“The Prophet’s Perspective”
August 18, 2019
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
I said last time that I wanted to preach my last sermons this summer from Isaiah, a book that I have preached from many times but never preached through. As a result, there are wonderful passages in Isaiah that I have never preached. I also said that I wanted to preach texts that were representative of the message of Israel’s greatest prophet. There is, after all, a reason why Isaiah has been called both Isaiah the Evangelist and the Old Testament’s Apostle Paul. In June I preached from the first chapter – from one of Isaiah’s typical condemnations of Judah for her hypocritical ritualism, her worship of Yahweh without the engagement of the heart, without faith, repentance, obedience, or love. We considered Yahweh’s offer of forgiveness if only the Jews would genuinely seek it. That is a recurring theme in this great book. Then I preached from Isaiah 6 and Isaiah’s call to be a prophet, a narrative that emphasizes the divine authority – and so either the life-giving or the soul-destroying power – of the Word of God. Again, that is a subject to which the great prophet often returned in his sermons.
This morning we have before us one of Isaiah’s characteristic forecasts of the future of the kingdom of God and, in particular, its ultimate triumph in human history. Again, I could have chosen any number of texts in the book that elaborate the same theme. We also have before us this morning one of Isaiah’s many sermons preached for the remnant, the small community of still faithful Jews. That too is representative of the book: the alternation between sermons addressed to the people as a whole, largely unbelieving and unrepentant, and sermons for the small body of the faithful who continued to cling to the Word of God.
- 1 You will recognize immediately that this is one of many prophecies of the coming Messiah. The passage is full of the familiar features of those prophesies. He will be a descendant of King David, heir to the promise that God made to David that he would have a descendant who would reign over God’s kingdom forever. David’s house, as Isaiah admits, was but a stump at that time, nothing like the great kingdom it had once been, but, contrary to appearances, it had a future that would be far, far greater than anything the world had yet seen. Obvious as the identity of this person is to Christians, it was equally obvious to the Jews that Isaiah was talking about the Messiah. The Jewish commentaries on Isaiah in Aramaic, the Targums, likewise understood this to be a prophecy of the coming of the Messiah.
v.2 Later in Isaiah 61 the perspective will shift from the third person narration that we have here to the first person. The Messiah himself will speak: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor…” That, if you remember, was the text of the first sermon the Lord Jesus delivered in his home town of Nazareth in Galilee. But the point is the same, whether in the first or the third person, the Messiah would be empowered by the Holy Spirit of God to accomplish the deliverance of God’s people.
v.4 As is always the case in the prophesies of the Messiah, he will both save and judge, deliver the faithful and condemn the wicked. The Messiah would be both savior and judge.
v.5 In the OT prophets the metaphor of clothing expresses the inherent realities and capacities of a person and what he intends to do or accomplish. [Motyer, 123]
v.6 In verses 6-9 we have one of the most memorable descriptions of the Messianic kingdom, though it is very like a number of others. It is a succession of powerful metaphors that describe a world at peace, its proper order restored, and the removal of the curse that has so long rested upon the human race. The whole world then will be dominated by and its life flow from the happy communion that the world will enjoy with God himself.
v.10 Here we are reminded that all of this happy transformation of the world will be the accomplishment of the Messiah. This will be the consummation of his kingdom.
v.11 Once again, in a way typical not only of Isaiah but of the prophets in general, the totality of the Messiah’s spiritual conquest is indicated by a representative list of the great nations of Israel’s world. The prophet painted the future in terms meaningful and familiar to him, in terms of his own environment. [H. Ridderbos in A. Hoekema, The Bible and the Future, 149] From all such nations the faithful of the Lord will be gathered into the Messiah’s kingdom, meaning from all the nations of the world, these being the nations of Isaiah’s world.
Now, before we begin to consider the message of this prophecy, the relevance of Isaiah’s sermon for us today, a word about what we have read. As we have noticed a number of times through the years, almost without fail the Lord revealed the future to the prophets as an undivided whole. The prophets were shown only the final outcome of the divine plan and only in its major features; not in its details; the great sweep of the events to come, not the names and dates, the people and places, and certainly nothing like a precise chronology. It is as if they saw a great range of mountains at a distance, but could not tell from that great distance how close to one another the individual summits were; could not see the wide valleys that separated the nearer and further summits from one another.
Obviously, Isaiah here predicts the coming of the Messiah, the king who will be uniquely endowed with the gifts and power of the Holy Spirit and who will establish a kingdom of righteousness and justice and peace. Here also we read of the worldwide triumph of his kingdom; the time when the Christ’s righteousness and blessing will overspread the world. But we are not told who the Messiah will be, when this will happen, or how. We now know, of course, that this righteous king, David’s promised descendant, appeared in the world some two-thousand years ago, some seven hundred years after Isaiah proclaimed his coming. Isaiah said nothing about when the events he described would come to pass. And in that way his prophecy is entirely characteristic of the prophets’ forecast of the future.
In the same way, the worldwide spread of that kingdom we know now was propelled by the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus and the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. No one who heard Isaiah deliver his sermon that long-ago day would have been able to derive from it the chronology of the Gospel history as it came to pass. No one in Isaiah’s time could have known that the Messiah was going to come twice, first to atone for sin and only much later to bring to pass the final establishment of his kingdom in the world. No one could then have known that more than, perhaps many more than the two-thousand years that have elapsed since his ascension to heaven, would be required to bring to pass the final triumph of his kingdom. Isaiah didn’t deceive us, to be sure. It is unlikely that he knew himself that there would be two comings of the Messiah separated by thousands of years. What he told us was absolutely true, but it was a general, not a comprehensively detailed description of the future. It was what the Lord had told him or shown him. The main points are there, but the chronology almost entirely lacks detail. The prophecies of the Second Coming we are given in the New Testament are similar in this way. We are not told when the Lord will come again; we are not told precisely how he will establish his kingdom, and it is precisely that lack of information that has led to endless and ultimately fruitless speculation, beginning shortly after Pentecost and continuing into our own day. Even very good, wise, and biblically learned men have mistaken the nature of biblical prophecy and have supposed they could tell ahead of time how events would unfold to bring history to its climax. In that spirit they imagined that they could tell that the Second Coming was upon them or that this or that event portended the return of the Lord. The fact that they have been wrong 100% of the time is some evidence of the actual nature of biblical prophecy: a general and undetailed forecast of the triumph of God’s kingdom.
Someone once illustrated the prophets’ way of describing the future in this way. Suppose in the 10th or the 15th century a prophet were to have predicted that in the future, out of nowhere and all of a sudden, a brilliant French general would appear on the European scene and engulf the continent in his wars of conquest until he was finally defeated by two Englishmen. It would be a fair account of the period of the Napoleonic wars but the prophet would have said nothing about when this would happen, nothing of Napoleon’s great victories, nothing of his disaster in Russia, nothing of his exile to Elba, nothing of the hundred days, nothing of Trafalgar or Waterloo, nor would he have identified the two Englishmen who brought him to heel, nor even mentioned that one was an admiral and the other a general. But in a few sentences, he would have accurately, if generally, described a momentous period of world history.
There are, to be sure, occasionally some details in the prophets’ forecast of the coming of the Messiah and his kingdom. It is important that we know that the Lord knows the future down to its smallest detail; that everything that is to come to pass will do so according to the counsel of his will. We learn, for example, in Isaiah 7 that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, in Micah 5 that he would be born in Bethlehem, in Isaiah 53 that he would strike many of his countrymen as lacking the outward appearance of a great king; that he would fail to measure up to the expectations of most people. He would neither be devilishly handsome nor have that regal bearing that would identify him as the King of Kings; he wouldn’t do the things that people expect a king to do. We are told such things long before Jesus appeared and every one of those prophesies was confirmed by the events themselves in striking and undeniable ways. But by and large the prophets describe the future in only a general way. Indeed, so characteristic of the prophets’ preaching of the future is this generality, this lack of chronological or historical detail, and this view of the future as a single whole rather than as the unfolding of a series of events in turn, that scholars refer to this as the prophetic perspective. That is, the prophets saw the future this way: as a whole or in sum and especially only in its consummation, not the course it would take. This is also referred to as prophetic foreshortening because the prophets did not typically provide a step by step chronology of the events that would lead to the events that they foretold or to the culmination of history. They compressed the distinct phases of the future into a unity. They foresaw the future only as the final result, the end of the matter. They leapt from their time to the future consummation and said little or nothing about what would happen meantime or how that consummation would unfold step by step. It was the final result that was important to them.
So it is that we find the future in broad brush in Isaiah 11, as if the coming of the Messiah and the establishment of his kingdom of peace and righteousness were to happen all at once. We cannot tell from this text that this history will, in fact, take thousands of years to unfold or that the Messiah will come not once but twice and that his first coming will be separated from his second by thousands of years. The point of Isaiah’s prophecy, therefore, was not to tell us when or precisely how these things would come to pass, nor to amaze us with God’s knowledge of the precise details of the unfolding future. The description of the future in metaphors such as we have here – wolves and lambs, children and snakes – rather than in the notarial precision we might have wished for is indication enough of that. Isaiah was not a psychic; he was a prophet of the Lord! Isaiah’s prediction of the future was intended to give his contemporaries hope, to assure them that their faith in the Lord would not be in vain, but would be vindicated at last. What is it that we sing in Luther’s great hymn?
“The prince of darkness grim, we tremble not for him, his rage we can endure, for lo! his doom is sure; one little word shall fell him.
How do we know that? Because we have been told the future beforehand. Seven hundred years before the Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem, before his public ministry, before his miracles, before his teaching that was to enlighten the entire world, before his crucifixion, his resurrection, and his ascension to the Right Hand, before Pentecost and the spread of the gospel throughout the world, Isaiah assured us that all of this would happen. And so, you and I are all the more sure of the truth of what Isaiah proclaimed so long ago, since some of this prophecy, against all odds humanly speaking, has already wonderfully, spectacularly come to pass.
Now with this understanding of our text before us, what are we to do with it? As you will see if you will but glance back to the previous chapter, this sermon was preached during a particularly dark and fearful period of Judah’s history. The nation – or what was left of it – was living through the threatening days of the Assyrian crisis, as the reinvigorated empire, now with an enormous professional standing army, moved westward to make vassals of all the kingdoms of the Levant. Humanly speaking it seemed hardly likely that the Jews would even survive in any recognizable way. The northern kingdom of Israel destroyed by this same Assyrian empire in 721 B.C. had not survived. It was gone, never to rise again.
But surely that poses a question: what good could a prophecy that would not begin to be fulfilled for seven hundred years be to these faithful Jews in the late 8th century B.C? More to the point, how can we make use of this prophecy these 2,700 years later? There are those, after all, who will ask, “What comfort could the Jews take from the fact that long after their lives in this world were over, long after Assyria had come and gone, the Messiah would appear? And if such a message were of no practical use to the Jews in the waning years of the 8th century B.C., what good can it do for us these 2,700 years later? What help can we find in a prophecy of the glorious future of the kingdom of God if the consummation of that prophecy is still a thousand years in the future, or even more? By the time this happens we’ll have been gone from the world for perhaps thousands of years!?” But as a matter of fact, this prophecy was immensely useful to the Jews in Isaiah’s day and should be as useful to us in our time. Even to ask what use the prophecy can have is virtually to answer the question.
Here were the Jews, indeed only a small remnant of the Jews, witnessing the miserable apostasy of their countrymen, the sad decline of David and Solomon’s once great kingdom. It was not hard to believe that God had forsaken them and his covenant with them. He had reason enough after all given Judah’s unbelief, rebellion, disobedience, and perverse preference for idols. Assyria ruled the roost; tiny Judah remained only a speck on the map of the world of that day. None of the other countries or peoples in that place and time would survive. Where is Moab or Edom, Tyre, or even Egypt or Syria. Who can trace his or her lineage back to those peoples? The modern countries of Egypt and Syria may have the same names, but they are not the same countries or peoples they were in Isaiah’s day. What was to become of this small company of faithful Jews? What would be left of God’s chosen people?
Well, said Isaiah, you haven’t seen anything yet! Israel’s greatest days are still to come. The kingdom of God has yet to break upon the world in power and glory. And you, you faithful remnant, will see this come to pass with your own eyes; you will be part of this glorious future. And your faithfulness today will be a means of eventually bringing this splendid consummation of world history to pass. And of course, it would be so. Faithful Jews from that time to the time of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ were instrumental in the history that made possible his birth in the world, his incarnation, his ministry and the salvation of the world. This could be true, of course, only because of the existence of heaven and the promise that upon their death, God’s people will find themselves alive in heaven, awaiting this glorious future. Though this is not Isaiah’s point, it is certainly one of the presuppositions of his prophecy. It is a presupposition of all biblical revelation that every human being is eternal and will be present to participate in the end of history. You will sometimes hear that the OT has no doctrine of the future life. Is so the Jews were the only people of that world who lacked one. But, of course, the OT has such a doctrine and it is beautifully put in many texts. Think of one such example from Psalm 73: “You guide me with your counsel and afterward you will receive me to glory.” Because that is true the future that Isaiah here described is our future if we love and trust the Lord as he did.
The future that awaits God’s people is the same no matter when they live or when they die! Isaiah obviously thought this prophecy was important for the Jews, especially the believing Jews to hear. It was a message of hope in a time of fear and discouragement. It mattered not that the events Isaiah foretold would not even begin to come to pass for another seven centuries!
But, more to the immediate point, we live – all human beings live – from the past and for the future. We don’t think about this as much as we should, but it is a fundamental structure of human life and existence. In small ways and large ways, in ways we recognize and ways we are largely oblivious too, the meaning of the present is defined by the past and the future. We save money so that we will have some when we retire. We endure the agony of the early years of our children’s learning to play a musical instrument, because only in this way can they enjoy the blessing of making music when they are older. In a thousand ways every day we live from the past and for the future.
We have a large kitchen sink in our cabin in the Colorado mountains. Long ago it became a tradition that every baby in our extended family would have a bath in that kitchen sink and pictures would be taken of the event. This summer the six-month old daughter of my nephew had her bath and the event was duly recorded for posterity. Why? Well not for the present surely. It would have been just as easy to give her a bath in the bathtub where she will get all future cabin baths. The bath is taken in the sink and pictures are taken for the future. She will someday see herself being given a bath in that sink. She will someday see the pictures of other babies being bathed there as she was. She will know in that way that she is part of a family tradition, that she shares a past and so an identity with her family. When she marries years from now, the picture of her in the sink will no doubt be part of the story of her life told in living color at the rehearsal dinner! I had a friend in college from the inner city of Newark, New Jersey. He had had little in the way of a true home and family. And one of the sad evidences of that was that he had no pictures of himself as a baby or a child. He missed something of immense importance in his past and it made a great different to his present and would to his future.
Well that is but one – and hardly the most consequential – way in which we live from the past for the future. But what of more substantial ways in which we live from the past and for the future? Every day and in countless ways every day Christians live in the strength of the crucifixion and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, no matter that those events happened two thousand years ago. They are, those long-ago events, a living power in our lives. We know for that reason that God is love, that he loves us, that there is a wonderful future before us, that all the other promises of God’s word are true and certain of fulfillment. No matter our circumstances, no matter how difficult they may be, we draw tremendous hope and comfort from the fact that Christ died for our sins and rose from the dead the first fruits of those who sleep. Our present life is full of hope and promise and purpose – all terms that have to do with the future – because of his triumph over sin and death on our behalf. What possible difference does it make that those events transpired 2,000 years ago if their significance is eternal?
True enough, we don’t know the future in any detail. We certainly don’t know what will happen tomorrow or next week or next year. Florence and I were reminded of that ten days ago. Had we known that ladder would fall it would have been the easiest thing to prevent it from happening, but we didn’t know. The Bible is emphatic on this point. Christians can’t know the future any more than unbelievers can. But we can know the future so far as the Lord has disclosed it to us. And what he has disclosed of the future changes everything!
What difference does it make if the triumph of his kingdom, if the fulfillment of all his promises should not take place for a thousand more years? We may not be in the world when the day comes. We may have been absent from the world for ages. But because of the prophesies we are given in Holy Scripture that future day is nevertheless a present reality for us and its power over our minds and hearts as real as if we were at this moment seeing the Lord descend from heaven. This is the great value and benefit and spiritual importance of the prophesies of the coming of Christ’s kingdom. Just as the ancient saints lived in hope of the Messiah’s coming, we live in hope of his coming again. Paul never spoke truer words than when he said that the ancient scriptures were “written for our instruction that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” [Rom. 15:4]
Isaiah wanted his believing contemporaries to live eschatologically, to live toward the future, to live in the confidence that these things would come to pass. Your salvation began in the distant past with the election of God; it was secured in the life, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus long ago; it was made a personal possession by the Holy Spirit’s work in your heart some time ago; but it awaits its consummation, its fulfillment, its perfection in the future. That has been the situation for every believer from the beginning to the present day. We wait for what we do not yet have. We live in the confidence that we will someday have it; but we do not yet have it. Just as God did not reveal his full salvation in a single moment or single event, so he did not take you immediately from earth to heaven, from sin to perfect righteousness, or from mortality to immortality. We can often wonder why God allows us to wallow in our sin or our spiritual doldrums for so long, but then why the long march from Abraham to Sinai, from David to the exile, from the return to the birth of the Lord, from Pentecost through the ups and downs of Christian history ever since. Even omnipotence works slowly! This is God’s way for whatever reasons. But all we need to know is that history is going somewhere and that we know where it is going. And that is what God has told us. We have the first fruits both in history – in the life and work of the Messiah those long years ago – and in our own lives – in the work of the Holy Spirit in our hearts – but we wait for the full harvest.
And knowing that it is coming and that we will have our share in it makes all the difference in the world! One person lives his or her life in this world utterly indifferent to the consummation of the kingdom of God in both judgment and salvation. And for that reason, he or she makes every decision without regard to that future. But such a life is built on a gigantic error. The person lives in ignorance of the one thing that determines the meaning of human life! A Christian, on the other hand, knows what is coming and that knowledge transforms the motivations, the intentions, and the direction of his or her life. Or, it should. Read our text again and ask yourself: “how then should I live?” “How am I going to want to live when the day dawns that Isaiah foretold so long ago?”
In the Bible “hope” – almost a synonym of faith – is the continual looking forward to the consummation of history and salvation, the confident expectation that such is your future. You will see the day Isaiah here so beautifully describes! And that is to be our witness as well. As one has put it, “The church is like an arrow sent out into the world to point to the future.” [J. Moltmann, Theology of Hope, 328] Wherever we are, whatever we are doing, with whomever we are speaking you and I should be alive to our position awaiting the consummation of the kingdom of Christ the King. He has already come once to atone for our sins; he is coming again to bring salvation in its full perfection not only to us but to the whole world. That is how our life ought to be lived. And that is why we are told so often in the Bible what a glorious day that will be.