ON Scripture: Voices Crying Out: Comfort and Transformation in an Age of Mass Incarceration (Isaiah 40:1-11) By David Garber


The topic of exile often gives pause to mainline Christians. While many might draw personal analogies to the experience of exile-through individual traumas such as illness, the loss of a family member, or the break-up of a relationship-most of us have not experienced forced migration to a land that is not our own, stealing our personal freedom and thwarting our economic opportunity.

The words in Isaiah 40:1-6 address just such a loss of communal freedom. They introduce what scholars typically refer to as "Second Isaiah," a portion of the book that speaks directly to the needs and despair of the people of Judah who now live in the Babylonian exile after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in 586 BCE. 

In many of the traditional interpretations of exile by the Hebrew prophets, the people of Judah found themselves in exile because God was punishing them for their social and/or religious transgressions. The Isaiah tradition describes the people of Judah as a nation with blood on its hands (1:15). God demands that the people turn from their violent ways and "learn to do good, seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow" (1:17).

But in Isaiah 40:1, the tone completely changes. God does not come to the people declaring a conviction or carrying out judgment. Instead, God, through the prophet, declares that today is the day for comfort. The sentence that God decreed upon the people of Judah has expired. In fact, the people of Judah have paid twice what they deserve for their previous errors (40:2). God acknowledges here that the mandated punishment outweighs the crime.

While we might look at that confession and question God's fairness, this probably came as a word of hope to the exiles. There is a sense of vindication in God's confession, and with that vindication, comes the confidence in a God who holds the power to make things right.

The ancient belief in a God who controls history presents a theological double bind. In one sense, the theology of reward and retribution did not allow the people to blame God, for it was indeed their law breaking that demanded punishment in the first place. But it also means that their God, who now acknowledges their payment of the penalty, also has the power to lift them out of their despair and bring real transformation.

That transformation comes in the form of a promise for a return from exile. Isaiah 40:3-5 also sometimes confuses a Christian audience, especially because of its appearance in the lectionary during Advent. When Christians read the first line of verse three, thoughts immediately turn to the figure of John the Baptist in Matt 3:3: "This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, 'The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.'" In Isaiah 40:3, however, punctuation makes a large difference: "A voice cries out: "In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God."

The difference is subtle, but crucial. When Matthew uses the Isaiah tradition, he establishes the authority of John the Baptist as a forerunner to Christ. But the prophet in Second Isaiah suggests something entirely different. The people of Judah will return to their homeland directly through the desert that separates their current location in Babylon from their heritage in the land of Judah. Instead of having to make the long journey up and down the Euphrates and the Jordan rivers to go home, God promises to forge a new, direct route through the desert. In fact, in Isaiah 43:19, God reverses the Exodus motif. In the Exodus journey, God parted the waters so that the people could escape Egypt on dry ground. Now God promises a new liberation by providing water as they walk through the desert to their homeland.

This reading of Isaiah 40 may make it more difficult for many of us to relate to the ancient historical setting of the text. There are many among us, however, who are refugees, forced to migrate to find economic opportunity or even because of poor decisions or systemic injustice that forces a disproportionate amount of our minority population into the prison system. Bereft of personal and economic freedom, our nation's prison population might find both hope and justice in these words from the ancient prophetic text.

There is no doubt that many in our nation's prison have committed crimes, just as the ancient people of Judah did according to Isaiah 1. There is also no doubt that we need a system of incarceration that separates dangerous criminals from potential victims. But the words concerning disproportionate judgment also call us to question the fairness of our current system in the United States, which boasts the largest prison population in the world at 2.2 million.

Moreover, just as God did not give up on the people of Judah, God has not given up on those in the prison system. What would happen if we as Christians partnered with God to help transform lives and offer hope to the women and men who fill our prisons?

For the past five years, I have been blessed to witness such transformation as a member of the Faculty Advisory Board for the Certificate in Theological Studies Program at the Lee Arrendale State Prison for women in Georgia. The program is a joint initiative of members of the Atlanta Theological Association, which includes the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, Columbia Theological Seminary, the Interdenominational Theological Center, and the McAfee School of Theology at Mercer University.

In my own experience teaching the women at Arrendale, I have witnessed them discover both their voices and the confidence to use them for the edification of the prison community. By teaching, visiting with, and relating to these women, the students I supervise in the program and I have become much more aware of the difficulties these women face in the prison environment and the nature of their exilic experience while incarcerated. In short, we encounter the full humanity of these women, and the encounter transforms us, as well.

"'Comfort, O Comfort my people,' says your God." Perhaps, God is commanding us in the same way God commanded the prophet in Second Isaiah to bring comfort to those in the exile of incarceration in the United States. Perhaps by heeding the call to this exiled community, we might join those in eras past who saw the revelation of God's glory and the hope of transformation that it brings.

Antoinne Murphy shares his achievements since his incarceration.


Bible Study Questions:

  1. How might Christians raise awareness of different forms of exile in our nation and world?

  2. How might Christians partner with God and nourish a spirit of transformation in those who find themselves in the exile of the prison system?

  3. What can Christians do to transform the systemic injustices that force so many minorities into the exiles of incarceration and/or poverty?


For Further Reading

Jeremy Travis, et. al., eds. The Growth of Incarceration in the United States: Exploring Causes and Consequences, 2014.

"End Mass Incarceration Now," a New York Times editorial. May 24, 2014.

Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.


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