Isaiah 40 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Isaiah 40
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God.

(1) Comfort ye . . .—I start with the assumption that the great prophetic poem that follows is the work of Isaiah himself, referring to the Introduction for the discussion of all questions connected with its authorship and arrangement. It has a link, as has been noticed, with the earlier collection of his writings in Isaiah 35:9-10. The prophet’s mind is obviously projected at the outset into the future, which it had been given him to see, when the time of punishment and discipline was to be succeeded, having done its work, by blessedness and peace. The key-note is struck in the opening words. The phrase “my people” is a distinct echo of Hos. ii. 1. Lo Ammi (i.e. “not my people,”) has been brought back to his true position as Ammi (i.e. “my people”).

Saith your God.—Noticeable as a formula which is at once peculiar to Isaiah and common to both his volumes (Isaiah 1:11; Isaiah 1:18; Isaiah 33:10; Isaiah 41:21; Isaiah 66:9).

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.
(2) Speak ye comfortably . . .—Literally, Speak ye to the heart. The command is addressed to the prophets whom Isaiah contemplates as working towards the close of the exile, and carrying on his work. In Haggai 1:13, Haggai 2:9, and Zechariah 1:13; Zechariah 2:5-10; Zechariah 9:9-12, we may rightly trace the influence of the words as working out their own fulfilment.

That her warfare is accomplished.—The time of war, with all its suffering, becomes the symbol of sufferings apart from actual war. The exile was one long campaign with enemies who were worse than the Babylonian conquerors. In Job 7:1; Job 14:14, the word is applied (rendered by “appointed time”) to the battle of life from its beginning to its end. This, too, may be noted as one of the many parallelisms between Isaiah and Job.

That her iniquity is pardoned.—Strictly, as in Leviticus 26:41; Leviticus 26:43, is paid off, or accepted. The word implies not exemption from punishment, but the fact that the punishment had been accepted, and had done its work.

She hath received of the Lord’s hand . . .—Primarily, the thought is that Jerusalem has suffered a more than sufficient penalty. (Comp. Exodus 22:9; Revelation 18:6.) This seems more in harmony with the context than the view which takes the meaning that Jerusalem shall receive a double measure of grace and favour. In the long run, however, the one meaning does not exclude the other. It is the mercy of Jehovah which reckons the punishment sufficient, because it has been “accepted” (Leviticus 26:41), and has done its work. (Comp. Jeremiah 16:18.)

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.
(3) The voice of him that crieth . . .—The laws of Hebrew parallelism require a different punctuation: A voice of one crying, In the wilderness, prepare ye . . . The passage is memorable as having been deliberately taken by the Baptist as defining his own mission (John 1:23). As here the herald is not named, so he was content to efface himself—to be a voice or nothing. The image is drawn from the march of Eastern kings, who often boast, as in the Assyrian inscriptions of Sennacherib and Assurbanipal (Records of the Past, i. 95, vii. 64), of the roads they have made in trackless deserts. The wilderness is that which lay between the Euphrates and Judah, the journey of the exiles through it reminding the prophet of the older wanderings in the wilderness of Sin (Psalm 68:7; Judges 5:4). The words are an echo of the earlier thought of Isaiah 35:8. We are left to conjecture to whom the command is addressed: tribes of the desert, angelic ministers, kings and rulers—the very vagueness giving a grand universality. So, again, we are not told whether the “way of Jehovah” is that on which He comes to meet His people, or on which He goes before and guides them. The analogy of the marches of the Exodus makes the latter view the more probable.

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:
(4) Every valley shall be exalted.—The figure is drawn from the titanic engineering operations of the kingly road-makers of the East, but the parable is hardly veiled. The meek exalted, the proud brought low, wrong ways set right, rough natures smoothed: that is the true preparation for the coming of the Lord, and therefore the true work of every follower of the Baptist in preparing the way. (Comp. Matthew 3:5-7; Luke 3:3-9.)

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.
(5) The glory of the Lord shall be revealed.—Did the prophet think of a vision of a glory-cloud, like the Shechinah which he had seen in the Temple? or had he risen to the thought of the glory of character and will, of holiness and love? (John 1:14.)

All flesh.—The revelation is not for Israel only, but for mankind. So in Luke 3:6, the words are quoted from the LXX., “all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” The phrase meets us here for the first time, and occurs again in Isaiah 49:26; Isaiah 66:16; Isaiah 66:23-24, marking, so to speak, the growing catholicity of the prophet’s thoughts. (See Note on Isaiah 38:11.)

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:
(6) The voice said, Cry.—Literally, A voice saith, Cry. The questioner (“and one said”) is probably the prophet himself, asking what he is to proclaim. The truth which he is to enforce thus solemnly is the ever-recurring contrast between the transitoriness of man and the eternity of God and of His word, taking that term in its highest and widest sense. Two points of interest may be noted: (1) that this is another parallelism with Job (Job 14:2); (2) the naturalness of the thought in one who, like Isaiah, was looking back, as Moses looked (Psalm 90:5-6) in extreme old age upon the generations whom he had survived, and forward to the fall of mighty monarchies one after another. The marginal references show how dominant the thought is in the mind of Isaiah. Isaiah himself had uttered it in Isaiah 2:22.

The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the LORD bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass.
(7) The spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it.—Better, the breath, or the wind of Jehovah, as we are still in the region of the parable, and the agency is destructive, and not quickening. A “wind of Jehovah” would be a mighty storm-blast, tearing up the grass and hurling it to destruction. The image of the fading flower reminds us of the well-known Homeric simile, “As are the generations of leaves, so are those of men.” (Comp. Psalm 103:15-16.)

The word of our God . . .—Primarily the prophetic word revealing the will of God, but including all manifestations of His being (Psalm 119:41; Psalm 119:65; Psalm 119:89; John 1:1).

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!
(9) O Zion, that bringest good tidings.—A new section begins. In some versions (LXX. and Targum) and by some interpreters “Zionis taken as in the objective case, O thou that bringest glad tidings to Zion; but as the participle, “thou that bringest,” is in the feminine, and a female evangeliser other than Jerusalem has not appeared on the scene, the Authorised Version is preferable. In that rendering the ideal Zion, seeing or hearing of the return of the exiles, becomes the bearer of the good news to the other cities of Judah. It is not without emotion that we note the first occurrence of the word which, passing through the Greek of the LXX. and the New Testament (ευαγγελίςεσθαι), has had so fruitful a history, as embodying the message of the Gospel—good-spell, glad tidings—to mankind. The primary meaning of the Hebrew word is to make smooth, or bright, and so “to gladden.” (Comp. the connection of this English word with the German glatten.)

The high mountain.—There is no article in the Hebrew, but the word is probably connected with the ideal exaltation of the holy city, as in Isaiah 2:1.

Behold your God!—The words have, in one sense, only an ideal fulfilment; but the prophet contemplates the return of the exiles and the restoration of the Temple worship, as involving the renewed presence of Jehovah in the sanctuary which He had apparently abandoned. He would come back with His people, and abide with them.

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.
(10) The Lord God.Adonai Jehovah; each word commonly translated Lord. The combination is characteristic both of 1 and 2 Isaiah (Isaiah 3:15; Isaiah 28:16; Isaiah 30:15).

With strong hand.—Literally, with, or in strength of hand, as the essence of His being. The “arm” of the Lord is a favourite phrase of Isaiah (Isaiah 51:5; Isaiah 51:9; Isaiah 52:10) for His power.

His reward is with him . . .—The noun “work” has also the sense of recompense for the faithful worker (Leviticus 19:13; Deuteronomy 24:15, and is rightly taken in that sense here and in Isaiah 62:11).

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.
(11) He shall feed his flock . . .—Psalms 23 is the great embodiment of the thought in the Old Testament, as John 10 is in the New, but the thought itself is everywhere (Psalm 77:20; Psalm 80:1; Jeremiah 13:17; Jeremiah 31:10; Jeremiah 1:19; Ezekiel 34:11-16; Matthew 9:36; Matthew 18:12; Luke 15:4, &c). The tender care of the shepherd for the ewes and lambs finds a parallel in Jacob’s pleas (Genesis 33:13).

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?
(12) Who hath measured . . .?—Another section opens, expanding the thought of the eternal majesty of Jehovah, as contrasted with the vanity of the idols, or “no-gods,” of the heathen. The whole passage in form and thought supplies once more a parallelism with Job 38:4; Job 38:25; Job 38:37. The whole image is divinely anthropomorphic. The Creator is the great Work-master (Wisdom Of Solomon 13:1) of the universe, ordering all things, like a human artificer, by number and weight and measure. The mountains of the earth are as dust in the scales of the Infinite.

Who hath directed the Spirit of the LORD, or being his counseller hath taught him?
(13) Who hath directed the Spirit of the Lord?—The term, which had been used in a lower sense in Isaiah 40:7, is here clothed as with a Divine personality, answering, as it were, to the wisdom of Proverbs 8:22-30, with which the whole passage has a striking resemblance. Eastern cosmogonies might represent Bel or Ormuzd, as calling inferior deities into counsel (Cheyne). The prophet finds no other counsellor than One who is essentially one with the Eternal.

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?
(14) Counsel . . . judgment.—The cluster of words belonging to the sapiential vocabulary of the Book of Proverbs is to be noted as parallel with Proverbs 11:23, Isaiah 33:15.

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.
(15) The nations are as a drop . . .—“Nations” and “isles” bring us into the region of human history, as distinct from that of the material world. “Isles” as elsewhere, stands vaguely for far-off lands, or sea-coasts. The word is that of one who looks on the Mediterranean, and thinks of the unexplored regions that lie in it and around. It is one of Isaiah’s favourite words in this aspect of its meaning.

A drop of a bucket.—Better, on a bucket. Such a drop adds nothing to the weight which the bearer feels; as little do the nations and the isles to the burden which Jehovah bears. The “small dust in the balance” presents another illustration of the same idea.

And Lebanon is not sufficient to burn, nor the beasts thereof sufficient for a burnt offering.
(16) Lebanon is not sufficient.—The thought is the same as that of Psalm 50:10-12. Lebanon is chosen as the type of the forests that supply the wood for burnt-offerings, in which Judah was comparatively poor. In Nehemiah’s organisation of the Temple ritual the task of supplying wood for this purpose was assigned by lot to priests or Levites (Nehemiah 10:34).

All nations before him are as nothing; and they are counted to him less than nothing, and vanity.
(17) Less than nothing.—Literally, as things of nought.

Vanity.—Once more the tohu, or chaos, of Genesis 1:2—one of Isaiah’s favourite phrases (Isaiah 24:10, Isa_29:21, Isa_34:11).

To whom then will ye liken God? or what likeness will ye compare unto him?
(18) To whom then will ye liken God . . .—The thought of the infinity of God leads, as in St. Paul’s reasoning (Acts 17:24-29), to the great primary argument against the folly of idolatry. It is characteristic, partly of the two men individually, partly of the systems under which they lived, that while the tone of Isaiah is sarcastic and declamatory, that of St Paul is pitying, and as with indulgent allowance for the “times of ignorance.” We must remember, of course, that the Apostle speaks to those who had known nothing better than the worship of their fathers, the prophet to those who were tempted to fall into the worship of the heathen from a purer faith.

The workman melteth a graven image, and the goldsmith spreadeth it over with gold, and casteth silver chains.
(19) The workman melteth . . .—The reign of Ahaz, not to speak of that of Manasseh, must have supplied the prophet with his picture of the idol factory not less fully than if he had lived in Babylon or Nineveh.

Spreadeth it over with gold.—The image of lead was covered over, as in the well-known story of Phidias’s “Zeus,” with plates of gold. The “silver chains” fastened it to the wall.

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.
(20) He that is so impoverished . . .—The transition is abrupt, but the intention apparently is to represent idolatry at its opposite extremes of the elaborate art in which kings and princes delighted, and the rude rough image, hardly more than a fetiche, the inutile lignum of Horace, “which cannot be moved,” standing on its own wide base, so as not to fall.

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?
(21) Have ye not known? . . .—Strictly speaking, the first two verbs are potential futures: Can ye not know . . . We note that the prophet appeals to the primary intuitions of mankind, or, at least, to a primitive revelation, rather than to the commandments of the Decalogue. (Comp. Romans 1:20; Psalm 19:4.)

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:
(22) The circle of the earth—i.e., the vault of heaven over-arching the earth (Job 22:14; Proverbs 8:27).

As grasshoppers.—The word indicates some insect of the locust tribe. The comparison may have been suggested by Numbers 13:33.

That stretcheth out the heavens.—A favourite phrase of 2 Isaiah (Isaiah 42:5, Isaiah 44:24, et al.), taken probably from Psalm 104:2.

As a curtain . . . as a tent.—The words indicate a clearer perception of space than the older Hebrew word for the “firmament” of Genesis 1:7. The visible heavens are thought of as a thin, filmy veil of gauze, the curtains of the tent of God.

That bringeth the princes to nothing; he maketh the judges of the earth as vanity.
(23) That bringeth the princes to nothing.—The words imply, like those of Isaiah 14:9, the prophetic strain of experience. The past is full of the records of kingdoms that are no more; so also shall the future be; mortalia facta peribunt. In “vanity” we have the familiar tohu once more.

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.
(24) They shall not be planted . . .—Better, Hardly are they planted, hardly are they sown. Such are empires before the eternity of Jehovah: so soon withered that we cannot say that they were ever really planted (Psalm 129:6).

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.
(26) Who hath created . . .—The verb may be noted as a characteristic of 2 Isaiah, in which it occurs twenty times.

That bringeth out their host . . .—The words expand the idea implied in Jehovah-Sabaoth (comp. Psalm 147:4). He marshals all that innumerable host of stars, as a supreme general who knows by sight and name every soldier in a vast army, or as a shepherd who knows his flock (John 10:3).

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?
(27) Why sayest thou, O Jacob.—The eternity and infinity of God is presented not only as rebuking the folly of the idolater, but as the ground of comfort to His people. His is no transient favour, no capricious will. (Comp. Romans 11:29-36.)

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.
(28) Hast thou not known? . . .—The questions are parallel to those of Isaiah 40:21, but are addressed to the Israel of God, rather than, as those were, to mankind.

The Creator of the ends of the earth.—The word emphasises the thought that the whole earth, from the Euphrates to the “islands” of the sea, is subject to the power of the Eternal.

Fainteth not, neither is weary? . . .—Had Isaiah learnt to feel that even his own phrase as to men “wearying God” (Isaiah 7:13) was too boldly anthropomorphic, and might, therefore, be misleading?

No searching of his understanding.—The words come, like so many others like it, from Job (Isaiah 5:9; Isaiah 9:10), and must have been in St. Paul’s mind as he wrote Romans 11:33.

He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.
(29) He giveth power to the faint . . .i.e., to them pre-eminently—their very consciousness of weakness being the condition of their receiving strength. (Comp. Matthew 5:6; Luke 1:52-53; Luke 6:21.)

Even the youths shall faint and be weary, and the young men shall utterly fall:
(30) Even the youths . . .—The second word implies a nearer approach to manhood than the first, the age when vigour is at its highest point.

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.
(31) They that wait upon the Lord.—The waiting implies, of course, the expectant attitude of faith.

Shall mount up with wings.—Better, shall lift up their wings, or, shall put forth wings’ feathers, the last, like Psalm 103:5, implying the belief that the eagle renewed its plumage in extreme old age. For the faithful there is no failure, and faith knows no weariness.

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