Cover image: Healing the Blind Man, by Carl Heinrich Bloch.
Whose heart has not been stirred by the tenor solo, “Comfort ye my people” in Handel’s Messiah? Charles Jennens chose the first few verses of Isaiah 40 to create the text of this rousing song. In this chapter, Isaiah begins speaking in a different tone, communicating a message of comfort and hope to God’s chosen people who have been warned about their impending destruction and captivity in previous chapters. These prophecies were meant to bring comfort to the Jews in the future who, a century and a half later, would be taken captive to Babylon after having their city destroyed and their temple desecrated. The message? God has not forgotten you. He has power greater than any earthly oppressor, and he can redeem his people and heal, restore, and strengthen them. He pleads with them to “Return unto me, for I have redeemed thee” (Isaiah 44:22).
Isaiah’s message is similar to that expressed in the Title Page of the Book of Mormon, “to show unto the remnant of the house of Israel . . . that they are not cast off forever.” Nephi prophecies, “Wherefore, the Lord God will proceed to make bare his arm in the eyes of all the nations, in bringing about his covenants and his gospel unto those who are of the house of Israel. Wherefore, he will bring them again out of captivity, and they shall be gathered together to the lands of their inheritance; and they shall be brought out of obscurity and out of darkness; and they shall know that the Lord is their Savior and their Redeemer, the Mighty One of Israel” (1 Nephi 22:11-12).
“Comfort Ye My People”
In chapter 40, Isaiah gives a message of comfort and inspiration to countless generations, renewing hope in the advent of the Messiah. He concludes with a promise that those who wait and trust in the Lord will share in his power. Through an extensive use of synonymous parallelism, the greatness of God is highlighted. Synonymous parallelism involves the repetition in the second part of what has already been expressed in the first, while simply varying the words. Isaiah contrasts the tender love of God for his people with the care Judah gives to their lifeless idols.
In the first two verses, God seems to be speaking to a heavenly council of his servants and prophets. He tells them that comforting words are to be delivered to his people in Jerusalem. They had endured warfare and captivity and had paid a heavy penalty for their sins. The time had come that “her iniquity is pardoned” through repentance and the atonement of Jesus Christ. (Isaiah 40:1-2)
The next few verses portray the role of John the Baptist in preparing the way for Jesus Christ. He was the one that “crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” (see Isaiah 40:3‑5) The message about the “valleys being exalted” and the “mountains being made low” reminds me of a construction crew cutting through mountains and filling in low places so that a superhighway can be constructed. We want to make the “crooked ways” straight so that the Lord can come as fast as possible into our lives. Every obstacle in the way must be removed. Building a highway is very much like the preparation God must do in our hearts. Some things need to be eliminated, and some things need to be added upon. Each of us has a part in making the earth ready for the time when Christ will come.
What is the message of the voice in the wilderness? “What is the fleeting nature of mankind compared to the permanence of God and his word?” The message is a course in gaining perspective. “All flesh is grass,” and quickly dies after the winter rains, while “the word of God stands forever.” (Isaiah 40:6-8) Man’s power and wisdom pale against the Lord’s. The understanding of our frailty as mortals, contrasted with the eternal nature of God, should humble us in repentance before the Lord. We should trust in God, not the arm of flesh.
Strong parallels are apparent between these verses and Isaiah 40:22-25. In the first section (Isaiah 40:6‑8), people are compared to grass that the breath of the Lord blows upon until it withers. In the second (Isaiah 40:22‑25), the earth’s inhabitants are like grasshoppers and their rulers like plants that the Lord blows upon until they dry up and are carried off.
In the next verses, Isaiah contrasts the power and might of God the judge with the love and concern of God the shepherd. (Isaiah 40:9-12) Isaiah speaks of a message so great that it must be spread as widely as possible. From the top of a high mountain, the message can be proclaimed to as many people as possible. “Behold your God!” What kind of a God is this God of ours? When the Lord comes back, he comes “with a strong hand” to reward his people. Again, the words of Handel’s Messiah echo in our ears as we read, “He shall feed his flock like a shepherd.” God loves to portray himself as a shepherd, caring for his tender lambs, cradling them in his bosom, close to his heart. He knows exactly how to gently lead them and a good shepherd knows each of his sheep by name.
The course in perspective continues. This gentle shepherd also has another side. Who do you know who can create worlds and design oceans, continents, mountains, and the heavens? “Who hath measured the waters in the hollow of his hand, and meted out heaven with the span, and comprehended the dust of the earth in a measure, and weighed the mountains in scales, and the hills in a balance?” (Isaiah 40:12-18)
The Lord measured out the water for the Pacific Ocean in the “hollow of his hand.” The heavens were measured with the hand span. The very “dust of the earth” can be comprehended by God—he knows exactly how many grains of dust there are on the earth. He knows how heavy the mountains are, for they can be weighted on a balance scale, as can the hills. “He taketh up the isles as a very little thing.” He can pick up Australia! All the cedars of Lebanon are not sufficient to offer a burnt offering to him! The nations of the earth with their powerful armies and great wealth are “as a drop in the bucket” to God. He counts them “less than nothing and vanity [fleeting]” (Isaiah 40:15-17).
Probably my favorite image of this powerful God is in Isaiah 40:22. “He sitteth upon the circle of the earth.” (By the way, I wonder how Isaiah knew that the earth was a circle?) Can’t you see God sitting on the earth up in space, stretching out his legs and looking at all the “grasshopper” people he has created?
Verse 26 tells us that God can number the stars and even knows all their names. How do we feel about such a being that has created such a world for his children? We feel more than gratitude. Gratitude says, ”Thank you for making a beautiful place like Bryce Canyon for us.” Adoration says, “What kind of a being would create such a place for his children?” Gratitude focuses on the gift. Adoration focuses on the giver.
Isaiah portrays the omniscience of God and man’s inability to comprehend it. “Who hath directed the Spirit of the Lord, or being his counselor hath taught him? Who instructed him and taught him knowledge, and shewed him the way of understanding?” (Isaiah 40:13-14) In other words, what mortal could teach God anything? The answer is implied. “No one.” More than knowledge, God has great wisdom. He knows how to use the knowledge that he possesses.
The parallel passage to the verses about the nations being a drop in the bucket is found in Isaiah 40:28: “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? (“is not weak” in the German translation.) There is no searching of his understanding.”
“They shall run and not be weary, and walk and not faint.”
This powerful God whose wisdom cannot be comprehended has but one desire—to share all that he has with his children. “He giveth power to the faint; and to them that have no might he increaseth strength.” (Isaiah 40:29-30) Those who are proud and confident in their own wisdom and strength will receive no strength from God. How do receive strength from the Lord? His strength is reserved for those who know they are weak. Even young men at the peak of their strength “shall faint and be weary, and “shall utterly fall.” All mortals have their limitations—even Olympic athletes.
But those that “wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength.” (Isaiah 40:31) This waiting on the Lord does not mean passively sitting around until God pours strength into us. Strength comes as we seek him, and rely on him instead of trusting in our own strength. As our strength is renewed, “[we] shall mount up with wings as eagles.” Our strength shall be renewed, just as eagles lose their old feathers each years and get new ones through the process of molting. Then they shall “run and not be weary; and they shall walk and not faint.” Do these words sound familiar? They should, because this is the promise for those who obey the Word of Wisdom, “walking in obedience to the commandments.” (see Doctrine and Covenants 89:20-21) This promise is a spiritual one, as well as a physical. It could be reworded, “They shall run the race of life and not be weary in well doing, and shall walk the strait and narrow path and not faint in pursuing exaltation. In the context of sacred places, we learn a deeper meaning of receiving “health in their navel and marrow to their bones.” The “wisdom and great treasures of knowledge” are bestowed upon us from our all-wise Heavenly Father as we “grow from grace to grace” in becoming like our heavenly parents. After all, he has promised that if we are faithful, we will be “joint heirs with Christ” and inherit “all that [the] Father hath.” (See Romans 8:17 and Doctrine and Covenants 84:38)
If all this is promised to us, why in the world would we want to worship anyone or anything else? And yet, men are often swayed by the gods of the world and seek to worship them. They take many forms—materialism, power, ambition, and countless others. In Isaiah 40:18-20, the prophet uses mockery to show the ludicrousness of worshipping man-made idols. Isaiah asks them to look at the care they have to give to their idols.
First, they have to choose good wood, because who wants to worship a rotting god? Then they must choose a skilled workman because who wants to worship a poorly made god? Then it has to be well designed because who wants to worship a god that keeps falling over? The empty images that are the idols of the world are so insignificant that they must be fashioned so that they will not totter. They can’t even stand up on their own! Finally, they cover the idol with fine gold and silver and perhaps inlay it with jewels. This is their god, a god they built with their own hands, but which can do nothing for them.
On the other hand, the true and living God can provide a way in which those who “wait” on him can be forgiven of their sins and enjoy the finest blessings, powers, and glory that he possesses. Isaiah can’t believe that anyone could doubt the greatness of God when they see the glory of his creations. How can anyone look at the design evident in creation, and fail to understand that there must be a glorious designer behind such a glorious design?
“Let Us Come Together to Judgment”
This argument is now continued by Isaiah, and he uses an extensive example of synonymous parallelism and sets his scene in a courtroom. He challenges scattered Israel to “renew their strength” and settle the dispute as to who is more powerful—Jehovah or the idols they have fashioned. (see Isaiah 41:1) We cannot help but think of the contest between Elijah and the priests of Baal in 1 Kings 18. In Isaiah 41:21-23, he invites the idol worshippers to “produce your cause,” to present their case, and “bring forth your strong reasons” and arguments against the Lord. He invites the idol worshipers to bring their idols and see if they can predict the future, and “shew us what shall happen,” and explain “the latter end,” the final outcome. The idols are invited to “shew the things that are to come hereafter” to prove they are gods indeed. They are challenged to do anything, good or evil, to show that they have power. When they cannot, Isaiah declares that they are “nothing,” and that “an abomination is he” that worships them.
Returning to the second verse in this chapter, Isaiah gives the answer to the ensuing debate, “Who is more powerful, your idols or our God?” He refers to “the righteous man from the east” in answering this question. He also presents a parallel figure in verse 25 who shall come from “the north” and “from the rising of the sun.” The Savior himself fits this description, coming in from the east wilderness at age thirty to begin his ministry. It could also refer to many prophets including Abraham who have come from the East, on the assignments from the Lord, and assisted in “calling the generations from the beginning.” (See Isaiah 41:4)
The Lord “called him to his foot, or gave him power over the nations and “gave them as the dust to his sword.” Kings couldn’t stop his sword or power, any more than dust particles could, or “driven stubble” could defend against the power of his archers. In the
German translation verse three is rendered “without wearying of his errand,” perhaps referring back to the last verse of Isaiah 40, “run and not be weary.” Similarly, in verse 25, the person “raised up” by the Lord “shall come upon princes as upon mortar, and as the potter treadeth clay.” He will tread upon those in power and none will stop him.
Some have suggested that these verses refer to the house of Israel itself, who would someday return to her homeland from the east, Babylon, or from the north, from Europe. in the Zionist movement. In the 1880’s, when the gathering of the Jews began, only a few thousand Jews lived in Palestine. Most were students of the Jewish holy books and were supported by contributions from abroad. But, as the Jewish life in Eastern Europe deteriorated because of restrictive legislation and pogroms (mass riots sanctioned by the government that resulted in the destruction of life and property), many Jews sought new homes in America or Palestine. Under the leadership of Theodor Herzl in the early 1900’s, the modern Zionist movement was organized and a more systematic return of the Jews began. With restrictive immigration laws in America and the rise of Naziism in Germany, many more Jews immigrated to Palestine during the 1920s. After the catastrophe of the Holocaust, the prayers of many Jews throughout the centuries of long dispersion were finally answered May 14, 1948, when the leadership of Jewish Palestine voted to found the Jewish State of Israel. Now they could say, “Next year in Jerusalem!”
Evidence for this idea is found in Isaiah 41:8-9 where Isaiah calls Israel “my servant, and Jacob “my chosen, the seed of Abraham my friend,” and says “I have chosen thee, and not cast thee away.” In beautiful poetry, he tells them not to fear, for he has not left them.
The hymn, “How Firm a Foundation” comes from this verse. “Fear thou not; for I am with thee: be not dismayed; for I am thy God: I will strengthen thee; yea, I will help thee; yea, I will uphold thee with the right hand of my righteousness” (Isaiah 41:10).
The Lord declares that he had done it “from the beginning,” and people from all parts of the earth responded. That is, all but those who still foolishly worshiped idols. “The carpenter encouraged the goldsmith, and he that smote the anvil, soldering.. and fastened it with nails,” so that it would not totter. (See Isaiah 41:7) He asked, “Which of your idols “declared it from the beginning that we may know? There is none.” (Isaiah 41:26) None of your idols do anything. The Lord will prophesy it, “the first shall say to Zion,” but of those who worshipped idols, “no man…could answer.” (see Isaiah 41:27-28) Idol worship has reduced them to a completely confused people. The verdict oof the court is stated in the last verse: “Molten images are wind and confusion,” “their works are nothing.”
“Sing unto the Lord a New Song”
Isaiah continues his parallel accounts by describing the Lord’s protection of Israel and her song of joy to the Lord. (Isaiah 41:11-16, Isaiah 42:10-13) “Behold, all they that strive with thee shall perish . . you will seek them, and shall not find thee.” Ultimately, your enemies will not succeed against you. “I the Lord thy God will hold thee by the right hand” (v. 13). The right hand is the covenant hand. The Lord will strengthen his chosen people with covenants. He will be their “redeemer, the Holy One of Israel” (v. 14).
The Lord will make Israel into “a new sharp threshing instrument having teeth” (v. 15). With power, Israel will “thresh the mountains,” and triumph over her enemies, making them “as chaff.” More threshing imagery is given in verse 16, where “thou shalt fan” and “the wind shall carry away” her enemies. Humble Israel is counseled not to fear, for the Lord will make her into a threshing machine that will crush her enemies into dust that the wind will blow away.
Perhaps this verse could also remind us that Israel, as a “sharp threshing instrument” will help gather the wheat, scattered Israel, and separate it from the “chaff” of the world. One day, Israel will once again become righteous and “shalt glory in the Holy One of Israel” (v. 16). As scattered Israel is gathered, they will “sing unto the Lord a new song,” and his praise shall be sung from the “end of the earth” and “all that is therein,” even to “the isles and the inhabitants thereof” (Isaiah 42:10-12). The restored gospel will be preached to all the world.
The Lord “has refrained [him]self, and “for a long time” has held his peace, but now it is time to show forth his great power. Like a “travailing woman,” it is now time to “deliver” Israel. (Isaiah 42:14) Just as no one can stop the birthing process, no one will be able to stop the restored gospel from going forth to the world.
“When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue faileth for thirst, I the Lord will hear them” and “will not forsake them.” This reminds me of the famine spoken of in Amos 8:11, “not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord.” The Lord will “open rivers in high places,” to satisfy this spiritual thirst. Even the remote cities in the “wilderness” will sing “glory unto the Lord,” and his praise will be shouted “from the top of the mountains” and “in the islands.” Everyone will hear the gospel in the last days and will be given the “living water,” bringing new life in a wilderness of apostasy and satisfying the thirst mentioned. This water will turn deserts into forests of trees of all kinds, cedar, myrtle, cypress, and pine. (See Isaiah 41:17-19) Isaiah often uses trees to represent people, for example, the “cedars of Lebanon” that are “lifted up” in pride in Isaiah 2:13. In this way, the various types of trees in this verse could be symbolic of the gospel going to all people in the last days.
People in the last days will feel that the Savior is delaying his coming. But he does so in order to give people a chance to repent before his Second Coming. He “will bring the blind by a way that they knew not” (Isaiah 42:16). The blind, scattered Israel, will be brought “by a way,” the restored gospel in “paths they have not known,” the truths and covenants of the restored gospel. God will make “crooked things straight” and “darkness light” through eternal truth. As in the courtroom scene, the people will see the hand of the Lord (Isaiah 41:20) and know the impotence of their idols (Isaiah 42:17).
The Servant Song of Isaiah
Isaiah introduces yet another entity who is identified as a servant of the Lord. The first four verses of Isaiah 42 comprise one of the four “major songs” “or major poetic passages in which Isaiah describes a servant of the Lord. (The other three are Isaiah 49:1‑6; 50:4‑9; 52:13‑53:12.) He uses some earlier terminology as he talks about servants, blindness, Israel, and the Lord’s manifestations upon the wicked. In the first of these parallel sections, this servant is represented by Israel collectively, and in the corollary verses is personified by an individual messianic figure.
In this servant song, Isaiah 42:1-7, note the servant’s qualities: spirituality and fairness (v. 2), gentleness “a bruised (bent) reed he shall not break,” humility and faithfulness (v. 3), perseverance and justice (v. 4), righteousness and example (v. 6). He will give his covenant people “for a light to the Gentiles.” I especially love verse 7, “To open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house.” The servant paves the way for those in spirit prison to hear the true gospel and be freed.
“I Am the Lord . . . that Saith of Cyrus, He Is My Shepherd”
When I was in graduate school in Ancient Near Eastern Studies, we were taught the theory espoused by liberal scholars which purports that the last chapters of Isaiah were written by another person than Isaiah, called “Deutero-Isaiah”—the second Isaiah, and some even spoke of a third Isaiah. These scholars are skeptical that anything specifically prophesied which was fulfilled must have been written after the events occurred. Because they were written after they had already happened (about 500 BC), this theory would explain explicit references to “Cyrus, King of Persia” in Isaiah 44:28-45:1 without requiring predictive prophecy. However, the Brass Plates of Laban quote from sections of Isaiah that this theory ascribes to Deutero-Isaiah, so how could the Nephites have had these writings if they weren’t written until after they left Jerusalem? For me, there is no Deutero-Isaiah “problem.” Because I believe the Book of Mormon to be true, this issue can actually be used to showcase Isaiah as a profound book of prophecy!
After rehearsing the powerlessness of idols of wood and stone in Isaiah 44:9-19, Isaiah tells Israel to “sing,” for the Lord hath redeemed Jacob, and glorified himself in Israel,” speaking of the future in the prophetic past tense, as if it had already happened. (Isaiah 44:23-24). He, not idols of wood “formed thee from the womb” and “stretcheth forth the heavens alone; that spreadeth abroad the earth by myself,” emphasizing that no idols were involved in these creations. The Lord “performeth the counsel of his messengers; that saith . . . to the cities of Judah, Ye shall be built, and I will raise up the decayed places thereof.’ He hints at how he will do this, referring to a man and a kingdom that would not have made any sense to the people to whom they are addressed. The name “Cyrus” and the concept of the Persian Empire wouldn’t have made sense to Isaiah’s contemporaries.
“That saith of Cyrus, He is my shepherd, and shall perform all my pleasure, even saying to Jerusalem, Thou shalt be built, and to the temple, Thy foundation shall be laid” (Isaiah 44:28).
This is very specific prophecy! Cyrus conquered Babylon about 538 BC, and Babylon had conquered Jerusalem about 50 years earlier in 587 BC. In 537 BC, Cyrus issued a decree to let Jews return home to Palestine. (See Bible Dictionary, p, 640) The mission of Cyrus was to include a number of important events, the most important being the rebuilding of Jerusalem and its temple. With new political and religious centers in Judah, the Jews could reestablish themselves as a nation that would remain in the land until a descendant of David, the Messiah, would finally be born in Bethlehem.
Isaiah prophesies further concerning Cyrus in chapter 45. In fact, Isaiah records a personal message from the Lord to Cyrus: Isaiah 45:1-7 “Thus saith the Lord to his anointed (set apart for a special purpose) , to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden (strengthened), to subdue nations before him.” The Lord often uses individuals who are outside the covenant to help his covenant people. As we have already discussed, the British helped the Jews return to their homeland in 1948. “I will loose the loins of kings” in German is rendered “take the sword of kings away from them . . . to open before him the two leaved gates,”(the main city gates) “and the gates shall not be shut.” The Lord will open the way for Cyrus and none will stop him. The fact that Cyrus was to be the Lord’s “anointed” servant (v. 1) has confused Bible scholars. It is not recorded anywhere that one of the Lord’s prophets ever anointed Cyrus in a position of political power as Samuel did Saul and David. (1 Sam. 10, 16.) However, a later Jewish historian records that Cyrus considered himself appointed by God to assist the Jews. Writing shortly after the time of Christ, Josephus recorded:
In the first year of the reign of Cyrus [539 B.C.], which was the seventieth from the day that our people were removed out of their own land into Babylon, God commiserated the captivity and calamity of these poor people . . . for he stirred up the mind of Cyrus, and made him write this throughout all Asia:— “Thus saith Cyrus the King:—Since God Almighty hath appointed me to be king of the habitable earth, I believe that he is that God which the nation of the Israelites worship; for indeed he foretold my name by the prophets, and that I should build him a house at Jerusalem, in the country of Judea.”
This was known to Cyrus by his reading the book which Isaiah left behind him of his prophecies; for this prophet said that God had spoken thus to him in a secret vision:— “My will is, that Cyrus, whom I have appointed to be king over many and great nations, send back my people to their own land, and build my temple.” This was foretold by Isaiah one hundred and forty years before the temple was demolished [c. 726 and 586 B.C.]. Accordingly, when Cyrus read this, and admired the divine power, and earnest desire and ambition seized upon him to fulfill what was so written. (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, book 11, chapter 1.)