Isaiah 40: The Voice in the Wilderness
"Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God." We hear it first as a voice of comfort to the people weary with their life as captives in Babylon. We remember the Psalm of the captives, "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion" ( Ps. 137); and the Psalm in which their thoughts fly back with the little birds to Jerusalem and the temple (Ps. 84). But the days of captivity are nearly over; they will soon be made free to go home to their own land. The verses tell of a highway for the Lord, remembering the roads sometimes built and made smooth for the coming of a great earthly king. The people seem weak like grass, but the Lord's word is sure and the Lord is strong.
The Gospels show us another meaning in this chapter. They tell us about John the Baptist who came preaching that people should repent, should stop their evil ways and get ready for the Lord. When the people came to John at the Jordan from Jerusalem and from the country all about, and asked him, "Who art thou?" he said, "I am the vice of one crying in the wilderness. Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaius" (the Greek writing of the name Isaiah). (John 1:22-23; Luke 3:3-6) The comfort of this chapter was not only for the Jewish captives but for all the world.
We must read another of the glorious promises of the Lord’s coming and of His kingdom from this book of prophecy. Among so many it is hard to choose. It shall be today the 60th chapter: "Arise, shine; for thy light is come, and the glory of the Lord is risen upon thee."
The section of the Book of Isaiah which begins at the 40th chapter with "Comfort ye" is one of the most inspiring parts of Scripture. The words brought comfort to the Jews after their long captivity in Babylon. How long was the captivity? (Jer. 25:11-12) Cyrus is mentioned as the deliverer (Isa. 44:28; 45:1), the Persian monarch who took Babylon and gave the Jews permission to return and to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple. We come soon to this thrilling story. (Ezra 1:1-3) Get the full joy of this chapter to the captives, who heard the word Comfort, and looked up with hope. They must prepare for the Lord, as people prepared for earthly kings.
Remember John the Baptist and his reference to this chapter as the warrant for his preaching and as the description of his work. (John 1:22-23: Luke 3:3-6) How was John fulfilling the picture? How was he straightening and smoothing the way in preparation for the Lord? Are there still valleys to be filled and mountains and hills to be made low in preparation for the Lord? Are there crooked places to be made straight and rough places to be made smooth, if we are to live with the Lord and find the strength and joy of Christian life? This chapter helps us to know that it is possible for us and for the world.
We must get more of these glorious hopes and promises from other chapters—promises of the Lord’s coming, with pictures of His trials and sufferings as vivid as any that are given in the Gospels (Isa. 53), and of the fruit of His victories in a world redeemed, a true kingdom of the Lord. As you turn the pages there is chapter 61, which the Lord read in the synagogue at Nazareth, and said that He fulfilled. Chapter 60 gives a picture of the world redeemed which we may compare with the Holy City in the last pages of Scripture. It is a picture which has power to lift people’s hearts from discouragement and to give them hope. The power of the Lord is in His promises, to lead on to their fulfillment.
It may be somewhat of a surprise that there is historically a break in the prophecy of Isaiah at the fortieth chapter. The former chapters belong plainly to "the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah," from about the year 740 to 700 B.C. Chapters 40 to 66, however, just as clearly picture a period in the history of the Jews at least 150 years later. The second verse of the fortieth chapter describes the situation. "Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare (or time of service) is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins." It is the voice of comfort to those in exile, for their punishment is almost completed.
This is not a forced interpretation of the passage, for the other chapters leave no doubt as to the time referred to. The people are in exile, suffering punishment as predicted by the prophets. They are being "tried in the furnace of affliction." Babylon is the scene of their humiliation. Jerusalem is in ruins, and the temple destroyed. "Thy holy cities are become a wilderness, Zion is become a wilderness, Jerusalem a desolation. Our holy and beautiful house, where our fathers praised Thee, is burned with fire, and all our pleasant things are laid waste." (Isa. 44:10-11) The exiles complain that the Lord has forgotten them and forsaken them. It is already a long time since they have left their native land. They suffered sorely at the hands of their oppressor. But "the time of service is accomplished." The deliverer is at hand. The oppressor shall be humbled even as he has humbled Israel. And the oppressed shall be set free and return to the land to rebuild Jerusalem and restore the Temple. "Thus saith the Lord, thy Redeemer, and He that formed thee from the womb. I am the Lord that maketh all things. . . . that confirmeth the word of His servant, and performeth the counsel of His messengers; that saith to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be inhabited; and to the cities of Judah, ye shall be built, and I will raise up the waste places thereof . . . that saith of Cyrus, he is My shepherd, and shall perform all My pleasure: saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built; and to the temple, ‘Thy foundation shall be laid.’" (44:24-28) Cyrus is called "The Lord's anointed," whose right hand He has strengthened to subdue nations before Him. (45:1) He is thus referred to as one who is on his victorious march to Babylon to release the exiled people.
Cyrus the Persian defeated the Medes in 549 B.C. and formed with them the powerful Medo-Persian empire. (Dan. 8:20) In 546 B.C., he subdued Lydia, and in 538 B.C., his forces entered Babylon by night without resistance. Then followed the release of the Jews in 537 B.C.
The full significance of these latter chapters of the book of Isaiah is therefore grasped only when related to the experiences of the Jews at the close of their exile in Babylon. The events which give the chapters a meaning in their letter took place about one hundred and fifty years after the close of Isaiah's ministry. The question therefore naturally arises: Did Isaiah write this portion of the prophecy which has been handed down to us under his name? The majority of the critics answer in the negative. If we question their conclusion, it opens up most difficult problems as to how the Lord gave the Word to humanity. There is no absolute proof either for or against the genuineness of the prophecy. We may construct working theories on the subject. We cannot dogmatize. It, however, remains clear that no other historical setting than that of the exile will unfold the literal meaning of these chapters. This is the basis for the spiritual lessons, and, therefore, the important thing to bear in mind.
"Comfort ye, comfort ye My people, saith your God." It is the voice of consolation to those in exile. It derives all its force and meaning when connected with those in captivity to whom it is addressed. How dejected they were! "They that led us captive required of us songs, and they that wasted us required of us mirth." Likewise, when the wheel of fortune does not run according to our wishes, when circumstances are adverse, how hard it is to bend the will to live on earth as they live in heaven! Yet the Lord bids us be comforted, for the time of judgment is nigh. Pain and suffering shall have an end, "the crooked shall be made straight and the rough places plain; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together."
"All flesh is grass." All that is purely human perishes. Every person must die (E. 1082); change and decay are manifest on all hands. All earthly dreams pass away; all selfish thoughts come to nothing. But the Divine truth abideth forever. And they who place confidence in that shall rejoice, for through Him who gives it they are led into the ever green pastures of heaven.
Feel the power and the joy of these chapters (Isa. 40-66) with the Jews weary with captivity in Babylon. How wonderfully this experience of release and restoration is made the basis of promises of hope to every downcast soul and to the world. They are promises from the Lord, their hope and power will never be exhausted.
Give closer study to the voice in the wilderness in Isa. 40. To know that the words had fulfillment in John the Baptist gives us the key to spiritual interpretation. Consider the cry in the wilderness, the highway in the desert, and John’s preaching in the wilderness. The desert suggests the barren state of the soul which has been long absent from the Lord. It was in the lives of people that John sought to prepare the way by repentance and cleansing the life from things evil and false. Mountains of pride and selfishness must be humbled. Valleys to be exalted may mean states of humility which can be blessed. The crooked needing to be straightened and the rough places needing to be made smooth we cannot fail to understand. (A. 1691; E. 405) Do not leave the chapter without a look at its closing verse, the promise of power to rise into spiritual strength, and to have strength and patience for life's common duties. (A. 3901; V. 281)
In temptations, our greatest danger is to forget God—to doubt His power, wisdom, and love and to turn to the idols of our own imagination, fictions of our own brain, for comfort and relief. "The Lord is almighty and all-knowing." He rules over all things: without Him all things are as vanity and nothing. These essential facts are known to every Jew or Christian. They are among the first things learned in childhood. "Hast thou not known, hast thou not heard," these familiar truths? The prophet places these fundamental truths in vivid contrast with the falsities of a dead religion. There are the idols of Babylon surrounding the Jews in profusion! What are these compared with the living God? To look upward to the Lord and trust in Him renews the life. To look earthward, and depend upon idols, means death. They who place confidence in themselves shall fail, no matter how buoyant and lively be their hopes. "Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall: but they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength: they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary: and they shall walk, and not faint."