Three views on Isaiah 2:2

January 23, 2012

Three interpretations of Isaiah 2:2, by Jean Calvin, (1509-1564) Franz Delitzsch, (1813-1890) and Ebenezer Henderson (1784-1858) are examined. Each of these men wrote commentaries on Isaiah. Calvin was French, Delitzsch was German, and Henderson was a Scot.

Isaiah 2:2 says, “And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.”

Jean Calvin seems to have viewed this as a prophecy of the church becoming prominent, and developing into a notable and influential organization; he suggested that the elevation of Zion above the hills occurred after the destruction of Jerusalem. Calvin wrote: [1]

English: Jean Calvin at fifty-three years old ...

Jean Calvin

“Let the Gentiles,” says Isaiah, “boast as much as they please of their lofty mountains; for they shall be nothing in comparison of that hill, though it be low and inconsiderable.” According to nature, this certainly was very improbable. What! shall Zion be hung up in the clouds? And therefore there can be no doubt that wicked men scoffed at this prediction; for ungodliness has always been ready to break forth against God. Now the peculiarity which I have noticed tended to weaken the belief of this prediction; for when Zion, after the destruction of the temple, had fallen into the deepest disgrace, how could she rise again so suddenly? And yet it was not in vain that Isaiah prophesied; for at length this hill was actually raised above all the mountains, because from it was heard the voice of God, and sounded through the whole world, that it might lift us up to heaven; because from it the heavenly majesty of God shone brightly; and lastly, because, being the sanctuary of God, it surpassed the whole world in lofty excellence.

Calvin thought Isaiah’s prophecy of Zion’s elevation above the hills was a figure that referred to the fame and power of the church, as a powerful, visible influence in the world. Perhaps the church was “raised up” when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire under Constantine, but the sense that it occurred may be comparable to the description Jesus gave of the city of Capernaum;  he said it was “exulted unto heaven,” but that it would be “brought down to hades.” [Matthew 11:23] Clearly, that city was not raised up in the manner that the church would be raised up. In another place Jesus warned the disciples, “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets.” [Luke 6:26]

Scripture identifies the church with the temple of God, [Ephesians 2:20-22] and the church is raised up in a spiritual sense. This has nothing to go with having prestige and visibility in the world. When Paul wrote his epistle to the Galatians, he referred to the church as already raised up; he said, “Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.” [Galatians 4:26]

On verse 3 Calvin wrote: [2]

3. And many people shall go. In the former verse he had slightly noticed the reason why Mount Zion would hold so high a rank. It was because all nations would flow to it, as if the rivers were overflowing through the great abundance of waters. He now makes the same statement, and assigns the reason; for it might be asked why various nations flocked to it in crowds from distant lands. He says, therefore, that the desire of serving God was their motive.The word רַבִּים, (rabbim,) many, implies a contrast; for it means that there will not be, as formerly, but one nation which devotes itself to the worship of the true God, but that those who formerly were strangers and foreigners (Eph. ii. 19) will come into the same agreement with them about religion; as if he had said that the Church, which had formerly been, as it were, shut up in a corner, would now be collected from every quarter. By the word many he meant various; for unquestionably he did not intend to weaken the force of what he had said a little before about all nations. Now, though this was never fulfilled, that the nations of the whole world, each of them leaving their native country, made a journey into Judea; yet, because the doctrine of the gospel, by which God hath gathered to himself a Church indiscriminately out of all nations, proceeded from Mount Zion, he justly says that they will come to it who having, with one consent of faith, embraced the covenant of eternal salvation, have been united into one Church. We must also observe the harmony between the figures of the law and that spiritual worship which began to be introduced at the coming of Christ.

Now we consider the comments of a German commentator, Franz Delitzsch, upon the same verse. Although no doubt Delitzsch was aware of Calvin’s insights on the figurative interpretation of the mountain of the Lord’s house in Isaiah 2:2, he rejected it, taking a more literal view of mount Zion, ignoring Hebrews 12:22. He wrote, in part:

English: Franz Delitzsch (1813–1890)

Franz Delitzsch

In the blessing of Jacob, Gen. xlix., the occupation of the land of Canaan stands in the foreground of the “last days,” and regulates the perspective; but here, in Isaiah, “the last days” mean the time of the end in the most simple and literal sense. The prophet predicts that the mountain on which the temple was built will one day visibly tower above all the heights of the earth, and be enthroned like a king over his subjects. At present, the south-eastern hill on which the temple is built is surpassed in height by the south-western hill; and the basaltic mountains of Bashan, rising in bold peaks and columns, look down with scorn and contempt on the little limestone-hill which Jehovah has chosen (Ps. lxviii. 16 f.), — a wrong relation which the last times will remove, by making the outward correspond to the inward, the appearance to the reality and intrinsic worth. That such is the prophet’s meaning is confirmed by Ezek. xl. 2, where the temple-mount appears gigantic to the prophet, and by Zech. xiv. 10 (parallels, which Cheyne also compares), according to which all Jerusalem will one day, as the actual centre and apex (cf. Ezek. v. 5), tower above the country round about, which shall have become a plain. If this be the meaning of the passage, there still remains doubt regarding the sense attaching to … . Is it meant that Moriah will come to stand “upon the top” of the mountains surrounding it (… being rendered as in Ps. lxxxii. 16), or that it will stand “at the head” of them (the expression being used as in 1 Kings xxi. 9, 12; Amos vi. 7; Jer. xxxi. 7)? The former is the view of Hofmann (in his Weissag. und Erfüllung, ii. 217): his opinion is, not that the mountains will be piled up, one on the top of the other, with the temple-mount over all (as it is said in Pesikta de-Rab Cahana 144b, that God will bring together Sinai, Tabor, and Carmel, and erect the temple-building upon the top of them), but that Zion will seem to float on the summit of the other mountains: this is also the explanation given by Ewald. But inasmuch as the expression … “established,” is not favourable to this mode of getting rid of a wonderful phenomenon, and because … in the sense of “at the head,” occurs still more frequently than with the meaning “on the top,” what is meant is the exaltation of Zion by means of lifting, yet this in such a way that the physical and visible elevation is but a means to the dignitative and moral, and easily changes from the literal sense to the ideal. Raised to a position towering over everything besides, the mountain chosen of God becomes the place of meeting and the centre of unity for all nations. It is the temple of Jehovah which now, visible to the nations from afar, exercises such magnetic powers of attraction, and with such results (cf. lvi. 7; Jer. iii. 17; Zech. viii. 20 ff.). Now, it is but a single nation, Israel, that makes pilgrimages to the temple-mount on great festivals, — then it will be otherwise.

Delitzsch’s account dwells on the literal mountains of Palestine and their relative heights, and he says that Isaiah meant that Jerusalem will literally be raised up above the surrounding country, citing Ezekiel, who, like John when he described the heavenly Jerusalem, [Revelation 21:10] said he was taken to a high mountain. Both were describing the church in a vision. Delitzsch also notes the views of some of the Rabbis who speculated about the possibility of a future temple on top of a higher mount Zion. The blind follow the blind!

Ebenezer Henderson was theological tutor at the Hoxton and Highbury dissenting colleges for 24 years. He was involved in the translation and distribution of the Bible in the Scandinavian countries, Russia, and in other countries. He wrote commentaries on several biblical books, including Isaiah. In his commentary on Isaiah 2:2, he dismissed the notion that a literal elevation of the land was in view. [4]

2–4. This passage, with a few verbal differences, being also found Micah iv. 1–3, it has been matter of dispute, to which of the two prophets belongs the claim of originality; and some have even maintained, that it contains the words of a third and more ancient prophet, which both Isaiah and Micah adopted on different occasions. This hypothesis, however, is quite unnecessary: nor is it of any consequence which of the prophets first delivered the prediction. They were contemporaries, and the one may have heard the other, — a supposition which will account for the discrepancies between them, in point of phraseology, much better than the theory, that one of them copied the passage from the written prophecy of the other.2. The phrase, אַחֲרִית הַיָּמִים, which, in itself signifies, remote future time indefinitely, has, in the prophets, a more determinate reference; viz. to the last period of the divine dispensations, the time of the Christian economy. Comp. Jer. xxiii. 20; xxx. 24; Dan. x. 14; Hos. iii. 5. Hence the current Jewish interpretation: …  the days of Messiah, — the time when he should appear, and during which his kingdom should endure; of which, Kimchi and other rabbins consider the present passage to be clearly predictive. Abarbanel says expressly, … “it belongs without doubt to the days of the Messiah.” Mashm. Hayeshuah, fol. 8. col 1. LXX. …  which is either adopted or imitated in the N. T. Acts ii. 17; Heb. i. 1; 1 Pet. i. 20. The mountains and hills cannot here be literally understood of Zion, Lebanon, Tabor, Gilead, &c. since the elevation of the former of these mountains above the others, or rather its transposition to be firmly based upon their summits, would argue a physical convulsion too violent and absurd in its phenomena to be for a moment admitted. In the symbolical diction of prophecy, mountains betoken commanding or governing powers, or governments and systems, political and ecclesiastical. In a religious point of view, the phraseology may be based upon the fact, that altars and temples, the central points of idolatrous worship, were constructed on elevated localities. The establishment, therefore, of Zion upon the tops of the mountains, and its paramount elevation, refer to the superior position which the church of God was to assume, in relation to the different systems of false religion; the influence which she was to exert upon them, and her permanent duration, chap. xi. 9; Dan. ii. 35; Rev. xvi. 20. — נָהֲרוּ , to flow as a river, is beautifully descriptive of a long and continuous mass of human beings collected from different quarters, and moving forward in procession towards some point of common interest. … Instead of the Jewish males going up thrice in the year to Jerusalem, and individual proselytes repairing thither from the surrounding countries, the great mass of the population of the globe would abandon their superstitions, and enter the church of God.

As Henderson explained, Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled by the church. Henderson suggested that the mountains are symbols of “commanding or governing powers, or governments and systems, political and ecclesiastical,” an idea that is found in many commentaries. But Scripture supports another interpretation of mountains.

In Psalm 36:6, David says: “Thy righteousness is like the great mountains; thy judgments are a great deep,” which connects God’s righteousness with the great mountains. Paul, in Romans 1:17, said that God’s righteousness is revealed in the gospel: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ: for it is the power of God unto salvation to every one that believeth; to the Jew first, and also to the Greek. For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” [Romans 1:16-17]

Paul identified the gospel with the promises given to Abraham. He wrote, “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.” [Galatians 3:8-9]

Genesis 49:26 connects mountains with the blessings that Jacob received, which included the promise that God would give him the land of Canaan. Jacob said, as he was blessing Joseph, “The blessings of thy father have prevailed above the blessings of my progenitors unto the utmost bound of the everlasting hills: they shall be on the head of Joseph, and on the crown of the head of him that was separate from his brethren.”

The promises of God, and the blessings Jacob received, including the blessing inherited from Isaac and Abraham, are high, and lofty, like high mountains, as they are spiritual in nature, and they are also durable, or eternal, like the “everlasting hills.” They endure long after the short span of a human lifetime, because they contain an assurance of the resurrection. None of the patriarchs received the land they had been promised during their lifetimes, and so they looked for a resurrection. The land of Canaan had a spiritual significance, as that was where many revelations of God were given, which are contained in the Bible. It was where Jesus lived and taught and died, as foretold by prophets.

A spiritual approach to the prophecies about Israel’s restoration to the land suggests that the saints will be restored to their spiritual inheritance. They are made nigh to “the covenants of promise,” and to “the commonwealth of Israel,” by the blood of Christ. [Ephesians 2:12-13]

Possessing the land was a promise made to Israel, and a theme of several prophecies. It had symbolic meaning, and represents possessing spiritual benefits, and promises. Understanding the prophecies of Scripture is one of the things depicted by possessing the promised land. Mountains, being prominent parts of the land, are symbolic of the promises of God, and prophecies, and covenants.

The “mountain of the Lord’s house” in Isaiah 2:2 is the kingdom of God and the church, of which Jesus is the head. Jesus ascended to heaven after the resurrection. In the New Testament, the saints are raised up, and “sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” [Ephesians 2:6] Paul may have alluded to Isaiah’s prophecy. A similar idea also occurs in the book of Hebrews.

Hebrews 12:22-24
But ye are come unto mount Sion, and unto the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels,
To the general assembly and church of the firstborn, which are written in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, and to the spirits of just men made perfect,
And to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling, that speaketh better things than that of Abel.

References

1.. Jean Calvin. Commentary on Isaiah.  Calvin translation society, 1850. p. 92-93.

2. Ibid.

3. Franz Delitzsch. Biblical commentary on the prophecies of Isaiah. Volume 1. Tr. by Samuel Rolles Driver. T. & T. Clark, Edinburgh. 1890. pp. 96-98.

4. Ebenezer Henderson. The book of the prophet Isaiah. Hamilton, Adams. London. 1857. pp. 17-18.

 

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