Reading Isaiah as Christian Scripture

R.T. France on the Old Testament Prophecy, Jesus and the Future of Israel

“No instance where Jesus expects a fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy other than through his own ministry, and certainly no suggestion of a future restoration of the Jewish nation independent of himself.  He himself is the fulfillment to which Old Testament prophecy points, the ultimate horizon of the prophetic vision.”  [R.T. France, “Old testament Prophecy and the Future of Israel” in TynBul 26 (1975), 58]

Franz Delitzsch on Reading the Bible as Christian Scripture

I just came across Franz Delitzsch’s short article titled “Must We Follow the New Testament Interpretation of the Old Testament Texts?” published in The Old Testament Student, Vol. 6, No. 3 (Nov., 1886), pp. 77-78

Here is Delitzsch on the relationship between the two testaments:

“The New Testament is the key to the Old, and the citations of the Old Testament in the New are the norm according to which the Christian interpretation must use these keys of knowledge (cf. Luke xi. 52). These citations, however, are not specimens of the art of grammatico-historical exegesis, but illustrations of prophecy by the history of its fulfillment. The apostles determine the meaning of the Scriptures, not according to the consciousness of the Old Testament writers, but according to the meaning of the Holy Spirit, who passes into them, as the one “auctor primarius” (cf. Ileb. III. 7).”

Furthermore, here is Delitzsch on Jesus as the key interpretation of scripture:

“The New Testament writers presuppose that not merely this or that passage in the Old Testament is a prophecy looking to the New Testament, but that the whole is a prophecy of the New. Jesus is the fulfilling of the law and the prophets (Matt. v. 17); he is the “end of the law” (Rom. x. 4). The history of the Old Testament, the cultus of the Old Testament and the prophecy of the Old Testament-all look to him as their goal.”

Finally, here is Delitzsch’s memorable words that point to our need to reading the Bible as a whole, two-part canonical Scripture:

“Without the New Testament, the Old Testament would be a labyrinth without a clue, a syllogism without a conclusion, a riddle without a solution, a torso without a head, a moon without a sun, since Christ is the proper interpreter of the Old Testament.”

What do Ethiopian Eunuch, St. Augustine and R.E. Clements have in common?

The answer is simple: they all try to read Isaiah and find it very difficult.  Reading Isaiah has always been a challenge.  The central focus of this research has been a perennial problem inside and outside the church.  Here is a quick jaunt through the centuries…

We start with the Ethiopian eunuch in the first century that we encounter in the Book of Acts, chapter 8:

“Then an angel of the Lord said to Philip, “Get up and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” (This is a wilderness road.) So he got up and went. Now there was an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Candace, queen of the Ethiopians, in charge of her entire treasury. He had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah.  Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.”  So Philip ran up to it and heard him reading the prophet Isaiah. He asked, “Do you understand what you are reading?”  He replied, “How can I, unless someone guides me?” And he invited Philip to get in and sit beside him.”

Fast forward into the 4th century.  St. Augustine in his Confessions [9.5] laments his inability to understand this book:

“Now that the vintage vacation was ended, I gave notice to the citizens of Milan that they might provide their scholars with another word-merchant. I gave as my reasons my determination to serve thee and also my insufficiency for the task, because of the difficulty in breathing and the pain in my chest.

And by letters I notified thy bishop, the holy man Ambrose, of my former errors and my present resolution. And I asked his advice as to which of thy books it was best for me to read so that I might be the more ready and fit for the reception of so great a grace. He recommended Isaiah the prophet; and I believe it was because Isaiah foreshows more clearly than others the gospel, and the calling of the Gentiles. But because I could not understand the first part and because I imagined the rest to be like it, I laid it aside with the intention of taking it up again later, when better practiced in our Lord’s words.”  [NB.  He never did.]

Finally, we come to our own times.  One of the top Isaiah scholars today, R.E. Clements in his article “A Light to the Nations: A Central Theme of the Book of Isaiah” reflects on the current state of Isaiah scholarship:

“The book of Isaiah is a very complex structure, so much so that, even in the present, it is open to contend that modern scholarship has encountered very considerable difficulty in elucidating its message.”

R.T. France on Christian Reading of the OT Prophecy

R.T. France, “Old Testament Prophecy and the Future of Israel,” TynBul 26 (1975), 53-78

R.T. France writes, “A Christian use of the prophecies of the OT can hardly ignore the hermeneutical lead given by Jesus and his disciples.”  [78]

Below is the summary of his thoughts on the way Jesus and the early church activated OT prophecy in their life.

1.Jesus spoke of his own ministry as the locus of fulfillment of the OT hopes.

2.He warned his Jewish contemporaries that their constant rebellion that culminated in their rejection of his message would result in punishment of destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple.

3.He saw this as the final loss of the Jew’s privileged status as the people of God, while envisioning a future kingdom of God shared by Jews and Gentiles.

4.Jesus’ use of Israel language suggests that he regarded himself and derivatively his disciples as the godly remnant, the true Israel to whom the OT promises applied.

R.T. France is sensitive and cordial, never giving any hint of gloating or “one upping” those of the Jewish faith.  He seeks to do a careful exegesis of the text of the synoptic gospels.  In the end he  concludes his careful analysis with this statement, “There is no warrant in his teaching to look for a future for the Jewish nation as a political entity.”  [77]

My interest in this article lies in the four summaries that are presented above.  Much of France’s exegesis involves careful reading of Isaiah texts alongside of the synoptic gospels.