Isaiah 40-55 is a subsection of the larger work called Isaiah. There are two schools of thought as to how this larger work hangs together. One school of thought holds that the work is by a single author who lived prior to the fall of the Northern Kingdom (it fell to outsiders 100 years before the southern half of the kingdom fell to other outsiders).
The other school of thought holds that there were at least two authors whose work was combined under the name of the first gentleman – Isaiah – who lived and worked prior to the fall of the northern kingdom. They hold that this passage under consideration is by an anonymous author, and material which follows from Isaiah 56 to the end of the book was composed after the exiles returned to Jerusalem by one or perhaps several other authors.
People who hold the first outlook, handle the future references (for example King Cyrus allowing the exiles to return to Jerusalem) by saying that the first author was a prophet and could foresee very accurately into the future regarding how things were going to work themselves out in terms of the Southern Kingdom.
It’s plain to see by my historical fiction, The Return, that I take the second position, and regard the larger work as being composed by several authors living over an extended period of time.
Chapter 40, which introduces this middle section of Isaiah, is a very well-known passage, and many people know some of his lines because Handel used them when he composed The Messiah. Handle decided to avoid all the particular views about Scripture in his composition simply by taking the King James version of the Bible, and using the lines as they were written. This approach has made his composition stand the test of time because people can hear it from their own perspectives.
The connection of this passage, chapter 40, with the heading about discouragement, comes from the fact that the author is being spoken to by God, and recounts the conversation. He is being instructed to comfort the exiles and tell them that the end of the exile is approaching, and that they will be allowed to go home. The exiles, who were in fact the bulk of the leadership and highly trained craftspeople had been taken to Babylon to prevent an uprising. The people who were left were primarily non-leadership material, and their population was augmented by civil service leadership imported from Babylon and other parts of the Babylonian kingdom at the time of the exile.
This redistribution of population was a standard political move of the people who conquered the Southern Kingdom, and resulted in political stability in these outlying fringe areas of their kingdom, while ensuring a steady supply of highly trained people to take jobs in the capital city.
The exiles themselves, although desperately homesick in many cases, had the better life. In today’s terms it would be like a group of people being exiled from the backwoods area of northern Manitoba or northern Ontario to Metropolitan Toronto or New York City where they were given well-paying jobs. In fact estimates are that only 5 to 10% of those exiles chose to return to Jerusalem.
Meanwhile the people who were allowed to stay in the homeland intermarried with the newcomers, and adopted many of their customs and perspectives. As the capital city of this area was Samaria, and the new province was called Samaria, these people who were allowed to stay back home later became known as Samaritans.
When the exiles returned home, there was a fair amount of conflict between the two groups, as we see in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah – books which talk about these two leaders of the returned exiles, and how they advocated circling the wagons, and consolidating the Jewish people.
The author of this section of Isaiah, held up a different vision of what the exiles could do with their new freedom. He was very aware that the exiles had learned a great deal while in exile, and felt that the returned community could in fact be a light for all the nations of the world and that they should share their learnings with other cultures.
The advice of Ezra and Nehemiah prevailed, but this author’s advice was tucked away and kept for 500 years until a man named Jesus came along, saw his name written all over the task of sharing these learnings with the other cultures of the world as salt and light leaven for their cultures, and trained a group of 12 apostles from among his many disciples to jump over the Jewish cultural wall and do exactly that. The New Testament is the story of that endeavor.
The ongoing conflict between the two groups shows up in a number of places in the New Testament, most notably in the story of the good Samaritan – where Jesus talks about a man being mugged and left for dead on the road just outside of Jerusalem, and how the Jewish leadership (the in group) walked by and left him, while the Samaritan (the-outgroup) lent a hand and saved the man’s life... And he told the story to answer the question, “who is my neighbor, if I’m supposed to love my neighbor as myself?”.
Personally, I view this section chapter 40-55, as being a document which arose from the short period of the transition home by the first group of exiles. There were actually several of these efforts to return home over the next 150 years. The human dynamics depicted in this sub-section of the book are amazing, and give us many insights into the dynamics of that period of history, in that little piece of territory.
The last part of chapter 40, which relates very much to the people who are discouraged throughout the ages, arises from the fact that the exiles were set free by King Cyrus and his armies who were sweeping down on the people who had taken them into captivity 70 years before. In other words they were caught between a rock and a hard place, and had no idea how King Cyrus was going to view their existence as he swept by en route to conquering their captors.
The author of this passage advises them to relax, that it’s all in God’s plan to set them free, and to stay out of the conflict. Far from being ignored by God or forgotten by him, the author tells his readers that God is very much involved, that God does not grow weary, but rather gives strength to those who are frightened or discouraged or see no hope for the future.
If I were to use the gifts model, I would say the author this section had a very high encourager gift.
Scattered throughout this sub-section of Isaiah, are a number of passages known collectively as the “servant passages”, which have drawn a lot of commentary over the years. In them, the author addresses his audience as being “the servant community” of God, and looks at them from several perspectives. His message is that this little servant community of returning exiles could have (and did have) a very life-giving effect on the larger Jewish community, and in particular the people who had stayed home. The passages are as follows:
- 41:8-10 – the election of the servant community by God
- 42:1-4 – the servant community is commissioned
- 42:18-22 – the servant community is reproved
- 43:8-11 – the servant community is consoled
- 44:1-5 – the servant community is encouraged
- 44:21-23 – the servant community is admonished
- 44:24-28 – the servant community is comforted
- 45:4-7 – the servant community is reassured
- 48:20-2 to – the servant community is rescued
- 49:1-6 – the servant community is honored
- 49:7-13 – the servant community is reverenced
- 50:4-11 – the commendation of the servant community
- 52:13-15 – the servant community is exalted
Different commentators hold different views as to the identity of this servant community, but the view I take is that this little servant community brought hope and life into the ruins of Jerusalem when they returned, particularly after the ban on construction within the city walls was lifted, and everybody was able to start again.
The description in chapter 53 of the impact of this little band of people on the larger community is magnificent – later on, when Jesus disciples read this passage, they realize that he had had much the same impact on them as that little servant community had had on Jerusalem when they brought new life into a humdrum existence. A good argument can be made that Jesus read this particular passage and sought to live it out in his own life, which partly accounts for how his disciples came to make the association.
Of course, the implication of the larger section is that we also should ask ourselves what impact we have on the communities within which we live, and whether we also should take hope from God, and become involved in bringing life to the world around us. In short, when we are discouraged, we get a choice as to how we’re going to react to a bad situation.