Note: This post is a continuation of Hope for the Future – Part 1
The purpose of the use of the word “comfort” in the message of Deutero-Isaiah was to turn the lamentation of the people into a hope for the future. The coming of Yahweh to liberate his people was a source of hope. It was also the beginning of his intervention in the events of history to redeem his people, as he had done in Egypt, in order to bring them back to their land.
Deutero-Isaiah’s message of hope and the assurance that God would deliver his people was spoken with authority because the invitation to the people to find comfort in Yahweh was accompanied by an exhortation to prepare the way for the Lord (Isaiah 40:3).
Deutero-Isaiah was called and sent to proclaim two great messages of hope to the people in exile. The first message was that the physical hardship imposed upon Israel and enforced by the exile was now coming to an end. The second message was that the iniquity of the nation had been pardoned. To the prophet, the change in Israel’s fortune and the restoration of the nation was based on divine forgiveness.
It is here that Israel could see once again God’s commitment to his people. It was God’s hesed, his faithful love, a love based on a covenantal relationship that moved God to forgive his rebellious people. It was because of that unfailing love that Israel’s time of servitude to alien masters had come to an end.
The expression “my people” in Isaiah 40:1 is significant in the context of the exile. When Israel was rebellious and serving other gods, God said that Israel was “not my people (Hosea 1:9). When God was angry because Israel’s heart was hardened, Israel was “this people” (Isaiah 6:9). Now that God has forgiven Israel, they are again “my people.”
The expression “my people” comes out of covenant language: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jeremiah 31:33). At Sinai, Israel became God’s special people united with God by a covenant of grace. Thus, the words “my people” express God’s desire that the covenant relationship that once bound Israel to God be restored.
The exile came because of Israel’s violation of the covenant, and as a result, Israel had to suffer under the heavy hands of the Babylonians. Now, Deutero-Isaiah’s message of hope and comfort revealed that, not withstanding the overwhelming tragedy that fell upon the nation, Israel was still God’s people and they were still the object of his love and part of his redemptive purpose for the nations.
The prophet was commanded to speak tenderly to the heart of Jerusalem. This expression is used to identify God’s love for Israel as a husband speaks tenderly (“speaks to the heart”) to his wife (Judges 19:3). This metaphor appears again in Isaiah 54:4-8:
Do not be afraid; you will not suffer shame. Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated. You will forget the shame of your youth and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood. For your Maker is your husband– the LORD Almighty is his name– the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer; he is called the God of all the earth. The LORD will call you back as if you were a wife deserted and distressed in spirit– a wife who married young, only to be rejected, says your God. For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back. In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you, says the LORD your Redeemer.
Several themes that appeared in the book of Lamentations, in the cry of distress of the lonely widow, appear again in this text of Deutero-Isaiah which is part of the message of hope and restoration that the prophet was preaching to Israel.
Israel had suffered shame, had been disgraced and humiliated. The prophet now proclaims that Israel would forget the shame it suffered, would remember no more the reproach of its widowhood, for Yahweh was her husband, the one calling back the abandoned wife who was deserted, distressed in spirit, and rejected. But that rejection was only for a brief moment: “For a brief moment I abandoned you, but with deep compassion I will bring you back” (v. 7).
Deutero-Isaiah’s message to Israel was that her “time of service” was over. This message of hope proclaimed by the prophet to a group of people who had lost their hope, reminded them of the time when their ancestors served as slaves in Egypt. In Babylon, most people were not put to forced labor as they had labored in Egypt, but Israel’s hard service in Babylon may be a reference to the humiliations the people suffered in exile. Israel’s time of service may be also a symbolic reference to the more than fifty years the people lived in the land of alien gods.
The message of comfort proclaimed by Deutero-Isaiah was a summons to a people who had lost hope for the future. The community’s crisis of faith and loss of hope was expressed in Ezekiel’s vision of the valley of dry bones. When the Lord explained to Ezekiel the meaning of the dry bones, the Lord said: “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone’” (Ezekiel 37:11).
The crisis of faith was also expressed in the complaints of the people in which they expressed their doubt in God’s power to save them:
“Why do you say, Jacob, Why do you say, Israel, ‘The LORD is not aware of what is happening to me, My God is not concerned with my vindication’” (Isaiah 40:27 NET).
“Zion said, ‘The LORD has forsaken me, the Lord has forgotten me’” (Isaiah 49:14).
To counteract the despondency of the people and their hopelessness, the prophet announced that God had forgiven the nation and that announcement became a great source of hope for Israel. The people would soon return to their native land because Israel was still the object of God’s great love.
So far, in this and in my previous post, I have described the message of hope proclaimed by Deutero-Isaiah. In my next post I will focus on the messenger of hope and explain how Deutero-Isaiah’s theology provided a new understanding of Israel’s mission in the world and how his view of the transformative power of God’s word became the catalyst for the Lord’s action in history.
Other Posts on the Exile:
NOTE: For a complete list of studies on the book of Isaiah, read my post, Studies on the Book of Isaiah.
Emeritus Professor of Old Testament
Northern Baptist Seminary
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