by James Dunn.
The dating of Isaiah is always a problem (were two or three Isaiahs combined?) and it is quite probable that prophecies of different times were put together. Chapters 34-35 seem to have been an original prophecy, perhaps from the time of king Hezekiah when Judah was in rebellion against the regional super-power of Assyria at the end of the 8th century BC. But here the target is particularly Edom, the kingdom to the south of the Dead Sea, founded by Esau, son of Isaac and brother of Jacob. Later on, in the time of Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, the Edomites helped plunder Jerusalem and slaughter the Judeans. It was particularly for this reason that the prophets denounced Edom so violently (34.5-9; Jer. 49.7-22; see also Ps. 60.8 and 108.9).
The striking feature of these two chapters is the sharp contrast between Isa. 34’s emphasis on divine judgment and 35’s bright hope and promise. 34 was all about the Lord’s rage ‘against all the nations’ (34.2), and his ‘day of vengeance’ against Edom in particular (34.9) leaving it a waste land (34.9-15). The contrast in chapter 35 could hardly be stronger: the wilderness shall be glad, the desert blossom (35.1); the weak hands and feeble knees strengthened (35.3); the assurance of God coming to save them (35.4); water breaking forth in the wilderness (35.6); a highway opened up for the Lord’s people to return to Zion with joy (35.8-10).
What is particularly striking for Christians is the fact that Jesus took up 35.5-6 as hopes that had been fulfilled in his own ministry. Isaiah had prophesied that the eyes of the blind would be opened, the ears of the deaf unstopped, the lame would leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless would sing for joy. It is noteworthy that it was on precisely this passage that Jesus drew when he answered the query from the imprisoned Baptist, whether he (Jesus) was the one whose coming the Baptist had predicted. ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear . . .’ (Matt. 11.5/Luke 7.22).
This tells us something about prophecy: that it was intended primarily to warn and encourage those to whom it was delivered. It used language and imagery which could rise above the particular historical circumstances which occasioned it. That the language, the hopes and warnings, could speak to other, later and different circumstances, was why it was treasured and listened to afresh even though time and circumstances were different. Some of the language was indeed prophetic, in the common sense of the term – when hopes expressed earlier were fulfilled later, and we can speak quite properly of prophecy being fulfilled. But some of the prophet’s language was found to be particularly appropriate to refer to or even describe events which happened later.
This seems to be the case with Jesus’ reply to the Baptist. The imagery which Isaiah had used to express his hope in God proved to be highly appropriate to describe Jesus’ ministry. It is true that Isaiah’s hope was exceeded by what was happening through Jesus’ ministry; Isaiah had said nothing here about lepers being cleansed, the dead raised, and good news being brought to the poor. But the reality of Jesus’ ministry so closely mirrored the prophet’s hope, who could complain that the reality exceeded Isaiah’s prophetic hope?
So we can say that the role of prophecy in the divine purpose has been to lift eyes from the present, often troublesome times – to look beyond the difficult all too earthly now, to see how God’s purpose is being enacted despite multiple human failures. And to see now in that beyond a hint or even a pattern indicating how God will act in the future. In other words, fore-telling prophecy is not a matter of word for word, event for event precision. Was even Isaiah 53 ‘precisely’ fulfilled by the events of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion?
No! If we are to understand and benefit from biblical prophecy it is not by finding a word for word match between earlier hopes and later events. It is by lifting our eyes beyond the current events, as the prophet did, and finding hope in the divine purpose. And when prophetic words from the past match events of the present it’s not so much a matter of fulfillment, as a confirmation that God is indeed in control of what happens to his people.