“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2).
Musically speaking, the greatest telling of the Christ story is unequivocally Handel’s “Messiah.” It is a true masterpiece that captures the breadth of Christ’s coming in the flesh, his perfect life, death, resurrection, and his coming again.
What always intrigues me when I listen or sing the “Messiah” is where Handel decided to begin. Many different places of Scripture would have been an appropriate start. And yet, Handel chose to begin with these soaring words of Isaiah 40. What was it that Messiah would bring, not only to the people of Israel, but to all who would look to him by faith?
Ah yes, comfort. Oh, not in the sense that we often think. We associate comfort with the bereaved and sorrowful, or those struggling with depression. No, this is no psychotherapeutic comfort. Rather, it is a word of comfort for God’s people: for Israel in bondage to Babylon, and to us today in the bondage of sin.
In their Babylonian captivity, the Israelites suffered both physical and spiritual misery. They lived in fear of injury, sickness, starvation, and even death. What’s worse, their religious life had been taken away: no promised land, no temple, no sacrifices, and no festivals. And Israel knew very well why God judged them. They were unfaithful to God: “Because they have forsaken the covenant of the Lord their God and worshiped other gods and served them” (Jer. 22:9). And they were also unjust towards their neighbors: “But you have eyes and heart only for your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence” (Jer. 22:17). So, God used the Babylonians to destroy Jerusalem and its people in 586 B.C.
Today, as the people of God, we also need comfort just like the pitiful Israelites in Babylon. Even if we are the people of God, we are not exempt from fear, injury, sickness and death. We’re still pilgrims and strangers here in this fallen creation, with all its sufferings and persecutions. We’re still conscious of our sinful nature, and we know we suffer and are miserable not only because of this sin-infested world, but also because of our own sin.
We need to be comforted. But what is God’s message of comfort? How does He comfort his people? The message here is three-fold. First, God says, “her warfare is ended.” Job 7:1 uses the same word to describe man’s “hard service” on earth. And the word “ended” means fulfilled or accomplished. Thus, Israel’s appointed time of hard service is fulfilled. This is revealed further by Jeremiah, who prophesied that “after seventy years are completed, [God] will punish the king of Babylon and that nation” (Jer. 25:12, 29:10). God will also fulfill his promise to bring Israel back to the promised land. Israel’s slavery in Babylon will end. Her slavery, tears, and sufferings are accomplished.
But this was not just a promise to Israel that they would return to the land. That was bound up in the greater promises of this comfort. The second part of God’s message of comfort to Israel is, “her iniquity is pardoned.” Her hard service is ended because her sin, and her stubbornness to do evil, is pardoned. They are granted release from punishment for their sin and are made acceptable to God. He is again pleased with them, and loves them, and accepts them as his people, because he has accepted the penalty for their sin.
And the third part is this: “she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” Is this twice as much punishment as Israel deserved? No, of course not! When God chastises his people for disobeying his commands, his judgment is always just and righteous. This word “double” means equivalent or duplicate. For example, in the description of the tabernacle in Exodus, a cloth is doubled over, one half equals the other half. Therefore, a more accurate translation would be: “she has received from the Lord’s hand the equivalent or full punishment of all her sins.”
How can this be? We sang this wondrous story yesterday. “Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King; peace on earth, and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
Yes, it is this Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ of God, who would accomplish our comfort. “Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel…born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth…”
This Christmas, let us behold him who is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, and who will come again to judge the living and the dead. For if we are united with Christ by faith, we can sing the wondrous song of the Messiah, for our “iniquity is pardoned, that [we have] received from the Lord’s hand double for all [our] sin.”