Unfortunately, when discussing Biblical interpretation, we often spend much of our time making philosophical statements instead of explicitly biblical ones. Having interpreted the Bible symbolically for most of my life, I remember the first time I was forced to ask myself: How does God tell me to interpret His Word?
Though my first conclusion was: “Symbolically, of course, that’s how the New Testament authors interpret the Old…” not being an inspired author myself, I began to question how legitimate it was for me to be coming to such subjective conclusions. I wondered: “Can one text really mean one thing ‘to me’ and a different thing ‘to you’, and don’t we rather want to believe what it means ‘to Him’”? Then Isaiah 40-44 brought clarity.
I now take the Bible ‘literally’ because according to YHWH, if His Word is not fulfilled in the normal way that the original audience should have expected it to be fulfilled, then He, by His own definition of divinity, is no better than a teetering log (Isa. 40:20).
How did I make that logical leap you ask? Three quick steps from Isaiah 42-44:
“I am the Lord; that is my name; my glory I give to no other, nor my praise to carved idols. Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them” (Isaiah 42.8–9).
“You are my witnesses,” declares the Lord, “and my servant whom I have chosen, that you may know and believe me and understand that I am he. Before me no god was formed, nor shall there be any after me” (Isaiah 43:10).
“Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god. Who is like me? Let him proclaim it… Let them declare what is to come, and what will happen. Fear not, nor be afraid; have I not told you from of old and declared it? And you are my witnesses! Is there a God besides me? There is no Rock; I know not any” (Isaiah 44:6-8).
YHWH sets forth the divine litmus test: God alone sees the future.
Isaiah continues in the next verse, “All who fashion idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame” (Isaiah 44:9).
He then goes on to mock the idols and their makers, “The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint” (Isaiah 44:12).
The imagery is pathetic from YHWH’s perspective. Just the fact that the idol has a maker is sad, but that this maker is so weak is even more pitiable. But the mockery goes even further. Speaking of the wood the idol-maker chops down, Isaiah writes: “Half of it he burns in the fire. Over the half he eats meat; he roasts it and is satisfied. Also he warms himself and says, “Aha, I am warm, I have seen the fire!” And the rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, and falls down to it and worships it. He prays to it and says, “Deliver me, for you are my god!” They know not, nor do they discern, for he has shut their eyes, so that they cannot see, and their hearts, so that they cannot understand” (Isaiah 44:16-18).
There is a clear distinction between YHWH and idols. YHWH sees all things, including the future; the idols and all those who worship them are blind. (This should be obvious, since only an all powerful being who controls every aspect of the future could know it. So, though an idol, through demonic activity (1 Cor. 10:20), might aid in a more probable guess at one’s fortune (cf. Acts 16:16), this is still blindness compared to YHWH).
YHWH demonstrates Himself to be the great I AM, the multi-generational God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, in that He can say something and then generations later, it happens. What is the specific prediction given in Isaiah 44? YHWH promises that at the end of the exile, a man named Cyrus would give a decree that Israel could return to her land and rebuild the temple. In fact, Jeremiah also adds that the exile would last 70 years.
“I am the Lord, who made all things… who says of Cyrus, ‘He is my shepherd, and he shall fulfill all my purpose’; saying of Jerusalem, ‘She shall be built,’ and of the temple, ‘Your foundation shall be laid’” (Isaiah 44:24, 28).
“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place” (Jer. 29:10).
And what happened? Ezra records: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia: …go up to Jerusalem, which is in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel.” Ezra 1:1-3. And when did it happen? Exactly 70 years later (Cf. Ezra 1:1 with Daniel 9:1-2).
Everything came true exactly as YHWH said it would, exactly in the way that the original audience expected.
Conclusion: YHWH is God.
I think we all agree up until this point… however, now we need to take a moment to ponder the hermeneutical implications of this fact.
What conclusion should a Jew have come to if Cyrus would have decreed a return to a spiritual Jerusalem and the ability to rebuild spiritual walls? What if the decree was issued by a man names Jairus?
What conclusion should a Jew have come to, according to YHWH’s own definition of deity, if Cyrus had made the decree 78 years into the exile? Do you think a Jew should have thought, well, “that’s okay YHWH, you did your best… 70 years was probably a symbolically complete period of time anyhow”, or would he have raised his fist up to heaven and cast off YHWH as the idol that He’d be if He was incapable of fulfilling His prophecy in the obvious way He presented it? When Daniel read 70, he started packin’ his bags (Dan. 9).
I think you get my point. If it didn’t come true exactly in the way the original audience ought to have understood it, YHWH, by His own definition, is a teetering log fit for the fire.
Thankfully, this is not the case. YHWH is God, and He is always faithful to His Word. This is why I care about authorial intent, this is why I study the historical context, this is why I try so hard to put myself in the shoes of the original audience, because taking God at His Word fuels my worship of He who always does what He says.