It was Lowth (d. 1787) who said, “Isaiah is certainly one of the most difficult of all the prophets, though perhaps few are sensible of it but they who try to explain him . . . He that will undertake to fathom the depths of this prophecy is in great danger of going out of his own” depth. With this warning in mind, one would certainly hesitate before plunging into the bottomless sea of Isaiah’s sixty-six chapters. Yet as you scan the whole of the sixty-six books of the Bible, you see before you nothing less than a limitless ocean. When we come to the Scriptures, anywhere, we are dealing with no little pond. He, then, indeed sets out to swim in deep waters beyond his depth who proposes to fathom the depths of, or enter upon the truth of, any book in the Bible. Take the epistles of Paul, for example. Who, ever, in his preaching or expositions, does them justice? If one were so afraid of going out beyond his depth, he would never open his Bible! Does not the Christian aim, “with all saints to comprehend what is the breadth, and length, anddepth, and height; and to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge?” Does he not say in regard to all Scripture, “O the depth!” But as we enter upon any studies in the Scriptures, we do so in the spirit of the words of the great Dr. J. A. Alexander (d. 1860), who would “avoid the presumption of knowing everything as well as the disgrace of knowing nothing.”
Prophet is a title which, in its popular sense, has come to mean, “one who makes a prediction of future events.” A prophet foretells things to come. The New Testament takes us on a little deeper than that with its word prophetes, which means more than a foreteller, but also a forth-teller. So that a prophet not only foretells future events, but proclaims, expounds and “fully reveals to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption” (Heid. Cat., Q. 3 1). He is not one who invents his own message. Nor is his message the combined contribution of God and himself. A prophet is one through whom God speaks. He speaks by divine inspiration, or, he speaks that word which is God-breathed: He “speaks out the counsel of God with clearness, energy and authority” (Trench), all God-given, for he has no message nor abilities of his own. He, himself, body, soul and mind, is a gift of God to the church. The Old Testament word for prophet, nabhi, (pronounced nah-BVEE), as to its etymology, is somewhat vague with various meanings. But the meaning with the most support is the most satisfactory, and has the root idea of, to boil up and gush forth. The idea is that of an ebullition and pouring forth of truth and knowledge, and that under the influence of a divine energy, not by the prophet’s own powers. Both the prophet and his prophecies are the contributions of God. His prophecies embrace not only the future, but also the past and the present. So Daniel told the king what he had dreamed and then interpreted the king’s dream as to its present as well as future significance. A prophet, then, is a product of heaven, not a human product. In fact, it is important to understand that “a prophet is one who has a great intimacy with Heaven.” He has, because he is one who instructs strangers and sojourners in this world while on their pilgrim journey to their true and continuing city, the Jerusalem Above. Accordingly, Isaiah begins with the earthly Jerusalem and ends with heavenly Jerusalem and the New Heavens and New Earth, and, as far as the last half of the book is concerned,(40-66), with its “Prepare ye the way of the Lord,” begins and ends where the New Testament begins and ends. A prophet is one who receives his message immediately from heaven (chapter 6), with a commission to preach it to God’s church. Isaiah, his wife and two sons were signs to the people; they were walking Bibles. The Heidelberg Catechism asks (Q. 98), “May not images be tolerated in the churches, as Bibles to the laity?” and the answer is, “No, for we must not pretend to be wiser than God, who will have his people taught not by dumb images, but by the living preaching of His word.” There never was a time when images were or could be tolerated as Bibles to the people. But there was a time, before the Old Testament revelation had been completed, when “there were prophets who were instead of Bibles to the church.”
Isaiah means “Salvation of Jehovah,” which in itself sets forth for the elect the very goal of history. History moves to that goal, to the reconciliation of all things (Col. 1:20). All things move through and out of judgment to the redemption of the purchased possession. This points us to the idea of the whole book, which is Israel, the peculiar people, God’s covenant people, the Church, its origin, calling, mission, sins, tribulations, history and destiny. That destiny and salvation is seen, especially in this book, as it is in every book in the Bible, in Christ alone, in whom “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.” According to Is. 1:1, Judah and Jerusalem are, centrally and solely, the object of the vision and book of Isaiah. His largest perimeter of vision is universal, embracing the imperial kingdom-of-this-world powers. Then within this largest circle the smaller one of the neighboring heathen nations; within this the yet smaller one, of all Israel; and within this the still smaller one of the kingdom of Judah; within that, the Israel within Israel, and within the organism of the true Israel, the Seed of .life, Immanuel, God with us. Isaiah knew this. He was conscious of the significance of his name, for yesha, “He shall save,” and yeshua, the Old Testament word for “Jesus,” salvation, are with him favorite words. So much so that he begins (chap. 1, see v. 18) with the necessity of salvation, climaxes it all (chap. 53) with the Way of salvation, and concludes (Is. 66:23, 24) with the punishment for neglecting so great a salvation.
The name of the prophet also reveals that his point of view is theocentric. Isaiah lives for the sake of Jehovah. Also the meaning is that salvation is not in the first place for the sake of the sinner, but for the sake of Jehovah (Is. 43:21). Some have called him “the evangelical prophet,” or “the prophet of redemption,” “the prophet of the divine sovereignty,” “the Paul, the Calvin of the Old Testament,” “the universal prophet.” Latent in Isaiah’s name is the divine election. “Salvation is of the Lord.” “God hath not appointed us to wrath, but to certain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ” (I Thess. 5:9). According to His decree of election, God ordained a people, a holy nation, unto glory and eternal life in Christ. The promises of God were made to this chosen people, the remnant according to the election of grace, who alone rested in the word of promise. They are, from all eternity, the true Israel, the true seed of Abraham, Jews who are Jewsinwardly, which means all who believe, including believing Gentiles. They belong to the spiritual Israel. The sovereign God always denounced judgments against the carnal Israel, and always pronounced blessings on the spiritual Israel. “Fear not!” is His efficacious command to the latter (Is. 41:10), never to the former, for they have everything to fear, while the spiritual Israel has everything to hope (Rom. 5:2, 4, 5; Rom. 8:24). The Lord always made it plain to His people that the judgments which had to come on Israel as a nation would not destroy the Israel of God, or the true church, but that He would surely preserve, protect and save His own elect. Isaiah was raised up by God to strengthen the faith of the spiritual Israel, to comfort the hearts of the “very small remnant.”
A further word must be said on Isaiah’s view of history. According to him, the kingdom of this world is the heathen state in its Nimrodic form. That means, the state attempts, by incessant acquisitioning, to expand into a one-world dominating power. To accomplish this, it must always burst its seams beyond its present boundaries, overwhelming surrounding nations, ever accumulating wider territories, not merely out of the motives of self-defense or retaliation, but for the purpose of ultimate world-conquest. When world dictators find difficulty unifying their kingdoms and enlarging their dominions, they pick on an enemy, either within or without the state, and start a war against it. The nation is then united in fighting the war, which has been made to appear one of self-defense, or survival, or making the world safe for democracy. Recall that our own nation was united to tight the Second World War through the force of the Pearl Harbor attack. This method of uniting a people is neither new nor accidental. It is planned that way. (Cp. “Roosevelt’s Road to Russia,” by Cracker). Dictators and world-powers have operated and continued on the principle of “perpetual war for perpetual peace.” When there is no more war, no more, however ridiculous, excuse for war, look out! Then the state will persecute the church. Wars and rumors of wars allow the church to continue to exist in the world. The Bible’s point of view sees Assyria forging the first, Rome the middle, and the final Antichrist the last link in the chain of aggression and suppression perpetrated by the kingdom of this world. This is the spirit of antichrist, the tendency of which is to restore the Tower of Babel, to heal the mortally wounded head of the dragon, to so unite the entire world that heathendom and Christendom (not Christianity!), Gog and Magog together with the Antichrist unite as one fierce peril and plague against the true remnant of believers left on the earth. Isaiah and the other major prophets have universal depth of field.
Perhaps the reader of these lines has not only no sympathy with but no interest in the critical problem of this book. Such a reader says, “I am more interested in the house, not with all the insects that go buzzing around the house!” Well, but some of those buzzing creatures, if termites, may not only undermine the house, but eat it out to a thin, hollow shell, so that there will soon be no house. The effect of the German higher criticism has been, like the ruin of termites, to shred the Book of Isaiah into pieces. We should know something of the operations of these spiritual termites, and how to exterminate them. But that will have to wait for the next time.
(To be continued, D.V.)