Comfort, Comfort My People

Reflection: Isaiah 40

I often wonder how God comforts the intense afflictions of his chosen people.

When the horrific graphic details on the wanton destruction of Syrian lives and cities are depicted on the media these days, with its associated mushrooming two million refugees spilling across numerous national borders, I feel acutely distressed. These tragic humanitarian crises have multiplied numerous times in other countries around the world in the past few years. I can identify with Paul as he poignantly discerns that the whole creation still groans and suffers, awaiting its salvation. “Come Lord Jesus, Come” remains our enduring prayer of hope!

To be told by God that their beloved nation will be devastated by wars and they will be exiled to their vanquisher’s country is soul-destroying. After pronouncing judgment on an incalcitrant people one hundred years before the fall of Jerusalem, God prompts the prophet Isaiah to comfort his people. But the adults to whom he was addressing will not be the ones suffering the consequences as they grieve over the prophetic utterances. They would live out their lives peaceably. It would be their children’s families who will bear the brunt of the impending catastrophes. Coping with severe losses can and do result in the loss of faith, especially among the younger generation. Is it possible that our Lord’s forewarning presages an advisory for discerning parents to orientate their children by childproofing them against the impending judgment? Generally, not by a long shot! A century for the youngest age group to turn away from apostasy and return in faith to God – that is grace!

Having detailed his judgment on Judah in the preceding chapters, the Lord immediately turns around and instructs Isaiah to console them in chapter 40. In reality, it is not Isaiah who addresses the people, but God dominates this chapter, where he defines his own promises, plans and character by speaking alternately in the first- and third-person. Our sovereign Lord takes an unswerving interest in human affairs, especially with events that will sorely test the faith of his people. He communicates directly, immediately and personally to the wounded. In any calamitous situation, it is appropriate to seek his voice early.

Primarily, God’s voice directs the attention of his depressed followers to his glory. How would his glory comfort them? He points to a day where sadness will vanish and sins are forgiven, when nature herself will be reconfigured to pave the way for a future salvation to be witnessed by everyone. The implication is that the coming Messiah will save and comfort Judah, and we too will be participants in his glorious company. The promise of salvation from the continuing horrors of wars becomes a palliative to their anxieties. The present moment will pass, and there is always unspeakable joy as we hope in his glorious coming.

Next, his voice focuses their thoughts on his Word. Our temporal existence here is compared to the fading flowers and grass of the field, in contrast to the permanence of God’s Word, which has eternal significance and impact. What he said would unquestionably come to pass, and if we care to listen, perhaps we too will hear his gentle and kind voice of comfort and reassurance that all will be well. We can trust him and his promises because it is his Word, which never fails.

Finally, his voice centers them on his own Divine character. Whenever our Creator self-discloses, the issues at hand are of critical importance to him! His portrayal of himself cannot be more divergent as he comes across as our invincible Warrior and affectionate Shepherd. It is intensely strengthening to know that, at the end of the day, it is his presence that will be life changing, even to the weakest members of his community. Then in the next nineteen verses (vv. 12-28) he challenges the ‘clay’ to acknowledge their Master – the omniscient and wise One, the transcendent and invisible Lord, our Creator and eternal, unchangeable I AM, and a loving and faithful Shepherd. Who can separate us from the love and presence of such a God?

God certainly does not expect us to detract from our humanity as we grief and are discouraged in this broken-down world, coping with countless, and at times, permanent losses in the course of our lives. The process of grieving cannot be short-circuited. But what is significant and precious to him is his engrossed relationship with us (vv. 29-31), where he reciprocates those who trust him with new consoling strength in the midst of innate frailties. Our God’s glory, Word, and character define his committed comforting presence to us.