When you see flowers or smell flowers what do you think of? Most of you will surely think of springtime blossoms, beauty, and warmth. Others of you are more cynical. You won’t see beauty, no, you’ll look around for a coffin because when you see or smell flowers you assume a funeral must be nearby. Such was the situation in Isaiah’s day. The people of God were in a bind, they were afraid, they saw something alluring that appeared to be secure and stable, and when they put themselves out there in a hopeful trust they were gravely disappointed and led off to exile. Though it was their own fault it would’ve been as easy as breathing for them to become cynical. Into this painful and despairing moment God comes to them with a message of comfort and peace.
As I took a moment to set the stage with Jeremiah’s ministry to see his words properly last week, I’ll do the same with Isaiah to see chapter 40 in its own context this week.
Isaiah’s ministry began in the year King Uzziah died, when he saw the Lord high and exalted sitting on a throne above all things. We talk much of this moment for Isaiah, of how we saw the Lord in His Glory, how he heard the seraphim’s song, and how he was deconstructed in a moment, and rightfully so, it’s a moment of special magnificence. But you what we rarely speak of? King Uzziah who died. He had been king for 52 years and by and large had been a good king for the people, bringing back much of the peace and prominence the nation felt in the time of David and Solomon. During his reign Egypt’s power was failing and the mighty neighbor to the north, Assyria, was busy with other nations, so Uzziah took advantage of this situation and extended the borders and power of Judah. After his death his son Jotham became king and continued in the same pattern, but after 16 years Jotham’s son Ahaz became king and did not continue the pattern. Having grown enormously in power Assyria was no longer concerned with other matters and after taking the northern kingdom of Israel off into exile their focus turned to Judah. Sadly, Ahaz then put his trust in the power and protection of Assyria. He began paying tribute to them and worshipping their gods.
When Ahaz died in 715 BC his son Hezekiah became king. In the book of Isaiah it is during Hezekiah’s reign where we find the small middle section (chapters 36-39) describing Assyria’s attack on the capitol city of the southern kingdom, Jerusalem. And to be certain king Hezekiah caused the attack to happen, but he didn’t cause it by being a bad king, no, it was his godliness as king that provoked Assyria to attack. You see when Hezekiah became king he placed his trust in God, stopped the worship of false gods, and stopped paying tribute to Assyria. Because of this, Sennacherib king of Assyria sent almost 200,000 troops south and surrounded Jerusalem to attack it. Isaiah sent a message to Hezekiah instructing him to tell Sennacherib that even though he surrounds the city, God will put a hook in his nose and turn him around to go back the way he came. Hezekiah told him this and sure enough, that very night the Angel of the Lord went out and struck down 185,000 Assyrian troops causing the little that remained to return home to the Assyrian capitol, Nineveh. Lesson? No one is like the Holy One of Israel, He will not give His glory to anyone else!
Written around the middle to the end of the eighth century BC, the book of Isaiah is largely made up of prophecy and poetry. It contains 66 chapters and is sometimes called a ‘mini-Bible.’ There are three sections to the book. The book begins in chapter 1-35 where we find a large group of prophetic pronouncements that go back and forth between judgment toward God’s own people as well as the nations around them on the one hand and God’s promises of hope on the other. The book ends in chapter 40-66 where we find a large group of prophetic pronouncements that promise restoration and joy to God’s people as God unfolds His plans for His coming Kingdom of Peace that He, even now, is now preparing. In between these two large sections is chapter 36-39, where we find no poetry or prophecy but a description of the attempted Assyrian attack on Jerusalem. After this attempted attack on Jerusalem ended well for God’s people, chapter 39 tells us it will be another nation in the future who will take Judah off into captivity. Not Assyria this time, but Babylon. While peace will indeed reign in Hezekiah’s day his descendants will face war, defeat, and exile for their many sins as Babylon rises to power under the leadership of Nebuchadnezzar.
As one turns to chapter 40 in the book of Isaiah it’s as if one walks out of darkness into the light. Of this commentator Derek Kidner writes, “…we emerge in 40:1 in a different world from Hezekiah’s, immersed in the situation foretold in 39:5-8, which he was so thankful to escape. Nothing is said of the intervening century and a half; we wake, so to speak, on the far side of the disaster, impatient for the end of captivity…liberation is in the air; there is the persistent promise of a new exodus, with God at its head…”Like the Apostle John does in the book of Revelation, Isaiah gets a glimpse into the future, sees what’s to come, and prophetically announces hope and promise to a people sitting in darkness. What kind of comfort will God bring them in their future Babylonian exile and what kind of hope they can have in it? Well, God doesn’t speak of solving their immediate problem but He does make a promise that deals with far more than mere exile. God speaks of a greater spiritual bondage and captivity to the crueler taskmaster of sin and promises a greater deliverance from a tender and peaceful Deliverer who will be God Himself.
To our text we now turn. Earlier in our Advent candle lighting we heard Isaiah 40:3-5 read to us. Here for the sermon I’ll be covering the whole context of that passage, Isaiah 40:1-11. There are four headings to cover in these 11 verses, all of them have to do with the four cry’s present in this great promise.
The First Cry (v1-2)
“‘Comfort, comfort My people’, says your God. ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.’”
Looking into the future at God’s people suffering in exile God promises comfort. How is Isaiah to comfort God’s people? By words. Words that will refresh like rain falling on dry ground. Words that will enliven like the sun’s warmth hitting a cold face. Words from the very mouth of God. Words of tenderness, words of a heartfelt cry or call. What words are they? Three words in v2. First, that her warring, her fighting, her struggle is over. Second, that her many sins are forgiven and pardoned. Third, that she has received double punishment, or punishment folded over, as in punishment that fits the crime. What is the content of this first cry of great promise? That exile will be ending soon, that she has suffered sufficiently, and that God has forgiven.
But wait, these people have sinned greatly in consistently placing their hope and trust in other places and people than God. These people are being promised comfort? Yes. It’s a wonder isn’t it? Did they sin? Yes. Did they suffer for their sins? Yes. Is that where God leaves them? No!Praise Him that the discipline of the Lord has an end. If it didn’t our faith would be nothing but struggle, but here we’re reminded that new beginnings can truly come. Who is to be comforted? “My people.” Who is the One doing the comforting? “Your God” Isaiah tells them. They have been unfaithful yes, but will God abandon His own? Will God forsake them? No, they remain His people, and He remains their God. He tells them as much, and more, that their failure will prove to be the instrument used to display His faithfulness.
The Second Cry (v3-5)
“A voice cries: In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
As v1-2 called forth a voice to cry out with words of comfort and promise, now v3 begins with yet another voice crying out with words of preparation and promise. This second cry goes out to a people whose current existence is ‘in the wilderness’ and ‘in the desert.’ This is not meant to be literal, but symbolic or figurative, as in a spiritual wilderness or desert. Remember Isaiah’s seeing the people in their future exile in Babylon, which makes this people unprepared, unfit, and far off from where they ought to be. But even so, to them in that far off, unfit, and unprepared condition God calls them to be preparing a way and readying a highway, for who? A mighty warrior or powerful king whom God has raised up for such an occasion as this? No, the Lord will come Himself. God will come, God will come! They’ve gotten themselves into this mess, but God will come and get them out of this mess. Ask another question: the call is to prepare for His coming, how are they to do this work of preparation? Well, since it was their sin that brought them into captivity only one thing will be fit preparation for God’s coming, repentance. He will come to them, He will save them, but they must prepare for His arrival by returning to Him.
When He comes v4-5 gives a wondrous image of what will occur. Valleys lifted, mountains made low, uneven ground leveled, and rough places made smooth. God isn’t saying He’ll be doing an actual transformation of the surrounding landscape, no, He’s speaking spiritually indicating that whatever had previously been an obstacle or a hindrance between He and His people, both in rescuing them and in bringing them out, He will overcome it. Specifically, their own sin that led them there and their own sin that will linger in them after He saves them, their very sin, will no longer be a difficulty for God, for He will deal with it. How? By lifting, lowering, leveling, and smoothing. When He does this what will be revealed? His Glory. Who shall see it? All flesh together. How do we know these things will be? Because God has spoken.
But wait, if all mankind sees the Glory of God, won’t all mankind perish in a moment? Didn’t God tell Moses that no one can see His glory and live? He did! What then does this mean? It means that God, at the appointed time, will come to His people in all His glory in such a manner that won’t kill His people, but save His people. This is nothing less than a monumental shift in the way God’s people would relate to God.
So, what is the content of this second cry of great promise? That God made a promise to His people, a promise of ultimate restoration and redemption in their sin from their sin, and that through this restoration the whole world would see His great Glory.
The Third Cry (v6-8)
“A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.”
As v1-2 calls forth a voice to cry out with words of comfort and promise, as v3 calls forth another voice to cry out with words of preparation and arrival, here v6 begins with the same call for another voice, as God commands Isaiah to cry out for a third time. After asking what he is to say Isaiah cries out with a sobering reminder. All flesh, the same all flesh just referred to in v5 that will see the great Glory of God, all that flesh is like grass, or all that is beautiful or glorious in man may look like something lasting but is really only like a quickly fading flower in a field. ‘It is common knowledge’ he says, ‘…that grass withers and that flowers fade when the breath of the Lord blows on them. So too, know that what is true of those things is true of us. But do you know what stands forever? The Word of God.’
Why do you think God would tell Isaiah to give such a message to a people in the midst of hopelessness? The cynics among you might think God did this to increase His people’s despair. I disagree. I think God did it to confirm to His people what they are already learning in exile and to give them hope in exile. Man is truly like the grass, coming and going and full of trouble, like a mist. They felt this before the exile firsthand as they saw another nation come in and destroy everything they held dear. And they’re seeing this firsthand still while in exile as they’re mocked and scorned by the Babylonians who reign over them. Do not believe they’re just tempted to give up hope here. Rather, see it as it is, most of them have probably already given up hope from seeing such a low yet realistic view of their own existence. But hope isn’t absent here. The last phrase of v8 is a mighty wind of contrast, “…but the Word of our God stands forever.” Yes, they will fade, yes Babylon will fade, yes all flesh is as a vapor, but not all things are so temporary. They may perish but the Word of God is permanent. Everything around them and they themselves will fade like a flower, this though…is a reminder that there is something sure, certain, immovable, steady, constant, and strong. God’s Word is such because God is such, and He in the previous cry of v3-5 just promised restoration. Lesson? Out of all the things in life they now know they can’t trust in any longer, they can trust this. They can trust Him! They ought to trust Him! He will keep His Word, and He will come soon.
The Fourth Cry (v9-11)
“Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and His arm rules for Him; behold, His reward is with Him, and His recompense before Him. He will tend His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs in His arms; He will carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.”
This fourth cry is different than the first three. The first three were commands from God to Isaiah to cry out certainties to God’s people. Here in v9 there is another voice that is to call out, but it isn’t a call for Isaiah to plead or promise, it’s a call to praise. He’s saying ‘Go up on a high mountain, where all can hear, don’t be quiet, don’t fear, turn up the volume, lift up your voice in strength, let everyone know the news, the good news, and say “Behold your God!” He’s coming with might and His strong arm will soon be revealed! What will it look like? His might will not be militaristic, His strong arm won’t seize control of our oppressors, no. When He comes in power He’ll come with reward and restoration in peace as our true Shepherd, He will gather us in, He’ll tend us, carry us, and lead us.’
They’re not to be shy but bold, not keeping this message for themselves but proclaiming it to God’s people, not to be seekers of the truth unsure of the message but loud in their glad proclamation of the truth that stands forever.As wonderful as this is, don’t you think it was confusing to them? This is a message of peace to a people at war. Maybe they don’t want a message of peace, but a message of war, a message of military might and power, a message of victory. Oh how small souled man can be in thinking we know best what we need. Because this a message of a peaceful Shepherd to come does that therefore mean it isn’t a message of war or of ultimate victory? No. Little do they know what they need, little do they know the power of this Shepherd to come, and little do they know of how this Shepherd will usher in His peace. But one day they would know! One day those with eyes to see and ears to hear would see this Shepherd king come and they will soar on the heights of praise!
Church, do you remember what John the Baptist said what he did when he came on the scene? John 1:23, “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord.’” Do you now know why he said that? John the Baptist knew Isaiah spoke this back then, he knew that God would come to His people, that in coming He would do the ultimate disruptive work of lifting, lowering, leveling, and smoothing, and that by coming and doing this work all flesh would behold His Glory. The people prepared for His arrival, experienced God keeping His promise initially when they returned from exile and experienced being restored to the land. But upon returning they did not experience the full peace of all that was promised. Many valleys, mountains, uneven ground, rough places, many obstacles still stood before them. What did this mean? It meant while God did keep His promise to them, He didn’t fully do so, which meant the people would still wait for it to come, for Him to come.
Here it is Church. Because of sin the world in a moment became a dark place: immorality, injustice, idolatry, violence, greed, scandal, lying, rebellion, racism, and a host of other sins. Paul Tripp describes it like this, “Everyone was part of the problem, everyone suffered from the problem, but no one could solve the problem.”That’s a good description of the problem of sin. When the world was desperate for light in comes John the Baptist…claiming to be the voice of one crying in the wilderness because he knew the long wait was over, the time had now come, God had arrived, and everything was about to change. Jesus was Light bursting forth in the darkness, the King coming to conquered people, the Shepherd coming to tend His own. John knew Jesus was God Himself bringing the peace promised long ago. How would He bring peace? In terms of Paul Tripp’s problem we could see it like this. Jesus brought peace not just by showing us what the problem is and telling us how to get around that problem, but by living without problems Himself, yet taking our problem onto Himself and being treated by God as if He were the problem on the cross, all to gather in His sheep and reveal the glory of God to them so that His formerly problematic people would become a peaceful people of praise.
There are many problems in life, but for those who have believed in Jesus Christ, Christmas is a reminder that our biggest problem has been solved. Is it a reminder of that for you? Or is Christmas a reminder that you haven’t yet dealt with your greatest problem in all of life?
Derek Kidner, New Bible Commentary – IVP,accessed via Accordance Bible Software, 12/6/18.
Helpful for this introduction was 1) Mark Dever, Promises Made: The Message of the Old Testament(Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2006) page 567-670, and 2) Edward J. Young, Isaiah: vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1972) page17-18.
Raymond Ortlund Jr., Isaiah: God Saves Sinners – Preaching the Word Commentary (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2005) page 235.
Young, page 28.
Ibid., page 37-38.
Paul Tripp, New Morning Mercies (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2014) entry for December 24.