Isaiah 40

Section Introduction

Here begins a major new section, identified by many scholars as Deutero-Isaiah.  Whereas Isa 39:5-8 had predicted the Babylonian exile, the present passage is deeply immersed in the exile experience itself, and anticipates God’s gracious action in bringing it to an end.  ‘Nothing is said of the intervening century and a half; we wake, so to speak, on the far side of the disaster, impatient for the end of captivity. In chs. 40–48 liberation is in the air; there is the persistent promise of a new exodus, with God at its head; there is the approach of a conqueror, eventually disclosed as Cyrus, to break Babylon open; there is also a new theme unfolding, to reveal the glory of the call to be a servant and a light to the nations. All this is expressed with a soaring, exultant eloquence, in a style heard only fitfully hitherto (cf. e.g. Isa 35:1–10; 37:26–27), but now sustained so as to give its distinctive tone to the remaining chapters of the book.’ (NBC)

Clifford (Harper’s Bible Commentary‘ represents a typical critical position on authorship and dating of ‘Second Isaiah’:- ‘Chaps. 40-55 are easily dated. The author assumes throughout that his hearers in Babylon are aware that Cyrus II, king of Persia, will conquer the Neo-Babylonian Empire. Such an assumption was possible only after Cyrus deposed his sovereign Astyages of Media in 550 B.C. and conquered Croesus of Lydia in 547. Second Isaiah must have preached, therefore, in the 540s, probably until the entry of Cyrus’s army into Babylon in 539. The author of chaps.  56-66, probably a disciple, preached in Jerusalem to a mixed community of residents and those who had returned from exile in Babylon. Most, if not all, of these chapters come from the period between Cyrus’s edict in 538 and the rebuilding of the Temple in 515.’

Dillard and Longman (An Introduction to the Old Testament) envisage the following scenario: ‘Isaiah 40–66 presumes an author living later in the Exile foresaw through divine inspiration what God was about to do through Cyrus, just as Isaiah foresaw through divine inspiration what God would soon do with Tiglath-Pileser III (Isa. 7). This later author saw in Isaiah’s prophecies of exile and a remnant events that were transpiring in his own day, and he wrote to develop and apply Isaiah’s preaching to his fellow exiles.’  These author remarks that although the anonymity of this later prophet is a problem, it is no more of a problem than the anonymity of the writer to the Hebrews.

Barnes says of this second part of Isaiah: ‘There is no portion of the Old Testament where there is so graphic and clear a description of the times of the Messiah. None of the other prophets linger so long, and with such apparent delight, on the promised coming of the Prince of Peace; or his character and work; on the nature of his instructions, and the manner of his reception; on the trials of his life, and the painful circumstances of his death; on the dignity of his nature, and on his lowly and humble character; on the prevalence of his religion, and on its transforming and happy effects; on the consolations which he would furnish, and on the fact that his religion would bear light and joy around the world.’

Barnes suggests that this second part of Isaiah deals with two major grounds of consolation: (a) that the nation would be delivered from its captivity (and this would happen through Cyrus), and restored to their own land; and (b) that there would come a far greater deliverer than Cyrus, who would effect a far greater deliverance than that from the Babylonian captivity.

That greater deliverer, says Barnes, is presented in various views:- ‘now as a sufferer, humble, poor, and persecuted; and now the more distant glories of the Messiah’s kingdom rise to view. He sees him raised up from the dead; his empire extend and spread among the Gentiles; kings and princes from all lands coming to lay their offerings at his feet; the distant tribes of men come bending before him, and his religion of peace and joy diffusing its blessings around the world. In the contemplation of these future glories, he desires to furnish consolation for his afflicted countrymen in Babylon, and at the same time a demonstration of the truth of the oracles of God, and of the certain prevalence of the true religion, which should impart happiness and peace in all future times.’

According to Barnes, characteristics of this second part of Isaiah include:-

  • there is no mention of the prophet’s name
  • the language is less fiery and severe, more flowing and tender
  • it is a single prophecy, apparently uttered at one time
  • almost everything relates to the more distant future, long after Isaiah’s own day

Comfort for God’s People, 1-30

This chapter opens dramatically with three voices:-

Voice 1 (vv1f) – Cries out with comfort for the people of God at the end of their long punishment.

Voice 2 (vv3-5) – Calls for a highway to be prepared for the Lord, for all mankind will see his approaching glory.

Voice 3 (6-8) – Assures that God’s salvation is for ever, that his purposes cannot fail and that his promises are sure.[/su_spoiler]

Isa 40:1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

One strand of Christian Zionism (see here, for example) repudiates evangelism of Jews in favour of ‘comforting Israel’.  This notion is, of course, derived from the present verse.  ‘But the text says nothing of a social-aid programme; rather, it clearly enunciates that God’s ‘comfort’ is channelled through the proclamation of his Word, ultimately fulfilled in the gospel of Jesus Christ. The biblical call to make disciples from among the Jewish people is irrefutable and Christians dare not allow themselves to be manipulated into conceding that evangelism is, as some Jewish leaders allege it to be, an act of hostility. What, one may ask, will it profit the Jewish people if they gain the entire land, economic prosperity, political stability and military security, and lose their own souls?’ (John S. Ross, Christian Zionism)

‘In Isa 40 God speaks to people whose mood is the mood of many Christians today-despondent people, cowed people, secretly despairing people; people against whom the tide of events has been running for a very long time; people who have ceased to believe that the cause of Christ can ever prosper again. Now see how God through his prophet reasons with them.

Look at the tasks I have done, he says. Could you do them? Could any man do them? “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance?” (Isa 40:12) Are you wise enough, and mighty enough, to do things like that? But I am, or I could not have made this world at all. Behold your God!

Look now at the nations, the prophet continues: the great national powers, at whose mercy you feel yourselves to be. Assyria, Egypt, Babylon-you stand in awe of them, and feel afraid of them, so vastly do their armies and resources exceed yours. But now consider how God stands related to those mighty forces which you fear so much. “Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing.” (Isa 40:15,17) You tremble before the nations, because you are much weaker than they; but God is so much greater than the nations that they are as nothing to him. Behold your God!

Look next at the world. Consider the size of it, the variety and complexity of it; think of the nearly five thousand millions who populate it, and of the vast sky above it. What puny figures you and I are, by comparison with the whole planet on which we live! Yet what is this entire mighty planet by comparison with God? “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.” (Isa 40:22) The world dwarfs us all, but God dwarfs the world. The world is his footstool, above which he sits secure. He is greater than the world and all that is in it, so that all the feverish activity of its bustling millions does no more to affect him than the chirping and jumping of grasshoppers in the summer sun does to affect us. Behold your God!

Look, fourthly, at the world’s great ones-the governors whose laws and policies determine the welfare of millions; the would-be world rulers, the dictators and empire builders, who have it in their power to plunge the globe into war. Think of Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar; think of Alexander, Napoleon, Hitler. Think, today, of Clinton and Saddam Hussein. Do you suppose that it is really these top men who determine which way the world shall go? Think again, for God is greater than the world’s great men. “He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.” (Isa 40:23) He is, as the prayer book says, “the only ruler of princes.” Behold your God!

But we have not finished yet. Look, lastly, at the stars. The most universally awesome experience that mankind knows is to stand alone on a clear night and look at the stars. Nothing gives a greater sense of remoteness and distance; nothing makes one feel more strongly one’s own littleness and insignificance. And we who live in the space age can supplement this universal experience with our scientific knowledge of the actual factors involved-millions of stars in number, billions of light years in distance. Our minds reel; our imaginations cannot grasp it; when we try to conceive of unfathomable depths of outer space, we are left mentally numb and dizzy.

But what is this to God? “Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.” (Isa 40:26) It is God who brings out the stars; it was God who first set them in space; he is their Maker and Master-they are all in his hands and subject to his will. Such are his power and his majesty. Behold your God!

Let Isaiah now apply to us the Bible doctrine of the majesty of God, by asking us the three questions which he here puts in God’s name to disillusioned and downcast Israelites.

1. “To whom then will you compare me, that I should be like him? says the Holy one.” (Isa 40:25 RSV) This question rebukes wrong thoughts about God. “Your thoughts of God are too human,” said Luther to Erasmus. This is where most of us go astray. Our thoughts of God are not great enough; we fail to reckon with the reality of his limitless wisdom and power. Because we ourselves are limited and weak, we imagine that at some points God is too, and find it hard to believe that he is not. We think of God as too much like what we are. Put this mistake right, says God; learn to acknowledge the full majesty of your incomparable God and Savior.

2. “Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, my way is hid from the Lord and my judgment is passed away from my God?” (Isa 40:27 RV) This question rebukes wrong thoughts about ourselves. God has not abandoned us any more than he abandoned Job. He never abandons anyone on whom he has set his love; nor does Christ, the good shepherd, ever lose track of his sheep. It is as false as it is irreverent to accuse God of forgetting, or overlooking, or losing interest in, the state and needs of his own people. If you have been resigning yourself to the thought that God has left you high and dry, seek grace to be ashamed of yourself. Such unbelieving pessimism deeply dishonors our great God and Savior.

3. “Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary?” (Isa 40:28 KJV) This question rebukes our slowness to believe in God’s majesty. God would shame us out of our unbelief. “What is the trouble?” he asks. “Have you been imagining that I, the Creator, have grown old and tired? Has nobody ever told you the truth about me?”

The rebuke is well deserved by many of us. How slow we are to believe in God as God, sovereign, all-seeing and almighty! How little we make of the majesty of our Lord and Savior Christ! The need for us is to “wait upon the LORD” in meditations on his majesty, till we find our strength renewed through the writing of these things upon our hearts.’ (Packer, Knowing God)

Isa 40:2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

Isa 40:3 A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the LORD ; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God.

Isa 40:4 Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain.

Isa 40:5 And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Isa 40:6 A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field.”

‘What stands in the way of God’s purposes? Ultimately only men who are “like grass” before the heat of Yahweh’s unquenchable zeal (40:6-8). Nothing can match the power of God and nothing will deflect the grace of God. He wants to save and he will save.’ (Lewis, The Message of the Living God, 229)

‘The glory of God does not look like much compared to the glory of the nations (cf. 30:1-17). Isaiah cries out, “Those great powers are as transient as the wild flowers! They are no more to be feared than a blade of grass!”‘ (Oswalt)

Isa 40:7 The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the LORD blows on them. Surely the people are grass.

Isa 40:8 The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.”

Isa 40:9 You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, “Here is your God!”

Isa 40:10 See, the Sovereign LORD comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.

Isa 40:11 he tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.

See how v11 and v12 set side by side the tenderness and the power of the Lord: ‘The hand that cups the oceans in its palms, that marks off the galaxies between thumb and forefinger, that holds the dust of the earth and weighs the mountains, belongs to the arm that rules for Zion. He gathers the lambs of the flock like a shepherd who values and cares for each one of them.’ (Lewis, The Message of the Living God, 229)

Isa 40:12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, or with the breadth of his hand marked off the heavens? Who has held the dust of the earth in a basket, or weighed the mountains on the scales and the hills in a balance?

Isa 40:13 who has understood the mind of the LORD, or instructed him as his counselor?

Verses 13-15 ‘In an ancient world crowded with gods, the prophet asks this series of questions to expose the inadequacy of all rivals to Yahweh. He asks further, in mocking terms, who advised Yahweh? How does he manage without counsellors? The nations have armies that outnumber Israel and counsellors that help kings to run their empires, even in the pantheons of the gods there was usually one who existed to give counsel to the others; but no-one can “understand the mind” of God, or has “instructed him as his counsellor” (v14).’ (Lewis, The Message of the Living God, 230)

Isa 40:14 Whom did the LORD consult to enlighten him, and who taught him the right way? Who was it that taught him knowledge or showed him the path of understanding?

Isa 40:15 Surely the nations are like a drop in a bucket; they are regarded as dust on the scales; he weighs the islands as though they were fine dust.

Isa 40:16 Lebanon is not sufficient for altar fires, nor its animals enough for burnt offerings.

Isa 40:17 Before him all the nations are as nothing; they are regarded by him as worthless and less than nothing.

Isa 40:18 To whom, then, will you compare God? What image will you compare him to?

‘The incomparability of God is utterly compromised when the radical discontinuity of the human and the divine is forgotten or denied and never is the denial made more foolish than in the use of idols and images as representations of the invisible God and ways of channelling and controlling his powers. With rising scorn Isaiah begins in chapter 40 to hold up to ridicule the idea that an idol which has to be prevented from toppling over can represent God or be a means of making him serve our purposes (vv 18-20). Before him the gods of the nations are nothing, their idols are pathetic substitutes, man-made and helpless, needing help in standing upright, the crutch of man’s wounded religiosity.’ (Lewis, The Message of the Living God, 231)

Isa 40:19 As for an idol, a craftsman casts it, and a goldsmith overlays it with gold and fashions silver chains for it.

Isa 40:20 A man too poor to present such an offering selects wood that will not rot. He looks for a skilled craftsman to set up an idol that will not topple.

Isa 40:21 Do you not know? Have you not heard? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood since the earth was founded?

Isa 40:22 he sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers. He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in.

The circle of the earth is possibly the sky or the horizon, both of which are circular to the observer.  Or this expression may be an allusion to the ancient idea that the earth itself is a disk.

The idea that this verse explicitly teaches that the earth is a sphere, long before that fact was discovered by science, is groundless.  For example, it is asserted that ‘the scientists of Isaiah’s day didn’t know the topography of the earth, but Isaiah said, “It is [God] that sitteth upon the circle of the earth” (Isaiah 40:22). The word for “circle” here means a globe or sphere. How did Isaiah know that God say upon the circle of the earth? By divine inspiration.’  We think that this very assertion brings the noble doctrine of the divine inspiration of Scripture into disrepute.

He stretches out the heavens like a canopy, and spreads them out like a tent to live in – Even more absurd is the claim that we have here a picture of an expanding universe.  The phrase ‘stretches out’ is parallel to ‘spreads out’.

Just think: ‘the entire creation project is to him as a tent which a man might put up overnight on his travels.’ (Peter Lewis)

Isa 40:23 He brings princes to naught and reduces the rulers of this world to nothing.

Isa 40:24 No sooner are they planted, no sooner are they sown, no sooner do they take root in the ground, than he blows on them and they wither, and a whirlwind sweeps them away like chaff.

Isa 40:25 “To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?” says the Holy One.

Isa 40:26 Lift your eyes and look to the heavens: who created all these? He who brings out the starry host one by one, and calls them each by name. Because of his great power and mighty strength, not one of them is missing.

‘The very stars that others worship as gods and powers ruling earthly affairs are no more to him than a flock of sheep to a shepherd who calls them all by name.’ (Peter Lewis)

Isa 40:27 Why do you say, O Jacob, and complain, O Israel, “My way is hidden from the LORD; my cause is disregarded by my God”?

Isa 40:28 Do you not know? Have you not heard? The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom.

Isa 40:29 he gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak.

The assertion that God is both transcendent and personal is, says Oswalt, perhaps Isaiah’s most important contribution to human thought. Peter Lewis adds, ‘We too do well to remember this when the social, economic and political forces that hold God in easy contempt threaten to crush us and when we feel dwarfed in exile by alien values and impersonal pressures.’ (The Message of the Living God, 232)

‘Times of distress are yet to come, but to the wary who seek him and to the weak who call on his name, to his people in all their distresses, to those who have come to the end of their tether and all their natural resoruces, he will bring relief and vindication and a future with him, strength from the unwearying God. What Isaiah has said in the earlier part of the chapter he says at its end. In the words of John Oswalt: “The Spirit that breathes out destruction for all human pride is the same Spirit who speaks the eternal word of life over all withered and faded human hopes. Here is the paradox introduced at the beginning of the book: if I insist I am permanent, then I become nothing; if I admit that God alone is permanent, then he breathes his permanence on me.”‘ (Lewis, The Message of the Living God, 233)

Isa 40:30 Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall;

Isa 40:31 but those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.