4 As it is written in the book of the words of Esaias the prophet, saying, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.
1901 ASV Translation:
4 as it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet, The voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make ye ready the way of the Lord, Make his paths straight.
I. The "As it is written" Phrase.
A. There are "watershed" texts and there are "normal" texts in the Scriptures.
1. Paul, in addressing the doctrine of the methodology of justification, appealed to Habakkuk 2:4 in three crucial places in the New Testament, the most significant being Romans 1:16-17.
a. This is "most significant" because it stands at the door of the entire book of Romans as a major thesis that dominates and controls the theological thinking that is presented in the epistle.
b. By this "logic", Habakkuk 2:4 is a "watershed" text for the development of the New Testament doctrine of "justification by faith".
2. In the same way, the Isaiah text quoted by Luke is quoted by Matthew, Mark, and John as the summary text for the identification of the person and message of John the Baptizer.
a. By this means, the Holy Spirit has signified that all minds which desire to understand John's message must go to Isaiah 40 to develop that understanding.
b. This makes Isaiah 40 a "watershed" text for the proper understanding of "repentance".
1) All of the Gospel writers recognized that John's entire message and impact could be summarized under the one word: Repent. They all said that John's message was "Repent" -- a one-word summary of a host of sermons and words to both the interested and to the opposition.
2) Given this reality, it is extremely dangerous for people to simply "assume" they know what it means to "repent". The religious establishment, which rejected John's message as applicable to it, "assumed", just like the Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, that it "knew" the way of salvation and had no inkling that its entire dogmatic position was dominated by demonic overlords who had deceived them into thinking that salvation was man's decision and the result of man's effort and merit. It is no accident that Jesus was crucified by this religious establishment; it was the final result of the demonic attack upon Life and Truth.
B. As a "watershed" text, Isaiah 40 requires a careful approach -- one that puts man "on edge" and tends to create an "inner trembling" -- in the light of what is "at stake".
1. This is no "everyone knows what it means to 'repent'" approach.
2. This is an approach that signals the need for at least a modicum of humility and teachability.
C. As a "watershed" text, the words of Isaiah the prophet "stand written" in a "book" of the "words" of one of the premier Old Testament writing prophets.
1. Thus, the record stands through history in a written condition that reduces the possibility of alteration to a minimum.
2. This does not mean, however, that the words are automatically clear to everyone who turns to them.
a. The Jewish nation had the words of Isaiah for centuries, and still crucified the Lord of Glory.
b. Even Saul of Tarsus had the words of Isaiah as a fundamental aspect of his education in the theology of Israel while he held the garments of those who stoned Stephen to death for testifying concerning the resurrected Jesus.
3. This does mean, though, that any who doubt their grasp of "repentance" can return to the "words" as often, and for as long, as the doubts remain because they stand written in a book which we have in our grasp.
II. The "Voice" that "Cried" In the Wilderness.
A. There are a host of references to "voices" in the New Testament, but one is particularly instructive: Matthew 12:19.
1. This text seems to fly in the face of the entire New Testament record of Jesus' widespread teaching until it is recognized that the meaning of "voice" is not "the sound that a person/thing utters" but is, rather, "a contentious demandingness that brooks no easy opposition". It is the "voice" of the trumpet of God that will raise the dead. The "voice" is not easily silenced, nor easily ignored. The "voice" will be heard and it will not be silenced.
2. The word translated "crying" is, like the "voice", a demanding sound.
3. The point is that God has set forth a critical, water-shed, dogmatic, insistent truth that men can only ignore by "stopping their ears" (Acts 7:57 and Zechariah 7:11).
B. The "Wilderness" is the "site" of the insistent voice.
1. The grammar allows either of two readings...
a. The Greek can be read as our translators read it; A voice crying in the wilderness...: or it can be read; A voice crying, "In the wilderness prepare...".
b. The Hebrew of Isaiah 40:3 contains the same ambiguity as a comparison of the Authorized Version with the 1901 ASV reveals.
c. John accommodated both possibilities in that he appeared in the wilderness of Judea and he called for the building of a level highway in the metaphorical wilderness of the human heart.
2. Normally, the "wilderness" is the home of the "wild beasts" and few are they who would hear even a loud voice there.
3. But, it is the "wilderness" that sets the stage for all understanding. The smooth streets of Jerusalem have no ability to "connect" the people to the "problem".
a. The "wilderness" is a physical phenomenon that is the major Old Testament metaphor of the tragedy of human depravity...mountains that need to be brought down, valleys that need to be filled in, crooked paths that need to be straightened, and rough spots that need to be smoothed out.
1) That it is a metaphor is indicated by the reality that there is a call in Isaiah for the building of a literal highway in the wilderness of Judea, but such a call cannot be a "literal" basis for the meaning of "repentance".
2) That it is an intentional metaphor is indicated by the use of the text as a watershed concept for the establishment of a relationship between God and man in which man "repents" and God "forgives".
b. The "wilderness" was where John was "kept" until his appearing. He saw the problem every day. It wormed its way into his psyche until he awoke with the reality of the upheaval every morning and fell asleep every night in the shadows of the pride and despair, and the twistedness and roughness of man's way upon the earth of God's creation and man's corruption.