Understanding the Message of the Prophets
My messages on Isaiah's Christmas children had ended, but I realized that those messages demanded a postlude. An afterthoughtnot so much to extend my comments about the children themselves, but in order to provide something of a wrap for the prophetic perspective about which I have had much to say over the course of the previous six messages.
You may recall in the last couple of messages at least, I made much of the inherent difficulties in hearing and reading the prophets. So formidable are these difficulties that some simply, as a general rule and with the exception of a few golden passages, avoid the prophets altogether. You are not long into any of the prophets before you are face to face with complexities: problematic constructions of languages and images that seemingly defy penetration; obscure names, oblique historical and geographical references.
But even more perplexing than these can be the inexplicable breathtaking changes in mood and emotional direction. One moment the prophet is declaring disaster and the next, without as much as a bat of an eye and in some cases within the same sentence, he is announcing the startling intrusion of divine grace. Not that the note of grace isn't welcomed. Its startling appearance however often leaves us somewhat baffled.
We also commented at length on another prophetic feature, what seems to be the most disconcerting shifts in audience where we can't make out who the prophet is talking about. For instance, we're rolling along comfortably talking about the judgment that is sure to come upon the Assyrians and, without any indication or warning whatsoever in the text, we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of a verse talking about Judah's demise. We have found examples of all these unsettling features in Isaiah chapters 7-12, the so-called "Book of Immanuel" in Isaiah's prophecythat section in which the figure of the child figures so prominently.
We have endeavored to explain these featuresthese disturbing featuresin our previous messages. We didn't spend much time explaining the first feature, the meaning of the obscure and oblique references, but the meaning for these obscure and oblique references may be found in the deliberately hidden character of the prophets' message. That hiddenness becomes a sort of ministerial extension of what the Lord says to Isaiah in directing him to tell the people of Judah, "Keep on listening but do not perceive; keep on looking but do not understand; render the hearts of these people insensitive, their ears dull and their eyes dim. Otherwise they might see with their eyes and hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and return and be healed (6:9-11)". The prophets deliberately speak in parables. The prophets deliberately speak in obscuritiesand that by design.
We spent much more time on the other features that we've mentioned this evening. The meaning of the inexplicable changes in mood from wrath to grace, we located in the inexplicable and totally disarming nature of grace itself. God's grace comes unexpectedly and undeservedly into this world and upon his chosen vessels. And that's how it intrudes into the prophets' message. The meaning of the disconcerting shifts in audience where a word about Israel's enemies suddenly slips into a word about Israel herself, we located in the subtle but profound message that not just the Gentiles, the enemies of the Jews, but the Jews themselves are gathered under condemnation in order finally that the gospel of salvation through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ might come to Jew and Gentile alike. This is in keeping with the message that we finally hear in passages like Romans chapter 3 where Paul makes it clear that all the world, Jew and Gentile together, is guilty before God (Rom. 3:19); and that all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (v. 23). All of these things, all of these devices, all of these features then are conspiring to prepare us for the presentation of the gospel, the gospel itself laid within the features themselves.
So far this message has been a summary and a review. And it hardly seems fair for me to get you out on a cold winter's night merely to tell you what you have already heard. Actually, there is another prophetic feature, abundantly evident in Isaiah 7-12, about which we have said nothing thus far. I have in mind the prophets' presentation of time, the prophets' presentation of history, and the apparent anachronistic character of the prophets' message.
You know what an anachronism is. Anachronism means to be out of place historically time-wise, as if someone were to say Julius Caesar lived in the seventeenth century and the Battle of Waterloo happened yesterday. The prophets' treatment of time and apparent anachronisms can be as startling and befuddling as their unexpected mood swings and their sudden shifts in audience. In fact, it is this feature in the prophets' message, the whole matter of their treatment of time and history that invariably causes so much excitement about the prophets for so many. While their treatment of time may seem perplexing to us, it is all too clear to a great many people. But for the prophets, you see, events, if we read them properly, appear to have the ability to reach far beyond their historical setting, touching even the distant reaches of human history and the furthest extent of the plan of God. As the prophets speak, as they preach, as they declare their message, the events about which they speak seem to have the ability to reach far beyond their historical setting, touching even the distant reaches of human history and the far reaches of the plan of God.
We have a sweeping example of this in Isaiah 10 and 11. Picking up at verse 28 where we began our reading, we find a passage that has not only thrown commentators, but in actual fact does the service of opening up for us the prophetic line as far as the historical development of the prophetic vision is concerned. Verses 28-32 of that tenth chapter, as we have seen before, belong to a section speaking about the Assyrian threata yet future threat for Judah. Assyria is mentioned explicitly in this chapter, previously in verses 5, 12, and 24. When we come to verses 28-32, we would think that we have before us the incremental itinerary of the invading Assyrian army; the listing of all of the sites to which the army comes as it makes progression through the land. We have listed here then cities and villages to which the advancing Assyrian army comes as it makes its way toward Jerusalem. So it seems, and with verse 32, Jerusalem is well in view.
But we have a problem. We have a problem if we move with this text along this line. For these cities mentioned all belong to the northern and eastern approach to the city of Jerusalemthe cities that were along the route as you make your way south through Benjamite territory. You're coming down from the north through the territory of Benjamin towards Jerusalem in order to make your assault upon Jerusalem which is in the territory of Judah. You get the picture. A southern course for the assault is in view in the mentioning of these cities as the army makes its way towards Jerusalem. But when the Assyrians finally do make their assault (remember this is a prophecy concerning a future assault by the Assyrians), when the Assyrians finally do make their assault (as Isaiah 36:2 tells us), they actually make that assault from the southwest, not from the north but from the southwest and from the city of Lachish, near the boundary of the territory of Philistia. The text in speaking about the Assyrians charts a southern course through the territory of Benjamin for Jerusalem. But the actual Assyrian assault comes from the southwest and from the city of Lachish.
Well what do you make of this? In chapter 10, prior to the Assyrian invasion, Isaiah naturally thought an Assyrian invasion will come from the north, so he wrote it up that way. When the actual invasion did occur, it seems that the Assyrians tripped up even Isaiah and came from the south. How silly of him! So much for prophetic and even biblical infallibility! Now some might not be overly upset by this apparent discrepancy and would say, "North, south, who cares where? It doesn't make any difference. The main thing was the invasion occurred and the Assyrians did in fact make an invasion. Isaiah at least had that much right. After all, neither the Bible nor prophecy is an exact science." The tragedy is that people who talk like this hardly know how destructive they are. In the balance is not only biblical authority and the Bible's infallibility, but the squandering of a golden opportunity to grasp hold of an important feature of the prophet's revelation.
You see, what Isaiah is actually describing in the listing of all of these cities is the advance of the combined army of the Israelites to the north under Pekah and the Syrians under Rezin. We read about their advance in chapters 7-9. Setting the tone for this section of Isaiah's message is what we read in chapter 7:1, namely "In the days of Ahaz king of Judah when Rezin, the king of Syria and Pekah, the son of Ramaliah, king of Israel, went up to wage war against Jerusalem but could not conquer it." The progression of this combined army of the Israelites and the Syrians is marked by the city by city march chronicled for us in chapter 10:28-32.
But what, we might ask, is the advance of this combined army doing in a section talking about the advance of the Assyrian army? You see, one of the devices of the prophets is to describe one eventit may be present or pastin such a way as to anticipate a future event. In such a way, you see laid within that event the most future and ultimate of events, the consummation of all things. It is as if in reading an event the prophets are able to see in those events the coming judgment that is sure to come upon all of the worldfuture events laid within present events and even the most future event of all, the end of all things. Therefore, Isaiah sees in the current advance of the Syrians and the Israelites, the future invasion of the Assyrians when he speaks about the Assyrians in this passage, whose invasion is guaranteed by Judah's reliance upon these Assyrians in her struggle against the northern alliance.
But of course you will note, drawing out our considerations concerning the prophets' estimation of time and history, this is not all that Isaiah is privileged to see. In verses 33-34, as the tenth chapter ends, he sees a devastation from which Judah herself cannot and will not be excluded. He sees devastation that comes to Judah to be sure in the Assyrian invasion, but an invasion in which Isaiah in turn sees the nation of Judah so thoroughly laid low that the tree of Jesse is reduced to a bare stump. And it will be many, many years in the future; and many, many more invasions still before that shoot and branch will miraculously sprout. You see, in the event current with the prophet, he sees events that he envisions in front of him in terms of those things that are future and yet to be realized. It will be many, many years still and many, many invasions yet before the shoot and branch from Jesse will miraculously sprout (Is. 11:1-5), and many, many years further still when the perfections of his reign will manifest themselves in an environment reminiscent of Eden (v. 6-9). But a reign that will finally transcend Eden itself as the root of Jesse is gloriously exalted and made sublime in his final resting place which is nowhere else but glory itself (v. 10).
The prophet's message here, as it deals with time, as it deals with history, lends an immediacy to all these events that are circumscribed. Truly then the prophet's vocabulary presents many instances along this very line. Jesus, himself the prophet, preaches the end of the world in his predications concerning the A.D. 70 destruction of Jerusalem. That is why the prophecies of Jesus concerning the coming destruction of Jerusalem are so hard for us to decipher and understand. He is speaking in those prophecies in prophetic form. He is looking at a near event and he is seeing a yet future event superimposed on that near event; so that when he gives the declaration concerning it, it becomes very hard to sort out what is pertaining to the destruction of Jerusalem and what belongs to the end of the world. And how many exegetes have stumbled over his proclamation at that very point? How many churches have stumbled over Jesus' proclamation of the coming destruction of Jerusalem and what it means concerning the end of all things? And John the apostle, writing the Revelation, will do the same thing as he speaks about judgments that come upon the church and the worldjudgments pertaining to the period in its extensiveness between the first and second coming of Christ. This is the Bible's method. This is the Bible's way of bringing us right up against the ultimate issues and the most conclusive considerationsof pressing upon us the urgency of God's purpose and his call.
The prophets' method of communication by the Lord's design brings near the future distant blessings, but also the coming certain destruction of this world. And it effectively sets before us the question: "Am I, in appropriating the salvation of which the prophets speak, ready for the judgment they announce?" Are you ready?