6.38 Isaiah -- Symbol and Fulfilment
One basic theme runs through many of Isaiah’s prophecies: things aren't always what they seem. Everything is symbolic. It has been said that prophetic "fulfilment" works in this way: the prophet’s word doesn’t have a single event as its target, but is gradually "filled full" over time, as a succession of events occurs. Thus:
a. Isaiah’s words about the siege of Jerusalem describe the coming of Assyria in 701, but also the various approaches of Babylon more than a century later, as well as an end-time siege.
b. Exile and Restoration are also symbolic themes. Babylon is both an historical kingdom and an end-time power (Isa 21:9). Cyrus, too, is a real king, but endowed with supernatural significance (Isa 45:1-3).
c. Israel is both itself -- a specific historic community descended from Abraham -- and a representative for all nations and peoples. Thus, it can be described almost simultaneously as the worst of nations, as being as bad as others, as the inheritor of unique blessings, and as sharing with others in a wonderful future. The Lord is sometimes its Judge and even its enemy, sometimes its God and Savior.
d. The Servant may well be both Israel among the nations, a group or an individual in the present (possible even Isaiah himself), future individuals (such as Cyrus), and the future Messiah.
e. Similarly, Immanuel (Isa 7) seems to be a contemporary child (to serve as a sign to Ahaz) as well as the One to come.
f. Isaiah, in his symbolic actions, and his sons in their symbolic names, are emblems of the suffering Remnant :
Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the Lord Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion (Isa 8:18).
His second son was named Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, "Quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil." This was a description initially of the devastating power of Assyria against Israel, but also pointing ahead to Babylonia. Similarly, Isaiah’s symbolic action in Isa 20:3-6, walking stripped and barefoot for three years (!), portrayed the Assyrian exile of Egypt and Cush, Judah’s allies -- but subsequently the Babylonian exile of Judah herself. More reassuringly the first son was named Shear-Jashub, "A remnant will return" (Isa 7:3; Isa 10:21). The prophet’s own name, "The Lord saves" (perhaps sums up the two: He saves through a process of purging and restoring, as through fire (Oxford Study Bible, p. 1014).
Thus, the spirit of prophecy not only controls Isaiah's words, but incarnates itself in his deeds and his family. This is similar to Hosea's marriage to Gomer, and the names of his three children.
The pervasive use of symbols and signs makes for a great deal of difficulty in interpreting prophetic writings and linking them to specific people and events.