Catherine Winkworth is my all-time favorite transcriber of hymnody. If you don't know her look her up! In the 1800's she translated a large number of German hymns into English. Among her most popular are "Now Thank We All Our God" and "Whate'er My God Ordains is Right." One of her slightly lesser known transcriptions is a hymn inspired by Isaiah 40:1-2. It's a Christmas hymn called "Comfort, Comfort Ye My People." I was moved by the words of this song and rewrote the tune a couple of years ago. The first stanza reads thus: Comfort, comfort ye my people, speak ye peace, thus saith our God; comfort those who sit in darkness, mourning 'neath their sorrow's load. Speak ye to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them; tell her that her sins I cover, and her warfare now is over." The picture portrayed in this song is wonderful - because the Scripture which inspired it is wonderful. That scripture is the one which lies before me in my quiet time this morning.
Isaiah is told to "speak kindly to Jerusalem; and call out to her...." This is kind news and Isaiah is to call out loud and clear to Jerusalem and make sure she hears it. What is this good news that Jerusalem so desperately needs to hear? It is that "her warfare has ended, ...her iniquity has been removed,... she has received of the LORD's hand double for all her sins." Are there any more precious and comforting words than these?
This is the good news of the gospel. Through saving faith in Christ our warfare is ended! We are no longer enemies with God - we are reconciled to our Creator by the atoning work of His Son. But not only that, we are adopted by Him and are now His beloved children - joint heirs with Jesus. God is now our Father - and He is a good and gracious Father who will never abandon His little ones as so many of our earthly fathers do (Ps 94:14)!
The comforting words are that the war is over, our sins are forgiven, and we have received of the LORD's hand double for all our sins! In Christ we have received the Pearl of great price. NOTHING can compare to the riches that are ours in Him.
Verses 3-5 go on to prophecy of the coming Messiah who will tangibly apply all these comforting words to His people. The "calling voice" is applied to John the Baptist in Matthew and Luke. John the Baptist preaches faith and repentence to all who come within the sound of his voice. How fitting, for it is faith and repentence that make these comforting promises effectual to our lives. His message commands us to prepare our hearts and lives to receive gospel grace.
Matthew Henry's comments on verses 3-5 were particularly beautiful to me today. He says:
"God is coming in a way of mercy and we must prepare for Him.... Prepare you the way of the Lord; and let all be suppressed which would be an obstruction to His entrance. Make room for Christ: make straight a highway for Him.
"Those that are hindered from comfort in Christ by their dejections and despondencies are the valleys that must be exalted. Those that are hindered from comfort in Christ by a proud conceit are the mountains and hills that must be made low. Those that have entertained prejudices against the word and ways of God...are the crooked that must be made straight.
"When this is done the glory of the Lord shall be revealed..... When John the Baptist has for some time preached repentance and so made ready a people prepared for the Lord (Lk 1:17), then the Messiah Himself shall be revealed in His glory, working miracles, and by His grace binding up and healing with consolations those whom John had wounded with convictions."
These are truly great and glorious words. They are spoken kindly to us from our God by the mouth of His prophet, Isaiah. We need to hear them and we need to walk and live in the light of them. May He make smooth highways, high valleys, and low mountains of the wilderness that lies within our hearts.
Comfort, comfort ye my people; speak ye peace, thus saith our God; comfort those who sit in darkness, mourning 'neath their sorrow's load. Speak ye to Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them; tell her that her sins I cover, and her warfare now is over.
Yea, her sins our God will pardon, blotting out each dark misdeed; all that well deserved His anger, He will no more see or heed. She hath suffered many a day, now her griefs have passed away; God will change her pining sadness into everspringing gladness.
For the herald's voice is crying in the desert far and near, bidding all men to repentence, since the kingdom now is here. O that warning cry obey! Now prepare for God a way; let the valleys rise to meet Him, and the hills bow down to greet Him.
Make ye straight what long was crooked, make the rougher places plain; let your hearts be true and humble, as befits His holy reign. For the glory of the Lord now o'er earth is shed abroad; and all flesh shall see the token, that His word is never broken.
Johannes Olearius, 1671 / Tr. by Catherine Winkworth, 1863
Comforted this day,