Some Guidelines for Interpreting Old Testament Prophecy Applied to Isaiah 40-66

Clyde J. Hurst  |  Southwestern Journal of Theology Vol. 11 - Fall 1968

The latter part of the Book of Isaiah (chapters 40-66) contains some · of the most profound teachings of the Old Testament. Nobility of thought and expression, the spiritual insight of the writer (or writers), the content of the oracles (most of them in poetic form), the fulfillment of the prophecies, and the critical problems involved provide a tremendous challenge to anyone who aspires to interpret these writings with some degree of accuracy and precision.

Intelligent and meaningful interpretation of the Scriptures must be based on sound principles of biblical interpretation. Most interpreters of the Bible will accept this assertion as valid. However, not all interpreters accept as valid the same principles of interpretation. Herein lies the main reason for the wide variations in biblical interpretation. Perhaps there is as much (or more) variation—even confusion—among interpreters of the prophetic writings of the Old Testament as any other part of the Bible.


The Nature of Prophecy

A first principle of interpretation of Old Testament prophecy is found in the nature of prophecy itself. What is prophecy? Contrary to the opinion of many people, prophecy, according to the scriptures, is not primarily prediction of future events. A common error among extreme literalists is that prophecy is “history written beforehand.” A. B. Davidson pointed out years ago that the church, perhaps influenced partly by the name prophet and partly by the great apologetic use made of the prophecies in the New Testament, “was formerly inclined to lay almost exclusive stress upon the directly predictive element in prophecy so as almost to consider prophecy and prediction to be things identical.”[1]A. B. Davidson, Old Testament Prophecy (Edinburg: T. and T. Clark, 1904), p. 96.

Prophecy and prediction are not one and the same thing. Milton H. Terry, writing near the close of the nineteenth century, spoke of a prophet (Nabi) as “one who speaks under the pressure of a divine fervour.”[2]Milton H. Terry, Biblical Hermeneutics (New York: Hunt and Eaton, 1890), p. 314. Further, he says, “the prophet is especially to be regarded as one who bears a divine message and acts as the spokesman of the Almighty.”[3]Ibid. The Old Testament prophets were thus primarily “forth-tellers” of God’s word to their contemporaries rather than “foretellers” of the future. They became convinced by divine revelation that God had spoken to them. By inspiration they received the message of God’s revelation. Then, out of their experiences with God, they proclaimed to the people of their day what they understood to be the will of God for the people to whom they spoke or wrote.

This means that prophecy is tied in with history and with the historical situation in which the prophet lived. A canon of interpretation of Old Testament prophecy is that the prophet himself lived during the period to which he addressed himself in his writing. It seems to many scholars, according to this canon of interpretation, that the voice of Isaiah 40:3 refers to a prophet who lived in exile during the Babylonian captivity and ministered to the exiles of the sixth century B.C. This would be the writer of the latter part of the Book of Isaiah, or of a major portion of it. Isaiah 40-66, according to this view, could not have been written by Isaiah of Jerusalem who lived during the eighth century B.C. This view is the Deutero-Isaiah theory and is held by a large majority of Old Testament scholars today.[4]It is no the purpose of this article to discuss the arguments for and against the view favoring the unity of Isaiah, the Deutero-Isaiah theory, the Trito-Isaiah theory: and the Fourth Isaiah view. In support of the unity of the entire Book of Isaiah see E. J. Young, An Introduction to the Old Testament (Grand Rapid: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1949), and O. T. Allis,. The Unity of Isaiah (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1950). In favor of two or more Isaiahs see R. H. Ffeiffer, Introduction to the Old Testament (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1948), and The Interpreters Bible, Vol. V (Nashville: Abingdon-Cokesbury Press 1952).

The answer to the problem as to date and authorship of Isaiah 40-66 does not seem to be found in the traditional explanation, that it was altogether possible for Yahweh to give the prophet Isaiah of the eighth century B.C. special predictive powers so that he could address himself to the exiles in their particular and specific historical situation in Babylon a hundred fifty to two hundred years later, offering them encouragement and interpreting the will of God for their lives in that sixth century B.C. setting. Such an explanation has been regarded by traditionalists as a marvel of inspiration whereby Isaiah could foresee and foretell specific historical events almost two centuries later than he actually lived. Is not such an explanation altogether too easy? And does it really face up to the essential problem involved?

Is it not more reasonable to believe that God did raise up a man, to meet the needs of the people during the exile many years after Isaiah had died? Could he not refer to the king of Persia by his name Cyrus because he was a contemporary with Cyrus? Prophecy is evidently given to meet ethical needs. The prophets arose to meet those needs in the historical situation in which they occurred. If, in accordance with a fundamental axiom of historical interpretation, a prophet always spoke out of a definite historical situation to the needs of the people among whom he lived, then it seems reasonable to hold that the writer (or writers) of the latter part of the Book of Isaiah must have lived during and after the exile of the sixth century.

There is a strong predictive element in the so-called Deutero-Isaiah. It is of a different kind, however, than that of a prophet speaking directly and specifically to the needs of people in a historical situation almost two centuries after he had lived. A. Berkeley Mickelsen says:

The prediction of God’s doings was given to a particular historical people, to awaken and stir them. They might not grasp all the meaning of the message, but the message—with the disclosure of future things—was given to influence the present action.[5]A. Berkeley Mickelsen,   Interpreting the Bible (Grand Rapids:   Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1963), p. 287.

It should be said at this point that many dispensationalists have misinterpreted prophecy and perverted the prophetic message by insisting that prophecy was given primarily for the age in which the one interpreting the prophecy was living, or for the time during which Christ lived on the earth, or for some indefinite future time. Such procedure may result either in interpretation that is relevant with a vengeance, or it may be removed entirely out of the realm of relevance. Alas, however, such procedure in interpretation ignores the context of the prophet and of those to whom the prophet spoke. Is it not the first responsibility of the interpreter to determine the meaning in the mind of the one who wrote or uttered the scripture? Is the interpreter not also to determine what the scripture meant to those who first read it or heard it? Interpretation (perhaps a better word is application) of scripture as relevant to some subsequent period should neither ignore nor contradict the meaning in its historical-grammatical-contextual setting.

Old Testament prophecy lives because of the certainty of the informing word of Yahweh as fulfilled in history. “Surely the Lord God does nothing, without revealing his secret to his servants the prophets” (Amos 3:7).


History and Prophecy

In Isaiah 41 history is ·explained as a part of revelation. The prophet with an apologetic purpose insists that prediction of future events provides proof of Yahweh’s sole deity. Cyrus, the great conqueror from the east, has been raised up to deliver God’s people from the captivity (41:3). It is Yahweh alone who knows the future and has determined the career of Cyrus (41:21-29). Yahweh demanded of the heathen gods that they face present events and give “a clear, unambiguous forecast to this issue.”[6]’George Adam Smith, The Book of Isaiah in The Expositors Bible Vol. III (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), p. 760. The gods are challenged to “tell us the former things, what they are,…or declare to us the things to come” (41:22). Then, with a sarcastic slant the challenge continues: “Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that they are gods” (41:23).

The “former things” of 41:22 possibly refers to Yahweh’s raising up of Cyrus in 41:2-5, as C. R. North holds.[7]C. R. North “The ‘Former Things’ and the ‘New Things’ in Deutero­-Isaiah,” Studies in Old Testament Prophecy, edited by H. H. Rowley (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1950), p. 121. There it is only said that Yahweh has raised up Cyrus, “though the inference is near at hand that no other god did.”[8]Ibid. The “new things” of 41:23 refers to a later and more theological interpretation in 41:21-29 of the events described in 41:2-5. Here it is asserted that the gods are utterly impotent and had nothing to do with the matter. Here is a basis for a dogma that: “He who controls history is able to announce His purposes before they eventuate.”[9]Ibid. The new feature on which stress is laid, according to Orelli, is the fact that Yahweh alone, for the comfort of His people foretold long ago the elevation of the present conqueror, and so no one else has brought about the present tum of things.[10]C. Von Orelli, The Prophecies of Isaiah (Edinburg: T. and T. Clark, 1895), p. 235. Zimmerli points out that in this case the true pathos and the massive assurance are anchored basically in the unshakeable certainty of the power of Yahweh’s promise; . . . a certainty which nonetheless is grounded completely upon Yahweh’s deed and word in history.[11]Walter Zimmerli, “Promise and Fulfillment,” Essays on Old Testament Hermeneutics Claus Westermann, editor (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1963), p. 108. The theme of Yaweh’s former promises fulfilled in historical events is noted also in 48:3-8. The former things (48: 3) which God had declared would come to pass are realized in the ‘new things’ (48:6) that are ‘created new'” (48:7). James Muilenburg in The Interpreter’s Bible, V, 554-555, comments: “God’s powerful and wonderful word was spoken, and his intention was revealed to man; then suddenly, unexpectedly, he performed his deed. Behind this suddenness lies a keen insight into the strange ways of the divine activity. He reveals the word and men have the revelation, but the event comes in unique and unpredictable ways like a thief in the night.” Then on p. 556 he says further that “the new things are the great events associated with Cyrus’ campaigns, the liberation of Israel, and the new exodus.

A Christian interpreter of the Old Testament is expected to give a Christian interpretation to Old Testament prophetic writings. How can he do otherwise and remain within the framework of a Christian perspective? His interpretation should be theological in the best sense of that term. It should also be relevant to the age in which he lives. How are these two goals possible of attainment in an age in which scientific-historical thinking is second nature to the biblical scholar and interpreter?

Shall it be the aim of the Christian interpreter of the Old Testament to construe the prophetic writings in such a way as to see them explicitly setting forth Christian doctrine? If this question is answered affirmatively, then would not the Christian interpreter who pursues a course of delineating the Christian doctrines of the prophets lay himself open to the charge of reading back New Testament concepts of the Christian era into the context of the Israelite religion of a pre-Christian era?

How could one pursue such a course and maintain historical perspective? Would not the results be anachronistic?


The Denial of Allegory

One way, during ancient and medieval periods, of “Christianizing” the Hebrew Scriptures so as to make them yield Christian doctrine was by “allegorizing” them. This method was subject to the whims and preconceptions of the interpreter, whereas the scriptures were made to yield whatever the interpreter read into them. This method of interpretation is largely repudiated today.

No longer do interpreters look for a fourfold interpretation of the scriptures as was done during the Middle Ages. It was believed then that the scriptures had a historical (literal) meaning, an allegorical (spiritual or mystical) meaning, a tropological (moral) meaning, and an anagogical (eschatological) meaning. Furthermore, the interpreter was obligated to find the multiple meanings in the scriptures. Of course the results were unfruitful and chaotic. Interpreters today are to seek for one meaning of the scriptures, not many.

If the historical study of the Bible during the past two hundred years has taught us anything, it is that the historical or literal meaning is basic to a proper understanding and interpretation of Old Testament prophecy. It is admitted, of course, that at times it is difficult to get at the literal meaning. Especially is this true where figurative and symbolic language is used. Bernard Ramm points out that the unity of the sense of scripture does not intend to deny that there is figurative language in the Bible. He says: “The literal meaning in such cases is the proper meaning as determined by the specific form or type of the figure of speech.”[12]Bernard Ramm, Protestant Biblical Interpretation (Boston: W. A. Wilde Co., Revised 1956), p. 125.

When we have interpreted prophetic scripture grammatically, historically, and contextually to determine the meaning for those to whom it was originally spoken or written, is there then some other principle or method of interpretation by means of which it becomes alive, meaningful, and relevant for our day? Here we are at the very crux of the problem as to the interpretation of the prophetic writings.


Typological Method of Interpretation

This question was answered affirmatively by the New Testament writers. They interpreted the Old Testament typologically. Likewise the Reformers interpreted the Old Testament typologically and found Christian doctrine throughout its pages. Possibly Martin Luther went too far in his typological interpretation with his Christological principle by means of which he sought evidences for Christ everywhere in the Old Testament.

Within recent years some theologians have questioned the validity of the typological interpretation of the Old Testament by the writers of the New Testament, especially by Matthew and the writer of the Book of Hebrews. For instance, Rudolf Bultmann cites a number of instances where Matthew uses the formula, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet,” showing the fulfillment of prophecies of the prophets as having come to pass in the story of Jesus.[13]Rudolf Bultmann, “Prophecy and Fulfillment,” Westermann, p. 51. Bultmann says that the prophets refer to something different from the interpretation that Matthew gives, and that Matthew’s purpose is to demonstrate that “the events of the present are based—and so predetermined—on God’s plan of salvation,”[14]Ibid. providing “a confirmation of the certainty of salvation.”[15]Ibid. Bultmann insists that Matthew in 8:17 is in error where he sees Jesus’ healing miracles foretold in Isaiah 53:4, and that actually “the servant of God in Isaiah 53:4 is laden with plagues and does not take them away as does Jesus who heals.”[16]Ibid. Bultmann contends that the allegorical method employed by Philo in his interpretation of the Old Testament and the typological method employed by the writers of the New Testament are the same.

Where Philo uses the method of allegorizing to divine from the reading of the Old Testament timeless truths of theology, cosmology, anthropology, and ethics, the New Testament uses it to find Messianic prophecies. In every case it is clear that what is already known is derived from the texts.[17]Ibid., p.51.

Further Bultmann says:

To talk of this kind of prophecy and fulfillment has become impossible in an age in which the Old Testament is conceived of as historical document and interpreted according to historical science.[18]Ibid., p. 52.

Over against Bultmann’s extreme viewpoint as to prophecy and its fulfillment other scholars see a basic unity between the Old Testament and the New Testament wherein the true relationship between certain events in Old and New are seen in terms of promise and fulfillment. J. C. K. von Hoffmann’s Weissagung und Erfullung (Prophecy and Fulfillment) was published in 1844. In Hoffmann’s philosophy of history Christ is the goal of history. Prophecy is a part of Heilsgeschichte (salvation history) and Christ is the “end” or “supreme content” of salvation history. As event Christ is the ultimate or final fulfillment of all prophecy. It is possible that this approach may yield profitable results with regard to the fulfillment of prophecy. It seems necessary for the interpreter to deal with the fulfillment of the Servant of Yahweh in the latter part of the Book of Isaiah.

Eric Rust, writing from his “salvation history” viewpoint, dealing with the fulfillment of the Servant of Yahweh in Christ says that “what matters is that we grasp the meaning and significance of the event itself.”[19]Eric Rust, Stalvation History (Richmond, Va.: John Knox Press, 1962), p, 150. He says he doubts that Deutero-Isaiah saw how his image of the Suffering Servant could be woven into the Messianic expectation, but by divinely given insight the prophet did grasp something of what was to come. The images were integral to the person and mission of our Lord himself, so that when Christ comes to us in existential encounter, he comes through the testimony and Kerygma of the early church, “clothed in the God-given pattern of images that was framed in the prophetic consciousness of the Old Israel.”[20]Ibid. Rust insists that this is not mere hermeneutical principle, but historical and theological continuity. He says:

The elements in the prophetic promise are gathered up into a meaningful pattern in the person of our Lord because there is a principle of theological continuity in them. Indeed, there would seem to be a line of theological development in the history itself which is such that the Christ­ event requires the previous movements, with their prophetic promises and their attendant images, for its true understanding.[21]Ibid., p. 151.

The Servant songs of Isaiah 42:1-9, 49:1-13, 50:4-9, and 52: 13-53: 12 provide an interesting study in the interpretation of prophecy. C. R. North has made a more extensive study than any other Old Testament scholar of these passages in an effort to identify the Servant and interpret the Servant pas­ sages.[22]C. R. North, Isaiah 40-55 (London: SCM Press, 1959); The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah (London: Oxford University Press, 1956). Note is taken next of a number of interpretations, including North’s.

Some Christian scholars have adopted the Jewish view that in all instances the Servant is the nation Israel. One difficulty of this “collective interpretation” is that the Servant does not, like Israel, suffer for his own sins, but for the sins of others. Efforts have been made by certain proponents of this view to obviate or minimize this difficulty by identifying the Servant with a pious remnant of faithful Israelites, or with the order of the prophets.[23]North, Isaiah 40-55, p. 30.

H. Wheeler Robinson’s form of the collective theory stressed the importance of “corporate personality.” For Robin­ son “Israel” could have a mission to “Israel” (49:1-6) as faithful Christians can have a mission to the church. Thus, while the prophet thought of the Servant as Israel, the effective Servant could be contracted to one individual, the prophet himself.[24]Ibid., p. 31.

John Bright holds that the Servant usually is Israel chosen of God for a purpose. In other instances the Servant is the true remnant of Israel (49:3, 5). Then, the Servant becomes an individual Messianic figure (chapters 50 and 53), the leader of Israel’s new mission.[25]John Bright, “Faith and Destiny, the Meaning of History in Deutero- Isaiah,” Interpretation Vol. V (Jan., 1951), 3-26. In the “fullness of time,” when one who “took upon him the form of a servant” said to his disciples-his church-“Go into all the world,” he laid on them the Servant destiny. The church, as the people of a faith, has no meaning “save to enter history as the Servant of that faith.”[26]Ibid., p. 26. Thus, for Bright, the Servant idea is fulfilled in the church.

The question which the Ethiopian eunuch reading from Isaiah 53:7-8 asked Philip, whether the prophet was speaking of himself or of someone else (Acts 8:34), indicates that some at that time identified the Servant as the prophet himself. Since that day when Philip began with that scripture and told the eunuch the story of Jesus (Acts 8:35) the prevailing Christian view, at least until the end of the eighteenth century, has been that Isaiah 53 is a prophecy (prediction) of Christ.

The traditional messianic type of interpretation of the Servant as Christ often sees no discrepancy in failing to interpret Isaiah 53 in its historical (pre-exilic or exilic) context. Jesus of Nazareth literally fulfilled the prophecy (prediction) of Isaiah 53; all the details of the chapter refer specifically and exclusively to Jesus of Nazareth. The following statement by John R. Sampey reflects the traditional view:

The New Testament application of this great prophecy to Jesus is not an accommodation of words originally spoken of Israel as a nation, but a recognition of the fact that the prophet painted in advance a portrait of which Jesus Christ is the original.[27]John R. Sampey, The Heart of the Old Testament (Nashville: Sunday School Board, SBC, 1924), pp. 172-173.

A contemporary evangelical theologian, A. Berkeley Mickelsen, points out that a prophet usually touched upon the past, the present, and the future and that, unfortunately many interpreters ignore those parts dealing with the past.[28]Mickelson, p. 287.

Is it legitimate to understand that the Servant as an individual actually lived in the historical context of Isaiah 40-55, but that the ultimate fulfillment is in Jesus of Nazareth? If this “double fulfillment” (not “double sense”) is allowed, possibly Zerubbabel who is exalted in Haggai 2:20-23 as a messianic person could be understood as the individual Servant. This would meet the hermeneutical principal of contextual interpretation. In the distant future the individual Servant of Isaiah 53 would find ultimate fulfillment in Jesus of Nazareth.

Franz Delitzsch, commenting on Isaiah 41:8, spoke of Israel as “Jehovah’s servant in virtue of a divine act.”[29]Franz Delitzsch, The Prophecies of Isaiah, Vol. II, trans. S. R. Driver (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1890), p. 155. The Servant of Yahweh appears there as Israel, “the people chosen to be Jehovah’s servant, . . . the embodied idea of Israel, . . . its truth and reality in person.”[30]Ibid., p. 165. The Servant of Yahweh of Isaiah 42: 1-4 and of Isaiah 52: 13-53: 12 has too pronounced individual characteristics, says Delitzsch, to allow it to be taken as a personified collective. “It is therefore an ideal picture of the future—the future Christ.”[31]Ibid. The analogy of the pyramid which Delitzsch used to show the movement of the idea of servant from the nation of Israel to the individual Messiah is still of value to us. This analogy follows:

The idea of Servant of Jehovah, to speak figuratively, is a pyramid. The lowermost base is the whole of Israel; the middle section, Israel not merely after the flesh, but after the Spirit; the summit is the person of the Mediator of salvation arising out of Israel. This Mediator is the centre (1) in the circle of the Kingdom of promise—the second David; (2) in the circle of the people of salvation—the true Israel; (3) in the circle of humanity—the second Adam.[32]Ibid.

C. R. North applies certain theological principles in his identification of the Servant and his interpretation of the Servant as ultimately fulfilled in Christ. He begins with Isaiah 41:8 where the Servant equals Israel. As an individual in the Servant songs the Servant is an anonymous soteriological figure. The songs themselves are anticipated history. The prophet expected the Servant to come, but the songs do not indicate how soon.[33]North, The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah, p. 218. The prophet saw reality in a few brief but vivid flashes. He pictured what he saw, and Jesus recognized what he saw as pointing to himself. We discern divine purpose in this, that Jesus saw his way by the light of Isaiah 53 shed upon his pre­destined path. “May we not, then, believe that in the purpose of God the Servant Songs were primarily intended to afford him guidance?”[34]Ibid. North concludes:

Since there appears to be no intermediate link between the Servant as the Prophet described him, and the Servant as Jesus fulfilled the description—no writer between the Exile and the Advent took up and expanded it, and what fleeting references there are to it show that its true significance was not grasped at all—I find it hard to believe that the Prophet in his moments of deepest insight intended one thing and the Holy Spirit another. Original and Fulfillment join hands across the centuries.[35]Ibid., p. 219.

One of the dominant themes of Isaiah 40-48 is the deliverance and restoration of the exiles. In the historical setting the accounts deal primarily with physical deliverance. Since the New Testament itself interprets many Old Testament passages of this kind as teaching spiritual salvation by analogy, perhaps the principle of analogy is properly applied in presenting a relevant interpretation of the doctrine of salvation in this section of the Book of Isaiah.

The “voice” of Isaiah 40:3 has the function of preparing the way for deliverance through the Servant of Yahweh which is to be accomplished by God’s grace in accordance with his providential purpose. The voice is evidently that of the prophet himself. The analogy in the New Testament is that of the voice of John the Baptist preparing the way for the coming of Jesus who brings salvation by grace in accordance with God’s providential purpose (Cf. Matt. 3:3; Mark 1:3; Luke 3:4). The people of Israel yield themselves to God who is coming to deliver them. God’s glory shall be revealed in such a way that all flesh shall see it together (Isa. 40: 5). Salvation is included in the glory which God reveals. To see God’s glory is to recog­nize God’s presence and activity in the salvation event.

The salvation of Yahweh brings assurance (40:6-8). In contrast with human life that is brief and transitory, God’s word is stable, unchangeable, and will stand forever. The message of salvation is a message of certainty, of courage, and of strength; it is a message of hope for the future (Isa. 40:9-11).

Salvation is an act of grace on God’s part. This is clearly seen in chapters 43 and 44. In 43: 14-21 Israel is about to be delivered from Babylon; the new deliverance will be more wonderful than the deliverance of Israel from Egypt. The prophet himself draws the analogy between the “new thing” of v. 19 (deliverance of the exiles from Babylon) about to be accomplished by the power of God and the “former things” of v. 18 (deliverance of Israel from Egypt) accomplished by the power of God in ancient times.

“The prophet is calling upon Israel to tum from memory to hope, from the epochal events of the past to the even more decisive and redemptive events of the future.”[36]James Muilenburg, The Interpreter’s Bible, V, 495. It is natural for the New Testament and for Christian interpreters to describe salvation through Christ as analogous to the deliverance of the exiles from Babylon. This deliverance from Babylon is not due to any merit on Israel’s part, for Israel has grievously sinned against Yahweh (43:22-24). Salvation is an act of free grace (43:25-28). In the new era other nations will be anxious to join themselves to God’s people (44:1-5).[37]Cf. F. C. Eiselen, Prophecy and the Prophets (New York: Methodist Book Concern, 1909), p. 227. Analogous relations between what the prophet teaches here and Christian salvation seems clear.


The Principle of Analogy

The future glory of Israel is a dominant theme of Isaiah 55-66. Redemption of the enslaved Jews from Babylon has been accomplished. The prophet looks into the future and fore­ tells redeemed Israel moving from rebuke, chastisement, and struggle to triumph after triumph. “Events are moving toward a goal, and Jehovah is bringing to completion the eternal purposes of his grace.”[38]B. A. Copass, Isaiah, Prince of Old Testament Prophets (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1945), p. 139.

By the principle that the Old Testament is fulfilled in the New Testament and the principle of analogy the future glory of Israel is seen in terms of the future aspects and the completion of Christian salvation. The figures, symbols, and imagery of the eschatological passages are to be interpreted as figures, symbols, and imagery; they should not be interpreted as setting forth grotesque realities.

The future glory of Israel is set out in contrast with the anguish of the wicked. The wicked finally will be cast beyond the pale of Yahweh’s mercy. There will be peace for the redeemed; there will be no peace for the wicked (Isa. 57:19-21). A dark picture of human sin is set forth in Isaiah 59: 1-8. Paul makes particular usage of this passage in Romans 3:9-18 where he draws an indictment against Jew and Gentile alike. Isaiah 66:24 is a picture taken from the valley of Hinnom where the dead bodies of the outcasts of Jerusalem were thrown to bum and rot. This is also a realistic description of the future punishment of the wicked in an eternal hell.

People and nations which seek God receive complete redemption at the hand of Yahweh (Isa. 55). In chapter 60 Yahweh the gracious one comes in his resplendent glory as the light of Jerusalem. The spiritual restoration of Israel and the return to its future home mark the inauguration of a new age which is described in glowing and idealistic language. Eiselen has described it as “an age of universal salvation in which all nations share in the blessings that flow from the knowledge of the true God.”[39]Eiselen, pp. 244-45. The completeness of the transformation is indicated in the promise that a new heaven and a new earth will be established (65:17, 18). The new earth which is established is to be shared by all of God’s faithful (60:1-4; 65:9).

God comes in judgment upon his enemies in Jerusalem and at the same times comes to redeem the city and to transform its future (Isa. 66:7-9). The dawn of the new day is likened to a woman giving birth to a child, but the new creation arrives without the warning of the pains of childbirth. The prophet incites his followers to expect an event that to his opponents seems doomed to disappointment, even impossible of happening. But the believer in the biblical hope is open to God’s actions. His faith enables him to live confidently and joyfully, even in times of darkness when the powers of evil have the upper hand. James Smart comments:

Yet this expectation of the seemingly impossible is the faith that removes mountains, and the contrasting attitude issues in a religion that expects nothing from God. The apparently irrational hopes expressed in this eschatological language have to be understood, not as a fixing of a timetable for God’s action, but as the utterances of a faith that is so certain of God’s sovereignty in human affairs that it lives moment by moment in expectation of God’s vindication and fulfillment of his purpose. Modem imitations of prophetic eschatology that operate chiefly with a timetable for God’s actions in the future are not to be confused with biblical eschatology.[40]James D. Smart, History and Theology in Second Isaiah (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965), pp. 289-290.

There is much ambiguity in Isaiah 66:18-25. However the thought seems to be:

God will save a remnant from the Gentiles who shall bring the scattered Jews to Yahweh as their offering. These Gentile missionaries shall be rewarded for their work by being given equal privileges with the Jews as priests and Levites.[41]Clyde T. Francisco, Introducing the Old Testament (Nashville: Broad­man Press, 1945), p. 139.



Old Testament prophecy is interpreted more meaningfully when sound principles are applied. I have sought to show that a basic principle for the interpretation of prophecy is derived from the nature of prophecy. Then, prophecy should be interpreted in the light of the historical situation in which it was first spoken (or written). Allegorical interpretation of prophecy, as well as other parts of the Bible, is largely repudiated today. The New Testament writers interpreted the Old Testament typologically. Many evangelical theologians and Bible scholars since the Reformation have supported typology as a proper approach for a Christian interpretation of the Old Testament. In recent years, however, strictures by Bultmann and others against typology as a proper method of interpreting the Old Testament have precipitated controversy as to the propriety of this method.

In my point of view, possibly the most fruitful approach in the interpretation of prophecy is to view it in the light of the parallels or analogies of prophetic teachings that are seen in the New Testament. Within a framework of salvation history the prophetic teachings are primarily promise, while the analogous teachings of the New Testament are primarily fulfillment. Isaiah 40-66 thus teaches that God in his providence works out his purposes of salvation with and for his people both in history and beyond history. The promises of salvation set forth in this part of Isaiah find their fulfillment and verification in the fuller light of New Testament teachings.


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