Comfort, Comfort My People: The Meaning of Isaiah 40:1

ZA Blog on December 4th, 2018. Tagged under ,.

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Isaiah

After 39 chapters of narrative, the Book of Isaiah makes a dramatic shift: it becomes a book of poetry. But it makes another, perhaps more radical change: it skips ahead about 150 years into the future.

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Up until this point, Isaiah has spoken about a future exile when the northern kingdom of Israel will be conquered and its people will live in captivity. But from chapter 40–55, Isaiah is speaking to those who are currently living in captivity.

This transition is one of the reasons scholars aren’t sure how much the prophet Isaiah actually wrote. But knowing how the context of Isaiah changes in chapter 40 helps us understand what it meant when it was written, and what it means for us today.

In this moment, the Israelites were plagued with uncertainty and filled with questions only God—or his prophet—could answer. So Yahweh spoke through Isaiah.

Does God still intend to keep his promises?

Long ago, God promised the Israelites that they would be a great nation. Their cultural identity was deeply tied to their special relationship with the one true God. He had rescued them from slavery and conquered numerous enemies for them. He promised that through them he was going to establish his kingdom on earth.

And yet when the Babylonians besieged their capital and took the Israelites captive, God seemed to do nothing.

In their worldview, their defeat was God’s defeat. It was as though Yahweh had been conquered by the Babylonian gods.

Was the Israelites’ sin too much for him? Had he abandoned them?

Isaiah, in chapter 40 in particular, addresses three questions that he knows will be in the minds of those people out there in the future.

  1. Does God want to deliver us?
  2. Can He deliver us?
  3. Will He deliver us?

The first verse of Isaiah 40 is essentially God’s emphatic response to these questions: “Yes.”

“Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.” —Isaiah 40:1

What “comfort” really means

The word comfort appears all throughout the Bible, but it’s a little misleading in contemporary English. For us, in English, comfort is soothing. It eases our pain and makes us feel better.

The Hebrew word used here, nachamu, is more like 1611 King James’ English: come fort. To strengthen. To encourage. It instills a sense of security.

God is saying, “Encourage my people. In the middle of their discouragement, give them courage. Speak tenderly to them. Speak to their hearts. I want to deliver you.”

The Israelites are not done suffering under Babylon—not yet. But God is speaking through Isaiah to bolster them, to give them the strength they need to endure and see his promises fulfilled.

The rest of Isaiah 40 expounds on God’s ability to provide this comfort and deliver his people, showcasing his authority over all nations and rulers and powers. Then, the chapter ends with powerful encouragement to continue trusting in him:

He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the Lord
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.” —Isaiah 40:29–31

What Isaiah 40:1 means for us

Christians are God’s people now. We are members of his kingdom. Whatever discouragement Christians face today, this is what God says to us:

“Comfort my people. Strengthen my people. Encourage them. I’m for them, and I am coming to strengthen, to deliver, to enable you, for whatever it is you’re facing.”

He wants to deliver us, and indeed, as the rest of the chapter tells us, He can deliver us, and He’s going to.

Learn more about the book of Isaiah. Dr. John N. Oswalt has studied Isaiah for more than forty years and has taught the book to more than 1,000 students in academic and church settings. Sign up for his online course.

  • Jay Reimer 1 week ago

    Given that much of Isaiah 1-39 is written in “verse” (witness the NIV), it is surprising to read this statement above, “After 39 chapters of narrative, the Book of Isaiah makes a dramatic shift: it becomes a book of poetry.” What is the rationale for calling “verse” narrative and not poetry?