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Studying Isaiah, Understanding Prophecy and Good Theology

September 17, 2010

As I now work through a chapter-by-chapter Bible Study in Isaiah, with S. Lewis Johnson (up through Isaiah 8), the following words from Horatius Bonar concerning the prophets again come to mind:

To attach a general meaning to a whole chapter, as is frequently done, shows not only grievous irreverence for the Divine Word, but much misconception of the real nature of that language in which it is written. Yet such is often the practice of many expositors of prophecy. They will take up a chapter of Isaiah, and tell you that it refers to the future glory of the Christian Church; and that is the one idea which they gather from a whole chapter, or sometimes from a series of chapters. Their system does not admit of interpreting verse by verse and clause by clause, and affixing an exact and definite sense to each. Bring them to this test, and their system gives way. It looks fair and plausible enough, so long as they can persuade you that the whole chapter is one scene, out of which it is merely designed that one grand idea should be extracted; but bring it to the best of minute and precise interpretation, and its nakedness is at once discovered. Many prophecies become in this way a mere waste of words.  What might be expressed in one sentence, is beaten out over a whole chapter; nay, sometimes over a whole book.

These expositors think that there is nothing in prophecy, except that Jew and Gentile are all to be gathered in, and made one in Christ. Prophet after prophet is raised up, vision after vision is given, and yet nothing is declared but this one idea! Every chapter almost of Isaiah foretells something about the future glory of the world; and every chapter presents it to us in some new aspect, opening up new scenes, and pointing out new objects; but, according to the scheme of some, every chapter sets forth the same idea, reiterates the same objects, and depicts the same scenes. Is not this handling the Word of God deceitfully?

In teaching from Isaiah 6, S. Lewis Johnson brings out some important lessons concerning the value of good theology, as illustrated in Isaiah’s experience:  his sin,  cleansing, and commission.  Isaiah understood both sides of truth, the balance between two extremes.  On the one hand, we have total acceptance with God, yet we must also maintain a moment-by-moment relationship to God.

If we so stress our total acceptance with God that we forget the other, then we leave ourselves open to license.  If we so stress the necessity for this relationship moment by moment with God that we forget our acceptance with him, we come to the place where we are morbid, where we are unstable because we are not sure that we really are accepted with God.  That is the value of theology, because we do not go to extremes.  We know both sides of the truth.

SLJ spoke of a recent trend in his day (1968) towards emphasizing our total acceptance — without the need for daily confession of sin and repentance.  In my recent experience with Sovereign Grace, Reformed churches I have observed the opposite extreme of focus on the moment-by-moment relationship with God:  over-emphasis upon the need to confess our sins, remembering that we are creatures of wrath and God should have just stomped us out like a bug; and that God is still ticked off about the fall and Adam’s sin.  As SLJ said so well, such a view — that neglects teaching concerning our adoption, the great promises of the biblical covenants and God’s Divine Purpose — leaves us with overwhelming guilt and a lack of assurance concerning our acceptance before God.

One simple outline for Isaiah 6 is:  Woe, Lo, and Go.  The woe comes in verse 5, Isaiah’s sin, followed by “Lo” in verse 7 when Isaiah is cleansed, then “Go” in verse 8, Isaiah’s commission.

Another great excerpt from S. Lewis Johnson:

Now, I want you to notice that as Isaiah is cleansed he immediately hears the voice of the Lord.  One of the reasons we do not hear the voice of the Lord is because we have not bothered to be cleansed.  We have not cared for many others.  We have put our trust in Jesus Christ, and we know that our future is secure because of the cross and we like it that way and we do not really be want to be disturbed anymore.  We want to be sure that we are going to heaven and that is about as far as we want to go.  And furthermore, we even have some who say that it is hopeless to get beyond that.  It is hopeless to think about the growing in grace.  We do not want to become like the Pharisees and proud of our growth.  Of course not!  But our salvation is our means to grow.  We do not want to stay children all our lives, do we?  It is good to know the truth of the cross, that is where life begins — but that is the beginning of life.  It is not the end.

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