Preparing an Exposition of Isaiah 40

On choice chapters in sacred scripture.

Frederick E. J. Harder, Ph.D., is director of the Board of Higher Education of the General Conference of Seventhday Adventists.

 

ISAIAH 40 is one of the truly magnificent chapters of the Bible. Its opening mood is enchanting: comfort, tenderness, peace, pardon. Its commission is superb: Prepare the way of the Lord! Its prediction is dazzling: The glory of the Lord shall be revealed! Its depiction of humanity is devastating: All flesh is grass! Its portrayal of the Holy One is majestic: everlasting God, Creator of heaven and earth, whose fingers span the heavens and nightly reckon the stars by name. Its illustration of the mighty God's guardianship is captivating: Like a shepherd He will feed, carry, and gently lead His flock. Magnificent, indeed!

For the context of this chapter, we must begin with the appalling indictment that launched Isaiah on his prophetic mission and that characterized God's chosen as greedy, exploiters of the poor, oppressors of the weak, neglecters of the needy, despisers of God. It is a bill of arraignment that shames them for their pride, haughtiness, arrogance, wantonness, and sodomy. God saw them as festering bodies bruised, lacerated, overspread with open sores and unbandaged wounds. He heard their hypocritical worship as a hateful, unendurable racket—like a mob trampling the sacred precincts on the holy Sabbath. The "holy city" had become a harlot, the refuge of assassins, dominated by avarice, governed through injustice, ruled in corruption, presided over by crooks (Isa. 1:17, 21-23; 2:6-11; 3:9-17).

In the chapters that follow, this sweeping presentment is broadened to include Assyria, Babylon, Philistia, Moab, Damascus, Ephraim, Ethiopia, Egypt, Arabia, Tyre, Edom, the nations, the earth, the host of heaven. The climax comes with the invasion by Sennacherib, his plunder of the Judean towns, the siege of Jerusalem, destruction of the Assyrian army by one angel, the assassination of the emperor by his two sons, Hezekiah's terminal infection, his miraculous healing, his pathetic braggadocio before the Babylonian ambassadors, and the prediction of Babylonian captivity for Judah.

Throughout chapters 1-39 three themes recur: (1) the human situation, of which God's chosen are a part, is a disaster; (2) no earthly power is adequate to rescue humanity from this tragedy; (3) divine redemption is the only way out of the iniquitous and doomed ordeal.

This is the background for the celestial vision of chapter 40, in which antiphonal voices again—as they did in chapter 6—cry out the prophetic pronouncements. Concentration on the individual paragraphs, assigning titles and writing theme sentences for them, will be a start toward mastery of the chapter's content.

Themes of Paragraphs

1, 2. Comfort and Pardon. Comfort and tenderness follow the ending of Jerusalem's warfare and the pardoning of her iniquity.

3-5. Prepare the Way. Across wilderness and desert the way of the Lord is to be prepared, and His glory will be revealed to all.

6-8. All Flesh Is Grass. In contrast to withering and fading people, the Word of God stands forever.

9-11. Good Tidings. Zion is commanded to shout the good tidings that the Lord God comes to rule with might and to tend His flock like a shepherd.

12-17. Who Measured Heaven and Earth? The heavens, earth, seas, is lands, and nations are as nothing when compared with God.

18-20. No Likeness. No person or image can be a likeness of God.

21-23. Above the Circle of the Earth. He who sits above the earth and spreads out the heavens like a tent sees the world's inhabitants as grasshoppers.

24. Rootless Rulers. Earth's mighty disappear as chaff in the wind before the breath of God.

25. 26. No Comparison. The challenge: To whom can you compare the Holy One who created the stars and calls them by name?

27-31. Everlasting Creator. The in comparable Lord of the heavens and earth does not overlook the faint and exhausted, but all who wait for Him will be renewed to fly like eagles and to run without wearying.

Lists

Making lists of persons, places, things, and time indications constitutes another step toward assimilation of the content. Since space limitations preclude reproducing the total (about 130 items), only a few examples are given here.

Persons: My (God's) people (1); your (people's) God (1, 9); Zion (personified) (9); counselor (13); craftsman (20); rulers (23); the faint (29).

Places: Wilderness (3); cities of Judah (9); Lebanon (16).

Time Indications: End of warfare (2); from the beginning (21).

Things (material and abstract): Sins (2); grass (6, 7, 8); God's reward (10); span (12); justice (14); bucket (15); eagles (31).

A very important process is the grammatical analysis of each para graph, sentence by sentence. For this I use a chart, as illustrated by the first-paragraph analysis above. (See figure 1.)

After the entire chapter has been thus analyzed, other literary devices should be noted and recorded: comparisons (all flesh is like grass that withers, 6, 7); contrasts (the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever, 8); imperatives (prepare the way of the Lord, 3); questions (to whom will you liken God? 18); series (her warfare is ended, her iniquity is pardoned, she has received double for all her sins, 2); progress toward a climax (every valley, every mountain, the crooked, the rough places. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed 4, 5); repetition (all flesh is grass, the grass withers,. . . the people is grass, the grass withers, 6-8).

Each process takes the scholar through the passage with a different objective and should add new insights. Dominant ideas will become evident, such as: God's love, forgiveness, care, concern, and understanding of His people (1, 2, 11, 27-29); the coming of the Lord in glory and power to renew the earth and care for His people (3-5, 10, 11, 31); the transient nature and insignificance of humanity when compared with the everlasting God (6-8, 15-17, 23, 24); the incomparable greatness and wisdom of God as Creator, Sustainer, Manipulator, and Redeemer of heaven and earth (12-14, 18, 21-23, 25, 26, 28, 29).

An outline was then assembled from the list of truths and came out as indicated below:

Outline

1. Introduction.

   a. The great arraignment for sin God's chosen.

   b. Oracles of doom for sin the nations.

   c. Beyond doom, redemption from sin eschatological predictions.

   d. Substantiation in history (doom and deliverance) Sennacherib and Hezekiah.

2. The Celestial Council.

   a. Comfort my people! command from the throne.

   b. Enough warfare! adequate punishment received.

   c. Speak tenderly! iniquity is pardoned.

3. All Flesh Is Grass.

   a. People of earth: frail, transient, grass, grasshoppers.

   b. Nations of earth: drop from bucket, dust on scales, less than nothing.

   c. Rulers of earth: rootless, stubble, nothing.

4. Incomparable God.

   a. Holds in hand: mountains, oceans, earth, heavens.

   b. Knows, understands, is just with out: instruction, enlightenment, counsel,

   c. Creates earth; guides stars; is eternally untiring.

   d. Imparts to trusting weak: power, strength.

   e. They who wait (hope, trust, expect) upon the Lord shall: renew, mount up, run, walk without fatigue.

5. Good Tidings.

   a. "Prepare the way of the Lord" remove obstacles.

   b. "Behold , your God comes with might."

   c. "The glory of the Lord shall be revealed."

Of course, the outline is merely the skeleton that must be made alive, warm, beautiful, effective, and appealing by the addition of flesh, muscle, vital organs, and appropriate dynamics. This can be accomplished only in part by the written word (my sermons are always written), for to become truly alive, an exposition requires the living preacher.

The procedures suggested in this study presuppose an analytical examination of the entire book of Isaiah. They are not intended as guides to total exegesis, which is primarily analytical in nature. Preparation of an expository sermon is a task of synthesis following a broad analysis. Even this necessarily is abbreviated not only by abridgment but also by omission.


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Frederick E. J. Harder, Ph.D., is director of the Board of Higher Education of the General Conference of Seventhday Adventists.

July 1977

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