free spirit: Isaiah 40

The prophet Isaiah describes YHWH’s anticipated conduct in bringing his exiled children back home in a way that manages to combine tenderness and infinity.

He will tend his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms; he will carry them in his bosom, and gently lead those that are with young.  Who has measured the waters in the hollow of his hand and marked off the heavens with a span, enclosed the dust of the earth in a measure and weighed the mountains in scales and the hills in a balance? Who has measured the Spirit of the Lord, or what man shows him his counsel? Whom did he consult, and who made him understand? Who taught him the path of justice, and taught him knowledge, and showed him the way of understanding? (Isaiah 40:11–14 ESV)

Isaiah’s poetry ornaments the deeply rooted biblical conviction that YHWH is uncontainable. He answers to no man, his arm is not too short for any purpose that befits his regnal character.

The emphasized words argue that YHWH is also and finally inconceivable to mere human minds. This hardly means that he is unknowable or that he evades relationship. To the contrary, he discloses himself and delighted in being known. Yet the prophet, for all his originality, is close to heel with the biblical witness in affirming that YHWH cannot be exhaustively known. YHWH is free to act as he will, and his judgments in this respect are beyond measure.

The contrast between YHWH and rough-hewn idols carved out a man’s hatchet in Isaiah’s anti-idolatry polemic makes throws this feature of Isaiah’s persona into still starker relief.

There is freedom, the prophet might well insist, in worshiping a God of this kind. He is alive to his own purpose, free to create a future that aligns with his good intentions, unrestrained by the mud that sucks at our heels.

YHWH is beyond measure and beyond measuring. Little captives, daring to begin to hope, might well find an anchor in this infinity, this Lover both uncaptured and uncapturable.

YHWH’s redemption overwhelms human failure. Such is the nature of grace, not so much to take mercy’s captives by violence as to call them into something far better than they are. The history of theology has words for grace like this, ‘irresistible’ being one of them that is not universally endorsed but nonetheless makes the point of grace’s strong persuasion.

The beautiful vignette at the hinge-point of the long book of Isaiah sketches the unlikely drawing of a highway through the foreboding desert. It is a path that will carry YHWH’s band of redeemed captives from Babylon back to their homes. Around it, the parched ground blossoms as threat cedes its grip and a future moves in.

A tiny turn of phrase touches upon human vulnerability of the kind that is impossible to admire, now finding itself taken into the embrace of YHWH’s mercy.

A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. (Isaiah 35:8 NRSV)

Fools go astray by nature. They are clueless when passive, and rebellious when active. There is no good in a fool’s way, only dead ends and slow-motion train wrecks both large and small.

Yet in this snapshot of redemption the text allows that upon this highway to YHWH’s welcoming future not even fools shall go astray.

Grace persuasive, grace protective, grace that leads the clueless all the way home.

Rarely do I sit down to review a book feeling so conflicted about the thing.

Dillard Johnson’s page-turner puts me in that place. On the one hand, I appreciate the insight into battle as American soldiers have experienced it in Iraq. Carnivore shines light on the extensive planning, the battle tactics, and oscillating adrenaline rush and sheer terror of battle. Because one of my own sons commanded the men in a Bradley Fighting Machine and both have commanded scout platoons, I found that the author’s depiction of armored tactics with the Bradley and the Abrams tank in close coordination made for a fascinating read. This, for me, is where Johnson’s work holds value.61e2tlp4dl-_sx331_bo1204203200_

But there are negatives …

The first one is the nature of Johnson’s claims for his own performance, which has generated bitter resentment on the part of fellow soldiers who believe Johnson has penned an egotistical and inaccurate version of one man’s role in a decidedly team effort. The first-person singular is very frequent in Johnson’s account, not to the point that he does not credit his buddies, but to the extreme that one wonders if the credit is enough. One senses that the author’s better and lesser angels are fighting it out, with the latter winning more often than it should. Despite Dillard’s obvious appreciation of his fellow soldiers, they are pushed to the margins of his record. Arguably, the picture of the fight in Iraq that results is rendered inaccurate by this singular focus.

The second negative is that Dillard’s rhetoric about killing astonishing numbers of Iraqis runs deeply casual. Any prettiness on this front is a first casualty of war—always a flawed and terrible thing—as it should be. On the other hand, ‘Carnivore’ from time to time seems less the moniker given to Johnson’s Bradley than a chosen nickname for the man commanding it.

I find it hard to criticize an American soldier who has left home and family to fight, even more so because I write as the father of two Army officers and the step-father of two long-serving enlisted men. I’m grateful for Dillard Johnson’s service. I’m glad I’ve read the book he’s written about it. I just wish he’d shaped his story into a different one.

seeking God: Isaiah 19

The prophet Isaiah did not invent the language of seeking God, but he speaks it as his native tongue.

The whole business so quickly degrades into meaningless platitudes that we must hurry along to some further inspection. Oddly, an oracle against Egypt may be the best place to begin.

Egypt shall be drained of spirit, And I will confound its plans; So they will consult the idols and the shades And the ghosts and the familiar spirits. (Isaiah 19:3 JPS)

English translations typically settle on the verb to consult or to inquire of when rendering the Hebrew word דרשThese are adequate translations because they capture the reality that the subject is in need of knowledge that he or she expects to come by revelation from some external religious source. Consult and inquire of do just fine up to that point.

Yet in Isaiah’s discourse, there is an assertive moving after, a thrusting towards, even a desperate neediness that is missing in such English translation. Oddly, the verb to seekwhich in English-language religious circles so perversely devolves into the esoteric and the contemplative, seems better here. It connotes that something hidden is much desired and that it will take some energy on behalf of the ones who need it if they are in fact to lay hands on it.

If that’s the case that calls for a certain English translation, then what can we say of Isaiah’s deployment of the expression?

Before we come to the kind  of seeking and searching that the prophet commends, we should look at the ironic ways in which seeking revelation is in fact an exercise in futility. The Isaian discourse sees seeking after spiritual sources other than Yahweh to reflect a confusion, even a moral stupidity, that is the opposite of true wisdom. In Isaiah 19.3, which is representative of this diagnosis, consulting with or seeking the idols and the shades, and the ghosts and the familiar spirits happens because the Egyptians have become drained in spirit and because Yahweh has confound(ed) their plans. The wise, the stable, the reliable don’t do this kind of thing. Confused people, like doomed Egyptians for example, seek religious revelation from unreliable sources.

This is not a one-off satire. The book of Isaiah sustains its critique of this particular kind of lostness. Alas, it is not just benighted Egyptians who fall prey to such asinine folly (see, importantly, Isaiah 1.3). Israel/Judah finds the prophet’s light shone on their behavior as well:

And when they say to you, ‘Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,’should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? (Isaiah 8:19 ESV; the first two examples render דרש, the third makes the verb explicit in English though it is only implied in Hebrew.)

The people did not turn to him who struck them, nor inquire of the Lord of hosts. (Isaiah 9:13 ESV)

Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help and rely on horses, who trust in chariots because they are many and in horsemen because they are very strong, but do not look to the Holy One of Israel or consult the Lord! (Isaiah 31:1 ESV)

Seeking in the wrong place is a contemnible failure to engage reality. Failure to seek YHWH probably comes to the same thing; that is, in Isaiah it likely denotes not a failure to seek at all, but rather a seeking after other sources rather than the single true and reliable one.

If this rather long discussion of failure to seek well serves as an adequate introduction to Isaiah’s use of the dialect of searching and seeking, let’s move on to what it means for this prophet to seek well. Unsurprisingly, the answer is both nuanced and variegated. We are after all, reading the book of Isaiah, where things are only occasionally complicated but nearly always complex.

First, we discover that seeking justice is laid before us as an arguable synonym for seeking YHWH.

When you spread out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow’s cause. (Isaiah 1:15–17 ESV)

(T)hen a throne will be established in steadfast love, and on it will sit in faithfulness in the tent of David one who judges and seeks justice and is swift to do righteousness. (Isaiah 16:5 ESV)

Indeed, there appears explicit recognition that one can fake seeking YHWH, going through the religious motions without giving a damn about YHWH’s passion for justice. We ought not overlook that Isaiah 58.2 plays sarcastically upon two venerable religious activities—seeking YHWH and delighting in his ways—that are great when they come in the context of lives aligned with YHWH’s broader purposes but an abomination when they stand on their own as superficial piety that has run tragically amok.

Yet they seek me daily and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that did righteousness and did not forsake the judgment of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments; they delight to draw near to God. (Isaiah 58:2 ESV)

Astonishingly, Isaiah does not relegate property seeking to the esoteric margins of piety, but rather holds it at the core of life’s defining convictions. It can be argued that Isaiah would contend that seeking justice (משפט) is nearly the same as seeking YHWH. One’s search may begin in the barrio or at the court where the privileged line up against the defenseless poor or in the temple at morning prayers, but all of these for Isaiah are cut from the same cloth. The reduction of any of it to simple religious performance makes YHWH disgusted, weary, and sick.

Finally, when we find our way among the Isianic texts that depict proper seeking, we find that this searching can be mediated. We discover also that divine grace seems to catch up with and then finally to outrun the human activity of seeking YHWH.

With regard to mediation, the ‘book of YHWH’ appears in a way that suggests that seeking is at the very least multi-faceted. Apparently, one can read or listen one’s way to YHWH’s revelation.

Seek and read from the book of the Lord: Not one of these shall be missing; none shall be without her mate. For the mouth of the Lord has commanded, and his Spirit has gathered them. (Isaiah 34:16 ESV)

And then, perhaps unsurprisingly as one becomes intimate with the dynamics of mercy’s acceleration that tease the reader who dares to track with this book’s long march forward, we find that Israel/Judah and perhaps event responsive gentile nations not only seek but become sought by YHWH.

In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:10 ESV)

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near. (Isaiah 55:6 ESV)

And they shall be called The Holy People, The Redeemed of the Lord; and you shall be called Sought Out, A City Not Forsaken. (Isaiah 62:12 ESV)

I was ready to be sought by those who did not ask for me; I was ready to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here I am, here I am,” to a nation that was not called by my name. (Isaiah 65:1 ESV)

Sharon shall become a pasture for flocks, and the Valley of Achor a place for herds to lie down, for my people who have sought me. (Isaiah 65:10 ESV)

It seems then that seeking YHWH, for this prophet, means caring about and thrusting after his purposes in a way that excludes alternative revelation and embraces YHWH’s care for the community’s well being, especially for those who become cast off in the exercise of influence and power. It is an activity that associates easily with community crisis, though probably not exclusively. In the effort, one discovers paradoxically that to seek YHWH is also to discover that YHWH ‘seeks back’ in a way that relativizes Judah’s and our efforts to discover and live in his purpose.

‘Who ya’ gonna’ call?’ is a question that might have sounded familiar to those who walked within hearing range of this prophet. Isaiah might even have allowed himself to be numbered among the Ghostbusters when it came to debunking the range of futile options on offer when Israel/Judah found herself in need of rescue and revelation.

The question remains pertinent these centuries hence.

Who ya’ gonna call?

A mysterious voice resounds in the fortieth chapter of the book of Isaiah, the very point at which comfort overwhelms judgement as the book’s dominant tone. This voice is mysterious precisely because it is anonymous. Ordinarily, a text does not introduce a new protagonist without identifying him.

Isaiah, no slave to convention, does exactly this.

Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.

A voice cries: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord; make straight in the desert a highway for our God.’ (Isaiah 40:1–3 ESV)

The anonymous voice is clearly aligned with that of Israel’s God, who speaks first. Yet it is also distinct, not merely God’s own voice.  Just a few verses later, ‘a voice’ speaks once again. Significantly, it commands  listener who equally unidentified to cry, just as the voice itself had led off the chapter by doing.

A voice says, ‘Cry!’ And I said, ‘What shall I cry?’ All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows on it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever. (Isaiah 40:6–8 ESV)

There seems to be a contagion that runs from ‘a voice’ on to the experience of the hearer of its cry. Here, the first person singular pronoun ‘I’ represents that hearer.

This is to say, the voice rouses someone or conceivably some group of persons to action that consists of taking up the voice’s own declared message. We see this in the flurry of imperatives that surround the crying out of the voice, commands that put flesh on the bones of the simple mandate of crying out.

We see it as well in a verse like Isaiah 58.1:

Cry aloud; do not hold back; lift up your voice like a trumpet; declare to my people their transgression, to the house of Jacob their sins. (Isaiah 58:1 ESV)

It is not difficult to conjecture that this anonymous voice is summoning a prophet, a group of prophets, or even a remnant from within Israel to some action vis-à-vis Israel herself. And that this prophet, these prophets, or this Israel-within-Israel in some way joins the voice in this commission.

But what of the anonymous voice itself?

We may find some clue the the identify of the voice in the programmatic vision of Isaiah in chapter 6. By ‘programmatic’, I mean that the brief passage to which I’ve referred sets the agenda or establishes the program of the book as a whole. Its themes, even its details, recur as they are taken up at different moments and developed. This places Isaiah’s throne-room vision in a distinct light, for it would seem that the events and the words of that experience lie at the generative core of the Isaian message.

In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!’

And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke.And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!’ (Isaiah 6:1–5 ESV)

By all accounts, the seraphim are majestic beings. Their angle of vision on the whole earth and the effects of their voice on large structures say so, to say nothing of their proximity to YHWH. Their name seems to drive from the verb ‘to burn’, so we might think of ardent, gleaming creatures.

They are in several ways like the anonymous voice of Isaiah 40, for they are never identified in detail; they are deeply aligned with YHWH’s presence and purpose; and they cry out a fundamental, transcendent truth that is not entirely to be recognized by mortals apart from their instruction.

Could it be that these seraphim—or, better, one of them—owns the anonymous voice at the outset of chapter 40?

It must be admitted that in the throne-room vision of chapter 6, YHWH himself declares a distinct message to the prophet Isaiah.

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am! Send me.’ And he said, ‘Go, and say to this people: “Keep on hearing, but do not understand; keep on seeing, but do not perceive.” Make the heart of this people dull, and their ears heavy, and blind their eyes; lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their hearts, and turn and be healed.’ (Isaiah 6:8–10 ESV)

Yet YHWH speaks rather than crying out, just as appears to be the case in chapter 40, where YHWH speaks but the voice cries out.

It seems that the best construction we can place upon this text is that the unidentified voice both in chapter six’s commission of the prophet Isaiah and in chapter 40’s summoning of a group of declarers is that of a heavenly council that is represented by the seraphim. This understanding may in fact be corroborated by the unusual first person plural of YHWH’s remarkable deliberation in chapter six:

And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Then I said, ‘Here I am! Send me.’ (Isaiah 6:8 ESV)

It seems that in both of these pivotal passages in the book of Isaiah, YHWH appears in the company of a heavenly council. From that celestially social location, he summons his prophet(s) to declare to Israel her destiny. In the first case, the outlook is dark and foreboding. In the second, it is bright and so promising that only the stirring poetry of the book can cause hearts to rise up and seize it.

The big swing in the book of Isaiah, the big hinge upon which it turns, is the movement between judgement and mercy.

More particularly, the book delivers to the reader this big swing—if I may continue to call it that—as a function of YHWH’s very personal striking and then his having mercy upon Israel/Judah. The language becomes proximate, then intimate, then parental.

A glimpse comes in chapter 60’s effusive anticipation of Zion’s beautification at the hands of foreigners and via the luxury of their finest economic and cultural product.

Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you; for in my wrath I struck you, but in my favor I have had mercy on you. (Isaiah 60:10 ESV)

The striking in question is the time-delimited exile of Judah to Babylon. In contrast, the mercy-driven restoration is open-ended. Thus, there is an asymmetrical relationship between the one and the other. Wrath and striking are temporary. Favor and mercy are meant to endure.

Isaiah’s almost fugal approach to topics like this one—where a theme is stated and then restated in variations here, there, and then again—develops the theme of asymmetry still further by deploying the language of the brief moment.

For a brief moment I deserted you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing anger for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you,” says the Lord, your Redeemer. (Isaiah 54:7–8 ESV)

We are told that YHWH’s harsh treatment of Judah is quite unlike his return to them in mercy in at least two ways.

  • First, the former is short and the latter is long.
  • Second, Isaiah seems to present judgement as necessary but rather unlike YHWH. Restorative mercy, in contrast, flows fiercely from his very heart.

At the risk of losing our way, this glance at asymmetry may or may not help us to understand a striking and obscure word regarding judgement in Jerusalem/Zion that occurs earlier in the book:

For the Lord will rise up as on Mount Perazim; as in the Valley of Gibeon he will be roused; to do his deed—strange is his deed! and to work his work—alien is his work! (Isaiah 28:21 ESV)

Whether or not this is the case, the book provides further insight into divine pathos in the tenderly maternal soliloquy it allows itself in chapter 49.

But Zion said, ‘The Lord has forsaken me; my Lord has forgotten me.’

Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should have no compassion on the son of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you. Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me. (Isaiah 49:14–16 ESV)

Isaiah is fully convinced that the path to Judah’s redemption must pass through the furnace of judgmental fire. Yet the prophet cannot allow that this affliction lies anywhere near to the center of YHWH’s purposes for his people. At the risk of diminishing the experience of those who never came home from Babylon, the exile figures here as a necessary, regrettable, and brief moment. It is but the anteroom to Jerusalem resplendent.

Judah’s well-earned suffering surfaces here in the text as a brief moment of desertion, a momentary flare of righteous anger before a merciful God has his longed-for opportunity to love again with that love that defines love itself.

The reader might ask how important the prophet and his traditioners must have considered this reality to be, that they should risk utilizing this deeply human imagery to characterize the God who remains unseen.

Just so.

Contra todas las protestaciones de la vergüenza, tu pasado no te define.

Lo que has sido no coincide con quién eres. O lo que llegarás a ser.

Esta es al menos, la promesa de YHWH a sus abatidos exiliados en Babilonia.

«Tú, mujer estéril que nunca has dado a luz, ¡grita de alegría! Tú, que nunca tuviste dolores de parto, ¡prorrumpe en canciones y grita con júbilo! Porque más hijos que la casada tendrá la desamparada—dice el Señor— (Isaías 54:1 N.V.I.).

La falta de hijos en el Antiguo Testamento era una gran vergüenza. Quizás tener un hijo y luego perderlo, fue peor que nunca haberlos tenido. Este es un ejemplo del alcance cultural  que subyace en la literatura bíblica.

En la cosmovisión radical de Isaías, YHWH no quiere nada que ver con las  pretensiones arrogantes de la vergüenza. Al contrario, aquella que no ha cortado el aire con gritos en la labor de parto, después encontrará recompensa con gritos de alegría cuando nuevos hijos e hijas invadirán su hogar.

La experiencia humana sostiene que solamente aquello que ya ha pasado, podrá ser. Una vez más, para YHWH esta lógica no le representa. Él es el Creador de cosas nuevas, cosas no habladas, cosas inimaginables, anhelos profundos, demasiado salvajes y poderosos para las palabras. Él encuentra esos anhelos, los satisface, los crea, los respalda. Luego libera a los suyos para que lleguen a ser lo que han anhelado.

La religión que la Biblia  asume y representa no es ningún credo domesticado.

La fe que halla expresión en estos rollos es salvaje, contraintuitiva, imposible y—en un instante—real. La vida con YHWH no conoce límites, con excepción de aquellos que la providencia de su amor ha establecido.

La mujer estéril en un momento queda restaurada a la fecundidad, descubriendo hijos e hijas que ella no trajo a luz, fluyendo a su lado como ríos de agua. De igual manera, el futuro de YHWH llega espontáneamente desde ángulos y fuentes nunca previstos. No obstante, estos hijos son suyos, son de ella y no de otros. Son regalo de YHWH, fortuna sobreabundante.

A ella se le olvida extrañar los hijos biológicos de esos sueños desechos. No tiene tiempo para echarlos de menos, tan ocupada está con esta cosecha imprevista, riendo, dando volteretas. Ellos se ríen bulliciosamente. Sólo el deleite de ella resuena más.