Isaiah: Hiddenness

Isaiah and the theme of Hiddenness

In the Book of Isaiah there is a notable theme describing a kind of “hiddenness”, which refers to spiritual blindness and deafness by the people. It is a fascinating theme, and often misunderstood. This is a little journey through the Book of Isaiah tracking on this particular theme.


The Calling of Isaiah

The theme is introduced with the call of Isaiah in chapter 6:

… he said, “Go, and say to this people:

 “‘Keep on hearing, but do not understand;
keep on seeing, but do not perceive.’
Make the heart of this people dull,
and their ears heavy,
and blind their eyes;
lest they see with their eyes,
and hear with their ears,
and understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed.”

Then I said, “How long, O Lord?”
And he said:

“Until cities lie waste
without inhabitant,
and houses without people,
and the land is a desolate waste,
and Yahweh removes people far away,
and the forsaken places are many in the midst of the land.
And though a tenth remain in it,
it will be burned again,
like a terebinth or an oak,
whose stump remains
when it is felled.”

The holy seed is its stump.
Isaiah 6:9-13

This call has an unusual attribute: most other prophets are called for the express purpose of speaking out God’s message to elicit a response by the people,[1] but Isaiah was told that his ministry was to promote hardness of heart amongst God’s people, to prevent them from responding appropriately (6:10).

Why harden people’s hearts?

Any number of commentators have wrestled with the very strange and troubling inference in this call. God is declaring that Isaiah’s ministry will actively prevent individuals from being “healed”.

What the Experts say

Katherine Hayes points out that this judgement oracle, “corresponds to the people’s own dismissal of the teaching and word of [Yahweh] (5:24) and their preference for the wisdom of their own eyes (5:21)”.[2]This is a great observation because it actually locates the beginning of our theme even a little earlier, back in Chapter 5.

Richard Briggs goes through all the various ways in which theologians have wrestled with the difficulty contained in this passage, even noting that the Greek Septuagint translation softened the wording to imply that any hardening of hearts was being done by the people, instead of to them![3]

What the Bible says

But our esteemed theologians are working way too hard! There is an old adage, “Let Scripture interpret Scripture”, which means, if you can explain the meaning of a passage by referring elsewhere in Scripture, do so! Only failing that, or in areas that remain only partially explained, should we necessarily go looking for other sources to make sense of Scripture. In this case we have ample Scripture to help us understand this “hardening” matter, because Paul counsels us simply to accept similar divine hardening of Pharaoh without seeking further explanation:
So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills.
He goes on to show how such hardening of God’s people is being used in God’s plan of salvation through chapters 10 and 11 of Romans. On the specific subject of this “hardening”, he quotes Isaiah, among other OT Scriptures:

What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written,

“God gave them a spirit of stupor,
eyes that would not see
and ears that would not hear,
down to this very day.”

Romans 11:7-8

 

Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers:a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in.

Romans 11:25

We need go no further than Paul’s explanation across the chapters of Romans 9 through Romans 11. He simply states the case that God can and does harden hearts for his own purposes, and that we have no right to question that.

So What did Isaiah actually preach?

God has called Isaiah to preach, and specifies what effect it will have on the people, but the text in Chapter 6 doesn’t tell us what the message is. Turn the page, and Chapter 7 is back to the story!

Very helpfully, Shepphard derives the nature of the message that Isaiah was to preach by studying the way in which it was delivered in the subsequent narrative.[4] He finds that it is spelled out as the message given to Isaiah for Ahaz:

say to [Ahaz], ‘Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah. Because Syria, with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has devised evil against you, saying, “Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabeel as king in the midst of it,” thus says the Lord God:

“‘It shall not stand,
and it shall not come to pass.
For the head of Syria is Damascus,
and the head of Damascus is Rezin.
And within sixty-five years
Ephraim will be shattered from being a people.
And the head of Ephraim is Samaria,
and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah.
If you are not firm in faith,
you will not be firm at all.’”

Isaiah 7:4-9

It was later articulated to Isaiah more fully:

For Yahweh spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying:

“Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy.

Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it.

They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.”

Isaiah 8:11-15

Sheppart finds that the essential feature of the message is, “do not fear” (7:4; 8:12), which is also expressed as, “if you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all” (7:9).

What’s so “hidden” about that?

There is nothing hidden about this message. Isaiah was out there proclaiming it.

Suggestions of hiddenness

Some have suggested that Isaiah wrote it all down and then kept it hidden until the Exile because of the following verses:
Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples. I will wait for Yahweh, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him.

But it cannot be so!

This “binding up” of the warning in 8:16 is not about hiding the warning away “for preservation until a later time” (so Childs),[5] or “for another day” (so Oswalt),[6] because the subsequent general exhortation is to refer “To the teaching and to the testimony!” (8:20). Even here, in verse 16, it is Yahweh who is “hiding his face”, not Isaiah hiding the testimony.

The testimony was to be taught

This passage actually makes it clear that the warning is deposited among the faithful disciples not just for safekeeping, but also for dissemination:

when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living?

To the teaching and to the testimony!

If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn.

Isaiah 8:19-20

It is only hidden because sinfulness prevents the people from receiving it

Again in 30:8 there is another instruction to write down the warning as an “everlasting witness” against those who reject it, again showing that the message is certainly not hidden, even though the people wished that it was (30:10-11). The warning was available to the people throughout the crisis because of Isaiah’s ministry, but because, “the Lord has … sealed your eyes (the prophets) … covered your heads (the seers)” (29:10), the people would “see”, but not “perceive” it (As promised in 6:9).

It was as though a message had been physically sealed to prevent it from being read, or as though everybody was illiterate:

And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.”  And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.”

Isaiah 29:11-12

… but if either of those things had literally been true, the people would have been blameless. As it is, they were found to be insincere in their worship:

And the Lord said:
“Because this people draw near with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
while their hearts are far from me,
and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
14 therefore, behold, I will again
do wonderful things with this people,
with wonder upon wonder;
and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish,
and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.”

– Isaiah 29:13-14

The situation will be reversed

The blindness and deafness of Israel is dramatically reversed in 32:3 and 35:5 as part of the salvation oracles, showing that this sinfulness was the problem all along, not the message having being hidden in any way:

Then the eyes of those who see will not be closed,
and the ears of those who hear will give attention.

– Isaiah 32:3

 

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
and the ears of the deaf unstopped;

– Isaiah 35:5

This Theme in Latter parts of the Book of Isaiah

Global / Universal effect

An additional dimension of the “see and hear” motif is revealed in 30:30:

And the Lord will cause his majestic voice to be heard and the descending blow of his arm to be seen, in furious anger and a flame of devouring fire, with a cloudburst and storm and hailstones.

– Isaiah 30:30

Because, far from being merely a domestic matter between a people and their god, Assyria will eventually “see” Yahweh’s arm[7] and “hear” his voice as he takes vengeance:

The Assyrians will be terror-stricken at the voice of the Lord, when he strikes with his rod. And every stroke of the appointed staff that the Lord lays on them will be to the sound of tambourines and lyres. Battling with brandished arm, he will fight with them. For a burning place has long been prepared; indeed, for the king it is made ready, its pyre made deep and wide, with fire and wood in abundance; the breath of the Lord, like a stream of sulfur, kindles it.

– Isaiah 30:31-33

Lift up your eyes and look

This universal relevance of Yahweh’s judgement and salvation is developed through the latter parts of the book through several refrains, one of which is “lift up your eyes and look”. In 40:26, the phrase introduces Yahweh as the God of all creation; 49:18 reveals the compassionate God gathering the diaspora, and setting up Israel in authority over all the nations; and 60:1-4 (below) reveals Yahweh as the light of the world, shining on Zion before all the nations:

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you.
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth,
and thick darkness the peoples;
but the Lord will arise upon you,
and his glory will be seen upon you.

And nations shall come to your light,

and kings to the brightness of your rising.

Lift up your eyes all around, and see;
they all gather together, they come to you;
your sons shall come from afar,
and your daughters shall be carried on the hip.

Isaiah 60:1-4

Indeed, the final verse of the whole book drags the eyes of the nation back to look upon the terrible fate of those who have opposed Yahweh:

 “And they shall go out and look on the dead bodies of the men who have rebelled against me. For their worm shall not die, their fire shall not be quenched, and they shall be an abhorrence to all flesh.”

Isaiah 66:24

The overall impact in the Book of Isaiah

In this way the visible revelation of Yahweh’s glory before the whole world thematically began as blindness among his own people. The nations eventually gain their salvific benefit, as vassals of the publicly, visibly redeemed Israel:

It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and shall be lifted up above the hills;
and all the nations shall flow to it,
and many peoples shall come, and say:

“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”

For out of Zion shall go the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

Isaiah 2:2-4

… and therefore, what does Isaiah call on Israel to do?

O house of Jacob,
come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord.

– Isaiah 2:5

 

The “hiddenness” concept in the New Testament

The Jew/Gentile Question

In the New Testament, the universal jurisdiction of the Gospel message, expressed in terms of including both Gentile and Jew, is described as a “mystery”:

This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.

– Ephesians 3:6

This mystery is said to have been “hidden” by quoting Isaiah 64:4 for support in the “see”/”hear” motif:

But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written,

“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard,

    nor the heart of man imagined,
what God has prepared for those who love him”

– 1 Corinthians 2:7-9

This “hiddenness” is equivalent to Isaiah’s “hiddenness” because Paul finds the universal Gospel is actually evident in the Old Testament, but was not “seen” until “revealed by the Spirit to God’s holy apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 3:5).

Wasn’t this resolved in Isaiah? Why in the New Testament too?

The New Testament usage of the “hiddenness” idea reveals just one way in which the Book of Isaiah was understood in Jesus’ day.

The Book of Isaiah contains a large number of prophetic predictions which were yet to happen. Because of this, it was already understood that the Day of the Lord would be a future day, and that those promises would be fulfilled at that time. In the interim, many of the themes of Isaiah remained in place, in their understanding.

Even more prominent than the unfulfilled prophecies, was the fact that the people were still in a form of Exile because the Greco-Roman Empire had subjugated them. This situation was a daily reminder that Yahweh was still refining and disciplining them, or alternatively, still punishing them. It motivated the zealots and Essenes, and the Scribes and the Pharisees to pursue the kind of obedience to the Law that God had always sought. And it meant that these religious men were anticipating one or more figures to emerge, in fulfilment of the “Servant” passages in Isaiah 40-66. Little did they know that Jesus would fulfil all of them at once!

But that’s a topic for another Blog Post.

A couple of important lessons from the “hiddenness” theme:

What can we take from all this, as a useful lesson for today? I have two suggestions:

1. The Testimony of Warning

The church still has the “testimony of warning”, which is that “if you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all” (7:9).

This is timeless advice for dark times, when the temporal situation for the church appears bleak. We look to the day when the Church will be vindicated: every knee will bow, and every tongue will acknowledge Yahweh’s glory (Isa 45:23, Rom 14:11, Phil 2:10-11), so even when it seems hopeless we remain assured: “your God will come … he will come to save” (35:4).

This profound conviction has ensured the survival of the faith, even in the face of brutal persecution, throughout the history of the church.

2. A test of good teaching

Good and faithful spiritual leaders will unceasingly proclaim the Isaiah 7:9 warning, “if you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all”, in personal dark times. Because if anyone teaches otherwise, “they have no light of dawn” (8:20).

A faithful teacher’s ministry will encourage “repentance and rest” (30:15), with respect to Salvation, and “quietness and trust” (30:15) with respect to strength. This will carry the believer through their tribulations until it can be said to them, “arise, shine, for your light has come” (60:1).

This kind of patient faith is what the Bible commends,[8] not seeking to short-circuit the maturing process through self-help resources, which promise “steps” to a “solution”. In many cases, the solution is to “wait for Yahweh … put [one’s] trust in him” (8:17).

The Conclusion of the Matter

Over to you, Boss:

This is why I speak to them in parables, because seeing they do not see, and hearing they do not hear, nor do they understand. Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:

“’You will indeed hear but never understand,
    and you will indeed see but never perceive.

For this people’s heart has grown dull,
    and with their ears they can barely hear,
    and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
    and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
    and turn, and I would heal them.’

But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”

Matthew 13:13-17

Amen.


[1] For a selection: Jer 1:17, Ezek 2:4-5, Jonah 1:2, Exodus 3:16-17, Micah 1:2, Zech 1:3

[2] Katherine M. Hayes, “”A Spirit of Deep Sleep”: Divinely Induced Delusion and Wisdom in Isaiah 1-39,” (Catholic Biblical Association of America, 2012), 44.

[3] Richard Briggs, The Virtuous Reader : Old Testament Narrative and Interpretive Virtue (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2010), pp175-80.

[4] Roy F. Melugin, Marvin A. Sweeney, and Literature Formation of the Book of Isaiah Seminar of the Society of Biblical, “New Visions of Isaiah” (Sheffield, England, 1996), 271.

[5] Brevard S. Childs, Isaiah : [a Commentary] (Louisville, Ky. [u.a.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 76.

[6] John Oswalt, Isaiah : The Niv Application Commentary : From Biblical Text- to Contemporary Life (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 2003), 169.

[7] A motif representing Yahweh’s actions in judgement and salvation: 30:32, 51:5, 51:9, 52:10, 53:1, 59:1, 63:12

[8] Cf. Ps 37:7; 40:1; Hab 3:16; Rom 8:24-25; Heb 6:15, Jas 5:7, Rev 3:10

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