Historical Backdrop of Yeshayahu 40
Consolation for Whom?
Hashem's cry, "נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ עַמִּי" (Yeshayahu 40), opens one of the most well-known prophecies of consolation in Sefer Yeshayahu.1 The prophet addresses Yerushalayim, telling her that her sins are forgiven and that her sentence has been commuted.
This prophecy is read every year on the Shabbat following the 9th of Av, and it serves to comfort the nation after it mourns the destruction of the Mikdash.2 What, though, did the prophecy mean to its original audience? Did Yeshayahu really intend to console our current generation, those still in exile after the Second Temple's destruction? Or, perhaps, was he speaking instead of the people's return home from their first exile in Babylonia? Yet, why would either of these have been relevant to Yeshayahu's contemporaries living over a century before the destruction of the First Temple? About what else might the prophet be speaking?
Redemption is at Hand
Taken as a whole, verses 1-11 constitute an announcement of upcoming redemption. Several of the images painted by the prophet, though, require interpretation:
- "פַּנּוּ דֶּרֶךְ י"י" – Does this declaration imply that Hashem is returning with the people from exile, or might it more simply be an expression of Hashem's revelation?
- "כׇּל גֶּיא יִנָּשֵׂא וְכׇל הַר וְגִבְעָה יִשְׁפָּלוּ" – Is this depiction meant to be taken literally? Was Yeshayahu prophesying that the redemption was to be marked by supernatural phenomena?
- "כׇּל הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר וְכׇל חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה" – Who is being likened to withered grass and what is the meaning of "חַסְדּוֹ" in this context? How does the statement "וּדְבַר אֱלֹהֵינוּ יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם" that concludes the verse relate to these images? Is the dried flesh meant to be contrasted with Hashem's word, or is it evidence of its fulfillment?
- Hashem as warrior vs. shepherd – Verse 10 describes Hashem as arriving with a mighty arm, while verse 11 paints Him as a shepherd gathering his flock. What is the significance of each image?
Hashem's Incomparable Power
Verses 12-26 appear to shift focus, speaking not about redemption, but rather of Hashem's omnipotence. The first part of the unit (12-17) highlights Hashem's role as Creator and His unsurpassed knowledge, reiterating twice how other nations are naught before Him. The second section (18-26) turns to mocking idolatry, emphasizing that none are comparable to Hashem.
- Relevance – What message does the prophet mean to impart through these descriptions of Hashem's power? How do they serve to comfort the nation? How do they relate to the images of Hashem's arrival in the first unit of the chapter?
- Idolatry: warning or comfort? Why does the prophet suddenly speak of idolatry? Do his words imply that his audience is still worshiping other gods and constitute an exhortation to refrain from such worship? Or, is he simply contrasting the idols' futility with Hashem's prowess?
- "וּלְבָנוֹן אֵין דֵּי בָּעֵר וְחַיָּתוֹ אֵין דֵּי עוֹלָה" – This verse (16) appears unconnected to its surroundings. What does the fact that Lebanon does not have sufficient materials for sacrifice have to do with Hashem's powers and the nations' insignificance?
A Doubting Nation
The final section of the chapter (verses 27-31) returns to speak of the distressed nation. It opens with Israel's complaint, "נִסְתְּרָה דַרְכִּי מֵי"י וּמֵאֱלֹהַי מִשְׁפָּטִי יַעֲבוֹר" and ends with encouragement that Hashem can strengthen the weak and topple the mighty.
- Yisrael vs. Yerushalayim – In contrast to the beginning of the chapter which addressed "Yerushalayim," this section speaks of "Yaakov" and "Yisrael". Is there any significance to the change?
- "נִסְתְּרָה דַרְכִּי מֵי"י" – What leads the people to question Hashem's providence and assume that He is not aware of their deeds to mete out justice?
- "נֹתֵן לַיָּעֵף כֹּחַ" – Who are the weak who will grow mighty, and who are the "נְעָרִים " and "בַחוּרִים" who will stumble and fall?