For all the hints and transitions that have appeared heretofore, it is in the 40th chapter of the book of Isaiah that restoration and return burst upon the scene in full, resplendent color. The mysterious voice crying out both summons and announces that all obstacles to this impossible will be removed.
A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’ (Isaiah 40:3–5 ESV)
For a mountain guy like this reader, a devotee of the winding country road, the prophet’s imagery takes some getting used to. There is no romance of the wilderness kind in it. Its purpose is to establish that no obstacle to the redemption of YHWH’s people will be countenanced.
The new desert highway will be a straight one. There is no time to lose in tracing elegant curvatures across the desert.
The valleys shall be lifted up and the mountains and hills brought low. The people must return home without the afflictions of gravity or the derelict valley floors slowing them down.
The text’s author has determined that straight and level best depicts YHWH’s unlikely resolve in this case. Nothing shall constrain. Nothing shall delay. YHWH’s second-chance mercy upon his people is his purpose and—to reference another Isaianic turn of phrase—it shall stand.
There is more here, if we are to inspect this declaration through eyes that have been trained to the nuances of Isaianic rhetoric. The verbs of verse 4 grow familiar to the reader of Isaiah.
Every valley shall be lifted up (Hebrew: נשא), and every mountain and hill be made low (Hebrew: שפל); the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. (Isaiah 40:4 ESV)
This dialect of lifting up and making low flourishes in Isaiah’s rhetoric. The critical observation is that it speaks most often of the altitudes of the human heart. It is the language of moral scrutiny, the vocabulary which the prophet deploys to speak of arrogant and humble people and the promises of YHWH to ‘lower’ the former and ‘lift up’ the latter.
An example or two may help us here.
The haughty looks of man shall be brought low (שפל), and the lofty pride of men shall be humbled, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day.
For the Lord of hosts has a day against all that is proud and lofty, against all that is lifted up (נשא)—and it shall be brought low (שפל); against all the cedars of Lebanon, lofty and lifted up (נשא); and against all the oaks of Bashan; against all the lofty mountains, and against all the uplifted hills (נשא); And the haughtiness of man shall be humbled (שפל), and the lofty pride of men shall be brought low, and the Lord alone will be exalted in that day (Isaiah 2:11–14, 17 ESV)
I have highlighted only the precise cross-over in language. If we were to extend our exercise to the level of conceptual cross-over, the overlap would be still more evident.
And again, in chapter five:
Man is humbled, and each one is brought low (שפל), and the eyes of the haughty are brought low (שפל). (Isaiah 5:15 ESV)
These two selections are merely a pair among many.
It appears highly likely then, that when the prophet speaks of topographical obstacles being taken out of Judah’s way as they contemplate what it would mean to go back home, he is signaling that the opposition of people and their machinations against YHWH’s purpose for Judah’s remnant will be rendered inert. If the application of this imagery to human beings does not exhaust its capabilities, it at least focuses it.
There is another detail that seems to align with this understanding. In verse four, it is every mountain and hill that shall be made low. The italicized word translates Hebrew גבעה (giv’ah). This is related at least aurally and probably also etymologically to two of the characteristic Isaianic words for arrogance or haughtiness: גבהּ / (gava[c]h) and גבהות / gavhut). In fact, in 2.11 (quoted above), it is explicitly the haughty looks (עיני גבהות) of man shall be brought low (the now familiar שפל).
YHWH’s prophet is indeed ‘speaking to the heart of Jerusalem’, just as the text summons unnamed addressees to do. If Judah is to embrace YHWH’s restorative mercies, her people must first come to accept that the nations are like dust on a scale to him. No one external to YHWH’s new conversation with his people shall prevent the good thing that he has determined for them.
This is like telling the ant that the huge-footed elephant has nothing to say about its future. It was nearly impossible to believe back then. It taxes our credibility today, as the text reverberates in our soul and defies our littler Babylons.