Proper 7 • Isaiah 40:1–5 • June 24, 2012
Editor’s Note: This homiletical help is adapted from Concordia Journal, November 1983.
By H. Armin Moellering
Introduction: “A human being needs comfort. The nursing child crying in its crib, the old man clinging to a beloved hand as he dies; the one coming into the world, the one departing from the world, both need comfort. Beginning and end help us to sense that the need for comfort is simply part of being human” (Rudolf Bohren). “The word about comforting sounds as if it were the most important, yes, as if the decisive message which comes to man from God, as if everything which is to be wrought for man on the part of God, is summed up in the one word ‘comfort’” (Gerhard von Rad).
Comfort is suspect. Even believers are tempted to think comfort is just pious palaver, perhaps because that is the pseudo-form in which well-meaning but shallow Christians have offered them comfort. One must, therefore, check himself out to see that the comfort he embraces and offers is not a hoax and a swindle.
The double imperative of verse 1 indicates an urgency. It is in the plural. In verse 6 the imperative is in the singular. One and all are to be involved in dispensing comfort. One and all should shout it out. But if the message is to be anything more than a confused cacophony of phony reassurance, we shall need to experience and know with precision what comfort is. Our text will help us to better understand, define, and dispense comfort. We note how the word of Scripture here describes it.
The Content of Comfort
Comfort is the implication of a helper (v. 1)
German has a helpful pun distinguishing “Trost” (the real thing) from “Vertroestung” (the revolting ersatz, e.g., Job’s “comforters”). The comfort that comes from God is not just a pat on the head with a “There, there, it will all be all right in the end.” Note the significant parallelism in Psalm 86:17b: “because thou, Lord, hast helped me and comforted me.” Help and comfort go together. This conjunction is stressed in Isaiah (see 49:13; 51:3, 12; 52:9). The connotations of help in each of these references are worth exploring and exploiting. Westermann notes that common to all these references is: 1) God does the comforting, and Israel is the object of the comfort; 2) The comforting is a helping, restorative intervention on the part of God; 3) This comforting is spoken of in the perfect tense.
Comfort is a message addressed to the heart (v. 2)
“Tenderly”—literally “to the heart.” It is finally the heart that will have to be addressed. My fellowman can point at me and say, “You sinner!” And I can point back at him and say, “You’re one too!” The devil can accuse me, and I can put him off with the charge, “You are a professional troublemaker whose delight is falsely to accuse and malign.” But when my heart concurs in the condemnation, what help is there? Only a message addressed to the heart. “If our heart condemns us, God is greater than our hearts” (see 1 Jn 3:20). And this God sends out a message of comfort. The message is first and foremost and always that the warfare is over, iniquity is pardoned. This does not mean that sin is innocuous after all. On the contrary! However, the noxiousness of sin has been eliminated; its power to destroy has been destroyed. It is, therefore, neurotic madness to insist on being destroyed by what has been destroyed.
The problematic “double for all her sins” has been variously interpreted. One thing is certain, no Christian can ever join Sophocles’s Oedipus at Colonus and lament, “I have suffered more than I have sinned.” There is only one who ever suffered more than he sinned, and that because he sinned not at all and yet suffered for the sins of all. Edward J. Young’s comment is helpful: “If the word [double] refers to suffering and punishment, it indicates that in God’s sight Jerusalem has suffered sufficiently because of her sins. Although she has not been punished as much as she deserved, nevertheless her punishment has been sufficient to accomplish its purpose…. Great has been her suffering, but it has not been sufficient to satisfy the Law she had offended—indeed, no human suffering or misery could satisfy that Law; nevertheless, in His goodness God would bring an end to her misery.”
Comfort is the proclamation that God breaks through all obstacles (vv. 3–5)
The suspicion that comfort is just words is dispelled by the vigorous action in these verses. When God is strangely quiet in the presence of prevalent evil, one wonders. What does one suspect? God is powerless to help? He doesn’t care? He doesn’t exist? Just because God’s workings at the moment are hidden does not mean he isn’t at work. God deals with sin. And that means work, continued work. He cannot be blockaded from the world nor shoved out of it. It is worth noting that the way is prepared for God. God comes to his people before they can come to him. Sola gratia.
Conclusion: Our warfare is over; our iniquity is pardoned. That is our comfort.