There is a multitude of “I am” statements God makes in the book of Isaiah. Yet, God makes one “I am” statement in the first thirty-nine chapters (Isaiah 28:16 thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion). Only two “I am” statements are made by God in chapters fifty through sixty-six (Isa. 60:22; 65:5).
Things are dramatically different in Isaiah chapters forty-one through fifty-one. God identifies Himself over thirty-five times as “I am” in this section of Isaiah. Some of the ways that God identifies Himself with the “I am” include:
Eternal – Isa. 41:2; 44:6; 48:12
With His people – 41:10; 43:5
One who helps (strengthens) – Isa. 41:10, 13, 14; 48:17
His name (glory) – Isa. 42:6, 8
The holy one – Isa. 43:3, 15
Savior – Isa. 43:3; 43:11, 12, 13; 49:26
Does a new thing – Isa. 43:19
Blots out sin – Isa. 43:25
Creator – Isa. 44:24; 45:7; 51:15
Unique – Isa. 45:5, 18, 22; 46:9; 47:8
Trustworthy – Isa. 49:23
All of these are great, important, and helpful self-designations (self-revelations) by God. The “I am” that struck me in the Isaiah readings this past week was, “I, I am he who comforts you” (Isaiah 51:12).
One reason that “I am he who comforts you” stood out from the other designations for me is because of the implications it has for our understanding of God’s character. Since Marcion of Pontus in the early to mid-second century, the Old Testament’s God has severed from the New Testament’s God. The Old Testament God has been characterized as a God of anger, wrath, and malice (in contrast to the God of the New Testament being a God of love and grace). Marcion’s reading of the Old Testament and God’s characterization continues to occur, taught, and promoted (in various forms and degrees in our time).
Disconnecting the God of the New Testament from the Old Testament is absolutely wrong.
Separating the God of the New Testament from the God of the Old Testament is biblically incorrect.
Characterizing the Old Testament God as angry, wrath and malicious misses what the Hebrew Scriptures claim concerning God. Does God get angry? Yes. But His anger is not triggered nearly as fast as our anger is, and His anger is not about trivial things. By the way, the wrath of God is not just an Old Testament concept (for example, read John 3:36; Romans 1:18; 2:5, 8; Ephesians 5:6; Colossians 3:6; 1 Thessalonians 1:10).
God reveals Himself as a God of “comfort” in Isaiah 51:12!
The second reason “I am he who comforts you” stood out from the other designations for me is because of the importance of the “comfort” motif in Isaiah 40-55.
The Hebrew word that is translated as “comfort” is נחם (nāḥam) and occurs 108 times in the Old Testament. נחם (nāḥam) is the word that is found in Psalm 23:4, where David says of his heavenly Shepherd, “Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”
According to Marvin Wilson,
The origin of the root seems to reflect the idea of “breathing deeply,” hence the physical display of one’s feelings, usually sorrow, compassion, or comfort. The second primary meaning of nāḥam is “to comfort” (Piel) or “to be comforted” (Niphal, Pual, and Hithpael). This Hebrew word was well known to every pious Jew living in exile as he recalled the opening words of Isaiah’s “Book of Consolation,” naḥămû naḥămû ʿammî “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people” (Isa 40:1). (Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament, 1999, 570-571)
According to Ludwig Koehler, “to comfort does not mean to sympathize but to encourage” (The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, 1994–2000, 689).
Similar to the “I am” statements, the word “comfort” (nāḥam) rarely occurs in the first thirty-nine chapters of Isaiah (1:24; 12:1; 22:4) and chapters fifty-six through sixty-six (57:18; 61:2; 66:13).
Chapter forty is Isaiah’s recommissioning and begins with the charge to “Encourage, encourage my people” by God (Isaiah 40:1). This recommissioning is an extension and expansion of Isaiah’s prophetic call found in chapter 6. No longer is the prophetic message to be primarily one of judgment. Now the message is to be one of hope.
The repeated verbs “comfort” (nāḥam) are plural imperatives commanding the prophet what to say to God’s people. The God of comfort (Isa. 51:12) wants His people “comforted” (“encouraged”) because God’s servants will be crushed to the ground under the burden of their sins. The message to be proclaimed to them is that the exile was not designed to destroy them but only to punish them. God has a word of hope for them.
The verb disappears for a few chapters but then emerges again in chapter 49 at verse 19, “Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth; break forth, O mountains, into singing! for the LORD has comforted his people and will have compassion on his afflicted.” “Comfort” (nāḥam) occurs six more times in the following five chapters (Isa. 51:3, 12, 19; 52:9; 54:11).
The need for God’s people to be encouraged is because they are struggling in their faith, as they are following foreign gods (Isaiah 40:18–20; 44:9–20; 46:1–7), doubting God’s trustworthiness (Isaiah 40:27), and needing to be commanded to heed God’s word (Isaiah 55:1–3, 6–7).
God’s people asked, “Are you really the one who did all those wonderful things in the past?” (Isaiah 51:9–10). God responds with a definitive “I, I am he, your comforter” (Isaiah 51:12). God offers Himself as the constant comforter to His fearful people in Isaiah 51:12. The reality of God being able to comfort His people is predicated on His uniqueness and incomparability.
Like the people of God that Isaiah addressed, God’s people still need to be encouraged today (have God’s hope spoken to us). Let us provide a word of comfort, a word of encouragement to our brothers and sisters in the Lord this week (maybe even every day this week). God will be glorified, the body of Christ strengthened, and you will be manifesting the character of God by doing this simple task.