Life can sometimes shatter us, and our hearts struggle with situations in which we feel a serious need for someone to be at our side. Maybe some of us will say with the psalmist: “my soul refuses to be comforted.” (Ps. 77:2 [Heb. 3]). At times the Biblical writers candidly and honestly expressed their deepest pain. But they also discovered the most reliable and the deepest form of comfort in God Himself. David, for example, discovered this and could say that even in the worst circumstances “Your rod and Your staff they comfort me” (Ps. 23:4) and that “in the abundance of my thoughts within me Your comforts delight my soul.” (Ps. 94:19).
Saul )Paul(, the apostle, calls God the “God of all comfort” (2 Cor. 1:3). He says this on the basis of what he read in the Tanach [the Old Testament] which teaches us that in His very nature God is a comforter. He is the One who comforts us, and He is the source of comfort. He Himself declares to Israel “I, I am Your comforter…” (Is. 51:12). What is more, there is a close connection between comfort and forgiveness of sin, as we see in Isaiah in the connection between the comfort which the LORD speaks of and the fact that Jerusalem’s sin has been removed: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem and proclaim to her, that her warfare is fulfilled, that her iniquity is forgiven, for she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins.” (Is. 40:1-2).
In Isaiah 61 the speaker speaks words of comfort. It is important to note the overlap in the characteristics of this speaker and those of the future son of David who restores the world to the situation of Eden in Isaiah 11 and of the servant of the LORD in Isaiah 40-53 who restores Israel to the LORD, brings salvation not just to Israel but also to the gentiles, and who takes upon himself our sin (Is. 49:1-6; Is. 52:13 – 53:12). These three descriptions which appear in different parts of the book of Isaiah share some important characteristics, including the fact that in each case the character is described as being anointed by the Spirit of the LORD (11:1-2; 42:1; 61:1). This indicates that the different descriptions actually refer to the same character who appears in different roles. In chapter 61 the speaker declares words of comfort (verses 1-3): “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the humble; He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to captives and freedom to prisoners. To proclaim the year of the LORD’s good pleasure, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn. To grant to those who mourn in Zion, to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of joy instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of the spirit of heaviness, so that they will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the LORD wherein He might glory [or – that He might be glorified].” Yeshua (Jesus) read these words in the synagogue in Nazareth, and when He had finished, He declared “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Luke 4:18-21). According to the New Testament He came as the promised comforter to give true comfort.
In Isaiah 61 the speaker who comes to bring true comfort fulfils this role by the power of the Spirit of the LORD. Appropriately, one of the appellations of the Spirit is ‘the Comforter’ (in Greek ‘the paraclete’, the meaning of which is – the one who stands with us – that is to say the helper and the supporter). The Holy Spirit strengthens and supports, being with every believer in every affliction (John 14:15-18; Eph. 3:16; Phil. 1:19). The Holy Spirit also comes to the aid of the congregation of believers, as is written concerning the congregation in the areas of Judea and Galilee and Samaria that enjoyed “the comfort of the Holy Spirit” (Acts 9:31).
Throughout the Bible there are examples of people who in times of trouble drew comfort from God and His word. The writer of Psalm 119 writes, “This is my comfort in my affliction, that Your word has given me life…I remembered your judgements from of old, O LORD, and I comforted myself…O let Your lovingkindness comfort me, according to Your word to Your servant” (Psalm 119 50, 52, 76). Saul (Paul) the apostle says about the Tanach (O.T.), “for whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through patience and comfort of the Scriptures we might have hope.” (Rom. 15:4). So, whoever is longing for comfort will do well to open the Bible and read.
Those who find their comfort in God will best know how to pass that comfort on to others. Saul says that God “comforts us in all our affliction, so that we will be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.” (2 Cor. 1:4 NAU). Our troubles, therefore, can be turned into the means to receive comfort which will also help others. “I am filled with comfort; I am overflowing with joy in all our affliction.” (2 Cor. 7:4). “For this reason, brethren, in all our distress and affliction we were comforted about you through your faith.” (1 Thess. 3:7).
Job’s friends had not experienced anything like what he was going through and were not able to comfort him. Eliphaz said, “Are the comforts of God too small for you?” (Job 15:11), but in fact he and the others did not comfort their suffering friend. They ‘philosophized’, criticized, and even judged him to the point that he said to them, “You are all miserable comforters…If I were in your place. I could compose words against you and shake my head at you. I could strengthen you with my mouth, and the solace of my lips could lessen your pain.” (Job 16:2, 4 NAU). In other words, if their places were switched Job could do to them what they have done to him, but he would, in fact, know how to encourage and comfort them. And differently from them, even in his weakness, Job tried to comfort them: “Listen intently to my speech, and let this be your comfort.” (Job 21:2).
Job’s friends show us, then, how not to give comfort. But its worth learning from descriptions of the way that God comforts by embracing like a comforting mother: “As one whom his mother comforts, so I will comfort you; and you shall be comforted in Jerusalem.” (Is. 66:13); “I will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow.” (Jer. 31:13).
In comparison to the friends of Job who only made things worse for him, Jonathan the son of Saul knew how to comfort and strengthen his friend, David. David had fled from Jonathan’s father, but as a good friend Jonathan sought David out and went as far as going to him in the desert. There, in the place where David was, Jonathan “strengthened his [David’s] hand in God” (1 Sam. 23:16). Jonathan comforted and encouraged David in God. Maybe Jonathan did not fully understand David’s situation, but he turned his friend to the true source of comfort and strength – the God of all comfort.
Boaz is another example of one who by both words and deeds was able to encourage and comfort the broken and desperate. This is clear in what Ruth, a widow, a stranger, one who had nothing and had lost so much, said to him: “…you have comforted me and indeed have spoken kindly to your maidservant, though I am not like one of your maidservants.” (Ruth 2:13).
Another example is Philemon, to whom Saul (Paul) the apostle wrote, “…I have come to have much joy and comfort in your love, because the hearts of the saints have been have been refreshed through you, brother.” (Philemon 1:7).
Whoever comforts others in this way discovers that comfort has many directions: “But God, who comforts the depressed, comforted us by the coming of Titus; and not only by his coming but also by the comfort with which he was comforted by you…” (2 Cor. 7:6-7).
Every one of us can strengthen ourselves in God and be comforted by Him, and in turn strengthen those around us. Sometimes we just need to say a few words or simply say nothing and just give a warm and loving hug.
Comfort brings hope. This is clear, for example, in Isaiah chapter 40. There is a call in the first verses of that chapter, as we have seen already, to comfort the people of Israel by declaring to Jerusalem that her sins are forgiven. This is connected to an additional call to tell Jerusalem to no longer be afraid concerning the present or the future because God comes as a shepherd to gather his scattered sheep (Is. 40:9-11). Comfort brings hope. The writers of the New Testament discovered this as is clear from the verse already mentioned which says that “through perseverance and encouragement [comfort] which the Scriptures give we might have hope.” (Rom. 15:4).
In the hardest of times true comfort turns us to the Comforter – the God of all comfort.
Dr. Makram Mesherky
With Yohanan Stanfield