Prisoners in the Dungeon — Isaiah 24:21-23
This is the sixth in a short series of posts dealing with the proper interpretation of Old Testament Kingdom Prophecy (OTKP). If you’re new to this subject (or to my blog), you will want to read the essay with which I introduced the series (just click here).
My goal in this eschatological adventure is two-fold.
First, I want to open up something of the Christ-centered truth and beauty of OTKP to my brothers and sisters in the Lord.
Secondly, I want to reason a little with my premillennial brethren. In particular, I want to make the case that we all will best understand, enjoy, and profit from OTKP when we see that its true sphere of fulfillment is: 1) Christ, 2) the New Covenant he instituted by his blood, 3) the two-staged spiritual Kingdom he has already introduced (and will soon consummate), and, 4) the New Covenant community he is creating out of elect Jews and Gentiles: the Church.
In short, I would like my premillennial brothers to reconsider the amillennial approach to the interpretation of OTKP.
Since the end of the age will soon be upon us, it is important that we stand together as much as possible. Seeing eye to eye on eschatology would definitely help. These essays—and the book in progress from which they are extracted—represent my best effort at contributing to that worthy goal.
Since the prophetic texts I deal with are quite long, I have not reproduced them here. You will need to bring an open Bible to each blog. My hope and prayer is that you will enjoy them all.
Prisoners in the Dungeon — Isaiah 24:21-23
(21) On that day, the LORD will punish (lit., visit) the host of the high ones on high, and the kings of the earth upon the earth. (22) And they will be gathered together as prisoners are gathered in a pit (or, dungeon), and will be shut up in a prison. And after many days they will be punished (or, visited). (23) Then the moon will be confounded, and the sun ashamed, for the LORD of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem; and his glory will be before his elders.
This short but challenging OTKP appears in the midst a long section of Isaiah devoted to the end-time judgments of God (24:1-27:13). In the verses immediately preceding our text, the prophet has spoken of the final destruction of the earth (vv. 17-20). Then, as the telltale phrase “In that Day” indicates, a new prophecy begins, a prophecy that only three verses later brings the entire chapter to a close (24:21-23).
Many premillennial interpreters find here an OT adumbration of the millennium of Revelation 20. In verse 21 they see the binding of Satan (and his demonic hosts) at Christ’s return (Rev. 20:2). In verse 22a they see Satan’s one thousand year incarceration in the abyss. And in the “visitation” of verse 22b they see his postmillennial release (Rev. 20:3, 7), followed shortly thereafter by his final destruction in the lake of fire (Rev. 20:10). Reading verse 23 literally, they assert that Isaiah concludes by depicting the glory of Christ’s earthly reign on literal Mt. Zion and in literal Jerusalem; his reign in a supernaturally transformed (but as yet unperfected) Palestine.
There are, however, some serious problems with this interpretation.
First, the text says nothing whatsoever about the Messiah, still less about his coming in glory, though we know from previous passages that Isaiah is well able to speak of both.
Secondly, vv. 21-22a indicate that the evil heavenly hosts and the impenitent kings of the earth will share the same fate: Both will be punished, both will be incarcerated, and both—after many days—will be visited and punished yet again. However, while Rev. 20 does indeed speak of Satan being bound and shut up in the abyss, it quite conspicuously says nothing at all about a divine judgment upon men, let alone kings.
Finally, the whole momentum of the prophecy—well captured in the little word “then” (v. 23) found in nearly all translations—favors the view that the LORD of hosts will reign on Zion after these end-time judgments occur. In other words, the most natural reading of verse 23 is to say that it does not describe the (alleged) millennium of v. 22, but rather the final state: the World to Come.
Can the NCH help us here? Yes indeed, primarily because it enables us to think clearly about the true sphere of fulfillment of this prophecy.
Bearing this in mind, one might therefore argue that in vv. 21-22 Isaiah is speaking of punishment(s) to be meted out by the High King of heaven and earth all throughout the (long) “day” of his heavenly reign; of how he will cast (many) impenitent kings and evil spirits into Hades, committing them to pits of darkness where they are reserved for (final) judgment (Luke 8:31, Col. 2:15, 1 Peter 3:18-20, 2 Peter 2:4).
On this view, the final punishment spoken of in v. 22b occurs on the Day of Judgment, when Christ, at his Parousia, will cast Death and Hades into the Lake of Fire (Rev. 20:14). This brings in the New Heavens and the New Earth, where the glory of God and Christ will ever be before his Church, just as v. 23 teaches, though in a veiled manner, under OT type and shadow (Rev. 4:4, 10, 5:8, 11:16, 19:4, 21:23).
Alternatively, it may be that vv. 21-22 speak exclusively of the Last Judgment at the return of Christ (see NKJV). On this view, v. 22b is not describing a different judgment subsequent that of v. 21, but is simply affirming yet again that the Last Judgment will indeed occur, though only after “many days” of divine forbearance (and Kingdom advance through the preaching of the Gospel). This interpretation fits well with the rest of the chapter, since it makes vv. 21-22 the natural (and dramatic) climax of all that has preceded it.
While it is indeed difficult to be dogmatic about the exact meaning of this short and mysterious OTKP, we see that the NCH definitely gets us “in the ballpark,” opening up viable interpretations that harmonize well with NT teaching about the nature and structure of the Kingdom of God.