THREE OBSERVATIONS TO PREPARE THE WAY: (a) If Isaiah was about thirty when he was called to be a prophet in the year that King Uzziah died (Isa. 6:1), then he was sixty-nine at the time of the Assyrian invasion in 701 and seventy-two in 698 when Hezekiah died. Tradition outside the Bible says that he lived a little longer, into the reign of the wicked King Manasseh, who resolved to kill him. Fleeing Manasseh, the elderly Isaiah hid in a hollow tree in the forest, only to be found by Manasseh's men, who cut down the tree with a saw, Isaiah still inside. There may be an echo of this in Hebrews 11:36-37. (b) On this chronology, Isaiah had foreseen the Babylonian invasion as early as 712 B.C. (Isa. 39:5-7). Nevertheless the Assyrian invasion of 701 doubtless captured most of his attention until it was behind him. Judging by what appears in these next chapters, Isaiah then spent the few remaining years of his life in a ministry of comfort designed to help the faithful remnant in the still darker days that were ahead. Perhaps this ministry was public and oral for the remaining three years of King Hezekiah's life. Under the brutally repressive regime of Manasseh, however, Isaiah's ministry was more likely to the smaller circle of his disciples (Isa. 8:16-17) and in the written page that they would preserve until a new generation was again ready to listen to the words of God conveyed through him. (c) Thematically, this next section embraces chapters 40-55, which are full of comfort grounded in the astounding greatness of God and in the immeasurable atonement for sin that he provides.
The comfort provided in the opening overture (Isa. 40:1-11) has at least five elements. (a) These are still God's people, "my people" (Isa. 40:1). Despite the devastating prediction in the preceding verses of Jerusalem's destruction and the transportation of its people, God will comfort Jerusalem again (Isa. 40:2---clearly parallel with "my people"). (b) Their sins have been forgiven. Since it was their sins that attracted judgment, this is marvelous news. "Your sin has been paid for! Your hard service has been completed!" How this was accomplished is not fully unveiled until chapter 53, but the overture anticipates the symphonic splendor. (c) In consequence of their forgiveness, God himself will bring home the exiles, smoothing their way (Isa. 40:3-4), gathering his flock like a shepherd (Isa. 40:11), thereby disclosing his glory to the entire human race (Isa. 40:5); the missionary theme recurs. (d) However fickle people may be, God's word is utterly reliable (Isa. 40:6-8). (e) The good news shouted from Zion/Jerusalem is "Here is your God"---for "the Sovereign LORD comes with power" (Isa. 40:9, 10). Small wonder, then, that the remaining verses of the chapter dwell on the sheer majesty of God.