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Calvin's Interpretation of Isaiah 2:1-4

by Prof. Robert Decker

Prof. Decker is professor of Practical Theology
in the Protestant Reformed Seminary.

    Calvin understood this prophecy to be a "confirmation" of the "doctrine … concerning the restoration of the Church."  Calvin viewed this prophecy of the restoration of the church as a special vision added by God, [1]" … by way of confirmation, in order to make it more certain and undoubted that, whatever calamities might arise, his Church never perish" (p. 90). That which God confirms by this vision is the promise revealed in Isaiah 1: 26 and 27, "And I will restore thy judges as at the first, and thy counsellors as at the beginning: afterward thou shalt be called, The city of righteousness, the faithful city. Zion shall be redeemed with judgment, and her converts with righteousness."

Chapter one of Isaiah speaks of the terrible sin and rebellion of the kingdom of Israel, the typical manifestation of Christ's kingdom, Christ's church in the Old Testament era. On account of this rebellion the holy and righteous God will pour out His judgments on Israel. They will be taken into captivity by Babylon. For the sake of the faithful remnant according to God's eternal election of grace in Christ, the Lord promises to redeem and restore His church. Her judges and counselors will be restored, and she shall be redeemed through judgment and called the city of righteousness, the faithful city. This promise, or, as Calvin calls it, this doctrine, is confirmed by the vision of chapter 2:1-4. God confirms the doctrine of redemption and restoration by this vision of the glorious, victorious kingdom of Christ. He does so to reassure and comfort His beleaguered, suffering, captive saints in Babylon.

"Doctrine sometimes has not sufficient weight with us, God therefore adds visions, that by means of them he may seal his doctrine to us" (p. 90). Calvin sees God as having a twofold purpose with this doctrine or promise of the future restoration of the church (chap. 1:26, 27) as sealed by what he calls the vision of chapter 2:1-4. And here Calvin's pastoral heart is beautifully manifest. Calvin is the great theologian of the sixteenth century Reformation and he is rightly called "the prince of expositors," but he remains a pastor, an undershepherd of Christ's sheep! Writes Calvin, "First, since Isaiah, and others who came after him, were unceasingly to proclaim terror, on account of the obstinate wickedness of the people, until the temple should be burnt and the city destroyed, and the Jews carried into captivity, it was necessary that such severity should be mitigated towards believers by some consolation of hope. Secondly, as they were to languish in captivity, and as their minds were shaken, even after their return (Note well! Calvin makes clear by this statement that he does not regard the return of the remnant and the rebuilding of Jerusalem and the temple as the ultimate fulfillment of this prophetic vision), by a succession of varied calamities, and at length were almost overwhelmed with despair by the dreadful desolation and confusion, they might a hundred times have fainted, if they had not been upheld" (p. 91).

That Calvin does not view this prophecy as being fulfilled in some earthly sense (pre- or post-millennial) is obvious from his interpretation of "the last of the days" of verse two. Calvin writes, "When he mentions the end or completion of days, let us remember that he is speaking of the kingdom of Christ" (p. 91).

The reason why the Lord refers to the kingdom of Christ as "the last of the days" is that until that time everything my be said to be in a "state of suspense, that the people might not fix their eyes on the present condition of things, which was only a shadow, but on the Redeemer, by whom the reality would be declared" (p. 91). Calvin continues by making the point that since Christ came in His first advent, we of the New Testament era have arrived at the end of the ages, or, as the text puts it, "the last of the days." The saints by this prophecy were urged to extend their hope to the end of the ages. Under Christ the condition of the church would be perfected. To Him, the Redeemer and His restored, perfected kingdom is the faith and hope of the saints directed. In the fierce storms about to descend upon the church in Babylon's captivity, every believer "seized on this word as a plank, that by means of it he might be floated into the harbour. Yet it ought to be observed, that while the fullness of days began at the coming of Christ, it flows on in uninterrupted progress until he appear the second time for our salvation (Hebrews ix:28)" (p. 92).

In the last of the days, verse two through four reveals, "the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow into it. And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us of his ways, and we will walk in his paths: for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

Calvin views this as a wonderful vision of the glorification of the church which shall take place when "Christ appears the second time, without sin unto salvation" (Heb. 9:28). God, Calvin insists, intended by this vision to bring consolation to support the minds of the people during the captivity (p. 93). God gave the vision "… so that, although there should be no temple, and no sacrifices, and though all should be in ruins, still this hope would be cherished in the minds of the godly, and amidst a condition so desolate and so shockingly ruinous, they would still reason thus: 'The mountain of the Lord is indeed forsaken, but there he will yet have his habitation; and greater shall be the glory of this mountain than of all others.' To prevent them, therefore, from doubting that such would be the result, the Prophet has here, as it were, sketched a picture in which they might behold the glory of God…" (p. 93).

The vision holds before us the glory of God in His church brought to completion. The elect, not just out of Judah but out of all nations, shall flow into the exalted mountain of God's church. There they will be taught the ways of the Lord. As a fruit of this teaching, they will walk in the paths of God. The reason is that out of Zion will go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.

By "law," Calvin writes, the prophet does not mean merely the ten commandments. He mentions a part for the whole. Law means instruction. It is the Word of God as that Word expresses God's will for His saints in Christ. That will is summed in God's law.

This prophecy, Calvin holds, "… was fulfilled, when the preaching of the gospel began at that very place, (for Christ first taught at Jerusalem, and afterwards his doctrine was spread throughout the whole world,)…" (p. 96). Again, in this context Calvin emphasizes that God gave the saints this beautiful picture to "fortify their minds, which otherwise on manifold occasions might have been crushed" (pp. 96, 97). How the godly remnant needed this. Not only would they be sorely tried in the captivity of Babylon, but that would continue after the remnant returned to Judah. It did not take long before the false prophets and priests again held sway in Israel. Were it not for this wonderful vision of the glory of God in His church, the godly would have despaired.

Not only so, but Calvin points out that this prophecy was a great consolation to the apostles as well! "And undoubtedly," he writes, "this had very great authority and weight with the Apostles, when they knew that they were appointed to perform those things which are here promised. Otherwise they would never have had courage enough to venture to undertake the office, and, in short, would not have been able to endure the burden, especially when the whole world furiously opposed them" (p. 98). We add to this that we can be certain that Calvin himself derived no little consolation from this very prophecy when it seemed that Geneva and the whole world of Roman Catholicism furiously opposed him!

In the last of the days, the prophecy promises, God will judge among the nations and rebuke many people. The effect of this judgment and reproving will be "a condemning of our vices … and a reformation of our morals" (p. 99).

The fruit of God's reproving judgment will be that "they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruninghooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more." Calvin notes that the prophet "does not merely say swords shall be broken in pieces, but they shall be turned into mattocks" (p. 101). A mattock is a hoe. In other words, Calvin instructs us, instead of committing acts of violence against one another, God's people in the nations will cultivate peace and friendship. The result will be peace, perfect peace among the saints in the church. They will have peace with one another and they will together have peace with God.

This last of the days has dawned, according to Calvin. We of the New Testament era are already living in it. But we have only a beginning of the wonderful glory here prophesied. We never reach the perfection here revealed through the prophet on this earth. Here we must be satisfied with the beginning. In the church on earth there is always an ungodly element, or, as Calvin puts it, "the good have not yet reached the goal, and are widely distant from that perfection which is required from them," and, "the good are always mixed with the bad" (p. 102).

Calvin concludes his comments with this instruction: "The fulfillment of this prophecy, therefore, in its full extent, must not be looked for on earth. It is enough, if we experience the beginning, and if, being reconciled to God through Christ, we cultivate mutual friendship, and abstain from doing harm to any one" (p. 102).

Clearly, the fulfillment and the perfection and the peace come when Jesus returns, raises the dead, executes God's righteous judgments on all men, destroys the present heaven and earth in the fire of God's wrath, and creates the new heaven and earth in which righteousness shall dwell (II Pet. 3:10 - 13). There God's great glory will shine in the church made perfect, world without end.

Seeing we look for such things, let us be diligent that we may be found of Christ in peace (II Pet. 3:14). 


Footnotes

[1.] This quotation and others here are taken from the reprint by Baker Book House (1989) of William Pringle's translation of Calvin's Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, 1850 edition, p. 89.

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