The Danger of Application
Biblical application is essential not optional. Scripture requires us to take what it says and relate it to matters it does not address. Convinced of that, I wrote a book about moving “beyond chapter and verse.” Here, however, I’m going to issue a counterpoint.
Years ago Haddon Robinson warned against “the heresy of application.” Picking up on Robinson’s emphasis, I want to draw attention to one of various dangers we face as we strive to apply the Scriptures. In short, our logical extensions of a biblical passage can gain such traction that they obscure the main thrust of the passage. I dealt with two examples of this in preaching recently on Isaiah 55.
MY THOUGHTS ARE NOT YOUR THOUGHTS
“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (vv. 8–9). What comes to mind when you read these verses? There’s a strong possibility you take them as a warning not to get carried away in trying to resolve theological mysteries since God’s thinking is so much higher than ours.
While that may be a legitimate application of Isaiah’s words, it doesn’t reflect his point in this context. The statements about God’s thoughts and ways follow an urgent appeal that the wicked repent in order to be forgiven by Yahweh. The function word “for” introduces these lines, indicating that they present a reason or motivation to repent. But what exactly is the connection between repentance and God’s exalted thoughts/ways?
J. A. Alexander, the great nineteenth-century Princetonian exegete, well summarized the contextual options (Commentary on Isaiah, 2:330–31). First, Isaiah could be addressing a tendency to think that forgiveness was impossible. To this God would be replying, “No, I really will forgive the repentant—my thoughts/ways are higher than yours.” Second, the Lord might be focusing specifically on his faithfulness to his covenant promises: “Unlike what what you think, forgiveness (even of Gentiles; cf. vv. 4–5), isn’t contrary to my covenant—my thoughts/ways are higher than yours.”
While these options are worth considering, a third interpretation has the strongest contextual support. Isaiah had just used the terms way and thoughts in his call to repentance: “Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts” (v. 7). Then Yahweh backs up this appeal by saying, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (vv. 8–9). The simple point would be that the Lord’s prescribed lifestyle and worldview are immensely better than man’s sinful conduct and thinking.
As John Oswalt puts it, “Our ways and thoughts have been perverted by original sin, and it is only as we turn from them to God and his mercy that we can ever have peace with him and live lives that will be truly productive” (The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, 445). This coheres perfectly with the opening of Isaiah 55, which exposes the worthlessness of the things Israel had been pursuing for satisfaction (vv. 1–2).
My Word Shall Not Return Empty
After highlighting the superiority of his thoughts and ways, God moves immediately into a striking image. “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (vv. 10–11).
You may well read these words as an encouragement about preaching or otherwise disseminating God’s Word. They assure us that our ministry will be blessed with spiritual fruit or, more specifically, with the fruit God has determined to give. But again, is that what the prophet is getting at here?
No, Isaiah is still talking about repentance. The “for” that begins verse 10 introduces another reason that should motivate repentance. That reason is Yahweh’s unswerving faithfulness to his word. The imagery of rain and snow producing fruitfulness assures the penitent that God will keep his promises to them. He will forgive them and satisfy them with himself. Yahweh can be trusted to follow through on the sublime promises of restoration he has been making throughout this chapter.
The rest of the chapter vividly pictures the blessings of restoration. Verses 12–13 describe exuberant joy, refreshing peace, and rich productivity to the glory of God. These are the kinds of blessings held out to urge sinners to turn to the Lord.
COntext, COntext, Context
While concentrating on the immediate context of our verses, we can’t forget the other layers of context that surround those verses. Isaiah 40–48 prophesy the restoration of Judah from Babylonian captivity. Then chapters 49–57 develop the greater spiritual restoration to be worked out by the Servant of the Lord, particularly through his substitutionary atonement (ch. 53). On that foundation, Isaiah 58–66 anticipate the ultimate restoration of God’s people to a kingdom of righteousness and peace.
As these chapters progress, Isaiah widens his scope and emphasizes the broad goal of the Abrahamic Covenant (Gn 12:3): the blessings of Yahweh’s redemption are not for Israel only but for all the nations of the world (e.g., 49:5–6; 52:13–15; 55:4–5; 60:1–3). This international emphasis gives us a solid basis for applying to Gentiles Isaiah 55’s appeal to repentance and promise of pardon.
As if we needed any more rationale, consider Isaiah 55 in light of the entire canon. Think of Acts 13 in particular. Preaching to Jews at Pisidian Antioch, here Paul ties Isaiah 55:3 to the resurrection of Jesus and forgiveness of sins through him (vv. 34–39). When the bulk of the Jews reject this gospel, the apostle turns to the Gentiles with the same message, citing Isaiah 49:6 to defend this move (vv. 46–47).
Thus, our emphasis on context hasn’t removed application. Instead it has grounded application in the express statements of Scripture and has given authority to the application. We can confidently use Isaiah 55 to urge the lost today to turn from their sin and believe in Christ’s redemptive work. And like Isaiah, we can motivate them by declaring the superiority of God’s ways and the trustworthiness of God’s words. As a secondary application, we can also use Isaiah 55 to urge believers to turn from sin in the process of sanctification.
We might still extend statements from Isaiah 55 in other directions. But lest Isaiah’s own emphasis be overshadowed, it would help to clarify that these are, in fact, extensions. Ultimately, however, we have stronger bases for making the applications that are often made from Isaiah 55. To warn people against excessive logicizing in theology, we don’t need to distract from the message of Isaiah 55:8–9. Deuteronomy 29:29 and Job 38–42 are better suited to that theme. And if we want assurance that God will bless the proclamation of his Word to accomplish his redemptive purposes, we have resources more specific than Isaiah 55:10–11: passages like John 6:37 and 1 Thessalonians 1:4–10.
So yes, let us apply the text! But especially in the ministry of expository preaching—where the objective is to preach the point of the passage at hand—let us be sure that what we are applying is the text.