Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 29’

It appears that chapter 29 emerges from the white heat of Jerusalem’s crisis under Assyrian pressure.

It is a swirling, chaotic, difficult piece of prophetic literature and therefore a challenge to any interpreter. Among its most confusing verses figure these:

The vision of all this has become for you like the words of a sealed document. If it is given to those who can read, with the command, ‘Read this,’ they say, ‘We cannot, for it is sealed.’ And if it is given to those who cannot read, saying, ‘Read this,’ they say, ‘We cannot read.’ 

The Lord said: Because these people draw near with their mouths and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote; so I will again do amazing things with this people, shocking and amazing. The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.  

Ha! You who hide a plan too deep for the LORD, whose deeds are in the dark, and who say, ‘Who sees us? Who knows us?’

You turn things upside down! Shall the potter be regarded as the clay? Shall the thing made say of its maker, ‘He did not make me’; or the thing formed say of the one who formed it, ‘He has no understanding’?

Isaiah 29:11-16 (NRSV)

If the chapter is one coherent unit, then ‘the vision of all this’ which introduces this passage likely refers back to preceding woe pronounced over ‘Ariel’ or Lion of God. There, YHWH appears to encamp against Jerusalem, the likely referent of ‘Ariel’. Is it possible that the prophet uses ‘Ariel’, ‘Lion of God’ sarcastically, alluding to self-elevating nickname with which Jerusalemites in better times might have flattered themselves? In the verses just prior to our passage, YHWH’s activity vis-à-vis Ariel is described as follows.

Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor, blind yourselves and be blind! Be drunk, but not from wine; stagger, but not from strong drink!

For the LORD has poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep; he has closed your eyes, you prophets, and covered your heads, you seers.

Isaiah 29:9-10 NRSV

It appears that, amid what Jerusalem’s anxiety-ridden citizens experience as impending doom, the prophet is doing battle with what might be considered a religion of remoteness. Apparently rejected as a source of intelligence regarding what YHWH is actually up to, the prophet critiques religion that is learned by rote and reliant upon esoterica.

Both approaches and perhaps their blending into anxious religious activism seems to distance Isaiah’s population from the message he purports to bring to their moment from YHWH himself.

One of YHWH’s quoted lines traffics in the language of the Davidic child-king called ‘Wonderful Counselor’ (פלא יועץ) at Isaiah 9.8.

(S)o I will again do amazing things (להפליא) with this people, shocking and amazing (הפלא ופלא). The wisdom of their wise shall perish, and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.”

Isaiah 29:14 (NRSV)

We can identify several features of this text that are clear.

First, the prophet has been rejected as a spokesperson for YHWH and for pertinent reality.

Second, YHWH has not finally rejected Zion in its current depravity. But his future engagement will take the form of unexpected and novel moves that cannot be captured or comprehended by Zion’s ordinary and official stewards of truth.

Third, if the link back to the child ruler of chapter 9 is more than casually lexical—in my opinion it must go far deeper than that—then ‘Ariel’s’ rescue will depend upon attentiveness to that development.

What the book of Isaiah presents here—chaotically, somewhat impenetrably—is not a moment for old wineskins, as another prophet might have put things.


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Perhaps the rabbis were correct to affirm that some of the ‘deeper writings’ are not suitable for untrained eyes. Or perhaps the cynical proverb that affirms that ‘school is wasted on the young’ is, after all, on to something.

Or perhaps only mothers and fathers should read such a thing as this:

Therefore thus says the LORD, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob: ‘Jacob shall no more be ashamed, no more shall his face grow pale. For when he sees his children, the work of my hands, in his midst, they will sanctify my name; they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob and will stand in awe of the God of Israel. And those who go astray in spirit will come to understanding, and those who murmur will accept instruction.’ (Isaiah 29:22–24 ESV)

Jacob’s prodigals had not only run amok on their own terms. They had been dragged to distant lands by the powers of their day to suffer the quick extermination of our news cycle or the slow extermination of assimilation to the alien’s ways. (more…)

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