About the truthfulness of the prophecies – I had an interesting conversation with my pastor yesterday. We landed on the idea that these prophecies are in poetic form for a reason! We should not expect God to be easy enough to understand that clear prose or textbook descriptions can fully describe Him or His involvement in this world. If we embrace the poetic style and accept that the prophets did not intend the words to be taken as “literal truth” in the form of what we now consider “history” or “news,” we might be able to get a more meaningful feeling for God’s presence, as opposed to a detailed understanding of who God is.
Posts by Brad Harris:
I wonder how many of Isaiah’s prophecies actually made it to the nations he spoke against. Were these messages delivered in an open forum in Jerusalem? Probably spoken orally at first, then written down later or transcribed by a scribe. Did the written version ever get delivered to the nations? They don’t really read much like Isaiah intended for the nations to read them as much as to comfort the Judeans.
Some interesting passages in ch. 14 as far as Isaiah’s view of life after death: 9-11 talk of the king’s disgraceful entry into Sheol, and 16-20 describe him being denied burial, which apparently relegates him to the lowest place in the underworld. More on this topic to come in ch. 26.
Since I didn’t read yesterday (too busy having a day off work), I caught up today with chs. 13, 14, 15, & 16. The study notes in the JSP and HarCol give differing interpretations of the prophecy against Babylon. HarCol, along with the traditional evangelical view, dates this passage to Isaiah son of Amaz’s time, during the Assyrian crisis, when Babylon was a troublesome city that the Assyrians had to conquer repeatedly. JSP suggests this passage was added during the much later Babylonian empire, at the time of the Judean exile there. Either way, I have a problem with the end of the oracle in 15:19-22. Isaiah prophecies that Babylon will be completely destroyed, on the order of Sodom and Gomorrah. The imagery leaves no room for partial destruction, and specifically claims that no human will ever live there again. However, no invading army has ever, as far as I know, completely decimated the city. Indeed, as recently as 2003 Saddam Hussein rebuilt portions of the city (according to Wikipedia). So what do we do with prophecies like this which never quite come true? If we qualify the truth claims with “yet,” i.e. “This hasn’t come to pass yet, but surely it will in the future,” then how can we ever rule out any prophecy? And if Isaiah has made an incorrect prophecy in the name of the Lord, then can we trust anything he says?
Of course hyperbolic language in and of itself doesn’t necessarily disqualify the prophet. In chapter 14 the prophecy seems to be that the people will sing that song (v. 4a), not that the content of the song will come true. On the other hand, Deut. 18:20-22 makes clear that a prophet speaking in the name of the Lord can always be tested by whether those prophecies come true, and if they do not then the prophet has spoken presumptuously and should be put to death. I don’t know what value there is in testing prophecies like these that may not have their fulfillment until well past the lifetime of the prophet though. I suspect the test of the true prophet involves much more short-term prophecies than that.
This study of the prophets is not for the faint of heart or weak in faith!
The messianic and eschatological prophecies in chs. 11 & 12 portray a world much like we see in the Revelation of Jesus Christ to the Apostle John. Note, however, that while the world improves dramatically on the one we currently inhabit, it is not entirely perfect. Poverty and wickedness persist as seen in v. 4, and the Messiah will have need of the ability to deal wisely with those problems. It does mention in v. 9 that the sacred mount (Holy Mountain) will be free from anything vile or evil, but that may not apply elsewhere in the world, particularly in the eight other nations mentioned from whence will come redeemed the people of God. These other nations will honor the Messiah and seek His counsel, but the blanket of perfect peace may not extend to these foreign lands.
In fact, v. 14 describes Israel & Judah together plundering those foreign peoples. This in opposition to the standard of nonviolence maintained elsewhere by Isaiah: The prophet describes God taking vengeance on those nations who sin during the fall of Israel and Judah, but warns against his people carrying this out on their own.
So frequently I see moral references in the OT prophets that mirror the teachings of Christ. God repeatedly calls for His people to treat others with righteousness, not to pervert justice, to take up the cause of the poor and the widows, to reject bribes. Many times these are the charges He levels against His people when explaining why the foreign invaders are coming to destroy them. Keep in mind, this invasion by outsiders is not a rash decision – generations have gone by in which God repeatedly sent His prophets to call the people to repentance. Eventually the consequence of disobedience must come. God is also clear that the earthly instrument who enacts this judgment is liable for all the crimes committed during that act – hence the prophecies against Assyria for their part in the fall of Israel, even though that fall had been decreed by God.
The standard Christian interpretation of Isaiah 9:6 clearly foretells the coming of the Christ:
For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Christendom commonly interprets the terms at the end of the verse as four names:
- Wonderful Counselor
- Mighty God
- Everlasting Father
- Prince of Peace
Some commentators go so far as to separate the first of these into two names, Wonderful and Counselor.
Of course, giving the Christ a name like Mighty God does tend to push us towards the divinity of Jesus!
This typical Christian interpretation, however, is not without its controversies. Leaving aside the point of whether this text refers at all to Jesus of Nazareth, let’s look at the names. The Jewish Publication Society (JPS) TANAKH translates that passage slightly differently:
For a child has been born to us, a son has been given us. And authority has settled on his shoulders. He has been named “The Mighty God is planning grace; The Eternal Father, a peacable ruler”
The JSB study notes go on to explain that the entire sentence is the name of the child, and that this was customary in ancient near-eastern cultures like Israel and Babylon. Isaiah means “The LORD saves”; Merodach-baladan means “the god Marduk has provided an heir”. The names were not intended to describe the child so much as to describe the God who gave the child to us.
The JPS TANAKH also references a similar Hebrew wording in Is. 12:1 where the translators take this form.
I am impressed with the JSB in that it sometimes points out passages that Christians find important, even though the authors and their audience, as Jews, would commonly find a different meaning in the passage.
In the imprecise prophecies department, consider Isaiah 7:8b. According to the narrative in 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles as well as extra-biblical sources, the conflict between Rezin, Pekah, and Ahaz occurred around 735 BCE. Damascus fell to Assyria just two years later, and within 13 years the whole of Aram and Israel had been conquered and scattered. Why, then, did Isaiah mention 65 years? Sure, we can say that at the 65 year point these nations were shattered, but what purpose could Isaiah have in extending the defeat so long when trying to encourage Ahaz? Either way, Ahaz did not survive to see the fall of Israel.
Verse 16, however, seems to get the time frame right: A child would reach the “age of accountability” at about 13 years old, which is when Israel fell.
And in a note related only by proximity in the text: Study notes in both the JSB and the HarCol point out that 7:20 describes shaving the head and the pubic hair.
I’ve struggled through with the Kindle version of the Jewish Study Bible long enough: I received my dead tree edition of the book in today’s mail. I love the Kindle for reading a book straight through, but it’s not so good for reference materials like this. On paper the Biblical text, the translators’ notes, and the commentary each have a section on every page; not so in the Kindle. The three components are on different pages, and flipping between them is quite difficult, particularly so in a book that is not optimized for the newest Kindle features like page numbers and page flip.
The commentary in the JSB notes that Isaiah chs. 1-5 commonly call for Israel to repent. In Isaiah 6:9-13 the Lord commands Isaiah to tell the people that they will not repent until it is too late. The remainder of Isaiah’s prophecy to Israel prior to the Babylonian exile contains no more calls to repentance. This could signify that the vision in chapter 6 is not Isaiah’s initial call to prophecy; rather, it may be the turning point at which he is no longer to prophecy repentance.