Isaiah (Part 44): God in Control (Ch 40)
The OT portion of Isaiah (chapters 1-39) may be called “God Calls for Return to Faith.” The next 27 chapters (the NT portion) may be called “God Provides Restoration.” Chapter 40 begins with a word from God to comfort his people. Our minds must recognize a huge divide between chapters 39 and 40. Chapter 39 ended with Assyria as the major threat against Judah. But that was in the early 700s B.C. The chapter 40 prophecy targets a time over 100 years after chapter 39. Assyria has been removed as a world power. Babylon has become the premier empire. And Judah has been carried off into captivity to Babylon. The comfort that God wants spoken is a comfort to his people in captivity in Babylon.
God says to comfort his people. To whom is he speaking? It is not to Isaiah as may be thought. God is speaking to three voices—three perspectives—that will deliver prophecy for his plan and his people. The voices are mentioned in verses 3, 6, and 9. We will discuss them as we reach each going through the chapter.
Verse 2 is often translated something like “speak tenderly.” The Hebrew is more literally, “Speak to the heart.” The connotation should be understood that God is saying to speak intently, earnestly, with a motive to persuade. The first of those voices that are told to speak to the heart is in verse 3. We recognize the message as that which John the Baptist preached as he prepared the way for Christ. His message was no mere tender speech. He was a rough man, earnestly trying to persuade people to pay attention to the coming kingdom. Christ even pointed out that the people did not go out to the desert to hear him because he was a “reed swaying in the wind” or a “man in soft clothes” (Mt 11:7-8). His delivery was not speaking tenderly to the people. Thus, Isaiah 40:2 should be rightly translated, “Speak to the heart” rather than “Speak tenderly.”
Verse 2 also argues that the time of judgment is over. We can see this concerning the immediate context. Judah was in captivity in Babylon, and that captivity would end as Persia, led by Cyrus, would defeat Babylon. But the greater context is that all God’s people (all those of faith) throughout human history would have judgment lifted through the rescue of Christ. Iniquity would be pardoned, as the verse says (also Daniel 9:24).
The final clause specifying that Judah would receive double for her sins provides an interesting picture. God is discussing comfort and grace. We should not read into this a double judgment, then, but rather a double measure of grace. The Hebrew gives the image of a blanket folded over double. Therefore, it is one item (grace) but given in a double perspective. I understand this as clear indication of the two-fold perspective of the prophecy. Judah would receive grace in being rescued from Babylon. They would also receive grace through the ultimate rescue of Christ.
In verses 3 through 5, we read of the first voice of comfort. We recognize the message of John the Baptist in this voice. Mountains (pride and human government) would be leveled, while valleys (the downtrodden; God’s people) would be lifted up. The result is that humanity is on a level plain as the rescuer accomplishes his work.
Notice that “all humanity” will see God’s glory. We often associate this with the second coming when all will physically see Christ’s return. But since this is the voice message associated with John the Baptist and the first coming of Christ, perhaps all humanity see God’s glory through a revelational means similar to what Paul speaks of in Romans 1.
Verse 5 ends by emphasizing that although the voice is speaking, it is speaking the words of God.
The second voice (perspective) comes in verses 6 through 8. The contrast here is the weakness (death) of humanity against the strength and everlasting word of God. The immediate context demonstrates the sureness of God’s word of prophecy, but we also see the conquering life of Christ—the Word made flesh.
The third voice (perspective) follows in verses 9 through 11. Here Jerusalem seems to be the voice, heralding “good news.” Certainly we see the good news (gospel) come from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and the uttermost parts of the earth. But in the immediate context, we also see the return to and rebuilding of Jerusalem as the good news that reestablishes Judah as a nation.
The next several verses (12-26) provide a rhetorical argument and answer for the greatness of God. Remember, this whole subsection (chapters 40-48) emphasizes that God and God alone will accomplish rescue.
Verse 12 looks at creation and wonders who could have brought it about. Verse 21 presumes that God is the one who has, and goes on to wonder how humankind can think and live without conscious awareness of this fact.
In verses 13 and 14, we understand that God decides and moves according to his self-sufficient wisdom and understanding. Verses 22-23 emphasize that humanity has no such wisdom. God does not need humanity (princes and counselors) to direct him.
In verses 15 through 17 we understand the unique dignity and authority of God. The nations of the world measure up to him as dust. The affirmation in verse 24 shows humanity trying to take root but withered at the breath of God.
Finally in verses 18 through 20 we read that nothing can compare to God—certainly no idol crafted by human hands. What a striking contrast God shows in verses 25-26 as he directs our attention to the skies and the stars testifying to his sustaining power.
The last portion of chapter 40 helps rescue the reader from being overcome by the greatness of God. We may tend to think that such a great God would not even realize much less care about our own insignificant selves. But God provides both a theological and experiential response to this fear. It would be a great but lesser god who could wield power in the universe but not have time or ability to care for the micro detail. The truly great God holds the stars but also holds the hearts of people in his hands. Further, God has demonstrated his intentional care for Judah in the past.
God tells the faint that he will renew their strength and raise them to soar on eagles. As God rescued the Children of Israel from Egypt, he told them, “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to Me” (Exodus 19:4).