From Metaphor to Reality

A voice of one crying in the wilderness
“prepare ye the way of the Lord;
make straight the paths of our God.”

The impact of the book of Isaiah on Christianity is hard to over-emphasize. Although this is true of the entire book, it is especially true of Isaiah 40-55. Isaiah 40:1-5, especially v.3 (quoted above from the Septuagint), is referenced in all four Gospels with John the Baptist identified as the voice calling out in the wilderness. Ben Witherington III (Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertextuality, and Hermeneutics) notes that “there is frankly no passage of Isaiah that more clearly binds all four canonical Gospels together.” (p. 189) All four of the Gospels attribute the quote to Isaiah and use the quote, in one way or another, to frame the ministry of Jesus (the one for whom the way is prepared). It was integral to the church’s early understanding of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. While the narrator makes the connection in the synoptic Gospels, the Gospel of John makes it personal.

Finally they said, “Who are you? Give us an answer to take back to those who sent us. What do you say about yourself?” John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Make straight the way for the Lord.’” (Jn 1:22-23)

These references, however, are not one-off proof-texts. The first century culture was more oral than written, but there is clear evidence of the importance of Isaiah as a book. Many of the passages were familiar to Jewish audiences. The early church was confronted by a bewildering new reality and the book of Isaiah helped them make sense of what had happened. But, and this is an important point, Jesus was not the obvious answer to well-known predictions.  There were only glimmers of understanding until after his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Much of what they read or heard from the book was then reinterpreted in light of Jesus. Isaiah provides a word of redemption and hope following judgment. The connections are there for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Witherington continues:

Furthermore, they took Isaiah at his word that the Lord was indeed coming to Zion to redeem his people. What only likely dawned on them after Easter was just how literally this had come to pass in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. The Isaianic metaphors became true in a way even the great prophet could not have fully imagined. Isaiah had not previously in Judaism been interpreted to be speaking about a suffering messiah, not, that is, until Jesus prompted such an interpretation. The reality of Jesus’s words and deeds, his life and death and resurrection caused a dramatic re-searching and rereading of the Scriptures looking for clues, handles, and explanations for what had just happened, and no book helped them more to understand these things than Isaiah, with perhaps the Psalms as a close second. (p. 190)

Additional indications of the importance of Isaiah 40 are found in Romans and in 1 Peter. In Romans 10 Paul uses rhetorical questions similar to Isaiah 40 and what Witherington terms “close verbal links” in Second Isaiah, especially Ch. 40 and 52, to understand the first century response to the good news of Jesus. “Paul is not cherry-picking isolated words of verses to make his point, he is referring to major themes that characterize Second Isaiah, again and again.” (p. 190-191)

Peter 1:22-25 quotes from Isaiah 40:6-8:

Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for each other, love one another deeply, from the heart.For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and enduring word of God. For, “All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” And this is the word that was preached to you. (NIV)

The quote is somewhat different from our English translations of the Hebrew text (lacking v. 7 in its entirety), but follows the Septuagint closely, where v. 7 is also missing and the text reads: “All flesh is grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass: The grass withers, and the flower fades: but the word of our God abides for ever.” Peter tailors the text to fit his context (Witherington points out the insertion of “like” and the change from “our God” to “the Lord” … “perhaps because Peter is referring to the gospel about Jesus.” (p. 191)

Eschatological hope and the good news of Jesus Christ were now seen to be foreshadowed in Isaiah 40.

In our next post, as we march slowly through Isaiah, we will turn to Isaiah 42.

Did Jesus make metaphor reality, moving beyond the original message in ways that no one expected, least of all the original human author and audience?

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This post is also available at Jesus Creed, now published as a Christianity Today blog.

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The link to the book above is a commissioned link. Go with this one if you prefer: Isaiah Old and New: Exegesis, Intertexutality, and Hermeneutics.

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1 Response to From Metaphor to Reality

  1. I think Ben W. is not correct in this case. The Jews at the time were trying to wrestle with the Tanakh, the Scripture they had, they summarized their musings on Messiah as follows: They could figure out that there was some sort of Messiah that seemed to suffer and die, they used the term Messiah Son of Joseph for this, but there was also some sort of Messiah that seemed to be a conquering king that restored Israel, they used the term Messiah Son of David for this. Once they had these terms, the could not figure out if these 2 forms of Messiah were one person or 2 and there were debates about it. How could a Messiah that suffered and died be a conquering king? Being under Roman rule, all the Jews wanted Messiah son of David to show up; this explains some of the refs to Messiah, such as John the Baptist and the disciples in early Acts. But Jesus shows up as Messiah son of Joseph in his first advent.

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