Paul’s Understanding of Isaiah 28 and the Forerunner Ministry

Paul frequently quoted Old Testament passages in a way that reveals his understanding of Old Testament passages and how they relate to his mission of carrying the gospel to the gentiles. Unfortunately, we sometimes overlook how Paul explains his mission because we do not understand Paul’s use of the Old Testament. When Paul quotes an Old Testament passage, he is not simply “proof texting” or using a single verse to support a theme.

When Paul quotes an Old Testament verse he expects that his readers will understand the context of the entire verse because the context of that verse is what is influencing Paul’s thinking on that topic. 1 Corinthians 14 is a passage that gives us tremendous insight into Paul’s understanding of Isaiah 28. Some commentators have thought that the Assyrian invasion was the main thrust of the prophecy in Isaiah 28, but 1 Corinthians 14 reveals that Paul interpreted the passage as having a much larger application than the invasion of Assyria.

Isaiah 28

In Isaiah 28, Isaiah gives a prophecy that God will speak to Israel through the voice of gentiles:

11For with stammering lips and another tongue He will speak to this people, (Isaiah 28:11 NKJV)

This phrase was generally understood to refer to the voices of gentile people, and the Old Testament tells us that one of the ways that God speaks to His people is through the voice of foreign invaders (Deuteronomy 28:49; Isaiah 33:19; Jeremiah 5:15). Because God is so clear that He speaks to Israel through foreign invaders (something that continues to be true today), it is easy to overlook the fact that Isaiah 28 is not limited to foreign invaders. This is why Paul’s exegesis of the passage is so important. Paul saw Isaiah 28 is encompassing something far larger than Assyrian invaders.

Whatever historical application Isaiah 28 has (commentators differ on this point), the language of Isaiah 28 indicates that is not fulfilled in ancient history. Isaiah 28:5 begins by telling us that the prophet is referring to things “in that day.” This phrase is consistently used in Isaiah when there is a ultimate, eschatological fulfillment of the oracle. Isaiah 28 ultimately describes a final, eschatological scenario using language that matches Daniel’s prophecy of a future, final, and terrible period of time at the end of the age. Like Daniel, Isaiah refers to the covenant made with death (Isaiah 28:15; Daniel 9:27), the overflowing scourge (Isaiah 28:15, 17, 18; Daniel 9:26; 11:22), and the trampling that will come (Isaiah 28:18; Daniel 8:13).

All throughout the prophecy there is the assurance of God’s leadership over the trouble at the end of the age and the emphasis that Israel’s trouble will ultimately serve God’s purposes for Israel. This is the lens that Paul uses to interpret Isaiah 28:11 in 1 Corinthians 14.

To understand Paul’s view of Israel’s salvation, we have to understand how he explains his apostolic mission in Romans 9-11. In this passage, Paul explains key elements of his mission:

  1. He is in unceasing anguish for the salvation of his Jewish countrymen (Romans 9:1-3)
  2. The Scripture predicts that Israel’s ultimate salvation is through a witness of gentile people to Israel (Romans 10:19-21).
  3. The completion of the gentile mission will be a critical component of the salvation of all Israel (Romans 11:25-26).

When we understand how Paul understood his mission, we can saw that Paul labored for the salvation of Israel by going to the gentiles. He had a deep grief for his own countrymen, but he clearly understood that their salvation required a gentile witness and so he labored for a gentile witness that would bring the message of the gospel back to Israel. Once we understand that Paul believed the age would end with the final salvation of Israel, and that a gentile witness was required for this, we can better understand his use of Isaiah 28 in 1 Corinthians 14.

While most have focused on the negative witness of Isaiah 28:11 – the witness of invading armies – Paul saw Isaiah 28:11 as ultimately fulfilled by a positive witness of gentile people to Israel. This is the same witness that Paul identifies in Romans 10:19-21, a witness to Israel of her salvation from saved gentiles. Paul understood this witness from the key Old Testament passages he quotes in Romans, and Paul’s clear statements in Romans 10:19-21 help us to understand how he interprets Isaiah 28 in 1 Corinthians 14.

1 Corinthians 14

A. In 1 Corinthians 14, Paul quotes Isaiah 28 and makes a direct application to the use of spiritual gifts by the Corinthians.

21In the law it is written: “With men of other tongues and other lips I will speak to this people; And yet, for all that, they will not hear Me,” says the Lord. 22Therefore tongues are for a sign, not to those who believe but to unbelievers; but prophesying is not for unbelievers but for those who believe. (1 Corinthians 14:21–22 NKJV)

Paul reminds the Corinthians that God intends to speak to Israel (i.e. “this people”) through foreign languages. Foreign languages will be God’s technique of speaking to His people when they refuse to listen to Him. Israel’s refusal to hear God’s message was deeply painful to Paul (Romans 9:1-3) because he personally, and repeatedly, faced the refusal of the Jewish community to hear his testimony of Jesus.

The next verse in Isaiah tells us more specifically what message the people refused to hear:

11For with stammering lips and another tongue He will speak to this people, 12To whom He said, “This is the rest with which You may cause the weary to rest,” And, “This is the refreshing”; Yet they would not hear. (Isaiah 28:11–12 NKJV)

Isaiah tells us that the people refused to hear the message that would have led weary Israel to rest and refreshing. The word for “weary” here (עָיֵ֔ף) most frequently refers to physical exhaustion, though it is also applied to spiritual exhaustion and longing for God. Isaiah’s emphasis on weariness describes the condition of the Jewish people after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD and the subsequent long exile far better than it does the people of Judah in Isaiah’s generation and this also emphasizes the fact that this is an eschatological passage. This theme carries over to the New Testament where Jesus is emphasized as the one who can bring Israel into her ultimate rest.

28Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matthew 11:28–29 NKJV)

1Therefore, since a promise remains of entering His rest, let us fear lest any of you seem to have come short of it. 2For indeed the gospel was preached to us as well as to them; but the word which they heard did not profit them, not being mixed with faith in those who heard it. 3For we who have believed do enter that rest, as He has said: “So I swore in My wrath, ‘They shall not enter My rest,’ ” although the works were finished from the foundation of the world. (Hebrews 4:1–3 NKJV)

Isaiah tells us that the people of Israel have refused to hear God’s message about how to enter into His rest. Because they have refused to enter into His rest, Isaiah 28 warns that the “rest” of their own making – the covenant of death of Isaiah 28:18 – will not last and many of them will die as a result of a military siege just as many of the Israelites died in the wilderness because they refused God’s rest (Hebrews 3:12-19). This will be Israel’s great trouble until the end because, outside of the rest of Messiah, Israel continues to face the covenant threats of Leviticus and Deuteronomy. God will speak to weary Israel through gentiles, and gentile languages, about this refusal to enter into His rest.

Understanding the context of Isaiah 28 allows us to recognize the full implications of how Paul understood that God would speak to Israel. Paul explains that the spiritual gift of tongues operating among the gentiles is the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah 28 – it is ultimately God speaking to Israel. This means that Paul understood Isaiah 28 to be something more than God speaking to His people through an invading army. Biblically, God does speak through invading armies, but Paul sees this witness as something more than the threat of invasion because he identifies God’s ultimate manner of speaking to Israel as the gift of the Holy Spirit operating through a believer. Only the outpouring of the Spirit on gentile hearts can set the stage for the fulfillment of Isaiah 28. Gentile invaders are not enough.

This means the witness to Israel is ultimately given through gentile messengers to Israel, not gentile combatants. This is essentially what Paul told us in Romans 10. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the gentiles is part of God’s plan to provoke Israel. The gift of the Holy Spirit was a promise first made to Israel and, when Israel sees gentiles experiencing Israel’s promises it will provoke them back to their promises.

19But I say, did Israel not know? First Moses says: “I will provoke you to jealousy by those who are not a nation, I will move you to anger by a foolish nation.” (Romans 10:19 NKJV)

3. Tongues are a sign for unbelievers, but they are ultimately a sign for a specific kind of unbeliever, the unbelieving Jews who should have inherited the promises. This is the ultimately fulfillment of Deuteronomy 32:21.

21They have provoked Me to jealousy by what is not God; They have moved Me to anger by their foolish idols. But I will provoke them to jealousy by those who are not a nation; I will move them to anger by a foolish nation. (Deuteronomy 32:21 NKJV)

Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Romans, and 1 Corinthians are all making the same prediction:

  • Israel will hear her promises proclaimed by those who are not born Jewish.
  • Israel will hear those promises proclaimed in the nations of the earth through a gift to speak foreign languages.
  • Israel will hear her promises from gentiles who have received the indwelling Holy Spirit – Israel’s long promised spiritual inheritance.

Paul interprets tongues as a sign for a specific kind of unbeliever: unbelieving Israel. This is why Paul continues on to say that prophecy is more effective than tongues in provoking unbelievers (1 Corinthians 14:23-25). At first that seems to contradict what Paul says in verses 21 and 22 until we understand that Paul is talking about a specific, eschatological sign for Israel.

Acts 2 provides us with a dramatic foreshadowing of what Paul predicts will happen. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit fell and it is very significant that the first believers began speaking under the unction of the Holy Spirit in various languages of the earth. That speaking was provocational to the Jews gathered in the city for the feast. Acts 2 is a prototype of Isaiah 28 and this is why Paul sees the gift of tongues among the gentiles in Corinth as a fulfillment of Isaiah 28. You can see a summary of the Isaiah 28 storyline in Acts 2:

The Holy Spirit falls on every believer. “Every” will be expanded to include gentile believers in Acts (Acts 10).

3Then there appeared to them divided tongues, as of fire, and one sat upon each of them. (Acts 2:3 NKJV)

They begin speaking, under the unction of the Spirit, in the languages of the gentiles.

5And there were dwelling in Jerusalem Jews, devout men, from every nation under heaven. 6And when this sound occurred, the multitude came together, and were confused, because everyone heard them speak in his own language. 7Then they were all amazed and marveled, saying to one another, “Look, are not all these who speak Galileans? 8And how is it that we hear, each in our own language in which we were born? 9Parthians and Medes and Elamites, those dwelling in Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya adjoining Cyrene, visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, 11Cretans and Arabs—we hear them speaking in our own tongues the wonderful works of God.” (Acts 2:5–11 NKJV)

That speaking was provocation to Jews. It was a down payment of Isaiah 28. God was speaking to His own people through gentile languages. About 3,000 Jews were saved that day (Acts 2:41) from a witness given in foreign languages and we must understand how significant it is that God chose this method to give Israel her first witness of the gospel. God is emphasizing the fact that He will fulfill the promise of Isaiah 28 and it will ultimately be for Israel’s salvation. What Isaiah predicts, and Paul affirms in 1 Corinthians, is that the gospel mission will end the same way it began. The gift of the Holy Spirit speaking to Israel through gentile languages was God’s first message to Israel after the resurrection of Jesus and it will be His last before the return of His Son.


At first glance, Isaiah 28 seems to apply primarily to the Assyrian threat that ancient Israel faced. However when we look at the passage in detail, we find that Isaiah predicts something far beyond the Assyrian invasion – something that with ultimately end with very different results. Seeing how Paul interpreted Isaiah 28 helps us to understand exactly what Isaiah was predicting. Isaiah was not ultimately predicting a message given through Assyrians, but rather a message of Israel’s redemption delivered to her by believers of every tribe and tongue operating in the power of the Holy Spirit.

The witness of Isaiah 28:11 is the witness of Isaiah 40:1-2. It is the message of the things that relate to Israel’s rest spoken to her through a global company. Isaiah 28, like Isaiah 40, is ultimately the forerunner ministry.

1“Comfort, yes, comfort My people!” Says your God. 2“Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, That her warfare is ended, That her iniquity is pardoned; For she has received from the LORD’s hand Double for all her sins.” (Isaiah 40:1–2 NKJV)

Though Isaiah 28 and 1 Corinthians 14 emphasize a gentile witness to Israel this by no means marginalizes the witness of Messianic believers to their brethren according to the flesh. God in His divine wisdom has chosen that both Jews and gentiles are dependent on each other to ultimately fulfill His purposes. Just as the Jewish witness to the gentiles began the expansion of the gentiles, so also the gentile witness of the gospel to Jews will end it. However, there is still a significant role to play for Messianic Jews in the glorious salvation of their own people that should not be overlook or marginalized.

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