The God Who Comforts Us
P. G. Mathew | Sunday, April 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003, P. G. Mathew
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for. . .
God alone gives us solid comfort. People always try to comfort us in our trouble. They come to us, saying, "Don't worry; everything is all right." Such human comfort has no solid foundation because it does not rest on anything. But God's comfort rests on a solid foundation, which we read about in Isaiah 40.
The last public ministry of Isaiah can be dated to 701 B.C., when Isaiah counseled and comforted Hezekiah and the people during the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib. Then Isaiah retired from public ministry but continued to receive revelation from God, which he wrote down in the second part of Isaiah, chapters 40 through 66. Later, according to tradition, Isaiah was sawn in two by the wicked king Manasseh. Probably it is this cruel death that is alluded to in Hebrews 11:36-37.
Our Need for Comfort
The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah deal with Israel's sin and God's resultant judgment, culminating in Judah's exile to Babylon in 586 B.C. But chapters 40 through 66 of Isaiah deal with God's comforting of his people. This section speaks, first, about the return of the exiles from Babylon. But it also speaks about the first coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and concludes with prophecies about his second coming.
The glory of God departed from Jerusalem in 586 B.C. because of Judah's sin. But in Isaiah 40 we discover that, for some unexplainable reason, the glory of God returned to his people to comfort them. So chapter 40 begins with God's urgent command to his messenger: "'Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people,' says your God." Notice the repetition. It speaks about urgency as well as the fullness of comfort that God's people are about to receive.
The sixteenth-century Heidelberg Catechism speaks of this most important issue of true comfort in its first question and answer:
Q1. What is your only comfort in life and death?
A. That I, with body and soul, both in life and death, am not my own, but belong unto my faithful Savior Jesus Christ; who with His precious blood has fully satisfied for all my sins, and delivered me from all the power of the devil; and so preserves me that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; yea, that all things must be subservient to my salvation, wherefore by His Holy Spirit He also assures me of eternal life, and makes me heartily willing and ready, henceforth, to live for Him.
God alone can bring comfort to miserable sinners like us. As descendants of Adam, we are born sinners and practice sin daily. All our misery is due to our rebellion and enmity against God. Because of sin, we are born dying and will all die, for the wages of sin is death-spiritual, physical, and eternal. How, then, can we who are hell-bound, miserable creatures be comforted? We must come to God and receive the true comfort only he can give.
The Basis for God's Comfort: "My People"
What is the basis for the comfort God promises in Isaiah 40? First, in verse 1 we read, "Comfort, comfort my people." The objects of God's comfort are his people. Though we are sinners, God calls us "my people." This is covenant language which we find throughout the Bible: "I am your God and you are my people."
As Christians, we are God's chosen people-chosen in his Son from before the foundation of the world. We are not chosen because of any merit of our own, but because God loved us with eternal, unfailing love. God chose us "to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good" (Titus 2:14).
Because we are God's covenant people, he will comfort us. So in verse 2 Isaiah is told, "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem." In Hebrew it is "speak to the heart of Jerusalem." When a mother speaks to her crying child, her words go straight into the child's heart so that he stops crying and he is strengthened. In the same way, God ministers his love to our hearts through his prophets. As we receive comfort from the gospel, we are to comfort others by proclaiming the good news to them. True comfort comes only through proclamation of the good news that God saves sinners through Jesus Christ.
The Basis for God's Comfort: Our Suffering Is Completed
We find the second solid basis for our comfort in Isaiah 40:2: "Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed." This is God's declaration that the suffering his people experienced as punishment for their sins was over.
In Leviticus 26 God warned his people what he would do if they rebelled against him: He would punish them with sudden terror, wasting diseases, fever, defeat, famine, wild animals, death by sword or plagues, and would finally throw them out of the land into exile. Because of their sin, God's people experienced all these chastisements. But now God suddenly declared their misery was over; God was no longer angry with his people.
The Basis for God's Comfort: "Her Sin Has Been Paid For"
The third solid basis is also given in Isaiah 40:2. God instructed Isaiah to tell Jerusalem "that her sin has been paid for." What a comforting word! But we must clarify what this verse is teaching us. Are we to understand from it that the people paid for their sins by all their sufferings, particularly by the seventy-year exile to Babylon? Is this verse therefore teaching that we can atone for our own sins and save ourselves? Definitely not.
In Isaiah 6 we read that the prophet was profoundly affected by his own sin when he saw the glory of God in the temple. Isaiah cried out, "Woe unto me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty." How did Isaiah receive complete forgiveness of his sins? In verses 6 and 7 he said, "Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, 'See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.'" This tells us that we cannot atone for our own sins; rather, there has to be an altar and a sufficient sacrifice. Only on that basis can our sin be paid for and our guilt removed.
In Isaiah 43:25 God says, "I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, for my own sake, and remembers your sins no more." God alone can pay for our sins. God alone can blot out our guilt once and for all, and he does so for his own sake, not because of any merit on our part.
How then could God say Israel's sin had been paid for? He was speaking in view of what we find in Isaiah 53. There Isaiah spoke concerning the Suffering Servant, whom we know as the Lord Jesus Christ: "But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (vv. 5-6).
What a comforting word: God alone has paid for all our sins! The moment we trust in Jesus Christ alone for our salvation, he forgives our sins-past, present, and future-and removes our guilt; we are cleansed and justified, and we are clothed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ.
Nothing else can give us such comfort. Yes, people may say nice things to try to give us comfort, or we may try to take comfort in our possessions. But no family, no doctor, no estate, no power, no position, no country, and no philosophy can comfort us when we die. God alone gives true comfort both in life and in death. He does so by forgiving all our sins through Jesus Christ, who alone is the propitiation for our sins.
The Basis for God's Comfort: "The Glory of the Lord Will Be Revealed"
The fourth solid basis for our comfort is the sudden revelation of the glory of the Lord described in Isaiah 40:5. In 586 B.C. God's glory departed from Jerusalem because of Judah's sin and the temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. But now Isaiah was declaring that the glory of God was coming back. God himself was coming back to his people to comfort the weak, the mournful, the poor in spirit, the repentant, and those who prepare the way for him.
In Isaiah 40:3 we read, "A voice of one calling: 'In the desert prepare the way for the Lord." No one can prevent the coming of the Lord; his triumphant coming is irresistible. Yet he tells his people, "Prepare the way for the Lord." How is this accomplished? From the ministry of John the Baptist in the New Testament we learn that this preparation involves repentance, humility, and confession of sin. We must receive with a humble heart the coming Lord and King in his triumphal procession.
The truth is, no obstacle can stand in the way of this coming King. Isaiah says, "Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain made low." Yet, although his coming is irresistible, we must prepare the way for him in humility. In order to receive this glorious God who is coming, we must repent and believe.
Isaiah said that when God comes in glory, "all mankind together will see it." We may ask how this can be, since the Bible tells us no man can see God in his glory and live. But the glory of God did come to us in a way that allowed us to see him: he came veiled in human flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. During Jesus' earthly ministry, people saw him, touched him, ate with him, crucified him, buried him, and saw him after he was raised from the dead. Jesus said, "Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14:9). Thus the apostle John wrote, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:1, 14).
How does it happen that all mankind together will see this? Through the proclamation of the gospel. Jesus Christ came to comfort sinners by giving his life as a ransom for many. He came in the fullness of time, born of a woman, born under the law. He did so to fulfill the law and redeem us from the curse of the law, so that the blessings of Abraham may come to us. That is solid comfort.
The Basis for God's Comfort: The Eternality of God's Word
The fifth basis for solid comfort is the eternality of the word of God. Men cannot comfort us because they are flesh, but the word of God is eternal. In Isaiah 40:6-8 we read:
A voice says, "Cry out." And I said, "What shall I cry?" 'All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fall, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.'
In Psalm 90 Moses spoke of the transitory nature of man: "You sweep men away in the sleep of death; they are like the new grass of the morning-though in the morning it springs up new, by evening it is dry and withered" (vv. 5-6).
When the Bible describes men as grass, it means they are inconsequential, characterized by transiency, fragility, and mortality. We see this illustrated in a phenomenon that occurs in Israel every May. (PGM) When the dry, dusty wind known as hamsin, or sirocco, arises from the desert in the east, it blows continuously until all the grass and its flowers are destroyed. This takes less than forty-eight hours. Mortal man is like the grass that withers and whose flower falls. How, then, can he comfort anyone? His glory and his promise are nothing.
But God's word endures forever; thus, we can put our trust in it and receive solid comfort from it. Balaam declared in Numbers 23:19, "God is not a man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind. Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfill?" If we trust in human words we will be disappointed time and again. But God's solid promise found in his eternal word will bear us up both in life and in death.
God's word always accomplishes his will. By his word he created the world, and his word shall not return to him void. In Mark 13:31 Jesus said, "Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away." In 2 Corinthians 1:20 Paul said, "For no matter how many promises God has made, they are 'Yes' in Christ." God has made many promises for his people, which we discover as we read the Holy Scriptures. But no matter how many promises God has made, they all are "Yes" in Christ.
In Isaiah 7 we read that Isaiah went to King Ahaz, a son of David, and told him, in essence, "I know you are in deep misery because of your enemies. Your knees are knocking like the leaves of a tree in a storm. But I have an answer for you: Trust in the word of God. God is telling you not to worry, because what you fear will not happen." Then Isaiah told him, "The head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah's son. If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all" (Isaiah 7:9). But Ahaz chose not to believe God's word. He continued to experience misery in his own life and brought misery to the kingdom of Judah from that point on.
In Isaiah 37 we see God's word coming to another son of David, King Hezekiah, Ahaz's son. As Jerusalem was besieged by Sennacherib, the great Assyrian king, and Hezekiah and his people were in distress, Hezekiah sent a message to the prophet Isaiah, saying, in essence, "Please pray to God for us. We are miserable and without comfort." Then God gave him his eternal word, which we read in Isaiah 37:5-7:
When King Hezekiah's officials came to Isaiah, Isaiah said to them, "Tell your master, 'This is what the Lord says: Do not be afraid of what you have heard-those words with which the underlings of the king of Assyria have blasphemed me. Listen! I am going to put a spirit in him so that when he hears a certain report, he will return to his own country, and there I will have him cut down with the sword.'"
Unlike Ahaz, Hezekiah believed, and he and his people were saved. That is what the word of God does. It tells you that God will save you, help you, comfort you, and strengthen you. If a man insists he is somebody-not grass, but permanent-he will become nothing. But if a man confesses he is nothing, the word of God confers upon him permanence, significance, glory, and immortality. As we said before, we must prepare the way of the Lord. How do we do it? By humbling ourselves. The man who cries out, "Have mercy upon me, a sinner!" will be comforted.
The Basis for God's Comfort: "Behold Your God!"
In Isaiah 40:9-10 we find the sixth basis for solid comfort:
You who bring good tidings to Zion, go up on a high mountain. You who bring good tidings to Jerusalem, lift up your voice with a shout, lift it up, do not be afraid; say to the towns of Judah, "Here is your God!" See, the Sovereign Lord comes with power, and his arm rules for him. See, his reward is with him, and his recompense accompanies him.
What is the next basis of comfort? "Behold your God!" We receive solid comfort when we focus on God rather than ourselves and our self-esteem. The truth is, we feel most miserable when we look at ourselves. Looking within can only frighten us because, as the Bible says, every inclination of the thoughts of man's heart is only evil all the time. Additionally, if we put our trust in other human beings, we will only become depressed. One man may say, "I love you," but the next moment he dies and his promise of love means nothing. Another man may say he loves you only to take advantage of you. We cannot look to ourselves or to others for comfort.
What, then, should we do? We must look to God. Only he can give us solid comfort. In fact, here Isaiah is saying that God is coming with the specific purpose of comforting us. His messengers are to proclaim from a high place the good news of his coming so that many people can hear. Thus, Isaiah says, in essence, "Messengers, climb up the mountain! Preach boldly, clearly, intelligently, authoritatively. Declare the good news: Here is your God!"
In Isaiah 45:22 God says, "Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other." We must look to him, believe in him, and come to him. We must fix our eyes on Jesus. He is the Sovereign Lord who rules all things. He is the Lord of history, the Creator/Redeemer God who alone is mighty to save and to deal with every enemy, including the devil, sin, and death. He is the mighty Savior who has come and is coming again.
In Isaiah 52:7 we read, "How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, 'Your God reigns!'" Let me, therefore, tell you for your comfort, "Behold your God! Behold your King!"
In Isaiah 40:10 we read "his arm rules for him." We find a description of this mighty arm of God in Exodus 15: "The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is his name. Pharaoh's chariots and his army he has hurled into the sea. . . . Your right hand, O Lord, was majestic in power. Your right hand, O Lord, shattered the enemy. In the greatness of your majesty you threw down those who opposed you . . ." (vv. 3-4, 6-7). In Isaiah 52:10 we read, "The Lord will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all nations, and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God."
In Isaiah 40:10 we also read, "His reward is with him." What is God's reward? His people. We are the riches of his glorious inheritance, Paul tells us in Ephesians 1:18. We read in 1 Peter that we are "a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God," bought with a price, not silver or gold, but his own precious blood. Having been redeemed by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are his people, his bride, and his reward.
The Basis for God's Comfort: God Is Our Shepherd
The seventh solid basis for comfort is found in Isaiah 40:11: "He tends his flock like a shepherd." God is our good shepherd, one who is greater than David in his shepherding care of his people. David was not a good shepherd, having killed his own sheep, his friend Uriah. But we have one who is greater than David. His name is Jesus, and he said, "I lay down my life for my sheep." Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures.
God tends his flock, feeding them and taking care of them through his ministers. In John 21 Jesus told Peter, "Feed my lambs," which means the newborn Christians. Then he said, concerning the whole flock, "Take care of my sheep." In the same way, in Acts 20:28 Paul exhorted the elders of Ephesus, "Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God which he bought with his own blood."
Verse 11 continues, "He gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young." This speaks of the great intimacy of divine love. God's shepherding care is full of comfort for all his flock. Because the Lord is our shepherd, we shall lack nothing. Surely that should comfort miserable people like us!
Do you want comfort? Just think about the care God has for all his flock. He feeds them and gathers the newborn lambs, those that are the weakest and most dependent, in his arms. Notice, we just read that he defeats his enemies and rules with his mighty arms, but here we see that he also cares tenderly for his people with his arms. How wonderful it is to be in the mighty arms of God!
God Comforts Us with Salvation
John Calvin said God is the sum of all happiness for his people. The Heidelberg Catechism says God is our only comfort in life and in death. In Psalm 23:4 we read, "Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me." In 2 Corinthians 1:3-4 we read that he is "the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles." God the Father planned our salvation, God the Son accomplished redemption for us by his death, and God the Holy Spirit was sent to apply that redemption and give comfort to every elect child of God forever. Therefore, we are comforted now and will be comforted forevermore. Neither death nor life nor anything else in all creation is able to separate us from the everlasting comfort of God's love in Jesus Christ. We are held in his arms close to his bosom, and no one can snatch us out of his hand. We have eternal security in our God.
In Isaiah 12 we find the first intimation of God's comfort for his people. In verse 1 we read, "In that day you will say: 'I will praise you, O Lord. Although you were angry with me, your anger has turned away and you have comforted me." This is a mysterious statement. God was angry at us because of our sin, but suddenly his anger was turned away. Did some act in time and history remove the wrath of God? The answer is "Yes." In Isaiah 53 we read that someone interposed himself between God and us and died in our behalf. The anger of God was turned upon him so that it will never come upon us.
Yes, God was angry, but now his anger has been turned away and he is gracious to us. Having placed his wrath on his own Son, he now, like a shepherd, saves us, loves us, heals us, guides us, and holds us close to him. If we are saved, we will sing, "Surely God is my salvation; I will trust and not be afraid. The Lord, the Lord is my strength and my song; he has become my salvation."
Only God can give us the comfort of having been forgiven, justified, adopted, and glorified. Only God can make us fit for eternal fellowship with him. He blesses us, makes his face shine upon us, and is gracious to us. He gives us his peace, salvation, and comfort.
What about you? Are you without comfort? God desires to comfort you and tell you, "Your hard service is over; your sin has been paid for." Therefore, behold your God, King, and Savior! Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ and you shall be saved forever. Jesus brought comfort to the blind, the deaf, the lepers, the sick, the demonized, and the dead. But he especially brings comfort to those who are dead in their sins. He alone can comfort and save you.
In Isaiah 40:28-31 we read:
Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He will not grow tired or weary, and his understanding no one can fathom. He gives strength to the weary and increases the power of the weak. Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not faint.
God has given his people comfort through Jesus Christ that will keep us both in life and in death. May God have mercy on those who have not trusted in him. May they humble themselves, trust in Christ, and receive the everlasting comfort of the gospel even this day. Amen.
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Copyright © 2003, P. G. Mathew
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