The Lord Returns to His People
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins” (vv. 1–2).- Isaiah 40:1–5
Chapter 39 of Isaiah closes on a negative note for the Judahites. There was something of a revival under King Hezekiah, who trusted God to save Jerusalem from Assyria, but Judah would not escape its brother Israel’s fate. Judah was rotten to the core, and Babylon would carry the people into exile just as Assyria had captured the Israelites.
Judah’s decline accelerated after Hezekiah, though his grandson Josiah was a light in an otherwise dark era. Isaiah’s words to Hezekiah were finally fulfilled in 586 BC, when Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon conquered Jerusalem and took King Zedekiah and the Judahites into exile (2 Kings 25:1–21). An already demoralized people had to confront what was a very real possibility in their eyes: that God had abandoned them.
In a sense, the answer was yes, the Lord did indeed leave His earthly temple at that time (Ezek. 10). However, the faithful remnant of Israel and Judah knew God had promised Moses that He would never utterly abandon His people (Lev. 26:43–45). Moreover, they had Isaiah’s words that the exile would not last forever. Isaiah did not cease prophesying the future when he told Hezekiah that Babylon would conquer Judah. He predicted the restoration of God’s people as well. While this theme appears now and again in Isaiah 1–39 (for example, 1:24–26; 4:2–6), it is the central point of Isaiah 40–66.
God’s people cannot save themselves, so this restoration would have to begin with the return of the Lord’s blessed presence. This is what Isaiah announces in today’s passage. God speaks words of comfort to His people, assuring them that His final purpose for His children is not death and destruction. There would be an exile, but the Lord would make a provision for their forgiveness and life in the restoration (vv. 1–2).
Isaiah also presents the voice of a herald calling for the people to prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness. Everything would have to be made straight so that God would have an easy return. This is an image of spiritual preparation. It would be impossible for a landless people to level mountains and raise valleys, but they could prepare their hearts to receive Him (vv. 3–4). In announcing these words, the prophet appeals to exodus imagery; the sense is likely that God would come from His place on Sinai to save His people (Deut. 33:1–5; Ps. 68:7–10). A new exodus was coming—as in the days of Moses, God would meet His people in the wilderness to rescue them again.
Verse 5 of today’s passage indicates that in God’s salvation of His people after the exile, His glory is revealed and all flesh sees it. God does not save us simply for our own sake, even though that is certainly His concern as our compassionate Creator (Ex. 2:23–25). The Lord saves us for His own glory, a glory that He wants the whole world to see. We must long for that as well, working and praying for His glory to be evident in all the nations.
Passages for Further Study