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Friday 27 May 2022

This piece of poetry marks the beginning of the end of the long exile that had been decreed by the prophet in the previous chapter (39:6-7). In other words, between chapter 39 and chapter 40 there is a gap of about 200 years during which all of Israel’s elite have been “carried off to Babylon.” This part of the book of Isaiah is often referred to as Second Isaiah.

Isaiah 40 1:11

This piece of poetry marks the beginning of the end of the long exile that had been decreed by the prophet in the previous chapter (39:6-7). In other words, between chapter 39 and chapter 40 there is a gap of about 200 years during which all of Israel’s elite have been “carried off to Babylon.” This part of the book of Isaiah is often referred to as Second Isaiah. It begins in Babylon, whereas First Isaiah began in Jerusalem. Even if you just read briefly the few verses at the end of chapter 39, you can see that what we have here in chapter 40 is something new. Here God speaks a radical and inexplicable assurance that will change the fortunes of Judah. Part of this poem is quoted in all four gospels because it gives voice to the radical newness that is initiated by God in the story of Jesus.

So here God speaks a new word into the silence and desolation of exile. God’s first word is “Comfort” and God’s next words are “O comfort” - these are words of well-being, assurance and solidarity. Scholars suggest that these words are not addressed directly to the people in exile, but to those whom God recruits to speak to Israel - in other words, to angels and messengers who surround God’s throne and wait to be sent out by God to ensure that God’s government is and known on earth. If we read this passage with that imagery in mind, the new decree that is to be sent out from God’s administration to Jerusalem and to the Jews in exile is that Jerusalem and Judah have now paid fully for their offence (see 39:6-7) and they are to be released from prison (exile) and allowed to return home. The word of comfort is like the cutting short of a prison sentence in which a hoped-for but unexpected release is announced. Jerusalem is to be comforted and assured that it’s desolation is over and it is no longer abandoned. This covers the first two verses.

The next part of the poem, from verses 3-8, has a range of voices, but it’s not obvious who they belong to. It could be a conversation between several members of God’s council, or between God and some of the messengers. The first voice gives the instruction to build a superhighway across the desert on which God will travel in triumph (verses 3-5). This will require a massive engineering project so that the land is level enough for a smooth road. The purpose of this new road is to enable God to have a triumphal procession and be seen as conqueror. If we read it in this way we can assume that the road will run all the way from Babylonian exile into Jerusalem, and that with God will come all the long-exiled Jews in a glorious homecoming. All those who are standing at the roadside watching will be amazed by this. God who had appeared to be defeated by Babylon will show God’s true power.

The next voice only says one thing- “Cry out!” - at the beginning of verse 6. This perhaps gives us the impression of impatience - come on, let’s get this show on the road, so to speak! The third voice, coming just after this in verse 6, says, “What shall I cry?”, but we don’t know who this “I” is either. This one seems a bit more hesitant. Perhaps it’s the prophet, not willing to proclaim victory because he’s not sure how reliable the situation is, and just that bit lacking in confidence in the grand road- building plan that has been laid out. The people are like grass, quickly withering and fading, and liable to be blown away in the wind.

The commentators think that another voice comes in at verse 8, accepting the statement about our ephemeral nature that the previous speaker gave in verses 6-7, but then challenging it with the final part of verse 8: “the word of our God will stand for ever.” Yes, Israel may be unreliable, but the triumphal procession doesn’t depend on anything that Israel has or hasn’t done. That victory is rooted only in God’s decree, and that word can be trusted and will not fail. The new season of life for the Jewish people, a season of well-being, is both authorised by God and grounded in God. For us, our Advent hope is not grounded in our own human possibilities, but in God’s faithfulness that is not changed by our frailty or unfaithfulness.

Once this resolution is reached between the different speakers, a messenger is sent who is to speak out loudly and clearly as we can see in verses 9-11. The word “herald” comes from the same root that means “proclaim”. This is the equivalent of the Greek “evangel”, the “gospeler”, the one who brings the good news of God’s victory and homecoming. This good-news-bringer is to stand high and speak loudly, announcing the new decree of God that will decisively change the history of those who hear the message. There is to be no timidness about this - “Here is your God!” Here is the one in glory who at one time appeared to be defeated, here, returning in power. Because of this there is no need to fear the power of Babylon any more. God is resolved to bring something new where nothing seemed possible.

The new rule of God is made evident to everyone in the amazing procession across the desert . In verse 10 we read that God, at the head of the parade, is an armed warrior with weapons and great power. This is a very macho picture of God. But quickly the picture changes, and in verse 11 we read that the God who is at the front of the procession is as gentle as a shepherd with a feeble sheep, and as tender as a nurse who cares for the vulnerable. With these two contrasting images of God, the mighty warrior and the gentle nursing carrier, “the poem lets God be all in all for all” to quote Walter Brueggemann. The people who thought they had no future are comforted by a powerful, gentle God. Exile ends, darkness is dispelled, drought gives way to springs of water and life begins anew - fresh, whole, safe and protected. Everything becomes new when we hear the new decree of God, when we trust in it and act upon it.

For further reflection…

  • Read through this poem again slowly, two or three times. Try reading it out loud, imaging yourself in the position of the different speakers. Which bits stand out for you? Is there anything that makes you feel excited as you read it?
  • How do you respond to the imagery that Isaiah uses? If you were writing this poem today what images might you use instead?
  • Isaiah’s descriptions of a better future are often quoted in the Gospels. Can you think of any examples of this happening? Some might stick in your mind, but if not, go and have a look at see what you can find. Think about how these relate to the new world that Jesus is proclaiming.
  • Can you recall a time when you have felt particularly hopeful? Can you think of a time when you have lost hope in something? Do you feel more prone to hope or despair generally?
  • In the next few days, take note of any times when your thinking is discouraging or cynical. Challenge yourself to be cynical about your cynicism! Challenge yourself to look towards prophetic hope, and ask God to help you accept and trust in God’s promise of newness.