Prior to the Jewish revolt, at least some Jewish writers thought the people of Israel would be reassembled as the twelve tribes of Israel. The Diaspora will end and Jews will return to the Promised Land. Isaiah 40-66 anticipated a kind of new exodus. God would call his people out of their long exile among the nations are gather them back to the Land promised to Abraham. The newly assembled Israel would rebuild the cities populate the Land as they should have after the Exodus. The land will be central to the true worship of God.
Isaiah 40:1–2 (ESV) Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
Jerusalem is like a woman who has lost her husband and is in need of comfort; she is inconsolable at the loss of her spouse. God will comfort her with “tender words.” The word “to comfort” is a strongly emotional term. It is used in Gen 37:35, after Jacob learns Joseph is dead he is so upset no one is able to comfort him. The word also appears in Job 2:11, the three friends attempt to comfort Job after his losses. The means by which this comforting occurs is through “tender words” (NIV), literally, “speak to her heart.” Heart is more than emotions, this may indicate that some were intellectually devastated, in doubt, wondering of the Lord would still keep his covenant. But this word has strong connotations of emotions, almost seduction.
In Isaiah 40 the Lord says three things to Jerusalem to comfort this distraught widow:
Her hard service is over. The word for service is used for the levitical cycle of service, it is a regular time with well-defined beginning and end. But it can also mean military service, therefore many translations have “her warfare is over.” The suffering of the exile is a “prisoner of war” situation, the time seen by this text is when Israel is safe and no longer under the threat of warfare.
Her sin is paid for. This is a phrase which appears in the passive in connection with blood sacrifice (Leviticus 1:4; 7:18; 19:7; 22:23, 25, 27); the idea is that the Lord has accepted the exile as a sacrifice as a payment for the nations sin.
She has received a double from the Lord’s hand for all her sins. This does not mean that she has been double punished, but rather that the Lord has paid the penalty twice over.
These opening words in the second half of Isaiah are therefore a prophecy of the gathering of the exiles back to the Land of Israel. When the exile finally ends, God will do something which will atone for Israel’s sins which resulted in the Exile in the first place. Although this prophecy begins to be fulfilled as early as 539 B.C., when the exile officially ends, Israel is not completely restored to Jerusalem and they are never free from warfare – nor could we say that the sins of the nation were paid for at that time.
There hint of the ultimate fulfillment comes from Daniel 9, where we are told after 70 years in captivity that the exile will continue for “seventy sevens of years,” or 490 years altogether. This is what the Jews of the first century were looking for when John the Baptist and Jesus announced that the Kingdom of God was near.
As N. T. Wright has said many times, Jews living in the first century knew the prophecy of Daniel 9 was nearing an end and they were fervently looking forward to the gathering of Jews living in the Diaspora to return to Zion and worship in Jerusalem once again. Even in Sirach (who was no wide-eyed apocalypticist), there is a hope for this gathering of all the tribes to the land of their inheritance. Closer to the first century, The Psalms of Solomon give evidence of this belief as well.
Sirach 36:12–16 (NRSV) Crush the heads of hostile rulers who say, “There is no one but ourselves.” 13 Gather all the tribes of Jacob, 16 and give them their inheritance, as at the beginning.
Sirach 48:10 (NRSV) Sirach 36:12–13 (NRSV) Crush the heads of hostile rulers who say, “There is no one but ourselves.” 13 Gather all the tribes of Jacob.
Psalms of Solomon 11:2-4 Stand on a high place, Jerusalem, and look at your children, from the east and the west assembled together by the Lord. From the north they come in the joy of their God; from far distant islands God has assembled them. He flattened high mountains into level ground for them; the hills fled at their coming.
It is therefore little wonder people were interested in a Jewish teacher who selected twelve disciples and talked of the soon-to-appear Kingdom of God. Jesus sent the twelve out to gather the lost sheep of the house of Israel to a lonely place where he fed them with miraculous bread. Jesus was intentionally enacting the gathering of Israel out of the Exile during his ministry.