This is the third part of the sermon I shared on Sunday at Followers of Jesus Church Atlanta. Here is my outline for the blog version of the sermon:
ISAIAH 6 AND HARDNESS OF HEART
This brings us to Jesus’ quotation of Isaiah 6:9-10:
14 “Indeed, in their case the prophecy of Isaiah is fulfilled that says:
‘“‘You will indeed hear but never understand,
and you will indeed see but never perceive.’
15 For this people’s heart has grown dull,
and with their ears they can barely hear,
and their eyes they have closed,
lest they should see with their eyes
and hear with their ears
and understand with their heart
and turn, and I would heal them.”'”
Jesus quotes something God foretold to the prophet Isaiah about Israel in about 700 BC and says it has been fulfilled in the Jewish nation of his own day. We should probably not think of this passage as being prophecy in the same way as the Micah passage about the Messiah being born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Rather, it is typology—the hardness of Israel toward Isaiah and his message is a picture that was repeated in even fuller measure by the hardness of Israel toward Jesus and his message. If God’s words were true about Israel in Isaiah’s day, how much more true were they about the evil generation who rejected Jesus!
God spoke these words to Isaiah when he first called him to be a prophet. God told Isaiah to tell his people, “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” This was a warning to Isaiah’s hearers about how his message would affect them. God told Isaiah, “Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes.” “This [was] not God’s planning in advance to make Israel sin; instead, it [was] his confirming them in their repeated, freely chosen decisions to reject him.”
As Israel heard Isaiah’s message and rejected it, their hearts would only become more “dull” or hard, until they had no spiritual hearing or sight left and were fit only for destruction and exile. Only a “stump” or “holy seed” would remain. As commentator Oswalt summarizes, “Isaiah is to speak a message that will harden the people’s hearts and prevent them from being healed.” But that is not the full picture. Oswalt continues:
Isaiah is called upon to preach a message that, given the already-hardened hearts of his generation and several of the following, will only push them farther away from God. But some will turn, among them faithful followers of Isaiah, who will preserve his words until the day when the cauterizing fires of the Exile fall and there will finally be a generation willing to listen. Then real healing will result, and the stage will be set for the promised Messiah to come… The only hope of healing for these people is in near total destruction… Their religion is already half-pagan, and if they are allowed to continue, they will ultimately be completely pagan and all of the revelation will have been for nothing. But God is not going to allow that to happen, either to his revelation or to his people. So the cleansing must be frighteningly thorough. But afterward, when the forest has been felled and even the remaining stumps have been burned, one of those stumps will still have life in it.
Given this context, it is clear that when Jesus quotes Isaiah here in Matthew, he is not merely making a dry observation that the crowds around him have poor hearing or are intellectually dull. Rather, he is warning that the Jewish nation as a whole is beyond recovery, that God has turned his back and is withdrawing the opportunity of national repentance. The nation is headed for inevitable judgment!
We are talking about having a heart that understands and bears fruit. Our words understand and heart appear twice in this Isaiah quote. First, Jesus warns that the crowds will “never understand” (v. 14). Why? Because their “heart” is dull—it has been hardened by repeatedly hearing and rejecting the word of the kingdom. This hardening is part of God’s judgment, which he has given “lest they should… understand with their heart and turn, and I would heal them” (v. 15b).
Notice the sequence in the last two lines of the prophecy: understanding with the heart leads to turning (repentance). Then comes healing, so that we can “bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:8). In sum the following sequence depicts what God longs for his people: understanding –> repentance –> healing –> fruit (doing God’s will).
But here God is preventing that sequence from even starting! He is making repentance, healing, and fruit-bearing impossible, by making understanding impossible. Osborne again:
“In essence [God is saying], “I want them to remain this way lest….” Their guilt has produced a sovereign judgment, and Jesus’ use of parables is part of that judgment. The parables as riddles will stymie any possibility of “turning” back to God. They have committed in effect an “unpardonable sin”…, and God has turned his back on them! The parables will shut their eyes and close their ears.”
This Isaiah passage is quoted other times in the NT, and not only in the parallel passages in Mark and Luke:
- Jesus quotes the same passage in John 12:40, in a passage summarizing the unbelief of the Jews who rejected him. This passage, significantly, uses the word “believe” as a synonym for “understand.” In other words, the sort of understanding that Jesus requires for us to be fruitful goes far beyond mere mental assent. To really “understand” is to have something grip your heart so powerfully that you are utterly convinced it is true and worth revolutionizing your entire life for.
- Paul quotes this Isaiah passage at the very end of Acts (Acts 28:25-27), as evidence that God is sending his salvation to the Gentiles, since most Jews would not “believe” the gospel.
- Paul quotes similar language from Isaiah and Deuteronomy in Romans 11 (cf. Is. 29:10 and Deut. 29:4 with Rom. 11:8), as part of an extended discussion (Rom. 9–11; esp. Rom. 10:16-11:10) explaining God’s election and Israel’s stubborn ignorance. (See also the Is. 53:1 quote at Rom. 10:16, an Isaiah passage also quoted in the John 12 passage referenced above.)
This hardening of Israel against Jesus is one of the great mysteries of the New Testament. Why would God prevent his people from understanding the gospel of the kingdom? Commentators do their best to explain:
“God’s judicial hardening is… a holy condemnation of a guilty people who are condemned to do and be what they themselves have chosen.” (D.A. Carson)
“‘Hardening’… represents divine surrender of human beings to their rebellion.” (Mark A. Seifrid)
After such heavy thoughts, Jesus pivots to a blessing:
16 ‘But blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear. 17 For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.’”
Did the disciples really see? Did they really hear with understanding? In the next chapters there are multiple times where we read that the disciples did not understand what Jesus said (Matt. 15:15-20; 16:5-12; 17:9-13). But we also read that they sought and received explanations from Jesus until they did understand, and that God the Father revealed to Peter the understanding that Jesus was the Christ (Matt. 16:17).
This refines our image of our two kinds of hearers: (1) There are those who refuse to believe and are denied understanding; and (2) there are those who are willing to believe and are gradually granted increasing understanding.
But here Jesus is saying the disciples are not just more blessed than the unbelieving crowds. They are even more blessed than the faithful saints of old!
This gives us another glimpse into how God grants or withholds understanding: God sovereignly withholds understanding at times not only in response to the hardness of people’s hearts, but also because of his divine timetables of salvation history. Even good hearts are sometimes not given as full an understanding as they desire. But the disciples are incredibly blessed, possessing the double gift of soft hearts and of being alive at the time of the revelation of the Messiah!
(And we, too, are similarly blessed!)
 Craig L. Blomberg, “Matthew,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 46-47, comment on OT context of Matthew 13:14-15.
 Oswalt, John N.. Isaiah (The NIV Application Commentary) (Kindle Locations 2562-2563). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
 Oswalt, John N.. Isaiah (The NIV Application Commentary) (Kindle Locations 2612-2622). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
 Osborne, Grant R.. Matthew (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on The New Testament series Book 1) (Kindle Locations 9523-9526). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
 D.A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, Pillar NT Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1991), 448-49, comment on John 12:39-41.
 Mark A. Seifrid, “Romans,” Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007), 670, comment on Romans 11:8.