A prophecy may use physical descriptions to describe spiritual realities.
Poor John the Baptist. Not only did he lose his head, but he was completely overshadowed by his younger cousin in history. Not that John minds: “I baptize with water, but among you stands one you do not know, even he who comes after me, the strap of whose sandal I am not worthy to untie” (John 1:26-27). But Yeshua’s rightful fame overlooks the importance of John: The first true prophet in four hundred years–and more than a prophet (Mat. 11:9, Luke 7:26), the herald of the Lord of all creation!
John made an incredible splash in his day. Josephus, a Jewish historian from the late first century, says that John was
. . . a good man, and commanded the Jews to exercise virtue, both as to righteousness towards one another, and piety towards God, and so to come to baptism; for that the washing [with water] would be acceptable to him, if they made use of it, not in order to the putting away [or the remission] of some sins [only], but for the purification of the body; supposing still that the soul was thoroughly purified beforehand by righteousness. (Josephus, Antiquities, 18.5)
In fact, Josephus credited Herod’s humiliating loss to King Aretas of Arabia to God’s vengeance for the death of John. Long after his death, John’s fame had spread to Pisidian Antioch (Acts 13:14, 24) and his disciples could be found from Alexandria to Ephesus (Acts 18:25, 19:3). To this very day, there is a tiny sect which believes that John, not Yeshua, was the promised Messiah, though he himself denied this (John 1:20).
John was such an important figure that all four Gospel accounts agree that he was the fulfillment of the prophecy of “a voice in the wilderness” given in Isaiah 40 (Mat. 3:3, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4, John 1:23).
However, the way in which he fulfilled the prophecy won’t sit well with those who insist that prophecies should always be taken literally.
“Make a Highway”
On the one hand, John was literally “a voice crying in the wilderness,” having hung his shingle in the sparsely-inhabited Jordan river valley. The place where he was immersing people as a sign of repentance looks like this:
However, just a few dozen yards away, the greenery around the Jordan River gives way to miles of bone-dry desert:
This tiny green and pleasant strip surrounded by miles of harsh and mountainous desert provides a perfect backdrop for Isaiah’s prophecy. In Isaiah’s time, when a great king made his rounds, each region and even village would hasten to smooth the ancient paths so that the king’s chariot-throne would not be unduly jostled as it arrived. It was the ancient equivalent of rolling out the red carpet. So Isaiah’s “voice in the wilderness” is not the king, but is the messenger of the king being sent to get the people ready for the king’s arrival. It’s very obvious how and why the NT authors all saw John as the fulfillment of this prophecy.
Now, if we were to take this prophecy with the kind of literalness that premillennialists often insist on, you would expect John to have engaged in some kind of engineering project. At the very least, you would have expected him to have his disciples ceremonially clear a road. But that’s not what happened. Rather, as the angel’s prophecy of John said, “he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:17). In other words, Isaiah used a physical act that was common in his own day as a metaphor for spiritually preparing the hearts of the people of Israel for the Messiah’s coming.
So is the amillennialist approach of reading every prophecy of promise for Israel in a “spiritual” way to refer to the Church correct? Well, let’s dig a little deeper.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. (Isa. 40:4)
“The uneven ground shall become level” is an interesting turn of phrase in the Hebrew, he’aqov l’mishor. In Hebrew, ‘aqov (or ‘aqob) can also mean “crooked, deceitful, polluted.” Mishor on the other hand can also mean “straightness,” “the upright,” or “justice/justly.” So the phrase could also be understood as “the crooked [shall be made] straight” as it is translated in the KJV and in the ESV translation of Luke 3:5, or “the deceitful / wicked [shall be made] upright / righteous.”
We find similar wordplay and imagery in the other terms in this verse:
“Valley” (gei’a) comes from the root gavah, which means something raised up or exalted. In other words, the valley is defined by its position to that which is set higher. Gavah also has the connotation of “arrogant.” The valley, those who were lowly in comparison to the more arrogant, would be “lifted up.” In contrast, those in high places, symbolized by the mountain, would be brought low and humbled. Mary expressed the same idea in the Magnificat: “He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52).
Likewise, the word for “rough places” comes from a Hebrew root which means “to bind.” These were the places where one was hemmed in by the geography, unable to move freely. These rough places would be changed l’viqah, “to a plain” or more literally, “to a wide, level valley,” or a mountain pass. Here the root word is biqa’, which literally means “to rend, break, or rip open.” The interplay of words almost suggests someone who is bound being cut free, which fits the entire theme of the NT.
Is Literalism Wrong, Then?
So does this mean that the amillennialist has carte blanche to take every prophecy of Israel’s restoration and read it “spiritually”? Not at all. We’ve already seen that prophecies may have more than a single fulfillment, and that the final fulfillment may be far more literal than we might otherwise expect. However, neither can the premillennialist automatically claim the high ground by taking a prophecy completely, woodenly literally either. Each prophecy must be approached on its own terms and interpreted in light of other passages.
We’ll tackle this again in the next post as we explore John the Immerser further–specifically, looking at the question of whether he completely fulfills the role of Elijah, and how we should understand that role.