The message of promised comfort and pardon to God’s people in the early verses of Isaiah 40 is followed by the intimation that the “glory of Yahweh would be revealed”, following the moral preparation of His people. This work was performed by John the Baptist to whom these words refer (Matt 3:3). His message drew a contrast between failing, frail human nature (‘flesh’) and the indestructible eternal “word of our God” (v6–8). Further details of the “good tidings” in verses 9–11 complete this section, which is followed by a sustained and awesome account of Yahweh’s wisdom, sovereignty and power.

Isaiah 40:9–11 The Glory Revealed: the Arm of Yahweh

“O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God! Behold, the Lord Yahweh will come with strong hand [roth ‘as a mighty one’], and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work [rsv, roth ‘recompense’] before him. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, [rsv ‘he will’] and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.”

Verse 9 “O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength.”

Notice the marginal rendering, “O thou that tellest good tidings [the gospel] to Zion…” This makes Zion the recipient, and not the publisher of the message that was to convey joy: this is in harmony with roth, lxx, Gesenius and others. Isaiah 62:11 confirms this, “… Say ye to the daughter of Zion, Behold, thy salvation cometh: and behold his reward is with him, and his work before him”.

The words of verses 9–11 are themselves a continuance of the joyful message given to the afflicted by “the voice” (v6). The message is in itself the “gospel” because Peter in his first epistle equates it to the “word of the Lord” (1:25): “But the word of the Lord endureth forever. And this is that word which by the gospel is preached unto you.” The frenzy and excitement in the cities of Judah that accompanied the angel Gabriel’s revelations to Zacharias and Mary, followed by their births in due time, fulfil all these words. Consider the following from Luke 1.

“…and Mary arose… and went into the hill country with haste, into a city of Judah… and saluted Elisabeth… she spake out with a loud voice… Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb” (v39–42).

“… and he [Zacharias] spake and praised God. And fear came on all that dwelt round about them: and all these sayings were noised abroad throughout all the hill country of Judah” (v64,65)

“And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for behold, I bring unto you good tidings of great joy which shall be unto all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10,11). Here the angel is clearly the bearer of the good tidings.

“… get thee up into the high mountain…”

In ancient times when a multitude was to be addressed, the crier would go up into a mountain where he could be seen and heard (cp Jotham, Judges 9:7; Matt 5:1). Such a joyful wondrous message as the Gospel should be clearly heard by as many as possible.

“Lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up; be not afraid”

Again, in view of the importance of the message, it should be enunciated with clarity and power. There should be no timidity or fear. Notice that the command is reiterated.

“Say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!”

Trinitarians may seize this quotation to prove that Christ is God, but the immediate context shows otherwise. “The glory of God” was revealed in His Son (v5), and in the following verse we read, “Behold, the Lord Yahweh will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him.” Jesus the Son of God revealed his Father’s wisdom, words and power in his life and was subordinate to Him in all things.

Verse 10 “Behold, the Lord Yahweh will come with strong hand (rsv ‘with might’, roth ‘as a mighty one’), and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him and his work before him.”

“The glad tidings” are revealed in verses 10 and 11. In verse 10 we are informed that God will not be remote but will most assuredly “come” with great strength to annihilate all opposition, and also to dispense rewards or recompense to those who ask him (cp Heb 11:6). In verse 11 we learn the manner and character of the “arm of the Lord”: He would be lowly and compassionate as a shepherd!

“His arm shall rule for him”

The arm is an extension of one’s being, and is a symbol of strength, for by it purposes are accomplished (cp Psa 10:15; Ezek 30:21; Jer 48: 25; Psa 89:13, 98:1). This is the first time this figure is found in Isaiah. It is frequently used of the Son of God, the “extension of God’s Being” by whom salvation has come (cp 48:14; 51:5,9; 52:10; 53:1; 59:16; 62:8; 63:5,12).

“Behold, his reward [sakar = ‘wage’ Ezek 29: 18] is with him and his work before him” [in his presence, or accompanies him].

The phrase “and his work before him” is rendered in the margin “recompense for his works”. What is his reward and recompense? The fruits of the Lord’s victory are his reward, namely, the redeemed, or “his flock” (v11;53:11). But reference is also made to the rewards he will give them for faithful service when he comes. The words are alluded to and interpreted in his final message, “And, behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be.” The idea seems to come from the custom of a conqueror who distributes rewards to his followers and soldiers after victory (1 Sam 30:26; Judges 5:30; Isa 53: 12 ‘Therefore will I divide him [Christ] a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong’ [saints]; Matt 16:27).

Verse 11

“He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young”

In this glorious verse we have four illustrations, revealing the gentle and caring character of the leader, “the good shepherd”. The figure has changed from the sovereign to the shepherd. The language hearkens back to David, the great shepherd king and progenitor of the Lord (Psa 78:68–72; Mic 5: 4; Ezek 34:23).

The word for “feed” signifies more than our word “feed”. It embraces all the care of a shepherd for his flock, and means to tend, to guard, to govern, to provide pasture and to defend from danger.

“he shall gather the lambs with his arm”

“Notice the balance here between the ‘ruling arm’ of verse 10 and the carrying arm here” (J A Motyer). There is an incident in the Lord’s ministry where he appears to deliberately enact the picture of the shepherd which we have of him here. It was the occasion when the disciples “disputed among themselves, who would be the greatest”. Their attitude displayed care for self and disregard for others and their needs. It was foreign to their Lord and would disqualify them as leaders and shepherds of the ecclesias. It was such a serious matter that the Lord took issue, sat down, and called the twelve. He pointed out that the greatest would be servant of all and then “took a child and set him in the midst of them: and when he had taken him in his arms, he said unto them…” His tender care of the little lamb in his arms demonstrated vividly the attention and love they must show to the humble among men who would respond to his calling.

“and shall gently lead those that are with young”

(mg ‘that give suck’). Ewes of the flock with young feeding from them would easily be exhausted by being over-driven. Care was necessary. Thus Jacob said to his brother Esau, “The flocks and the herds giving suck to their young are with me, and if they should be overdriven all the flock will die.” The words of Psalm 78:70–72 show a connection between David’s years as a caring shepherd and his appointment as king over Israel. Those who will live and reign with Christ will likewise be qualified by the quality of compassion displayed in “the days of their flesh” towards their fellows.

The picture of the spirit of the Lord’s ministry depicted in verse 11 provides comfort and hope, and was amply shown in his dealings with man and in his binding up of the broken hearted (61:1–3; 42:3); and shall also characterise his coming government of the nations. “They shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be in all high places. They shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun smite them: for he that hath mercy on them shall lead them, even by springs of water shall he guide them” (49:9,10).

40:12–31 The God of Israel, The Creator is Incomparable

This is a unique portion of Scripture. There is no part of the Word of God more fitted to impress the mind with the majesty and glory of Yahweh. It bears a definite relation to its context. Yahweh has promised comfort and reward with the coming of the shepherd king. What is the guarantee that He can deliver on such promises? The following words are the convincing argument that He is able. This section challenges a position expressed in verse 27, “My [Israel’s] way is hid from Yahweh, and my judgment [rsv ‘right’] is passed over [rsv ‘disregarded by’] my God”. This stance cannot be sustained because of the wisdom, power and authority of One Who is Creator and Supreme, and the correct conclusion is set forth in verses 28–31 (cp J A Motyer).

40:12–17 The Sole Creator

Verse 12

“Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?”

A number of thoughts are set before us, each eliciting wonder and awe. Creation is under review. The record of Genesis 1 records the mighty acts of Yahweh of Israel, performed expeditiously in a mere seven day time span!

Exactitude in His workmanship is implied by the use of the words “measured”, “meted out”, “comprehended” and “weighed”. The idea of easy competence in relation to the task is implied by the use of “hollow of the hand”, the “span” (ie the space from the tip of the thumb to that of the middle finger when extended), a “measure” (literally “a third”, denoting a vessel that contained a third of some unnamed measure, eg an ephah or bath), “scales” and “a balance”. The alignment of customary “weights and measures” in relation to the immense acts of Creation emphasises human paucity and God’s supremacy: He can measure all the dust of the earth as easily as we can measure a small quantity of grain with a scale!

The answer to the above questions is overwhelming—as there is only one Creator, He must be the one.

40:13,14 Yahweh Has No Instructor

Verse 13 “Who hath directed the Spirit of Yahweh, or being his counsellor hath taught him?”

He is not dependent for counsel on men or angels. None is qualified to instruct Him! All should therefore trust in His wisdom.

Verse 13 is quoted in Romans 11:34 in a significant context. Paul has shown in God’s dealings with Israel His balance and justice: once Israel was the recipient of His mercy while Gentiles did not believe, but now, the tables have turned, and Gentiles have obtained mercy while Israel is in unbelief! Thus both have obtained mercy and been in unbelief. Such are His inscrutable ways and His balance. Paul is caused to expostulate, “How unsearchable are his judgments, and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counsellor?”

God’s balance and exactness, evident in the physical Creation, find a counterpart in His dealings with Jew and Gentile! The apostle cites from a significant context.

The words of verse 13 are also cited in 1 Corinthians 2:16, where the apostle is showing that saints cannot be judged by the natural man because he is ignorant of the “Spirit of God”. But the spiritual man can judge all because he knows the Spirit (mind) of God. He concludes by quoting verse 13, “For who hath known the mind of the Lord, that he may instruct him?” and then adds, “But we have [known] the mind of Christ”. Whilst saints cannot presume to know the mind of God in its totality, they do know the mind of Christ, which enables them to “judge all things” (v15).

Verse 14 “With whom took he counsel, and who instructed him, and taught him in the path of judgment, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding?”

This verse emphasises the thoughts of the previous verse—Yahweh has no instructor, unlike Marduk, the creator god of Babylonian mythology, who had to consult “Ea, the all-wise” before proceeding (JA Motyer).

“in the path of judgment” (Heb mishpat) That is making the correct judgment or decision at the correct time. His wisdom is seen in the various arrangements of His Creation and Providence. All things are in balance, keep their place and accomplish His vast design.

40:15–17 Great Things are Insignificant to Yahweh

Verse 15 “Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing” (roth ‘as an atom’, rsv ‘like fine dust’).

“Behold the nations…” God’s greatness is shown by comparison with what strikes man as great. How can a drop of a bucket limit Him Who measures oceans in the hollow of His hand? Seeing the nations are as a mere drop in a bucket, He is not dependent on them for the execution of His purposes, nor could they resist Him in the outworking of His plans.

“as the small dust of the balance” The small fine dust does not make the scales uneven or affect their performance.

“behold, he takes up the isles like fine dust” (rsv) that is, as before the wind. The Hebrew word for “dust” (rsv) or “very little thing” (av) is daq and means that which is beaten small; and then fine dust, chaff or any light thing which the wind can sweep away.

Verse 16 “And Lebanon is not sufficient to burn [rsv ‘for fuel’], nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering.”

“Lebanon” is used here to describe the abounding and magnificent cedars which once clothed the mountain range (but which have been sadly depleted today). The Chaldee rendering is, “and the trees of Lebanon”. The idea is that even these forests could not furnish fuel sufficient to burn the sacrifices which would be an appropriate offering to the majesty and glory of God” (A Barnes).

“nor the beasts thereof sufficient” No amount of offerings by man could suffice Him. But is Yahweh dependent on such provisions by devotees like the idols of the nations? By no means, for He possesses all… “the cattle on a thousand hills are His!” (Psa 50:8–13). Such are not the offerings in which He delights. He finds pleasure in the devotion of the human mind to His will and the offering of praise (v23). Moreover as the servant Prophecy climaxes there is revealed an offering which “pleases” Him and which is appropriate in view of His greatness (53:10).

Verse 17 “All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him as less than nothing, and vanity” (Heb tohu, rsv “emptiness”, roth “waste”; Gen 1:2 “without form”).

This verse emphasises what has already been expressed in striking imagery. “Nothing” and “less than nothing” are strong hyperbolic expressions denoting the utter insignificance of all nations when compared to God.

40:18 A Conclusion Drawn

“To whom then will ye liken God [El]? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?”

This is a climactic statement whereby a conclusion is drawn by obvious questions. The implied answer is, No one. Neither is there any that bare comparison with him. The word for God, El or Ail, connotes absolute power (42:5), that he is uniquely and absolutely God (43:10, 12; 46:9). Contrast this with the ironical use of the word in 44:10, 15, 17; 45:20; 46:6.