Service is at an end


In The Book of Isaiah, Chapter 40 Verse 2 states:
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her
that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated

Does service refer to the servitude and exile of God’s people?


I think it means compulsory military service caused by constant warfare. But my thoughts are just based on a quick comparison with different translations, so YMMV.


The Douay-Rheims translation says “Speak ye to the heart of Jerusalem, and call to her: for her evil is come to an end, her iniquity is forgiven” The Haydock commentary on Isaias xl. 2 says “Ver. 2. Evil. Hebrew and some Latin copies have, ‘warfare.’”


Umm… no, that doesn’t seem right.

Isaiah chapter 40 is the beginning of what scholars consider “deutero-Isaiah”. This part of the book is the proclamation that the exile is about to be completed. In other words, their time of being exiled for the sins of the people is at an end. It doesn’t have to do with “military service” (since, at this time, they’re in Babylon); it has to do with exile – the prophecies are telling the people that their punishment is over and their return to the Promised Land is imminent. It’s not “military service” and “warfare”; it’s “exile” and “punishment”. The People of God are about to be returned to the land promised to them…!


If anyone has this kind of question, it’s best to consult not just the various translations, but also a good Hebrew word-for-word translation. (You will often see this kind of thing called an “interlinear” translation.) Biblehub is a Protestant site, but it does have this available for the Hebrew text of OT books and the Greek text of NT books that are in the Protestant version of the canon. You can find other versions elsewhere. It’s also helpful to check out the Septuagint Greek reading of OT Hebrew passages, if you see something looking weird.

The Hebrew version of this passage says “Your iniquity is pardoned/paid off and your warfare is accomplished/served out.” In this context, “warfare” seems to mean either Israel’s spiritual struggle to stay Jewish and monotheist in Babylon, or the general war-related bad stuff that happened to Israel, like losing the war and getting dragged off into exile. But it can also mean a time of service or duty, like serving in the army.

The word itself is “tsaba,” which literally means “host, army.” (You probably remember a derivative of it from the expression “Lord God Sabaoth,” Lord God of Hosts.) It can also mean a term of army service or warfare (ie, army stuff). Numbers 4:28 applies it to the Levites’ term of service. The same kind of figurative use is in Job 7:1 and Job 14:14.

The Septuagint Greek replaces “warfare” with “humiliation” and switches up the order of the poetry: “her humiliation tapeinosis] is accomplished and her sin is untied.”


The “service” is her “servitude” or exile in Babylon.

While it is correct that the root of the word in Hebrew refers to “warfare” or more specifically an “army,” TSABA is a very terse word. In the way it is employed in this verse it means “term of service” such as a term served by a soldier in an army or “service” as in being forced to do something, usually by means of force by a soldier.

A similar meaning to service appears in the Gospels:

“Should anyone press you into service for one mile, go with him for two miles.”–Matthew 5:41.

The term “press you into service” is the Greek word AGGAREUO. The NAB footnote to this verse explains: “Roman garrisons in Palestine had the right to requisition the property and services of the native population.”

This is the type of “service” being spoken of in Isaiah. The Jews in exile were in “servitude” until God brought their deportation to an end.


Always good to know the historical context. However, given the explanatory notes in the Catholic translations I read, the word’s two uses in Job, and CeelosDeznos’s comment, I stand by my claim that “service” here is militaristic in particular, even if the passage as a whole is getting at Israel’s impending return from punishment and exile more broadly.


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