You may be thinking that I got the title backwards: Didn’t the exodus from Egypt come before the exile? It did, but not in Isaiah.

The Context of Isaiah 40:1–11

The book of Isaiah can be divided into two parts: 1–39 and 40–66. In 1–35, the Holy One of Israel is appalled by the idolatry and social injustice of His people, and sends them into exile. As a result, they lose their land and nationhood (compare Gen 12:1–2). Though the message in Isa 1–35 is one of judgment, it is followed by one of promise—there is a remnant (Isa 37:31). Then, after a brief narrative about the conflict between Israel and Assyria (Isa 36–39), comes a message of consolation and confrontation. Isaiah 40:1–11 marks a major division in the book and functions as a prologue for the next section, Isa 40–66.

The Content of Isaiah 40:1–11

Isaiah 40:1–11 moves from exile to a new exodus.

Isaiah 40:1–11 (HCSB)

“Comfort, comfort My people,” says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and announce to her that her time of servitude is over, her iniquity has been pardoned, and she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice of one crying out: Prepare the way of the Lord in the wilderness; make a straight highway for our God in the desert. Every valley will be lifted up, and every mountain and hill will be leveled; the uneven ground will become smooth, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord will appear, and all humanity will see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

A voice was saying, “Cry out!” Another said, “What should I cry out?” “All humanity is grass, and all its goodness is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flowers fade when the breath of the Lord blows on them; indeed, the people are grass. The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the word of our God remains forever.”

Zion, herald of good news, go up on a high mountain. Jerusalem, herald of good news, raise your voice loudly. Raise it, do not be afraid! Say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!” See, the Lord God comes with strength, and His power establishes His rule. His reward is with Him, and His gifts accompany Him. He protects His flock like a shepherd; He gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them in the fold of His garment. He gently leads those that are nursing.

Isaiah 40 begins with God’s people in exile, but that season of punishment has come to an end. The double portion of comfort (Isa 40:1) matches the double portion of punishment which Jerusalem, personified as a woman, has paid in exile (Isa 40:2).

For the people of Israel, the exodus from Egypt defined salvation. It meant deliverance from enslavement (Deut 5:6), a new identity (Deut 26:18), possession of an inheritance (Num 33:53), and restoration of relationship with God and neighbor (Deut 6:4Lev 19:18). All this was on account of God’s mercy, not human merit (Deut 9:4).

Isaiah 40:1–11 hearkens back to the exodus from Egypt to provide hope for the exiles. Isaiah 40:3–5 announces the new exodus. God led His people through the wilderness before (Exod 13:18), and now in the wilderness, preparations must be made for the way of the LORD (Exod 13:21–2223:20; Isa 40:343:16–19). Creation will be transformed so that God’s people may travel (Isa 40:4)—like they did before (Exod 14:21–22).

The glory of the LORD will be revealed (Isa 40:5). The glory is God’s presence, manifested. It is the same glory that filled the tabernacle, overwhelming Moses (Exod 40:34–35; compare Isa 63:10–11). In the glory of the LORD, the frailty of humanity is exposed (Isa 40:6–8), just like when the Israelites met God at Sinai (Exod 20:19).

As this section of Isaiah began, it ends: with the message of good news to God’s people (Isa 40:1, 9–10). The Holy One of Israel will care for His people as a shepherd cares for his flock (Isa 40:11). He will lead Israel back to their land, like He led them out of Egypt (Isa 63:11).

Repurposing Isaiah 40:1–11

Even after the return from exile, some communities in Israel questioned whether the prophecies of Isaiah had been fulfilled. Had the exile come to an end?

Had the way of the LORD been prepared? Had the glory of the LORD been revealed?

In order to fulfill what Isaiah had written, a Jewish sect called the Essenes moved into the desert at Qumran (250 BC–68 AD), near the Dead Sea, to prepare the way of the LORD. One of their writings, called the Rule of the Community, reads:

“And when these have become a community in Israel in compliance with these arrangements they are to be segregated from within the dwelling of the men of sin to walk to the desert in order to open there His path. As it is written: ‘In the desert, prepare the way of [Yahweh], straighten in the steppe a roadway for our God’ ” (Rule of the Community, column 8, lines 12–14).

Florentino García Martínez and Eibert J. C. Tigchelaar, The Dead Sea Scrolls Study Edition (Transcriptions) (New York: Brill, 1997–98). Logos.com/DssStudyEdition

Another writer ironically saw the fulfillment of what Isaiah had written in a Roman ruler’s entrance into Jerusalem. Israel historically looked for deliverance from foreign rulership, but here the Jewish leaders are welcoming the Roman Pompey (106–48 BC):

The non-biblical writing, Psalms of Solomon, records that the Jewish leaders “made the rough ways even, before his [Pompey’s] entering” into Jerusalem (Psalms of Solomon, 8:17).

R.H. Charles, Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament (Bellingham: Logos Bible Software, 2004). Logos.com/OTPseudepigrapha

In the Gospel of John, John the Baptist identifies himself as the voice crying in the wilderness (Isa 40:3John 1:23)—the one that announced the new exodus. Once John baptizes Jesus, Jesus takes on Israel’s role, passing through the waters, traveling through the desert, and embarking on a conquest of the land. He delivers people from bondage (Luke 13:16Rom 6:18), gives them a new identity (Matt 16:18Gal 4:7), an inheritance (Matt 25:34Heb 9:15), and restores them to right relationship with God (Col 1:21–22) and each other (Eph 2:14–16). Through such a great salvation the glory of God is revealed (Exod 40:31Isa 40:5John 1:14).

God takes all who believe from exile to exodus, in an ultimate fulfillment of what was written in the prophet Isaiah.

Resources Used

G.K. Beale and D.A. Carson (eds.), Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2007). Logos.com/NTUseOfOT

Gleason L. Archer, A Survey of Old Testament Introduction (3rd. ed.; Chicago: Moody, 1998). Logos.com/OTSurveyIntro

Article courtesy of Bible Study Magazine published by Logos Bible Software. Each issue of Bible Study Magazine provides tools and methods for Bible study as well as insights from people like John Piper, Beth Moore, Mark Driscoll, Kay Arthur, Randy Alcorn, John MacArthur, Barry Black, and more. More information is available at http://www.biblestudymagazine.com. Originally published in print: Copyright Bible Study Magazine (Mar–Apr 2010): pgs. 40–41.

Publication date: July 17, 2013