekiah’s righteousness. However, in keeping with chapter 6, though a 10th remains, even this will be purged. In chapter 39, because Hezekiah invited the Babylonians to enter his home and view all of his kingdom’s treasures, the Lord through Isaiah informs him that because of his pride, the day will come when Hezekiah’s treasures and descendents will be carried away to Babylon, an event which took place about a century later with the Babylonian captivity.

To summarize these 39 chapters, the kingdom of Judah, because of her sin, has been subjected to many, many years of judgment, judgment that would lead to the destruction of her cities, the desolation of her land, and the exile of her people. By the time of the Babylonian captivity, the people were in desperate need of comfort.

ISAIAH 40:1-11


In chapters 40-66, the reader is suddenly transported from the days of Hezekiah and Isaiah’s prophecy of the Babylonian captivity to days far beyond. While Isaiah died many years before ever seeing his prophecy come true, in his book is a message for those experiencing the very last days of the judgment, written as if the prophet himself was living among them. In chapter 6 the prophet was told that his message of judgment would last until even the final remaining 10th of the people were destroyed. Chapter 40 and following assume that this has already taken place, and the prophet’s message is now able to turn from judgment to comfort.

The Call to Comfort – vv. 1, 2

1“Comfort, comfort my people,”

says your God.

2“Speak sweetly to Jerusalem,

and cry out to her

that warfare is complete,

that her guilt is paid,

that she has received from Yahweh’s hand

double for all her sins.”

Perhaps the best way of going through some of these first verses is to do so by way of question and answer.

The first question is an easy one because the verse itself gives us the answer:

Q: Who is the speaker?

A: God

The one who speaks the words of verses 1 and 2 is God himself. What better possible source of comfort could there be than the one and only individual who is able to solve every problem and grieving situation known to man? We may be able to find comfort from family and loved ones, but they can only do so much. With the Lord, however, comfort is able to take on an entirely new meaning.

The second question is a bit more difficult:

Q: Who is God speaking to?

The one thing we know about the recipients of this word is that it must be going to more than one individual. That is because the commands to comfort and to speak are given in the plural (hence, in the KJV, “comfort ye, comfort ye”). In Isaiah 6 only one person, namely, Isaiah, was called to speak to the people. Other than that, we also know that those he is speaking to are among God’s people, because it is written, “says your God.” If he is your God, then you must be among his people, right? So then, to answer the second question:

A: More than one member of the people of God

The third question we could ask is,

Q: What is God commanding his people to do?

I say, “commanding,” because the word for comfort used in this verse is written in a form of a command.

A: God’s people are to comfort “my people,” specifically, the city of Jerusalem.

This comfort involves three things:

First, the time she must endure warfare is over.

Second, the guilt of her iniquity has been pardoned, or paid.

Third, she has received the full-measure of her punishment from God’s hand.

What should be noted is that the grief for which comfort is needed is a grief that comes as a result of one’s faulty relationship with God. Thus, the message of comfort is not for the emotion of grief in general, but for a grief that can only be remedied by God himself. This is why it is important that the message of comfort comes from God, as he is the only one in any position to fix the situation. However, the message of comfort that comes from God reaches his people not directly, but by other individuals who, corporately make up the people of God. Not incidentally, such were themselves at one time in need of similar comfort, as there is no member of God’s people who has not been in the position of alienation from God and reconciled to him after hearing the comforting message of the gospel. In other words, we proclaim the comforting word of God to others because we have likewise been comforted.

The First Voice Obeys – vv. 3-5

3A voice crying out,

“In the wilderness prepare the way of Yahweh;

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

4 Every valley shall be lifted up;

and every mountain and hill shall sink.

And the uneven shall become level;

and the rough places a plain.

5 And the glory of Yahweh will be revealed,

and all flesh will see it together,

for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken.

In the next three verses we hear the voice of one of God’s people obeying the command. Whose voice is it? The passage does not say. We are not given a face, and we are not given a name. All that we have is simply, “A voice.”

I recently heard from someone who had spent some time in the former Soviet Union or relate that whenever the dictator or president at the time was planning on passing through a particular city, the people of that city would in advance find out when he was coming and what roads he would travel on and make sure that everything looked perfect. Buildings would be painted, potholes filled, lights replaced, etc. The city as a whole might look like a dump, but the road that the head of state would travel on would look as perfect as possible.

In the ancient world, you would often encounter a similar situation if a king was passing through the land. To make the long and uncomfortable ride as smooth as possible, heralds would run ahead and see to it that the people of those lands would prepare the way for their ruler by removing the rocks and branches that would be lying the road, filling in holes, leveling the bumps, and collecting the garbage. You even see something similar to this in the gospels where the people of Jerusalem laid palm branches and articles of clothing on the road to prepare his way.

In Isaiah 40:3-5, we see a voice, one of God’s people, obeying the command to comfort his grieving people, and he does so by calling for the preparation for God’s return. This, however, is not just some local king or even modern head of state. The preparation involved for God would understandably be on a whole other level. Thus, to smooth over God’s road you must level mountains, raise up valleys and canyons, and take hold of the winding roads and straighten them out. Back in Isaiah 6, the judgment upon Judah was to last until the land was laid waste. Now, with the return of the Lord, the land will be restored.

How is this a message of comfort? Because when the people went into exile, the Lord went into exile as well, leaving behind his temple in Jerusalem so that it might be destroyed. Thus, the exile of God’s people entails not only their return, but also the return of God! The comfort and restoration of God’s people go hand-in-hand with his presence. No promise can rightly be considered comforting unless it includes the Lord once again dwelling in their midst, and hence, God’s command to comfort is immediately followed by a command to prepare for his return.

I believe that the reason this voice and the rest are not identified within the text with any one person in particular is because it is meant to be fulfilled by every individual who reads these words. As the people of God throughout the ages read Isaiah 40 and hear God’s command to comfort his people, we see with the first voice what it means to do just that. As we ourselves hear again and again this command of God, we are to learn from the example of the first voice and likewise comfort one another by preparing for the Lord’s return.

How do we do just that? Do we go outside and fill in potholes and paint our houses? Or is there another kind of chaos in our lives that needs to be straightened out. The individual who truly believes in the Lord’s return is the individual who changes his manner of living in preparation for that return.

John the Baptist gives us insight into this very thing. In the four gospel accounts we see him baptizing people in the Jordan River as a sign of repentance, and when asked by others why he did this, he appeals to this very verse in Isaiah 40, explaining that he is this voice! He is obeying the command of God to comfort the people of Israel and to prepare the way of the coming Lord. How exactly that way is prepared is given in Luke 3:7-14.

7 He said therefore to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. Every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10 And the crowds asked him, “What then shall we do?” 11 And he answered them, “Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.” 12 Tax collectors also came to be baptized and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” 13 And he said to them, “Collect no more than you are authorized to do.” 14 Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”

John did not prepare the way of the Lord by kicking rocks and sticks out of the road or by filling in potholes. Rather, the Lord’s way was prepared by calling upon sinners to repent. The rich were to share with the poor. The tax collector was not to cheat. The soldier was not the abuse. By these things, people who are find themselves as proud and exalted as the mountains are made low, and those who find themselves humiliated and lowly and raised up.

The Assurance of God’s Word – vv. 6-8

6 A voice saying,

“Cry out!”

And he said,

“What shall I cry out?”

All flesh is grass,

and all its steadfast-love is as the flower of the field.

7 Grass withers, flowers fade –

because the spirit of God blows upon it.

Truly, the people are grass.

8 Grass withers, flower fades;

but the word of our God will stand forever.

Not every individual, however, meets the command of God to comfort others with quite the same optimism as the first voice. In verse 6 we see a second voice encouraging a third to continue to ministry of comfort, but this third voice is not so sure. He knows the nature of humanity all too well, and doesn’t feel that there is anything further that can be said. People are frail, and people are fickle. They come and go like the grass that withers in the hot desert wind. In fact, this third voice acknowledges that humanity’s frailty is directly tied to their encounter with God’s Spirit. Remember in chapter 6 that the stubbornness of the people came as a direct result of the words the Lord gave Isaiah to preach in an effort to bring about the judgment they deserved. Understanding this, the third voice wants to know why this message will produce results that are any different.

In verse 8 we receive an answer. It is true, the second voice replies, that humanity is like grass, and that should not be ignored when delivering the message of comfort. However, in contrast to the dying and failing nature of humans, what must be embraced just as forcefully is the undying, unfailing nature of God’s word. The first 39 chapters of Isaiah are not all words of judgment, but they include words of hope and salvation as well, words such as 1:26, 27:

26 And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counselors as at the beginning. Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness, the faithful city.” 27 Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness.

The Lord’s words of judgment will be fulfilled, and these will result in the death and failings of man. But God’s word of salvation is just as binding. Though the grass withers and dies, the word of our God will stand forever.

The Good News – vv. 9-11

9 Go up onto a high mountain, herald Zion;

raise your voice with might, herald Jerusalem.

Raise it, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah:

“Behold your God!”

10 Behold – the Lord Yahweh comes with strength, and his arm rules for him! Behold – his reward is with him, and his compensation is before him.

11 As a shepherd he tends his flock;

lambs he gathers in his arm

and carries in his bosom;

and nursing ewes he gently guides.

Finally, amidst all the various voices going back and forth, the comforting message reaches the city of Jerusalem just as verse 2 had earlier called for, and she is pictured as a woman who has been, like the voices before, given the responsibility to pass the message on to the surrounding cities of Judah. She is called, “bringer of good tidings” (KJV) or, more succinctly, “herald.” Because her message is so important, she is called upon to do three things: First, she is to make herself prominent, positioning herself on top of a tall mountain where everyone will be able to see and hear her. Second, from this position she is to proclaim the good news with a loud voice. And third, she is to do so without fear.

What is the good news? What is the gospel, that message of comfort that Zion is to proclaim to the cities of Judah? It consists of three simple words in English, and only two in Hebrew: Behold your God! The gospel that Jerusalem proclaims is that the Lord himself is coming home after being away for so long. The judgment of exile is finally over. Salvation has come.

But the Lord does not come home alone! Remember what I had mentioned earlier about the relationship between the exile of the people and the exile of God. It is only with one that you have the other. So too with the return. As the Lord returns to the land, coming with him are the exiles, all those who belong to him who have been scattered during the years of judgment, and this is comfort indeed to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, because that means that they, as cities, will once again have people living within them, having remained empty and desolate in the land for so many years.

The returning exiles coming with the Lord are referred to as his “reward” or “wages.” In other words, the people are described as God’s paycheck, the compensation he received for his work. More specifically, the verses continue, they are a paycheck coming in the form of herds of sheep. The Lord and his people are described in these terms in order to recall a story told in Genesis. In it is the account of another man who left his home empty handed, traveling to a foreign land in the east and working for another. When he returns home, he is one of the richest men in the land, coming back with an enormous herd of cattle, donkeys, and sheep. This was the story of Jacob, the father of the 12 tribes of Israel.[3] The prophet here is describing Judah’s salvation from exile and return by the hand of God in terms of their first beginning in Genesis. In other words, the salvation of the people is, in fact, a new beginning; a new creation.

CONCLUSION

Following the Babylonian captivity, first predicted by the prophet Isaiah in chapter 39, was the return of the people back to the land, but it was not the end of the exile. Though some of the people had returned and had even rebuilt the temple, they were still ruled over by foreign Gentile nations and, even more importantly, God did not return. The words of Isaiah 40:1-11 did not find their fulfillment during the Old Testament period. For that to happen, for the good news or gospel to be realized, the Lord would need to return.

It is this fact that the four evangelists build off of when they tell the story of Jesus, or, as Mark puts it, “The gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (1:1). If Isaiah 40 tells us that the gospel is the return of God and the end of the time of judgment, then why is it that we call it, “The gospel of Jesus Christ?” It is because the coming of Jesus Christ was the return of God. At the incarnation, the Lord returned to his people after centuries of exile. And not only did he return, but he took upon himself the judgment that belonged to the people, paying for it in his own body by dying on the cross, and rising from the dead on the third day. Ever since that time, the gospel, the good news of God’s return, has been linked with the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, just as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8.

However, the Lord Jesus, God in human flesh, though he is and forever will be “God with us,” did not remain on the earth with us physically for very long, leaving us here to wait once again for the return of God. Matthew 25 tells us that when Jesus Christ does appear again, just as Isaiah 40 describes, he will be coming with his people, gathering them from the four ends of heaven. Until that day, however, we who remain have a job to do, having been commissioned by God to preach the good news, the gospel of Jesus Christ and all that it now means, and offering the comfort which comes through it to those currently afflicted by the judgment of God.


[2] In this manuscript, all passages of Scripture unless otherwise noted come from the English Standard Version (2001), with the exception of quotations of Isaiah 40:1-11 which is this student’s translation.

[3] Cf. Baltzer, Klaus, Deutero-Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 40-55, Hermeneia, Margaret Kohl, trans. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), p. 63

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Published in: on February 24, 2008 at 12:45 am  Comments (2)