Bible Commentary: Isaiah 40

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Isaiah 40

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"Comfort My People"

Beginning with this chapter, the remainder of the book of Isaiah takes on a different tone—so much so that some have tried to claim it was really written by a different author. Part of the reason is that chapters 40-55 appear to be addressed to the people of Jerusalem while they are in captivity—and their captivity was not until many years after Isaiah's death. However, the New Testament assigns 23 verses from all sections of this book specifically to the prophet Isaiah (1:9; 6:9-10; 9:1-2; 10:22-23; 11:10; 29:13; 40:3-5; 42:1-4; 53:1,4,7-8; 61:1-2; 65:1). So Isaiah's message was written for the future—for Israel and Judah in their imminent captivity and in their end-time captivity.

The message is to comfort and console the exiles. Luke 2:25 refers to the future redemption of Israel as the "Consolation of Israel"—which was to be accomplished through Jesus Christ. In 2 Corinthians 1, the apostle Paul tells us that God comforts us so that we may comfort others (verses 3-4). Learning to be a comforter is learning to be like God. At times, chronic or serious trials can be very discouraging for a Christian, leaving one to wonder why God allows them. One of the reasons is to train us to be able to lend aid and comfort to those experiencing the same or a similar type of difficulty. A person with no experience with trials is limited in his ability to empathize and sympathize with those who truly suffer. On the other hand, the person experienced in receiving God's comfort while enduring trials is well equipped to offer godly comfort to others.

Verses 3-5 of Isaiah 40 are identified by all four Gospel writers as applying to John the Baptist (Matthew 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4-6; John 1:23)—who announced the first coming of the Messiah. However, Jesus indicated that John only partially fulfilled these prophecies—that their ultimate fulfillment would come in the end time (see Matthew 17:10-13, especially verse 11).

Notice the message: "Every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill brought low" (Isaiah 40:4). What does this mean? Does it mean that all mountain ranges on earth will be flattened and all valleys filled in? If so, it would mean no more Grand Canyon. No more Yosemite Valley. No more Matterhorn. No more great cascading waterfalls and other such beautiful wonders of God's creation. A perpetually flat landscape, with only slight dips and rises. Is this what God means? No, for while there will likely be topographical changes to the surface of the earth, "every" valley and "every" hill will not disappear. If that happened, the whole world would be flooded. Indeed, Scripture says that Jerusalem itself will be an exalted mountain during Christ's reign.

So what does the prophecy here mean? It appears to have both a figurative and a literal meaning. Mountains and hills being brought low can represent large and small nations being humbled, and valleys being raised can represent oppressed and downtrodden people being exalted (compare verses 17, 23, 29; 2:11-17; 24:21; 60:10, 14, showing that God hates pride, and how the haughty will be humbled and the humble—especially the faithful saints—will be exalted). Yet again, there is apparently a literal fulfillment as well. Consider that the passage is discussing the building of a highway (verse 3). It is in the construction of this highway that mountains are brought low and valleys are raised—crooked places made straight and rough places smoothed (verse 4). Thus, if there's a mountain in the way, it is brought low; if a valley would impede the highway, the valley is raised up (compare 42:15-16; 49:11). Furthermore, since the purpose of a highway is to facilitate interchange between separated people, we can look at this figuratively as well. Any obstacles that separate and divide people will be removed (compare 19:23; 62:10).

Remember that this reference applied in part to the work of John preparing the way (the highway) for Jesus' first coming. No physical highway was then being built. Rather, John preached a message of repentance and many of his followers became disciples of Jesus. Yet John's work of preparation was a forerunner of an end-time work of preparation—preparing for the second coming of Christ. Again, it is accomplished through a message of repentance and helping people in the process of conversion and overcoming sin.

At Christ's return, the Israelites and then the whole world will be helped in the same process. When He comes, there will be a literal highway of return for the exiles from Assyria and Egypt. But more importantly, that highway will represent spiritual return to God—repentance—as well as harmony with other people through that way of repentance. Part of the repentance process will include people coming to terms with and turning from hatred and competition that has existed between nations for sometimes thousands of years.

Verses 6-8 are cited by Peter in discussing the solution to the fleetingness of human life (1 Peter 1:24-25). The same analogy of man's life being as the grass of the field is used by James as well—applied especially to the futility of riches as a panacea (James 1:10-11; see also Job 14:1-2; Psalm 103:15-16). Verses 9-11 show the zeal and courage the Church should have in preaching the joyous "good tidings!" Verse 13 is quoted twice by Paul (Romans 11:34; 1 Corinthians 2:16).

One of the many recurring themes in this section of Isaiah is the greatness of God's power as the Creator of the universe, of the earth and of man upon the earth (verses 12, 22, 28; for more examples see also 42:5; 44:24; 45:12, 18). In verse 26, we are told to lift our eyes upward—to the heavens. God calls all in the "host"—that is, the celestial bodies, including all the stars—by name, an amazing fact also mentioned in Psalm 147:4. It is amazing since there are at least a hundred billion galaxies of a hundred billion stars each. Scientists estimate the universe at around 15 billion years old. Yet to name every star at a rate of one per second would take more than 21,000 times that long—a mind-boggling feat that God gives but a passing mention. The greatness and awesome might of God should be of true comfort to His people.

The chapter ends with the wonderful verses about waiting on God. "To wait [on God] entails confident expectation and active hope in the Lord—never passive resignation (Ps. 40:1). Mount up…run…walk depicts the spiritual transformation that faith brings to a person. The Lord gives power to those who trust in him…. The eagle depicts the strength that comes from the Lord. The Lord describes his deliverance of the Israelites in Ex. 19:4 as similar to being lifted up on an eagle's strong wings. In Ps. 103:5, the strength of people who are nourished by God is compared to the strength of the eagle" (Nelson Study Bible, note on Isaiah 40:31). It is a remarkable picture. Through faith in God's power, our waiting can be a time of soaring.