Do You See Without Seeing? Isaiah’s Riddle and Christ’s Rescue – Brian Tabb

Isaiah 6 recounts one of the most stunning revelations of God’s majesty in the Old Testament. The prophet writes, “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1). The six-winged seraphim — fiery, flying heavenly beings — call to one another with booming voices, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” (Isaiah 6:3).

Isaiah responds to this awesome theophany with distressed confession: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). One of the fiery angels touches Isaiah’s mouth with a coal from the heavenly altar to remove his guilt, and then the Lord calls and commissions his prophet. Isaiah’s initial zeal — “Here I am! Send me” (Isaiah 6:8) — turns to confusion — “How long, O Lord?” (Isaiah 6:11) — when the prophet considers his challenging charge:

Go, and say to this people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed. (Isaiah 6:9–10)

While Revelation 4 recalls Isaiah’s vision of the divine throne, Jesus and the apostles more frequently cite the prophet’s commission to preach to a recalcitrant people unable to hear or see spiritual truths. These verses feature prominently in all four Gospels (Matthew 13:13–15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; John 12:39–41), the book of Acts (Acts 28:25–28), and even Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 11:8). Why? This Old Testament passage helps to explain how the rejection of Jesus and his followers fulfills the larger biblical pattern of the maligned messengers of God.

Let’s review the context of Isaiah’s prophecy and then consider Jesus’s use of this passage in Matthew 13:13–15.

Isaiah’s Startling Commission

Isaiah 1–5 establishes Judah’s chronic idolatry, hardness of heart, and lack of spiritual understanding. Though there are flickers of hope about what God will do “in the latter days” (Isaiah 2:2–5), these chapters repeatedly expose the people’s rebellion and announce God’s coming reckoning. The people are like unruly children who have despised the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 1:2–4). In their idolatry and immorality, Judah resembles Sodom and Gomorrah, the wicked cities God destroyed with fire and brimstone (Isaiah 1:9–10). The beloved vineyard of the Lord has yielded nothing but wild grapes (Isaiah 5:1–7).

For five tense chapters, Isaiah decries their sins and warns of judgment. Then, in chapter 6, Isaiah beholds God’s glory and receives his commission to blind the people’s eyes, stop up their ears, and harden their hearts (Isaiah 6:9–13). The prophet’s preaching would not merely warn the people but would confirm them in their stubborn rebellion against God.

The biblical prophets often speak of Israel’s malfunctioning eyes and ears to illustrate their inability to respond rightly to divine revelation. This imagery reflects God’s earlier word of judgment in Deuteronomy 29:4: “To this day the Lord has not given you a heart to understand or eyes to see or ears to hear.” Moreover, pronouncements about the people’s spiritual blindness, deafness, and dullness reveal that they now resemble the lifeless idols they have revered. Psalm 115:4–8 unpacks this biblical logic:

Their idols are silver and gold,
     the work of human hands.
They have mouths, but do not speak;
     eyes, but do not see.
They have ears, but do not hear;
     noses, but do not smell. . . .
Those who make them become like them;
     so do all who trust in them.

The same pattern is at work in the book of Isaiah. The people have chosen oaks and gardens for their pagan worship, so they “shall be like an oak whose leaf withers, and like a garden without water” (Isaiah 1:29–30). They have trusted in and treasured carved idols, so God addresses them as “deaf” and “blind” (Isaiah 42:17–18). In this case, the prophetic word brings not salvation but judgment.

God’s Maligned Messengers

Matthew, Mark, and Luke each record Jesus’s famous parable of the sower, which challenges people to consider their response to God’s word proclaimed by God’s Son. The challenge is most clear in Mark’s account, which begins with the command “Listen!” (Mark 4:3). Jesus concludes the parable with this enigmatic exhortation: “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 13:9). He repeats the word “hear” five times when explaining this parable (Matthew 13:18–23). The seed sown on good soil illustrates “the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit” (Matthew 13:23). The point is that Jesus’s teaching about the kingdom demands a response of obedience. True hearing entails bearing fruit.

Our Lord turns to Isaiah 6 to explain why he teaches in parables. His disciples are blessed because they see and understand the secrets of the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 13:11, 16–17). The crowds, however, see yet do not perceive; they hear yet do not understand the spiritual truths that Jesus teaches.

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.” 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. (Matthew 13:14–15)

Jesus cites Isaiah’s commission to clarify why his own ministry is met with opposition. Here we have the filling up of a biblical pattern, not the fulfillment of a prediction. God sent Isaiah to a recalcitrant people unable and unwilling to see, hear, and understand spiritual truths, those who had become just like the lifeless idols they admired. Isaiah’s situation reminds us of Moses, who spoke God’s word to a nation without eyes to see or ears to hear, and it also parallels the ministries of Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and many other prophets who were disregarded and dishonored by their own people.

Throughout the Bible, Israel persecuted and killed the messengers sent by God, so it is unsurprising that the final prophet, the long-awaited Messiah, would receive a similar reception (see Luke 11:49–50 and Acts 7:52). Isaiah’s commission to the spiritually blind and deaf foreshadows the later and greater ministry of Jesus.

Jesus’s Superior Glory

There is also an important redemptive-historical development from Isaiah to Jesus. John 12:41 explains that Isaiah “saw his glory and spoke of him.” This means either that the prophet saw the glory of the preincarnate Messiah, who is “high and lifted up” (Isaiah 6:1), or that he foretold the exaltation of the suffering servant, who reveals God’s glory as he accomplishes God’s redemptive plan (Isaiah 52:13–53:12). In either interpretation, Jesus is not merely another messenger from God but the glorious God-in-the-flesh, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). He is both the fulfillment of the rejected-prophet pattern and the one foretold by the prophets.

Isaiah announces coming judgment followed by an era of salvation, when “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped” (Isaiah 35:5). This prophecy prepares the way for the message and ministry of the Messiah Jesus. Our Lord not only preaches good news about the kingdom of heaven but also opens deaf ears and gives sight to the blind. These miracles of reversal signal that the promised time of salvation has come (Matthew 11:2–6).

These miracles also serve as enacted parables illustrating the people’s need for God to grant them the spiritual capacity to recognize Jesus as the divine Savior and Lord, and respond with faith. The blind cannot make themselves see. Nor can people apprehend spiritual truths unless God illumines his word and enables them to see and believe. This is why Jesus says to his disciples, “Blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (Matthew 13:16).

Look and Listen

Thus, Jesus and his followers frequently quote Isaiah 6 to explain that the opposition they face fits into a larger biblical pattern of the rejection of God’s chosen messengers. Christ fulfills this pattern as both a true prophet and the suffering servant the prophets foretold. So then, look to and listen to the Lord Jesus, the long-awaited Savior who overcomes our resistance and opens our eyes to see him as the One full of grace and truth.

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