Fairbairn on Isaiah 2:2
Patrick Fairbairn observed, “There are many passages in the prophets in which the application to them of a strict and historical literalism would not only evacuate their proper meaning, but render them absolutely ridiculous and inconsistent one with another.”
The prophecy of Isaiah 2:2 is an example. Isaiah wrote that the mountain of the Lord’s house will be established in the top of the mountains, and exalted above the hills. Literally it says mount Zion will be elevated to become the highest mountain on earth, which is not only absurd, but also appears inconsistent with Isaiah’s prophecy that “every valley will be exulted, and every mountain and hill made low.” [Isa. 40:4]
Mountains in prophecy are symbolic of God’s promises. Jesus was the promised Messiah, who was to reign on the throne of David forever. Is Jesus represented by a mountain? Paul said that to the believer, Christ Jesus “is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption, That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord.” [1 Cor. 1:30-31]
David said, “Thy righteousness is like the great mountains.” [Psa. 36:6] I suggest Jesus represents the “mountain of the Lord’s house” in Isaiah 2:2. He is the sure foundation and corner stone laid in Zion. [Isa. 28:16]
In Daniel 2:35, a stone cut without hands becomes a great mountain that fills the earth, a figure of Christ and his kingdom. Jesus was made Christ, after he was “made low” by suffering death on the cross.
Isaiah referred to Christ as “an inheritor of my mountains.”
And I will bring forth a seed out of Jacob, and out of Judah an inheritor of my mountains: and mine elect shall inherit it, and my servants shall dwell there.
Jesus inherited all the promises of God. [2 Cor. 1:20]
In the comments below, Patrick Fairbairn suggests that in Isaiah 2:2, “it was not the natural, but the spiritual, aspect of things which was present to the eye of the prophet.”
Patrick Fairbairn. Prophecy viewed in respect to its distinctive nature: its special function, and proper interpretation. T. and T. Clark, 1856. p. 90 ff.
There are many passages in the prophets in which the application to them of a strict and historical literalism would not only evacuate their proper meaning, but render them absolutely ridiculous and inconsistent one with another. Nothing, surely, can be more evident to a simple reader of the prophetic writings than that one of their great objects, the burden not of one or two only, but of many of their predictions respecting Messiah, was to have the hearts of men prepared for His coming by a genuine repentance and moral reformation. But take the prophecy on this subject in Isaiah xl., and we shall find that, according to the principle now under consideration, it is something quite different which was announced as going to precede the Lord’s advent. Referring to the words of the prophet, and describing his own mission, the Baptist said: “I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God; every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be laid low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain.” The language, it will be observed, understood as a naked and historical delineation of what should take place before the Lord’s personal appearance, speaks only of external changes and reforms on the earth’s surface, such as might more suitably adapt it to purposes of travel. And as no beneficial improvements of that description, in the Baptist’s time, nor even to the present day, have been accomplished in Palestine, the opinion has been avowed by the advocates of historical simplicity and directness in prophecy that the prediction still remains unfulfilled—that, in its leading import, it must refer not to the first, but to the second advent. And the thought has even been suggested whether it may not refer to that great improvement of modern times, the levelling of hills, the elevating of valleys, and straitening of paths, by means of railroads? A happy thought, no doubt, if the object for which the Spirit of prophecy had kindled the bosom of Isaiah had been to light the way to inventions in art and science, or, if the essential condition of the Lord’s coming to dwell among His people was their providing for Him the means of an easy and rapid conveyance in an earthly chariot! But before this can be admitted, we must entirely change our ideas of the Bible, and the purport of Messiah’s appearance among men.
We shall refer to another prediction of Isaiah, found at the commencement of the second chapter, where, in speaking of the glory of the latter days, he says, “It shall come to pass that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow unto it.” It is spoken absolutely, and, therefore, if taken as an historical delineation, must be regarded as importing that the little elevation of the temple mount shall be projected upwards, and made to overtop in height the loftiest of the Himmalayas—and that, too, for the purpose of increasing its attraction as a centre of religious intercourse to the world, and drawing men in crowds toward it from the most distant regions. What a mighty revolution —what an inversion even of the natural state of things, this would imply, it is needless to point out. Yet the interpretation now given has often been adopted, as conveying the real meaning of the prophecy, if not to the extent of making Zion absolutely the loftiest summit on the earth’s surface, at least to the extent of its elevation above all the hills in that region of the earth. So common, indeed, had this view of the literal elevation of Mount Zion in the latter days, become in the time of Edward Irving, that we find him excusing himself from not implicitly adopting it. He expresses, indeed, his belief that there would be “some remarkable geographical changes on the face of the earth, and especially in the Holy Land”—so that he was “far from slighting the more literal interpretation of the passage;” yet, withal, “he inclines to think that the glory of Zion, in the eye of the prophet, standeth rather in this,—that it shall acquire such a celebrity in those days as shall bring low the most noted of the mountains of the earth, and the eyes of all men upon it, being the centre of the worship of the whole world.” Even the better sort of Jewish rabbies read with a less fleshly eye the meaning of the prophet. “It does not mean,” says Kimchi, “that the mountain shall be raised in bulk, but that the nations shall exalt and honour it, and shall go there to worship the Lord.” But we have a surer interpreter here than either Jewish rabbies or Christian divines. For the prophet Ezekiel, evidently referring to this prediction of Isaiah, connects it with circumstances which oblige us to understand the relative elevation of the sacred mount, as of a spiritual, not of a natural, kind, and as verified in what already has been, not in what is yet to be. Representing the seed of David as the subject of promise, under the image of a twig of a lofty cedar, and contrasting what the Lord would do to this, with what was to become of the twig cropped from the same cedar by the king of Babylon, the prophet says in the name of the Lord, “I also will take of the highest branch of the high cedar, and will set it; I will crop off from the top of his young twigs a tender one, and will plant it upon an high mountain and eminent: in the mountain of the height of Israel will I plant it; and it shall bring forth boughs, and bear fruit, and be a goodly cedar; and under it shall dwell all fowl of every wing; in the shadow of the branches thereof shall they dwell” (chap. xvii. 22, 23). There cannot be the smallest possible doubt that the young and tender twig here mentioned represents Jesus of Nazareth, the branch, as he is elsewhere called, out of the roots of Jesse, and represents Him in His first appearance among men, when he came in the low condition of a servant, to lay through suffering and blood the foundation of His everlasting kingdom. For, it is of the planting of the twig that the prophet speaks, and of its original littleness when so planted, as compared with its future growth, and ultimate peerless elevation. Yet even of those very beginnings of the Messiah’s work and kingdom, it is said, that they were to take place on “an high mountain and eminent,” on “the mountain of the height (the mountain-height) of Israel.” So that, as seen in prophetic vision, the elevation had already taken place when Christ appeared in the flesh, the little hill of Zion had even then become an enormous mountain; in other words, it was not the natural, but the spiritual, aspect of things which was present to the eye of the prophets, when they made use of such designations. All Israel was in this view a height, because distinguished and set up above the nations by its sacred privileges; Mount Zion was the loftiest elevation in that height, because there was the seat and centre of what rendered Israel pre-eminent among the nations; and when seen as the place where God, manifest in the flesh, was to accomplish the great redemption, and unspeakably enhance the good, by turning what before was shadow into substance, then its moral grandeur indeed appeared transcendent, and all that might be called great and lofty in the world shrank into littleness as compared with it. Here now was the world’s centre—the glory that eclipsed every other.