The Highway of Holiness
"A highway shall be there, and a road, And it shall be called the Highway of Holiness. The unclean shall not pass over it, But it shall be for others. Whoever walks the road, although a fool, Shall not go astray."(Isa.35:8 NKJV)
Highways, motorways, or autobahns or whatever you call them have become part of the fabric of life since the 1930s when ordinary men and women began to drive cars. How my grandfather drove his first car from London home to Cardiff in the 1930s in the days before motorways and driving tests is a minor mystery. This verse however was written by Isaiah about 2,700 years ago. But what did he mean? In Babylon it is thought that there was a magnificent high road in the city from the Royal Palace straight to the Temple of Bel, the central seat of idol worship in that ancient land. It went through the Ishtar gate which had lions decorated on its walls and ran above the city, level and straight, broad, and wide. The nearest British equivalent may be "The Mall" which runs from Trafalgar Square with its museums, stations and statues of lions, through Admiralty Arch finishing at Buckingham Palace. At times of national celebration thousands of people have been swarming down the Mall at the end of the day.
There are other questions to be considered. What type of way is this highway of holiness in Isaiah? When is it to be open, how would it be travelled and by whom?
Wilderness to market garden
The scene is set by the first verse which talks about the wilderness, the thirsty place and the desert being told to be glad and blossom. It is a scene of expectation for better days when drought and the fear of desertification becomes a concern of the past, when barren land becomes a watered garden.
Those barren places are contrasted with Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon. Lebanon was famed for its cedar trees in the days of the Kings of Israel when David ordered cedar wood for Solomon to build the Temple in Jerusalem. Lebanon was famed for its forest and it was well‑known for its trading ports such as Tyre and Sidon as well as its fishing being a coastal land. Even as late as the 1960s Lebanon was a prosperous place.
Similarly The Complete Bible Commentary describes the excellency of Carmel and Sharon (v.2) as the "beautiful and fertile areas of the Promised Land." The name "Carmel" means "garden land" and Sharon is described by H.V. Morton as a "low, green plain." It will be like a watered garden. It’s clear they represent the agriculturally fruitful regions of what is now called Israel and the picture is of the wilderness, deserts and other barren places being made like Lebanon, Carmel or the plain of Sharon.
The opposite picture is used in Isaiah 33:9 to describe a period of loss and great concern when Lebanon is ashamed and decaying. The current crisis in Lebanon exacerbated by a financial crisis by political leaders who are ineffective and disorganised has led Beirut to look like a wasteland whose citizens despair in those who should work for them. Carmel is described as being unfruitful with leaves and fruit unseen and Sharon is labelled a "desert." (Isa.33:9 RVIC)
There we perceive a time, a world, not like it is now. It seems closer to the time of creation when Adam and Eve lived in the perfect garden that was the garden of Eden. Therefore it must be talking about a time that is yet future but to be expected.
Disability to full health
"Then" commences verse 5, meaning when the lands become fruitful and productive. Now the language describes people in terms of their physical attributes. The blind, deaf, dumb, and lame will be cured and will see, hear, speak loudly and clearly or be able to run and jump. The physical problems will be no longer according to birth, illness, accident, or ageing. This will have a literal and spiritual meaning as Paul uses the language in Romans 11:25‑26 to record the partial spiritual blindness of Israel. There is the current blinding work done by Satan, (2 Cor.4:4) which is spiritual blindness. Our Lord Jesus said his disciples were blessed because they could perceive in that they had ears that heard and eyes that could see and therefore could seize upon the good news of the gospel when salvation came initially to the house of Israel.
After that Isaiah goes back to geographical matters. Water will spring up in the wilderness and seasonal streams like those which only appear in winter in the desert, unexpectedly in time and place water coming forth as a picture of renewal or new life. Verse 7 (NEB) says "the mirage becomes a pool." A mirage is an optical illusion more common in a desert where travellers may desperately look for water. It often happens where the air is hotter on the ground than it is in the air and it bends the light from the sky creating a type of shimmer which the eye can confuse with water for drinking. In terms of hope, the hope will match the expectation.
The vegetation will be grass, reeds and rushes in terms of marsh grass, papyrus and water plants where plants become adapted to excess amounts of water that the leaves have space or other ways to absorb. Somewhere you would not pitch a tent as it indicates the ground there is regularly sodden like the river bank.
At present in and around the Middle East there are deserts. There is the Arabian desert and places like Sudan have inadequate quantities of water and therefore declining numbers of wild animals, soil erosion, desertification, and periodic drought outside the Nile Valley. Drylands now occupy 40% of the earth’s land area and one billion people live under threat of desertification. Lake Chad, meaning "large expanse of water" in West Africa has shrunk 90% since 1987 due to irrigation and reductions in annual rainfall. Hence the world is more than ever in need of water in these specific regions.
Water signifies life and truth. Jesus speaking to the Samaritan woman at the well said whoever drinks of the water he gives will never thirst and that water would be a well of water springing up to eternal life. (John 4:14) A promise given on that day. Jesus also said, "I am the way, the truth, and the life." (John 14:6) There will come a time when pure water, clear as crystal will come out of the throne of God and similarly that living water shall go out from Jerusalem. (Rev.22:1; Zech.14:8) An earlier prophet, Isaiah said the law would go out of Zion and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem when humankind will be taught his ways and walk in his way (Isa.2:3) thus illustrating the connection between water, truth and life.
Without contamination in conditions where people are living an Eden‑like habitat and time for teaching, they will all learn of the source of life in conditions which are not against them, absorb it and come to an appreciation of it.
Lions and other large predatory animals will not be a danger. Humankind has a natural fear of large predators like lions, bears, tigers, wolves, and such like. It is no coincidence there are no large predatory mammals in Britain. Its thought the lynx disappeared about 1500 years ago, the brown bear about 1,000 years ago and the last wolf was seen around 1760. Men, women, and children can only see them safely behind bars in a zoo or animal park. That fear and danger was real, which is why Daniel was placed in the lion’s den and it was a miracle that he survived. It was for protection from dangerous animals that some disciples carried a sword in New Testament times in Israel. This illustrates the obstacles and dangers that will be removed for those travelling along the highway of holiness.
Symbolically Satan, the adversary, roams about like a lion seeking whom he may devour. (1 Pet.5:8) He will be taken out of the way and bound for 1,000 years so as not to deceive the people. (Rev.20:2) There are wicked people, like lions, who prey upon weaker humans and they will be prevented from using or abusing their fellows. (Psalm 10:9) Isa.11:6‑9 uses similar language with the wolf, leopard, young lion, bear and viper living safely with children, cows, lambs and so on before saying nothing shall hurt nor destroy. Symbolically no lion or dangerous animal will be there when travellers walk the highway of holiness, so people will go along safely.
Who walks up the highway of holiness?
Isaiah 35 verse 10 tells us about the returned ransomed people. The redeemer or person who ransoms is straightforward to identify. It is our Lord Jesus (Matt.20:28) who finished that part of his work by dying on the cross for the sins of the world. The apostle Paul is clear Jesus died a ransom for all to be testified, at the appointed time, for Christ came into the world to save the world, not to condemn the world. (John 3:17;1 Tim.2:3‑6) Therefore those ransomed are all those who have ever lived and have not found their way up the narrow way that is open for the "little flock" (Luke 12:32) who are even now still finding their way up that difficult way during this present age.
Hence the travellers on this way can be a fool or as one translation puts it a "dimwit" and they will not lose their way although they will need to be clean and reform. This further shows it is simple and there are no traps or distractions for the traveller and leads straight to the desired destination if they stay on it.
Zion seems to be indicated as the desirable destination. Mount Zion is an important hill in Jerusalem, that capital city in Israel in the centre of the world, being between Africa, Asia, and Europe. It is where King David reigned and built his royal palace after he captured Jerusalem. For Jerusalem was not initially taken from the Jebusites as it should have been by the tribe of Benjamin after the entrance to the land of promise. (Judges 1:21; 19:10‑14) Zion pictures heavenly Jerusalem, the centre of Christ’s reign and the spiritual aspect of the Kingdom when individuals are in harmony with God. (Isa.2:3; Isa.52:7; Heb.12:22; Rev.14:1) It will be the central place of blessing from where the reign takes place and from where a beautiful campaign of education and reform will emerge for those who have not found their way to Zion previously. In fact individuals will seek it out.
Verses three and four are words of encouragement for the reader then and now, who may feel weak but they will be strengthened. They are a reminder that salvation in full is on its way although at present humankind is waiting but in the future God’s kingdom will be a reality.
All in all it can be said that the highway of holiness is a special way that is a safe, easy way for those who travel when conditions in the world and for humankind are free from the current problems of sin, greed and ignorance under the influence of Satan. This is in contrast with the present world which is dealing with a health emergency that is leading most nations toward an economic recession in a background of concerns about the climate change among other serious matters such as injustice and inequality. A time is coming when, during the millennial reign of Christ and the church, people that are healthy physically and mentally, will travel up this highway of holiness.
It will be a way for all humankind, not a way for the few but the many in contrast to this Christian era when only the narrow way leads to Zion, the spiritual kingdom of God and the throne of God.