How Did Romans Get Into Isaiah?
By Ed Vasicek, Midrash Detective
Having studied the Jewish Roots of the New Testament, I have concluded — along with others — that many New Testament passages are actually expositions of Old Testament texts. Sometimes this even shows itself in the form of a broad outline, as in the case of Romans.
Paul quotes the Old Testament over sixty times within the Book of Romans, over twenty of those quotations come from the Book of Isaiah. In addition to this, there are likely several expositions of Old Testament passages not quoted.
In this article, I would like to offer evidence that Isaiah 59-66 is really “Proto-Romans,” the source of Paul’s broad outline of Romans.
A rough alliterated outline of Romans rounds off the chapters, but captures the general flow of the book.: sin (chapters 1-3), salvation (4-5, actually beginning with 3:24), sanctification (6-8), sovereignty (9-11), and service (12-16).
The first three divisions come primarily from Isaiah 59, I will argue in this article. All quotations are from the ESV.
What about the other two divisions of Romans? The section in Romans about sovereignty are suggested by these verses:
(1) Isaiah 63:17 “O Lord, why do you make us wander from your ways and harden our heart, so that we fear you not? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes of your heritage.”
(2) Isaiah 64:8, “But now, O Lord, you are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.”
The fifth division of Romans (service) might be an exposition and application of Isaiah 61:6a, “But you will be called the priests of the Lord; You will be spoken of as ministers of our God…”
How do we serve? By presenting ourselves as living sacrifices and aligning our lives to please God as his ministers (servants)!
The focus of this article is Isaiah 59. Here we see the doctrine of sin, salvation, and sanctification, themes which Paul will develop further in Romans. Like Romans 1-3, Isaiah 59 makes the case: we are sinners, lost, and helpless; we need a redeemer who will first intervene for us and who will then empower us by his Spirit.
Ready? Let’s look at these three main themes.
SIN (Isaiah 59:1-15) corresponding with Romans 1:1-3:23
This Isaiah passage describes the behavior of the Jewish people during the reign of King Manasseh. What Paul does with this passage and other similar passages is to extend these examples as samples of behavior common throughout the human race, thus condemning not only specific sins, but the bent of human nature.
Isaiah informs us that sin separates us from God (Isaiah 59:1-2):
Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened, that it cannot save, or his ear dull, that it cannot hear; but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear.
When Queen Esther hosted her second party with King Ahasuerus and Haman, she revealed that Haman was out to exterminate her people. The king’s wrath was kindled, and he called for Haman to be removed and executed. The text tells us that, “…As the word left the mouth of the king, they covered Haman’s face… “Esther 7:8b. In this instance, the offender’s face was hidden from the king. In Isaiah, the King hides his face from the offenders.
Isaiah paints a gloomy picture of entrenched sinfulness. In many ways, Isaiah 59:3-15 sounds like Paul’s diatribe against mankind’s sinful disposition in Romans 1-3. Please take a moment to peruse these verses in Isaiah. Do you sense that the human race is being prosecuted in court, akin to Romans 1-3? I do.
Paul quotes from Isaiah 59:7-8 within Romans 3:9-18, quoted passim:
What then? Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all. For we have already charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.” “Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.”
“The venom of asps is under their lips.” “Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.” “There is no fear of God before their eyes.”
Both Paul and Isaiah make the point that mankind is not only lost, but extremely lost. If mankind were barely lost, one might postulate that good works might make a difference. But if mankind is horribly lost, then how could beings — who already owe total obedience — atone for their infractions?
Mankind is spiritually bankrupt (depraved) and incapable of providing redemption:
He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede… (Isaiah 59:16a)
Paul cries out in Romans 7:24,
“Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” We are hopeless sinners, needing help “from the outside.”
Salvation (Isaiah 59:16-20) corresponding with Romans 3:24-5:21
We quickly discover in Isaiah 59 that man cannot save himself. Isaiah 59:16 reads:
He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no one to intercede; then his own arm brought him salvation, and his righteousness upheld him.
In Revelation, we could conclude that God’s own “right arm” is the Lamb, seated at his right hand. But God’s right arm is not only seated next to him, his right arm is part of him! Although often understood as a figure of God’s strength, the “right arm” of God could (possibly) be an illustration of the Trinity; the Son is part of God’s own being!
Even Isaiah 53:1 makes good sense interpreted this way:
Who has believed what he has heard from us? And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
The midrash (elaboration) of this could be Luke 10:22
“All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”
In Revelation 5:1-5, we see only the Lamb is capable.
Then I saw in the right hand of him who was seated on the throne a scroll written within and on the back, sealed with seven seals. And I saw a mighty angel proclaiming with a loud voice, “Who is worthy to open the scroll and break its seals?” And no one in heaven or on earth or under the earth was able to open the scroll or to look into it, and I began to weep loudly because no one was found worthy to open the scroll or to look into it. And one of the elders said to me, “Weep no more; behold, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.”
Because man is helpless and has nothing to offer on behalf of his redemption, God himself had to do the job of redemption (16b). Does this sound like a familiar concept, namely Romans 8:3?
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh…
The traditional Jewish belief is that Jewish or human suffering atones for sins. This belief cannot be correct on a spiritual level, because an acceptable sacrifice must be both pure and more than merely human. Psalm 49:7-9 says,
Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever and never see the pit.
No, both Isaiah and Romans echo the idea that man is so totally lost and helpless that we humans are incapable of providing redemption. God has to do it. Hence the Messiah must be the God-Man. God is the Redeemer. Isaiah 59:20 is cited in Romans 11:25-26
Lest you be wise in your own sight, I do not want you to be unaware of this mystery, brothers: a partial hardening has come upon Israel, until the fullness of the Gentiles has come in. And in this way all Israel will be saved, as it is written,
“The Deliverer will come from Zion, he will banish ungodliness from Jacob”; “and this will be my covenant with them when I take away their sins.”
The salvation of “all Israel” refers to “all Israel at the time Messiah comes to establish his Kingdom on earth,” explained further in Zechariah 12-14 (esp. 12:8-10 and 13:8-9).
Paul writes this partly to expound upon the questions that naturally arise from Isaiah 63:17, quoted in the introduction. One such question would be, “If God is hardening the hearts of the Jewish people, will he fulfill his promises to them?” The answer in Romans is, “yes, he will completely fulfill them.”
III. Sanctification (21) corresponding with Romans 6:1-8:39
Isaiah 59:21 reads,
“As for Me, this is My covenant with them,” says the Lord: “My Spirit which is upon you, and My words which I have put in your mouth shall not depart from your mouth, nor from the mouth of your offspring, nor from the mouth of your offspring’s offspring,” says the Lord, “from now and forever.”
Sanctification in this text is via the New Covenant. The most unique aspect of the New Covenant is that only the regenerate are included in it. One entered the Old Covenant by birth; one enters the New by second birth. If you were born into a Jewish home, you were born into the Old Covenant. Some under that covenant were regenerate, some were not.
Although the entire nation of Israel will be regenerated at the advent of the Kingdom (Jeremiah 31:34), the distinguishing mark between the two covenants is the inclusion of only the regenerate (under the New Covenant).
We enter the New Covenant by faith in Jesus, and we are therefore to live New Covenant lives now by reckoning ourselves crucified with Christ and risen to spiritual life.
The Holy Spirit and the Word are primary in the realm of sanctification, as we see here. Thus as we focus our mind on the Word (one of the primary “things of the Spirit”), we become holier. Romans 8:4-11 passim reads,
…in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. … to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace… You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. … If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
Modern attempts to substitute the Word for something that does not take mental concentration or stress — like music, pop psychology, rituals, or good works — cannot produce the same quality fruit as comes from spending time in the Word. It is the process of studying the Word that makes us holier, not how relevant a portion of Scripture seems to us. If we want to be like a tree planted by rivers of water, we need to spend much time in the Word (Psalm 1), and all portions of the Word (2 Timothy 3:16-17).
We could further analyze the idea of the “word being in their mouths.” Does these “words” mean the Scriptures, prophetic utterances, or both? Since the text implies a deposit of words passed down to the generations (i.e., this seems to refer to the same words), I would argue that Scripture is meant.
I believe Paul, under the inspiration of the Spirit, worked hard to produce Romans (and his other epistles). He began with First Testament texts, and, in this case, developed his broad framework from Isaiah, especially chapter 59. His mind was extremely active during this process.
Rather than mere dictation, God “… set me [Paul] apart even from my [his] mother’s womb …” (Galatians 1:15) to prepare him for his special ministry, including authoring Romans. Yet, at the same time, God supervised Paul’s work, assuring that Paul said exactly what God wanted said (to the very word, 2 Timothy 3:16-17).
Finding the “mother texts” for later New Testament midrash (elaboration) helps increase context and sharpens our interpretational skills. It also reinforces the truth that God’s plan is not reactionary, but premeditated before the foundation of the world.