Read: Isaiah 40:1-8
For most of us, the word “comfort” suggests relaxation and ease, but when God speaks comfort, he not only changes how we feel; he changes how we are.
Here’s the setting as we open the 40th chapter of the book of Isaiah. The Israelites—God’s chosen people—are living in exile in Babylon. They have been there for seventy years. Their nation has been destroyed, Jerusalem lies in ruins, the Temple has been reduced to a heap of rubble. By this time, even the rubble has probably disappeared. All that was left was a small number of survivors in a far-away land, people who called themselves Jews and who were trying desperately to hold on to their memories of their God and his Word—a God who seemed as dead as their land and their hopes. Soon, perhaps, even the memories would fade away and be lost. Israel was finished.
And then, in that hopeless situation, God once again spoke a word to his people. God sent a message that gave Israel new life and new hope. Suddenly, this incredible word from the Lord rang out, “Comfort, comfort my people.” That’s what he told his servant, the prophet Isaiah. “Tell them to get ready. They’re going home.” Listen to the beautiful and familiar words of Isaiah 40:
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. A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (Isaiah 40:1-5)
A Word of Comfort
What is comfort exactly? What does it suggest for you? For most of us, I suppose, the word “comfort” suggests relaxation and ease, as in putting on “comfortable clothes” or going to the fridge to look for some “comfort food.” Or we may think of comforting someone as an effort to cheer them up or make them feel better, as when a mother kisses the scrape on her child’s knee. For adults it often takes a bit more than that to ease the pain. Comfort may even come from a pill or out of a bottle. It’s what we sometimes turn to in order to take the edge off our pain.
But biblical comfort is more than any of those things. When God speaks comfort he not only changes how we feel; he changes how we are. Biblical comfort doesn’t just give us an emotional lift. When the Lord comforts his people he takes away our sorrow, our pain and despair, not by anesthetizing us or helping us to forget our troubles for a little while, but by dealing with the root cause of that trouble. God comforts us by delivering us out of our bondage to despair.
So what does Isaiah teach us about comfort? First, that God comforts his people by pardoning their iniquities. God announces to Israel that her “hard service” has been completed and her sin has been paid for (v. 2). Like troops stationed in a combat zone or prisoners completing their sentence, Israel has “done her time” in exile and now can go home. This Babylonian captivity was Israel’s punishment for her sins, specifically the chronic sins of idolatry and social injustice. But now that’s finished. She has received double for all her sins, the prophet says, a figure of speech I think that means that the people had suffered enough. God in his compassion decides to stop this disciplinary punishment and to forgive the sin, even though the people of Israel couldn’t and wouldn’t understand all that that would cost him.
Second, God comforts his people by redeeming them. “Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem, for the Lord has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.” So Isaiah sings in chapter 52, verse 9. Pardon means forgiving sin; redemption means paying the price to enable that to be done. Sin, you see, always exacts a price. We may want to forget that, but God never can. We may have to pay some price for our sins by having to live with the consequences of our bad choices the way Israel did in the exile, but God has to pay all the price for our sins. Strictly speaking, you and I can’t really “pay” for our sins because the price is infinite, the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:26), says the Bible. The consequences that God may choose to visit upon us because of our sins are disciplinary in nature. They’re not a payment to wipe away our guilt. What they are meant to do is teach us, not exact a penalty from us. For the Lord himself, we learn in the gospel, has paid that ultimate penalty, that final price, for all the sins of his people. So the comfort God offers doesn’t come cheap; it was purchased by the cross of Jesus Christ. That’s why when the Lord proclaims, “Your iniquity is pardoned,” it really means something.
Finally, God comforts his people by delivering and restoring them. Isaiah 40 talks about preparing the way home for the people of Israel. Babylon was located in what is present-day Iran, some 800 miles to the east of Jerusalem. Being released from captivity and receiving permission to emigrate back to Judea was only the beginning. The people of God still had to make their way by foot across the rugged terrain of an inhospitable desert – a daunting prospect. But the Lord says that the way will be prepared for them because God himself will travel with his people. He’ll bring them through every obstacle and barrier.
His promise of deliverance and restoration is just as much for us today as it was for the ancient Jews in Babylon because whatever the tangled circumstances of our lives, whatever mess sin – whether our own or others’ – may have landed us in, whatever desolate wilderness of loss or emptiness we may be wandering through, the Lord has promised to deliver us and to see us safely home. “The Lord will surely comfort Zion and will look with compassion on all her ruins; he will make her deserts like Eden, her wastelands like the garden of the Lord,” says the prophet (Isaiah 51:3).
A Word that Stands
These are all beautiful words, and it’s lovely to think that God will comfort us and pardon us and deliver us from all our troubles, but how do we know it’s true? Isn’t all this just a happy dream, this idea that there is a loving heavenly Father out there who someday will make everything right, who some day will bring us all home? Isaiah prophesies that the Lord “will gather the lambs in his arms . . . and gently lead those that are with young” (vv. 10-11), but how do we know that’s true? How do we know we aren’t just projecting our own wishes and hopes out onto a cold and empty universe?
The reason is because “the mouth of the Lord has spoken it” (v. 5). God and Isaiah have this out in a dialogue that comes in the midst of all the wonderful promises of chapter 40 (verses 6-8).
A voice says, “Cry!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All flesh is grass,
And all its beauty is like the flower of the field.”
The grass withers, the flower fades
but the word of our God will stand forever.”
This conversation begins when someone tells Isaiah to start preaching: “A voice says, ‘Cry!’” and the prophet responds, “What shall I cry?” In other words, what is there to say? What’s the use? Now what comes next I don’t think is the substance of what he was told to proclaim. It isn’t his message. It’s his reason for why he senses that even preaching is useless. It’s because all flesh is grass and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
Isaiah is uttering a lament for the human condition. He’s grieving for the transient nature of life. It’s not just our bodies that are aging and will eventually wither like the grass. All human life, all earthly beauty, all worldly achievements, every thing we love is as fleeting as the life of a flower. For a brief moment it blossoms and flourishes. Then it fades, withers, and dies. And this is how it is with everything we value and cherish, with everything we see. “It is all smoke and vanity,” said John Calvin, for God “reduces to nothing all the excellencies men think they possess.” “So what’s the use of my preaching?” Isaiah seems to say. “Everything is just passing into nothingness. I don’t have any real message because I don’t have any real hope.”
The answer comes in verse eight. “Yes,” Isaiah says (or maybe God says to him, to remind him), “all flesh is grass. And grass does wither and flowers do fade.” We are dying (despite all the efforts to hide that fact from us). Our pleasures and ambitions, our beauty and intelligence and ability, our businesses, our families, our communities, our countries, our churches, our lives and our loves—all these things are dying too. But . . . “but the word of our God will stand forever.”
That’s the message. In a world of fantasies and drams, one thing is real. In a life where all is passing away, where in the end we must say good-bye to everything, every earthly good, all our Jerusalems even, one thing endures, abides, remains eternal: the promises of God. And those promises bring comfort.