William Kelly Major Works Commentary
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.Isaiah Chapter 40
A sensibly different portion of the prophecy now opens on us, forming what may be called Isaiah's second volume. No longer is the overthrow of kings and peoples in the foreground; nor are we occupied as before with the various Gentile enemies that long beset and troubled Israel. Hence, most appropriately introducing it, stands a touching controversy between God and His own people. We are evidently not looking here on God's dealings without; we enter within. His judgement begins as ever at the house of God: and more closely and thoroughly than the same process in the preface of our prophecy (Isa. 1). More was wanted than ways and judgements in providence. There are moral wants and spiritual wrongs which must be taken up, if the people are to be blessed according to God; and what makes the distinction so much the more striking is the fact that we shall find Babylon again in a totally different aspect from that which had been seen as yet, not so much in her aspect of worldly magnificence and power, but in her sad notoriety as the source and bulwark of idolatry on earth. Evidently this accords with God's pleading with His people, and His distinct unfolding of the chastening that He caused to light upon them because of their idolatry and even worse spiritual sins, as we shall see. Thus not political but spiritual wickedness is here before us; into which they had been drawn by the enemy to set them into opposition to God Himself.
This great change gives rise to an altogether different character of revelation and even style of address. "Comfort ye, comfort ye, My people," graciously lets us see the end of all. In the beginning of the book the Spirit of God appealed to Israel as the people then were, attesting God's judgement of their wickedness and the introduction of the glory of Jehovah. Here too the same Israel were guilty, and the divine glory is surely to be established in judgement; but before we behold the full distressing picture of what they really were in His eyes, He begins with unfailing words of comfort. Thus the heart of every saint would be strengthened at the very outset with the assurance that they were the object of divine mercy, and so too all the better would they bear to hear what Jehovah must tell them of their grievous faults, which could not but be in themselves fatal.
The chapter before formed a kind of link with what follows; for there we have the prediction of their deportation to Babylon; which, as has been often remarked, holds a peculiar place. Babylon, being the beginning of the great image of Daniel, becomes also the type of the last representative of imperial power. The head of gold received supremacy from God in a more direct form than any of the other powers, which were only successors in the line. The grant of imperial power was immediate from the God of heaven to Nebuchadnezzar, who thus typified in a certain sense the image from first to last. More particularly the fall of Babylon prefigured the overthrow of the world-power in the earth which rose on Judah's ruin, now Lo-ammi; the final judgement of that system of universal supremacy then begun, and, if not still going on, only suspended. For the image-power has not yet been struck by the little Stone (Daniel 2:34), and is awaiting its reorganisation before it is dissolved for ever. Its components are at present in a broken state; but by-and-by they will again coalesce with an appearance of amazing and renewed strength, which its last head will use directly to oppose the Lord of lords and King of kings. This Rev. 17. clearly shows us; for the judgement of Babylon and of the Beast as there set forth is not yet accomplished. The old Roman Empire, destroyed by the Gothic races, could not be fairly represented by the Beast with seven heads and ten horns, any more than the pagan city answers truly to the harlot drunk with the blood of the saints. What filled the seer with great wonder was the mystery of what claimed to be Christ's bride seated on the Beast, the mother of the fornications and, yet more, of the abominations (or idols) of the earth, and guilty withal of such sanguinary persecution of Christ's followers.
Babylon has thus a special place as being the power of all others that was allowed to enslave Jerusalem and the house of David from whom the Deliverer of Israel was to spring. Now we know that the Son of David is actually come, that He was presented to Israel and rejected by them, that He suffered death on the cross and is gone up to heaven, where He has taken His place, not as Son of David, but as the rejected Son of man Who is the Son of God. The Lord Jesus is there the great High Priest of God as well as Head of the church, seated at the right hand of God, where and whence He acts in power and love, sending down whatever is needful for the good of the saints and for winning sinners by the testimony of God's grace here below. This is what Christ is now doing, not yet fulfilling the prophecies concerning the Son of David as such, nor yet as the King of the nations.
Hence anyone who in a serious inquiry takes up the Old Testament to find the full and clear announcement of what occupies Christ now must, either give up these prophecies as dark and unintelligible, or he must put a false gloss and violent strain on them to eke out such an application as their full scope. In truth they refer to the future, not to the present; and to Israel, God's earthly people, not to the heavenly church, save in certain general principles or special allusions to the Gentile parenthesis, which the provident wisdom of the Holy Ghost took care to furnish in order to confound God's adversaries. Then there are displays of God in moral ways from which (though about Israel rather than ourselves) we can and ought to extract for our own souls that which is most helpful and cheering. For God is good and full of tender mercy to Israel; and He is surely not less full of grace to us. If He is love to the people He will govern, can He love less the children He now adopts to Himself by Jesus Christ? There are no doubt great differences between the saints He calls now, and those who are to be blessed in the age to come. Now it is His church, Christ's body, the children He is bringing into the place of heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ. Israel will inherit the promise made to the fathers; but we, if Christ's now, are heirs with the Firstborn, sons not merely of "the fathers," but of God the Father.
When we thus examine the prophecies, not biased with the foregone conclusion of finding ourselves in them, but free to understand the words as they are written, and simply accepting the intended objects God here speaks of, nothing can be clearer or more certain. Here for instance He calls to comfort His people. "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak to the heart of Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her time of toil (or, suffering) is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned; that she hath received of Jehovah's hand double for all her sins" (vv. 1, 2). The ground He puts it on is that the warfare of Israel is over. Jehovah now interposes. Bad as Jerusalem's sins were, she had, to His reckoning of love, suffered double what her sins deserved in His government. He is not looking at the sins of Jerusalem apart from Christ, but as it were through Him. If there were no suffering Messiah connected with Jerusalem, nothing would remain but the judgement of her sins to her everlasting shame and ruin. But God always looks at Christ on her behalf, and can thus say, "Comfort ye, comfort ye." After disowning Israel as not His people, Lo-ammi, which holds good through the times of the Gentiles not yet expired, He will acknowledge them once more and for ever under Messiah and the new covenant.
Next we have the manner or moral principle in which the comfort will be brought home to them. This furnishes a grave and interesting insight into God's ways. "The voice of one that crieth in the wilderness." The allusion is evident to John the Baptist, who was "sent from God" to bear witness of the True Light and prepare a way for the Messiah. In the midst of his testimony he was slain. Messiah too came, and in the midst of His testimony He was slain. Master and servant, they were both cut off by wicked hands. Thus God's work was, as far as man could see, nipped in the bud; and hence the world is yet in mis-rule and confusion, in sin and misery. When God really fulfils for the earth what He has at heart, there will be the manifest power of ordered blessing to His glory.
But look up, not down, and read in the risen and glorified Christ the proof to faith that the cross, the very thing that seemed the total ruin of all the counsels of God, is in truth their solid basis and justification, by which He is and will be for ever glorified. The cross of the Lord Jesus is the triumph of grace, as the resurrection and ascension are its righteous answer; but it is a triumph known only to faith. The world sees not heaven opened nor Him glorified there; it saw in the cross One Who suffered to death. In the Acts of the Apostles man's rejection of Christ is constantly contrasted with God's raising Him from the dead. There we see that man and God are in complete opposition. The cross is thus looked at in the light not of God's purposes, but of man's wickedness. In the Epistles the truth chiefly insisted on is the cross, not so much as the extreme point of all man has done against God, but as the deepest exercise of the grace that God feels towards guilty man. Not that love was created by the cross; it was in God before the coming of Christ, and because of it He sent His Son. The propitiation is the fruit of God's grace, not its cause. Propitiation vindicates it, judging and putting aside all the sin on man's part, which otherwise would have proved an insurmountable barrier. But the love was on God's part from everlasting. We must bear this in mind in looking at propitiation, which indeed is the strongest possible proof of His love, while it equally proves His holiness and the necessary judgement of our sins.
John's testimony was a call to repentance in view of Messiah's advent; his baptism therefore was a confession both of sins and of Him, Who should come after himself. it was "The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of Jehovah, make straight in the desert a highway for our God" (v. 3). It was not the person nor the work of Israel's hope in power. For Israel as a whole was blind and deaf; the testimony was interrupted, the Messiah refused. There was therefore but a partial application, the people's unbelief thus intercepting and breaking off the thread of God's ways, while His counsels abide irrefragable and accomplished, through their unbelief, in the cross as they never else could have been. The way of Jehovah was not yet prepared, nor was there a straight highway in the desert for God. Man was put on his responsibility and heard the cry only to sin the more; but by-and-by God will make all good in grace by His own power. Then "Every valley shall be exalted; and every mountain and hill shall be brought low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of Jehovah shall be revealed, and all flesh (not Israel only) shall see [it] together; for the mouth of Jehovah hath spoken" (vv. 4, 5).
Thus plainly we have, as far as its scope goes, the sure purpose of God. Every difficulty, depths, heights, rough or crooked, all must disappear: for God yet means to make this earth the scene of His glory. A most blessed prospect it is, that the sin, misery, and weakness of man, the groaning of all creation around, the wiles and power and presence of Satan must vanish and give place, not to the revealed grace of God in Christ, which has shone (we know) in the despised Nazarene, but to the revealed glory of Jehovah, when all flesh shall see it together. It cannot refer to the day of the judgement of the dead, because then it will not be "all flesh" nor any flesh whatever, but the dead raised before the great white throne. But here it is a question of man living in his natural body on the earth. The Jew was apt to overlook the judgement of the dead at the end of all dispensations; the Gentile is just as negligent as to the judgement of the quick, though it be confessed in the commonest symbols of Christendom. As infidelity increases, the rejection of this truth is perhaps more complete now than it has ever been since the gospel was preached to the Gentiles.
In the dark ages people at least believed enough to be panic-struck from time to time, but now Christians are accounted fanatics if they testify of these coming judgements. But none the less will God cut short the course of this world, and the glory of Jehovah will be revealed, so that all flesh shall see it together. This John the Baptist had to announce: only the first word committed to him, and already accomplished in its measure, was the preparation of the way of Jehovah. Hence it appears that the third verse does not refer solely to the mighty changes of the new age, but includes also such a moral preparation as befitted the coming of the Lord in humiliation. Thus, for the time, it went no farther than God's working in the hearts of a remnant, whose souls were made to be in a measure prepared for the Messiah. We know that such was the fact. See John's disciples leaving him to follow Jesus, and John delighting in it. "He must increase, but I must decrease" (John 3:29-30). Hence says our Lord in Matthew 11:14, "If ye will receive it, this is Elias that was for to come," clearly showing that to faith John the Baptist was Elias (compare Mark 9:11-13); but, as a matter of fact, the full predicted circumstances are postponed till the great day that is coming (compare Malachi 4:5-6). Thus he is to come, not before the Lord takes up the church, with which he has nothing to do, but before the proper blessing of Israel, with whom he has a close connection. John the Baptist went before Jehovah-Jesus in the spirit and power of Elias but Elias himself publicly vindicated the true God in opposition to the apostasy of Israel and in the discomfiture of the priests of Baal. He will return by-and-by, and resume a work of the most solemn character before the great and terrible day of Jehovah. John the Baptist anticipated this in the way of preparing a remnant for receiving Him Who should and did and will come.
Next, "A voice saith, Cry. And he saith, What shall I cry?" Here follows the substance of John the Baptist's testimony, though it may be still more manifest in the end of this age "All flesh is grass"; it is man morally and universally. "And all the goodliness thereof [is] as the flower of the field" (v. 6). Could a man use this to think well of himself? Verse 7 cuts down all boasting - "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the Spirit (or, breath) of Jehovah bloweth upon it." Not its beauty but its frailty God refers to. The moment you have God testing its character, if it were only by the breath of His nostrils, all flesh comes to nothing; and this too in Israel, not in Gentiles only: "surely the people is grass." Nor is this all; He utters its sentence again and again. The reason for the first repetition seems to be the emphatic judgement of "the people," that is, the Jews. The second case is particularly connected with the resource for faith. "The grass withereth, the flower fadeth; but the word of our God shall stand for ever" (v. 8).
Thus the reception of the Messiah and His reign over Israel by-and-by are conditioned by their repentance, a work wrought in their souls by the word of God applied by the Holy Spirit, as Nicodemus had to learn from our Lord in John 3. So the Christian proves yet more profoundly under the gospel, and by faith receives eternal life in the Son of God. So must the Jew in due time for the future world-kingdom of our Lord and of His Christ. These two truths are of no less importance at the present moment, as we know how Peter used them for the Christian Jews from the first. They will be urgently needed when God begins to work in the Jews once more, when they painfully learn, feel, and prove the utter worthlessness of man as he is in divine things. Even now the men of the world are making no small strides in material things; but they will yet do greater things. And the devil will mature and display his plans as they have never been witnessed in the world before. What then will be the security of faith? "The word of our God shall stand for ever."
But as the church, the heavenly mystery of Christ (or rather part of it), really came into view when all hopes of the earth and man for the present (and always, as far as they are concerned) were buried in Christ's grave, so we may well believe, as the end draws nearer, we do greatly need to rest with simplicity upon God's word. We may, as only knowing in part, understand but little; but it is a poor feeling and unworthy to be called faith only to believe His word when understood. Not that it is not sweet and cheering when we consciously enter into any of its depths; but intelligence of the word is the gift of grace and product of faith, not the ground why one believes. God sends one His testimony, and the soul bows to it, setting to its seal that God is true. Am I a sinner without peace or even hope, or any real anxiety before God? That word comes and pronounces to my conscience that all flesh is grass. My soul is thus laid bare. If I do not believe God, all my life and death will be just the proof of my folly and sin. But if I submit to the humbling yet gracious testimony of God, while proving its truth in what I am, I enter into the comfort and strength of His own word, and I too am made to stand through that same word. "The word of our God shall stand for ever." Our experience follows, and confirms of course the truth of the word in breaking one down. Thus God's word is the only standing-ground. Yet outwardly the word of God is just like the cross of Christ. There may well be difficulties to such as we are; and the word seems a weak thing to confide in for eternity; but, in truth, it is more stable than heaven and earth. So in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 the apostle, anticipating the ruin of Christendom, casts the man of God on this unfailing resource.
But we turn in the next verse to the special earthly object of God's affection - Zion. It is the symbol of the grace of God working in Israel, also the centre of the royal glory that is about to be revealed here below. "O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, get thee up into a high mountain; O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up thy voice with strength; lift up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold, your God! Behold, the Lord Jehovah will come with might, and his arm shall rule for him; behold, his reward [is] with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs with his arm, and carry [them] in his bosom; he will gently lead those that give suck" (vv. 9-11). As there can be no doubt, the person Who came of old and will come by-and-by is Christ; in a word, the same Jesus is not only Christ but Jehovah. He is here spoken of as the God of Israel, Jehovah, Whose reward is with Him and His work before Him. First of all is His coming in power; next, with all tenderness of heart, as One taking compassion on them because of their defenceless and exposed condition.
But the verses from 12 let us know, when we come to inquire who is the great and loving Deliverer, that He turns out to be no such petty conqueror as Rabbis conceived and as the carnal desires of Israel craved so long and ardently; He is the Creator. How strange that such a height of glory should be unwelcome! Even then it was God's warning of His judgement on idolatry which is the first great question in this part of Isaiah's prophecy with Israel even more than the nations. His people would apostatise more and more from Jehovah and follow the Gentiles in their worship of idols. But before the Spirit of God deals with this iniquity, He first of all identifies the Messiah with God, and expatiates on what He is as the eternal, Almighty, and only wise, the Creator and Governor of all things, the Holy One, Jehovah of Israel.
This accordingly gives an occasion for a glorious description of the true God. "Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out the heavens with [his] span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in a balance, and the hills in scales? Who hath directed the Spirit of Jehovah, and [as] his counsellor hath taught him? With whom took he counsel, and [who] made him understand, and instructed him in the path of judgement, and taught him knowledge, and showed to him the way of understanding? Behold, the nations are counted as a drop from a bucket, and as the fine dust on the balance, behold, he taketh up the isles as an atom. And Lebanon [is] not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering. All the nations [are] as nothing before him; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity" (vv. 12-17).
Then He challenges the folly of those that set up graven images as entitled to resemble or to represent Him. "To whom then will ye liken God? and what likeness will ye compare unto him? The workman casteth a graven image, and the goldsmith spreadeth it over with gold, and casteth silver chains. He that [is] impoverished so that he hath no oblation chooseth a tree [that] doth not rot; he seeketh unto him a skilled workman to prepare a graven image [that] shall not be moved. Do ye not know? have ye not heard? hath it not been told you from the beginning? have ye not understood the foundations of the earth? [It is] he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof [are] as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a veil (or curtain), and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in: that bringeth the princes to nothing; that maketh the judges of the earth as vanity. Scarcely are they planted, scarcely are they sown, scarcely hath their stock taken root in the earth, but he also bloweth upon them, and they wither, and the whirlwind taketh them away as stubble. To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One. Lift up your eyes on high, and behold. Who hath created these [things], bringing out their host by number? He calleth them all by name; by the greatness of his might, and strength of power, not one faileth" (vv. 18-26).
Lastly, Jehovah falls back on what He has been to His own from the beginning. "Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hid from Jehovah, and my judgement is passed over from my God? Dost thou not know, hast thou not heard, [that] the everlasting God, Jehovah, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? [There is] no searching of his understanding. He giveth power to the faint; and to [them that have] no might he increaseth strength. Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall stumble and fall; but they that wait upon Jehovah shall renew [their] strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; they shall walk, and not faint" (vv. 27-31). He cannot deny Himself, nor fail to strengthen the weakest that wait on Him. But the great public demonstration of His ways will be when His people at the consummation of the age are delivered from that evil heart of unbelief, which has been fatal to them hitherto in all their varied history, and has postponed the era of righteous happiness which yet awaits not Israel only but all the nations. Then shall the blessings prevail above the blessings of Jacob's progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills; they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of Him that was separate from His brethren: Jehovah, how long! Then will Judah own in deepest penitence his sin of blood-guiltiness, "the great transgression," against Him Who deigned to be his brother, and against a greater Father than his father. Benjamin will be joined to Joseph in a mightier sense, and the true Joseph make Himself known to His brethren by grace made true, and Israel be at length the Israel of God. The fame thereof will be heard throughout all the earth, and the long alienated and unworthy nations that knew not God will seek and rest in Him Who alone makes Himself known in deed and truth, Whose resting-place shall be glory.
Though a little out of its place, it seems but fair to say that while in the above translation the text of v. 9 has been rendered with the Septuagint and the Latin Vulgate, Grotius, both the Lowths, Gesenius, Rosenmόller, Leeser, and many otherwise differing scholars, that of the A.V. is supported by the Peschito, the Greek v.v. of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, as well as by Calvin, Vitringa, Ewald, Alexander, Stier, and many more of no small weight. According to these, Zion and Jerusalem are addressed as messengers of good tidings to the cities of Judah, instead of being the object of the message which is to be spread to others also.
It will be a blessed exchange, proved now in the soul of every one that believes the gospel, when Israel shall abandon confidence in self under law for the word of God which reveals His grace in Christ. They thus discover that flesh is but grass, and its goodliness no better than the flower of the field. He Who created the world is the same Jehovah, Israel's Saviour God, Who will make good in power and glory for His people what He once presented personally in humiliation and obedience, when alas! they in their pride and incredulity refused Him. None but the Framer and Governor of the universe could be adequate to such a result; and the nations that envied while they despised the Jews will judge all their folly in the day when their graven images shall be spurned for ever.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the LORD'S hand double for all her sins.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.
The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field:
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.
O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings, lift up thy voice with strength; lift it up, be not afraid; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!
Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand, and his arm shall rule for him: behold, his reward is with him, and his work before him.
He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.
Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?
Who hath directed the Spirit of the LORD, or being his counseller hath taught him?
With whom took he counsel, and who instructed him, and taught him in the path of judgment, and taught him knowledge, and shewed to him the way of understanding?
Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket, and are counted as the small dust of the balance: behold, he taketh up the isles as a very little thing.
And Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering.
All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.
To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?
The workman melteth a graven image, and the goldsmith spreadeth it over with gold, and casteth silver chains.
He that is so impoverished that he hath no oblation chooseth a tree that will not rot; he seeketh unto him a cunning workman to prepare a graven image, that shall not be moved.
Have ye not known? have ye not heard? hath it not been told you from the beginning? have ye not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth, and the inhabitants thereof are as grasshoppers; that stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain, and spreadeth them out as a tent to dwell in:
That bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity.
Yea, they shall not be planted; yea, they shall not be sown: yea, their stock shall not take root in the earth: and he shall also blow upon them, and they shall wither, and the whirlwind shall take them away as stubble.
To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One.
Lift up your eyes on high, and behold who hath created these things, that bringeth out their host by number: he calleth them all by names by the greatness of his might, for that he is strong in power; not one faileth.
Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hid from the LORD, and my judgment is passed over from my God?
Hast thou not known? hast thou not heard, that the everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth, fainteth not, neither is weary? there is no searching of his understanding.
He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.
Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall:
But they that wait upon the LORD shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint.