Isaiah 40:1–11, the prologue to the second major unit of Isaiah (chapters 40–55), is addressed to a people—indeed, to a nation—that is slowly emerging from a prolonged, painful experience of collective trauma.
The first unit of Isaiah, chapters 1–39, speaks words of judgment on Judah for its sin, idolatry, and oppression. It leads up to the ultimate judgment on the people in 587 BCE, when Jerusalem is conquered and destroyed by the Babylonian Empire, and many of its people are taken into exile.
In contrast, the second unit of Isaiah, beginning with this prologue, is written to the people of Judah as they are returning from exile.
Old Testament scholar Michael Chan observes,
“The exile is anticipated in Chapter 39 and then only assumed in Isaiah 40. It’s as if [Isaiah] didn’t need to—or perhaps couldn’t bear to—talk about ‘that’ time, when God handed over God’s beloved Daughter Zion into the hands of a vicious foreign army.”
Isaiah is thus “forced to preach to an audience that had experienced trauma and whose relationship to God had been deeply wounded as a result. For this audience, God’s hiddenness was far more real than God’s presence.”
As with Judah, we too are in a moment of (hopefully) emerging—however slowly it may be—from a period of collective trauma. Between a pandemic that has taken nearly 300,000 lives in the United States alone and has caused untold suffering around the world this year and the magnitude of racial and sexualized violence that many of us are just beginning to comprehend, we are a traumatized people.
But this passage is not addressed to the people experiencing trauma themselves but to the messengers to the people. It’s addressed to those charged with bringing the news to the people.
This raises the questions: What is the good news? For whom is the news good? And, How can this news be communicated in a way that it is heard as good?
Let’s take each of these in turn.
What is the good news?
In the Bible, the term good news is just another way for saying gospel. In my adult years, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering what exactly the gospel message is. Is it the spiritualized message that I learned in my evangelical childhood and youth? Or is it the social or political message that I encountered studying theology?
But now that I’ve been pastoring for a few years, I’ve begun to see this question about definitions as less important. The gospel just means good news. And good news just is news that is good.
For those returning from exile in Babylon, the good news was a simple but profound message of comfort. Their sins have been paid for. They will again see the glory of the Lord. The Lord will protect them and gently shepherd them. According to Ivan Friesen, this “prologue announcing good tidings” presents “a theology of hope resting on a foundation of the Lord’s power and presence.”
For Jewish peasants in first century Palestine, the good news was the arrival of their long-awaited messiah, who would reveal the salvation, deliverance, or liberation of God.
For many who heard Walter Rauschenbusch preach, the good news was that the Kingdom of God is advancing on earth as it is in heaven.
For many who heard Billy Graham preach, the good news was that they could be at peace with God.
For many of our sisters and brothers of color today, the good news is that their lives matter.
In hindsight, it was kind of silly to spend so much time and energy hand wringing over the definition of the good news. We know it when we hear it!
And just because a message of good news isn’t the comprehensive message of good news for all times and all places doesn’t make it any less good or any less news.
For whom is the news good?
In my job as an editor, I often review book proposals. And there’s one question on every book proposal that provides a dead giveaway about how realistic the author is about their project. The question is this: Who do you envision as the intended audience for your book?
You might be surprised how many authors write something to this effect: I think anyone and everyone should appreciate this book!
What that kind of answer indicates immediately is that the author has no idea who their message is for, which means there’s a good chance it’s not for anyone. As much as we like to believe that our good news should be good news for everyone, more often than not there’s a specific audience who needs to hear it.
In Isaiah 40:1–11, the good news is for the people of Zion, or Jerusalem, and the surrounding towns of Judah.
As Kristin Wendland describes,
At the end of this passage the city of Jerusalem, also identified as Zion, is personified. This is a common trope in Isaiah 40-66. . . . However, the place in the Old Testament in which Zion is personified most consistently is in the first two chapters of the book of Lamentations. In Lamentations 1-2 Daughter Zion cries out against the destruction wrought her. She speaks words of accusation against her human enemies and even God. The refrain that comes again and again is, ‘There is no one to comfort her’ . . . At the end of her speeches — and even the end of the book of Lamentations — Daughter Zion receives no response to her cry. The response to Zion’s laments comes, rather, in other biblical books. The response comes in verses such as Isaiah 40:1 “Comfort, O comfort my people.” The response comes in verses such as Isaiah 40:9 in which the words for Jerusalem to speak are not those of lament but of good news. She is no longer told to wail but to raise her voice without fear. The message given is confident and hopeful, “Here is your God!” Here is a God who comes to feed the flock, to gather the lambs, to lead the mother sheep — to bring comfort. Here is God in whom one may have hope.
In Jesus’s inaugural sermon in Luke 4, he reads from this same scroll of Isaiah to proclaim:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to set the oppressed free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)
This is a message of good news with a concrete and specific audience. And, while it was received by its intended audience as good news, there were many others for whom it was heard as a threat to their way of life. While ultimately the freedom of the oppressed is good for both the oppressed and the oppressor, it is more likely to be heard as good by the former than the latter.
How can this news be communicated in a way that it is heard as good?
This prologue is an extended instruction on how to communicate the good news in a way that it is heard as good by a traumatized people. In verse 2, the prophet is told to “comfort” God’s people and “speak tenderly” to them. But at the same time, in verse 9, the heralds of good news are instructed to “go up on a high mountain” and “lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid.”
Michael Chan sees in this passage a “primer on preaching.”
“Isaiah 40:1-11,” he writes,
represents the very best kind of preaching. It is the kind of preaching that is grounded in proclamation and promise, but shaped fundamentally by careful listening to those things that afflict the hearts of his audience. Great preaching one might say involves two ears and one mouth. Like all of us, . . . Isaiah was forced to preach to an audience that had experienced trauma and whose relationship to God had been deeply wounded as a result. For this audience, God’s hiddenness was far more real than God’s presence, and the preacher’s job, at least in part, is to point to those places where God is present (“Here is your God!” verse 9).
This Advent our neighbors, and many of us, are looking for a message of hope. We’ve experienced deep collective and, for many, individual trauma this year. We may be starting to see glimpses of light at the end of the tunnel, but the light is felt more by its absence than its presence.
It’s during this time that we have the chance to bring good news, not only through our words but also through our actions. The good news is that God has not abandoned us but is here to bring tender words and acts of comfort and care.
And we are not only the recipients but also the messengers of this good news. This Thanksgiving, a few families from our church gathered (with masks and social distancing!) to put together a hot to-go meal for our neighbors. I’d like to conclude with the words of one of our young messengers, who helped serve up some good news through good food on Thanksgiving morning.
Here is what he had to say:
Serving on Thanksgiving was awesome. I had a great time. I was taking the meals from a table and putting it on another table to be given to people who came. Sometimes I didn’t feel like I was helping people because it was so fun. I just walked between the two tables, but I liked what I was doing. I’m glad that I was able to help. We served over 100 people. I was there for 3 hours. It was nice to talk to people even though we were behind a mask. I loved serving there.
This is the word of the Lord’s messenger.
Thanks be to God.