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Bible Commentaries

Whedon's Commentary on the Bible

Isaiah 40



We enter now upon the division of Isaiah’s prophecies usually called his Later Prophecies, about which many questions have arisen the chief ones being whether Isaiah or some later though unknown prophet was the author, and whether this collection was written and delivered in Isaiah’s last days, or in or near the time of the Babylonian exile. In both questions the former alternative is, in these comments, deemed the true one, while it is admitted that much honest criticism assumes the latter as true, and not the first solely on critical grounds. These grounds will receive more or less attention in the course of the following comments: but we notice here chiefly the affirmative side of the question, namely, that they constitute the last memorials of Isaiah’s teaching; a section by itself, written in his last years, when, saddened, possibly at the failure of Hezekiah’s best efforts at reform, and seeing the nation, despite all effort to the contrary, sinking at the opening reign of the child Manasseh into a hopeless idolatry, he turned aside from the sickening sight of human sacrifices offered to devils, and wholly gave, as often before he had partially given, himself up to the view of the glorious times of a certainly coming Messiah.

It is certain that in the New Testament throughout, Isaiah is accounted the author of this section of these prophecies. The writers of the Gospels are witnesses to this fact: see John the Baptist’s witness referring to Isaiah 40:3, as given Matthew 3:3, and our Lord’s testimony, referring to Isaiah 42:1-5, at Matthew 12:18-24. St. Luke, in his Gospel, records the opening of our Lord’s ministry in the synagogue at Nazareth, (Luke 4:18,) when he says, referring to Isaiah 61:1-4, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” etc. Again, John bears his witness, when, in John 12:37-41, he quotes Isaiah’s language, (liii, 1, etc.,) when he says, “Who hath believed our report,” etc. It is said of Philip the evangelist, (Acts 8:26,) that he finds the Ethiopian eunuch reading “Esaias the prophet,” at Isaiah 53:7-8, when the eunuch asks, “Of whom is the prophet speaking?” etc. St. Paul, also, refers (Romans 10:15) to Isaiah as author of these chapters. Isaiah 10:16; Isaiah 61:1-2, are pointedly ascribed by Paul to this prophet to confirm a great doctrine of Christianity.

Before Isaiah’s authorship of these chapters can be impugned, the testimony of the Gospels, the Acts, and the Epistles must also be impugned, together with Isaiah 40-66. Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Philip the Evangelist, the angel of the Lord to Philip, and St. Paul, nay, our Lord himself, and the Holy Ghost, are liable to the charge of having made mistakes together, for they all bear witness in respect to the genuineness of these chapters as Isaiah’s own writings.

Such, too, is the witness of Jesus, the son of Sirach, the writer of the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus, and of Josephus, in his Jewish Antiquities, xi, Isaiah 1:1-2.

The modern hypothesis, that Isaiah 40-66 was written by some unknown, nameless prophet, near the close of the exile in Babylon, is discountenanced by external and internal evidence, positive and negative, and especially by the absence of features which such an origin requires. The prophet or author is wanting; he is called the Great Unknown; the hypothesis furnishes no name or title to this body of prophecies; the date and place of writing is lacking as well as the name or title; the prophetic call or commission is wanting; contemporary persons and names are wanting; the prophetic structure is also wholly absent. Later date is also disproved by the strong assertions of divine foreknowledge respecting the victories of Cyrus, chapters 41, 42, 43. The transfer of these predictions to the days of Cyrus himself robs them of their force and plain meaning.

The structure of this body of prophecies is very like to that of the earlier prophecies, and so hints to nothing else than real unity of authorship. Birks. This unity is further shown by most fitting consolations of the later to the discouragements of the earlier prophecies. The latter abundantly offsets brilliant promise to revive the hope lost from failures so numerous to be seen in the former. Nevertheless, it may be seen that in the close of the former prophecies hope did not entirely die out. The last six historical chapters of the former series have this closing: “Then said Hezekiah to Isaiah, Good is the word of the Lord which thou hast spoken. He said, moreover, for there shall be peace and truth in my days.” Isaiah 39:8. Hezekiah, the reformer king, it seems, did not leave the world wholly dispirited. But Isaiah, at his death, retired from all further civil struggle, and in the spirit of the glorious hope still lingering with the unsuccessful and dying Hezekiah, he beautifully and fitly matches this new series of glorious Messianic compositions with the shrill, swan-like, dying cry of the old. More strikingly may this matching of the two series be seen if we regard as properly we can the last six chapters of the first as interpolated history, and the real close of the first series to occur at the thirty-fifth chapter. There the point of connexion with the later series is marvellously appropriate. Observe instances as follows of striking correspondence. Chapter 35, with chapters 41-45, and Isaiah 42:6-7; Isaiah 42:16; Isaiah 35:5-6 with Isaiah 43:19-20; Isaiah 35:8 with Isaiah 42:16, and Isaiah 43:19; Isaiah 35:10 with Isaiah 51:11, etc. Almost indefinitely may others be added. Not the thirty-fifth chapter alone, but every Messianic passage in the former series of prophecy finds its correspondent Messianic sentiment in the later.

Nothing supernatural is allowed in prophecy by the negative critics: and for this reason the thirty-fifth chapter, alike with chapters xl-lxvi, is by them rejected, as Isaiah’s inspired foresight or prediction of the far future, is with them utterly discounted. They have no spiritual level higher than the merest earthly sight or seeing. Their criticism is on this plane. Isaiah, as author, is mutilated and in large part rejected on this account. But the canon by which they work non-supernaturalism is no rule of judgment for believers in supernaturalism; hence little or no authority and respect can be accorded to results reached simply on that inferior plane. Criticism on other grounds, if not over tortured, may and always will command respect, because criticism, unless aiming at the overthrow of things fundamental, is entitled to a large and free field for the extension of certain knowledge in the earth.


In bodies of prophecy some consideration of structure is advisable. All schemes are to some necessary degree artificial; yet it is clear that a ruling idea, or plan of arrangement, must have been prelaid, or else have grown in the progress of the writing of the following compositions of prophecy.

It is suitable to adopt here that scheme of structure which is presumably the most simple and nearest to correctness. The scheme of Birks, modified from Delitzsch, is chosen.

FIRST SECTION, chaps. 40-48.


1 . Comfort to Zion, chap. 40.

First Trilogy.

2 . Controversy with Heathen, Isaiah 41:1 to Isaiah 42:16.

3 . Controversy with Israel, Isaiah 42:17 to Isaiah 44:5.

4 . Cyrus and Immanuel, Isaiah 44:6-28.

Second Trilogy.

5 . Woe on Idols, chap. 46.

6 . Sentence on Babylon, ch. 47.

7 . Rebuke and Warning of Israel, chap. 48.

SECOND SECTION, chaps. 49-60.

First Trilogy.

1. Messiah’s Voice to the Heathen, chap. 49.

2. Messiah’s Voice to Israel, Isaiah 50:1 to Isaiah 52:10.

3. Messiah and the Gospel, Isaiah 52:11-15.

Second Trilogy.

4 . Woe on Idolaters, ch. 56, 57.

5 . Sentence on Formalism, chap. 58.

6 . Rebuke and Promise to Israel, chap. 59.


7 . Zion’s Final Glory, chap. 60. THIRD SECTION, chaps. 61-66.

I. MESSIAH’S WORK OF MERCY AND JUDGMENT, chaps. Isaiah 61:1 to Isaiah 63:6.

1 . Messiah’s Ministry on Earth, chapter 61.

2 . His Heavenly Intercession, chap. 62.

3 . His Work of Judgment and Redemption, Isaiah 63:1-6.

II. THE LAST CONTROVERSY WITH ISRAEL, Isaiah 63:1 to Isaiah 65:25.

1 . Review of God’s Past Mercies, Isaiah 63:7-19.

2 . Israel’s Confession and Prayer in Last Days. chap. 64.

3 . Messiah’s Answer of Reproof and Blessing, chap. 65.


Section First. CHAPS. 40-48.



In the preceding chapter, Isaiah 40:6, is a specific prediction of the breaking up of the Jewish nation and of its exile in Babylon; and this prediction, with fairest reasons, is regarded as the text or main theme of the prophecy that follows a prophecy of promise and consolation.

Verse 1

1. Comfort ye This chapter proleptically opens the scene, as it was laid in Babylon during the exile, of God’s coming deliverance to his people. The interminable ring of “a remnant shall be saved,” still sounds loud and clear. The voice is to the prophet and his partners and successors, “Comfort ye.” The charge to “comfort” is re-doubled, denoting no cessation, no letting up, of this duty, for God is in earnest, and his promise means continuance of consolation till the exile is over.

My people The humble remnant, who are to be purified wholly of every idolatrous taint, and who shall be worthy of complete deliverance.

Your God Emphatic of “your;” because the humbled people are, and shall be accounted worthy to be, his a people to whom he twice commands to announce a perpetual consolation.

Verse 2

2. Speak… comfortably That is, carry the message in the tenderest way to the very heart. This is a thrice-told charge, rendering the meaning still more intense.

Jerusalem Another name for God’s beloved Zion or people. Wherever they are the prophet is to give them cheer. Officially sent of God, he has declared that her warfare ( צבא , tsaba,) or the allotted time of her captivity is accomplished. Here it is service and hardship implied in exile, of which God’s people have a double suffering, and for which there shall be provided twofold comfort in the form of pardon.

Delitzsch calls their trouble “that unsheltered bivouac, as it were, of the people who had been transported into a foreign land, and were living there in bondage, restlessness, and insecurity.” See Job 7:5; Job 14:14; and Daniel 10:1.

No doubt there is a Messianic idea underneath here that of a gloriously better day at hand; and if allusion is also made, as some think, to a past ritualistic hard life in the word “warfare,” above, then the deliverance by Messiah is the freedom of the Gospel, which thought in the prophet’s mind underlies the Babylonian deliverance.

These verses (one and two) open up the subject of the prophecies which now follow to the end of the book, and the two verses are the key words to them all.

Verses 3-5

3-5. The voice of him that crieth Rather, A voice crieth, though the Septuagint and the Vulgate translate as in our version. It is rhetorically suitable to read, “Hark! a crier.” So Delitzsch. Who is the crier is not given; nor is it important. More important is what follows.

In the wilderness Not unlikely the allusion here is, as if to a voice across the desert five hundred miles from Babylon toward Jerusalem. The scene is dramatic: Jehovah heads a column of exiles returning to Zion, as he did of old when, across from Egypt to Canaan, he conducted Israel. Both are sub-type and type of John the Baptist heralding the great coming One at a stage which completed the then pending preparatory dispensation.

Prepare ye the way The meaning, spiritually applied, is clear. “Prepare the roadway (of a custom immemorially far back is this an oriental picture) for the coming retinue of redeemed believers; remove rocks, level up gorges, excavate hills, and straighten crooked courses; Jehovah’s glory of victorious leading shall be seen by all.” Of this the last of Isaiah 40:5 is the solemn voucher. For reference of this scene to John the Baptist, see Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:1, and Luke 3:4-6. See also remarks at pages 169, 170, showing Isaiah’s authorship of this chapter.

Verses 6-8

6-8. Cry Isaiah again hears a voice crying. Not the same voice. That was the herald’s cry. This one belongs to another subject.

He said ואמר , v’amar, is the true pointing of the text, according to the best authorities, though Lowth, Noyes, the Septuagint, the Vulgate, and a few Hebrew manuscripts read, And I said, and this apparently helps the sense of what follows. But it is, too, apparent, on the other hand, that it is the prophet who is here hearing, and the voice seems to be that of God, or of an ideal person in behalf of God, to the prophet, because when the latter asks, What shall I cry? the answer is such as to exalt the divine Word above all that is conceivable of man. The answer is, therefore, the theme of the entire passage. He is commanded to proclaim the perishable nature of man and of all flesh, and the imperishable nature of the word of God. Why such a proclamation? Possibly for preparing the way in men’s minds to see the absolute nothingness of idols (as shown in chapters following) when compared with the infinite exaltation of the almighty God. But more probably, and more directly, to assure the confidence of men in the reliability of God’s word of promise that Zion, or the believing ones in exile, shall surely have the deliverance promised.

The grass withereth, the flower fadeth Grass is “all flesh,” or man in the abstract. Then these predicates of man show him in infinite contrast with God. Man is impotent, limited, perishing: the blast of God’s breath upon man is his destruction. Whatever such an infinite One says, therefore, can never fail. His promise of consolation and comfort is sure. This is clearly the sense to Isaiah 40:9. See Psalms 10:15; Isaiah 1:10-11; 1 Peter 1:24-25.

Verse 9

9. O Zion The English Version makes Zion the announcer of the message; in the margin, (backed by nearly all commentators,) Zion is the receiver of it. So the order is in the Hebrew, and so in the Septuagint.

That bringest Rather, thou that receivest.

Good tidings To Zion, to Jerusalem. The one speaking is the “voice,” perhaps in the person of the prophet hitherto proclaiming comfort to exiled ones, now uttering good news to a voice from the high mountain an ideal elevation between Babylon and Jerusalem.

Lift up… with strength Fearlessly ring out the words.

Behold… God Speak to the people to be returned to their native land and native cities in Judah: speak with bold, confident strength of voice: speak with full knowledge of the case “Behold your God!” Why so speak? Because this watchful, mighty God of Israel does at last restore his remnant people back to Jerusalem. This, indeed: but more than this. Merely for this result the language is too strong. Superadded is the idea of the coming One, the Messiah, whose power to save meek and submissive ones shall be to the end of days! No doubt the outlook takes in unlimited ages. This typical restoration involves victories unnumbered till error and sin are put away, and holiness and truth are forever established; else the terms here used seem strained and extravagant.

Verses 10-11

10, 11. Behold Serious attention is again challenged. Amplification of last words in preceding verse.

With strong hand The Lord is coming “against the strong,” (see margin;) soon his great power shall appear “hand” is evidently implied, and is in itself the symbol of power: “strong hand” is extra power. “Behold” him and trust in him. He is, as it were, commended here as a trustful and safe leader to his returning people; as himself the Almighty Strongest One, and will show himself to be such. Adversaries, earthly or spiritual, shall not stand before him.

His reward “Reward,” taken in a good sense, is freely to be bestowed on his purified ones returning from exile.

His work Taken in an evil sense, “his work” is to be exercised in the way of punishing those who antagonize him. Though absolutely strong, and a powerful ruler, he is gentle as a tender shepherd to the weak and dependent of the flock which he is to conduct across the arid wastes to Jerusalem and Zion.

Lambs Children.

With young Tender women soon to be mothers, or who have lately become such. How beautiful the image!

The theory respecting the turn which the thought now takes (Isaiah 40:12-26) is that of Nagelsbach, and it is one most easy to approve. It is this: “The exceedingly comforting introduction, (Isaiah 40:1-11,) does not at once cheer up Israel. Doubts arise. Is the Lord in earnest when he promises? and, Can he do it? Shall He that did not uphold us when we stood, lift us up again when we have fallen?” The thought is, God’s infinite incomparableness with any other being possible to conceive of; and hence his infinite ability and willingness to do what he promises leave no ground for doubt.

Verses 12-14

12-14. In the presence and hearing of the Jewish people, the prophet asks,

Who hath measured… meted… comprehended The verbs are in the past tense, and the last is better rendered as here written (comprehended) because it, on the whole, expresses not what is physical, as do the other terms employed, but what is spiritual or mental.

Who hath directed To the question respecting God’s omnipotence, is one added respecting his omniscience: who, besides himself, can regulate the movements of His will, intellect, boundless power, and matchless wisdom? This general idea runs on, showing God’s infinite sufficiency in himself, and how vain human assumptions of being in possible communication with God as his counsellor. This thought is referred to by Paul, ( Rom 11:34 ; 1 Corinthians 2:16,) to show in both cases, as here, the inconceivable absurdity of attempting comparison of man with God.

Verse 15

15. The nations are as a drop So far the omnipotence and omniscience of God: now his exaltation as governor of the universe. Necessarily, all expressions of God’s natural attributes are anthropomorphic, after the limited human way of speaking; and, whatever metaphysicians may say, or attempt to say, Isaiah, the greatest of the prophets intellectually, never attempts to get beyond this. The thought here is, that the great nations of earth are no more a burden resting upon the King of the world than a drop hanging from a bucket is a burden to the man carrying it no more than the weight in the balances is perceptibly increased by the smallest sand atom that lies upon it.

Isles Or fragments of the solid continent on which the heathen world is scattered, are to Him who carries the universe like the smallest dust rising in the air. Delitzch.

Verse 16

16. Lebanon is not sufficient To express adequate adoration of such a Being, all the “cedars of Lebanon” the most massive timber to be found in that land are not “sufficient” for the sacrifices that should be offered. Nor are there animals enough for such sacrifices.

Verse 17

17. All nations… are as nothing The thought of Isaiah 40:15 is resumed. In weighing comparisons of such a Being all nations of the earth “are as nothing.”

Verses 18-19

18, 19. To whom… will ye liken God The conclusion is, the impossibility of adequately conceiving Jehovah’s greatness and exaltation. Likeness of him to any thing is beyond any human conception. Hence image representation is a thing in the highest degree absurd. An image! an image of metal! (not wooden as yet, and so cut and carved, as the idea is in English!) the smith casts it; the melter plates it with gold, and forms silver chains for it a process picture, with the describer as spectator; this thing to be a likeness of the incomprehensible God! So much for the metal image.

Verse 20

20. Chooseth a tree Now for the wooden idol, and the most cunning workman sought for graver! See Isaiah 44:14.

Verse 21

21. Such absurdities fit only for the sharpest sarcasm.

Have ye not known… heard… from the beginning? Addressed to those still inclined, among the doubters, to idolatry, and equivalent to saying to them, “Ye know better, and why are you guilty of such consummate folly?” Of the four verbs of this verse, the first two are, in the Hebrew, future, the second two in the past tense. The former imply what is possible, the latter what is fact. Have ye not known and heard, what has always been possible to know from reason and conscience, (Romans 1:19-20; Romans 2:13,) that only the infinite God can create worlds? “From the beginning” this has been set before the eyes of all men.

Verse 22

22. He that sitteth This verse contains the fact that should have been known by all men. It is He alone that is enthroned above the vault of the earth, etc. In the old cosmogony of the Hebrews, the heaven was a circular arch which rested on the waters that surrounded the flat, round (not globular) earth.

Are as grasshoppers The comparison is, as the weak locust is to man, so is weak man to God.

As a curtain In Eastern houses the court is sometimes sheltered from heat by a veil of tent cloth, which may be folded and unfolded at pleasure by means of ropes from one side of the parapet wall to the other, and the image is thus furnished of God’s spreading out the veil of the heavens.

Verses 23-24

23, 24. Princes… judges… vanity Other predicates are here added respecting God, the ruler of the universe. He annihilates the potentates and judges of the earth when they displease him. In various ways hevisits them. They are scarcely planted, (to use the figure of the verse,) scarcely sown, etc., ere the hot eastern blast withers them, and carries them away. The meaning is plain, though the figure is mixed.

Verses 25-26

25, 26. To whom… shall I be equal As compared with miserable idols? The prophet calls for answer. To whom, of all they know, will they now compare the great Jehovah?

Saith the Holy One A new epithet, perhaps a new attribute, occurs here. Holiness also exalts Jehovah. Job 15:18. He bids them look into starry space, and challenges creator-ship above his own. There is no reply to that challenge from idol worshippers. No one who, besides creating, can know, command, and dispose of all things, is able to be brought forth as competitor with Jehovah. And this Almighty One is likewise the Holy One, the Holy One of Israel. Inference: Let no half-doubter, then, among exiles in Babylon, fear the ability and willingness of such a God to convey and restore his people to Zion.

Verse 27

27. Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel? Amid such proofs, as above, of the infinite incomparableness of Jehovah, the promiser and comforter, what ground for saying, My way is hid from the Lord? To the exiles, long brooding over their afflictions, temptation to fear and doubt was a most easy matter. The long hidings of God’s face from them led to assurances and re-assurances through the prophet that Jehovah had not forgotten to be again gracious.

Verse 28

28. Hast thou not known The words here go on with the same reassuring intent. After the first pair of questions of Isaiah 40:21, the affirmation is: This eternal, all-perfect God does not tire of the humble supplicant’s appeal.

Fainteth not To search the depths of his wisdom baffles all effort, but proof is found therein of goodness that fails not.

Verse 29

29. He giveth power So far from becoming faint himself, as the God of power and wisdom he giveth strength to the fainthearted always.

Verses 30-31

30, 31. Youths shall faint Young men chosen for war or other hard service, even, lose all their vigour. But they that wait upon (or for) the Lord, however weak physically.

Shall renew… strength Become spiritually strong. Their waiting has the sense of expecting.

In general, the Old Testament gives not the full glory to come, but Isaiah has here caught the view. Starting from the exile condition and deliverance from it through trustful waiting, expecting, he sees spiritual victories under Messiah. Souls rise by faith, like eagles by their pinions. The imagery here is strikingly correspondent to Christian experiences.

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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Isaiah 40". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". 1874-1909.