Isaiah

“They Will Come and See My Glory”: An Exegesis of Isaiah 66:18-24

Note: I originally penned this piece for my theological studies at Ridley College. It is a short, exegetical essay on Isaiah’s ultimate passage, Isa 66:18-24. I also don’t mind saying that I did pretty well on it! The essay certainly isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but for the exegetically-minded, it may well provide some food for thought. 

Introduction

The book of Isaiah contains some of the loftiest language in all Scripture, its pages replete with remarkable visions of divine majesty. Isaiah 66:18-24 is no different: there, the prophet’s audience is treated to an eschatological vista, as the nations stream into a restored Jerusalem to worship the one, true God. The revelation of Yahweh’s glory, the universal reach of his salvation, the triumph over idolatry and false worship, and the final distribution of rewards and punishments – these and other Isaianic themes are dramatically drawn together in 66:18-24, which sets them within an ultimate frame of reference.[1]

Such will form the backdrop for my examination of 66:18-24, as I argue that it provides a fitting coda to Isaiah. Indeed, its structurally significant position at the close of the Isaianic corpus is manifested in the multifarious connections it bears with the rest of the book. Depicting God’s universal revelation within a renewed creation, the passage reflects an eschatological longing[2] that also resolves the book’s basic tension between judgment and salvation. Finally, I’ll briefly sketch some of the text’s important hermeneutical points, showing that whilst salvation is offered to all, persistent rebellion exacts a sure and terrible price.

Contextualizing Isaiah 66:18-24

Questions concerning the context of Isaiah 66:18-24 – both historical and literary – have yielded multiple positions. Scholars have made numerous, sometimes speculative, suggestions regarding the passage’s historical background,[3] with many thinking it dimly reflects a post-exilic setting.[4] Gardener, for example, argues the international convocation and dispersal of emissaries (vv.18-19) suggests just such a period, when Jerusalem was still populated by foreigners. Though not unreasonable, one should be cautious about reducing the elements of the passage to “mundane” occurrences.[5] Trying to “establish an absolute dating” for the text is fraught with difficulties, given it lacks the expected historical anchors tying it to a particular period.[6] Ultimately, 66:18-24 is “eschatologically oriented” – inviting the audience to cast its collective vision forward to an as-yet unrealized era of creational and corporate renewal.[7] Not that the passage is completely severed from the general historical process (e.g., 66:20; cf. 64:10-11; 65:18-19); however, it does suggest a period that exceeds the limits of purely historical or temporized events.[8]

The literary context of Isaiah 66:18-24 can be discerned with greater confidence, for it bears multiple, overlapping links with the surrounding textual neighbourhood. Although the text constitutes a distinct unit, a clear connection exists between it and the preceding passage: a universal missionary effort succeeds universal judgment (vv.15-17), even as the consequences for the rebellious are severely felt (vv.16,24).[9] Concluding ongoing tensions between Yahweh’s servants and the apostates (cf. 65:13-15), 66:18-24 envisions the finality of deliverance and reprobation – part of a broader relationship between Isaiah 65-66.[10] Moving further afield, 66:18-24 picks up several prophetic threads in Trito-Isaiah,[11] (e.g., the interchange between judgment and salvation,[12] the inclusion of Gentiles into the redeemed community [56:1-8; cf. 66:18-21]). Indeed, commentators have noted numerous verbal links between the prophet’s final vision and the rest of Trito-Isaiah – particularly 56:1-8, with which 66:18-24 constitutes an inclusio around the book’s last major division.[13] Finally, the text constitutes a counterpoint to the opening indictment of Isaiah 1 in another inclusio, framing the book with contrasting pictures of false and true worship.[14] I shall explore these points further as I proceed.

Exegeting Isaiah 66:18-24

Isaiah 66:18-24 can be divided further into two sub-sections: vv.18-21, in which Yahweh draws together people from all nations, Jew and Gentile; and the resulting convocation of vv.22ff, where the pilgrims engage in ceaseless worship of the one, true God.

Much of the passage is rather elliptical, making interpretation difficult. Those challenges begin with v.18, which apparently details God’s response to the iniquity of the irreligious.[15] We may draw some tentative conclusions, however. The most likely antecedent of “they” (v.18a) are the rebellious of vv.16b-17, who exposed their obstinacy through corrupt and idolatrous worship[16] (cf. 57:12; 59:6-7; 65:2).[17] Their iniquitous actions somehow “trigger” Yahweh’s decision to call people from the nations – i.e, a foil for his determination to unveil his glory (v.19).[18] Verse 18b is the first of several references that give 66:18-24 a decidedly universalistic hue, thus taking up themes broached earlier in Trito-Isaiah (e.g., 56:1-8) and Isaiah 40-55 (45:22-25).[19] The consequent international assembly will “see” God’s “glory” (thrice-underscored in vv.18-19; cf. 42:8), which in context could refer to the revelation of his unique splendour, associated with his status as the world’s only Lord.[20]

In concert with this great ingathering, Yahweh will establish a “sign” among “them” (v.19a). Some argue that where v.18 summarises God’s plan in this passage, vv.19-21 detail its unfurling.[21] However, the construction of v.19 suggests a sequential relationship with the previous verse (otherwise, “them” in v.19a lacks context). Identifying the sign has also generated debate, given its ambiguity (cf. 11:10-11). A number of suggestions have been made: e.g., the restoration of Jerusalem (cf. 62:1-2,11-12), or the sending of the emissaries themselves (v.19b).[22] The first option ties 66:18-24 to earlier portions of Trito-Isaiah, but lacks positive warrant from within the passage; the second alternative also seems unlikely, for the act of disseminating heralds appears to be distinct from the sign itself. It’s entirely possible the author has been deliberately non-specific, in keeping with the eschatological, visionary complexion of the passage.[23]

“Survivors” will be sent to declare Yahweh’s glorious fame (v.19b). The term evokes images of people enduring a great catastrophe; some commentators reason that this reference ultimately finds inspiration in the experiences of post-exilic Jews.[24] This cannot be ruled out, although like the rest of 66:18-24, v.19 lacks historical markers. Again, it’s perhaps best to interpret this clause in association with vv.15-17, where Yahweh poured out his fury upon “all flesh”. If vv.18-24 follows in sequence, then the “survivors” are probably those who underwent the universal execution of Yahweh’s judgment. A related issue is whether the survivors-cum-heralds are Jews or Gentiles. Some argue for the former position, given earlier references to survivors from the Judahite community (4:2).[25] But the natural antecedent of “those who survive” are the members of the international gathering (v.18b) – i.e., non-Jews who endured the conflagration of vv.15-17 (cf. 45:20)[26] – obviating the need to look beyond the passage’s literary environs to determine their identity. Of course, this raises the question: if the envoys are Gentiles, how should they be distinguished from those foreigners who have not heard of Yahweh’s “fame” (v.19b)? The most reasonable interpretive course is to argue that the distinction is based on proximity to Jerusalem.[27] Those from Israel’s near-neighbours – who would themselves be adherents of Yahwism – will travel to the farthest reaches of the earth (cf. the impressionistic list of countries in v.19b) to announce Yahweh’s splendour.[28]

Verse 20 sees those from the far-flung nations convey “[your] brothers” to the holy mountain in a restored Jerusalem (see 64:10-11; 65:18-19; cf. 1:26-27; 36:1-37:37).[29] This image shouldn’t be taken too literally – as if so many millions could fit into such a small parcel of land – and is more intelligible on a visionary interpretation.[30] Jerusalem’s presence here coheres with the Isaianic commitment to the city as the centre from which Yahweh’s glory will be revealed.[31] Similarly, “holy mountain” features in other texts envisioning eschatological renewal (2:2-4; 65:25c; cf. 56:7).[32] Its present inclusion offers an implicit contrast with 65:11, which has the disobedient abandoning God’s sacred mountain. Here, however, his servants venture towards it. Some argue that “your brothers” are ingrafted Yahweh-fearers from among the Gentiles.[33] But v.20 seems to distinguish between this group, and those who ferry them. If indeed both cohorts are composed of non-Jews, we may ask what differentiates them – i.e., why only one group is explicitly said to enjoy fraternal standing with God’s covenant people (“your”). Conversely, understanding the term as referring to Jews comports with passages alluding to the hope that Abraham’s scattered descendants will be re-gathered (11:11-12; 49:8-12).[34]

Gentiles will therefore transport members of the diaspora on a variety of vehicles and domesticated animals – an image evoking urgency and alacrity, as this great multitude descends on Jerusalem. Their actions are compared with the “pure” offerings of Jews before Yahweh (v.20b), which suggests acceptable worship and thanksgiving.[35] This represents a “striking reversal of” attitudes concerning “unclean” foreigners.[36] Remarkably, these same Gentiles will even be elected to cultic office as priests and Levites (“some of them” – v.21). Although some exegetes contend that the verse refers to diaspora Jews,[37] such a claim is unlikely: to say that would hardly be remarkable, and indeed, rather anti-climactic.[38] Verse 21 not only corresponds to, but also “escalates”, the vision of 56:1-8, where foreigners were permitted to enter the sanctuary.[39] Further emphasising the text’s universalism, 66:21 affirms the role of Gentiles as ministers and facilitators of pure worship in the New Jerusalem, further dismantling distinctions between Jew and non-Jew in the redeemed community (cf. 56:8).[40]

Verses 22-23 unveil the final goal of this multi-national congress: worship of Yahweh as the world’s true sovereign, set within a renewed creation. Together with vv.18-21, these verses counterpose the perversity of religious formalism in the physical Jerusalem (Isa 1:1ff) – part of that wider inclusio at work in Isaiah[41] – by envisioning true worship in a New Jerusalem. They also constitute a capstone to the book’s polemic against idolatry, supplanting false worship with global recognition of Yahweh (“all flesh”; cf. Isa 40-48 and Yahweh’s cosmic “lawsuit” against idols).[42] The term, “New heavens and new earth” corresponds closely to 65:17-25;[43] although some contend that it’s merely a poetic description of the new order or restored city (65:17ff),[44] the language evokes the totality of creation (Gen 1:1). In addition, the verb “make” may well correspond to the thought behind a text like Genesis 2:4, whilst 65:17-25 contains its own references (long life, the fruitfulness of toil and child-bearing) which represent an undoing of the primordial curse (cf. Gen 3:15-19).[45] The new creation’s endurance – free from death and despoliation – is analogous to the persistence of Yahweh’s servants, who will enjoy permanence of posterity (cf. 56:5).[46] This may ultimately reflect the incipient universalism in Abraham’s originating call (“seed”; cf. Gen 12:1-3).[47]

Jewish and Gentile pilgrims will engage in purified worship of the one, true God (v.23b: “…bow down before me…”).[48] The clause, “From one New Moon…” implies that it will also be perpetual (v.23a).[49] We may discern another contrastive link – anchored in the dual references to Sabbaths and New Moon festivals – between this uncorrupted activity and the religious formalism within the Judahite community (1:13ff).[50] The faithful worshipers are, of course, sharply distinguished from the corpses of the rebellious, which lie outside the city walls (v.24).[51] The Isaianic interchange of salvation and judgment thus reaches a climax in the final consignment of the obedient and the obstinate. Yahweh’s servants will exit Jerusalem to “observe the grim fate” of those who stubbornly persisted in their rebellion. Verse 24 implies that the corpses are exposed (hence, the worshipers being able to view them). Their lack of proper burial is a fitting testimony to their own shamefulness: indeed, such a state represented the ultimate indignity for a Jew.[52] The makeshift graveyard may have been inspired by the Hinnom Valley, located just south of Jerusalem; as a place of child sacrifice in OT times, it would have supplied a suitably gruesome image for the appalling destiny of the wicked.[53] That the author speaks of “their worm” and “their fire” only serves to underscore the responsibility the unrighteous have for their own judgment, which here continues into the eschaton.[54] Less clear is whether this can be taken as a picture of conscious, post-mortem anguish (as per later depictions of Hell). The punishment seems permanent, but the clear reference to “dead bodies” indicates literal death. Meanwhile, “worm” and “fire” signal the permanent state of dissolution and judgment, respectively (cf. 1:31)[55] – a terrible fate, and a sobering reminder of rebellion’s consequences.[56]

Conclusion

Isaiah 66:18-24 concludes the overarching trajectory of the book, weaving many of its themes together in a most astounding eschatological vision.[57] It remains now to uncover some of the passage’s primary hermeneutical implications. The passage’s deep-rooted universalism immediately springs to mind, which is of a piece with the NT’s insistence that the message of salvation through Christ is, in principle, for all (John 12:32). God’s children are so, not because of ethnic lineage, but because they are born of him (John 1:13; Acts 8:26-38). A narrow, ethno-centric cast of mind may have been scandalized by such texts. But the church is also guilty of trying to restrict the gospel’s reach, often on the basis of cultural and social mores masquerading as the fundamentals of orthodoxy. Isaiah 66:18-24 reminds us that the gospel stands as God’s promise to welcome “[every]one who fears him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34). The passage confirms what much of Isaiah has already indicated – namely, that the primary metric of membership within the covenant community is not ethnicity (or any external trait), but humility before his word (Isa 66:2). Of course, this is not the whole word, for the offer of salvation does not remain open in perpetuity; judgment is still a reality. Isaiah 66:18-24 strongly implies that actions have moral consequences, even beyond this present life. Apart from humble adoration before Yahweh, one can only expect wrath and loss.[58] Difficult though it may be, this, too, cannot be ignored.

[1] See the summative statement concerning Isa 66:18-24 in Joel S. Kaminsky and Anne Stewart, “God of All the World: Universalism and Developing Monotheism in Isaiah 40-66”, HTR 99 (2006): 160. Cf. Brevard Childs, Isaiah (OTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 542: “A succinct summary of the eschatological themes that occur throughout the entire book…”

[2] Andrew T. Abernethy, The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach (NSBT 40; Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2016), 193.

[3] See R. Reed Lessing, Concordia Commentary: Isaiah 56-66 (CC; St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2014), 29-30, for a brief survey of the various hypotheses that have been put forward. Lessing’s conclusion – that in many cases, such reconstructions illegitimately attempt to historicise what appears to be an eschatological text – is a wise one.

[4] See Michael J. Chan, “Isaiah 56-66 and the Genesis of Re-orienting Speech”, CBQ 72 (2010): 449-450, who says that some scholars date the pericope to the Persian period, subsequent to the building of the Second Temple. Chan acknowledges that the material in this entire section “eludes precision of dating or exactitude of allusion” (451).

[5] Anne E. Gardner, “The Nature of the New Heavens and the New Earth in Isaiah 66:22”, ABR 50 (2002): 15, n.18. This isn’t to disparage the view that certain elements in Isa 66:18-24 may have been inspired by historical events – merely to suggest that such occurrences do not exhaust the significance of the pericope.

[6] E.g., Childs, Isaiah, 444.

[7] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40-66 (NAC; Nasville: B&H Publishing, 2009), 65, 69, 519.

[8] William J. Dumbrell, “The Purpose of the Book of Isaiah”, TynB 36 (1985): 128.

[9] Pace Joseph Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (AB 19B; New York: Doubleday, 2003), 312, who argues there is no relationship between these passages whatsoever. Cf. Lessing, Isaiah 56-66, 492.

[10] Smith (Isaiah 40-66, 521) argues that Isa 66:18-24 is part of a larger literary unit stretching back to 63:7. This is true, although it should also be noted that whilst 63:7-64:13 are a lament in the face of corruption and devastation, chapters 65-66 seem to constitute Yahweh’s response.

[11] I am using the term “Trito-Isaiah” in a purely heuristic sense.

[12] John N. Oswalt, “Judgment and Hope: The Full-orbed Gospel”, TrinJ 17 (1996): 197.

[13] See Edwin C. Webster, “A Rhetorical Study of Isaiah 66”, JSOT 11 (1986): 103.

[14] Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66, 38.

[15] Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), 541; John Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary (ICC; London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 512.

[16] See Motyer, The Prophecy, 541. Conrad argues that the identity of those referred to in v.18 is especially hard to uncover if, as some maintain, the verse is unrelated to what precedes it. See Edgard W. Conrad, Reading Isaiah (OBT; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), 92.

[17] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 512. References to deeds and actions in those passages are all cast in a negative light.

[18] Oswalt, Isaiah – Chapters 40-66 (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998), 687. Cf. Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 512.

[19] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 513.

[20] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 513. Whybray reasons that the reference to glory has a “restrictive and intensive sense” associated with the temple (cf. Ezek 11:22-23). See R.N. Whybray, Isaiah 40-66 (NCBC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), 289. Abernethy plausibly suggests that Yahweh’s glory should be seen in conjunction with the restoration of Zion (Isa 60). See Abernethy, The Book, 193-194.

[21] Jan L. Koole, Isaiah III: 56-66 (HCOT; Leuven: Peeters, 2001), 522.

[22] Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66: A Commentary (OTL; London: SCM Press, 1976), 425.

[23] Oswalt, Isaiah, 687. Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 290.

[24] Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 290.

[25] E.g., Oswalt, Isaiah, 688-689, who argues there is nothing explicit in this passage about Gentiles experiencing judgment (but see 66:16 and “all flesh”). Moreover, the textual links between vv.15-17 and vv.18-19 favour the position I take. Cf. Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 514.

[26] John D.W. Watts, Isaiah 34-66 – Revised (WBC 25; Waco: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 940. Cf. Emmanuel Uchenna Dim, The Eschatological Implications of Isaiah 65 and 66 as the Conclusion to the Book of Isaiah (Bern: Peter Lang, 2005), 176, 182. Cf. Willem A.M. Beuken, “Yhwh’s Sovereign Rule and His Adoration on Mount Zion: A Comparison of Poetic Visions in Isaiah 24-27, 52, and 66”, in The Desert Will Bloom: Poetic Visions in Isaiah, eds. Joseph A. Everson and Hyun Chul Paul Kim (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 105.

[27] Whybray Isaiah 40-66, 290; cf. Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66, 314.

[28] Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66, 314; cf. Koole, Isaiah III, 520; Dim, The Eschatological, 183.

[29] Dim, The Eschatological, 187. See also Shalom M. Paul, Isaiah 40-66: Translation and Commentary (ECC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 626, 628.

[30] Oswalt, Isaiah, 692.

[31] Blenkinsopp, Isaiah 56-66, 314.

[32] Dim, The Eschatological, 186-187.

[33] E.g., Motyer, The Prophecy, 542, who partly bases his argument on the assumption that “your brothers” and those being made priests and Levites (v.21) should be identified.

[34] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 516.

[35] See Paul, Isaiah 40-66, 628-629 for comparable practices of tribute levied before potentates in Mesopotamia.

[36] Whybray, Isaiah 40-66, 291.

[37] E.g., Jose Severino Croatto, “The ‘Nations’ in the Salvific Oracles of Isaiah”, VT 55 (2005): 157. Croatto also claims that the nations in 66:18-24 play a purely servile role (hence, his interpretation of v.21). This seems clearly to run against the grain of the text.

[38] Blenkinsopp, “Second Isaiah – Prophet of Universalism”, JSOT 13 (1998): 103, n.51; Oswalt, The Holy One of Israel: Studies in the Book of Isaiah (London: James Clarke & Co., 2014), 104.

[39] See Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 520, who refers to a “suggestive sequence” of expansion in Isa 56-66, climaxing with the “globalization” of the priesthood in 66:21.

[40] Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, 426. See, too, Mark T. Long, “The Inclusion of the Nations in Isaiah 40-66”, TE 44 (1991): 91; Gary Stansell, “The Nations’ Journey to Zion: Pilgrimage and Tribute as Metaphor in the Book of Isaiah”, in The Desert Will Bloom: Poetic Visions in Isaiah, eds. Joseph A. Everson and Hyun Chul Paul Kim (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2009), 246.

[41] Dumbrell, “The Purpose”, 128; Motyer, The Prophecy, 543; cf. Dim, The Eschatological, 183.

[42] On the universal implications of “all flesh”, see Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 521. Cf. Childs, Isaiah, 542; Paul, Isaiah 40-66, 632; Koole, Isaiah III, 528; Kaminsky and Stewart, “God of All the World”, 160-161; Gardner, “The Nature”, 15, 26.

[43] Koole, Isaiah III, 526; Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 691.

[44] E.g., Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 527. Calvin argues that the reference to a renewed heavens and earth refers to the “inward renewal of man”. This represents an unwarranted spiritualisation of the text. See John Calvin, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah – 33-66 (trans. William Pringle; Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 437.

[45] Koole, Isaiah III, 526.

[46] Childs, Isaiah, 542; Dim, The Eschatological, 193.

[47] Motyer, The Prophecy, 543. See Gardner, “The Nature”, 26, and Isaianic references there to “seed” as a reference to the descendants of the patriarchs.

[48] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 521.

[49] Calvin, Commentary, 437.

[50] Motyer, The Prophecy, 543; Dim, The Eschatological, 195; Koole, Isaiah III, 528.

[51] Lessing, Isaiah 56-66, 29.

[52] Dim, The Eschatological, 197.

[53] Oswalt, Isaiah 40-66, 692.

[54] Childs, Isaiah, 542.

[55] Calvin, Commentary, 439, correctly judges “fire” to be a metaphor for judgment. Whether “worm” symbolizes a troubled conscience, as he contends, is less certain. For the connections between v.24 and Isa 1:29-31, see Smith, Isaiah 40-66, 744; cf. Oswalt, The Holy One, 70, n.41.

[56] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 524; Calvin, Commentary, 440; See also Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Int; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 252. I regard Goldingay’s contention that the passage has nothing to do with individual eschatology (or cosmic eschatology) as somewhat reductive.

[57] Stansell, “The Nations’ Journey”, 244.

[58] Goldingay, Isaiah 56-66, 525.

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True Religion According to Isaiah 58

Note to non-Ridley College readers: I have produced this piece as part of an exercise for my study of the book of Isaiah. The intention is to try and contextualize a portion of that book for a particular audience, drawing out the passage’s significance for people today. After posting their work, students taking the subject have to examine and comment on their classmates’ efforts.

This is a blog post-cum-article, such as you might find in an online publication like The Gospel Coalition, or a print publication like The Melbourne Anglican.

***

I didn’t agree on all that much with the late biblical scholar, Marcus Borg. His Jesus seemed more like a 1960s radical than a first-century Palestinian Jew; his doctrine of Scripture was a little too low for my taste (Borg probably would have said that the Bible is the product of various communities that were confronted by the ineffable power of the numinous); and his understanding of biblical politics – such as they are – bore an uncanny resemblance to modern-day progressivism.

But one area in which I found Borg to be quite insightful was his insistence on the deep, abiding connection between one’s relationship with God (or “the holy”, as Borg might have termed it) and a commitment to justice in the world. For him, the two went hand-in-hand; anything less was a betrayal of true religion. Reading Marcus Borg at this point was to be reminded afresh of a fundamental truth that had become lost amidst hurly-burly of everyday life.

***

Isaiah 58:1-14 perfectly distils this theme, one that is found repeatedly throughout Scripture. In the space of a few verses, the prophet denounces a narrow, restrictive kind of religion, concerned mainly with empty ritual and ceremony. In its stead, he places a full-bodied spirituality front-and-centre, one that is focused on both God and neighbour – a religion that is both “vertical” (in relation to the Creator) and “horizontal” (in relation to one’s fellow image-bearers).

For Isaiah, labouring for justice is not an adjunct or an add-on; rather, it is a manifestation of true religion. In response to the complaints of God’s people – who petulantly ask why they have bothered fasting and humbling themselves, for no apparent gain (v.3) – the prophet exposes their hypocrisy. They might have prided themselves on their holiness, but as the succeeding verses demonstrate, their vaunted religiosity was hollow, a sham. Their fasts ended in conflict (v.4), whilst the fleeting moments they gave to God (v.5a) paled into insignificance next to the large swathes of time spent living for themselves and ignoring the plight of the poor (vv.6-7). I like the way Paul Hanson, an OT scholar, summed up the predicament of Israel at this time:

“[They were a] community where those who regarded themselves as the most religious had converted religion into private acts of study and ritual, thereby leaving the entire realm of social relations and commerce under the dominion of ruthless, self-serving exploitation”.

Quite so. The Israelites of Isaiah 58 had allowed a corrupt form of their religion to colonize the far loftier requirements of devotion to Yahweh, confining their obligations to discrete acts of piety. Meanwhile, those weightier matters of justice and liberation were forgotten about, left to wither away like the poor wanderers among them.

What God commands for his people in Isaiah 58 is a “fast” that conforms to, and reveals, his deeper intentions for those who call themselves his disciples. It is a “fast” from injustice, oppression and exploitation, and studied neglect of the downtrodden. It is, indeed, a “fast” that aims to satisfy the painful longings of the empty and broken. If the people do these things, Isaiah says, their light will break forth like the noonday sun (vv.8-10), and God shall truly be their delight. They will, in other words, reveal the light (=truth) of God (cf. 2:5), all the while being genuinely reconciled to their Creator and King.

***

This isn’t simply an OT concern – part of that dreaded law that Christians can now do away with. Jesus and the writers of the NT (most of whom were Jews) were deeply committed to the ongoing relevance of the OT Scriptures for the spiritual and moral formation of disciples in the early church. Indeed, the NT is suffused with this ethos, for both it and its predecessor are grounded in the fundamental belief that every single person is a precious image-bearing being, deserving of justice and respite from exploitation.

Examples are too numerous to list, but a few will make things clear. Just think about the way Jesus excoriates the “selective righteousness” of the religious leaders, who assiduously tithe their spices, but neglect the foundational matters of justice and compassion (Luke 11:42). Or what about his announcement in Luke 4:16-21, where he quotes from Isaiah 61, proclaiming himself to be the fulfilment of the anointed one, who would liberate the captives and loose the chains of injustice? In what could be seen as a programmatic statement, Jesus stands in the synagogue, and describes his mission as one marked by the coming of deliverance in a great act of Jubilee. And let’s not forget a NT writer like James, who says in 1:27 that one of the characteristics of “pure religion” is to look after orphans and widows (read: the vulnerable and weak). If one is to be a genuine worshiper of God, devotion to those who have fallen prey to the harsh vagaries of this world is non-negotiable.

For Christians, then, the values and principles enshrined in a passage like Isaiah 58 aren’t irrelevant, or a part of some by-gone era superseded by the coming of grace; they are part of the warp and woof of holy living, now fulfilled in the person and ministry of Jesus himself. The “light” of Isaiah 58, which he said would dawn with renewed commitment to justice, is seen in Jesus’ light, which pushes back the darkness (John 8:12). But it’s also not dissimilar to the light that Jesus’ disciples are meant to shine, by which they reveal in their good works the greatness and holiness of God (Matt 5:16).

***

The words of Isaiah 58 are bracing indeed. I’m not suggesting, of course, that anyone reading this is guilty of exploiting the poor, or of actively perpetuating oppression. But we need to take these words, echoed in the voices of Jesus and the first disciples, with a great deal of gravity. Moreover, we need to allow the God who inspired this passage then to use it now – searching our hearts for signs that we, too, may have slipped into conventional, narrow, or formal religion. I know that as I read these verses, I stand exposed as someone who all too easily falls into the trap of empty ceremony – thinking that my church attendance, for example, or my Bible reading is enough. And I cannot help but recognize that like the Israelites of this text, I am also guilty of “turning away” from other human beings (Isa 58:7c), of shutting my eyes to the misery and the brokenness around me. We may not be responsible for another’s exploitation; but how often do we ignore the plight of that person, or determine to remain uninformed about the travails of the oppressed?

How does one respond? It’s true that we live in a culture of self-interest, marked by materialism and a spirit of acquisitiveness. Such is the culture’s strength that it can be difficult to fully embrace the vision of Isaiah 58. But there is hope. Although each of us may have fallen short of these ideals, let us also remember that God is able to do exceedingly more than we can imagine. He is more than capable of re-making us; indeed, that is the whole point of being welcomed into his redeemed community. Moreover, he knows we are dust and ashes, and prone to following that which is merely convenient or comfortable. His grace is all-abounding, and is more than sufficient to forgive us our failings, and equip us for a life spent in service of others.

This is God’s promise. But what else should we do to live as people who manifest the spirit of Isaiah 58? Well, it is important to remain consistent in prayer. It’s unlikely God will change us without some openness on our behalf. Prayer avails much, and if we think we are lacking when it comes to a commitment to the poor and vulnerable, then it’s incumbent upon us to petition God for transformation. He will do much for us – and within us – but that comes with a receptive heart, made all the more so through prayer. Next, we might think about our posture: how do we position ourselves in this world? Do we open ourselves up to opportunities to assist and support those who broken or downtrodden? Or do we confine ourselves to acts of devotion and piety that allow us to remain walled-off from the discord around us? Along with prayer, then, a re-orientation of our goals, attitudes and way of life may well be necessary. It requires a conscious, intentional change – at least at some level – of one’s habits and daily rhythm. Such a posture means being alive to the possibility that God might use us in even the mundane moments of life. It entails deliberation about how we can reach out beyond the merely conventional or socially acceptable to those who are suffering. I think we’d be surprised by the opportunities that present themselves, right before our eyes.

Finally, there are practices, which are closely allied to our basic stance towards the broken. I’m not suggesting that we all need to abandon our current lives, move to a developing nation, and minister to people living in a slum. Practicing justice and loving-kindness could be as simple as reaching out to a neighbour you know facing financial hardship; or befriending someone at church who (as it were) comes from the “wrong side of the tracks”; or writing letters to your local MP on a raft of justice issues (asylum seekers languishing on Manus Island, abortion, or what have you). These are but a few examples.

We all face the cacophony of modern-day life, and we may often be distracted by all it has to offer. However, even in the midst such a dazzling array of amusements and consumer delights, there exist opportunities – even in the most “ordinary” of circumstances – to put the ethos of Isaiah 58 into action. In that way, we shall show ourselves to be God’s true people, following in the footsteps of his Son.

***

One final point before rounding off. I have focused mainly on what Isaiah 58 says about one’s commitment to justice. But remember what I said in reference to Marcus Borg: he talked of the indivisible bond between that commitment and devotion to God. If it’s easy to restrict one’s piety so that it has absolutely no effect on the world around us, then it’s also easy to think that social concern and a thirst for justice are enough. However, Isaiah 58 doesn’t promote a secular political programme. Rather (and as Marcus Borg recognised), it offers a distillation of the two halves of true religion, both of which are necessary for it to remain genuine. Here, I cannot help but end with another quote from Paul Hanson:

“Acts of loving kindness toward the neighbour do not exhaust the life of faith. They culminate in worship. The life of compassionate justice comes to its most sublime expression in the delight one finds in the Lord (v.14)…Isaiah 58 states God’s will with a clarity that wins the assent of all that is true within us…[evoking] our deepest sense of joy with the invitation to delight in the Lord through worship purified by loving-kindness”.

Amen.

Isaiah’s David and Conservative Scholarship

This is an expanded version of a college essay I wrote recently for my theological studies. It concerns the conservative claim that the book of Isaiah anticipates a divine Davidic king. 

Introduction

It has long been a mainstay of classical and conservative Christianity that the book of Isaiah explicitly anticipates a divine-human king who would take his rightful place on David’s throne. Resting their case on key “royal” texts, commentators in this tradition have argued for the Isaianic expectation of an idealized Davidic heir sharing the everlasting glory – the “ontological status” – of Yahweh himself. Invariably, he is identified with Jesus Christ.

I will examine the merits of this claim in what follows, pursuing it in conversation with traditionalist interpreters. In particular, I will argue that whilst Isaiah clearly envisions a superlative Davidic king – that much is uncontroversial – this object of prophetic longing remains an exclusively human figure. Even if the key redemptive individuals populating the book can all be interpreted within a Davidic-messianic framework, they, too, are pictured as essentially human. Ultimately, the expected Davidide occupies a subordinate position within the broader Isaianic portrait of Yahweh’s unmatched sovereignty. Arguments to the contrary either exceed or misconstrue the evidence.

I shall divide my essay into three, unequal parts, focusing primarily on the more contentious question of the Davidic king’s alleged divinity. First, I’ll critically explore relevant passages in Isaiah 1-39, demonstrating that even where they do expect a royal Davidide, they do not envision him as divine. Second, I shall survey Isaiah 40-55, concentrating on the infamous “servant” passages with which some scholars buttress their claims.[1] I’ll argue that whether or not these commonly-cited texts anticipate a Davidic-messianic figure, they also fail to show that he bears godhood. Finally, I shall briefly sketch a positive case for understanding the expected Davidide as a human agent within the book’s theology of divine kingship.

Isaiah 1-39

Since Isaiah 1-39 provides most of the putative data for a divine Davidide, I shall devote a larger share of my critical attention to this section. Here, we must contend with four main passages when discussing the Davidic king’s ontological status: 4:2; 7:14-18; 9:1-7; and 11:1-10.

Isaiah 4:2

Isaiah 4:2 is sometimes seen as the first Isaianic glimpse of a future, divine Davidic figure. Motyer argues that references to the “Lord’s Branch” and “the fruit of the land” reflect the coming king’s dual nature, bearing both a divine origin and human parentage.[2] “Branch” may well have messianic overtones (cf. Jer 23:5; Zech 3:8), but the point of its/his being “of” the Lord is to emphasis God’s gift of fruitfulness; the “Branch” would therefore be Yahweh’s instrument of redemption.[3] Interpreting “fruit of the land” as a veiled indication of the apparent Davidide’s human/earthly ancestry seems manufactured: a natural reading of the text doesn’t warrant such recondite interpretations, but rather suggests the joy of survivors returning to a newly bountiful landscape. Claims that mere earthen terrain would never be described with terms such as “pride” and “glory” also ignore biblical references to the contrary (e.g., Jer 3:19; Dan 11:16,41).[4]

Isaiah 7:14-18

Those who think Isaiah anticipates a divine Davidide tend to interpret Isaiah 7:14-18 in a straightforwardly predictive way – i.e., as a promise fulfilled with Christ’s miraculous birth, in whose person divinity and humanity were embodied (Matt 1:23). Advocates argue that this connection, along with the child’s name (“God-with-us”),[5] constitute strong indications of both Davidic lineage and divine origin.

Admittedly, “Immanuel’s” identity (v.14) is difficult to determine, and interpretations are legion.[6] Whether a Davidic-messianic understanding of the passage is possible,[7] contextual factors favour a certain immediacy regarding the prophecy’s ambit: the demise of the Syro-Ephraimite kings, whom Ahaz “dread[ed]”, would occur before the child reached the age of conscious moral choice (v.16; cf. vv.2,7-9). This implies the sign would come to pass within the lifetime of Isaiah’s audience.[8] Traditionalist interpretations, hewing to a disputable model of prophetic fulfilment that not even the NT consistently follows,[9] are constrained to mute the clear historical markers anchoring Isaiah’s oracle.[10] Claiming Isaiah adopts a “concertina” approach to history[11] – essentially bypassing the intervening seven centuries – represents an exercise in special pleading, and would have rendered the prophetic sign meaningless to his contemporaries.[12] Nothing explicit in the text warrants such exegetical contrivances.[13] The apparent force of the child’s virginal mother is thus negated; assuming v.14 denotes a specific woman,[14] it’s equally possible that her maidenhood was something she possessed at the time, without entailing supernatural conception. Finally, “Immanuel” is better understood as a theophoric name: less a reflection of one’s divinity than of his status as a sign of God’s enduring presence in the midst of historical crisis.[15] I shall further discuss claims concerning theophoric names below.

Some argue for the Immanuel-child’s divinity by joining Isaiah 7:14ff with 9:1-7 and 11:1-10 via subsequent references to “Immanuel” (8:8,10). However, this assumes two things: (a) that 9:1-7 and 11:1-10 contain hints of divinity in their portraits of the coming Davidide; and (b) that these texts speak of the same individual as 7:14ff, linked as they allegedly are by way of “Immanuel”. I will critically examine (a) below. As for (b), there is reason to question the identification of the variously-mentioned figures. True, 7:14ff and 9:1-7 both speak of the birth of significant children. But attempts to link these passages – where “Immanuel” apparently refers to an exalted figure, whose identity becomes progressively clearer – fail to reckon with probable changes in the term’s usage; whereas “Immanuel” clearly refers to an individual in 7:14, it might better be seen as a cry of hope (or grief) in 8:8,10.[16]

Isaiah 9:1-7

Unlike Isaiah 4:2 and 7:14ff, 9:1-7 and 11:1-10 unambiguously expect a Davidic king: references to David’s throne (9:7) and Jesse’s “Branch/stump” (11:1,10) bear sufficient witness to this fact.[17] However, the contentious – and thus, crucial – question remains the nature of this longed-for potentate.

Numerous commentators have looked to Isaiah 9:1-7 for evidence of a future divine king, so apparently crystalline are the references to his glorified, transcendent status. Set against the background of a coming era of deliverance (vv.1-5), some argue the passage is a prophetic word concerning a divine-human saviour who will sit on David’s throne, even as he is identified with God himself. His alleged role as universal redeemer testifies to his lofty status, and commentators use vv.1-5 to buttress the broader claim that Isaiah 9:1-7 anticipates an exalted figure of cosmic scope. Verses 6-7, which speak of a remarkable infant and his accession to David’s throne, are the lynch-pin. On this view, the child’s “givenness” means that in addition to having human parentage (“born”), he is also of divine stock.[18] The complex of honorific names in v.6 apparently bears this out, for their application to the Davidic king is titular evidence of his divinity. “Wonderful [Counsellor]” (v.6a) may mean something like “supernatural”, reflecting the unique abilities of this supposedly more-than-human figure.[19] “Mighty God” (v.6a) is likewise said to denote godhood, since elsewhere, it is clearly applied to Yahweh (10:21).[20] Furthermore, proponents have suggested that “Everlasting Father” (v.6b) represents the king’s eternality and divine paternity, of which the passage’s reference to his kingdom’s endless duration (v.7) is a corollary.[21]

At first glance, the evidence marshalled from Isaiah 9:1-7 appears compelling. But several cogent objections can be levelled against it. First, interpreting references to “born” and “given” (v.5) as implying the divine-human nature of the coming king represents an artificial demarcation (cf. 4:2). The child’s “givenness” denotes the divine mercy that stands behind his birth, with the one acting as sign to the other.[22] Second, the titles of v.6 – said to be overt references to the king’s divinity – are better understood as theophoric names: ceremonial titles borne by a ruler, describing the God in whose name he reigned and on whose behalf he acted.[23] This didn’t mean the person in question was divine. Other OT texts show the (e.g.) relationship between Yahweh and Israel’s kings could be described in filial terms (God’s “son” [Ps 2:7]), without this indicating ontological likeness.[24] Hence, vv.6-7 don’t imply the Davidic ruler will bear godhood; rather, his actions and status point beyond themselves to the ultimate reality undergirding his rule.[25] Deferrals to 10:21, then, are moot: although that verse does refer to Yahweh, the application of “Mighty God” in 9:6 is a sign of God’s salvific power.[26] These titles serve to underscore his greatness, wisdom, and paternal concern – not the ruler’s per se – in redemption (v.7d).[27]

Third, references to an everlasting kingdom do not, by themselves, imply the eternality of the Davidic leader. More likely is the argument that they echo 2 Samuel 7:14ff, which speaks of the endless duration of David’s kingdom (cf. Ps 72:17).[28] Nothing in that passage suggests the equation of everlasting kingship and divinity.[29] Finally, there is reason to think the general tenor of 9:1-7 implies a ruler of a more limited (though nonetheless idealized) stature, counterposing the “manifest failures of the Ahaz regime”.[30] Some persuasively argue that God is consistently pictured as exclusive redeemer here, thereby challenging traditional readings that “inflate” the Davidic figure’s role.[31] The passage concentrates on Yahweh’s accomplishments (v.7d), denoting God as deliverer – not the subsequently-identified Davidide. “He” (v.1) refers to Yahweh, logically implying that Israel’s God is also the primary subject of vv.2-5 (cf. Isa 2:5). This strikes a better balance between the “gloom” of divine abandonment (8:22) and the “light” of divinely-ordained redemption.[32] Moreover, 9:1-7 doesn’t apply the term “king” to the wonder-child, possibly as a way of training attention on Yahweh’s kingship.[33] The Davidide is honoured, not in himself, but as an obedient agent within God’s redemptive programme.[34] If sound, this re-appraisal weakens a key plank in the classical-conservative case for a transcendent, uniquely glorified Davidic individual.

Isaiah 11:1-10

What of Isaiah 1:1-10? Does it anticipate a divine Davidide? Again, an affirmative answer exceeds the evidence. Motyer suggests the construction of v.10 denotes the origin of Jesse’s genealogical line: the Davidic “Root” is also the “root” from which Jesse and his progeny sprang, such that he is both Messiah and Creator (i.e., divine).[35] But the verse reads simply enough, especially when viewed in light of the preceding context (10:33-34): a “root” from Jesse’s line will grow and bud, despite the apparently lifeless stump that exists.[36] The passage does envision a lofty, idealized figure, whose advent is associated with the return of exiles and a new era of shalom-like harmony (vv.6-10). However, this needn’t be interpreted in “superhuman” terms.[37] Verses 1-2 depict someone acting as Yahweh’s deputy, discharging his unique duties only with the liberal assistance of divine endowment.[38] Meanwhile, 11:11ff affirm God’s superintendence over Israel’s deliverance/restoration. The Davidic figure may be God’s faithful vice-regent – offering another contrast to the corruption of contemporary elites (cf. 1:10) – but the basic thrust of this passage is one of deference and subordination, not (ontological) equality (cf. vv.2a-3b – “…will delight in the fear of the Lord”).

Isaiah 40-66

Whereas Isaiah 1-39 contains clear references to a Davidic ruler, there is scant mention of David in Isaiah 40-55 (cf. the heavily contested 55:3-5).[39] This should come as no surprise, since so-called Deutero-Isaiah focuses so closely on Yahweh’s kingship. Nevertheless, by concentrating on the “servant” texts punctuating Chapters 40-55, some maintain that Isaiah continues to envision a royal Davidide.[40] Interesting parallels obtain between the servant and (e.g.) Isaiah 11:1-10,[41] but citation of claimed textual evidence for the view fails to appreciate that much of the data parallel references in non-Davidic contexts (and are therefore insufficient to establish the traditionalist’s position), or remain ambiguous in their import.[42] It’s questionable whether the servant is consistently portrayed as an individual, much less a Davidic one (e.g., Isa 41:8; 43:10; 44:1; 49:3, implying a servant-Israel nexus).[43] Even where an individual appears to be envisaged, the passages in question lack unambiguous references to his Davidic heritage, akin to those one finds in Isaiah 9 and 11. The prospective exegete should therefore be cautious in eliding these two figures.[44]

Isaiah 49 and 53

But suppose the servant of Isaiah 40-55 is an ideal Davidic king; is there evidence to suggest this section contains an expectation of his divinity? Some scholars have argued so, leaning on a clutch of key verses from Chapters 49 and 52-53. I shall examine them in reverse order, starting with the latter text first. According to several commentators, Isaiah 52:13-53:12 contains several allusions to that figure’s deity: the servant will be exalted to a position of honour on par with God (52:13); the Lord’s “bared arm” constitutes a kind of incarnation (53:1);[45] and the servant’s agential role suggests a “perichoretic” relationship between him and Yahweh, with even incipient Trinitarian overtones.[46] These references are rather opaque, to say the least, and are better understood in more prosaic terms. That the servant is Yahweh’s instrument – his “bared arm” – can be explained as yet another instance of the master-servant/king-agent relationship (cf. 9:1-7; 11:1-10).[47] On this view, the servant is likely a human figure doing his Lord’s bidding. And “high and lifted up” (52:13) likely denotes a reversal of status from shame to honour (cf. 53:10b-12a), not “ontological identity”.[48] As for the assertion that we have here a statement of proto-Trinitarian thought, the most one can say about it is that it is entirely gratuitous.

Traditionalist interpretations of Isaiah 49:1-7 also over-egg the exegetical pudding. Motyer, for example, asserts that “strength” (v.5c) implies the servant uniquely embodies divine power[49] – despite plain readings of the text which suggest that he “merely” benefits from Yahweh’s preservation amidst his arduous mission. Likewise, although others have argued that the servant actually incarnates divine salvation (v.6d), this, too, can be understood in instrumental terms – i.e., the servant acting on behalf of his God, functioning as a “tool” (cf. v.2, where the servant is likened to a weapon in Yahweh’s hand). Finally, the servant may well act as God’s “salvation” (v.7), but a more straightforward interpretation lies close to hand – namely, that he is an agent prosecuting the redemptive agenda of the One who sent and empowered him. To be sure, an agential role is logically consistent with the possession of deity. However, it certainly does not demand deity, and one is firmer textual grounds by eschewing that understanding.

[ADDITIONAL OBSERVATIONS: Complementing these rejoinders are certain features which suggest that if the servant is an individual, then he is an “ordinary”[50] human one. Although it is true that Isaiah 49 depicts him in exalted terms (cf. 11:1-10), it is also clear that he relies upon the generating and sustaining power of God. That in itself may reflect a (metaphysical) distinction between the servant and the One he obeys. He is formed, we are told, by Yahweh in the womb (49:5), which suggests a beginning in time. Eternality, however, is one of the hallmarks of true deity (cf. 43:13), and is a quality that separates Yahweh from his creation. Of course, it might be possible to argue that this doesn’t necessarily preclude pre-existence; Christians, after all, believe that Christ is both the eternal logos (cf. John 1:1) and the son born to a first-century Jewess. But the author of Isaiah was no Christian. Moreover, the traditionalist will find no comfort in (e.g.) Isaiah 7:14ff: as I have already suggested, that text does not predict the miraculous birth of some kind of divine-child, but instead denotes the impending advent of an infant who will constitute a sign of God’s presence. The present passage says nothing beyond the fact that the servant was, like every other human individual, fashioned by the One who is the ultimate source of all life. This speaks of a mundane being, who is constrained by the limits of materiality.

One may also cite Isaiah 49:4, which refers to the servant vainly exhausting himself – yet another indication of finitude, and thus, of humanity without divinity (cf. 40:28c). Although he is called to be a light for the Gentiles (v.6b) – a statement that could be construed as a claim to share in the divine light (cf. 2:5) – it is telling that he does not possess this intrinsically; that Yahweh will “make” him so implies that whilst he carries divine truth, he does not embody it by nature (cf. 58:8,10, where light is clearly associated with members of Yahweh’s covenant community). None of the above points is decisive in isolation, and one cannot definitively rule out some articulation of the servant’s deity. However, they constitute a cumulative case that is relatively strong. Isaiah 49:1-7 seems, then, to offer a picture of someone who remains deeply dependant on, and humbly committed to, the God who has commissioned him. Everything in the passage suggests, once more, ontological difference – not identity – between Yahweh and the servant. Traditionalist arguments, like those associated with previous passages, go beyond the data.]

Isaiah and Kingship: Yahweh’s Matchless Rule

The foregoing analysis has suggested that claims concerning Isaiah’s anticipation of a divine Davidide outstrip the evidence. But can a constructive case be made for understanding the Davidic king as a solely human figure? I believe so, and its possibility lies in the implications of one of the book’s key themes: Yahweh’s unmatched supremacy – his “isolated sovereignty” – against all other claimants.[51]

Isaiah is suffused with references to this basic belief, so crisply distilled in the oft-repeated phrase, “Holy One of Israel” (e.g., 41:14,16; 43:3; 54:4; 60:14). Captured in that term is the notion that Yahweh is both metaphysically “other” and morally spotless. The prophet discovers this when he is confronted with a vision of God. There, Isaiah is overwhelmed by a transcendent monarch of unparalleled majesty (6:1; cf. 63:15); the thrice-declared fact of his holiness simply underscores this reality. That experience is the starting-point for “so-called Isaianic ideology”,[52] buttressing the book’s unrelenting critique of attempts to exalt oneself as Yahweh’s equal.[53] Isaiah’s fundamental outlook explains the denunciation of the Babylonian king in Isaiah 14:12-15, whose actions represent the unlawful arrogation of Yahweh’s unique position of glory. The general tenor of Isaiah 13-23 is one of God’s sovereignty in judgment, climaxing with a re-assertion of this king’s universal lordship via the execution of his devastating wrath upon the earth. Even the bridging narrative of Isaiah 36-37 is underpinned by the conviction of Yahweh’s sole deity; Hezekiah’s prayer, for example, affirms Yahweh as Lord – in contrast to mute, impotent idols – and the only one who may be called the “living God” (37:14-20).[54] That contrast, of course, is demonstrated in dramatic fashion, as the Assyrian army is completely vanquished (37:36-38).

The theme of Yahweh’s reign culminates with the book’s extended “lawsuit” against the great pantheon of idols in Chapters 40-55, a section that has been noted for its lofty, uncompromising monotheism.[55] Much of this polemical output serves to establish Yahweh’s status as unrivalled potentate and Israel’s only redeemer (e.g., 42:5-9). Yahweh repeatedly contrasts his royal glory with the lifeless “gods” of pagan devotion (40:18-25; 46:1-12). He alone commands the otherwise unchecked forces of nature; he alone foretells the future and ensures his plans prevail. Not only is he Israel’s king (43:15); he is God eternal, supreme over creation – including those elements used to create the idols he so resolutely opposes.[56] As Yahweh himself emphatically insists, he “will not yield” his “glory to another”, or his “praise to idols” (42:8) – precisely because no one else can be positioned as his equal (cf. 64:5). The final, eschatological picture of “all flesh” engaging in pure worship of the one, true God (66:18-22) perfectly complements – and indeed, fulfils – the lines of thought found in Deutero-Isaiah. Tellingly, there is no mention in that text of a supposedly divine-human Davidide (as we might expect if Isaiah consciously anticipated such a figure); he seems to have faded from the scene entirely. At the conclusion of history, the prophet implies, Yahweh alone will stand supreme.

In view of these proposals, it would seem that no matter how revered the coming Davidic king is, one shouldn’t claim more for him than Isaiah’s theological predilections will allow. Given the book’s unyielding emphasis on Yahweh’s matchless sovereignty (cf. 63:15) – and the consequent gulf that exists between him and all other things – it makes more sense to understand the Davidide as an honoured (though non-divine) individual, acting as Yahweh’s subordinate. Several of the passages surveyed bear this out. Isaiah 9:1-7 has shown that the (human) Davidide operates as an agent within, and as a result of, the cosmic Lord’s redemptive enterprise. His stature and titles signal God’s sovereign power, even if he himself remains a mundane figure. Isaiah’s broader theological horizons make the distinction between these two actors thoroughly intelligible. Yahweh’s glory is a unique and intrinsic possession (cf. 42:8); by implication, the Davidide simply does not have it. And on the assumption that the subject of Isaiah 49:1-7 is a Davidic figure, the aforementioned features of that oracle – features that seemingly imply an ordinary human being – would become doubly comprehensible. Not only do inner textual considerations invite the reasonable conclusion that the servant is non-divine; Isaiah’s basic theological foundations appear to rule out anything more. Conversely, we may ask whether a prophetic work so committed to God’s singular deity would then obscure its message by introducing a being who, as it were, “blurs” the relevant metaphysical categories of divinity and humanity (cf. 2:22). If my analysis is correct, there is not only reason to doubt traditionalist interpretations of the longed-for Davidide; a positive framework also exists that strongly encourages an affirmation of his exclusive humanity.

Conclusion

We must conclude. As I have sought to demonstrate, both intra-exegetical considerations and broader theological concerns suggest that Isaiah anticipates a human Davidic king, and nothing more. Even the book’s unambiguous references to an expected Davidide fail to yield compelling evidence for his divinity. Instead, the passages examined here indicate someone who occupies an inferior – though still important – position within the sovereign God’s salvific economy. The honour accorded him is reflective of the ubiquitous pattern of veneration that ancient kings enjoyed. On the other hand, it’s difficult to resist the conclusion that traditionalist/conservative claims in this field sometimes stem, not from a dispassionate exegesis of the text, but from scholarly ingenuity in service of particular theological aims. As I have sought to demonstrate, those who argue that Isaiah expects the coming Davidide to bear divinity are frequently compelled to resort to some rather tenuous interpretive strategies. This isn’t to say that those living this side of the Incarnation shouldn’t read these texts through a Christological lens. That remains a legitimate hermeneutical move. However, Isaiah reveals to us an undimmed belief in Yahweh’s ontological uniqueness, such that expectations of a divine-human king – a transcendent son of David – are questionable at best.

[1] The attentive reader will notice that I have not included Isaiah 56-66 in my analysis. This is so for two reasons: putative references (e.g., to a royal Davidide/divine figure) are extremely rare and/or ambiguous; and, where a relevant text may be found, it is significant only to the extent that it echoes language already found in earlier sections of Isaiah (e.g., 53:1//63:5).

[2] Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah (Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1993), 65, 67. For an ancient rendition of this argument, see Bede, “Homilies on the Gospels 1.4”, cited in Stephen A. McKinion (ed.), Ancient Commentary on Scripture: Isaiah 1-39 (Downers Grove: Inter-Varsity Press, 2004), 36.

[3] Childs argues that because “Branch” is pegged to “the Lord” – not David or Jesse – the reference should not be seen as messianic-Davidic, but rather as a denotation (along with 4:2b) of Yahweh’s work in bestowing upon the land “abundance and fecundity”. See Brevard Childs, Isaiah (OTL; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), 36.

[4] John D.W. Watts, Isaiah 1-33 (Revised) (WBC 24; Waco: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 75.

[5] Calvin argues that “Immanuel” is a sure indication that Isaiah was predicting the coming of the (divine) Christ. See John Calvin, Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah, Vol. 1; trans. William Pringle (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), 248-249.

[6] Childs, Isaiah, 68-69. See Andy Abernethy, The Book of Isaiah and God’s Kingdom: A Thematic-Theological Approach (NSBT; Downers Grove: IVP, 2016), 122, who cites some scholars arguing for Immanuel’s identification with Hezekiah. Other candidates include Isaiah’s son, or a collective interpretation (i.e., mothers calling their sons “Immanuel” as a profession of faith). Abernethy himself argues that the identity of the child is unimportant.

[7] Goldingay, like many others, notes that there is nothing explicit about the Immanuel child being of Davidic origin. See John Goldingay, The Theology of the Book of Isaiah (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2014), 140. Watts (Isaiah 1-33, 140) suggests that “no record exists of special attention being given to Isa 7:14 in pre-Christian Judaism”.

[8] Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 136, 141. Laato argues for an immediate historical fulfilment. See Antti Laato, Who is Immanuel? The Rise and the Foundering of Isaiah’s Messianic Expectations (Abo: Abo Academy Press, 1988), 172-173.

[9] E.g., Matthew’s use of Hosea 11:1 (Matt 2:18). See James M. Hamilton, Jr., “‘The Virgin Will Conceive’: Typology in Isaiah and Fulfillment in Matthew 1:23”, in Built Upon the Rock: Studies in the Gospel of Matthew, eds. Daniel M. Gurtner and John Nolland (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008), 233-236, 242-247, for a summary and defence of a typological (rather than predictive) approach to the NT’s understanding of prophetic fulfilment.

[10] Herbert M. Wolf, Interpreting Isaiah: The Suffering and Glory of the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1985), 91.

[11] As Motyer (Isaiah, [TOTC; Leicester: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999], 78) does; idem, The Prophecy, 87.

[12] As even John N. Oswalt (The Book of Isaiah – Chapters 1-39 [NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986], 206-207) admits, despite his adherence to the conservative position; cf. Marvin E. Tate, “King and Messiah in Isaiah of Jerusalem”, R & E 65 (1968): 412.

[13] Other exegetes (e.g., John Calvin and Gary Smith) have posited that the child of v.14 is different from that of v.16. I can only say that this seems terribly forced, and undermines the integrity of the passage. See Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, 250; Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 1-39 (NAC 15A; Nashville: B & H Publishing Group, 2007), 215.

[14] Note the definite article preceding “virgin” in v.14, which could imply a specific, concrete individual (cf. Smith, Isaiah 1-39, 200).

[15] Abernethy, The Book, 122-123; Greg Goswell, “Royal Names: Naming and Wordplay in Isaiah 7”, WTJ 75 (2013): 106.

[16] See Wolf, Interpreting, 94; idem, “Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-8:22”, JBL 91 (1972): 455; Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 154. Cf. G.C.I Wong, “Is ‘God with Us’ in Isaiah VIII 8?”, VT [no number] (1999): 430, who interprets the cries of “Immanuel” negatively. This does not affect my broader point. Smith admits that Isa 7:1-17 lacks the messianic “flavour” of 9:1-7. See Smith, Isaiah 1-39, 215. Porter notes a number of other differences between these figures. See Frank Chamberlain Porter, “A Suggestion Regarding Isaiah’s Immanuel”, JBL 14 (1985): 20.

[17] See Goswell, “The Shape of Messianism in Isaiah 9”, WTJ 9 (2015): 108.

[18] This interpretation has a venerable history. See Motyer, Isaiah, 89; idem, The Prophecy, 102. See also Carl Umhan Wolf, “Luther on the Christian Prophecy, Isaiah 9”, Lutheran Quarterly 5 (1953): 390, for a summary of Luther’s views on this point; Augustine, “Sermon 187.4” in McKinion, Ancient, 70.

[19] Motyer, Isaiah, 89.

[20] Motyer, Isaiah, 89; Smith, Isaiah 1-39, 240; Wolf, Interpreting, 97-98.

[21] Interpreting the names in Isa 9:6 as connoting the Davidide’s deity has a long and venerable history. A quick glance at McKinion, Ancient, 70-76 reveals that many of the luminaries of the ancient church – from Justin Martyr, to Ambrose, and Augustine – held this view. Although I depart from such an august array of witnesses, I do not do so lightly. For a modern parallel, see Motyer, The Prophecy, 102.

[22] H.G.M. Williamson, Isaiah 6-12: A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Isaiah 1-27 (Volume 2) (ICC; London: Bloomsbury, 2018), 395.

[23] Goswell, “The Shape”, 107. Cf. Tate, “King and Messiah”, 418, who argues that these were throne names bestowed upon a king at his coronation; Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 175; Williamson, Variations on a Theme: King, Messiah, and Servant in the Book of Isaiah (Carlisle: Paternoster Press, 1998), 43, who argues this was a common ancient practice; idem, Isaiah 6-12, 397-398.

[24] Abernethy, The Book, 127; Tate, “King and Messiah”, 418; Paul D. Wegner, “A Re-examination of Isaiah IX 1-6”, VT 1 (1992): 107-108.

[25] Childs, Isaiah, 81.

[26] Goldingay, The Theology, 140; Wegner, “A Re-examination”, 110.

[27] Abernethy, The Book, 127-128; Wegner, “A Re-examination”, 111.

[28] Smith, Isaiah 1-39, 241; cf. Laato, Who is Immanuel?, 194, 303.

[29] Williamson, Variations, 36; idem, Isaiah 6-12, 403.

[30] Goswell, “The Shape”, 101.

[31] See Goswell, “The Shape”, 101-110, esp. 102. See also Tate, “King and Messiah”, 418.

[32] Cf. Wegner, “What’s New in Isaiah 9:1-7?”, in Interpreting Isaiah: Issues and Approaches, eds. David G. Firth and H.G.M. Williamson (Nottingham: Inter-Varsity, 2009), 240.

[33] Wegner, “What’s New”, 244.

[34] Goswell, “The Shape”, 102; Williamson, Variations, 32-34.

[35] Motyer, The Prophecy, 14, 121.

[36] Goldingay, The Theology, 141; Watts, Isaiah 1-33, 209.

[37] Contra Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 278.

[38] Goswell, “Messianic Expectation in Isaiah 11”, WTJ 79 (2017): 126-127, 129.

[39] See Goswell, “The Shape”, who argues that Isaiah 40-55 has no place for a Davidic king; cf. Childs, Isaiah, 437, and Christopher R. North, The Suffering Servant in Deutero-Isaiah: An Historical and Critical Study (London: OUP, 1956), 218, who argue likewise. As for Isa 55:3-5, many scholars argue that it refers to the “democratization” of promises originally made to David – now applied to the entire community. Oswalt (The Book of Isaiah – Chapters 40-66 [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998], 439-440) argues that the use of the third-person singular in v.4, combined with the Davidic reference, suggests that we are dealing with an individual Davidide, and that he ought to be identified with the Isaianic servant of Isaiah 40-53. However, he concedes that this line of evidence is not decisive.

[40] E.g., Motyer, The Prophecy, 344-345.

[41] See Paul D. Hanson, Isaiah 40-66 (Int; Louisville: John Knox Press, 1995), 44, for an exploration of some of those parallels, with a focus on Isa 11:1-2 and 42:1-2; cf. Wolf, Interpreting, 191.

[42] See, for example, the arguments marshalled by Daniel I. Block, “My Servant David: Ancient Israel’s Vision of the Messiah”, in Israel’s Messiah in the Bible and the Dead Sea Scrolls, eds. Richard S. Hess and M. Daniel Carroll R. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 47. Cf. Abernethy, The Book, 148, n.83, who persuasively refutes such claims.

[43] Oswalt, Isaiah 1-39, 50. Cf. Abernethy, The Book, 138-144.

[44] See North, The Suffering Servant, 142: “We are not at liberty to assume that the picture of the servant is homogenous throughout the Songs [of Isa 40-55]”; Hanson, Isaiah 40-66, 166. It should be noted, however, that later “servant” passages seem to bear an individualist stamp (although the identification of the subject of Isa 49:1-7 remains disputed).

[45] Motyer, The Prophecy, 333.

[46] For a summary of such arguments (as well as cogent rejoinders), see Abernethy, The Book, 146.

[47] Abernethy, The Book, 146.

[48] Abernethy, The Book, 146.

[49] Motyer, The Prophecy, 387.

[50] “Ordinary” in the sense that he is not divine or transcendent. The servant (like the Davidic king of Isaiah 1-39) is clearly an extraordinary figure.

[51] Williamson, Variations, 12.

[52] Williamson, Variations, 18. See Watts, Isaiah 34-66 (Revised) (WBC 25; Waco: Thomas Nelson, 2005), 574. who says Isaiah’s vision is an integral part of his “religious consciousness”; Nathan MacDonald, “Monotheism in Isaiah” in Firth and Williamson, Interpreting Isaiah, 58.

[53] Williamson, Variations, 12.

[54] Watts, Isaiah 34-66, 574; MacDonald, “Monotheism”, 56.

[55] William Sanford La Sor, David Allan Hubbard and Frederic William Bush, Old Testament Survey: The Message, Form and Background of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 386. See also MacDonald, “Monotheism”, 45.

[56] R. Reed Lessing, “Yahweh Versus Marduk: Creation Theology in Isaiah 40-55”, Concordia Journal 36 (2010): 237-238. See also Goswell, “Isaiah 1:26 – A Neglected Text on Kingship”, Tyndale Bulletin 62 (2011): 235, who notes an almost exclusive emphasis on Yahweh as king in Isaiah 40-55; MacDonald, “Monotheism”, 48.

Meaning and God’s Attributes

My last few blog posts have tackled some fairly controversial issues, which have a habit of arousing very strong emotions. The intensity of those debates can tax both the mind and the soul, so every once in a while a change of pace is warranted. This brings me to the topic of the present piece, namely, the nature of God. Lately, I have been reflecting on some rather thorny questions concerning God and certain of his attributes. Some may think this a boring, irrelevant or altogether esoteric matter. However, if (as I believe) God is the very foundation and source of all there is — the ground of all being, as it were — then it’s difficult to think of anything more exciting, or important. Moreover, as a Christian, it is my duty (and indeed, a rare pleasure) to try and develop as clear a picture of the Creator as my finite mind will permit.

I don’t intend to examine the existence of God per se. Instead, I want to explore two related features of the Christian conception of God, the problems they can pose for understanding, and the means by which they might be illuminated in new and fresh ways. I am referring, on the one hand, to God’s dual nature — at once transcendent and immanent — whilst on the other, to the uniquely Christian declaration that Christ is the principle of unity within creation. These are heady concepts, to be sure; a word about each is therefore in order.

To begin, Christianity insists that God is simultaneously transcendent over creation and immanent within it. Other monotheisms — Judaism, for example — share this way of talking about God, though the way the doctrine is expressed and extrapolated in those traditions may be somewhat different. Christians consistently affirm God’s complete and utter sovereignty over the creation; creation itself relies on his conserving activity to remain in being, moment-by-moment. Given he is the metaphysical ground of all there is, God is not confined by what he has created: he is not limited by it, or susceptible to its influences (unless he deigns to be so influenced). He is radically distinct from the world he has fashioned, operating, if you like, on his own, unique plane of being. Additionally, God is neither exhausted nor fully comprehended by our conceptual categories; the frames of reference we may have devised to understand him are necessarily limited, for their “object” transcends them all. Indeed, for all their intellectual and theological value (and they can be very valuable), those categories cannot possibly capture a being — Being itself — who is by nature completely unbound by finite reality.

At the same time, God is no absentee landlord; rather, he deeply involved in this creation. The world over which God presides is filled at every point by the divine presence; God’s immanence means that he is intimately related to  it, permeating every nook and cranny so that creation brims with his essence. This dual nature is beautifully captured by Isaiah 55:9-11, which speaks of Yahweh’s purposes being higher than those of man — “as the heavens are higher than the earth” — even as he sends out his word, his wisdom, into the world to nourish his works. It is also why the Apostle Paul can declare in Ephesians 4:6 that God is not only “over all”, but “through all and in all”.*

The second attribute is, to my mind, probably more difficult to comprehend. It is the somewhat astounding theological claim that Christ, the Word and Wisdom of God, is the principle of unity within creation — that is, the One in whom “all things hold together”, as Paul declares (Col 1:17). The doctrine bears some resemblance to certain strains of Greco-Roman philosophy, even if its formulation under the aegis of apostolic and patristic thought was quite unprecedented. Like the ancient Stoics, the writers of the NT held that the phenomenal world is not simply a random, unintelligible mass: they affirmed the belief that it is an ordered place, pervaded by a principle of rationality which bequeaths to it unity and coherency. For the apostolic writers, this principle has an intrinsically personal — indeed, relational — dimension. Whether this was expressed in the Johannine concept of the incarnate Logos (John 1:1, 14), or by way of Paul’s wisdom Christology (e.g., Col 1:17), the writers of the NT declared that the world is pervaded by the cosmic Christ — God’s very word, wisdom and mind. Borrowing ideas from the OT’s wisdom tradition (e.g., Prov 8:22ff), they claimed that Christ is just that principle of rationality to which the Stoics and others referred. As the medium of God’s creative prowess, he provides the unifying structure for what would otherwise be a fragmented or chaotic realm; he draws together the various members of the created world into a harmonious whole, “sustaining” it in power (Hebrews 1:3).

It should be noted that these doctrines are deeply intertwined. Christ’s role as the principle of unity within creation presupposes a God who is both intimately involved with it, whilst remaining utterly sovereign. Indeed, if Christ, a reflection of the divine character, was not transcendent, then he could not be the sustaining, unifying cause that underlies creation; he would simply be a finite part of it, as little able to govern all things as we are. If he was not immanent, he would not — could not — be the principle of unity holding the disparate parts of creation together. He could not be the metaphysical “cement” that inheres, and adheres, all things. Conversely, God’s dual nature comes to full expression in the cosmic Christ’s powerful conserving activity, as he penetrates and upholds the created order. His immanence is not amorphous — a vague and nebulous presence — but guarantees the wise and ordered nature of the world we inhabit. Similarly, his transcendence does not entail distance, but omnipresence, so that everything is imbued with, and held together by, his own effulgence.

Intertwined, complementary…and also rather arcane**. However clear these summaries may be, they do not change the fact that we are handling some very enigmatic ideas — ones that have caused an endless parade of philosophers and theologians (not to mention laypeople at large) a great deal of intellectual angst. The fact that God is not an object of sense experience, and so is not susceptible to empirical observation, makes this task even more vexing. Trying to comprehend such stubbornly elusive concepts is like attempting to grasp the rapidly fading tendrils of an early-morning mist. For instance, I’ve tried to offer an intelligible snapshot of the doctrine of Christ as the principle of creation, but how can we understand the truth that lies behind it? In what way does the invisible and immaterial God hold material things together (that is part of the larger question of how an immaterial God interacts with materiality)? How does one actually conceive of the Christian’s claim that the apparently disparate elements of creation find coherency as they are drawn together by, and in, the divine Logos? As for God’s simultaneous transcendence and immanence, this has been a stumbling block to many people, and can appear at first glance to be inherently, embarrassingly, contradictory. As just one example among many, the atheist blogger Austin Cline has argued that at an “irresolvable tension” exists between these two poles of the divine nature. He is of the opinion that something simply cannot be transcendent and immanent simultaneously, and that any affirmation to the contrary forces one into an intellectual muddle.

Theologians and philosophers of a theistic bent have tried to offer solutions to these problems over the centuries. For example, Thomas Aquinas wrote that God’s transcendence actually entails his immanence. Far from being irreconcilable or contradictory, Aquinas argued that they are, in fact, complementary attributes. Because he is the sustaining cause of all that exists (and as such, transcends all things), God must be present — that is, immanent — in order to uphold the entire cosmic production. Moreover, because being is, according to Aquinas, a thing’s fundamental quality, then God must be present “in all things innermostly”. I, for one, think this is quite persuasive. I am also persuaded that, however difficult it may be to think of the world as pervaded by a kind of cosmic rationality (understood in personal terms by Christians), it seems likelier than the atomistic, mechanistic picture favoured by many moderns. At the same time, I also recognize that formulations like Aquinas’ are bound to strike some as recondite as the (apparent) conundrums they are designed to unravel. Is there any way of making these doctrines a little more intelligible? A “real-world” analogy, perhaps, that concretizes what might otherwise appear to be abstract and vaporous? I think there is.

Meaning as an Aid to Understanding

The concept of meaning can act as an aid to understanding as we grapple with the aspects of God’s being (as conceived by Christians) that I have outlined. It can shed light on how God can be simultaneously transcendent and immanent, whilst illuminating the view that there exists a (personal) principle of order and rationality that permeates the phenomenal world. But what do I…er…mean by “meaning”? Simply this: meaning could be described as the “aboutness” of something, be it a sentence, a picture, or a facial expression. For something like a sentence, meaning is the message “encoded” in the combination of words the author or speaker has chosen to use. It is the information that the user (broadly defined) intends to convey in his or her message. My writing this blog post is designed to communicate certain propositions, thoughts, etc., which are reflected in the words I have chosen to deploy.

The above will suffice as a good, working definition of meaning. Let’s see, firstly, how it can help us understand God’s dual nature. Take the following sentence: “The boy threw the ball to the girl”. If you’re a competent user of English, you’re likely to recognize the scenario the sentence is about — that is, the event to which it points. It will inevitably conjure a particular image, consisting of a male child using a casting action to convey a spherical object (often of recreational value) to a female child. The marks that compose the sentence will be readily understood as constituting an intelligible message. Indeed, the message is immanent within the sentence, in that the latter is “invested” with the former. Meaning is also immanent within individual words. By means of physical markings, “boy” means, points to, or represents a male child (usually under 18). Going back to the level of syntax and sentence structure, it would seem that not only does a message somehow “infuse” the physical marks one might use to communicate it; as theologian Kevin Vanhoozer, author of the stimulating book, Is There A Meaning in This Text?, has argued, meaning “cannot grasped apart from them [i.e., those marks]”. As he goes on to say, the intangibility of meaning is known through the tangibility of written characters (or, alternatively, audible sounds).

And yet, meaning is not confined to a particular collection of markings. It’s not “shut in”, as it were, but transcends any one set of words. “It is more than vocabulary and syntax”, as Vanhoozer observes. It may pervade those markings, but is neither restricted nor reducible to them. Indeed, the meaning of a sentence is more than the sum of its constituent parts. We might think about it this way: whilst I can write “the boy threw the ball to the girl”, and successfully convey my intended meaning, this in no way precludes others from simultaneously doing the same thing. Conversely, their writing the same sentence does not evacuate meaning from my own scribblings. We can all successfully “point to” the objects that are represented by the words we are using, even if the sentences we write are identical. If meaning were to be tied to words in a non-transcendent way, this would be impossible. As it is, whilst meaning and words are intimately related — such that it could be called a relation of “immanence” — it does not exclude the former’s capacity to outstrip the limits of the latter. In fact, being able to convey the same information, using the same words as other language users, presupposes it.

Like God, then, meaning bears a dual nature: transcendent on the one hand, immanent on the other. As we have seen, these qualities are not contradictory; rather, they are complimentary, and necessarily so. If something as mundane as the meaning of words and sentences can be understood in this manner, then whatever other difficulties attach themselves to grasping the divine nature, the simultaneity of his transcendence and immanence should not be one of them.

So much for that conundrum. What about the idea that, for Christians, there exists a principle of order or rationality within creation, one that is identified with Christ, the very wisdom of God (cf. John 1:1-4)? Again, meaning provides a model for comprehension. As we have seen, the meaning of words invests them with intelligibility, whilst the principles of language supply shape and coherency to an otherwise random assemblage of markings. Of course, this is not the whole story. As Vanhoozer (among others) has noted, meaning is as much a verb (something that results from human action) as it is a noun (something that is “embedded” in words). The principle of unity is ultimately sourced in the intentions of the speaker/writer. Nevertheless, meaning acts as the proximate principle of unity, order and rationality for a chain of words a language user may string together. We may use our stock example once more: “The boy threw the ball to the girl”. Each word is imbued with its own meaning, such that the marks are no longer unintelligible etchings, but vehicles of representation that can be understood by other language users. Similarly, the sentence as a whole is ordered by those same principles of intelligibility: the words that compose it are rationally related, in that they are arranged in a given sequence to communicate a particular message. Meaning, though immaterial, is a substantial reality, and is mediated through the variety of linguistic combinations (“deeds and events”, as one literary theorist put it) to which it bequeaths order.

Hopefully, you can see where I am going with all this. Christ, the divine Word, permeates the created world, supplying it with a kind of order that resembles meaning’s relationship to words and sentences (incidentally, the example I am using also offers us very rough analogy as to how something immaterial [meaning] can exert some kind of influence over something material [written or spoken words]). Like meaning’s role in structuring the sounds and signs of which a  certain message is composed, the divine wisdom structures this world in a way that ensures its rational intelligibility. It is a world of reasoned cause-and-effect, of patterned beauty, which is (in principle, anyway) susceptible to rational, scientific explanation. Both meaning and divine wisdom act as adhering agents, cementing the various constituents of their respective worlds — one linguistic, the other phenomenal — in a comprehensible way.

Conclusion

My aim in this essay has been to show that certain Christian doctrines, whilst apparently guilty of incomprehensibility, can in fact be readily understood. If I am right, there is no need for special pleading here: the common example of meaning’s relationship to words — something of which we are all intuitively aware — suggests that superficial contradictions regarding God’s nature, or allegedly esoteric claims about cosmic principles of rationality, have analogues in the world of everyday material things.

*Yes, I am aware that some scholars dispute Pauline authorship of Ephesians. I myself think that Paul wrote the letter, but I acknowledge that not everybody sees it that way.

**Of course, this is not the same as saying they are untrue.

 

The Johannine Jesus and the “I am”

Introduction

The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is an enigmatic figure, making tantalizing claims about his ultimate identity. His so-called “I am” statements, sprinkled throughout John, are no exception. Allusive and oblique, they are nonetheless freighted with cosmic significance. This essay will argue that the “I am” statements of John’s Gospel constitute an implicit, yet definite, claim to deity, and that this can be substantiated via an exploration of Old Testament ideas latent within the formula. Unfolding in three stages, it will first survey the two main ‘types’ of “I am” statements Jesus employs, demonstrating the formula’s verbal reliance upon key OT texts, and arguing for their fundamental reference to God’s unique covenantal character. The essay will then build upon those preliminary conclusions, offering a broader theological and salvation-historical account of Jesus’ claim, and highlighting several interlocking thematic links between the Johannine Jesus and previous instances of God’s redemptive-revelatory activity. Finally, it will attempt to properly nuance the “I am” formula, sketching out the distinctiveness of Jesus’ divine identification – particularly in light of its relationship to John’s overall Christological-theological presentation.

“I am” in Context

John’s Gospel uses “I am” on several occasions. Some are conventional forms of self-identification (e.g. 1:20). Others, however, carry weightier significance. I will identify two such categories of “I am” statements: those where Jesus used the “I am” formula absolutely; and those where he combined it with a predicate, or vivid image. One shouldn’t force the distinction: a common bed of theological meaning underlies any apparent division. Moreover, the latter unfurls what is latent in the former.

The Johannine Jesus uses the absolute “I am” statements in the Fourth Gospel without any qualifying predicate. John 8:58 is the classic example. In a steadily escalating debate over his identity and origin, Jesus boldly asserts that “before Abraham was born, I am!” His interlocutors understand this seemingly truncated turn of phrase: immediately, they attempt to kill him (v.59). Their hostility indicates an implicit interpretation of blasphemy. Jesus’ opponents, it seems, invested his pronouncement with the kind of meaning that would have led them to conclude he was, remarkably, claiming deity. John 8:24, 28 are also pertinent, as is 18:5-6. The latter passage, where Jesus confronts a detachment of arresting soldiers, is further indication of claimed deity. The party’s prostrating response – after the evangelist emphasises Jesus’ distinctive reply – certainly implies a theophanic experience.

These are inferences, of course. But why did Jesus’ statements arouse such reactions? What kinds of associations would his contemporaries have made? Here, overtones become echoes – deliberate allusions to a rich stream of OT thought, capturing foundational disclosures of God’s utter uniqueness and covenantal faithfulness. Jesus’ judicial and religious opponents, it seems (particularly in 8:58-9), understood this connection. Indeed, abundant evidence for antecedent OT usage exists, which reveals the burgeoning development of “I am” as a divine name.

Of the various OT texts that might be surveyed in this regard, Isaiah 40-55 is especially important, employing self-referential statements linguistically similar to Jesus’ “I am” formula. In the second major section of Isaiah, repeated promises of divine redemption and covenantal faithfulness appear amidst doubts about Yahweh’s willingness, or ability, to rescue his people (aroused by the calamity of exile, and the apparent triumph of pagan “gods” over Israel’s sovereign). The term, “I am [he],” and its cognates, are used to reveal, among other things, Yahweh’s absolute uniqueness – Israel’s sole guarantor of salvation. Isaiah 41:4 and 43:10-13 are prime examples in this regard. Chapters 44-46 are also apposite, where the “I am” formula is employed several times in a similar context, with similar import (cf. 44:6; 45:5-6, 18: 46:4, 9). In addition, Jesus’ “I am” utterances arguably rely upon Exodus 3:14, where Yahweh disclosed his character to Moses with the appellation, “I am who I am.” Like Isaiah 40-55, Exodus 3:14 is set within a larger, covenantal-redemptive context (which the Fourth Gospel echoes). Divine self-disclosure points again to Yahweh’s matchlessness and loyalty. Jesus’ “I am” statements reverberate with sounds of Yahweh’s titular declarations in Isaiah and Exodus. Recalling such expressions, Jesus deliberately appropriated the divine name, perpetuating a historical pattern characterised by Yahweh’s repeated self-revelation (cf. Jn. 17:11). Jesus’ opponents rightly interpreted these “I am” statements as references to a sacred-divine unveiling.

This OT verbal background applies equally well to the seven instances of the predicated “I am,” fleshing out the absolute form, and underpinning various facets of Jesus’ salvific relationship to humanity. For instance, Jesus claimed to be the “resurrection and the life,” prefacing that declaration with “I am” (Jn. 11:25). In so doing, he appropriated something that, ordinarily, belonged to God alone – and in the process, implicitly presented himself as the locus of resurrection life. Sometimes, Jesus clearly drew from OT images and threads. He claimed to be the “bread of life” (6:35), plainly alluding to the feeding of the Israelites after their flight from Egypt (Exodus 16) – and the source, the enfleshment, of true life. His declaration to be “light” (8:12), it seems, echoed the OT’s use of light as a metaphor, not just for illumination, but for salvation (e.g. Isa. 42:6, 49:6). Similarly, as the “true vine” (15:1), Jesus claimed to be the divine reality to which OT Israel – frequently depicted in these terms (e.g. Ps. 80:8-11; Isa. 5:7) – pointed.

John 10:1-21 is a particularly good example of these realities. By declaring, “I am the good shepherd” (vv.11, 14), Jesus consciously alluded to Ezekiel 34 (cf. 37:24-28), boldly contrasting himself with Israel’s false leaders. In that passage, Israel’s “shepherds” are castigated for their predatory ways (vv.2-10); Yahweh vows that he himself will come and shepherd his people, whilst paradoxically promising the advent of a Davidic figure to reign over the nation (vv.11-24). Jesus re-applied Ezekiel’s promise to himself, asserting that he was that “shepherd,” and that he would provide security and comfort for God’s afflicted (albeit leaving the relationship between the Davidic ruler and Yahweh ambiguous). In so using the “I am” formula, Jesus identified himself with past instances of revelatory activity. Moreover, he frequently combined them with known scriptural images to substantiate his claim to be the consummating distillation of the salvific promises to which he alluded.

“I am” – Thematic Resonances

As the foregoing analysis implies, the “I am” statements signalled more than appropriation of the divine self-appellation. Indeed, they went beyond an abstract, metaphysical assertion. The “I am” formula’s OT grounding suggests that Jesus situated himself within a salvation-historical narrative, identifying (climactically) with a particular god, via particular acts – Yahweh, whose past revelations provided the boundaries for his own self-disclosure. The formula is pregnant with several interlocking theological themes and motifs, once more linking Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus to the Johannine Jesus. Three in particular stand out: the cosmic lawsuit; the revelatory-redemptive nexus; and the seminal significance of the image of exodus itself. They form a triadic relationship, having been woven together to inform a deeper understanding of the significance of the “I am” formula.

To begin, Jesus’ “I am” utterances are part of a scriptural-historical pattern of judicial contests between Yahweh and his adversaries. Both Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus feature what could be called the cosmic lawsuit motif, pitting God and false claimants to deity against each other in a supra-natural trial. Indeed, the question of knowledge of God’s identity hangs over both these portions of the OT. In Isaiah, Yahweh repeatedly reveals himself against a panoply of lifeless idols; in Exodus, he’s unveiled as the authentic Lord, over and against Pharaoh and his pantheon. The key link is the polemical unveiling of the true God in a judicial conflict, where his acts yield knowledge of his character (Exod. 6:2, 6-7, etc.). “I am [he]”, whether in Exodus 3:14, or Isaiah 40-55, hooks into this divine self-identification, and is achieved amidst controversy over who the true, universal sovereign is (cf. Exod. 5:2).

This trenchant disclosure does not, however, stand in isolation. As noted, these passages are part of a broader covenantal framework. In God’s effort to redeem Israel from slavery, or draw it out of exile, the cosmic lawsuit gives way to a deeper redemptive thrust. Yahweh’s exposure of false deities and his own, contrasting claims – by virtue of the evocative “I am” – are in the service of his desire to faithfully save his people. Thus, divine knowledge and divine redemption merge, and are twin components of the logic of Exodus and Isaiah 40-55. Finally, the exodus itself constitutes a seminal link: its founding reality becomes paradigmatic for future liberation by the time of Isaiah 40-55. Indeed, the references to the exodus in Isaiah are particularly vivid, establishing continuity between God’s salvation-historical acts.

The Johannine Jesus, by way of his “I am” pronouncements, relied upon this scriptural edifice, even as he presented himself as its capstone. “I am” is an allusion to a multi-faceted, redemptive narrative. The Fourth Gospel’s cosmic lawsuit, for example, is a well-known motif, reaching a crescendo in Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Adversarial-legal passages, such as Jn. 5:16-47 or 8:12-59, offer glimpses, as do the frequency of words such as “testimony” and “witness,” references to judgment and divine verdicts (e.g. 3:19ff; 5:22, 28-30; 11:31; 16:8-11), and the Holy Spirit’s depiction as counsellor or advocate.

The Johannine concept of truth takes on a decidedly judicial “hue” in this context, seen most clearly in the repeated disclosures of authentic deity. Jesus’ “I am” pronouncement in 8:58 (and 8:24, 28) is rooted in this environment, and is a particularly clear reflection of the wider cosmic contest, built into the Fourth Gospel’s narrative, between the true God and his opponents (cf. 1:4-5; cf. 19:15c). Controversy over Yahweh’s rightful status as universal Lord is transmuted into a trial over Jesus’ kingly identity (e.g. 19:15). Echoing those crucial portions of Exodus and Isaiah, Jesus offered himself, polemically, as true deity – Yahweh’s unique representative. The “I am” formula, so allusive in its brevity, encapsulates this fundamental (and exclusively authentic) unveiling (8:28). But, also like those OT passages under examination, such revelation was indissolubly linked with salvation: Jesus adopted the “exclusive soteriological function” claimed of Yahweh, where acknowledgement of the “I am” meant life (8:24, 51, 58; esp. 11:25-26; cf. 17:3). Conceiving of truth as revelation, John’s Gospel uses the “I am” statements to encapsulate the authentic character of God, as revealed in Jesus. It is in this regard that John’s frequent use of glory as a metaphor for divine light/truth, explicating Jesus’ identity as its ultimate channel, is relevant: “I am” reflects an understanding of redemptive enlightenment – the already-surveyed conjunction of divine knowledge, communion and salvation. The culmination of that nexus, of course, occurred at Calvary, the paradoxical site of Jesus’ ultimate unveiling as Israel’s true saviour-king (8:28). “I am,” as used by Jesus, is the functional, verbal equivalent of the image of Yahweh’s radiance.

The Fourth Gospel also employs the key motif of exodus as an overarching framework, using its seminal influence to flesh out the nature of Jesus’ salvific ministry. Features include: echoes of the tabernacle’s establishment, a key plank in Yahweh’s salvific-covenantal project (1:14); the corresponding use of divine glory to communicate a key dimension of Jesus person and ministry (e.g. 1:14; cf. 40:34-38); various Mosaic comparisons (1:15; 3:14); the wider import of Isaiah 40:1-3 in John 1:23 (trading, as the former passage does, on exodus imagery); allusive references to the paschal lamb (1:29); imagistic overtones of the exodus in Jesus’ “born again” declaration (esp. 3:5); typological use of the Israelites’ feeding in the wilderness (John 6); salvation as freedom from slavery (8:31, 34); Jesus’ crucifixion at Passover, consummating that event’s anticipatory significance; and, of course, the “I am” formula itself (given its already-noted provenance). Passing the exodus through an Isaianic prism, Jesus obliquely claimed to be the same “I am” who had already achieved redemption for his people, and vowed to do so again. He deployed the formula to identify himself intimately with the God of the exodus – signalling the inauguration of a new exodus, as promised in the Isaianic literature. Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus 3:14, then, should be combined as part of a layered backdrop to Jesus’ own claim – which his “I am” statements reflect – to be the salvific God’s climactic self-revelation.

“I am” God?

One shouldn’t conclude from the above account that Jesus was baldly claiming to be Yahweh/God, without remainder. His pronouncements were, it must be said, far more subtle. Whilst he appropriated uniquely divine prerogatives (bestowal of life, judgment, etc.), and implied unity with God (10:30), Jesus paradoxically distinguished himself from the Father, explicitly referring to this difference at several points (e.g. 4:34; 5:19). It’s important, in this final section, to nuance his solemn assertion of deity found in the “I am” formula.

Importantly, Jesus’ “I am” statements can be viewed in light of John’s unique Christological-theological presentation, particularly as it is found in the prologue (1:1-18). The notion of the divine logos (or Word/wisdom/mind) is pertinent, underpinning the distinctiveness of Jesus’ “I am” utterances. John 8:12 (bookending Chapter 8 with v.58) recalls the prologue’s characterisation of the Word as light, and coheres with allusive references to Jesus-as-Temple, the “site” of Yahweh’s resplendence (= glory, above p.5; see 1:14; 2:12-25; cf. Exod. 40:34-38). Tapping into a rich vein of Jewish theology about the transcendent God’s simultaneous immanence, John’s Gospel depicts Jesus as God’s embodied wisdom, identified with his nature, yet distinct (cf. Isa. 55:11; Prov. 8:22ff). The “I am” statements link Jesus with Yahweh’s activity and being, echoing the prologue’s portrayal of the divine Word as supervening agent in creation. Yahweh’s kingship, to which this essay has already referred, is of a piece with the Johannine picture of God’s presiding over creation: he is the universal sovereign, to which authorship of creation attests. Furthermore, this identity is “concretized,” so to speak, in Jesus and his “I am” claims. John 8:58 is especially apposite, strongly implying Jesus’ pre-existence, and contrasting it with creation’s contingency and finitude (represented, in this case, by Abraham’s qualified existence [cf. 1:1-3]). Functions attributed to Jesus are attributed to the logos, and these connections reflect the Gospel’s conviction regarding his co-inherence, his ontological identification, with Israel’s – and the world’s – God (14:10). Jesus is seen as, and declared himself to be, God’s mediating presence in the creation (1:9-10), witnessing to humanity as the climactic bearer of the divine name (cf. Heb. 1:1-3).

As can be seen, then, this isn’t merely a matter of later theologizing. In the aforementioned use of Ezekiel 34, Jesus himself fused the paradoxical combination of a divine-human shepherd in his own person. John 14:6, where Jesus claims, “I am the way…”, touches upon the enigma of his twin-status as the supreme revelation of Yahweh and the distinct channel, mediator – even enfleshment – of divine truth; indeed, to know Jesus is to know the Father (Jn. 14:9-10), and Yahweh’s singular reality is “devolved,” in a sense, to his uniquely qualified representative. “I am” functions as a subtle reference to Jesus’ divine status, whilst discouraging facile attempts to baldly equate him with Yahweh. Therefore, although he claimed deity, Jesus did so in a way that didn’t exhaust the Godhead. “I am” isn’t a totalizing declaration of godhood, but points to Jesus’ status as God’s true “image” – the incarnation of Yahweh’s wisdom. The Johannine picture of God’s manifold nature calibrates the import of Jesus’ statements, holding in tension his dual identity as Yahweh’s manifest presence and a discrete personage. “I am,” in this environment, successfully preserves the Son’s essential deity, but without collapsing it into the being of the Father.

Conclusion

It is apparent that the Johannine Jesus, according to his “I am” statements, sought to (obliquely) claim divinity. The formula bears clear linguistic parallels with OT instances of God’s self-identification – found, above all, in places such as Isaiah and Exodus – encompassing his uniqueness and covenantal loyalty. Moreover, Jesus’ declarations captured a complex web of fundamental salvation-historical themes and motifs, building upon those striking verbal similarities. The cosmic lawsuit, the coalescence of revelation and salvation, and the use of exodus as a defining image for that process, form a coherent backdrop to Jesus’ “I am” statements. More than an inert, metaphysical assertion, his declaration signalled the climax of God/Yahweh’s redemptive-revelatory activity, to which the surveyed background pointed. Past acts of self-disclosure converged in Jesus, crystallized – in abbreviated form – in the “I am” formula. Importantly, Jesus remained within the confines of monotheism, utilising Jewish categories to explicate his own, distinctive claims to deity. Rather than offering up an exhaustive declaration of godhood, the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel presented himself as God’s supreme self-expression: participating eternally in divine life, embodying divine truth, but retaining a distinct identity. Properly contextualised, Jesus’ “I am” statements buttress this paradoxical portrayal.

The God Beyond Compare

Perhaps I am a little slow, but this essay could be “old hat”, so to speak, for some readers. Still, it reflects my recent, meandering meditations upon a rather grandiose subject: God. One might even say they constitute a revelation, or at least a crystallization of latent thoughts. My conception of God has, I think, drawn closer (ever so slightly, of course) to the reality of who he is. It has taken a while for this truth to dawn; but, like the day’s first streaks of sunlight upon a dusty landscape, it has illuminated something that was previously shrouded in darkness and shadow. Of course, pure speculation cannot bring a person much closer to the truth of God. Still less can one possibly apprehend God in his totality, even given enough time. If that were true, then the object of one’s reflections could not possibly be called God. Indeed, if he can be likened to an ocean, then my recent revelations would nary fill one glass. We stare into the abyss of the divine, and our minds can only offer us a small lamp’s worth of illumination.

The above should be considered a caveat, for I will nevertheless attempt to share the meagre fruits of my reflections. When ruminating upon God, it is appropriate to begin with his being, or ontology. What is he in his nature? Clearly, he is quite unlike the material beings that populate this world. In fact, it is quite wrong-headed to think of him as a being at all – as if he were confined within the cosmic framework of the universe, just as his creatures are. It’s not simply that he is different in degree, or even in kind; much the same could be said when comparing humans and microbes. They are both created; God, on the other hand, is being uncreated and self-existent. He is not confined to any cosmic framework for the very simple reason that he is that framework (and more). To suggest otherwise would inadvertently constrain and domesticate him. If God is God, then he is so infinitely, absolutely, exclusively. If he can be called “a being”, sitting alongside other beings (only far more powerful, wise or good), then he is implicitly reduced to the level of finitude and contingency. Instead, the God of whom I speak is the transcendent One, beyond the constraints of time, space and all but the most blurred and opaque of human categories. He is wholly necessary, for there was never a time when he was not, just as there could never be an occasion in which he could not be. Between God’s ontology and that of his creation, there lies an unbridgeable chasm.

The contemporary Catholic philosopher, Edward Feser, puts it very well:

“…God…is not ‘a god’ among others, precisely because He isn’t an instance of any kind in the first place, not even a unique instance. He is beyond any genus. He is not ‘a being’ alongside other beings and doesn’t merely ‘have’ or participate in existence alongside all the other things that do. Rather, He just is ‘ipsum esse subsistens’, or Subsistent Being Itself”.

God, then, is not a mere being; he is, rather, absolute being (note the absence of any kind of preposition before “absolute”) in his own essence – the ground of all existence, the foundation of original and ongoing life. His existence is not like ours’ at all. He is simply existence itself. He does not participate in this phenomenon, for he is the self-existent One who simply is (cf. Ex. 3:14); and, of course, there was never a time when he acquired this attribute. He does not even “possess” it, in the way that we conventionally understand that term. Humans have life, but it remains a quality in need of constant support by the hospitality of propitious circumstances. When it comes to the affairs of men, all existence is qualified, contingent, finite. It requires something more foundational in order to be actual. Otherwise, non-existence reigns. God’s existence operates according to a different scheme entirely. We might say that his essence is existence (just as his essence is everything else that can truly be said of God. I shall return to this theme later). In like manner, it is a mistake to talk of God as being “real”, if by such a remark we inadvertently imply that it is conceivable for God to not be real. Better the idea that God is not simply real, but constitutes the overarching “structure” within which reality pulsates and emerges.

With this in mind, we ought not to think of God as somehow “sitting” above his creation, or even sitting outside it – as if cosmic geography somehow determined his relationship with his creation. Neither should we think of God as possessing the kinds of attributes that humans have, only more so. It is not simply the case that the divine qualities resemble human characteristics, but without limit. All conceptions of God that lean this way – without going any further – are desperately incomplete, for they have a propensity towards excessive anthropomorphism. That is, they take human instances of existence, or will, or intellect, or power, or morality (or whatever), and, treating those instances as the foundation for developing an understanding of God, simply multiply them in order to approximate the notion of divinity. Thus, God possesses power, only much more so than any other being; thus, he is wise like the greatest sage, only much more so. This could be recapitulated time and again. The point is that human examples of these qualities are taken as definitive. They are then tweaked in order to try and accommodate the vastly greater dimensions of God – all in an effort to clear a metaphysical gap that can only be bridged from one side.

In saying this, I am not arguing that employing anthropomorphisms is intrinsically wrong. It is quite clear, for example, that the biblical authors used everyday language and images as a way of trying to express the ultimately ineffable nature of God. Our finitude makes such concessions necessary. And, their legitimacy turns on the fact that, at some level, we can suggest a vague and imperfect likeness between humans and their Maker (think Genesis 1-2, for example). The problem lies in taking these images as either literal or exclusive depictions of God’s character – concretizing, and therefore limiting, his boundless qualities. The essence of his nature means that whatever quality we care to mention is, like the divine life I mentioned earlier, simply him. In other words, God does not merely possess his attributes in far greater quantities than his creatures; he simply is those qualities, in unbounded, unalloyed form. They constitute essential “elements” (an imperfect, though unavoidable, term) of his perfect being.

Let us take love as an example. “God is love”, as the Beloved wrote (1 Jn. 4:8).  It’s not simply the case that God loves or is loving. Those statements are true, so far as they go. However, the One whom Christians worship cannot be separated from the infinite love that characterizes him. His love is inseparable from who he is. He is the very definition of love, allowing for the reality of each contingent instance of compassion and good will we experience or exhibit. Unlike humans, who may acquire a loving disposition, or lose it, or allow it to grow cold – or even fail to develop one in the first place – God does not acquire or lose his attributes. They do not deepen over time, much less recede with the passing of the ages. Their breadth, just as much as their depth, stretch beyond both the confines of finite human thought and the limitless expanse of eternity itself. Whatever attributes we possess are faint shadows, muted echoes, of what is eternally intrinsic to the Godhead.

What humans have can only be the case because of what God is in himself. His bequests to us occur because those qualities have been, and are, eternally actual in the divine being. Moreover, each of us is a composition of parts, both natural and spiritual, having been formed by our Creator and further shaped by our environments. We develop, change and regress over time. The undulating nature of our lives is an inescapable part of who we are as finite beings, and our attributes find their source in divine artifice. By contrast, God’s infinitude, and his utter simplicity (meaning that he is not, unlike his creation, “composed” of anything) means that he and his attributes are eternally bound; there is no distinction, for he is one in himself. Whether love, or wisdom, or goodness, or strength – all these exist in perfect harmony with each other within the Godhead, for the unitary nature of his being makes any kind of distinction (other than for merely conceptual means) muddle-headed.

Let me delve into Scripture a little more in order to flesh out what I am trying to say. A moment ago, I alluded to Exodus 3:14. Anyone familiar with that portion of Scripture will remember that it concerns Moses’ first encounter with Yahweh, who met with the great man in order to call him to the office of Israel’s law-giver and liberator. When Moses asked God what he should say if the Israelites demanded to know who sent him, God simply replied, “I AM WHO I AM”. Later versions of this self-appellation simply render it, “I AM”. To say, “I am” without appendage is to declare with simple brevity complete and utter self-existence. God’s statement to Moses revealed his existential simplicity, and therefore, the stark contrast between the Creator and his creation. Unveiled was Yahweh’s eternal nature, sui generis. Neither made, nor composed, God simply is, completely untouched by the vissicitudes of time and circumstance, and yet in magisterial control of both. He has no origin and he has no cause, for he is the ultimate origin and cause of all that is. Whereas the existence of everything depends on him for the gift of actuality (for what else is it, but a gift?), God’s uncreated actuality is an eternal truth within which all other truths must sit.

Or take the prophet Isaiah. In 55:8, he speaks on behalf of God:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts // neither are your ways my ways…” // “As the heavens are higher than the earth, // so are my ways higher than your ways…”

Isaiah’s words reveal the utter transcendence of the mind of God. If one thinks of the heavens in relation to the earth, one knows that the latter can never reach the former. And so it is with the wisdom and will and ways of God. He is, by definition, “above” his creation, in that he has never been, and can never be, tamed or confined by it. In fact, the truth is the complete reverse. There exists a fundamental gap between God’s wisdom and our own – an infinite disjunction that we can never hope to cross, precisely because of the absolute uniqueness of the Godhead. It is a gap that has been complicated by the baleful effects of sin, no doubt. But our noetic limitations in relation to the divine are, fundamentally, metaphysical. This is not a comparison between two beings of differing levels of insight or intelligence. Divine knowledge and understanding exist and function upon their own, self-caused plane of reality.

What are the implications for believers? Can the average Christian draw anything useful from these apparently irrelevant musings – which appear to have little to do with the quotidian challenges of normal life? Firstly, and at the very least, one’s imagination should be irresistibly expanded. I’m not referring to one’s fictive powers, but rather the mind’s sanctified ability to receive a “picture” of the divine. Whilst so much of contemporary Christianity shamelessly downgrades the idea of God, I trust that the above conception can engender a certain loftiness in one’s thinking about matters divine and eternal. The church is only as good as its conception of God. Rather than the celestial magician, or the “big guy upstairs,” or even the implicitly carnal depictions of God as one’s lover [1], we ought to cleave to the awful majesty of the Godhead; the limitless, unbounded magnitude of the uncreated Creator; the unfathomable depths of the divine being, whose existence is the one necessary fact upon which all other facts (including that of our own existence) humbly rely. Even those who rightly eschew the simplistic character of the aforementioned images may themselves fall into the trap of excessive dependence on created categories to define the One who defies them all. If the understanding of God I have been trying to elucidate – transcendent, holy, wrapped in unapproachable light – fails to evoke within us silent awe, then I don’t know what could. Given that Christians formally acknowledge their utter dependency on him, a return to a true apprehension of God can only quicken and enrich that confession.

It behoves us, then, to exhibit a deep humility before the demonstration of such resplendence. Everything that humans have comes from God. For all our advancements, we are simply mimics; talented artisans who use what we have been given to harness and re-arrange the pre-existing elements of the created order. Even the most powerful of us are nothing but an ephemeral vapour, sourced in the mind of the Almighty. The relationship demands and entails complete dependence on the part of God’s creatures. That dependence, however, is well-rewarded. Whereas people are given over to corruption, apathy, or moral fatigue, God is not. He is the changeless One, whose moral perfections infinitely surpass the qualities of his creatures. Looking to the divine Sovereign for help and sustenance is the surest thing a person can do. Indeed, it is the surest thing a Christian can do, even as we live in a world that offers the illusion of self-sufficiency. It is true, then, that we rely entirely upon God’s nature for our survival and actuality, irrespective of a person’s acknowledgement of that truth. A.W. Tozer’s words are worth quoting at this point. In The Knowledge of the Holy, he said of man’s existence in relation to God:

“Man for all his genius is but an echo of the original voice, a reflection of the uncreated light. As a sunbeam perishes when cut off from the sun, so man apart from God would pass back into the void of nothingness from which he first leaped at the creative call. Not only man, but everything that exists came out of, and are dependent upon, the continuing creative impulse”.

This is surely a check on anthropocentric hubris. It is also an encouragement to those who, on bended knee, have decided to cleave to God as both the source and goal of life’s riches.

If humanity depends entirely on God, then it is equally true that God, being completely self-sufficient and self-existent, does not need humanity. My reflections thus far naturally entail a concession to the absolute otherness, the utter holiness, of the One in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). Since God is the foundation of all reality – including all created reality – then attempting to define him apart from his gracious self-disclosure is an exercise fraught with risk. God’s being represents a deep challenge to the idolatrous notions that abound within the minds of men. Part of the folly of idolatry is that it attempts, either implicitly or by design, to reduce God to a possession of the material realm. Of course, it is possible to grasp at least something of the divine nature. But our metaphysical and harmatological [2] limitations make a pure apprehension of God impossible. At this point, Paul’s Letter to the Romans is instructive. Romans 1:21-25 details, in mytho-poetic terms, the futility of humans attempting to worship “created things rather than the Creator” (v.25), for the very reason that the objects of worship are, in the same way as those who worship them, mere artefacts of the divine will. Divine transcendence means that God can never be defined, much less bound, by the limits of material objects. How can one possibly grasp the untamed God, whose very existence frustrates our efforts to understand him by our own lights?

Of course, God’s absolute transcendence does not preclude his personhood, even if it does preclude overly personalistic accounts of his nature. For starters, God is not simply the cause, at one moment in time, of all that exists. He has not created this world in order to remain irrevocably distant from it. Rather, via his providential work, God continues to uphold all things. Not only “in the beginning”, but at every moment since, the Creator has been at work to sustain what he has made. As Paul put it, “he is” not only “before all things”, but “in him all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). That in itself suggests a deep involvement, a richly textured engagement, with the created order.

However, one can be far more specific when celebrating the sovereign God’s simultaneous immanence. Immediately after speaking of the transcendence of the Lord’s thoughts and ways (see above), the prophet Isaiah proclaims:

“As the rain and the snow come down from heaven // and do not return to it without watering the earth…” // “…so is my word that goes out from my mouth: // It will not return to me empty // but will accomplish what I desire // and achieve the purpose for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:10-11).

God’s word, or wisdom (the two concepts are normally synonymous in the Old Testament), should always be seen as an indelible manifestation of his character. Proverbs 8:22-36 personifies this eternally begotten attribute of the Godhead (Pr. 8:22-25). Thus, it is above and before creation in precisely the same way that God is. And yet, Isaiah could speak of God’s word proceeding forth from the eternal abyss to bring life to his world – wending its way through the created order, like a river sluicing a path through a desert, bringing life in its train. The transcendence of the divine nature is, at exactly the same time, the intimate word/wisdom that sustains, heals, enlivens and illuminates the material existence in which we dwell.

Old Testament seers and sages are not the only biblical figures that speak of the sovereign God’s immanence within creation. The New Testament also celebrates the bridge he has forged between his own, transcendent reality, and the comparatively lowly reality of the creation. The various manifestations of God’s wisdom – the means by which the world was fashioned; the law, given to Yahweh’s chosen people, meant to lead them in righteousness; and the healing, redemptive word offered up to a wayward nation by the Lord’s chosen agents – culminated in the radical and astonishing rupture of all expectations pertaining to divine-human relationships. John the Beloved speaks of it in terms that can only be called sublime:

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made…the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:1-2, 14).

With prose that reaches beyond the veil of the material world, John grasps at the eternal Word, or wisdom, of God. His reference to the Word’s intimate identity with God “in the beginning” is an allusive nod to the Genesis creation narrative (Gen. 1:1). The Word was indeed God’s supervening agent as he fashioned his world. The poetics of Proverbs 8 wax lyrical about this epochal event. But the Beloved goes further, insisting that God’s Word/wisdom is not simply a principal or force; he is personal in the same way, and to the same (infinite) degree, that God is. More than that, the evangelist announces the advent of another epochal event. It is the glorious fact of the Word’s incarnation – his deep identity with the created world, such that he became a part of it.

The transcendent God’s simultaneous immanence found complete expression in the embodiment of his Word: Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man, the bridge between divinity and humanity, whose very person brought into existence the reconciliation between those two natures. He “is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being…” (Hebrews 1:3). But the reflection of that divine resplendence was “made in human likeness” (Philippians 2:7), inhabiting mortal existence in the most intimate of ways. Paradoxically, the God who could never – and can never – be constrained by his creation, made the decision (the genesis of which occurred in eternity past) to immerse himself in its flow. Equally paradoxical is the unbounded power of the divine nature, whose gracious incarnation defies every category humans have to make sense of this world. I have spoken much about God’s fundamental difference from his creation; his absolute otherness, and the seemingly unbridgeable chasm that separates him from his creatures – even his image-bearers. Nevertheless, as Karl Barth wrote, “It is when we look at Jesus Christ that we know decisively that God’s deity does not exclude, but includes his humanity” (emphasis original). God is largely incomprehensible on his own terms, to be sure. Whatever we can grasp of the divine apart from his own unveiling is a thin mist that barely covers our own ignorance. Still, God has performed the impossible in adopting our nature. He has drawn out the pure idea of humanness from within his own depths, and entered the contingency of the material world as the glorious ideal to which man, by the enabling power of the Creator, may aspire.

[1] Of course, I am not suggesting that God is not our lover in some sense. But his love is of an altogether greater variety than the love that exists between humans (this even applies to husbands and wives, although that love – more than any other kind – is best placed to provide an analogy). In addition, the statement to which this footnote is linked refers more to contemporary images of God as one’s “boyfriend”, “mate” or even the risible “homie”. These may be rather extreme examples, but their presence within the church means that somewhere along the way, we have lost that sense of God’s awesome power and limitless, inexhaustible magnitude. More to the point, they are only the most crude manifestations of a spiritual infestation that has corrupted the church’s previously high view of God.

[2] “Harmatological” basically means “pertaining to sin”.

On Faith and Floods – God’s Response (Part 3.2)

The Word Made Flesh

In my last post, I spoke of God entering into time and space in a new way through the person of Jesus, which constituted his answer to the problem of evil. Here, I want to delve into that some more. Passages such as John 1:14, Philippians 2:7, Romans 8:3 and even Hebrews 2:14, 17, all speak of Jesus coming in the flesh. Christians often emphasize Christ’s deity. And so we should. But let us not forget the remarkable message that confronts us in these verses: that the Word, the divine logos, became flesh. And this was not just some divine experiment. No; it was instead the beginning of the process by which God would defeat evil.  The Creator entered the chaotic flow of creation and history to experience it for himself – not just its highs, but its lows, it joys, and its pain. From the simplest feelings of thirst to the most agonizing cries of distress in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus underwent the full range of human emotions and appetites and experiences. As F.F. Bruce once wrote, this was “no impassable visitant from another realm, untouched by our ordinary infirmities”. The passages that I have cited all claim that God has revealed himself most completely, most supremely – most uniquely – in a fully-rounded person: Jesus Christ. The book of Hebrews is especially clear. It speaks of Jesus sharing in our nature, “being made like his brothers” (2:17). He did not just “dip his toe into the water” of humanity, so to speak. He immersed himself in it fully. Incarnation meant inhabitation, and through the person of Jesus, God himself was dwelling fully within human nature.

This in itself ought to be a comfort to those suffering, for those who are Christ’s disciples follow a god who is not absent, or whose transcendence means that he is simply removed from this world. No; we pursue a god who knows what it is to suffer. It is easy for me, in the comfort of my study, to write about evil and suffering. I can argue for the existence of God in light of the terrible, unimaginable horrors that confront people every day from a position of safety. But God himself knows first-hand what it means to be crushed under the weight of evil. In responding to the power of sin in this world, God has so radically identified with the brokenness of his creation that he became a part of it. And thus, he is able to identify with all those who have been touched by the scourge of sin and evil. It is one thing for another to come alongside a person who is grieving; quite another for the Creator God, the One who has brought this world into being to then participate (voluntarily, no less) in its pain.

And of course, the most pristine image of that participation was the cross. It was there that the worst of sin’s power was drawn to one point – the body of Jesus (Romans 8:3), and he experienced the torment of pain – physical pain, distress, and the agony of abandonment. Thus, to the person who is battling with cancer, or who has lost his or her spouse in a flood, we can truly say that God, too, has experienced suffering. To those who weep over abandonment, we can honestly say that God knows of that intimately. Jesus’ cry when he was on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) – emerged from the depths of his being. He was not simply quoting Scripture; he was undergoing the consequences of divine abandonment, and thus enduring the loneliness of a broken world (about which I will say more). The triune God elected to experience that process, in part in order to identify with his suffering creation. Indeed, Isaiah 53 – that great prophetic ode to the suffering servant, sent to deal with his people’s sins, and who was revealed as the incarnate Son, Jesus – speaks of this:

“He was despised and rejected by others,

            a man of suffering, and familiar with 

                        pain…”

“Surely he took up our pain

            and bore our suffering…”

“He was oppressed and afflicted,

            yet he did not open his mouth;

he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,

            and as a sheep before its shearers is

                        silent,

so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:3,4,7).

Through the cross, God in Christ experienced sin’s consequences for himself, standing with the lowly and the burdened in the midst of the maelstrom. Indeed, the invisible God has become visible – concrete – in Jesus. His care for humanity has now become incarnate in the person of his Son. To those who, like Job, wonder where God is in the middle of their misery, we can say that he is truly there.

More must be said, but I shall leave that for the ultimate post in this series.