This week marks the first week of Advent so we are taking a break from our series Beginning With Moses so that we can spend the next five weeks reflecting on Christ’s birth. The passage I’ve chosen to focus on for this series is Isaiah 40:1-11. Please turn there now. It is found after Song of Solomon and before Jeremiah. I’m not sure how many of you are familiar with the Advent season, but “advent” literally means “coming”. It is the celebration of Christ’s first coming and the anticipation of his return. While this passage prepared the original audience for Christ’s first coming, it prepares us for His return. While the original audience heard this as a promise regarding the future, we read it as a promise that has been fulfilled. In both cases, the ideas of anticipation and preparation are relevant.
In this first Sunday of Advent, we focus on God’s purpose to bring comfort to his people.
Before we read this passage let us look to the Lord in prayer for his help in understanding it.
1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
2 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.
This is the Word of the LORD.
Where do we find comfort when life is overwhelming? How do you handle the news that you are being laid off? When your marriage begins to unravel, or your children live in rebellion, how do you fight the depression and loneliness? We’ve all experienced times in our lives when we have felt fearful or anxious about the future. We feel a sense of helplessness because we worry about things that are out of our control.
Isaiah’s original readers were much like you and me. They battled despair as they lived in Babylonian captivity due to their own covenant unfaithfulness. They struggled to maintain a godly character in the midst of a godless culture. And their numerous compromises had devastating consequences.
Look back at 39:5-7, “Then Isaiah said to Hezekiah, “Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house, and that which your fathers have stored up till this day, shall be carried to Babylon. Nothing shall be left, says the Lord. And some of your own sons, who will come from you, whom you will father, shall be taken away, and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon.”
They knew they deserved to be where they were, but now they wondered if God would ever hear their prayers again. These verses repeat a theme we find throughout Scripture and set the context for the promise of a coming Redeemer who would not only rescue his people from despair, but bring them everlasting peace.
What we see in Isaiah 40:1-2 is that God desires his people to have comfort. This text not only provides us with the method of giving comfort to others, but it also shows us the content of that message. We could simply say that we are looking at the method and the message.
First, we will consider How to Give Comfort (1-2a). Second, we’ll see Why to Receive Comfort (2b).
How to Give Comfort (1-2a)
This chapter opens with a command from God given to a plurality of prophets to “comfort, comfort my people.” This command is not only relevant for the prophets who originally gave it, but to all ministers since. And if you have ever received comfort from God in your troubles, you are called to comfort others (1 Cor. 1:4).
Isaiah often associates comfort with joy, restoration of land, and redemption. “Comfort” is repeated here as a form of emotional intensity. And the phrase “says your God” is in the imperfect tense which implies an ongoing command (I.e., “keep saying”). Lastly, “comfort” is a plural imperative. Although this is the prophecy of Isaiah, the message is to be given by numerous prophets whose voices will be added to Isaiah’s. Thus, not only is the message intensified emotionally, its volume increased in order to give the greater word of God’s mercy. It is God’s message of comfort to those enduring the Babylonian captivity.
Something else we see in this first verse is the covenantal language “my people” and “your God”. God has not cast them off. He is still their God. Just as a loving father will discipline his children, so God disciplines those he loves (Deut. 8:5; Psalm 94:12; Prov. 3:12; Heb. 12:6; Rev. 3:19).
God never promises “comfortable lives”. The comfort God offers is not freedom from persecution. Even if many in the original audience believed what was written in this passage, they were not immediately pulled out of exile. Daniel’s faith showed no weaknesses at all, and yet he remained in exile for 70 years! Comfort doesn’t mean cushy.
Rather, to receive comfort from God is to know something of your security in him. We will look at verse 11 when we conclude this series, but notice what it says, “He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms.” In other words, he carries us through our troubles. We see this again in 46:4, “Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.”
The purpose of this message is to lift up those who are downcast and distraught. This is the word of the Lord to those of you who have lost hope. This is not the time for you to throw in the towel. Now is the time for the feeble in faith to be strengthened. Marva Dawn writes, “Rooted in the authority of his Word and in God’s call for us to be his own, we can be sure of his consolation in our trials, of his hope in our despair, of his peace in our confusion, and of his faithful presence in our bad times and good times.”
There are two more commands associated with how we are to give comfort to others:
- With Compassion: Specifically, God commands them to “speak tenderly” is literally “speak to the heart.” ). It is often found in places where a person is being reassured or won back. Probably the best cross reference is Hosea 2:14. Israel’s unfaithfulness to God is illustrated as an unfaithful wife. She takes everything God has provided her and offers it to other gods. So God promises to strip her of everything. She would have nothing left and only then would she understand all that God had done for her. And at the peak of her discipline we read, ““Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her.” This is the reconciliation God offers those who are suffering under a load of guilt and condemnation.
- With Confidence: The message is not to be merely muttered, but cried out in confidence to provide assurance. The message is to be proclaimed with boldness. Doubt is not alleviated by timidity and vacillation. This means we must be doubly sure that the words we say are based on the solid revelation of God’s Word. Our opinion is of little help. Our guesses about God’s purposes (statements like, “Maybe God is teaching you…”, or “Everything is going to work out,” or “You’ll get through this and be better off for the experience.”) can do more harm than good. Although some of that may be true, it can be misleading and add even more guilt. True comfort comes from knowing the promises of God. Being reminded of a promise such as “I will never leave you or forsake you,” will go a lot further than, “Don’t worry, you’ll be fine.”
Are you prepared to offer a genuine word of comfort to those in your family who are struggling? Do you bring them more than sentimental “Hallmark Card” statements? I have to confess my need for more of this. I need it for my own distress. And I need it modeled for me so that I am able to comfort others.
This is not something that comes naturally to me. And I would guess it is something that many fathers struggle with. But is there not a magnificent picture in the scene of a father kneeling over his child and speaking tenderly to him or her. It is a voice of calm, but it comes from a position of strength. This “meek and mild” temperament is absent in most homes today.
Knowing how to give comfort is critical, but we also need to understand the message that God gives to provide comfort…
Why to Receive Comfort (2b)
- Peace: “that her warfare is ended.” “Warfare” can also be translated as “hardship”. The hardship that has ended in the immediate context is the Babylonian captivity. It is likely that the original reader was in the midst of suffering this captivity. Warfare and hardship always serves a purpose. How do you think they received this? Did they doubt this promise or receive comfort by it? What dictated their attitude: the word of the Lord or their circumstances? The message of comfort is not exhausted by the deliverance of Israel from Babylonian captivity. In fact, that would only bring temporary peace. Ultimately, this message of comfort must look further into the future of Christ’s coming (and even…to His return). I don’t know where you stand with God, but even if you are trusting in Christ alone for your salvation, all too often we lack a sense of peace. We allow our circumstances to cloud our faith. The peace offered here is a foretaste of the everlasting peace that awaits. That should have an impact upon your present attitude. Do you believe you have peace with God? In order for there to be true and lasting peace, his wrath must be appeased. And that’s exactly what we see in the following reason…
- Pardon: Punishment is the result of sin. Therefore, if warfare or hardship is to end, sin must be pardoned. The promise here goes beyond mere reconciliation, to blotting out all transgressions. Addictive behaviors follow a downward cycle: Sin leads to guilt which leads to more sin, followed by more guilt. Something must invade that cycle, and that is exactly what the gospel does by removing the guilty stain. Our God is a just God and He cannot pardon our sin in a way that contradicts his justice. But God’s wrath cannot simply be appeased without cause, unless we do harm to the attribute of His justice. And that’s where we find ourselves at the end of this verse…
- Punishment: “She has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” But, according to Ezra 9:13, her punishment was “less than our iniquities deserved.” What is meant by this idea that they have received “double for all her sins?” There is no cruelty in God. Calvin writes, “we ought to abhor the blasphemy of those who accuse God of cruelty, as if he inflicted on men excessively severe punishment; for what punishment could be inflicted that was sufficiently severe even for the smallest offence?”1 Jonathan Edwards writes about the justice of eternal punishment. He argues that any sin is committed against an infinitely holy God and therefore the punishment should be infinite. The reason why anyone’s iniquity can be pardoned is because God has found a way to be just and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus. The Lord has laid our iniquities upon “the servant” of Isaiah 53. Thus, the wrath of God is satisfied.
Note well this message of comfort. It isn’t simply, “Be comforted!” It isn’t a naked command to “do”, but it is a statement of comfort precisely because it is a word of promise for what God has done in the past, and will do in the future. If you are in need of encouragement, hear me out on this. Please don’t go to the modern prophets who are better characterized as motivational speakers. True comfort comes from knowing God and his word, not simply feeling better about yourself.
Comfort is to be given with compassion and confidence because it is grounded in the rock solid foundation of God’s covenant promises.
Are you resting in the comfort offered by these verses? What aspect is hard to embrace? The reason many of us are hindered from enjoying the comfort God offers is because we are tormented by our own guilt. Religious people focus on removing that guilt through moral behavior (and repeated failure keeps them trapped). Irreligious people seek to convince themselves that their guilt is unfounded (and they spend all their lives trying to suppress that truth). But the gospel teaches us a third way to live.
We acknowledge that our sin justifiably brings guilt and leads to condemnation, but Jesus Christ has taken our punishment, allowing us to be pardoned, and providing peace with God. The cry of verse 2 that “her warfare has ended” prefigures the greater shout of our Savior as he cried from the cross “It is finished!” putting an end to the penalty of sin for all who place their faith in him. All of this was prophesied in Isaiah 40:1-2 and found fulfillment in the birth of Christ.
That is your comfort! Are you resting in his promise of fulfillment? Share that message of hope with someone you know who needs to hear it.
1 Calvin, John, and William Pringle. Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah (Complete) (With Active Table of Contents). Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010.