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Isaiah 40 and the Coming of God

by Brant Pitre May 28, 2021 0 Comments

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Dr. Brant Pitre discusses Isaiah 40.  What does this prophecy of Isaiah tell us about the coming of God, the forgiveness of sins, a new Exodus, and the good news?   This was taken from the Mass Readings Explained.  Subscribers can find the full video here:


The third and final point about the gospel is that John isn't just a prophet of the new Exodus, he's also a prophet of this mysterious figure, “the coming one” or “he who is to come.” One of the reasons I smile when I say that and I stress it is because frequently scholars and lay readers will say that John proclaimed the coming of the Messiah, John was the forerunner to the Messiah. Of course that is true because Christ is the Messiah. The interesting thing is when you look at John's words here, he never uses the word Messiah. He doesn’t say anything about the Messiah.  What he says is “After me comes he who is mightier than I,” this mysterious figure of the one was stronger than me. Or in other Gospels he will say “after me is he who is to come,” the coming one. Obviously he is speaking about the coming of Jesus, because if you skip down just a few verses — it is not in the lectionary — the very next verse, verse nine says “in those days Jesus came.” So John proclaims that there is going to be a coming one and then in verse nine John says “Jesus came.” Which, by the way, in Latin the word for “to come” or “coming” is adventus. So another reason the Church is putting this gospel before us is because it's describing the advent of Christ, not so much in his incarnation, but in his public ministry, his coming to the people. So Jesus here is coming, John anticipates that Jesus is coming, but in order to herald Jesus’ coming, John does something fascinating, he quotes Isaiah 40. Well, actually John doesn’t quote it in this Gospel, Mark quotes it for you, but in the other gospels John himself will quote the text. Now why does that matter?

Well let's go back to Isaiah 40 and not just look at the verse about the new Exodus, but the whole context, which just so happens to be our first reading for today. So this one is pretty obvious. Why does the Church give us Isaiah 40 as the first reading for the Second Sunday of Advent? Well because that's the text that Mark himself quotes at the beginning of his book. But let’s go back and look at it in a little more detail because what you are going to see is that Isaiah 40 isn't just a prophecy of the new Exodus, it's also a prophecy of the future forgiveness of sins, of the coming of good news, and then finally of the coming of God himself. Listen to these verses, this is the first reading for the day, Isaiah says:

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.
A voice cries:
"In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together,
for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

And if you skip down to verse 9, the lectionary continues:

Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings;

Which can also be translated as good news.

lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift up your voice with strength,
O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings,
lift it up, fear not;
say to the cities of Judah,
"Behold your God!"
Behold, the Lord GOD comes with might, and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
He will feed his flock like a shepherd,
he will gather the lambs in his arms,
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.

There is a lot going on here. Let me just highlight four things. Number one, notice the prophecy begins with the future forgiveness of Israel’s sins. So what is Isaiah saying? He is saying one day Israel and Jerusalem, your iniquity will be pardoned, your sins will be forgiven. Second, he's also prophesying a new Exodus. Once again notice that imagery, make straight a path in the desert for our God. When's the last time he did that? At the Exodus from Egypt. But Isaiah is living many centuries after the Exodus from Egypt and he's talking about a future path being made in the desert, so this is the prophecy of the new Exodus. Third, and this is really important, I still remember the first time I noticed this, it blew my mind. Isaiah uses the language of good news. In other words, he uses the language of the gospel. This is a prophecy of the gospel. You can see this more clearly in the Greek translation of Isaiah called the Greek Septuagint, which was an ancient Jewish translation of the Old Testament made a couple hundred years before Christ, in which the Greek word is euangelizomai. In other words, proclaim good news, give a good message. And you can hear there that we get the word euangelion or evangelize from that Greek expression. So when when Isaiah is speaking about this future new Exodus, he basically says to the city of Jerusalem, get up to a high mountain and proclaim the good news, proclaim the gospel. Now what is the gospel? Well that is point number four.

I think today, if you asked somebody what is the gospel, they will talk about the book about Jesus's life (Matthew, Mark, Luke or John), or maybe they will even say the gospel is the good news of Jesus’ death for my sins, like his passion and death and resurrection. Those are all true, but the first time we see the language of good news in the Bible, what is the subject of the good news? It's the coming of God himself. It's the coming of the Lord God to his people, to Jerusalem, to Judea, to save them from their sins and to inaugurate the new Exodus. Now that is really, really powerful. First, because in the Latin Vulgate the verb is veniat, we get the word adventus from that root. So these are all advent passages in the Latin tradition of the Bible, so you can see why the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages would be reading these texts during Advent, because they actually use the words for Advent. But even more so, what it shows us is that when John comes onto the scene as the voice crying out in the wilderness, and Mark says he's got the good news of Isaiah 40, and then John says one is coming after me whose thongs I am not worthy to untie, who is John talking about? Isaiah doesn’t say anything about the Messiah either. Isaiah's talking about the coming of God, the advent of God; and that's the mystery that we are prepared for during Advent. In Jesus, not only does the Messiah come, but God himself comes in the flesh.

Brant Pitre
Brant Pitre


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