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Note of the Day – July 25

The use of Isaiah 6:9-10 in Mark 4:10-12 par

For a detailed study of the saying of Jesus in Mark 4:11 (par Matt 13:11; Luke 8:10), see the previous two daily notes (July 23 & 24). Today I will look the Old Testament passage (Isa 6:9-10) used there in the context of the Synoptic narrative.

Isaiah 6:1-13 serves as the introduction for the division of the book spanning chapters 6-12, and, in particular, the context of the Syro-Ephraemite War in chs. 6-8. It may also be intended to represent the visionary experience of Isaiah the Prophet. The section can be outlined as follows:

  • Vv. 1-7—The vision of God (YHWH) on his throne
    • v. 1: Setting and statement of the vision
    • vv. 2-4: Description of the Divine manifestation (Theophany)
    • vv. 5-7: Isaiah’s response culminating in a symbolic purification of the Prophet
  • Vv. 8-13—Commission of Isaiah and the Prophetic message
    • v. 8: Statement/narration of the commission—God’s request and Isaiah’s response
    • vv. 9-10: Description of the Message (Divine oracle)
    • vv. 11-13: Isaiah’s response culminating in a message regarding the ‘purification’ of the land and its people (through judgment)

There is a similarity in outline (and content) to the visionary experience of the Prophet Micaiah, described in 1 Kings 22:19-23:

  • A vision of God (YHWH) on his throne, surrounded by heavenly beings—1 Ki 22:19 / Isa 6:1-4
  • God’s request for a Messenger to be sent forth—1 Ki 22:20 / Isa 6:8
  • A Messenger volunteers:
    Heavenly messenger (“I will [go out]…”)—1Ki 22:21-22a
    Human messenger (“See, I [am here], send me”)—Isa 6:8b
  • At God’s command, the messenger is to obscure the understanding of human beings:
    To be a lying/enticing spirit for Ahab—1 Ki 22:21-23a
    To thicken/harden the hearts and minds of the people—Isa 6:9-10
  • The purpose is to bring about God’s Judgment on the land and its people—1 Ki 22:23 / Isa 6:11-13

The tendency has been for readers and commentators to focus on the positive part of Isaiah’s vision and commission (in verses 1-8), rather the negative portion of the message he is to speak (vv. 9-13). The most troubling aspect is the way that God seems to express the wish (or, at least, the purpose) that the Prophet, through his message, should harden the hearts and minds of the people so that they might not repent—at least not until the ordained Judgment comes (by way of the Assyrian invasions/conquests during the years 734-701 B.C.). In this regard, it is important to study closely the Hebrew text of verses 9-10, which I give here in a rather literal rendering:

“Go!—and you shall say to this people:
‘Hearing you must hear, and (yet do) not understand!
and seeing you must see, and (yet do) not (come to) know!’
Make fat(ty) the heart of this people—
their ears make heavy, and their eyes smear shut—
lest they see with their eyes,
and with their ears hear
and with their heart distinguish,
and there be turning and healing for (the)m!”

In some ways the key expression is found in the particle Á/P#, typically translated “lest” (for lack of a better option in English); however, the basic idea is something like “so as to avoid/remove (the possibility) that…”—i.e., “so that they do not see with their eyes,” etc. This combined with the causative (Hiphil) verb forms in v. 10—”make fat(ty)”, “make heavy”, “smear/glue (them) shut”—clearly indicates God’s intention regarding the effect of the Prophet’s message on the people. I regard only the portion marked by single quote marks (in v. 9) to represent the actual message; the remainder (v. 10) describes what the result of the preaching will (and should) be. This way of understanding human events and decisions as being foreordained and determined by God, according to his will and purpose, is generally foreign to our way of thinking today; however, it was quite common (and fundamental) to ancient (religious) thought. If a people suffered some disaster—plague, earthquake, invasion, etc—this was brought about by the divine powers; and, similarly, if people refused to repent or change their behavior, this too was the result of divine influence. It is really only in recent centuries that this basic worldview has undergone considerable change; and now the question of divine sovereignty vs. human freedom creates enormous difficulty and challenges for thoughtful persons, including believers in Christ. The problem was only generally (and vaguely) sensed by people in the time of Jesus; this, perhaps, may be glimpsed in the way that Isa 6:9-10 was rendered into Greek. Here is the LXX version:

“Go/travel (forth) and say to this people:
‘Hearing you will hear, and (yet) you should not put (it) together [i.e. understand]!
Looking you will look, and (yet) you should not (come to) see [i.e. know]!’
The heart of this people will be made thick/fat,
and they hear heavily in their ears, and close shut their eyes,
(that) they should not ever see with th(eir) eyes
and hear with th(eir) ears
and put (it) together [i.e. understand] with th(eir) heart,
and turn (back) upon (me), and I will heal them.”

The Greek wording, in verse 10, has altered the tone and tenor somewhat. First, the Hiphil imperatives have been changed into indicative forms, simply stating what has been (or will be) occurring; it also seems to put the responsibility on the people themselves. Second, the subjunctive forms make it at least possible that the people might (yet) see/hear/understand. The Greek particle mh/pote (“not ever, never”), corresponding to Hebrew /P# (see above), governing the subjunctive, could (conceivably) be read as a conditional statement—i.e., “unless they should see…” The last verb in v. 10 has also been changed into a first person future (indicative) form, where God says “I will heal them”. There are two ways v. 10 can be understood (in the LXX):

(a) “so that they might never see… and turn back (to me) and I would heal them [i.e. if they had turned to me, which they will not]”
(b) “unless they should see… and (then) turn back (to me) and I will heal them [i.e. if they do turn to me]”

The second of these is really not tenable, grammatically; for those readers who would like to shift the emphasis away from God’s purpose and over to the people’s response, it is necessary to infer a particle of result (rather than purpose)—”…they close shut their eyes so that [i.e. as a result] they won’t ever see…and turn back (to me), and (if they did turn) I would heal them”.

Matthew 13:14-15 cites the LXX rather closely; in Mark’s version, Jesus’ quotation is an abridgement (cf. the portion in italics above), with a few differences (marked by italics below):

“Looking they should look, and (yet) they should not see!
Hearing they should hear, and (yet) they should not put (it) together [i.e. understand]!
(that) they should not ever | turn (back) upon (me), and it be released [i.e. forgiven] for them”

The use of the third person (instead of the second) fits the application of the passage in context—i.e. as a fulfillment of the message God gave Isaiah to speak in Isa 6:9; and the use of the subjunctive throughout also fits the context, as an action/condition which eventually will be fulfilled. Here also the use of mh/pote + the subjunctive indicates more clearly a negative purpose—”so that…not ever…” Luke’s version has omitted any reference to verse 10, including just a (simplified) form of the Prophet’s message of v. 9: “Seeing they should not see, and hearing they should not understand” (Lk 8:10b). However, the author clearly realized the significance of the entire passage, since it is cited (by Paul) at the end of the book of Acts (Acts 28:26-27). In that context, its use holds somewhat closer to the original Old Testament setting, as an explanation (based on prophecy) for why many Jews refused to accept the Gospel. All through the second half of the book of Acts (chapters 1326), Paul experienced considerable Jewish opposition to his missionary work, in the midst of which he began to turn to the Gentiles (13:46-47; 18:6; 28:28). The tone of divine judgment, central to Isa 6:9ff, would not have been lost on Paul (cf. 1 Thess 2:14-16). The failure (and/or unwillingness) by many of his fellow Jews to accept Christ was an issue dear to his heart, and one which he ultimately gave considerable attention to in Romans 9-11. There the basic theme of Isa 6:9-10 is developed and expounded—God has (temporarily) blinded/hardened Israel so that the Gentiles might come to salvation; when this has fully come to pass, Israelites and Jews will come to faith in Christ and be saved as well.

A similar use of Isa 6:9-10 (close in form to that in Mark 4:12) is found in John 12:40. There it relates more directly than in the Synoptics to the lack of trust/belief in Christ by the people (v. 37), influenced, it is stated, by the fear of persecution, etc., from the religious authorities (vv. 42-43). That section in John is bracketed by two powerful and provocative statements, which, according to the creative logic of the Gospel, are certainly related:

  • “Yeshua {Jesus} spoke these (thing)s and, going away from (there), hid (himself) from them” (v. 36b)
  • “For they loved the esteem/glory of men, more than the esteem/glory of God” (v. 43, alluding to the “glory” of God in Isaiah’s vision [v. 41; Isa 6:1-4])

This “hiding” of Jesus is connected, generally speaking, to the idea of the “secret” of his identity (as Messiah and Son of God), and, as I have argued in the prior notes, to the “secret(s) of the kingdom of God” of which he speaks in Mk 4:11 par. However, it must be admitted that the use of Isa 6:9-10 in the Synoptic context, is really only connected directly with the parables by which Jesus expresses the secret [musth/rion] of the Kingdom. Here, contrary to conventional opinion (and interpretation), the clear implication is that parables are used to hide the secret of the Kingdom from people at large; only to his disciples does Jesus explain the meaning and significance of the illustrations. Through Jesus’ parables, as with the preaching of Isaiah, God blinds/hardens the minds and hearts of the people—what they see and hear is a simple illustration based on everyday life details; but what they miss (and what many continue to miss today) is the profound depth of spiritual meaning that underlies the illustration. There are few clear examples of this in the Synoptics, but it comes to be a prominent theme in the Gospel of John. Over and over again, Jesus’ audience (including the disciples) hears his words in a superficial manner, and misunderstands or misconstrues their real, deeper meaning. Often this takes place through a simple play on words, as in John 3:3-8—the word a&nwqen fundamentally means “from above”, but also is commonly used in the sense of “from the first,” i.e., “as at first, again“; Nicodemus hears Jesus say “you must come to be (born) from above [or ‘again’]”, that is, by the Spirit, and misunderstands this to mean that one must be born a second time (naturally) from the mother’s womb.

That Jesus’ closest disciples failed to understand the meaning of his words, at least initially, is indicated numerous places in the Gospels. One especially interesting example, with similarities to the language in Isa 6:9-10, comes from the Lukan version of the second and third Passion predictions by Jesus (Lk 9:43b-45; 18:31-34). On both occasions, it is stated that the disciples did not understand; but note the wording:

“But the (disciples) did not know [i.e. understand] this utterance (by Jesus), and it was covered along (away) from them (so) that they should not perceive/discern it [i.e. its meaning]…” (9:45)
“And they put together [i.e. understood] nothing of these (word)s, and this utterance was hidden from them, and they did not (even) know the (thing)s being said/related (by Jesus)” (18:34)

The passive verb forms are examples of the so-called “divine passive”—i.e. indicating action (effectively) performed by God. The truth of Jesus’ words was (intentionally) covered/hidden from the disciples (by God), at least until after the crucifixion and resurrection had taken place (according to what may be inferred from the Gospels).

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