Isaiah 40: one prophecy, three fulfillments

Isaiah 40 may be one of the best-known passage among all the Old Testament prophets. Anyone who knows Handel’s Messiah will immediately recognize the text for the first tenor recitative and aria, the first chorus, the first alto aria (with chorus), and the second alto aria among the first eleven verses of the chapter: “Comfort ye my people,” “Every valley shall be exalted,” “And the glory of the Lord,” “O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,” and “He shall feed his flock.”

We associate these verses with the Christmas story at least because John the Baptist claimed to be the “voice of him that crieth in the wilderness,” words quoted in the tenor recitative. The coming of the babe of Bethlehem is, in fact, the second fulfillment of this prophecy.

The first fulfillment of the prophecy

When Isaiah wrote this prophecy, Jerusalem suffered periodic sieges from the Assyrian army, and there seemed to be no way it could keep repelling the enemy. In chapter 39, he told the king that because of his foolish pride, the Babylonians would come and accomplish what the Assyrians had failed. In other words, the situation was bad and would become a lot worse, but afterward, God would forgive and restore Jerusalem.

According to the imagery of words in Isaiah 40:2 not set in Messiah (“that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sin”), he will take the bill of indictment, fold it in half so no one can see or read it, and give it to Jerusalem. Case closed. Sentence served. Freedom restored.

I don’t know what usually happened when prisoners were set free at that time, but I suppose the jailer didn’t do much but unlock the door, take them outside to freedom, and wish them luck. God has better things in mind for the restoration of Jerusalem. Ordinary prisoners may have found the road from captivity back home to be somewhat rough and perilous, although probably not so much then as it can be today.

God, on the other hand, did not intend to send the forgiven Jerusalem home with a handshake. He intended to lead them there on a royal road. No king would ever travel a bad road. Instead, he would command that it be paved and widened and smoothed to make it fit for a king and his retinue. Once captive Jerusalem would trade prison garb for the royal uniforms and march back home, displaying the glory of God on the way.

I notice that Isaiah 40 opens with a commandment to comfort Jerusalem, but it is not at all clear just who is commanded to do it. And then an unidentified voice orders the rebuilt highway. But then in verse 9, the poem commands Zion and Jerusalem to get on a high mountain and proclaim the coming of God to the cities of Judah.

In other words, Jerusalem received the message as a prisoner and has the privilege of proclaiming the same message as a prophet. That message presents two very different pictures of God: a mighty ruler coming with both rewards and recompense, which continues the imagery from earlier in the poem, and a tender shepherd with loving compassion and concern for each individual sheep and lamb in the flock.

If we compare these verses with the return from captivity as told in Ezra, Nehemiah, and other places, we can see the hardship that the people suffered in returning to a ruined city that had to be rebuilt. But we can also see the official support they had from the King of Persia that prevented local rivals from interfering with the process. God did smooth their way, whether it looked that way or not. And not only that, we see that the sin of idolatry, which caused the exile in the first place, disappears from the life of the nation forever. Jerusalem would see plenty of sin after the return, but not that one.

The third fulfillment of the prophecy

Since that first fulfillment, and indeed since Jesus came into the world as a baby, Jerusalem has seen considerable warfare, including another complete destruction. Isaiah 40:5 proclaims that the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh shall see it. The glory of the Lord was revealed in the first fulfillment, but not all flesh saw it. Only the most discerning of those who returned recognized the glory of the Lord at work in that difficult and painful time of reconstruction. The glory of the Lord was revealed in the second fulfillment, but not all flesh saw it. To this day, not even everyone in the church has caught glimpses of that glory.

Among the verses not used in Messiah, the eighth says, “The grass withers; the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever.” Hundreds of generations have come and died since Isaiah wrote those words. The prophecy of Isaiah 40 has been fulfilled in two ways, but it still awaits its most complete fulfillment.

There have been several times in history when Christians believed that Jesus would return during their lifetime. He didn’t. There are also plenty of times recorded in the Bible where many people pointed out that some old prophecy had not been fulfilled and did not believe that God would carry it out. He did. Here, among other places, he promises that he will return, not as an ordinary man but as a conquering king. He will.

And so what of the passage we looked at earlier, where the captive Jerusalem becomes the prophetic Jerusalem, not only hearing the word of God and proclaiming it? Other scriptures confirm that at some point the Jews will realize that their Messiah has come, and that he has not ceased his love for them or taken away their promised place in his kingdom. At that point, they will begin once again to proclaim the greatness of God. They will fulfill their unique role in denouncing sin and preparing the royal road.

In other words, the Jews still have a role to play in the fulfillment of Isaiah 40 and other prophecies. And that will surely come some time before Jesus manifests himself in glory to all flesh.

The mighty king

God will indeed come with might. He will rule with a strong arm. He will repay both those who have been faithful to him and those who have not, according to what their deeds have earned for them. But God will not be like any previous conqueror of Jerusalem. He comes with the power of a great king, but also with the tenderness of a gentle shepherd.

The mighty king of Isaiah40, after all, is the same Jesus we have come to know and love. Not only that, he is the same Jehovah revealed in the Old Testament who consistently followed his promises of severe judgment with promises of grace and restoration. Jesus the king will destroy sin so that Jesus the shepherd can tend his flock and gather each individual in his arms.

Though final fulfillment of prophecies like Isaiah 40 has not happened, believers wait for it. They will certainly be fulfilled at the appointed time. The final demise of sin hastens toward the goal, although God’s idea of haste seems unlike ours. Jesus, our king and shepherd, will not fail to appear. For, as Isaiah 40:5 says, the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

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