Read an Excerpt
How to Use This Guide
You might compare the Bible to a national park. The park is so large that you could spend months, even years, getting to know it. But a brief visit, if carefully planned, can be enjoyable and worthwhile. In a few hours you can drive through the park and pull over at a handful of sites. At each stop you can get out of the car, take a short trail through the woods, listen to the wind blowing through the trees, get a feel for the place.
In this booklet we’ll drive through a small portion of the Bible, making half a dozen stops along the way. At those points we’ll proceed on foot, taking a leisurely walk through the selected passages. The readings have been chosen to take us to the heart of the message contained in Isaiah 40–55. After each discussion we’ll get back in the car and take the highway to the next stop.
This guide provides everything you need to begin exploring this section of Isaiah in six discussions—or to do a six-part exploration on your own. The introduction on page 6 will prepare you to get the most out of your reading. The weekly sections feature key passages in Isaiah 40–55, with explanations that highlight the message of these prophecies for us today. Equally important, each section supplies questions that will launch you into fruitful discussion, helping you to both investigate the passages for yourself and learn from one another. If you’re using the booklet by yourself, the questions will spur your personal reflection.
Each discussion is meant to be a guided discovery.
Guided. None of us is equipped to read the Bible without help. We read the Bible for ourselves but not by ourselves. Scripture was written to be understood and applied in the community of faith. So each week “A Guide to the Reading,” drawing on the work of both modern biblical scholars and Christian writers of the past, supplies background and explanations. The guide will help you grasp the message of the Isaiah readings. Think of it as a friendly park ranger who points out noteworthy details and explains what you’re looking at so you can appreciate things for yourself.
Discovery. The purpose is for you to interact with Isaiah. “Questions for Careful Reading” is a tool to help you dig into the text and examine it carefully. “Questions for Application” will help you consider what these words mean for your life here and now. Each week concludes with an “Approach to Prayer” section that helps you respond to God’s word. Supplementary “Living Tradition” and “Saints in the Making” sections offer the thoughts and experiences of Christians past and present. By showing what the message of Isaiah has meant to others, these sections will help you consider what Isaiah’s words mean for you.
How long are the discussion sessions? We’ve assumed you will have about an hour and a half when you get together. If you have less time, you’ll find that most of the elements can be shortened somewhat.
Is homework necessary? You will get the most out of your discussions if you read the weekly material and prepare your answers to the questions in advance of each meeting. But if participants are not able to prepare, have someone read the “Guide to the Reading” sections aloud at the points where they appear.
What about leadership? If you happen to have a world-class biblical scholar in your group, by all means ask him or her to lead the discussions. But in the absence of any professional Scripture scholars, or even accomplished amateur biblical scholars, you can still have a first-class Bible discussion. Choose two or three people to take turns as facilitators and have everyone read “Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups” (page 82) before beginning.
Does everyone need a guide? a Bible? Everyone in the group will need his or her own copy of this booklet. It contains the sections of Isaiah that are discussed, so a Bible is not absolutely necessary—but each participant will find it useful to have one. You should have at least one Bible on hand for your discussions. (See page 86 for recommendations.)
How do we get started? Before you begin, take a look at the suggestions for Bible discussion groups (page 82) or individuals (page 85).
What discourages you? I can tell you what discourages me. My list runs from the latest news report of ethnic cleansing to the near impossibility of getting a carpenter to come out to my house and make repairs. In the middle of my list of discouragements is the word me, with a circle drawn around it. Probably each of us has a list containing our particular sorrows and peeves. Some of us keep the list hidden in a drawer. Others brood over it frequently.
For all of us in our discouragement, God has a message of hope. The message has been delivered by Jesus of Nazareth. In fact, Jesus himself is the heart of the message. If we wish to learn about Jesus and his message, we may go to the Gospels, which provide accounts of his life, his teaching, his death and resurrection. But in order to grasp the meaning of Jesus, it is also helpful to view him in his place in the history of God’s dealings with the people of Israel. Jesus was a first-century Palestinian Jew. And he presented himself as the fulfillment of God’s interactions with Israel.
God’s actions over the centuries led the Jews to certain expectations concerning how God would act in the world in the future. The book from which we are going to read, Isaiah, played a large part in developing these expectations. In the first century, many Jews read the book of Isaiah as a prophecy of what God would soon do. The substantial number of fragments and even entire copies of Isaiah found among the Dead Sea Scrolls testifies to the fascination the book held for the Jewish sect that maintained the library at Qumran. Jesus himself certainly pondered Isaiah and used parts of it to explain himself to his listeners (Luke 4:17–21). After Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Church found the book of Isaiah so useful for enriching its picture of Jesus that the book came to be called the fifth Gospel.
The portion of Isaiah that we are going to read—chapters 40 through 55—is especially rich in insights into the significance of Jesus. These chapters of Isaiah are particularly helpful for grasping how Jesus speaks to us in our discouragement, perhaps because they were originally addressed to people in very discouraging circumstances.
While the situation of the original audience is of less concern to us than our own situation, it is useful for us to give it some attention. The message that God spoke through Isaiah—the message that helps us better understand Jesus—comes to us as a series of prophecies directed to Israelites more than twenty-five centuries ago. To grasp what Isaiah’s words mean for us today, we need some understanding of what they meant to his original audience. To aid your understanding, this introduction and the “Guide to the Reading” sections offer a little background.
The dominating event behind chapters 40 through 55 of Isaiah is the Babylonians’ destruction of Jerusalem in 587 b.c. In the centuries before this catastrophe, the people of the small kingdom of Judah* [*Judah was roughly the hilly area between the Dead Sea and the Mediterranean Sea (it lies in present-day Israeli and Palestinian territories). The residents of the region of Judah were called “Judeans,” from which the name Jews developed. The term Jews became common after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 b.c. Before that, the community of the Mosaic covenant was usually called “the people of Israel” or simply “Israel.” After the exile, the geographical term Judah tended to be replaced by Judea.] had strayed from the principles of justice and integrity to which God had called them when he made a covenant with them through Moses. Their straying from God’s will was not a matter of a few minor iniquities. The prophets give us a vivid picture of the gross injustices in Judah in the period before the fall of Jerusalem (Jeremiah 5:26–29; 22:3–5, 13–17; 34:8–22; Zephaniah 3.) Injustice and corruption led to dysfunctional political and diplomatic policies. Finally, ignoring sensible prophetic advice (Jeremiah 27), the people of Judah rebelled against the Babylonian empire—and suffered a crushing defeat. The Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, and sent the Judean upper class into exile in Babylon, hundreds of miles to the east (in modern-day Iraq; see 2 Chronicles 36:15–21).
At that point, it looked to some Israelites as though their relationship with God and their existence as a people had simply come to an end. God seemed to have abandoned them. In a vision, the prophet Ezekiel saw God’s splendid, awesome, life-giving presence—his “glory”—departing from Jerusalem (Ezekiel 11:22–23). (Ezekiel was in exile in Babylon at the time he gave his prophecy, which makes his words about God’s departure from Jerusalem especially poignant.) There seemed to be no hope for restoration, given the massive reality of the Babylonian empire. In the face of that power, it seemed impossible that the small group of exiles, or the impoverished villagers who remained behind in Judah, could ever rebuild their national life.
Four decades passed. Adults who had been sent into exile became old and died in Babylon. Children grew up with little, if any, recollection of Jerusalem. What happened to the exiles’ relationship with God and with one another?
Paradoxically, the shock of defeat had a constructive effect on some of those who were sent off into exile. Many of them had been convinced that God would simply never let them be defeated. They thought of him as a kind of tribal deity who couldbe relied on to provide protection and blessing for his tribe, regardless of how they behaved. Prophets like Jeremiah had tried unsuccessfully to penetrate this mind-set. They reminded the people of the responsibility to act justly and mercifully that was laid on them by their covenant relationship with God. Then, the breaching of Jerusalem’s walls by the Babylonian army tore a breach in the Israelites’ complacent picture of a convenient, undemanding God. They now saw with terrible clarity how deeply God cares about justice. He had shown that he was willing to use painful corrective measures to make them pay attention to the priority he places on treating others with integrity and mercy. This shattering realization opened these exiles to a broader, deeper understanding of God. And this, in the midst of their hopeless situation, gave them hope: “Surely this great and just and merciful God has not utterly abandoned us!” Searching for a way forward, the exiles reexamined their national past. They discovered that it was not God who had broken the covenant with them; rather, they had broken the covenant with him. This was the root of the disasters that had befallen them. As they reflected on their history, the exiles identified ways in which Israel had gone astray from God, and they resolved to change. On the basis of their repentant self-examination, they wrote and edited books about Israel’s past—books that now form much of the Old Testament.
But defeat and exile did not lead all the exiles to a deeper faith in God. To some Israelites, their situation seemed to demonstrate that God no longer cared about them. To some, it appeared that the God of Israel had proved to be weaker than the gods of Babylon, since the Babylonian army had devastated their little nation. Some Israelites, it seems, slipped into resignation or despair.
Then, suddenly, some forty years after the destruction of Jerusalem, God began to convey a series of startling announcements to the people of Israel. Through a prophet, God announced that he was about to unfold a rescue plan on their behalf. Many of the recipients of this message found it difficult to believe and respond to, because God spoke about accomplishing his purposes in uncomfortable, even unwelcome ways and, perhaps even more, because his promises were almost incredibly wonderful.
Who was the prophet who delivered these messages? His prophecies now constitute chapters 40 through 55 of the book of Isaiah. But most scholars believe he was not the same person as the Isaiah who wrote the earlier chapters. The main reason for this view is that the Isaiah who was responsible for chapters 1 through 29 of the book lived a century before the fall of Jerusalem. The prophet of chapters 40 through 55 lived almost half a century after the city’s fall.
We have virtually no information about the prophet of Isaiah 40–55. All we know of this later prophet is what can be inferred from his prophecies—which is not very much. We do not even know his name. Apparently some people in Israel felt that this later prophet’s message followed in the tradition of the earlier prophet Isaiah, so they placed the writings of the later prophet in the same scroll with those of the former one. This was in keeping with an ancient practice of associating later writings with notable earlier figures—a phenomenon we find elsewhere in the Bible. Thus the first five books of the Old Testament were ascribed to Moses, the Psalms were connected with David, and some of the wisdom books were linked with Solomon (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon). Scholars refer to the prophet of Isaiah 40–55 as Second Isaiah or (meaning the same thing but using a Greek word) Deutero-Isaiah. Except where it might cause confusion, in this booklet we will refer to him simply as Isaiah.
Needless to say, the fact that the author of Isaiah 40–55 is unknown to us does not in any way lessen the inspired quality of his words. The community of Judaism and, later, the Church have recognized these prophecies as God’s word. In fact, large portions of the Bible are of uncertain authorship (the authors of all the historical books from Judges through Maccabees, for example, are anonymous), but this does not detract at all from their truth and authority.
Reading Isaiah’s prophecies, you may well wonder what response the Israelites made to God’s promises and whether events unfolded according to Isaiah’s visions. In order to keep this introduction as short as possible, I have dealt with these questions briefly in an essay at the end of this booklet entitled “What Happened after That?” It surveys developments from Isaiah to Jesus and suggests how Isaiah’s prophecies are fulfilled in Jesus—and how they speak to us today. But the main historical developments are these: As Isaiah predicted, a Persian ruler named Cyrus soon conquered the Babylonian empire. He then instituted policies that encouraged the various peoples of his empire to strengthen and renew their ancestral traditions. As part of this policy, Cyrus allowed the Jewish exiles to begin to return to Judea. He even authorized a subsidy for the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem (2 Chronicles 36:22–23; Ezra 1–3).
Before closing, I would like to offer a suggestion or two concerning how to go about reading these chapters of Isaiah. You will notice that Isaiah has conveyed his message in poetic form. If we are to benefit from his words, we must keep their form in mind. We should remember that poetry is not designed chiefly to communicate information. Francis Scott Key did not pen “The Star-Spangled Banner” to provide an account of the defense of Fort McHenry. He wrote it to share his exultation in the fortitude of the American forces. We should not expect Isaiah to provide detailed answers to historical or theological questions. Rather we should try to hear the music of Isaiah’s prophecies. Isaiah has conveyed his messages in poetry, and poetry speaks to the heart. So let Isaiah move you. As you read, use your imagination to try to recreate the situation of Isaiah’s first audience. Feel their discouragement. Then experience their astonishment at God’s unexpected announcements through Isaiah. Sense how difficult it was for them to welcome and believe and cooperate with the divine intervention about which Isaiah spoke.
A note about Hebrew poetry may be helpful. It does not use rhyme. Scholars are not even certain whether it uses rhythm or meter—and in any case, there is no rhythm or meter in the English translations. Hebrew poetry, however, has a form that carries over quite well in translation: it is generally structured in somewhat parallel statements. Sometimes the parallel parts express a single thought in two ways (“He gives power to the faint, / and strengthens the powerless”—40:29). Sometimes the second part adds something to the first (“He was cut off from the land of the living, / stricken for the transgression of my people”—53:8). Occasionally the parts express a sharp contrast (“The grass withers, the flower fades; / but the word of our God will stand forever”—40:8). Like poetry in English, Hebrew poetry tends to be dense and filled with imagery.
You will notice various voices in these chapters from Isaiah: the members of God’s heavenly court speak to one another, God speaks, the prophet speaks, and even the people speak briefly. One scholar, Klaus Baltzer, has suggested that chapters 40 through 55 of Isaiah were written to be performed as a sort of religious drama somewhere in desolate Jerusalem. Perhaps it was originally “staged” in the courtyard of the shattered temple or on a hillside where the city wall lay in ruins and the ground was covered with the rubble of burned-out buildings. Whether other scholars accept Baltzer’s proposal or not, the fallen city of Jerusalem is an evocative setting in which to imagine the prophecies being read. And Baltzer’s suggestion is a useful encouragement to read Isaiah’s prophecies aloud. Isaiah’s dramatic poetry may best come alive by being divided into parts and read by several voices (see the suggestions each week in “Opening the Bible”).
Finally, if you have a recording of George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, dig it out. Handel created soaring musical settings for portions of Isaiah that we will read in weeks 1 and 5.
Comfort My Discouraged People
Questions to Begin
15 minutes Use a question or two to get warmed up for the reading.
1 What is your favorite kind of parade or procession?
2 When have you given someone good news? What was the reaction?
Opening the Bible
5 minutes Read the passage aloud. Let individuals take turns. (Suggestion: first speaker—verses 1–2; second speaker—verses 3–5; third speaker—verses 6–8; fourth speaker—verses 9–11; all together—verses 12–15; fifth speaker—verses 27–29.)
The Reading: Isaiah 40:1–15, 27–29
The Prophet’s Call
1 Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that she has served her term,
that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.
3 A voice cries out:
“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 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
6 A voice says, “Cry out!”
And I said, “What shall I cry?”
All people are grass,
their constancy 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 are grass.
8 The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand 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, do not fear;
say to the cities of Judah,
“Here is your God!”
10 See, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
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,
and carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead the mother sheep.
God Can Do What He Promises
12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand
and marked off the heavens with a span,
enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure,
and weighed the mountains in scales
and the hills in a balance?
13 Who has directed the spirit of the Lord,
or as his counselor has instructed him?
14 Whom did he consult for his enlightenment,
and who taught him the path of justice?
Who taught him knowledge,
and showed him the way of understanding?
15 Even the nations are like a drop from a bucket,
and are accounted as dust on the scales;
see, he takes up the isles like fine dust. . . .
A Response to Those Who Feel Abandoned
27 Why do you say, O Jacob,
and speak, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the Lord,
and my right is disregarded by my God”?
28 Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He does not faint or grow weary;
his understanding is unsearchable.
29 He gives power to the faint,
and strengthens the powerless.
Questions for Careful Reading
10 minutes Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 Is God the only one for whom the highway is to be built (40:3–4)?*
2 What kinds of events will reveal God’s “glory” (40:5)?*
3 What answers are implied by the rhetorical questions in 40:12, 13, 14?
4 What attitude toward God lies behind the protest quoted in 40:27?
5 Who are the faint and powerless in 40:29? What are they given the strength to do?*
*It is helpful to try to answer these questions at this point in our reading. But the answers will become clearer as we continue to read Isaiah in future weeks.
A Guide to the Reading
If participants have not read this section already, read it aloud. Otherwise go on to “Questions for Application.”
40:1–5. Imagine yourself in Isaiah’s place. In a vision you are standing in heaven. God, like an ancient Near Eastern king, is seated on a throne, surrounded by government ministers (compare Job 1:6–12). As you listen, the heavenly courtiers announce that God has decided to reverse the unhappy situation of his people, Israel.
One voice declares God’s decree of liberation: “Comfort, comfort my people.” God does not merely wish his people to know that he sympathizes with them in their suffering. The “comfort” lies in the news that God is going to act on their behalf (compare 51:3, 12–14). Help is on the way!
A second voice calls for the landscape to be reconfigured into a highway for God (40:3–5, 10). The focus is on God’s action; at this point, human cooperation is secondary. The command issues from God, who created all things by a mere word (Genesis 1). The divine decree itself will bring the road into existence.
God is returning to Jerusalem—to the midst of his people. In one sense, he has never been apart from them (if he had, they would have fallen out of existence). But he withdrew his presence in the sense of refraining from blessing them; he let them taste the bitter consequences of their injustices. But now God is coming back, and the whole world will see his glory.
40:6–8. Now a voice addresses the listening prophet: “Cry out! Tell the people that God is coming!”
In the view of the translators of the NRSV, the prophet’s response is brief (“What shall I cry?”). But ancient Hebrew did not use quotation marks. Some scholars think Isaiah’s response extends to the end of verse 7. In that case, Isaiah is not really asking what he should announce. Instead, he counters the command by implying that there is no use in making any announcement to the Israelites. They have shown themselves to be incapable of “constancy.” Israel’s history has demonstrated that the people do not have a capacity for loyalty; they are unreliable. A lasting relationship between God and these people is no more possible than a lasting relationship between the withering desert wind and fragile wildflowers (compare Psalms 39; 90). Why should God bother speaking to us, Isaiah asks, since we do not take hold of his word? Anyone who has ever seen a marriage or career wrecked by infidelity, abuse, addiction, or irresponsibility will understand Isaiah’s reluctance to believe that a new start is possible.
A heavenly voice responds vigorously (40:8). Biblical scholar Claus Westermann comments: “The voice that now speaks does not deny that Israel’s circumstances are what the prophet . . . takes them to be. From the human point of view there is nothing more to be done. . . . However, the sheer hopelessness of the situation is confronted with the reality of the word of God.” Despite human sin, God will resume his relationship with his people.
40:9–11. Jerusalem is pictured as a woman (Zion, addressed in the Hebrew as a woman, is the hill where the ancient city stood). She is told to announce to the surrounding towns that God has achieved a victory and is returning with prisoners and spoils. No battle is described; in a sense, none has occurred. God gains victories without fighting on any battlefield. God simply decrees. God has won the release of the Israelite exiles and is leading them back to the depopulated towns of Judea. A similar announcement of unseen victory over evil will mark Jesus’ ministry (Mark 1:15; Luke 10:18).
Isaiah pictures God as a king marching at the head of a victorious column of troops, but could anything look less military than the movement of flocks? The image emphasizes the king’s concern for each of his subjects. At a later time, Jesus also would neutralize the military connotations of a parade (John 12:14).
40:12–15. Another possible objection to God’s decree is that liberation for Israel is politically and militarily inconceivable. The Babylonian empire blocks Israelite aspirations to freedom. The answer to this skepticism is a magnificent statement of God’s sovereignty. No one can measure God or advise God or compare with God in any way. The might of Babylon and its gods are nothing before the ruler of the universe.
40:27–29. God not only asserts his ability to help his people; he also assures them that he will give them strength to cooperate with him. Old Testament scholar Paul Hanson calls these verses “the poetry of empowerment.” Of course, to receive God’s power, we must believe in it.
Questions for Application
40 minutes Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 When has it seemed that God has taken the initiative in your life?
2 Where in your life would you like to experience God’s liberating power? Where in the world would you most like to see God’s justice? How might you cooperate with God in both of these areas?
3 When do you tend to become discouraged about the possibility of growing closer to God? What is the message of today’s reading for you?
4 When have you been the recipient of words of comfort? What did you learn from the experience? In the coming week, how could you be a herald of comfort to someone else?
5 When have you seen the value of speaking tenderly and gently?
6 Using the view of God’s glory in this passage (combining 40:5 with 40:11), when have you seen God’s glory? Have you ever seen God’s glory without recognizing it at the time?
7 Mark quotes Isaiah 40:3 (Mark 1:3). How does reading Isaiah 40 help in understanding Mark 1:1–15?
The most common fear when approaching the formidable journey of Bible reading is that we are not smart enough. . . . Well, trust yourself as a reader. The Bible was not written for scholars but for ordinary people.
Steve Mueller, The Seeker’s Guide to Reading the Bible
Approach to Prayer
15 minutes Use this approach—or create your own!
♦ Have someone read aloud Luke 2:22–28. Then pray aloud together the words that the elderly Simeon speaks when he meets Mary and Joseph with the infant Jesus in the temple (Luke 2:29–32):
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and for glory to your people Israel.
End with a Glory to the Father and an Our Father.
Saints in the Making Sent to Bring Comfort
This section is a supplement for individual reading.
After traveling from Michigan to visit my daughter, I was sitting by the pool at her apartment complex one evening in Fort Worth, Texas. The night was cool and the water reflected the sparkling lights. I was alone and enjoying the quiet on a very comfortable lounge chair.
Suddenly, God spoke to my heart. “Dean, I want you to take my holy word and my body and blood in the most holy Eucharist into the prisons and jails.”
My immediate response was “No, God, I do not want anything to do with this. Lock these people up and leave them there.” My attitude was, they are getting just what they deserve.
I wrestled in my heart with God for two weeks. My fear was too great. What if the prisoners I meet get out of prison and come to my house, I asked myself. What if? What if? The questions went through my mind over and over. Yet God had an answer for every doubt and fear I could imagine. St. Peter had to face his fear by stepping out of the boat and walking on the water toward Christ.
The Lord had called me. He came into my heart so strongly that I could not say no. Two weeks later, on that same lounge chair, by that same pool, I surrendered my life, my family, and all my possessions to the Lord. Even if I lost everything, I was going to follow the Lord into the prisons and jails.
That was fourteen years ago. Now when I share with inmates, I tell them that I do not come to them to give them anything of myself. I come to bring them the body and blood of the Lord in the most holy Eucharist and to receive the suffering of Christ through them.
If not for God’s calling, I would never go back into a prison or jail. But God has continued to call me to bring his comfort to those who are imprisoned. And “I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13).