After three weeks of harshly warning Judah and Israel of judgment and calling them to repentance, culminating in Tisha B’Av (the fast day when many terrible things happened in Jewish history, including the destruction of both temples), the Haftarah portions change their tone. For seven Sabbaths, from Tisha B’Av to Rosh HaShanah, the selected readings from Isaiah offer comfort, consolation, and hope to the beleaguered people of God.
These are some of my favorite passages of Scripture. The first one is the reading for VaEtchanan, and it’s perfect for starting out the Haftarahs of consolation:
‘Comfort, comfort My people,’ says your God. Speak kindly to the heart of Jerusalem and proclaim to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity has been removed . . . (Isaiah 40:1-2a, TLV)
These are words that all sinners who know they are sinners long to hear. Luke 3:3 says that John the Immerser proclaimed a message similar to the one from the earlier prophet: “an immersion of repentance for the removal of sins.” We all know how John embodied the voice of Isaiah 40:3 – “Prepare the way of Adonai, Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.” In his day, hearts needed to be prepared for Yeshua’s imminent arrival. They needed to be ready to receive the Good News of the nearly established Kingdom.
In the Ancient Near East, the subjects of a king who was coming to honor them with his presence would prepare the road for him – raising low spots, leveling high spots, smoothing the path so he would have easy travel. Likewise John preceded the King of the heavenly Kingdom, proclaiming His coming to the people so that they could prepare their hearts and “produce fruits worthy of repentance.” (Luke 3:8)
Obligingly, John gave them practical examples of what they could do to bear those fruits . . . actions like giving charity, dealing fairly, and living peacefully (Luke 3:10-14). As Tony Robinson puts it, “It isn’t legalism, it’s faithfulness.” Faithfulness to what our King desires of us. John called for our actions to demonstrate the fact that we have repented, or else it’s obvious we haven’t really repented.
We have been redeemed by Yeshua and baptized into His new life - which means we ought to bear fruits worthy of repentance. This enables us to also prepare His way, like John did. We can proclaim the Good News to others and live according to God’s desire. Focusing on the eternal values of His Kingdom helps bring His Kingdom here and paves the road for His footsteps in our hearts and on this earth.
God is incredibly huge and powerful and mighty, and we are so small . . . yet we are urged to prepare His way like the faithful people of a beloved king. We are so small; how could we do anything to glorify Him? Even John felt unworthy (Luke 3:16). What could we do that would add to the Lord’s honor? Isaiah and John, faithful prophets, tell us how to adequately respond to Him in the manner He desires. Pointing to Yeshua, they tell us to humble ourselves before Him, to lift Him up with our words and deeds, and to embrace the salvation He has provided.