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The book of Isaiah is centered on the Babylonian exile, which began in 586 B.C. when Nebuchadrezzar II of Babylonia destroyed Jerusalem and the temple and enslaved the Jewish people. The exile ended in 539 B.C. when Cyrus of Persia allowed the Jews to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their temple. The book of Isaiah makes it clear that Nebuchadrezzar was Yahweh’s (God’s) instrument to punish the Jewish people for their sins, and Cyrus will be Yahweh’s instrument to set them free—to redeem them.
Scholars are divided with regard to the authorship of this book. Some believe that one man wrote the entire book, part of which foretells events to take place long after his death. Others believe that one author wrote chapters 1-39, a second author or group of authors wrote chapters 40-55, and a third author or group wrote chapters 56-66.
But everyone agrees that chapter 40 begins a new emphasis. Chapters 1-39 warn of God’s judgment if the people place their trust in secular rulers rather than in God. Chapters 40-55 lift up the promise of redemption for a people who are experiencing the judgment about which the prophet warned in the earlier chapters. Chapters 56-66 deal with the return of the Jews to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the city and the temple.
Chapter 39 (the closing chapter of the first section of this book) tells the story of King Hezekiah receiving envoys from Babylon and showing them all his treasures. Isaiah rebukes Hezekiah, saying, “Hear the word of Yahweh of Armies: ‘Behold, the days are coming when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up until this day, will be carried to Babylon. Nothing will be left'” (39:5-6). But Hezekiah said to Isaiah, “Yahweh’s word which you have spoken is good.” For Hezekiah thought, ‘There will be peace and truth in my days'” (39:8). How could a father not be disturbed that his sons would serve as eunuchs in the household of a conquering nation?
Motyer, who advocates the single-author theory, reminds us that the chapter and verse divisions were added quite a long time after the fact, and reminds us that it helps to read the book of Isaiah through, giving little regard to these divisions. He notes that “the word of doom (39:5-7) and the word of comfort (40:1) lie side by side.” Instead of seeing the judgment and comfort as coming from two authors, he sees a single author speaking of doom—and then trumping the doom with comfort. He goes on to say, “while judgment comes on one sinful nation (39:5ff.), the consolation, as we shall see, spreads out to embrace the whole world” (Motyer, 242). That is a helpful perspective, regardless of whether we believe that there was one author or several.
ISAIAH 40:1-2. COMFORT, COMFORT MY PEOPLE
1“Comfort (Hebrew: na·hamu—from na·ham), comfort my people,” says your God (Hebrew:elo·he·kem). 2“Speak comfortably (Hebrew: al·leb—to the heart) to Jerusalem; and call out to her that(Hebrew: ki—that or because) her warfare is accomplished, that (ki) her iniquity is pardoned, that (ki)she has received of Yahweh’s (Hebrew: yhwh—Yahweh’s) hand double for all her sins.”
We can’t be certain who is being addressed in these words. It could be the divine council—the angelic host of heaven. It could be the prophet. If it were important for us to know the identity, the text would make that clear. The fact that it doesn’t suggests that the message is more important than the messenger.
“Comfort” (na·hamu—from na·ham) (v. 1a). This word, na·ham, is found frequently in the Old Testament and has two basic meanings. The first is regret, as in the Lord regretting that he made humans (Genesis 6:6). The second is comfort or consolation for someone who is experiencing grief or distress, which is its meaning in this verse.
“comfort my people” (v. 1b). This stands in contrast to the book of Lamentations, which was written to express the grief and despair of Jerusalem after its destruction. There it says, “She has none to comfort her” (Lamentations 1:2)—but here the command is to comfort them.
The people to be comforted are “my people.” God had chosen them and covenanted with them beginning with Abram (Genesis 12:1-3). Abram and his descendants became God’s people at that time, and they continue to be his people now. God has punished them for their sins, but he has not excommunicated them.
As we noted above, chapters 1-39 outlined the punishment that Judah could expect as a result of relying on alliances with other nations rather than placing their trust in God. Jerusalem and the temple would be destroyed and the people would experience a lengthy exile. That has happened. The exile has lasted nearly fifty years. The Jews are living in servitude, as they had done in Egypt so many years earlier. Most of the Jews who lived in Jerusalem have died in exile, and a new generation has been born in servitude.
One has only to hear the plaintive songs of African-American slaves in United States to appreciate the despair that people experience as slaves. But those songs express hope as well as grief. They challenged, “Go down, Moses, Way down in Egypt’s Land. Tell ol’ Pharaoh, Let my people go.”
In these words, “‘Comfort, comfort my people,’ says your God,” we find that same seed of hope. Yahweh has punished Jerusalem for its sins, but his purpose was not their suffering, but their redemption. He allowed them to suffer the fire that their dross might be purged. He did this to restore them to their former status as his chosen people—a status that they never fully lost, but that they compromised by their unfaithfulness.
“says your God” (elo·he·kem) (v. 1c). In the last phrase (1b) God identified the recipients of comfort as “my people.” Now he identifies himself as “your God”—a phrase that drives home the bond that exists between Yahweh and the Jewish people.
It is Elohim who gives this order to comfort his people. Elohim is a generic word for god—the plural of the word El (god). Elohim is sometimes used for gods other than Yahweh (Exodus 12:12; Joshua 24:15; Judges 6:10; 10:6). “When the plural form is used of a single deity, Hebrew grammarians call that form ‘plural of majesty'” (Seow, 589)—like the “royal we” where the king uses “we” to speak of himself and those whom he commands.
“Speak comfortably” (al·leb—to the heart) (v. 2a). A literal translation would be, “Speak to the heart.” The heart, in that culture as in ours, represents the core of the person—his or her innermost being. If we are trying to comfort a person by speaking to his or her heart, we will tread softly and speak tenderly.
“to Jerusalem” (v. 2b). It is Jerusalem’s heart that is the object of this comforting speech. Jerusalem in this verse is a symbol for the Jewish people—the exiles who have suffered servitude for so long, but who are about to be freed (see 52:9).
“and call out to her that (ki—that or because) her warfare is accomplished, that (ki) her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received of Yahweh’s (yhwh—Yahweh’s)“and call out to her that (ki—that or because) her warfare is accomplished, that (ki) her iniquity is pardoned, that (ki) she has received of Yahweh’s (yhwh—Yahweh’s) hand double for all her sins“ (v. 2c). This is the message to be spoken to Jerusalem—to these Jewish exiles. It is a single message expressed in three different ways, each introduced by the little word, ki. Jerusalem is to be comforted:
(1) Because (ki) “she has served her term.” She has served her sentence. The time for her release has come.
(2) Because (ki) “her warfare is accomplished.” Does this mean that the penalty has equaled the offense or that Yahweh has decided to count their penalty as sufficient? Surely the latter, but this verse is unconcerned with the debate concerning salvation by works versus salvation by grace. The point here is to assure these people that Yahweh will no longer treat them as debtors, but will count their debt as paid in full.
(3) Because (ki) “she has received of Yahweh’s hand double for all her sins.” We should not approach this word, “double,” as mathematicians. It is a poetic way of saying that Jerusalem has paid a great price for her sins, and Yahweh will not require further payment.
ISAIAH 40:3-5. PREPARE THE WAY OF YAHWEH
3The voice of one who calls out,
“Prepare the way of Yahweh in the wilderness!
Make a level highway in the desert for our God.
4Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.
The uneven shall be made level,
and the rough places a plain.
5The glory (Hebrew: kebod) of Yahweh shall be revealed,
and all flesh (Hebrew: basar—flesh) shall see it together;
for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken it.”
“The voice of one who calls out” (v. 3a). We are not told who the voice is. It is the message that is important—not the voice that cries out.
“Prepare the way of Yahweh in the wilderness! Make a level highway in the desert for our God” (v. 3b). We have been expecting that Yahweh would prepare a highway through the desert for these exiles to return to Jerusalem. What we find, however, is the opposite—Jerusalem is to prepare a highway for God. Two questions come to mind. First, why would God need these people to prepare a highway for him? Second, how should they go about the task?
We must not approach this poetic language literally. God does not need these people to wield shovel and pick-axe to create a highway through the desert for him. It is the wilderness of their lives and the desert of their hearts that require preparation. If they are to prepare for the Lord’s coming, their preparation must involve some sort of spiritual discipline, such as prayer and the reading of scripture—such as proper worship and pure lives. The voice does not specify the form that their preparation should take. It is enough for these exiles to know that they must prepare for the Lord’s coming. Their history and traditions will teach them how to do that.
But Achtemeier understands this verse as a call by one heavenly being to other heavenly beings. In her view, it is the responsibility of these heavenly beings to prepare the highway for God to return to his people (Achtemeier, 328).
“Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low” (v. 4a). Today we see road builders accomplish this kind of task routinely. Huge machines lower hills by scooping buckets of dirt. They then deposit this dirt in valleys to raise them. As a result, we travel in air-conditioned cars through mountain passes, barely noticing whether we are going uphill or downhill. But that has been true only for a few decades. Mountains and gullies still provide profound challenges for those who have no heavy equipment.
But these hills and valleys are poetic metaphors for the spiritual obstacles that have stood in the way of God’s return to these exiles. It is the obstacles of sin and lack of faith that must be removed so that the Lord can return to take his place among them once again.
“The uneven shall be made level, and the rough places a plain” (v. 4b). This is another way of expressing the same thought—that the people must smooth out the uneven ground and the rough places in their lives in preparation for the Lord’s coming.
“The glory (kebod) of Yahweh shall be revealed“ (v. 5a). The word glory (kebod) is used in the Bible to speak of various things, but is used especially to speak of God’s glory—an aura associated with God’s appearance that reveals God’s majesty to humans. Biblical writers, attempting to describe God’s glory using human words, portrayed it as “a devouring fire” (Exodus 24:17). When Moses asked to see God’s glory, God replied, “You cannot see my face; for man may not see me and live” (Exodus 33:20)—but God continued, “Behold, there is a place by me, and you shall stand on the rock. It will happen, while my glory passes by, that I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you will see my back; but my face shall not be seen” (Exodus 33:21-23). The point is that God’s glory is so overwhelming that humans aren’t engineered to be capable of experiencing it. An analogy might be coming into contact with a live high-voltage electrical line. It would be too much for us.
“and all flesh (basar—flesh) shall see it together” (v. 5b). This is a surprise. The vision of God’s glory that was denied to Moses shall be granted to “all people” or “all flesh.” If Moses had seen God’s glory, he would have died, but the implication here is that “all people” will see God’s glory and live. The vision won’t be limited to the Jewish people—or great Godly leaders like Moses—or great saints like Mother Teresa. We ordinary folk, too, will see God’s glory.
Some scholars suggest that this will be an eschatological vision of God’s glory—a vision that will be granted only in the last days. While it is true that we will all see God’s glory at the end of time, it is also true that Jesus “has broken down the middle wall of partition” that created privileged and unprivileged groups (Ephesians 2:14) and has admitted us into God’s presence. Now everyone can see the glory of God—Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female (Galatians 3:28).
“for the mouth of Yahweh has spoken it” (v. 5c). This is our guarantee that this will happen. Yahweh has spoken, and Yahweh’s word has the power to accomplish that which it speaks. Yahweh’s word is trustworthy. Yahweh keeps his promises—a fact that is apparent in the fact that he is now working to redeem these sinful people so that he might honor the covenant promises made so much earlier to Abram.
ISAIAH 40:6-8. THE WORD OF OUR GOD STANDS FOREVER
6The voice of one saying, “Cry!”
One said, “What shall I cry?”
“All flesh is (Hebrew: basar—flesh is) like grass,
and all its glory is like the flower of the field.
7The grass withers,
the flower fades,
because (Hebrew: ki—because) Yahweh’s breath (Hebrew: ruah—breath or spirit) blows on it.
Surely the people (Hebrew: ha·am) are like grass.
8The grass withers,
the flower fades;
but the word of our God stands forever.”
“The voice of one saying, ‘Cry!’ One said, “What shall I cry?'” (v. 6a). Neither the speaker nor the person addressed is identified. The order is “Cry!” The question is “What shall I cry?” Before the prophet or preacher can proclaim the word faithfully, the Lord must reveal the word to him or her.
“All flesh is (basar—flesh is) like grass, and all its glory is like the flower of the field” (v. 6b). In a pastoral economy where people herd sheep, grass is valuable. The sheep must eat, and grass is what they eat. A shepherd who cannot find grass for his sheep is doomed to lose his flock and his livelihood. Shepherds develop an eye for good grass. In that dry climate, grass would quickly become parched and brown—poor food for sheep. A shepherd would look for green grass—or grass that still has hints of green among the brown.
Like grass, flowers are fragile. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus speaks of this fragility: “But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today exists, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, won’t he much more clothe you, you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:30).
“The grass withers, the flower fades, because (ki—when or because) Yahweh’s breath (ruah—breath or spirit) blows on it” (v. 7a). Shepherds would be familiar with sirocco winds—hot, dry, dust-laden winds originating in the desert and blowing across their grazing lands. People in various parts of the Southwest United States also know about sirocco winds. These winds are highly destructive to vegetation. The dry wind sucks moisture from plants, and the hot temperature bakes them. Even people who are not dependent on agriculture fear these sirocco winds, because the hot, dry winds blow hour after hour and create misery and shortened tempers. Dust seeps in through cracks and crevices. In some cases, the winds blow hard enough to damage buildings.
If these sirocco winds are hard on plants and animals alike, they are nothing compared with “Yahweh’s breath” or ” Yahweh’s spirit” when it blows hot and dry.
“Surely the people (ha·am) are like grass” (v. 7b). Now the metaphor is made more explicit. We can learn from grass and flowers, which fade in the sirocco winds. They remind us of our own impermanency—our own fragility. Just as the grass and flowers prosper for awhile and then wither and die in the sirocco winds, so we also prosper for awhile and then wither and die.
If this is true of individuals, so it is also true of the people of Israel. They prospered when living faithful lives devoted to Yahweh, but they have run into trouble time after time because of the inconstancy of their faith. Like the grass and flowers, they prosper and die with some regularity.
“The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God stands forever” (v. 8). This is the point. Like grass and flowers, humans wither and fade, but the word of God will stand forever. The word of God is the constant on which we can depend day in and day out. God gave his word to Abram and David and others in the form of a covenant that promised blessings to their descendants. These exiles are their descendants, and they can count on God to keep his covenant in spite of their sin.
This is a hopeful word for us. We, too, fail God, but God will not fail us.
ISAIAH 40:9-11. BEHOLD, YOUR GOD
9You who tell good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain.
You who tell good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with strength.
Lift it up. Don’t be afraid.
Say to the cities of Judah, “Behold, your God!”
10Behold (Hebrew: hin·neh—Look!), the Lord Yahweh will come as a mighty one, and his arm will rule for him.
Behold (Hebrew: hin·neh—Look!), his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11He will feed his flock like a shepherd.
He will gather the lambs in his arm,
and carry them in his bosom.
He will gently lead those who have their young.
“You who tell good news to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who tell good news to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with strength” (v. 9a). This is confusing, because Zion is a mountain—the mountain on which Jerusalem is built. Is Mount Zion to get up on a high mountain? That image doesn’t work well. Perhaps Zion and Jerusalem, in this verse, stand for the people of God. Or, perhaps, the prophet is to ascend to Mount Zion—to Jerusalem—to deliver the good tidings. I have not found much in the commentaries to clarify this portion of this verse.
But three things are clear: (1) There is an urgency to the proclamation. The herald needs to move smartly to carry out the mission of proclamation. (2) The herald is to proclaim the message with strength—to shout the message loudly—to make sure that everyone hears. (3) The message to be proclaimed is good news—glad tidings.
“Lift it up. Don’t be afraid” (v. 9b). There is no reason to fear opposition. The Lord is in charge. There is no reason to fear embarrassment. The Lord will do what he has said he will do.
“Say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold, your God!'” (v. 9c). The audience for this message is “the cities of Judah”—the Judean peoples still exiled in Babylon. They have felt abandoned by God for nearly five decades, and have wondered it their abandonment would ever end. Five decades might not seem like much compared to the four hundred years that the Israelites were enslaved in Egypt, but five decades is a lifetime. How could it be worse than to spend your whole life in servitude and to see no end to it?
But the message is, “Behold, your God!” The message is that God has returned—that God is with them—that their punishment is finished and their servitude is ended. The message is that God will make it possible for them to return to Jerusalem and to rebuild their city and God’s temple.
“Behold” (hin·neh—Look!) (v. 10a). The double use of hin·neh in this verse emphasizes and re-emphasizes the need for the listener to pay attention. The NRSV does not include the second hin·neh (v. 10c) in its translation.
“the Lord Yahweh will come as a mighty one, and his arm will rule for him” (v. 10b). These two parallel phrases both emphasize the power with which God comes. The arm is a symbol of strength. The image here is a military one, where the Lord is fighting a battle and overpowering the opposition.
From this portion of this verse, we can be assure that (1) the Lord comes (2) that he comes with might and (3) that he will rule in power. If that is true—and we can be sure that it is—then the work of God’s opponents will amount to nothing.
(hin·neh—Look!) “his reward is with him, and his recompense before him” (v. 10c). Both of these phrases emphasize just payment. The question is whether the rewards are for the exiles or for God. It could be either one.
If the exiles are to receive the reward, their reward will be release from servitude and freedom to return to Jerusalem. If God is to receive the reward, his reward will be the exiles—his people—his children. Once they were lost, but now they are found. That is a great reward.
“He will feed his flock like a shepherd” (v. 11a). Each of the three parts of this verse emphasizes the nurturing care of God for his people. He will feed them like a shepherd. He will make them to “lie down in green pastures. He (will lead them) beside still waters” (Psalm 23:2).
“He will gather the lambs in his arm, and carry them in his bosom” (v. 11b). Note the contrasting use of the word “arm” in verse 10b, where “his arm rules,” and verse 11b, where “he will gather the lambs in his arm.” The strong arm capable of wielding a sword is also capable of gentleness and compassion.
Lambs, like little children, cannot walk fast or far. When the flock moves, their little legs wear out quickly. If nobody helps them, they will be lost to the flock—but the shepherd will not allow that to happen. He alone has the ability to pick up the lambs and carry them, and that is what he does. Just imagine how comforting it must be for a tired lamb to be picked up and carried in the strong arms of the shepherd—next to the shepherd’s bosom—next to his heart.
“He will gently lead those who have their young” (v. 11c). The mother sheep will be concerned for her lamb and will want to have her lamb nearby. If the shepherd picks up her lamb and carries it in his arms, the mother sheep will follow close by. She will not be afraid for her lamb, because she knows the shepherd—but she will follow close by nevertheless. It is the gentlest possible leadership that the shepherd performs here—leading the mother sheep by carrying her lamb in his arms.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Achtemeier, Elizabeth, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year B (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993)
Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 40-66 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Goldingay, John, New International Biblical Commentary: Isaiah (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001)
Hanson, Paul D., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 40-66, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995)
Holladay, William, Unbound by Time: isaiah still speaks (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 2002)
Motyer, J. Alec, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Isaiah, Vol. 18 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999)
Myers, Allen C. (ed.), The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1987)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998)
Muilenburg, James (Introduction and Exegesis of Isaiah 40-66); and Coffin, Henry Sloane (Exposition of Isaiah 40-66), The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Seitz, Christopher R., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Seow, C., L., in Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob (ed.), The New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible: D-H, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2007).
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, B (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1993)
Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 34-66 (Dallas: Word Books, 1987)
Young, Edward J., The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1972)
Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan