Summary of the Text
Ancient Lens: What can we learn from the historical context?
While crises seem innumerable in the OT, none could compare to the crisis of exile. Babylon, in 587 BC, destroys the city of Jerusalem and the temple, and carries many of its citizens away from the promised land of Judah into Mesopotamia and the biggest empire of the time, Babylon. The first 39 chapters of Isaiah prophecy this judgment, but for it to actually take place must have been an absolute shock. The people of God were living in exile, away from their ancestral homes and their place of worship. It must have felt like the end of the world. Waiting and waiting to return to their ancestral homes. Waiting and waiting to once again worship in their own temple, where the very presence of God lived. Waiting and waiting for a homecoming. As Lamentations attests, “They heard how I was groaning, with no one to comfort me.” (Lam. 1:2,9,17,21).
And then Chapter 40 arrives and everything changes.
Another prophecy comes. “Good News” is given. The idea here is of a herald bringing this new word of hope to God’s people: Comfort, Comfort my people, says your God.” (vs.1)
This is a story about homecoming for a people who have spent years in exile. Isaiah had prophesied destruction for a disobedient Judah, but now “her hard service has been completed…her sin has been paid for.”
We are mostly aware of the next passage because of the NT connection to John the Baptist:
“A voice of one calling:
In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.” (vs.3)
What exactly is this “way”, or “highway” that Isaiah speaks of? In his Westminster Bible Companion Commentary on Isaiah, Walter Brueggemann argues that “highways were built in that ancient world primarily for processional events, when rulers and gods could parade in victory.” (p.18) In this text, Yahweh is the victor over Babylon and its false gods. The “way” is made easy by God, it will not be an arduous journey home. (See J. Alec Motyer, Tyndale Commentary Series)
Next the oracle shares a metaphor (vs.6-8) on the transience of life. At first this may seem a strange place to describe human mortality, but it connects to the promises of Yahweh, which, unlike individuals or even empires, will never fail. People will die, Empires will fall, but God’s word, and His promises, never will.
In the final verses (vs.9-11) of our text, “good news” is proclaimed. Homecoming, with God at the center, is coming to Judah. Brueggemann continues…“The prophet-herald is to announce “gospel” to the cities of Judah. The “good news” is summarized: “Behold your God.” Or we might say, Look, here is your God.” The gospel makes the God of Israel visible and effective in a setting from which Yahweh had seemed to be expelled.” In other words, from an ancient perspective, a people being destroyed would assume their god had also been defeated. But, even with God’s people in exile, “The Sovereign Lord comes with power.” (v. 10) The longing for God’s presence, for the Lord to “tear down the heavens,” is taking place.
Ἰησοῦς Lens: How do we point to Jesus?
There are a number of key elements in this text that connect to Jesus’ earthly ministry, beginning perhaps with the reference in Isaiah 40 to John the Baptist’s ministry in each of the gospel accounts. While the original context clearly dealt with the release of God’s people from exile, each of the four gospel writers believed its application extended to Jesus’ ministry as well.
In other words, just as Yahweh proclaims “good news” of the captives being freed, so too does Jesus’ ministry entail a freeing of captives, albeit on a different scale altogether. Preachers may want to connect the highway metaphor in Isaiah 40:3 to Jesus’ procession through Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.
Jesus, as Immanuel, God with us, is also the great comforter. When we meditate on the reality of the incarnation, the fact that God himself experienced the pain, the highs and lows of what it means to be a human being, there is often a peace that we experience. I (Stu) will never forget, in a particularly difficult season of life, reflecting on the fact that God himself experienced rejection, pain, isolation and loneliness. It was enough to bring me to tears.
Modern Lens: How does this touch our heart, life, emotions, thoughts and relationships today?
How do we, in this season of the COVID pandemic, connect to the losses of the Babylonian Captivity? In the U.S. context, the majority have never known what it is like to be defeated in battle and be driven out of our homeland. To lose our homes, our possessions, our ways of making a living. Indeed, during the COVID-19 pandemic, home is one of the only places we can be, especially for those of us who are in higher risk categories.
But doesn’t home refer to something larger than four walls and a roof? Doesn’t it include the sense of being a part of a larger community? Meeting up with friends and family, breaking bread and sharing life with each other. So much of this has been taken from us during the pandemic. So much of our ability to live life to its fullest has been removed. Perhaps this is where we can connect to Isaiah 40. And perhaps in God’s sovereignty, this passage was placed in front of us to serve as a comfort. That, as dark as things have gotten, there is nevertheless a word of comfort. No, there is actually news, “good news,” for God’s people. A way, the way, is being paved before us. God’s presence is right here for our benefit.
But maybe we can also connect from an individual standpoint. Many of us have experienced an unexpected job loss. A baby, seemingly healthy who doesn’t survive. A betrayal by a close friend. And what we need in those moments is a God who comforts us.
Every valley shall be raised up,
every mountain and hill made low;
the rough ground shall become level,
the rugged places a plain.
And the glory of the Lord will be revealed,
and all people will see it together.
May we see the glory of the Lord this Advent Season,
Jesus fulfills his mission from Mark 1:14, that the “kingdom of God is at hand” by enacting not only the words but the works of the kingdom. Mark’s stress on the swift and immediate flow of Jesus’ Galilean ministry in chapter one reflects the “nearness” and “immediacy” of the kingdom. The remainder of Mark’s Gospel uses the word euthus more sparingly, but his near overuse to this point has set the scene for his readers of the the impending Kingdom of God ushered in by Jesus.
When life caves in, you do not need reasons – you need comfort. You do not need some answers – you need someone. Jesus does not come to us with an explanation – He comes to us with His presence.
In his classic work Transitions, author and professor William Bridges shares an excellent anecdote about life in crisis: it can happen at any time and in a myriad of ways. It also demonstrates the “messy middle” of life. We all have a certain trajectory, but oftentimes that trajectory is disrupted, and the ensuing crisis requires a “taking stock” and a re-thinking of life as we know it:
I became interested in the subject of transition around 1970 when I was going through some difficult inner and outer changes. Although I gave up my teaching career because of those changes, I found myself teaching a seminar called “Being in Transition.” (Rule number one: When you’re in transition, you find yourself coming back in new ways to old activities.)
The twenty-five adults who showed up tor that course were in various states of confusion and crisis, and I was a bit at sea myself. I had, after all, left my career and moved my family to the country…I had imagined, I think, that the seminar would attract mostly other exurbanites and that together we could puzzle out this difficult transition. A few of these new country folk were in the class, but the mix was far richer than that…
There was a young woman who was living on her own for the first time. She was appalled to find that the rest of us, her elders, didn’t have our lives in better shape. “Its OK to be messing around when you’re twenty-three,” she said, “but I plan to get it all together by the time I’m your age.” (We all nodded sheepishly and admitted we had planned it that way, too.)
In the context of Isaiah 40, this illustration can connect well to the crisis of displacement (exile), and the reality that crisis can come at any time, even for adults! While each of us may expect to have our lives “together” as adults, oftentimes crises happen nevertheless, forcing us to discern a path forward that is true to ourselves. Thankfully, at the end of the day, there is good news for those who seek God in the midst of crisis, that God will be with us, and that a new day will eventually dawn.