Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11
With these opening words of Second Isaiah (chapters 40-55), the prophet offers a balm for the festering wounds of exile.
Against the prophetic backdrop of First Isaiah and the experiential backdrop of the people’s life in exile, the prophet’s message is that in spite of and in the midst of human misery the Lord continues to be the God who speaks and acts. The Lord’s power is both vastly unimaginable and revealed in care and tenderness.
While certainly not without words of hope, Isaiah (chapters 1-39) consistently confronts the people with their idolatry and consistent practice of putting their ultimate trust in that which is not the Lord, causing them to see the world inside−out and upside−down:
“Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Ah, you who are wise in your own eyes, and shrewd in your own sight!…for they have rejected the instruction of the Lord of hosts, and have despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.” (Isaiah 5:20-21, 24b)
Within the theological framework of Isaiah, this idolatry causes all sorts of pain and suffering, reaching its peak with the Day of the Lord, an eschatological moment when the Lord’s judgment will be all encompassing:
“On that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven in heaven, and on earth the kings of the earth. They will be gathered together like prisoners in a pit; they will be shut up in a prison, and after many days they will be punished.” (Isaiah 24:21-22)
This is a picture is of an all-encompassing brokenness in heaven and on earth, and a rupture between God and God’s people and creation.
These words from earlier in Isaiah are not empty words, either. The expectations of the Lord’s judgment are matched by the experience of the now exiled people. With Judah, Jerusalem, and the Temple in ruins behind them, the people were marched off to Babylon — displaced from their home, the Promised Land. As the psalmist cries out:
“By the waters of Babylon — there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion”. (Psalm 137:1)
Second Isaiah begins not on earth but in heaven. A general scholarly consensus is that the opening verses (vv.1-5) are an exchange within the heavenly court (cf. 1 Kings 22:19-23) — the “nerve center of the universe.”1 With the plural imperatives, “Comfort, O comfort my people,” the Lord exerts the Lord’s dominion over heaven and earth and all therein. The Lord’s dominion, however, is not rooted in the power of violence or destruction, but in comfort. With the tone of “speak tenderly” (v.2), the Lord announces to the heavenly courtiers the Lord’s divine disposition to the chosen people, and, in the distinctive fashion of Second Isaiah, ultimately to the whole world. The penalty of Jerusalem’s sins has now been paid.
Within this courtly setting, the voice of the Lord is overheard (vv.1-2), followed by another heavenly voice (vv.3-5), presumably of a heavenly messenger:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” (Isaiah 40:3)
This unnamed heavenly voice calls for a radical transformation of earthly topography in prelude to a mind-blowing revelation of the glory of the Lord (cf. Exodus 24:16; Ezekiel 43:5) to all people. Not just Judah and Jerusalem, but all people ‘as one’ are to see it.
The concluding section of the pericope is the heavenly call of the prophet of Second Isaiah. “What shall I cry?” the prophet asks. In summary, the message of this prophet is a mix of impermanence and permanence, power and tenderness. The people are, ‘like grass,’ part of the created order, impermanent, not God. The word of the Lord, however, is permanent, steadfast, and powerful. Who has such a word? It is the Lord God with ultimate power over death and life revealed as a shepherd gathering the lambs closely, holding them gently. This is the Lord whom the prophet is called to proclaim: “Here is your God!” (v.9)
The traditional Advent tie with this pericope is Isaiah 40:3ff., the prophet license for John the Baptizer (Matthew 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4-6, John 1:23). Within the biblical and traditional fabric of the Church, this pericope prefigures the Baptizer’s heralding of Emmanuel. In many a sanctuary on this Second Sunday of Advent, the hymn, “Comfort, Comfort Now My People,”2 will resonate in the hearts and voices of peoples gathered, mystically drawing together the saints far and near, past, present, and future. Such singing brings the unnamed voice from the heavenly court still to the present calling for radical transformation and the expectation of all as one seeing the glory of the Lord.
Both Calvin and Luther read this chapter as clear Gospel, with Calvin boldly asserting that “this passage comprehends the whole Gospel in a few words.”3
1Paul D Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Interpretation; Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 1995), 18.
2Johann G. Olearius, 1653-1711, tr. Catherine Winkworth, 1829-1878.
3John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, Vol. III (trans. Wm. Pringle; 7 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948) 3:212.