Historical Backdrop of Yeshayahu 40

Introduction

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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.

The prophecy is read every year on the Shabbat following the Ninth of Av and 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 the current generation, those still in exile after the Second Temple's destruction?  Or, was he speaking, instead, of the people's return home from the first exile in Babylonia?  But, 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:

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.

A Doubting Nation

The final section of the chapter (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.

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