Comfort, comfort now my people; speak of peace – so says your God. Comfort those who sit in darkness, burdened by a heavy load. To Jerusalem proclaim: God shall take away your shame. Now get ready to recover; guilt and suffering are over.Hear the herald’s proclamation In the desert far and near, calling all to true repentance, telling that the Lord is near. Oh that warning cry obey! For your God prepare a way. Let the valleys rise to greet him and the hills bow down to meet him.
Straighten out what has been crooked, make the roughest places plain. Let your hearts be true and humble, live as fits God’s holy reign. Soon the glory of the Lord shall on earth be shed abroad. All the world shall truly see it, God is ready to decree it.
Isaiah 40:1-5 adapted by Johannes Olearius (1611-1684) translated by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) revised by John L Bell (b.1949)You can hear and watch the hymn be sung with wonderful percussion accompaniment here
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, 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. A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill shall be made low; the uneven ground shall become level and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken”.
This hymn is based on the first five verses of Isaiah’s first ‘Servant song.’ After the previous 39 chapters of judgement things are improving for the Jewish people as the Persians had defeated their Babylonian oppressors. Freedom beckons as does return to beloved Jerusalem, the centre of Judah’s faith and guardian of her culture. The journey back to their ‘ain country’ awaits. This is God’s doing.
Isaiah’s account of Yahweh’s triumph is in poetic form. Though it takes account of history, its main purpose is to describe events in terms of God’s will. Therefore the manner in which God’s people leave Babylon befits their divine benefactor – there’s to be no trudging back grudgingly. A broad highway to freedom awaits them for a triumphant return. This will be a public demonstration of God’s liberating power.
This has proved a captivating passage for many in succeeding centuries. John the Baptist used this imagery; the early Christians used it as a code to talk of their oppressors; Martin Luther famously wrote a paper on ‘The Babylonian Captivity of the Church’ attacking the Catholic view of sacraments; modern theologians have mined the theme deeply; the related themes of ‘release’ and ‘homecoming’ have spoken to many of the displaced and marginalised of our world.
Crucial questions might be: who are to be God’s agents in the comforting, not just of God’s people but (following Isaiah) the wider world? In what ways should the Church be cooperating with other non-Church agencies who are doing this comforting? More personally – how can I support those whose life’s work involves caring for the ill, broken and disturbed? Do I have a vision of how God might use my talents and presence? The hymn or psalm set to the tune Genevan 42 sounds good sung at a brisk pace. The faster time is tricky but once grasped the tune dances away enticingly. Elizabeth 1 reputedly complained sourly about the ‘Genevan jigs’ which were sung in some parts of the church; this was surely one of them!
Ever living God you come to us as a God of grace and power, able to accomplish what you will, yet seeking partnership with us not mere acquiescence. This we know in the birth of your Son Jesus, who comes to us as your gift and promise for our comfort and blessing. Amen.
The Rev’d John Young is a retired minister and member of Giffnock URC in Glasgow.