Chapter 39 of Isaiah ends with a prophecy that Judah will be conquered by the Babylonians sometime in the future (after King Hezekiah is dead and gone). Although Hezekiah is relieved that it will not happen in his lifetime, the people of Judah wondered what would happen to their kingdom. Hadn’t God promised them the land of Canaan? Hadn’t He promised them peace? Hadn’t He promised them a righteous king from the lineage of David?
Chapter 40 addresses these issues for the people of God. Isaiah writes to his contemporaries one hundred years before their exile to Babylon, but he also writes to the exiles who will wonder what has happened to God’s promises to Israel. Imagine that you are part of the remnant in exile around 516 BC. What does Isaiah have to say to you after your people have been in a foreign land for 70 years?
Verses 1-2 tell the exiles that their punishment is complete. God promised He would exile Israel and Judah if they were disobedient and that is exactly what He did. For 70 years Judah has been exiled in Babylon, but exile is coming to an end.
Verses 3-11 feature messages from three heralds or voices. The first herald gives the glorious news that God is coming to His people’s aid. In the ancient world, roads would be improved to enable the smooth travel of a visiting dignitary. The first herald is reassuring Israel that this will be done for God. J. A. Motyer, in The Prophecy of Isaiah: An Introduction & Commentary, writes that the “Lord’s road is to be straight (3d), level (4ab) and free of obstacle (4cd), i.e. he will arrive without fail, travel without difficulty and be undelayed by hindrances.” All of the New Testament gospel writers refer to John the Baptist as the first herald of Isaiah 40. John was announcing the coming of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
The second herald, in verses 6-8, cries out that humans are transient beings that cannot be counted on. They physically deteriorate and they are morally unreliable as well. In contrast to human frailty, God’s word stands forever. God never fails. God never reneges on His promises.
The third herald, in verses 9-11, commands the people of Judah/Israel to spread the word that God is coming with power and tenderness. He will tend to the weak members of His flock, while executing on His plan to restore Israel.
The final section of chapter 40, verses 12-31, is an argument against a particular position that Isaiah wants to counter. The position is actually stated in verse 27 and goes like this: “God can’t see my plight and He doesn’t answer my prayers.” In essence, they are questioning 1) whether God has the capacity to see their suffering, and 2) whether He is faithful to do something about it. This is what the Israelites in exile would be saying about God, and Isaiah wants to reject this thinking. How will he do so?
Isaiah must remind the people of Israel who God is, because they have obviously forgotten what they have been taught. In poetic fashion, Isaiah describes God in verses 12-17. God alone is the Creator of everything on earth. Nobody can advise Him. Nobody can teach Him. No nation on earth can withstand Him. There aren’t enough animals in the world that could be sacrificed to dignify Him. He is unique and unparalleled, unlike all the other gods worshiped in the ancient world.
J. A. Motyer writes:
In Babylonian mythology, the creator god Marduk could not proceed with creation without consulting ‘Ea, the all-wise’, but the Lord works with unaided wisdom. In both Babylonian and Canaanite creation stories the creator must overcome opposing forces before the way opens for the work of creation. To the contrary, the Old Testament not only tells the story of creation in a way that demands a monotheistic doctrine of God (Gn. 1) but also uses the concept of creation to point to the fact of only one God (Ps. 96:5). In verse 12 the Creator was alone in the work of creation; here he is alone also in the wisdom needed for the work.
In verses 18-20, Isaiah mocks those who think that God can be represented by a man-made idol. The idea is absurd.
Isaiah continues to expound on the attributes of the incomparable God of Israel in verses 21-26. God sits above the earth and to him all of its inhabitants look like grasshoppers. He spreads out the stars like a tent where He can dwell. The princes and rulers on the earth are nothing to Him. God can blow them out of existence just as the wind blows away wheat chaff. When you look up at the stars, know that God created every single one of them, giving each one a name.
In answer to the complaint that God cannot see the plight of the exiles, Isaiah has clearly made the case that He can. After all, how can the Creator of everything not know what is happening to the exiles? The idea is silly.
In verses 28-31, Isaiah tackles the complaint that God does not care for His people, that He does not keep His promises or answer their prayers. Since God is the eternal Creator, He never grows weary and never tires. The implication is that He is fully able and willing to help His people no matter how much time has gone by. God promises that for those who wait on Him, for those who trust Him, He will give strength. He will renew them. “They shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.”