The Jerusalem Post, 685 BC
A Year in the Gospel #3 The Prophet Isaiah: (Isaiah 40:1-5, 9)
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended , that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries, ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.’” … “Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news, lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good news; lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God!’”
Front page of Jerusalem Post, on some hot day in Judah, 685 BC: “Isaiah, Senior Prophet Finally Foretells Something Good.” A day later, the columns are gushing about King Manasseh’s new religious policies, the religious section is full with new houses of worship, and the Hebrew stock exchange is up. Prophets for Asherah and Baal each have full page ads, and the demand for ad-space from fortune-tellers and necromancers has the Post owners giddy. The gods are marching in, and the shekels are rolling.
Of course, there was no Jerusalem Post in 685 BC, but there was a King Manasseh and there was a Prophet Isaiah. And strangely, the evidence seems to show that Isaiah spent much of good King Hezekiah’s reign foretelling mostly coming judgment, and then began declaring some incredibly good news during the dreadful rule of wicked Manasseh. The king was hauling in freshly minted idols daily right into the Temple of the Lord while Isaiah was declaring Gospel news from Yahweh.
How was Isaiah thanked for his good news? Well, according to tradition, Manasseh had Isaiah sawn in half. Isaiah’s crime? Preaching future rescue only thru Yahweh or maybe all the not-so-nice things about the other gods. Ironically, Manasseh would remember the word of Yahweh and repent but not before gaining the reputation as the most wicked and pagan of all Judah’s kings.
Nevertheless, Isaiah’s word remained and it remained to Jesus’s day and it remains to our day. There is a marked contrast between Isaiah chapters 1 – 39 and chapters 40-66. In fact, the difference is so glaring that some scholars believe these two sections are from at least two different prophets! That issue aside, the point is that the prophet who had been declaring so much coming woe from Yahweh began to proclaim comfort from the same Yahweh.
The prophet is told to comfort God’s people and speak tenderly to her. Why? Peace is coming. Forgiveness is coming. Pardon is promised from all her iniquities and they were many. And here Isaiah says that the people are to prepare for something, or actually someone that is coming. First, God is going to send another prophet who will cry aloud, “in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord!” Second, this is going to result in a great leveling. Mountains will be made low, valleys will be exalted. Which is to say, the proud will be humbled, the humble will be exalted. This is going to call for something the prophets call repentance.
And here in this passage we find one of the first mentions of Gospel news in the Bible. The prophet commands all of Zion to climb mountains and lift up a mighty shout of this good news. Jerusalem is told to raise, lift, trumpet to every city of Judah: “Behold, your God!” Peace, forgiveness, and pardon are coming because God is on His way. This is the Good News: the LORD is coming to His people. He is coming, and when He stands in their presence it can be said, “behold, your God.”
It would be eight centuries before these words were picked up by another writer but the promise was as good as done. God declared through the same prophet, preceding verse (8), “the grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of God will stand forever.”
So several things to note: First, Gospel words are words of comfort and though they demand repentance, they are to be spoken tenderly. This makes me think about styles of preaching. Do we need to scream through microphones into amplified sound systems? I think God’s Word works by its own internal power, not our volume. And should we ever berate God’s people? Given that there is a time for everything but mostly, tough words don’t have to be harsh words. Speak tenderly, the best always do. “Speak the truth in love.”
Second, Gospel words are good because they are promises of peace and pardon and forgiveness from sin. God is coming for sinners and coming to forgive them. This means that when he shows up the sinners should fess up and admit it. This was a particularly sticky point for Jesus with the Pharisees, to receive forgiveness you’ve got to know you need it.
Third, Gospel promises are as sure as God Himself. This is not going to be an amateur rescue. This is good news from the very mouth of God, and God is going to perform it. Not I, not you, not we, but He will do the saving. And He will do it when He is ready.
Fourth, my previous point about volume notwithstanding, Gospel news calls for preaching that moves. Isaiah says to rise up, lift up, raise up the voice. It is not preaching where, as Doug Wilson says, “the bland lead the bland.” Gospel proclamation is preaching + passion + comfort + tenderness + strength + rejoicing. All later homiletical counsel aside, the best advice is already here in Isaiah 40:1-9.