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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah 4’

The cryptic oracle that constitutes this shortest chapter in the book called Isaiah serves up one of the Isaianic tradition’s most beguiling combinations.

The prophet and the proclaimers of his message love to fuse the notion of survivors/remnant, on the one hand, to that of beauty/glory on the other. In fact, the book of Isaiah would not be what it is if this odd alchemy did not lie at its heart.

It’s worthwhile to quote in full three of the chapter’s six verses while highlighting the words most closely related to this observation.

In that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and honor of the survivors of Israel. And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem, when the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning.

Isaiah 4:2–4 (ESV)

Suffice it to say that the horticulturally resonant branch and fruit cling enigmatically to the survivors of Israel and he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem. The fact that both branch and fruit are beautiful, glorious, pride, and honor with respect to the surviving remnant engenders messianic interpretation of this declaration, since it seems to hint at two entities in what we might call Jerusalem-after-the-storm rather than just one. Incidentally, the Hebrew behind the static and twice-stated ’shall be’ (2x) is in my judgment better rendered ‘shall become’. This rendering honors both the Hebrew syntax (יהיה ל…) and the core contextual idea of movement from a sorry state to its opposite.

The verses excerpted here place this beautification and glorification in a future moment when the eventual remainder of Judah’s people shall have passed through and survived some purifying calamity. The sequence is already apparent in the verses quoted just above. The nature of this fruitful disaster becomes even clearer in the verses that follow.

…once the Lord has washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and cleansed the bloodstains of Jerusalem from its midst by a spirit of judgment and by a spirit of burning. 

YHWH’s flame then becomes a divine shield over Zion in the chapter’s remaining verses, a transformation narrated in prose that is deeply resonant of YHWH’s earlier redemptive engagement with Israel.

Then the LORD will create over the whole site of Mount Zion and over her assemblies a cloud by day, and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night; for over all the glory there will be a canopy. There will be a booth for shade by day from the heat, and for a refuge and a shelter from the storm and rain.

Isaiah 4:5–6 (ESV)

What are we to make of these glorious survivors, painted with an allusive brush in this early chapter of a massive book that has merely begun by the time we encounter the impressionistic canvas from which they stare out at us?

For a start, it bears underscoring that nothing portrayed in this cameo rubs roughly against the book’s longer and greater trajectory. Rather, the story of purification through a disaster designed and delivered by Jerusalem’s impassioned Divine Protector is part and parcel of the Isaianic package. Everything we discover here is constant with that greater story. If the tale is told briefly here, it will be developed, promised, declared, and pressed home time after time before this scroll can be rolled up and put away.

So, too, the notion that those who submit to the storm and survive its lashing will emerge as beautiful, honored, and holy. These splendid qualities, which cling naturally in the text to YHWH himself and to all that he restores, are here promised to those who endure the storm in the most intimate dialect that this book knows how to speak: that of re-naming.

And he who is left in Zion and remains in Jerusalem will be called holy, everyone who has been recorded for life in Jerusalem…

Isaiah 4:3 (ESV)

The language of ‘prophetic promises’ is spoken too often and too glibly in connection with the company of the biblical prophets.

Yet without it we would stand baffled before a text like Isaiah’s fourth chapter, unable to speak.

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