Isaiah’s Philosophy of History


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“Isaiah’s Philosophy of History” Isaiah 53:1-12 April 27, 1997

I want to conclude our series of studies in this supremely important passage by considering vv. 10-12 as a statement of Isaiah’s, and the Bible’s, and so the Lord’s own philosophy of history. It is important for all men, but especially for Christians, to lift their eyes, from time to time, from their own personal horizons to see life in its larger terms. We are inclined to think of life as a question of what is happening to me. But Christians are also required to think of what is happening to the world and, in particular, how are we to think about the events of our own time, the rising and falling of nations, the wars and rumors of wars, the economic booms and busts, the intellectual movements and cultural currents that shape human life and experience in our world. What does the Bible have to say about that? What does my faith have to do with all of that? All of this, in one way or another, is what is meant by “philosophy of history.” What view does one have, what meaning does one ascribe to the sequence of events in the world?

Where is history going? How are human affairs to be explained and accounted for? What is the meaning of events? How does the past effect the future? These are questions that, in one way or another, have increasingly preoccupied Western culture in the last two centuries. And these are not academic questions only — the answers given to these questions have shaped the great movements of our time.

The modern way of thinking about history began with the German philosopher Hegel, but Hegel’s views deeply influenced those of Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx. Modern communism was, at its root, a particular view of history. Henry Ford is supposed to have said that history is the succession of one “darn” thing after another. But the communists didn’t believe that! According to Marx, history is not a haphazard series of events. One event follows another, one nation supplants another, one civilization supersedes another by a fixed law and that law is the law of economic pressure. And that economic pressure, which Marx predicted would lead to worker revolutions such as that in Russia in 1917, was to result eventually in a classless workers’ society. Recent events have not tended to confirm Marx’s opinions about the progress and meaning of history.

Oswald Spengler, the German historian, argued in his great work, The Decline of the West, that cultures and civilizations have life cycles and that all must eventually die. Western civilization, he wrote, would die like Greece and Rome, like the Aztec and Inca civilizations before it, indeed, the West already showed signs of wearing out, of senility, and he predicted its death. One of the many signs of the approaching death of a civilization, Spengler argued, was the growth of large cities. Large cities, he argued, were death to culture and civilization.

Somewhat more optimistic was the British historian, Arnold Toynbee’s, A Study of History. According to Toynbee, the universal law of history was not, as Marx thought the forces of economic pressure, but a process by which a later society arises from an earlier one. He sought to prove that this process always occurs in the same way, through a series of steps he claimed to identify in his historical studies. He didn’t feel his view was as pessimistic or as deterministic as Spengler’s. He felt there was hope for Western civilization and we should not believe ourselves or history itself to be subject to cosmic forces beyond our control.

As a matter of fact, however, fatal objections have been raised against all of these theories about the progress of human history. None of them accounts for all that has happened, none can explain the march of events. And, still more important, none can prove that history has any meaning, any significance; that there is any reason for what happens, any goal toward which history is moving.

And then, through the 20th century, as the theory of evolution has more and more thoroughly been worked into the prevailing philosophies of human history, meaning and purpose in human affairs has become only more elusive. In two remarkable and eloquent paragraphs, the British philosopher, Bertrand Russell, seems perfectly to describe the consequence of believing in evolution as the explanation of human life.

“That man is the product of causes that had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of the human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built….

“Brief and powerless is Man’s life; on him and all his race the slow, sure doom falls pitiless and dark. Blind to good and evil, reckless of destruction, omnipotent matter rolls on its relentless way; for Man, condemned today to lose his dearest, tomorrow himself to pass through the gate of darkness, it remains only to cherish, ere yet the blow falls, the lofty thoughts that ennoble his little day;…proudly defiant of the irresistible forces that tolerate, for a moment, his knowledge and his condemnation, to sustain alone, a weary but unyielding Atlas, the world that his own ideals have fashioned despite the trampling march of unconscious power.” [Cited in Clark, A Christian View of Men and Things, p. 76]

Don’t let Russell’s eloquence blind you to how unspeakably tragic and sad that view of human life is — man so blinded to all that makes his life so supremely significant and wonderful! He is made in the image of God, man is made for eternity and down deep every man and woman knows it — that is why Russell could never himself face or live by his own dismal philosophy.

But so, we are told, it goes: nations rise and fall, scientific and technological advancements change the world for better and for worse, intellectual movements come and go, famine follows prosperity, war follows peace, but, at the last, nothing means anything, history is not going anywhere, because to go somewhere implies that there is a goal, an end, a destination, and there is none, only milestones on a road to nowhere. Civilizations may rise and fall, even it may seem to some, by some fixed law or process. But a goal that gives meaning to human history cannot be simply the end of a cycle that is to be repeated again. As one Christian philosopher of history put it, “It is foolish to assert that Sisyphus was making progress.” [Ibid, p. 78] Your neighbors, your workmates, if they think at all, more and more think like this. How wrong, and how sad. You have something wonderful, dazzlingly wonderful to tell them.

Now, the Bible’s philosophy of history is, of course, the radical reverse of all that skepticism and pessimism and gloomy confession of meaninglessness! According to God’s Word, God not only controls human history, he not only acts within human history, but he is directing it to a fixed end and goal in which its whole purpose will be revealed for all to see and for the saints to admire.

But we can say more than that about the progress of history and the affairs of men and nations. It is certainly clear that the Bible knows all about the rise and fall of civilizations. The history of Israel takes place in connection with the history of ancient near-eastern empires — Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome. It knows all about the great men who dominate the landscape of history and about their achievements in war, in building, in art and science.

The OT prophets make perfectly clear that God is in control of all of that too and that he turns the heart of kings however he wishes, that he uses them to fulfill his purposes in the world, that nations even far removed from his people are part of his plan for the world.

What is different and striking about the Bible’s teaching of all this, however, is the relative unimportance that is attached to what mesmerizes worldly men. I once had the privilege to hear Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones preach in person. I had that privilege but once, in Aberdeen, Scotland in 1977, but it was a memorable occasion for me — to hear in person the greatest preacher of the Word of God in our generation.

He was speaking under the auspices of a Scottish Christian society devoted to the study of the Bible’s doctrine of the last things, what theologians call “eschatology” after the Greek adjective “eschatos” meaning last. This is the study of what the Bible teaches about the end of the world and how that will come to pass and what will follow it. Dr. Lloyd Jones’ sermon, therefore, was on that theme. I don’t recollect the entire gist of the sermon, but I remember one thing “the doctor” said in that message.

He was speaking from Daniel 8, that vision of the Ram and the Goat which is a prophecy, in Daniel’s time, of the eventual conquest of the Medes and the Persians by the King of Greece which is, as you may know, a prophecy of the rise of Alexander the Great (as you can read for yourself in Daniel 8:19-22). Dr. Lloyd Jones’ point was simply that the man the world calls “Alexander the Great,” the Bible calls a “shaggy he-goat.”

In my mind that is an excellent illustration of the Bible’s perspective. The Bible does not ignore the movements of human history, the progress of learning, of technology, and of art. It is not indifferent to the rise and fall of nations, to the progress of wars. It simply does not regard these matters as the real issue, the real meaning of history.

Nations come and go; wars come and go; intellectual movements come and go. As the preacher puts it in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun. We may suppose there is, but there really isn’t, not in a way that fundamentally matters. Americans have long thought, for example, that democracy was clearly and inevitably the culmination of human political development, that the American political system was the apogee, the pinnacle of progress and that nothing could come after it or rise above it. But, all of that boasting seems rather pathetic and puerile here at the end of the 20th century, with our political institutions in disarray, seemingly incapable of solving our problems, our vaunted political system producing the same bureaucratic sluggishness, the same social alienation, and the same moral rot and intellectual arrogance that has brought down every political system before it in history.

But none of this is the key to history, none of it is the meaning of the progress of events. According to God’s Word, that lies elsewhere, and we have it here, in a nutshell in Isaiah 53:10-12. What these verses teach, what they prophecy, is that the Servant of the Lord, the Messiah, the Lord Christ, after his death for the sins of his people, will not only rise to life (as in v. 11a), but harvest the fruit of his victory in the world. He will justify “the many,” that is, make them right with God, “the many” being Isaiah’s name for the people of God, those for whom the Servant gave up his life. “Many,” as we have said before is an important word in this servant song. We have it in 52:14 and 15, in a statement of the Servant’s triumphant success: “he will sprinkle many nations.” Then, here, in v. 11, he will justify “many.”

But, the burden of this prediction of the Servant’s triumph is expressed in the first half of verse 12, and “many” occurs again here. Most commentators we trust –E.J. Young and Alec Motyer, for example, suggest a different translation than that which you have before you in the NIV. The NIV’s translation gets something of the same point, but not in the direct and specific form that Isaiah’s Hebrew seems to suggest. The word rendered “great” is the Hebrew word for “many,” the same word the NIV translates “many” in the previous verse (as the NIV margin tells you).

(It is surely unlikely that “many” which is a technical term for Isaiah and has already occurred four times in this song, should not be translated “many” here in v. 12.)

“I will apportion to him the many” is what the Father says about his servant, his Son. That is, I will give to him, all those for whom he has shed his blood, whose sins he has paid for. That is, the Father will give to the Son all whom he has redeemed. They will all come to him, believe in him, love and worship and follow him. And then follows, “the strong.” The sentence reads then, “I will apportion to him the many and the strong he will allocate as spoil.” [Motyer]

In other words, the servant will receive the spoils of his victory. A strong indication that this is the way to translate verse 12, the last verse of the song, is that, read this way — and though I am no expert in Hebrew, it was not hard for me to see the grammatical case for this translation — it completes the circle, closes the song with the themes with which it began. We had references to “the many” and “the kings” in 52:14-15 — he will sprinkle many nations and kings will shut their mouths because of him — an enigmatic opening summary of the effect of the work of the Servant, and here this is all explained. The Father will give to him all that he has redeemed, and the kings of the earth will be made subject to him and placed under his charge.

Or as Toplady put it in one of his verses:

Be mindful of Jesus and me!
My pardon He suffer’d to buy;
And what He procur’d on the tree,
For me He demands in the sky.

Now the rest of the Bible confirms this many times over and in many different ways.

We have such a statement as that of Paul in Ephesians 1:18-23:

“I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”

More briefly, in Paul’s commentary on Isaiah 52:13-53:12 in Philippians 2:5-11, “Therefore” — because of his going to death for his people’s sins and salvation — God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

But, we have this same view of the unfolding of history in texts which teach that the great reason for the march of the years, the reason why history continues through the ages, is precisely because “the many,” those whom Christ has redeemed from sin and death, have not all yet been given to him. The world must go on, the cycles of rising and falling nations must continue, because there are people in those nations yet to be brought to the feet of Jesus Christ in living faith and love.

1 Peter 3:9: “But do not forget this one thing, dear friends, “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.”

Still more explicitly, concerning “the many,” the people of God: Hebrews 11:39-40: speaking of all who have believed in the world and died in that faith, “these all were commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised — that is, the resurrection and the consummation of salvation –. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”

Or, the Lord’s own famous remark: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” [Matthew 24:14]

You know that Christians theologians divide the church of God, Isaiah’s “the many,” into three parts or divisions. The church triumphant is that part that has already lived in the world and died and their spirits, now in heaven, form the company of just men made perfect, but still waiting for the resurrection of the body and the consummation of the kingdom of God. The church militant is that part of the church who are now living by faith in this world, serving Christ and loving him in this world of sin and death. The church latent is that part of the church, the company of the people of God who are not yet active participants in the faith of Christ, either because though they are alive in this world they have not yet been brought by the Spirit of God to trust in Jesus or because they have not yet been born.

We read of this part of the church in a text like Psalm 102:18: “Let this be written for a future generation, that a people not yet created may praise the Lord.”

All of this is what Isaiah prophesies in the concluding stanza of this great servant song. What the Lord has purchased by his death for “the many” will be given to them in their own space-time history and Christ will rule over the world for the church, that is, the progress of world history will be made subservient to this great and single interest, the ingathering of the elect before the second coming of Christ.

This is the real purpose of human history. There are other purposes, of course. The Bible does not despise the achievements of the human spirit and of human genius. Indeed, in Revelation 21:26 we read that “the glory and honor of the nations will be brought into [heaven]” at the end of time. And in human history God is vindicating himself — demonstrating the futility of all hopes, all dreams, all schemes that are not founded upon him and his faithfulness and truth, and demonstrating his faithfulness to his church and his people.

As Chesterton put it, five times in human history the church has gone to the dogs and every time it was the dog that died.

Or as Rutherford put it, in more spiritual terms, speaking of the church of Christ in the world, “that bush has been burning these five thousand years and no one yet has seen the ashes of that fire.”

But here in vv. 11-12 we are given the key, the meaning of it all. The history of the world is the history of salvation and it cannot conclude until all the redeemed are gathered in. The great story of this world is not the progress of technology as so many today seem to think — as if the computer were some development of eternal importance –; nor is its great importance the rise and fall of civilizations and societies, as Spengler and Toynbee thought; nor the march to a classless society as Marx and Engels supposed.

The great story of human history is the story of Christ — of his enemies who conspire and plot against him, the kings of the earth who take their stand and the rulers who gather together against the Lord, but who are made his spoil because of his conquest on the cross — and the history of his people, “the many,” who year by year, century by century, age by age, are being gathered to him in faith and love, apportioned to him by the Father because of the sacrifice of himself the Lord made for them and because of his continuing intercession for them.

As Augustine put it in perhaps the greatest book ever written, The City of God, there are two kingdoms and two cities and two peoples in this world — the city of this world and the city of God. Man in his sin supposes that the city of this world is the real city, the city that matters, the city they want to belong to. And so he makes his careful study of the history of this City of Man. But the story of the city of this world is actually a subplot of human history. The real story, the main story, the main purpose of the whole story is the city of God and the people who live in that city, how they came to live in it and how they live in it which is the story of the Father’s exaltation of his Son, the laying of the foundation for that day of all days when the Son of God is revealed in all his glory to the entire world!

Now if you are not a Christian, there is a warning here, of course. The world you find most real is merely the background against which is being played out the real story of human history, which is the gathering of the entourage of Jesus Christ — you must be among them, we want you to be among them, to be left outside of them is to miss the entire meaning and significance of the whole history of the world as well as to miss, what is worse, a place in the world to come and its unfolding and eternal history.

And, if you are a Christian, be reminded of what matters! Make sure your life is being lived in service of the great purpose of the world, the proclamation of Christ to “the many,” their being gathered to him, and the life and work of the City of God amidst the City of Man. Don’t live your precious and so short life here ignoring or thinking little of that for which time continues, nations rise and fall, war succeeds peace, and plenty succeeds famine — which is the working out of the triumph of the Lord Christ, the bringing to pass the results of that terrible suffering and death he endured for us at the middle of time.