Isaiah Prophesied of You
Their heart is far from Me
Matthew 15:1-20 brings us the next installment in The Tax Collector’s Guide to Fulfilled Prophecy. This is a little bit different than some of the other passages because the words “fulfilled prophecy” are not there. Rather, Jesus points out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and states, “Well did Isaiah prophesy of you…” Jesus said that Isaiah prophesied (foretold?) of the generation to whom Jesus was speaking. This brings up the questions, “How does prophecy work?” and “Why did Jesus quote Isaiah 29:13?” But before we go any further, let’s look at the passage in question.
Matthew 15:1-20 is laid out in story form but Mark’s version of the story in Mark 7:1-23 has the rare occasion when Mark gives more details than Matthew. I recommend reading Mark in this instance as he lists what the traditions of the Pharisees are and even uses the term “Corban” and explains it. I will follow Matthew as the text is essentially the same with just a slight difference in order. I will not post the entire passage as it is quite lengthy.
The Pharisees from Jerusalem are again finding fault with the disciples of Jesus, see Matthew 12:2. Cross referencing Luke 5:17 with Matthew 9:2 shows that the Pharisees from Jerusalem had been closely watching Jesus for all this time. The fault that they find this time is not with the law but with a tradition. The disciples had no religious training and it seems like they were just common folk like fishermen, tax collectors, etc. The Pharisees had all been trained to ceremonially wash their hands before eating. The disciples obviously weren’t and the Pharisees ask why they “transgress” this tradition. Their use of the word transgress makes it sound like a sin. Jesus takes the word transgress and turns the situation completely around this time showing how they transgress the commandment of God with a tradition. Note that this is a bad word, see Romans 5:14 for the word transgression.
Let’s look at the tradition of the Pharisees first. At any point in time, someone could declare that their wealth was “Corban”, or a gift to God, or dedicated to the temple, note the use of this word in Matthew 27:6. However, they did not necessarily have to give their wealth to the temple at that time. It was dedicated to God, but the owner could continue to use their wealth until some later point in time. The issue would arise when someone’s father or mother would be in need. A wealthy individual would be expected to care for their ailing parent. However, if the person with the wealth did not want to use their goods to help their father or mother, all they had to do was say that their wealth was “Corban”. “Sorry father, I would love to help you but all of my goods are Corban and therefore they cannot profit you in any way.” So the ailing, aged father that had provided for his son for most of his life would be turned away.
Jesus quotes two separate commandments, each one being located in two different places. The first, “Honor your father and mother”, is from the ten commandments and is located in Exodus 20:12, Deuteronomy 5:16. The second is the death penalty for dishonoring father or mother and is found in Exodus 21:17, Leviticus 20:9. The fact that Jesus quoted the death penalty shows that he was being completely serious in His response to the Pharisees. In essence Jesus is saying, “You have a tradition which dishonors your father and mother and you should be put to death for it!” The command to honor father and mother was nullified by this tradition and yet the Pharisees are chastising the disciples for transgressing a tradition which cannot be found in the scriptures. Now that’s hypocrisy. This very vividly describes how the Pharisees were play-acting that they worshiped God. It should come as no surprise that Jesus then addresses them as hypocrites.
You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said:
“This people honors me with their lips,
but their heart is far from me;
in vain do they worship me,
teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.”
I wonder how shocked the Pharisees were when Jesus said, “Isaiah prophesied of you.” Let’s skip over looking at the context of Isaiah 29 for now and finish the passage. Jesus turns to the crowds and publicly denounces the Pharisees in front of all of them. He does it by way of a parable that some may not have understood. The accusation according to Mark was that the disciples hands were defiled when they ate. So Jesus is responding to that accusation by stating that something going into the mouth of a man does not defile him but what comes out from his mouth defiles him. The disciples are surprised that Jesus offended the Pharisees so boldly. They are referring to the rebuke at this point. The response of Jesus is to let them alone. Any plant that is not planted by “My heavenly Father” shall be rooted up. It is these plants that are not planted by the Father that Jesus states are blind leaders of the blind. So there is no categorical statement here that all Pharisees are blind, only those that are not planted by the Father. There are hints throughout the gospels that some may have been close to understanding some basic spiritual truths. Peter asks for an explanation of the parable which Jesus then gives. Basically, defilement is a matter of a sinful heart not dirty hands.
Let’s turn back to this issue of blindness. In Matthew 13:14-15 Jesus had made a point concerning the blindness of the nation of Israel by quoting from Isaiah 6. Matthew also made a statement in Matthew 13:34-35 concerning the parables which was a statement concerning the blindness of Israel. Now here, Matthew includes another statement of Jesus which Mark does not include. Luke makes a similar statement in Luke 6:39, but it was clearly on another occasion. Here Matthew includes this statement of the blind leading the blind in direct reference to the Pharisees. I cannot find this anywhere else in the gospels. The Pharisees were supposed to be the spiritual leaders in Israel and they were spiritually blind.
I have read commentaries on how Matthew’s gospel is a Jewish gospel, or at least it has a Jewish tone to it. What so many fail to realize is that Matthew’s gospel is a diatribe against the nation of Israel. Here is the Messiah standing in front of them and they cannot “see” Him. They see someone who is a lawbreaker, because He breaks their man-made traditions. Matthew the Tax Collector had nothing to lose. He was already considered an outcast by society and the Pharisees in particular. Now here he is in the inner circle of the Kingdom of Heaven pointing out the spiritual blindness of the religious elite of the day. Matthew includes the quote from Jesus that the Pharisees are blind leaders of the blind, both falling into the ditch. His gospel is arranged in such a way as to highlight the spiritual blindness of the nation of Israel in the face of incredible revelation from heaven.
Now let’s turn to the real genius of the passage, that is, by examining the original context of the quote in question. Isaiah 29 is part of a longer complex prophecy. There is, however, a portion that can be separated and examined without taking it out of context. Isaiah 29:9-14 includes the portion that is quoted (being verse 13) as the prophecy focuses on the blindness of the nation of Israel. That is not coincidence. Here is the passage in the ESV.
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).
And the vision of all this has become to you like the words of a book that is sealed. When men give it to one who can read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot, for it is sealed.” And when they give the book to one who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” he says, “I cannot read.”
And the Lord said:
“Because this people draw near with their mouth
And honor me with their lips,
While their hearts are far from me,
And their fear of me is a commandment taught by men,
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 context here is so fitting. The spiritual blindness of the leaders is what caused them honor God with their mouths while their hearts were far from Him. It opens highlighting the spiritual blindness, the spiritual drunkenness, and the spiritual sleep as being the condition of those that should have been most aware of God’s agenda. The prophets and seers could no longer even read the vision of prophecy.
No other nation had God’s prophets prophesying in their midst. Right there in the nation of Israel they had every advantage to hear God’s word and repent. Yet they failed to repent. Therefore God poured out upon them a spirit of deep sleep. The spiritual leaders (for the most part) kept talking when they had nothing to say. The nation of Israel, specifically the spiritual leaders, would honor God with their words while their hearts were far away from Him due to their spiritual blindness. These leaders who were supposed to have insight and light from God were really blind, not knowing anything. It was the blind leading the blind, if you will.
The true meaning of the words of God could no longer be discerned. The book would be handed to the one who should be able to expound upon its meaning, and they can’t even read it. But that did not stop them from talking. They continued by teaching their own commandments. “Their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” Isaiah had an audience that deserved to hear this admonishment. Remember that there were many prophets in his day, but most of them were false. However, this rebuke is so fitting for the Pharisees to whom Jesus was preaching. They also had not repented. They were spiritually blind, spiritually drunk, and spiritually asleep. The leaders of the nation of Israel and the nation itself was in a state of blindness. Note that Paul’s quotation of Isaiah 29:10 in Romans 11:8 shows the exact same context, the spiritual blindness of the nation of Israel.
How does prophecy work? Prophecy is capable of coming alive and being relevant for multiple generations. Some prophecies may apply to only one generation, but the general principles found therein will be applicable to generation after generation. It would not surprise me if a true prophet of God were to arise in the nation of Israel today and quote these very words to them. The nation of Israel is still spiritually blind to their Messiah, their Christ. A remnant has believed on him, but the rest remain in unbelief.
I have two thoughts to close this post. First, Isaiah 29:14 gives hope to the people of Israel. Even in the face of their blindness, God intends to work a wonder with this very people. These blind Israelites are the ones that God will use. He says, “I will again do wonderful things with this people.” Later in Isaiah 29:18 He says, “The deaf shall hear the words of a book, and out of their gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see.” This condition of spiritual blindness is temporary. There are prophecies yet unfulfilled for the nation of Israel.
Second, I want to point out a slight word change from the original prophecy in Isaiah to the way Jesus quotes it. This is not something I will be dogmatic about, but I think it is worth noting. In Isaiah 29:13, Isaiah uses the term “their hearts are far from me.” Jesus has it slightly different using the singular “their heart is far from me.” Might I suggest that Jesus changed the word hearts to heart because he was addressing the nation of Israel as having one heart. Isaiah was speaking about individuals with hearts that were far from God, but Jesus was speaking about one nation, the nation of Israel, whose collective heart was [and is] far from God. In light of my post at this link here which focuses on the spiritual blindness of the nation of Israel in Matthew 13, and the context here in Matthew 15, I think this is worth considering. I’m going to close with the verse that I think is a lynchpin to Matthew’s presentation which can only be found in his gospel. Here it is in the KJV.
Knowest thou that the Pharisees were offended, after they heard this saying?
Let them alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.
Have fun and stay busy – Luke 19:13
-The Orange Mailman
P.S. Is your heart far from God? Do you understand God’s will for your life? Do you feel spiritually blind? Jesus Christ is the answer for all of this. He brings us to God. He reveals God to us. He opens our blind eyes.