The opening chapter of the second section of Isaiah centers on a message of comfort to Jerusalem and Judah, the majesty and power of Israel’s God, and the restoration He would bring after captivity. It sets the stage for the remainder of the book.
Some scholars have concluded that chapters 40–66 were composed following the collapse of the kingdom of Judah under the Babylonian invasion of 586 BCE and during the Jews’ subsequent exile. From this perspective the entire second half of the book is considered the work of a later “Isaiah” and even perhaps a third, intended to encourage an exiled people and prepare them for return to their land. This is a fairly modern idea, based on 20th-century literary analysis. It is not the way the writers of other parts of the Bible viewed the work. The alternative is that the original Isaiah was indeed responsible for the second half of the book by his name, recording the entirety of God’s message of restoration and hope in advance of Judah’s downfall, as other Hebrew prophets also did under inspiration. And in any case, in the first section of his book, Isaiah had already prophesied of a future well beyond his time.
“The NT is explicit in its assignment of both halves of the book to the one man Isaiah, who ‘saw His [Christ’s] glory and spoke of Him.’”
Israel’s long history of idolatry, covenant-breaking, disobedience and resulting captivity (foretold initially in Isaiah 39:7 but resolved in 43:5–6, 14, and 44:28–45:5) will give way to forgiveness, peace and restoration. Hence the encouraging opening statement, “‘Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ says your God. ‘Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins’” (Isaiah 40:1–2).
Some of the Jews would return to Jerusalem a few years after the Babylonian Empire succumbed to the Persians in 539 BCE. But not all went back, begging the question whether the complete fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy of comfort is not related to the second coming of the Messiah.
The next several verses point to preparing the way for God to come (verses 3–5)—a prophecy applied by the Gospel writer Luke to John the Baptist’s role in announcing the impending revelation of Jesus as the christos, or anointed One (Luke 3:4–6).
Note that there was no doubt in the minds of Luke and other New Testament writers that the same Isaiah wrote the second section. Quoting passages from both halves of the book, the apostle John said that the prophet spoke of Christ (John 12:37–41). In Acts 8:26–35, we read that the apostle Philip explained material from chapter 53 to an Ethiopian who asked of whom the prophet was speaking in a passage about the Messiah to come. The apostle Paul referred to Isaiah as the author of chapters 53 and 65 (see Romans 10) in discussing Christ’s rejection by most of His own countrymen and His acceptance by many non-Israelites.
These writers also came to understand that the Messiah would have to come not once but twice before prophecies of ultimate comfort for Jerusalem and for all humanity could be fulfilled. The apostle Peter made this clear. Speaking publicly in the city in the early days of the New Testament church, he showed how the prophets had foretold Christ’s first coming. They also referred to the timing of His return: “. . . that He may send Jesus Christ, who was preached to you before, whom heaven must receive until the times of restoration of all things, which God has spoken by the mouth of all His holy prophets since the world began” (Acts 3:20–21).
A Better Future
This future time is one of the key themes in the second part of Isaiah. For example, he prophesies that the desolation of nature will be reversed: “I will open rivers in desolate heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water. I will plant in the wilderness the cedar and the acacia tree, the myrtle and the oil tree; I will set in the desert the cypress tree and the pine and the box tree together” (Isaiah 41:18–19).
Spiritual drought will also be a thing of the past: “For I will pour water on him who is thirsty, and floods on the dry ground; I will pour My Spirit on your descendants, and My blessing on your offspring” (44:3). The comfort that God has promised His people Israel will finally come when He ends forever their mourning the loss of His favor and enables them to rebuild ruined cities and become the example of right living for all humanity: “So the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring forth before all the nations” (chapter 61).
“Sing, O heavens! Be joyful, O earth! And break out in singing, O mountains! For the Lord has comforted His people, and will have mercy on His afflicted.”
Another theme in this section is the greatness of God and the insignificance of humanity by contrast. He reveals Himself as the unique God (40:18, 25) and as opposed to the many idols of the surrounding pagan world (verses 19–20). He is all-knowing, all-powerful, in charge of history. Arrogance so often gets in the way of understanding our place in the grand scheme of things. To help us gain perspective, the prophet asks, “Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, measured heaven with a span and calculated the dust of the earth in a measure? Weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance?” (verse 12). Just as human beings cannot physically measure the larger aspects of the created world, neither can we gauge God’s Spirit nor give Him counsel and teaching. Our abilities count for little in comparison with those of the Creator. Even “the nations are as a drop in a bucket, and are counted as the small dust on the scales.” There is nothing against which God may be measured (verses 13–15).
One aspect of God’s power is that He foretells what will happen even far into the future and can bring about circumstances and events: “Remember the former things of old, for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things that are not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will do all My pleasure’” (46:9–10).
God is also the creator of humanity, a Being whose majesty and beneficent power give prideful humanity no room to argue: “Woe to him who strives with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth! Shall the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ Or shall your handiwork say, ‘He has no hands’? Woe to him who says to his father, ‘What are you begetting?’ Or to the woman, ‘What have you brought forth?’” (45:9–10).
The faithfulness and reliability of God is another emphasis. He chose a people, the descendants of Jacob/Israel, to exemplify a relationship with Him, and His promises to them will be kept. Despite their departure from Him, He will honor His word, and they will experience restoration: “You, Israel, are My servant, Jacob whom I have chosen, the descendants of Abraham My friend. . . . I have chosen you and have not cast you away: Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you, yes, I will help you, I will uphold you with My righteous right hand” (41:8–10). He assures them that they will be brought back from distant lands to prosper again: “I will bring your descendants from the east, and gather you from the west; I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ And to the south, ‘Do not keep them back!’ Bring My sons from afar, and My daughters from the ends of the earth” (43:5–6; see also 49:14–26). God will encourage His people again. They will not be cast off forever: “For the Lord will comfort Zion, He will comfort all her waste places; He will make her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord; joy and gladness will be found in it, thanksgiving and the voice of melody” (51:3). While these promises had a partial fulfillment in the return of some Israelites to Jerusalem under Persian auspices, once again their completion will come only in the yet future kingdom of God on earth.
Babylon Will Fall
The downfall of Judah’s forthcoming captor, the Babylonian Empire of Nebuchadnezzar, is one of the section’s major promises. “Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: ‘For your sake I will send to Babylon, and bring them all down as fugitives—the Chaldeans, who rejoice in their ships’” (43:14). This would be achieved after 70 years of exile through the invading Persians under Cyrus the Great, prophesied to come as God’s chosen instrument more than 150 years in advance (see chapter 45). He would enter the city by stealth, uncontested, and bring Babylon down.
Herodotus on the Fall of Babylon
Fifth-century-BCE Greek historian Herodotus offers this account of Cyrus’s conquest of Babylon:
“[Cyrus] posted his army at the place where the river enters the city, and another part of it where the stream issues from the city, and bade his men enter the city by the channel of the Euphrates when they should see it to be fordable. Having so arrayed them and given this command, he himself marched away with those of his army who could not fight; and when he came to the lake, Cyrus dealt with it and with the river just as had the Babylonian queen; drawing off the river by a canal into the lake, which was till now a marsh, he made the stream to sink till its former channel could be forded. When this happened, the Persians who were posted with this intent made their way into Babylon by the channel of the Euphrates, which had now sunk about to the height of the middle of a man’s thigh. Now if the Babylonians had known beforehand or learnt what Cyrus was planning, they would have suffered the Persians to enter the city and brought them to a miserable end. . . . But as it was, the Persians were upon them unawares, and by reason of the great size of the city—so say those who dwell there—those in the outer parts of it were overcome, yet the dwellers in the middle part knew nothing of it; all this time they were dancing and making merry at a festival which chanced to be toward, till they learnt the truth but too well. Thus was Babylon then for the first time taken” (The Persian Wars 1.191, Loeb Classical Library).
He would then be used by God to liberate those remaining Jews taken captive decades earlier, freeing them and their descendants to return to Jerusalem: “I have raised [Cyrus] up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways; he shall build My city and let My exiles go free, not for price nor reward” (45:13). “He is My shepherd, and he shall perform all My pleasure, saying to Jerusalem, ‘You shall be built,’ and to the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid’” (44:28).
Chapter 47 records God’s judgment on Babylon and its sudden collapse: “Evil shall come upon you; you shall not know from where it arises. And trouble shall fall upon you; you will not be able to put it off. And desolation shall come upon you suddenly, which you shall not know” (verse 11).
“Babylon, the world’s most heavily fortified city, opens its gates to [Cyrus] without a fight.”
Words of Hope and Comfort
As we noted in the preceding installment of this series, and as indicated already above, Isaiah records several prophecies about the first and second comings of the Messiah. In the latter part of the book we find five “Servant Songs,” which can be shown to apply to Christ. In chapter 42:1–4, Isaiah specifies first the humility of Jesus’ ministry—later quoted by Matthew in his Gospel (Matthew 12:18–21). Isaiah begins, “Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One in whom My soul delights! I have put My Spirit upon Him; He will bring forth justice to the Gentiles” (Isaiah 42:1). He further speaks to the Servant Messiah’s role in restoring Israel and being a light to nations (49:1–9); to His willingness to suffer indignity (50:5–9); to the extreme nature of His death as a sacrifice for sin (52:13–15; chapter 53); and to the twofold aspect of His role as proclaimer of the gospel, or good news, of God’s kingdom and returning King of kings (61:1–2).
This later section of Isaiah contains glimpses of Jerusalem as a new city in God’s future kingdom (54:11–13; 60:19–20), a theme expanded in the New Testament (see Revelation 21). After the return of Christ and a thousand years of His rule on the earth, New Jerusalem will be revealed. Isaiah addresses this time when he writes: “Behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I create; for behold, I create Jerusalem as a rejoicing, and her people a joy. I will rejoice in Jerusalem, and joy in My people; the voice of weeping shall no longer be heard in her, nor the voice of crying” (65:17–19).
The ultimate comfort for the afflicted and lost comes at the book’s conclusion in the promise God gives, “‘For as the new heavens and the new earth which I will make shall remain before Me,’ says the Lord, ‘so shall your descendants and your name remain’” (66:22).
Next time, Jeremiah and Ezekiel inside and outside Jerusalem.