There is perhaps no biblical passage that more breathes the spirit of Advent than Isaiah 40:1-8, which, after the destruction predicted earlier in the book, suddenly and unexpectedly promises comfort to the people of Israel, who have gone through generations of exile in Babylon. So unexpected is this change of tone that many, if not most, biblical scholars think it must have been written by someone other than the 8th-century prophet.
The opening of Isaiah’s Book of Consolation is marvellously captured in this metrical versification so familiar to Christians during Advent: Comfort, Comfort Ye My People.
Written by 17th-century hymn writer Johannes Olearius, it was translated into English two centuries later by the great Catherine Winkworth, who did more than any other person to bring the corpus of German hymnody into the English language. The tune was composed in Geneva in 1551 by Louis Bourgeois and was assigned to Psalm 42. The third stanza runs thus:
Hark, the herald’s voice is crying
In the desert far and near,
Bidding all men to repentance
Since the Kingdom now is here.
Oh, that warning cry obey!
Now prepare for God a way;
Let the valleys rise to meet Him
And the hills bow down to greet Him.
The Gospel writers understood this passage to refer to John the Baptist (Matthew 3:1-6; Mark 1:1-8; Luke 3:1-18 and John 1:19-23). I will return shortly to John’s role in the coming of the Messiah.