Consider helping today!
IV. ISRAEL’S CALLING IN THE WORLD CHS. 40-55
This part of Isaiah picks up a theme from chapters 1-39 and develops it further. That theme is God’s faithfulness to His promises to give His people a glorious future after He disciplined them for their unfaithfulness. The Lord did not have to make these promises, but He did so in grace. Israel would have a glorious future, not because of, but in spite of, herself.
"The second half of the Book of Isaiah, consisting of the last twenty-seven chapters, is the sublimest and richest portion of Old Testament revelation. It forms a single continuous prophecy which occupies the same position in the prophetic Scriptures as the Book of Deuteronomy in the Pentateuch, and the Gospel of John in relation to the Synoptic Gospels." [Note: Baron, p. 5.]
"Isaiah’s rhetorical approach in chapters 40-66 may be compared to an aging grandfather who writes a letter to his baby granddaughter and seals it with the words, ’To be opened on your wedding day.’ The grandfather knows he may not live to see his granddaughter’s wedding, but he understands the challenges she will face as a wife and mother. He projects himself into the future and speaks to his granddaughter as if he were actually present on her wedding day. One can imagine the profound rhetorical impact such a letter would have on the granddaughter as she recognizes the foresight and wisdom contained within it and realizes just how much her grandfather cared for her. When God’s exiled people, living more than 150 years after Isaiah’s time, heard his message to them, they should have realized that God had foreseen their circumstances and that he cared enough about them to encourage them with a message of renewed hope." [Note: Chisholm, Handbook on . . ., p. 14.]
Isaiah’s audience was not in Babylonian captivity when he wrote these chapters. He was prophesying about the people of God in that captivity. Chapters 40-66 presuppose the Exile.
"When one turns from the thirty-ninth to the fortieth chapter it is as though he steps out of the darkness of judgment into the light of salvation." [Note: Young, 3:17.]
"Whereas the first portion of the book (chaps. 1-39) is filled with messages of judgment, this portion emphasizes restoration and deliverance." [Note: J. Martin, p. 1091.]
|Isaiah 1-39||Isaiah 40-66|
|The focus is on Assyria.||The focus is on Babylon.|
|The primary theme is judgment.||The primary theme is deliverance.|
|Historical details are present.||Historical details are absent.|
|Messiah is the "shoot from Jesse."||Messiah is the "Servant of the Lord."|
|The life of Isaiah is prominent.||The life of Isaiah is absent. [Note: Adapted from Dyer, in The Old . . ., p. 561.]|
Some students of Isaiah have seen an emphasis on each of the members of the Trinity in the three sections of this part of the book: the Father in chapters 40-48, the Son in 49-57, and the Spirit in 58-66. [Note: E.g., Kaiser, pp. 213-19; and Wiersbe, p. 12.]
A. God’s grace to Israel chs. 40-48
These chapters particularly address the questions, raised in the minds of Isaiah’s contemporaries, about the coming exile: Could God deliver-and would God deliver the Israelites?
"We emerge in Isaiah 40:1 in a different world from Hezekiah’s, immersed in the situation foretold in Isaiah 39:5-8, which he was so thankful to escape. Nothing is said of the intervening century and a half; we wake, so to speak, on the far side of the disaster, impatient for the end of captivity. In chs. 40-48 liberation is in the air; there is the persistent promise of a new exodus, with God at its head; there is the approach of a conqueror, eventually disclosed as Cyrus, to break Babylon open; there is also a new theme unfolding, to reveal the glory of the call to be a servant and a light to the nations." [Note: F. Derek Kidner, "Isaiah," in The New Bible Commentary Revised, p. 611.]
"In these chapters the prophet reminded the people of their coming deliverance because of the Lord’s greatness and their unique relationship with Him. He is majestic (chap. 40), and He protects Israel and not the world’s pagan nations (chap. 41). Though Israel had been unworthy (chap. 42) the Lord had promised to regather her (Isaiah 43:1 to Isaiah 44:5). Because He, the only God (Isaiah 44:6 to Isaiah 45:25), was superior to Babylon He would make Babylon fall (chaps. 46-47). Therefore Isaiah exhorted the Israelites to live righteously and to flee away from Babylon (chap. 48)." [Note: J. Martin, p. 1091.]
1. The Lord of the servant ch. 40
Would the coming Babylonian exile prove that God could not deliver His people or that He would not because they had been so sinful? Isaiah’s answer was a resounding no! The new historical situation did not signal a change in God or His plans. Rather it would show even more clearly than ever that God is sovereign and that people can trust in Him to deliver.
This chapter is an introduction to the remainder of the book, in that it deals with the basic issues and sets the stage for what follows. It also serves as a bridge carrying over such themes as comfort (ch. 12), the highway (chs. 11; 19; 33; 35), and hope (ch. 6). Also, the revealed Word of God is prominent again as the source of hope for God’s people. Chapter 40 also contains an expansion of Isaiah’s call (ch. 6; cf. Isaiah 40:1-11 and Isaiah 6:1-13; Isaiah 40:3 and Isaiah 6:3; Isaiah 40:5 and Isaiah 6:3; Isaiah 40:6 and Isaiah 6:4; Isaiah 40:9 and Isaiah 6:11).
"The occasion of God’s renewing comfort is our failure. It’s as if Isaiah had fallen asleep at the end of chapter 39. While he slept, Judah was taken into exile. And it’s as if, in a prophetic dream, Isaiah was lifted into God’s heavenly court to hear Judah’s predicament being discussed (cf. 1 Kings 22:19-23). But now in chapter 40, Rip Van Winkle-like, Isaiah wakes up in (to him) a new historical situation. He reveals to the Jews what he heard in the heavenly throne room. God has summoned his prophets to take a message of hope to his demoralized people." [Note: Ortlund, p. 235.]
As chapter 1 began with a command (Isaiah 1:2), so does this second major part of Isaiah’s prophecy. In both places the Word of God is prominent, and in both places Israel is God’s people (Isaiah 1:3).
The God of Israel commanded His mouthpieces, especially Isaiah, to comfort His covenant people. Forms of the Hebrew word translated "comfort" appear 13 times in chapters 40-66. One writer believed the comforters were the Jewish exiles in Mesopotamia who called out to the city of Jerusalem (v. 2): announcing its revival, rebuilding, and rehabilitation, following the exile. He saw chapters 40-55 predicting the Jews’ return to Judah from Babylon following the exile, not an eschatological return from all over the earth. [Note: Watts, Isaiah 34-66, p. 80.]
This is the language of covenant (Isaiah 37:35; cf. Exodus 6:7; 2 Samuel 10:2; Jeremiah 16:7). We may imagine a heavenly court scene in which God issued this command (cf. 1 Kings 22:19). The double imperative "Comfort" suggests emotional intensity. "Keeps saying" is a better translation than "says" and stresses the importance of this message.
God’s intention for Israel 40:1-2
The first strophe of this poem (Isaiah 40:1-2) sets the tone for the rest of the chapter and for the rest of the book. It is an introduction to an introduction (cf. ch. 1). In spite of affliction that lay ahead for the Judahites, God’s ultimate purpose for them was life, not death-and salvation, not enslavement.
The comforting Lord 40:1-11
This first section of encouraging revelation stresses the comfort that God has planned for His people Israel. We can break it down into three strophes (sections).
Jerusalem, the personification of God’s people, the Israelites, needed persuading to respond to the Lord’s love for her. Her lover had not cast her off. Judah’s period of educational discipline involving duress (the Babylonian Captivity) was over. Punishment for her iniquity (by the sacrifice of the Lord’s servant) had been accepted as satisfactory.
"Here is the first intimation of the truth to be more fully revealed in the fifty-third chapter of the book." [Note: Young, 3:23.]
Indeed, Israel had received a double pardon, by God’s grace (cf. Isaiah 61:7). She had also suffered a double penalty for her sins (cf. Isaiah 51:19). Paying back double may be an expression indicating proportionate payment, making the punishment equivalent to the crime. [Note: See The New Bible Dictionary, 1962 ed., s.v. "Archaeology," by D. J. Wiseman.] Perhaps both thoughts, double and proportionate, are in view here.
"Jerusalem had not suffered more than its sins had deserved; but the compassion of God regarded what His justice had been obliged to inflict upon Jerusalem as superabundant." [Note: Delitzsch, 2:140.]
This verse is programmatic for chapters 40-66 of Isaiah. Chapters 40-48 assure that Judah’s captivity in Babylon will end, that "her warfare has ended." Chapters 49-57 promise that God will provide a sacrifice for sin, that "her iniquity has been removed." And chapters 58-66 guarantee that Israel will receive her promised kingdom blessings, that "she has received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins." Throughout, deliverance is in view. [Note: Dyer, in The Old . . ., p. 562.]
". . . no one will ever reverence God but him who trusts that God is propitious toward him." [Note: John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 3.3.2 (1:594).]
Isaiah announced that someone was calling out to prepare a highway in the desert, because the Lord was coming to His people’s aid (cf. Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23; John 3:30). It was customary to construct processional avenues for approaching dignitaries and for idols carried in parade. The wilderness and desert represent the barren waste of Babylon where God’s people dwelt, complete with obstacles and impediments to overcome, and through which He would come to them with refreshment, as He did formerly at Mount Sinai. The idea is that He was certainly coming and His people should prepare for His appearing.
Divine intervention 40:3-5
Here begins explanation of how God could offer sinful people comfort. He would break into history (cf. Isaiah 52:7-10).
God would appear, acting for His people, and by that acting, manifest His glory to the whole world. All flesh would marvel at His liberating the Israelites and bringing them back into their land. Even more, everyone would stand amazed at His saving humankind through the coming of Messiah. Still more impressive would be the eschatological demonstration of His glory that would accompany Messiah’s return to the earth to rule. All these occasions of salvation are probably in view in this verse. This revelation was certain because it was an announcement from the mouth of Yahweh Almighty.
"Isaiah’s tendency to add some emphatic statement like ’for the mouth of the LORD has spoken’ (Isaiah 40:6; cf. Isaiah 9:7; Isaiah 37:32) anticipates Christ’s ’truly I say to you.’" [Note: Grogan, p. 242.]
The same voice continued to call out (cf. Isaiah 40:3). This time a messenger asked what to call, and the voice instructed him. He was to announce the brevity of human life, comparing it to the grass that quickly turns brown in Palestine and to the wildflowers that only last a few weeks (cf. 1 Peter 1:24). Israel’s oppressors were no stronger or more reliable than grass. Their loveliness (Heb. hesed, constancy) was ephemeral.
Human inability 40:6-8
The third stanza stresses the opposite of the second one, namely, the inability of humans to deliver themselves.
The breath (Heb. ruah, sometimes translated "Spirit") of the Lord not only brings life (cf. Genesis 1:2), but it also brings death to people, even His people, as well as to their enemies and to the grass and flowers. The Apostle James combined these figures into one: "flowering grass" (James 1:10). The hot winds that blew into Israel from the east quickly withered the grass, and the prophet likened this wind to God’s wilting judgments on humankind.
In contrast to this withering and wilting, the Word of Yahweh remains forever alive and fresh (cf. Isaiah 55:10-11). That is, what God says will stand regardless of time or tragedy (cf. Mark 13:31; 1 Peter 1:25; 2 Peter 3:8-10). God’s promise of hope could overcome the devastation of His judgment.
The voice now summoned the people of Israel, collectively identified with Zion and Jerusalem, to announce the coming of their God. They were to go up on a high mountain and speak loudly without fear, so everyone else would hear their message of good news (cf. Acts 1:8).
"The essence of the message is: ’Look, it’s God.’" [Note: John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40-66, p. 54.]
Worldwide blessing 40:9-11
God’s deliverance of His people was not just for their own blessing, however. It was to be for the blessing of the whole world.
The sovereign Yahweh was coming to exercise His strong rule (cf. Isaiah 53:1; Deuteronomy 4:34). He was bringing His "reward" and "recompense" (synonyms) with Him for His people (cf. Revelation 22:12). These are the fruits of His victory, which He will share with His people (cf. Isaiah 61:6; Isaiah 66:12).
However, He would rule like David, the shepherd-king. He will be very sensitive to the needs of His people as He rules over them. Intimate and loving care will mark His reign. The two different uses of God’s arm in this verse and the preceding one illustrate the two complementary sides of God’s activity. Chapters 1-39 feature His arm of judgment, and chapters 40-66 emphasize His arm of compassion and deliverance.
The opposites of waters and heavens, and dust and mountains, express the totality of God’s careful and effortless workmanship in creation. The question is rhetorical (cf. Job 38:41). No one but the Lord is the Creator. His omnipotence is in view.
The incomparable Creator 40:12-20
The incomparable Lord 40:12-26
The preceding section answered the question that the people of Isaiah’s day had about God’s desire to deliver them. Yes, He wanted to deliver them. This section answered their question about whether He could save them. Yes, He could save them. Isaiah used the doctrine of God to assure the Judahites of their security and of God’s faithfulness. He is the sole Creator, and He is infinitely greater than the created world. The passage has two parts (Isaiah 40:12-26), each introduced by several questions.
The questions in these verses call for the same response. God was not only alone in the work of creation, but He is alone in the wisdom needed to execute it (cf. Job 38:2 to Job 39:30).
"He who has measured the creation cannot be measured by the creation." [Note: Young, 3:44.]
"In Babylonian mythology, the creator god Marduk could not proceed with creation without consulting ’Ea, the all-wise’, but the Lord works with unaided wisdom. In both Babylonian and Canaanite creation stories the creator must overcome opposing forces before the way opens for the work of creation." [Note: Motyer, p. 303.]
The Spirit of the Lord was the executive of God in creation (cf. Genesis 1:2). It is very difficult to tell how much of the triune nature of the Godhead the ancient Israelites understood. In Jesus’ day (and in ours) Jews resisted the idea that God exists in three persons, as do Moslems today. It is the New Testament that clarifies the relationships of the persons within the Trinity. In Old Testament times, monotheism as opposed to polytheism was the distinctive belief of the Jews and the emphasis of the prophets. The issue for them was not how many persons compose the Godhead. So when they read references to "the spirit of the Lord," they did not think of a Person in the Godhead who was distinct from the Father and the Son, but of an aspect of God in a more general sense. Moslems also reject Trinitarianism.
We could interpret "Spirit" as the mind of the Lord (cf. Romans 11:34; 1 Corinthians 2:16). This is how the Septuagint translators rendered ruah here and in 1 Chronicles 28:12 and Ezekiel 20:32. It may refer to the volitional, effective, and cognitive aspects of God’s intelligence, in other words, His inner workings. God alone saw to the heart of things in creation and made the correct decisions at the proper time. No one advised Him in His creation or in His administration of the world. Now His omniscience is in view.
The product as well as the process of creation reflect on God’s immensity. He is larger than human collective strength, than the inanimate creation, than human worship, larger even than the totality of humankind. The creation is no challenge to the Creator. Now His sovereignty is in view.
The transcendent God (Heb. ’el) is incomparable; no one and nothing approaches Him in His greatness and glory.
How ridiculous, then, it is to practice idolatry (cf. Isaiah 41:6-7; Isaiah 44:9-20; Isaiah 46:5-7). Idols were likenesses of gods, but Yahweh is beyond compare. The value of an idol depended on the financial condition of the devotee. Idols are less impressive than the metals that people use to make them and less strong than the trees from which they fashion them. The best idols are immobile; they will not topple over (cf. 1 Samuel 5:2-5). But the living God is active in life, not just a product of the earth. Isaiah poured on the irony in these verses.
"Right now two idols dominate our world. One idol is enormous. The other is smaller but influential. The big idol is secularism. I mean not only naturalism as a technical philosophy but also a general outlook that makes man the measure of all things. . . . The other rival to God, the smaller idol, is alternative spiritualities. . . . Secularism and superstition-despite their obvious differences, they’re both allied against the God who loves rationalists and pagans and is inviting them into his glorious kingdom with open arms. The door stands open to both atheists and witches and everyone in between." [Note: Ortlund, p. 241.]
There are lessons that people should draw from the uniqueness of God as Creator that He has revealed. God has given both the objective revelation of Himself and the ability to understand its implications to human beings. The Israelites possessed this knowledge of God because He revealed it to them. Special revelation is in view here rather than natural revelation.
"According to this verse there are two reasons why men who practice idolatry are without excuse. On the one hand, the very foundation of the earth is a testimony that God is the Creator. On the other, from the beginning the truth has been taught by word of mouth, so that those who have not been willing to hear it are without excuse [cf. Romans 1]." [Note: Young, 3:56-57.]
The incomparable Sovereign 40:21-26
The prophet’s emphasis shifted from God as Creator to God as Ruler, but still the point is His incomparability.
The same God who created the world presides over its affairs. He creates history as well as the material universe. The "vault" or "circle" of the earth probably refers to the heavens above as people perceive them (cf. Job 22:14) or, perhaps, to the horizon (cf. Job 26:10; Proverbs 8:27). Isaiah was not revealing that the earth is round. God sits above them both. He is so great that people are as small as grasshoppers in comparison. The whole of the universe, the heavens and the earth, are as a tent to Him because He is so immense.
People of position and office, as well as the decision-makers of the world, may appear to wield power, but they are really under the enthroned God’s authority. He can dispose of any human leader because He is over all of them. He can dispense with them just as easily as He can make flowers wither and blow chaff away (cf. Isaiah 40:6-8). He can reduce them to a state of comparative nothingness (Heb. tohu; cf. Genesis 1:2). Thus He is not only superior but sovereign. Furthermore, He is imminent as well as transcendent. God did not just create the world and then abandon it, as deism teaches.
This verse restates the question in Isaiah 40:18, but puts it in the mouth of God this time. Not only is God infinitely superior to anyone else-in power, wisdom, dignity, sovereignty, and authority-but, far more significantly, in His holiness. He is unattainable and unassailable in His moral perfections; He is wholly other.
The stars were objects of worship and signs of divine activity in Babylonian and Canaanite worship (cf. 2 Kings 17:16; 2 Kings 21:3). But they were only creations. The pagan cults assigned them names, but the Lord summons and directs them using their real names, the names that He as their sovereign assigns them. In the ancient world, to know the name of something was to know its essence and so to have power over it. Innumerable as they may be to humans, the Lord knows and controls each one of the heavenly bodies.
"Isaiah has insisted on the absolute transcendence of God: he is not part of the cosmos in any way, and the cosmos is not part of him [in contrast to pantheism and panantheism]. But to carry that line to its logical conclusion as Aristotle did is to end with a passionless, colorless force as the source of everything. It is to say that personality is an accident in time. Isaiah will not go that way. He insists on transcendence, but leaves no doubt that the Transcendent is a person with all that that means. When all is said and done, the combination of these two may be Israel’s greatest contribution to human thought." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 70.]
"Why does the glory of God sit lightly on believers today? It may be the fault of those of us who are preachers. Is our constant message to the people, ’Behold your God’? Or have we changed the subject? We seem to have sunk to the level of quick-stop churches where God is expected to lubricate the vehicle of American selfishness." [Note: Ortlund, p. 242.]
|God’s Superiority to All Possible Opposition [Note: Dyer, in The Old . . ., pp. 563-64.]|
|His superiority to the nations is shown by His creation of the earth.||Isaiah 40:12-14||Isaiah 40:15-17|
|His superiority to idols is seen in the fact that they are created by craftsmen.||Isaiah 40:18||Isaiah 40:19-20|
|His superiority to the rulers of the earth is seen in the fact that He is transcendent while they are temporary.||Isaiah 40:21||Isaiah 40:22-24|
|His superiority over other "deities" is shown by His creation of the heavenly bodies.||Isaiah 40:25||Isaiah 40:26|
The Judahites kept saying: "How can God do this to us? He has forgotten us and no longer cares about us." They questioned God’s nature (He could not see them) and His dealings with them (He would not defend them).
Perhaps the double names "Jacob" and "Israel" are more than poetic synonyms. Isaiah may have been implying that the Judahites, God’s covenant people, were in a position as desperate in their own eyes as was Jacob, when he came to the end of himself, and God changed his name (Genesis 32:22-32). [Note: Motyer, p. 307.] This happened, they would remember, after his exile in Mesopotamia.
God is not too great to care. He is too great not to care (cf. Genesis 18:25).
The dependable Lord 40:27-31
Isaiah now applied this knowledge of God to the discouraging prospect that the Judahites faced, namely: Babylonian captivity (cf. Isaiah 39:6). Even though Isaiah spoke to the nation from the perspective of the captivity being past, he still addressed his pre-exilic contemporaries. He encouraged them by pointing to the sufficiency of their God. Since the Creator knows the name of everything in His complex creation, how could He, the God of Israel, possibly forget His covenant people? Since He is as powerful as He is, how could He be incapable of helping them?
The people needed to open their eyes and ears to what they already knew about their God (cf. Isaiah 40:21). He is eternal, not bound to the present, as we are. He is Yahweh, the covenant-keeping God. He is the Creator of all the earth, not restricted to only one locale at a time. He does not grow tired, because He is omnipotent. He is inscrutable, because He is omniscient. He is unlimited by time, space, power, and understanding.
"Their God is such (eternal, Creator, untiring) that they need never doubt his capacity; he is also such (possessing unfathomable wisdom) that they must never expect to understand all his ways." [Note: Ibid.]
"Everything that matters in life hangs on who God is." [Note: Ortlund, p. 252.]
God does not just possess all these qualities, but He shares His strength with those who need it. He has all energy, and He has energy to spare and to share. Whether we buckle under life’s pressures or lack innate strength, He provides durable, stable power (cf. 2 Corinthians 12:9).
Circumstances may overcome even the strongest young people in their prime, either through lack of inner resources or because of the hardness of life. Yet those who continually rest on, trust in, and wait for Yahweh will receive renewed and different-divine-strength. The Hebrew verb translated "gain" suggests an exchange of strength, our inadequate strength for His abundant strength.
"This expression ["those who wait for the Lord"] implies two things: complete dependence on God and a willingness to allow him to decide the terms." [Note: Oswalt, The Book . . . 40-66, p. 74]
". . . the Old Testament applies to faith a number of synonyms denoting trust, hope, and longing, and thus describes it according to its inmost nature, as fiducia and as hope, directed to the manifestation and completion of that which is hoped for." [Note: Delitzsch, 2:156.]
They who wait on the Lord will be able to overcome natural drawbacks, endure with energy to spare, and keep on living without becoming excessively tired.
"The threefold description forms a climax, not its opposite; for the exceptional flying and the occasional running do not require, as does the constant walking, an ever-flowing stream of grace." [Note: Grogan, p. 246.]
These files are public domain.
Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 40". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/
the Fifth Week after Easter