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The Turn Toward Hope
Verse Commentary on Isaiah 40

Dennis Bratcher

The Book of Isaiah

This study of passages from the second main section of Isaiah will be from the perspective that the book of Isaiah comes from a span of some three hundred years. The first part of the book contains the powerful preaching of the prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem during the Assyrian invasions (745-700 BC; chs 1-39). The later community, perhaps even disciples of Isaiah (8:16-22), preserved his message.

Yet, the book as we have it now also preserves God's ongoing word to the community of faith as they experienced God's judgment. The book spans the rise of the Babylonian Empire and the exile of the Israelites to Babylon (609-538 BC; chs. 40-55). The exiles reinterpreted and reapplied Isaiah's message to rapidly changing historical events in their time. So a third section dates still later, including the era of return from exile and the depressing period following (538-450 BC; chs. 56-66).

God spoke through the messages of Isaiah. He also spoke through new, later prophets. As the community heard and responded to God's ongoing word, they preserved both. The book of Isaiah emerged as a witness both to the devastating effects of disobedience as well as God's willingness to forgive (see The Unity and Authorship of Isaiah).

The Historical Setting

Isaiah of Jerusalem had urgently warned a complacent and arrogant people that the impending war with the Assyrians would be nothing less than the judgment of God on the nations of Israel and Judah. The Northern Kingdom (Israel) fell to the Assyrians in 721 BC. The Southern Kingdom (Judah) survived the Assyrian invasions, largely because of the godly Hezekiah (2 Kings 18-19) who responded to the warnings of Isaiah. Yet, as the years went by the people did not really change.

In 586/7 BC, God allowed the new empire of Babylon to sweep away their nation, their king, their temple, their old way of life (note Isaiah 44:24-28). Everything was gone! Jeremiah had preached that God himself had allowed these tragic events to unfold as punishment for their failures to be God's people (note Isaiah 42:18-25; 47:6). The warnings of the prophets had become reality.

However, the Babylonian Empire would not last long. By 540 BC Cyrus the Persian (44:24; 45:1) had unified the scattered Persian tribes, subdued the Medes and had begun to build the Persian Empire. By 538, he had taken over Babylon peacefully and emerged as master of the Near Eastern world (41:2-4). These events provide the background for Isaiah 40-55.

At the beginning of Isaiah 40, the people of Judah are in captivity in Babylon (many scholars date this part of the book around 550-540 BC). One question loomed large for the exiles. Since they had clearly failed to be God's people, did they have a future? Would God again work in their midst, or would He simply abandon them? Could God act? In this crisis of faith, God again speaks to the community through the messages of Isaiah 40-55.

Chapter 40 has two major sections. Verses 1-8 contain God's proclamation of forgiveness and the responses to it. Verses 10-31 comprise an extended hymn of praise to God. Verse 9 ties the sections together by summarizing the proclamation and introducing the hymn.

The Text

1. Words of Forgiveness and Comfort (Isaiah 40:1-2)

1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.  2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.

It is not immediately clear who is being addressed in these two verses. God is speaking about the Israelites (my people, Jerusalem) to an unnamed group of people (the commands are plural in Hebrew).

Many scholars understand this as poetic language picturing God as presiding over a heavenly council. While foreign to us, this is a common Old Testament metaphor (Psalm 89:5-7). The imagery is that of an earthly king surrounded by his court of officials (Isaiah 1:2; 6:1-2). The commands would amount to the issuance of a royal decree that heralds would proclaim to the people (v.9). Such imagery would emphasize the certainty of the announcement and the authority behind it.

1. Comfort, comfort The exiles had mourned that they lacked anyone to comfort them (Lam 1:2, 9, 16, 21). This marks a significant shift in perspective.

2. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem The Hebrew here is "speak to the heart of Jerusalem." Joseph uses the same construction as he lovingly and compassionately forgives his brothers for selling him into slavery (Genesis 50:21). In Isaiah 40-55, Jerusalem and "Zion" often symbolize the exiles in Babylon (v.9; 51:7; 52:2) who represent the entire people of God.

hard service . . .completed The Hebrew word also can mean "warfare." The reference is to the immediate hardships of the exile. The implication is that there will be a radical break with the physical suffering of the exile. This pronouncement continues the shift toward hope anticipating the "new things" that God is doing for His people (42:5-9).

sin has been paid for The NIV translates two different Hebrew words (avon and chatta't) as "sin" in this verse. The term used here (avon) can mean "sin." It more commonly means "perversity" or "iniquity" (RSV) in a general sense. It also can mean the "guilt" associated with wickedness or the 'punishment' that comes because of iniquity and guilt.

The word translated paid for (RSV: "pardoned"; NASB: "removed") has the meaning "be pleased with" or "be accepted favorably." It often expresses whether a person who has presented a sacrifice is acceptable to God (2 Sam 24:22-23; with negative, Jeremiah 14:10-12). Sacrifices were not automatically pleasing to God nor always accepted by Him (Micah 6:7; Hosea 8:13).

The message here is not that the Israelites have simply paid a debt and therefore deserve pardon. The intention is that God views the suffering of the exiles as an acceptable sacrifice. The nation justly deserved the punishment. God had no obligation to do anything more. It was by His gracious choice that He willingly accepted their suffering as atonement for their iniquity and by that offered pardon. He has simply said, "It is enough."

The people did not earn the shift from wrath to mercy introduced here; God granted it. A better reading might be "her punishment has been accepted" or even "her guilt has been pardoned" corresponding directly to her hard service has been completed. This idea of atoning suffering first appears in the Bible here during the crisis of exile. The idea appears in a more developed form in chapter 53 (see Servant of the Lord: Isaiah 52-53).

Received from the Lord's hand double The writer clearly stands in the prophetic tradition that sees God's will for his people working out in the historical events of the nation. With Jeremiah and Ezekiel, he understood exile as the outworking of the consequences of the nation's continued rebellion against God. But this also became their basis of hope. If God had himself allowed the Babylonian invasion and exile, then He could reverse it!

Double does not imply that the punishment was excessive or somehow undeserved. The author is looking from the perspective of the exiles who can hardly bear their suffering (note Lam 5; Psalm 137). From their view, it was out of proportion to the sins.

2. God will Return to Israel (Isaiah 40:3-5)

3 A voice of one calling: "In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. 5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken."

These verses pick up an old poetic depiction of God. Old poems portrayed God as the mighty warrior riding in from the southern desert leading the heavenly armies to bring deliverance to his people. Traditionally, writers associated this poetic portrayal of God with the exodus (Deuteronomy 33:2-6; Exodus 15:3ff). It also could confess in a general way total dependence on God (Habakkuk 3:3-19; Psalm 18; note Isaiah 63:1). The writer here anticipates the coming restoration of the people in terms of God's victorious march from the southern desert (v.10; note also 42:13; 52:10).

3. A voice of one calling The construction here is identical with verse six and should be translated "a voice calls" (as RSV) or "a voice proclaims." The imagery is still that of the heavenly council with the voice unidentified. The intent is that God's decree of comfort and pardon to the people of Israel is already in process.

In the desert In spite of the New Testament quotation of this verse (Matthew 3:3, etc.), the voice does not call in the desert ("The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, 'Prepare . . .'"; KJV). Instead, the preparations are to be made in the desert ("A voice cries: 'In the wilderness prepare . . .'"; RSV, also NIV).

way for the LORD Some see this highway through the desert as a path over which the exiles may return home (as in Isaiah 35:8, 62:10). However, the path is a highway for our God to return to His people. Large processional avenues for the triumphal entry of kings or of images of gods are common in the ancient world.

4. This entire verse emphasizes that no obstacle will prevent God from coming in forgiveness and deliverance to His people.

5. the glory of the Lord The Hebrew word translated glory (kabod) has a wide range of meaning. The verbal root means to be heavy. From this, when used figuratively it also means to have/command respect. The noun, then, means abundance, riches, prestige, honor, or respect. When used of God, it describes the reverence due God or the splendor of his presence.

The glory of the Lord was a symbolic way of describing God as present and active in the affairs of human history (Exodus 16:6-10; Isaiah 6:3). This symbol is especially appropriate here affirming that God is again acting in human history for the deliverance of His people. All mankind (Hebrews: "all flesh") will understand that God is at work. This becomes a major theme throughout the rest of the book.

3. Uncertainty and Promise (Isaiah 40:6-8)

6 A voice says, "Cry out." And I said, "What shall I cry?" "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass. 8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever."

6. A voice . . .I Hebrew lacks quotation marks. So it is not clear who says what. The unidentified voice issues a command and someone responds with a question. The RSV and NASB take the rest of the section (All men . . .forever, v.6b-8) as only the narrator's comments on the command and question. The NIV understands the same verses as the reply of the voice.

It is better to follow NIV in taking verses 6b-8 as a continuation of the conversation. But the content of what each speaker says should be divided differently. The second speaker responds to the voice with an objection (What shall I cry?). Following is a reason for the objection from the same speaker ([because] All men . . .people are grass). The voice then responds, agreeing with the objection, but providing further assurance ([indeed] The grass withers . . .stands forever. v.8).

cry out As in verse two, this word has the meaning "proclaim."

grass . . .flowers These are common biblical poetic metaphors for the transitory and vulnerable nature of human existence (Ps 103:15-18; note Matthew 6:30).

all their glory The RSV uses "beauty" here. Neither is an appropriate translation of the Hebrew term (chesed). The word never means beauty or glory; "glory" translates a different word (kabod) in verse five. The word chesed means 'loyalty,' 'affection,' 'mercy,' or 'faithfulness.' Their refers to all men (Hebrews: "all flesh"). The emphasis is on humanity's fleeting and fickle loyalty to God.

This objection to the proclamation presents a very negative view of human nature. It asserts that human beings cannot remain loyal to God for very long. The implication is that the people are helpless and the situation is hopeless.

7. the breath of the Lord refers to God's action in the events of the exile. This is the same word (ruach) that NIV translates "spirit" or "Spirit" in other places (see Lesson 10 on 59:21 and Lesson 12 on 61:1).

8. the word of our God The term translated word (dabar) has a wider range of meaning than in English. It can refer to a spoken word. It also can refer to an activity or action associated with what is spoken. The word of our God would include not only God's proclamation to the people, but also His actions and activity in the world. This is a strong affirmation of God's ultimate lordship over human history.

stands forever Our idea of eternity as timeless existence is foreign to the Old Testament. The phrase used here means 'unto the age.' It refers to an indefinite span of time in the future. This verse dramatically emphasizes the certainty and stability of God's promise. It provides graphic contrast with the fickleness of humanity in the previous verses.

4. The Sovereign Shepherd (Isaiah 40:9-15)

9 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 your God!" 10 See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him. 11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.

12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance? 13 Who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor? 14 Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge or showed him the path of understanding?

15 Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.

9. good tidings This a single word in Hebrew and refers to news, good or bad, brought by a messenger (1 Kings 1:42). The contents of the message are the proclamations of verses 1-8, which in this context are good.

Here is your God This is the answer to the crisis of faith caused by the exile. If God would come to act again for His people (v.10), then He would reveal himself truly as their God. They would have a future beyond the judgment of exile. If He were still their God, they could again be His people with the possibility of a new relationship (note Jeremiah 31, especially vv.31-34).

11. shepherd This is another common poetic description of God emphasizing the compassion, care and loyalty of God for His people (Psalm 23; Genesis 48:15; note John 10).

12-15. Who has measured . . . The rest of the chapter is in the style of a hymn consisting of praise offered to God for who He is as God. God the Creator brings new things into being. This theme will continue to play a crucial role in the rest of the book (42:5ff, 43:1, 15, 44:24, etc.). The apparently hopeless situation of the exiles is within the power of God because He is Lord of creation!

-Dennis Bratcher, Copyright © 2013, Dennis Bratcher, All Rights Reserved
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