“Comfort ye, comfort ye my people”

A meditation on Isaiah 40:1

by Rev. Dr. John Oswalt
Associate Professor of Biblical Languages and Literature
Asbury Theological Seminary
Good News Contributing Editor

The “good news bad news” jokes are now fast disappearing, having become a cliche overnight like all popular things in our instant communication society. But there is one which is relevant to this ancient but ever-fresh message of Isaiah. A little boy came home from Sunday school and his daddy, who had been receiving his religious instruction from the Sunday paper, asked him what he had learned. The little boy reported that he had learned some good news and some bad news.

Daddy asked, “Oh yeh? What’s the good news?”

“Jesus is coming back soon.”

“Well, that’s nice. Now what’s the bad news?”

“He’s mad!”

But that is exactly what Isaiah is not saying! God is coming to a captive people to heal and bless and deliver. In the words of the Psalmist “His anger is but for a moment, his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes in in the morning.” (Psalm 30:5-6)

But what does Isaiah mean here to “comfort”? That meaning is spelled out by the phrase in the second part of the verse. The KJV has the familiar rendering “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem.” The NIV, following RSV, had “Speak tenderly.” But the I iteral translation of the Hebrew is “Speak to the heart of Jerusalem.”

Ah, there it is! God would comfort us by speaking to our hearts.

Luke 21:26 quotes Jesus as He speaks of the last days, “Men’s hearts will fail them for fear and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth.” Some have suggested this is being literally fulfilled in our time with the great rise of heart attacks. I do not believe this is the primary reference. Rather, Jesus is speaking about the paralysis which results from a failure of nerve, of will, of hope.

This was the danger to the Judeans in 550 B.C., when all their arrogant self-confidence was broken on the rack of the Babylonian captivity. And unless I am mistaken, this is a danger in America today. Our hearts are failing us. There is a mood of pessimism, of hopelessness, of retrenchment. But God would speak to our hearts.

What would He say?

When we examine the use of that phrase, “to speak to the heart,” in the Bible, an exciting range of meanings opens up.

To speak to the heart is to speak as a lover when he whispers in the ear of his beloved. So it is also said of God as He draws Israel, His betrothed, away from her false lovers and into His bosom (Hosea 2:14). There are the words of admonition for the hesitant, such as King Hezekiah spoke to the hearts of the Levites and had them reinstitute the neglected temple services (II Chronicles 30:22). There are words of encouragement to the downtrodden such as those of Boaz, the great lord of the manor, when he spoke to the heart of Ruth, the little foreign girl who crept into the corners of his field to gather the grain left standing there (Ruth 2:13). There are words of reconciliation to the alienated, as those which the Levite spoke to his estranged concubines (Judges 19:3), or those of Joseph to his frightened brothers (Genesis 50:19-22).

This is what God’s “comfort” means. It is to hear Him whisper, “I love you,” when we feel particularly unlovely. It is to feel that “go ahead” nudge when we wonder if we dare to attempt something bold for Him. It is to have the Lord of the Manor take our hand and say, “You’re somebody!” It is to see the face of the One we have sold into captivity shining with a smile of tenderness and compassion for us. To know the comfort of God is to hear Him say, “I’m on your side, let’s go!”

Does this mean we may not yet, as a nation or a church, experience judgment for our sins? By no means. If we, like Judah, persist in flying in His face there may be days ahead the depths of whose darkness no human eye can plumb. But, even if (God forbid) those days should come, we may know this does not express God’s final attitude or ultimate purpose for us. Instead, He longs to comfort us with Himself. And if we will but let Him, no mountain of circumstance is too high nor valley of helplessness too deep to prevent Him from coming to us.

Long before R. G. LeTourneau had his dreams of great machines which could gnaw through mountains and fill up valleys, the prophet Isaiah had a vision of a highway: the highway of God’s holy love, straight as an arrow, through mountains and across valleys. And on that highway he saw One coming with pierced hands and riven side. And as He came the prophet heard Him cry, “Comfort my people, speak to their hearts.” So Jesus speaks yet today.

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