Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins.Isaiah 40:1-2 (NIV)
God’s people have been living in captivity in Babylon, slaves to a great foreign empire. They were well-off in Israel; in Babylon they are the demoralized and stigmatized underclass. Every day is full of struggle and hardship and insults, and there is no end in sight.
But Isaiah preaches a message of hope. Things are going to change. God is going to make a way for them to return home.
He instructs Isaiah to comfort Israel and to speak tenderly to them. Comfort, from the Latin com-fortis, to give strength to someone. Fortis is the father of our word fortify. God strengthens. God supports us in our weakness. God builds us up when we have fallen.
Speak to them tenderly, God says. They’ve been assaulted, beaten down, they’re exhausted from their labor. They need a quiet and reassuring voice to give them hope, to encourage them hang on just a little while longer. Help is on the way.
God comforts. God speaks tenderly. These are not the characteristics we first think of when we consider the Lord of all creation. We think of power, might, holiness, majesty. We may also think of fire and brimstone, judgment, anger.
But comfort and tenderness are throughout the Gospel accounts of Jesus. He has pity on the widow who has lost her only son and raises him from the dead. He has compassion for the woman with a bleeding disorder and heals her. He refers to himself as a good shepherd who doesn’t let a single sheep escape his notice. Even on the cross, he speaks reassuringly to the criminal who is being executed beside him.
Very often, in the midst of life’s hardships, what we need most is comfort and tenderness. We don’t always find it, but when we do, it’s precious.
Years ago I fell off a ladder and broke my hip. I had to have emergency surgery. Good friends began dropping into my hospital room to pray for me, to encourage me, to comfort me. It was a beautiful experience, and the many, many expressions of love and concern during the months of my recovery strengthened me for the hard process of getting back on my feet.
God comforts his hurting people. God speaks tenderly to those who have lost hope. God strengthens those who are weak and lifts up those of us who have stumbled and fallen.