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Death is swallowed up in victory. What? When? And has he misread the scriptures?

What does Paul mean when he says that “death is swallowed up in victory”? When will this happen? And has he made fair use of the Old Testament texts that he cites in support of his claim?

Paul argues in 1 Corinthians 15:50-57 that flesh and blood will not inherit the rule with Jesus at the right hand of God over the nations. So when this new order is inaugurated, those who have died in Christ will be raised, perishable bodies will put on imperishability, mortal bodies will put on immortality. Thus will come to pass the saying that is written:

“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?” (1 Cor. 15:54–55)

The first part of the saying is from Isaiah 25:8, which speaks of the swallowing up of “the death” (ha-mawet) on mount Zion as part of the restoration of Israel following the Babylonian invasion and exile. As I read it, Isaiah is not prophesying a final end to the universal phenomenon of death but an end to “the death” and destruction prescribed under the covenant as punishment for Israel’s sin (cf. Is. 24:6). The reality of death is common to all humanity: it is “the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations” (Is. 25:7). But on this mountain, when God restores his people, the curse of death will be removed and the land will flourish again.

The Septuagint reads differently, but clearly takes the verse in the same restrictive sense: Israel had been swallowed up by death, but God has restored his people:

Death, having prevailed, swallowed them up, and God has again taken away every tear from every face; the disgrace of the people he has taken away from all the earth, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken. (Is. 25:8 LXX)

This is broadly consistent with Paul’s use of the saying in 1 Corinthians 15:54, though he has extended it into a very different eschatological context. When YHWH finally establishes the rule of his Son over the nations of the Greek-Roman world, the death that had been suffered by the persecuted churches would be swallowed up in victory. Those who had died for their testimony to Christ and the coming transformation of the ancient world would be raised and would share in his reign at the right hand of God (cf. 1 Thess. 4:16-17; Rev. 20:4-6). Paul quotes Isaiah not because he is telling the same story but because he is telling a similar story.

The saying expresses his conviction that death would not overcome the community that bore faithful witness to the coming political-religious reality of Jesus’ rule over the nations.

The second part of the saying is from Hosea 13:14, which belongs to an oracle of judgment against Israel in advance of the Assyrian invasion of the northern kingdom. The ESV offers two ways of translating the first two lines—either as declarations or as questions expecting the answer “no”:

I shall ransom them from the power of Sheol;
I shall redeem them from Death.
O Death, where are your plagues?
O Sheol, where is your sting?
Compassion is hidden from my eyes.

Shall I ransom them from the power of Sheol?
Shall I redeem them from Death?
O Death, where are your plagues?
O Sheol, where is your sting?
Compassion is hidden from my eyes.

The Septuagint agrees with the declarative version:

I shall rescue them from the hand of Hades and shall redeem them from Death. O Death, where is your sentence? O Hades, where is your goad? Comfort is hidden from my eyes. (Hos. 13:14 LXX)

In the context of Hosea 13-14 the second translation in question form is probably to be preferred. God will not ransom his people from the death and destruction that the Assyrians will bring. On the contrary, he will call upon the plagues and sting of death to punish them. Compassion is hidden from his eyes. This is clearly incompatible with Paul’s argument in 1 Corinthians 15:55.

Paul doesn’t quote the Greek version exactly: the word order is different, he has “victory” (nikē) instead of “sentence” (dikē), and he has repeated “death” in the place of “Hades”. But his periphrasis is close enough, and it would seem reasonable to suppose that he is remembering the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text. In that case, his use of the saying is congruent with—though not identical to—its original meaning.

So what does Paul mean when he says that “death is swallowed up in victory”? What he has in mind here is not the final defeat of death but the defeat of death insofar as it appeared to have gained a victory over the martyrs in the period leading up to the parousia and the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations. What the quoted saying describes is not the destruction of death but a specific victory over death, which has not proved to be a decisive obstacle to the preaching of the good news of the coming rule of God. This is similar to Jesus’ saying that the gates of Hades would not overcome the community of disciples that confessed Jesus as “the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matt. 16:16, 18).

When will this happen? It is a victory gained at the inheritance of the kingdom, at the beginning of Christ’s reign over the nations, not at the end of that reign when the last enemy, death, is finally destroyed and Jesus gives back the authority to rule to the Father, so that “God may be all in all” (1 Cor. 15:24-28).

And has he made fair use of the Old Testament texts that he cites in support his claim? The two passages cited are not easy to interpret, and we do not know what “version” of the scriptures Paul was consulting or remembering. But if we allow for the fact that he has inevitably had to transcribe the “saying” from one historical-eschatological key to another, it seems to me that he maintains a powerful congruency which illuminates the nature and scope of his expectations. The saying expresses his conviction that death would not overcome the community that bore faithful witness to the coming political-religious reality of Jesus’ rule over the nations.

Comments

If we employ good modern historical-grammatical exegesis, then the Hebrew context of Hosea 13:14, which is the rest of the surrounding passage of our chapter 13, is clearly calling down judgment on Israel , and the sense of the Septuagint is a misreading. YHWH is calling on death and sheol to come to Israel.

If Paul is using the Septuagint, in which death and Hades are questioned as defeated enemies, then good modern historical-grammatical exegesis requires us to correct the Septuagint, especially since the questions are immediately followed (in the same Septuagint) by “Comfort is hidden from my eyes”. (I’m taking your version of the Septuagint on trust here Andrew).

Your ‘historical’ interpretation of 1 Cor 15 is not reflected in the text. We are directed to “the first man, Adam”, and “the last Adam” (Jesus), not the martyrs or other 1st century historical personalities. The only enemy to be named whose defeat is proclaimed is death. There is no mention of 1st century historical events or 1st century eschatology anywhere.

I think Paul’s use of inner biblical interpretation is a an outstanding example of 2nd temple taking verses out of context and introducing an entirely novel meaning - the more so if Paul is using the Septuagint as his source. We have to change our exegetical principles entirely if we accept this as “fair use of the Old Testament texts that he cites in support his claim”.

At the risk of incurring a three strikes and you’re out penalty, but to complete a response to Paul’s handling of OT prophecy in 1 Cor 15:54-55, the context of Isaiah 25:8, Paul’s prefix’ to the Hosea passage, is remarkably detached from any reference to Babylonian invasion and exile. The immediate context of the passage itself speaks of God destroying the shroud of death that enfolds all peoples and nations. There is a local reference to Moab in v.20, which is a reminder of Moab’s opportunistic attack following the siege of Jerusalem. But you have to go back four chapters for any reference to Babylonian, and there it’s of Babylon’s defeat by Media and Persia, not on “this mountain”. The next implied reference to Babylon is in Isaiah 29, which is about the defeat of Israel in the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem. At least that’s what it seems to be saying. Babylon isn’t mentioned.

So what is being described in Isaiah 25:8 and the surrounding verses? Taking a leaf from Paul, we might also say with him that it refers to death being defeated by Jesus “on this mountain” for all peoples and all nations. But in this instance, neither we or Paul need resort to 2nd temple semantics. Isaiah seems to be looking beyond Babylonian invasion and exile, and beyond Israel’s incomplete restoration, to a much wider horizon.

Just to clarify, Isaiah 25 is not quite as distant from geopolitical references as you imply.

You don’t have to go back four chapters to get a reference to Babylon, just two. In chapter 23 it talks about how even though Tyre and Sidon were mighty powers, they were slated for destruction by Babylon.

In chapter 24, the focus shifts from Tyre and Sidon to a judgement that will befall the entire land, and while some of the imagery looks like the gradual state of entropy that all creation suffers under, this is a reference to judgement that is coming to the land, not a description of what mankind’s condition has been since the Fall, and the chapter says at the end, “On that day, the Lord will punish the host of the high in the high places and the kings of the earth on earth.”

In chapter 25, verse 8 is preceded by a passage that talks about the Lord bringing down strong cities and “the palace of aliens is a city no more,” which leads into verse 5 that tells us the Lord saved at a time when “the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, the noise of the aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of the clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled.” This is deliverance from foreign powers.

Immediately after the passage you are claiming is best read as a general prophecy against death at the end of time is the prediction that the Moabites will be destroyed.

So, if you want to say that -Babylon- is not the alien forces in Isaiah 25 or the cause of the death that will be swallowed up, you could probably make a case that the imagery serves oppressors at the time in general or some such, considering the spectrum of foreign powers that are specifically mentioned (including Babylon).

But it’s not correct to say that foreign powers are very distant from this passage, ergo the best way to interpret it is talking about death in general - a condition that has been a common part of mankind’s history long before the situations described in that portion of Isaiah. The imagery leading up to and immediately following that passage is clearly focused on the atrocities of earthly powers.

What do you think Isaiah 25:6-8 means? How does God prepare “on this mountain … a feast of rich food for all peoples”? How does He “destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations’?

It would make sense if the prophecy declared that God would visit retribution on the nations who attacked Israel. Isaiah’s prophecy goes far beyond this.

Prophetic metaphor has to mean something, and ultimately has to be measured against actual events in which it might have been fulfilled. Isaiah does the opposite of the normal prophetic procedure of threatening judgement on the instruments of judgment on Israel. But what can his meaning be?

In the OT, apart from Sheol, death was associated with exile, life with living in or return to the land. 25:6-8 might at a stretch be connected with later prophecy in Isaiah about Israel returning from exile and bearing (some of) the gentiles with her. Isaiah clearly had no foreknowledge of a Messiah who would die and be raised from the dead. Even Paul is not extending his citation of Isaiah beyond the first sentence of 25:8.

However, in view of how Paul is (mis)using Hosea 13:14, and in view of his broad contextual canvas in 1 Cor 15, it seems valid for us to follow Paul’s example in his far milder (mis?)misppropriation of Isaiah, and see 25:6-8 and it’s broader context as finding a fulfilment in the death of Jesus (on this Mountain), and the defeat of death and gift of life for all peoples and nations which ensued. In the absence of any other credible fulfilment of the prophecy, we are almost impelled to do this.

Sure, we can discuss my own interpretation of the passage, but what I wanted to point out was that Isaiah 25 is actually hemmed in on all sides by geopolitical references, not distant from them. Your argument about Isaiah 25 offered as a point that the passage is four chapters away from a Babylon reference (which is not accurate) and the only other item that is “localized” is the mention of Moab, which is also not accurate. I was pointing out the passage is surrounded by “localized” references, and you seem to be ok with that, so well and good, because that was my point.

Oh, there’s no question in my mind that NT authors found fulfillments of prophecy in Jesus that cannot plausibly be read backwards into the original text if we take the later interpretation to be the primary point of reference.

Matthew 2:18 comes to mind. This only works if Matthew is saying that the situation under Herod with the execution of infants in Bethlehem is similar to the situation in Jeremiah 31:15 describing Israel’s lament over her sons being taken into Babylonian exile, but soon she will be comforted. There is no way you can make Jeremiah 31:15 on its own terms a prophecy about children being executed in Bethlehem. But, as you have also noted, it’s very common for rabbinic literature to use a passage to describe multiple referents, including on occasion future ones such as the Messiah.

As for Isaiah 25, “this mountain” is most likely metonymy for Israel like the end of chapter 24, and the salvation and restoration of Israel is meant to bless all nations. There are plenty of OT texts that bear this out. As for the shroud and sheet that covers all nations, I think it’s quite likely this is referring to a large, oppressive empire that covers all nations. Babylon fits the bill, but given the various other mentions of Israel’s enemies, it may mean the collection of oppressive nations.

As you get into verses 26ff, it becomes increasingly doubtful that v. 25 is talking about the generic condition of death that all mankind has suffered since the Fall. “The disgrace of His people, He will take away from all the earth” and “Lo, this is our God. We have waited for Him so that He might save us.” This seems very likely to me to be talking about enduring the enslavement of an empire and hoping for deliverance and rather unlikely to be talking about death in general. I don’t see any textual evidence that the Israel described in Jeremiah has been waiting to stop dying.

As for the ramifications for Paul’s use of this sentiment, Paul does state explicitly right before his use of the verse, “We shall not all die, but we shall all be changed.” The main argument of the passage is that the perishable must be exchanged for the imperishable in order to inherit the kingdom of God, and this must of necessity entail a resurrection of those who have already died.

What Paul means by this quotation is that the perishable body will become imperishable, whether you’re dead or not. But his explanation after the quote is also important: the sting of death is sin and the power of sin is the Law. So, we also have to take into account Paul’s view of the Law as an oppressive reign over Israel, the catalyst for sin, and the bringer of the curse. This is something that Paul believes that believers have died to through participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus, even while still alive (see: most of Galatians). I’m not sure I can scrut out exactly what Paul’s getting at, here, but its inclusion does let me know he isn’t just talking about the generic phenomenon of death and the general resurrection at the end of time.

Perhaps, for Paul, the oppressor is the Law/sin complex which has brought enslavement and death to Israel. Liberation from this oppressor means deliverance from all its enslavements, which means deliverance from the curses up to and including death itself. I want to take seriously the fact that Paul is addressing a disbelief in the resurrection, here, but it seems to be that Paul is establishing the resurrection more by way of necessary implication of a larger point rather than saying, “The Bible teaches that the dead will be raised. Look at these passages from the OT.”

Thanks Phil. I hadn’t realise my comment was responding to you!

Your interpretation of Isaiah 25:8 is good, and probably one that Andrew has already put forward. I simply can’t remember. And yes, it’s probably a prediction of a forthcoming restoration of Israel, which brings to mind Isaiah 2, 4, 9a, 11-12, 33-34, 35, 49, and the latter chapters of Isaiah.

Isaiah 25 (and the other passages) nevertheless goes beyond simply the overthrow of Babylon. However your interpret the return from exile under Cyrus the Persian, whose rule over Israel followed that of Media, and was in turn followed by Greece and Rome, it doesn’t seem to sit easily with Isaiah’s language. In view of the hyperbole of the metaphorical language, we have two options for its fulfilment (maybe three): the fulfilment never happened; the fulfilment happened in Jesus; the fulfilment has not happened yet but will in the future. (Or a fourth - maybe it was fulfilled in some way progressively in all three!). From a canonical and historical point of view, I opt for 2., but it didn’t look like the fulfilment visualised by Isaiah, and certainly wasn’t a restoration of Israel the nation.

I don’t think Paul is suggesting that in Isaiah 25, or his citation of it in 1 Cor 15, the Law is the oppressive shroud, since it didn’t cover all peoples and nations. Paul is never quite so negative about the Law, though he does say that the Law increased the trespass, so it’s in that sense that I read 1 Cor 15:56.

Your interpretation of 1 Cor 15:54b suggests to me that Paul is doing with Isaiah what he does with Hosea 13:14. He takes a verse out of context and gives it new meaning. The meaning he gives it is the defeat of death, which came about through the resurrection of Jesus. That may not be what Isaiah 25:8 is saying, but at the same time, Isaiah seems to be straining the boundaries of historic fulfilment in the language he uses - here as in Isaiah 2, 54-55, 60-62, and so on. (By historic, I mean anything before the death and resurrection of Jesus). This would reinforce the suggestion that Paul is employing 2nd Temple exegesis, ie not historical grammatical. He is not paying attention to the meaning of verses in context, but is giving them new meaning in the light of the coming of Jesus, which is not related to OT context.

I’m grateful for your thoughts.

Hi Peter,

Thanks. I don’t know that I’d call what I wrote “my interpretation” of 1 Cor. 15 since I was just sort of shooting from the hip, but I get what you’re saying, and I think it might be helpful to zero in on what I think is the difference.

You said, “I don’t think Paul is suggesting that in Isaiah 25, or his citation of it in 1 Cor 15, the Law is the oppressive shroud, since it didn’t cover all peoples and nations.” Yes, but that would be reading Paul’s meaning backward into Isaiah, which I would agree is wrong. I also don’t think Matthew is saying Jeremiah’s words about Ramah’s weeping are “really” about Bethlehem and Herod. So, when we’re trying to determine what Paul means in 1 Cor. 15, I agree that it would be unhelpful to directly port that back into Isaiah to see if it works.

So, I think on that point, we’re in at least basic agreement. However an NT author is using an OT passage, you can’t take that use and drop it back into the original OT passage and have it work the same, as if the OT passage is “really” about the new usage. That also seems to be consistent with what Andrew is saying.

However, there’s a difference in that what Andrew is arguing is that the basic situation of the original passage in some way informs how and why an NT author is using it. For example, in the Jeremiah passage about Ramah, Israel’s young men are being taken from her and carried off into a life of exile under an oppressive, pagan regime as a result of the curse, but God will overturn this situation. So, when Matthew uses it, he isn’t just taking those words and investing them with a wholly new world of meaning. He can use those verses to describe Herod’s murder of children in Bethlehem because Israel is having her sons taken from her by an oppressive, pagan regime as a result of the curse, but God will overturn this situation.

It’s the base similarity of the situation that allows for this. This is Matthew saying, “Bethlehem has become OUR Ramah.” I think this use of the OT by the NT is cogent, explains much, and is consistent with early rabbinical midrash. Some passages seem to be very clear in this way, while others are much trickier, like 1 Cor. 15.

What you appear to me to be proposing is that the NT use of the OT is radically discontinuous. That if an NT author can make OT words fit Jesus or NT eschatology or what have you, then they do so, and the original meaning of the OT text is basically irrelevant. Please clarify for me if I’m reading you wrongly.

If I have understood you correctly, then that position is virtually impossible to critique, because it allows you to completely sever the NT quotations from the OT moorings, and whatever you believe NT theology to be is what those verses mean. The OT meaning of those verses can’t inform or critique your interpretation because there’s no connection and, in fact, working in that direction, OT theology can easily be reconstructed in a manner that NT theology defines for it.

But the problem is that the OT came first, and it seems more likely to me that the OT forms the riverbanks that shape the flow of the NT rather than the OT producing words that had a meaning for the original audience that is simply no longer relevant for the NT appropriation of those words. Why use the OT at all?

So, if Isaiah 25 is talking about deliverance from oppressive empires that threaten people’s lives and prosperity, I would find it more likely that Paul is also trying to allude to an oppressor that causes death. Rome, perhaps. Or the Law (and while Paul has nice things to say about the Law, he is -definitely- that negative about Israel’s time under the Law and easily and easily uses terms like ‘slavery’ and ‘death’ to describe it).

What I think would be less likely is to read Paul, conclude that Paul must be talking about the phenomenon of death in general, and then assume all that stuff in Isaiah about Moab and Chaldea and Tyre and Sidon and the people being ashamed by this situation and waiting for their deliverance and collapsed palaces and destroyed cities is all just cruft as far as Paul is concerned. I’m not saying your view is intrinsically impossible; it just seems unlikely to me especially in light of the explanatory power offered by Andrew’s way of looking at it.