Monday, July 23, 2018

A Little Prophetic Pigskin

Isaiah prophesied for many years under many different circumstances about many nations and about many different things on the mind of God.

When he began his prophetic ministry, Assyria was at the forefront of world affairs. During Isaiah’s lifetime, Samaria fell to the Assyrians and Jerusalem was besieged by them. Even Israel’s neighbors had their own ill-fated run-ins with Sennacherib’s “unstoppable war machine”. So naturally much of the earlier chapters of Isaiah is concerned with current events. He would say things like, “Within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered from being a people,” and then he lived long enough to see that very thing happen.

In these passages, we might say the predictive trajectory of Isaiah’s ministry was, for the most part, quite short-range. If he were playing prophecy-quarterback, such a prediction would be a slant or a square-out: a safe, short pass that viewers might just as easily attribute to being politically savvy as to having heard the voice of God.

Throwing Downfield

But by chapter 14, Isaiah is foretelling Assyria’s downfall too. Sure, Assyria had been raised up by God to discipline the nations, but their time to suffer for their own national sins and cruelties was imminent.

And then, even before Isaiah has said everything he needs to about Assyria and the other nations of his day, the prophet has moved on (or rather, God moves him on) to oracles about Babylon. The Chaldeans had yet to impact Judah’s affairs in a major way when Isaiah began to speak about them, but it is highly probable that anyone paying attention could see the writing on the wall. Nebuchadnezzar would not sack Jerusalem until long after Isaiah’s death, but the prophet speaks in detail about what God’s people should expect from this new political player on the scene. As early as chapter 13 he is already forecasting Babylon’s downfall — and this before the empire had completely risen! Here Isaiah’s predictive trajectory is considerably longer. If he were an NFL quarterback, we would say he is throwing downfield.

Going Long

By the time we reach chapter 45, he’s definitely going long. Isaiah’s prophecies about Cyrus king of Persia have to do with events that would take place a full seventy years further down the road, when God would raise up a Persian king explicitly “for the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen.”

This is the point where the higher critics put up their hands and ask to get off the prophecy bus, refusing to believe that God would give such explicit revelation of the distant future to a mere man. “Sorry,” they say, “we can no longer suspend our disbelief.” And off they go to ruminate about Deutero-Isaiah and Tertiary Isaiah and pick apart the prophet’s syntax in chapters 40 through 66. We are not sorry to see them go; it’s clear they never believed much of anything in the first place.

Things Not Yet Done

Interestingly, it is at precisely this point in the story that God makes the following declaration through Isaiah:
“For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.”
This chapter (46) is all about false gods. False gods aren’t up to much. Idols are “borne as burdens on weary beasts.” These false gods aren’t even up to walking! An idol, Isaiah says, “cannot move from its place.” Naturally then, “if one cries to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble.”

In contrast to these useless inanimate objects, God says that he declares “the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done.” In case we have missed the point of the first 45 chapters, this is exactly what God has been doing through Isaiah. He’s done it and will do it again through other prophets, though rarely over such an incredible range of prophetic territory.

None Like Me

The point is, I suppose, that if you’re going to believe in God at all, you’d better be on board with the concept of very specific short-, medium- and long-range prophecy, because the tendency to frequently and correctly predict the future — not least because he is personally managing it — is built right into the essential character of God. It’s who he is. It’s how he’s made his name. “There is none like me,” he says, in precisely this way: “that I declare the end from the beginning.”

And so he does. He will go on half a millennium past Cyrus to speak through Isaiah of the first century AD and events concerning the life, death and atoning work of his Son. In doing so, he is not asking his prophet to suddenly switch subjects. The Perfect Servant is coming to do the work the flawed servant (Israel) could not.

If you’re keeping track, Isaiah’s prophecies now span a period of 750 years. That’s impressive. But he’s not done yet. God, who declares “the end from the beginning”, still has to speak of the end. Except, as it turns out, he’s been doing it all along.

The End from the Beginning

Sprinkled throughout Isaiah’s prophecies concerning Assyria, Babylon, Medo-Persia and first century Israel are repeated references to things that inarguably have yet to take place. One of the most obvious is Isaiah 61, the passage the Lord Jesus opened and read at the synagogue in Nazareth, in which he simultaneously declares the “year of the Lord’s favor” (the first century onward) and the “day of vengeance of our God”, a period still to come almost two thousand years down the road.

But this is hardly Isaiah’s only prediction about the far-flung future. It’s through Isaiah that we find out that “Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low,” that “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea,” that “the desert shall rejoice and blossom like the crocus,” and that “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together” and “the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”

Into the End Zone

Here Isaiah has hurled the prophetic pigskin into the end zone, or, if you prefer, kicked a prophetic field goal well up into the bleachers of human history. Whatever you like: the point is that the prophet has scored bigly, and he has not accomplished it in the super-organized way we linear thinkers would prefer: Assyria, followed by Babylon, Medo-Persia, first century Judea and the coming of Christ, and, right at the end in chapter 65, the millennial reign — all in a nice, orderly, scholarly presentation like you’d get in history class.

No, the four references above (chosen arbitrarily from dozens sprinkled throughout the book) are from chapters 40, 11, 35 and 65, respectively. They are from all over the 66 chapters of Isaiah, from each of the alleged “three different writers” the higher critics claim must have contributed to the book, and they are all saying pretty much the same thing. We might like linearity, but God decided to demonstrate unequivocally that his revelation through the prophet Isaiah is all of a piece. What we might feel we have lost in orderliness, we have gained back in a tremendous thematic consistency. It means we cannot easily chop up the book of Isaiah and play scholarly games with it — not, at least, and still retain it as a legitimate part of holy scripture.

God declares from ancient times “things not yet done”. It’s who he is, it’s what he does, and it’s a plain fact of life and of revelation. The critics can like it or hate it, but it’s there, and it’s not going away.

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