Isaiah 40:1-11: Structure of the Opening Verses
The first unit of Volume 2 of Isaiah (verses 40:1-11) boldly and joyfully announces the coming Messiah. Yes, the return of the captives from Babylonia hides in the background. “Hides” is a good word. This portion of Isaiah is nowhere as specific and blunt as the first thirty-nine chapters, which comprise Volume 1. Readers must look closely to find actual mention of Babylonia in these first four chapters of Volume 2 (See Isaiah 43:14, 47:1, 48:14, 20). Commentators who insert the history of Babylon and the captivity of Judah into this prelude do so by reading into the text a secular history well known from other portions of biblical history, such as found in Ezra. Isaiah himself never names Babylon directly in these early chapters of Volume 2. Consequently, the coming Messiah is not a secondary application here, but the primary application.
The first eleven verses contain three subsections: Isaiah 40:1-2, 3-5, and 6-11.
- The first subsection introduces the theme of Volume 2: comfort and forgiveness for God’s people, Jerusalem. (See Introduction.)
- The second proclaims the forerunner of the coming Messiah (see “The Church” in Concrete and Spiritual).
- The third introduces the Shepherd and his love more fully. He is the eternal Word (John 1:1-5, 14), as differentiated from mortal human beings (vv 7-8). This post focuses on the third subsection.
6 A voice of one saying, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass; all the glory of man is like the flower of grass. 7 The grass has withered, and the flower has fallen, 8 but the word of our God remains forever. (NETS) (1)
NOTE: Verse 6 says “a voice,” even though the noun in Greek has no article. Translators are nearly unanimous that “a” is correct. Otherwise, context would indicate that the voice is the same as in verse 3, the voice in the wilderness, i.e., John the Baptist. This is unlikely to be the intended meaning. This voice is an unidentified voice, perhaps that of the Lord or an angel, speaking to the prophet. The voice tells the prophet what to “cry out,” or proclaim loudly.
Verse 6 speaks of the short lifespan of humans. Because a single lifespan is so short, the person’s work is often futile. Verse 7 continues the thought. The glory of everything humans create fades rapidly and disappears. In context of ancient Israel, this would include the temple that human hands built and will build again after the exile. Everything that humans build eventually falls into decay. This includes earthly kingdoms and institutions. Within the fallen created order everything decays and dies.
Contrasted with the work of humans is the “word of our God” (verse 7). The prophet confesses God to be his own. The Apostle Peter identifies the “word” in this verse to be the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:24, 25). Unlike any human temple ever built, the spiritual temple that Christ builds is eternal (1 Corinthians 3:16; 2 Corinthians 6:16).
Christ’s kingdom “remains forever” (verse 7). By contrast, the so-called concrete-literal, millennial kingdom will only last 1,000 years. As Isaiah 40:6 states, what is the point? “The grass has withered, the flower has fallen.” Christians should seek to understand that a concrete, physical temple is nowhere nearly as glorious as the spiritual temple Christ himself is building.
These first verses at the beginning of Chapter 40 are the best news the prophet could possibly bring. The good news, “the word of our God” is about the glory of Christ, the coming Messiah. It is not about the destined-to-fade glory of Israel. Let us prayerfully seek to know and commune with the Holy Spirit, who resides in the heart of every believer in Christ. “Christ in you” is “the hope of glory,” (Colossians 1:27). The greatest gift we can ever give is to tell others the “good news,” about Jesus Christ and his kingdom. This is the word that will live forever.
9 O you that brings glad tidings to Zion, go up on the high mountain; lift up your voice with strength, you that brings glad tidings to Jerusalem; lift it up, fear not; say unto the cities of Judah, Behold your God! 10 Behold the Lord! The Lord is coming with strength, and His arm is with power; behold, His reward is with Him, and His work before Him. 11 He shall tend His flock as a shepherd, and He shall gather the lambs with His arm, and He shall soothe them that are with young. (CAB, LXE)
This section is very interesting. The “glad tidings” of verse 9, translated literally, mean “to evangelize.” This is the same “good news” as in verse 8, “the word of our God.” The Apostle Peter identifies this “word” as the gospel of Jesus Christ and his kingdom (1 Peter 1:24, 25). Christ’s kingdom is Mount Zion on which Jerusalem sits (Hebrews 12:22-29).
The voice (verse 6) tells the prophet here to preach the good news of the King and his coming kingdom. To whom should the prophet Isaiah preach? He should preach to “Zion…Jerusalem” and “the cities of Judah.” Yet the context continues to strongly indicate that this is a New Testament message. Further, the context and corroborating verses in 1 Peter demonstrate that the time of the “coming” is the first coming of Christ. This is not a “millennial” message. This is a “shepherd” passage. The gospel is clear: “Behold your God…the Lord,” your coming Messiah! Later chapters of Isaiah explain that the blessing of the coming Messiah includes far more than Israel. The kingdom of the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ includes Gentiles (Isaiah 42:6; 49:6).
Does the prophet Isaiah separate and distinguish his Messianic message between Israel and the Gentiles? One blessing for Israel and a separate, different blessing for Gentiles? No, he doesn’t. Isaiah 40:10-11 speaks to Zion, Jerusalem, and the cities of Judah. They clearly indicate the Jesus who walks through the pages of the four gospels. There is one coming Messiah King who will bless and gather one people for himself (Ephesians 2:11, 11-22; Galatians 3:28-29).
This good news should be an amazing cause of great joy. Indeed, as the book of Isaiah progresses, the prophet continues to express the great joy of the “word of our God,” the “shepherd” who “gathers the lambs,” and of Him who “shall soothe them that are with young.”
1 Silva, Moíses. A New English Translation of the Septuagint: Esaias. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Available online at A New English Translation of the Septuagint. 33. Esaias (upenn.edu). Accessed September 17, 2021.