Background notes to Isaiah 40-66

Background notes

Isaiah 40:1-11

Isaiah is a large and complex book which is difficult to fully comprehend. Certainly the atmosphere and tone of the prophecy changes in Isaiah 40, and many commentators believe that they were written after the fall of Jerusalem by an anonymous writer who appended his words to the original prophecy. My own personal opinion is that rather these words of Isaiah were rediscovered and appropriated to the new situation that the people of Judah and Jerusalem were facing. Isaiah himself was conscious that his testimony would be bound up and sealed among his disciples for future generations, and that he himself would not necessarily see the fulfilment of his words (see Isaiah 8:16-17).

The previous section of the book, Isaiah 36-39, is also found in the book of Kings and helps to put Isaiah 40 in its historical context. Hezekiah has shown himself to be a king of exceptional faith and trust in the Lord even in spite of a life-threatening illness, but as Isaiah 39 reports he welcomes envoys from the king of Babylon and without thinking shows them everything in his country. Isaiah’s word to him is that one day everything the Babylonians have seen, and indeed the entire royal family, will be carried off to Babylon.

But Isaiah’s message does not end there! We have already seen when we looked at chapters 6-12 that even amid the oracles of judgement there are messages of hope and salvation for the remnant of Israel (see for example Isaiah 10:20f and Isaiah 11:10f). The very name of Isaiah’s son was Shear-Jashub – a remnant will return (Isaiah 7:3). The more you look at the book of Isaiah, the more difficult it becomes to separate Isaiah 40 onwards as the work of a new writer, because it carries on many of the themes that we have already encountered before. Although at the same time it does develop them in new ways and also introduces new concepts – such as the idea of the servant which dominates this part of the book.

Comfort to God’s people

  • Jerusalem itself was ruined and the leading people deported. But this time of trouble was going to come to an end.
  • The sin that had brought this misfortune had been dealt with. No word here of how, but the implication here is this is by the sheer grace of God. It is those who hope in the Lord who renew their strength (Isaiah 40:31). Isaiah’s vision of God is so great there is nothing the people of God can do by themselves to atone for their sin.

Comfort to us

  • We often think of God’s comfort as being assurance of his love, fact He is our Heavenly Father. This is true. But greatest comfort for us should be that our sin has been paid for, that despite our own rebellion against God, He has met us with sheer, unbounded grace.

The way in the desert

  • A continuation of the vision of Isaiah 35.
  • Shows the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy is not meant to be taken literally. The coming of Jesus did not change the physical landscape of Judea.
  • But Jesus reveals the glory of God by being the way to the Father (John 14:1-6). Through his death on the cross and the resurrection he has removed all the spiritual obstacles that hinder our relationship with Him.
  • The early church were known as “Followers of the Way” (Acts 9:2). Suggests that our role is to show the glory of the Lord in and through us. (see further question 5).

All men are like grass

  • Reminds us that whatever human achievements we strive for they will ultimately fade away. An easy sentence to write or say, but one that challenges at the deepest level. How much of our identity is rooted in what we own or achieve or work for? Note the contrast between our glory which fades (Isaiah 40:6) and God’s – which one day all mankind will see (Isaiah 40:5)
  • It is the word of God that stands forever. This is why in this passage there is so much emphasis on verbal communication (Isaiah 40:2,5,6,8,9). Our first priority should be to know and live by the word of God, and pass it on to others.
  • For Peter, obedience to the word of God is at one with deeply loving another from the heart (1 Peter 1:22-25). This obedience should be part of a living, dynamic process of growing up in our salvation (see further 1 Peter 2:1-3).

The good news of God

  • First of all, God is sovereign. Even when, as for the people of Jerusalem, events have been bewildering and disorientating. He will reward those who have patiently waited for Him and remained faithful through thick and thin. Ties in with parables of Jesus e.g. that of the talents.
  • Secondly, God is shepherd. Does not conflict with his sovereignty (in the Ancient Near-East kings were often called shepherds of his people) but reminds us that this sovereign loves and personally care for His people. He knows and understands our needs. The arm that rules is the arm that gathers the lambs (Isaiah 40:10-11 – the same Hebrew word is used in the singular in both verses).
  • We need to proclaim both aspects of God’s nature. If we see God only as Sovereign, we can lose sight of His care for us. If we see God only as Shepherd, we can downplay need to obey and honour Him with our lives.

Isaiah 42:1-9, 18-25

The servant of the Lord

  • Israel had been particularly chosen out of all the nations of the earth (Ex 19:5-6; Is 41:8-9)
  • They had been given the Lord at Mount Sinai (Ex 20 and following)
  • Their role was to faithfully observe the law and so cause other nations to enquire about the Lord (Deut 4:5-8)

Blind and deaf

  • They refused to follow the laws God had given them (Is 42:24)
  • They had rejected the word of the Lord and turned to other gods. This is why Isaiah constantly demonstrates the superiority of the Lord over idols (e.g. Is 41:25-28)
  • They had failed to learn their lessons from history until they became a people plundered and looted (Is 42:22)

Justice

  • It is a quality of the Lord (Is 5:14) that God’s people are called to reflect.
  • It involves living according to God’s ways. Isaiah 1:16-31 repays careful study at this point. Positively it involves care for the weak and helpless members of society (Is 1:17). Negatively it involves avoiding bribes and siding with the rich and influential (Is 1:23).
  • Justice is closely linked to judgement (the same Hebrew word is used for both). The establishment of God’s justice therefore involves the punishment of God’s enemies (Is 1:24-25).
  • There is both a sense in which Jesus has already met God’s demands for justice by dying on the cross for us, and also a sense in which we ourselves are called to establish God’s reign of justice over the whole earth.

Jesus, the servant

  • He is the one anointed by God whom God’s people have been looking for. His miracles are proof of His identity…
  • But He is careful to avoid of quarrels and controversy.
  • Shows a gentleness and concern for the weakest members of society (the “bruised reeds” and “smouldering wicks”)
  • Is focused on the mission God has given Him, of establishing justice.

Jesus, our example

  • We are called to follow His example of service and ourselves become servants of the Servant (Mark 10:42-45)
  • Our mission is to be conducted in all humility and gentleness
  • But we must not lose sight of our ultimate aim, which is to bring in God’s rule of justice, the rule of God’s kingdom.

Israel, a warning to us

  • How far do we understand what our calling is as a church? We too have been chosen to be royal priesthood, a holy nation.
  • How willing are we to put God’s word into practice?
  • Is the reality that we actually worship other gods or have other priorities for our lives?

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