What Price Comfort?

by George F Spall

At long last many Christians in various parts of the world are taking notice of the command given in Isaiah chapter 40: “Comfort you, comfort you my people, says your God. Speak comfortably to Jerusalem ...” The obedience is long overdue, and slowly, slowly, Jewish people are noticing and accepting the attempts at comfort, accepting cautiously, perhaps, but at least the comfort is being under assessment not rejection.

Come to think of it, we might well ask, “What comfort did Isaiah have in mind? And was he using the name ‘Jerusalem’ as inclusive of all Jewish people everywhere and from all time, or was it only the City itself which was his concern?” If we are to think about Jewish people generally through the past two thousand years, there is little that concerned Christians can do now about comforting them. Surely Isaiah would not be demanding the impossible!

If we look again at this Scripture that is often quoted, though not completed, we find that there is more to follow: “Cry to her that her warfare (or time) is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she has received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.”

“Well now,” we may say when first reading that, “we should think so too. If one is punished twice as much as the sin deserves, to be pardoned is the least one could expect.”

But is that what Isaiah is proclaiming? The punishment is said to be “from the Lord’s hand”. “What?” we ask. “Does the Lord really punish double or twice as much? There has to be more in the proclamation than appears on the surface.”

Isaiah begins his prophecies in both chapters one and two by addressing Judah and Jerusalem. Why would they be singled out for double punishment? We ask again if it is likely that the Eternal, who through Moses said, “The Lord is long suffering and of great mercy, forgiving iniquity and transgression” would treat Judah and Jerusalem unjustly?

If we look at the word ‘double’ itself -- "for she has received at the Lord's hand DOUBLE for all her sins" -- we find that it does not mean what at first sight it appears to mean.

The Hebrew word translated 'double' in this instance is kephal , and we check back to Exodus 39:9 where it is first used, to discover that it referred to the high priestly breast-plate, which was an ornate piece of embroidered cloth that was folded, doubled, to form a pocket in which were carried the Urim and Thummim.

There are other words translated 'double', for example, if a thief was caught he was fined double (shenayim) the value of his theft (Exodus 22:4), and another word from the same root (mishneh) is that which was used by Jacob when he told his sons to take double the price to be paid for corn (Genesis 43:12).

It is quite within the rules of Hebrew grammar to supply the indefinite article to help convey the proper sense of a word into English. So we translate: "... for she has received of the Lord's hand A double for all her sins" , especially when we have knowledge of the ancient customs of the East to provide the perfect picture. Was there such a thing as 'A DOUBLE', a kephal ? Yes! There was, and here is an illustration.

"Hiram the merchant was generally to be found sitting in the silk market, located inside one of the gates of Jerusalem. The long arch, extending between the inner and outer walls of the city, made a cool and shady bazaar. He had been there for years building a good reputation for honest dealing. But he fell on hard times. His ageing wife was crippled with disease and he lost days of trading whilst caring for her and the household needs. His son was no help. He spent time and money on wine.

"At length, Hiram could pay no bills, and to protect each other, his fellow traders nailed up on the wooden gate a public statement listing the amounts he owed to one and another. The total was quite large. The group of merchants buzzed with excitement. Some, bitter from their losses, made cruel and crude jokes. Others were compassionate and resolved to be patient.

"For a day or two, the sad list of unpaid debts fluttered in the draughty bazaar: then came a man very early one morning and stood looking at the forlorn list of debts. After a few minutes, he took the bottom edge of the document, folded it up, thus hiding the total figure, and he wrote on the back of the paper, 'If the creditors named on this list will apply directly to me, I will pay every amount upon proof of debt' and followed it with his signature. He had become what was known in those days as 'A DOUBLE'. He had double-folded the account and thereby was cancelling it.

"The small group that gathered when the gate was opened hummed and hawed their interest. Old Joash ben Yaacov, though not personally known to all, had a good reputation and was very wealthy. If he could trust Hiram to make good eventually, all would be well. The impatient and fearful went off to find Joash and collect. The others would wait a little longer."

Jerusalem has been destroyed and rebuilt more times than the ancient fort of Megiddo. The old stones have been mellowed as an old violin might be, by the shouts of fighting men, the agonized cries of the fearful and the dying, and the crackling flames. Even in this present generation, the stones have winced at the staccato bites of bullets and the crash of shells and bombs.

"Cry unto her," says Isaiah, "that her warfare is accomplished, her iniquity is pardoned, for she has received at the Lord's hand A DOUBLE for all her sins." The Lord Himself has provided the double. That is what Isaiah said. "She has received from the Lord's hand A DOUBLE ..." Hiram illustrates the point.

Reading the Hebrew text of Isaiah 40:2, we notice that the word ki is used three times; twice it is translated 'that' and once by the word 'for'. It is an important word in the verse. It carries the thought of 'if' and 'because' as Moses used it in his final statement of the blessings and cursings in Deuteronomy.

But of course Moses was not thinking of stone houses and walls when he addressed Jerusalem. They do not need comfort, but the people who live in them do. Was Isaiah thinking only of Jerusalem when he issued his declaration? No! Indeed. He was surely thinking of everybody that required such "a double" as the Eternal has provided.

Scholars often note the change of tone in the book of Isaiah from chapter 40:1 and onward. The provision of "a double" makes it possible.