In Isaiah 40, the Prophet Isaiah is speaking to Israel. Israel had recently gone through punishment. But their time of punishment was over. Using the Old Testament standard of weighted punishments, Isaiah declares:
Isa 40:2 “Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, That her warfare is ended, That her iniquity is pardoned; For she has received from the LORD’s hand Double for all her sins.”
In this part of Isaiah, the punishment has ended and the reunion to God was about to begin. But Isaiah had a real problem. The people needed to be motivated to serve God. What follows is a heartfelt appeal by Isaiah that God is just, God is powerful, and as such, people needed to turn to God.
The text states that in order to become ready of this, Israel must “prepare the way of the Lord”. They are actively sought to reform their current society to make preparations for redemption. In this case, redemption will be through King Cyrus liberating the Jewish people and allowing them to go to back to Jerusalem.
God states that this return to grace will show to the rest of the world (all “flesh”) God’s power. God is said to be coming “with a strong hand”, He will rule, feed his flock, and protect his people. The context of the entire rest of the chapter is God showing people His superiority through metaphors, through comparisons, and through prophecy: the prophecy of Cyrus.
The first main metaphor is about grass. Humans are compared to grass and plants. Humans will die. God will never die.
Isa 40:8 The grass withers, the flower fades, But the word of our God stands forever.”
Isaiah is contrasting God and man. God is eternal (He will never die). Man is temporal (he will die). The figurative language builds for the reader a picture of a fleeting life. It is almost bittersweet, as people think of a beautiful flower, frail and dying. It illustrates just how little time man has on Earth. Note the comparison between God and man.
The next comparison is an interesting one:
Isa 40:12 Who has measured the waters in the hollow of His hand, Measured heaven with a span And calculated the dust of the earth in a measure? Weighed the mountains in scales And the hills in a balance?
The idea being communicated is that God has actively measured the elements of the world. God used his hand to count how much water there is. God has used the span of his arms to measure the heaven. God used a measuring spoon to count dust. And God uses weights to figure out how heavy the mountains are.
A possible figurative meaning is that God knows the quantities of elements in this world. This might be a poetic way to say that God knows these quantities. But the really interesting part of this metaphor is that it is concerning actively gaining knowledge. If the illustration was allowed to play out, God knows the quantities of elements because he counts the elements (the knowledge is not inherent). But this might be stretching the metaphor too far.
This metaphor speaks mainly to God’s power, not necessarily His knowledge. The total volume of water is just a numerical figure. That is about as impressive as the kid next to you in school that knows the circumference of the Earth. No one wants to talk to that guy.
Instead, what the text is highlighting is how God can accomplish gathering this information. Fitting the theme of the chapter, God is comparing Himself with man. God can gain knowledge through means unavailable to man. For man to count the water in the ocean using human hands would be impossible. For man to take gargantuan mountains and measure them on scales would be impossible. The point of the metaphor is to show God’s power in relation to man. God is powerful.
Isaiah then starts comparing God’s judgment to man’s.
Isa 40:13 Who has directed the Spirit of the LORD, Or as His counselor has taught Him?
Isa 40:14 With whom did He take counsel, and who instructed Him, And taught Him in the path of justice? Who taught Him knowledge, And showed Him the way of understanding?
Isaiah most likely had the Biblical accounts of King Abimelech, Abraham, and Moses all conversing with God and prevailing. In each of these cases, God’s original positions were not wrong. God condescended to man in each of these occasions and did what they wanted in spite of His better judgment. In Moses’ case, sparing the Jewish people on multiple occasions might not have worked out for the better.
In this sense, although God has taken other people’s advice, no one taught Him justice. No one taught Him a better understanding. Isaiah’s comparison between man and God rings true: God really is superior in judgment. In God’s righteous judgment, no one can compare. No one in Israel was able to stay God’s hand on the merciless judgment of which Israel is now recovering.
The text then compares God to nations, to whom they are “nothing.” This is another appeal, comparing God to human beings. Because of God’s power, they are nothing. In fact, the text continues:
Isa 40:18 To whom then will you liken God? Or what likeness will you compare to Him?
Isa 40:19 The workman molds an image, The goldsmith overspreads it with gold, And the silversmith casts silver chains.
Isa 40:20 Whoever is too impoverished for such a contribution Chooses a tree that will not rot; He seeks for himself a skillful workman To prepare a carved image that will not totter.
Verse 18 is a standard Calvinist proof text. One of their cherished concepts is God is ineffable. God cannot be compared or described. But this is not what the text is getting it. The entire chapter is one large comparison between God and man. From Act and Being:
But we find also, earlier in the chapters attributed to this prophet, apparent support for the negative theology. The question is repeated: ‘To whom then will you compare God? What image will you compare him with?’ (Isa 40.18) ‘”To whom will you compare me? Or who is my equal?”, says the Holy One’ (v. 25). The form of the questions might clearly expect the answer, ‘Nothing’, and yet the whole of the passage is set in the context of a revealed theology of creation in which affirmations of a wholly positive kind are made about God’s power as it is manifest in creative action. The God of this writer is known though his redemptive historical action, and it is this which founds Isaiah’s confidence that God is Israel’s goel, or next of kin, the word that has come to be translated ‘redeemer’ and so to form the basis for a whole theology of God’s holy love.
Contrary to the Calvinist’s claim, this is not the Calvinist’s cherished proof text that they wish. The writer was not professing a strange Platonic concept that God is fully alien to His creation. The point of the verse is that people are far beneath God. In context, powerful nations are “nothing” and people are “grass”. The statement continues to contrast God with the stone idols of the pagans. The point that “God cannot be compared” means that God is powerful. We hear this all the time in the modern world. Someone might say: “That guy is the best quarterback. No one can compare.” The figure of speech means that the subject is on another level of excellence. In the context of Isaiah, God is on such a level that mankind is basically nothing and idols are literally nothing.
The text switches to idols. Other gods are inanimate objects. They need solid bases in order to not topple over. They are worthless and powerless, contrasted to a capable God.
Staying with the theme of incomparability, the text compares God to humans (they are grasshoppers), to princes (they are nothing), and to judges (they are useless).
Then God is said to quote about incomparability yet again:
Isa 40:25 “To whom then will you liken Me, Or to whom shall I be equal?” says the Holy One.
The context is the same. The text continues on, comparing God to humans:
Isa 40:26 Lift up your eyes on high, And see who has created these things, Who brings out their host by number; He calls them all by name, By the greatness of His might And the strength of His power; Not one is missing.
God is powerful because God has a powerful army. God created this army. Unlike the kings of the Earth, God knows the name of every soldier. This ability is then translated into daily life for Israel:
Isa 40:27 Why do you say, O Jacob, And speak, O Israel: “My way is hidden from the LORD, And my just claim is passed over by my God”?
What is very interesting about this statement is that it shows a common theological conception in Israel was that God does not watch human actions. In other words, they were not Calvinists in the sense that they believed in an omnipresent, omniscient God. Isaiah criticizes them in context of God’s creation of the angels. The argument is that if God can create an army of angels, then people have little reason to believe they are not being watched. Emphasizing this, Isaiah points out that God does not rest:
Isa 40:28 Have you not known? Have you not heard? The everlasting God, the LORD, The Creator of the ends of the earth, Neither faints nor is weary. His understanding is unsearchable.
Isa 40:29 He gives power to the weak, And to those who have no might He increases strength.
Isa 40:30 Even the youths shall faint and be weary, And the young men shall utterly fall,
Isa 40:31 But those who wait on the LORD Shall renew their strength; They shall mount up with wings like eagles, They shall run and not be weary, They shall walk and not faint.
The last part of this chapter returns the listener to the introduction. People must turn to God. God is powerful. God makes the weak powerful. The argument is that if Israel turns to God then they will be made powerful. Where humans do not compare with God, God will provide the difference. God will make Israel like Him.