God's people living during the time of Isaiah's ministry and the remnant who endured the fulfillment of the heart-melting prophecies of Isaiah chapters 1-39 needed a positive, comforting message from God. God delivers a "magnificent masterpiece"1 that gives the hope, meaning, and purpose they so desperately needed. "[His] people were certainly in need of comfort. They lived in a day of crisis and change. Theirs was a world in which kingdoms were collapsing and commerce was in confusion. The military juggernaut of a pagan power was moving like an almost irresistible force across the earth."2 "It was a time of painful perplexity and torturing uncertainty."3 They needed assurance from God. They needed to know that He was still there and still interested in them.
The message of assurance and comfort starts out in verses 1 and 2 with God's promise to give rich blessing to those who have endured much suffering. Isaiah 61:7 seems to shed light on verse 2-"Speak comfort to Jerusalem and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the Lord's hand double for all her sins" - in that, the double portion points to extraordinary blessing after much suffering rather than judgment twicefold inflicted. So, the effect of verse 1 and 2 serve to set the stage to describe God's ability to bring forth that "doublefold" blessing.
Verses 3-11 deal with God's salvation and the hope, meaning, and purpose that can be found in it. The way of God's salvation is repentance energized by faith. Verses 3-8 describe in figurative language the truth of repentance in God's plan of salvation. Luke 3:3-4 directly relates this figurative language to the preaching of repentance. The preaching of repentance to be genuine must consist of turning from self and sin (verses 4, 6, 7a, 8a) unto God and His ways (verses 5, 7b, 8b). The validity of this definition can be seen in the Holy Spirit-recorded and Jesus-affirmed (Matthew 11:11) ministry of John the Baptist.
The ministry of John as recorded in Luke 3:7-14 fulfills the pattern of preaching repentance. John condemns sin and exhorts righteousness. In Luke 3:7 he attacks man's deceitful nature; in Luke 3:8 man's self-righteousness; in Luke 3:9 man's selfishness; in Luke 3:13, indirectly, of man's dishonesty; in Luke 3:14, indirectly, of man's oppressive nature toward those weaker than he. Contrasted with these judgments on sin is John's call to righteous obedience-in Luke 3:8a of the bearing of true fruit; in Luke 3:11 of compassionate giving; in Luke 3:13 of honesty; in Luke 3:14 of a merciful attitude toward those weaker than oneself.
Isaiah 40:9 speaks directly to believing Judah but is applicable to all who have ever believed. This verse holds within it a general truth necessary for all ages. Charles Spurgeon says it well in his analysis of verse 9: "Confined in a little valley you discover scarcely anything but rippling brooks as they descend into the stream at the foot of the mountain. Climb the first rising knoll, and the valley lengthens and widens beneath your feet. Go higher, and you see the country for four or five miles round, and you are delighted with the widening prospect. Mount still, and the scene enlarges; till at last, when you are on the summit, and look east, west, north, and south, you see almost all England lying before you. (Illustrating--) when we first believe in Christ we see little of Him. The higher we climb the more we discover of His beauties."4 It might be added, the more we are able to communicate the truth of the God of our salvation.
The "get up" of Isaiah 40:9 is a call to aspire to a higher, a nobler, a fuller life, a life that reaches upward to heaven and nearer to God5 without which the message of "Behold, your God" reeks of superficiality and hypocrisy. Verses 10-11 continue the message about the One in whom salvation will be wrought. They speak of God as personal God, deliverer, king, rewarder, and shepherd. We serve not a God who is distant and indifferent, but One who cares enough to "come", "rule", "reward", and gently "gather" and "lead" His people.
In God's salvation man finds the hope, meaning, and purpose he desperately needs, and when apart from God, creatively seeks. Men and women separated from God seek to fill their own "cistern" (Jeremiah 2:13) for fulfillment and light their own "sparks" (Isaiah 50:11) for direction. True meaning is found in two things: 1) that God is our caring Lord now (verses 1 and 9) and 2) that our caring Lord has a future planned for us that is filled with comfort and love (verses 2 and 10-11). True meaning is found in two important facts: 1) the truth conveyed to us in God's Word (verse 8) and 2) the fact that we have an identity in belonging to the God of the universe (verses 9 and 11). True purpose is found in one important fact-our task of serving and working with the God of the universe in accomplishing His purposes (verse 9). All man-made attempts to carve personal purpose pale before the eternal purposes of God. Things like building corporate empires, ruling nations, furthering social change, or even feeding the poor and ending disease are ultimately worthless unless God is in it.
Verses 12-28 center on God's sovereignty and His supreme uniqueness. Verse 12 gives us factual examples of God's power and wisdom. Stated rhetorically, God asks, "Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, measured heaven with a span and calculated the dust of the earth in a measure?" Let us turn to recent scientific discoveries that serve to fill this rhetorical question with power. Such power that we will thunder an absolute, "No one but God alone!"
Commenting on the measuring of the waters, Bible Truth Publishers say,
The oceans cover about three-fourths of the world's surface. Although God created billions of stars and planets, none except the earth, as far as we know, has more than a trace of water on it. The abundance of water found on the earth is essential to preserve every form of life he placed here. Without oceans great extremes of temperature would make life impossible, since it is the action of the oceans that makes up for uneven heating of the sun.6
Also, "If the oceans were merely a few feet deeper, it would absorb so much carbon dioxide from the air that plants could not exist."7 God's measuring made sure that the earth has just the right amount of water to sustain life.
God also measured our 'heaven', our earthly atmosphere. "At a distance of 1200 miles above the earth's surface radiation from outer space amounts to 10 roentgens an hour. Unless our atmosphere shielded us from this lethal radiation human beings could never exist on the plant earth."8 Space is hostile. It is marvelous to know that unless God intervened on earth it would be like any other orbiting body, void of significant life.
God "calculated the dust of the earth." "If the crust of the earth were merely 10 feet thicker, as well it could be, the metallic elements in the crust would combine with all the free oxygen in the atmosphere,"9 making animal life on earth impossible.
These three examples are significant. For without all three being true, life could not exist on earth. Thank God that "He formed it to be inhabited" (Psalm 45:18). All calculated before the foundation of the earth was laid. There was no trial and error, no explosion of knowledge whereby He learned, but instant understanding concerning the execution of His will.
Humans were created in God's image. Man can gather, organize, analyze, and synthesize information discovered. Man, however, is finite and must grow in knowledge one step at a time, often making errors along the way. God is infinite and has innate knowledge, wisdom, and understanding. He had no teacher, no one to give Him advice or correction. He, Himself, is the source for all true knowledge.
God moves on in verses 15-17 to set Himself apart from all others. "His being is incomparable."10 He compares Himself with all the nations of the world, all peoples of all ages put together. Could you imagine an army assembled in all its pomp and ceremony that consisted of every man who ever lived, all arrayed in battle armor, with all the great leaders of history to lead their units into battle? Can you picture in your mind the vastness of such an army? The deafening sound of horses as they run to battle? And of all this God says, they "are as a drop in a bucket." Vine gives this meaning to the phrase: "A drop hanging on a bucket: does the drop cause the carrier any burden."11 They are "counted as the small dust on the balance (verse 15)." So insignificant in comparison, that not even a buyer is going to worry about its presence on the scale measuring out his purchase.
God expects each person to recognize Him in His creation (Romans 1:20-21). He sarcastically rebukes sinful people for not recognizing His creative work. He asks, "Have you not known?" He also rebukes them for refusing to listen to teaching about Him, "Have you not heard?" "Has it not been told you from the beginning?" They do not see because they have blinded themselves with their sin (verse 21d).
God then proceeds to tell them what they should already know (verses 22-26). They should have bowed before God in humility as they pondered the greatness of the universe around them. They should have acknowledged their own vulnerability before a world and a God bigger than them (verse 22). They should have noticed how all the mighty men eventually are weakened by age or defeated by an enemy (verse 23). Their time of glory is temporary and fleeting. And their passing affects the activities of the world little (verse 24a). And even in their strength, their prime, the mighty are but dust in the palm of God's hand, easily blown away (verse 24b).
God then asks, with all this considered, "To whom then will you liken me, or to whom shall I be equal?" Paraphrasing verses 25-26, He says, "lift up your eyes on high and take another look, and see who has created these things, who brings out their host by number, who calls them all by name, and not one is missing." Out of all men of all ages, today's people should stand in awe of God's power and majesty. For, what the ancients could only see with the naked eye, today with telescopes we see billions and billions of stars. "Modern telescopes and other means of detection have uncovered an estimated 100 billion galaxies containing altogether more than 100 billion billion stars. And these are just the ones scientists have discovered."12 And to think that He knows them all by name (verse 26b; Psalm 147:4).
The people of Isaiah's time were certainly in need of comfort. The troubles of their day were real, not imaginary. The Assyrians and Babylonians were actual people bent on destroying Judah. They were ruthless and pagan. They were known to have tortured the enemy, raped women, and enslaved children. The threats were real. The people of Judah feared the future. They feared for their safety. It was a time of high distress and uncertainty. To some, the events surrounding them meant God failed, that the gods of the pagans were stronger than Jehovah.13 But God points to the real problem-their lack of faith (verses 27-28).
David, in Psalm 27:1-5, connects lack of faith and fear. He describes the enemy as one who wishes to "eat up my flesh" (verse 2), and is "encamped against me." His response was not to look at his circumstances but to God. The One who was going to "hide" him and set him on a "rock" of safety. He would say with Job, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, "My God is able to deliver me, but if He chooses not to deliver me I will not do wrong but will trust in Him; for He cares for me!" God moves in on this very issue in Isaiah 40:28. "Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the Lord, the Creator of the ends of the earth, neither faints nor is weary. There is no searching of His understanding."
The bottom line is, "No matter how dark the sky, how discouraging the circumstances, how desperate the situation, God is there-(He is) a God who is too good to forget and too great to fail."14 Judah's God, and ours, is a God that comforts and strengthens those who seek Him, those who "wait upon the Lord" (verse 31).
1. James L. Green, God Reigns (Nashville: Broadman, 168) 118.
2. Green 119.
3. Green 119.
4. Charles H. Spurgeon, Morning and Evening (McLean: MacDonald) 345.
5. Spurgeon 657.
6. Bible Truth Publishers, The Wonders of God's Creation (Addison: Bible truth Publishers, 1983) 13.
7. Paul A. Zimmerman, Darwin, Evolution, and Creation (St. Louis: Concordia, 1972) 87.
8. Zimmerman 87.
9. Zimmerman 87.
10. Merrill F. Unger, The New Unger's Bible Handbook (Chicago: Moody, 1984) 256.
11. W. E. Vine, Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1965) 94.