From Comfort to Praise
Isaiah 40:1 announces comfort after the future Babylonian exile. It foresees the joy that comes after a night of weeping. But God’s desire—which He will ultimately effect through His messianic Servant—is for that joy to give way to sincere praise, as His people fully embrace Him as their God and worship Him as His servants. This is the thrust of Isaiah 36-66.
Isaiah 36-39: God delivers Israel from Assyria and foretells captivity in Babylon
Isaiah 36-39 is often included with Isaiah 1-35 as part of the first half of Isaiah, but it can also be viewed as the bridge that links chapters 1-35 with chapters 40-66. It records the dramatic fulfillment of God’s promises in Isaiah 1-35 to destroy the Assyrian army and send Sennacherib home defeated, once God had finished using the latter to chastise His wayward people. The miraculous deliverance from the Assyrians (chs. 36-37) then becomes a platform for trusting God in the future, when He does not deliver Jerusalem from Babylonian invaders but rather brings her exiles back after a time of chastisement. Isaiah 40-66 record this future restoration.
In addition, Hezekiah’s stumble in Isaiah 39 involving the Babylonian messengers brings a rebuke from Isaiah and a prediction that Jerusalem’s treasures and Hezekiah’s own descendants will be carted off to Babylon. This allusion to the future Babylonian Captivity is the backdrop against which Isaiah 40-66 opens. That Jerusalem would receive comfort, as Isaiah 40 promises, after her time of exile in Babylon must have seemed humanly impossible. After all, the Northern Kingdom never came back from its exile. But the God who delivered from Assyria in Isaiah 36-37 can just as easily free from exile in Babylon. Isaiah 40-66 views the future release from Babylon as fact and even foretells events in Jerusalem’s far more distant future.
Isaiah 40-66 subdivides into three sections: chapters 40-48, 49-57, and 58-66. Each section ends by warning that the wicked have no peace; the last, with the wicked’s eternal lack of peace (66:24).
Isaiah 40-48: Yahweh proves His uniqueness by foretelling Cyrus’ freeing of Israel
As you read Isaiah 40, note the three voices that speak up to assure comfort to God’s people (vv. 3, 6, 9) and the particularly moving depiction of God with which the chapter ends (vv. 28-31). In Isaiah 41-48, look for allusions to the Persian king, Cyrus the Great, God’s instrument to free His people from captivity (41:2, 25; 45:13; 48:14). Isaiah even mentions Cyrus by name decades before he is born (44:28; 45:1).
Cyrus is not Israel’s redeemer though; God is. More references to God as Israel’s Redeemer occur in Isaiah 40-48 and in the chapters beyond than in any other book of the Bible. And as Israel’s Redeemer, God is telling them in advance what He will do in order to convince them that there is no other God. Specifically, His foretelling of what He will do in the future through Cyrus proves conclusively that He alone is God. What other god could foretell the future like that? In this context of absolute monotheism, the great invitation to look to Yahweh and be saved is issued to the ends of the earth (45:22). The satirical portrayals of those who make idols reveal the absurdity of idolatry (41:5-7; 44:12-20).
Isaiah 49-57: The Messianic Servant vicariously bears the sins of His people
A figure is introduced in Isaiah 40-48 who will become the focus of Isaiah 49-57. As the messianic Servant of Yahweh, He will bring deliverance on a far greater scale than Cyrus ever could. Four poems in Isaiah, dubbed “Servant Songs,” make this Servant their central focus, each zooming in on a different aspect of His identity and work. Of course, these songs point to Jesus of Nazareth.
Isaiah 58-66: God prepares a kingdom for His servants on His holy mountain
These faithful servants of Yahweh are the recipients of eschatological kingdom blessings. The heritage of these servants encompasses Jerusalem’s millennial prosperity, peace, and protection (54:1-17). The invitation to join this happy band of servants is open-ended: come and drink, buy and eat, listen and live, seek and find (55:1-7). Even foreigners can become God’s servants (56:6). Tragically, Israel itself has blind watchmen and other rebels whose sins God will not overlook. He must treat them as His foes. Only those in Zion who turn from transgression experience Him as Redeemer (59:18-21).
The future glory of Zion fills Isaiah’s final chapters. Note the references to “My holy mountain” (56:7; 57:13; 65:11; 66:20). God has only one such mountain, and it is Zion. Isaiah 60 emphasizes the glory of the Lord that will light Jerusalem. Messiah Himself is commissioned to bring comfort to Zion’s mourners Zion (61:3), and the call rings out to persist in intercession for Zion until God makes her “a praise in the earth” (62:7).
Yahweh will hear this intercession, take vengeance on Zion’s enemies, and comfort Jerusalem (66:6-13). But not all will experience Jerusalem in her future glory (66:14-17). The distinction between God’s servants and those who are not is an eternal one. God’s glory is at stake. Those willing to behold His glory and worship will endure forever (66:18-23), but those who refuse and rebel will be an eternal horror to all mankind (66:24).
In the end, God’s glory really does fill the whole earth (6:3). And the nation God created for His glory will declare His praise (43:7, 21).
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About the Author
Timothy W. Berrey is the author of Planning Your Life God's Way and From Eden to Patmos: An Overview of Biblical History. He is the director of Graduate Studies at Bob Jones Memorial Bible College in Metro Manila, where he has lived with his wife Laura and six children since 2005.