This text serves as a prologue to Second Isaiah, announcing its major themes and preparing for God to come to do a "new thing" (43:19). The time of judgment--the exile--will end. With this chapter, the book moves to a different time--no longer the period of Assyrian conquest of the eighth century (First Isaiah) but the time of the Babylonian exile (sixth century B.C.E.). Nebuchadnezzar had conquered and destroyed Jerusalem (597 and 587 B.C.E.) and taken many of the inhabitants into captivity in Babylon. Now, says the prophet, God is coming to release them, which happened when Cyrus the Persian captured Babylon in 538 B.C.E.
"Comfort" is a key term for Second Isaiah, occurring thirteen times with this sense of removing fear and restoring security for God's people. There are only two other similar uses in the prophets (Isaiah 12:1; Jeremiah 31:13). The heart of the matter is God's announcement, "I, I am he who comforts you" (Isaiah 51:12). Bringing comfort functions as one of God's own self-definitions. In the time of exile, Israel had lamented repeatedly that there was no comfort and no comforter (Lamentations 1:2, 9, 17, 21), but now there is: God has come to comfort the suffering and the oppressed.
Who is called to announce comfort (v. 1)? The Hebrew imperative is plural ("Comfort my people, you all"), so it cannot be the prophet. The prophet seems to overhear God calling heavenly messengers (the "voice" in vv. 3 and 6) to announce the time of comfort. Since access to the heavenly council is one of the gifts given a true prophet (Isaiah 6:8; Jeremiah 23:22), many see this text as a call narrative for a new prophet, a Second Isaiah. The prophet is commissioned to "cry out" or "preach" (v. 6), and then typically declines, not knowing what to say in such a desperate time (vv. 6-7). Reassurance comes with the reminder that God's word endures forever, despite the decline of everything else (v. 8).
The emphasis on the enduring power of God's word (v. 8) is another key theme of Second Isaiah. Everything in this text is set in motion by the "mouth of the LORD" (v. 5). In a literary inclusio surrounding the chapters of Second Isaiah (40-55), the section closes with another familiar announcement of the strength of the word, which will not return empty but will accomplish God's purpose (55:10-11).
The voices announce the building of a highway in the desert for God and God's people (see 35:8-10). Babylon had great roads and gates for the procession of the gods into the city at major festivals. But God's road leads out of Babylon; it is the place for a new exodus out of captivity.
Zion is called to be a "herald of good tidings"--the voice on the mountain announcing the good news of God's coming. "Herald of good tidings" (v. 9) is translated into the Greek Septuagint as euangelizomenos or "evangelist"--one of the first times this term is used to announce the gospel or good news of God (see also Psalm 40:9; Isaiah 52:7).
The Divine Warrior appears again in this text (see the note on 34:5-7)--the Lord GOD of might with the strong arm of power (v. 10). But here the image is deliberately transformed, since the arm of the warrior immediately becomes the gentle arm of the shepherd (v. 11).
The New Testament uses the "voice in the wilderness" to point to the work of John the Baptist, preparing the way for Jesus just as the people of Isaiah's day were to prepare for the coming of God (see Mark 1:3).
40Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lords hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 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.
5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
6 A voice says, Cry out!
And I said, What shall I cry?
All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand for ever.
9 Get you up to a high mountain,
O Zion, herald of good tidings;*
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,*
lift it up, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
Here is your God!
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicized Edition, copyright © 1989, 1995 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org