3. A voice crying in the wilderness. He follows out the subject which he had begun, and declares more explicitly that he will send to the people, though apparently ruined, ministers of consolation. At the same time he anticipates an objection which might have been brought forward. “You do indeed promise consolation, but where are the prophets? For we shall be ‘in a wilderness,’ and whence shall this consolation come to us?” He therefore testifies that “the wilderness” shall not hinder them from enjoying that consolation.
The wilderness is employed to denote metaphorically that desolation which then existed; though I do not deny that the Prophet alludes to the intermediate journey; for the roughness of the wilderness seemed to forbid their return. He promises, therefore, that although every road were shut up, and not a chink were open, the Lord will easily cleave a path through the most impassable tracts for himself and his people.
Prepare the way of Jehovah. Some connect the words “in the wilderness” with this clause, and explain it thus,—“Prepare the way of Jehovah in the wilderness.” But the Prophet appears rather to represent a voice which shall gather together those who had wandered and had, as it were, been banished from the habitable globe. “Though you behold nothing but a frightful desert, yet this voice of consolation shall be heard from the mouth of the prophets.” These words relate to the hard bondage which they should undergo in Babylon.
But to whom is that voice addressed? Is it to believers? No, but to Cyrus, to the Persians, and to the Medes, who held that people in captivity. Having been alienated from obedience to God, they are constrained to deliver the people; and therefore they are enjoined to “prepare and pave the way,” that the people of God may be brought back to Judea; as if he had said, “Make passable what was impassable.” The power and efficacy of this prediction is thus held up for our applause; for when God invests his servants with authority to command men who were cruel and addicted to plunder, and who at that time were the conquerors of Babylon, to “prepare the way” for the return of his people, he means that nothing shall hinder the fulfilment of his promise, because he will employ them all as hired servants. Hence we obtain an excellent consolation, when we see that God makes use of irreligious men for our salvation, and employs all the creatures, when the case demands it, for that end.
A highway for our God. When it is said that the way shall be prepared not for the Jews, but for God himself, we have here a remarkable proof of his love towards us; for he applies to himself what related to the salvation of his chosen people. The Lord had nothing to do with walking, and had no need of a road; but he shews that we are so closely united to him that what is done on our account he reckons to be done to himself. This mode of expression is frequently employed elsewhere, as when it is said that God “went forth into battle with his anointed,” (Hab. 3:13,) and that “he rode through the midst of Egypt,” (Exod. 11:4,) and that he lifted up his standard and led his people through the wilderness. (Isaiah 63:3.)
This passage is quoted by the Evangelists, (Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4,) and applied to John the Baptist, as if these things had been foretold concerning him, and not unjustly; for he held the highest rank among the messengers and heralds of our redemption, of which the deliverance from Babylon was only a type. And, indeed, at the time when the Church arose out of her wretched and miserable condition, her mean appearance bore a stronger resemblance than the Babylonish captivity to a “wilderness;” but God wished that they should see plainly, in the wilderness in which John taught, the image and likeness of that miserably ruinous condition by which the whole beauty of the Church was injured and almost destroyed. What is here described metaphorically by the Prophet was at that time actually fulfilled; for at an exceedingly disordered and ruinous crisis John lifted up the banner of joy. True, indeed, the same voice had been previously uttered by Daniel, Zechariah, and others; but the nearer the redemption approached, the more impressively could it be proclaimed by John, who also pointed out Christ with the finger. (John 1:29.) But because, in the midst of a nation which was ignorant and almost sunk in stupidity, there were few that sincerely grieved for their ruinous condition, John sought a wilderness, that the very sight of the place might arouse careless persons to hope and desire the promised deliverance. As to his denying that he was a Prophet, (John 1:21,) this depends on the end of his calling and the substance of his doctrine; for he was not sent to discharge apart any continued office, but, as a herald, to gain an audience for Christ his Master and Lord. What is here said about removing obstructions, he applies skilfully to individuals, on this ground, that the depravity of our nature, the windings of a crooked mind, and obstinacy of heart, shut up the way of the Lord, and hinder them from preparing, by true self-denial, to yield obedience.
4. Every valley shall be exalted. He confirms and asserts the preceding statement; for he shews that no difficulties can prevent the Lord from delivering and restoring his Church whenever he shall think fit. These words might with propriety be rendered in the imperative mood, “Let every valley be exalted,” so as to be placed in immediate connection with the command which God gives by his prophets to prepare and level the way for himself; but it makes hardly any difference in the meaning. Let us be satisfied with understanding the Prophet’s design, “that, although many and formidable difficulties are started to hinder the salvation of the Church, still the hand of God will be victorious and will prevail.”
And every mountain and hill shall be laid low. It ought to be observed that many obstructions always arise whenever God makes provision for our deliverance, or wishes to aid the afflicted; and although his glory is more fully displayed by these obstructions, yet we suffer no loss; for we behold more clearly his wonderful power when no strength, or efforts, or contrivances of men can prevent him from gaining his object. He conducts his people through “mountains” and steep places in such a manner as if the road were perfectly level; and by the words mountains and hills, the Prophet undoubtedly intends to denote metaphorically obstructions of every kind; for Satan attempts in every way to hinder our salvation. When we come, therefore, to spiritual redemption, these words undoubtedly include both internal and external obstacles,—lusts and wicked desires, ambition, foolish confidence, and impatience, which retard us wonderfully, but the Lord will break them all down; for when he stretches out his hand, nothing can restrain or drive him back.
3–5 Like other prophets, Isaiah was given visions (1:1), but he also hears words. An unidentified voice calls (v. 3). John the Baptist, to whom the NT applies the words, is prepared to be such an unidentified voice (Jn 1:19–23). What matters is the ultimate origin and the content of the word of God, not its channel. Isaiah 35:8–10 spoke of a highway for the returning exiles, implying perhaps that it will traverse the desert (35:1). This is made clear now; and, because it represents God’s purpose for his people, it is called his highway.
The verb pānnû (“prepare”) introduces the idea of the removal of obstructions, which is spelled out further in v. 4. The whole concept is, of course, figurative, most commentators taking it as a declaration in dramatic fashion that the Lord will let nothing stand in the way of the exiles’ return. Motyer (1999, in loc.) and Oswalt (in loc.) both take it to be God himself coming across the desert to the help of his people (cf. Dt 33:2; Ps 68:4, 7). Young (in loc.) interprets it of the people’s repentance rather than their journey home to Zion. No doubt coming back often has dual significance in Isaiah, combining the physical and the spiritual (see comment on 7:3), though the verb “to return” does not occur in our present image. John the Baptist’s call to repentance does not settle the matter, for the NT fulfillment of an OT passage often moves the concept from the physical to the spiritual. It seems best to consider it physical here but with possible spiritual overtones.
Smart (in loc.) is surely correct when he lays all the emphasis on God rather than on the exiles. What is in prospect is an amazing new revelation of the glory of the Lord, not now for Israel only (e.g., in her temple), but for all humankind (v. 5; cf. 60:1–3). Isaiah’s tendency to add some emphatic statement such as “for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (v. 6; cf. 9:7; 37:32) anticipates Christ’s “truly I say to you.”
3 Once again we hear a disembodied voice crying, and once again it is apparent that the identity of the messenger has been completely subsumed under the message. We are reminded of the voices of the seraphim in ch. 6, and that reminder may be intentional, another effort to link this chapter with that one. One might also think of that later voice associated with this verse, the one who said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). The messenger is not important compared to the wonder that God would come among us.
Despite the antiquity of the interpretation attested in the LXX and quoted in the NT (Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4; John 1:23): “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare … ,’ ” the Hebrew text, both in its parallel structure and in its punctuation, seems to demand the reading given here. The occasion for the LXX understanding is not known, but it may have been the perennial retreat to the wilderness of reform-minded groups who saw themselves as forerunners of the Coming One.22
The Hebrew text says that it is God who comes out of the wilderness for his people. Several understandings of this figure of speech are possible. The one that seems least likely is that this is a reference to the Lord bringing the exiles back across the wilderness from Babylon. As even those who prefer this understanding admit, the way back from Babylon did not come through the desert but went around it. Furthermore, there is no reference to the exiles here; it is God alone who comes (cf. 63:1–6). A somewhat more likely possibility is that there are overtones of the wilderness wanderings, when God brought his people safely through the hazards of the desert and into the promised land. But this reading also suffers from the lack of any mention of the people. In my view, the best understanding is that this passage rests on the Sinai tradition (cf. also Hab. 3:3). Thus God is seen figuratively as coming from his distant residence on Sinai to aid his people in their hour of distress. The people cannot help themselves, and there is no one else, so God himself must come (cf. also Isa. 59:15–20).
4 The one thing the people can do is to prepare the way for the coming King. Elliger may be right in seeing this as a reflection of the kind of road building engaged in prior to the triumphal tour of a conquering king. But in any case it speaks of an act of faith on the part of the people. They do not yet see the King, but they dare to believe that he is coming. It also speaks of some form of activity on the part of those who had formerly been paralyzed by discouragement and hopelessness, as in v. 27.
40:3–5 / The voice that calls for the preparation of Yahweh’s highway (and the further voice in v. 6) is perhaps responding to the commission in verse 1, but verses 1–11 do not identify these voices. All we hear is what these voices say. It is the content of the words rather than the identity of the speakers that matters. This voice resumes the picture of the wilderness in chapter 35, with its highway, but gives it a different twist. This is not in the first instance a road for Israel to travel but a road for Yahweh to travel. In verses 9–11 it will become more explicit that Yahweh is to make a journey back to Jerusalem (but bringing the exiles, too) and part of the background to this picture may be the conviction that Yahweh had left the city in 587 b.c. (see Ezek. 10–11). But the background prior to that is the picture of Yahweh’s coming from afar through the desert to act in power on the people’s behalf (30:27–33). Once again Yahweh will come in this way. As is often the case when God does something that parallels an earlier act, this new work will not merely resemble the first but exceed it. Yahweh will have a supernaturally-contoured highway to speed this journey, and Yahweh’s glory will be perceived by all people together.
3. crieth in the wilderness—So the Septuagint and Mt 3:3 connect the words. The Hebrew accents, however, connect them thus: “In the wilderness prepare ye,” &c., and the parallelism also requires this, “Prepare ye in the wilderness,” answering to “make straight in the desert.” Matthew was entitled, as under inspiration, to vary the connection, so as to bring out another sense, included in the Holy Spirit’s intention; in Mt 3:1, “John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness,” answers thus to “The voice of one crying in the wilderness.” Maurer takes the participle as put for the finite verb (so in Is 40:6), “A voice crieth.” The clause, “in the wilderness,” alludes to Israel’s passage through it from Egypt to Canaan (Ps 68:7), Jehovah being their leader; so it shall be at the coming restoration of Israel, of which the restoration from Babylon was but a type (not the full realization; for their way from it was not through the “wilderness”). Where John preached (namely, in the wilderness; the type of this earth, a moral wilderness), there were the hearers who are ordered to prepare the way of the Lord, and there was to be the coming of the Lord [Bengel]. John, though he was immediately followed by the suffering Messiah, is rather the herald of the coming reigning Messiah, as Mal 4:5, 6 (“before the great and dreadful day of the Lord”), proves. Mt 17:11 (compare Ac 3:21) implies that John is not exclusively meant; and that though in one sense Elias has come, in another he is yet to come. John was the figurative Elias, coming “in the spirit and power of Elias” (Lu 1:17); Jn 1:21, where John the Baptist denies that he was the actual Elias, accords with this view. Mal 4:5, 6 cannot have received its exhaustive fulfilment in John; the Jews always understood it of the literal Elijah. As there is another consummating advent of Messiah Himself, so perhaps there is to be of his forerunner Elias, who also was present at the transfiguration.
the Lord—Hebrew, Jehovah; as this is applied to Jesus, He must be Jehovah (Mt 3:3).
- Eastern monarchs send heralds before them in a journey to clear away obstacles, make causeways over valleys, and level hills. So John’s duty was to bring back the people to obedience to the law and to remove all self-confidence, pride in national privileges, hypocrisy, and irreligion, so that they should be ready for His coming (Mal 4:6; Lu 1:17).
Ver. 3.—The voice of him that crieth; rather, the voice of one that crieth. A voice sounds in the prophet’s ear, crying to repentance. For God to come down on earth, for his glory to be revealed in any signal way, by the restoration of a nation, or the revelation of himself in Christ, or the final establishment of his kingdom, the “way” must be first “prepared” for him. The hearts of the disobedient must be turned to the wisdom of the just. In the wilderness; either, “the wilderness of this world” (Kay), or “the wilderness separating Babylonia from Palestine” (Delitzsch), in a part of which John the Baptist afterwards preached. Prepare ye the way of the Lord. The “way of the Lord” is “the way of holiness” (ch. 35:8). There is one only mode of “preparing” it—the mode adopted by John Baptist (Matt. 3:2–12), the mode pointed out by the angel who announced him (Luke 1:17), the mode insisted on in the Collect for the Third Sunday in Advent. The voice enjoins on the prophets of the captive nation to prepare the hearts of the people for the coming manifestation of God.
Ver. 4.—Every valley shall be exalted, etc.; rather, let every valley be exalted. The prophets are to see that the poor and lowly are raised up; the proud and self-righteous depressed; the crooked and dishonest induced to change their ways for those of simplicity and integrity; the rude, rough, and harsh rendered courteous and mild. “In general, the meaning is that Israel is to [be made] take care that the God who is coming to deliver it shall find it in such an inward and outward state as befits his … purpose” (Delitzsch, ‘Comment. on Isaiah,’ vol. ii. p. 142).
The voice of providence (vv. 3–5). The Jews had a rough road ahead of them as they returned to rebuild Jerusalem and the temple, but the Lord would go before them to open the way. The picture here is of an ambassador repairing the roads and removing obstacles, preparing the way for the coming of a king. The image of the highway is frequent in Isaiah’s prophecy (see 11:16). Of course, the ultimate fulfillment here is in the ministry of John the Baptist as he prepared the way for the ministry of Jesus (Matt. 3:1–6). Spiritually speaking, Israel was in the wilderness when Jesus came; but when He came, God’s glory came (John 1:14). The way back may not be easy; but if we are trusting God, it will be easier.
40:3–5. After a message of comfort, the prophet next brings words of hope, beginning with the proclamation of the coming of the Lord. Though it is tempting to identify the one whose voice is calling out (v. 3) as Isaiah, the prophet is not specifically identified. Isaiah 40:3 is utilized in the NT in a reference to John the Baptist (cf. Mt 3:3; Mk 1:3; Lk 3:4; Jn 1:23), but in a slightly different form. The Hebrew text suggests that the phrase in the wilderness modifies the verb clear. In this case, the way in question is to be prepared in the desert. The NT translation takes in the wilderness as modifying the verb calling, thus suggesting that the source of the voice is in the desert. In the NT, John the Baptist is identified as the fulfillment of Is 40:3. This identification need not control the understanding of the passage in its original context of Is 43 where it functions less as a piece of predictive prophecy and more as a description and guarantee of the coming glory of God. The predictive element is, however, implied insofar as the voice is never identified. The NT adoption of the passage then is designed to summon the picture first developed in the context of Isaiah. A smooth way should be prepared for the coming of the Lord and the revelation of His glory. All will see this glory because the Lord Himself has said it will be so (40:5).
Some hold that Isaiah 40:3–5 only refers to God coming to Israel and not to the return of the exiles. Such a view, however, appears to be at odds with Is 35:8–10 in which the ransomed of the Lord will return on the highway of the Lord. Therefore, the way in the wilderness will serve both as the way the Lord will come to Jerusalem and as the way the people will return from exile. This way will be characterized by the reunion of God and His people.
40:3–5 The herald’s call. The great processional way (to be lined by all humanity, 5) suitably dwarfs the ceremonial routes of heathen festivals. The wilderness is doubly significant, both as an example of the barriers that must all yield to the royal progress (4; see ch. 35) and as a reminder of the first exodus. Ho. 2:14 makes it, in its austerity, a place of repentance and renewal; John the Baptist, with prophetic symbolism, used the literal wilderness for this very work (cf. Mt. 3:1–3). But God’s coming (cf. Mt. 3:13–17) and the ‘exodus’ that he was to accomplish (cf. Lk. 9:31) were to take a wholly unexpected form.
40:3–5. A voice (probably Isaiah’s, different from the voice in v. 6) called out to the people to prepare the way for the Lord (v. 3) and His glory (v. 5). True prophets were “voices,” for their messages were from God. They were calling the nation to get back into a proper relationship with Him. Each Gospel writer applied Isaiah 40:3 to John the Baptist (Matt. 3:1–4; Mark 1:1–4; Luke 1:76–78; John 1:23). John was a desert prophet who prepared the way for Jesus Christ, and who in the wilderness made a highway for Him (cf. Matt. 3:3). However, here in Isaiah the entire nation was in a spiritual wilderness, and each Israelite needed to get ready spiritually for the appearing of the Lord and His glory.
Raising the valleys and lowering the mountains refer in hyperbole to workmen leveling or smoothing out the roads on which a dignitary would travel when he came to visit an area. Today an equivalent is, “roll out the red carpet.” In Isaiah’s day he was calling Israel to be “smoothed out” so that the Lord could come to the nation and rule. This was emphasized by all the prophets-ethically the nation must be righteous. Eventually the nation will be “smoothed out” spiritually when the glory of the Lord is revealed (Isa. 40:5). Isaiah was thinking of the millennial kingdom when the Lord will be revealed in His glory, that is, when His unique splendor will be evident everywhere. As Isaiah wrote elsewhere, the Messiah would suffer and would also appear in glory. However, apparently he was not aware of the time interval that would elapse between these two aspects. Though the disciples saw Jesus’ glory (John 1:14), all mankind has not yet seen it, but they will see it in the Millennium. This coming glory is certain for the … Lord has spoken it (cf. Isa. 1:20; 58:14). The word of the Lord is sure and cannot be broken.
40:3–5 The call goes out to “Prepare the way of the Lord.” John the Baptist filled the role of forerunner at Christ’s First Advent (Matt. 3:3), and Elijah will fill it at the Second Advent (Mal. 4:5, 6). The preparation for His coming is moral and spiritual, not topographical. Morgan writes:
The faithful among men prepare His way and make straight His highway when they yield to Him their complete loyalty, and confide in Him alone.
Mountains and hills represent the proud and arrogant among men, valleys the people of low degree. All unevenness and roughness of character must be made smooth. The glory of the Lord (that is, the Lord Himself) shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together (see Rev. 1:7).
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