Second Sunday of Advent (Year B)

The passage begins with an insistent double imperative: Comfort! Comfort!

December 4, 2011

First Reading
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Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11

The passage begins with an insistent double imperative: Comfort! Comfort!

The intimacy and compassion that are to infuse this comfort are underscored in the parallel command: Speak tenderly! (literally:”speak to the heart”). This poignant command not only names a deep human desire and need, it summons to mind multiple biblical examples of such tender ministrations. 

Elsewhere, Job’s friends offer comfort through a week of silent accompaniment (Job 2:11-13). Job’s extended family and neighbors give him gifts as an expression of their sympathy and comfort (Job 42:11). The foreign widow Ruth is comforted by the protection and access to water that the landowner Boaz provides (Ruth 2:13). Jacob’s sons and daughters attempt to be of comfort to Jacob during his many days of mourning for his son Joseph (Genesis 37:35). A rod and a staff provide protective comfort to one walking through the darkest valley (Psalm 23:4).

Consolation and care for the victims of calamity, for parents whose children have died, for persons without the means to sustain themselves and for persons vulnerable to physical threat and bodily harm are praiseworthy and beyond question. In the Bible, “oppressors” and “enemies” are typically those who fail to extend comfort or pity (Ecclesiastes 4:1; Psalm 69:20). 

What is striking at the start of Isaiah 40 is not that there are persons in need of comfort; it is that God commands that they be comforted. It is Jerusalem whom God says is to receive comfort. In the context of the Book of Isaiah, Jerusalem is hardly a sympathetic character. Chapter after chapter describes how the people of Jerusalem prospered through wickedness, oppression, lies and injustice, refusing to heed the prophets’ calls to repent, reform and be reconciled to God. 

In 587 BCE Jerusalem was conquered and destroyed by the Babylonian Empire. The leaders and a significant part of the population were marched off to Babylon. The Jerusalem prophets made it unmistakably clear that the destruction of the city and the exile to Babylon were not due to Babylonian strength; they were a well-deserved punishment from God. 

Isaiah 40:1 declares now the time of punishment is at an end. Jerusalem’s “term” is completed and “her penalty is paid.” But why should she receive comfort? Persons who serve time for a crime do not typically receive comfort on the day of their release. They have been judged deserving of their penalty and now must prove their worthiness. 

Moreover, the likelihood of recidivism is high. The voice speaking in verses 6-8 acknowledges this likelihood for the people of Jerusalem too. Their steadfastness is fleeting; “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.” This voice sees a future for the people of Jerusalem no different from their past.

The people of Jerusalem are not “deserving” of comfort according to the norms of retributive justice, but God insists — no, commands — that they be comforted. 

The first expression of comfort is the way they are to be identified: “my people,” says God (40:1). Though multiple chapters of Isaiah illuminate actions that are incompatible with God’s desires for human community and that end in punishment, God continues to identify as their God. God does not overlook or ignore those behaviors but all people should know that God has not abandoned Jerusalem. God intends that they will have a future together.

The second expression of comfort is the command to speak “tenderly to Jerusalem” (40:2). Compassion, not condemnation, should determine how Jerusalem is treated.

Third, is the clear declaration in verse 2 of release from debt to sins. The verse notes that Jerusalem “has served her term” but there is also an expression in the passive noting that “her penalty is paid.” The reference to “term” connects the exile to punishment, but the announcement of a penalty paid suggests divine grace in the release. It is the release from debt — not the efforts to satisfy the debt — that brings comfort.

Fourth, is the command to Jerusalem to announce good tidings to the cities of Judah (Isaiah 40:9). Jerusalem — the city judged, conquered and exiled — is to be involved in voicing comfort to others. 

Fifth, is the announcement of God’s coming to be with them. In Isaiah 40 the commands to “comfort” and to “speak tenderly” (verses 1-2) are immediately followed by the instruction to “Prepare the way of the LORD” (verse 3). The release from service is paired with the announcement of the LORD’s coming. The arrival will be one of divine splendor revealing “the glory of the LORD (verse 5).” 

The pathway is not through the cities and towns like a conquering warrior but through the desert and wilderness, where the settlement and survival of human and other living creatures is precarious. The location of this path is unstated. It could be imagined to be in the desert between the cities of Jerusalem and Babylon or it could recall the Exodus journey of deliverance through the wilderness of Sinai. Or it could be a metaphor for the desolation and despondency of the Jerusalemites in Babylon.

That the LORD’s coming is comfort, not withering judgment, is clear in the transformation of the wilderness and desert: “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain” (verse 4). 

Sixth, and greatest, is the announcement of God’s involvement in creating a new future. Just as the conclusion of a prison term does not, by itself, result in a better tomorrow, the end of the Babylonian period does not ensure that what lies ahead will be any different for the exiles. But for their sake, God chooses to be involved in that future. The deepest comfort and greatest joy is the power of God at work in their midst, providing, protecting and guiding them with gentleness (verses 10-11).

True comfort, indeed.