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A Christian reading of the book called Isaiah should not occasion constant surprise. And yet it does.

Jesus is remembered quite famously as having told a Samaritan woman that ‘salvation is of the Jews’.

You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews (ε͗κ τῶν Ἰουδαίων).

John 4:22 (NRSV, emphasis and inserted Greek text added)

In context, the deep impression Jesus leaves upon this Samaritan woman’s neighbors belies the idea that non-Jews are excluded from the salvation in question. Yet the origins of this ’salvation’—humanly speaking—are hardly in doubt for the writer of the Fourth Gospel.

This assertion of a salvific sequence worth careful consideration is hardly an outlier. The New Testament’s most famous apostle, in the midst of one of his recurring wrestlings with the interrelationship of Jews and Gentiles in the economy of Jacob’s God, deploys a phrase that he will find useful more than once.

For I am not ashamed of the gospel; it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first and also to the Greek (Ἰουδαίῳ τε πρῶτον καὶ Ἕλληνι).

Romans 1:16 (NRSV, emphasis and Greek text added)

Here the collective singular stands in twice for masses of people. Likely, this signals the apostle’s confidence that this is an ingrained way of things independent of human manipulation that plays itself out in individual cases over and over again.

It is all too easy to imagine that this soteriological sequencing somehow takes the place of a prior ingrained Jewish nationalism in early Christian proclamation, opening a door that had previously remained closed to non-Jews while assuring that the privilege of it not be understated. In fact, my students tell me all that the time that this is the way of things.

Yet this seems not to be the manner in which early Christian theologizers read their sources in the Hebrew Bible.

Rather, it seems that early Christian hermeneutics discovered this sequence—this anchoring of expansive salvation in Jewish particularity—in the massively influential book of Isaiah as well as in other Jewish texts. For example, Isaiah’s sixtieth chapter fixes its gaze and addresses its promise to the restored Zion that it imagines in some of the book’s most soaring and lyric poetry.

The turning of tables to Zion’s benefit is named late in the chapter:

The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the LORD, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

Whereas you have been forsaken and hated, with no one passing through, I will make you majestic forever, a joy from age to age.

You shall suck the milk of nations, you shall suck the breasts of kings; and you shall know that I, the LORD, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.

Isaiah 60:14-16 (NRSV)

Yet this stirring reversal ought not be read as a transformation that occurs to the detriment of those nations that now nourish Zion.

Rather, the chapter’s opening verses address Zion lit up and glorified in a manner that attracts the peoples in the manner of secondary promise and sequenced blessing. The second-person singular addressee is most certainly the restored city.

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Isaiah 60:1-3 (NRSV)

Passages like this steward the sequence and anchor the illumination of ‘the nations’ in a way that might easily have inspired, informed, and even shaped the New Testament proclamation of a Jesus movement that by appearances surprised itself at every turn by the response of non-Jews, then turned its hand to the hard work of how such ’new folks’ ought to be integrated into a family that began as a branch of Judaism.

Difficult times would come in that process which scholars often identify as ’the parting of the ways’. Yet it is both sobering and fascinating to observe the way in which early preachers and evangelists of the Jesus movement found themselves reading the Jewish Scriptures in a way that seems coherent even to (some) modern historians of the Way.

The stewards of those new wineskins that early Jewish followers of Jesus found necessary for the preservation of new wine did not, it turns out, imagine that everything had become something other than it had been. The vigor of their newfound regard for the risen Jesus led them back to old books like the one they called ‘Isaiah’, there to find the same sequencing of salvation, the very anchoring of light in YHWH’s disclosure to Israel itself that infused the teaching of their Lord and the writing of their apostles.

The notion that ‘salvation is from the Jews’ would be tested and often discarded in ensuing centuries, up to and including our own. Yet it seems difficult to this Christian reader of Isaiah to imagine that this sequence, this anchoring of ‘Jesus faith’ in Jewish experience can be discarded without inventing a new religion that is or will eventually become cast adrift from its moorings.

Dragons be there.

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From the moment YHWH’s servant is introduced in 42.1, there is a hint that the servant’s career will be an arduous one. Indeed, the presentation formula at 42.1 says as much with its first breath:

הן עבדי אתמך־בו
Here is my servant, whom I uphold…

Isaiah 42:1 (NRSV)

YHWH’s pledge to uphold (תמך) all but requires that we imagine resistance to the servant’s work, the potential weakness of the servant himself, or both.

Not surprisingly, then, the passages that follow abound in promises by YHWH to supply all that the servant will require in order that he should persevere to the conclusion of his assigned agenda.

Chapter forty-four continues this sequence of promises, holding tight to the communal or collective identity of the curiously named ‘servant’ while painting with new color the circumstances of his adventure.

But now hear, O Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen!

Thus says the LORD who made you, who formed you in the womb and will help you: Do not fear, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen.

For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring.

They shall spring up like a green tamarisk, like willows by flowing streams. This one will say, ‘I am the LORD’S,’ another will be called by the name of Jacob, yet another will write on the hand, ‘The LORD’S,’ and adopt the name of Israel.

Isaiah 44:1-5 (NRSV)

The chapter’s opening oracle, quoted just above, provides essential elements for a comprehensive understanding of the servant figure in the book called Isaiah. Characteristically, it does so incrementally and in a dialect of rich and complex metaphor.

First, we find further assurance in a classic summons to overcome fear—‘Do not fear, O Jacob my servant…!’—that an evident danger ought not to be given more weight than it is due in the context of YHWH’s presence and provision. This continues the tone of reassurance that has accompanied the servant discourse from its beginning.

Additionally, we find overlapping imagery regarding the provision of water in a desert, on the one hand, and descendants/offspring, on the other. These are introduced sequentially, then blended a moment later when the aforementioned descendants/offspring spring up like tamarisk and willows in consequence of YHWH’s irrigation of the desert.

This interplay of images is further enriched by the realization that YHWH’s spirit and the water he provides appear to be two ways of speaking about the same thing.

Finally, the text drops plant imagery as quickly has it had introduced it in order to return to the matter of people. When it does so, we learn that the servant Jacob/Israel’s suddenly appearing children are in fact the offspring of other nations who now—remarkably—adopt the name of Israel.

The overall impact of this oracle’s supplementation of preceding servant discourse is extraordinary. The reference of YHWH’s spirit seems certain to echo that saturating spirit that comes to rest upon the Jesse-king of chapter 11, perhaps linking the collective Jacob/Israel servant with that quite individual, regal figure. And the servant’s YHWH-provisioned return—if this is the movement we are meant to imagine—somehow creates a more complex Jacob/Israel in the very act of its potentially wearying desert crossing.

The children are descended from their parents, yet they are from a different people. YHWH, supporting and sustaining his servant, will see to it. The task is hard, yet the outcome assured. The servant is vulnerable, yet strangely enriched by daughters and sons it did not bear in Babylon nor bring from that soon-to-be-forgotten place. Yet here they are, calling themselves by YHWH-names, more sons and daughters than new-found cousins.

Just as the book called Isaiah plays on the concepts of YHWH’s strength and his provision of strength to Jacob/Israel, so does the book’s discourse regarding the servant of YHWH make artful use of the concepts of gentleness, weakness, and dimness.

The formal presentation of YHWH’s servant in chapter 42 initiates this interplay of concepts across parallel subjects.

Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations.

He will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a dimly burning wick (ופשתה כהה) he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice.

He will not grow faint (לא יכהה) or be crushed until he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his teaching.”

Isaías 42:1-4 (NRSV, emphasis and Hebrew text added)

The servant’s task and eventual achievement is portrayed as a quite formidable establishment of justice across many nations, indeed ‘in the earth’ (NRSV). In ordinary circumstances, such a feat might be expected to depend upon the application of great force.

Not here. Instead, the servant will not quench ‘a dimly burning wick’. The expression deploys the verb כהה. The metaphor is best understood as presenting a weary or disheartened person or population. We are asked to imagine that the subjection of that people to the conditions of justice will not crush the dispirited or vulnerable members of its population.

One might have expected the metaphor, having served its purpose, to recede from view. But this does not happen.

Instead, the very next verse hints at the servants own vulnerability and the effective perseverance that will triumph over it. The very same root is now deployed as a verb. The servant ‘will not grow faint’ (לא יכהה). The oscillation in NRSV between the metaphorical wick’s ‘dimly burning’ nature and the servant’s refusal to ‘grow faint’ is perhaps a necessary concession to the demands of translation. Sadly, it sacrifices the play on words that binds the weak members among the nations who will not be crushed in the course of the servant’s administration or impost of justice to the servant’s own refusal to give in to the exhaustion with which his task is understood to threaten him.

This is not the last time that verbal artistry will serve to bind YHWH’s servant deeply to the identity of YHWH himself or to that of human beings who will be impacted by his vocation. In this case, the servant’s gentle disposition towards the objects of his calling and the vulnerability he shares with them but somehow overcomes conspire to bind the two subjects into a remarkable if subtly suggestive solidarity.

All of this occurs in the context of the world-shaping, world-remaking administration of justice which the servant of YHWH appears to ‘bring out’ from Zion for the benefit of nations that, for their part, await the instruction that will shape their new future.

A sermon preached at Wethersfield Evangelical Free Church

14 November 2022

Video of the service to which this sermon contributed here.

Psalm 67

What does your life point towards? What’s the horizon you’re walking towards? 

Here’s another way to ask the same question, although it may sound like a completely different question: What do you love?

Pastor Scott has recommended to some of us a book by James K.A. Smith called On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. Right now I’m reading a different book by the same author. It’s title is Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation.

In this book, Smith presses home the point that we are not thinking creatures first and foremost. We are not even credal or believing creatures, first and foremost. Smith believes we are loving creatures long before we get around to the important work of thinking and believing. It’s only in the process of walking towards—or pursuing—what we love that we come to think and build understanding and even doctrine around it.

Smith is a Christian, so he is sure we are this way because that’s how God made us.

James K.A. Smith believes, with Augustine and many of the greatest voices in Christian history, that we inevitably walk toward what we love. What we love becomes our destination. It shapes us and draws us and pulls us toward it.

In fact, we actually become more and more like the thing we love.

I think Smith is right, which is why I float a twin version of that single question this morning: What is your life pointed at? What do you love?

* * * * *

Let’s hear Psalm 67 again:

To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments. A Psalm. A Song.

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, Selah

that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations.

Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. Selah

Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!

The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, shall bless us.

God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth fear him!

Psalm 67 (ESV)

Last Sunday morning, after ten riveting days back in Colombia where Karen and I serve as missionaries, I sat alone in a Medellín airport lounge as I waited to board my flight back to Miami. Although the lounge had not officially opened yet, the attendant offered that it would be OK if I went in and made myself comfortable. She even offered to have breakfast brought to me if I was hungry.

Things like that happen in Colombia….

I sat there alone in that lounge, processing ten intense days with people whom I love in a country my heart has grown to love, up to my armpits in work I love. I knew that two flights later, I’d be landing in another place I love where I live among people I love, beside a wife whom I love, up to my eyeballs in a different kind of work that I love.

I honestly feared I would break down in sobs from the sheer beautiful weight of it all.

When I told Karen about the intensity of those thirty minutes, she asked why it was such an emotional experience for me. I had to think about my answer. I think it’s because, since I was a junior in high school, God has told my own little story in a way that points me at the beautiful horizon that is all peoples, reconciled in Christ and worshiping their Maker as one family. 

Over the years, it’s become what I love.

On the rare occasion that I ask myself if I’m making this all up, I console myself with the reality that it’s the vision the apostle Paul loved also. I figure the dude makes for pretty good company.

It’s why I cannot wait to have some of you meet our church and my students and our seminary community and our adoptive city in Colombia next April.

I’m a missionary. That’s no better or worse than any other calling. It’s just mine and you have yours. But for almost fifty years, it has kept my life pointed at the vision of this sixty-seventh psalm. In the company of Karen and a few people whom God has placed into my life so that we can walk together, I love this future more than anything else I know.

I want to invite you into that same love … into that same directionality … this morning. I want to ask you to point your lives at God’s dream … his vision … his sovereign longing … his project … his mission. His triumph.

I want to be clear that I’m not inviting you to be more like me. That’s not where my heart is and I’m a very broken vessel in any case. But God has in fact fixed my direction on the future that this psalm celebrates. It’s what I love. I hope you will walk towards it and love it, too.

POINT ONE: MISSION STARTS FROM WHERE YOU ARE (Aaronic blessing of Israel).

Sometimes here at Wethersfield Evangelical Free Church, we recite together the Apostle’s Creed. I love it when we do that. It typically moistens my eyes and the emotion of it usually keeps me from getting all the words of the creed out to where my lips can speak them.


I think that strong response comes to me because in that moment we are taking up for ourselves in our time and place a declaration that was important to the Lord’s people many centuries ago. It still speaks to us. It still forms us, even though our time and place are so different than those in which the Apostle’s Creed was first spoken.

Something similar happens in this Psalm.

Psalm 67 takes up the great blessing that was entrusted to Aaron and Israel’s priests centuries before this psalm was written, long before any gathered community of Israelites had lifted it in song. This priestly blessing is preserved for us in the sixth chapter of the Book of Numbers. As I read the Aaronic blessing, some of youwill recognize it instantly. All of us will hear in it the lines that now reverberate in Psalm 67:

The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Speak to Aaron and his sons, saying, Thus you shall bless the people of Israel: you shall say to them,

The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.

So shall they put my name upon the people of Israel, and I will bless them.’ 

Numbers 6:22-27 (ESV)

Can you appreciate that this blessing is spoken by the priests of Israel for the people of Israel? We might say that it is Israel-centric. The priest speaks the blessing over ‘the people of Israel’—the text says exactly that—and the Lord promises that when this blessing is spoken over Israel, ‘I will bless them.’

This is Israel’s blessing … spoken by Israel’s priests … at the conclusion of Israel’s worship … for the sake of Israel’s future.

Yet, brothers and sisters, in the economy of God, the blessing that God’s people experience in any moment is impossible to grasp in closed hands. It always wants to trampoline … to boomerang … to crescendo off of the people into blessing for others. 

There is a centrifugal force at the core of all of God’s blessing. It longs to propel itself outwards beyond its point of first landing. There is a hard-wired generosity in the interaction between God and his people. For those of you who know Scripture well, there is always an Abrahamic energy in God’s particular blessings. They always have ‘many nations’ in view, just as Abraham was promised that the blessing the Lord laid upon his shoulders in Genesis chapter 12 would cause the blessing of many nations.

So we shouldn’t be surprised to find this Aaronic blessing taken up as it has been centuries after the fact in Psalm 67, our text for today.

In a spirit of worship, Psalm 67—centuries later—picks up the words and the cadence of that ancient blessing and sings it out. Now, though, these worshipping voices declare that what Israel has discovered and understood and lived must become the experience of all peoples.

Verses 1-3 capture the gist of the psalm and declare the restlessly expansive nature of God’s blessing to Israel. 

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon usSelah

that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations.

Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!

Psalm 67:1-3 (ESV)

Make us an example of salvation/grace!

Use us! Allow us, Lord, to receive all that you have done for us and to pay it forward!

This is very far from self-protectiveness, from grubby self-interest, from ‘God is on our side!’ This is on the other side of the world from religious nationalism.

It is the ancient prayer, even the most ancient prayer of Israel. It speaks of an inherited, learned, disciplined seeking of God’s face. But this blessing is not merely for us. God’s blessing lands among us, Israel declares, so that we might become an instrument in God’s hands, so that he could through us fulfill his redeeming plans for all nations.

Now we are not, you and I, we are not ancient Israel. But we are New Israel: old Israel now caught up and re-forged in a New Covenant with the very same Lord of Israel. So it makes sense for us to find ourselves in this ancient prayer of Israel. It makes sense for us to long for God’s smile, as the daughters and sons and fathers and mothers of ancient Israel did every time they heard the priest pronounce these words over them.

It makes sense for us to find our lives pointed towards a future where all the peoples rejoice in our God. It makes sense for us to love that future … as we love almost nothing else.

Can you see that? Is that getting into your heart, or perhaps fanning the flame of something that’s already there?

Now here’s a second point that builds on the first…

POINT TWO: MISSION CONTINUES WITH LONGING TO SEE THE NATIONS REJOICE IN THE GOD OF (NEW) ISRAEL.

Why would the development that is prayed for here be a source of joy for the nations? Why would Israel’s hope land among all peoples as good news

The reason given in Psalm 67 may not be the only reason for all the peoples to praise Israel’s God after they have learned that he is also their God. But the fact that it’s the only reason given in this psalm means that it’s probably the main reason?

What is this reason, what explains the psalmist’s desire to see the nations praise him? In the text, it’s expressed like this: God will judge with equity … and guide the nations upon the earth.

In particular, that first declaration—God will judge with equity—is an expectation that shows its face throughout Scripture. The very same expression occurs multiple times in the Old Testament psalms and prophets, and it’s intended to signal a major change in the reality you and I have experienced. Scripture is often reluctant to tell us how and when or at what velocity this judgement with equity will occur, but it assures us that it’s a key component of the Lord’s project in his world.

What we babbling, anxious nations cannot fix by ourselves, the Lord will one day repair. Our most unsolvable conflicts will in fact become sorted out as he judges … as he restores to order what has become hopelessly twisted. The outcome is that ‘the nations’ will be re-oriented towards peace and filled with joy. They will beat their swords, as one version of this thing has it, into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. The instruments of war will be converted into the tools of planting and harvest.

Now I know that this anticipated future clashes with at least two sets of mind that we bring into worship together this morning. 


On the one hand, we are skeptical and even cynical realists. We know how merciless and unyielding our world’s battles are. This all sounds too good to be true. It sounds too utopian for people like us, who will not be fooled … who will not let our hopes spin out of control.

And it is too good to be true. Unless, that is, it is where the Sovereign Lord intends to take history. Then all our dumbed-down expectations are too miserable to be true.

The second assumption is going to obligate me to use a little bit of technical language, so bear with me.

All of us who are evangelical Christians—if that’s not you, please be patient while I talk a little inside baseball—have been born and raised during a period of history when a ‘stingy eschatology’ rather than a ‘generous eschatology’ has been the Majority Report. It’s how we’ve understood, how we’ve been taught, eschatology, which is another word for where God is taking his world.

What does that mean? Well, at the risk of caricature, a ‘stingy eschatology’ understands God’s purpose to be to save a few people and maybe a handful of peoples while the rest are lost. 

A ’generous eschatology’—clearly, my language stacks the deck in favor of my own point of view—reads Scripture to promise the redemption of a population that it insistently calls ‘all the peoples’. 

Over years of studying this stuff, I have arrived at some convictions around a ‘generous eschatology’. I think that the fact that we’re a mostly Gentile church, comprised of non-Jewish nations, of ‘all the peoples’, shows that God has been active on this front quite triumphantly for about twenty centuries now. And it looks to me as though he’s just getting started.

You see, as Jesus and the apostle Paul both teach us never to forget, each in his own way, salvation is of the Jews …. And for the nations.

Our Psalm 67 beautifully expresses this conviction. Its writer and those who worship by singing its song consider that this is a gorgeous reality, one worthy of pointing our lives towards … one worthy of loving as we love few other things. I think so, too. I invite you to join the chorus.

Even if you’re not yet singing this song, let me point out that it’s the very thing I’m describing that explains why we at WEFC continue to do this quaint thing of ‘sending missionaries’.

It’s because we believe the Bible. And we love its generous Author.

So we can never keep his blessings for ourselves. Or even want to.

POINT THREE: GOD’S PROVISION TODAY IS A DOWN PAYMENT ON HIS PLAN FOR OUR WHOLE WORLD

Do you find Fall in New England profoundly satisfying to your soul, perhaps in words you can’t express? The golden leaves … The ‘football weather’, as my late father loved to call it.

Did you bow your head in thanks over breakfast this morning?

Did your car start right up today? Were you able to squeak out the mortgage payment last month? Did your wife call you ‘honey’ again? Were you able to leave the house unlocked while you walked the dog? Did you walk into that school in peace on Tuesday and vote for the candidates of your choice? Do they know your name at church? Has your son’s sobriety reached all the way to six months?

These are fragments of Providence. 

There is more than one way to translate verses 6 and 7. The tense and mood of the Hebrew verbs are tricky. But let’s just take the ESV as it stands, because it’s at least as good a presentation as any of the alternatives:

The earth has yielded its increase; God, our God, shall bless us.

God shall bless us; let all the ends of the earth fear him!

Psalm 67:6-7 (ESV)

The words look back on a recent harvest that will put bread and milk on the table for some Israelite family:

The earth has yielded its increase.

The locust or a dry spell at the same time could have made it a different kind of winter.

God’s providence builds the pray-er’s confidence that God, our God, will continue to bless us:

God, our God, shall bless us. God shall bless us.

But do you see what happens next. Even in this moment of deep gratitude for what God has done for us, the psalmist looks out at all the rest of humanity and almost wills upon it a relationship with God, a knowledge of God, the salvation of God. No matter how different those people are than me, how different their skin color, how crazy their language, how impenetrable their customs, the Israelite who prays this psalm longs for them to know the LORD:

…let all the ends of the earth fear him!

The psalmist’s life is pointed at something. It is expressing the thing it most loves: the idea that God’s redemption should finally reach the ends of the earth.

This is the promise to Abraham, that ancient father of many nations.

This is the Great Commission.

This is lives pointed to a horizon where all peoples will song God’s praise.

This is, among other things, what we call missions … a core feature of our live together in Christ that we remember this month with particular clarity.

It’s not a technique. It’s a posture. 

It’s not a method. It’s a deep, abiding love.

Last night I sat in a different airport, this time in a departure lounge of O’Hare Airport, putting the final touches on this message. I reviewed Pastor Scott’s design of this Missions Emphasis Month at our beloved church.

THEME: “I (the Lord) Do It . . . We Do It”

  • For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it.” Isaiah 48:11
  • God does missions for his own sake . . . so, should we.

I’m not sure that I know any truer words.

The Lord will have his triumph in history according to his calendar and in his way. History will not end in ashes, but rather in glory. 

Will it become your love? Will it become the thing you walk towards, the horizon to which our lives are pointed?

Our moment will distract us with pathetic little lies like these:

  • As long as you have your health, that’s the most important thing.
  • Family is everything.
  • He who dies with the most toys wins.
  • If it feels this good, it must be right.
  • Everything hinges on the next election.
  • I need to have this.
  • It’s all about you.

These are all lies, some of them more well-intentioned than others, several more plausible than the others.

But wouldn’t you rather live in this?:

May God be gracious to us and bless us and make his face to shine upon us, Selah

that your way may be known on earth, your saving power among all nations.

Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth. Selah

Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you!

May it be so.

PRAYER:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” “Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?” For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.

the crashing: Isaiah 30

The book of Isaiah’s thirtieth chapter decries the ironic dependence of Jacob/Israel upon Egypt, its erstwhile and iconic captor.

In the face of contemporary political threats, the people are strangely drawn to Egypt’s supposed shelter from the storm.

Alas, says the prophet, such a rejection of protection that lies closer to home, such a preference for worthless sanctuary in an empire’s embrace, is only the crashing of a different and more dangerous storm upon a nation that staggers about without a clue.

Therefore thus says the Holy One of Israel: Because you reject this word, and put your trust in oppression and deceit, and rely on them; therefore this iniquity shall become for you like a break in a high wall, bulging out, and about to collapse, whose crash comes suddenly, in an instant; its breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel that is smashed so ruthlessly that among its fragments not a sherd is found for taking fire from the hearth, or dipping water out of the cistern.

Isaiah 30:12-14 (NRSV)

Two metaphors jumble restlessly in the oracle’s denunciation. First a wall, then a vessel.

What they share is the everyday utility they afford: protection, first, and then provision. Perhaps their quotidian usefulness—imaged rather than articulated—is meant to play off Egypt’s purported uselessness.

Yet we see their usefulness sacrificed: Wall and vessel, two staples of everyday life, now lie shattered beyond recognition.

It is ‘this iniquity’ (העון הזה) that is described in the two metaphors. Yet it is not entirely clear whether we are meant to understand that Jacob/Israel’s offense will be smashed or—alternatively—that the people itself will come crashing down on account of their iniquity. The text seems unconcerned to clarify the point.

What is clear is the tumbling stream of descriptors. Here, the passage again with emphasis added:

…this iniquity shall become for you like a break in a high wall, bulging out, and about to collapse, whose crash comes suddenly, in an instant; its breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel that is smashed so ruthlessly that among its fragments not a sherd is found for taking fire from the hearth, or dipping water out of the cistern.”

Isaiah 30:13-14 (NRSV, emphasis added)

Regardless of how we identify the primary referent of the two metaphors, it is difficult to conclude that we are meant to understand anything other than Israel/Jacob in pieces, tragically rendered by its own folly as useless as Egypt herself.

A complementary oracle that begins at verse 15—or perhaps we should understand it as the continuation of the passage under consideration—will speak of better prospects. But not until the reader has absorbed the shocking image of Israel shattered beyond recognition by the stubborn stupidity of its realpolitik.

In chapter three of the book called Isaiah, YHWH threatens to dismantle Jerusalem and Judah. But first he claims he will empty them. Indeed, the oracle’s first verses evacuate the city of all that makes a city.

As these verses drive their point home, they do so in a context where fulness is an honored and even axiomatic value:

For now the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts, is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah support and staff— all support of bread, and all support of water—warrior and soldier, judge and prophet, diviner and elder, captain of fifty and dignitary, counselor and skillful magician and expert enchanter.

Isaiah 3:1–3 (NRSV)

The passage presses hard for the full value of the alliteration it finds possible to organize around the root משען. The insertion of vocalized renditions of the four instances where this root is deployed in rapid-fire sequence may establish the point:

For now the Sovereign, the LORD of hosts, is taking away from Jerusalem and from Judah support (מַשְׁעֶן, mash’en) and staff (מַשְׁעֵנָה, mashenah)— all support of bread (מַשְׁעַן־לֶחֶם, mash’an lechem), and all support of water (מַשְׁעַן־מָיִם, mash’an mayim)—…

Isaiah 3:1 (NRSV, Hebrew text and transliteration added)

The performative pronouncement uses three variations on a lexical theme. The third of them is repeated, thus packing a single verse with four nearly but not quite identical references to ‘support’ and ‘staff’.

The cumulative picture is a collapse of the structures and provision that undergird civilized life in Jerusalem and Judah. The prophet is remembered here as the purveyor of verbal fireworks. His effect must have come close to violence.

The passage will pivot from this intense metaphorization towards the naming of categories of Zion’s eminences in verses 2 and 3. But before the reader gets there, he or she has already felt the city falling into a sinkhole that has opened up beneath her streets, swallowing up those eminent and capable pillars upon which she has rested.

If the Massoretic reading tradition reflects genuinely ancient interpretation, then we encounter in this verse rhetorical artistry of a compact and pungent kind that brings to bear strenuous denunciation upon a city which the prophet believes has outrun its own capacity for presumption.

Isaiah has constructed reality out of vowels. People must have remembered the moment they first heard it.

The famous Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52.13-53.12) is peppered with three rhetorical questions. In combination, they forcefully present the entirely unanticipated phenomenon that is the ‘Servant of YHWH’. Because the Song insistently personifies and individualizes the Servant figure, which has up to this point been clearly identified as Jacob/Israel, I will use the pronoun ‘he’ to represent the Servant in this context.

Although it is not the initial verse of the Song per se, the first verse of chapter 53 looses two of the three rhetorical questions to which I have referred.

Who has believed what we have heard?
And to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?

Isaiah 53:1 (NRSV)

This reflective duo accomplishes two objectives. First, it establishes the unanticipated nature of the Servant’s person and/or project. Curiously, the Servant’s identify is not the only conundrum presented in this song. That noteworthy ambiguity is complemented by the identity of the first-person plural protagonists represented here by we?

And then, the second of the two questions launched here appears to identify the Servant and/or his career with ‘the arm of the Lord’. There are other ways of reading the relationship between YHWH’s arm and the Servant himself, but this one is in my judgement the most coherent of the available options.

Somehow, the awful, YHWH-imposed suffering of the Servant seems to represent YHWH’s own powerful engagement with Jacob/Israel and perhaps even of the startled ‘kings’ and ‘nations’ of 52.15. This is perhaps paradox in its deepest form.

Verse 8 then serves up the third of the aforementioned rhetorical questions:

By a perversion of justice he was taken away.
Who could have imagined his future?
For he was cut off from the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people.

Isaiah 53:8 (NRSV, emphasis added)

NRSV’s reference to ‘his future’ is rather speculative. The Hebrew text does not specify an object for the verb to imagine/consider (Hebrew polel, שיח), leaving the particle כי that follows immediately to be rendered either as providing the content of the referenced ‘imagining’ or as the beginning of an explanation of the strangeness of the Servant’s circumstances. The English Standard Version provides an example of the former approach:

By oppression and judgment he was taken away; and as for his generation, who considered that he was cut off out of the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people?

Isaiah 53:8 (ESV, emphasis added)

The New King James Bible exemplifies the latter interpretation:

He was taken from prison and from judgment, And who will declare His generation? For He was cut off from the land of the living; For the transgressions of My people He was stricken.

Isaiah 53:8 (NKJV, emphasis added)

By any reconfiguration of the syntax, the Fourth Servant Song affirms that YHWH accomplishes in the Servant a forceful and even militant achievement. At the same time, the Song suggests that the Servant embodies no foreseeable tactic on the part of YHWH himself. He is a complete and total, indeed a jaw-dropping surprise.

No one saw this coming, this battered and crushed survivor. This bearer of others’ guilt. This puzzling, redeeming Servant. This victim and accomplisher of YHWH’s purpose.

In the majestic YHWH-speech that is chapter 45 of the book called Isaiah, the focus falls upon Cyrus and YHWH’s servant Jacob/Israel. Cyrus is daringly called ‘my anointed’, employing the Hebrew term משיח in a way that developing messianisms will find close to scandalous after the title ‘messiah’ becomes attached to messiahs of both short and long duration.

In the midst, the oracle that comprises the first seven verses the chapter plays artfully upon the theme of knowing and not knowing. The very ידע, to know, appears no fewer than four times, a phenomenon that I elucidate by italicizing and interposition of the Hebrew vocabulary in question:

Thus says the LORD to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have grasped to subdue nations before him and strip kings of their robes, to open doors before him— and the gates shall not be closed:

I will go before you and level the mountains, I will break in pieces the doors of bronze and cut through the bars of iron, I will give you the treasures of darkness and riches hidden in secret places, so that you may know (למען תדע) that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.

For the sake of my servant Jacob, and Israel my chosen, I call you by your name, I surname you, though you do not know me (ולא ידעתני).

I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me (ולא ידעתני), so that they may know (למען ידעו), from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.

I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things.”

Isaiah 45:1-7 (NRSV, emphasis and Hebrew text added)

Though the world’s most powerful figure comes across as rather clueless, Cyrus is respected for the dignity that falls to him as a redemptive tool in YHWH’s hand. Yet this elevation owes nothing to an awareness of the redemptive gravity of his liberation of Persia’s Jewish exiles. He remains ignorant, except for the hint of an eventual awakening of his calling by YHWH, the God of Israel:

…so that you may know that it is I, the LORD, the God of Israel, who call you by your name.

Isaiah 45:3 (NRSV)

This fragment of illumination, however, seems to be a detail of a wider global awakening to YHWH’s incomparability in which the role Cyrus plays is dumbly instrumental rather than heroic.

I am the LORD, and there is no other; besides me there is no god. I arm you, though you do not know me, so that they may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is no one besides me; I am the LORD, and there is no other.

Isaiah 45:5-6)

Momentarily, his knowledge is subordinated to the wider marvel that the nations will come to know YHWH’s uniqueness.

Cyrus is a pawn in YHWH’s redemptive game. He is not humiliated in assuming this unchosen role. He was, as it were, minding his own imperial business. Cyrus is no hard-hearted Pharaoh, standing up to YHWH by oppressing his first-born son and absorbing the cruel consequences in the loss of his own.

Rather, he is a somewhat bemused figure in the plot of Isaiah’s vision. He was called to a worthy task and he performed it in something of a haze as to the full import of his actions. Maybe, somehow, he came to ‘know’ that he was part of something larger than himself.

Maybe not.

There is honor in it all. Redemption for Israel. An awakening for the whole world.

Glory for YHWH alone.

The oracle of redemption at Isaiah 41.17-20 deploys creation language in describing the provision of water and wood to the text’s ‘poor and needy’:

When the poor and needy seek water, and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst, I the LORD will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.

I will open rivers on the bare heights, and fountains in the midst of the valleys; I will make the wilderness a pool of water, and the dry land springs of water.

I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive; I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together, so that all may see and know, all may consider and understand, that the hand of the LORD has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.

Isaiah 41:17-20 (NRSV)

Scholars debate whether the creation language of Isaianic passages like this one generates the creation discourse of Genesis 1-2 or whether, conversely, influence flows in the opposition direction.

Regardless of that discussion, the oracle before us has YHWH speaking emphatically in the first person as he declares his intent to provide the ‘poor and needy’ with water to slake their thirst as well as cultivated trees in the ‘wilderness’ that Babylonian exiles would need to cross in order to return home.

The notion of surplus and abundance is everywhere. In the first instance, YHWH’s provision of potable water for those poor and needy appears to irrigate the entire wilderness beyond the requirements of its human passersby. In the second, the repetition of species of trees that will populate ‘the wilderness’ suggests a remarkable plethora of fruit and shade. NRSV renders them as cedar, acadia, myrtle, olive, cypress, plane, and pine. This would be a diversified planting in any context. In that of the Fertile Crescent, the vision is all the more impressive.

The impressive response that the prophet anticipates on the part of human observers is understandable:

…so that all may see and know, all may consider and understand, that the hand of the LORD has done this, the Holy One of Israel has created it.

Isaiah 41:20 (NRSV)

The freshly secured and ostensibly wondering knowledge that humanity will have acquired will come by way of their contemplation of YHWH’s provisioning of his returning refugees. Significantly, they will understand this unforeseen return in the terms communicated by two Hebrew verbs that pair nicely and often in creation contexts: עסה, here deployed as ‘has done this’ and ברא, appearing here as ‘has created it’.

So does the oracle draw together the erstwhile disparate threads of redemption, provision, and creation.

YHWH, one might way, is up to his old habits: creating with a word.

It is widely recognized that the prose chapters of Isaiah 36-39 prepare the way for a quite different posture from chapter 40 forward. The days when a facile division of the long book called Isaiah into three neatly divided and generally unrelated parts have passed. Yet the reality of the book’s two very different postures, if I may repeat the word so soon, is undeniable. Chapters 1-35 represent one and chapters 40-66 the other.

Chapters 36-39 mediate the difference.

One key element that appears on the roster of items to be mediated is the movement from the period of Assyrian domination to that of the exiling Babylonian overlord. Chapters 36-39 help to negotiate that passage, not least by way of the story of the visiting Babylonian emissaries in chapter 39.

If this is not King Hezekiah’s finest moment, we can perhaps recognize in the dynamic of Babylonian flattery and Hezekiah’s naiveté the operating principles of this dark moment, insinuating as it does that Babylonians will in time have more to say that flattering words.

At that time King Merodach-baladan son of Baladan of Babylon sent envoys with letters and a present to Hezekiah, for he heard that he had been sick and had recovered. Hezekiah welcomed them; he showed them his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his whole armory, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them. Then the prophet Isaiah came to King Hezekiah and said to him, ‘What did these men say? From where did they come to you?’ Hezekiah answered, ‘They have come to me from a far country, from Babylon.’ He said, ‘What have they seen in your house?’ Hezekiah answered, They have seen all that is in my house; there is nothing in my storehouses that I did not show them.’

Isaiah 39:1-4 (NRSV)

At the time, neither Merodach-baladan nor Babylon are imperial powers. Indeed, both are subject to Assyria, a common circumstance that the two nations likely experienced in different ways. However the text and its reader are aware that Babylon will become that suffocating empire, bent on the suppression of little Judah to whose king they now present flattering gifts upon the occasion of his recovery from illness.

Verse two captures Hezekiah’s response in terms of both sentiment and performance.

Hezekiah welcomed them; he showed them his treasure house, the silver, the gold, the spices, the precious oil, his whole armory, all that was found in his storehouses. There was nothing in his house or in all his realm that Hezekiah did not show them.

Isaiah 39:2 (NRSV, emphasis added)

NRSV veils the ostensible sentiment of Hezekiah’s welcome, perhaps correctly capturing an idiom or—less enviably—obscuring a key element of the description. The Hebrew expression—וישמח עליהם ישעיהו—reports that Hezekiah became delighted or happy because of them. It appears to this reader that the writer shines a light upon Hezekiah’s culpable penchant for flattery, a byproduct perhaps of a kind of negligent naiveté.

The king’s prophetic confidant will, of course, be unamused.