The Voice Calling in the Wilderness
“Lo, Your Salvation Comes” – The Messiah in Isaiah Special Series
The words of Isaiah, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord,’” and “The glory of the LORD shall be revealed” (Is 40:3, 5), are familiar words of Messianic hope and victory to most believers today. To the Christian, experiencing the glory of the Lord, living in His presence, is everything. It is our dream, our hope, our goal, the focus of our desire -- it is our all. We would like to think that if we heard that our Lord was coming that we would run toward Him with unbridled enthusiasm. If the book of Isaiah says anything it says bridle your enthusiasm. The Lord is coming, but get a good look at Him first, and then take a good look at yourself!
Consider what happened to Isaiah in Isaiah 6. He saw the Lord sitting on a throne, “high and lifted up” (6:1). One of the spectacular seraphim shouted to another, “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
The whole earth is full of His glory!” (6:3). When the door posts shook and the house was filled with smoke, Isaiah was devastated. He said,
“Woe is me, for I am ruined!
Because I am a man of unclean lips,
And I live among a people of unclean lips;
For my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (6:5)
Notice that it was not simply that God’s presence was intimidating, but that it made Isaiah’s (and Israel’s) uncleanness woefully obvious. It is not unlike Peter’s response after Christ caused the miraculous great catch of fish in Luke 5: “When Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!’” (Lk 5:8). Later in Isaiah, the prophet visited this again when he revealed, “But we are all like an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags…” (Is 64:6). The challenge is to see God as He really is and then to see ourselves as we really are.
Holiness – utter and complete purity – is specifically mentioned nearly 60 times in the book of Isaiah. The Lord is simply “The Holy One” (10:17; 40:25; 43:15 [1:4; 5:19, 24; 10:20; 12:16; 29:19, 23; 30:11, 12, 15; 31:1; 37:23; 41:14, 16, 20; 43:3, 14; 45:11; 47:4; 48:17; 49:7; 54:5; 55:5]) There is absolutely no one holy like Him (40:25). His dwelling place (63:15) and mountain are holy (27:13). He is the holy Creator and King (43:15). Jehovah’s holiness speaks of His greatness (12:6) and the respect He is due (17:7). His true people will walk the “way of holiness” (35:8) which the Holy One teaches them, and in which He leads them (48:17). His faithful will dwell in a holy city (52:1), inherit His holy mountain (57:13), it will be their pleasure to serve Him on His holy day (58:13) in the courts of His holiness (62:9), and find their full joy in His holiness (41:16) and in sanctifying Him (29:23) When salvation comes, His people are to be called: “The holy people, the redeemed of the LORD” (62:12).
With Isaiah’s backdrop of the holiness of God, His “Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God” is more than daunting. The holy Lord is coming. How do you prepare for that? What kind of highway is worthy of His travel? But it gets worse.
The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah are filled with rebuke and judgment, the exposure of chronic sinfulness and promises of doom. Not only was the Lord not coming to a people who were nearly prepared for Him (just needed to spruce up a few things), but they had forgotten Him and did not want to be reminded. In the words of Isaiah 30:11 they said to their prophets, “Cause the Holy one of Israel to cease from before us.” The coming of the Holy One to an unholy people spelled disaster. In the words of Jamieson, Fausset and Brown: “God's holiness is what troubles sinners most” (545). They had better see God as He really is and see themselves as they really are. However, as unsettling as this all was there was still reason for hope, and for even comfort.
The promise of the “voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord’” (40:3) stands at an important juncture in the book of Isaiah. It is the start of such an extraordinary change of gears that since the late 18th century it has been used by skeptics to question the authorship of Isaiah chapters 40-66). Gleason Archer in his A Survey of Old Testament Introduction insists skeptics are prejudiced by their rationalism and rejection of true predictive prophecy in Scripture and that it is showing in their contortions to cast doubt on Isaiah’s authenticity (330). However, the obvious change of gears is worth noting and exploring for its significance.
The first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah are generally gloomy. God’s rebellious people faced judgment, chastisement, doom, and exile (1-6). The nations of the world faced the same (13-23). There are some words of consolation, grace, and future glory, but there is only punishment and woe on the treacherous and unbelieving (24-39). But then chapter 40 opens with: “’Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ says your God.” What a remarkable change! It is a drink for the thirsty in a parched land. Zondervan’s Pictorial Bible Dictionary labels this whole section the “Book of Consolation” (384). It is a turn toward hope for those with nothing to live for and with only terror and judgment in dying.
What’s going on? It is not about a change of authorship, but of readership. It is addressed to those who have borne the chastening of the Lord and now yearn for Jehovah to accept their change of heart and lead them back to the promised land. We shouldn’t be surprised that the message changes from night to day when his audience changes from night to day.
The Message to ancient Israel
There is some question as to who is speaking in Isaiah 40, and to whom. Clearly the message is from God: “Says your God” (40:1). We don’t know whether it comes from a messenger or from Him directly. It is simply “the voice” in verses 3 and 6. The word voice is frequently used for that of the Lord Himself in Isaiah, but it is a fitting descriptor of His faithful messengers and prophets who mouth the Lord’s words. They were merely voices, not originators or authors. Or as Delitzsch describes a prophet: “his person vanishes in the splendor of his calling, and falls into the background behind the substance of his cry” (141).
The initial message of Isaiah 40 is addressed to the people of God either as they entered Babylonian exile or were already in captivity. Words of comfort are to be spoken to Jerusalem telling her, “That her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (40:2). Either as Judah began exile or it endured captivity it could do so with the comfort of knowing that it was going to end. There would be pardon for her. God had measured out her punishment and it was just and adequate. Perhaps these words are intended to woo His people back to Him. They need not fear His holiness and judgment – the fighting is over, sin has been forgiven, their punishment is full and overflowing. Perhaps the message is primarily one of hope to those who long for their holy God, but doubt His willingness to return to them.
With words of comfort comes promise. “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God’” (40:3). To the true people of God the coming of the Lord is a good thing. In their darkest time, when they feel farthest from Him, they welcome His return. In fact, there is nothing more comforting to the faithful than the promise of His coming.
If you compare translations you will notice a difference in perspective in how Isaiah 40:3 should be translated. It reads “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…” in translations such as the KJV and NKJV. However, the NASB reads, “A voice is calling, ‘Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.’” Other popular translations such as the ASV, NIV, and ESV place the preparation of the way in the wilderness rather than the voice crying in the wilderness. It is a small, but interesting difference.
It seems most scholars accept that preparing the way in the wilderness best reflects the Hebrew in Isaiah 40:3. Interestingly enough, the Masoretic Text, as well as the LXX and New Testament quotations of Isaiah in the Greek have the crying in the wilderness. It is also notable that the New Testament applications of this verse to John the Baptist as the “voice of one crying in the wilderness” (Mt 3:3; Mk 1:3; Lk 3:4; Jn 1:23) are not seen as misquotations. It is possible that it has both meanings. In other words, the voice cries in the wilderness because that is where the way of the Lord must be prepared. Young tries to straddle the question with his translation: “A voice crying – in a wilderness – prepare ye the way of Jehovah…” (Young’s Literal Translation).
Between Babylon and Jerusalem there was an immense trackless desert. Babylon must have seemed a world away from home to Jewish exiles. Broken, homeless, and Godless, many must have given up hope. But this was not the first time a desert stood between God’s people and God’s promised land. It is hard not to see imagery of the Egyptian exodus here. Deserts do not stop God from leading His people home.
So God said, “Comfort, yes, comfort My people” (40:1) and, “Prepare the way of the Lord”. In ancient times a coming monarch would send a forerunner to scout the way, remove impediments, make things suitable for the royal presence, and generally announce his coming (see Barne’s Notes). The same was true of Jehovah God. In spite of the wilderness, He was coming and preparations were to be made.
Obviously, the Babylonian exiles were in no position to literally build a desert highway even if one were even possible, and even if had God actually needed one. The voice announcing, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” was doing three things. First, the voice gave the exiles hope that Jehovah God would be their God and return with them to their homeland. Second, the voice insisted that they have a part to play in their Holy Lord’s return – they were to prepare. And third, the voice spoke of a future Messianic day when “The glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together” (40:5).
Surely the first recipients of Isaiah’s message must have taken this as a reason for hope and motivation to prepare by accepting and employing the rest of the message of Isaiah (and that of the other true prophets). Remember, the main thing is not that the people were going to return, but that Jehovah God was going to return to Jerusalem and a suitable highway was to be made for Him. While it gave hope to the exiles, they were to participate in whatever it took to facilitate (prepare for) His coming.
What did it mean to first century Israel?
Not coincidentally, John the Baptist “came preaching in the wilderness of Judea” (Mt 3:1). He was a man of the desert – born there, grew up there, became strong in spirit there (Lk 1:80), the word of God came to him there (Lk 3:2), and he was there “till the day of his manifestation to Israel (Lk 1:80). John “went into all the region around the Jordan, preaching a baptism of repentance for the remission of sins” (Lk 3:3). Mark echoes what Matthew and Luke recorded by saying that John came “baptizing in the wilderness and preaching…” (Mk 1:4).
Matthew 3:5 shows his popularity: “Then Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him.” Even unbelieving Pharisees and Sadducees, evidently impressed with his celebrity, went out to him in the wilderness only to receive a rebuke for impenitence (Mt 3:7-12). Although the Pharisees and lawyers refused to be baptized by John (Lk 7:29), later some of them would attest to John’s general acceptance by refusing to answer Jesus’ question as to whether John’s baptism was from heaven or from men. They reasoned among themselves, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ He will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ But if we say, ‘From men,’ we fear the multitude, for all count John as a prophet” (Mt 21:25-26). But what had convinced the general population that John was a prophet? What made him so popular?
Mark introduced John the Baptist like this: “As it is written in the Prophets: ‘Behold, I send My messenger before Your face, who will prepare Your way before You. The voice of one crying in the wilderness; Prepare the way of the Lord; Make His paths straight.’” (Mk 1:2-4). Luke is similar: “as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, saying: ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness; prepare the way of the Lord…” Matthew specifically says John came preaching in the wilderness, “For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying, ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord…’” (Mt 3:3).
The prophecy of Isaiah – that is what convinced the general population that John was a prophet and the voice. Isaiah had prophesied more than 700 years earlier and yet his message was preserved, understood and properly applied. His literal “crying in the wilderness” (preaching) and preparing a way in the wilderness (people repenting and being baptized) surely helped identify John as the one referenced by Isaiah.
In case we are wondering what John himself thought about it, when asked, “What do you say about yourself?” John the Baptist replied, “I am ‘The voice of one crying in the wilderness: Make straight the way of the Lord’” (Jn 1:22-23). It should be noted that at least initially John struggled to get people to accept that he wasn’t the Messiah (Jn 1:19-22; Lk 3:15-18). The people were “in expectation” (Lk 3:15) and their eagerness was hard to contain. In denying he was the Christ (Jn 1:20), John affirmed that he was the voice and that One mightier than he was coming (Lk 3:16).
The voice crying in the wilderness had two fundamental messages for first century Israel. First, the voice would have them prepare for the coming of the Lord by repenting. And second, the voice would have them accept his testimony that Jesus of Nazareth is the Lord Who has come.
We don’t have a lot recorded of John’s messages, but repentance seems to be a central theme. He was preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3:2) and his namesake immersion was “a baptism of repentance” (Mk 1:4) or “unto repentance” (Mt 3:11). Preparing the way for the Lord meant paving a way through the spiritual deserts of the hearts of men and women. Isaiah’s valleys and mountains, crooked and rough places (Is 40:4) are hearts empty of life and made impassible by sin. John then challenged the people to let their changed hearts be demonstrated in their actions: “Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance” (Mt 3:8; Lk 3:8).
The voice also cried out, “Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (Jn 1:29). John said he came for the purpose of being a witness to the Light (Jn 1:6-9, 15, 19). Jesus listed John as one of His witnesses in John 5:31-33. Even much later in Ephesus, Paul referenced John’s testimony concerning Christ (Ac 19:4). The voice had more than adequately prepared them for the coming of the Lord and pointed them to Him. The angel speaking about him to John’s father, Zacharias, said, “…he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” and “…’turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Lk 1:16-17). That is exactly what he did. John insisted that they look at themselves and repent to prepare the way of the Lord. Then he pointed to Jesus and said, “THERE HE IS!”
What does it mean to God’s true Israel today?
“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God” (Ro 2:28-29). Today, God’s chosen people, His Israel, His holy ones, are faithful Christians. The Messianic kingdom prophecies find their fulfillment in what Jesus Christ did while on earth and in what He is doing now as He reigns over His kingdom from the right hand of the throne of God.
As Christians, we may give the familiar “Prepare the way of the Lord” of Isaiah 40 little more than the nod of, “Yes, yes, I know that’s John the Baptist.” But there is much more for us here.
Christians need to feel and utilize the impact of prophecy. A 700 year old prophecy of Isaiah convinced the people of John’s day. Why aren’t we impressed by what is now a 2700 year old prophecy of Isaiah? The prophets are mentioned and quoted throughout the New Testament. Isaiah was the beginning point of Philip’s lesson in preaching Christ to the Ethiopian eunuch (Ac 8:26-40). We need to develop faith and teaching that is better founded on prophecy.
If John is the one, Jesus is the One. If John the Baptist was the voice of Isaiah 40, then Jesus is the Christ of prophecy. Not only does prophecy identify Who Jesus truly is, but it also indicates that the kingdom prophecies are fulfilled in Him. Isaiah and the other prophets blend the Messianic salvation and kingdom prophecies. We must not make the common premillennialist mistake of separating them. Physical, materialistic views of kingdom prophecy prejudice the mind into thinking that John did not prepare the way of the Lord to fulfill kingdom prophecy. If Jesus was the coming Lord, then He brought salvation and the kingdom. We can experience both today.
If John is the one, Jesus is LORD. Isaiah prophesied of the coming of “the LORD” – of Jehovah, Yahweh, the Holy God of Israel. I recognize that God can “come” in a variety of different ways in Scripture, however consider how John the Baptist fulfilled Isaiah 40. We noted earlier that John was a man of the desert – he literally fulfilled the one crying in the desert part of the prophecy. Now consider that Jesus literally fulfilled Isaiah and John’s proclamation that the “LORD” (Jehovah) was coming. John the apostle not only said “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” but he also wrote, “and the Word was God” (Jn 1:1, 14). He followed that statement with, “and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” Isn’t that exactly what Isaiah said? “Prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God… The glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together…” (Is 40:3-5). Remember, it was also Isaiah who predicted that the Messiah would be called Immanuel (Is 7:14). Isaiah 7:14 is quoted as applying to Jesus in Matthew 1:23 and its significance is given: “which is translated, ‘God with us.’” Jehovah God had come to redeem His people when He came in the flesh!
We must not lose sight of John’s prophetic mission and message of preparation. The preparation is not only the Lord’s. God does not just accept you as you are. Repentance, the giving of one’s changed heart to God, is the foundation of preparing. Compare what Isaiah said about John to what the angel said about John. Isaiah said that the voice would cry, “Prepare the way of the LORD; make straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Is 40:3). The angel said John would “…make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Lk 1:17). The way of preparation was repentance because what was being prepared was people. A vast desolate desert lies in the spirit of the lost. Hearts must change to accept Christ into them. And don’t forget John’s insistence that the penitent “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Mt 3:8 NASB). This is a much needed lesson today for those who ignore or deny the importance of obedience (Note: Paul taught the same thing in Acts 26:20).
Christians acknowledge that the Lord is coming. Our deserted world needs to prepare His way by repenting and obeying. As in the days of Isaiah, or those of John the Baptist’s day, we need to take a good look at the Lord to see Him as He is in His glory and Holiness. Then we need to take a good look at ourselves and see ourselves as we really are and repent.
Works Cited or Consulted
Archer, Gleason L. A survey of Old Testament Introduction. Chicago, IL. Moody Press, 1977.
Barnes, Albert. Barnes Notes (on Isaiah 40:3)
Delitzch, Franz. Biblical Commentary on the Prophecies of Isaiah, Vol II. Edinburg. T & T Clark, 1884.
Jamieson, Robert; Fausset, A.R.; Brown, David. Commentary on the Whole Bible. Nashville, TN. The Southwestern Company, Reprint edition, 1968.
Tenney, Merrill C, editor. The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI. Zondervan Publishing House, 1967.
Young, Robert. Young’s Literal Translation (YLT), 1862. (https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Isaiah+40:3&version=YLT)
From Expository Files 22.5; May 2015