Isaiah 6:1-13, continued
In the previous study, we examined verses 1-8 exegetically, deriving the critical analysis through a verse-by-verse study. This week, while continuing through the remaining verses (9-13), we will also take the additional step of considering some of the wider theological issues that arise in the interpretation of this passage, and how it has been applied subsequently by Christians within the context of their own life-setting.
“And He said, ‘Go, and your shall say to this people:
Hearing, you must hear,
and (yet) you shall not discern;
seeing, you must see,
and (yet) you shall not know!
Make fat the heart of this people,
make heavy its ears and smear over its eyes,
so that it should not see with its eyes,
and with its ears hear, and with its heart discern,
and then turn, and there be healing for it!'”
Verses 1-8 establish the setting for Isaiah’s prophetic mission, rooted in an authentic historical (and biographical) tradition, as we discussed last week. In verse 8, Isaiah dramatically volunteers for the mission, to serve as God’s spokesperson (n¹bî°, “prophet”) and deliver His message to the people. Now the nature of this mission (and message) is presented to him, in rather jarring and disturbing terms. There is a stronger poetic character to this portion of the vision, and I have rendered it (loosely) as poetry above.
In verse 9, YHWH gives to Isaiah the message that he is to give to the people. However, this does not represent the content (or words) of the message per se, but rather illustrates the intended effect of his prophetic speaking. It makes use of a peculiar Semitic idiom, in which the verb is doubled for effect, with an infinitive together with an indicative (or imperative) form. Here the syntactical pattern involves an imperative; we can see the dramatic, staccato effect of this syntax, by displaying the Hebrew in transliteration:
In translating this syntax, I find it is easier in English to give the infinitive first: “hearing, you must hear…seeing, you must see…”. The thrust is emphatic—that is, to give special emphasis to the verbal action. Here the sense is perhaps best understood as a prolonging of the effect of Isaiah’s preaching, and/or that the effect will be thorough and complete. In conventional translation, this is commonly rendered, in corresponding English idiom, as “keep on hearing…keep on seeing…”. In general, this is correct. The people will keep hearing Isaiah’s message, and yet will not understand or discern the truth; they will keep seeing the signs around them, and yet will not know or be aware of what is happening (until it is too late).
Even more striking is the way that this is described in verse 10, where YHWH commands the prophet to dull the senses of the people, so that they will not turn and repent. The theological difficulties with this idea were recognized at an early point, as indicating by the softening and rephrasing of the language in the Greek version, changing the infinitives to finite verbs, and making the people the subject of the action (i.e., “the mind of this people was made fat…”); cf. Roberts, p. 90. This will be discussed further below. For the moment, it is necessary to render the Hebrew as literally as possible, as I have done above.
The two-fold image of eyes/ears (seeing/hearing) has been turned into a three-fold image (eyes/ears/heart), folding in the separate idea of discernment/knowledge (= heart) from verse 9. For each sense-faculty, the prophet’s message involves the verbal action of covering it over. The three verbs are all imperatives in the (Hiphil) causative stem, clearly indicating that God, through the prophet, is causing this to happen:
- “make fat” (hašm¢n) the heart, i.e. cover it over with a layer of oil or fat
- “make heavy” (ha½b¢¼) the ears, i.e. weigh them down with a coating or covering
- “smear over” (h¹ša±) the eyes, i.e. with a coating so that the person cannot see clearly
The purpose of this is stated in the second half of verse 10, marked by the adverbial conjunction pen (/P#). Its use negates a situation, often in the sense of something that is to be avoided, removing it from consideration. In English, such phrases are customarily translated as “lest…”, but this wording is rather archaic, and it is probably better to preserve more clearly the negative sense, which I do above (“so that…not…”):
“so that it [i.e. the people] should not see with its eyes,” etc.
What a strange mission for the prophet—to ensure that God’s people do not see or understand the truth! However, YHWH clearly tells Isaiah this is so that the people will not turn and receive healing (“and there will be healing for it”). The verb šû» literally means “turn”, often in the sense of “turn back, return”, used frequently in a moral-religious context, of people “turning back” to God. This wider application, especially when extended to include the idea of eternal salvation, makes the Christian use of vv. 9-10 genuinely problematic (see below). Here it must be understood in the more limited (historical) context of the impending Assyrian invasion(s) of Israel and Judah.
“And I said, ‘Until what (time), my Lord?’ And He said, ‘Until such (time) when cities have crashed (into ruins) with no one sitting [i.e. dwelling] (in them), and houses with no man (in them), and the ground [i.e. land] is left a (complete) devastation—and (until) YHWH (remove)s the men far away, and th(is) abandonment increases in the midst of the land!'”
Understandably disturbed by the mission God has given him, Isaiah wants to know how long (“until what [time]”) his speaking will have this negative effect. YHWH’s response (“until such [time] when…”) could not be more bleak, indicating that the prophet must continue his mission until cites have been destroyed, houses abandoned, and the land throughout has been completely devastated. This properly describes the effect of military conquest, and refers specifically to the invasion of Israel and Judah by the powerful Assyrian Empire (multiple campaigns between 733 and 701 B.C.). The northern Israelite kingdom (centered at Samaria) was conquered by Shalmaneser V in 722, and the southern Judean kingdom was devastated (and very nearly conquered) by Sennacherib some 20 years later. The exile of the people is prophesied in verse 12, emphasizing the extent of it in two ways:
- wideness/distance from the land—i.e. the people being removed far away
- and increase of abandonment within the land—i.e. there will hardly be anyone left in it (v. 11)
Though the Assyrians are the proximate cause of this devastation, it is YHWH who brings it about (and is the ultimate cause), as v. 12 clearly indicates.
“‘And (if) there is yet in it a tenth, it shall even turn (back) and shall be for (the) consuming (of it). Like the elah-tree and like the oak tree, which, in (its) being sent [i.e. cut] (down), (there is a portion) in them (that remains) standing, (and) its (portion that remains) standing (is the) holy seed.'”
The textual difficulties in this concluding verse are considerable, and cannot be dealt with in detail here. Many commentators feel that the text is corrupt, and, if so, it is practically impossible to retrieve/restore the original. The Qumran manuscripts and the versions offer little help, except to confirm the difficulty of the verse. The problems may have arisen from early scribal attempts to cast the verse in a more positive light, emphasizing an ultimate promise of hope in the midst of the devastation that was prophesied. For the purposes of this study, I have worked from the Masoretic text, without emendation.
With regard to the tree-illustration, the key term is maƒƒe»e¾, which refers to something that “remains standing (in place)” (vb n¹ƒa»). The idea is that nearly the entire tree has been “sent (down)”, i.e. cut down, felled; and yet there is the stump, a small portion that remains standing. This portion is called “the holy seed” (the Qumran Isaiah scroll [1QIsaa] includes the definite article), by which is probably meant the basis, or foundation, from which the restoration of the land (and its people) can begin. In the context of the Assyrian invasion of Judah, this may refer specifically to the city of Jerusalem, which survived a siege and was not conquered, while many of the surrounding cities were. To the extent that the Isaian context was applied to the later situation of the Babylonian invasion (and exile), this promise of restoration, centered at Jerusalem, would have taken on special significance, eventually carrying Messianic and eschatological overtones (cf. chapters 2-4, 11-12).
Christian Application of Isa 6:9-13
For many Christians, and readers of the New Testament, verses 9-13 (esp. vv. 9-10) are familiar from their use in the Gospels and by the early Christian missionaries (such as Paul). This provides an interesting example of how Old Testament passages can be taken out of their original context, and applied to a new setting and situation. For commentators who wish to affirm both a single (primarily/original) meaning to the Old Testament prophecies, and the inspiration of the New Testament authors/speakers, it is necessary to posit something like an “inspired application”, which, though secondary, carries its own inspired meaning and truth.
Jesus himself made use of vv. 9-10, citing them, according to the Synoptic tradition, as part of an explanation for why he taught and preached using parables. We tend to think of the parables as illustrations which help the average person to understand what Jesus is saying; however, according to Mark 4:10-12 par, Jesus’ intention is the opposite. He is communicating the “secret” of the Kingdom of God, but this “secret” is being revealed only to his close followers. For others, the truth of the Kingdom remains hidden, and parables serve to conceal the truth from the people at large. It is in this context that Isa 6:9-10 is cited. The Greek wording (in Mark) differs from both the Hebrew MT and the Greek LXX, especially in its use of the verb aphí¢mi (“release, let [go] from”), with its connotation of forgiveness from sin: “…so they should not (at any time) turn back and it be released for them” (the parallel in Matt 13:14-15 is closer to the LXX). If forgiveness from sin is meant here, then it gives to vv. 9-10 an application toward the idea of eternal salvation that is rather troubling, in light of God’s active role (in the original prophetic message) in keeping people from recognizing the truth.
The Gospel of John does seem to take things a step further, in this direction, when the author (and/or his underlying tradition) cites vv. 9-10 in 12:39-41, using the prophecy as a way of explaining why many Jews at the time were not able to trust in Jesus. In the Johannine writings, the verb pisteúœ (“trust”) tends to be used in the specific sense of the trust in Jesus (as the Messiah and Son of God) that marks the true believer, and one who possesses eternal life. Thus, to say that these people were not able to trust means that they were not (and could not be) true believers destined for salvation and eternal life.
In the closing scene in the book of Acts (28:23-28), as Paul speaks with Jews in Rome, he also cites Isa 6:9-10 (vv. 26-27), similarly, as an explanation for why many of these Jews were unable/unwilling to believe (lit. were “without trust”, v. 24f). The closing words in v. 28, pitting the trusting Gentiles against unbelieving Jews, may seem disturbing to our modern-day sensibilities, but they reflect the historical situation faced by Paul and other missionaries at the time. He deals with the Jew/Gentile problem—i.e. why many Gentiles trust in Jesus while many Jews do not—more comprehensively in his letter to the Romans (esp. chapters 9-11).
What is common in all these passages, in relation to Isa 6:9-13, is the idea that God is specifically acting so that many people do not (and cannot) see or recognize the truth. This seems to go squarely against how we tend to think about God—that he wants everyone to understand and accept the truth, and any failure to do so is our responsibility, not God’s. In balancing the sense of the control human beings have over their own destinies, with the extent to which they are controlled by God (or the deities, in a polytheistic setting), the ancient peoples tended to emphasize God’s ultimate (and sovereign) control, whereas modern (Western) society, by contrast, stresses individual human control and responsibility.
Why does God not want His people to see/understand the truth and turn back to Him (in repentance, etc)? To answer this, we must keep close to the original historical context of Isa 6:9-13. Isaiah’s mission in chap. 6ff is to announce the judgment that is coming on the people of Israel and Judah, in the form, primarily, of the Assyrian military invasion(s). If the people realized the nature of this judgment, and its imminence, they might well repent, and this would prompt YHWH to curtail the just punishment that the people deserved for their sins and crimes. Instead, in order for the full punishment to be meted out, and for the judgment to be realized in full, the people are prevented from realizing (or accepting) what is happening to them, until it is too late.
This is comparable in some ways to the hardening of Pharaoh’s heart in the Exodus narratives. By hardening Pharaoh’s heart (Exod 4:21; 7:3; 9:12; 10:1, 20, 27; 11:10; 14:4, 8, 17), God brings about the full punishment upon Egypt, the completion of all the “plagues”, including the last and greatest (death of the firstborn). This, of course, does not remove the guilt or responsibility of Pharaoh—there is a sense in which he hardens his own heart (Exod 8:11, 28; 9:34; cf. also 7:13-14; 8:15; 9:7, 35; Roberts, p. 102 note)—but ultimately it is God (YHWH) who brings this about. The point is that God’s action (here through the prophet Isaiah) allows for the full judgment/punishment of the people to be realized. Only after this punishment has taken effect—through conquest, destruction, and exile—can the restoration of the people occur (v. 13).
References above marked “Roberts” are to J. J. M. Roberts, First Isaiah, Hermeneia Commentary series (Fortress Press: 2015).