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Consider Isaiah 53:4-6 (NIV), which is commonly interpreted as a prophecy that the Messiah would die for the sins of the world:

4Surely he took up our pain
   and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
   stricken by him, and afflicted.
5But he was pierced for our transgressions,
   he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
   and by his wounds we are healed.
6We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
   each of us has turned to our own way;
and the LORD has laid on him
   the iniquity of us all.

It seems apparent that the majority of Jews at the time, did not interpret this passage (and others) to mean that Jesus was the Messiah, until after Christ died. This seems to be common with many (maybe most or all) Biblical prophecies: There is sufficient detail to identify once an event has occurred, but not sufficient detail to predict when a prophesied event will occur.

So my question: Did Isaiah understand his own prophecies, in the sense that we do today? Would Isaiah, for instance, have known that the Messiah would die for the sins of the world? If Isaiah had met Christ before His death, would he have realized he was the Messiah?

Or were Isaiah's own words enigmatic to him as they were to the rest of the world, prior to the fulfillment of the prophecies?

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This is partially related to the idea of Sensus Plenor. –  Caleb Oct 14 '11 at 8:22
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Slightly related question on BH: What is Sensus Plenior and how does it impact the field of hermeneutics? –  Caleb Oct 14 '11 at 8:55

2 Answers 2

Peter gives us some insight into this:

10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, 11 trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of the Messiah and the glories that would follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven. Even angels long to look into these things. 1 Peter 1:10-12 NIV

Many passages in the Old Testament were considered to be Messianic well before the time of Christ. One theory was that there would actual be two Messiahs. This arose out of an attempt to reconcile what appeared to be both a suffering Messiah and a conquering Messiah. These were known as Messiah Ben Joseph (or Ephraim) and Messiah Ben David.

The Messiah Ben Joseph (son of Joseph) indicated the sufferings that Joseph, the son of Jacob, endured at the hands of his brothers and during the first part of his time in Egypt. Interestingly enough, Joseph became as Pharaoh in Egypt, much like Jesus, who did suffer at the hands of His brothers and the forces of another country, but who now reigns as King of Kings.

Messiah Ben David would be a king.

So, Isaiah, like Peter reveals, likely searched intently and with the greatest care trying to find out the time and circumstances when Messiah would come. He likely did not understand everything about it, but more than likely understand a good bit.

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Let's do one question at a time!

Did Isaiah understand his own prophecies, in the sense that we do today?

  • A NT Scripture can answer this pretty well for you!

    Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet's own interpretation of things. (2 Peter 1:20 NIV)

    This NT passage tells us that what Isaiah was writing he did not know was going to be interpreted in light of the messiah instead of a suffering nation of israel in exile.

Would Isaiah, for instance, have known that the Messiah would die for the sins of the world?

  • Perhaps. This prophecy was written through Isaiah, but no one realized that the Messiah was going to die for the sins of the world. Even John the Baptist who called Jesus the Lamb of God in John 1 did not think Jesus was going about as the Messiah in the way he thought He would. Jesus' approach towards being the Messiah caught everyone off-guard but in hindsight we see that was how it was always meant to be!

If Isaiah had met Christ before His death, would he have realized he was the Messiah?

  • We don't know! The answer could go either way. But one could ask, how does it edify the church to know that Isaiah would have recognized the Messiah?

Or were Isaiah's own words enigmatic to him as they were to the rest of the world, prior to the fulfillment of the prophecies?

  • To answer this question, I will refer to the 2 Peter passage above. Apparently the prophet's own interpretation of things (events happening around him, remember, Isaiah was writing about the time of the exile) was not how the prophecy came about. Isaiah was writing about the suffering of the nation of Israel in exile, not knowing that it was also about the Messiah to come! I say this because Isaiah does not make mention in Isaiah 53 that he was telling a prophecy, plus he makes no official mention of a Messiah. Which means that what GOD was saying through Isaiah at one point GOD also used to point towards the Messiah!
  • Case in point, no where in that chapter does Isaiah actually use the word "messiah.". This doesn't mean the passage isn't about the messiah, but just that Isaiah wasn't writing thinking "one day people are going to figure out that I am writing about the messiah.". No, he was a prophet trying to explain the suffering of his own people in exile.

Here are some exerpts from the wikipedia page on Is 53...

  • "Jewish commentator Rashi believed Isaiah 53 referred to Israel.[7] Rashi, writing in the 11th century, did have some historical precedent for this interpretation, as his commentary became one of the best popular commentaries on the Tanakh.

    Eliyahu Rabbah, which scholars agree was written in the end of the tenth century[8], (Tana Devei Eliyahu) has 3 citations referenced below.

    The first book of the Talmud - Brachot page 5a (compiled between app 220 and 300 CE) applies Is 53 to the people of Israel and those who study Torah..."

and

  • "Furthermore, the Midrash known as Tana Devei Eliyahu contains three references to Isaiah 53, applying them to the righteous of Israel (chapters 6, 13, 27).[12]

    Another Midrash, Aleph Beitot (final chapter) quotes Isaiah 53 in reference to the nation of Israel as a whole.[12]

    Midrash Psalms 94:2 applies Isaiah 53:10 to the righteous in general (also in other earlier writings - Mechilta De Rabbi Ishmael)

    Kuzari also identifies Isaiah 53 as the nation of Israel.[12]

    Chovot ha-Levavot also identifies Isaiah 53 as the nation of Israel.[12]"

But all of this goes to say that what man thought was only about one thing, GOD also intended it to point towards the Messiah to come. Which is how most of the prophecies in the OT were found out, after the event of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection!

I hope this helps!

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This looks like the promising beginning to a good answer... I wonder if you can add more weight to that interpretation of 2 Peter, though, maybe by citing a Biblical commentary or other source? –  Flimzy Oct 14 '11 at 5:04
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Well, you and I have already provided three possible interpretations of the same verse: Yours in the answer, and mine and yours in the comments. I think that says plainly enough that just quoting the Bible in this case is not sufficient to answer the question. –  Flimzy Oct 14 '11 at 5:12
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If it's that clear, then you should have no trouble finding an authoritative source to cite that agrees with your interpretation. –  Flimzy Oct 14 '11 at 5:25
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FWIW, the commentaries I've found so far online (1 ,2) seem to agree with my interpretation--that it means God is the source of the prophecy, and not the prophet himself--and that the verse says nothing of whether the prophets understood their own prophecy. I've also found several other interpretations mentioned (Bible interprets itself, no interpretation is better than another, etc) but none that seem to agree with your answer yet. –  Flimzy Oct 14 '11 at 5:32
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As has been pointed our, your claim that something has an "obvious" interpretation is easily falsifiable by showing that it is only one interpretation among many and perhaps even in the minority. In order to differentiate this from being pure opinion you will need to defend it with something else, perhaps an explanation of the hermeneutics used to derive such an interpretation or some doctrinal statements from Christian groups that claim that meaning. –  Caleb Oct 14 '11 at 10:41

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