Isaiah remembered, in his historical interlude, the time King Hezekiah of Judah had been completely taken in by the flattering attention of the Babylonian envoys. Since Babylon was not a major power at that time, Hezekiah was not alert to the risks of giving them the cook’s tour of his palace, armory, and the temple’s outer courts. Instead, the young king enjoyed showing off to them, and probably felt – at some level – important in their eyes, perhaps even somewhat superior.

Isaiah prophesied that Hezekiah had thrown wide the gate for the Babylonians to later come defeat Judah in war, plunder the treasures of the temple, and take the people captive into exile.

It all happened exactly as Isaiah said it would.

Now those in exile needed encouragement.

The Comfort of God’s Grace

Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem …

Isaiah 40:1-2 (NRSV)

This passage was made famous by George Frideric Handel’s Messiah, “Comfort Ye My People,” the second piece heard in Part I. In this recitative, God gives comfort and promises salvation.

To comfort is to strengthen, give hope, assistance, consolation, to support or encourage, to reassure and gladden the heart of. Every one of us has needed God’s strengthening and consolation at one time or other, particularly when our circumstances seem to be offering no hope or solace.

God’s comfort came with a reassuring prophecy.

and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

Isaiah 40:2 (NRSV)

The word “term” in this translation is sometimes rendered as “warfare” and means “severe trials,” or “hard service.”  Enmity between God and God’s people would come to an end, the spiritual battle would be won. God explained that the people’s sin would be pardoned, that full payment would be received. But it was not the people who would pay it. Even though they were suffering, that was merely the consequences of their transgressions.

In other words, God’s people had “served their term” in due course of their rejection of God, of the conditions of God’s covenant. That term of severe trials, hard service, and great suffering, would come to an end. But the writers of the Greek scriptures revealed the mystery of God’s second statement: her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

In this, God was talking about what the Lord Himself, the Lord Jesus Christ, would do. Atonement would come personally from Almighty God, and it would be more than sufficient for the people’s sins. In fact, according to the Gospel of John, the Lord’s atonement would be more than enough for the sins of the entire world.

“… so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.

“Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world but in order that the world might be saved through him.”

John 3:14-17 (NRSV, emphasis mine)

God the Son would absorb the full penalty of sin within Himself, dying for His people, on the cross (a theme Isaiah will explore more fully fifteen chapters later). God would do this out of love. That is the Lord’s only explanation. God wants to show mercy because God loves God’s people. That is what God’s grace is.

Sir Edward John Poynter (British (born France), Paris 1836–1919 London) By the Rivers of Babylon (Dalziels’ Bible Gallery), 1865–1881 British, Wood engraving on India paper, mounted on thin card; Image: 8 3/4 × 7 1/16 in. (22.3 × 17.9 cm) India sheet: 10 11/16 × 8 15/16 in. (27.2 × 22.7 cm) Mount: 16 7/16 in. × 12 15/16 in. (41.8 × 32.8 cm) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Anonymous Gift, 1926 (26.99.1(64))

The Nature of God’s Grace

All grace is God giving God’s favor to those who have not warranted it nor done anything to merit it. You and I cannot earn it or do anything to deserve it, it is simply a gift given out of God’s love. But that last phrase holds a heart-pounding truth. We may be undeserving, but by settling the Lord’s love upon us, God has deemed us worthy.

That is an important distinction.

Every human being is worthy of God’s grace by the very fact that God loves that person.  

Therefore, there is no need to consider ourselves as no better than filthy rags, as some might like say. That is a misrepresentation of Isaiah’s statement, made in a later chapter.

We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

Isaiah 64:6 (NRSV)

Our best deeds fall woefully short of earning God’s mercy, proving there is nothing we can do to merit God’s salvation. But being human means being loved by God and deemed worthy of God’s grace.

Scripture describes God’s grace in three ways:

  1. Saving Grace
  2. Common Grace
  3. Enabling Grace

Saving Grace

Saving grace is at the heart of our faith, in justification by grace through faith.

God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ– by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 

Ephesians 2:4-9 (NRSV, emphases mine)
Psalm 137 (136) in the St. Albans Psalter, 12th century | By Unknown author –, Public Domain

We are saved from

  • having to pay the penalty for our transgressions, which we are incapable of doing.
  • the inevitable corruption and death our current imperfect condition would bring.

We are saved to

  • become new creations, capable of existing for all eternity in a holy and pure condition.
  • an intimate relationship with God—so intimate, that God’s Life, Person, and Spirit are given to you and me to literally be inside our bodies, minds, souls, spirits, and hearts forever.  

And we are saved on the basis of God’s grace through faith in the Messiah, the Lord Jesus, which we receive when we hear and believe the gospel.

According to all the Gospel writers, even being able to believe God is a gift from God which we receive by grace—and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not the result of works. Faith, which is acting on what we believe, is therefore also a gift, all grace.

For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we may walk in them.

Ephesians 2:10 (NRSV, emphases mine)

The other aspects of God’s grace are expressed in the rest of these verses, which we will read together in the upcoming posts.

God’s forgiveness strengthens God’s people to leave their past behind

Psalm 137, Eadwine psalter – Trinity College Lib – f.243v | By Anonymous – Fitzmuseum, Public Domain

Sin brings consequences, but God is always there, ready to pardon sin. Isaiah’s message of comfort encouraged the people to stop looking back and start looking forward. What in your past might be keeping you from receiving the comfort of God’s forgiveness?

Is it guilt?  How willing are you to receive God’s forgiveness and finally let go of that guilt? 

Is it ongoing consequences? How willing are you to trust that God is able to keep you in God’s Plan A, even in spite of your mistakes, failures, wrong choices, and poor decisions? How ready are you to embrace God’s forgiveness of those sins and be willing to move forward, starting even today?

Is it bitterness over a wrong done to you? How willing are you to receive God’s recompense for that wrong, and trust the Lord to make it right in God’s time and in God’s way? How willing are you to let the person who wronged you go, in your mind and heart, and no longer expect them to pay for it in your timing and in your way?

God’s comfort to you and me both is that one day God will right all wrongs. I do not know how God is going to pull that off. But I know God will, because God’s track record of keeping promises is perfect.

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