Comfort Ye My People
Dr. Derek Thomas
Turn with me now to the text that we've just heard sung so beautifully from Isaiah chapter 40 and verses 1 through 5. Before we read the passage together, let's look to God and ask for His blessing. Let's pray.
Our Father in heaven, this is Your word; You caused it to be written. We thank You for the way in which this passage has been such a source of help and strength and enabling to Your people down through the years. And we pray now this morning, as we gather together as Your people, come Holy Spirit and illuminate these words; help us to understand them. Help us not only to be hearers but to be doers of Your word. And this we ask in Jesus' name. Amen.
This is the word of God:
“Comfort, O comfort My people, says your God. Speak kindly to Jerusalem; and call out to her, that her warfare has ended, that her iniquity has been removed, that she has received of the Lord's hand double for all her sins. A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God. Let every valley be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; and let the rough ground become a plain, and the rugged terrain a broad valley; Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together; for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
Amen. May God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word.
Now we are in a series of sermons this December under the general title “Getting a Handel on Christmas.” George F. Handel, it is said–and everyone is familiar with the story of how he wrote the Messiah in the space of 24 days–gives testimony as to how he felt on during the time that he was the conduit through which this music just poured forth. In 1780 or thereabouts, John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” on the centenary of Handel's birth, preached a series of about 50 sermons on the texts that make up the Messiah. And we are not preaching 50 sermons, but we are spending the month of December in these grand, grand texts and largely from the book of Isaiah.
I. The label
Imagine with me this morning that I bring you an early Christmas present and that I bring this Christmas present to you this morning. It is the content that I want to focus on, but before we get to the content it's always fun to look at the wrapping and the casing. In the first place, there's a label on this present. And on this label is inscribed a word; actually it's repeated. It's the word…it's the word “comfort,” “comfort”– “Comfort Ye My People.”
I won't do the whole survey of the book of Isaiah here now this morning, but we need to appreciate something as we turn to chapter 40 of Isaiah: that it hasn't been like this for a long, long time in the book of Isaiah. Since about chapter 13 there have been occasional flickers of light; but really since chapter 13 all the way down to at least chapter 34, Isaiah has been giving us a series of judgments, prophecies of doom and destruction on the surrounding nations of Israel, to be sure, but also on the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Samaria is already collapsing in the north, and Isaiah is prophesying a day when Judah and Jerusalem will also fall.
In the preceding chapters 36 to 39 or so, Isaiah has been describing the way the king of Assyria, Sennacherib, has come all the way down to Jerusalem. And if it hadn't been for a divine intervention, Jerusalem would surely have fallen. As it is, Jerusalem will fall in about 587 BC. If you turn your eye just for a minute back to verse 6 of chapter 39 where Isaiah is speaking not of the impending threat of Assyria to the north and east, but a threat more directly to the east from Babylon. He tells us in verse 6 that nothing shall be left; everything will be carried away into Babylon. It's in that context of doom and destruction that Isaiah comes with a message that has on the label of this present “comfort.” If you drop down to verse 11 of this section in chapter 40, you’ll see something of the metaphor that Isaiah now employs. And he speaks of God as tending His flock like a shepherd and gathering His lands in His arms. Isn't that a beautiful picture of what God sometimes does? He lifts us and carries us as a shepherd might carry His lambs. No matter how far Judah may have transgressed, no matter how deep they have fallen, God has not abandoned His promise and there's a word of comfort here.
The label, as you begin to examine it, also bears a name. It tells you who it's from. And it comes from verse 1: “your God,” “your God.” Martin Luther said that the gospel was all about personal prepositions. Can you say, “He is my God; we are His people”? And what the gospel effects is to bring us, you and I, into a living vital relationship with God that we may call Him “my God.” I'm not a prophet, at least not in the classical sense, and I'm not the son of a prophet, but I do have for you this morning a word from God. And it's this text; it's this present.
II. The wrapping.
Secondly, as you lift this present, take a look at the wrapping paper. No, don't rip it off and discard it; have a look at it. Someone has taken trouble to wrap this present in delicate paper. Do you notice how Isaiah puts it in verse 2? “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” “Speak tenderly”: these are words that come from God, but they are tender words. It's the Hebrew verb…well, it's the Hebrew word that is employed in the book of Ruth for the way Ruth describes the way Boaz has spoken to her. And you know Boaz loved Ruth. These are words of a lover. These are tender words. These are precious words. These are words of God whispering…well, I was going to say sweet nothings but… sweet somethings into your ear. These are words that are surrounded by the assurance that He loves you.
You see, this is all so surprising because all around this passage everything is collapsing. These were the darkest days in Israel's history thus far, that the Northern Kingdom of Israel has already collapsed. Samaria has gone. Sennacherib and his forces have invaded the land; they've come all the way down to Jerusalem. These are dark days. Israel, at least Judah in the south, were tempted to make an alliance with Egypt to thwart the kingdom, that the empire to the north and east, Assyria…but it would prove to no avail. And in that context: when the light was going out of the hopes, and dreams of God's people seem to be vanishing, when the purposes of God seem to be at the point of extinction, when the covenant of God seemed to have been but a mockery and the promise of deliverance of fading hope, and a story of redemption seemed to be about to flicker and die–God comes with words, tender words, and whispers them into the ears of His people. God is whispering words in your ears this morning, designed to strengthen you and to help you and to comfort you.
III. The box.
But let's take the wrapping off and look in the third place at the box. And it's a strange box because it only has three sides. Now my assistant over here said, “There's no such thing as a box with three sides.” Well, I meant…this was from the earlier service and we've got a scientist over here. So let me explain that the box has a base, and I'm not counting the base, but it's triangular. And I'm only looking at the three sides because there are only three points in the text. I tried to make it a four-sided box but I couldn't do it. So let's look at this triangular box.
Let's look at the first side: “Her warfare is ended,” or accomplished. What a beautiful word in the midst of the context of Isaiah. They were surrounded by the forces of war. They were surrounded by an imperial enemy that could have sent them into oblivion. Judah had no army; she had no forces; she had no military might. Assyria was one of the greatest military mights the world has ever seen. Its forces were to be feared, and here's a word, “Her warfare has ended.”
Turn the box and look at the second side and it says, “Her iniquity is pardoned.” You see, there's the problem. Why have these words of judgment come on the surrounding nations? Why have these words of judgment come on the Northern Kingdom of Israel? Why is God threatening to judge Judah and Jerusalem? Because of sin, because of iniquity, because the people of God had abandoned His ways, because they had forsaken His covenant, because they had turned their back on His love and grace and mercy. And God is coming in judgment, but in the midst of this there is this word of comfort. “Her iniquity is pardoned.” Not just that God says, ‘You’re forgiven,’ but ‘your iniquity is atoned for.’ It's the word that's implied in the opening chapter of Leviticus in the midst of the description of the sacrificial rights, the shedding of blood, the destruction of animal carcasses, in the place and room of the sinner. Your iniquity is pardoned because God has found a way to be just and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus. Isaiah's favorite description of God is “the Holy One of Israel.” And this holy God has found a way to pardon iniquity.
But turn the box and there's a third, and it says “double.” She has received for her sins “double.” Now don't misunderstand Isaiah. He's not saying that her sins have been punished twice as much: that's not what he's saying. I think it's the language of a mirror image. That however great her sins were there was grace to match it. Whatever the extent of the iniquity there was a double; there was a counterpart; there was a mirror; there was grace to cover every sin and every iniquity.
IV. The contents.
But you want to know what's inside this box, don't you? Isn't it fun? I'm 50; I still lift presents from the tree and shake them. I love it when they rattle. I love it when Rosemary puts in something there just to rattle for the sake of it to set me off on the wrong track altogether. Let's open this box. What's inside this box? I want you to try and imagine with me as you open this box that a sort of glow…there's a light that seems to shine, and it seems to pulsate, and it seems to get stronger and stronger and fills the room…and a sense in which you are attracted because you want to know what this light is, but there's a sense in which it also intimidates. And what's inside this box is a picture, a picture of a highway that has been made where the valleys have been filled and the rough places have been leveled, and there's a highway. I hope it's not the folks from Mississippi that are doing these highways because it's never going to get done–but this highway, this highway is level and straight, and along this highway is coming the glory of God. The glory of God is coming along this highway and every eye sees it.
What in the world is Isaiah talking about? That's what the choir sang in response to that beautiful rendition of the earlier part of Isaiah 40. The glory of the Lord is coming along this highway. That's the present. What does it mean? Maybe Isaiah means…he's looking 200 years into the future. He's looking to that period where Cyrus the Persian king has issued that decree; Babylon has fallen to the Persians. He's issued that decree that the people: the exiled people of God may return to Jerusalem. Can you imagine the pilgrims returning from their exile in Babylon, coming back to Jerusalem? What did they see? Rubble. Stones lying on the ground. Burnt embers of timbers that once made the buildings of Jerusalem. The Temple is destroyed; weeds are growing. I don't think that's what Isaiah is talking about. It's tempting to think that that's what he's talking about here: a day when the glory of God is going to return to Jerusalem. But I don't think it was that day.
Turn the pages a little more; come right down to the end of the Old Testament to Malachi. Turn the page into the New Testament; rip out that blank page. Go to Luke chapter 3. Luke cites this text, “the messenger crying in the wilderness”; it's John the Baptist. That strange, strange man with funny clothes and eating the most abominable things, and crying a message in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord. God is coming.’ Isaiah is looking down 700 years and more to the coming of Jesus, to the birth of Messiah in a stable in Bethlehem, to the fulfillment of John the Baptist's words, “The Lord is coming.”
Isn't it interesting when John writes his gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God.” And do you remember: “And we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth”? John is saying something staggering. Do you remember Moses in Exodus had asked to see the glory of God? And what did Moses see? Well, the Bible has to imply an anthropomorphism. It has to say, “He saw the back parts of God.” He saw God's back as it passed by because he couldn't behold the splendor and the magnificence of the glory. But John is saying about this baby in the manger in Bethlehem, when the shepherds come and they fall down and they worship Him, and John says, “We beheld His glory.” That as C.S. Lewis says, “The One lying in the manger is bigger than the whole world.”
There's something more. Come with me to 2 Corinthians chapter 3. You needn't turn to it; just pay attention for a second to 2 Corinthians chapter 3. It's a complicated chapter. I always find it difficult to preach on. Paul is contrasting the old covenant and the new covenant. And you can commit a heresy in a heartbeat in 2 Corinthians chapter 3, but one thing is plain: he says in verse 9–and he's comparing the glory that was present under the old covenant with the glory that is present under the new covenant–and he says, “There was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must exceed it in glory.” Now what is Paul saying? There's something about living in the new covenant in which the glory of God is more manifest than it was under the old covenant.
Isn't it a beautiful thing to live this side of the incarnation of Christ, to live this side of Calvary, to live this side of the empty tomb, to live this side of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit? Yes, Isaiah saw and he saw more than we often think that he did, but he didn't see as far as Luke saw or Paul saw or Peter saw or as you and I see. I can remember the day a color television came into my house. Can you imagine going back to black and white TV? Can you imagine going back to the days when the TV screen was more snow than anything else? With rabbit ears that you had to sort of hold in some sort of contortion to get a picture. You remember those days? Imagine going back to the days of Jane Austen when medicine was about leeches and blood letting. I'm glad I'm on this side. And Paul is saying there's something more glorious about the new covenant.
Is that was Isaiah is saying? He’d seen the day. In the midst of all of this trouble and doom and warfare, there's coming a day when the glory of God will be displayed in a way that you can't even dream about now. Perhaps, but maybe Isaiah is seeing something even more wonderful than that. He's seeing the end of the age itself. You know, from the vantage point of the Old Testament, the first and second comings of Jesus look as if they’re on top of each other. It's like looking at a range of mountains when you’re a long way away and they look side-by-side, but actually when you drive to the first mountain you see that there's an enormous valley in between that mountain and the next one. But from Isaiah's perspective, he sees the glory of God: it's the coming of Jesus; it's the outpouring of the Holy Spirit…but it's more than that. It's the coming of Jesus on the clouds of heaven with the angels and the archangels and the trumpet of God, and all flesh will see it and the glory of God will be displayed.
Oh, you know that hymn; “But Lo there breaks a yet more glorious day. The saints triumphant rise in bright array; the King of Glory passes on His way. Alleluia, alleluia.” You see, I think that's what Isaiah is seeing. He's saying at the most fundamental level, “There may be trouble now; there may be difficulty now; there may be wars and rumors of wars now; but there is coming a day when war will be over, and sin will be pardoned, and the glory of God will be coming down this highway, and all flesh will see it.”
And, my friends, as you unwrap this Christmas present this morning, what are you going to do with that? What are you going to do with that great vision? Are you going to treasure that vision in your heart today and do what the shepherds did, fall down and worship Jesus? That's the glory of God. May God enable us so to do. Let's sing now from this closing hymn, 197. We’ll sing verses 1 and 4, 1 and 4 of 197: “Comfort Ye My People”
© First Presbyterian Church.
This transcribed message has been lightly edited and formatted for the Web site. No attempt has been made, however, to alter the basic extemporaneous delivery style, or to produce a grammatically accurate, publication-ready manuscript conforming to an established style template.
Should there be questions regarding grammar or theological content, the reader should presume any website error to be with the webmaster/transcriber/editor rather than with the original speaker. For full copyright, reproduction and permission information, please visit the First Presbyterian Church Copyright, Reproduction & Permission statement.