Intro to the Prophets | Isaiah 40
In the first part of this series, we discussed ‘gospel’ in the historical books; in subsequent articles, we looked at gospels in the Psalms (40, 68, and 96). Now we have arrived at the most famous gospel texts of the Old Testament, found in the Prophets.
The prophecies of Isaiah contain some of the most profound reflections on the coming kingdom of Yahweh and the return of his people to the land. At crucial points in the book, the Septuagint uses the word euaggelizoo. In this article, I want to introduce the Prophets in general and consider the first important passage, Isaiah 40.
Isaiah is one of the most cited books in the New Testament alongside the Psalms. The New Testament authors clearly draw a lot on the Prophets to explain the person and work of Jesus. Therefore, these texts directly inform our New Testament exegesis of ‘gospel’.
Intro to the Prophets
First, a quick intro to the Prophets. Considering the canon as a whole, the Prophets carry out an essential function, bridging the gap between the present exile and the future return, between Israel’s unfaithfulness and God’s faithfulness.
Central to the Prophets is the exile of Israel because of their disobedience to their covenant God and their failure in their God-given commission to be a light to the nations. The seed of Abraham was meant to be the solution to the problem of Adam, but became, or rather, was shown to be, part of the problem all along.
However, God’s promises for Israel, humanity, and the world remained, and the Prophets foresee that God will act in his faithfulness. God will forgive Israel’s sins and establish a new covenant. He will judge Israel’s enemies and put things to rights. He will bring Israel back to the land through a new exodus, and renew the land. He will establish his kingdom through the Messiah. Israel will be glorified, and the nations will be brought in and share in their blessings.
As part of the new covenant, God will take away the deepest problem of his people, namely the bondage of their hearts to sin. He will pour out his Spirit, so that they will be empowered to be faithful, finally, to their commission in and to the world.
God’s promises for Israel, humanity, and the world remain, and he will act in his faithfulness.
Amid all these eschatological hopes for Israel, we encounter the word group euaggelion in climactic texts. Whenever we exegete the meaning of a ‘gospel’, we need to keep this whole mosaic of eschatological hopes in mind. The first of these gospel texts is found in Isaiah 40.
Vv. 1–2: Comfort
The chapter begins with the notion of ‘comfort’ (cf. Isa 12:1). This must be seen in view of the mourning of the Jews who were exiled to Babylon. They wept over the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and their removal from the land (e.g., Psa 137). But, Isaiah is saying, now the time of sorrow is over. God is still their God; they are still his people (v. 1), and he is now acting to fulfill his promises for them.
The first thing that brings comfort is God’s forgiveness of his people. The people of Israel went into exile because they transgressed the covenant law. They can only return from exile once God’s wrath over those transgressions has been dealt with (cf. Isa 11:15–2:1).
According to verse 2, Israel has received “double” (that is to say, fully) for all her sins (cf. Jer 16:18). No explanation is given for this atonement, but in light of the book as a whole, we might say that the servant-king of Israel has representatively suffered for their sins so that they might be given life (cf. Isaiah 53).
The people can only return from exile once God’s wrath over their transgressions has been dealt with.
Vv. 3–5: Prepare
Then an unidentified voice calls the people to prepare the way for YHWH. This refers to the visit of a royal figure. God is their king and he will return to them, to liberate them and judge their enemies. In this way, he will show his majestic and powerful presence, in other words, his glory (v. 5). This will happen in such a way that all the earth will be able to see it and praise him for it. Somehow, though that is not drawn out in this chapter, the nations will be part of the new exodus.
Vv. 6–8: Grass
Then another unknown voice cries out, perhaps to the prophet himself (cf. v. 6), recounting that everything human is perishable (see below on vv. 12–31). YHWH, however, is eternal, unchanging, unwavering amidst the storms of history. The people are grass, but his covenantal promises to them stand forever. This is what comforts them.
Vv. 9–11: Gospel
Then the writer calls on Jerusalem to announce the euaggelion to the cities of Judah: “Your God is coming!” (NLT). This is a proclamation of victory. God is coming to Israel and brings victory over their enemies. He will bring them back from exile and establish his kingdom in the land. That is the good news for his mourning people: God’s kingdom is at hand, and he brings his ‘reward’ from battle, namely salvation (cf. Isa 62:11).
Moreover, YHWH is likened to a shepherd (v. 11). This is a typical image for kingship which stems from the time of David, who was famously a shepherd boy before he was called to the throne, and it might even go back to Joseph. Not only is YHWH a strong ruler who defeats their enemies, he is also a gentle leader who will bring to flourishing (cf. Psa 23).
This is the good news for his people in exile: God’s kingdom is at hand.
The remainder of this chapter serves primarily to undergird the good news of God’s kingdom by recounting God’s incomparable kingship and majesty. This passage is one long celebration of creational monotheism: there is only King in this world, the Creator-God of Israel, YHWH.
The nations might seem so powerful now, but in the sight of YWHW, the creator of everything, they are less than nothing (v. 17). The kings of the world are here now but gone tomorrow (vv. 22–24), and their idols are made by human hands and cannot help their makers (vv. 19–20).
YHWH, on the other hand, is everlasting, untiring, always faithful. Therefore, Israel must not be afraid that God has forgotten them in exile (v. 27), or that he is too weak to save them. He is the Creator and King of the world, and his purposes will stand.
In Isaiah 40, the euaggelion is the proclamation to Israel that their covenant God returns to them to bring them out of exile, to establish his rule in the land, and to dwell among them.
Next time, I want to look at two other texts in some of the greatest chapters in Isaiah, 52 and 61, as well as Nahum 1, where we will encounter broadly the same eschatological themes. After that, I will summarize the findings from the Prophets as we prepare for the New Testament.