A Voice Calling in the Wilderness

From “First Isaiah” connected directly with the historical Isaiah, son of Amoz (Is 1-39) we move to “Second Isaiah” or as Ben Witherington III (Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics) puts it “Eschatological Isaiah” and specifically to Is 40-55. Although the traditional view has this section of the book recording the oracles of the historical Isaiah, there are many reasons to view this as composed at the end of the Babylonian exile, some two centuries later. These reasons do not undermine the power of prophecy or the nature of the entire book of Isaiah as Scripture – the word of God.

There are issues of language, style, and vocabulary that distinguish early Isaiah (1-39) from the later chapters. Resolution of these issues suggest, but do not require, more than one prophetic source. The more telling issue is the nature of the argument presented.

Is 40-55 “seems to be speaking out of a situation of exile, and not just any exile but more specifically the Babylonian exile, from which Judah was delivered by the Persian king Cyrus.” (p. 174) To have such a specific prediction from Isaiah the son of Amoz would be “without precedent in the prophetic corpus of the OT.” The OT prophets speak either to their direct times or in grander eschatological terms. But according to Witherington “this is not the most pressing reason” to place the time of writing and the original audience of Is 40-55 in the context of the end of exile. Rather it is the nature of the message and the impact it would have on the audience.  He quotes Childs:

The coming of Cyrus is not presented as a future prediction, but rather as proof that the prediction of him has been fulfilled. On the basis of his former prophecies concerning Cyrus, which have been realized and can readily be confirmed by all, the prophet then makes a future prediction in 44:24ff. and 45:1ff. The logic of the prophetic argument demands that the audience of the prophet’s words stands at a point in the sixth century when the former prediction is viewed as part of history.[Isaiah, p. 290]

Specific details about the distant future would be meaningless to the historical Isaiah’s audience. Witherington suggests that they would care about as much as Hezekiah cared about the eventual loss of possessions to Babylon – and even the exile of his descendants – after his lifetime. (See IS 39:5-8) “The word of the Lord you have spoken is good,” Hezekiah replied. For he thought, “There will be peace and security in my lifetime.” (v. 8) But a reference to a fulfilled prophecy at the time of return from exile would validate the later prophet’s forward looking message.

The importance of Isaiah as the word of God is not defined by the specific identity of the original author of each section. Rather, it is defined by canonization – the preservation of the message of the text through the power of the Spirit (inspiration) working in God’s people. Eschatological Isaiah, especially chapters 40-55 played a special role in the understanding of Jesus and of the Gospel. It is hard to over estimate the impact on the New Testament authors, on the early church through the first centuries and on down to our day. We will take it slow through this section.

With this introduction, we turn to Isaiah 40 and a familiar passage:

Comfort, comfort my people,
says your God.

A voice of one calling:
“In the wilderness prepare
the way for the Lord;
make straight in the desert
a highway for our God.

The wording in the Septuagint is slightly different, although the general meaning is the same: “A voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight the paths of our God.” The wording familiar to most Christians.

The opening verse of Is 40 – comfort my people – introduces a major theme of the rest of Isaiah. God’s comfort for his people. Mark begins his Gospel (1:1-3) quoting this passage from the Septuagint, prefacing it with Malachi 3:1.

The beginning of the good news about Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet:

“I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way” (Mal. 3:1) —“a voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ (Is 40:3)”

And so John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.

(Note that the apparent misattribution by Mark of the entire quote to Isaiah is not an “error” to be reconciled – but it does teach us something an appropriate reading of Scripture as inspired. Inspiration does not function in the way that analytic philosophy or mathematical proofs operate.)

Mark identifies John as the voice calling, and placed appropriately in the wilderness. The beginning of the gospel of Jesus the Messiah is directly connected with the coming of day of comfort in Isaiah. More than this, John prepares the way for the Lord. We can discuss exactly what this means, but it is unreasonable to think that Mark was ignorant of the fact that the Lord in Is 40 is Israel’s God himself. According to Witherington “Mark’s Christology allows for Jesus to fulfill the role of God in relation to his people, because Mark looks on him as not only human but also divine.” (p. 184) The identification comes at the beginning and sets the stage for all that follows.

Enough to think on for now.


If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net

This post is also available at Jesus Creed, now published as a Christianity Today blog.

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The link to the book above is a commissioned link. Go with this one if you prefer: Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics.

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