Prepare ye the way of the Lord

By Stephen Green. First published in Christian Voice November 2016.

Matthew 3:1 In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, 2 And saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. 3 For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.

The way of the Lord in Advent

In the traditional Advent season of the church year, there is emphasis on the ministry of John the Baptist.  He is ‘preparing the way’ for the Lord Jesus.  The Gospel of Matthew refers to a prophecy of Isaiah:

Isaiah 40:3 The voice of him that crieth in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the LORD, make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

Some people move the comma from after ‘wilderness’ to after ‘crieth’.  It makes little difference.  The way of the Lord still has to be prepared.  The Isaiah word in its turn reminds us of a command in the law of God:

Deuteronomy 19:3 Thou shalt prepare thee a way, and divide the coasts of thy land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee to inherit, into three parts, that every slayer may flee thither.

What is this Biblical road-building all about?  Luke chapter three opens with the ministry of John the Baptist. Luke 3:4-5 is a direct quote from Isaiah 40:3-4.  So here is Isaiah’s next verse.  These famous words were set to music by Handel in his ‘Messiah’:

Isaiah 40:4 Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low: and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain:

They are wonderful poetic words.  But they are more than that.  I should like to take a sideways look at two aspects of this advent road-building that are often overlooked.

Smoothing the road

The first point is that exalting, or as Luke puts it ‘filling in’, valleys, making hills low, actually happened whenever a Biblical king set forth.

Before he went out to battle, or to exact a tribute, or to cement a trade route, or whatever he was about to do, the king would send out his road builders.  They would fill in potholes and smooth out the rocky parts of the route at a minimum.

Road-building in Africa: making paths straight, mirroring the way of the Lord.

Road-building in Africa: making paths straight, mirroring the way of the Lord.

Moreover, the king and his horse- or oxen-drawn entourage did not want to be going up and down steep inclines either.  His engineers would use spoil from hills they had cut through to fill in the valleys.  They would also make the crooked roads as straight as they could.

Men have always done this and we do it today.  Road builders from the Bronze Age to the Romans and the Celts tried to make roads straight and inclines gentle.

The Victorians with their canals and railways went as true and as flat as they could.  Even the layers of our motorways try to go up and down or side to side as little as possible.  It is the same across the world.  Every king wants his route to be as easy as possible.

So did the Lord Jesus, and John the Baptist prepared his way in the spiritual sense. He called for repentance.

Roads as government communications

The King’s Highway was the real name of a route through the Old Testament land of Edom.  But our second point is to look at roads as public service.  In the ancient world this function of road-building was actually quite radical.

Even the Romans didn’t get it in the first century.  In the Pelican History of England series, Professor Ian Richmond wrote in ‘Roman Britain’:

‘In addition to the construction and maintenance of the principle roads to the pattern and satisfaction of the central authorities, there was the upkeep of the Imperial Post.

‘This elaborate service of courier-gigs, coaches and heavy wagons was established for the use of Imperial officials.  It was not, like the modern postal service, a government institution run for the benefit of the public’.  In contrast, it was ‘a service operated at public expense for the use of the government.’

What a contrast that is with the road-building imposed upon ancient Israel by Almighty God.  In Numbers we read of the cities the nation had to establish to allow those guilty of accidental homicide a place of refuge.

Numbers 35:11 Then ye shall appoint you cities to be cities of refuge for you; that the slayer may flee thither, which killeth any person at unawares. 12 And they shall be unto you cities for refuge from the avenger; that the manslayer die not, until he stand before the congregation in judgment.

Then in the verse from Deuteronomy with which we opened, we read that God told the Israelites to build roads to the cities of refuge.  That is a public service.

Communications as public service

So we see that maintaining communications in a realm is a duty imposed upon the government for the public good.  Roads and other communications are not for the exclusive benefit of those in power, as in the Roman model.  They are they for the use and benefit of the public.

In the same way, the Gospel – the way of the Lord – is not just there for our personal good, but is intended to benefit everyone.  God’s laws improve the whole of society while the wellspring of the Holy Spirit should bring life to those around us.  And at the level of redemption, the way of the Lord is not merely there for an elite.  It is available for whosoever will set out upon it.

So in the Biblical witness around the advent road-building we see firstly an ancient tradition.  We see secondly a radical God-inspired public-use departure from gentile practice.  Thirdly we see our prophetic duty.  And fourthly we see the Gospel call.  I am inspired and amazed at the wisdom of God in all of this.

The way of holiness

Finally, let me remind of you another road, another way of the Lord in the Bible.  It’s in Isaiah’s millennial vision and it’s simply wonderful:

Isa 35:8 And an highway shall be there, and a way, and it shall be called The way of holiness; the unclean shall not pass over it; but it shall be for those: the wayfaring men, though fools, shall not err therein. 9 No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up thereon, it shall not be found there; but the redeemed shall walk there10 And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads: they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

Let us pray in confidence, dear saved reader, to see each other on that road.

Copyright Stephen Green. Texts are from the King James Version of the Bible.
This article was first published in the Christian Voice newsletter in November 2016

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