2017 December Issue
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Commentary: Isaiah 40:1-11

At the outset of this familiar text for the second Sunday of Advent, God's emissaries are instructed to assure the exiled Israel that God will soon come to her and deliver her from the grip of her sinfulness. In response to God's mercy, Israel is to proclaim God's grace to all nations, thereby reclaiming her role in God's plan for the redemption of humankind. The context and structure of Isaiah 40:1-11, as well as the audience to which it is addressed, will be considered in light of their contribution to this conclusion.

Context

Whereas the predominant theme in Isaiah 1-39 is God's judgment, Isaiah 40-66 focuses on the deliverance and restoration of Israel. The introduction, which might literally be translated, "`Comfort, comfort TO my people,' says your God," serves to set the scene for the chapters which follow.

The fact that Israel is approaching seventy years of exile in Babylon suggests that she is in need of a word of comfort. Among those who will be liberated are some of the original exiles, as well as those who have never lived outside of captivity. Questions about Israel's status as God's chosen people have undoubtedly arisen throughout these painful years. Has God forgotten Israel entirely, reneging on the promise to Abraham that through him all peoples of the earth will be blessed? An exploration of the structure of the passage will serve to shed light on this and other questions to which the context gives rise.

Structure

Similarities in content and/or meaning between the opening and closing words of a text can serve as an interpretive avenue by which that which is enclosed can be understood. Note that our text begins and ends with compassionate and tender words descriptive of the love of God which embraces Israel: "Comfort, comfort Speak tenderly to Jerusalem," says the prophet (vv.1-2). The passage concludes with a description of a gentle and benevolent God who, "...will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom..." (v.11). The integrity of these words draws the student into a quest to discover just how this comfort and tenderness will be manifested in the life of Israel. In an artfully constructed piece of poetry of which our text is an example, a consideration of that which lies at the center of the text guides one to the heart of the message.

Central to the passage are verses 6-8, which serve to clarify the relationship between God and humankind. Grass, flowers, all of God's creation, are glorious. At the same time, they wither and fade, "when the breath of the Lord blows upon it" (v.7b). Here the prophet reminds us that in and of itself, humankind is of the same value as the rest of creation, existing and flourishing solely by the will of God. It is only through God's all-powerful word, the same creating word that called all things good and created humankind in the image of God, that humankind has a unique function within in the created order. As the parentheses which enclose this passage suggest, that function flows from God's love for all creation.

Israel's function as the one who is liberated from exile through forgiveness is set forth in those verses which link the introduction, conclusion and center, and therefore serve to bind the passage into a coherent whole. Verses 3-5 and 9-10 serve as a "however" which describe to the people of Israel, and thereby to the church, the role they are called to play in God's plan for the redemption of humankind.

As one to whom the prophet's message is spoken while she is still in exile (or the wilderness), Israel is given a vision in verses 3-5 of the world into which she will be freed. The prophet's portrayal suggests a world in which barriers between God and humankind no longer exist. From Israel's perspective, this will be a world in which she exists not simply for herself, but for the good of all people. In response to her liberation, Israel is to hold fast to this vision and thereby be prepared for the glorious day of the Lord's coming by responding to God in an entirely new way.

Where will this new sight graciously given by God to Israel (as vv.6-8 remind us) lead her? Isaiah writes, "Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings" (v.9a). In other words, Israel is to proclaim the good news of God's grace to all people. She will be God's instrument through which "all people shall see it [the glory of the Lord] together" (v.5).

Audience

At this point it is important to consider questions which might arise regarding who the prophet is specifically addressing. While in verse one it is clear that Israel is to be the recipient of the comfort, the use of the phrase, "you who" in Verse 9 causes one to wonder to whom this refers. Written in the singular, this series of commands to proclaim good tidings could be addressed either to Israel as a nation or to an individual. Is Israel to proclaim good tidings to her own people?

Perhaps the best way to resolve this is by considering the entire story of God's faithfulness to humankind which is set forth in Scripture. God works through people, individuals and nations alike, who respond to God's graciousness by passing it along to others in both word and deed. Through the words of the prophet, Israel has been enabled to see the vastness of God's glory as it will come to her through liberation from exile and return to the land God has given her. In response to the prophet's words of comfort, she is to, `Go tell it on the mountain!'

One cannot begin to explore the angles from which Isaiah 40:1-11 might be explored in such a brief space. While the passage is rich and diverse in meaning, one message rings true no matter what the approach: Salvation through forgiveness will come to God's people in the wilderness, and that coming is something to be celebrated and proclaimed to those who have not heard. Such is the task which we, who are the church of Jesus Christ, have joyfully accepted.

Holly D. Hayes

SOURCES

Paul D. Hanson. ISAIAH 40-66, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995). Claus Westerman. ISAIAH 40-66: The Old Testament Library (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1969).