By Christina M Wilson. Previously published at https://justonesmallvoice.com/covenant-to-a-race-isaiah-devotional-2-12/.
What Does “Covenant to a Race” Mean?
From the Septuagint
6 … ἔδωκά σε εἰς διαθήκην γένους (Isaiah 42:6, LXX)
6 … I have given you as a covenant to a race… (NETS, Silva)
6 … I have given thee for the covenant of a race… (LXE, Brenton)
6 … I will… give You as the covenant of a race… (LXE, SAAS)(1)
From the Masoretic
6 … וְאֶתֶּנְךָ לִבְרִית עָם (Isaiah 42:6, WLC)(2)
6 … I will give you as a covenant for the people… (Isaiah 42:6, ESV)
6 … I will appoint You as a covenant to the people… (Isaiah 42:6, NASB20)
6 … I… will make you to be a covenant for the people… (Isaiah 42:6, NIV)
6 … I… make you a covenant mediator for people… (Isaiah 42:6, NET)
Israel Singular and Israel Plural
God speaks directly to his Servant in Isaiah 42:6-7. The context indicates that the Servant is a singular person (Cf. Isaiah Devotional 2.9). The use of the word “servant” here in Chapter 42 differs from its use in Chapter 41. There, the word “servant” referred to the group of believing Israelites-“the seed of Abraham, whom I loved” (Isaiah 41:8). We know that Chapter 41 referred to a group of believers, because context determines the word’s particular meaning. In the context of the passage, Septuagint verse 14 (Isaiah 41:14) describes Israel as “few in number.” The Masoretic writes, “you men of Israel.”
In Chapter 42, however, all the pronouns are singular from verses 1 through 7. Note especially that the pronouns “you” and “your” in verse 6 are singular. But even more than the grammar, the context indicates that “Israel” in Chapter 42 refers to a singularly outstanding person. The content of verses 1 through 16 describes someone who is uniquely wonderful. Israel the people, even at the best of times, never lived up to this description. However, the promised Messiah will.
And This Is Why It Matters
The text of Isaiah 42:6 teaches that Messiah, a Person, is a covenant to a people. The Septuagint captures this meaning in all three of its translations. Of the Masoretic translations included above, the NIV does not shrink back, but boldly proclaims the plain meaning of the grammar, “I… will make you to be a covenant for the people.” The ESV, the NASB20, and the older KJV also give this meaning.
But I want to contemplate a note in the NET Bible for this verse. Note 15 flatly declares, “A person cannot literally be a covenant,” (see link to NET note). Then, the translation adds the word “mediator” to the text in verse 42:6. This word is not in the text. The NET Bible translators add it to the text. Presumably, this is to cause the text to conform to the editors’ hermeneutical principle that Old Testament prophecies must remain “literal,” or physically concrete. But, rather than make such an assertive presupposition, — that Isaiah spoke on a purely literal level, I will ask, “How can a person be a covenant?”
How Can a Person Be a Covenant?
In order to begin to approach answering the question, “How can a Person be a covenant?” I want to ask a further series of questions.
- How can a Person be literal bread? “I am the bread of life.” John 6:48
- How can a Person be literal light? “I am the light of the world.” John 8:12; Isaiah 42:6
- How can a Person be a literal door? “I am the door of the sheep.” John 10:7
- How can a Person be the literal resurrection? “I am the resurrection…” John 11:25
- How can a Person be literal life? “I am… the life.” John 11:25
- How can a Person be a literal way? (a road, a path) “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” John 14:6
- How can a Person be literal truth? “I am… the truth,” John 14:6
- How can a Person be a literal vine? “I am the vine,” John 15:5
- How can a Person be the literal Word? “In the beginning was the Word… the Word became flesh,” John 1:1, 14
- How can a literal Word create? “All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.” John 1:3
- How can a Person be literal peace? “For he himself is our peace,” Ephesians 2:14
The answers to the above questions are all the same. Jesus was not speaking (or being spoken about) concretely (“literally”). For example, Jesus’s body in John 10:7 is not a concrete doorway (a physical, “literal” doorway) through which sheep may pass. Nor does he physically lay his body down on the ground so that people can walk over him, John 14:6. Jesus, of course, speaks spiritually in these texts.
John 6:63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
But for some reason, certain biblical scholars tell us that prophets living in Old Testament times were incapable of speaking spiritually, even with God’s guiding hand–his Spirit–directly upon them. Why else would they actually change the biblical text by adding words that are not there? The NET Bible adds the word “mediator” in Isaiah 42:6, NET. “Mediator” is not present in preserved texts written in the original Hebrew language. Nor is it present in the Septuagint, the earliest known translation of the Hebrew. Is the reader supposed to believe that NET Bible translators are better interpreters of God’s intended meaning to Isaiah than Isaiah himself? Isaiah was God’s chosen prophet.
As another example of NET Bible’s literalistic presupposition (their philosophy of interpretation), let’s consider the last portion of verse 6 combined with verse 7.
Isaiah 42:6 “I am the LORD… I will give you as… a light for the nations, 7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.
We believers in New Testament times know what this verse means, because Jesus Christ is the direct fulfillment of it.
John 8:12 Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (ESV)
And of course we know that Jesus is speaking spiritually. Nevertheless, the NET Bible notes accompanying verses 6 and 7 in Isaiah chapter 42 choose to portray a concrete, physical, (“literal”) interpretation of the biblical imagery. First, the NET note for verse 6 appears acceptable. They write, “sn Light here symbolizes deliverance from bondage and oppression;” (Link to NET note 16). That note interprets “light” as a metaphor (whether or not their explanation is correct). That may seem all well and good. But second, the notes interpret the phrase, “to open the eyes that are blind,” in verse 7 in an entirely concrete, i.e. physically literal, way. Further, they say, the prisoners are actual prisoners in literal dungeons.
18 sn This does not refer to literal physical healing of the blind. As the next two lines suggest, this refers metonymically to freeing captives from their dark prisons where their eyes have grown unaccustomed to light. 19 sn This does not refer to hardened, dangerous criminals, who would have been executed for their crimes in ancient Near Eastern society. This verse refers to political prisoners or victims of social injustice. (Link to NET notes 18 and 19)
What the NET notes state is that God informs his servant that at some future time, he–the servant–will free literal prisoners from literally dark prisons. Note number 18 explains that these captives have been in the dark prison for so long that their physical eyes have grown unaccustomed to the light. I guess that is supposed to mean that their eyes are no longer capable of seeing properly. For all intents and purposes, these prisoners are physically blind. God will be sending his servant to these Gentile (verse 6) prisoners to physically remove them from prison.
Is That What God Really Meant to Say?
Now how can this contrived textual interpretation possibly be more acceptable than simply acknowledging that God in these verses gives Isaiah spiritual words to speak? (See the above paragraph.) Or, does Isaiah, in contradiction to the Apostle Peter, not have the Spirit of God when he prophesies?
1 Peter 1:10 Concerning this salvation, the prophets who predicted the grace that would come to you searched and investigated carefully. 11 They probed into what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating when he testified beforehand about the sufferings appointed for Christ and his subsequent glory. 12 They were shown that they were serving not themselves but you, in regard to the things now announced to you through those who proclaimed the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven– things angels long to catch a glimpse of. (NET)
Peter directly claims that these Old Testament prophets did have “the Spirit of Christ within them” indicating what would later happen to Christ. Also, who were their audience? Notice that Peter flatly states that these Old Testament prophets were not primarily writing for an audience in their own timeframe. They were in fact, according to Peter, writing for listeners in the New Testament timeframe, “serving not themselves but you…”
Are we then who read Isaiah’s words–we to whom the Holy Spirit has been given when we believed (Ephesians 1:13; Acts 19:2-6)–are we not permitted to consult that Spirit because of an unstated NET hermeneutical principle that flatly proclaims that all Old Testament prophecy must be interpreted physically (concretely, i.e., “literally”)?
But What About Jeremiah?
Yet, somehow, the prophet Jeremiah, still solidly embedded within the Old Testament timeframe, is permitted to speak spiritually.
Jeremiah 31:33 I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts… (see Isaiah 31:31-33)
I’m wondering why the NET notes don’t state that God’s law cannot be literally written on people’s hearts? Is the use of language here so very different than what Isaiah writes in Isaiah 42:6-7? If a law can be written on people’s hearts, why can’t God give his Servant to be a covenant for people? Why can’t God give his Servant to be a spiritual light to Gentiles who are spiritually blind and locked up in spiritual prisons?
The Underlying Issue
Indeed, many people who lived in Israel during Isaiah’s timeframe were locked into the same stolidly literal hermeneutic that NET Bible notes so often use. What did Isaiah write concerning his own people?
Isaiah 59:10 We grope along the wall like the blind, we grope like those who cannot see; we stumble at noontime as if it were evening. Though others are strong, we are like dead men. (NET)
And didn’t Jesus agree with God’s prophet Isaiah?
Matthew 23:23 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. 24 You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel! (ESV)
And John the Apostle understood that Israel’s religious leaders were spiritually blind.
John 12:37 Though he had done so many signs before them, they still did not believe in him, 38 so that the word spoken by the prophet Isaiah might be fulfilled: “Lord, who has believed what he heard from us, and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?” 39 Therefore they could not believe. For again Isaiah said, 40 “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest they see with their eyes, and understand with their heart, and turn, and I would heal them.” 41 Isaiah said these things because he saw his glory and spoke of him. (ESV)
Blessedly, Jesus healed both the physically blind and the spiritually blind.
A Basic Question
Since the religious leaders of the Israelites in Jesus’s day misunderstood their own Scripture to the extent that they missed their own Messiah, why should we, who have the Holy Spirit, limit ourselves to their blind lack of understanding, interpreting their Scripture wrongly, as they did? We also have the hermeneutical key to the Old Testament that Jesus gave his disciples–himself! (Luke 24:27; John 5:39). And, we have the example of all the New Testament writers who wrote about Christ as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Why then should we make the same literalistic mistakes that unbelieving Israel did?
We have no reason today to suppose that Isaiah had no spiritual understanding. Even if the bulk of his listeners may not have, can we not grant that God’s Spirit broke through to Isaiah? Otherwise, why would he be quoted so often in the New Testament? I believe that the New Testament quotes Isaiah so often because Isaiah prophesied the Christ, and that One’s words are Spirit and life.
John 6:63 It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is no help at all. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
1 SAAS: “Scripture taken from the St. Athanasius Academy SeptuagintTM. Copyright © 2008 by St. Athanasius Academy of Orthodox Theology. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”
2 WLC: Westminster Leningrad Codex