Advent is upon us, and as God’s good timing would have it, I spent all Tuesday last week reading and many hours throughout the week discussing Isaiah with students.
Often spoken of as a ‘fifth gospel’, the book of Isaiah is a feast for Old Testament Jesus-watchers. That’s helped by Handel, whose Messiah teaches us to hear the prophet as evangelist. And we are right so to do.
As long as we’re patient.
In Advent, we sing of the ‘long expected Jesus’. To hear Israel’s Scriptures faithfully is to hear in them the slow, painful, hopeful building of expectation. It is to hear a people fumbling toward a future usually only hinted at, but occasionally emerging from the fog in visions as brilliant as they are evanescent.
To jump to Jesus to quickly in reading the Old Testament is to miss the Old Testament and, ironically, to miss Jesus himself. To appreciate a promise fulfillment we must enter into the long years during which it remained unfulfilled.
How, then, do we read Isaiah? Well, we can start by listening to Isaiah on its own terms, with its own local concerns, questions and answers – and by resisting the temptation to say ‘Jesus’ at every turn.
It pays off, by the way. Take Isaiah 46. The chapter begins with a lampoon of Babylon’s gods.
‘Bel bows down; Nebo stoops;
their idols are on beasts and livestock;
these things you carry are borne
as burdens on weary beasts.
They stoop; they bow down together;
they cannot save the burden,
but themselves go into captivity.’ (46.1-2)
The gods of Babylon can do nothing but be carried by dusty donkeys. Contrast them with the God of Israel, who address his people in the following verses:
‘Listen to me, O house of Jacob,
all the remnant of the house of Israel,
who have been borne by me from before your birth,
carried from the womb;
even to your old age I am he,
and to gray hairs I will carry you.
I have made, and I will bear;
I will carry and will save.’ (46.3-4)
Bel and Nebo are carried. The LORD carries. He carried like a mother in the womb, bore his son Israel and will continue to bear him into old age.
Now flip over a few pages to Isaiah 53. Isaiah is speaking of the servant, an enigmatic figure we meet in chapter 41 who is the subject of the second half of Isaiah. (Try a slow read-through of Isaiah 40-66, answering the question, ‘Who is the servant?’) Here’s what Isaiah says of the servant:
‘Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned every one to his own way;
and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ (53.4-6)
Now, only God carries. Only he bears. Isaiah is a grand vindication of God’s glory, constantly bearing witness to the God who is unlike any other, who will share his glory with no one (e.g., 42.8). And yet, he will share his glory with his servant (see 52.13). What’s more, the servant does what we thought only God could do – he carries the people of God.
Okay, now it’s okay to say it – Jesus.