Isaiah 40:3: The Way of the Lord

In her study of 2 Timothy 2:15, Suzanne McCarthy wrote:

“When the Old Testament writings talk about the ‘way’ being made straight, the usual consequence is that this will prevent you from stumbling. If God directs your path you will not fall down or stumble. However, the ‘way of the Lord’ is also made straight or level. Both of these phrases reappear in the New Testament.”

The translation of the word “way” (Hebrew derek) takes different meanings in the Old Testament. The word derek can be translated to mean a road, journey, manner, custom and even sexual favor. The word derek is also used as a metaphor for the actions and behavior of human beings as in Psalm 1. Used as a figurative language, the word derek also means the way people live their lives.

In her study of 2 Timothy 2:15, McCarthy quoted several passages (Proverbs 3:6; 11:5; 3:23; Isaiah 40:3) to show that when the Lord guides the way of an individual, that person will not “fall down or stumble.”

Proverbs 3:6 says: “In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (ESV).

In this passage, the word “ways” includes all the acts and actions of a person; these acts can be both spiritual and secular. Thus, the psalmist is urging people to recognize God in all their endeavors, to pray for divine guidance, and to ask God’s direction in every aspect of life.

Proverbs 11:5 says: “The righteousness of the blameless keeps his way straight, but the wicked fall by his own wickedness” (ESV).

The word “way” in this passage conveys the same ideas found in Proverbs 3:6. The righteousness of righteous individuals determines their lives, but the ungodliness of evil people will cause them to fall.

Proverbs 3:23 says: “Then you will walk on your way securely, and your foot will not stumble” (ESV).

The wise are teaching that those who do not abandon wisdom and put into practice the counsel of the wise will live life in such a way that their wisdom will help them walk in their way securely and their feet will not stumble. In short, they shall enjoy the greatest sense of security in all situations of their lives.

Isaiah 40:3 says: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (ESV).

In this verse, the word “way” does not have the same meaning as the verses in Proverbs. Here it is clear that the text is not talking about the way people live their lives. In order to understand the meaning of the word “way” in the preaching of the exilic prophet, it is important to understand his historical context.

At the time the prophet hears these words, the people of Israel are in exile in Babylon. The Lord has come to announce to Israel that her exile, “her time of service,” has been completed and that the time for her deliverance has dawned. The Lord is calling his people to prepare to return home and now has come to assure them that all the difficulties which stand in the way of their deliverance shall be removed.

The unknown voice is declaring that the Lord is preparing to conduct his people back to their own country through the wilderness, in the same way he had long ago led them from Egypt to Canaan. The prophet hears the voice of a herald instructing that a way should be made in the wilderness for the return home of the people.

The whole scene is represented as a triumphal march of a king. Yahweh is at the head of his people to lead them back home. As Claus Westermann, in his book Isaiah 40-66 (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960) has shown, this idea is taken from the practice of kings in the Ancient Near East. Before kings traveled, they sent heralds before them to prepare the way through the desert. At the command of the king, his servants leveled hills, constructed causeways over valleys, or filled them up to make a straight highway for the royal entourage. Westermann wrote:

“Triumphal highways, ways prepared and made level for the triumphal entry of the god or king, were also well-known in Babylon . . . They are the background . . . of the present passage. These imposing highways were symbols of Babylon’s might, the might that had brought about Israel’s own downfall.”

“These are the circumstances in which they heard the cry to make straight in the desert a highway, a highway ‘for Yahweh . . . our God’. [T]he highway of which the prophet thinks is the one that is to enable Israel to make her way homeward through the desert. It is, however, designated a highway ‘for our God’, just as the magnificent highways of Babylon were strictly highways for her god.”

Thus, God’s herald says: “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” (ESV). What the Lord wanted was a leveled road, an autobahn in the desert so that the people could reach their destination without delay.

As McCarthy said, the same phrase reappears in the New Testament, but the New Testament writers do not follow the Hebrew text; they follow the translation found in the Septuagint.

The Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament, mistranslated this verse. The translators, instead of placing the accent, which causes a pause, after the verb “cries,” they placed it after the word “wilderness.”

Thus, instead of translating: “A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord’” (Isaiah 40:3), the Septuagint translates: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare ye the way of the Lord.’” This is the translation adopted by the King James Version.

This same translation was also adopted in the New Testament by the writers of the Gospel. For instance, Matthew 3:3 says: “For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight’” (ESV).

However, the Hebrew accent and the parallelism of the verse demand a separation between “cries” and “wilderness.” The parallelism of the verse in Isaiah 40:3 looks as follows:

“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.”

In the apocryphal book of Baruch, the words of the exilic prophet are taken as a call for the people to return home. The text reads:

“Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them. For they went out from you on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne. For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God” (Baruch 5:5-7).

So, it is true: The way of Lord is made straight, but it is made straight for the sake of his people.

Claude Mariottini
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary

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