Father Maas’ Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11

The Voice in the Desert.

1. Connection of the Prophecy with the Prophetic Series of Isaias: The prophecy belongs to the second part of Isaias’ book, which begins with chapter 40 and ends with chapter 56. It may be called ” the Book of Consolation,” since the very opening words give us the key-note of the whole second part. It consists of three divisions, each of which embraces nine cantos. The general subject of the single divisions is indicated in 40:2, according to which chapters 40-48 evolve the idea, “her evil is come to an end;” chapters 49-57 inculcate the thought, “her iniquity is forgiven;” chapters 58-61, finally, describe how “she hath received of the hand of the Lord double for all her sins.” The style of the whole second part is even and majestic, except in 53 and 56:9-57, where the sadness and the anger which the prophet represents affect his style and conform it to his subject-matter.

The present prophecy belongs to the first of the three divisions, forming part of its Introduction; for the whole Introduction to the first division extends throughout the 40th chapter. A careful reading shows that the Introduction consists of two parts, one of which we may call the general introduction, contained in 40:1-11; the other may be named the special introduction, extending from 40:12-31. It is clear from this that the present prophecy
coincides with the general introduction.

2. The Messianic Character of the Prophecy: The liberty promised in the prophet’s prediction is neither solely temporal nor solely spiritual.  The solely Messianic reference of the prophecy is defended by Ephrem, Jerome, Cyril, Eusebius, Thomas, Osorio, Lapide, Maldonatus. Tirinus also denies that the prediction in its literal sense refers to the liberation of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity: still he grants that it alludes to this fact. Mariana, Calmet, Netler, Rohling, Trochon, and Knabenbauer have thought it right to differ with the former authors: for they refer to the literal sense of Isa40:1-11 to the liberation of the Jews from the Babylonian captivity, While they apply it in its typical sense to the Messianic salvation and to St John the Baptist.

It is clear from the preceding and the subsequent chapters that the 40th chapter must literally refer to the Jewish liberation from the Babylonian exile. For such an announcement is naturally expected after chapter 39, and in the subsequent chapters the same event is literally described as coming to pass through the instrumentality of Cyrus. At the same time it cannot be denied that the prediction has also a Messianic application:

a. This is plain from the greatness of the promises in verse 5, “and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh together shall see that the mouth of the Lord hath spoken.”

b. The same truth appears from the New Testament, in which the prediction of Isaias is applied to John the Baptist: “For this is he that was spoken of by Isaias the prophet, saying: A voice of one crying in the desert; prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight his paths” (Matt 3:3). Similar testimonies are found in Mark 1:3-4; Luke 4; John 1:23.

c. We have seen that in its literal sense the prophecy refers to the Jewish deliverance from the Babylonian captivity. Now this event is commonly represented in Sacred Scripture as a type of Messianic salvation (cf. Hos 2:15; Micah 2:12-13; Jer 31:21 f.; Ezek 36:9; 37:11 ff.). Consequently, the prediction is Messianic from the very nature of its object.

d. We might add to these arguments the weight of extrinsic authority, but the names of the writers who regard the passage as Messianic, either in its literal or in its typical sense, have been given above.

e. Rabbinic tradition too regards the prophetic passage as Messianic. The Midrash on Gen 1:21, sect. 100, has it: “If the word of Joseph had such a soothing effect upon the hearts of the tribes, how much greater will be the effect when the Holy One, blessed be he, will come to comfort Jerusalem, as it is said: Be comforted, be comforted, my people. . . .” (Isa 40:1). The Midrash on Leviticus 41 (1, 1, sect. 1) has a Messianic application of Isa 40:5: “Rabbi
Phinehas spoke, in the name of Rabbi Hoshaya, this parable: A king showed himself to the son of his house in his true likeness; for in this world the Shechinah appears to individuals, but in the future the glory of the Lord will appear, as it is said: And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed. . . .” Yalkut on Ex 32:6 applies Isa 40:10 in a Messianic sense: “And on account of the sufferings which Israel suffered will the Holy One, blessed be he, give them a double reward in the days of the Messias, for it is said: Behold, the Lord God will come. . . .”

3. The Tropological Sense of the passage is so well known and so frequently used that we need not delay over its explanation (cf. Lapide, Cyril, Gordon, Sanchez, etc.).

Outline: The whole passage may be divided into five parts:

(1) The prophet describes the redemption in a negative way, verses 1-2;

(2) the first herald describes the redemption positively, verses 3-5;

(3) the second herald shows that no created obstacle can frustrate the promised redemption, verses 6-8;

(4) the third herald supposes God’s presence, verse 9;

(5) the prophet takes up the strain of the third herald, describing the work of redemption more minutely, verse 10-11.


Isa 40:1  Be comforted, be comforted, my people, saith your God.
Isa 40:2  Speak ye to the heart of Jerusalem, and call to her: for her evil is come to an end, her iniquity is forgiven: she hath received of the hand of the Lord double for all her sins.

Be comforted contains the burden of the divine commission intrusted to the prophet. This commission is not given once, and then left to the good will of the prophet, but God gives it continuously; hence saith the Lord.  These good tidings are to be spoken to the heart of Jerusalem, i.e., according to the scriptural manner of expression, to the sorrowing Jerusalem. Finally, three reasons are assigned why the sorrowing city should be consoled: 1. Her evil, or rather, her warfare, is come to an end (cf. chapters 61-62); 2. her iniquity is forgiven, or better, her ransom has been paid (cf. ibid); 3. she hath received from the hand of the Lord double for all her sins. This sentence has been taken in a double sense: a. Jerusalem has suffered enough to satisfy the divine justice, so that God’s compassion now regards what his justice was forced to inflict on Jerusalem as superabundant. The turning point from anger to love has come, and the latter will break forth the more intensely the longer it has been pent up (Delitzsch, 2. 134 ff). Some see in the double punishment the double destruction of Jerusalem (Jerome, Eusebius, Maldonado, Estius). b. Other interpreters, however, apply the “double” not to the punishment of Jerusalem, which even God’s justice  could not inflict, but they understand it of double grace which the city is to receive. The exception of Delitzsch, that the tense “she hath received” must be taken of past time, since the parallel tenses “is come to and end” and “is forgiven”are taken of he past, is not sufficient to render this view improbable. For the prophet has seen Jerusalem’s future before him, and he here describes it as he has seen it, not determining whether what he announces is still to come or has taken place already.

Isa 40:3  The voice of one crying in the desert: Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight in the wilderness the paths of our God.
Isa 40:4  Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough ways plain.
Isa 40:5  And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh together shall see, that the mouth of the Lord hath spoken.

The voice of one crying. Whether we follow our English and Latin versions, or render with Sanchez, Maldonado and others as in Matthew 3:3: “The voice of one crying: ‘In the desert prepare…’” in either case the word allude to the oriental custom of preparing the road for an important person who journeys through the country. A herald is sent to inform the people of this duty. The prophet therefore shows that the Lord himself will be the guide of Israel in its return from Babylon, even as he had led the people on the way through the desert when it left the Egyptian captivity.  As to the real nature of the road, cf. 41:18; 43:20; 52:11; 55:12; 57:14; 62:10.  The manner of the road’s preparation is minutely described in the following words, which contain at the same time the end of the work, “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” But since in the following chapters a twofold redemption is described, that through Cyrus and that through the Messias, so the preparation here enjoined must be understood as referring to both. It is clear, therefore, that what literally applies to the desert-roads refers also to the preparation of our hearts for the Messianic blessings. The call itself sounds like tiie long-drawn trumpet-blast of a herald (cf. Isa 16:1).

Isa 40:6  The voice of one, saying: Cry. And I said: What shall I cry? All flesh is grass, and all the glory thereof as the flower of the field.
Isa 40:7  The grass is withered, and the flower is fallen, because the spirit of the Lord hath blown upon it. Indeed the people is grass:
Isa 40:8  The grass is withered, and the flower is fallen: but the word of our Lord endureth for ever.  

The voice of one, saying: Cry. According to the LXX and St Jerome, we continue: “And I said;” according to the Hebrew text, the Syriac and the Chaldee versions, the text continues: “And he said.” After the preceding promise of Israel’s exaltation the prophet might doubt as to the possibility of such a change in the nation’s condition. God therefore sends his second herald to announce three points: a. all flesh and all its glory is perishable as the flower of the field; b. all flesh and all its glory shall really perish; c. but the word of the Lord shall stand forever. The outward manifestation of God’s breath seems to be the wind, and in our case the sirocco, at whose blowing in May the spring flora acquires at once an autumn look.

Isa 40:9  Get thee up upon a high mountain, thou that bringest good tidings to Sion: lift up thy voice with strength, thou that bringest good tidings to Jerusalem: lift it up, fear not. Say to the cities of Juda: Behold your God:

Get thee up. It is disputed whether Sion is the third herald, or whether Sion is the one to whom the third herald announces the glad tidings. Sion is considered the herald of glad tidings by a sizable number of authors, while many others agree with the LXX. and the Targumim, rendering the clause: “preacher of salvation to Jerusalem.” According to the former view, Jerusalem
is to ascend a high mountain after God has returned to the city, and announce to Sion’s daughters, i.e., to the surrounding cities, the gladsome news of the divine deliverance. According to the latter interpretation Sion is looked upon as in the greatest grief, and the herald must console Sion with the glad tidings of God’s return to the temple. The herald is expressed by the feminine gender, in order to signify that it applies to all who may come to Jerusalem.

Isa 40:10  Behold the Lord God shall come with strength, and his arm shall rule: Behold his reward is with him and his work is before him.

Behold, the Lord God shall eome with strength. In the following verses the prophet takes up the tidings of the third herald and especially the words “Behold your God.” God will bring his own work to  successful issue; He will reward the deserving and chastise the wicked. The twofold nature of God’s work is described repeatedly in Isaias; cf. 8:21; 9:1; 24:6, 10; 30:23, 27, etc. Finally, Isaias returns to a more detailed description of God’s mercy, representing him as a faithful and loving shepherd who care for every want of his flock.

Isa 40:11  He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather together the lambs with his arm, and shall take them up in his bosom, and he himself shall carry them that are with young.

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One Response to Father Maas’ Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11

  1. Pingback: Commentaries for the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, Year C | stjoeofoblog

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