A Bible study prepared by Paul Beasley-Murray to supplement Comfortable Words – A Call to Restoration: Reflections on Isaiah 40-55 (BRF 2021) by Steven Croft.
Introduction to Isaiah 40-55: A text without a context is a pretext
If we are to hear God speak to us today, we need to hear what he first said to his people. Only then can we ask ourselves as to what he wishes to say to us today. The question therefore arises: What was God saying when Isaiah first penned these words?
Indeed, there is even a prior question: Was it Isaiah who actually wrote the words we are about to study. For although tradition has it that all 66 chapters of the book of Isaiah were written by the prophet Isaiah, tradition is almost certainly wrong. Most Biblical scholars today suggest that the book of Isaiah is by two different authors living at two different times: 1-39 is by Isaiah the prophet, who lived and worked in the 8C BC; 40-66 is by some unknown prophet who lived and worked in the 6C. The fact is that in this book we find two totally different situations.
In Isaiah 1-39 Jerusalem is free, the enemy is Assyria. We can date a number of dates with some accuracy: e.g. the call of Isaiah described in Is 6 took place in 740BC; the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib described in Is 36 took place in 701 BC.
In Is 40-66 Jerusalem has been taken, the cream of the nation is in exile in Babylon. The ruler occupying centre stage is Cyrus. Almost certainly Is 40-66 was written just before 539 BC, when Cyrus gave orders for the temple to be rebuilt, and for the Jewish exiles to be allowed to return.
To believe that Isaiah was responsible for the whole book would entail believing that in Is 40-66 the prophet was principally in the business of foretelling things to take place in the distant future. But normally prophets foretold events which were of immediate relevance to their contemporaries. Of what possible relevance would the prophecies contained in Is 40-66 have been to Isaiah’s contemporaries in 8C BC?
Who wrote the second half of Isaiah? We do not know. It could have been a woman, but probably it was a man. Scholars refer to the author as Second Isaiah – preachers and teachers like Bishop Steven Croft sometimes refer to ‘the poet’ in the sense that he engages in a good deal of poetic language. Others simply call him ‘the prophet’. All that is certain is that he wrote just before 539 BC.
His was a very different context from that of Isaiah. More importantly, his was a very different context from ours. He was writing to Jews living a long time before Jesus – whereas we are Christians living a long time after Jesus. The people to whom he wrote were in exile – while we are not. Yet, for all the differences, I think we shall discover that his is a message is one that we still need to hear – indeed, it is also a message that our world still needs to hear. To quote Steven Croft: “These beautiful songs were forged in a crucible of great suffering but also in a moment of great hope” (13). As a nation we have been through a period of great suffering too – and as we emerge from Covid-19 we long for hope too.
- A MESSAGE OF COMFORT
40.1: “Comfort, O comfort, my people, says your God.” Notice the two possessive adjectives: my people – your God. God has not given up on his people. “Like the prodigal in the far country, they are reminded that they still have a father who loves them, and a home to go to” (George Knight, Servant Theology, Handsel Press, Edinburgh revised 1984).
Is 40:2:”Speak tenderly to Jerusalem”: literally speak to the heart of Jerusalem. GNB: “encourage the people of Jerusalem”. Alec Motyer (The Prophecy of Isaiah, IVP Leicester, 299) wrote that the prophet “is not just expressing comfort and kindness, but it seeking to persuade, inviting to respond to love”. According to Steven Croft, it can mean to speak healing into the hearts of others.
- A MESSAGE OF FORGIVENESS
Cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
GNB puts it: “Tell them they have suffered long enough and their sins are now forgiven”. It was because Israel had turned their backs on God, that they had found themselves carried away into exile. But for God judgment did not have the last word – his love did. Israel thought her God had abandoned her, but God never abandons those he loves. We may forget him, but he never forgets us.
- A MESSAGE OF HOPE
Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.
The hope of glory of which the prophet speaks was to be seen as God’s people return along the highway which runs from Babylon to Jerusalem. God is coming to the aid of his people To see God in action, to see God at work in salvation, is to see his glory.
- A MESSAGE OF LOVE
Is 40:11: He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom [NIV ‘close to his heart’], and gently lead the mother sheep”. There is a real contrast here: in the immediately preceding verse the prophets says that “the Lord God comes with strength” (40.10). But it is strength is combined with gentleness. God, it has been said, is ‘the gentle giant’ (George Knight). God is likened to a good shepherd, who is sensitive to the needs of all, and not least to the needs of the weak. Claus Westermann (Isaiah 40-66, SCM, London 1969) “The details given in v11b emphasise the fact that the shepherd does not lead an undifferentiated multitude, but individuals: each one receives the care he needs from him”. What an amazing thought. When God looks down, he doesn’t see just a crowd of people scuttling hither and thither, he sees us all in our individual need. He cares for his people on an individual basis.
GOOD NEWS FOR US TO SHARE
Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings [NIV ‘good news’]; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear.
Barry Webb (The Message of Isaiah, IVP Leicester 1996) 162:
The gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel of Isaiah 40 transposed into a new, higher key. And it, too, is far too important to be contained. It must be shouted from the housetops, not just for the cities of Judah, but for all to hear.
Similarly, Steven Croft emphasizes that this is not just a message for us to receive – it is also a message for us to share:
- A message of comfort – “to draw alongside others, physically and virtually, as God draws alongside others. That comfort will sometimes be practical, as we continue to offer shelter, food parcels or advice and support. It may simply be a smile, an encouraging word, a phone call or a note” (16)
- A message of forgiveness: “The very heart of our calling is to proclaim that forgiveness as grace and gift and to proclaim God’s love in all circumstances and for every life” (17)
- A message of hope. “The hope of glory” (Col 1.27) that we have to share is that death will not have the last word for those who put their trust in Jesus
- A message of love:
We have to sing, through actions, prayers, words and worship, in every place and in every way we can, this song which Isaiah teaches us again… We must recall the nation to the heart and rhythm of God, to what matters, to meaning and truth.