Isaiah 7 & 53: should prophecies be prooftexts?

weigleMy great-grandfather Luther Weigle [pictured here] was the dean of Yale Divinity School and chair of the translation committee for the original RSV Bible. He incurred the fury of the fundamentalists when he chose to translate the Hebrew word almah in Isaiah 7:14 as “young woman” instead of “virgin.” They actually burned RSV Bibles and sent the ashes to him in the mail. The reason? Isaiah 7:14 is referenced by Matthew’s gospel as an explanation for Jesus’ virgin birth. But Isaiah 7:14 also refers to the “young woman” who was Isaiah’s prophetess wife and definitely not a virgin. In Isaiah 7 and 8, she bore Isaiah two children with prophetic names related to their immediate historical context. Does the doctrine of Christ’s virgin birth depend on translating almah as “virgin” in Isaiah 7:14? Only if Isaiah 7:14 is expected to function as a prooftext for that doctrine, which raises a larger question: to what degree should Old Testament prophecy be used as prooftexts? And if Isaiah 7 is allowed to have less than a perfectly mapped correspondence to the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, then can we apply the same hermeneutical boundaries to the relationship between Isaiah 53 and the circumstances of Jesus’ death on the cross?

For champions of the divine wrath satisfaction account of atonement (which I’m distinguishing from penal substitution), Isaiah 53 is one of the most important chapters in the Bible. Without it, they really don’t have any explicit proof-texts to fall on. Romans 5:8-9 may look promising, except that it says we are “saved from the wrath” not by the “blood” of Jesus but by his “life,” which makes it hard to cite it as proof that the cross itself is God’s anger management system.

But Isaiah 53:10 says, “It was the will of The Lord to crush him and cause him to suffer.” The wrath-lovers always pull out Isaiah 53:10 as their trump card in theological debates about the nature of the cross’s atonement. There are other verses from Isaiah 53 that follow the logic of penal substitution, but Isaiah 53:10 is is the only verse that I know of in the Bible that explicitly makes the Father the direct agent of Christ’s suffering on the cross if… Isaiah 53:10 is unequivocally talking about Jesus. Could it be the case that just as Isaiah 7 is a prophecy about Isaiah’s son Immanuel who foreshadowed the birth of Christ, Isaiah 53 is a prophecy about the suffering of the whole people of Israel in exile (or perhaps even some unknown individual whose suffering the prophet witnessed) which foreshadowed the cross of Christ?

If all of Isaiah 7’s prophecy about Immanuel were presumed to map directly onto elements of Jesus’ birth just because Matthew references part of it, then what would we do with verses 16-17:

Before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.The Lord will bring on you and on your people and on the house of your father a time unlike any since Ephraim broke away from Judah—he will bring the king of Assyria.

Clearly it’s absurd to apply these verses to Jesus’ childhood. Nobody is speculating which two puppet kings in the region of 1st century Palestine will be laid to waste. And the Assyrian Empire had long since disappeared from the scene after being stomped out by the Babylonians, Persians, Macedonians, and Romans. The boundaries to how tightly we connect the prophecy of Isaiah 7 to Jesus’ birth are set by the way that the New Testament authors use the prophecy. It is only referenced in Matthew 1:22-23 when Gabriel appears to Joseph in a dream:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:“The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”(which means “God with us”).

Jesus doesn’t even get named Immanuel. There is no other reference to this name or this prophecy in the New Testament. But the meaning of the name still colors how we understand his identity. Unlike Isaiah’s son Immanuel, Jesus was quite literally “God with us.” So Isaiah 7 does have a crucial role in Christology but only within the boundaries set by its one New Testament reference.

There are six New Testament references to Isaiah 53, none of which make any mention of verse 10. I have listed the references below with my commentary.

1) Isaiah 53:1: “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”

This verse is cited by John 12:37-38 and Romans 10:16 as a prophetic basis for why Jesus’ people refused to believe in him.

2) Isaiah 53:4: “Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases.”

Matthew 8:17 says that Jesus’ healing ministry fulfills this verse, which completely changes its meaning from the original context. The second half of the verse says, “Yet we accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.” In the original context, the person being talked about is physically ill and presumed to be under God’s wrathful punishment by a pre-scientific people. In the application of the verse, Jesus doesn’t catch diseases like leprosy; he heals leprosy.

3) Isaiah 53:5-6: “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have all turned to our own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.”

Here’s what 1 Peter 2:24-25 does with these verses: “’He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed.’ For ‘you were like sheep going astray,’ but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Notice what is not there. There is no reference to any cathartic need of God’s being fulfilled by the cross. Jesus bears our sins so that we will “die to sins and live for righteousness.” It is for the sake of our empowerment and transformation.

4) Isaiah 53:7-8: “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth.By a perversion of justice he was taken away. Who could have imagined his future? For he was cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.”

The Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:32-33 is reading these verses when Philip explains their connection to “the good news about Jesus.” No details are given to us in terms of Philip’s interpretation other than the mere fact that he connects the passage to Jesus.

5) Isaiah 53:9: “They made his grave with the wicked and his tomb with the rich,although he had done no violence, and there was no deceit in his mouth.”

Peter uses this verse in 1 Peter 2:22 in the context of an exhortation to slaves not to give their masters any legitimate reason to beat them. The slaves should be without violence and deceit just like Jesus was.

6) Isaiah 53:12: “Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he poured out himself to death, and was numbered with the transgressors; yet he bore the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors.”

Jesus refers back to this verse in Luke 22:37 as an explanation for why he told his disciples to get swords. It’s not because he actually wants them to resist violently; it’s so that they will look like outlaws and he can thus be “numbered with the transgressors.

Conclusion: Out of these six references to Isaiah 53, only one, Peter 2:24-25, uses it directly to talk about atonement (though I suppose you could argue that 1 Peter 2:22 uses Jesus’ cross as a moral exemplar but it’s not really atonement per se). What Jesus’ atonement does in 1 Peter 2:24-25 is to empower sinners to “die to sins and live to righteousness,” which has nothing to do with satisfying God’s wrath.

Furthermore, some verses in Isaiah 53 do not map well at all onto Jesus’ story. He didn’t carry diseases in his body that made people looking at him think he was stricken by God (v. 4). That’s why Matthew 8:17 has to completely change the meaning of that verse in its reference. Neither is it really accurate to say about Jesus that “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (v. 2). People didn’t blow Jesus off. He drew crowds. Everywhere. Everyone wanted to be with him. He had to sit on Simon Peter’s boat to teach that he wouldn’t get crushed by them. So not everything in Isaiah 53 can be taken as a face value description of Jesus.

Clearly, Isaiah 53 has a stronger connection to Jesus than Isaiah 7. But none of the New Testament authors claim that the purpose of Jesus’ cross was to provide the Father with someone to crush and make suffer. That’s why I don’t think Isaiah 53:10 can perform the tremendously heavy lifting that the wrath-satisfaction enthusiasts require of it.

Furthermore even if Isaiah 53:10 is applied to the cross, to say, “It was the will of the Lord to crush him and cause him to suffer,” doesn’t make the Father Jesus’ wrathful executioner any more than the role of the Israelite exile in God’s plan means that God incarnated Himself as the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar and personally led the forces who burned His beloved Jerusalem to the ground.

Jesus’ suffering on the cross was indeed part of God’s will, but in order to rescue humanity, not because God had any need for emotional catharsis that required it. The cross is certainly a form of punishment. But it’s important that the punishment was administered by the Roman state, and that it was an unjust punishment eagerly endorsed by a crowd of Jesus’ own people. If Jesus’ cross is merely an abstract mathematical tool for accomplishing God’s justice, that minimizes the injustice and betrayal that compelled 3000 Jews to get baptized in his name when they were cut to the heart in Acts 2:37 after Peter said, “God has made him both savior and Lord, this Jesus whom you crucified” (v. 36).

Insofar as we speak of the cross juridically, which is one of the many metaphors with which we can speak of it, its relevance is to provide humanity with the safe means of escaping the ancient curse of Adam’s fall, the delusion that we are able and are supposed to justify ourselves (Romans 3:20). The cross makes it possible for us to accept God’s unilateral amnesty by proclaiming us guilty first since we are part of the same eternal mass of humanity that murdered the Word of God made flesh. We wouldn’t have done any differently if we were physically part of the first century crowd that yelled “Crucify him!” and we commit sins every day that participate in Christ’s eternal crucifixion.

Peter’s words in Acts 2:36 apply to us even today because the cross is all of humanity’s crime against God, which God not only overrules through Jesus’ resurrection but paradoxically reappropriates to become our jailbreak from slavery to the eternal accuser Satan. To say that Jesus was “crushed” (Isaiah 53:10) really doesn’t fit Jesus’ death any more than the ugliness or disease (Isaiah 53:2 and 4) fits Jesus’ life. Even so, it was of course part of God’s plan for Jesus to get crucified. But it wasn’t God who crucified Him. We did. And God turned the ugliness of our sin into the beauty of His redemption.

28 thoughts on “Isaiah 7 & 53: should prophecies be prooftexts?

  1. So what happened to those families that did not care about the Lamb-sacrifice in Exodus? The killer-Angel took their first born. And what happens to the persons that do not care about the final Lamb of God, Jesus? They will be lost, cut away from the presence of God. That is a really extremely bad situation and in the bible illustrated as a lake of fire, the second death. Not originally prepared for humans, but for the fallen angels. This is the clear message of the Bible. Rejoice, because He was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.

  2. There is a really interesting hermeneutical point at stake here: we need to read the OT in the way the NT reads the OT (or something like that)…

    I think it interesting that the NT never reads Joshua allegorically…

        • There is very little about Joshua in either of those texts. It’s mostly about the other stories from Israel’s past. I have not encountered allegorical readings of Joshua. What exactly so you mean by that? One of the awkward realities that archaeology has shown is that Jericho was in ruins and uninhabited for hundreds of years before the reign of Rameses II in Egypt which is how the Exodus is usually dated.

          • I give a fascinating example of that in my blog post. But it is also present in the UK in the charismatic churches quite widely—Joshua is a type of Christ, and we should read the conquest allegorically as about our spiritual conquest. “Now is the time for us to march upon the land/into our hands he will give the ground we claim.’

            I don’t go with the archaeological argument. In fact, the ruins of Jericho are so corroded that there is no evidence one way or another.

          • Throughout Christian history, the Old Testament has been read allegorically through a Christological lens. I don’t see any reason to denigrate an allegorical reading regardless of what the historical reality is. Remember that Paul says in 2 Timothy 3:16 the point of scripture is to teach, reprove, and train in discipleship, not to be a science or history textbook. What’s relevant is how God breathes through the text to show me how to be a disciple.

          • For sure…but my blog is arguing against allegorical reading on similar grounds to your argument here, in terms of hermeneutical integrity. Do have a look.

          • Commented on your post. Thanks for sharing. I agree that we need to start with exegesis, taking the text as it’s presented.

  3. Yes indeed, Isaiah 53 talks about the the Lamb of God, Christ Jesus. The text talks about Jesus after he was taken prisoner. He was crushed badly, but his bones not broken. He was beaten until He was unrecognizable. Then, in that moment, people dispiced Him and thought He was full of ugliness or disease. And it all was for OUR salvation.

    Hebrew chapter 9:
    But Christ came as High Priest of the good things to come, with the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation. 12 Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. 13 For if the blood of bulls and goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctifies for the purifying of the flesh, 14 how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God? 15 And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance.

    • Without shedding of blood there is no remission:

      19 For when Moses had spoken every precept to all the people according to the law, he took the blood of calves and goats, with water, scarlet wool, and hyssop, and sprinkled both the book itself and all the people, 20 saying, “This is the blood of the covenant which God has commanded you.”[b] 21 Then likewise he sprinkled with blood both the tabernacle and all the vessels of the ministry. 22 And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission.

      Jesus was the final sacrifice. The Lamb of God.

      • Right before that it says according to the law almost all things are *purified* by blood. That doesn’t give much support to a wrath satisfaction account of sacrifice. So I’m afraid your prooftext backfired.

  4. God wanted to give a special SIGN. What special sign is it when a young girl gets pregnant??? That happens all the time. But when a VIRGIN gets pregant without knowledge of man, thats a miracle, THAT IS A S_I_G_N. The word of God is so simple, just to make the WISE so stupid, because they really not believed HIS word.

    • Isaiah’s prophetess wife who bore him a son Immanuel was not a virgin. There’s no claim in Isaiah 7 that the Holy Spirit would conceive the child. The Hebrew word almah refers to her age and phase in life, not the question of her sexual activity.

      Isaiah’s prophecy both applies to a child named Immanuel born to his not-virgin wife in the 700’s BC and to the child who was born to a virgin in Bethlehem 700 years later. Jesus would have been born of a virgin whether or not Isaiah 7 existed because he could not have two human parents since he was both fully human and fully divine.

      • So the author of the gospel according to Matthew did not know what he was writing about? What more is wrong in the Matthew gospel? Brothers, the word of God is inspired by the holy Spirit and the plain TRUTH. Do not try to be wiser than God himself.

        • I’m not trying to be wiser than anybody. I’m interested in reading the Bible the way that 2 Tim 3:16 says to, which is not as a flat, 1 dimensional set of propositions without context. Thank you for visiting.

          • It’s one thing to believe that the Scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit, and something entirely different to believe that a translation of those Scriptures, whether it be KJV, NIV, or whatever, is inspired by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it is important to study and understand the politics behind what writings were included in the Bible and their translations. Further, it is important to understand the historical context of what was originally written. Moreover, each person holds their own understanding (or personal translation) of what they read. No wonder there are a lot of different views. It’s good to read different views, and it’s ok to come to your own conclusion. Shek1na, what may seem to be plan truth to you, may not be plain truth to someone else, and no one is trying to be wiser than God by discerning the Scriptures. And, doesn’t God reveal new truths? Jesus seemed to think ‘yes’ to that question in John 16:12.

            Morgan, thanks for an insightful post and giving me things to think about.

  5. George MacDonald quoted an atheist in one of his sermons as saying
    “The visiting on Adam’s descendants through hundreds of generations dreadful penalties for a small transgression which they themselves did not commit; the damning of all men who do not avail themselves of an alleged mode of forgiveness, which most men have never heard of; and the effecting a reconciliation by sacrificing a son who was perfectly innocent, to satisfy the assumed necessity for a propitiatory victim; are modes of action which, ascribed to a human ruler, would call forth expressions of abhorrence; and the ascription of them to the Ultimate Cause of things, even now felt to be full of difficulties, must now become impossible.”

    MacDonald responds by saying “I do not quote this passage in order to oppose it, for notwithstanding that its author is Christian, I entirely agree with it…..I would sooner join the ranks of those who “know nothing” and thus weigh my heart down with hopelessness, than I would believe a single point of this low so-called Christian theology.

    Reading this was an eye-opening experience, I had never thought about the version of the atonement that was taught in my evangelical church and I had never heard it so completely summed up…but I knew at that point that I simply could not believe such a thing. It was like having cold water thrown in my face. I was shocked that I had ever thought I did believe anything like this cruel story and somehow attribute it to God. This little passage set me on a path of dismantling my beliefs and questioning all my own assumptions.

      • It is from one of his sermons. The book I have is called “Knowing the Heart of God: Where Obedience is the one path towards God.” Or something very similar. I have some other books with full sermons, but this book has selections. (I think if you type that into amazon or google you should be able to find it.) That particular quote is from the first selection in the book.

  6. My study bible agrees with you:

    Isa7:14 // The identification of the child has been the subject of much discussion, but the great majority of modern interpreters consider that the sign given by the prophet had to be a near event [acontecimiento cercano]. Otherwise, Ahaz would not have received the sign as proof that the kings of Damascus and Samaria would fail in taking the throne away from David’s descendant. Thus, the mother of the child had to be known to Ahaz, being perhaps his very own wife.

    [Translated from my Catholic Study Bible]

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