10. A Message of Comfort to God’s People (Isaiah 40:1-31)
With this chapter we begin the second portion of the Book of Isaiah, which has as its common theme the salvation and future blessing of God’s people. When you work in this section of the book, you have to work on several levels of significance or application, and you have to work on them in the proper order.
First, you must interpret the passage as the author intended it to be understood. This means that your first consideration would be to think about how the message would fit the exiled community as they were being encouraged to leave Babylon and return to the land. The prophet was giving them a message they would need later when they were in exile.
Recall that the Jews had been taken into captivity in three waves, in 605 B.C., 597 B.C. and 586 B.C. when Jerusalem was destroyed. They knew that they were to be there for 70 years, and so toward the end of that exile they were to be prepared to leave. They did leave in 536 when Persia ruled the land. But a lot of the Jews did not go back to the land, but stayed in the east. As we said before, Isaiah did not know these dates, because he is writing beforehand. He probably thought his audience would be in exile, and she he was giving them the message of comfort.
Of course, you will still word the theology of the passage in the form of timeless truths, but the arena of its primary application will be this community.
Second, and related to the first, you must consider the impact of the message on the immediate audience. This is true of all prophetic passages, in the Old or New Testament. They may predict something far off in the future, but the immediate audience will learn some basic principle under that discussion that will build faith, reprove, or instruct. The theological message of the passage will be the same; but the response to it will be different for different times, perhaps preventive as opposed to remedial. Even if Isaiah’s immediate audience never went into captivity, they would have learned from the sermons to repent (and hopefully stave off the exile), and to know that even if they went they were still the covenant people (if they believed) and would be coming back. That would have encouraged them.
Third, you must then consider how the passage would be understood in Gospel times. This step is usually important because the prophecy probably will have some Messianic import. Often the Messianic passage will have a meaning back in the Old Testament times that is but a type or a foreshadowing of the Christ event. Or, the Isaianic passage may be quoted in the New Testament, especially in some apostolic teaching on doctrine or practice, and this provides a good intermediate step to the present application. Isaiah 40 was applied to John and Jesus in their missions.
Fourth, you then may look for the significance or application for the modern audience. Here you are looking for similar conditions to the original setting so that you can apply the theology in a similar way. In many cases in these chapters we can think in terms of the anticipation of the second coming and the fulfillment of the promises, just as they were looking for divine intervention and the fulfillment. Many of these oracles have both the immediate and the ultimate applications in mind, and so that makes this approach a little easier to see. Based on Isaiah 40, for example, what John did as a voice announcing the coming of Messiah (the fulfillment of the prophecy) we too can do since there is now a second coming we anticipate (an application of the fulfillment).
The passages are all different, some more directly related than others. But if you have done the proper contextual exegesis and worked up the theology the passage teaches, the levels of application will unfold fairly easily because they will be similar. Isaiah 40, for example, announced the “coming” of the LORD to intervene and deliver the people from bondage; so that the people were to prepare for this and to comfort others and to wait on the LORD. That was true on the eve of the departure from Babylon (where they expected divine intervention but not an actual coming of God into their midst). It was true on the eve of the first coming when John came preaching repentance because the Messiah was coming (and that Messiah actually was God coming into the world, but as a shepherd). And it is true today as we look for the second coming (when He will come in glory); must wait for it, prepare for it, and announce the comfort it brings.83
This chapter is the prologue to the whole series of oracles and songs that follow; it has the basic themes that are found throughout the following chapters. The passage begins with promise (1-11). It opens with an instruction to comfort the people of God (1,2), followed by the oracle of the one preparing the way (3-8), and the heralds announcing the coming of the LORD in accordance with the Word of God (9-11). Israel was in need of such good news because they were in captivity under Gentile domination. The heralds bring the good tidings not to Babylon, but to Zion where the glory of the LORD will reappear when He leads His people like a Shepherd.
The second part of the chapter is an encouragement that God is able to do all this (12-26). The message of comfort is based on the omnipotence of God (12-17) and the incomparable nature of God (18-26). Consequently, the people who know Him are instructed not to mistrust Him but to renew their faith as they wait for the promises (27-31).
So the first section is instruction about the coming intervention, the second section is the theological basis for it, and the third is application. A quick reading through the chapter will surface several imperatives, and these will give us an immediate focus on the direction of our exposition: “comfort” in verses 1 and 2; “prepare” in verse 4; “go up” and shout in verse 9 (and point out the coming of the LORD in verse 10). Then, in the last part of the passage there are principles and lessons but not in the form of imperatives: the people should renew their faith (26), stop mistrusting the LORD (27), build up their faith (29), and wait expectantly for the deliverance (31). I will come back to the application later, but it looks to me like the lessons in verses 1-11 are geared to the faithful remnant, the messengers, and the lessons in the end are for the general population who are weak in faith, or lacking in faith. The first are the heralds, the voices; the latter the nation in general.
If I am planning my exposition, and my study to get ready for that exposition, I will probably not do as much detailed analysis of the middle section for several reasons. First, it is one of the most magnificent sections in the book and if I try to simplify it I might diminish it. Second, it is pretty clear what God is saying. I might have to explain an expression or a question—but an excellent reading of it will do very well. Third, my main emphasis will focus on all the instructions that employ key theological words and unusual figures of speech. I would certainly not treat this material lightly or quickly, for it is the theological basis of the instructions; but there are not that many things I need to work on there for the exegesis.
I. The promise of the coming of the LORD brings comfort and instruction to God’s people (40:1-11).
I chose to use the expression “coming of the LORD” in my point rather than “divine intervention” (the way it would be understood by Isaiah’s audience) because the word is in the text and I shall have to explain it anyway, and because in the complete fulfillment it is an actual coming as well as real divine intervention (both first and second).
A. ”Comfort my people” (1, 2).
I have chosen in these subpoints to pick the key phrases out of each section because they capture the point nicely. This is not always possible, but here it is because of the different messengers. In the development of this section the text employs different heralds; the first two verses call for the remnant to announce a threefold comfort to the people. And this is all tied to the message of the first eleven verses, that God will now deliver His people.
Verse 1 calls for the word of comfort to go out. These imperatives, “comfort, comfort” are in the plural—nahamu, nahamu (pronounced na-kha-moo)—meaning that the prophet and the school of the prophets, or perhaps even the whole faithful remnant, are to announce comfort to the people in general. The verb nakham is crucial here. In the niphal verbal system the verb means “to repent”; but here in the piel system it means “to comfort, console.”84 I would do some reading on this word, but the meaning is pretty much the same as in English. It suggests that the people are discouraged, depressed, suffering—and the prophets will bring them hope, encouragement, good news, to ease and soothe their troubled hearts.
The expression “comfort” would be a metonymy of effect; the cause would be what the prophets would say to the people, and that is coming next.
Verse 2 literally says “speak to the heart.” This is a poetic expression (using a metonymy of subject, “heart”) that represents an intimate and loving speech, sincere and heartfelt. For example, Boaz, we read, “spoke to the heart” of Ruth—kind, loving, gracious, generous, and tender. In this context, the three reasons for this kind of speech were war had ended, iniquity had been pardoned, and judgment was over.
Note that it is “Jerusalem” that is to be spoken to in comforting words. This would probably be a metonymy of subject although adjunct could be argued for since Jerusalem being the main city would represent the nation—but we still mean the people in it. It is interesting to me that the name Jerusalem is used when the exiles in Babylon are ultimately intended. This suggests a Palestinian provenance for the writing.
This oracle would certainly be comforting to the exiles in Babylon. But it soon became clear to them that these words, and many of the other prophecies in the rest of the book, were not exhausted or completely fulfilled in the return from the Babylonian captivity. They knew there was another, greater fulfillment at the end of the age, when the Messiah would come. This is why at the Temple in Jerusalem Simeon rejoiced to see the baby Jesus—the “consolation” of Israel, a direct allusion to Isaiah 40.
B. “Prepare the way of the LORD” (3-5).
The second instruction is for the preparation for the coming of the LORD, so that the glory of the LORD would be revealed. In the immediate setting, the restoration would be evidence of God’s glorious intervention (so “glory” would be metonymy of cause or adjunct); but in the advent of the Messiah, the glory of the LORD would be present and revealed—in part at the first advent, for the flesh of Jesus was the tent that covered the glory except when He chose to reveal it; in full at the second coming when He comes in glory. At the first advent, many saw it (“we beheld His glory”); but at the second coming, “all flesh” will see it (a synecdoche for all human beings).
This section begins with the voice of one crying. We learn from the New Testament that this is ultimately a prophecy about John the Baptist—although others could have cried this message in the original period, and others in our age could also be such a voice. The speaker is a mystery—only a voice. His identity is not important; the message is. John represented this so well: “I am a voice” (Mark 1:3). He made it very clear, using Isaianic images, that he was not the light.
The imagery throughout this little section uses implied comparisons (hypocatastasis). The “desert” represents the wasteland and the barren places; and so it speaks of need in the human heart, or even obstacles and impediments to life. All the changes enjoined are then in the spiritual life: valleys, crooked places, ridges, and the like are all sinful things, problems in the life that need to be straightened out. The “straight highway” is the spiritual believer who through repentance and amendment of life leaves nothing in his spiritual condition that would hinder the appearance of the LORD, the apprehension of the coming of the LORD, or participation in the Messianic Age of the LORD.
C. “Cry: The Word of our God shall stand forever” (40:8-8).
The mortal messenger will bring the good news of comfort and forgiveness; but there is no comfort in mortal flesh. Flesh changes and dies like grass (simile); its beauty like that of flowers cannot last.85 To see the vivid picture, you need to be familiar with what grows and what does not grow in the land. These comparisons show the fading and transitory nature of human lives. One cannot find comfort there. Humans fail; they cannot save themselves. But the contrast is with the eternal Word of God that cannot fail. So the message of hope comes from God’s word. That is truth. That can be trusted.
D. “Say: Behold — your God” (9-11).
Now the heralds are people who bring good tidings to Zion, possibly the returning remnant if not the faithful who live in the expectation of divine intervention. They can point to the reason for the restoration, the comfort, the hope—God will make Himself known to deliver them. These heralds are to announce to Jerusalem and to the cities of Judah—the people in the land (metonymies of subject): “Here is your God.” Any divine intervention could be described in this way; but ultimately the literal meaning would emerge. John would announce, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” And from his initial announcement through all subsequent prophets, apostles, preachers, and laity, the heralds of the kingdom hold out this promise of the coming. But when He comes again the words will be self evidently true—”Here is your God.” At the end of the age, then, Zechariah the prophet says that Israel will look on Him whom they have pierced, and realize this is their Messiah, this is their Savior, this is their God.
The sum of the message of comfort and the hope of the people of God is God’s presence. Two images are presented here of God’s presence. First, He is the sovereign LORD coming with power and His arm rules for Him. The idea of the powerful arm is anthropomorphic and idiomatic. Powerful majesty will be the pattern of His dominion as King. He will bring rewards to dispense to His faithful subjects.
The second image presented here is that of the shepherd. “He tends His flock” is hypocatastasis to go with the simile “like a shepherd.” This figure will be carried through the next three lines. Do not assume that the figure of the shepherd is limited to Christ’s first coming. The figure of a shepherd was commonly used in the ancient Near East for monarchs; it is the natural figure for any culture with much animal husbandry. And the New Testament will use the images of the Great Shepherd in heaven today (Heb. 13:20) and the Chief Shepherd who is coming again (1 Pet. 5:4) to go along with the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep (John. 10:11). The figure in each case does signify the care, leadership, and provisions that the LORD will bring to His people.
The great message of comfort—for us too at advent—hangs on this point. Look to God. He is coming to establish His kingdom.86 He will come in power. Without Him the “sheep” are weak and frail; with His presence they find everlasting peace and righteousness.
So in this section I should think that the application would run to the faithful remnant, especially the spiritual leaders, to announce that the sins have been paid for (and that brings comfort) and that God is coming (and that will mean deliverance and recompense), and to call for spiritual preparation.
II. God is fully able to bring deliverance to his people (40:12-16).
A. He is the sovereign Lord of creation (12-14).
What kind of God is He whose coming is so expected? After all, the hope of His coming and the promise of deliverance from bondage will only be as great as the God in whom we believe. So the prophet Isaiah begins to think about His greatness by thinking about His work of creation. Through a series of questions the prophet portrays God as the Mighty Creator. No mortal could even think to do this.
The argument develops in three stages. In verse 12 the questions show that only God could create. The language is anthropomorphic in that it shows the LORD to be like a workman working with His hands, baskets, and scales. Of course, Scripture makes it clear that He spoke and it came into being. In verse 13 we have the second stage in the thought—no one could even understand the Spirit of the LORD, for His thoughts are so much higher than ours. And then in 13b and 14 we have the next level—no one gave God any advice, ever! God created everything by His own design and counsel (see Rom. 11:34). And what He did is not only beyond our ability—it is far beyond our comprehension.
B. He is sovereign over the nations (15-17)
God needs the counsel of no one—certainly not the nations. They are all insignificant. Using obvious similes the prophet compares the nations (nations that terrorized the world) to a drop from the bucket, dust on the scales, fine dust if they are islands. They do not count; they do not tilt the balance of power one bit (see also Dan. 2:20ff.).
Even in a religious sense God does not need the nations for sacrifice or worship. If a sacrifice were to make a difference with God, all the animals in Lebanon would not be sufficient. So mighty Assyria and Babylon are there merely to do God’s bidding. But none of them can influence Him or challenge Him.
It is an interesting link to trace some of these themes into the New Testament. Jesus at His temptations was offered all the kingdoms of the world—and Satan could have delivered them. But they are worthless, especially for such a price. And why should He want these many divided and warring kingdoms when what belongs to Him is the one everlasting kingdom of His Father, a kingdom of righteousness and peace. And at His trial Jesus told one of His judges, “You could have no power at all unless it was given to you from above.” “My kingdom is not of this world.” These kingdoms are all part of the cosmos, the present world system. God is not impressed.
C. He is the incomparable One (18-20).
A theme is now introduced that will run through this whole section of the Book of Isaiah. There is no one like God. He is the true and only God. To compare Him to idols is blasphemous. Even the materials for idols comes from God (see Isa. 44). Humans who are weak and frail have made the idols; they look for ways to make idols that will last. No one made God; rather, God created humans. The nature of the question in verse 18 then is rhetorical (erotesis) to express that there is no one to whom we may compare God.
D. (Therefore) God alone is able to control creation (21-26).
If God made everything, and if He is sovereign over all nations, and if He is incomparable, then all creation is under His power. Verse 21 begins this section with four rhetorical questions to remind the people of this that they already knew. The repetition is meant to be a rebuke, like hammering a point home: “Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded?” They had centuries of time to have these truths sink in, but their weak faith and stubborn hearts had not taken it all to heart.
Now in verses 22-26 he picks up themes he has already introduced—creation, nations, incomparability—but focused on how God controls. According to verse 22 God is the Lord of creation and rules with providence. The heavens are like a canopy with everything in His tent. According to verses 23 and 24 He is sovereign over kings—they are planted (hypocatastasis) by Him and then just as quickly as He lets them grow to full flower and power He blows them away like chaff. But His reign is eternal and constant.
Verses 25 and 26 reiterate the theme of His incomparable nature. There is no one like God—He is the “Holy One.”87 The people are called to look and contemplate the heavens and see God’s handiwork. It is by His power that the starry hosts were created and keep their order. Many Jews in Babylon had fallen into star-gazing and worship. Isaiah will address the issue of astrology and wizardry directly in these messages; but he will also deal with it indirectly by showing that creation witnesses to the sovereignty of God. The New Testament will confirm that this whole universe is borne along by His powerful word (rhema).
III. God’s people may renew their strength through hope (40:27-31).
A. The prophet rebukes those who distrust God (27-28).
The people who were in exile in Babylon were a strange mix of persuasions. There was the true remnant of course. But there was a large segment that probably believed in the LORD but had all but given up hope because they were overwhelmed by the captivity. God had apparently discarded them and was not concerned or aware of their plight. Isaiah will have to convince them through these chapters. Some needed to come to faith, period. Most needed to rekindle their faith with this truth.
Verse 27 is a rebuke for the people because they were convinced that God had written them off. That was their complaint. But Isaiah affirms that God is the Creator and the Preserver of all things. He will not forsake what He has made. His first point to prove this is that He does not grow tired like humans. No problems are hidden from God, or too much for Him to handle. And his second point is that God is incomprehensible. His ways are right, even though we do not know them. We will never understand Him, but He knows all about us. So how can anyone even suggest that our ways are hidden from Him? That reverses the whole matter.
B. The prophet promises new strength for believers (29-31).
According to verse 29 God will give strength to those who are exhausted and suffering under oppression. Even youths (v. 30) run out of energy and stumble. So human life is frail and transitory. Verse 31, however, brings the contrast, and the climax of this message on comfort: those who wait on the LORD shall change.
By waiting (Hebrew qawah88, pronounced kah-vah) the prophet means a longing for the fulfillment of the promise by faith, but it is a longing or looking for that is characterized by confident expectation. Waiting requires patience; but it is never indifferent. There is always a restlessness, an eagerness, a looking for something, an inner vigil. To hope for something is active; it is never out of mind. English Bibles alternate between translating with “hope” or “wait.” The two ideas are in the word. Here we would say the term describes the essence of confident, expectant faith. In the immediate context it describes the attitude and actions of those Israelites who believed the promises of the LORD and were ready to step out when God began to move. They believed the release was coming; they waited for it. They knew it would happen; they just did not know exactly when.
And when the release would come, they would escape with energy and quickness like eagles mounting up. But the road back to the land of promise would be long, and so it would be as if they would start quickly, slow to a run, and then to a walk. These expressions describe both the facts of embarking on a prolonged journey and the growing confidence that continued success would bring. They would never grow tired on their journey back; and they would not look back in fear. Rather, their confidence would grow as they went because their way back to Judah would be the fulfillment of the promised hope.
Likewise, believers living now at the end of the age in the expectation of the coming of the Lord have the same kind of confidence. To hope for the coming of the LORD does not imply that there is a chance it might not happen; rather, it implies an active faith in the truth of His coming. It will happen; they are expecting it soon. Those who wait for the LORD will not be entangled by this life, but will be focused on the spiritual preparation for His appearance. And as they live out their faith in the light of that hope, they will find their strength renewed for life’s difficulties along the way.
In writing a summary expository idea of this whole chapter, I would try to capture all the main aspects of the material:
Because of the incomparable knowledge and power of God, those who have found pardon for their sins and who believe in the sure promise of His Word will prepare for His coming, finding comfort in this life and gaining confidence through faith.
This is but one way to do it, but a little long (even if I did underscore my main sentence to highlight it). I could have easily made the last ideas parallel—comfort, preparation, and strength. But I was thinking of the passage in terms of the focus of Peter that those who have this blessed hope purify themselves. A little shorter expository idea could be something like this:
If we truly believe His word, and realize who He is, we will find comfort in this life, faith to endure, and hope for His coming.
I would base the instructions on the solid doctrine this passage has about the nature of God, but focus on the instructions. As we today look forward to the coming day of deliverance, the appearance in glory of our God and Savior Jesus Christ, we should comfort one another, especially those of weaker faith, with the blessed hope, we should instruct one another in the spiritual preparation, we should build our faith on God’s Word, and we should see the fulfillment in the first advent as a sign of the second advent. But ultimately we must wait on the LORD—and I think all that is meant in the above instructions is meant to be a part of that waiting. That is what gives us the strength for the journey home.
Cross, Frank M. “The Council of Yahweh in Second Isaiah.” JNES 12 (1953):274-277.
Dahood, Mitchell. “The Breakup of Two Composite Phrases in Isaiah 40:13.” Bib 54 (1973):537-538.
Driver, G. R. “Hebrew Notes.” VT 1 (1951):241-250.
Holmes, I. Vivien. “Study on Translation of Isaiah 40:6-8.” The Expository Times 75 (1964):317-318.
Limburg, James. “Expository Articles: Isaiah 40:1-11.” Interpretation 29 (1975):406-411.
Marshall, David W. “Interpreting the Old Testament.” Bible League Quarterly 289 (April-June 1972):26-30.
Melugin, Roy F. “Deutero-Isaiah and Form Criticism.” VT 21 (1971):326-337.
Tidwell, N. L. “MT Isaiah 40:10: An Approach to a Textual Problem Via Rhetorical Criticism.” Semitics 6 (1978):15-27.
Trudinger, Paul. “To Whom Will You Liken God?” VT 17 (1967):220-225.
83 When doing exegesis on a Messianic prophecy, it is generally better to wait for the step on correlation with the New Testament to sort out which parts are first coming and which second. The prophet never thought in those terms--he just knew the LORD was coming. And from all indications probably thought it was imminent, as did Paul of the second coming of Jesus.
84 The common idea seems to be one of sighing or breathing out, as the word books may suggest. In the idea of repenting it would therefore include both the change of will and the feeling of surrendering, giving in; in comforting it would be the sighing of relief in response to the news.
85 The reference to the breath of the LORD blowing on them is probably a comparison of the winds, even the cold winter winds, with the breath of the LORD.
86 At the first advent He began His reign in the hearts of people and established the foundation for His dominion. At His exaltation He was seated at the right Hand of the Majesty on High where He was to wait until the time for His second coming into this world, when in fact He will put down all enemies and establish His righteous reign.
87 Recall the word study of qadosh, "holy"; throughout these passages that word's meaning will be developed. He is truly unique, distinct, set apart--there is no one like Him!
88 The word is connected to the noun qaw (kav), a rope or a cord. The idea of hoping may have some overtones of anxious feelings, a tenseness or tightness. However, the primary meaning of the verb is eager and confident expectation. The verb is often used in contexts parallel to words and ideas of secure trust.
Related Topics: Comfort