5-3 The Preaching Commission Of Isaiah 40
The message of Is. 40:3 is that before the final coming of the Lord, there will be a proclamation of this by His people: “Prepare ye [plural] the way of the Lord”. As the King’s servants went ahead of him to make the path he had to travel smooth and plain [remember there were no motorways then!], so we go ahead of the returning Lord of all the earth, to prepare the way / road for Him. The fulfilment of this commission by John the Baptist in the first century is therefore a great pattern for our fulfilment of it before the Lord's second comingin our age. And yet within Isaiah, there is ample evidence that God prepares His own way: “I will do a new thing…I will even make a way in the wilderness” (Is. 43:19). Perhaps the element of unreality here, the ‘new thing’, is that the King Himself prepares His own way or road. Or again: “I will make all my mountains a way” (Is. 49:11). The connection with Is. 40:3 is that in the work of preparing the Lord’s way, in the last great preaching appeal of all time in the lead up to the second coming, the Lord Himself will work with us to make that way plain and clear. In all the challenges of the latter day fulfilment of the great commission, the Lord Himself will work with us.
The Isaiah 40 passage is therefore a command for our latter day witness to all the world, Israel especially, to prepare their way for the Lord’s coming. We are to “cry” unto Zion that “her iniquity is pardoned”, but we are also to ‘cry’ for her to repent, to be “made straight”, for the rough places to be ‘made plain’; to “cry aloud…lift up thy voice like a trumpet, and show my people their transgression (Is. 40:2-4; 58:1). It’s exactly because we have in prospect been forgiven that we are called to repent. The forgiveness has already been granted; iniquity has been pardoned. We are to ‘cry’ out this fact; and also to ‘cry out’ for repentance. But we have to respond to that. It’s similar to how Saul/Paul was called ‘brother’ even before his conversion and baptism. The world’s redemption was achieved through the cross; but we have to appeal to the world to accept it. And in our own lives we must live out what we are preaching to others; exactly because we have already been forgiven, we need to repent of what we’ve been forgiven of, to as it were claim that forgiveness as our very own. And the same Hebrew word translated ‘cry’ occurs in the same context in Is. 40:26; 43:1; 45:3,4; 48:12; 54:6, where we read that it is God Himself who calls every one of Israel back to Him, just as He calls every star by its own personal name. And so in our personal calling of men and women, in our crying out to them in these last days to be prepared for the Lord’s coming, we are workers together with God. He is crying out to them, through our feeble, shy, embarrassed, uncertain words of witness. Likewise it is God Himself who makes the crooked places straight in Is. 42:16 and 45:2- whereas Is. 40:3, it is we the preachers who are to do this.
What then of the message? It is that the valleys are to be lifted up, and the mountains made low, thus creating a plain. I read this as meaning that those with too low a view of themselves are to be lifted up, and the heights of human pride brought down. The over confident and under confident alike are to levelled so that they can be a path for the Lord’s glory. “Made low” in Is. 40:4 is surely in the spirit of Is. 2:11, which predicts that in the day of judgment, “the lofty looks of man shall be humbled [s.w. ‘made low’], and the haughtiness of man shall be bowed down”. The experience of condemnation in the coming day of the Lord will mean that “the proud and lofty” will be “brought low” (Is. 2:12,17; 5:15). In fact, Isaiah is full of references to the proud being ‘made low’ by judgment- the same Hebrew word is common: Is. 10:33; 13:11; 25:11; 26:5. Perhaps Paul had this in mind when he said that our preaching is a bringing down of every high thing that is exalted against God (2 Cor. 10:5). Our message is basically that we must be humbled one way or the other- either by our repentance and acceptance of the Gospel today, or through the experience of condemnation at the day of judgment. We’re calling people to humility. And we must ask whether the content and style of our preaching really does that. But when John the Baptist quoted and preached this passage, he interpreted it beyond a call to humility. He said that in order to prepare the way of the Lord, to make a level passage for Him, the man with two coats should give to him who had none, and likewise share his food (Lk. 3:11). So the ‘equality’ and levelling was to be one of practical care for others. We have to ask, how often we have shared our food, clothing or money with those who don’t have… for this is all part of preparing for the Lord’s coming. It could even be that when there is more of what Paul calls “an equality” amongst the community of believers, that then the way of the Lord will have been prepared. And He will then return.
The primary reference of the Isaiah 40 passage is to the Jews. But even more specifically, it is to be cried out “to Jerusalem”. I submit that the most specific fulfilment of the prophecy will be in our latter day preaching resulting in a remnant of Jews repenting in Jerusalem, so that the Lord’s return will be to a faithful Jewish remnant in literal Jerusalem. The ‘making straight’ is to be done in “the desert” (:3)- a description elsewhere of Jerusalem (Is. 51:3). “Every [Heb. ‘the whole, complete’] mountain and hill” (:4) which is to respond to the Gospel may refer to people on the temple mount, upon which the Lord shall “come down, to fight for mount Zion, and for the hill thereof” (Is. 31:4; 10:32). The Hebrew words used here for ‘mount’ and ‘hill’ are identical in the passages. The Lord will return to Zion to find a repentant remnant there, converted by our preaching. Mal. 3:1, a clearly related passage, says that when the way has been prepared, then “the Lord… shall suddenly [Heb. ‘immediately’] come to his temple”. It seems that He comes as soon as, almost to the moment, that the way is prepared. Is it going too far to imagine that when the last Jews are baptized in Jerusalem, perhaps literally on the Temple Mount, then the Lord will immediately return there, “to his temple”? Then the Lord shall “come down to fight for mount Zion and for the hill thereof”.