In a previous post, I discussed the unprecedented suffering the people of Judah experienced as the result of the destruction of the temple and of the city of Jerusalem. The book of Lamentations portrays Jerusalem as a lonely widow appealing for sympathy and comfort from anyone, especially from God.
The writer of Lamentations vividly emphasized the horrors of the devastation caused by the Babylonians and the helplessness of the population of Judah by speaking on behalf of the people and lamenting that there was no comforter for the people and the nation.
According to the writer, this lack of a comforter was evidence that God did not care for his people:
“She weeps bitterly in the night, with tears on her cheeks; among all her lovers she has no one to comfort her” (Lamentations 1:2).
“Her uncleanness was in her skirts; she took no thought of her future; her downfall was appalling, with none to comfort her” (Lamentations 1:9).
“For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears; for a comforter is far from me” (Lamentations 1:16).
“Zion stretches out her hands, but there is no one to comfort her” (Lamentations 1:17).
“They heard how I was groaning, with no one to comfort me” (Lamentations 1:21).
“What can I say for you, to what compare you, O daughter Jerusalem? To what can I liken you, that I may comfort you, O virgin daughter Zion?” (Lamentations 2:13).
It is clear that the use of the word “comforter” in the first two chapters of Lamentations means a helper, either human or divine. In Lamentations 2:13 a voice addresses the personified city and laments his inability to help the hurt of Jerusalem and wonders who can heal her wound, a wound that is “as deep as the sea” (v. 13).
The absence of a comforter for the wounded city and the belief that God had abandoned and forsaken his people heightened the sense of hopelessness, more so as the prayers of the people went unanswered. At the time when Israel was agonizing the most, at the moment of the people’s deepest despair, two significant events took place that changed the despair of the people into a hope for the future.
The first event was the release of Jehoiachin, the former king of Judah, from a Babylonian prison, thirty-seven years after his deportation. According to the conclusion of the book of Kings (2 Kings 25:27-30), in the thirty-seventh year of his exile (560 B.C.), Jehoiachin was set free by Evil-merodach, King of Babylon, and was given preference and a position of honor above the other kings who were vassals and captives in Babylon. The news that their anointed one, their Messiah, was alive and out of prison brought great joy to the people in exile. This event gave the exiles the assurance that there was hope for the future.
The second event was the call of a prophet to announce to the people that the exile was over:
“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).
This unnamed prophet, popularly known as Deutero-Isaiah, came preaching a message of comfort. The message that was to bring comfort to Israel was a message of hope, a message that God had come to bring an end to the people’s suffering because he had forgiven their sins and now would deliver them from their exile.
The prophet’s use of the word “comfort” was a direct response to the cry of the people in the book of Lamentations. In Lamentations 2:13, the writer asked who could help, heal, and comfort the suffering people. Now, the prophet proclaims that the Lord was the comforter of his people:
“Shout for joy, O heavens; rejoice, O earth; burst into song, O mountains! For the LORD comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones” (Isaiah 49:13).
The Bible pictures Yahweh as the one who comforts Israel (Psalm 86:17; Isaiah 12). Deutero-Isaiah used the imagery of Yahweh as the comforter of Israel to emphasize that God has heard Israel’s appeal for a comforter and to bring the good news that their exile was coming to an end:
“For the LORD will comfort Zion; he will comfort all her waste places” (Isaiah 51:3).
“Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem” (Isaiah 52:9).
The texts in Deutero-Isaiah where the word “comfort” is used have two things in common. First, the one who comforts is God and the one who is comforted is Israel. Second, the prophet uses the word “comfort” to express God’s action in helping the people and restoring them to their homeland.
Thus, the use of the word “comfort” in Deutero-Isaiah is a response to the lack of comfort in the book of Lamentations. The double use of the word “comfort” in Isaiah 40:1 expresses God’s urgency in liberating the people from their oppression. God’s urgency in delivering the exiles reflects his concern for the spiritual well-being of his people. After more than five decades in exile, many people were turning away from God and little by little they allowed their faith to grow cold, gradually accepting the culture and the religion of their captors. Thus, this threat to Israel’s faith led to the urgency of the prophet’s message. God’s urgency may also reflect his desire to renew Israel’s mission in the world, a theme that will be the subject of a future post.
Other Posts on the Exile:
Hope for the Future – Part 1 (Present post)
Hope for the Future – Part 2 (Forthcoming)
Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary