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Name that Quote: Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3 in Mark 1:2

mark 1 3 OT quotes sxc hu smallI will never forget my first Master’s paper at Regent University. I called it, “How They Got This Out of That.”

I worked hard in my undergraduate programs (Yes, programs plural… I had a sordid flirtation with more than one Bible College before beginning my graduate studies.) but no matter how much I studied and researched, my papers were infantile, theologically immature. I’ve gone back and read them; I thought, “I was so cute and naïve back then… like a puppy playing with a python.”

My paper, “How They Got This Out of That,” however, was like a miracle in my mind… real scholarship with just a hint of genuine sophistication. I go back and read that paper and think, “Where did this come from?” Compared to everything I wrote before it, it seems like I was touched by an angel. The transformation from my final undergraduate semester to my first semester as a master’s student was radical. I don’t know how to explain it.

Why, yes, my spiritual gift is modesty; how did you know?

The greatest wonder of this paper, however, was the subject. I’d been fascinated with the NT’s use of the OT since my first year in college when a less than astute professor tried to spiritualize away my perplexity at Matthew’s employment of “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” Matthew 2:15 is, in truth, a masterful employment of Hosea 11:1… but, today, I want to introduce the complexity and beauty of Mark 1:2’s equally masterful blended quote of Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3 in reference to the coming of John the Baptist.

My purpose, here, is not to bleed all the meaning inherent in this blending in one short post, but simply to make you aware of the difference between interpretation and use when a New Testament writer employs an Old Testament text. When we see an OT reference in a NT passage, we should not ask, “Why did this writer interpret this text this way?” We should, rather, ask, “How did they get this out of that?” or even better, “Why is the author using this passage that way?” (By the way, always hunt out hidden OT references; there are more than the average reader recognizes.)

So, here, in Mark 1:2-4, we find 3 important passages, only two of which are commonly recognized.

One interesting thing is that the best guess for the original manuscript is that while the texts are introduced with “Isaiah the prophet,”[1] what follows is initially a composite quote from Malachi and Exodus, finishing up with Isaiah. Isaiah is, of course, the prince of the writing prophets and the primary force behind many of the messages that flow through prophetic literature later on. Future prophets continue to develop his messages under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

Second, we find an interesting message developed in the Malachi and Isaiah portions of the quote. Reading the larger contexts of both Malachi 3:1 and Isaiah 40:3 (and you should always familiarize yourself with the larger original context of a quote) we find that both texts develop the impact of the prediction that God will break into human history, bringing both retribution and reward with Him. In Malachi, this arrival of God is largely a terror, for he is coming to bring judgment to his people who are covenant breakers. He will purge his people with fiery retribution against the wicked in their midst. In Isaiah, however, the focus is triumphant. God’s arrival forms the content of the ultimate gospel (think war-runner proclaiming victory), a gospel of God in which God’s break into human history, His presence on the scene, marks doom for the enemies of God and for the enemies of his people, and the elevation of the people of God to the highest place. Malachi is a warning and Isaiah a shout of praise and wonder.

John’s arrival on the scene marks the beginning of the fulfillment of these promises of the coming of God into the world. John is preparing the path for the one who comes after… preparing the path for God.

If you read Malachi 3:1 in comparison to Mark 1:2 carefully, however, you will notice that the pronouns are all wrong. Malachi says literally, “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before my face…” while the portion in Mark becomes, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way…”

The pronouns and elements of the quote are actually drawn from another text, a text with strong verbal links with Malachi 3:1, a text that likely formed the prophetic foundation for Malachi 3:1—Exodus 23:20. Exodus 23 concerns the coming of the angel of YHWH to lead the people of Israel into the promise land, one who has the name of YHWH in Him, one whom the people must obey if they want the fullness of divine promises. In Greek, it reads, Καὶ ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου compared with Mark 1:2 ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἀποστέλλω τὸν ἄγγελόν μου πρὸ προσώπου σου. You don’t even have to know Greek to see that the initial portion is exact.

The full meaning of this composite quote and the exact relationship between these four passages (Mark 1:2-3, Exodus 23:20, Malachi 3:1, and Isaiah 40:3) will have to wait, but I wouldn’t want to you miss the beauty and complexity of what Mark is doing here.



[1] Some later manuscripts, aware of a “problem” with saying “Isaiah” read, merely, “the prophets.”

[2] Media pic from sxc.hu; http://www.freeimages.com

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