How can we understand biblical prophecy?
Biblical prophecies are transparent in that they clearly demonstrate the victory of God over all those who oppose Him, human and demonic. Additionally, all mankind will obtain the just consequences for their deeds in the final judgment. They are translucent in that the specific details of how the Lord will achieve victory is often obscured, sometimes by misunderstandings of time, geography, and culture, other times by the prophet’s use of figurative language, and always compounded by the confusion characteristic of the minds of sinful humanity. We will examine the meaning, transparency, translucency, and fulfillment of Isaiah 2:1-4.
Isaiah’s imagery in Isaiah 2:1-4 refers to God’s universal reign in the end times, probably during the thousand year reign of Christ on earth, possibly during His final reign on the new earth, or possibly both. It is very similar in content and thought to the prophecy of the last days written by Isaiah’s contemporary, Micah (Micah 4:1-3). Verse one identifies the speaker and the audience, the people of Judah and Jerusalem.
In the Old Testament the last days usually refers to the time in which God has completed His work of redeeming His creation (cf. Genesis 49:1, Micah 4:1, Daniel 10:14). Isaiah frequently uses the phrase “the mountain of the house of the Lord” (or some related phrase) to refer to Mount Zion, the hill on which Jerusalem and the temple sit (cf. Isaiah 10:32, 25:6-7). The nations (גוי gowy) refer to people, usually non-Hebrew (Genesis 10:5) but occasional Hebrew (Genesis 46:3). Verse two, therefore, pictures peoples of many ethnicities and cultures from around the world flowing in steady and large numbers (נהר nahar – flowing like a river) into Jerusalem, which has been lifted high in importance above all other places on earth (ראש ro’sh has many connotations – Isaiah 29:10, Isaiah 30:17, 40:21).
Verse three pictures the peoples conferring together and deciding to travel to Jerusalem to seek the teachings of the Lord so that they may effectively serve Him. The strong implication is that God is physically present in His city and that He is willing and able to share His word with all those who seek Him. Also important, the peoples of the nations are not seeking merely intellectual gratification or cultural awareness but seeking to obey the Lord.
In verse 4 Isaiah wrote that not only will God teach all of humanity His ways but He will judge (שפט shaphat – rule, govern, punish) the whole earth. In response to His perfect justice, the nations will no longer need to fight one another. Implied but not stated is that in response to His perfect power, the nations will no longer be able to fight one another. Weapons, now obsolete, will be remade into tools for the harvest.
The transparent elements in this famous passage are that God will reign in the “last days”, a reign in which peoples throughout the earth will want to know and serve Him and in which He will exercise perfect justice, resulting in permanent peace. God’s reign is more certain than the sunrise.
What is translucent is how and when this will happen. Using complicated reasoning a Christian group recently taught that Christ would return to earth on 21 May 2011. Groups like this have been predicting the “day of the Lord” for millennia and each time they have been wrong. Also, will this state come to pass because of the effectiveness of evangelism (postmillennialism) or because of His direct, perhaps violent, intervention?
This passage has been partly fulfilled; God does reign, although His reign is not apparent to some. Jerusalem is a very important city and many people “stream” to it, although not to learn to serve the Lord. Complete fulfillment lies in the future. Key passages in interpreting this are Matthew 23:37, in which Jesus bemoans Jerusalem’s rejection of the truth, and Matthew 24:2, in which He prophesies that because of the city’s rejection, it would suffer a terrible judgment. Clearly at the time of Christ, Isaiah’s prophecy had not yet fully come to pass. Nonetheless, Christians can be certain that the Creator of the Universe will bring to pass this state of perfect peace and harmony in obedience to Him. Though He lingers far longer than many expected or desired, God’s will will be done.