I believe that a correct interpretation of Isaiah 35:5-10 hinges upon a detailed analysis of the Lord's use of the passage in Matt 11:5-6. I also believe that getting the right understanding of this section is important to understand the Christian message. It is a very popular passage. I can think of half a dozen songs from Sunday School through to modern adult worship that draw from the imagery here and yet I believe most of them are wrong. The aim of this paper is to show that this declaration in Isaiah has only been partially fulfilled and that Jesus Christ actually went out of His way to state that only a partial fulfillment was going to occur for now.
The key verses that are going to be compared are:
Isa 35:5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, And the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.
Isa 35:6 Then the lame shall leap like a deer, And the tongue of the dumb sing. For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, And streams in the desert.
Isa 35:7 The parched ground shall become a pool, And the thirsty land springs of water; In the habitation of jackals, where each lay, There shall be grass with reeds and rushes.
Mat 11:4 Jesus answered and said to them, "Go and tell John the things which you hear and see:
Mat 11:5 The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them.
Mat 11:6 And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me."
However to compare these verses properly we first need to examine the context, particularly of the latter passage. John the Baptist, one of the greatest men of all times , had sent to ask if Jesus was the Messiah. We have no reason to assume that John was anything other than sincere and thus can assume that Jesus would have no particular reason to give a cryptic or evasive answer. A simple yes or no would have sufficed. Instead the Lord gave an extended sentence which was very similar to the one in Isaiah 35. Yet the quote was not exact, parts of it differed markedly from what had gone before. Obviously Christ knew He was deviating from the text and John would have known it too and Christ would have known that he would know it too. We may therefore assume that's Christ message was precise and was designed to convey maximum information to John.
We shall start by noting the elements in the passages that agree. Both sets describe the blind being given sight, the lame walking and the deaf hearing. Of course the Lord's attestation that He did these things is adequate for us to believe them; however I will note the Biblical references as provided by John Gill on Matt 11:5 for the same of completeness:
Christ's account in Matthew however contains some notable additions. First he states that he healed lepers. The account is in Mat 8:3 but I don't know any prediction of this and none of the commentators note one either. More crucially however the New Testament account includes people being raised from the dead. Whilst there was some notion of resurrection in the Old Testament it certainly isn't a part of the passage in Isaiah. Isaiah looked towards blessing for those that were then alive. Christ was conquering death itself.
I believe there is one more link back to Isaiah in Matthew's passage but it isn't to the 35th chapter it is to the 61st. As Barnes notes the poor having the gospel preached to them is a prediction of Isa 61:1. It should be noted that Isa 61 comes after the account of the suffering servant.
I believe that Christ's message to John was that he was the Messiah and He was going to bless but that he was dealing with the full issue of death and that this was going to involve suffering. It is quite probable that the allusion to lepers was also a suggestion to John that Christ was dealing with sin too as leprosy was a type of sinful flesh.
Christ's use of Isa 35 is also notable for its omissions. The Isaiah passage focuses as much on the geography and agriculture of Israel as it does upon the occupants. It speaks of deserts being healed, wild animals being driven out and wasteland being reclaimed. Christ does not mention any of these things and none of them physically happened.
For those commentators that wish to view this prophecy as fulfilled they need to spiritualize these promises away. For example Gill refers to someone that is 'dry and parched' spiritually being refreshed and fruitful person. It is interesting how inconsistent his hermeneutic is. He goes to lengths to show the personally healing was real but then denies the reality of the next promise in the verse. Barnes is almost amusing in that he goes into extreme detail regarding the nature of the mirages that appears in the area and stating that the picture here is that the parched ground that has a mirage of being a pool will one day be a pool. But then he spiritualizes the picture back into 'any and all' promises of God being real promises. This of course means that the promise made to the Jews here in Isaiah 35 has just turned back into a mirage!
I think it is much more logical and consisted to simply accept that the Lord was telling John that he was fulfilling part of Isaiah 35 now. The healing of people was going to happen and even be extended to tackle sin and death. Further the promises of salvation as shown in the latter parts of Isaiah were going to be fulfilled. However the physical healing of the land around Zion was going to have to wait. So the next time we are singing and dancing to 'therefore the redeemed of the Lord shall return ...' let us remember: it isn't yet and we will be watching them from heaven.