Comfort for Exiles
In Isaiah 40, the context is the people of Israel in exile, receiving God’s judgment for their sins. And yet, God speaks to them there a word of comfort: Your God is coming, and all will see his glory.
The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction Commentary, Alec Motyer
Isaiah: God Saves Sinners, Raymond C. Ortlund, Jr.
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We’re beginning a new series of sermons this morning in the book of Isaiah, and we’re starting part-way through the book. Isaiah is 66 chapters long in total, and while it’s certainly worthy of a week-by-week, verse-by-verse exposition that would likely take over a year, and while we have done multiple series like that in my time here (Genesis, Acts, and John), we also want to balance that with the desire to expose you to more of scripture. So we decided not to do all 66 chapters of Isaiah, while at the same time, we don’t want to never preach on Isaiah just because doing the whole book would take a long time! So we chose 16 chapters, chapters 40-55, widely recognized to form a distinct section of Isaiah, on which to focus over the next few months on Sundays.
But since it’s part way through the book, let me give you a bit of background. Isaiah was a prophet, meaning an authorized messenger to speak God’s Word to God’s people. God’s people at this time were constituted as a nation called Israel, a nation in a covenant relationship with God. But they had not been faithful to the covenant. So God sent Isaiah to call them to repentance, and warn them that if they did not repent, God would give them the curses of the covenant. Despite repeated warnings, they did not repent, and so when we come to chapter 40, God has sent a mighty foreign nation, Babylon, to conquer Israel, to destroy their capital city, Jerusalem, and to take them into exile in Babylon, away from their land and temple, the place where God had promised to dwell among them. So in Chapter 40, God begins to give Isaiah a vision of the future, with Israel in Babylon, and commissions him to speak to Israel in that situation. And that makes this section particularly relevant for us, because we too are in exile. As humans, we are all still in the exile to which the first humans were subject. God made us for relationship with him, but when the first humans sinned against him, they were cast out of the garden, away from the presence of the LORD (Gen 3:23-24). Christians have been redeemed from that curse and restored to God, and yet 1 Peter and James in the New Testament still identify us as exiles, because while we are still on earth, we are away from our Lord, who ascended into heaven, and we still wait for the day of his return. Have you ever felt that you don’t quite belong? Have you ever felt a longing for something nothing on this earth can satisfy? Have you felt this world is not the way it’s supposed to be? Then welcome to the club. You’re in exile, and Isaiah 40-55 is spoken to God’s people in exile. As we begin our series of sermons on it this morning, we find the first thing God says to us in exile is this: Your God is coming, and all will see his glory. Therefore, be comforted, be ready, be sure, and be bold.
Our text begins with the words “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Israel was an exiled people, they were a sinful people, but they were still God’s people, and God was still their God, and now God speaks to them a word by the prophet Isaiah that is clearly intended to be a word of comfort. The words of comfort begin in verse 2, where we see what Isaiah is to tell the people of Jerusalem now in exile: Her warfare is ended, her iniquity is pardoned, and she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.
Though Israel was in exile, the day was coming when her warfare would end, and this prophetic word translates us into that time, speaking of it as though it were already an accomplished reality. Her warfare is now ended precisely because her iniquity is pardoned. The idea there is more like her iniquity has been atoned for. The payment for it has been deemed sufficient in God’s sight, and thus the closing statement that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. Now, when it says “double,” we should not take that to mean God was unjustly excessive in his punishment of the Israelites. The word there could be used to refer to two sides of a folded sheet of paper, such that it means Israel received the corresponding punishment for their sins, the other side of the paper from their sins as it were. Or, it may just be a poetic way (this is Hebrew poetry, after all) of expressing the idea that Israel had received plenty of punishment for all their sins.
Your God is coming, then, not to bring judgment, but to bring comfort! Your iniquities have already been pardoned! As the Psalmist puts it: “For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5). Ordinarily, when God’s people engage in willful sin against him, despite repeated warnings and opportunities to repent, God disciplines us. That discipline may come externally, as it did to the Israelites when Babylon attacked them. It may come externally to us through relational strife, job loss, disease, financial struggles, or other such things. These things are not always in judgment on specific sins in our lives, but they can be, and we can always redeem experiences of them by using them as opportunities to examine ourselves and repent of sin wherever we find it, whether it was the direct cause of our suffering or not. More commonly, though, the discipline is internal: God withdraws from us a sense of his favor, and we feel him to be distant. Similarly, we may feel less connected to our church family, and those seasons can be especially painful as God causes us to feel that all is not well in our walk with him.
The seasons of God’s discipline are painful seasons, but they are not eternal seasons. Though a sinful people, we are still his people if we are in Christ, and he will not leave us to suffer forever. Once the discipline has reached its ordained end, he comes to us again and says, “comfort, comfort.” And because the day is coming when he will return, we ought to be comforted now. Your God is coming; be comforted. Those of you who have been around our church for some time have probably heard me talk about the danger of trying to cheer yourself up too quickly after engaging in serious sin against God, but there is an opposite danger as well: Refusing to ever be comforted, insisting on serving as your own judge, jury, and executioner, and therefore continuing to punish yourself for the sins you’ve committed in the past. Though God’s anger may only be for a moment, you insist on remaining angry with yourself for a lifetime. You look back on your life and see all the ways you’ve spurned God’s kindness to you, all the years you wasted in service to sin, all the opportunities to evangelize that you missed, all the people you hurt in the process, and you can’t go back and change any of it. But you can, you think, keep punishing yourself for it.
And the way our world would try to help you with that is to tell you you need to forgive yourself. But that assumes you have a right to judge yourself, and you don’t! You don’t need to forgive yourself; you need to stop judging yourself! That’s pride, attempting to take from God what is rightly his. He is your only ultimate judge, and if he says your warfare is ended, and your iniquity pardoned, then it is! Sorrow for sin can no doubt be a good thing, but as Thomas Brooks once wrote, “That sorrow for sin that keeps the soul from looking towards the mercy-seat, and that keeps Christ and the soul asunder, or that shall render the soul unfit for the communion of saints, is a sinful sorrow.” In other words, if you find your sorrow for sin keeps you from praying, thinking about Christ, or coming to church, that’s a sinful sorrow, and it’s a sinful sorrow because in it, you are claiming for yourself the role of judge that is only rightly God’s. Don’t refuse to be comforted. When we gather for worship, confess our sins together, and you silently confess your specific sins, then listen to that assurance of pardon, and be comforted by it! When God makes you aware of sin in your life, confess it, believe his promise of forgiveness, and when He restores to you the joy of your salvation, don’t resist it. Your God is coming, not to judge you for your sins, but to save you as you eagerly wait for him. So be comforted with the comfort he gives. And be ready.
In verse 3 we encounter another cry, telling us to prepare the way of the LORD in the wilderness, and to make straight in the highway a desert for our God. For Israel to pass from Jerusalem to Babylon, they had to go through the wilderness and the desert. People today say, “Oooh, that sounds cool. I want to explore the wilderness! I might do that for my next vacation.” Yeah, not like that back then. The city was the safe place, where in the wilderness and desert you were subject to the harsh weather, difficult terrain, wild animals, and lawless people that dwelled there. As verse 4 demonstrates, it was a path filled with valleys, mountains, uneven ground, and rough places. What makes it wilderness and desert is that there are no natural good paths through it. But now, verse 3 tells us to make a road in the wilderness and the desert. You might assume the road was for Israel, to get back to Jerusalem from Babylon and so return to God, who had dwelled in the temple in Jerusalem. Surprisingly, though, verse 3 suggests the road is for the LORD. Your God is a God who does not wait for you to come to him. He is a God who is coming to you, and he simply asks that you be ready.
The language of verse 3 is obviously poetic; God did not expect Israel to literally pave a road in the wilderness. When John the Baptist came on the scene centuries later, he rightly understood this call to be ready to be a call to repentance (Luke 3:4-8). So how can you be ready for your God’s coming? Repent. And that makes sense if you understand what your God’s coming entails, and what repentance is. Your God’s coming entails the revelation of his glory. That’s what verse 5 says: The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. God is eternally, infinitely, and essentially glorious. The word glory in the Bible is like the word heavy. It means God is weighty; it means God matters. He’s a really big deal, an infinitely big deal, even. He matters eternally, he matters infinitely, and he matters essentially. He is glorious, but, under sin, we see so little of his glory, and instead, we see other things as glorious, heavy, mattering, as the really big deals of our lives: our bank account, our career, what people think of us, and so forth. For the Israelites, it was literal idols: Figures crafted by human hands that they would bow down to and worship. They ascribed to those things glory, and persisting in that sin was one of the main reasons they were sent into exile. But the day is coming when that essential, infinite, eternal glory of God will be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together! That’s what will happen when your God comes.
So how do you get ready for that? You turn from those lesser things. We, like the Israelites, must turn from our idols to be ready for the coming of the Lord. God tells the Israelites in verse 1-2 that their past sins have been paid for, but what good is that if they remain in them? So also, if the comfort you receive from God doesn’t produce in you a desire to repent, if it doesn’t produce in you a sincere hatred of sin, you can be sure the comfort is not from God. Those who know they have sinned against God, but have received his comfort, will want to turn from their sins to be ready for his coming. They will want to see his glory, and the only way to be ready for that is to turn from the glory of lesser things. Imagine you are planning to enjoy a great feast. Maybe you got a big gift card to a great restaurant, maybe someone else invited you to a place you could never have afforded yourself, maybe it’s just a holiday and you know your family nails the big feast. What would you do beforehand? You’d turn from eating other foods. You don’t want to fill up on junk and then not be hungry when the real feast, the real glory, is revealed. So also you don’t want to fall so in love with the things of this world that when your God comes, you think, “Dang it. I still had a lot more on my bucket list I was hoping to complete before you came.” You want to be able to say, “Finally! The glory for which I’ve hungered is here!” But to do that, you’re going to have to wean yourself off the idols to which you’re addicted and filling up on now.
The simplest way to do that is to identify where they are leading you into disobedience to God’s commands. When you get angry, a violation of the 6th commandment, consider what it is you want that you feel is being blocked. That’s an idol. When you lie, a violation of the 9th commandment, consider what you’re trying to attain through that lie. That’s an idol. But if you want the real shortcut to finding your idols, go to the 10th commandment: You shall not covet. Colossians 3:5 even calls covetousness idolatry. The things you see others enjoying that make you jealous and discontent, those are the things you’re worshiping. Turn from them. Consider how inglorious they are, how little they truly matter. Consider what an offense it is to God to take his glory and ascribe it to them. Give less of your time, energy, and resources to thinking about and working for them, and turn from the other sins into which they lead you. To return to the language of our passage, they are in the way of the LORD. They are like trash on the highway, blocking the way of your God coming to you. Clear the trash. Repent.
Sound hard? It is. That’s why verse 4 is such good news. It shows us that not only does God tell us to be ready and to prepare a way for his coming; it shows us that God is going to ensure that we are ready, that there is a road for him to us. Why can he say that every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low? How can he say the uneven ground will become level, and the rough places a plain? Who could even do such things, in a world before gas-powered construction equipment? Your God could, your God would, and your God will. He works in you that which is pleasing in his sight, and so, by His Spirit in you, you will have what you need to put to death the deeds of your sinful flesh. And he will leave no stone unturned. The picture of verse 4 is not a small tweak to an otherwise basically ready people. Valleys have to be lifted up, mountains have to be leveled. God’s work in you is not just to add church attendance to your already basically good life. God’s work in you is nothing less than a new creation, a reordering of all that you love. He’s coming for your worship, your speech, your family, your sexuality, your money, your time, your job, to transform all these so that you are not stuck on the glory of anything less than him when he comes, and so are ready to enjoy that glory when it is revealed to all flesh. Repent to be ready for his coming, and be sure that it is going to happen.
So verse 5 ends by telling us why we can be sure that all will see the glory of God: The mouth of the LORD has spoken. How can we be sure our God is coming, and all will see his glory? He said so. Now, imagine Israel in exile: What hope do they have of ever being released from the power of Babylon? Where might you turn? Well we’ve already talked plenty about the temptation to turn to idols, but another option you might consider, that Israel did try, was to form an alliance with another strong nation. In Israel’s case, Egypt was that strong nation (Isa 30:1-5). In this we see another form of idolatry, and perhaps the most common form: The idolatry of other people. So here is God saying he is going to come, end our warfare, comfort us, reveal his glory and so forth. How can we be sure? The Babylonian people are so powerful. If any comfort is to be found, surely it will have to be found in other people, who are more powerful than the Babylonian people, and not in God. But God said He would do it.
And that brings us to our next cry, beginning in verse 6. Here’s what that cry says, “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty (or goodness) is like the flower of the field.” How is all flesh like grass? How is all its goodness like the flower of the field? The grass withers, the flower fades. Babylon may look powerful now as they rule over you, in other words, but their power won’t last. Egypt may look like a promising savior, but their power won’t last either. And when is it that the grass withers and the flower fades? Verse 7 says it’s when the breath of the LORD blows on them. Literally it’s when the wind blows on them, and the words for wind, breath, and Spirit in Hebrew are all the same. As breath proceeds from us, so the Spirit of God proceeds from God the Father and God the Son, and in making all things, it was the Spirit who completed the work of creation (Psalm 33:6). So we read that when God created man, he breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature (Gen 2:7). In one of our creeds, we confess our faith in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life. But here we see the Spirit is also the taker of life. Through the wind he takes the life of the grass and the flowers, and so also, at the time God appoints, he takes the life of kings, and brings nations to nothing. Babylon seemed great then, but now it’s the stuff of ancient history.
In contrast to the grass that withers and the flower that fades, though, verse 8 points out that the word of our God will stand forever. As God is eternal and unchanging, so is his Word eternal and unchanging. As none can stop God from doing what he wants, so none can stop God from fulfilling his promise. And as God is all-knowing, nothing can come up after he makes his promise that surprises him and causes him to change his mind. His word is surer than anything else, and his mouth has spoken that he will come, and all will see his glory. So be sure of it. When we think about our future, it is easy to set our hopes on things that are no doubt more visible now, but less sure than God’s word. We face hardship, and we tell ourselves, “Well, at least I will graduate soon,” or, “Once I get married,” or “Once I get out of debt,” and so on. Those things look promising, and we can easily see how they could make us feel better. But none of them are promised, even the ones you attain can be gone in a moment when the LORD blows on them, and one day the LORD will blow on you, and end your life, and in that day, none of that will matter. That’s something to consider when you want to get ready for the coming of your God by repenting and turning from your idols. Consider how unsure they are, how weak they are, how they are not promised, how they can be taken from you in a moment, and one day, how they will be taken from you. Why set your hopes for the future on such things?
Why set your hope for the future on such things, especially when there is something that stands forever: The word of our God? And can’t we see even more evidence of that today? The Babylonian empire is in ruins; it didn’t even take much longer after these words were written for that to happen, and 2500 years later it’s little more than a Wikipedia page. Yet here we are, with these very words of this prophecy printed in Bibles, and 100 of us are gathering together to hear these very words still, along with millions throughout the world, and even more throughout time, opening millions more Bibles with these same words printed in them. For over 2500 years, these words have stood, and they will stand forever. Set your hope for the future on the words of this book. Hold on to what God has promised. Typically it helps us do that to identify specific promises, specific verses of scripture, that reveal to us what God has truly said, knowing that word will stand forever. When you face hardship, consider that nothing can happen to you apart from him (Matt 10:29-31), consider that whatever does happen, God will work it for your good (Rom 8:28), it cannot separate you from his love in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:31-39), and consider how one day, his glory will be revealed, and the sufferings of the present time will not be worthy of comparison to that glory (Rom 8:18). Be sure of it, and finally, be bold.
So we come to another cry in verse 9, only here, instead of the cry being directed to Jerusalem, God commissions Jerusalem to cry out to the cities of Judah. Judah was the whole region in which God’s people had lived when they were taken into exile, and Jerusalem was its capital. So the idea here is that the way all will see the glory of God, is that God will first reveal his glory to the people of Jerusalem, and then the people of Jerusalem will go to the other cities of Judah and say, in the words of verse 9: “Behold your God!” And not only are they to say this; they are to say it boldly. Verse 9 tells them to go up on a high mountain, so all can see and hear. It tells us to lift up our voices with strength, to lift it up, and fear not! If it is God’s word that we are speaking, and we can be sure of his word, because it stands forever, then certainly we ought to be bold with his word. It’s true, and it is in the words of verse 9, good news. We learn to be bold in speaking the good news by learning to be confident not in ourselves, but in the word we speak. As long as it is God’s word you are speaking, do so boldly.
And we can furthermore do so boldly because of what God promises he will do in verses 10-11. We can do so boldly because our God really is coming with might, and his reward is with him, his recompense before him. The language of reward and recompense there is the language of a wage for work done, or a reward for victory in battle. The idea, in the original context, is that God is going to come and fight against the Babylonians, and the reward will be his people. In other words, as the people of Jerusalem go proclaim God’s word to the cities of Judah, God will go and get his people from their captivity. He will make good on his promise. And this is what he will do with them, verse 11: He will tend his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. The shepherd in the ancient world was a common image for a king: As a shepherd rules over and leads the sheep, so a king rules over and leads his subjects. So God will take his people from their captivity to the Babylonian king and rule over them again, but here we see that not only will God rule over and lead his people; he will care for them. Not only will he be their shepherd; he will be a good shepherd. He will bring back together his people who had been scattered through exile. Where they are hurting and unable to walk, he will carry them. Where they are weak, as a pregnant sheep is weak, he will gently lead them. So you see, we can be bold in our proclamation of God’s Word, not only because the Word itself is utterly sure, but because the God to whom we call people is utterly good.
And the apostle John testifies of seeing this. Writing of Jesus Christ, he says: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). John the Baptist went before Christ and identified himself with the voice of verse 3 of our passage: One crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the LORD (Isa 40:3), and Jesus is the LORD, come to reveal his glory, and to gather into one the children of God scattered abroad (John 11:52), so that there might one flock, and one shepherd over them (John 10:16). He even said of himself, “I AM the good shepherd,” and the way he would gather the sheep was by laying down his life for them (John 10:11). You see, for all our sins to truly be atoned for, no amount of years in exile would do. Our sins are against the truly glorious one, the one of infinite worth, our God himself. So the infinitely glorious one, the very Word of God who was with God in the beginning and is God, took on flesh, and laid down his life of infinite value for the sheep. It is only ultimately in him that our God can say to us: “Your warfare is ended, and your iniquity pardoned, for he has received from the LORD’s hand double for all your sins.” The payment of Jesus’ life for our sins was sufficient, and so God ended his warfare, raised him from the dead, and seated him at his right hand, exalted to the position of highest glory, until the day when he will come again, and the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.
In the meantime, Jesus commissioned his apostles, those who saw his glory as John did, to go from Jerusalem, to the cities of Judea, and now even further: To Samaria also, and even to the end of the earth, to say to all the nations of the earth: Behold your God, Jesus Christ, crucified, risen, and coming again. He is the way, and no one comes to the Father except through him. The only way to ultimately be ready for the coming of your God is to repent of your sins and receive and rest upon Christ alone for salvation. And to all who do, God speaks a word of comfort: Your warfare is ended, and your iniquity pardoned, for the LORD has received from him double for all your sins. Be comforted in Christ today, and be ready for his return. Lay aside every weight and the sin which so easily entangles. Turn from the glory of lesser things, and behold now the glory of God that has been revealed in Christ by faith.
I mentioned earlier that if you want to prepare for a great meal, you want to stop eating junk before it, so that you’re good and hungry when the meal comes. But there is another aspect to preparing for a great meal: Acquiring a taste for what you’ll be eating. I know nothing about great wine, but I imagine that to truly enjoy it, you have to not only stop drinking Carlo Rossi; you have to start drinking good wine! You have to train your pallet to appreciate it. So also, the glory of God is an acquired taste. Sin has ruined your taste buds, and now you have to retrain them by feasting on Christ as he is revealed in the gospel. Instead of feasting on things of this world, spending your time, money, and energy on them, spend that time, money, and energy on Christ. Take time to meditate on his glory as it is revealed in scripture. Consider the glory of his person, truly God and truly man, the glory of his humility, the glory of his life on earth, the glory of his sin-bearing death, the glory of his resurrection, the glory of his heavenly intercession, the glory of his return, the glory of his eternal reign. Sit under the preaching of his word, taste his glory in the Lord’s Supper, see his glory in the gathering of his body. If you can never get to church because you’re always traveling on your latest adventure, you are training your taste buds for the wrong glory. Behold his glory by faith in this life, so that you are ready to behold his glory by sight in the life to come, so that you are eagerly waiting for him when he comes, rather than hoping he waits a bit longer so you can suck more of the fading glory out of this world.
And then go, and boldly proclaim the good news of Christ’s death and resurrection. Proclaim it to one another, to build one another up in love. Proclaim it to those who don’t yet believe, that they might behold his glory with us, and experience his comfort. Proclaim it to those nations who have never heard. And do so boldly. Lift up your voice, and fear not. The word you are proclaiming is sure, the shepherd to whom you are calling people is good, and he will not fail to receive the reward for his sufferings. He will gather the children of God scattered abroad to himself, and he will keep us until the day he comes again, and all see his glory. Be comforted, be ready, be sure, and be bold.