Isaiah 40 is the prologue to the Servant Prophecy. As the glory of Yahweh was to be revealed it was appropriate that an herald should prepare men for the most august event in history. Thus, following the gladsome news of coming com­fort, the mission of John the Baptist is foretold. This is followed by further details of the glad tidings: the certainty of recompense for Jerusalem, and the manner of Messiahʼs appearance—as a caring and compassionate Shepherd.

40:1,2 The Ultimate Blessing to Come as a Result of the Work of Yahwehʼs Servant is Stated First: Godʼs People to be Comforted and Forgiven

Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.  Speak ye comfortably [RSV ʻtenderlyʼ, HEB and ROTH ʻto the heartʼ] to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare [ROTH mrg ʻhard serviceʼ] is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of Yahwehʼs hand double [ROTH ʻfull measureʼ] for all her sins.

Verse 1 It is with the beautiful words of verse 1 that Handelʼs oratorio The Messiah commences. The speaker is Yahweh of Israel and those addressed are called “my people”. They are the saints, the heavenly Jerusalem, the bride and wife of the Creator (Rev 19:7,8; 21:2, 9, 10). This is clear because the words of comfort are specifically addressed to the woman, Jerusalem: “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare… her iniquity… for she hath received…”.

Some expositors have applied the words to Jerusalem in Hezekiahʼs day when delivered by Godʼs intervention from the Assyrian invasion, while others to the deliverance of the Jews from Babylon and their restoration to their land by Cyrus. While both of these “deliverances” are referred to by Isaiah in neighbouring chapters (ch 37, the Assyrian; ch 45 the Babylonian), the scope of the words and the ensuing context fits the ultimate redemption of the Bride, the Lambʼs wife, for the “comfort” is the outcome of the work of the Son of God. The natural seed of Abraham, purged, restored and forgiven in that day, will form part of the “redeemed Jerusalem” (52:9) and be “comforted” by Yahweh her “Maker” and her “husband” (54:5). Reference is made to this “comfort” in the following places: 51:3 “the Lord shall comfort Zion”; 49:13, “for the LORD hath comforted his people”, 52:9; 61:2; 66:13 and Matthew 5:4 etc.

A final note on the words of verse one. The word translated “comfort” is the same as the name of the minor prophet “Nahum”. He proclaimed a message of comfort to Zion foretelling the destruction of the Assyrian and the demise of his capital, Nineveh. The words he uses, “Behold upon the mountains the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace” (1:15), have echoes in Isaiah 40:9 and 52:7.

Verse 2 “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem” as in the margin, “to the heart” (cp Gen 34:3; 50:21; 2 Chron 32:6).

The expression is also used of the day when Israel will be converted and “be betrothed to Yahweh forever” in Hosea 2:14: “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak comfortably [mg Heb ʻto the heartʼ], unto her”.

The nature of “the comfort” is revealed in the words that follow: “and cry unto her that her, warfare [mrg ROTH ʻhard serviceʼ; LXX ʻhumiliationʼ] is accomplished”. Here we are told that the message is to be delivered in the manner of a crier making loud public proclamation (cp v3, 9). Also note that Jerusalem is personified.

The word for “warfare” signifies an army going forth to war, and hence denotes “an appointed time of service” (cp Job 7:1 ʻset timeʼ; 14:14 ʻappointed timeʼ), and is used of the Levites in the tabernacle service: “All that enter in to perform the service [Heb, ʻto war the warfareʼ], to do the work in the tabernacle of the congregation” (Num 8:24,25).

The “comfort” of Jerusalem is here defined as the cessation of her labours and the pardoning of her sins. This latter blessing comes as a result of Messiahʼs sufferings (53:6,12; Jer 31:34; Heb 8:8–12). The figure of Jerusalem as the “wife” of Yahweh and the “mother” of the true servants of God has various phases in the prophecy; at times she is “forsaken” and complaining (49:14); elsewhere she is uncomprehending of how she could bear so many sons while alone (49:21); she is also called upon to rejoice because her offspring is so numerous (54:1) etc. In what sense then can it be said that she has “received of Yahwehʼs hand double [Roth ʻfull measureʼ] for all her sins”? Looking back historically, “Jerusalem”, the “wife” of the Creator, and the “mother” of saints, has fulfilled her times of suffering, and having received abundant pardon, times of blessing and comfort await her. It is not easy to articulate the concepts in this verse, but this is how it appears to the author.

40:3–5 The Levelling of Human Pride, the Necessary Preparation for the Glory to be Revealed

Verse 3 “The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of Yahweh, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”

Some translations (including ROTH and RSV) annex the phrase “in the wilderness” to the latter part of the sentence, viz, “A voice crieth ʻIn the wilderness prepare ye the way of Yahwehʼ”. The Hebrew will bear this construction, though the LXX and Vulgate render it as in the AV. There is not a lot of difference either way though the parallelism seems to require the alternative to the AV. Cp Rotherham:

“A voice of one crying

In the desert prepare ye the way of Yahweh

Make smooth in the waste plain a highway for our God.”

This verse foretells the great heraldic work of the Lordʼs forerunner, John the Baptist. The words are cited in every Gospel as having their fulfilment in his work of preparation (Matt 3:3, Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23). Fittingly, John the Baptist, though unnamed by Isaiah, was in fact named before he was born, and his name embodies the message he bore, “the grace of Yahweh”. This was about to be revealed. It is significant, too, that when asked by the Jews who he was, he virtually said he was a ʻnobodyʼ—alongside the awesome, glorious one he would introduce to the nation—he was merely a voice: “Then said they unto him, Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself? He said, I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaias” (John 1:22,23).

Luke tells us that John was himself prepared for his great work “in the deserts” far removed from the sophistication of man. It was there also that he preached “the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins”. The hearts of men were being challenged and prepared for the greatest manifestation of “the Glory of God” of all time: the only begotten Son of God was about to reveal His Fatherʼs glory to man. As expressed by Isaiah, John was “preparing the way of Yahweh”, and an “highway for our Elohim” (see comments on verse 5). In delineating Johnʼs mission to Zacharias, Gabriel had said, “And many of the children of Israel shall he turn to the Lord their God. And he shall go before him in the spirit and power of Elias, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16,17). There is obvious reference in these words to Isaiah 40:3, as well as the other great prophecy relating to John (Mal 3:1). Johnʼs work was attended with great success. We are told that “a multitude came forth to be baptised of him” (Luke 3:7), and that the pre-eminent disciples of the Lord were formerly ardent converts of the greatest of the prophets (Luke 7:28).

Verse 4 “Every valley shall be exalted [Heb nasa], and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked [RSV ʻuneven groundʼ] shall be made straight [ʻlevelʼ], and the rough places plain.”

It was customary for ancient monarchs to send forth heralds to announce their approach and to level the ground in order to expedite their progress on their way. How would this apply in the case of the Son of God? As already indicated, the “levelling” would not be physical but moral. It was the hearts of men that required to be humbled, changed and converted. Upon the confession of their sins, men were baptised by John for the remission of them. James the brother of the Lord interprets this verse, giving to it a moral sense: “Let the brother of low degree rejoice in that he is exalted: But the rich, in that he is made low: because as the flower of the grass he shall pass away…” (Jas 1:9–11 see also Isa 40:7).

Verse 5 “And the glory [Heb kabod] of Yahweh shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together [ROTH ʻalikeʼ ie unitedly]: for the mouth of Yahweh hath spoken it.”

This is an amazing verse. It finds its outworking during the Lordʼs ministry, and finally at the consummation of Godʼs purpose in His saints. Consider the following references in which these words are recalled.

(1) In reference to the Lord, John 1:14: “And the word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father) full of grace and truth”.

In verses 6 to 8 “the flesh” is contrasted to “the Word”: the one is transient and ephemeral, the other, permanent and enduring. Jesus was begotten by the power of the Spirit upon Mary, who was of the seed of David. He brought together both conflicting principles; he was “the word made flesh”. In his life “the Spirit” prevailed over “the flesh”: the will of the Father was done and not his own. Thereby the glory of the Father was revealed. So complete and perfect was this manifestation of the Father that John could only attribute it to the fact that he was “the only begotten [Grk monogenoes] of the Father”. This glory was revealed, not only in the words he spoke, but in the miracles performed (John 2:11; 11:40; Mat 15:30,31). The Lord also referred to his resurrection as being “glorified”. Thus when he became one with the Father, he “revealed the glory of Yahweh” in the fullest sense (cp John 13:32; 17:5; Acts 3:13; Isa 55:5).

(2) Romans 8:5–21 There are overtones of Isaiah 40:5–8 in these verses. First of all there is the conflict between “flesh” and “spirit” (cp 40:6–8); and then how the sons of God (like the Son of God) are led by the Spirit. After that Paul speaks of the saints being “glorified together”, and how the present sufferings “are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us… the glorious liberty of the sons of God” (verses 17, 18, 21). It is not hard to pick up the apostleʼs allusions to Isaiah 40, but it is clear that he incorporates the saints ultimately in this “glory of Yahweh that is to be revealed”, for they, too, are granted Divine nature.

Paulʼs use of the word “together” in “glorified together” interprets Isaiahʼs statement, “and all flesh shall see it together”. The gospel of salvation in Christ was disseminated to all nations and thereby the glory of God was “seen” by “all flesh”, but ultimately those who are redeemed from among men will be “glorified together”, they will truly “see” and experience “the glory of Yahweh revealed”.

(3) 1 Peter 5:1–4 Here, too, Peter picks up sentiments from Isaiah 40. He speaks of “feeding” [ʻshepherdingʼ] the flock” (v2, cp Isa 40:11); the “crown of glory that fadeth not away” (v4, cp Isa 40:5, 7) and in particular, of himself as a “partaker of the glory that shall be revealed” (v1, cp also 4:13). In company with Peter and Paul, we can see that the “glory of Yahweh to be revealed” in Isaiah 40:5, referred not only to the coming manifestation of Yahweh in His Son, but also to the Divine nature that he would bring and share with the redeemed.

“For the mouth of Yahweh hath spoken it” Absolute assurance of the fulfilment of these words is intended by this expression frequently found in Isaiah (1:20; 24:3; 25:8).

40:6–8 The Word to Prevail Over the Flesh

Verse 6 “The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness [Heb chesed RSV ʻbeautyʼ ROTH ʻgraceʼ] thereof is as the flower of the field.

Verse 7 The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit [Heb ruach, wind, breath] of Yahweh bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.

Verse 8 The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand forever.”

There is a new speaker, a second “voice” that speaks anonymously, and calls upon his subject to cry! Is not it “John the Baptist” who responds to the command “What shall I cry?” Indeed it would appear so, for the words to be cried were essentially his message. In view of the glory imminently to be revealed, flesh needed to face reality. Using a graphic metaphor the voice declares all flesh to be grass, and even the beauty of it to be as the fading flower. The breath of Yahweh blows upon the grass and flower and they wither, and fade and cease to be. In contrast with this is the Word of God, which endures forever. Men are called upon to reckon with these facts and make the appropriate choices while time permits.

John the Baptist stripped away the veneer of respectability that false worship and hypocrisy had draped over his contemporaries. He pointed to the One who was coming, whose fan was in his hand, and who would purge his floor and gather the wheat into his garner. The issues were black and white: compliance with the Word would bring life, but persistence in a life devoted to the flesh would bring death.

Jesusʼ baptism of John can be clearly rationalised by consideration of these principles. He, too, was part of “all flesh” which was “grass” and perishing. It was necessary for him to “fulfil all righteousness” by being baptised, in accordance with the decree of the Word of God. Returning from his baptism to the wilderness of Judea to be tempted of the diabolos he prevailed over the three fleshly temptations by the power of the Word in him: “It is written … for it is written … It is said and Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit into Galilee: and there went out a fame of him through all the region round about” (Luke 4:1–14).

To Jesus the issues were clear and the distinction between “the flesh” and “the Word” stark. In Johnʼs writings there are at least three places where the contrast between these diverse principles are stated:

(1) John 1:14—already considered.

(2) John 6:63 “It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing: the words that I speak unto you, they are spirit, and they are life”. Compare these words with Isaiah 40:6–8 and you will clearly see that one is founded upon the other.

(3) 1 John 2:15–17 To John “the world” and “the flesh” are almost synonymous. As you read these words bear in mind Isaiah 40:6–8 and you will see that here, too, the relationship is conclusive.

“Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world. And the world passeth away, and the lust thereof: but he that doeth the will of God abideth for ever.”

The words of Isaiah find echoes elsewhere in the Word of God. The analogy between grass and flesh was appreciated by David and others. Take for example Davidʼs words in Psalm 103:15,16: “As for man [enosh, mortal man], his days are as grass: as a flower of the field, so he flourisheth. For the wind [Heb ruach] passeth over it, and it is gone; and the place thereof shall know it no more. But the mercy of Yahweh is from everlasting to everlasting upon them that fear him, and his righteousness unto childrenʼs children”.

Here the transience of flesh is set against that most wonderful revelation of the Word, Yahwehʼs mercy, which is eternal.

These contemplations need to be more than a mere academic exercise. We should think about how temporary our life is without God, and rejoice in His mercy as revealed in His eternal Word.