Lesson Focus: Our king comes to smooth things out, to hold us in his arms.
Catch up on the story: In the previous chapter, Hezekiah, the current king of Judah, has just been told that some day soon a nation from the north will come, invade his country and carry off his goods and even his sons. Hezekiah interprets the news in a selfish manner; he believes the news is good because there will be peace in his time. What he misses, however, is that all that he loves will be destroyed, even his sons!
There is, however, a very long time between the end of chapter 39 and the beginning of chapter 40. Most scholars believe that the time between the two chapters is around 150 years. In that 150 years a lot has transpired. The destruction that Hezekiah was told about has come to pass. The Babylonians have come, destroyed the Temple and Jerusalem itself. The best and the brightest of Judah have been carried off to exile in Babylon, while those who remain are left to eke out an existence in a war-ravaged country. God has been mostly silent during this time and both the exiles and those who remain in the land lack hope. 2 Kings 21-25 recounts some of the events leading up to and during this 150-year time.
In the context of our journey toward Christmas, this passage speaks good news to the question that was left unanswered in the middle of chapter 64. The prophet, speaking for God’s people, wonders if there can be any salvation because the people have been in their sins so very long. The wondering question of that chapter turns into a plea for God to remember his people who are the works of his hands. But first, we must wait. Finally, this week’s passage will speak words of hope and joy for God’s people in their bleak and desperate situations. Yes, Isaiah proclaims, salvation can be found because our king is coming. Proclaim it from the top of the mountains!
The Text: During the long period of exile the people expressed their grief, their hopelessness and their lack of comfort. The first chapter of Lamentations documents well the feelings of God’s people. “She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her.” (1:2), “Her downfall was appalling, with no one to comfort her.” (1:9), and “Zion [Jerusalem] stretches out her hands, but there is no one to comfort her.” (1:17). God’s people, because of their sin and iniquities, find themselves lost and lonely in a strange land without anyone to comfort her. The guiding and protective hand of God had been withdrawn from them.
But our passage is a transition from the bleakness and hopelessness of Isaiah 1-39 and Lamentations to the hopefulness proclaimed by God himself. The long silence has ended and now God speaks in the midst of his people’s brokenness. Most scholars agree that Isaiah 40:1-11 takes place in the heavenly throne room with God and his angelic council. There are at least three groups present in this oracle. First, and most obviously, there is God at the center of the speaking. Second, there is a representative of God’s divine council that speaks on behalf of God. Finally, there is a human prophet figure that is charged with bringing God’s good news to God’s people.
This session in the divine court begins with an edict from God. No longer will God’s people seek and be unable to find comfort. Judgment and war for God’s people are now ended, there will now be divine comfort. The longings expressed in the first chapter of Lamentations will now be fulfilled. God declares, in verses 1 and 2 that those in his service will now speak comfort to his people. “Comfort, O comfort” in verse 1 is a plural imperative: “you comfort.” It is the command of God to be executed, in part, by all of God’s divine government. It is not the offer of mere solace. Rather, it is what one scholar calls “transformative solidarity.” It is a powerful intervention on the part of God for his people that creates new possibilities for life (Brueggemann, 16). The God, who has acted as judge, and rightfully so, will now come as one who comforts his people.
The command is issued to speak tenderly to Jerusalem. The tone has changed. The theme of judgment and penalty has been satisfied. She has done her time. In fact, God declares that God’s people have received twice as much judgment for her sins. All that ends now. God now has plans for Judah’s return from exile. Just as God’s plans for Judah’s judgment were concrete, so now are God’s plans for her restoration.
In verse 3 the voice changes. God is no longer the direct speaker but is spoken for by one the members of the divine council. This voice is beginning to explain how it is that God’s command for comfort will be fulfilled. The voice cries out commanding that a highway be built in the desert. There are two interpretive possibilities here.
The first is that the highway to be constructed will be the road that brings the exiled people of God back to the city of Jerusalem. Strong ties to the Exodus narrative are present. As God, in a very real and physical way, prepared the way for Israel to escape captivity to Egypt by parting the Red Sea, so now God is calling for a path to be made for his newly redeemed people to return to their home. The very features of the earth will be manipulated so that God’s people can return home. This highlights the unstop-able nature of God’s coming. Verse 5 declares that the glory of God will be revealed in the construction of this highway and through the progression of redeemed exiles on it. In the same way that glory was brought to God through the Exodus, now glory will be brought to God through this new act of exodus. And it will happen; the very mouth of God has decreed it (Brueggemann, 18).
The second interpretive possibility is that the highway refers to the preparations for the coming of God in power to rescue God’s people. It was common for roads to be built, the best possible roads, for the coming of a king in the ancient world. The coming of a king was a great and joyous occasion. After so long an absence from the Jewish center of the world, Jerusalem, God is now coming to take his place again in the Temple at Jerusalem. One scholar believes that the direction of the highway is not from the north, from Babylon to Jerusalem, but from the south, from Mt. Sinai to Jerusalem. As God journeyed with his people to establish them in the Promised Land, God now journeys to Jerusalem to reestablish his people (Watts, 80).
Perhaps both images are valuable to us. God is certainly making a way for God’s people to return from exile and captivity to Jerusalem. A way will need to be made, if not a literal highway, a figurative one, paved with political orchestrations enacted by God so that God’s people might return. At the same time, God is returning to Jerusalem again, to re-establish God’s people as God’s people. The king returns and so do his people!
The same voice that announces that a highway will be built now commands that the prophet figure declare to the world that it will be so. “Cry out!” The command is given, but the prophet wants to know what is to be told. He doubts the good news he is hearing. His experience has taught him that all people are transient, fickle and untrustworthy. People, the prophet declares, are like grass and flowers, here today and gone tomorrow. Their “constancy” as the NRSV translates it, is like the flower. “Constancy” here is the Hebrew word “hesed” or steadfast love and faithfulness. Hesed is often used in the Old Testament to describe God’s covenant commitment to God’s people. It carries with it the idea of being strongly and unmovingly faithful. Here, the prophet contrasts the faithfulness of God, which is rock solid, with the faithfulness of humanity, which is fleeting.
The divinely appointed voice responds that yes, humanity is inherently unfaithful and fleeting, but that matters not. What matters is the word of God, which will stand forever. The “but” of verse 8 firmly settles the question of God’s coming and the people’s redemption. Judah’s salvation and restoration depends not on their ability to be faithful. It does not even depend on Babylon’s willingness to cooperate, as it did not depend on Egypt’s cooperation. The restoration and salvation of God’s people rests solely on the fact that God himself has said that it will be so!
So, the prophet is summoned and sent to go up to the highest places to proclaim God’s message. This is no invitation; this is a command. Again, the language is in the imperative, “get up…lift up your voice…do not fear…” What is the prophet to proclaim? He is to proclaim, “good tidings,” a phrase that literally becomes for us in the New Testament, good news or gospel. The prophet is commanded to proclaim the good news, the gospel that God is coming, indeed that God is here, and “Here is your God!” (Verse 9). In the very place and time where God could not be found, it is proclaimed that God is here!
How is it that God has come? The divinely appointed voice calls the prophet to look and see how. God comes with might and power. His arms are strong to deliver and rule. God wins the victory. Yet, at the same time, verse 11 gives us a gentler image. God comes as Israel’s warrior-redeemer and at the same time as a shepherd. The God who comes for and on behalf of Israel comes to gather his scattered flock together. Not only does he reunite them, but he also picks them up to comfort them in his strong arms. The image shifts even further toward God as gentle protector and provider. The “carry them in his bosom” evokes images of a mother nursing a child. The prophet is commanded to proclaim that the God who is coming is the God who is both mighty to save and a gentle mother, provider and sustainer. In this image of God as providing mother, God comes and does for his people what they refused to let him do in the first place. It was Israel’s lack of faith in the providing and sustaining nature of God that led Israel to exile.
So What? Our journey toward God’s coming at Christmas always involves waiting. We, like Israel, find ourselves waiting to be rescued and redeemed from our own sinfulness, the sinfulness we have been in for so long. Our sin has caused us to go into our own exile, where God seems distant and unapproachable. Last week we wondered, since we had been in our sins so long, could we indeed be saved? We were in need of comfort.
This week, while we are still waiting, we receive words of comfort and joy. In the God forsakenness of our sin God now breaks in to speak words of comfort. God has not left us to endure the penalties for our sins any longer. We can stand confidently, expectantly waiting for God’s coming because it does not depend on us for it to happen. The salvation we wondered about last week is now in the hands of a steadfastly faithful God.
And now, like the prophet, we are called to get to the high places to proclaim this salvation that is sure to happen. We are called to be evangelists, ones who have experienced the powerful saving love of God and his gentle provision for our lives. We are to proclaim the good news that, even though we have been in our sins for so long a time, even though we are fickle and unfaithful, God is coming to rescue us from those things. Lift up your voice! Cry out! Here is your God! He is coming to deliver us from sin and death. He is coming to gather us together in his arms. He is coming to care for us, to protect us, to lead us in the way that we should go! This is this Gospel! This is our hope as our king comes.
Critical Discussion Questions:
How does this text reveal to us the nature and character of God/What is God doing in this text?
God desires to bring comfort and good news. Judgment, for God, is not the last word, hope and restoration are. God is powerful enough to free us from bondage to that which enslaves us yet gentle enough to care and provide for us as a shepherd cares and leads a flock. God is also steadfast in the midst of our unfaithfulness. The offer of salvation is solid because God says he will do it.
What does holiness/salvation look like in this text?
Salvation looks like homecoming. This is literal for God’s people because they are strangers in a foreign land. Homecoming is good news for us because our sins have made us so distant from God. Where God is, our home is. God is coming with salvation to bring us home to him.
How does an encounter with this story shape who we are and who we should become?
We can have hope that even though we have been in our sins a very long time the power of God to save is there. In our sin we experience judgment and discomfort. God comes to bring comfort and homecoming. This homecoming propels us out to proclaim the glad tidings that God is coming, coming to bring us home to him.
Specific Discussion Questions: Read the text aloud. Then, read the text to yourself quietly. Read it slowly, as if you were very unfamiliar with the story.
Why is Jerusalem in need of comfort? What crime has she committed that has caused her to pay the penalty for her sin?
Verses 3-5 describe a highway that is to be prepared. Most scholars think that this highway is an image for the return of the exiles to Jerusalem. In what other times has God prepared a highway for his people? How might that time and the events here be similar?
In verse 6 a voice commands the prophet to “cry out.” The prophet seems hesitant to proclaim anything. Why is the prophet hesitant?
Verse 8 gives the reason why the prophet should make his proclamation. What is that reason? Why does it matter?
The prophet is commanded to proclaim “good tidings,” literally the gospel or good news. What is the content of that good news?
The voice proclaims, “Here is your God!” What are the two ways in which God is described as coming? Why are they important for us today?
For Israel, the good news of salvation entailed liberation from political exile. What kind of liberation does the gospel bring to those of us who live in a different circumstance in the twenty-first century? What kinds of things hold people captive today and how is the gospel good news for those captivities?
Works Cited: Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 40-66, Fourth Impression edition (Louisville, Ky: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998).
John D. W. Watts, Word Biblical Commentary Vol. 25, Isaiah 34-66 (watts), 420pp (Waco: Thomas Nelson, 1987).