I’ve been reading Isaiah through this year following the readings outlined for the Facebook group Greek Isaiah in a Year. This is actually my second time (mostly) through Isaiah in the LXX, though last time I stopped ten chapters short. When I saw this reading plan, I had to decide between finishing my previous start or doing it again, and I chose to do it again.
In my reading this week I came to Isaiah 35:3, “Strengthen the weak hands and make firm the feeble knees” (NRSV). Hebrews 12:12 doubtless alludes to this particular passage, and reading it again in context, I found that it strengthens a conviction I already had, that the author of Hebrews assumes he can draw in the context of his allusions into his argument.
Interpreters often make the assumption that New Testament writers are taking texts completely without regard to context, and sometimes this is absolutely correct. In many cases this is simply a New Testament writer, steeped in Old Testament language, making use of that language in his particular case. Sometimes, I believe, it is using a different understanding of inspiration and a different approach to interpretation than we do, but that is another topic. But in some cases, I think the usage is quite intentional, and there are a number of examples in Hebrews.
In this case Isaiah is speaking to a similar situation to the one in which the readers of Hebrews would have found themselves: in trouble, needing endurance, needing to be assured that God would be faithful, with redemption near. Isaiah 35 is a beautiful passage of scripture, made even more beautiful by the largely unremitting gloom and doom of the preceding passages. But this admonition is part of a passage of encouragement and joy, not one of rebuke.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,
the desert shall rejoice and blossom;
like the crocus 2 it shall blossom abundantly,
and rejoice with joy and singing.
The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it,
the majesty of Carmel and Sharon.
They shall see the glory of the Lord,
the majesty of our God.
3 Strengthen the weak hands,
and make firm the feeble knees.
4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart,
“Be strong, do not fear!
Here is your God.
He will come with vengeance,
with terrible recompense.
He will come and save you. (Isaiah 35:1-4, NRSV)
Doubtless a writer whose text fairly drips with allusions to Hebrew scriptures, and whose audience must have been used to such text, was not unaware of the source of his text, nor did he use it unintentionally. This passage, in its own way, states the message of Hebrews.
One of the dangers of using quotations from the book of Hebrews is simply that it is so easy to read the text out of context. Even quoting longer passages can miss the point. Hebrews 6 is frequently quoted as gloom and doom, but the author is confident that the negative implications do not apply to his audience.
This is often read as a “buck up and get to work” passage, and certainly we are called upon to remain faithful, to wait for our salvation with confidence. But this isn’t a “you better get to work because that’s what God requires” passage. It’s encouragement.
What’s the difference? Throughout Hebrews we find the call to be faithful. Why should we be faithful? Because God is faithful. How can we be faithful? By means of God’s faithfulness. I’m not going to quote a single text here, but rather suggest reading the book with that in mind. Look for the passages. (I’m thinking of creating a color coded text to make some of these points, but that will be some time.)
A good example of this, however, is Hebrews 11. Many people have noticed the difference between the description of these people in Hebrews 11 as opposed to their story in the Old Testament. Moses, for example, leaves Egypt “not fearing the wrath of the king” (11:27), whereas in Exodus he is very afraid (2:14). This is the “faith view” or even better, the view from the perspective of God’s faithfulness.
Hebrews is not a call for us to do lots of stuff so we can attain our reward. It is a call into God’s faithfulness which will, in turn, produce our faithfulness.