COMFORT Isaiah 40–48
“Announce this with shouts of joy and proclaim it. Send it out to the ends of the earth; say, ’The Lord has redeemed His servant Jacob’ “ (Isa. 48:20).Hope for us as for ancient Israel rests entirely on the incomparable nature of our God.
The historical section in Isaiah 36–39 closes with the account of Isaiah’s denunciation of Hezekiah for welcoming Babylon’s envoys. These chapters serve to illustrate Isaiah 1–35. But they also serve as a bridge introducing us to Isaiah 40–66. For suddenly Isaiah seemed catapulted a hundred years ahead in time. The Babylonian invasion was past, and the Jews were captives in a strange land. Yet Isaiah spoke words of comfort, confidently describing the destruction of Babylon and the salvation of God’s people. The nation will yet be redeemed, and God’s purposes in His people will be fulfilled. The theory that one or more different persons wrote the second half of Isaiah is rooted in the viewpoint of chapters 40–66. In the first half of Isaiah, Assyria is the main enemy, and the prophet’s message is a grim oracle of judgment. In chapters 40–66 Babylon, which has conquered Judah, is about to be judged, and Cyrus, her Persian conqueror, is named. Rather than the darkness of impending judgment, these later chapters are bright with the confident hope of restoration. Yet the idea that Isaiah wrote both sections poses no great problem for those who take a repeated message found in chapters 40–66 seriously. The God who spoke through Isaiah is fully able to “declare to us the things to come” and to “tell us what the future holds” (41:22–23; 45:21). Speaking by the Spirit of God Isaiah, like other ancient Hebrew prophets, was transported beyond his own time. His words of comfort and hope were rooted in the sure conviction of what God would do, not what He had already done. Some of the most powerful and exalted passages in the entire Bible are found in these chapters of comfort. These passages can fill us too with hope. They remind us as they reminded ancient Israel of just how wonderful and how loving our God is.
Judah’s sovereign Lord intends good for His people (40:1–31). God, not the idols worshiped by the nations, controls the future (41:1–29). Though Israel failed its national calling as God’s servant, One from the nation will fulfill God’s purpose (42:1–25) when the Creator acts to redeem His chosen people (43:1–44:25). As evidence, God will appoint one named Cyrus to restore Jerusalem (v. 26–45:25). Oppressive Babylon will be crushed, and God’s word of blessing for Israel will be fulfilled (46:1–48:22).
Understanding the Text
“Here is your God” Isa. 40:1–31.
The first time I traveled in the western America, I couldn’t believe the sky. It seemed so big. I had to keep looking to the left and right to take it all in. This is something like Isaiah’s treatment here of God. He is so big, Isaiah has us look to the left and the right to try to take Him in. Looking left, Isaiah described a God “enthroned above the circle of the earth” to whom the nations seem “like a drop in a bucket” (vv. 6–26). Looking left, we are simply overwhelmed by the awesome greatness of God’s power and mighty strength. Then Isaiah has us look right, and we see the Creator stoop down to touch the individual, and give “strength to the weary.” Because ours is a God who not only creates but who also cares, “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” (vv. 27–31). “Here is My servant, whom I uphold” Isa. 42:1–25. There are two “servants” in Isaiah. One is Israel (cf. vv. 8–10), which failed to accomplish God’s purpose. The other, introduced here, is the Messiah. This Servant, who is to come from God’s failed servant, “will bring forth justice; He will not falter or be discouraged till He establishes justice on earth” (v. 4). As a “covenant for the people” this Servant will Himself be the foundation on which Israel will build its future—a future which includes salvation for the Gentiles as well as the descendants of Abraham (vv. 6–7). In context Isaiah’s message about the coming Servant of the Lord is intended for comfort and hope. But it is also a challenge. God’s Old Testament people were called to do justice, and by holy living to be “a light for the Gentiles.” In fact, every believer of every age is to be just this kind of servant of the Lord. We must do justice, live holy lives, and bring the light of a hope that releases “from the [spiritual] dungeon those who sit in darkness” (v. 7). Jesus has fulfilled God’s commission as “the” Servant of the Lord. Now you and I are called to be servants too. “Fear not, for I have redeemed you” Isa. 43:1–28. Like other chapters in this section, Isaiah 43 is rich in verses that invite memorization. Here are a few from this chapter, crafted to comfort us. Fear not, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned; the flames will not set you ablaze (vv. 1–2). I, even I, am He who blots out your transgressions, for My own sake, and remembers your sins no more (v. 25). “I will raise up Cyrus” Isa. 45:1–25. One of the basic sources of comfort for the believer is the conviction that God is in complete control of events. The theme is illustrated by God’s act in naming Cyrus, long before his birth, and announcing that Cyrus will be given a “title of honor, though you do not acknowledge Me” (vv. 1–7). Whether or not the great ones of our present world honor God, He alone is the source of their existence and position. The theme is demonstrated by Creation. The universe knows only one all-powerful Being, who “made the earth and created mankind upon it” (vv. 8–17). Surely the Creator has full power to mold those who are works of His hands into whatever form He chooses. The theme is confirmed by God’s unique self-existence. In a universe in which men worship idols, there is “none but Me” who is able to save, who utters a word “that will not be revoked,” and who will ultimately receive the homage of all (vv. 18–25). God is in control of world events—and of the days of our lives. Because He is, and because the Lord is “a righteous God and a Saviour” (v. 21), we face the future with confidence and hope. “I foretold the former things long ago” Isa. 48:3–8. Some people will always try to drain religion of the supernatural. It was true in Isaiah’s day, and it’s true in our day as well. We can almost hear frustration in the prophet’s voice as God spoke to Judah through him: “I foretold the former things long ago, My mouth announced them and I made them known; then suddenly I acted, and they came to pass. . . . You have heard these things; look at them all. Will you not admit them?” There is no more compelling evidence for the supernatural origin and authority of the Scriptures than fulfilled prophecy. Time and time again the Bible records the prediction of some prophet—and hundreds or thousands of years later what is predicted is fulfilled in detail. Yet, time and time again, some struggle to find excuses not to admit what God has said and done. The skeptic finds no comfort in Scripture because he or she will not believe in an all-powerful God who acts in the world of men. The believer rejoices and finds a firm foundation of his or her hope. “Your peace would have been like a river” Isa. 48:17–22. The person who fails to trust God’s Word completely forfeits more than comfort. He or she forfeits peace. God said through Isaiah, “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you what is best for you, who directs you in the way you should go.” He added, “If only you had paid attention” then “your peace would have been like a river.” The person who abandons confidence in the Word of God will soon abandon God’s commands as well. When that happens, he or she will discover that “there is no peace,” says the Lord, “for the wicked.” Trust in God’s Word is not simply an intellectual issue. It is one of the pivotal issues of faith and life.
Bigger Than Me(Isa. 44)
This chapter contains the Bible’s classic exposé of idolatry. It pictures a workman forging an idol of metal or carving it from wood. And it ridicules the idol-maker, who sees no contradiction in burning half the wood of a tree he cut down to cook his food, and then praying to the remaining block of wood, “Save me; you are my god.” But the idol-maker is ridiculous. He wants someone or something to save him. But he chooses something he himself has made to serve as a god. “Give me a god,” the idol-maker seems to say. “But don’t give me a god bigger than me. Give me a god I can control: one I can make out of a tree I cut down; one I can shape to suit myself.” In biblical times evidence of idolatry lay all around. You could see and touch the metal or wooden figures of the gods. Today we like to think man has progressed beyond idolatry. But in fact, the very same attitude dominates the thinking of many in this “scientific” age. No, we don’t have metal or wooden figures. But we do have computers. We do have spaceships. We do have hydrogen bombs and rockets. We have many such works of our own hands, and all too often humanity says to these things man himself has created, “Save me. Save me. I’m counting on you to deliver me.” And then God’s Word comes to our generation. He reminds us that our craftsmen too “are nothing but men.” To have confidence in things that we have made is the essence of idolatry. It is to exchange hope in the living God for hope in dumb, silent works of our own hands. Mankind does want gods. But gods that are under human control. When we meet the God of Scripture, we meet a God who is bigger than we. Then we abandon our attempts to control Him—and joyfully submit to the loving-kindness and the guidance of a living God.
An idol is anything less than God that you expect to save you.