Print this page

Isaiah 40:1-11

Isaiah 40:1-11

Background to the Book of Isaiah

Historical:In 598 BCE, 587 BCE, 582 BCE (Jer 52:28-30), the Babylonians deported significant numbers of Israelites to Babylon, especially the leaders and highly educated people. It appears that the Babylonians allowed the exiles to own land (Jer 29:5) and gave them much freedom. They could continue to worship (Ezek 8:1, 14:1,3, 20:1,29, Jer 29:1), to participate in trade (Marashu business texts), to remain in tribal groups with their leaders (Jer 29:5-7) and to serve on royal projects and in the military forces. The evidence of the Jeremiah, Deutero-Isaiah, Ezekiel and Priestly material shows that writing continued in the exile. An awareness of both the written and oral traditions of the past is seen in these books. While some writings (Deutero-Isaiah, Jeremiah, Deuteronomic History) probably received their final form in exile, other writings (Priestly, Psalms, Ezekiel) did not achieve their final form until much later. The people were aware of the Torah requirements (see Lev 26:14-45, an exilic sermon) and Ezekiel drew upon the laws in the Holiness Code in Lev 17-25. The later writings confirmed that the people in Babylon knew the requirements of the law (Ezra 7:11-20: Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law, the one sent by the God of heaven to Jerusalem with treasures for the temple and a commission to undertake teaching of the law and moral reform). We assume that if Ezra was going to Jerusalem as a teacher of the law he would also have been teaching the law to those in Babylon.

In summary, the exilic community appears to have been well organised, able to enjoy the benefits of Babylonian life and free to maintain its own religious life and worship. Although the people were not able to worship at the temple and offer sacrifices, they learnt about their past traditions (Isa 40-55) and the requirements of the law (Deuteronomic History, Ezekiel, Leviticus).

PURPOSE of Isa 40-55:These chapters in the scroll of Isaiah appear to address a situation later in the exile (circa 540 BCE) when the prophet proclaims that God wants them to return to Jerusalem. Most of the older generation would have died, those who remained would have heard the stories of Jerusalem, but this generation would be very comfortable, settled, well off, living in a fertile and cultured country. They were safe, had freedom and many obtained wealth.

The question is how do you get a group of people to move who are comfortable, settled, whose children are born in this new country, to move back to a wreck of a city taken over by people from the surrounding countries, Edom, Moab ,Transjordan etc. You want to transport them back to a rocky and barren landscape, where there was no immediate opportunities for making a living. We have the experience of Kosovar refugees who were only in Australia a few months not 40 plus years and some of them had no desire to return to probable hardship and possible death. I have no desire to return to a ‘but and ben' in the Highlands of Scotland on a permanent basis. A holiday is wonderful.

This is the task of the writer of Isa 40-55 - to convince the people to return to Jerusalem and build the temple and city again. The experience of the exile has made them realise that they have to rely on the grace of God alone and that it is only by God's loving kindness they can know forgiveness.

Literary Comments: Isa 40-55 begins with a prologue in Isa 40:1-11 which sets out the message of the following sixteen chapters. The first verse declares that the people of Israel are forgiven and they have suffered enough for all their rebellion and unfaithfulness. Now God will lead them back to Jerusalem. The poetry is quite different to that used in Isa 1-39 and is regarded as some of the most beautiful in the Old Testament. Isa 40-55 proclaims God as creator and develops the explanation God as creator of the world first stated in Gen 1. Not only is Yahweh creator of the world, but also redeemer of people within history. It is Isa 40-55 who has a fully monotheistic presentation of God. Up to this point there has been an acknowledgement and acceptance of other gods by the writers of the Hebrew Scriptures. This can be seen in many of the psalms we read.

Context of Isa 40:1-11

The lectionary reading set for this week comes directly after three chapters (Isa 36-39) which are an historical summary bridging from the time of Isaiah of Jerusalem to the time in Babylon and taken from 2 Kings 18:13-20:11. The prophecy of Isaiah in Isa 39:6-7 has come true as we begin to read Isa 40. As a prologue to Isa 40-55 it tells the reader what are the main themes which will be expounded throughout the next sixteen chapters. After the prologue in Isa 40:1-11 the remainder of the chapter extols the abilities of God as Creator of the world. It finishes with a rhetorical question to the people asking them, "how could they have not known the ways of God?" As Creator one can see God's power all around. From the declaration of God as Creator the prophet moves to God's ways as redeemer within history as the actions of God are related in Isa 41:1-7. This leads into a personal message to Israel which reiterates that God will care for them and keep them safe (Isa 41:8-20). Although he isn't named in Isa 41:25-29 the reference is understood to be to Cyrus who is already as work as the servant who is to be commissioned. After the proclamation about the servant and his designated role (Isa 42:1-9), there follows a song of praise in which the creation itself sings to God (Isa 42:10-13). The chapter continues with further announcements by the prophet speaking for God making it clear to them that God is, and always has been in control, and therefore the people can trust.

Literary: Isa 40:1-11 presupposes that the destruction of Jerusalem has taken place. The language changes from that of judgement on the people to an unconditional proclamation by God in which the people are not called on to repent. They have suffered the consequences of their unfaithfulness and now is a new era. These verses are addressed to Jerusalem and make connections back to both Isa 36-39 which speak of the fate of Jerusalem, and to Isa 1:1. While Isa 40-55 addresses an exilic situation it seems that when the final composition of the Book of Isaiah took place there are bridging concepts such as that above which give it a unity alongside the diversity. The personality of the prophet is subordinated in Isa 40-55, for example, in verse three "a voice cries", not the prophet. This subordination of the prophet continues through the the sixteen chapters and God's voice speaking in the first person becomes the dominant voice. Some scholars (Seitz: 329, Watts: 78) suggest these verses (Isa 40:1-9) reflect evidence of a divine council because it is a plural imperative in v.1 which indicates that God is calling on the divine council to comfort "my people" and the further use of "a voice" in vv.3 & 6. Whether this constitutes enough evidence is a matter of debate. Verses 1-11 make one unit followed by vv.12-31. However, Watts suggests that "vv.1-8 make up a tight unit and their relation to v.9 mirrors the structure of chaps. 40-55". This suggestion is necessary for him because he needs vv.9-11 to make one of his chiastic structures to fit the following verses (Watts:78).

The passage begins with two plural imperatives - comfort, comfort followed by the words which indicate that it is prophetic oracle with all its attendant authority. The flow continues with the assertion of God’s forgiveness, which does not demand repentance first - God declares it without any effort by the people. A voice commands a way to be prepared, God will deal with all the physical difficulties of terrain - provide food, Zion is waiting, God gathers them - all this leads to the exiles release and the new exodus (Westermann: 33). The images of Exodus remind the people that God led them once before and will do so again. Vv.1-2 allow the past to be left behind and give the freedom to face the future in which God's comfort will encapture both forgiveness and the instruction to return to Jerusalem. We are not speaking of cheap grace because we know the people have indeed suffered the consequences of their unfaithfulness to God (Hanson: 19). If the people had felt the absence of God's presence in exile this opening speech of Isa 40-55 reverses that suggestion. God's voice will be forever and God's compassion and care will prevail

Message:This message is declared at a later in time in exile. The exilic community appears to have been well organised, able to enjoy the benefits of Babylonian life and free to maintain its own religious life and worship. Although the people were not able to worship at the temple and offer sacrifices, they learnt about their past traditions (Isa 40-55) and the requirements of the law (Deuteronomic History, Ezekiel, Leviticus). It is no longer the necessity to explain why they were in exile, but a call comes to return to Jerusalem. The Persians were on the rise and Babylon on the wane and as we know from previous times, these changes often gave the opportunity for change within Israel or Judah. Cyrus founded an enormous empire from Greek cities in Asia Minor, as far as the borders of India, subdued what is now Afghanistan, almost to borders of China, and well into southern Russia as far as Samarkand. In 540 BCE Cyrus returned to the west and invaded Mesopotamia and burned the city of Akkad. The prophet had to use all his creative powers to persuade a group of people to return to the devastated ruin which had been Jerusalem. He focused on the power of God - God's ability to forgive (vv.1-2), God as Creator can make the journey easy (vv.3-5), God's voice is forever unlike humanity (vv.6-8), God will prevail as warrior, and God will be like a shepherd keeping the people safe as they travel back to Jerusalem. In spite of these reassurances we know that very small numbers of exiles returned which indicates how difficult it must have been for Isa 40-55 to convince some people to return. Many of the images in Isa 40 have been picked in the proclamation and person of Jesus Christ. Christ is the Word made flesh (v.8), the glory is revealed through Christ's birth, life, death and resurrection (v.5), Christ is the shepherd carrying the sore and troubled (v.11). God comes with might not as a warrior, but as a helpless babe. So as the exiles looked for the coming of God we look for the coming of Christ. The heavenly voice of Isa 40:3 becomes the voice of John the Baptist crying in the wilderness prophesying the coming of Christ.

Resources/Worship for Isa 40:1-11
Worship:This passage works well with different voices for vv.1-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-11.
Resources: Commentaries
The Old Testament Guides (OTG) by Sheffield Academic Press are an excellent small resource which give many suggestions for readings on particular aspects in the book.
The New Interpreter's Bible is another very helpful resource and published in the late 1990's - 2002 is more up to date than some earlier works.

Baltzer, Klaus. Deutero-Isaiah: A Commentary on Isaiah 40-55. Herm. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press, 2001.
Brueggemann, Walter. Isaiah 40-66. Westminster BC. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, c1998.
Childs, Brevard S. Isaiah. OTL. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001.
Hanson, Paul D. Isaiah 40-66. Int. Louisville, Ky.: John Knox, 1995.
Muilenburg, James, and Henry Sloan Coffin. "The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66." In The Interpreter's Bible. 5:381-773. New York: Abingdon Press, 1956.
Oswalt, John. The Book of Isaiah. Chapters 40-66. NICOT. Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1998.
Scullion, John J. Isaiah 40-66. OTM. Wilmington, Del. Michael Glazier, 1982.

Seitz, Christopher. "The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66." In The Interpreter's Bible. 6:307-552: Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001.
Thompson, Michael. Isaiah Chapters 40-66. Epworth Commentaries. Peterborough: Epworth Press, 2001.
Watts, John. Isaiah 34-66. WBC. Waco, Tex.: Word Book, 1987.
Westermann, Claus. Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary. OTL. London: SCM Press, 1966.b
Whybray, R. N. Isaiah 40-66. NCB. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott; Grand Rapids, Mich. W. B. Eerdmans, 1981, c1975.Whybray, R. N. The Second Isaiah, OTG. Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1983.
Young, E. J. The Book of Isaiah: The English Text, with Introduction, Exposition, and Notes. NICOT. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 1972.

The Dramatised Bible: ed. Michael Perry. London: Marshall Pickering: Bible Society, 1989

Web sites with helpful lectionary resources:

 


Previous page: Isaiah 35:1-10
Next page: Isaiah 40:21-31