“A voice of one calling out in the desert, ‘Make ready the road of the Lord! Make his paths straight!’” This quotation, which comes from Isaiah 40:3 (and the quotation in Matt. 3:3 and Luke 3:4), is from the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament. [For more information on the Septuagint and the original NT texts being in Greek, see commentary on Luke 3:4].
The word “road” is hodos (#3598 ὁδός ). Like our English word “way,” it can refer to a road or path, or it can refer to a specific way of doing things. Many times, such as here, its primary meaning is “road,” and it is helpful to translate it that way.
In the Old Testament times (this verse is quoted from Isaiah, roughly 750 BC), there was not much attention paid to the condition of the roads in a country. Even in Roman times, usually only the very important central roadways, and the roads in cities, got any real attention. Nobody owned the roads, and nobody profited from spending time repairing them. It was just repeated use that made the terrain into dirt paths, some wider than others, that then were referred to as roads. Books on the customs of the Bible lands (especially those from the 1800’s or earlier), are replete with stories of the horrors of traveling on roads. They were full of pits, or rocky, or had overhanging foliage that could knock a rider off a mount. They were dark at night and slippery when wet or frozen. They often ascended or descended quickly, and became very dangerous if the conditions were less than ideal. Often thorn bushes grew near the road such that unwary travelers were scratched or had their clothing torn. Added to all this was that there were no road signs to tell travelers where they were, or what road to take if they came to a crossroads. This caused a lot of anxiety to travelers, who did not want to waste time going the wrong way, and could be quite dangerous if the road went to an area that was inhabited by robbers. When Jesus said, “I am the road,” (usually translated, “I am the way”), he was being clear that if a person did not want to get lost trying to get to God, that Jesus was the road to travel on.
When a king (or sometimes a high official) was going to go on a journey, he would send out messengers before he traveled. They would announce to the farmers and villagers who lived close to the road to take the time to go out and prepare it to make the king’s trip easier. The villagers would clear the rock and bushes, fill in ruts and pits, and generally make the road safer and easier to travel. “Make his paths straight” does not refer to taking winding sections of the road and re-routing them, although that might have been done on a small scale if the road went around something that was no longer an obstacle. The word “straight” can also mean “level,” and in this context refers to filling up the pits and holes that developed in the road so it was level and easy to ride on. [For more on roads and the danger of travel in the ancient world, see commentary on 2 Cor. 11:26].
John Schoenheit of Spirit & Truth Fellowship International teaches on “Prepare the Way of the Lord,” and what paths and roads meant in Biblical Times.