The OT Context of Isaiah 40:3 After affirming three times who he is not, John the Baptist at long last tells his interrogators who he is. Even though he is none of the scriptural figures expected to make their appearance in Israel in the last days, John does respond in terms of a figure spoken of in Scripture. He is “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way of the Lord’ ” (John 1:23) featured in Isaiah 40:3
Isaiah 40:3 constitutes the opening of the second of four well-defined speeches in Isa 40:1–9. The entire passage serves as a prologue that sets the tone for Isa 40–48, and indeed for the rest of the book, by announcing the intentions of Yahweh. After all the judgment and condemnation sounded in Isa 1–39, the opening of chapter 40 marks a major shift in orientation, introducing the theme of comfort that represents the leitmotiv for the remainder of the book.
The precise identity of the calling voice is unspecified, but the context makes clear that reference is made to a human messenger. In light of the fact that several elements of Isa 40:1–11 are reminiscent of Isa 6:1–13, it is likely that the present passage describes not a new call of a new person, but rather an expansion and adaptation of the single Isaiah’s original call. The lack of a clear identity of the messenger focuses attention on the substance of the message.
Interestingly, the Hebrew Isa 40:3 has a different punctuation that we are used to hearing. In John 1:23 it is the voice of the one crying out in/from the wilderness – in other words, telling us the location of the messenger. In the Hebrew the messenger cries out, “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord.” – in other words the messenger is speaking to those who are in the wilderness. (It is the LXX which transposes the punctuation; John 1:23 is clearly taken from the LXX)
In the NT, reading “in the wilderness” in conjunction with the “voice crying” adapts Isaiah’s message to the person of John the Baptist. If the way for Yahweh is to be prepared in the wilderness, it makes perfect sense for the voice to cry in the wilderness to call for such preparations. Another important part of the voice’s message is that Yahweh will come to his people through the wilderness. It is possible that this notion is grounded in Sinai traditions (cf. Hab. 3:3). The desert is also a fitting figure for the desolate condition of God’s people.
Just as the calling voice is not identified, no recipients of the message are explicitly stated. Most likely these are the “my people” mentioned in Isa 40:1, namely, Jacob/Israel of the captivity (cf. Isa 40:12–44:12). No longer is Israel referred to as “this people” (Isa 6:9; 8:6); once again the language used is that of the covenant (cf., e.g., Exod. 6:7; 19:5; Lev. 26:12; Deut. 26:17–18). The message to God’s people is that they are to prepare Yahweh’s way in the wilderness and make straight in the desert a highway for their God. This would be in keeping with normal procedure for preparing for a visiting dignitary. The prophet Ezekiel had depicted Yahweh as abandoning Jerusalem (Ezek. 9–11); now Yahweh will return to take up residence in his city once again, which calls for “extraordinary preparation, including a highway (see Isa 35:8–10; cf. 35:1).
How are God’s people to prepare the way for his return? While, again, not explicitly stated, the probable answer is by way of repentance. If Yahweh is to return, his people must prepare the way by repenting of the sins that caused them to be led into exile. This is borne out clearly by the Baptist’s own message: “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” (Mt 3:8). As Isa 40:1–2 makes clear, God’s ultimate purpose for his people is not judgment but salvation, life rather than death (cf. the Fourth Evangelist’s words in John 3:17–18; and Jesus’ words in John 12:47). All is forgiven.
Yet comfort for God’s people is grounded not in anything they do, but solely in the activity of Jesus’ coming into the sphere of human activity. The purpose for these preparations is the revelation of God’s glory (one of the principal themes throughout Isaiah), not merely to Israel and Judah, but to all of humanity (Isa 40:5; cf. 60:1–3). This points back to the exodus, where God’s glory was revealed as well (Exod. 16:10; 24:16–18; 33:18; 40:34). That all humanity will witness Yahweh’s triumphant return to his lowly people is part of the prophetic defiance of political realities (cf. Isa 49:26; 66:16, 23–24).
Later, Isaiah also speaks of the coming “Servant” (esp. Isa 52:13–53:12), who will provide an even greater deliverance which is consummated in the new heaven and new earth (Isa 65–66). Similar to other OT prophetic writings, Isaiah’s vision draws heavily on exodus typology (e.g., Jer. 2:6–7; 7:22, 25; 11:4, 7; Hos. 2:14–15; 11:1; 12:9, 13; 13:4–5; Amos 2:9–10; 3:1–2; 9:7; Mic. 6:4; see also Isa 10:24, 26; 11:15–16). The Messiah and his redemption will bring about a new exodus in which God’s glory will be revealed.