Exodus to exile

Isaiah 40 : Preparing for the suffering servant

For a people who have been torn from their homeland, their center of worship and perhaps from their God, comfort was needed. So, the prophet begins Isaiah 40 with assurance that their punishment is over, that Yahweh is coming to them with mercy. The Hebrews need to be reminded what their God is doing. The Hebrews that the prophet was writing to, were captives. While one need not think of the Hebrews being in a refugee camp (remember Jeremiah’s instructions to “seek the peace of the city …”) their situation was not pleasant. So the prophet begins his messages with words of comfort.

The New Exodus theme appears a number of places in chapters 40-55 of Isaiah. But Chapter 40 does not make a return to Judea explicit. Israel is told that they will not need to do the fighting to defeat. Just like at the Red Sea, God clears the way. Instead of water pushed aside, roads will be straightened, hills leveled, and valleys filled in to make the journey easier. According to The Message, rocks and ruts will be removed. But, wait— God is coming to His people! That is the way his glory will be revealed.

Then in verse ten the prophet declares what God will do when he arrives. “He is going to pay back his enemies.” There is little detail about the when/how/what of that payback. In contrast with that image of God, the next of God’s word through the prophet returns to the spirit of the first verses of the chapter with the gentle shepherd image.

Acknowledging the God of Judah and Babylon

The prophet’s listeners may have experienced the harrowing journey to Babylon (900 miles-on foot?) or maybe their children heard the stories that were passed down to them. God’s promise to clear the way and take care of the enemy contrasted with what happened about seventy years earlier. The contrast appears also with the Psalm 137 tells us they refused to sing songs of Zion and Ezekiel found a valley of dry bones. So in verses 12-17 the prophet forcefully reminds the Hebrews of their foundational belief in a Creator God of the entire universe. This was not just a God of Judah. Their God is present and in control in Babylon as well.  Then the prophet contrasts God with human creations called gods. Verses 21-24 describe how God maintains the universe. In various ways the power of God over the whole world is emphasized.

Waiting for strength

The first and last sections of Isaiah 40 are the most familiar ones of the chapter due to familiar songs based on them. The “wait” songs should remind us of the connection between 40:28 and 40:31. Both contain the words “weary” and “faint”. Humans may be weary or faint, but God is always strong. In other passages the word, “wait” nearly always comes as a command from God in the context of violence by evil humans.  The “wait” verses in Psalms and the prophets, the oppressors of the poor, weak, or oppressed may have been fellow Hebrews. Here, those waiting to be rescued from the oppressor are all people of God. Here they are given assurance God will be the one to defeat the oppressor. God’s people will be given youthful, eagle-like strength to return to covenant living as God deals with the enemy. But the explicit return to Judah is not made.

Given the beginning of the Isaiah 40, one might assume that the author is encouraging the travelers headed from Babylon to Jerusalem. But could the author’s audience be the Hebrews who stayed in Babylon (were they a majority of the Hebrews)? Next we need to ask, for what are God’s people to wait? The first verses of the chapter suggest a road or path is being prepared. But even though the prophet mentions Jerusalem, I don’t find the text making the return to Judah the focus. Due to the use of Handel’s Messiah, “Comfort ye”, “He shall lead his flock” and “And the glory”, we think of Isa. 40 as a Christmas passage. But Isaiah 40 may be leading us toward Easter. Isaiah 41-53 tells us about the suffering servant. But if we are to think of the suffering servant “waiting,” that seems at odds to “rising up with wings like eagles”. Perhaps Isaiah 40 points toward the suffering servant looking forward to the vindication of his/their suffering.

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