The Wisdom of the Cross: Paul’s Use of Isaiah in 1 Corinthians 1

crossFor it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise,
and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”
— 1 Corinthians 1:19 —

In 1 Corinthians 1:19 Paul quotes from Isaiah 29:14 to make a case that the cross has destroyed and is destroying the wisdom of the wise. This verse sets the trajectory of this pericope (vv. 18–25), and with a second quotation from Jeremiah 9:23 in 1 Corinthians 1:31 (“Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord”), it frames Paul’s double argument: the cross of Christ humbles the wise (vv. 18–25) and the call of God is for those who see how humble they are (vv. 26–31).

In the context of 1 Corinthians, this is the first of “at least fourteen clear quotations from the Old Testament.”[1]  And as is typical with New Testament quotations of the Old Testament, the verses supply conceptual and linguistic material for the apostles. In Paul’s case,

The backbone of the discussion in 1:18–3:23 is a series of six OT quotations (1:19; 1:31; 2:9; 2:16; 3:19; 3:20), all taken from passages that depict God as one who acts to judge and save his people in ways that defy human imagination. Paul thus links his gospel of the cross to the older message of judgment and grace proclaimed in Israel’s Scripture, and he challenges the boastful pretensions of his readers.[2]

Therefore, to understand the full import of 1 Corinthians 1:19, we must return to Isaiah 29 (and Isaiah 25) to see how that ancient prophet anticipates what Paul says to the Corinthians. In the process, we will learn a few things about how Paul reads the Bible, with an eye to the cross.

The Context of Isaiah 29

The context and content of Isaiah 29 are both important for Paul’s decision to quote the second half of Isaiah 29:14. First, Isaiah 29 is a judgment oracle that emphasizes God’s punishment of Israel, but not without hints of grace. The whole chapter, therefore, forecasts a future where God will bring judgment upon Israel’s sin and through that judgment will bring relief to a remnant.

Because Israel treated God with contempt, he sought to bring on them a “spirit of deep sleep” (v. 10). To a people made wise by the Law of God (see Deuteronomy 4:6), he was removing their prophets and seers. He was effectively handing them over to folly, because they only went through the motions of worship.

This judgment corresponds to what is happening in Corinth. In that city, the people prided themselves in their wisdom. In the culture, wise men were prized and paid for their wisdom. And in the church the Corinthian believers proudly followed their teacher of choice. This was a major source of division in the church, and Paul quotes Isaiah 29:14 to announce the way in which the cross of Christ destroys such foolish wisdom.

As with any quotation from the Old Testament, Paul is doing more than borrowing language. He is not attempting to increase the credibility of his case by quoting from Isaiah. Rather, he is showing the way in which the sins of old are still manifest in the church. As he will say explicitly in 1 Corinthians 10:11, all the things that happened to Israel “were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” Thus, he expects his audience to know something of the context of the verse he quotes.

Most immediately, Isaiah 29:13–14 reads,

And the Lord said: “Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men, therefore, behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder; and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the discernment of their discerning men shall be hidden.”

This verse is familiar to us because Jesus used it against the Pharisees (see Matthew 15:8–9; Mark 7:6–7). In Isaiah, and with Jesus, and now with Paul in Corinth, these words highlight a spiritual malady religious people often get. Empty worship and meaningless God-talk plagued Israel, and now the mostly-Gentile congregation of Corinth was following suit. Christ’s church was talking a big game, but their hearts were far from God. Or at least, their willingness to divide themselves among leaders and put worldly wisdom over Godly wisdom, indicates a vacuum in their heart.

Enter Paul’s quotation of Isaiah 29.  To combat the spiritual malaise—that if not corrected would be deadly—Paul shows how the cross of Jesus Christ fulfills and amplifies the words of Isaiah 29:13–14.

Notice in particular the first part of verse 14: “behold, I will again do wonderful things with this people, with wonder upon wonder.” In Isaiah, YHWH compares a future wondrous work to a work he did in the past. Without restricting God’s wonderful works, his past work would surely relate to Yahweh’s redemptive work in Egypt (see esp. Psalms 77:11–14; 78:4, 11, 12, 32)—a work that is often called upon in Isaiah to forecast a new exodus in the future (see Isaiah 43). But closer to Isaiah 29 is another passage which speaks of ‘wonderful things,’ namely the death-swallowing redemption of Isaiah 25.

Isaiah 25 Adds Background to Isaiah 29

Isaiah 25 begins,

O Lord, you are my God; I will exalt you; I will praise your name, for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure. 2 For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the foreigners’ palace is a city no more; it will never be rebuilt.

This oracle begins with praise for the “wonderful things” God has done, especially with regards to defeating Israel’s enemies. In verses 3–5, Isaiah reflects on the remnant who will come to salvation in the midst of this judgment, and he points to Zion, the mountain of the Lord as the place where this salvation will come.

6 On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine, of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined. 7 And he will swallow up on this mountain the covering that is cast over all peoples, the veil that is spread over all nations. 8 He will swallow up death forever; and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces, and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the Lord has spoken.

Anticipating a future cosmic restoration, Isaiah shows Jew and Gentile feasting on the Lord’s temple mountain. In that day, death will be swallowed up. Every sorrow will be undone and the nations will come to know their Lord. He continues,

9 It will be said on that day, “Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us. This is the Lord; we have waited for him; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.” 10 For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain, and Moab shall be trampled down in his place, as straw is trampled down in a dunghill. 11 And he will spread out his hands in the midst of it as a swimmer spreads his hands out to swim, but the Lord will lay low his pompous pride together with the skill of his hands. 12 And the high fortifications of his walls he will bring down, lay low, and cast to the ground, to the dust.

In this day of salvation, God will be known to all the nations. The Lord’s mountain will be exalted and Moab will be trampled as a dung heap. Individually, the proud will be brought low and, going back to verses 3–5, those who seek humbly refuge from the Lord will find refreshment on the Lord’s mountain.

Based on the way “wonderful things” (pělě) is used in Isaiah 25, it describes a future restoration that includes the unity of Jew and Gentile, salvation from God’s enemies, and victory over the grave. While many of these things are existentially lacking today, they are certainly begun in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In fact, Paul applies Isaiah 25:8 to the church in Corinth in chapter 15. In Christ, the resurrection has already been experienced, and its spiritual application secures a future physical resurrection with him.

Isaiah 25, therefore, finds its fulfillment in Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection—a resurrection that is continuing to bring life to all those who hear the message of the cross. In consideration with Isaiah 29:14, the great wonder (“wonder upon wonders”) is none other than the wonder of the cross, which fits perfectly with what Paul is saying in 1 Corinthians 1—God’s eschatological wonder has come to be known by Jew and Gentile alike in the earth-shattering work of Christ’s cross.

To those who are being destroyed the wonder of God is folly (1 Corinthians 1:18), but to those who are being saved by the cross it is the wisdom of God. Indeed, to turn it around: the wonderful wisdom of God in the cross is the means by which the haughty wisdom of the world is being destroyed. God has brought low and is bringing low the nations by the message of the cross. And simultaneously, the message of the cross is bringing life to Jew and Gentile alike as the humble hear the call of God.

1 Corinthians 1:19 is the Cross-Centered Application of Isaiah 25 and 29

Without any forced reading of Isaiah, we can see what Paul is doing with his use of Isaiah 29:14. He picks up God’s promise to humble the proud—a theme that run throughout Isaiah 25 and 29—and he shows how the cross of Jesus Christ is bringing this about today. At the same time, it is the cross (as God’s superlative wonder) which is bringing life to a people humble enough to repent of their self-reliant folly and their need for wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor 1:30).

To a church broken by pride and conceited wisdom, the cross of Christ provides the only antidote. Jesus is the cornerstone, the only one who can unify a divided people. While some will resist him as a stone of offense, those who the Father is calling (1 Corinthians 1:26–28) will find his call to humility and trust just the foundation they are looking to build their life on.

Interestingly, Isaiah 28:16 (in the same context as Paul’s quotation) says, “Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion, a stone, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation.” In the fullness of time, Jesus Christ has been proven to be this precious cornerstone (cf. Psalm 118:22), a stone of offense  for those who treat his cross as folly (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:23), but a sure foundation for all who build their lives on him (cf. Matthew 7:24–27). For Paul himself, he once stumbled over the cross of Christ, but by God’s grace his eyes were opened to see the wisdom of God (cf. 1 Corinthians 2:6–16).

In the cross, God has eviscerated the wisdom of the world. Paul’s opening salvo in 1 Corinthians 1:18–25 calls upon Isaiah 29 (and Isaiah 25, and maybe even Isaiah 28) to show that. He reminds us that centuries before Christ’s arrival, God was preparing the way for Jesus. Paul has not found in Isaiah 25 and 29 a fortuitous analogy. Rather, every promise for judgment and salvation in Isaiah ultimately finds its telos in Christ. In his death and resurrection, the whole Old Testament aims, and in New Testament his cross is the full and final display of God’s wisdom and power.

In truth, we still have not seen all that Christ’s cross has effected. But like the light before the dawn, we have seen enough to realize that his death and resurrection has changed everything. The future has broken into the present, and thus, we can say like Paul, that the end of the ages has come upon us (1 Cor 10:11).

We do not need to wait until Christ’s return to pronounce the wisdom of the cross. Rather, the cross reshapes every aspect of life, even the way we read Scripture. His cross stands at the center of time and testimony and thus we ought to be a people who are cross-shaped in our living and our reading, just as Paul show us in 1 Corinthians 1:19.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


[1] Anthony Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: a commentary on the Greek text  Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 159.

[2] Richard Hays, The Conversion of the Imagination: Paul as Interpreter of Israel’s Scriptures (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 13.