The other night I sat down to read the Gospel of Matthew. I hardly planned to read the whole book in one sitting – despite having recently read that as a recommendation as the best way to read the Bible. But I wasn’t planning to stop quite as soon as I did. I started by skipping the first two chapters – having just read them during the Christmas season, and diving it at chapter 3 with John the Baptist.
I got as far as “a voice crying in the wilderness” (verse 3) and started wondering about the significance of the wilderness. Now, I did finish reading the chapter, but since then I’ve been thinking about verse 3 a lot. I’m sure I’ve heard it since I was a teen if not earlier, and I knew that John was literally crying out in the wilderness, calling on people to repent.
One Advent season in the 1990’s, I learned that the imagery of “preparing the way” is referring to a king’s messenger going ahead to prepare the way for the king to come through. Roads needed to be repaired, holes filled in and rough places smoothed. Ever since then, I’ve had a mental image of being on a work crew getting the road ready for the King to arrive. The gaps in our spiritual lives need to be filled, and the pride taken out. Rocky obstacles such as persistent sins need to be extracted.
But this time it was the word wilderness that got me thinking. In popular use (i.e. outside of church and theology), “a voice in the wilderness” seems to mean “a voice that no one pays much attention to” or “an unpopular message.” The messenger can be in the middle of a crowd, but have as much effect as if out in the desert. John the Baptist was physically in the wilderness, but he did have quite an effect, as crowds went out to hear him there.
I think of wilderness as a lonely place. But perhaps the focus was not supposed to be on that, but on the fact that it is not fertile land. Some plants can grow there, but not much. And what does grow is not much use to anyone. Of course, when you want to make a road, it’s not particularly important whether the land is fertile. You really don’t want to pave a road through orchards or fields of grain if you don’t need ot.
I decided I’d better check out the Old Testament reference to get the context. The footnote in my Bible pointed me to Isaiah 40:3, and I found – to my surprise – that there’s no indication the messenger is in the wilderness. It’s the way of the Lord that is to be prepared in the wilderness. So now I had two questions: Why is the way of the Lord to be in the wilderness? Why is the quotation changed in Matthew’s Gospel?
The second question was the easier one to tackle. I knew, from my husband, that the original Scripture didn’t have punctuation marks. So both Isaiah and Matthew would have read “A voice crying in the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord” and it was the editors/translators who added the punctuation, along with chapter and verse numbers. But why would they put the quotation marks differently in one place than in the other?
According to one blog post I read, it is because the translators of the Septuagint (who translated the Old Testament into Greek) mistranslated it, moving an accent (which signals a pause – apparently there was some punctuation) from after “cries” to after “wilderness.” And Matthew (along with other writers of the New Testament, I think) often used the Septuagint when quoting from the Old Testament.
But another blog post offers a literal translation of the Septuagint that seems to mirror the Hebrew, and suggests (if I understand correctly) that the English translators made the change. They seem to have done this because it is not clear what verse Matthew is quoting (most sources I looked at say he combines words from Isaiah and Malachi), while it is clear that he is using the quote to show that John – who is most definitely in the wilderness – fulfills the prophecy.
Well, I suppose if I want to I can go downstairs and dig out my husband’s Septuagint and his interlinear Bible (showing the words in Hebrew for the OT and Greek for the NT, with a literal translation of each word into English directly below it). But what interested me more is that both these posts change the mental image of what this way in the wilderness was for.
I had always thought of God approaching from a distant place, needing a way prepared in order to come among us. I don’t know why I would have thought of it that way, since I know that Jesus came to live among sinners who certainly hadn’t cleaned up their lives before his arrival. And while He calls us to repentance, He accepts us even with our very rough places. I suppose when I heard about a king’s herald preparing the way before him, I naturally imagined the king coming from afar, because why would a king need to prepare the way if he were already here?
The answer – at least according to these two blog posts – is found in the context of Isaiah 40. God is announcing to the exiles in Babylon that their punishment is over, their captivity is ended, and now they can go home. And God is going to lead them home, as their King leading the procession through the wilderness. I’m not sure just what kind of “preparing the way” is necessary in that case – perhaps renewing among the people the desire to return to Jerusalem, if they had become too comfortable living in exile.
The author of the second blog post I referenced suggests that Isaiah was calling for God to prepare the way Himself, just as He did for the people of Israel when He led them out of Egypt. I have to admit that it sounds odd to me to think that “prepare the way of the Lord” could be directed to the Lord – why would he not say “prepare Your way”? But it certainly offers a new perspective on Matthew 3:3, that John was preparing the way for Jesus, who would prepare the way for all of us to follow Him to spiritual freedom and to the presence of God.