Comfort, Comfort my People

“Nothing in the horizon. Nothing in the sky… Around him are darkness, storm, solitude, wild and unconscious tumult, the ceaseless tumbling of the fierce waters; within him horror and exhaustion.” – Victor Hugo, Les Miserables

The people of Judah in Isaiah’s day might have identified with Hugo’s description of the drowning man.  They too, were ‘up to their neck’ in a raging Flood that swept across the land – the  Assyrian invasion. Picture the hills swarming with orcs like in the Lord of the Rings, and you get some idea of the absolute terror the Assyrian army inspired. Life in those days was short and brutal.  Everything was constantly shifting and changing.  But in those days of darkness and despair, the prophet Isaiah brought a word of comfort.

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 be 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.” (Isa. 40:3-5 ESV)

The LXX version of this passage is quoted in Matthew, Mark and Luke in reference to John the Baptist.  (Lk. 3:3-6, cf. Mk. 1:2-4; Matt. 3:1-3) And John the Baptist said that his ministry fulfilled these words of Isaiah. (Jn. 1:22-23)  That this passage is quoted in all four gospels gives some indication of its importance.  What makes this passage particularly significant is the context in which it appears.  Isaiah connects the revelation of the glory of God with the Word of God and the proclamation of Good News.

A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.   The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the LORD blows on it; surely the people are grass.   The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.  (Isa. 40:6-8 ESV)

I recently read this verse with my grandmother and found myself choking up a little. I saw in her face, a vivid illustration of the meaning of Isaiah’s words. At 90 years of age, her outward beauty had faded away… As I read, I wondered if Isaiah offered any hope to my grandmother, and to the rest of us?

Go on up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good news (mevasheret tzion); 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!”    Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.   He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young. (Isa. 40:7-11 ESV)

The root word Isaiah uses for ‘good news’ (bashar) is always used in the context of war, and more specifically of news that the war is over and has been won.  The one who brought the good news was a mevesheret, a herald of good news.

Phidippides by Luc-Olivier Merson.  According to popular legend, Phidippides brought news from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens that the Persian army was defeated.  He collapsed and died due to extreme physical exertion, but not before he uttered the words, "We have won".
Phidippides by Luc-Olivier Merson. According to popular legend, Phidippides brought news from the battlefield at Marathon to Athens that the Persian army was defeated. He collapsed and died due to extreme physical exertion but not before he uttered the words, “We have won”.

In ancient times, the swiftest soldier was sent from the battlefield to announce the news that the battle was won.  Soldiers contested for the honor of being that person who announced to the cities that everything would be ok, that they no longer had to fear the enemy at the gate. This was truly good news although it is difficult for we, who have only known peace, to comprehend.   If the battle was lost, it meant certain death for a great many; rape, pillage, and deportation for the rest.  This has always been true in war.

I asked my grandmother what it was like to hear the news that WWII was over.   Although she can barely speak, she can still reminisce a little about memories that are particularly vivid.  She said, oh yes, she remembered when the news reached her small farm in central Alberta.  The hired hand picked her up and hugged her.  She was 19 at the time.  My grandmother knew what it was like to hear the news that the war was over, and so did the millions of others who danced in the streets as church bells rang in every village and the boats on the Thames sounded their giant fog horns.  It gave rise to a spontaneous outpouring of joy, the likes of which the world has rarely seen.  The war is over!

Like so many other passages in the book of Isaiah, it is difficult to separate the near from the far, the historical from the prophetic.  Although Isaiah’s words have a very real historical context, probably the invasion of the Assyrians, his words rise far above that event.  When the glory of God is revealed, all flesh shall see it together. (vs. 5)  Then all wrongs shall be made right and justice will be established on earth. (vss. 10-11) Isaiah uses the very real threat from the Assyrians and the good news that comes with victory in war to enable his listeners understand the real significance of an event that will bring world history to a conclusion.  Our hope is in God, no matter how dark our own personal circumstances become.

The Hebrew word Isaiah uses for ‘good news’ (bishra) is translated as euangelion in the Greek and ‘gospel’ in English.  (go = good + spel = story).  About this good news, the apostle John declared,

From God we have received the eternal Word that “became flesh and made his dwelling among us… We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (Jn. 1:1, 14 NIV)

And so the angels sang,

Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests. (Lk. 2:14 NIV)

Oh tidings of comfort and joy!  Merry Christmas!

The people walking in darkness have seen a great light…  (Is. 9:2a)

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