Isaiah 40 is the beginning of what is known to many as Second Isaiah (or Deutero-Isaiah). Whereas Isaiah 1-39 focus on events (for the most part) in the lifetime of Isaiah the prophet (whose career was approximately in the 740-700 BCE range), Isaiah 40-55 focuses on the situation during the exile. Jerusalem is still destroyed. The returnees have not yet come. Cyrus is God’s anointed (his messiah) to bring about change (Isa 45:1). Here is the Hebrew and my translation of Isaiah 40:1-5.
נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃
“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God.
דַּבְּרוּ עַל־לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם
וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ
כִּי נִרְצָה עֲוֹנָהּ
כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד יְהוָה
“Speak tenderly to Jerusalem
and proclaim to her that her compulsory service is over,
that her guilty record is forgiven,
that she has received from Hashem’s hand
a double amount for all her offenses.”
קוֹל קוֹרֵא בַּמִּדְבָּר פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ יְהוָה
יַשְּׁרוּ בָּעֲרָבָה מְסִלָּה לֵאלֹהֵינוּ׃
A voice cries, “In the wilderness, clear the way of Hashem,
make straight in the Arabah a highway for our God.
כָּל־גֶּיא יִנָּשֵׂא וְכָל־הַר וְגִבְעָה יִשְׁפָּלוּ
וְהָיָה הֶעָקֹב לְמִישׁוֹר וְהָרְכָסִים לְבִקְעָה׃
“Every valley will be lifted, every mountain and hill will sink;
the uneven ground will become a plain, the rugged ground a wide valley.
וְנִגְלָה כְּבוֹד יְהוָה
וְרָאוּ כָל־בָּשָׂר יַחְדָּו
כִּי פִּי יְהוָה דִּבֵּר׃
“The Glory of Hashem will be revealed;
all flesh together will see,
for the mouth of Hashem has spoken.”
A few translation notes:
I used “Hashem” instead of Adonai or some attempt to spell out God’s name for a reason. First, I follow the Jewish practice of not attempting to pronounce the Name. Second, I find using Adonai problematic because Isaiah uses the actual title Adonai a number of times. Judaism’s usual way of handling this in public reading seems problematic to be as a reader of the Hebrew text. Though I am not an Orthodox Jew, I find the use of Hashem (more often heard on the lips of Orthodox Jews than liberal ones like me) to solve the problem nicely. The JPS solves it by using Lord for the divine Name. I prefer this approach, since “Lord” could also be a rendering of the actual word Adonai rather than a clear reference to the Name.
נַחֲמוּ is an Imperative, masculine plural: “comfort.” In other words, God is instructing some persons to speak comfort.
“Speak tenderly” in vs. 2 is literally “speak to the heart of.” It is a fairly common expression in Biblical Hebrew.
Many translate צְבָאָהּ as “warfare.” But it can also mean “compulsory service,” which much better fits the situation of the Jewish people during the exile and Jerusalem’s period of ruin.
The plural command “comfort” could be directed to heaven and earth, to some generic group, or to a group of prophets. Perhaps the writer of Second Isaiah is part of a group of prophets functioning during the exile. Currently I feel the weight of evidence is that the writer resides in Jerusalem, not Babylon.
It sounds as if God believes the pain of exile was actually greater than their sins deserved. In the aftermath of punishment, God is ready to pour out love, to encourage his people, and to give foreshadowings of coming glory which will happen both soon and in the future.
To the exiles it seems as if their days in Judah are long removed, never to return. But the prophet has the word of Hashem declaring the Glory will be in Zion once again and so will the people. No obstacles will prevent this return of Hashem to Zion or the rebuilding of the Temple or the reestablishment of the holy city. Even if mountains have to be leveled and valleys filled in, God’s salvation cannot be stopped by any force of nature or any powers above or below.