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KD Old Testament Lesson 38: Isaiah 40-49

Posted by Karl D. on September 26, 2010

Gospel Doctrine
Lesson: Isaiah (#38)
Reading: Isaiah 40-49

PDF Version of Notes

1 Approach

These represent the notes I made during my reading of the scriptural text for this lesson. It is not a lesson outline or a lesson plan but really notes about issues and questions that struck me as interesting during my reading. Consequently, the notes do not have a conclusion and very little mention of application. I like to let those things arise while I teach.

2 Introduction

  1. We have now shifted to a world where Babylon is the superpower.
  2. Jerusalem is destroyed (describing post 587 BCE world).
  3. Many Jews have been scattered through Egypt and Mesopotamia.
  4. The rise of Persia and Cyrus and the return of the Jews is either in sight or beginning to happen.

3 The Lord Is Returning to Jerusalem (40:1-11)

3.1 Comfort My People

Read Isaiah 40:1-2

1 Comfort ye, comfort ye my people,
saith your God.

2 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.

  • How would you summarize or explain the message of these first two verses? What is the Lord’s message?
  • What does the phrase, “speak ye comfortably”, mean in the first part of verse 2? The NRSV translates this as, “speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” What does it mean to “speak tenderly” to Jerusalem given the city of Jerusalem is destroyed? How might someone “speak tenderly” in this context? Who is supposed to “speak tenderly” to her?
  • Who do you think was the intended original audience for this message? How would they have viewed this message?
  • Is there anything strange (from an ancient perspective) about the LORD sending a message to the scattered Jews?
  • What does “cry to her” (in the beginning of verse 2) mean given the parallelism?
  • The middle part of the verse explains that Jerusalem’s “warfare is accomplished.” What does this mean for the Jews and Jerusalem? What does it tell us about the LORD? Is there an important modern principle in these verses?
  • What do you make of the end of verse 2?

for she hath received of the LORD’S hand
double for all her sins.

3.2 A Voice Cries Out

The next three verses are quite famous, and all four gospels apply these verses (well at least verse 3) to John the Baptist (Matt 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, and John 1:23). I think the New Testament use of these verses is interesting and worthy of discussion, but, at least to start with, let’s look at the immediate context of these verses and think about it in its pre New Testament setting.

3 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.

4 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:

(5) 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.

3.2.1 Parallelism of Verse 3

Most commentators suggest that verse 3 is probably better translated as something like the following:

A voice cries out:
In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God. (NRSV)

Oswalt, in the New International Commentary on the Old Testament explains this issue as follows:1

Despite the antiquity of the interpretation attested in the LXX and quoted in the NT (Matt 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; Jon 1:23): “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare …,'” the Hebrew test, both in its parallel structure and in its punctuation, seems to demand the reading given here.

  • Based on the structure of the passage, who do you think is the voice that cries out?”
  • What is the message? The immediate message? What is the LORD going to do?
  • What do you think of the imagery in this passage? Do you think it is linked with the notion mentioned a few verses earlier that Jerusalem needs to be comforted?
  • Is the Lord coming with the Jews returning from exile? Returning to Jerusalem with them? Where is he coming from? Is the location important (metaphorically or symbolically)?
  • What sort of images does the Lord coming out of the desert evoke? To you? To an ancient Israelite audience? What sort of stories in the Old Testament do you link with the desert?
  • Do these verse tell the Jews how they should understand their return from exile?
  • This is a kingly return. The passage emphasizes the LORD’s power, might, and Glory. Does this really fit with a return from exile? A returned allowed and facilitated by a great foreign power?
  • In this return or journey the very landscape is changed. How should we understanding this changing landscape? Could we understand it as metaphor related to exile and return?

3.2.2 Center of the Message

Goldingay, in his commentary on Isaiah 40-55, outlines the first 11 verses of Isaiah 40 as a chiastic structure: 2

A. Your God Jerusalem: Jehovah (1-2)
   B. Jehovah our God (3-4)
      C. (5)
   B' Jehovah our God (6-8)
A' Your God Zion/Jerusalem: Jehovah
  • In this chiasmus verse 5 is the center point. What is the message of verse 5? Do you see it as the center point of the first 11 verses?
  • How do the first 4 verses build to verse 5?
  • What do you think is meant by the phrase, “the glory of the LORD shall be revealed?” What images or concepts does it bring to your mind?
  • What does the use of “all flesh shall see together” suggest or imply?

3.3 A Skeptical Voice and a Response

Read Isaiah 40:6-8:

6 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:

7 The grass withereth, the flower fadeth:
because the spirit of the LORD loweth upon it:
surely the people is grass.

8 The grass withereth, the flower fadeth:
but the word of our God shall stand for ever.

  • Who is speaking here? Are there multiple speakers?
  • What is the message of the first speaker in verses 6-7? Who might the speaker be?
  • The speaker in these verses seems skeptical. What is cause the of his/her skepticism?
  • What do you see as the message of the speaker in verses 6-7?
  • What do the metaphors involving grass and flowers emphasize?
  • What is the message of the second speaker in verse 8?
  • How does he/she counter the first speaker? Does he really disagree with the first voice? What is the second speakers solution?
  • Does this apply to us? Or is the problem specific to Israel? How about the solution?

3.4 Good Tidings

Read Isaiah 40:9-11

9 O Zion, that bringest good tidings,
get thee up into the high mountain;

O Jerusalem, that bringest good tidings,
lift up thy voice with strength;

lift it up, be not afraid;
say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God!

10 Behold, the Lord GOD will come with strong hand,
and his arm shall rule for him:

behold, his reward is with him,
and his work before him.

11 He shall feed his flock like a shepherd:
he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom,

and shall gently lead those that are with young.

  • How are verse 9-11 related to verses 1-2?
  • It seems like Jerusalem/Zion is asked to be a Herald of good tidings. Does that seem strange? How can Jerusalem be a Herald? And who are they being a herald to?
  • Zion is told to get up to the high mountains. What is meant by that? Does the next part of the poem help give context to what is meant?
  • Why should Israel “not be afraid” anymore?
  • What sort of things does verse 11 cause you to think about?
  • The imagery of verses 1-2 and 9-11 is grand and majestic. The imagery appears to suggest the arrival of a King. He comes with a strong hand. However, the metaphor employed is verse 11 is that of a shepherd. What do you make of this contrast?
  • Can we view verses 9-11 as a description of what it means for God to save his people? If so, what parts of these verses do you think illustrate this the best? Also, if so, what does this teach you about salvation?

4 Incomparable (40:12-26)

4.1 Chiastic Structure of Verse 12-26

I think we can see a kind of chiastic structure for verses 12-26:3

A. Compared to the Lord, the heavens and earth are nothing (12-14)
   B. Compared to the Lord, the nations are nothing (15-17)
      C. Compared to the Lord, Idols are nothing (18-20)
   B' Compared to the Lord, rulers are nothing (21-24)
A' Compared to the Lord, heavenly forces are nothing (25-26)

4.2 Compared to the Lord, Idols are Nothing

Read Isaiah 40:18-20:

(18) To whom then will ye liken God?
or what likeness will ye compare unto him?

The workman melteth a graven image,
and the goldsmith spreadeth it over with gold, and casteth silver chains.

He that is so impoverished that he hath no oblation chooseth a tree
that will not rot;

he seeketh unto him a cunning workman
to prepare a graven image, that shall not be moved.

  • What is the main point here?
  • Is idolatry the only point here?
  • The discussion of the idols mentions how the idols are constructed. It points to a cunning workman. Is this an important part of the point? Does it link the comparison here with the larger chiastic structure?
  • Is the comparison to Idols meant to be almost absurd, humorous, or sarcastic? What parts strike you as any of these three things?
  • The comparison to idols is the centerpiece of this section. I think Isaiah argues pretty forcefully that the comparison is absurd. Given the structure and the verses leading up to this center point, is Isaiah also arguing that all comparisons to God are absurd? If so, in what sense is a comparison to God absurd?
  • Can comparing things to God be a form of Idolatry? What does it mean to compare God to something and when does comparing God or making an analogy about God become problematic?
  • Earlier in the chapter, the Lord is compared to both a shepherd and a king. Could those comparisons ever be improper?
  • How might we in a general sense improperly compare things to GOD?
  • How does the overall point here in these verses and the larger chiastic structure link with the messages of verses 1-11?

5 Dependable (40:27-31)

Read Isaiah 40:27-31:

27 Why sayest thou, O Jacob,
and speakest, O Israel,

My way is hid from the Lord,
and my judgment is passed over from my God?

28 Hast thou not known?
hast thou not heard,

that the everlasting God, the Lord,
the Creator of the ends of the earth,

fainteth not, neither is weary?
there is no searching of his understanding.

29 He giveth power to the faint;
and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.

30 Even the youths shall faint and be weary,
and the young men shall utterly fall:

31 But they that wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength;
they shall mount up with wings as eagles;

they shall run, and not be weary;
and they shall walk, and not faint.

  • Do you think these verses tie together the messages talked about in the previous two parts (1-11 and 12-26)?
  • Do these verses make sense as a conclusion to the messages and themes find in chapter 40?
  • Is that an important followup to the Lord is incomprehensible? Does the message here tie back into the message that Jerusalem needs to be comforted from the first 11 verses?
  • Is it fair to summarize the message here as the “Lord is dependable?” Is that underselling the message or the description of God in these verses?
  • What do you think it means to “wait upon the Lord?” Why or how does waiting on the Lord lead to a renewal of strength?
  • What do you make of the progression (a reversal of what one would usually expect) of the images: flying, running, wand walking?


1 Oswalt John N., 1998, The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66, Eerdmans, 51.

2 Goldingay John, 2005, The Message of Isaiah 40-55: A Literary-Theological Commentary, T&T Clark International, 19.

3 Inspired by the discussion in Goldingay John, 2005, The Message of Isaiah 40-55: A Literary-Theological Commentary, T&T Clark International, 33.

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