Then His disciples answered Him, “How can one satisfy these people with bread here in the wilderness?”
Being satisfied with bread almost has the quality of a Biblical trope. Or, to put it in modern jargon, “It’s a thing.” Look at a few of the verses:
From Leviticus: “When I have cut off your supply of bread, ten women shall bake your bread in one oven, and they shall bring back your bread by weight, and you shall eat and not be satisfied.”
From Ruth: “Now Boaz said to her at mealtime, ‘Come here, and eat of the bread, and dip your piece of bread in the vinegar.’ So she sat beside the reapers, and he passed parched grain to her; and she ate and was satisfied, and kept some back.”
From Job: “If his children are multiplied, it is for the sword; And his offspring shall not be satisfied with bread.”
From Psalms: “The people asked, and He brought quail, And satisfied them with the bread of heaven.” And, “I will abundantly bless her provision; I will satisfy her poor with bread.”
From Proverbs: “He who tills his land will be satisfied with bread, But he who follows frivolity is devoid of understanding.” And, “Do not love sleep, lest you come to poverty; Open your eyes, and you will be satisfied with bread.”
From Lamentations: “We have given our hand to the Egyptians And the Assyrians, to be satisfied with bread.”
Isaiah 55 is perhaps the best example, and almost serves as a background for the usage of the trope in our Gospel for this week. Here’s a summary of the chapter in a paraphrase, “Hey, all you who are hungry or thirsty, there is a food and drink that money cannot buy, that truly satisfies. What is it? It’s my Word, a true bread that you eat. Eat this bread. It’s the everlasting covenant I made with David. Because of Him, the gentiles will run to you. It’s that those who repent and call upon the Lord will have mercy and forgiven them. No, you can’t understand this, but just as the rain comes down and causes a desert to spring forth with bread, so will my Word go forth from my mouth and do the same thing. Instead of the cursed wilderness with its thorns and briers, life and abundance will be in abundance.” And then it concludes with this verse: “And it shall be to the LORD for a name, For an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
One can see all the elements of all the feedings in all the Gospels in germ here, in addition to several other Gospel themes.
There’s the inclusion of the gentiles spelled out in the feeding of the 4,000.
There’s the hunger and thirst that happens in the wilderness, which the Isaiah 55 chapter rightly recognizes in the same way Jesus does, as a hunger and thirst for something beyond mere bread. (“Why do you spend money for what is not bread, And your wages for what does not satisfy?”) John 6 spells this out as well. The true hunger we have is for everlasting life.
There’s the fulfillment of the hunger centered in two things. First, in the Word of God. Second, in the everlasting covenant with David, which is to say, the Messiah, which is to say, Jesus. Only Jesus is the true bread that truly fulfills. He is the Word made flesh, the Son of David.
There’s the desert theme, and the idea that the Word of the Lord will come down, like manna from heaven, and cause the deserts to be abundant with life. Well, what was Jesus in the wilderness but the Tree of Life?
The disciples asked, “How can one satisfy these people with bread here in the wilderness?” They probably knew their Isaiah 55, but they didn’t understand yet how Jesus fulfilled it. They probably didn’t get that Jesus had already satisfied them by being present with them there, and by preaching the Word to them. They were still literal. And rightly so, because literal satisfaction of bread is ultimately part of our salvation as well. Even as we look forward to a restored Eden where we will have everything in abundance.
What they didn’t get yet, perhaps, is that final verse from Isaiah 55. That Jesus feeding masses in the wilderness was not just a one time trick, but “to the LORD for a name, For an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off.”
Yes, an everlasting sign, a sign that we still partake of today.