Mike Cowie is leading a Bible study that’s working through the book of Isaiah. Having just studied Isaiah chapter 6, he had a question. He wrote:
We discussed the purpose in Isaiah’s message. Why would God want to harden people to prevent them from repenting? – reminiscent of God’s work in Pharaoh prior to the Exodus. This seems a bit opposed to His character. Doesn’t He call his people to repentance?
We thought that perhaps this passage should be read as a judgement, not a call to repentance. God tells Isaiah to pronounce judgment on Judah – they will not understand or perceive and therefore will not be healed. This ‘dull’ing of their ears and the ‘close’ing of their eys is the judgement itself not just a warning of judgment to come.
The answer has to come through understanding God’s plan of salvation that’s mapped out in Isaiah. God plans to save his people in a surprising way, in a way that doesn’t rely on human strength or human wisdom, or even on the physical nation of Israel. A large part of that plan, therefore, will involve the ministry of Isaiah, confirming God’s people in their stubborn and rebellious ways, so that they don’t see God’s wisdom until (in a sense) it’s too late, until their own human strength has been toppled, until their nation has been completely humbled and they are ready to see God’s answer to their plight. It is a salvation that comes through judgment.
This comes through again and again in Isaiah – the idea that God’s salvation doesn’t rely on human wisdom. Keep a lookout for this theme as you read through the book of Isaiah.
“For how long, O Lord” – is Isaiah asking: “how long will Judah be kept deaf, blind and unhealed for?”
The answer in vs 11-12 must be the exile of Judah that occurred in 606 BC.
So taken this way Isaiah’s message to Jerusalem and Judah is that God will judge them by closing their ears and eyes to Him until their destruction in the exile.
Yes and no! The thing about the book of Isaiah is that it (deliberately) keeps working with multiple fulfilments – it works on a number of different levels, which is its great glory, but also why it can also be a little hard to get a grip on.
In fact, the first time verses 11-12 is fulfilled is earlier than the Babylonian exile – it’s in the Assyrian crisis described in chapters 36-38, where the whole land of Judah was devastated except for the capital, Jerusalem, and Hezekiah was forced to rely on God alone. God did preserve the city of Jerusalem at that time, but only after the nation had been almost completely wiped out. This happened in 701 BC (or perhaps 688 BC). It’s described in chapter 29, as a time when God makes his people blind and dull (29:9-14). And in Isaiah 35:5, there is the promise that in the future, the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the redeemed of the Lord will return to Jerusalem.
However, the Babylonian exile (which happened in stages from 606-587 BC) is also on view (Isaiah 39:6-7). The Babylonian crisis – where the whole nation is completely devestated – introduces the background to the second half of the book, chapters 40-66, which are written to the returned or soon-to-be-returned exiles. So in chapter 42, God speaks of a servant, who will open the blind eyes and bring the exiles back from Babylon (Isaiah 42:7), even though Israel had been blinded (42:16-18). If you read Isaiah 42:16-25 you’ll see this all worked out.
BUT … the Babylonian exile isn’t the final fulfilment of this prophecy. For even as the exile finishes, God promises an even greater work for the future. Part of the tension of the Old Testament comes from the fact that, while the physical exile was over, the glory of Israel was never really restored to the way the prophets predicted. People were looking forward to a real end of the exile, a time when God’s glory would be properly revealed in Israel. And God, in Isaiah, predicts that this will happen – but again in a way that human wisdom and human power can’t comprehend. There will come a servant, a suffering servant. This servant will display God’s wisdom, his amazing salvation (52:13). But it won’t be understood by the people, because they are still blinded to God’s ways (52:14-15). He will be despised and rejected, a man of sorrows (53:3). But his suffering and rejection by God’s blinded and dulled people will actually mean salvation, because he will suffer for the sins of the world – he will justify many by his wisdom (53:11).
This is the climactic fulfilment of this prophecy – and as the book of Isaiah ends, it still seems to be something that will happen in the future.
I’m content with this aside from the fact that Jesus tells His disciples that Isaiah’s prophecy in vs 9-10 is fulfilled in the confused listeners to His parables (Matt 13:14-16). How can Isaiah’s prophecy to a particular group of people at a particular time with a distinct end point continue to apply to Jesus’ “listeners” 600+ years later?
Is the proclamation of judgement true for all people beyond Judah and beyond the exile? Perhaps Isaiah’s specific judgement/prophecy for Judah is also true for all people in that it is a general consequence/punishment of sin? The “holy seed” that will come (Jesus) is the only way anyone will be able to truly see or hear and then be healed. Through the work of Jesus and the provision of His Spirit people will be given revelation – unattainable by human sight or understanding.
This may be stretching things a little. I’m struggling to make sense of the passage in its Isaiah context given Jesus’ words in Matthew.
When Jesus comes, that’s exactly what happens. He doesn’t display human strength or power or wisdom, so he is rejected by his own people, who have been deliberately blinded and dulled. This was part of God’s plan of judgment:
John 9:39 39 Jesus said, “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and those who see may become blind.”
John 12:37-43 37 Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, 38 so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” [Isaiah 53:1] 39 Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, 40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.” [Isaiah 6:10] 41 Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. 42 Nevertheless, many even of the authorities believed in him, but for fear of the Pharisees they did not confess it, so that they would not be put out of the synagogue; 43 for they loved the glory that comes from man more than the glory that comes from God.
But it is also God’s plan for salvation. That’s why John, above, quotes Isaiah 53:1 (which is the suffering servant poem, the bit of Isaiah that speaks about Jesus dying for our sins) – this weakness, not understood by the people, is salvation for the world. With Jesus being rejected as foolish and weak by his own people, there is the opportunity for salvation for the whole world.
This same theme is taken up by the apostles. Peter says:
Acts 2:22-24 22 “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know- 23 this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. 24 God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.
Or as Paul says
1 Corinthians 2:7-8 7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. 8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
This is also why Jesus told parables about the kingdom (e.g. Matthew 13) – to both harden in judgment those who were to reject and crucify him, and also to bring salvation to those who do finally understand Jesus’ purpose in dying for our sins.
What does that mean for us? There is still the same blinding and enlightening going on today, as the message about Jesus is spoken. When Paul speaks of this process, he keeps making reference to the idea in the book of Isaiah:
1 Corinthians 1:18-25 18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” [Isaiah 29:14] 20 Where is the one who is wise [cf. Isaiah 29:14]? Where is the scribe [cf. Isaiah 33:18]? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs [cf. Isaiah 7:11] and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews [Isaiah 8:14-15] and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men [cf. Isaiah 52:13-15].
That is, if you see the wisdom of God in Jesus’ death on the cross rather than in human power, or your own wisdom, you are saved by God’s power. If you refuse to, you are further blinded and salvation doesn’t come.
It’s a complex answer, isn’t it? But part of the glory of Isaiah is the way that it speaks on multiple levels and is able to be used by the New Testament to build up a great picture of God’s wisdom and glory, shown supremely in his suffering servant Jesus.