Isaiah 40 Commentary


Between Chapters 39 and 40 there is a gap of about one hundred and fifty years. The scene suddenly changes from Jerusalem in the time of Hezekiah (701 BC) to the distant kingdom of Babylon where the Judeans are held captive. (For the background to the Babylonian captivity see introductory notes, ‘Captivity and return’.) From now on no distinction is made between the northern kingdom Israel and the southern kingdom Judah. The emphasis rather is on encouraging all those living in exile to be ready to return to their ancient homeland and, beginning in Jerusalem, to build a new Israel.

New Jerusalem

Much of Chapters 40-66 is concerned with the glorious future that the captive Israelites could look forward to in the rebuilt Jerusalem. The era that began with their return from exile is known as the post- exilic era. However, many of the blessings pictured in these chapters are far greater than those of restored Israel.

As in former days, so in the post-exilic era, the nation turned away from God. The account in the four Gospels shows clearly that the Israel of Jesus’ time was as far from God as the Israel of Isaiah’s time (cf. Isa 29:13; Mark 7:6-8; 15:12-13). But, as in Isaiah’s time, there were always those who believed, even though their number was small (cf. Isa 8:11-18; John 1:11-12; 6:66-69). This faithful remnant of the old Israel became the nucleus of the new people of God, the Christian church (Acts 1:13-15). The new Israel consists of Abraham’s spiritual offspring. The new Jerusalem is a spiritual community of those of all nations who are born ‘from above’ (Gal 3:14; 3:26-29; 4:26-28).

Even this new community does not at present experience the full blessings pictured in Isaiah. The Messiah’s kingdom has yet to be displayed in its full glory (Matt 25:31-34). But Isaiah’s message seems to point to more than the coming of the Messiah in glory. The complete fulfilment of the prophet’s


message awaits the final state of all things, when God dwells for ever with all his redeemed people in a new order of life never before experienced (Rev 21:1-22:5).

God reassures his people (40:1-11)

According to Israelite custom, when the members of a family received an inheritance from their father, the eldest son received twice the amount that the others received. The nation Israel, being God’s ‘firstborn son’ (Exod 4:22), likewise receive double from God, in punishment as well as blessing. The people’s punishment in being taken captive to Babylon is proof that they are still God’s ‘firstborn son’ and that he still has a special love for them. Now that he has dealt with their sins, he is ready to bless them afresh (40:1-2).

Just as people prepare a smooth highway for a king when he travels across the country, so God has prepared the way for his people to return to their land. Loyal subjects may watch a royal procession, but the whole world will watch when Israel returns to its homeland (3-5).

The prophet, representing the new Jerusalem, announces this good news to the captives. What people do is unreliable and temporary, but what God does is reliable and permanent. The restoration of ruined Jerusalem and the regathering of scattered Israel is certain, because God will do it (6-9). By his mighty power God will conquer the enemy. His reward will be to enjoy fellowship with his people again, caring for them as a shepherd cares for his sheep (10-11).

Israel’s incomparable God (40:12-31)

Should any doubt God’s ability to re-establish Israel in its homeland, the psalm of praise that follows drives away those doubts. God is the great Creator; the universe appears insignificant compared with him. He does whatever he wants, without any help or advice from his creatures (12-14). Israel has no need to fear Babylon or any other ruling power, for nations also are insignificant and powerless before him (15- 17). How absurd, therefore, for people to make lifeless idols and trust in them instead of in the living, almighty God. Yahweh’s people need have no fear of Babylon’s gods (18-20).

Since Yahweh created all and rules over all, the leaders of the nations are as powerless before him as ants or grasshoppers. They are as easily destroyed as dry grass (21-24). On the earth or in the heavens, God controls all (25-26).

In view of all this, the Jewish exiles need not become discouraged through thinking that God is either unwilling or unable to help them. He has not forgotten them, nor has he lost his power. Through him the weak can be made strong (27-29). Those who trust in their own strength will fail, no matter how capable they may appear to be. But those who trust in God will be constantly strengthened by his power, which will lead them on victoriously (30-31).

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