The following sermon was preached at Alta Vista Bible Church on August 22, 2021. I pray it is edifying to you.
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: the grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever. (Isaiah 40:1-8)
What is your only comfort in life and in death? I say again, what is your only comfort in life and in death? Many things bring us comfort in our modern day. For some, it is having many possessions or financial security; for others, it is having a fulfilling job or an interesting hobby; for still others, it is having a spouse or children. All of these things bring us comfort. In fact, I’d venture to say that our society is obsessed with being comfortable. We have bent over backwards looking for every possible way to make our living and dying in this world as comfortable as possible. So I ask again, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?”
The people of Judah were facing a period of intense discomfort. In chapters 36 through 39 of Isaiah, we read about King Hezekiah, one of the last godly kings of Judah. In chapter 36 he faces an attempted invasion by the Assyrians, who had already taken the Northern Kingdom of Israel into captivity, never to be seen or heard from again. In a moment of profound and heartfelt repentance, Hezekiah goes into the temple and offers a prayer for deliverance on behalf of the people. The Lord confirms through Isaiah that the Assyrian army will not conquer and sends them packing (ch. 37).
Hezekiah’s not out of the woods yet, though. After the Lord smites the Assyrian horde and sends them on their way, Hezekiah becomes very ill, nearly to the point of death. He again prays to the Lord for deliverance from this illness, and the Lord graciously adds 15 years to Hezekiah’s life (ch. 38).
Let’s pick up the story in chapter 39. Hezekiah has recovered, and he is greeted by some visitors from Babylon.
At that time Merodach-baladan, the son of Baladan, king of Babylon, sent letters and a present to Hezekiah: for he had heard that he had been sick, and was recovered. And Hezekiah was glad of them, and shewed them the house of his precious things, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious ointment, and all the house of his armour, and all that was found in his treasures: there was nothing in his house, nor in all his dominion, that Hezekiah shewed them not. Then came Isaiah the prophet unto king Hezekiah, and said unto him, What said these men? and from whence came they unto thee? And Hezekiah said, They are come from a far country unto me, even from Babylon. Then said he, What have they seen in thine house? And Hezekiah answered, All that is in mine house have they seen: there is nothing among my treasures that I have not shewed them. (Isaiah 39:1-4)
We see here that Hezekiah’s pride at the great riches of Judah led him to basically forego any sense of diplomatic decorum or modesty; instead, he was a total show-off, essentially inviting the king of Babylon to come and take it. Isaiah prophesies that very thing as we continue reading.
Then said Isaiah to Hezekiah, Hear the word of the Lord of hosts: Behold, the days come, that all that is in thine house, and that which thy fathers have laid up in store until this day, shall be carried to Babylon: nothing shall be left, saith the Lord. And of thy sons that shall issue from thee, which thou shalt beget, shall they take away; and they shall be eunuchs in the palace of the king of Babylon. Then said Hezekiah to Isaiah, Good is the word of the Lord which thou hast spoken. He said moreover, For there shall be peace and truth in my days. (Isaiah 39:5-8)
Isaiah here prophesies the future captivity of Judah in Babylon, an event which takes place some years later. Hezekiah doesn’t seem to be too worried, since he’ll be long gone before any of what Isaiah said will occur.
It is in this context, then—of a nation on the verge of being taken into captivity by an invading horde, a nation that has become so corrupt and idolatrous—that God calls upon Isaiah to proclaim comfort. The shift in tone between chapter 39 and chapter 40 is so sudden and abrupt that some have wondered whether Isaiah really wrote the remainder of the book. I think it’s clear that he did, however, and that God intends, even through the word of warning already given, to proclaim a future hope and comfort for Israel, specifically, comfort in the Messiah, the Christ. This comfort is not only for the nation of Judah, but for us as well, who are in an exile of our own on this earth. In looking at the text I want to emphasize three key points: 1) God’s proclamation of comfort in Christ, 2) God’s preparation for comfort in Christ, and 3) God’s perpetual promise of comfort.
God’s Proclamation of Comfort to His People
Let’s begin by looking at verses 1 and 2.
“Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people, saith your God.” We see here very clearly a proclamation of comfort from God himself. I have to give points to the King James Version here, not only because of its beauty, but because it includes that little word “ye.” That word is plural; God calls upon not only Isaiah, but all who prophesy and minister in his name to proclaim comfort to God’s people. In Hebrew, emphasis is often communicated through repetition. We see this with Jesus in the gospels, for example. We know that when he says, “Truly I say to you,” then we are about to hear something important; but when he says, “Truly, truly, I say to you,” then we know that what he’s about to say is really important and not to be missed. God here is emphasizing this command to comfort his people because it is that important.
Already we find comfort in the words, “my people,” and, “your God.” How comforting it is to belong to God, to be his people. To belong to God is no small thing, since it took the death, burial, and resurrection of his Son to make it happen. Paul says in Romans that we have received the spirit of adoption as sons; we have been bought with a price; we are children of God with Christ as our elder brother, and we share in his blessings and benefits as fellow heirs of the world to come. This is indeed truly comforting, knowing that this light, momentary affliction, this exile in which we now find ourselves as pilgrims on this earth, will not and indeed cannot compare to the glory that is to be revealed in us. Christ is our comfort.
And then it says, “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem”. This word, “comfortably,” or in the ESV, “tenderly,” means literally “to the heart.” Speak to the heart of Jerusalem; assuage her fears; quell her doubts; give her reassurance. “Cry unto her that her warfare is accomplished.” Make it known from the mountaintops; herald it from every street corner. The prophet here is speaking in the “prophetic past tense;” from Isaiah’s perspective, the captivity has yet to occur. The warfare has not yet come to an end. And yet he proclaims it done, finished, over with, because he knows that a Savior will come to put an end to hardship, to bring the war to a close.
So also is he to cry “that her iniquity is pardoned”. Her sins have been forgiven. The Messiah has come to take away every stain of sin and placed it upon himself, giving us his righteousness instead. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus; he himself is our peace, our great High Priest who makes atonement for the sins of his people. No longer does our sin lay hold on us. No longer are we captive to the whim and fancies of our sinful nature. Christ has triumphed over sin and death.
Finally, in verse 2 comfort is proclaimed in the fact that Jerusalem “has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” This means that sufficient punishment has been meted out. “Double” is not meant in the strict mathematical sense; rather, it denotes that the measure of punishment is more than satisfactory for the sins of the people. Here again we see this most clearly in Christ, whose death on the cross, bearing the full weight of God’s wrath against sin, was more than sufficient to atone for the sins of his people. Christ’s perfect sacrifice was more than enough to restore us. Herein is a double blessing, for through Christ’s life of perfect obedience and his death on the cross, we have been given every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places. As Paul writes again in Romans, “He who did not spare his own Son, but freely gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him freely give us all things?”
In these first two verses, then, we hear the proclamation of comfort for God’s people through Christ. Comfort in the fact that we belong to him as his people, that Christ has put an end to our war with sin, that he has forgiven our sins, and that the punishment has been fulfilled.
Preparing the Way for Comfort
In verses 3-5, we see the preparation for comfort to come through Christ. Follow along as I read.
The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain: and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together: for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it. (Isaiah 40:3-5)
The main thrust of this section is that the Lord is coming, so prepare the way! The imagery is so powerful; in order for a proper highway to be made in the desert, one that can accommodate the coming of the Lord, some landscaping of epic proportions must occur. Isaiah, of course, doesn’t mean literally that the mountains will topple and the valleys be lifted up; but rather he speaks prophetically, proclaiming that nothing will stand in the way of the Lord as he accomplishes his word. “The mouth of the Lord hath spoken it”; therefore, it will come to pass.
Thinking in New Testament terms, we see here the ministry of John the Baptist prophesied. He himself quotes these very words when the Pharisees and scribes questioned him about his ministry. He was the voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.” This he did, not by taking a bulldozer to some mountains, but by preparing the hearts of the people to receive their king. Every king, when entering a town or a city, has special messengers and servants sent beforehand to prepare the way, to make arrangements, to announce his coming, so that the whole city is not caught unaware. Thus, John the Baptist preaches repentance and baptizes people, ceremonially cleansing them with water so that they are prepared to receive King Jesus.
And here is Christ most clearly seen in verse 5, “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed”. The Apostle John tells us in his gospel that “the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” The glory of the Lord is revealed in Jesus Christ, in the incarnation of the Son of God. This is far too momentous an occasion to be limited to the nation of Israel; no, we are told that “all flesh shall see it together,” Jew and Gentile alike, foretelling the inclusion of every tribe, tongue, people and nation in the kingdom of God.
The comfort that Isaiah offers is none other than Christ himself, the glory of the Lord revealed. John the Baptist came preparing the way for him, so that all would be ready to receive Christ. Has your heart been prepared to receive him? Have you come to this place repenting of your sin, seeking to do what pleases him, yearning to receive more of him?
God’s Perpetual Promise of Comfort
Finally, then, in verses 6-8, we see the perpetual promise of comfort.
The voice said, Cry. And he said, What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the goodliness thereof is as the flower of the field: the grass withereth, the flower fadeth: because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it: surely the people is grass. The grass withereth, the flower fadeth: but the word of our God shall stand for ever. (Isaiah 40:6-8)
Suddenly a voice says, “Cry.” We are not told who this voice belongs to or where it comes from; perhaps it is from some angelic being. Another voice asks, “What shall I cry?” We are thrown into this dialogue between to beings, the first of which responds to the second with a meditation on the frailty of mankind and the enduring nature of the Word of God.
He begins by comparing mankind with grass. Lately with all the rain we’ve seen, there has been much grass that has sprung up. But we are all too familiar with the fleeting nature of that grass. Once the sun comes out with its scorching heat, the grass does not last long. It withers and dies just as quickly as it sprang up. So too with humanity. Our lives are so short, so full of trouble; we are here one minute and gone the next. There is nothing like a pandemic to constantly remind us of our own mortality, our own frailty. Even though our lives be full of beauty and “goodliness,” we are still only like the flower of the field, which so quickly fades away.
In stark contrast to this, we are told quite tersely, “The word of our God stands forever.” The statement is brief and without poetic flourish, a bare statement of fact. The word of God stands forever. The mouth of the Lord hath spoken it; therefore it will come to pass. God’s word, his promises, will never fail. Peter in his first epistle says that we are “born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the word of God, which liveth and abideth forever.” He then quotes these very words and says, “This word is the gospel which is preached to you.”
The word of God, the gospel, the promise of salvation through Christ, will never fail. All of God’s promises find their “yes” in Christ. We therefore have confidence and hope that Christ will accomplish our salvation, because his word stands forever. Herein is true comfort indeed.
In this text we have seen God proclaim comfort in Christ for those who are in captivity. We have seen God prepare for that comfort to come through Christ in John the Baptist. And we have seen that the promise of comfort, the gospel of our salvation, stands forever. What then ought we to do? Three things I will leave you with.
- Come to Christ! Find in him true spiritual comfort and solace for your soul. He alone can fulfill your needs; he alone is the perfect Savior. Christ calls out, “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” There is comfort in Christ, in whatever situation you find yourself; in every affliction, every moment of pain, every time of joy and triumph, Christ is there, and he will never fail.
- Prepare your heart to receive him. I am reminded of Joy to the World, “Let every heart prepare him room!” Be constant in repentance, forsaking your sin and seeking to do what pleases Christ. God calls us to tear open our hearts, not our garments, in grief over sin and transgression. Do not pursue only an outward show of repentance; be genuine. Remember that if we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
- Trust in his promises. Rely on his word to see you through each day. Let his words fill your thoughts and renew your mind. His Word will stand forever. In it you will find comfort and rest in Christ. This ties us back into our first point of application; we come to Christ in his word. Many in our day think that if only people could see Christ physically, watch him perform miracles and rise from the dead, then they would believe. Not so. We know from the gospels that many saw him and yet did not believe. Christ, instead, proclaims a blessing on those who have not seen, and yet have believed. So come to his Word, expecting to receive more of Christ. Let his Word instruct you, feed you, help you, break you, and mend you. And above all, let it be a comfort to you.
So I end where I began. What is your only comfort in life and in death? I pray you will be able to answer together with the Heidelberg Catechism, “That I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ.” Let’s pray.