Make Straight the Way of the LORD

Isaiah 40:3

[3] A voice cries:

“In the wilderness prepare the way of the LORD;

make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

[4] 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.

[5] And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed,

and all flesh shall see it together,

for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

Anyone who has spent any time in Israel knows that it is a land of hills, and therefore of constant elevation change from one location to another.  From the cliffs overlooking the Rift Valley of the Dead Sea and Masada in the South, to Qumran, to the Central Highlands, to the Golan Heights and Mount Herman in the far north.  (If you’ve been there you may have heard the saying: “Everything is uphill in Jerusalem”.)  How did this topography influence the Biblical authors?

In Biblical times, footpaths and roads in such a land twisted and turned as they traversed up and down the contours of the hills in an attempt to make them somewhat less strenuous to travel.

The rigor of travel on these paths apparently was on the minds of Biblical writers who could well-imagine with what ease and comfort they would be able to travel if the land was flat and the paths straight and direct.  Not only would travel be less strenuous, it would also be more direct (straight), and so faster.

The above verse from Isaiah (cited in Mt 3:3, Mk 1:3 and Lk 3:4-5) features a kind of command/prophecy concerning both straightening out and leveling the land in preparing a path for the LORD.  In verse 3, the word rendered here “straight” is:

  1. יָשַׁר yāšar: A verb meaning to be straight, to be upright, to be smooth, to be pleasing. When it means straight, it applies in a physical and an ethical sense as in straightforward. Therefore, this word can be used to refer to a path (1Sa 6:12); water (2Ch 32:30); the commands of God (Ps 119:128); or of a person (Hab 2:4). This word is also used to mean pleasing, as Samson found a Philistine woman pleasing to him (Jdg 14:7); but the cities that Solomon gave to Hiram were not pleasing (1Ki 9:12). It can also mean to make (or be) smooth or even, as with gold (1Ki 6:35); or a level road (Isa 40:3).

Notice the word can describe physical straightness, as it does here in Isaiah, as well as morally “straight” or upright; “pleasing”; and “smooth”.

Then in verse 4 we have the prophecy of a levelling of the hilly land – valleys being lifted up and mountains and hills being lowered.  The word here rendered “level” is:

  1. מִישׁוֹר miyšôr: A masculine noun meaning plain, evenness, straightness, righteousness, equity. Evenness is the fundamental sense of this word. It denotes straight, as opposed to crooked (Isa 40:4;42:16); level land, such as a plain (Dt 3:10;1Ki 20:23); and a safe, unobstructed path (Ps 27:11). By analogy, it is likewise used to imply a righteous lifestyle (Ps 143:10); and equitable leadership (Ps 45:6 [7]; Isa 11:4).

Here Isaiah is using the common Jewish idiom of repetition to emphasize the idea by immediately following the admonition to “make his paths יָשַׁר (yāšar)” with the prophecy that “the uneven ground shall become מִישׁוֹר (miyšôr)”, a near synonym.

I find it fascinating how the physical hardship of getting around in a hilly land becomes projected onto the spiritual hardship of being apart from God/the LORD — how the relative comfort of travelling a straight and level path physically becomes, similarly, projected onto the concept of God returning to live with His chosen people; and those people living in such a way as to be pleasing to their God.  The Biblical writers drew the logical conclusion that God would not return to live with, and thus redeem, His people unless they repented and reformed their lives, leading them in a morally ‘straight’ and ‘level’ way.

This is the implicit conclusion portrayed in Provebs 3:6 (and Pr 4:26):

[6] In all your ways acknowledge him,

and he will make straight { מִישׁוֹר miyšôr) your paths.

as well as the same idea used by the writer of Hebrews to admonish his Christian readers to live rightly so as not to prejudice converts, who are weak in faith, against that faith through the readers’ ‘crooked’ or ‘uneven’ manner of living — Hebrews 12:13:

 [13] and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed.

If you’ve never been to Israel, go.  Spend some days there, on foot.  Experience not just Jerusalem but visit the nearby hill country (Ein Karem is a lovely little town just West of Jerusalem).  Of course, visit the tourist sites like Masada, Qumran, Bethlehem, Nazareth, Sepphoris (Tzipori), Megiddo, Beit Shean, and Capernaum.  But spend time on your feet, walking, hiking if possible.  If you do, it won’t take very long before you have internalized how difficult travel must have been before cars and tour buses (particularly if you’re there in summer).  And that understanding may help you see how the difficulty of the land’s topography resonated with the Israelites in using it as a metaphor for the difficulty of their lives once God had ordained their exile from the land.  They confessed they had lived wrongly but admonished God to forgive and come back and redeem them to Himself, and to lives that were straight and level.

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