Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11
When interpreting the prophets it is always important to understand the historical context in which the prophetic message was uttered, lest that particular word of the LORD, delivered to a particular people, in a particular situation becomes a mere “timeless truth.”
Isaiah, the son of Amoz, who prophesied from 742 until 701 BCE, addressed the events of the latter half of the eighth century, especially the invasions of Judah by the coalition of Syria and the Northern Kingdom of Israel, and soon thereafter by Assyria, itself. Isaiah’s consistent message was to stand fast, eschewing military strength in favor of firm trust in the LORD. As a result, Jerusalem was delivered. Nevertheless, dire announcements of Jerusalem’s eventual judgment for its sin run throughout these chapters (Isaiah 1-39).
The latter half of the book (Isaiah 40-66), however, describes a radically different situation:
- Jerusalem has experienced destruction, not deliverance
- at the hands of Babylon, not Assyria
- and a new power, Persia, under Cyrus, has become the successor to Babylon.
- In this new setting we hear of comfort, pardon, and restoration instead of judgment.
Clearly, this new message addresses the new situation that now obtained. The simplest explanation is that Isaiah 1-39 and 40-66 stem from different prophets addressing different situations in the history of God’s people. The scholarly consensus still maintains that Isaiah 1-39 records the message of Isaiah son of Amoz, and chapters 40-66 record that of the so-called “Second” Isaiah, the anonymous prophet of the Exile. Many also maintain that chapters 56-66 contain the work of a “Third” Isaiah due to their probable setting in the lives of those who returned to Jerusalem after the exile.
While few would deny the cogency of the above description of multiple authorship in Isaiah, much recent work has argued that whether we conceive of these chapters as coming from the pen of an exilic prophet or as some kind of vision granted to Isaiah son of Amoz we should try to understand the material, itself, as we receive it in the canon, as a unified whole, and it must be said, several intriguing insights immediately present themselves upon such a reading:
- Both halves focus upon Jerusalem
- The holiness of God runs throughout
- The historical narrative culminating in Isaiah’s warning Hezekiah of the Babylonian captivity, in chapter 39 (taken from 2 Kings 20), serves to bind the two halves together
- Passages like Isaiah 34-35 seem to better fit the style and themes of Second Isaiah
- Isaiah son of Amoz had promised that a “remnant shall return” (10:20-23). Second Isaiah claims that this is about to take place.
Regardless of our approach, Isaiah 40:1-11 presents itself as a double commission.
- First, within the Heavenly Council, God commands the heavenly host to “comfort my people” by announcing to Jerusalem that their long bondage in Babylon is over, they have served their term of exile, and their iniquity has been pardoned. The personified city represents the exiles whose sin had resulted in the destruction of Jerusalem (verses 1-2). In response, one of those so commissioned calls for the construction of a super highway in the desert between Babylon and Jerusalem. In this virtual re-run of the exodus out of Egypt, God will lead the people back in a triumphal procession (verses 3-5). So far, so good: Their sin is forgiven and they are going home in triumph!
- The second commission is that of Second Isaiah, himself. In response to a command to “Preach!” (“Cry out” NRSV), the prophet says, “What shall I preach? All flesh is grass and all its loyalty (chesed) is like the flowers that fade when the breath of the LORD blows upon them” (verses 6-7). Although we expect resistance at this point of a call narrative (see Isaiah 6:5; Jeremiah 1:6), the despondent nature of the prophet’s lament acutely captures the pervasive attitude of his contemporaries after decades of living in exile.
But then, the truth of the situation became dazzlingly clear to him: Even though “the grass withers and the flower fades” … nevertheless … “the word of our God remains forever!” (verse 8; see 55:11 that forms the inclusio that frames all of Second Isaiah). And this crucial insight, that God’s word is enduring, true, and trustworthy was enough to overcome his despair and establish him in his calling.
Trusting this promise, the prophet looked at the current volatile political situation with new eyes. The unanticipated appearance of Cyrus II of Persia on the scene and his stunning victories over the Median empire in 550 and Croesus king of Lydia in 546 before turning toward Babylon meant that Ezekiel’s vision of God’s promised end of the exile as a shepherd gathers his scattered flock (Ezekiel 34:11-22) was beginning to take place, and God’s chosen instrument would be Cyrus, whom God had raised up as his “Shepherd” (44:28) and “Messiah” (45:1). It’s true, the prophet cries, “the word of our God remains forever.”
Two points of contact on Advent II:
- In verse 9 personified Zion/Jerusalem is depicted as a “herald of good tidings.” In the Septuagint the Greek word for “herald” is the same as that for “gospel/evangelist” in the New Testament. So that even though others use the term (Psalms 40:9; 96:2) it is Second Isaiah who first suggests the character that sustained the early church: God’s redemption. Much of the Old Testament yearns for redemption, Isaiah 40 declares it.
- The Synoptic Gospels cite Isaiah 40:3 as fulfilled in the ministry of John the Baptizer (though it is John who is “in the wilderness” rather than the “highway” in conformity with the Septuagint punctuation). Nevertheless, Second Isaiah’s anticipated deliverance of Israel reaches back to the exodus and points forward to Jesus Christ.
PRAYER OF THE DAY
Holy Lord, a voice has been heard in the wilderness preparing the way for your son to arrive in this world. Prepare our hearts to receive your son and help us to prepare for his coming. Amen.
Many and great, O God ELW 837, GG 21, H82 385, NCH 3, UMH 148
All earth is hopeful ELW 266, TFF 47
Comfort, comfort, now my people ELW 256, GG 87, H82 67, NCH 101
Comfort, comfort, John Ferguson
December 8, 2019