Isaiah 40
Pulpit Commentary
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.
Verse 1. - Comfort ye, comfort ye my people. The key-note is struck at once. With that iteration which is his favourite mode of emphasizing what is important (see the comment on Isaiah 38:11), the prophet declares that he and his brethren have a direct mission from God to "comfort" Israel. Note the encouragement contained in the expressions, "my people," and "your God." Israel is not cast off, even when most deeply afflicted.
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.
Verse 2. - Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem; literally, speak ye to the heart of Jerusalem. Address her inmost feelings, her very spirit and soul. Her warfare is accomplished... is pardoned... hath received. These perfects can only be viewed as "perfects of prophetic certainty." According to every theory of the authorship of Isaiah 40-46, they were written before the close of the Captivity, when Israel's warfare was not yet accomplished, her iniquity not yet fully pardoned. Isaiah, however, sees all as already accomplished in the Divine counsels, and so announces it to the people. Israel's warfare, her long term of hard service (comp. Job 7:1), will assuredly come to an end; she will thoroughly turn to God, and then her iniquity will be pardoned, she will be considered to have suffered enough. Double. "It was the ordinary rule under the Law that 'for all manner of trespass' a man condemned by the judges should pay double" (Kay; comp. Exodus 22:9). Heathen legislators adopted the same rule for certain offences (Arist, 'Eth. Nic.,' 3:5, § 8). It is not here intended to assert that the law of Divine judgment is to exact double; but only to assure Israel that, having been amply punished, she need fear no further vengeance (comp. Isaiah 61:7).
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.
Verse 3. - The voice of him that crieth; rather, the voice of one that crieth. A voice sounds in the prophet's ear, crying to repentance. For God to come down on earth, for his glory to be revealed in any signal way, by the restoration of a nation, or the revelation of himself in Christ, or the final establishment of his kingdom, the "way" must be first "prepared" for him. The hearts of the disobedient must be turned to the wisdom of the just. In the wilderness; either, "the wilderness of this world" (Kay), or "the wilderness separating Babylonia from Palestine" (Delitzsch), in a part of which John the Baptist afterwards preached. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. The "way of the Lord" is "the way of holiness" (Isaiah 35:8). There is one only mode of "preparing" it - the mode adopted by John Baptist (Matthew 3:2-12), the mode pointed out by the angel who announced him (Luke 1:17), the mode insisted on in the Collect for the Third Sunday in Advent. The voice enjoins on the prophets of the captive nation to prepare the hearts of the people for the coming manifestation of 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:
Verse 4. - Every valley shall be exalted, etc.; rather, let every valley be exalted. The prophets are to see that the poor and lowly are raised up; the proud and self-righteous depressed; the crooked and dishonest induced to change their ways for those of simplicity and integrity; the rude, rough, and harsh rendered courteous and mild. "In general, the meaning is that Israel is to [be made] take care that the God who is coming to deliver it shall find it in such an inward and outward state as befits his... purpose" (Delitzsch, 'Comment. on Isaiah,' vol. 2. p. 142).
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.
Verse 5. - And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. Then, when the preparation is complete, there shall be a revelation of the glory and might of Jehovah. The nature of the revelation is for the present shrouded in darkness; but it is a revelation which is not confined to Israel. All flesh shall see it together. It shall draw to it the attention of the human race at large. While the restoration of Israel to Palestine is the primary fulfilment of the prophecy, that restoration clearly does not exhaust its meaning, which points on to the restoration of all mankind to God's favour in Christ by the ἐπιφάνεια of his advent in the flesh, which has drown, or will draw, the eyes of "all flesh." For the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. A repetition of the emphatic clause wherewith Isaiah had terminated the third section of his first prophecy (Isaiah 1:20). It occurs again in Isaiah 58:14. No other writer uses the expression.
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:
Verse 6. - The voice said, Cry; rather, a voice of else that sayeth, Cry. It is a second voice, distinct from that of ver. 3, that now reaches the prophet's ear - a voice responded to by another. The speakers seem to be angels, who contrast the perishable nature of man with the enduringness and unchangingness of God. The point of their discourse is that "the Word of the Lord endureth for ever" (ver. 8), and therefore the preceding promises (vers. 2, 5) are sure. And he said; rather, and one said. A second voice answered the first, and asked what the proclamation was to be. In reply its terms were given. All flesh is grass (comp. Isaiah 37:27; and see also Job 5:25; Psalm 90:5; Psalm 92:7; Psalm 103:15). The goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field. So Ephraim was compared in ch. 28:1 to "a fading flower." The similitude is found also in Job 14:2 and in Psalm 103:15. Homer approaches the idea in his well-known simile, Οἵη περ φύλλων γενεὴ τοιήδε καὶ ἀνδρῶν ('Iliad,' 6:146).
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.
Verse 7. - The flower fadeth: because the Spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it. When the hot winds, which God sends, blow in spring-time, the flowers fade; when a destroying breath from him (see Isaiah 30:33) passes over the generations of men, they perish. Surely the people is grass. Either a mere repetition of "all flesh is grass" (ver. 6) with an asseveration, or an intimation that "the people" of Israel is not exempt from the lot of mankind in general, but shares it.
The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever.
Verse 8. - The Word of our God shall stand for ever. Amid all human frailty, shiftingness, changefulness, there is one thing that endures, and stroll endure - God's Word (see the comment on the first part of ver. 6). In the sureness of God's promises is Israel's exceeding comfort.
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!
Verses 9-11. - The time of Israel's restoration has drawn nigh. The preparation has been made. The voice calling to preparation is silent. The promises are now on the verge of receiving their accomplishment. It is fitting that some one should announce the fact to the nation. Isaiah calls on the company of prophets living at the time to do so (ver. 9). They are to take up a commanding position, to speak with a loud voice, and to proclaim the good tidings to Zion, to Jerusalem, and to the cities of Judah (comp. Isaiah 44:26). The terms of the proclamation are then given (vers. 10, 11). Verse 9. - O Zion, that bringest good tidings, etc.; rather, as in the margin, O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion (so the LXX., Gesenius, Rosenmuller, Maurer, Hitzig, Knobel, and Kay). Get thee up into the high mountain; rather, into a high mountain. Choose an elevated spot from which to make proclamation. O Jerusalem, that bringest, etc.; again, as in the margin, O thou that tellest good tidings to Jerusalem. The repetition, with a slight change, is quite in the manner of Isaiah. The cities of Judah. These would be in rains, no less than Jerusalem herself (see Isaiah 46:26; 64:10).
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.
Verse 10. - The Lord God; literally, the Lord Jehovah. With strong hand; or, with strength. His arm shall rule for him. Kay translates, "His arm shall get him rule;" i.e. the manifestation, which he shall make of his power, shall cause his kingdom to be extended far and wide upon the earth. "The Lord's arm," "the Lord's hand," are favourite expressions of Isaiah's (Isaiah 5:25; Isaiah 9:12; Isaiah 10:4; Isaiah 11:11; Isaiah 31:3; Isaiah 51:9; Isaiah 53:1; Isaiah 62:3, etc.). His reward is with him, and his work before him; rather, his wage is with him, and his recompense before him - a case of synonymous parallelism. The phrase is repeated in Isaiah 62:11. Mr. Cheyne understands "the reward which God gives to his faithful ones" to be meant. But perhaps it is better to understand, with Dr. Kay, that in the "little flock" which he restores to Palestine God finds his own reward and recompense - the compensation for all his care and trouble.
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.
Verse 11. - He shall feed his flock like a shepherd. The similitude is a favourite one with the psalmists (Psalm 77:20; Psalm 78:52; Psalm 80:1), and occurs again later on in Isaiah (Isaiah 49:9, 10). Its beauty and sweetness have been widely recognized. He shall gather the lambs; collect them, i.e., when they have strayed from the flock. Shall gently lead those that are with young; rather, those that give suck (comp. Genesis 33:3, where the same word is used). Ewes that are suckling their lambs require specially tender treatment.
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?
Verses 12-31. - THE MIGHT AND GREATNESS OF GOD CONTRASTED WITH THE WEAKNESS OF MAN AND THE FUTILITY OF IDOLS. If captive Israel is to be induced to turn' to God, and so hasten the time of its restoration to his favour and to its own land, it must be by rising to a worthy conception of the nature and attributes of the Almighty. The prophet, therefore, in the remainder of this chapter, paints in glorious language the power and greatness, and at the same time the mercy, of God, contrasting him with man (vers. 15-17, 23, 28-31), with idols (vers. 19, 20), and with the framework of material things (vers. 21, 22, 26), and showing his infinite superiority to each and all. In contrasting him with man, he takes occasion to bring into prominence his goodness and loving-kindness to man, to whom he imparts a portion of his own might and strength (vers. 29-31 ). Verse 12. - Who hath measured the waters? (comp. Proverbs 30:4 and Job 38:4-6). The might of God is especially shown in creation, which Isaiah assumes to be God's work. How infinitely above man must he be, who arranged in such perfection, "by measure and number and weight" (Wisd. 11:20), the earth, the waters, and the heavens, so proportioning each to each as to produce that admirable order and regularity which the intelligent observer cannot but note in the material universe as among its chief characteristics! In the hollow of his hand. The anthropomorphism is strong, no doubt, but softened by the preceding mention (in ver. 10) of God's "arm," and by the comparison of God to a shepherd (in ver. 11). Isaiah's exalted notion of God renders him fearless with regard to anthropomorphism. And meted out heaven with the span; rather, with a span (comp. Isaiah 48:13, "My right hand hath spanned the heavens"). And comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure; literally, in a tierce (as in the margin). The measure intended is probably the seah, which was the third part of an ephah, and held about three gallons. The seah was "the ordinary measure for household purposes." In scales... in a balance. The peles, here translated "scales," is probably the steelyard, while the mozenaim is "the balance" or "pair of scales" ordinarily used for weighing. God metes out all things with measures, scales, and balances of his own, which are proportioned to his greatness.
Who hath directed the Spirit of the LORD, or being his counseller hath taught him?
Verse 13. - Who hath directed the Spirit of the Lord? Mr. Cheyne remarks, that "in Isaiah there is a marked tendency to hypostatize the Spirit;" and the remark is undoubtedly a just one (see Isaiah 32:15; Isaiah 34:16; Isaiah 48:16; Isaiah 61:1, etc.). In the present place, perhaps, the introduction of "the Spirit of the Lord" arises out of the remembrance of the part in creation which is assigned to the Spirit in Genesis 1:2. He "moved," or "brooded," upon the face of the waters, and thence began the change, or series of changes, by which order was produced out of confusion. The Spirit of the Lord "directed," or regulated, these changes; but who, Isaiah asks, "directed," or regulated, the Spirit itself? Can it be supposed that he too had a director over him? Isaiah does not seriously doubt on this point, or "leave it an open question." He makes his inquiry by way of a reductio ad absurdum. Is it not absurd to suppose that he had a director or a counsellor? He does not - here, at any rate - so far "hypostatize the Spirit" as to view him as a Person distinct from the Person of God the Father, working under him, and carrying out his will. Or being his counsellor hath taught him? "The Lord by wisdom founded the earth" (Proverbs 3:19); but he was his own counsellor. He had no adviser external to himself. The wisdom which wrought with him was his own wisdom, an essential part of the Divine essence. The evangelical prophet approaches those mysteries of God's nature which the gospel brought to light, but cannot penetrate them.
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.
Verse 15. - Behold, the nations are as a drop of a bucket. "From nature," as Mr. Cheyne says, "we pass to history." If God is so great, so apart and by himself in relation to the material universe, what is he in relation to man? What are nations, compared to him, but "as a drop from a bucket," which drips from it, and is of no account? What are they, but as the small dust of the balance, which lies on it but does not disturb its equilibrium? They are absolutely "as nothing" (ver. 17) - vanity and emptiness, He taketh up the isles as a very little thing; literally, he taketh up islands, or perhaps lands generally. As he weighs mountains and hills in his balance (ver. 15), so he can take up in his own hands "lands," or "countries" (Cheyne), with all their inhabitants, and do with them as seemeth him good. They are no burden to him.
And Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering.
Verse 16. - Lebanon is not sufficient to burn. Man may think that he must be of some account, since God has required of him sacrifice and burnt offering, from which he may suppose God to derive some satisfaction. But, the prophet says, even if man were to burn all Lebanon as firewood on God's altar, and offer there all the (clean) beasts of the entire tract, still God would be put under no obligation. Man would even then have paid less than his debt.
All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.
Verse 17. - All nations; rather, all the nations; i.e. all the nations of the earth put together. In ver. 15 single "nations" had been declared to be of no account; now the same is said of all the nations of the earth collectively. They are accounted of God as 'ephes, nothingness, and tohu, chaos or confusion.
To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?
Verse 18. is more the complement of what precedes than the introduction to what follows (comp. ver. 25). If God be all that has been said of him in vers. 12-17, must he not be wholly unique and incomparable? Then, out of this, the thought arises of the strange, the poor, the mean "likenesses" of God, which men have in their folly set up in various times and places. It has been said that Israel in captivity did not need to be warned against idolatry, of the inclination to which the Captivity is supposed at once to have cured them (Urwick, 'Servant of Jehovah,' p. 15). But there is no evidence of this. Rather, considering the few that returned, and the many that remained behind (Joseph., 'Ant Jud.,' 11:1), we may conclude that a large number adopted the customs, religion, and general mode of life of their masters.'
The workman melteth a graven image, and the goldsmith spreadeth it over with gold, and casteth silver chains.
Verse 19. - The workman melteth a graven image; rather, the workman casteth an image (comp. Isaiah 41:7; Isaiah 44:9-17; Isaiah 46:6, 7). Israel's tendency to idolatry has been touched on in the earlier prophecies once or twice (Isaiah 2:8, 20; Isaiah 31:7); but in the later chapters idolatry is assailed with a frequency, a pungency, and a vigour that are new, and that imply a change, either in the prophet's circumstances or in his standpoint. Perhaps it is enough to suppose that, placing himself ideally among the captives, Isaiah sees that the Babylonian idolatry will be, or at any rate may be, a snare to them, and provides an antidote against the subtle poison. The special antidote which he employs is ridicule, and the first ground of his ridicule is the genesis or formation of an image. It is made by man himself, out of known material substances. Either a figure is cast in some inferior metal, and then coated with gold and finished with the graving tool, or a mere block of wood is taken and cut into shape. Can it be supposed that such things are "likenesses" of God, or that he is comparable to them? Casteth silver chains; as ornaments to be worn by the images, which were often dressed (see Thucyd., 2:13; Baruch 6:9-12).
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.
Verse 20. - He that is so impoverished, etc.; rather, he that can only make a poor offering, i.e. that cannot spend much on religion. Chooseth a tree; rather, chooseth wood - goes to the carpenter, and selects a good sound block of wood, out of which his idol shall be made. After this he has to find a skilful workman, who will carve his image for him and set it up, so that it shall not shake. As Delitzsch observes, "The thing carries its own satire" in the mere plain description of it. Is such a thing comparable to God?
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?
Verse 21. - Have ye not known? Hitherto the prophet has restrained himself, and confined himself to quiet sarcasm. Now he bursts out. Is there any one so insensate, so devoid of natural reason and understanding, as not to know what has been known to all from the beginning - yea, from the foundations of the earth - by "the light that is in them," viz. that God is something wholly different from this? - that he is such a One as the prophet proceeds to describe in vers. 22-24, alike above nature and above man, Lord of heaven and earth, and absolute Disposer of the fates of all men? Hath it not been told you? If ye have not known the nature of God by the light of nature, has it not come down to you by tradition? Have not your fathers told it you? Has it not been handed on by sire to son from the very foundation of the earth? The appeal is to men generally, not especially to Israel. Have ye not understood, etc.? Some omit the preposition after "understood," and render the passage thus: "Have ye not understood the foundations of the earth?" i.e. how it was founded, or created - that its creation was God's sole act? (so the LXX., the Vulgate, Gesenius, Hitzig, Delitzsch, Knobel, Kay; but Ewald, Henderson, Weir, and Mr. Cheyne prefer the rendering of the Authorized Version).
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:
Verse 22. - It is he that sitteth upon the circle of the earth; rather, above the vault of the earth; above the vault of sky which seems to arch over the earth. As grasshoppers; i.e. minute, scarcely visible (comp. Numbers 13:33). That stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain. So in Psalm 104:2, only that here the "curtain" is represented as one of thin gauze. The idea is common to Isaiah with Job (Job 9:8), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 10:12; Jeremiah 51:15), and Zechariah (Zechariah 12:1), and is a favourite one in these later chapters (comp. Isaiah 42:5; Isaiah 44:24; Isaiah 45:12; Isaiah 51:13). As a tent (comp. Psalm 19:4, where God is said to have set in the heavens a "tabernacle" - 'ohel, the word used here - for the sun).
That bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity.
Verse 23. - The princes... the judges; rather, princes, judges. The entire class of such is meant, not any special individuals (comp. Psalm 107:40; Job 12:19-21). As vanity; or, as chaos - the same word that is used in ver. 17.
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.
Verse 24. - They shall not be planted... shall not be sown... shall not take root. The verbs are all of them in the past tense. Translate, have not been planted,... sown, etc. The meaning is that princes and judges of the earth are not fixed in their places, have no firm root in the soil, are easily overturned. Even if the case were different, a breath from the Almighty would, as a matter of course, dry them up (see ver. 7) and blow them away. As stubble (comp. Isaiah 5:24; Psalm 83:13).
To whom then will ye liken me, or shall I be equal? saith the Holy One.
Verse 25. - To whom then, etc.? This is a summary, to conclude the section (vers. 19-24), as ver. 18 concludes the preceding one. If God is paramount over idols (vers. 19, 20) and over nature (ver. 22) and over humanity (vers. 23, 24), to whom can he be likened? Is he not altogether unique and incomparable? Saith the Holy One (comp. Isaiah 57:15). Isaiah's special designation of God, at once pregnant and almost peculiar (see the comment on ch. 1:4), is "the Holy One of Israel." This is, here and in Isaiah 57:15, abbreviated.
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.
Verse 26. - Lift up your eyes, etc. Once more an appeal is made to creation, as proving God's greatness. "Lift up your eyes on high, and see who hath created these (heavens), bringing out their host (i.e. the stars) by number, or in their full number (Cheyne), and calling them all by names" (comp. Psalm 147:4, 5, "He telleth the number of the stars, and calleth them all by their names," which, however, is probably later than Isaiah). Omnipotence alone could have created the starry host. Omniscience is required to know their number and their names. The Israelites are supposed to have "learned that the constellations had names, in Babylon" (Cheyne, ad loc.); but a special name for each star, which the Babylonians did not give, seems to be here intended. Not one faileth; i.e. "not one star neglects to attend the muster when God marshals the host." The stars are viewed as his army.
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?
Verse 27. - O Jacob ... O Israel (For this pleonastic combination, so characteristic of Isaiah, see Isaiah 9:8; Isaiah 10:21, 22; Isaiah 14:1; Isaiah 27:6; Isaiah 29:23, in the earlier chapters; and Isaiah 41:8; Isaiah 42:24; Isaiah 43:1, 22, 28; Isaiah 44:1, 5, 23; Isaiah 45:4; Isaiah 46:3; Isaiah 49:5, 6, etc., in the later ones.) Why sayest thou ... My way is hid? The prophet has gone back to the time when Israel is suffering all the calamities of the Captivity, instead of being on the point of emerging from it, as in vers. 9-11, and he now hears the complaints of the exiles, who think that God has forsaken them - that he does not see their "way" of life, or regard their sufferings. My judgment. Delitzsch and Mr. Cheyne translate "my right," and understand the "right" of Israel to be independent of its oppressors.
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.
Verse 28. - Hast thou not known? Complaining Israel is bidden to stay itself upon God, as

(1) everlasting;

(2) the Creator;

(3) unwearied;

(4) unsearchable;

and is then further consoled by the promise that God will give them strength to endure; support them, refresh them, and, as it were, renew the youth of the nation (vers. 29, 31). Creator of the ends of the earth; i.e. "Creator even of the remotest ends," and therefore of the whole earth. Fainteth not (comp. Psalm 121:3, 4). If God were for a moment to "faint" or "be weary," to "slumber" or "sleep," the whole fabric of nature would fail and disappear, universal chaos would set in, all moral order would cease - probably all existence, except his own, sink into nothingness. God is wholly free from whatsoever is weak or defective in man. No searching (see Job 5:9; Job 9:10; Job 11:7; Psalm 147:5; Ecclesiastes 3:11). God's ways being unsearchable, his servants must trust him to accomplish their deliverance in his own good time.
He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.
Verse 29. - He giveth power to the faint. So far is he from being "faint" himself, that he has superabundant energy to impart to any that are faint among his servants.
Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall:
Verse 30. - Shall faint... shall fall; rather, should even the youths faint and be weary, and should the young men utterly fall, yet they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength, etc. The two clauses of ver. 30 are "concessive."
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.
Verse 31. - They shall mount up with wings as eagles (comp. Psalm 103:5: and, for the use of the eagle as a metaphor for strength, see Exodus 19:4; Deuteronomy 32:11).

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