The latter half of the book of Isaiah, starting with chapter 40, was written for Jews in the exile, who lived in Babylon. This is very clear from passages like chapter 48, where the Jews are told to leave Babylon; there are no more threats of exile, only promises of return.
Before the exile, the nation of Israel was given its charter by the promises that God made:
- They would live in the land.
- They would be numerous (as many as the sands by the sea, or the stars in the sky).
- They would prosper economically (they would be blessed).
- Those who cursed them would be cursed.
- They would "rule over the gates of their enemies", i.e., they would be militarily dominant. A king from the line of David would rule over them.
- They, or especially their king, would be honored and have a great name, "like the great ones of the earth," i.e., like the greatest of the kings of the nations.
- They would be a blessing for all peoples. In fact, they would be the vehicle that brings God's intended blessing in creation to all the world.
- God would live with them. This was symbolized by the tabernacle and later the temple, the palace of the great king.
Every single thing God promised was systematically taken away in the exile. No visible sign of God's promises remained. They were no longer in the promised land. They were not numerous; only a few thousand Israelites were actually taken to Babylon, and we know from archaeology and from various passages in the Bible that the land of Israel was greatly depopulated at that time, so that much formerly cultivated land was left wild. Apparently most people died during the Babylonian invasions. There was certainly no evidence of curse on the Babylonians who had cursed and mocked them. The Israelites were not a great people; apart from some notable exceptions in the Babylonian court, they were mocked and looked down on (and there are numerous predictions of this in the pre-exilic prophets). There was no king. The city that God chose for his name lay in ruins.
Perhaps most importantly, God no longer lived with them. Ezekiel had the vision of the glory cloud departing from the temple; and anyway, it was obvious to anyone who looked at the ruins of Solomon's temple that there was no glory there any longer. God had left his people.
The people themselves were living in Babylon. Inside an impregnable wall that was fifty feet thick (as wide as a freeway in Los Angeles), enormous palaces and temples were everywhere. Even now these ruins are impressive; in their own day, before skyscrapers and modern earth moving equipment, they must have been awesome. Everything about this city was designed to impress with the glory of Babylon and its king and its gods. It looked like nothing could ever challenge Babylon and its gods.
It is not hard to imagine how the Jews in Babylon must have felt about this. Some, no doubt, thought that God had been defeated by the Babylonian gods; that, after all, was the normal ancient way to understand defeat in war. (Even the Bible takes this viewpoint, especially when it was Yahweh who was victorious; for example, the Exodus is described as punishing the gods of Egypt.)
Others would remember the promises that God gave to Abraham and David, and would conclude that God had simply been unfaithful. Still others, knowing that Yahweh had after all been warning about this disaster for several centuries before it happened, probably concluded that God had given up on the Jews for good, and that he had no more plan for them. He was still ruling but their place in his plan had been forfeited by their stubborn refusal to obey him. No longer would the descendants of Abraham play any role in God's plan to bless the world. There was no more hope for Israel. Maybe he would find some other people and redeem the world through them; or maybe he would just abandon the world to its fate.
The word of Yahweh
Into this bleak situation, Yahweh speaks again.
1Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.The first words bring to mind the ancient summary of the covenant, "I will be your God, and you shall be my people." God still regards them as his people! These words are also a sharp contrast with the opening words of the book of Isaiah, where in chapter 1 Yahweh calls together his witnesses and accuses Israel in a courtroom scene of violating her covenant with him. The verdict from the first half of the book has been carried out. Now she has paid the penalty ("double" is probably meant to be understood as a standard fine for wrongdoing that a court would assess).
2Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her hard service is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
that she has received from Yahweh's hand
double for all her sins.
The phrase "Comfort my people" is actually a plural command; Yahweh gives an order, and then three voices carry it out with messages of comfort in vv. 3, 6, and 9. The scene is something like the divine council in ch. 6, where the terrified Isaiah sees Yahweh in his glory giving his messengers a charge to proclaim Israel's destruction for her sinfulness. Here, however, the decree of Yahweh is for forgiveness and consolation and rebuilding.
3A voice cries:When a king comes to visit, it was customary to fix up all the roads for him. When Yahweh comes back, this must be done on a grand scale; even the mountains will be leveled to make a road. The mountains and valleys are to be understood metaphorically, like the similar reference to "threshing the mountains" in ch. 41.
"In the wilderness prepare the way of Yahweh,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5And the glory of Yahweh will be revealed,
and all flesh shall see it together.
For the mouth of Yahweh has spoken."
Some commentators have understood the wilderness and desert as the terrain that must be traversed by the exiles, with Yahweh at their head, on their return journey from Babylon as a second exodus. The image of a second exodus is indeed prominent in this section of Isaiah, but here I think it is better to see the wilderness and desert as the land of Israel itself. We know that the land was greatly depopulated and much formerly cultivated area became wild, and this is repeatedly discussed in various passages in this book (see for example the end of Isaiah 7). One of the great promises of this book is that the devastated land will once again become habitable.
In any case, the glory of Yahweh will be revealed to all people (not just to Israel). The glory cloud had left the temple, but God's glory was coming back! Yahweh's glory is an important theme in this book. The glory that Isaiah saw in the temple will become visible to all, in a way yet to be described. (Later we find that the glory will be revealed through his saving actions, through the return from exile under Cyrus, and culminating in the work of the Servant.)
"For the mouth of Yahweh has spoken" means that the proclamation of comfort to his people is an official pronouncement, a final decree of Yahweh that no one can reverse. Yahweh has said it; he will do it, no matter what.
6A voice says, "Cry out!"I have put the quote marks in different places than most English translations, following the suggestion of Westermann, because to me the end of verse 6 and v. 7 sound more like the prophet's complaint than the response of the voice that is speaking for God. (The quote marks are not in the original Hebrew, so anyone is free to put them wherever seems best.) v.8 is Yahweh's answer to the complaint. Wherever you put the quote marks, the comparison is clear: the breath of Yahweh has blown on Israel and withered it, but from the mouth of Yahweh also comes the word which rebuilds it eternally. The hope of frail humans in the face of the judgment of God is the promise of God himself.
And I said, "What shall I cry out?
All flesh is grass,
and the goodliness thereof is like the flower of the field.
7The grass withers,
the flower fades,
when the breath of Yahweh blows on it;
surely the people is grass."
8"The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever."
9Get you up to a high mountain, O ZionThe Lord is returning to Jerusalem and that city is to give the exciting news to all the other cities that God once again is visibly with them. "Fear not" means that Zion need not fear being wrong about this and raising false hopes. The proclamation should be bold and audible to everyone, because there is no chance that it will not happen.
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings;
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah, "Behold your God!"
10Behold, the Lord Yahweh comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11He will feed his flock like a shepherd,
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
Yahweh's reward is what he gives to his people, and his recompense is what he gives to his enemies for the way they treated his people. (Part of the promise to Abraham was to bless those who bless him, and curse those who curse him.) In the period before the exile, God's own people became his enemies and he destroyed them. Now they are no longer his enemies; he will be their shepherd and will care gently for them again.
Yahweh, the shepherd of Israel, will once again pasture his flock in their land. How exactly this happens is the subject of the rest of Isaiah 40-55.
New Testament uses of Isaiah 40
This part of Isaiah, and other prophets as well, predict a glorious return from the exile and the establishment of eternal peace and prosperity for Israel. The actual return from exile was, in comparison with the prophecies, quite a disappointment. The Jews were back in the promised land, true, but nothing else that had been promised had come to pass. They were poor, not prosperous. There was no king in the line of David. They were an insignificant part of a vast empire, called merely "the province beyond the River [Euphrates]," far from where anything important was happening. Large numbers of gentiles were not bringing their wealth in to worship Yawheh. The temple was disappointingly small, and more importantly, God's glory had not come back. (Rabbinic sources talk about this: one of the things that was missing from the second temple was the glory cloud.) The primary problem the post-exilic prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi had to address was discouragement and doubt at the disparity between the situation then and the earlier promises of God. These prophets affirmed that God was still in control, that the glory would return someday to the temple, and that Israel would again be vindicated and significant.
The faithful Jews concluded that the exile was not truly over yet. Any other way of looking at it would mean that the earlier prophets were simply wrong, and God had no intention of keeping his word (or maybe Yahweh was not really the true God). So in the first century, even Jews living in the land of Israel were still hoping for return from exile, that Yahweh's gracious words of forgiveness and restoration would come in their time. Apparently God had not yet forgiven the sins of the nation, because he had not restored the people, and the two are inseparable in the prophets.
When John the Baptizer used the words of Isaiah 40 to describe his own ministry, everyone knew what he was talking about. (All four gospels use the words from Isaiah 40--Mk. 1:2-3, Matt. 3:3, Lk. 3:4-6, John 1:23--so evidently that is important.) John was proclaiming that the long wait was over, that what Isaiah had predicted was finally here. John offered "a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins," and he proclaimed that one was coming who would restore Israel. The time of national forgiveness was here!
Jesus and the writers of the New Testament continually draw our attention to prophecies of return from exile and claim that they are fulfilled or are being fulfilled in Jesus. The glory of God returned in the person of Jesus. The temple was rebuilt in the form of the church, with the Spirit living in it. The nations were gathered into the people of God through the missionary work of the church. The glory of Yahweh was revealed; all flesh saw it together in Jesus on the cross and will see it in the glorified Christ.
In my opinion, Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary by Klaus Westermann (in the Old Testament Library series) conveys more effectively than any other the drama of the text and the significance of the historical context, though he fails to connect many of the passages together because of his source-critical approach. The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66 by Oswalt (in the NIV Application Commentary series) is also extremely good and makes a better attempt to connect the pieces of the text together into a systematic whole.
N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, has an excellent section on the New Testament appropriation of Isaiah 40.