By Scott Grant

A different voice

Brent Curtis tells this story about himself in The Sacred Romance:

Not long ago, I was preparing one of my lectures for the Sacred Romance series that John [Eldredge] and I were presenting in Colorado Springs. John's talk the week before had deeply touched people with the understanding of God's grace and love for them. A friend came by the table where I was sitting in our neighborhood bagel shop and kiddingly remarked, "My husband says his life was changed after last week's talk, so you better come up with something good."

Part of my smaller story has been to use my gifts as a teacher and thinker to win people's admiration-to be someone's hero. At the thought that perhaps I might be the second-best speaker in this series, I was overcome with waves of shame, a feeling of being exposed. The adversary was quickly there with reminders of past failures and the resulting pain. For a minute, I considered redoubling my efforts to come up with a good talk that week-to look up new quotes, find a really good movie clip to illustrate my points.

But this particular time, I simply listened to what my heart was telling me. It spoke to me about weariness and the fear of being found lacking; of having nothing that would make me anyone's hero. I left the bagel shop and drove to the open space that surrounds our neighborhood. I got out and began walking, feeling deeply agitated and dejected over being trapped in such a foolish place. Anyone who has ever had the thing you depended on for life threatened will know what I am describing. I had no energy to think up prayers or even any sense of what to pray for. I began to repeat a simple sentence in my head, "Jesus, you are faithful to cleanse me from all my sins." I did not try to exegete it or convince myself to believe it. I simply let it linger and resonate between my head and heart for whatever Jesus chose to do with it. After not many minutes, I felt something begin to break up deep down inside, a feeling of loneliness and longing acknowledged. There was a release that brought tears. I sensed that Jesus was ministering to me in a quiet and tender way, in a place years distant and much deeper in my spirit than just feelings provoked by the events of that particular morning. A sensation of freedom and well-being rose up from the very place inside that moments ago had felt such agitation.

Bringing what was happening back up into my head in order to put words to it, I can only say it was as if Jesus were telling me, "I understand your ache, Brent. I know how you've wanted to be someone's hero. It's OK. Rest in my love." There were no words of admonishment or exhortations to try harder. I understood, in some ways for the first time, that my sin really has been cleansed by Jesus and is no longer an issue between us. I knew in my heart, in a way I perhaps hadn't before, the depth of Jesus' love for me on the cross. I felt like I was home.

We hear so many voices, but for one moment in time, Brent Curtis heard a different kind of voice. It was a voice of comfort that spoke to the deepest fears and hopes of his heart. In Isaiah 40:1-11, we will hear a similar voice. Today, the Lord will speak words of comfort to our hearts. He who has ears to hear, let him hear.

Isaiah ministered from 739 to 686 B.C. Isaiah 1-39 largely conveys judgment, especially judgment upon Israel, which will be expressed through Babylon. In 586 B.C. Jerusalem would be sacked, the temple would be destroyed and the people would be carried off into captivity. Isaiah 39 ends on this depressing note (Isaiah 39:5-7). Beginning with Isaiah 40, the prophet is looking toward the exile and beyond. He addresses the question that will be at the forefront of the exiles' minds: Is the exile the end of the line for the Lord's people? A hint at what the Lord has in mind is found in the location of the exile: Babylon. This is where Abraham came from: Ur of the Chaldees. This is where Israel started. For Israel, exile in Babylon will be a new beginning.

All four sections in Isaiah 40:1-11 feature voices commissioned by God to comfort his people in exile. Seeking to be heard, these voices speak loudly: they are "calling" (verse 3), they "call out" (verses 2, 6) and they "lift up" their voices mightily from a high mountain (verse 9). These voices are not identified. The important thing is not who owns the voices but what the voices say.

The Lord is not speaking per se; he's commanding the voices to speak. He arranges to speak comfort into our lives in different ways.


Words for the heart (40:1-2)

The word "comfort" is often used of comfort offered to one who has lost a loved one. When Jerusalem is sacked, when the temple is destroyed, when the people are carried off into captivity, it seems as if Israel as the people of God is dead. Yet the Lord arranges for "comfort" to be spoken to a nation that feels dead. The repetition of "comfort" makes it emphatic (43:11, 25; 51:9, 17; 52:1).

When the Lord uses the words "my people" and "your God," he is using language of the covenant and telling people of his ongoing faithfulness (Exodus 6:7, Leviticus 26:12). Exile, then, does not mean the end; it means a new beginning.

"Jerusalem" is in parallel construction with "my people." As the scriptures unfold, the concepts of people and place merge. The city of Jerusalem stands as a metaphor for the people of God. For example, the place of the temple becomes the people of God in the New Testament (Ephesians 2:19-22). In Revelation 21:2, the New Jerusalem is seen as a city and as a bride, the latter being a metaphor for the people of God.

Literally, it's, "Speak to the heart of Jerusalem." This is the language of love (Genesis 34:3, Judges 19:3, Hosea 2:14). The Lord knows Israel's heart; what she wants in her heart of hearts, what she wants so badly that she's afraid to want it. What she wants is her husband, the Lord (Isaiah 54:5). In directing speech to the heart of Jerusalem, the Lord is inviting his people to respond to his love.

When Boaz began moving toward Ruth, she responded to him, "I have found favor in your sight, my lord, for you have comforted me and indeed spoken kindly to your maidservant..." (Ruth 2:13). The words translated "comforted" and "spoken kindly" (literally, "spoken to the heart") are the same ones used in Isaiah 40:1-2. Ruth was a widowed foreigner, a Moabite, but after she came to Bethlehem with Naomi, her mother-in-law, she was spoken of as if she were the new Abraham (Ruth 2:11). In fact, David, the king, would come from her. She represented the future of Israel. Israel in exile is like Ruth. In a sense Israel feels widowed (Isaiah 54:4), that her husband the Lord has sent her away because of her sin, that she is to him as a pagan nation. The link between Isaiah 40:1-2 and Ruth 2:11-13 shows that the Lord still loves Israel, even in her exile, and that she has a future with him.

"Warfare," which can also mean "hard service," is a reference to the exile. The hard service of the exile is over.

Israel's sins caused the Lord to send her into exile. The reason for the end of the exile is the removal of her iniquity based on what she has received from the Lord for her sins. A thief was required to pay "double" for his crime (Exodus 22:7). The Lord is saying that Israel has paid the price for her sins. This points to the work of the "Servant of the Lord" figure (Isaiah 53:4-5), who embodies Israel and is "crushed for our iniquities." The role of the Servant is assumed by Jesus. Jesus is the one who received from the Lord's hands double for Israel's sins; he was the one who was crushed for iniquities. He went into exile for the people.

The end of the exile is hereby linked with the forgiveness of sins. The forgiveness of sins meant the end of the exile.

When the people returned to Judah and to Jerusalem after 70 years in Babylon, they never really felt that they returned. Being subservient to oppressing powers, Israel felt that she was still in exile. When Jesus shows up and starts forgiving sins, he's saying that the exile is over.

There are times when we feel exiled, spiritually dead, because of our sin. These verses remind us of the Lord's faithfulness. If you have entered into a covenant relationship with him, the Lord will be faithful, even in the face of your unfaithfulness. He speaks to you of a new beginning. He knows your heart. He knows what you want. What you want, in your heart of hearts, whether you know it or not, is him. He also knows that what you're not sure of, because of your sinful state, is whether he wants you. So he speaks to your heart, using the language of love. He woos you, and invites your response. Jesus, the Servant of the Lord, went into exile for you. Your hard service is over; your sins have been paid for. As Brent Curtis discovered, you too can discover that your sin really has been cleansed by Jesus and is no longer an issue between the two of you. You have a future.


Highway to the heart (40:3-5)

The next three sections each begin with a voice that calls out (verses 3, 6 and 9). These voices are responding to the Lord's command to comfort his people by proclaiming to them the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness of sins means the return from exile, as we have already seen; what we'll see in the next three sections is that it also means the return of the Lord.

The middle two sections each begin with "a voice" (verses 3 and 6) and conclude with a reference to God's speech (verses 5 and 7).

The imagery of verses 3 and 4 suggests the construction of processional ways to greet the arrival of a visiting dignitary such as a king. The picture, then, communicates preparedness for the Lord's visit to Jerusalem.

The second two lines in verse 3 contain verbs in the imperative tense. They are commands to clear the way and make smooth a highway. The four lines in verse 4 represent what will be done: every valley will be lifted up, every mountain and hill will be made low, etc.

The glory of the Lord, his manifested presence, first appeared in the wilderness to lead the people (Exodus 16:10), then filled both the tabernacle in the wilderness (Exodus 40:34) and the temple in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 5:14). Ezekiel, a prophet who followed Isaiah, saw a vision of the glory of the Lord leaving the temple in Jerusalem (Ezekiel 11:23). Isaiah is now predicting the return of the Lord to Jerusalem.

Elsewhere in Isaiah, the language of verses 3 and 4 is used in connection with the way the Lord will make for the people so that they can return to Jerusalem (Isaiah 42:16, 43:19, 45:2, 49:11, 57:14, 62:10). It seems, therefore, that two concepts are in view in verses 3 and 4: the return of the Lord and the return of the people. The two concepts are linked in Isaiah 52:12: When the people return, the Lord will lead them.

The imperatives of verse 3 call the people to prepare for the Lord's return. The gospel writers connect the preparedness called for here with repentance (Matthew 3:2-3).

This calls forth the exodus imagery. The Lord will take the people to Babylon, where it all began, for a new start. Then he will lead them through the wilderness to the promised land, just as he did in the exodus.

All flesh-meaning the Gentile nations as well as Israel-will see the return of the Lord and the return of the people. The Lord intends the nations to see what he does for his people so that they too might be saved (Isaiah 52:10, 62:11), just as Rahab of Jericho was saved because she saw the great things the Lord did for his people in rescuing them from Egypt (Joshua 2:10).

The phrase concerning the "mouth of the Lord" guarantees that the voice is conveying the words of the Lord.

To some extent, this prophecy was fulfilled when the people returned from exile. But the return to Jerusalem, and life in the land, never achieved Isaiah's expectations. The temple, which was rebuilt, was sorry by comparison to the first temple (Haggai 2:3), and though Herod beautified it, the glory of the Lord never returned to dwell in the temple.

To a much greater extent, this prophecy was fulfilled by the coming of Jesus. John the Baptist owns the voice of Isaiah 40:3 and calls the people out to the wilderness to repent, to change their sinful ways, to prepare for the coming of the Lord. He's calling the people to leave the promised land and to be baptized in the Jordan River in the wilderness, re-enacting the exodus, the crossing of the Red Sea and entry into the promised land through the Jordan River (Matthew 3:1-6).

The Apostle John writes: "And the word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory…" (John 1:14) and that Jesus "manifested his glory" (John 2:11). Jesus was the glory of the Lord, his manifested presence (Colossians 2:9). The return of the Lord in the person of Jesus meant the forgiveness of sins and the true return from exile, that the Lord and his people were getting together again. But when the Lord returned to Jerusalem, Jerusalem proper didn't want him. Upon entering the temple, Jesus found corruption, and he left the temple and stayed in Bethany to the east, re-enacting the departure of the glory of the Lord that Ezekiel witnessed (Matthew 21:12-14). When Jesus was crucified, the glory of the Lord was revealed for all flesh to see (John 12:23, Galatians 3:1).

Yet the true Jerusalem, the people of God, the 12 disciples heading up the reconstituted tribes of Israel, and others welcomed him (Galatians 4:26, Hebrews 12:22). Gentiles, too, representing "all flesh," welcomed him. Yet, this prophecy is not exhausted in the first coming of Christ. Peter writes of the future revelation of the glory of Christ, his second coming (1 Peter 4:13).

There is a condition for being comforted by the Lord, and that's wanting to be comforted by the Lord. That's what repentance is all about. You stop seeking comfort elsewhere. To do that you have to leave the city and go out to the wilderness, so to speak. You leave that which is comfortable and seek comfort in the Lord. You face your sin squarely; you stop making excuses for it and instead confess it. This does something in your heart. This is how you clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; this is how you make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. This is how you build a highway to your heart for God. When you do that, God responds. He lifts up the valleys, he makes low the mountains, he makes the rough ground a plain and the rugged terrain a broad valley so that you might see his glory. In other words, he moves heaven and earth so that you might see him.


God's guarantee (40:6-8)

This section begins with a dialogue between voices in which one voice encourages another to "call out." Through this dialogue, the Lord arranges for words to be spoken to his people. There is a clear structure to the message that undergirds its point:


A All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.

        B The grass withers, the flower fades,

                   C When the breath of the Lord blows upon it;

A' Surely the people are grass.

          B' The grass withers, the flower fades,

                  C' But the word of our God stands forever.


The contrast is between all flesh/people and the word of God. All flesh and the people are transitory, but the word of God is permanent. We have just seen that "all flesh" means humanity that extends beyond Israel to include, and emphasize, the Gentiles. The word "loveliness" is the same word that is often translated "lovingkindness" and is used to convey the Lord's love for his people in faithfulness to his covenant with them. Humanity is not so reliable. Humanity is like the grass and the flowers which are blown away by the wind. The wind here is the breath, or Spirit, of the Lord, demonstrating that human life and death and kingdoms are dependent on the Lord.

Not only is all flesh grass, "the people" are grass as well. This focuses on the people of God. Israel, too, shares the same humanity with the rest of the nations, and the people of Israel are just as transitory, just as unreliable. The structure of the poem serves to start with all nations and then focus on God's people to show that even what Israel would expect to be the best of humanity, itself, is transitory and unreliable. The focus on God's people, then, serves to heighten the point about the word of our God, that it is reliable. The word which is spoken by the mouth of the Lord (verse 5) stands forever; it shapes history.

What does God's word say? In this context, it says that the Lord will free the people from captivity, that he will lead them back to the promised land and that he himself will return to Jerusalem. Considering verses 6 and 7, this means two things: All flesh (i.e., the nations, particularly Babylon) can't stop these things from happening, and the people (i.e., Israel) can't make these things happen. If God says it will happen, he will see to it that it happens; no one can stop it from happening, but neither can anyone make it happen.

Jesus says his words carry the same weight: "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away" (Mark 13:31). The people's return from exile and the Lord's return to Jerusalem according to his word will be like a rebirth, a theme that Peter picks up in applying these truths about God's word to spiritual rebirth (1 Peter 2:23-24).

The things that keep you in captivity may seem immense, along the lines of the kingdom of Babylon. But they are nothing but withering grass and fading flowers to God. He blows them away in his perfect time. God delivers us so that we might see his glory, so that we might see him more clearly. But we cannot deliver ourselves. We can repent, though even repentance involves the work of God, and we can pray and we can beg, but we cannot deliver ourselves and we cannot see God on our own. We are utterly dependent on the Lord for deliverance. But the word of our God stands forever; he will deliver.


Tough and tender shepherd (40:9-11)

Verse 9 can either be translated with the understanding that God's people are to speak or with the understanding that commands are being issued to speak to God's people. The latter meaning is probably the intent, being consistent with the rest of the passage. A voice is once again speaking to God's people, who are referred to as "Zion," the mountain on which the city of Jerusalem was perched, and as "Jerusalem" again (verse 1). Also included are the cities of Judah, another reference to Israel, the people of God.

The bearer of good news is to go to a high mountain and lift up his voice mightily so that he might be heard. He is told not to fear. The news is so good, so astounding, that he might be afraid that it won't happen or that the people won't believe it. The news is this: "Here is your God!" The God of Israel is returning to his people (Isaiah 52:7). This section can be seen as an amplification of the second section, verses 3 through 5, which promise the return of the Lord. Verses 10 and 11 explain how he will come. He will come in three ways: as a mighty king, with a reward and like a shepherd.

The Lord's coming with "might" and with "his arm ruling for him" would remind people, once again, of the exodus (Exodus 6:6, 15:16). The word "ruling" implies king. The Lord will come once again to Jerusalem as the mighty king who goes to war to deliver his people.

What is the Lord's "reward," also described as his "recompense"? It is not the reward that the Lord gives; it is the reward he receives. What is it that is "with him" and "before him" as he returns to Jerusalem? It's his people. The Lord's reward is the people he rescued. "For the Lord's portion is His people; Jacob is the allotment of His inheritance" (Deuteronomy 32:9).

Finally, the Lord comes as a shepherd. Kings and leaders were called shepherds (Ezekiel 34:2). In fact, David, the king, was actually a shepherd, as was Moses, the forerunner to the office of king. In "tending" his flock, the Lord oversees and leads his people collectively. The last three lines of verse 11 show how he is attentive to individual needs, from those of lambs to nursing ewes.

Vulnerable lambs need protection, so he gathers them and carries them. The mighty arm of the Lord of verse 10 is used in verse 11 to gather helpless lambs and carry them in his bosom. The Lord uses his strength in order to rescue, protect and cradle. Nursing ewes, who have the responsibility for caring for their young, are weighed down with burdens and also need to be led, so the Lord gently leads them. The wording evokes the Lord's carrying and gently leading the people into the promised land (Numbers 11:12, Exodus 15:13).

The word "bosom" at the end of the passage provides a link to the word "heart" at the beginning of the passage. The Lord speaks to the heart of the people (verse 2) that he might gather them to his heart (verse 11).

This message of the return of the Lord as king, then, truly is "good news."

Again, to some extent this prophecy was fulfilled when the people returned from exile, but it finds its greater fulfillment in the coming of Jesus, who the gospel writers proclaim as the Son of God, God's king (Matthew 3:17), and as the king of Israel coming to Jerusalem: "Say to the daughter of Zion, 'Behold your king is coming to you...'" (Matthew 21:5). Jesus says, "I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11), and, "I am the good shepherd; and I know my own and my own know me" (John 10:14). He gathers people into "one flock" (John 10:16). Jesus took children, akin to lambs, into his arms (Mark 9:36, 10:16). The word that the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, uses to convey the concept of bringing good news (euangelizomai) contains within it the word usually translated "gospel" in the New Testament. The "gospel of Jesus Christ" is that Israel's God, in the person of Jesus Christ, has come as king. Bringing this good news, or preaching the gospel, then, invites people to submit to the reign of Jesus. Again, the expression of the complete reign of Jesus awaits fulfillment: "For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet" (1 Corinthians 15:25).

Just as the bringer of good news was not to fear lifting up his voice, neither should we fear when we hear the good news that God has become king in the person of Jesus. We might be afraid to believe it because it seems to good to be true. The voice cries out to us, in reference to Jesus: "Here is your God!"

The three ways in which Jesus comes assure us that his arrival is indescribably good news. He comes as a mighty king, infinitely able to conquer all enemies and reign powerfully in our lives. He comes as one who has received a reward, and that reward is, of all things, you. Your God considers you his reward. The mighty king goes to war to win your freedom, and his reward for winning your freedom is relationship with you. This is a biblical truth so astounding that our minds probably can't begin to understand it: You are God's reward. He comes as a shepherd who is attentive to each of our needs. Some of us are vulnerable, like lambs, and need to be gathered and carried. Some of us are burdened with responsibilities, like nursing ewes, and need to be gently led. Many of us are both vulnerable and burdened at the same time. He is strong, that he might protect you, and he is gentle, that he might cradle you. He speaks to your heart that he might cradle you next to his heart. He is the good shepherd. He lays down his life to gather you to himself. He carries you in his mighty arm and caresses you with his wounded hands that you might be healed. Now that's good news.


Passage of contrasts

In two ways, this is a passage of contrasts. First, as we have just seen, the Lord is both tough and tender. He is tough in order that he might be tender. Second, loud voices dominate the passage. They are constantly calling out. But there is also a soft voice as well. The Lord says to "speak kindly" to us, to speak tenderly to us, to speak to our hearts. But it's sometimes hard to hear the soft and tender voice of love, so the Lord uses the loud and mighty voice to get our attention. He does so in order that we might listen to that soft and tender voice, the one that whispers into our ears, "I love you." Here is your God!

Scripture quotations are taken from the NEW AMERICAN STANDARD BIBLE ("NASB"). © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission. Where indicated, Scripture quotations were also taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION ("NIV"). © 1973, 1978, 1984 International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers.

Isaiah 40:1-11
1st Message
Scott Grant
January 9, 2000