Could Not Believe
I had a question asked of me recently that I decided may be beneficial for others to have answered as well, so I have produced a short summary write up around the topic for the benefit of all. The question was not phrased with respect to a specific verse, but rather it was framed around a concept that the person had seen while reading the scripture. I took the liberty of providing the verses below that I believe best represent the concept being questioned.
John 12:37-40 – But though he had done so many miracles before them, yet they believed not on him: That the saying of Esaias the prophet might be fulfilled, which he spake, Lord, who hath believed our report? and to whom hath the arm of the Lord been revealed? Therefore they could not believe, because that Esaias said again, He hath blinded their eyes, and hardened their heart; that they should not see with their eyes, nor understand with their heart, and be converted, and I should heal them. These things said Esaias, when he saw his glory, and spake of him.
The question basically is this: Did God really smite Israel with a blindness that resulted in them being unable to believe?
In respect to that question, the answer clearly is: Yes. Vs. 39 does not mince terms when it says “Therefore they could not believe.” I take the Bible for what it says, so I must agree with God when He makes this very clear statement.
The problem for most folks with this, however, is that they are supposing that this inability to believe has to do with the matter of faith for personal salvation. But is that what this text is saying? After all, there were some in Israel that believed upon Christ, were there not? How is it that some in Israel obviously could believe and be saved while others could not? Isaiah doesn’t make any exceptions in his prophecy concerning Israel, so why would it apply to some and not to others?
From those questions, I’m guessing your mind is starting to engage. What is it that Israel “could not believe” based upon what Isaiah had said? Perhaps he isn’t talking about an inability to exercise faith unto salvation, but rather something different entirely. It is very easy to succumb to our own foolish thinking, if we do not go back to the OT and allow God to build the necessary foundation in our understanding.
The concept of Israel’s blindness actually starts prior to Isaiah’s prophecy. Moses himself spoke about it prior to Israel’s entry into the land of Canaan in Deut. 29.
Deut. 29:2-4 - And Moses called unto all Israel, and said unto them, Ye have seen all that the LORD did before your eyes in the land of Egypt unto Pharaoh, and unto all his servants, and unto all his land; The great temptations which thine eyes have seen, the signs, and those great miracles: Yet the LORD hath not given you an heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day.
Moses’ words to Israel in this text are given in light of the doctrine contained in Exodus – Numbers. The fundamental issue that begins to be set forth to the nation with the raising up of Moses is the name of JEHOVAH (the LORD). God reveals this name to Moses in the burning bush in Exo. 3, and from that point forward begins giving Israel an education in what that name is all about. Through a number of marvelous signs leading up to the Red Sea, Jehovah educated them that it would be by His name that He would perform the covenant made with their fathers. What Israel needed to do, therefore, was learn the lessons the LORD taught them & depend solely upon the name of the LORD to be their great I AM in bringing His promises to pass.
After Israel crossed the Red Sea, Jehovah took them through 5 major tests leading up to Sinai, whereby He proved them to see whether or not those lessons taught in Egypt had been learned by them. At each point Israel failed. They demonstrated a hardness of heart toward the doctrine of the name of the LORD as the embodiment of His grace, and crowned their rebellion against His truth by electing to come under the terms of the law contract.
Exo. 19:8 – And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the LORD.
In foolishness, with every aspect of Jehovah’s name at their disposal, they chose a system of blessing based upon their own performance. Doing this completely altered the nature of the relationship they had to the LORD nationally speaking. Instead of being born on eagle’s wings by covenantal grace, they opted for the stern schoolmaster of the law with its inflexible demands and attending curses. This choice took the fullness of having Jehovah’s name being enacted for them off the table for as long as Israel remains under the law. Instead, like Moses in mount, Israel would only see vailed glimpses of Jehovah’s back parts as He passed by them in capricious acts of grace through their history, and would be unable to see His face and comprehend the fullness of the glory of the name of the LORD until such time as that vail was done away.
It is along these lines that Moses speaks in Deut. 29 concerning Israel blindness. They had “seen all that the LORD did before [their] eyes in the land of Egypt unto Pharaoh” but they had spurned those lessons in name of the LORD. Therefore, “the LORD hath not given you an heart to perceive, and eyes to see, and ears to hear, unto this day.” Even after 40 years in the wilderness, having been shepherded by Jehovah, they could not see nor understand the glory of the name of the LORD as Moses saw it in the mount. This did not mean that none of those Israelites could believe in the LORD as a matter of personal faith in what He said, but rather that they would be unable to comprehend the fullness of the name of the LORD until such time as He began to put that name into effect on their behalf and the vail would be done away.
Fast forward to Isaiah’s prophesy now and we are again dealing with the similar issue. The difference, however, is that by time Isaiah prophesies to Israel, historically the nation has progressed through the various courses of punishment outlined in Lev. 26. They are now facing the wrath of the LORD under the law whereby they would scattered out of the Promised Land by means of the Assyrian & Babylonian captivities. Isaiah has pronounced these judgmental “woes” upon them according to the law contract. After this, Isaiah, similarly to Moses, is given to see a vision of the glory of the LORD (Jehovah). You can read about this firsthand in Isa. 6:1-8, but for now we will let the reference in John 12 sighted above suffice to make the point.
John 12:40 – These things said Esaias, when he saw his glory, and spake of him.
What Isaiah is given to see is the glory of the name of the LORD. Like Moses, Isaiah is brought to an understanding of the fullness of that name that Israel had so greatly spurned under the law. He sees the grievous nature of their national transgressions & confesses the uncleanness that he & his nation bear in their lips in how they have spoken evil concerning their King, the LORD of hosts.
It is at this stage, having seen the glory of the LORD, that Isaiah is commissioned; not to show Israel the glory of the name of the LORD whereby they can be saved, but rather to hide it from their sight so that they will go on & experience the final installments of the law curses.
Isa. 6:9-10 – And he said, Go, and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and convert, and be healed.
I realize Isa. 6 is often used as a mission’s passage. The text itself, however, indicates the exact opposite. Isaiah is not being commissioned by the LORD to go and make Israel see the way of salvation, but rather to make their heart fat, to make their ears heavy, and to shut their eyes lest they should see. And lest they should see what? The glory of the Jehovah that Isaiah witnessed earlier in the chapters.
Isaiah’s commission is one in which he must bear the burden of proclaiming judgment while understanding all the while the glory of the LORD that Israel cannot believe. All of the marvelous prophesies concerning the name of the LORD functioning in the person of the Christ that follow in the book of Isaiah will not be understood by them.
This bring us back to our main point. The prophesy of Israel’s blindness that John alludes to in John 12 has to do with Israel’s understanding of the fullness of the name of the LORD and what all that means to the outworking of His plan and purpose with them. It is not saying that the Israelites were unable to believe the word of God. They certainly could exercise faith in what God had said in the scriptures and be personally saved by faith, but in so doing, even the believers would not fully comprehend what the name of the LORD was all about for them nationally. Even the disciples of the Lord who had believed on him, display this ignorance throughout Christ’s earthly ministry. They did not understand many things that the Lord said to them while He was yet with them. It was not until after His resurrection that he opened their understanding (Luke 24:45); after the first aspect of Jehovah’s name had been put into effect for them at Calvary as their Jehovah-jireh.
The point in John’s gospel with the statement that “they could not believe” has to do with Israel’s understanding of what they were seeing in the ministry of Christ while it was ongoing prior to Calvary. They certainly could have searched the scriptures, looked at the miracles and come to the conclusion that He was their Messiah. Many of them did just that, but when it came to their understanding of all that was going on as it relates to the implementation of Jehovah’s name for them nationally, they could not comprehend nor believe it because of what Isaiah had said.
Published by Joshua Edwards
Joshua Edwards is an ambassador for the Lord Jesus Christ who is dedicated the to the communication of sound doctrine as set forth in the pages of God's word. He desires to have all men to be saved by believing the gospel of the grace of God, and thereafter to come unto the knowledge of the truth by establishment in the preaching of Jesus Christ according to the revelation of the mystery (Romans 16:25).