Isaiah 40:6-8 Hebrew, English, and Commentary

The first voice crying out in vs. 3 said to prepare the way for the Glory of Hashem’s return to Jerusalem. The second crier says mighty nations will wither under Hashem’s breath like grass. Later in vss. 23-24 this message will be clarified: he brings princes to nothing when he blows on them. But that same breath does something beautiful in Jerusalem.

Isaiah 40:6

קוֹל אֹמֵר קְרָא

וְאָמַר מָה אֶקְרָא

כָּל־הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר

וְכָל־חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה׃

A voice says, “Cry out.”

And he said, “What shall I cry?”

“All flesh is grass,

and all its goodness is like the flowers of a field.”

 

Isaiah 40:7

יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ

כִּי רוּחַ יְהוָה נָשְׁבָה בּוֹ

אָכֵן חָצִיר הָעָם׃

“Grass dries up, flowers wither,

because the breath of Hashem blows on them;

truly the people are grass.

 

Isaiah 40:8

יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ

וּדְבַר־אֱלֹהֵינוּ יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם׃

“Grass dries up, flowers wither,

but the word of our God will stand forever.”

 

A few translation notes:

חַסְדּוֹ in vs. 6 is חֶסֶד with a suffixed “his.” The usual meaning of the word is lovingkindness, devoted love, covenant loyalty. Here it seems to mean in some sense merit, goodness, or worth. Some have suggested beauty, but this comes from later use in post-biblical Hebrew. The hesed of flesh/grass here refers to its ability to give hesed, and if hesed is the most valued trait of human life, then it is its worth or its goodness.

In vs. 7, I have translated בּוֹ as “on them,” though it literally is “on it.” Grass and flowers are viewed as a collective, so “it” is not incorrect, but I felt “them” was better.

רוּחַ יְהוָה could be “wind” or “spirit,” but “breath” seemed more personal than “wind” and blowing is not a function of “spirit.”

Commentary:

In vs. 7, the emphasis on the fleeting nature of human society serves the overall message: Hashem has brought about great changes in the face of human politics in a short time by his standards. Empires that seemed mighty were fleeting things to God.

Vs. 8 repeats the first poetic line to make a contrast between two things: the cursory nature of human realms vs. the lasting effect of the divine will in worldly affairs. People are grass but the divine will makes an eternal difference.

The situation is the exile and Jerusalem’s ruin sometime during the 586-539 BCE period. The place is most likely Jerusalem and not Babylon. The exiles of Judea and survivors in Jerusalem feel defeated and hopeless and the empire that defeated them seems eternal. It is not. Like grass, God will blow on it and make it wither. But he will make flowers grow in Jerusalem by the same breath.

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Isaiah 40:1-5 Hebrew, English, and Commentary

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.

Isaiah 40:1

נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי יֹאמַר אֱלֹהֵיכֶם׃

“Comfort, comfort my people,” says your God.

 

Isaiah 40:2

דַּבְּרוּ עַל־לֵב יְרוּשָׁלִַם

וְקִרְאוּ אֵלֶיהָ כִּי מָלְאָה צְבָאָהּ

כִּי נִרְצָה עֲוֹנָהּ

כִּי לָקְחָה מִיַּד יְהוָה

כִּפְלַיִם בְּכָל־חַטֹּאתֶיהָ׃

“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.”

 

Isaiah 40:3

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.

 

Isaiah 40:4

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.

 

Isaiah 40:5

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.

Commentary:

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.