Was Isaiah 29 the Apostle Paul’s favorite chapter from the Old Testament? If asked what the chapter is about, most Christians would probably reason as follows: 1) I have no clue. But if I have to guess… 2) It’s an Old Testament prophecy and the chapter does not ring any “famous chapter” bells, so… 3) It must be about…um…JUDGMENT! And, you’d be right! But if it is so seemingly obscure why could we nominate it for “Best Chapter” of the Apostle Paul in the Old Testament?
The Spirit of God breathed out the word of God through human authors. Each one had his own personality and experience. Paul had been an arrogant, self-righteous Pharisee before he was converted to Christ on the Damascus road. The way God worked in his life, and the particular combination of Scriptures he used to touch Paul’s heart was unique.
In his writings, the apostle Paul quotes from, or clearly alludes to, Isaiah three times (Jesus also quotes from it in Mark 7). While Paul quoted from some other Old Testament chapters more frequently, Isaiah 29 is still near the top of the list. He obviously knew it well…probably better than most of what we now know as the 929 chapters of the Old Testament. Does anything in it ring true to his own story?
The chapter is a word of warning to the southern kingdom of Judah in the years leading up to the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem in 701 B.C. God would miraculously deliver the people (see Isaiah 36-39 for the history), but he taught the people very important truths in the process to cause them to look to his grace for salvation and not their own strength.
Isaiah 29:9-10 declares: “Astonish yourselves and be astonished; blind yourselves and be blind! Be drunk, but not with wine; stagger, but not with strong drink! For the LORD has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep, and has closed your eyes (the prophets), and covered your heads (the seers).”
The people of God suffered from spiritual blindness, even though they pressed on with their ordinary religion, day-by-day, generation-by-generation. Paul used those words from Isaiah to say that the same was true through Israel’s history to his own day when he wrote in Romans 11:7-8: “What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, ‘God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day.’”
The blindness and stubbornness described in Isaiah wasn’t just true for the Jews generally, but for Paul specifically. Isaiah described Paul’s own experience, seven and a half centuries in advance. Paul had stumbled about in spiritual darkness as a persecutor of Christians (Acts 8), even though he followed the letter of the law. When Jesus knocked him off his horse on the way to Damascus, he blinded Paul physically to illustrate his spiritual blindness (Acts 9).
Next, Isaiah 29:14 says: “Therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.”
The wise men in Judah were counseling the king to find help for defense against Assyria by going to Egypt and other sources for help. They’re hope of salvation rested on their own cunning and on diplomatic wisdom. The Apostle Paul was one of the most learned men in his day. Recall that he had studied at the feet of the scholar Gamilael (Acts 22:3). Some speculate that even if he had not been converted, we would still be reading his writings today, just as we read other ancient philosophers. Yet, Paul saw all of his wisdom brought to nothing on the Damascus road. Subsequently, he spent years in the wilderness with the Lord learning true wisdom before he took up his ministry (Galatians 1:15-2:2).
Later he would recall Isaiah 29:14 when he wrote to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 1:18-24: “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
Paul learned the humbling truth that salvation comes not by our wisdom or cunning, but by the grace of God through the foolishness of the cross of Christ. So, Paul had to have seen his own blindness and his own folly in Isaiah 29.
Finally, Isaiah 29:15-16 says: “Ah, you who hide deep from the LORD your counsel, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, ‘Who sees us? Who knows us?’ You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay, that the thing made should say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of him who formed it, ‘He has no understanding?’”
The people of old thought that they were autonomous. But God is the potter. He softens and hardens hearts. We can only choose as our wills are so inclined. Left to our “autonomous” selves, every one of us on earth will freely and willingly choose sin and opposition to God. We are in reality only free to sin because of our sin nature, apart from grace.
Paul showed the sovereignty of God as he explained the hardness of Jewish hearts in Romans 9:18-22: “So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use?’”
I think that this passage was of special interest to Paul because he understood the greatness of God’s grace in election. Paul was personally saved from his sin only because of God’s sovereign, electing grace. He stood in awe of that grace he had received, even as his heart ached for his countrymen whose hearts had thus far been hardened.
Isaiah further described Paul’s experience in Isaiah 29:18-21:“In that day the deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the LORD, and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel. For the ruthless shall come to nothing and the scoffer cease, and all who watch to do evil shall be cut off, who by a word make a man out to be an offender, and lay a snare for him who reproves in the gate, and with an empty plea turn aside him who is in the right.”
Paul had been one of the ruthless, a murderer of God’s people. At the cross of Christ he was brought to nothing. He was one who was blind, spiritually and physically, and at the house of Ananias the scales fell from his eyes so that he could see out of the gloom and darkness of his eyes (Acts 9:17-18). The fresh joy he obtained from the Lord permeated his ministry.
Paul had seen the promises of God in Isaiah 29 come to fruition in his own life. It’s not just a chapter about judgment, but it is a chapter that abounds with grace and mercy. We do need to be careful to avoid reading our ideas into the Scripture. Yet, where the New Testament quotes from the Old Testament, we ought to at least ask why the author, given his own experiences, uses them in that place. We might just get a glimpse of how God was at work in the life of the author.
When we see God’s use of Scripture in another person’s life, we are encouraged. That’s why we need to know what he is teaching others around us and what gracious promises they are seeing fulfilled. We often have our own one or two passages of Scripture that we hold very dear because they describe our experience with the grace of God. Our brothers and sisters hold different passages dear. Thus, as his people, we see a beautiful diversity of experience with Scripture, but a beautiful unity of experience as we taste the same grace from the same word of God. Was Isaiah 29 Paul’s favorite Old Testament chapter? Obviously, I don’t know for sure, but it’s on my list of questions for Paul when we meet in glory.