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Sunday, 1 May 2022

Reading Isaiah like an Early Christian (2): "God...will repay; he himself will come and save us" (Isaiah 35:4)

Let us continue our series on the Christological significance of Isaianic texts. In the last article we looked at Isaiah 48:16, observing that the speaker of this text is enigmatic, that the text is alluded to in the Gospel of John, and that early Christian exegetes (specifically Origen of Alexandria and Eusebius of Caesarea) understood the speaker to be Christ.

In this article, we will look at Isaiah 35:4. Let us first consider the passage in its immediate context:
1 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3 Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.” 5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6 then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. (Isaiah 35:1-6b NRSV)1
The Septuagint version of v. 4 reads, "Give comfort, you who are faint of heart and mind! Be strong; do not fear! Look, our God is repaying judgment; yes, he will repay; he himself will come and save us" (NETS). It is this last clause (αὐτὸς ἥξει καὶ σώσει ἡμᾶς in Greek) that demands our close attention. The statement places special emphasis on the subject; hence the translation "he himself will come and save us."2 Moreover, the verb ἥκω does not merely mean "come" in a generic sense (like ἔρχομαι does) but, when used of persons, specifically means "to be in a place as the result of movement to, have come, be present".3 Focusing on the result of the movement more than the movement itself, it signals that God will come and be present with his people.4 While the text certainly does not make explicit reference to the Incarnation, this is one means by which God could have come to be present with his people and so heal their infirmities, as Jesus did according to the Gospels.

Given the emphatic use of αὐτὸς here ("God...will repay; he himself will come and save us"), it is worth noting some similar language in 1 Thessalonians 4:16, a reference to Christ's second coming when he will raise the dead: "For the Lord himself (αὐτὸς ὁ κύριος)...will descend from heaven..." "The Lord" here is obviously Christ; but why has Paul added αὐτὸς for emphasis? It could, in fact, be an allusion to another Isaianic text:
But now the Lord will stand up to judge, and he will make his people stand to judge them. The Lord himself (αὐτὸς κύριος) will enter into judgment with the elders of the people and with their rulers. (Isaiah 3:13-14 LXX, NETS)

It is possible that early Christian readers would have seen in the verb "stand" here an allusion to the resurrection.5 But what is clear is that the text foretells that "the Lord himself" will come and be present for judgment (the verb is again ἥκω). "The Lord" in the context of Isaiah 3:13-14 is obviously God, but Paul apparently interprets it to refer to Christ. This provides at least prima facie evidence that Paul might have likewise understood the "God" who would himself come in judgment according to Isaiah 35:4 to be Christ.

Isaiah 35 in the New Testament

Isaiah 35 is a chapter that lends itself easily to eschatological interpretation. The image of the desert blossoming, associated with the people seeing the glory of God (vv. 1-2) is a picture of restoration (cf. Acts 3:21). The author of Hebrews, in calling his readers to perseverance that they may receive their eschatological reward, alludes to Isaiah 35:3 ("Be strong, you weak hands and feeble knees") in 12:12.6 The list of miracles in Isaiah 35:5-6 has certainly influenced statements about Jesus' healing ministry, especially in Matthew 11:4-5 and 15:30-31.7 The picture in Isaiah 35:10 of pain and sorrow and sighing having fled away forms part of the background to Revelation 21:4, which states that "mourning and crying and pain will be no more".8 Thus, while the NT never quotes verbatim from Isaiah 35, there is ample evidence that it was understood in the early Church to refer to the blessings of the Messianic age, including those inaugurated at Christ's first coming.

Isaiah 35:4 in the Early Church

At least five ante-Nicene Christian writers interpret Isaiah 35:4 (together with vv. 5-6) as a prophecy about Christ. The first of these is Tertullian (late 2nd or early 3rd century), who writes (within a polemic against the Jews):
Moreover, [I shall demonstrate] the feats of strength [Christ] was going to perform from the Father: ‘Behold, our God shall restore judgement, God shall come and make us well. Then the weak shall be cared for, the eyes of the blind shall see, the ears of the deaf shall hear, the tongues of the mute shall be loosened and the lame shall leap like the dear’, etc. 9.31. Nor are you denying that Christ has done these things, seeing that it is you who used to say that you were throwing stones at him, not on account of his works but because he was doing them on the sabbath. (Adversus Judaeos 9.30-31)9
Evidently, Tertullian takes the words "God shall come and make us well" as fulfilled in Christ's ministry, but does not explicitly state that "God" in this verse refers to Christ. In view of the reference to feats of strength that he performed "from the Father," it is possible that he meant that God (the Father) came vicariously in Christ, or that Christ (here called "God") came from the Father.   

Around 248 A.D., Cyprian, Bishop of Carthage, wrote two books of Testimonia, that is, of "topically arranged proof-texts,"10 to one Quirinus. Having quoted many biblical texts (from both Testaments) to show "That Christ is God" (Ad Quirinum 2.6), Cyprian next marshals a series of texts proving "That Christ our God should come as the Enlightener and Saviour of the human race" (Ad Quirinum 2.7).11 The first proof text quoted is Isaiah 35:3-6. This leaves no doubt that Cyprian understood "God" in Isaiah 35:4 to refer to Christ, and thus to be a prophecy of the Incarnation.

At about the same time (c. 240-250), the Roman presbyter Novatian wrote his work de Trinitate, a polemical work defending the Church's doctrine "against the errors of Docetism, Adoptianism, and Modalism."12 Novatian discusses our passage at some length:
(4) The same prophet [Isaiah] says: ‘Be strong, you feeble hands and weak knees; be comforted, you that are faint-hearted, be strong, fear not. Behold, our God will render judgment: He will come and save us; then shall the eyes of the blind be opened, and the ears of the deaf shal hear; then shall the lame man leap as the hart, and the tongue of the dumb shall be eloquent.’ (5) If the prophet says that these signs—which have already been wrought—will be the future signs of God’s advent, then let the heretics either acknowledge that Christ is the Son of God, at whose coming and by whom these miracles were wrought, or—defeated by the truth of Christ’s divinity and falling into the other heresy—inasmuch as they refuse to confess that Christ is the Son of God and God—let them confess that He is the Father. Since they have been restrained by the words of the prophets, they can no longer deny that Christ is God. (6) What, then, can they reply, when the miracles which were prophesied as taking place at the coming of God, were actually wrought at the advent of Christ? In what way do they think Christ is God? For they can no longer deny that He is God. Do they think He is the Father or the Son? If they accept Him as the Son, why do they deny that the Son of God is God? If they accept Him as the Father, why are they not following those who are seen to hold such blasphemies? At any rate, in this debate with them about the truth, it suffices for our present purpose that, no matter how they are refuted, they confess that Christ, whose divinity they wished to deny, is also God. (de Trinitate 12.4-6)13
Novatian, like Cyprian, believes that Isaiah 35:4 proves Christ's deity. If Isaiah refers to the coming of God and then describes healing works that were in fact performed in history by Christ, it follows that Christ is the "God" that Isaiah prophesied would come.

In the 268/9, a synod in Antioch deposed the Bishop of Antioch, Paul of Samosata, in part for Christological heresy.14 A letter survives addressed to Paul by six other bishops, of whom Hymenaeus of Jerusalem is named first. This letter is known as the Letter of the Six Bishops or the Letter of Hymenaeus.15 I am not aware of any published English translation; what follows is my translation of the Greek.16 The bishops write,
But whomever would resist the Son of God, believing and confessing him not to be God before the foundation of the world, thinking two gods to be announced if the Son of God is declared God, we regard this as alien to the ecclesiastical rule, and all the catholic churches agree with us. For about him it is written…
The bishops proceed to quote a series of biblical proof texts that, in their view, establish that the Son of God is God. The first is Psalm 44(45):6-7, and the second is our text, Isaiah 35:4-6.

Finally, Eusebius of Caesarea discusses our text in his work Proof of the Gospel, written c. 314-324.17 After quoting from Isaiah 35 at length, he writes:
Now we have this prophecy fulfilled in the Gospels, partly, when they brought to our Lord and Saviour a paralytic lying on a bed, whom He made whole with a word; and partly, when many that were blind and possessed with daemons, yea, labouring under various diseases and weaknesses, were released from their sufferings by His saving power. Nor should we forget how even now throughout the whole world multitudes bound by all forms of evil, full of ignorance of Almighty God in their souls, are healed and cured miraculously and beyond all argument by the medicine of His teaching. Except that now we call Him God as we should, as One Who can work thus, as I have already shown in the evidence of His Divinity... For it is God and the Word of God, not one like Moses or the prophets, that was not only the Worker of the Miracles, but is also the Cause of your own strength. And the strongest confirmation of the Divine Power of the Saviour here foretold, by which He really used to cure the lame, the blind, the lepers and the palsied with a word according to that which is written concerning Him, is the power even now energizing through the whole world from His Godhead... And He is our God, since He is the Word of God, [as] it says, 'Gives judgment and will give, He will come and save us.'... He repays justly to the Jewish people the fit penalty for their presumptuous treatment of Him and His prophets, and ever saves in justice as well those who come to Him... And the judgment on them that shall be saved by Him is foretold next in the words, 'He will come and save us; then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf hear,' and that which follows." (Proof of the Gospel 9.13)18
Like Cyprian and Novatian before him, Eusebius saw in this text proof that Christ is God.

Conclusion

Isaiah 35:4 LXX declares that God himself will come and be present and save us. We have observed that Church Fathers both in the West (Cyprian, Novatian, possibly Tertullian) and in the East (Hymenaeus and other bishops, Eusebius) understood Isaiah this text to be a prophecy of the Incarnation, in which God truly did come and make himself physically present to us in the person of his Son, the Word Incarnate. This interpretation is supported by NT allusions to Isaiah 35—which show that the text was understood Messianically—and by the language used in the Septuagint Greek, especially when compared with Paul's language in 1 Thessalonians 4:16.

  • 1 All biblical quotations herein, except those from the Septuagint, are taken from the NRSV. Quotations from the Septuagint are taken from Albert Pietersma and Benjamin G. Wright (eds.), A New English Translation of the Septuagint (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007) (hereafter NETS).
  • 2 αὐτὸς is the third-person pronoun, i.e. "he." However, an ancient Greek sentence does not require a subject to be supplied explicitly, since it is implicit in the verb; hence ἥξει καὶ σώσει ἡμᾶς already means "he will come and save us." The inclusion of αὐτὸς thus places emphasis on the subject. Secondly, word order in ancient Greek is highly flexible; the sentence could have been worded ἥξει αὐτὸς καὶ ἡμᾶς σώσει and would still mean, "he will come and save us." Thus, that αὐτὸς is the first word places further emphasis on the subject.
  • 3 BDAG 435.
  • 4 Of course, the Masoretic text is no less impressive in declaring, "Here is your God" (cf. Isa. 40:9-10).
  • 5 The verb ἵστημι ("stand") is the root of the verb ἀνίστημι (literally, "stand again") that is a technical term for "raise (from the dead)" in the NT.
  • 6 "Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees".
  • 7 Matthew 11:4 "refers again to specific healing miracles as  having messianic significance, as already in the LXX of Isa. 29:18-19; 35:5-6; and 61:1" (Craig L. Blomberg, "Matthew," in Commentary on the Old Testament Use of the New Testament, ed. G. K. Beale and D. A. Carson [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007], 38). "The categories of sick people and the healings performed in Matt. 15:30-31 again recall the prophecies of the miracles that would demonstrate the arrival of the messianic age (esp. Isa. 35:5-6)" (ibid., 54).
  • 8 G. K. Beale and Sean M. McDonough, "Revelation," in Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, 1151.
  • 9 Trans. Geoffrey D. Dunn, Tertullian (London: Routledge, 2004), p. 90.
  • 10 Martin C. Albl, "And Scripture Cannot Be Broken": The Form and Function of the Early Christian Testimonia Collections (Leiden: Brill, 1999), 132.
  • 11 Trans. A Library of the Fathers of the Holy Catholic Church (Oxford: John Henry Parker, 1840), 3:37.
  • 12 Russell J. deSimone (trans.), Novatian: The Trinity, The Spectacles, Jewish Foods, In Praise of Purity, Letters (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1974), 14-15.
  • 13 Trans. deSimone, Novatian, 50-51.
  • 14 "Paul rejects the idea that the Logos should be composed (σύνθετος) with a human body, for this would be equivalent to a kind of mingling which is contrary to his dignity or rank as the Son of God… Malchion insists that Jesus Christ is one, composed out of two simple elements, the God-Logos and the human body, which is from the seed of David. The charge laid on Paul is that his rejection of such a model of ‘composition’ implies a denial of the substantial union of the Son of God with the human body. It is insinuated that he conceives of the union in Christ as a participation, presumably of the man Jesus, in the divine Wisdom, who is said to dwell in the former. According to Malchion, Paul’s doctrine of the inhabitation of divine Wisdom is motivated by the intention to protect the Son of God from the humiliating consequences of his kenosis, i.e. from suffering the cost or loss (dispendium) of his being united with a human body." (U. M. Lang, "The Christological Controversy at the Synod of Antioch in 268/9," Journal of Theological Studies 51 [2000]: 66-67.
  • 15 Lang states that de Riedmatten has argued convincingly in favour of its authenticity ("Christological Controversy," 71).
  • 16 Greek text in Martin Josephus Routh, Reliquiae Sacrae, 5 vols. (Oxford: Typographeo academico, 1846-48), 3:291.
  • 17 According to Aaron P. Johnson, the Proof of the Gospel was written during the period 314-324 ("Narrating the Council: Eusebius on Nicaea," in The Cambridge Companion to the Council of Nicaea, ed. Young Kim [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021], 203). W. J. Ferrar dates the Proof of the Gospel to 314-318, reasoning that some of theological language is too "unguarded" to have been written after the Arian controversy erupted c. 319 (The Proof of the Gospel, Being the Demonstratio Evangelica of Eusebius of Caesarea [2 vols.; London: SPCK, 1920], 1:xiii).
  • 18 Trans. Ferrar, Proof of the Gospel, 2:178-79. The word "as" has been inserted in square brackets by me, since Ferrar's translation does not make sense without it. An alternative emendation would be, "And He is our God. Since He is the Word of God, it says, 'Gives judgment...'"