Handel's Messiah begins with the wonderful words of Isaiah 40, "Comfort ye, comfort ye My people." The choice of these words to begin a reflection on the Messiah is exactly right. The coming of Jesus is the coming of comfort for God's people. After Isaiah has so fully explored the themes of sin and judgment, now come the words of hope, the Gospel. The warfare is over and peace is promised.
At the time of the Reformation, when the Gospel of Jesus Christ was recovered, the theme of comfort stood at the center of Christian teaching. No longer would the medieval Christianity of doubt, fear, and uncertainty prevail. Rather, confidence and assurance that Jesus brought comfort, rest, and joy to His own dominated the life of the new churches. A theologian and preacher, Zacharias Ursinus, captured this confidence in his Heidelberg Catechism. The very first question asks, "What is your only comfort in life and death?" The whole of Messiah's Gospel is summed up in the answer to that question: "That, with body and soul, both in life and in death, am not my own, but belong to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ, who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and redeemed me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my Father in heaven not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must work together for my salvation. Wherefore, by His Holy Spirit, He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready hence forth to live unto Him."
The message of comfort that begins Isaiah 40 marks a new section of the prophecy. The redeeming work of God now becomes the dominant theme. Chapters 40 to 66 contain some of Scripture's most beautiful and encouraging words of promise and hope. The word that Isaiah uses and that we translate as "comfort" literally means "cause to breathe again."It communicates the sense of relief and deliverance that God brings to His people.
One remarkable aspect of the comfort that God brings through His prophet is the stress on making it known. Notice the insistence in Isaiah 40: "speak,""cry out," "the voice of one crying,""lift up your voice with strength, lift it up, be not afraid." The command to shout out the Gospel reflects the need of the people to have comfort and hope impressed upon them. Too often we are deaf, fearful, or unbelieving in hearing the “good tidings.” We are tempted to think that such good news cannot really be for sinners like us. But God through Isaiah summons us to join in the chorus of thanksgiving sung by the redeemed: “’O LORD, I will praise You; though You were angry with me, Your anger is turned away, and You comfort me. Behold, God is my salvation, I will trust and not be afraid; “For YAH, the LORD, is my strength and song; He also has become my salvation’” (Isa. 12:1-2).
The Gospel of Jesus must be declared loudly and boldly because “faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17). It is not by seeing but by hearing that the truth of Christ comes to His people. For that reason, God appointed prophets, apostles, and preachers to carry His message.
Isaiah can stress comfort for God’s people in the preached word because the message is that God Himself will redeem His people. They will not be left alone. The promise that God will come, not to condemn but to redeem, is at the heart of Isaiah 40. Prepare the way. He is coming to reveal His glory. “Behold your God.”
The God who is coming is a mighty God: “Behold, the Lord GOD shall come with a strong hand, and His arm shall rule for Him” (Isa. 40:10a). When God says that He will come and redeem us, we do not need to worry that He cannot accomplish what He determines to do. The arm of the Lord is all-powerful; nothing can stand against Him. The forces of evil cannot stop Him. Even our sin cannot defeat Him. Those whom He comes to save He will save.
God uses His arm of power gently and carefully to redeem and care for His people. The promise of comfort is that God will “feed,” “gather,” “carry,” and “gently lead” His sheep. Isaiah pictures God as the shepherd who provides all that is necessary for the well-being of His sheep. It is Jesus who fulfills this prophetic vision. It is Jesus who is God come in the flesh as the Good Shepherd. Jesus may have been thinking of Isaiah 40 when He said: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives life for the sheep…As the Father knows Me, even so I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. And other sheep I have which are not of this fold; them also I must bring, and they will hear My voice; and there will be one flock and one shepherd” (John 10:11, 15-16).
Isaiah expresses the promise of comfort in another powerful way. We read: “Behold! My Servant whom I uphold, My Elect One in whom My soul delights!...A bruised reed He will not break, and smoking flax He will not quench” (Isa. 42:1-3a). Our saving God shows His love and tenderness in this wonderful promise. The weakest of the weak will not be neglected or despised. Jesus cited this text in explaining His care for the weak (see Matt. 12). These words have encouraged Christians since. God does comfort His people with the Gospel.
Praise God that He is the God of all comfort in Jesus Christ, our Messiah.
First published in Tabletalk, June 1999.
© Westminster Seminary California All rights reserved
Permissions: You are permitted to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do NOT alter the wording in any way and you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred.