A Fascinating (and Problematic) Text

I was doing some “heavy lifting” (at least for me) in preparation for our mid-week Bible study. Unfortunately, our teacher had a last minute need to take care of, so I was unable to have all of my questions answered. So, maybe this post is a little premature – but this is a fascinating (and to me, fun) text to consider.

The text under discussion is John 12:39-40, quoted here from the ESV:

Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.’

Okay, issue number one: this is NOT what the passage in the book of Isaiah reads. You can check me on this, but in the ESV the passage in Isaiah 6:9-10 reads:

Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.

So, in John the point of view of the speaker has changed from the Old Testament view. In the Old Testament, the passage is a command to the prophet – it is something that the prophet must do. In John’s quotation, it is something that has been done by an unidentified “he.” So, either John, or the manuscript from which John is quoting, has slightly altered the text. Now, digging a little deeper, I discovered that John’s rendition is perfectly acceptable if you add different vowels to the Hebrew consonants. (Technical aside here: originally Hebrew was written using only consonants. Later, “vowel points” were added underneath the consonants as a benefit to reading the text. Try this – take any paragraph and remove all the vowels. You can still read the words, but it takes some doing. So, in the text above, if different “vowel points” are placed under the consonants, you can legitimately arrive with the “point of view” that John quotes in his gospel). Fascinating.

But it gets even more fascinating.

The text from Isaiah 6:9-10 is quoted (or alluded to) in all four gospels and in the book of Acts (Matthew 13:14; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39-40; and Acts 28:26). In Matthew, Mark and Luke the text comes in context with Jesus’s parable of the sower. In Mark and Luke the Isaiah passage is only  paraphrased, so we can eliminate those passages. What is fascinating is that in Matthew and Acts the text is quoted, not from the original Hebrew, but from one Greek translation of the Hebrew, called the Septuagint. Once again I quote from the ESV (for continuity):

For this people’s heart has grown dull, and with their ears they can barely hear, and their eyes they have closed, lest they should see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them.

Notice that the Greek version (quoted by Matthew and Luke in Acts) follows the Hebrew in the sequencing: heart-ears-eyes-eyes-ears-heart (in John’s quotation it is eyes-heart-eyes-heart). In the Greek version of Matthew and Acts the hardening, the stopping of the ears and the blinding of the eyes is a past event (as in the gospel of John), but it is clearly insinuated (and in the case of the eyes, clearly stated) that it is the people themselves who have made it impossible for God to heal them. In John’s version the agent is an unidentified “he” who is separate from the “I” who would heal the people.

All of the above is fodder for the textual critics, those who pore over ancient manuscripts and attempt to decipher the chain of events that leads one author to quote (or paraphrase) a text in one manner while another will quote (or paraphrase) the same text in a different manner. Quite honestly, that study is miles above my head, although I do find it immensely interesting.

No, what I find to be particularly fascinating (sorry to use a word so repetitively), is that it exists at all – either in the Old Testament message of Isaiah, or especially in the New Testament message of the gospel writers and in Luke (quoting, as he was, the apostle Paul quoting Isaiah).

Why would God command Isaiah to make it impossible (or, at the very minimum, difficult) for the people to repent? And why would Jesus quote this problematic text, and why would Paul once again quote it as he attempted to preach to the Jews in Rome?

In Isaiah, the prophet clearly understands the problem. He asks, “How long?” He struggles too. Isn’t the point of a prophetic message to encourage or to facilitate repentance? God’s response, in verses 11-13 seems to be that there must be a time where people can actually see the results of their rebellion. In other words, God is telling Isaiah, “These people are not going to take your words to heart. So, I am going to show them that your words are the truth – they will turn a ‘deaf ear and a blind eye’ to your prophecy until I prove to them that your words are my words. But by then it will be too late for them, they will be in exile. Yet, for future generations, their obstinacy will be an object lesson, and maybe their children will ‘hear and see.'” Okay, all of that is my conjecture, but it seems to make the most sense to me. A Hebrew scholar I am not – but putting all the passages together that seems to me to be the gist of God’s message.

Jesus, knowing God’s intent, then pulls those same words to use for his generation. The people to whom he speaks are just as “deaf and blind” as were Isaiah’s audience. They too are just too unwilling to accept his words as truth. Ditto for Paul’s audience in Rome.

Some people just refuse to hear God’s message. Until, that is, God acts decisively, and by then it will be too late. God sent the audience of Isaiah into exile. God destroyed the Jewish nation that rejected and crucified Jesus. Paul said that God would “cut off” the branch that was institutional Judaism to “graft in” the Gentile nations. Done, done, and done.

So – is there any message left of Isaiah’s warning for us today??

Do we have any lasting issues with racism, with class distinction, with xenophobia? Do people today still lie, cheat, steal? Is everyone completely honest as they fill out their tax reports? Is there any problem with war, nations hating nations? Do we have any problems with murdering unborn babies? Are we facing issues of abhorrent sexual behavior? Are there questions of people who refuse to accept their God-given sexual nature? Are humans more or less likely to love and take care of one another? Are we “husbanding” our earth as God commanded his first humans to do? Do we fully and completely worship God as our creator and redeemer?

No, now that I think about it, I guess not. I guess Isaiah doesn’t really say anything to us after all.

Fascinating.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

4 thoughts on “A Fascinating (and Problematic) Text”

  1. Paul I’ve been thinking some about this especially reading through Isaiah recently. Either it’s great minds or old and senile…pick one (lol). Anyway, I notice that Isaiah uses the idea of hearing/listening or not in a number of place in Isaiah, and if I remember a little more in the second half. That may have been a subtle theme throughout the book. (Sorry that I have not read your article yet; copied and printed to look at later so you may have covered this). I find it interesting that many missionaries use Isa. 6 (here am I send me) to raise money but ignore Isaiah’s message which would get us fired; or nother; if we mentioned it.

    My favorite is Ezek. 33:30-32 where God tells Ezekiel that they love to hear you speak but will not pay attention. I know as a preacher that never happened to me (ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha). I know just from scanning this article I will get some good insights; already found one. Thanks again Paul.

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    1. Love your observation about Isa. 6:8 versus what Isaiah is told immediately in v. 9-13. I had never made that connection/distinction. Funny how God would call a prophet and then say, rather obliquely, “Oh, by the way, people will reject you and your message, hate you, and may even end up killing you. Never mind – preach the word.”

      Hope the article helps!

      Paul

      Like

    1. Sorry, Al, to get back to you so late!! I think, from God’s perspective, we have always been “in that time.” How close are we to the point where God declares that the end has come?? We will know when it happens!

      Paul

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