Anticipating the Messiah

When Isaiah announced the New Exodus to the exiles, he declared with full confidence that the “glory” of God will be revealed to “all flesh,” that is, the New Exodus will certainly happen. This is because “the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Isaiah 40:5). And most of Isaiah 40-48 is a defence of the absolute trustworthiness of what God has spoken.

He argues that God is absolutely unique in the universe and so there is nothing, certainly not the gods of the nations, that can even be compared to Him. Hence there is absolutely nothing, not even military might, that can stop God from fulfilling what He has spoken. In other words, “The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God stands forever” (40:8).

We now know that the New Exodus involves two comings of the Messiah. Isaiah’s argument on why the exiles could believe that the New Exodus would certainly happen is valid for both comings. Hence just as it would enable them to confidently anticipate the (first) coming of the Messiah, it will also enable us to confidently anticipate the (second) coming of the Messiah.

We will focus on Isaiah’s polemic in Isaiah 41-48 against the “gods” (idols) of the nations. Through this polemic Isaiah presents a powerful argument for the uniqueness of God and the trustworthiness of His word, and thus exhorts not only Israel but also the nations to trust in God and His word.

Isaiah makes use of imaginary scenes in a court of law where God Himself presents His case to demonstrate that He alone is God and that the so-called “gods” of the nations are not gods at all. These “gods” are in fact challenged to present their case to show that they are indeed gods and not just deaf and dumb idols, mere objects of worship made by human hands (as mocked in 44:9-20).

In the case of Elijah against the prophets of Baal, the test for who was indeed God was the power to send down fire to consume a sacrifice. In Isaiah’s case the test is who can consistently predict the future. Either test is adequate, as the living God is not only all-powerful but also all-present and all-knowing.

God’s case is centered on the exiles themselves having witnessed that, since the formation of the nation of Israel, He has predicted a series of events that have come to pass (44:7-8). The focus is on God’s prediction made through Isaiah that He would use the Persian king Cyrus to restore them from Babylon back to the Promised Land (44:28-45:7). And now that all these “former things” have come to pass (46:9-11), God says He is going to declare “new things” that will happen (42:9), which have never been made known before (48:6b-7).

He challenges the “gods” to do what they need to do, but obviously cannot do, to prove they are indeed gods—predict future events as well as declare past events that they successfully predicted (41:21-24). God mocks and dismisses them as nothing but worthless idols because, unlike the case of Israel and her God, the nations cannot produce witnesses that their gods have predicted the “former things” that have come to pass (41:25-29; 43:8-9).

God says to the exiles that His prediction concerning Cyrus, one of the “former things” that He declared long ago (cf. Keil and Delitzsch 1982c: 247), is being fulfilled right before their eyes (46:9-11). This means Isaiah 40-66 is specifically addressed to them when Cyrus has already emerged as a threat to Babylon. At this time, this prediction is only still being fulfilled because Cyrus has not yet captured Babylon and allowed the exiles to return to Jerusalem. How then can God say that it is one of the “former things” that have already come to pass (42:9)?

Cyrus was named (twice) in the prediction (44:28; 45:1). In other words, Isaiah could name, 150 years in advance, the future Persian king who would threaten the then still future Babylonian Empire. Since the prediction is so specific, when a king named Cyrus indeed emerges as a threat to Babylon, and at a time when Babylon is vulnerable (Arnold 2004: 99-105), the entire prediction concerning him is as good as having been fulfilled. This is not the only case where a prophetic prediction is so specific. Before Isaiah, an unnamed prophet made a prediction, confirmed by a sign, concerning what a future Davidic king specifically named Josiah would do in Bethel (1 Kings 13:1-5). The prediction came to pass 300 years later (2 Kings 23:15-20).

On the basis that the exiles themselves “are My witnesses” that God has fulfilled predictions in general (44:6-8), and the prediction concerning Cyrus in particular (46:9-11), God says they “are [thus] My witnesses” that “before Me there was no God formed, and there will be none after Me” (43:10). In other words they are witnesses that, “I am God … there is no one like Me,” because “I am the First and the Last, and there is no God besides Me” (44:6; cf. 45:5). This means God is absolutely unique in the universe, as He alone is God, who created the heavens and the earth (45:18) and can declare the end from the beginning (46:10).

Also, God challenges “the fugitives of the nations, [who] pray to a god that cannot save” to acknowledge that it is He and not their idol who has long ago predicted the rise of Cyrus. On this basis, God declares to them that “there is no God besides Me, a righteous God and a Savior, and there is no other,” and thus calls them to “turn to Me, and be saved, all the ends of the earth; For I am God, and there is no other” (45:21-22).

All this is unmistakably another explicit declaration of monotheism (cf. Deuteronomy 4:32-39), first introduced in Genesis 1:1. As in the case of Genesis 1:1, in its original context, Isaiah’s polemic is against polytheism; in today’s context it is a polemic against materialism (and thus atheism) as well as pantheism. As a side-note, this means, when the term “god” or “gods” is used in statements like, “You shall have no other gods before Me” (Exodus 20:3), it refers to what people consider as gods without affirming that these are actually gods (cf. the comments of Grogan 2008: 240 on Psalm 86:6-10).

The fulfillment of the prediction concerning Cyrus also serves the purpose of “confirming the word of His servant [the prophets]” (44:24-28), here referring to Isaiah. In other words, though Isaiah was already confirmed as a true prophet within his lifetime, he will be confirmed again 150 years later when the prediction concerning Cyrus comes true. This is in view of the “new things” that God will predict through him.

Isaiah’s argument ends with God’s explanation to the exiles why “I declared the former things long ago” and then “suddenly I acted and it came to pass” (48:3). It was so that when the “former things” have come to pass, they will not be able to say, “My idol has done them” (48:5). In other words, if God had not declared in advance long ago concerning Cyrus, when it happened they would not recognize it was God who kept His promise to bring them back to the Promised Land. God had to pre-empt this eventuality, “because I know that you are obstinate” (48:4).

Now that the former things have come to pass, thus again confirming Isaiah as a true prophet, God says, “I proclaim to you new things from this time, even hidden things which you have not known” (48:6). This is in view of the tendency of God’s people not to recognize His work in their midst, “because I know how treacherous you are; you have been called a rebel from birth” (48:8). God had to do all this so that at least some of God’s people will take the “new things” seriously and recognize them when they come to pass.

The rhetorical strategy of Isaiah 40-66 may be compared to that of an aging grandfather with prophetic foresight who needs to warn his baby grandson against his (future) choice of location for his honeymoon (adapting from Chisholm 2002: 14). Realizing that he will not live to see his grandson’s wedding he writes him a letter and seals it with the words, “To be opened on your wedding day.” Imagine the rhetorical impact when on his wedding day the grandson reads: “Congratulations grandson! You have made the right choice in marrying the mayor’s daughter Jemimah [‘How did grandpa know that!?’]. But you have made a wrong choice in going to Phuket for your honeymoon. On the day of your scheduled arrival, a spectacularly huge wave will ramp into the island killing many people.” He may have made all the necessary reservations; he is not likely to take his bride to Phuket.

This spectacular fulfillment of prophecy by itself would have caused the exiles to recognize and preserve the book of Isaiah as Scripture, regardless of whether they grasped the outrageous teaching of Isaiah 9 and 53—God will become a full-fledged human being to die for sinners.

What then are the “new things” that God will declare? We have already considered them when we looked at the details of the New Exodus spelled out in the chapters following Isaiah 41-48: the atoning death and resurrection of the Messiah (52:13-53:12); and the creation of the New Jerusalem and the New Heavens and the New Earth (65:17-25). We now know that the first “new thing” has come to pass in the first coming of the Messiah and the second “new thing” will be fulfilled in His second coming.

When the “former things” came to pass, God said to the exiles, “You are my witnesses” (Isaiah 44:8; cf. 43:10). This enables them and their descendants to believe that both the two new things would certainly come to pass. When the Messiah came He clearly fulfilled the first “new thing” by dying on the cross. But most of the Jews rejected Him precisely because He died on the cross (thus fulfilling Isaiah 53!). They were then too preoccupied with the Messianic scenario associated with the second “new thing.” However there were at least 120 who accepted the Messiah (Acts 1:15). And to His immediate disciples, echoing Isaiah 44:8, the Messiah said, “You are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:48). This enables them, and those who accept the Messiah on the basis of their witness (Acts 1:8), to believe that the second “new thing” will certainly come to pass.

The rhetorical power of Isaiah’s argument is completely lost on scholars who have ruled out the possibility of predictive prophecy because of their presupposed materialist belief-system. To them Isaiah 40-66 simply could not have come from Isaiah. In view of the recent development that more and more scholars who claim to believe in predictive prophecy are denying that Isaiah wrote Isaiah 40-66, we need to address this unwarranted denial. We will ignore imaginary problems raised and focus on the one and only real problem.

It has been argued that, because God says to the exiles living in the sixth century BC that the “new things” are “created now and not long ago, and before today you have not heard them” (48:7), Isaiah 40-66 could not have been written by Isaiah in the eight century BC. It thus has to come from an unnamed and unknown exilic “prophet” in the sixth century BC. However, this inference is not based on what we actually read in the book of Isaiah.

First of all, Isaiah 1:1 indicates that the book of Isaiah, including chapters 40-66, is a collection of prophecies based on revelation Isaiah received from God over a period of 50 years. Isaiah had prophesied that God’s people would eventually be exiled to Babylon (5:13; 39:5-7). So with prophetic foresight he wrote Isaiah 40-66 to address them as though he was there with them. Why he had to do this, which was unusual, is already made clear in the above exposition of the argument on the absolute uniqueness of God in response to their being “obstinate” and “treacherous.”.

Also, it is not possible to attribute the prophecies concerning Cyrus to a sixth century “prophet”: these prophecies “expressly and repeatedly affirm that the rise of Cyrus was an event foreknown and predicted by the God of prophecy” (Keil and Delitzsch 1982c: 248-49). And both the logic and the force of Isaiah’s argument in Isaiah 41-48 take for granted that the exiles are themselves witnesses that the rise of Cyrus was predicted long ago, which thus confirms again Isaiah as a true prophet of God. So if these prophecies did not come from Isaiah, Isaiah 41-48 does not make sense. It is unimaginable that a sane person in the sixth century would have said what we read in Isaiah 41-48. And if an insane person said such things, it is unimaginable that Isaiah 41-48 would be accepted and preserved as part of Scripture.

However, if the “new things” are said to be intentionally predicted only after the expiration of the “former things” in the sixth century (Keil and Delitzsch 1982c: 248), how could they have come from Isaiah in the eighth century? The book of Isaiah was composed based on prophecies that were already made known (“former things”) as well as those that were not yet made known (“new things”). It is like a scholar today collecting together his previously published articles to form a book. But to make it specifically relevant to his new intended audience he adds to the book new and previously unpublished articles.

Also recall that to prove the authenticity of Isaiah’s prophecy predicting the Assyrian invasion of Judah in 701 BC, it was once bound and sealed until the time the prediction was fulfilled (Isaiah 8:16; cf. 8:1-2 and Daniel 12:4). This was to ensure that when the prediction came true no skeptic could say it was written after the predicted event had it happened. This precedent alerts us that to make sense of Isaiah 41-48 we need to infer that the book of Isaiah, like the grandfather’s letter to his grandson, was for this same reason bound and sealed until the rise of Cyrus. So the never heard before “new things” remained unheard until the “former things” had come to pass. And since Isaiah wrote chapters 40-66 as though he was there with the exiles, he could write in advance that the “new things” are “created now” (cf. Keil and Delitszch 1982c: 249).

To enable His people to better anticipate and recognize the Messiah when He comes, God also made predictions concerning where and when He would be born.

Micah prophesied that it will be out of Bethlehem in Judea that shall come forth One “who is destined to be ruler” in Israel (Keil and Delitszch 1982d: 479), and who shall be great even to the ends of the earth and shall be their peace (Micah 5:2-4). Matthew records that when Herod asked the Jewish religious leaders where the Messiah would be born, they immediately replied, “Bethlehem of Judea,” citing Micah 5:2 as basis (Matthew 2:5-6). And Luke reveals how Jesus almost failed to fulfill this prophecy. For when Mary was nine months pregnant she was living in Nazareth in Galilee. It was a government census that made her travel with Joseph on a journey of at least a week all the way to Bethlehem in Judea, and give birth to Jesus on the very night of their arrival (Luke 2:1-7; for a discussion on the historicity of this account see Bock 1994: 903-9).

The Book of Daniel, written by about 530 BC, laid out in advance the historical time-frame within which the Messiah would come. Through dreams given to Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 2) as well as to Daniel (Daniel 7 and 8), God revealed that the Babylonian Empire (2:38) would be subsequently replaced by the Medo-Persian Empire (8:20; cf. 5:28), the Greek Empire (8:21), and an unnamed fourth kingdom, which we know from history to be the Roman Empire.

It is specifically revealed that the Kingdom of God would come during the fourth kingdom to replace all earthly kingdoms (2:44-45). And this would happen when “one like a Son of Man” is given “a dominion … and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations might serve Him” and whose “dominion is everlasting” and whose “kingdom is one which will not be destroyed” (7:13-14; cf. Matthew 28:18). In other words, the Messiah would come during the Roman Empire.

To further narrow down when the Messiah would come during the Roman Empire, God gave Daniel what is popularly known as the Prophecy of the Seventy Weeks (see 9:24-27). This marvellous prophecy has been subjected to numerous interpretations, even among scholars who believe in predictive prophecy. We will adopt here the traditional Messianic interpretation presented by E. J. Young (1977: 191-221) and modified by David Lurie (1990), as it fits best the Biblical as well as historical data.

This is how the prophecy came about. In the year following Cyrus’ conquest of Babylon, Daniel was reading the prophecies of Jeremiah concerning “the number of years … for the completion of the desolations of Jerusalem, namely, seventy years” (9:2; cf. Jeremiah 25:11; 29:10). Recognizing that this means the Exile was basically over according to God’s promise, Daniel prayed for the restoration of his people Israel and his city Jerusalem.

In response God said, “Seventy weeks (literally, ‘sevens’) are decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to put an end to sin, to atone for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy, and to anoint a Most Holy” (9:24). Since this involves atoning for sin and bringing in everlasting righteousness, based on what we read in Isaiah 40-66, it has to refer to the Messiah and His mission (cf. Young 1977: 198-201), whose death, which “makes efficacious” the New Covenant (Young 1977: 213), is actually highlighted later in the prophecy (9:26-27). A plain reading of the text clearly shows that it is a Messianic prophecy.

To ensure that the Jews under the Roman Empire would take Daniel and this Messianic prophecy seriously, God also gave a series of detailed predictions concerning the preceding Greek Empire, from the rise and fall of Alexander the Great (Daniel 11:3-4) to the desecration of the Jerusalem Temple in 167 BC by Antiochus Epiphanes (Daniel 11:31). The fulfillment of this series of predictions was so uncanny that modernist scholars cannot help but assume that the Book of Daniel must have been written in 165 BC, that is, after this series of events had already taken place.

The Messianic prophecy specifies that the period of the “seventy sevens” begins with “the issuing of the decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem” (9:25). This has to be the decree issued by Cyrus (Ezra 1:1-4; Isaiah 44:28; 45:13; Young 1977: 201-203). The prophecy further divides the period of “seventy sevens” into three sub-periods: 7 sevens, 62 sevens, and 1 seven, each with its own significance.

For our purpose here, we will not get into the intricacies of discussing the meaning of the Hebrew term “sevens” and its implication on the chronology of the “seventy sevens” (for which, see Lurie 1990). We will just summarize the significance of each of the three sub-periods: “The termination of the first is indicated by the completion of the work of rebuilding the city; that of the second by the appearance of an Anointed One, a Prince; and that of the third by the completion of the covenant with the many, for whom the blessings of salvation pointed out in ver. 24 [cited in full above], as connected with the termination of the entire period, are ultimately destined” (Hengstenberg 1956b: 85).

Of particular relevance here is the prediction that the Messiah (the “Anointed One” of verse 25) would die (be “cut off”) before the destruction (again) of Jerusalem and the Temple (9:26), which happened eventually in AD 70. Jesus died in about AD 30, thus fulfilling this prediction as well. This is particularly significant because it pegs the time of the Messiah’s coming to a recognized historical event.

Jews and Gentiles who accepted Jesus as the Messiah before AD 70 did so without the benefit of this additional piece of evidence from Daniel to help them identify Him as the Messiah. But for people living after AD 70 this prophecy adds further weight for identifying Jesus as the Messiah, the Servant of Isaiah 53, whose death is said to make atonement for sin. For God not only reaffirmed through Daniel the atoning death of the Messiah (the first “new thing” of Isaiah 40-66), He also specified that this would happen before AD 70. And no sane scholar would ruin his reputation by saying that Isaiah 53 or Daniel 9:24-27 was written after Jesus’ death on the cross. If they reject the obvious conclusion that Jesus fulfilled these prophecies they would rather do so by avoiding a plain reading of the respective texts.

Nevertheless the fact remains that the death of Jesus uncannily matches a plain reading of these texts. We noted previously the caveat that Jesus did not fulfill everything said in the Old Testament about the Messiah and the New Exodus, and explained why it does not matter. Daniel’s prediction that the Messiah had to come before AD 70 has rendered the caveat all the more a non-issue, as no one else except Jesus emerged before AD 70 who matched what is said about the Messiah and the New Exodus.

Furthermore the prediction that even after the Messiah had come, Jerusalem and the Temple would be destroyed already indicates a historical break between the first “new thing” and the second “new thing” of Isaiah 40-66—the New Jerusalem and the New Heavens and the New Earth. For if the New Exodus, which covers both “new things,” were to be fulfilled in one coming of the Messiah, there would be no room for another destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple. In retrospect this is clearly one Messianic prophecy that does not collapse the two comings of the Messiah and their respective outcomes into one event.

The Prophecy of the Seventy Weeks thus shows that even in the Old Testament there is already a hint that the Messiah will come twice. So what is said about Him and the New Exodus that is not yet fulfilled will be fulfilled in the Messiah’s Second Coming. This gives believers even more confidence that the New Heavens and the New Earth will certainly come to pass. And that the world is certainly anticipating, wittingly or unwittingly, the coming again of Jesus Christ.