Summary: To a people then who appear to be staring into the abyss of defeat and exile, Isaiah comes with words to comfort - to tell them that God has not abandoned them.
Sovereign and Shepherd
If you know Charles Dickens novel Little Dorritt you will remember that the story revolves around the experience of Amy Dorritt and her father who is living in Marshallsea prison. Like many people in Victorian England, Little Dorritt’s father had been sent to jail because he could not pay a debt of just £40. An experience that Dickens’ own father also went through and which is repeated in two other Dickens’ novels. Can anyone tell me which novels and who were the two prisoners? [others are David Copperfield – Mr Macawber – and Pickwick Papers – Mr Pickwick).
Part way through the novel, Mr Dorritt discovers that he is in fact heir to a fortune and therefore able to pay his way out of prison - and he goes back into society a rich man.
Now imagine for a moment the day that news of this fortune was discovered by Mr Dorritt in his prison cell. Can you imagine the joy, the celebrations, the amazement. His debt has been paid. He is a free man.
Well, our reading from Isaiah is a bit like that. The people of Judah have been suffering, overrun by the Assyrians, threatened by the Babylonians, the prospect of exile looming. But, now at last comes a message of real hope:
Read verses 1 and 2: Comfort, comfort etc..
Let’s just set the context. Isaiah was a prophet to the southern kingdom of Judah in the closing years of the 8th Century BC. The great world power Assyria was running amok in Palestine. The northern kingdom of Israel had already been overrun and Judah’s capital Jerusalem was now threatened.
Isaiah has announced that Israel and Judah’s plight was just punishment from God for generations of idolatry and immorality (Isaiah 1.4). Just as God had warned when Israel first entered the Promised Land, persistent sin would eventually mean that they would forfeit their right to their inheritance and their temple.
God’s love for his people is an intolerant love. He will not tolerate persistent apostasy and sin, because he knows that it is not in our best interest. The punishment he had proscribed was a just punishment for a nation that had pushed God’s mercy beyond it limits.
At the end of chapter 39, Isaiah has a stark message for Judah’s king, Hezekiah:
39: 6,7: The time is surely coming .. says the Lord.
It is difficult to underestimate how devastating this news would be to a people conscious of their history and heritage. The land had been given to them by God. Jerusalem was their holy city, the place they met with God at the temple. Their kings were chosen by God. Now all this was being taken away. It was a moment of deep darkness.
So it is against this background - a nation living under the shadow of invasion and exile, under the shadow of judgement from the very God who had called them into being -that this message of hope comes: Comfort, comfort my people says your God.
It is often in the darkest moments of our lives that God’s light shines the brightest.
We are going to break our reading down into four sections:
1. Verses 1,2: Comfort is Possible because sin has been paid for
2. Verses 3-5: God is Coming to the Rescue
3. Verses 6-8: God will fulfil his promises
4. Verses 9-11: God is coming with power and tenderness
1. Comfort is Possible Because Sin has been Paid for
The key to understanding how a God who is threatening to send his people into exile can in the next breathe offer words of comfort is found in that phrase in verse 2: her sin has been paid for. In other words, the debt for sin has been paid and like Mr Dorritt God’s people can go free.
That little word ‘sin’ covers as we would say a multitude of sins. It covers all the many and various ways that the people of Israel and Judah failed to live up to their calling as God’s people. It includes their worship of foreign gods, their failure to keep God’s laws and commandments and their unwillingness to put their trust in God for their protection.
Listen to the summary of Judah’s failure and its consequences in 2 Kings 17.19.20: ‘Even Judah did not keep the commands of the Lord their God. They followed the practices that Israel had introduced. Therefore the Lord rejected all the people of Israel; he afflicted them and gave them into the hands of plunderers, until he thrust them from his presence.’ (2 Kings 17.19,20)
You see, at the heart of the human problem lies the problem of sin. Judah was a small nation, with a tiny army and limited manpower. It was no match for Assyria and would be no match for Babylon. But, with God on their side, as we see if we read back into chapter 37, deliverance was possible. On the other hand, with God withdrawing himself because of Judah’s sin, Judah lay at the mercy of the great powers. Unaided by God, they would be overrun and forced into exile.