Interpretations and ironies (B)

The opening verses of Isaiah 40 could garner many descriptions.  Hope-filled.  Intent.  Merciful.  Cognizant.  Beautiful.  Attention-getting.  Inauguratory.  Promising.  Comforting.  Instructive.  Yet with these prophetic words comes interpretation questions.

I’ve been considering the opening of Isaiah 40, along with succeeding passages, for some time.  Yesterday’s post gives some prefatory meditations.  A haze of un-knowing (agnosticism, you might say) infects my reading of every last bit of this “word of the Lord” from Deutero-Isaiah.  Below are my two interpretations of 40:1-5.

Possible Realization #1

The prophet had in his spiritual vision

  • that the people had been slaves to the Babylonians
  • that God was soon to inaugurate for them a time of comfort from hard labor and punishment
  • the reality that the people would be released from Babylon
  • that, figuratively, the tough terrain that stood between Babylon and Jerusalem would not present a problem for God when He led His people back to their own city¹
  • that the leading of the people out of captivity back to Jerusalem, and their ultimate re-establishment there, would constitute the revealing of YHVH’s sovereign glory

Possible Realization #2

(Whether the prophet had this in his spiritual vision or not)

  • that (all?) people of God have been (metaphorically) judged, displaced, enslaved, and punished
  • that God would, hundreds of years in the future, inaugurate a time and/or means of comfort from all types of difficulty
  • the coming reality that the people would be redeemed and released through Jesus
  • that, figuratively, the way would be cleared for God to act decisively for all people’s potential deliverance—including all the gentiles for whom Israel had to that point served as “light”
  • that the coming to earth of the Messiah would constitute the revealing of YHVH’s sovereign glory

Which of the above interpretations is correct?

  1. the first?
  2. the second?
  3. both?

My current take on this passage—and this may differ from my understanding of other passages in Isaiah 40-55—is that (c) is a very viable answer.  

First to attempt to immerse myself in the world of the prophet who spoke/wrote is integral to being contextually responsible.  The literary context is a more sure pursuit, but I also want to learn as much as possible of the historical context into which the word was delivered.  Babylon and Jerusalem were clearly part of this original context.

Then to look with hindsight and insight at the overall picture helps me, at least in this case, to see an enhanced portrait—one that includes rich prophetic meaning, for all post-Babylon people, because of Jesus.

With emphatic intention, i.e., because I want the actually prophetic words to supersede my inauthentic words of interpretation, here is an English version of Isaiah 40:1-5.

 1 “Comfort!  Yes, comfort my people,” says your God.
 2 “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
     that her heavy service has been completed,
     that her penalty has been paid,
     that she has received from the Lord’s hand double 
          for all her sins.”
 3 A voice cries out:
     ‘In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lord;
     and in the desert a straight highway for our God.’
 4 Every valley will be lifted up, 
     and every mountain and hill will be lowered; 
   the rough ground will become level, 
     and the mountain ridges made a plain.
 5 Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all humanity will 
   see it at once; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” (ISV)

The word of the Lord.
Inquiries, cries, and thanks be to God.

– B. Casey, 12/4-6/2015


¹ Another interpretation might go full-bore literal here, suggesting that something like a series of landslides, seismic activity, etc., caused visible topological changes that physically altered the terrain between Babylon and Jerusalem.  I believe God could have done those things.

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