40:1 Though the hearer of God’s words is not here specified, it is best to see these words as being directed to the prophet Isaiah, who was commanded to bring words of comfort rather than judgment to God’s people. The words address the prophet as if he were living in the time of the future exile of Judah to Babylon. God anticipated the questions that his people would have as they experienced his judgment.
40:2 The time of forced labor refers to the future Babylonian exile (586-539 BC). That the people had received double punishment is a way of saying that their sentence was fully satisfied before God.
40:3-4 A herald rallied his hearers to prepare a road that would make quick and easy access for God to return to the promised land in order to restore his people. The wilderness was difficult to cross because it had deep wadis and high mountains, but in preparation for the return this rough terrain would become like a plain, easy to travel. The fulfillment most immediately in view is the return of Jewish people after the end of the exile, but the ultimate fulfillment of these verses is in the work of Jesus Christ as signaled by the quotation of v. 3 along with Mal 3:1 in Mk 1:2-3 and the identification of the voice as that of John the Baptist. Also see Mt 3:3; Mk 1:3; Lk 3:4-6; Jn 1:23.
40:5 Sin had broken the fellowship between God and his people, but Isaiah looked beyond their punishment to the return of the glory of the Lord.
40:6-8 Another herald compared humanity to grass and the flower of the field, both of which have short-lived and fragile beauty. The contrast is with the word of God that endures. Perhaps the contrast implies that the Babylonians, though seemingly powerful, would fade, but God’s word that had promised his people restoration would not fail. Peter quotes these words in 1Pt 1:24-25.
40:9-10 Here Zion is instructed to spread the news of God’s coming to the other towns of Judah. His power is literally “his arm,” which is found frequently in Isaiah (30:30; 33:2; 48:14; 50:2; 51:5,9; 52:10; 53:1).
40:11 In the Bible and throughout the ancient Near East, the shepherd was a familiar image for a ruler. Judah had been subject to weak and evil shepherds or kings (Ezk 34), but the nation would once again have a strong and compassionate shepherd—God himself (Ps 23).
40:12-26 The series of rhetorical questions that appear in these verses have one intention—to demonstrate the uniqueness of the one true God. This assured God’s people that God not only wanted to deliver them, but he was able to do so.
40:12 God is in control and knows everything about his creation, both heavens and earth. Unlike the gods of the surrounding nations that were identified with aspects of nature (Baal was the god of storm, thunder, and lightning), Judah’s God created the world and measured it.
40:15-17 Babylon must have seemed invulnerable once Judah suffered defeat by the Babylonians and her leaders were carted off into exile, but no human power, not even Babylon, could compare with God. They were like a drop in a bucket. Lebanon was famous for its massive forests and its abundant wildlife, but they were not sufficient to produce a burnt offering before God. The message is that God could and would deliver Judah from Babylonian captivity.
40:18-20 God is nothing like the gods of the nations. Many thought otherwise, believing that Babylon was able to defeat Judah because the Babylonian gods were stronger than Yahweh, but the Babylonian gods were nothing but wood and metal—the creations of human craftsmen (41:6-7; 42:17; 44:9-20; 46:5-7; 48:5).
40:21-24 God is not only superior to the gods of the nations; he is far above the rulers of the nations as well (princes . . . judges). He is the ultimate ruler. His throne is not on earth, but above the circle of the earth. Like grass (vv. 6-8), they are fragile and short-lived and as easily disposed of as stubble carried away by a whirlwind. They are no match for God.
40:25-26 Nothing compares to God—not even the stars. The religions of the ancient Near East believed the stars were gods. Judah’s religion asserted that God created the stars. The fact that he knew them by name indicates that they were his creation and they were protected (not one of them is missing) by his power.
40:27 When Judah experienced God’s punishment, Isaiah anticipated that the people would ask why God had abandoned them. The following verses summarize the answer given in the first part of the chapter. God wanted to deliver his people, and he was fully able to do so.
40:28 God had the power and wisdom to bring about Judah’s deliverance.
40:29-31 God not only had strength, but he distributed that strength to his people. The criterion for receiving God’s strength was not youth but trust. Those who trusted God would have an unlimited source of strength.