Comfort My People
First Haftarah of Consolation, Isaiah 40:1–26
Rabbi Russ Resnik
Tisha B’Av—the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av—is a major turning-point in the Jewish calendar. This date commemorates the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE by the Chaldeans and again in 70 CE by Rome. For three weeks leading up to Tisha B’Av we read Haftarot of Affliction, passages by the prophets that describe the judgment to come upon Jerusalem. Then for seven weeks after Tisha B’Av we read Haftarot of Consolation or Comfort, beginning with the opening words of this week’s Haftarah, “‘Comfort, comfort My people,’ says your God” (Isa 40:1).
This shift in spiritual focus away from mourning and onto consolation prepares us to enter a New Year, Rosh Hashanah, with joyful anticipation of the goodness and mercy of the Lord. In typical Jewish fashion we honestly face the sorrowful loss of the holy temple—for three weeks—but we end on a note of hope and affirmation of God’s goodness—for seven weeks. We’re not in denial about either our shortcomings or the tragedies of our history, but we insist on focusing on the good, the hopeful, the promises yet to be fulfilled.
In our haftarah this week, first of the seven, Isaiah continues with a word of comfort:
Speak kindly to the heart of Jerusalem
and proclaim to her
that her warfare has ended,
that her iniquity has been removed.
For she has received from Adonai’s hand
double for all her sins.
Then the prophet introduces “a voice crying in the wilderness,”
Prepare the way of Adonai,
Make straight in the desert
a highway for our God. (Isa 40:2–3)
The imagery is striking: a highway is prepared through the desert and we expect it to be the route of return for those exiled in Babylon. Valleys and hills are leveled, the crooked way is made straight, and we await the return of the captives. But it is the glory of the Lord that appears; the heralds watching from high places around Jerusalem don’t announce the return of exiles, but instead cry out, “Behold your God!”
Look, Adonai Elohim comes with might,
with His arm ruling for Him.
Behold, His reward is with Him,
and His recompense before Him. (Isa 40:9–10)
I said that the heralds announce the return of Hashem to Israel instead of the return of the exiles, but of course, it’s both. The return from exile is part of the Lord’s return to Israel and Israel’s return to him. It’s entirely fitting that Isaiah’s “voice in the wilderness” is cited in all four of the gospel accounts. Even more fitting is that the word for one who heralds the Lord’s return, mevaser, is from the same Hebrew root as “gospel” or besorah. Isaiah’s word of comfort is besorah—a prototypical gospel—to Israel. It provides the foundation for the coming besorah of Messiah Yeshua, which entails his saving work for all Israel, even as it goes beyond to bring a message of salvation to all humankind.
Our haftarah pictures a vital linkage in the besorah that we might tend to overlook. God’s promise to return and restore all Israel includes return to the land of Israel. And if so, the current ongoing return of the Jewish people to the land of Israel, amazing as it is, is but part of an even grander and more amazing restoration to God Himself: “‘Return to Me, and I will return to you,’ says Adonai-Tzva’ot” (Mal 3:7).
The closing night of last week’s Union summer conference featured a true patriarch, long-time friend and ally of the Messianic Jewish community, Pastor Don Finto. Pastor Don spoke on the prophetic significance of the times we live in—based on Yeshua’s parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matt 13:24–30; 36–43)—and how we ought to respond.
Pastor Don laid out one response simply enough: “Read and pray the book.” He urged us to return to the habit of reading Scripture regularly and steadily and to speak words of Scripture as prayers in response to the intense events unfolding all around us. But Pastor Don didn’t just exhort us; he embodied his own message by concluding with the words of Romans 11—all 36 verses!—recited from memory. I say “recited,” but really Pastor Don entered into and acted out the words. All this came from an 88-year-old patriarch standing before us who clearly had not only read and memorized Romans 11, but had digested it and prayed it into his own soul before he spoke it as life to us on Saturday night. The words hit me with meaning and impact that were new even after 40+ years of studying this text.
Another of Pastor Don’s responses to the times we live in is to listen to the right reports, to the Calebs and Joshuas instead of the nay-sayers. “We think too much of the bad news,” he said, and urged us instead to dwell on the good news of Scripture. I’ve given similar counsel in my rabbinic and counseling work. Turn your thoughts away from the live-stream flood of depressing, anxious, tempting data and back to the good report of Scripture, which you’ve already read, chewed on, and stored within.
In the Messianic Jewish community we’re familiar with Isaiah 40 and the many other good reports of Israel’s restoration throughout the prophets. Pastor Don reminded us that we’re right in the middle of these prophecies. In this critical time we need to read and re-read them, and moreover to pray them, to mysteriously become part of their fulfillment as the ancient words of Isaiah are transformed into words of comfort for today. So may we each become a mevaseret Zion—one who announces good news to Zion: “Behold your God!”
All Scripture references are from the Tree of Life Version.