Comfort, Comfort My People Says Your God

40: 1-11

   DIG: Jerusalem’s deliverance in 701 BC from the Assyrian King Sennacherib in Chapter 37 climaxes the prophecies of Chapters 1-39. Chapters 40-48 deal with events that occur 150 years later. In 587 BC Jerusalem is sacked, its people deported to Babylon, the new world power (Second Kings 25). Given this situation, what does God mean when He commands Isaiah to comfort and speak tenderly to His people? How far was Isaiah looking into the future when he wrote the second half of his book?

   REFLECT: The Gospels quote 11:3 in reference to John the Baptist preparing the way for Yeshua. What does that imply about the identity of Christ? How can you prepare the way for Jesus in your own life. What needs leveling or shoring up? In 40:11 Jesus comes as a Shepherd as well as a King. What sort of sheep do you feel like: Cradled? Content? Wandering? Caught? or Lost? Why?

    At this point we need to pause and reflect on Isaiah’s life in his later years. The last time we read about Isaiah involved in public ministry was the invasion of the Assyrian King Sennacherib in 701 BC. If Isaiah was about thirty years old when he started his public ministry, he would have been about sixty-nine years of age when King Uzziah died (6:10). By the time Hezekiah died, three years later, Isaiah would have been seventy-two. But more than likely he lived longer than that because tradition teaches that he died as a martyr during the reign of Manasseh, who had him sawed in two (Hebrews 11:36-37). So if he lived several years after his public ministry had ended, what might he have done during this latter part of his life?

    As early as 712 BC, possibly as much as twenty years before his death, he could see that the Babylonian exile was coming (39:5-7). It must have weighed heavily upon him, but as far as we know he did not preach on it. For most of the following fifteen years the more immediate Assyrian crisis demanded his attention and, with the accession of Manasseh and the fierce repression that came with it, it would have been impossible to preach anyway. The nation and its leaders were unwilling to listen. It would only be after the Babylonian captivity for seventy years that they would become teachable again, and then they would not need judgment, but comfort.

    It is likely, therefore, as the gap in time between Chapter 39 and Chapter 40 implies, that in the latter part of his life Isaiah was called to a new task, to comfort Isra'el in words that they would remember and preserve in the dark days ahead until she was ready to hear them again.153

    The specific question dealt with in 40:1-11 is this: Does God want to deliver Judah (and us)? And doesn’t He give up on Judah (and on us) because of our persistent sinning? The message God gives is for people whose whole world has fallen apart. And for people like that, cheap comfort is not only a waste of time, it is cruel. Comfort not grounded in reality is no comfort at all; it must be based on truth. And the truth is that sin, Judah’s or ours, does not defeat ADONAI. Not only does He want to restore the united kingdoms of Isra'el and Judah (and us), but He intends to use her (and us) in the proclamation of the Good News. The LORD can be trusted to deliver Isra'el (and us).

    Comfort, comfort My people, says our God (40:1). This verse starts out with a command to comfort. The command then is to the Jewish prophets, Isaiah in particular, and perhaps his contemporary Micah, or the later prophets of the Babylonian captivity such as Jeremiah, Ezeki'el, Dani'el, or the post-exilic prophets such as Zechariah, Haggai, and Malachi. The basic thrust now is comfort My people. The word comfort is so emphatic that the NIV says it twice. My people is the object, meaning My people of the united kingdom of Isra'el and Judah. Up to now the first 39 chapters have been chapters of judgment against Judah, with the final threat in Chapter 39 that although ADONAI will save Judah from the Assyrians, about one hundred years later the LORD will send the southern kingdom of Judah into the Babylonian captivity. But now the content and the tone of the message changes; it is one of comfort rather than judgment.

    The method of speaking is given in the first part of the next verse, which says: Speak tenderly to Jerusalem (40:2a). Literally, the Hebrew reads: Speak comfortably, or speak to the heart of. The basic thrust of the message is that you must win the heart of the nation. Not merely threaten them, but win the heart. This phrase win the heart of is used elsewhere in Scripture for courtship (Genesis 34:3: Judges 19:3; Hosea 2:14). The one that is closest to what Isaiah is saying here is in Hosea 2:14. In the first 13 verses of Chapter 2, Hosea had a message of judgment. God was going to destroy the nation for her idolatry, for chasing after other gods. But sometime after the fall of the nation the LORD spoke through His prophet: Therefore, behold, I will allure her, I will bring her back into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her (Hosea 2:14). In other words, the word for comfort or console, in 40:1 and the word for tenderly, or speak to the heart in the sense of wooing for the purpose of courtship, in 40:2 are two different Hebrew words.

    In the second part of the verse, the prophet had a three-fold message of comfort to declare. Proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, and that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins (40:2b). First, that her warfare had been completed. Second, that her sin had been pardoned. And third, that she had received from the LORD double for all her sin. This three-fold message is the outline for the rest of Isaiah. And each section ends with one verse that describes the state of the wicked.

    First, that her warfare had been completed is developed in 40:1 to 48:22. This first section will be divided between Isaiah’s consolation (Chapters 40-41 and 44-45) and his Creator (Chapters 42:5 to 43:28 and 46 to 48).

    The person primarily, but not exclusively, talked about is Cyrus and how ADONAI will use him to bring about the return of the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity. Because of this, there is more near historical prophecy than far eschatological prophecy.

    Back in Isaiah 29, God was viewed as being at war with Ariel, which is another name for the city of Jerusalem. In 42:25, Isaiah tells us that God had poured out on Judah His burning anger, the violence of war. But now in 40:2 we see that ADONAI’S war against the people of Judah is finished. Throughout this section we are going to see a contrast of several things. First, we will see a contrast between the LORD and idols. Secondly, we will see a contrast between the Jews and the Gentiles. And thirdly, we will see a motif of contrast between a near historical fulfillment and a far eschatological fulfillment regarding Babylon. The Bible talks about two Babylons. In Isaiah’s day there was the city and empire of Babylon. Because the near fulfillment would be the Babylonian captivity, which would begin over a hundred years after the prophecy of Isaiah, we call this the near historical Babylon. Then after the Babylonian captivity, when her warfare had been completed, men like Zerubbabel, Nehemiah, and Ezra would lead the Israelites back to Jerusalem to occupy the Land by 536 BC. But the Bible also talks about another Babylon. There is a Babylon yet to be rebuilt and become the worldwide capital of the antichrist during the Great Tribulation. We call this the far eschatological Babylon.

    Finally, Isaiah is going to be talking about the overthrow of the Babylon gods. Remember that the main reason why ADONAI had to send the Jews into Babylonian captivity was because of their idolatry. The Jews from the time of Abraham down to the Babylonian captivity were always prone to idolatry. So throughout Chapters 40 to 48 there will be constant references made to God’s war against idols and idolatry for the purpose of showing the absolute stupidity of idolatry. This will especially be true in Chapter 41 and Chapters 46 and 47. But Israel did learn her lesson because once the Jews returned from the Babylonian captivity in 536 BC; idolatry would never again be a Jewish problem. This section ends with a statement that describes the state of the wicked. There is no peace, says the LORD, for the wicked (48:22).

    Second, that her sin had been pardoned is seen in 49:1 to 57:21. This second section will be divided between Judah’s Redeemer (Chapters 49:7 to 50:3, 50:10 to 52:12, and 54 to 57) and Judah’s Servant (Chapters 42:1-4, 49:1-6, 50:4-9 and 52:13 to 53:2).

    In this section, the reason that her sin had been pardoned was because of the death of the Servant of the LORD. Here Isaiah deals with the final salvation and restoration of the united kingdom of Israel and Judah. Thus, there is more far eschatological prophecy than near historical prophecy.

    He will make four points. First, her sin had been pardoned. This is the reason that her warfare had been completed. The Hebrew word pardoned here means to be satisfied. In other words, God’s righteousness and justice has been satisfied because the price of sin has been paid. The theological word is propitiation. It means the averting of ADONAI’s wrath by means of the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ which satisfies every claim of God’s holiness and justice so that the LORD is free to act on behalf of sinners. On the cross, Jesus said: It is finished in Aramaic (John 19:30). In Greek it would be translated paid in full or tetelestai. Second, there is a connection between the suffering of the Servant and His future glory. On the one hand, Isaiah will speak of a suffering Messiah; on the other hand, he will speak of a conquering Messiah. Today we understand that this was fulfilled by One Messiah coming twice; His First Coming to die for sins, and His Second Coming to rule in the Millennial Kingdom. The rabbis have never completely comprehended the truthfulness of One Person fulfilling both prophecies. So they invented the theory of two Messiahs. The first messiah would come and die and the second messiah would come to reign and bring the first messiah back to life again. This section ends with a statement that describes the state of the wicked. There is no peace, says my God, for the wicked (Isaiah 57:21).

    Third, that she had received from the LORD double for all her sin is discussed in Isaiah, Chapters 58 to 66. This third section is about Isaiah’s Messiah and will be divided between Judah’s sins (Chapters 58 and 59), the Coming Messiah (Chapters 60 to 62), and finally judgment and salvation (Chapters 63 to 66).

    The second section gives the reason for the first, because her sins had been pardoned, her hard service had been completed. Likewise, the third section gives the reason for the second. The reason that she had received double for all her sins was so that her sins could be pardoned. So we have a progression in thought.

    The principle of Judah receiving double for all her sins comes out of the Torah. It clearly states that the first son was to receive double. So if you had three sons, you would divide your land into four parts. The two youngest sons would be given one part each. But the first-born son would be given two parts. The first born son always received double. When Pharaoh would not let the people go, God sent Moses to Pharaoh with a message: Then say to Pharaoh, this is what ADONAI says: Israel is my firstborn son, and I told you, let my son go, so he may worship me. But you refused to let him go; so I will kill your firstborn son (Exodus 4:22-23). For that reason Judah is to receive double in blessing and punishment. What is emphasized here is not the double blessing, but the double punishment aspect. Isaiah is not the only one to say this (Jeremiah 16:18 and Zechariah 9:12). This principle, found in both the Pentateuch and the Prophets, is the reasoning behind the statement by Paul: There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile (Romans 2:9). The reason why God would move against the Jew first in punishing sin is because of the principle of receiving double for her sins. But the other side of the coin is also true. But glory, honor, and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile (Romans 2:10). So because the nation of Israel was the first born of the nations and has a special relationship with God, Israel receives double blessings, but she also receives double for all her sins.

    In this third section, aside from the point that the nation of Israel had received double for all her sins, Isaiah will mainly be concerned with the distinction between the nation of Israel as a whole, the faithful remnant of believing Jews, and the Suffering Servant. This section, and book, ends with the condemnation of the wicked: And they will go out and look upon the dead bodies of those who rebelled against me; their worm will not die, nor will their fire be quenched, and they will be loathsome to all mankind (Isaiah 66:24).

    From this simple command to comfort His people (40:3-11), four different voices respond. First, there is the voice of urgency in 40:3 to 5. This takes us back to a long-standing custom of the ancient world. Roads of some kind must have existed in former times in Palestine, though nothing worthy of the name is to be found there today. The use of chariots, and the opening and preservation of the way to the Cities of Refuge, and such expressions as are found in this text, seem to imply a knowledge and a use of artificial roads. It has been the custom from ancient times for Oriental monarchs, when wishing to travel through their dominions, to send men before them to prepare their way, by removing stones  (62:10), leveling rough places, filling up hollows, and making the road pleasant and easy for the distinguished travelers. The Assyrian Queen Shammuramat (in Greek, Semiramis), on one of her journeys, coming to a rough, mountainous region, ordered the hills leveled and the hollows filled, which was done at an enormous cost. Her object was not only to shorten the way, but also to leave to posterity a lasting monument of herself. There have been modern instances of a similar character, though not involving so much labor and expense.154 The point here is that God is coming so there had to be a way prepared.

    A voice of one calling, “In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, and the rugged places a plain” (40:3-4). This is quoted in reference to John the Baptist by all four gospel writers (Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; and John 1:23). John the Baptist could have fulfilled this prophecy had Jesus been accepted. That is the point of the gospel writers quoting him. John the Baptist was a forerunner of the Messiah of Israel. But the Messiah was rejected, so this prophecy awaits fulfillment at some other time (Mark 9:9-13).

    And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it (40:5a). The synoptic writers all describe what took place on the Mount of Transfiguration (Matthew 17:1-13; Mark 9:1-13; and Luke 9:28-36). The disciples had seen the Shechinah glory manifested in the person of Jesus Christ. That raised a theological question. Why did the rabbis teach that before the Messiah would come, Elijah must come first? This is based on Malachi Chapter 4 where it clearly teaches Elijah must return before the coming of Christ, but before the Second Coming not before the First Coming. So first, Jesus said that Elijah would indeed come first and restore all things, but if Elijah had come before the First Coming all the prophecies regarding the suffering, death, and resurrection of Christ would never be fulfilled. That is why Elijah was not promised to come and restore all things before the First Coming, but only before the Second Coming. John the Baptist was a type of Elijah, in that he was a forerunner of the First Coming. Had Jesus been accepted as the Messiah, then John would have fulfilled the prophecy of 40:3-5. But He was rejected. So this prophecy awaits a future fulfillment when Elijah will indeed return and fulfill all things. Then a smoothing of the way is described so all obstacles are removed. Then Isaiah speaks about the Shechinah glory. At that point, when the way has been prepared for the coming of the King (when all Israel is saved as a nation in Chapter 66) and Jesus comes back, His Shechinah glory will be seen by all mankind (Matthew 24:29-30). The guarantee that all of this will come to pass is given at the end of this verse. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken (40:5b). He said it, it would come to pass. That was the first voice; now comes the second voice.

    Second is the voice of hope in 40:6a. The second voice says: Cry out, meaning, Cry out to Jerusalem the same three-fold message of comfort, the same message found earlier in 40:1-2.

    Third voice is the voice of discouragement in. Immediately after that, the voice of discouragement asks: What shall I cry? He emphasizes the transitory, or temporary nature of man. The voice of discouragement says: All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are like grass (40:6b-7). In effect this voice says, “What good is it? We have had revivals before. There have been periods during Israel’s history when we have turned to the LORD, only to let that period of righteousness slip through our fingers as the nation returned to a life of sin. All we do is see continuous cycles. Why bother giving the message of comfort in 40:1-2? It is useless because human righteousness is so fickle, it comes and goes.

    But then the voice of hope responds to the voice of discouragement. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the Word of our God stands forever (40:8). He says, “You are right. Man’s righteousness is fickle. But I will give you some hope, and tell you something that is not fickle. That is the Word of our God spoken by His prophets. It is sure. It is not transitory. It is not temporary. Therefore, since the promise of the final restoration and redemption of the united nation of Israel is sure, because the mouth of the LORD has spoken it, let us proclaim that message!

    We have heard three voices so far, but now comes the fourth voice, the voice of good tidings in 40:9-11. Finally, the command to comfort and speak tenderly to My people in 40:1-2 is carried out. Though ADONAI is a mighty warrior striking down Israel’s oppressors, He is also like a good Shepherd, gentle and considerate to His redeemed people.

    You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid. Say to the towns of Judah, “Here is our God” (40:9)! Here the phrase good tidings is the Hebrew word for the Gospel. Ultimately, the way the promise of 40:2 is going to be fulfilled is by means of preaching the Gospel to both Israel and Judah. This will ultimately bring about the salvation of the united kingdom Israel. She has experienced a hardening in part until the full number of the Gentiles has come in. And so all Israel will be saved, as it is written: The deliverer will come from Zion; He will turn godlessness away from Jacob. And this is My covenant with them when I take away their sins (Romans 11:25b-27). That will be especially true in the preaching of the Two Witnesses (see my commentary on Revelation Dc – I Will Give Power to My Two Witnesses to Prophesy for 1,260 Days).

    But what are we to preach? The answer to that comes next. See, the LORD of heaven’s angelic armies (CJB) comes with power, and His arm rules for Him, and His reward accompanies Him (40:10). In 40:10 the word See (NIV), or Behold (KJV), has a special meaning in the book of Isaiah. When he uses it, it always means something in reference to the future. In other words, “See, your God is coming in the future.” And when He comes, He will come with power, and His arm rules for Him. This is the second of nine references to the arm of the LORD in Isaiah (30:30 and 32, 50:2, 51:5 and 9, 52:10, 53:1, 59:1 and 16, 62:8, 63:5). In His Second Coming, He will come as the Lion of the Tribe of Judah (Revelation 5:5), but in His First Coming, He came as the Good Shepherd.

    Even though the nation of Judah would have to endure the discipline of the Babylonian captivity; He would eventually come to them as the Good Shepherd. The arm raised in discipline would be lowered in compassion. He tends His flock like a shepherd (Psalm 23:1, 80;1; Hebrews 13:20; First Peter 2:25 and 5:4), He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them close to His heart (Jeremiah 13:17 and 20; Micah 4:8, 5:4 7:14; Zechariah 10:3); He gently leads those that have young (40:11). He said of Himself: I am the good Shepherd; I know My sheep and My sheep know Me – just as the Father knows Me and I know the Father – and I lay down My life for the sheep (John 10:14-15). Does God want to deliver Israel (and us)? Indeed He does. Doesn’t He give up on Israel (and on us) because of our persistent sinning? No, He does not! And that is Good News.

 

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