Reading Isaianic Prophecies

In church this morning we looked at a few texts that Christians have traditionally taken to be prophecies of the coming Messiah, prophecies of Jesus.

Most Christians, upon reading Isaiah 52:13 – 53:  see the text as descriptive of Jesus. we see how the Servant is described and we think,  “How could people in his era have missed it?”

Isaiah 52:13-53:12 (NIV)

The Suffering and Glory of the Servant

13 See, my servant will act wisely;
    he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.
14 Just as there were many who were appalled at him—
    his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being
    and his form marred beyond human likeness—
15 so he will sprinkle many nations,
    and kings will shut their mouths because of him.
For what they were not told, they will see,
    and what they have not heard, they will understand.

53 Who has believed our message
    and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
    and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
    nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by mankind,
    a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
    he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.

Surely he took up our pain
    and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
    stricken by him, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
    and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
    each of us has turned to our own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

He was oppressed and afflicted,
    yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,
    and as a sheep before its shearers is silent,
    so he did not open his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away.
    Yet who of his generation protested?
For he was cut off from the land of the living;
    for the transgression of my people he was punished.[e]
He was assigned a grave with the wicked,
    and with the rich in his death,
though he had done no violence,
    nor was any deceit in his mouth.

10 Yet it was the Lord’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer,
    and though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days,
    and the will of the Lord will prosper in his hand.
11 After he has suffered,
    he will see the light of life and be satisfied;
by his knowledge my righteous servant will justify many,
    and he will bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will give him a portion among the great,
    and he will divide the spoils with the strong,
because he poured out his life unto death,
    and was numbered with the transgressors.
For he bore the sin of many,
    and made intercession for the transgressors.

Or we look at Isaiah 7:14. We find there a prophecy of a sign given by God, a virgin giving birth to a child who will be called “Immanuel.” We Christians know – of for no other reason than the use of this text in Matthew 1 – that this is Jesus. It is completely clear and obvious to us. Again we think, “How could they have missed it?”

But then, perhaps, we read more of Isaiah 7.

Isaiah 7:1-20 (NIV)

The Sign of Immanuel

When Ahaz son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, was king of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and Pekah son of Remaliah king of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem, but they could not overpower it.

Now the house of David was told, “Aram has allied itself with Ephraim”; so the hearts of Ahaz and his people were shaken, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.

Then the Lord said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub, to meet Ahaz at the end of the aqueduct of the Upper Pool, on the road to the Launderer’s Field. Say to him, ‘Be careful, keep calm and don’t be afraid. Do not lose heart because of these two smoldering stubs of firewood—because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram and of the son of Remaliah. Aram, Ephraim and Remaliah’s son have plotted your ruin, saying, “Let us invade Judah; let us tear it apart and divide it among ourselves, and make the son of Tabeel king over it.” Yet this is what the Sovereign Lord says:

“‘It will not take place,
    it will not happen,
for the head of Aram is Damascus,
    and the head of Damascus is only Rezin.
Within sixty-five years
    Ephraim will be too shattered to be a people.
The head of Ephraim is Samaria,
    and the head of Samaria is only Remaliah’s son.
If you do not stand firm in your faith,
    you will not stand at all.’”

10 Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, 11 “Ask the Lord your God for a sign,whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.”

12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.”

13 Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also?14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 15 He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, 16 for before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. 17 The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.”

In this larger context we see that the sign of 7:14, the son born to the virgin, is not just a sign given to everyone but specifically to King Ahaz. Ahaz was worried about the two armies that were surrounding Jerusalem. He knew he couldn’t stand against them for long. God sent Isaiah to give him reassurance. God’s promise was that these two enemies would soon pass from the scene. They would not overcome the Kingdom of Judah.

God spoke to Ahaz through Isaiah the prophet: “Ask me for a sign that what I have told you will come to pass.” Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, hiding behind a superficial spirituality. So in v.14 God himself offers a sign – the sign of the son. This son, we read in the next few verses, will still be a young child when the Armies of Israel (the Northern Kingdom) and Aram (Syria) are complete taken care of. Read this way, this son to be born could not be Jesus – as Jesus was born over seven hundred years too late to be a sign to Ahaz.

So what do we make of this? We keep reading. We examine the context further. As we continue to read in Isaiah we find in chapter 9:

Isaiah 9:1-7 (NIV)

Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan—

The people walking in darkness
    have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
    a light has dawned.
You have enlarged the nation
    and increased their joy;
they rejoice before you
    as people rejoice at the harvest,
as warriors rejoice
    when dividing the plunder.
For as in the day of Midian’s defeat,
    you have shattered
the yoke that burdens them,
    the bar across their shoulders,
    the rod of their oppressor.
Every warrior’s boot used in battle
    and every garment rolled in blood
will be destined for burning,
    will be fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
    to us a son is given,
    and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
    there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
    and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
    with justice and righteousness
    from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
    will accomplish this.

Notice particular v. 6. Here again the prophet points as the son who will be given. Now we move far beyond a sign offered to Ahaz. This son will be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” These features fit no one in the age of Ahaz; these do fit Jesus.

So where do we stand?

If all we read is Isaiah 7:14, we find an obvious reference to Jesus. If we expand the context a bit to include the verses around 7:14 we find that it’s instead an obvious reference to someone other than Jesus, someone who lived centuries before Jesus. But when we continue on and consider the still larger context, this simple distinction is thrown into question. Isaiah 7:14 is a prophecy of a child being born who will be a sign to Ahaz and his contemporaries. This same prophecy is also of a child who will be much more than that, a child we Christians recognize as Jesus. In other words, this text has multiple levels of fulfillment. We miss this when (a) we take single verses out of their context, and (b) when we don’t look at the full context.

So what about Isaiah 53 and the Servant? Christians have traditionally taken this to be Jesus. Jews have traditionally taken it to be Israel. There are reasons to consider both possibilities. Let’s consider a neighboring text, also in the Servant Songs of Isaiah, that throws some light on the question.

Isaiah 49:1-6 (NIV)

The Servant of the Lord

49 Listen to me, you islands;
    hear this, you distant nations:
Before I was born the Lord called me;
    from my mother’s womb he has spoken my name.
He made my mouth like a sharpened sword,
    in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me into a polished arrow
    and concealed me in his quiver.
He said to me, “You are my servant,
    Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
    I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
    and my reward is with my God.”

And now the Lord says—
    he who formed me in the womb to be his servant
to bring Jacob back to him
    and gather Israel to himself,
for I am[a] honored in the eyes of the Lord
    and my God has been my strength—
he says:
“It is too small a thing for you to be my servant
    to restore the tribes of Jacob
    and bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,
    that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”

As in Isaiah 53, we find the Servant here. In v.3 we finally see the Servant identified: the servant is named “Israel.” There it is – it can’t be more obvious. The Servant is Israel. So much then for the traditional Christian reading. But wait! Consider the Servant’s vocation in v.5. Here we see that the first part of the Servant’s job is to “bring Jacob back” to the Lord, to “gather Israel to himself.” So here the Servant is something other than Israel who will save Israel (and, in v. 6, all the rest of us as well). Once we consider this whole context then, the Servant is Israel  and just as clearly, the Servant is more than Israel.

How can this work?

I’ve already suggested that prophecy is capable of multiple forms of fulfillment. That’s one thing happening here. There’s another. Jesus – the Servant – came not merely as the embodiment of Israel’s God, the God who created the whole universe (the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation), but also as the embodiment of Israel. Where Israel had failed in its mission, Jesus would take up that mission and save Israel and fulfill the mission in the course of his life, death, and resurrection. If we want to understand Jesus biblically, we need to understand him (and the scriptures that tell of him) in the context of Israel. Jesus was not out to start a new religion (which we have come to call Christianity); Jesus came instead as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel, his chosen people. Now we, the people of Jesus, join that same story, and become part of God’s project of bringing healing, life, and salvation to all of creation.

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