Funny things happen when reading Isaiah if (a) you are a Christian and (b) you have a theological education in a mainline Protestant tradition.
(a) As a Christian, there is a whole lot of Isaiah, like the series of oracles to the nations (see chapters 13 and following), that just seems like hard slogging. The references are clearly to ancient issues in ancient times and in ancient places.
(b) As someone with a theological education, I know that, if I look up a few things about those times and places, what God said to them through the prophet will take on meaning. I will learn about God’s character and priorities, and this will be useful. The poetry will speak to me in rich and powerful ways–if I do a bit of work.
But then, I come across passages like Isaiah 7:14
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. (NIV)
(a) Because I am a Christian, I think of Jesus. It happens even if I read a more mainline Protestant translation:
Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (NRSV)
I think of Jesus for a number of reasons. Not least of these is the Gospel of Matthew (1:22-23):
All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ (NRSV)
If the NIV and the NRSV quibble about Hebrew term in Isaiah, the Evangelist has no doubt at all. And for the vast majority of Christians down through the ages Matthew settles the question.
(b) Because I have a theological education, I am prompted to read Isaiah 7:14 in context– at least the context of its paragraph. Take a look at Isaiah 7:10-17 (NRSV). I’ve shortened it up a bit for clarity:
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. . . . Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. . . . For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on your ancestral house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.’
Trained in the tools of historical criticism my eagle eye notices that the words I hear as a reference to Jesus were spoken to an earthly king about a child who would be a sign about political events in that king’s times.
O my. Does (b) trump (a)? Has the historical meaning of the text taken away the theological reference so precious to me as a Christian?
No. I am a Christian above all.
Then does (a) trump (b)? Does being a Christian mean that I close my mind to the facts of history?
No. I am a Christian above all, so I want to love God with all my mind, as well as heart, soul, and strength.
Here is the deal: (a) adds to (b). I see some things as an educated person. Being a Christian I see more.
Of course I know, as a Christian and a scholar, that Isaiah lived in and spoke to the culture and events of his day. But as a Christian I see that the events of the people of God before the coming of Jesus had more meaning than they could be aware of.
People, events, and promises in ancient Israel were real and true in their own context. But God is true and consistent. Those past events could not exhaust the meaning of what God said through the prophet, so the words echo forward and become truer still. They are like shadows and images of things that became bright and clear with the coming of Jesus.
Neither side negates the other. In Isaiah’s time a child was a sign that God was with the people of Judah. In Jesus we find a more literal fulfilment of the same prophetic word. In Jesus, God himself really is with us.
I’d love to hear from you in the comments: What have you found the most moving of Isaiah’s promises?
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