Isaiah of the Exile
- Main Text: Isaiah 40:1-11
- Accompanying text: Mark 1:1-4
What this passage means to us
The opening words of Isaiah 40 in the King James version of the Bible brings to mind Part I of Handel’s oratorio, the Messiah. A tenor voice proclaims to a humanity held captive, “Comfort ye” followed by the aria “Every valley shall be exalted”, and then the chorus sings “And the glory of the Lord”. If anyone is unfamiliar with Handel’s work, it’s worthwhile listening to these three pieces because they capture the sense of excitement and the beauty of Isaiah’s words.
“Comfort my people” in v.1 is not just a passing phrase of encouragement, but it also involves interventive and remedial action. It’s an announcement of God’s active, caring approach towards us. In referring to Zion, symbolic of the New Jerusalem where the redeemed gather together, “this is what the Lord says: ‘I will extend peace to her like a river…you will feed and be carried on her arm and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you’” (Isaiah 66:13-14). The concept of nurturing care continues in v.2 with the phrase “speak tenderly”, which also implies re-assurance in scriptures such as Genesis 50:21 and Hosea 2:14. The concept of tenderness is also seen in the imagery of v.11 in which the shepherd gathers the lambs in his arms and holds them close to his heart. When we are comforted by God, it’s an opportunity for us to reach out to others and to comfort them: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Corinthians 1:3-4).
Isaiah’s message is that the trouble and affliction of captivity is over, and this points to the ministry of Jesus Christ, who rescues us from the captivity of sin and of our foolish ways. It applied to the captives returning to Jerusalem, whose hard labour in a foreign land is over, but Isaiah’s words transcend the immediacy of their situation and encapsulates the future of all the saints. In v.3 a heavenly voice cries out to prepare a path for the approach of the Lord, the coming King. It was a custom that a pathway would be prepared for visiting dignitaries and in recognition of their status, such as happened in John 12:13, “So they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him, crying out, ‘Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord, even the King of Israel!’” John the Baptist saw this passage as prophetic of his own ministry when he said, “I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’, as the prophet Isaiah said” (John 1:23). The Gospel writers endorsed this view (Matthew 3:3; Luke 3:3-6). In making this pathway through the rough ground valleys may need to be built up and mountains or hills levelled. By analogy, in preparation for the return of Christ, the proud are humbled and the meek are edified. As the pathway progresses, so the glory of the Lord is revealed. Jesus, who is the only revelation of the Father (see Hebrews 1:3), is the crucified “Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:8), and, for us, we have the hope of participating in this glory, “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10).
Even though, Isaiah explains, life is impermanent, just as the grass withers and fades away, hope remains because “the word of our God endures for ever’, and the good news (Gospel) is that “the Sovereign Lord comes with power” (Isaiah 40:8,10), and he brings his reward of salvation with him. The apostle Peter refers to this passage in reassuring believers of the certainty of their hope in Christ: “Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade…For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, ‘All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures for ever’” (1 Peter 1:3-4, 23-24).
Context and Story Line
In Isaiah 39:5-6 the prophet said to King Hezekiah of Judah, “Hear the word of the Lord Almighty: the time will surely come when everything in your palace, and all that your predecessors have stored up until this day, will be carried off to Babylon. Nothing will be left, says the Lord”. Then, in the very next chapter, Isaiah announces a message for the exiles, who would have lived some 150 years after Hezekiah and long after Isaiah’s death. This gap in time between the two chapters has led some scholars and theologians to believe that the book of Isaiah had two or even three authors. One of the earliest writers to suggest this was Abraham ibn Ezra from Spain. “He found discrepancies in the biblical text: Isaiah of Jerusalem could not have composed the second half of the book attributed to him because it referred to events that occurred long after his death” . This whole idea has been much debated and has challenged the nature and substance of biblical prophecy. Another view is that, “if we accept that the living God knows the end from the beginning and that Isaiah was inspired by the Holy Spirit, there is no serious reason to doubt the unity of authorship…God speaks, sometimes centuries in advance…Isaiah sees beyond the captivity to a time of remarkable restoration” . Biblical writers appeared to have accepted the unity of the book as a whole. For example, in John 12 quotes from Isaiah 53:1 and Isaiah 6:10 as if they were written by the same author: “This was to fulfil the word of Isaiah the prophet: ‘Lord, who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?’ For this reason they could not believe, because, as Isaiah says elsewhere: ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn – and I would heal them.’Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him” (John 12:38-41).
In the book of Isaiah itself “nothing is said of the intervening century and a half: we wake, so to speak, on the far side of the disaster, impatient for the end of the captivity…liberation is in the air…All this is expressed with a soaring, exultant eloquence” , which is typified by the first eleven verses of Isaiah 40.
- 1 Peter 1:3-4, 23-24
- 2 Corinthians 1:3-4
Other GCI resources
Footnotes and references
- Karen Armstrong, The Bible: The Biography (London, UK, Atlantic Books: 2007). 143.
- John Houghton, Cover to Cover Bible Study: Isaiah 40-66 (Surrey, UK, CWR: 2010). 6.
- David Kidner’s Isaiah section in The New Bible Commentary Revised (London, UK, IVP: 1953, 1970). 611.