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Isaiah 40 begins with the well-known line:

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.

In English, "comfort" seems to me like a noun, as if God is thrusting comfort toward his people or something. But they are actually plural commands:

נַחֲמוּ נַחֲמוּ
naḥᵃmû naḥᵃmû

These are piel imperatives1 --"give comfort" -- with "my people" as the object to be comforted.2

How should we identify the plural entity being commanded here?


1. Apparently. I think the form is actually ambiguous; a hypothetical qal masc. pl. imp. would be identical, but this verb only appears in the nifal and piel/pual.

2. The same holds for verse 3, an idea the KJV tradition preserved in "prepare ye the way of the LORD", but also obscured (necessarily) in most modern translations.

1

Walter Brueggemann (Isaiah: 40-66, page 3) says that a long-standing consensus of scholars that continues to dominate scholarship holds that Isaiah chapters 40-55 were written by an anonymous source now known as Second Isaiah, during the Babylonian Exile, perhaps around 540 BCE. Some scholars insist that Second Isaiah was not an individual, but a school, which should explain plural references to Second Isaiah - it would be natural for a group of scribes, working together to write this book, to refer to themselves in the plural.

Second Isaiah opens by saying that God has commanded them to comfort the Jews in exile. Second Isaiah do so, by telling them that their servitude is at an end and their sins, believed to have been the reason God allowed the Jews to be taken into exile, had been pardoned:

Isaiah 40:1-2 (NAB): Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; Indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins.

Regarding verse 3, the New American Bible says in note 2 for Isaiah 40 that verse 3 refers to the impending return from Babylon to Jerusalem:

The figurative language here describes the actual return of the exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem. It is the Lord who leads them; their road is made easy for them.

The remainder of the chapter looks optimistically, even exultantly, to the future and tells the reader that Zion brings good news.

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