The Turn Toward Hope
Verse Commentary on Isaiah 40
This study of passages from the second main section of Isaiah will be
from the perspective that the book of Isaiah comes from a span of some three
hundred years. The first part of the book contains the powerful preaching of
the prophet Isaiah of Jerusalem during the Assyrian invasions (745-700 BC;
chs 1-39). The later community, perhaps even disciples of Isaiah (8:16-22),
preserved his message.
Yet, the book as we have it now also preserves God's ongoing word to the
community of faith as they experienced God's judgment. The book spans the
rise of the Babylonian Empire and the exile of the Israelites to Babylon
(609-538 BC; chs. 40-55). The exiles reinterpreted and reapplied Isaiah's
message to rapidly changing historical events in their time. So a third
section dates still later, including the era of return from exile and the
depressing period following (538-450 BC; chs. 56-66).
God spoke through the messages of Isaiah. He also spoke through new,
later prophets. As the community heard and responded to God's ongoing word,
they preserved both. The book of Isaiah emerged as a witness both to the
devastating effects of disobedience as well as God's willingness to forgive
(see The Unity and Authorship of Isaiah).
Isaiah of Jerusalem had urgently warned a complacent and arrogant people
that the impending war with the Assyrians would be nothing less than the
judgment of God on the nations of Israel and Judah. The Northern Kingdom
(Israel) fell to the Assyrians in 721 BC. The Southern Kingdom (Judah)
survived the Assyrian invasions, largely because of the godly Hezekiah (2
Kings 18-19) who responded to the warnings of Isaiah. Yet, as the years went
by the people did not really change.
In 586/7 BC, God allowed the new empire of Babylon to sweep away their
nation, their king, their temple, their old way of life (note Isaiah
44:24-28). Everything was gone! Jeremiah had preached that God himself had
allowed these tragic events to unfold as punishment for their failures to be
God's people (note Isaiah 42:18-25; 47:6). The warnings of the prophets had
However, the Babylonian Empire would not last long. By 540 BC Cyrus the
Persian (44:24; 45:1) had unified the scattered Persian tribes, subdued the
Medes and had begun to build the Persian Empire. By 538, he had taken over
Babylon peacefully and emerged as master of the Near Eastern world (41:2-4).
These events provide the background for Isaiah 40-55.
At the beginning of Isaiah 40, the people of Judah are in captivity in
Babylon (many scholars date this part of the book around 550-540 BC). One
question loomed large for the exiles. Since they had clearly failed to be
God's people, did they have a future? Would God again work in their midst,
or would He simply abandon them? Could God act? In this crisis of
faith, God again speaks to the community through the messages of Isaiah
Chapter 40 has two major sections. Verses 1-8 contain God's proclamation
of forgiveness and the responses to it. Verses 10-31 comprise an extended
hymn of praise to God. Verse 9 ties the sections together by summarizing the
proclamation and introducing the hymn.
1. Words of Forgiveness and Comfort
1 Comfort, comfort my people, says
your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that
her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that
she has received from the LORD's hand double for all her sins.
It is not immediately clear who is being addressed in these two verses.
God is speaking about the Israelites (my people,
Jerusalem) to an unnamed group of people (the commands are plural
Many scholars understand this as poetic language picturing God as
presiding over a heavenly council. While foreign to us, this is a common Old
Testament metaphor (Psalm 89:5-7). The imagery is that of an earthly king
surrounded by his court of officials (Isaiah 1:2; 6:1-2). The commands would
amount to the issuance of a royal decree that heralds would proclaim to the
people (v.9). Such imagery would emphasize the certainty of the announcement
and the authority behind it.
1. Comfort, comfort The exiles had
mourned that they lacked anyone to comfort them (Lam 1:2, 9, 16, 21). This
marks a significant shift in perspective.
2. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem The
Hebrew here is "speak to the heart of Jerusalem." Joseph uses the same
construction as he lovingly and compassionately forgives his brothers for
selling him into slavery (Genesis 50:21). In Isaiah 40-55,
Jerusalem and "Zion" often symbolize the exiles in Babylon (v.9;
51:7; 52:2) who represent the entire people of God.
hard service . . .completed
The Hebrew word also can mean "warfare." The reference is to the immediate
hardships of the exile. The implication is that there will be a radical
break with the physical suffering of the exile. This pronouncement continues
the shift toward hope anticipating the "new things" that God is doing for
His people (42:5-9).
sin has been paid for The NIV
translates two different Hebrew words (avon and chatta't) as
"sin" in this verse. The term used here (avon) can mean "sin." It
more commonly means "perversity" or "iniquity" (RSV) in a general sense. It
also can mean the "guilt" associated with wickedness or the 'punishment'
that comes because of iniquity and guilt.
The word translated paid for (RSV:
"pardoned"; NASB: "removed") has the meaning "be pleased with" or
accepted favorably." It often expresses whether a person who has presented a
sacrifice is acceptable to God (2 Sam 24:22-23; with negative, Jeremiah
14:10-12). Sacrifices were not automatically pleasing to God nor always
accepted by Him (Micah 6:7; Hosea 8:13).
The message here is not that the Israelites have simply paid a debt and
pardon. The intention is that God views the suffering of the exiles as an
acceptable sacrifice. The nation justly deserved the punishment. God had no
obligation to do anything more. It was by His gracious choice that He
willingly accepted their suffering as atonement for their iniquity and by
that offered pardon. He has simply said, "It is enough."
The people did not earn the shift from wrath to mercy introduced here;
it. A better reading might be "her punishment has been accepted" or even
"her guilt has been pardoned" corresponding directly to
her hard service has been completed. This idea of atoning suffering
first appears in the Bible here during the crisis of exile. The idea appears in
a more developed form in chapter 53 (see Servant of the
Lord: Isaiah 52-53).
Received from the Lord's hand double
The writer clearly stands in the prophetic tradition that sees God's will
for his people working out in the historical events of the nation. With
Jeremiah and Ezekiel, he understood exile as the outworking of the
consequences of the nation's continued rebellion against God. But this also
became their basis of hope. If God had himself allowed the Babylonian
invasion and exile, then He could reverse it!
Double does not imply that the
punishment was excessive or somehow undeserved. The author is looking from
the perspective of the exiles who can hardly bear their suffering (note Lam
5; Psalm 137). From their view, it was out of proportion to the sins.
2. God will Return to Israel (Isaiah
3 A voice of one calling: "In the
desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a
highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and
hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a
plain. 5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind
together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken."
These verses pick up an old poetic depiction of God. Old poems portrayed
God as the mighty warrior riding in from the southern desert leading the
heavenly armies to bring deliverance to his people. Traditionally, writers
associated this poetic portrayal of God with the exodus (Deuteronomy 33:2-6;
Exodus 15:3ff). It also could confess in a general way total dependence on
God (Habakkuk 3:3-19; Psalm 18; note Isaiah 63:1). The writer here
anticipates the coming restoration of the people in terms of God's
victorious march from the southern desert (v.10; note also 42:13; 52:10).
3. A voice of one calling The
construction here is identical with verse six and should be translated "a
voice calls" (as RSV) or "a voice proclaims." The imagery is still that of
the heavenly council with the voice unidentified. The intent is that God's
decree of comfort and pardon to the people of Israel is already in process.
In the desert In spite of the New
Testament quotation of this verse (Matthew 3:3, etc.), the voice does not
call in the desert ("The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness,
'Prepare . . .'"; KJV). Instead, the preparations are to be made
in the desert
("A voice cries: 'In the wilderness prepare . . .'"; RSV, also NIV).
way for the LORD Some see this
highway through the desert as a path over which the exiles may return home
(as in Isaiah 35:8, 62:10). However, the path is a
highway for our God to return to His people. Large processional
avenues for the triumphal entry of kings or of images of gods are common in
the ancient world.
4. This entire verse emphasizes that
no obstacle will prevent God from coming in forgiveness and deliverance to
5. the glory of the Lord The Hebrew
glory (kabod) has a wide range of
meaning. The verbal root means to be heavy. From this, when used
figuratively it also means to have/command respect. The noun, then, means
abundance, riches, prestige, honor, or respect. When used of God, it
describes the reverence due God or the splendor of his presence.
The glory of the Lord was a symbolic
way of describing God as present and active in the affairs of human history
(Exodus 16:6-10; Isaiah 6:3). This symbol is especially appropriate here
affirming that God is again acting in human history for the deliverance of
His people. All mankind
(Hebrews: "all flesh") will understand that God is at work. This becomes a
major theme throughout the rest of the book.
3. Uncertainty and Promise (Isaiah
6 A voice says, "Cry out." And I said,
"What shall I cry?" "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like
the flowers of the field. 7 The grass withers and the flowers fall,
because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands
6. A voice . . .I Hebrew lacks
quotation marks. So it is not clear who says what. The unidentified
issues a command and someone responds with a question. The RSV and NASB take
the rest of the section (All men . . .forever,
v.6b-8) as only the narrator's comments on the command and question. The NIV
understands the same verses as the reply of the voice.
It is better to follow NIV in taking verses 6b-8 as a continuation of the
conversation. But the content of what each speaker says should be divided
differently. The second speaker responds to the voice with an objection (What
shall I cry?). Following is a reason for the objection from the
same speaker ([because]
All men . . .people are grass). The
voice then responds, agreeing with the objection, but providing further
assurance ([indeed] The grass withers . . .stands
cry out As in verse two, this word
has the meaning "proclaim."
grass . . .flowers These are common
biblical poetic metaphors for the transitory and vulnerable nature of human
existence (Ps 103:15-18; note Matthew 6:30).
all their glory The RSV uses "beauty"
here. Neither is an appropriate translation of the Hebrew term (chesed).
The word never means beauty or glory; "glory" translates a different word (kabod)
in verse five. The word chesed means 'loyalty,' 'affection,' 'mercy,'
or 'faithfulness.' Their refers to
all men (Hebrews: "all flesh"). The emphasis is on humanity's
fleeting and fickle loyalty to God.
This objection to the proclamation presents a very negative view of human
nature. It asserts that human beings cannot remain loyal to God for very
long. The implication is that the people are helpless and the situation is
7. the breath of the Lord refers to
God's action in the events of the exile. This is the same word (ruach)
that NIV translates "spirit" or "Spirit" in other places (see Lesson 10 on
59:21 and Lesson 12 on 61:1).
8. the word of our God The term
translated word (dabar) has a
wider range of meaning than in English. It can refer to a spoken word. It
also can refer to an activity or action associated with what is spoken.
The word of our God
would include not only God's proclamation to the people, but also His
actions and activity in the world. This is a strong affirmation of God's
ultimate lordship over human history.
stands forever Our idea of eternity
as timeless existence is foreign to the Old Testament. The phrase used here
means 'unto the age.' It refers to an indefinite span of time in the future.
This verse dramatically emphasizes the certainty and stability of God's
promise. It provides graphic contrast with the fickleness of humanity in the
4. The Sovereign Shepherd (Isaiah
9 You who bring good tidings to Zion, go
up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up
your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of
Judah, "Here is your God!" 10 See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power,
and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense
accompanies him. 11 He tends his flock like a shepherd: He gathers the
lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads
those that have young.
12 Who has measured the waters in the
hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the
heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the
mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance? 13 Who has understood
the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor? 14 Whom did the
LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was
it that taught him knowledge or showed him the path of understanding?
15 Surely the nations are like a drop in
a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands
as though they were fine dust.
9. good tidings This a single word in
Hebrew and refers to news, good or bad, brought by a messenger (1 Kings
1:42). The contents of the message are the proclamations of verses 1-8,
which in this context are good.
Here is your God This is the answer
to the crisis of faith caused by the exile. If God would come to act again
for His people (v.10), then He would reveal himself truly as their God. They
would have a future beyond the judgment of exile. If He were still their
God, they could again be His people with the possibility of a new
relationship (note Jeremiah 31, especially vv.31-34).
11. shepherd This is another common
poetic description of God emphasizing the compassion, care and loyalty of
God for His people (Psalm 23;
Genesis 48:15; note John 10).
12-15. Who has measured . . . The
rest of the chapter is in the style of a hymn consisting of praise offered
to God for who He is as God. God the Creator brings new things into being.
This theme will continue to play a crucial role in the rest of the book
(42:5ff, 43:1, 15, 44:24, etc.). The apparently hopeless situation of the
exiles is within the power of God because He is Lord of creation!