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Posts Tagged ‘exile’

The book called Isaiah describes and eventually presumes a trajectory of divine purpose that provides considerable context for important moments of the tale it tells. The reliability of its restoration promises to Israel/Jacob hinges upon the integrity of this divine intentionality as it is announced and executed in its various stages.

Simply put, if YHWH’s purpose has been reliable when its primary focus was dealing with Israel’s misconduct, then dispirited exiles can be called upon to trust its reliability when it forecasts a bright and imminent new dawn. In the light of long traditions of reading the book that receive it as an unrooted bundle of predictions, one uses the word ‘forecasts’ cautiously. Yet the book itself is less wary than this.

Although Isaiah 48.1-5 serves in great measure as the antechamber to that bright dawn, these verses bear inspection on their own terms.

Hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and who came forth from the loins of Judah; who swear by the name of the LORD, and invoke the God of Israel, but not in truth or right.

For they call themselves after the holy city, and lean on the God of Israel; the LORD of hosts is his name.  

The former things I declared long ago, they went out from my mouth and I made them known; then suddenly I did them and they came to pass.

 Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass,

 I declared them to you from long ago, before they came to pass I announced them to you, so that you would not say, ‘My idol did them, my carved image and my cast image commanded them.’

Isaiah 48:1-5 (NRSV)

In a context of superficial—though perhaps deeply felt—identification with YHWH and ‘the holy city’, the prophet makes clear that Jacob’s conduct has not proceeded ‘in truth or right’. It is critical to understand that the oracle is part of a summons embrace YHWH’s new dawn, but as an introduction to that summons it casts a retrospective glance. This is precisely because the prophetic burden must establish that YHWH has always done what he has said he will do. There is a kind of theodicy at work here, no longer for the primary sake of establishing the rightness of YHWH’s judgement but rather in order to present a case for the fidelity between YHWH’s word and YHWH’s deed. The sequence of the two, one might say, has been entirely trustworthy.

The former things, italicized above and just here, must refer to YHWH’s warnings ‘through his prophets’ and to the eventual reality of the exiling storm that broke upon Judah. That calamity did not come without warning. Then suddenly these things became deed rather than word. פתאם (here, suddenly) occurs four times in Isaiah, each time with reference to large-scale disaster of which YHWH claims authorship. The point in our present instance seems to be that after long warning, the circumstances of Judah’s destruction crashed suddenly upon her walls.

At the end of the passage, the prophet has YHWH explain that this word-deed, warning-execution sequence served a specifically anti-idolatry motive. YHWH was describing his sovereignty over times and peoples so that it might not be attributed to other agents.

These are ‘the first things’ over which YHWH claims unalloyed sway. In a moment, the text will claim for him similar sovereignty over new and better things that lie just over the near horizon. That claim, the discourse asserts, will be every bit as reliable as its early compeers.

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