I began reading Isaiah 40 devotionally looking through the Hebrew text and found it too rich with meaning to slice off more than 8 verses before stopping to record this meditation.
So far as the language is concerned, there is nothing more finished or more elevated in the whole of the Old Testament. … He [Isaiah] no longer has his foot upon the soil of his own time, but is transported… even the language retains an ideal and, so to speak, ethereal character. … It commences with a prophecy, which gave to John the Baptist the great theme of his preaching. It closes with … the creation of a new heaven and new earth, beyond which even the last page of the New Testament cannot go. And in the center the suffering and exaltation of Christ are proclaimed as clearly, as if the prophet had stood beneath the cross itself, and had seen the risen Savior. … Throughout the whole we never meet with a strictly messianic prophecy; and yet … [Isaiah’s words] have more Christological depth than all the messianic prophecies taken together. [“Commentary on the Old Testament In 10 Volumes,” C. F. Keil & F. Delitzsch, vol 7] p. 129-130.
Translations [unless otherwise specified, I use the NIV here.] are challenged trying to translate the text; so that, we might fail to appreciate the theological thought that gave this book its designation as the “fifth gospel.”
There are phrases written multiple times for an emphasis that should give us pause to reflect often on its meaning. By the Holy Spirit’s direction, we need to capture at least some of the passion of God, some sense of His burden for His people! Isaiah begins here:
- Verse 1 “Comfort …comfort..” The word “comfort” could also be translated “pity” but no version of the text uses “pity” not even the Greek! So we will go with “comfort.” Spoken twice this thought carries a sense of urgency, a sense of burden, a sense of intense desire. We are to find hope and comfort in the following verses.
- Verse 2: “that her sin [Israel’s ..AND OURS, too] has been paid for…” “Paid for” [Leviticus 26:41, 43]. The word speaks of finding pleasure, being pleased, finding acceptable the level of punishment for sin. Isaiah calls it twice meted out.”
- What pleases Him here? Is it not the fact that through the provision of Calvary there will come an end to their unfaithfulness and misery in sin?
- The Lord is saying that Israel’s punishment will amount inevitably to a double payment for her sins: once because of the misery inflicted on her for her unfaithfulness to God (in captivity) and then with the Savior’s death. (It is reasonable to imagine that God has nothing else on His great mind and heart but the plan of the ages to redeem Israel and us.
- We are drawn to Isaiah 53:6, 10. When Christ will have taken upon Himself the punishment for sin, there will remain, then, no more condemnation for those who are in Him [Romans 8:1]
- God takes no pleasure in the punishment for sin, He takes pleasure in mercy. It is time to be comforted.
- Verse 6, 7, & 8 Isaiah then relegates all man’s greatest moments to the ash heap of a forgotten history. Declaring our God the One and alone, the glorious redeemer, a voice cries out, “grass withers… [its] flower fades…. ….All people are like grass … Surely the people are grass” The word flower comes from a word meaning “to shine.” How men shine in their own imaginations …but these achievements in the light of the Cross are dying embers of a temporary greatness.
- Where is the comfort in the world’s greatest accomplishments fading like grass in the hot summer sun? How does one find the words when one has lost everything they thought worthy of their efforts? Outside Christ, we build no bridge to the future to make our lives better!? [2 Corinthians 4:18]
- Our understanding of this text concludes that, outside our faith in Christ and His work, all we have done in this life will become dried up grass. [Psalms 1:4] The flower of our greatest thoughts withered and trashed [Philippians 3:8 “worthless and detestable”].
- “the glory of man is so fleeting” – David Guzik
The Unspoken Language of the Soul
The prophet bursts into language unfamiliar to our ears but somehow the unspoken language of the soul is given voice.
- Verse 1: the phrase” saith your God” is peculiar to Isaiah. It is written as a future or as something ongoing as if to proclaim a divine comfort that is continuous. Does this refer to God’s ultimate source of comfort in Christ!? Prophecy often has a dual meaning: referring to a current situation at the time of writing and also referring to the incarnate Savior’s work. We cannot ascribe the term “temporary” to our God. “…the word of our God shall stand for ever.” Isiah 40:8.
- Verse 4: The words “rough ground.” [“crooked” in KJV] means “deceitful” in Jeremiah 17:9 and “polluted, bloody footprints” in Hosea 6:8 and is used nowhere else in the Bible. “…rugged places” [“rough ground” in KJV] is also written only here. (not to suggest that the words are unique to the prophet but that the concept is.) The context is clear [Isaiah 40:3, 5]: the “way” has to be “prepared.” Christ’s coming is to be announced. His birth was proclaimed by shepherds and magi. His return will be with trumpet proclamation. [1 Thessalonians 4:16]
- It is the heart that needs to be prepared. Nine times Isaiah in this section of His gospel (chapters 40-64) refers to The Lord as the Holy one of Israel. In Isaiah 40:25 God’s holiness is to be respected. He is our Redeemer [Isaiah 41:14] and the cause of our rejoicing [Isaiah 41:16]. The human heart needs to be prepared to receive His mercy. The rough places serve His purpose. [Isaiah 57:15]
- I surmise that the places spoken of in Isaiah 40:4 are places difficult to traverse. For most, life is difficult at best. The journey is hard because of our waywardness but God’s desire is to bring us to a highway or a path which will be a joy to walk called “the Way of Holiness.”
- “In general, the meaning”, says the commentator, “is that Israel is to take care, that the God who is coming to deliver … [them] shall find … [them] in such an inward and outward state as be fits his exaltation and his purpose.” [K&D. 142]
- “The Lord’s going to smooth out things. Going to fill in the valleys and bring down the hills. He’s going to straighten the crooked paths and smooth things out.” -Chuck Smith
- And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it. Isaiah 35:8
- In verses 3-5 the prophet announces the Lord’s coming. We know verse 3 prophecies of John the Baptist: “prepare the way for the LORD.” [Malachi 3:1] And here’s the comfort, verse 5:
- “And the glory of the LORD will be revealed, and all people will see it together.”
- I like the way Peter observes all this in 1 Peter 1:24, 25: For, “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.”And this is the word that was preached to you.”
- And I was surprised to read in verse 6 the word for mercy used in 241 places in our Old Testament and often referencing God’s mercy and kindness. The Psalmist in 144:8 calls God “rich in love [our word].” The NIV chose to translate this word “faithfulness.” The King James uses the word “goodliness.”
- A voice says, “Cry out.” And I said, “What shall I cry?” “All people are like grass, and all their faithfulness is like the flowers of the field (And since someone is shouting this message, we need a couple exclamation points to denote the excitement) !!
- Our ability to show mercy is far insufficient to assuage the misery, or lessen the grieve of the painfulness of sin. Mercy of another kind, a much more glorious act of kindness, would be needed to deal with Israel’s—and our—unfaithfulness. This mercy has to be administered by a loving God … provided on Calvary.
- “all their faithfulness [KJV goodliness] is like the flowers” [?] Scholarship says it “seems to signify …beauty.” [man’s contribution that beautifies our world; man’s achievements designed to better life but that will dry up like grass in a parched land. ]
- Verse 7: Surely the people are grass.
- “Surely” – means assuredly and is totally in Isaiah’s style of writing and thought. “Look up and be encouraged. Let hope arise in your hearts!” As our abilities languish in a desperate effort to survive the wickedness that defines us, God sent His Son, on our behalf, to show mercy, to give us a new heart and reconcile us to Himself. These are comforting words. Man’s glory diminishes. [John 3:30] but God’s daystar arises in our hearts. [2 Peter 1:19]
For our part? 1 Peter 1:17 “live out your time as foreigners here.” I am impressed with the simplicity of this encouragement. My life does not need to be special nor do I need trophies of accomplishments to please God. My life by very definition is a witness for good, if I live a holy life. No other personal achievement accrues to my spiritual benefit [Romans 8:29; 1 Peter 1:16]
God’s accomplishments in and through us alone are significance in the scope of things. Jesus’ coming to die and rise again is the single event in history of any real meaning. As Dorothy Sayers said it,
“From the beginning of history until now, this is the only thing that has ever really happened.” [Sayers, Dorothy L. The Man Born to be King. Page 290]
Whatever we achieve on our own should never be cherished above the touch of God upon our lives. Man’s glory fades while God’s Glory shines brighter and brighter!! The significance of the Cross is more glorious as we in humble dependence on its provision in simple faith appropriate it for His glory …and leave the rest to Him.
Verse 8 needs no commentary:
The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.
For I know the plans I have for you, ” declares the LORD, “plans to … give you hope and a future. Jeremiah 29:11
Therefore comfort one another with these words. I Thessalonians 4:18