The God of Comfort-Isaiah 40a

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Isaiah 40:1-11 (Who is God to us when we sin grievously?) "Comfort, comfort my people, says your God" (Isa 40:1).

ThemeWho God is when we sin.God is undeterred in pursuing us despite our besetting grievous sin. God's people have abandoned him, but God has not rejected them.

Questions about God after we fall into sin (Isa 40:27):

  • Does God know (about my situation)?
  • Does God care (about me)?
  • Is God able (to help me)?
  • Does God want to (help me)? Have I sinned beyond recovery? Will God forgive me?

To understand the major transition from ch.1-39 to 40-55 to 56-66:

  • 1-39: The first section calls people to righteous living or else God will judge them.
  • 40-55: The second section emphasizes God's grace that his chosen people can freely receive.
  • 56-66: The third section sythesizes these opposing emphases. God's power will enable his people to live righteously.

What does righteous living look like?

"Thérèse was asking the sister . . . Can you be willing to be patient with yourself until God gives you the grace to be patient with the sisters? Can you accept and love yourself and not become your own adversary? Can you bear serenely the distress and personal trial of knowing that you have the weakness of impatience? Success in virtue is not the point. Love—love of the sisters in their weakness and love of yourself in your inadequacy—that, Thérèse was trying to say, is the point." Joseph F. Schmidt, Walking the Little Way of Thérèse of Lisieux: Discovering the Path of Love, 2012.

God is undefeated even by our most grievous sin. The Sovereign God is never more sovereign than in the work of mercy and salvation. It is those who know they have most signally erred and strayed from his ways, who, within the blessed arena of salvation, feel most gently the warmth of his shepherding arms around them. They know for sure to be the lambs of his flock.

"(Christ) is watching for you. ...he cannot reject you. That would be to alter his whole character and un-Christ himself. To spurn a coming sinner would un-Jesus him and make him to be somebody else and not himself any longer." C.H. Spurgeon.

Most students of Isaiah agree that ch. 40–55 were written to the Judeans exiled to Babylon after the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C. Some, doubting that Isaiah could have written this ~150 years in advance, think that an anonymous prophet, a devotee of Isaiah, wrote it about 550 B.C. The book makes no reference to this. It seems to want its readers to believe that it is all the work of Isaiah. What might be God's possible reasons for inspiring Isaiah to do this?

  • Chs.1-39 emphasizes Trust: the Basis of Servanthood. (Context: The Assyrian invasion; Years: 735 to 701 B.C.)
  • Chs. 40–55 reveals Grace: Motive and Means for Servanthood, for trusting God. (Context: The Babylonian exile; Year: 586 B.C. when Babylon conquered Judah and Jerusalem and began her exile to Babylon.)
    • Ch. 40 is the intro.
    • Ch. 41–48 is part A, Motive.
    • Ch. 49– 55 is part B, Means.

Isaiah 40 answers the question, "Who is your God?" God is:

  1. The God of Comfort (1-11).
  2. The Incomparable God (12-26).
  3. The God Who Makes Man Fly (27-31).

40:1-11 are often referred to as the "prologue" to "Second Isaiah." No longer is the prophetic message to be primarily one of judgment (in contrast to ch.1-39), for it has been quenched in the fires of the Exile (Isa 40:2). Now the message is to be one of hope. Although the people have withered and fallen like dried grass (Isa 40:6-7), God's word as spoken by his prophet will not fail (Isa 40:8). Just as God has said judgment would come, and it had, so he now says restoration will come, and it will. No sooner has Isaiah pronounced judgment on Hezekiah's sin (Isa 39:6-7), he is directed to organize messengers of comfort. At this darkest of moments with doom been pronounced on Hezekiah, the call goes out:

  1. To speak the word of comfort (Isa 40:1).
  2. To proclaim hardship finished and sins forgiven (Isa 40:2).
  3. To announce that Yahweh himself is on his way with worldwide significance (Isa 40:3-5).
  4. To declare that his word and promises can never fail (Isa 40:6-8).
  5. To affirm that Zion's people are the flock he has worked for and now holds in his tender care (Isa 40:9-11)

40:1-2 provide an introduction and set the tone for the following three 3-verse stanzas (3-5, 6-8, 9-11). The idea of "comfort" (1) is to "encourage" as is "speak tenderly" (2). Isaiah sees a day when his people will be crushed to the ground under the burden of their sins. They will feel sure that all is lost and that all the promises have been nullified by their rebellion. But the message to be proclaimed to them is that this is not so. The Exile is not to destroy them but only to punish them. Now that punishment is complete ("double"), God has a word of hope for them.

  • 1-2 Introduction. God desires to comfort his people. Your hardship is over. Your sins are forgiven.
  • 3-5 First voice: God is coming. God will reveal himself. The whole world will know. Be prepared. Prepare yourself.
  • 5-8 Second voice: God’s word is sure. His promises never fail.
  • 9-11 Third voice: God's arm reigns; He shepherds gently. He holds us close to his heart.

God is coming (40:3-5). In the first stanza, some of the language of ch.35 is resumed. There is a "highway" in the desert/wilderness. But in this case the highway is for "our God." As in 52:7 and 63:1, it is God who comes to helpless Zion to set her free. Nothing can prevent his swift coming to his people's aid, neither mountains nor valleys. The highway will be level and straight, so that God can come quickly. If there is to be deliverance for God's people, it must come from God's direct intervention. There is no other hope.

God's word is sure (40:6-8). The second stanza has a twofold implication. Judean flesh is like grass. They have been consumed by their sins and there is no permanence in them at all, nor is there anything they can do to help themselves. But Babylonian flesh is also like grass. If the Judeans are to be delivered from Exile, God will have to do it. If God does decide to do it, there is nothing the Babylonians can do to prevent it. There is no permanence in anything human. If God speaks a promise, that "word" will stand, and nothing on earth can alter it (Isa 40:8).

God's arm reigns (40:9-11). The third and final stanza commands that a messenger not only proclaims "good news to Zion" but also shouts it from a high mountain (Isa 40:9). Zion is not merely a recipient of God's grace but also a messenger of that grace to the surrounding world. What is the good news he is to shout? As stated later in Isa 52:7--"Your God reigns!"--it the intervention of God in the world. The Creator "comes" (Isa 40:10) and breaks into his world, both to break the power of evil with his "mighty arm" (Isa 40:10) and "like a shepherd," to gather up the broken in his gentle "arms" (Isa 40:11).

Reference: Oswalt, John N. Isaiah: The NIV Application Commentary. 2003.

Questions:

  1. (40:1–5) What attitude requires encouragement? Why would the exiles be experiencing this emotion? What might some of the questions the exiles would be asking? What encouragement does the prophet offer here? How would these be encouraging? [Comfort" is not a good translation. The idea is to encourage, strengthen.]
  2. Compare 40:3 to Mark 1:1–3. In that light, to what are 40:3–5 referring? How does that event fulfill these promises? Compare also to the promise of 7:14. What do these verses say about Yahweh's desire to deliver?
  3. (40:6–11) If the goal here is encouragement, how could 40:6–8 be understood as encouragement? Compare the final clause of 40:5 with the final clause of 40:8. What is the point of this repetition?

  4. Jerusalem (Zion) and the cities of Judah (9) have been destroyed. How can they be the heralds of deliverance? And to whom are they speaking? What is the good news Jerusalem is to declare (10–11)? What are the two different uses of "arm," and how do they relate to the message of good news?

  5. (40:12–26) What is the expected answer to the rhetorical questions in 12–14? What is the point? [In the myths the gods were always taking counsel with one another to decide what to do (40:13–14).] Relate 40:15–17 to the points made in chs. 13–23.

  6. What is the point of 40:18–20 (46:1–7)? Of 40:21–24? Who is Yahweh being compared to here? How is he different?

  7. Who is Yahweh being compared to in 40:25–26. [In paganism the stars are considered to be the visible representation of the gods. "The Host of Heaven" is an expression for "the gods."] What do 40:12–26 say about Yahweh's ability to deliver?

  8. (40:27–31) Relate these verses to the theme of trust. What do these verses say about Yahweh's intent to deliver?

Notes and questions adapted from John Oswalt.

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