Comfort, Comfort My People, Isaiah 40:1-11

By: David Zadok

Presented in October 2018 in Holland.

© David Zadok

Introduction

We live in a world that is full of hurt, pain, tears, disappointment, and death. Often just reading the electronic or printed news gets us depressed as we see the suffering, pain, and death around us. For us who live in Israel, as part of the Middle East, it is part of daily life to hear of yet another terror attack in our area, whether in Israel, Syria, Iraq and recently even in Iran. Too often those who are killed are innocent bystanders, others lose dear family members and dear ones and yet others dislocated from their homes as refugees like the Syrian’s. As of course, Europe who for decades was a peaceful haven is losing much of that, especially in Germany and France with the waves of refugees and terror attacks. All of these pose a challenge in our lives and societies.

The scriptures, from Genesis chapter 3 and onward is also a book of pain, wars, suffering, and death. It all resulted in the fallen man who corrupted the beautiful world that God created. The story of almost destruction of the world through the flood, the suffering story of Joseph, the slavery of the people of Israel in Egypt, the battels of Joshua sons of Nun, the era of judges and kings, all are stories of man’s suffering, pain, and death. However, thankfully that is not the only message of the scriptures. On every page, we also see the hope of a future restoration. A day when God will reverse the curse of sin into the blessing of salvation through the promised Messiah. The scripture is in many ways the book of comfort. And as the Heidelberg catechism in its first question asks and answers:

What is your only comfort in life and death? And it answers: That I with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ; who, with his precious blood, has fully satisfied for all my sins …

Maybe in our days and time, we need comfort more than anything else in our fallen world. But that kind of comfort is to be found?

Words of comfort from Isaiah 

Isaiah 40:1-11

It is not always easy to grasp the depth of the Old Testament prophecies, and their fulfillment in its historical and political background. At times, it is even challenging to understand their later fulfillment in Christ and their implication for us today and future generations. Too often we treat the Old Testament prophecies in the light of the New, without trying to benefit from the message that was relevant to the people who heard or read it first. It was certainly written in spiritual, historical, geographical and political circumstances. Professor Iain Duguid, from the USA, who I had the privilege of studying under him at Westminster Seminary in a recent book titled Seeking Christ in All of Scripture, writes that the Old Testament had a message for its original hearers and not just for us. He then goes on and says: “It is a mistake to read the Old Testament as if its Christ-centered message were only revealed to us, who read it through the lens of fulfillment in him [Christ].”[1] He then goes on and writes, “Isaiah spoke to those who lived in Judah in the days of Ahaz and Hezekiah, not only to those who read his prophecies about the Babylonian exile and about Christ after their fulfillment.”

What Duguid is saying is that we ought to read the Old Testament prophets first and foremost in its historical, social and political background, before we read them in light of their fulfillment in Christ and their meaning for us today. Too often our interpretation of the prophets is like reading only the first few pages of a book and then jumping to the last chapter. In this case, we miss much of the interesting details, the climax and the enjoyment that the book can bring. We very quickly want to jump to their fulfillment in the New Testament or relate it to familiar passages in the New Testament.

The Historical and Political Background

The name Isaiah in Hebrew means, God saves or God is salvation, and his name suits well the message of the book that he wrote by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  Apparently, Isaiah started his public ministry in the year 740 B.C., the year that king Uzziah died. He ministered for forty years till around 701 B.C. His message and his role were often as a prosecutor, as he exposed the unfaithfulness of people of Israel to their God and his convent with them. His message was that of condemnation to Judah, Israel, and the nations. However, as we will see this was not the only message that the Lord put in the mouth of his faithful servant-prophet.

Already in chapter one, we see a recurring theme of the book. It begins with the rebellion of God’s children against their creator, it continues with the sins of his people and their turning away from their creator-savior. And after a long list of their shortcomings, when one thinks that there is no hope for Israel, God says in verse 18 of chapter 1: Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. (KJV)

The same is seen in chapter 5, where after a series of woes, the chapter ends by telling us and the light is darkened in the heavens thereof. (KJV), again there seems to be no hope, but chapter six begins in the heavenly realm, where Isaiah is commissioned and called to the office of prophet. A great sign of hope, as the unclean prophet who lives among unclean people, is cleansed and commissioned to go and bring the word of God to the people of God. Again and again, we see the same pattern, the undeserved and rebellious covenant breaker people receive love, mercy, grace, and forgiveness. As we will see the passage before us is no exception, but in a much more majestic, magnificent and marvelous way it points to the Good Shepherd and his forerunner.

No doubt, one of the main themes of Isaiah is that God, the judge of Israel, is also the savior and redeemer of his people, and of the whole world. The God of Israel was such in the past, long before Isaiah wrote, as well as when he penned these words, and certainly true ever since and into eternity. And of course, as this chapter points to the climax of God’s redemption as seen in the Incarnated God, who Isaiah saw Him in chapter six.

Like a Bridge Over the Troubled Waters

We know that one heart filling truth that we find in the scriptures is how at the most challenging times in the life of a nation or an individual, God draws near and encourages them in a special way. We see it at the slavery in Egypt. There in Exodus 3: 7- 8 we read And the LORD said (referring to Moses in the burning bush), I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry by reason of their taskmasters; for I know their sorrows; And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey; (KJV). This is the first time that God calls Israel, my people, and it happened when they were slaves in Egypt! And we see how active God is in regard to his people: he sees, hears, knows, and he comes down to deliver. We know that it was not the last time that He comes down.

We witness this truth also in the most challenging time in the lives of the disciples and how Jesus comforts them. In John 13 after washing his disciples’ feet, later on in verse 33 referring to his soon coming crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension, he says to them Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you. (KJV). Only a few verses earlier (verse 21), Jesus told them that one of them will betray him. And at the end of the chapter, Peter who too often spoke before putting his brain in gear heard the words that three times he will betray his Master before the rooster crows. This is how chapter 13 ends. And then in verse 1-4 of chapter 14, we read these comforting words of the Lord: Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also. And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know. (KJV) We can only imagine what a comfort these words were to the troubled disciples. He calms them down by assuring them that he is leaving for their sake, and he is going to prepare an eternal place for them. More than that He will personally come again and will take them there himself. He does not give them the address and says see you there. No, he will come back to take them to that marvelous, eternal, joyful, no death, no fear, no tear place.    

And here in our text, we see the same pattern. The context of chapter 40 can be found in chapter 39, a mere 8 verses but a devastating one. Isaiah tells us that an envoy from the king of Babylon came to King Hezekiah with a present, as was the custom of those days. And King Hezekiah showed them all the treasures and all that he had. Immediately the word of the Lord came to him through the faithful prophet. All that they have seen, all the treasures one day soon will be carried away to Babylon and even his own sons will become eunuchs in the palace of King of Babylon.

The Babylonian exile was the darkest hour in the history of the people of Israel in the Old Testament time. We read of the devastation and the atrocities in the book of Lamentations. The Babylonian exile is the background of the book of Isaiah and especially chapter 40. It is in light of this dark event that we can appreciate the words of Isaiah even more so – comfort, comfort my people, (Nahamu Nahamu Ami in Hebrew). The verb in Hebrew is plural as if God is calling all his prophets, and the heavenly host to comfort his people. The comfort is not for any people, but my people. God assures them that though calamity will come, he will not forsake them, but will comfort them. The words are spoken to my people and by your God – He is as personal as he can be. His message is warm and clear.

He then goes on to explain the source of that comfort. In the verse, we come across the word comfort for the third time, as this time the comforting words are:

Her warfare is accomplished,

Her iniquity is pardoned – for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double portion for all her sins.

There is light at the end of the dark tunnel. There is a voice that will cry in the wilderness and will prepare the road for the coming King, the Lord. There will be an end to the discomfort and suffering. The desert will be turned into a highway for God. The valleys will be exalted and lifted high as mountains will be brought low like the valleys. God is reversing the calamity for hope, and the destruction for construction. His glory will be revealed but this time not only to his people, but all flesh will see it – verse 5. The dispersion of exile eventually will bring inclusion and expansion. What God’s people saw and will experience in the exile, eventually will benefit all flesh. And this is yet another blessing that the suffering of the people of Israel will bring to the world!

Though the flesh is like grass and withers away, the comforting words of the living God will stand forever. God is encouraging his people not to give up hope, but to persevere. The comfort will come, though decades might pass by. How easy it is for us in these days and times to lose heart, and especially for those of us who have tasted the sweet fruit of salvation and seen his endless grace in action in our lives. We tend to forget his marvelous promises and deeds of the past too quickly, particularly the ones that we heard in John 14 earlier. No doubt the world that we live in seems like it has gone wild and out of control. But has the world gone out of control?

No, it has not and will not because the creator of the universe is in full and complete control of the events. He assures us that history is moving in one direction only and unlike the earth, it is not circular – but a straight line. The words of Isaiah, though written in the 700’s B.C. are still comforting and reassuring for us as it was for the people of Judah back then. It assures us that God is far greater than our circumstances and even the world around us.

However, for us, these words should be even more encouraging. Iain Duguid whom I quoted earlier, continues on the same subject by telling us that while the prophets of the Old Testament truly understood some things that they described, yet did not fully understand everything about what they wrote.[2] He qualifies what he says by adding “in particular, some aspects of God’s purposes in Christ necessarily remained veiled throughout the Old Testament period, only to be clarified through the coming of the Son.”[3] We who live after the cross and not before the Cross (B.C.) have the privilege of reading the gospels and to know that a voice that Isaiah prophesied about is the voice of John the Baptist, who cried out in the wilderness, “repent ye, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matt 3:2). John indeed prepared the way for the coming king. And the incarnated Lord of the Lords and King of Kings revealed the glory that Isaiah wrote about. John the evangelist in his prologue to his gospel describes that glory in these words: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth. (Jn. 1:14 KJV)” What a glorious fulfillment and deep comfort to know that the only Son from the Father has come down to shepherd his people, the enlarged people of God – the One New Man in Christ. And he has come to lead us, to direct us and above all to save us from the seed of the serpent and eventually to bring us to our undeserved eternal home.

But Isaiah also calls Zion and Jerusalem to go out to the cities of Judah and to raise her voice with strength and to announce to the world “Behold your God”. God of Israel is alive and is still in the business of comforting people and dragging them from the kingdom of darkness into his kingdom of light.

This is the message that we are called to announce to the world today – Behold your God (40:9). Again, we see the personal touch, not behold God, not behold the living God, but your God, the personal God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Twice in verse 9, he uses the phrase “the good tidings”. The great gift that God has given is not to be hidden under the basket, but to be proclaimed to all. The good news is good if people hear it, see it and understand it. Jesus’ last words before his ascension to the right hand of the father was: Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. Amen. (Matt. 28:19-20 KJV). The Lord that Isaiah speaks of in this chapter is the one who commands us also to go. It is the same as Isaiah commanded the people of Judah back then. What a great privilege we have to be the messenger, the herald of this great news.

The God of Isaiah is one the move again in Israel. We see an unprecedented work of God in Israel and among Jewish people in particular. We see many young people being converted and baptized. In our congregation, Grace and Truth in Israel, we had the privilege of having two or three baptism services each yea. And it is happening in other congregations as well. We see churches in Israel boldly proclaiming the good news that the Messiah of Israel has come and his name is Yeshua –Jesus. Many of our men and woman who have to serve in the military, like our middle daughter now, present their faith in Jesus before their comrades and commanding officers! Teens and old, professionals and poor, holocaust survivors and others are not only hearing the message, but God is turning their heart to himself. They are beholding their God!

This is a great assurance for us. The assurance that our God is a faithful God, who has not forsaken his people, and certainly not his covenant and promises that He has made to his people of old. This year as we were celebrating our 70th anniversary, it was a great reminder for us to see the goodness of God and to comprehend how vast, deep and penetrating is His grace. A little more than 70 years ago, the world thought that soon the Jewish people will be erased from the pages of the history and like other nations of the Old Testament will be annihilated. However, 70 years after, Jewish people were preserved and persevered in a country that is blooming and making a huge contribution to the welfare of the world in many areas.

And what we are witnessing today points to the fact that the gifts and the callings of God are irrevocable. And that the day will come when all Israel will be saved, as Paul says in Romans 11:26. The salvation of Israel is as important for the church today as it is for the people of Israel. The church today can be comforted and rest assured in the fact that just as God has not rejected the people of Israel, his people of old, he will not reject the church either.

So these words of Isaiah brought much-needed comfort to the people of Israel then who were facing a horrible exile. And while they were in exile Isaiah words comforted them that the calamity will end one day and a new voice will be heard in the wilderness of Judah again. A glorious day that they were waiting for. But the words of Isaiah were comforting not only for them but for generations to come till the coming of the King and even after. It is comforting for us today –whether we are in Israel or Holland. It is comforting because at times we feel like the people of Israel in exile, though we are in our home country, the pain and suffering of the world, at times put us in the same boat. The loud voice of Isaiah is resounding again and again for us, for you and me – calling Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. (Isa. 40:1 KJV).

Application

While the main theme of Isaiah’s words is comforting, there is yet also a warning for all of us. There is a judgment. The people of Israel paid a double portion for their iniquity, their sins. Our sins do not disappear, but a price has to be paid. What the people of Israel paid in their hard history including the exile is not comparing to the eternal punishment of God. For those whose sins have not been forgiven through Christ, awaits the eternal fire of hell – something that we may not like to hear too much, but it is the reality, even in the book of Isaiah. We cannot and should not ignore the word of God.

But then again there are the comforting words of God. Christ of whom Isaiah spoke has come down and has given his life as a ransom for many. He went to the cross and paid not double portion but the full price for all of our sins and he came out of the cross and the death triumphantly, sitting now at the right hand of God. Today he tenderly calls you to himself with his open arms. Today if you hear his voice harden not your hearts in rebellion (Heb 3:15). So this morning if you have not embraced Jesus yet, then I plead with you to come to him in repentance. He will not reject anyone who calls upon him, but will embrace him with his pierced and open hands.

Amen.

 

[1] Peter A. Lillback, editor, Seeking Christ in All of Scripture. (Philadelphia: Westminster Seminary Press, 2016), Page 19.

[2] Ibid, 20-22.

[3] Ibid.