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.