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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 25’

If verses 1-5 hint that YHWH’s subjugation of ’strong peoples’ and ‘ruthless nations’ might in fact be for their own benefit, the wide embrace at which it hints becomes all but indisputable in verses 6-10.

In the text that follows, I have added emphasis to each reference to all (Hebrew כל), together with the nouns that are implicated by this descriptor.

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.

Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.

It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

 For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain.

Isaiah 25:6-10 (NRSV, emphasis added)

In spite of this broad redemptive result, the text does not loose its grip on a tenacious particularity. We see this in at least three respects.

First, Mount Zion remains the scene. YHWH will destroy ‘on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples…’ (7). The passage’s culminating declaration—if we see the immediately following and rather more sullen address against Moab as in some way separate—declares the YHWH’s hand will rest on this mountain’ (10).

Second, Jacob/Israel remains at the center of causality. The universal banquet that is here described is it seems contingent upon YHWH’s removal of ‘the disgrace of his people … from all the earth’. There is no reason to imagine that ‘his people’ bears a meaning different than its conventional one. Yet when he remove’s Jacob’s disgrace the wide world is the beneficiary. In parallel with surrounding clauses that are more explicit about the nations’ blessed fate, ‘from all the earth’ very likely refers to those people as well as to Jacob itself.

Finally, the refrain that is anticipated ‘on that day’ must describe Jacob/Israel’s experience retrospectively rather than the latter jubilant inclusion of ‘all peoples’:

It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

Isaiah 25:9 (NRSV)

As often and in so many ways across the long book called Isaiah, here Jacob’s restoration represents in some way the restoration of all the nations. Or perhaps, of all save one. Moab’s dire subjection follows in 10b-12. NRSV’s editorial separation of that darkness from the earlier light of this oracle is performed without support from the Masoretic Text. It may be that Isaiah’s Vision is viscerally resistant to utopias that avert their glance from a kind of final, dire, depressing resistance that can in the end be put down only by reluctant force.

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The polyvalent perspective of the book called Isaiah with respect to the nations raises its head again in the broad horizon celebrated by the hymn that is the book’s twenty-fifth chapter.

The first five verses appear to present a kind of conversion narrative in connection with ‘strong peoples’ and ‘cities of ruthless nations’ who seem to have been moved to their turning by YHWH’s care for the poor.

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.

For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.

Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you.

For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled.

Isaiah 25:1-5 (NRSV, emphasis added)

The text does not leave in doubt the reality of the subjugation of ‘strong peoples’ and ‘ruthless nations’.

Indeed, they find themselves on ‘the mountain of the Lord’ (verse 6, just following) precisely because their city and palace have been leveled. Verse 5’s verbs conclude the first section of this oracle with divine activities that leave no doubt about the matter. YHWH subdued the short-lived heat of the peoples (תכניע) and stilled the song of the ruthless (יענה, rendered by NRSV somewhat lyrically by the passive ‘was stilled’ for the Masoretic Text’s 3ms active deployment of a verb often rendered more prosaically as to humiliate).

Clearly, these peoples are considered to be nations that YHWH has subjugated as the outworking of his ancient purpose (25.1).

Yet is not at all apparent that this outcome is one that the peoples themselves lament. Indeed, verse 3 could be read as the vocabulary of mere conquest, forced upon unwilling victims. But in context, particularly the context provided by the oracle from verse 6 forward, there seems to be yet again an element of willing participation in the deportment of the conquered.

Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you.

Isaiah 25:3 NRSV)

Verses 6-10 will fill in the picture, if indeed those verses are to be read as a unity with verses 1-5, as appears to me to be the case. Its scattering of ‘all’ across the range of its protagonists insinuates a banquet where all—past historical enemies included—lift their cups together and tuck into the feast with the careless abandon of friends.

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Chapters 24 to 27 of the book called Isaiah seems to gather up the motifs of the preceding oracles against the nations and splash them in broad brush across a canvas of unrestrained and predictive exhilaration.

A passage in chapter 25 serves up a parade example of a broadly global reconciliation. It is Zion-centric but not ethnocentric. It is cosmic without being universal. An extended quote will introduce us:

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, of rich food filled with marrow, of well-aged wines strained clear.

 And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever.

 Then the Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken.

 It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.

 For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain.

Isaiah 25:6–10 (NRSV)

I have italicized the recurring locative expression ‘on this mountain’ in order to underscore the Zion-centrism of this vision. Running counter to the intense localism of the passage is the inclusion of ‘all peoples’, ‘all nations’, ‘all faces’, and ‘all the earth’. Curiously it is the disgrace of his people that the text promises YHWH will eradicate from all the earth. Yet the beneficiaries of this cleansing seem to include all who are invited to this—shall we say eschatological?—feast.

Indeed, the profound inclusiveness of the vision seems likely to integrate those non-Hebraic nations into the moving first-person-plural declarations of the redeemed. Again, I italicize:

It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”

Isaiah 25:9 (NRSV)

Arguably, this is already so in the near context. Then if we read this passage as one of several adumbrations of the Vision of Visions in chapter four, with its pilgrim nations streaming eagerly to Zion, then the presence of foreign dialects amid the grateful crowds on Zion’s holy hill in chapter 25 seems all the more likely.

In that same spirit of intertextual attentiveness, the reader ought not to miss the deeply significant summary statement in verse 10:

For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain.

Isaiah 25:10 (NRSV)

It appears that this explanatory declaration picks up and re-purposes two features of preceding texts. First, the יד יהוה (hand of the Lord) has been a recurring element of the savage enmity between YHWH and the nations in the preceding passages. It has been raised against delinquent Jacob (1.25, 5.25 2x; 9.12, 17, and 21; 10.4) as well as Egypt (11.15, 19.16), Assyria and the nations (14.26-27), and a diverse knot of nations (23.11). The repetition of YHWH’s hand raised, extended, and waved against peoples and nations recurs with sufficient regularity to justify its recognition as a prominent motif.

In 10.25 the importance of the יד יהוה is intensified by its location in a powerfully summarizing statement, YHWH’s hand is a feature of the landscape, yet it is not raised. It rests.

This brings us to the second feature of preceding texts that appears here in re-purposed fashion: the verb נוח, to rest. Although it is enticing to consider the three-fold occurrence of this verb in the redemptive abundance of chapter 14 (1, 3, and 7), it seems to me that the critical antecedent to this feature of our chapter occurs near the outset of the quasi-Davidic portrait of chapter 11. The reader will recall that chapter 11 shares with chapter 25 a declarative summary that is at the same time Mount-Zion-centric and a portrait of redeemed nations:

They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious.

Isaiah 11:9-10 (NRSV)

A responsible reading of chapter 25 will not overlook the antecedents I am attempting to identify, although of course my reconstruction of the relationships among them cannot escape a measure of conjecture.

It appears that this text in Isaiah chapter 25 echoes many others in the book when it conjures a future where YHWH’s hand—long raised in enmity against his Israel and his nations—has been lowered and now rests upon the freshly inhabited space of an enlarged Zion. There the nations find their longings fulfilled. There they feast alongside Israel’s scrubbed-up sons and daughters, together not as one ethnos but rather as banqueting guests of a suddenly welcoming Host.

The prophetic voice that resonates throughout the book called Isaiah urges its readers to consider that what they have known is not all that shall be. He invites them to contemplate a moment when YHWH’s hand has finally been lowered. In that day, as the prophet has introduced such novelties over and over again, humanity’s long wait has ended. The nations rejoice.

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