Summary: Isaiah spoke of an everlasting comfort that came from the everlasting Word of God, resulting in an everlasting strength.
The book of Isaiah is divided into two parts. The first 39 chapters deal with impending judgment, and the second part deals with forgiveness and deliverance. The first 39 chapters deal with sin, but the last 27 chapters deal with a Savior — 66 chapters in all. Many people see Isaiah as a small Bible, for there are 39 chapters in the Old Testament and 27 in the New Testament — 66 books in all. The Old Testament often deals with the sin of the people of Israel, and the New Testament deals with the Savior which came from Israel. There is a distinctly different tone and message beginning here in chapter 40. The first 39 chapters had warned of the destruction of the nation and the deportment of the people to foreign lands. The people had abandoned their God and he would now abandon them. The first part of the book is heavy and plodding, but beginning with this chapter the language soars with majestic eloquence and wondrous hope. As Isaiah wrote the first part of his book, disaster had not yet come to the nation. People had grown tired of Isaiah’s warnings and his constant talk of their need of repentance and a return to God. But Isaiah wrote the second half of his book to the people of Israel and Judah who would be in exile — they would be taken away to Babylon. He was prophesying about a time that was yet to come when the nation would be destroyed. Jerusalem and its beautiful temple would be laying in ruins, and the people would be in captivity. In captivity they would not need to hear about pending judgment, because they would be living it. They would not need to be reminded of their sins; they would be experiencing the consequences of them on a daily basis.
There were three things which Isaiah would have to say to the people, and the first was: Isaiah spoke of an everlasting comfort. What they would need as captive slaves in Babylon was comfort. They did not need Isaiah to shake the finger at that point and say, “I told you so”; they needed to hear that God still cared for them and that there was hope. And that is the word that came from God to Isaiah, “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2). It is interesting that the Hebrew word Isaiah uses for comfort is also a word which can be translated “repent.” The word is nâham, and its root has the idea of breathing deeply. It can therefore mean to breathe deeply with sorrow for your sin, or to breathe deeply as you comfort and console someone. The idea is that God’s comfort comes as a result the people’s repentance. Because they have breathed deeply in repentance, God has breathed deeply as he consoled and comforted them.
Isaiah had said to them, “in repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength,” and now they were finally ready to receive it. Their sins had been paid for and deliverance was in the air. But this was not the result of what the people had done. This was the work of God. It was undeserved, unmerited favor. God was coming to them to deliver them, but first the way had to be prepared. In his vision, Isaiah heard a voice calling and saying, “A voice of one calling: ‘In the desert prepare the way for the Lord; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all mankind together will see it. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken’” (Isaiah 40:3-5). God was coming to them, and the call was going out to prepare his way.
In ancient times, when there were no superhighways, history tells us that months before a king’s entourage would set out on a journey, the call would go before him: “Prepare the way for the king. Make a straight way in the wilderness and a highway for the king.” The people would run before the king to remove any obstacles and fill in the rough places in his path. They would build a road and fill in small valleys and dig through the hills so the king’s progress would be smooth and unhindered. Their reward was to see the king coming in all his royal splendor. In this passage, God is on his way to his people who are now in slavery to a foreign nation. He will come to them and deliver them from captivity — bringing them home on the highway which has been prepared for him. The picture is one of God coming in glory from Jerusalem to bring his people back to himself and to their home. This was the great comfort the people longed for.