This post concludes with some suggested commentaries. These recommendations should not be construed as an endorsement of all they contain.
I am using the text of the RSV which is under copyright: “The [New] Revised Standard Version Bible may be quoted and/or reprinted up to and inclusive of five hundred (500) verses without express written permission of the publisher, provided the verses quoted do not amount to a complete book of the Bible or account for fifty percent (50%) of the total work in which they are quoted.
“Notice of copyright must appear on the title or copyright page of the work as follows:
“Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1952 [2nd edition, 1971] by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.” Links in the post are to the NRSV.
1 Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.
The sins of his people had made God inconsolable; none could give him comfort (Isa 22:4). His repeated attempts to convert them with both punishments and prophetic appeals had failed, and they continued to rebel more and more (Isa 1:5-8; Isa 22:12-14). Finally, because of their repeated covenant infidelities, God was forced to enact the covenant curses, culminating in exile from the Promised Land (Deut 28:15-68). The book of Lamentations mourned the fact that the people of God, exiled into Babylon for their sins, had no one to comfort them (Lam 1:2, 9, 16, 17, 21). This situation is now being reversed.
The dual cry of “comfort” is emphatic, “it makes assurance doubly sure” (C.R. North). The words are the Lord’s, spoekn through the prophet, but to whom they are addressed is uncertain. Father John Scullion, Father Carroll Stuhlmueller, John J Collins, C.R. North and many others think the heavenly court is being addressed.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.
Summarizes in the “tersest possible” manner the message of comfort (Claus Weestermann).
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem. The word “tenderly” is the Hebrew לב, from לבב, usually translated as heart; thus the Douay-Rheims: Speak ye to the heart of Jerusalem. The Greek Septuagint employs καρδία, (kardia = “heart”). Because of the people’s rebelling God had bidden the prophet to “make the heart of this people fat, and their ears heavy, and shut their eyes” (Isa 6:10). Now God commands that the heavenly council (?) speak to their hearts; now they will hear, and they and all mankind will see the glory of God (verse 5).
The phrase “speak tenderly” (sometimes translated as “speak to the heart”, “speak kindly”) is used several times in the OT, often in the sense of wooing a lover (Gen 34:3; Gen 50:21; Judges 19:3; Ruth 2:13; Hosea 2:14). Latter in the book the people will be described and portrayed as God’s bride (Isa 54:1-8).
Jerusalem. The actual city itself is not being addressed, rather it is the people in exile. The people are here referred to under the title of their political capital and religious center which was destroyed by the Babylonians (2 Chron 36:15-21).
Her warfare is ended. A better translation would be “Her slave-service is at an end” (see the NAB translation). The Hebrew word here translated as warfare (צבאה) is often used figuratively “of a wretched and miserable condition” (Gensius’s Lexicon. See Job 7:1-2 where the word-translated as “hard service” is used in parallel with “slave”).
Her iniquity is pardoned. Should be seen in close connection with the previous clause: “her warfare is ended…her iniquity is pardoned”. Their deliverance and their forgiveness go hand in hand. The purpose of the exile had been medicinal, an act meant to lead them to repentance (Deut 30:1-10).
She has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. The phrase is variously interpreted. Father Stuhlmueller seems to take it as hyperbole, as does Father Penna in the New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture. C.R. North thinks it is addressed to those born during the exile, but what he means exactly by this is unclear. Perhaps he means that the children born in exile have been both effected by the sins of their parents and suffered the consequences. I would suggest that what is being implied here is that the Babylonians, who had been instruments of God’s punishment, had gone far beyond what God had in fact intended, like the Assyrians before them (Isa 10:5-7). The people have “received double from the Lord’s hand” because he had brought about the exile to Babylon (his intention), but the Babylonians had taken advantage of this action by him, thus bringing about further punishment (i.e., doubling it), which God had not intended. The action and arrogance of Babylon (Isa 14:4-23) mirrored that of the Assyrians (Isa 10:5-7).
3 A voice cries: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
5 And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”
Note that the punctuation of the Hebrew text of verse 3 translated here differs from that found in the Greek Septuagint used by the Gospel writers (see Mark 1:3; Matt 3:3; Luke 4:4; John 1:23). In the Hebrew text it is a voice that cries out in the wilderness, but, in the NT, it is understood that John the Baptist is the prophesied voice (speaker) delivering the message of these verses.
In ancient times processional highways were built for kings and gods (idols) so that they might enter their capital city in splendor, often as a celebration for the victory of the king and his gods over foreign people and their gods. The people of God and the utensils of worship taken from the Jerusalem Temple were, no doubt, led along such a road as they entered Babylon, with their conquerors celebrating their and their god’s victory over them and their God. Of course, they failed to understand that what they deemed the defeat of Israel’s God was, in fact, part of a plan orchestrated by him. The King of Babylon, like the King of Assyria before him, thought that he had conquered just another god, and for this both suffered the consequences (Isa 10:10-11; 14:13-15). Here God is declaring that he will have his own victory procession. On this processional highway “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” and “all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (verse 5). His word stands forever (unlike “flesh”, see Isa 40:6-8) and accomplishes his will (Isa 55:10-11).
6 A voice says, “Cry!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.
7 The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the LORD blows upon it; surely the people is grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever.
A heavenly voice bids the prophet/herald to cry. What he is to cry indicates the inconstancy of man, his transitory nature. Here it should be noted that the word beauty (Hebrew, “hesed”) in verse 6 would be better rendered as “constancy” or “steadfastness”; i.e., All flesh is grass, and all its constancy (steadfastness) is like the flower of the field. All flesh is symbolically compared to grass and flowers which wither and fade when the hot sirocco winds blow across Israel and the Middle East at the end of spring. The sirocco itself symbolizes the breath (wind, spirit; the Hebrew can bear all three translations) of the LORD. Breath (or wind, or spirit) often appears in the context of God’s judgement. After Adam’s sin, for example, God is found in the garden at the windy or breezy time of day (Gen 3:8). In a time to come the lawless one will be revealed, and the Lord Jesus will slay him with the breath of his mouth and destroy him by his appearing and his coming (2 Thess 2:8).
The Hebrew word “hesed” (constancy, steadfastness, loving kindness) is a term frequently applied to God in the Old Testament where it denotes his commitment to the covenant (see Exodus 34:6-7 “steadfast love,” used twice). He bound himself to the covenant by his word, as did his people, but He, unlike his people, keeps his word which stands forever.
9 Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, fear not; say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!”
10 Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him; behold, his reward is with him, and his recompense before him.
11 He will feed his flock like a shepherd, he will gather the lambs in his arms, he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.
Zion/Jerusalem, i.e., the people in exile, are bidden to return to their land and proclaim “to the cities of Judah, ‘Behold your God.’” I take “the cities of Judah” to be a reference to the Jews who had been allowed to remain in the devastated Promised Land. The people in exile are being bidden to return to the Temple Mount and make known to the inhabitants of the surrounding cities and towns what God has done. All will enjoy the providential care of God, spoken of here under the image of a shepherd (see Jer 31:10; Ezek 34:11-16).
Another possible interpretation is that the scanty few people who remained in the environs of Jerusalem are being bidden to climb a mountain as watchmen might do, looking for the king and his army returning triumphant from battle. They will see the Lord returning in triumph, leading his people, and are to declare it to the people of “the cities of Judah”, that all might come and join in the victory celebration.
New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture. Commentary on the Old and New Testaments.
Jerome Biblical Commentary. Commentary on the Old and New Testaments.
Isaiah: Interpreted by Early Christian and Medieval Commentators (The Church’s Bible Series), edited by Robert Louis Wilken. This series is an ecumenical endeavor.
The Men and Message of the Old Testament by Peter F. Ellis. An introduction to the Old Testament.
God’s Word to Israel by Joseph Jensen, O.S.B. An introduction to the Old Testament.
Record of the Promise: The Old Testament by Wilfred J. Harrington, O.P. An Introduction to the Old Testament.
Isaiah 40-66 (Old Testament Library) by Claus Westermann (Protestant).