True Comfort for God’s People (Isaiah 40:1-5)

 

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11; Luke 2:22-36 ● Text: Isaiah 40:1-5
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November 30, 2008

When someone dies, we comfort one another in our grief. We comfort those who suffer, those who are afflicted, and those who are lonely and depressed. I once heard a sermon on this text where the preacher examined the psychology of depression, then outlined how a person is to avoid plunging into depression, and finally suggested ways to comfort and counsel those who are suffering from depression.

But the message of Isaiah 40:1-5 is not about these kinds of psychotherapeutic “comfort.” Rather, it is a message of true comfort for God’s people: for Israel during their slavery in Babylon, and for us today in our slavery to sin. First, we will see that we seriously need true comfort. Second, we will look at God’s message of comfort to Israel. And third, we will study God’s message of comfort to the Christian.

The Serious Need for Comfort
In the Old and New Testaments, much of the use of the word “comfort” mean consolation, relief in affliction, or moral and emotional encouragement. For example, 2 Cor. 1:3-7 says that God is the author of all comfort. That’s why we can comfort other believers in their sufferings and hardship. But this is not the meaning of “comfort” within the context of Isaiah 40.

Flight of the Prisoners by James Tissot

Flight of the Prisoners by James Tissot, 1886-94 (click to enlarge)

In their Babylonian captivity, the Israelites suffered both physical and spiritual misery. They lived in fear of injury, sickness, starvation, and even death. What’s worse, all of their religious life had been taken away: no promised land, no temple, no sacrifices, and no festivals. And Israel knew very well why God judged them. They were unfaithful to God: “Because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord their God and worshiped other gods and served them” (Jer. 22:8). And they were also unjust towards their neighbors: “But you have eyes and heart only for your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence” (Jer. 22:17).

So God used the Babylonians to mercilessly destroy Jerusalem and its people in 586 B.C.

Today, as the people of God, we also need comfort just like the pitiful Israelites in Babylon. Even if we are the people of God, we are not exempt from fear, injury, sickness and death. We’re still pilgrims and strangers here in this fallen creation, with all its sufferings and persecutions. We’re still conscious of our sinful nature, and we know we suffer and we’re miserable not only because of this sin-infested world, but also because of our own sin.

We need to be comforted. But what is God’s message of comfort? How does He comfort His people?

Israel’s Fleeting Comfort
God’s message of comfort to Israel is in three parts. First, God says, “her warfare is accomplished.” In this verse, the word “warfare” means military service, hard service, or appointed time. Job 7:1 uses the same word to describe man’s “hard service” on earth. And the word “ended” means fulfilled, satisfied, or accomplished. Thus, the phrase “her warfare is accomplished” means that Israel’s appointed time of hard service is fulfilled. This is revealed further by Jeremiah, who prophesied that “after seventy years are completed, [God] will punish the king of Babylon and that nation” (Jer 25:12, 29:10). God will also fulfill His promise to bring Israel back to the promised land. This means that Israel’s slavery in Babylon will end. Her slavery, tears, and sufferings are accomplished.

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here,
Until the Son of God appears.
(“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” 12th century Latin hymn)

The second part of God’s message of comfort to Israel is, “her iniquity is pardoned.” Her hard service is ended because her sin, and her stubbornness to do evil, is pardoned. The word pardonednot only means to grant release from punishment for an offense. It also means being acceptable or pleasing to God. He is again pleased with them, and loves them, and accepts them as his people, because the penalty for their sin is acceptable to God.

Rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem under Nehemiah by William Brassley Hole

Rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem under Nehemiah by William Brassley Hole, 1846-1917 (click to enlarge)

And the third part is this: “she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Twice as much punishment as Israel deserved? No, of course not! Even when God chastises his people for disobeying his commands, his judgment is always just and righteous. The Hebrew word translated here as “double” means equivalent or duplicate – e.g., in the description of the tabernacle in Exodus, a cloth is doubled over, one half equals the other half. Therefore, a more accurate translation should be: “she has received from the Lord’s hand the equivalent or full punishment of all her sins.” Israel’s punishment is the matching, commensurate payment that cancels their piled-up debt of sin.

After Israel’s time of service ended, her sin pardoned, and her just punishment completed, God will now give her rest. He will come and release the Babylonian captives from bondage. Every obstacle along his way in the wilderness will be removed. Low-lying valleys and lofty mountains will be no match for God’s glory as he levels them to meet his people and lead them in a triumphal procession out of Babylon.

As Moses led the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt, so will the Lord lead the Israelites out of Babylonian captivity back into the Promised Land of rest. As he leads them in the desert, he will make “water flow for them from the rock” and they will not thirst (Isa. 48:21). As he leads them through the waters, he will dry up the sea and make “the depths of the sea a way for the redeemed to pass over” (Isa. 51:10). In their journey to the land of rest, “the Lord will go before [them], and the God of Israel will be [their] rear guard” (Isa. 52:12).

Nothing will be able to prevent the Lord from coming to his people and leading them once again out of Babylonian slavery into his rest and freedom in the Promised Land.

But, was Israel forgiven of her rebellion because she was punished? Is Israel like a criminal who has spent the full amount of time in prison, and now is forgiven and set free? Does God forgive you of your sins only after you have been fully punished? True, our sin leads to dire consequences for us. But if you have to pay for all of our sins, the Bible says that you will have to spend eternity in hell before you’re forgiven of your sins! (Rom. 5:12; 6:23).

So why does Isaiah say that Israel was pardoned for her sins because she received her just punishment? The answer is that all of her sins were laid upon the Lord’s Suffering Servant, who was “wounded for our transgressions, and crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5). Jerusalem’s destruction and her seventy years of captivity are fitting judgment for a rebellious people, but they are not sufficient to pay for her sins. Rather, the message of comfort for Israel is grounded upon the Lord’s Servant who must come to their rescue.

This section of Isaiah, chapters 40-55, is called by Jews as the “Book of Consolation.” It is Israel’s consolation, or comfort. But this Book of Consolation is not just for Israel’s fleeting comfort; it is also for our eternal comfort.

The Christian’s Eternal Comfort
Five hundred years after Israel was released from her captivity in Babylon and Persia, there was “a righteous and devout man” in Jerusalem named Simeon. He was still waiting for “the consolation of Israel.” Why was he still waiting for Israel’s comfort when Isaiah proclaimed that her comfort came when the exiles returned from Babylon and rebuilt the Temple and the walls of Jerusalem?

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple by James Tissot

The Presentation of Jesus in the Temple by James Tissot, 1886-94 (click to enlarge)

The walls and the Temple were rebuilt, the covenant was renewed, the priesthood was reinstalled, and sacrifices were reestablished. The Jews thought that God would finally give them long-lasting comfort after they returned from the Babylonian and Persian captivity. But soon after, the Jews fell once again into the sins of their forefathers before the exile. Thus, for the next four hundred years, a succession of cruel Gentile kingdoms of Greeks, Egyptians, Syrians, and finally, Romans, ruled them with a rod of iron. The Jews realized that the comfort and joy of their return from Babylon is short-lived. The Consolation of Israel did not really come after they returned from Persia. How long will they have to wait for their Savior, the Messiah?

God told Simeon that he would not die until he has seen Israel’s Savior. And one day, the Holy Spirit revealed to Simeon that his waiting is over: the Consolation of Israel is the baby brought to the Temple that day!

As he held the month-and-a-half-old baby Jesus in his arms, Simeon proclaimed that this baby is not only Israel’s Consolation, the “glory to your people Israel,” but the baby is also “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.” The baby is the Savior of Israel and the Gentiles!

Israel’s strength and consolation,
Hope of all the earth Thou art;
Dear desire of every nation,
Joy of every longing heart.
(“Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus,” Charles Wesley, 1744)

Simeon did not comment on how sweet and tender this baby was, because the Holy Spirit revealed to him that Jesus would be the Savior, not only of Jews, but also of all the nations. Instead, he has a warning in Luke2:34-35, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

Jesus will divide mankind into two groups: one will rise, the other will fall. Those of you who embrace Him as Messiah, and who trust in His perfect obedience alone for salvation, will rise with him to his glorious throne to partake of the blessings of the kingdom of God. But to those who reject him, as the Jews did, who give only lip service to his commands will fall into judgment. Paul says of the gospel, “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23). If this gospel is foolishness to you, you will surely stumble against the “Rock of offense” (Rom. 9:33), and “to fall into the hands of the living God” is a fearful thing on Judgment Day (Heb 10:31).

By Thine own eternal Spirit
Rule in all our hearts alone;
By Thine all-sufficient merit
Raise us to Thy glorious throne.
(“Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus”)

As God’s sign of salvation to mankind, Jesus will be opposed, “despised and rejected by men” (Isa. 53:3). He would grieve his mother Mary greatly, because the Jews will pierce him. But when he returns in glory and judgment, they will look “on him whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn” (Zech. 12:10).

Thirty years after Simeon saw the Consolation of Israel, John the Baptist came preaching and baptizing in the wilderness. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” he warned the Jews (Matt. 3:2). Isaiah’s voice in the wilderness prepared the way for the One who would “speak to the heart” of his people with words of rest, forgiveness and comfort.

The Lord of comfort will only come to our lives if we come to him in repentance and humility. He comes not only to us, but to our family, friends, and to all nations, peoples, and tribes of the earth who come with offerings of praise and thanksgiving for his salvation. In this way, the glory of the Lord is seen by the whole earth (Isa. 40:5).

After John the Baptist, another man came from the wilderness preaching a message of comfort through repentance. Jesus the Suffering Servant warned the Jews, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” And he preached to them, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matt. 5:4). No, he was not saying that those who are grieving over lost loved ones are blessed. Rather, he was saying that those who mourn and repent over their own sin would be given comfort by the One who paid the penalty for their sin.

This is because the Suffering Servant would be “wounded for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” all throughout his life and finally on the cross of cursing. But we receive the comfort of forgiveness and acceptance into the kingdom of God only when we believe and trust in the Suffering Servant, Jesus Christ, alone.

Conclusion
How was Israel comforted? Isaiah looked forward to Christ, Israel’s Comfort and Consolation. Her hard service was ended and her sins were pardoned, because God laid the equivalent punishment of their sins on Christ. On the cross, Christ bore the sins of his people Israel in the Old Testament. But he also bore the sins of his people in the New Testament, the church, the Israel of God. This is our only comfort: that through Christ’s death on the cross, we have pardon for our sins.

The Heidelberg Catechism asks, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The answer is “that I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Savior Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with His precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil.” Christ is our only and sure comfort.

The comfort in Isaiah 40 is much more than being encouraged in times of grief and depression. It’s much more than comforting others in their times of grief and depression. Rather, it is the comfort that when you believe in Christ, his perfect obedience is credited to your account, and all your sins are pardoned because Christ has fully paid for all your sins – not just some – but all your sins!

The story of Simeon joyfully holding the baby Jesus in his arms is a reminder to you this Christmas that as you sing “Silent Night,” “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “Joy to the World,” “O Come, All Ye Faithful,” and all these heart-warming Christmas songs, you are to respond in faith to these words.  If not, all these wonderful songs are pointless. All these well-known, beloved passages read over and over during Christmas time are worthless. All these gift-giving are a waste of time and money. Because these words from the Bible are not simply stories to bring back fond memories of your youth, and warm remembrances of family and friends merrymaking around a tree, or a meal, or a fireplace.

But rather, these words are the words of life given to you so that you might believe in the name of the only-begotten Son of God. So that those who believe in them will have eternal life now and forevermore. May God pour his Spirit on you so that you may be enabled to put your faith in Christ this season and always.

O come, Thou Bright and Morning Star,
And bring us comfort from afar,
Dispel the shadows of the night,
And turn our darkness into light.
Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
(“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”)

© 2004 Rev. Nollie Malabuyo
Pasig City, Metro Manila, Philippines

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