Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah’

After exploring idolatry’s irony in chapter 45 around the issue of shaping and forming, the prophet again trains his sardonic firepower on idolaters in chapter 46. This time his sarcasm needles the makers of idols via the metaphors of lifting and carrying. Behind each of the two images lies the wearying nature of making and worshipping one’s own gods, on the one hand, and YHWH’s tireless lifting up and bearing around of his daughters and sons, on the other.

I quote the short chapter in full, below. The speaker is presumed to be YHWH throughout. I have attempted to highlight in italics the chapter’s references to the wearisome burden-bearing that depletes idolators, idols, and even the gods those idols purport to represent. ‘Bowing down’ and ‘stooping’ are best understood as the collapse of persons subjected to a forced march. The exhaustion spreads to the unfortunate animals that are doomed to carry heavy idols around, though in the broader Isaianic irony these innocent beasts of burden are more perceptive than foolish Judahites.

On the other hand, I have highlighted with underlining those references that denote or allude to YHWH’s lifting and carrying of his people. Note that even the clause ‘and will save’ at the end of the second paragraph quoted must be read as a lifting-and-carrying reference because the verb (מלט) is the same word used in the first paragraph’s ‘they cannot save the burden’ (לא יכלו מלט משא) rather than the more conventional biblical language of salvation.

Bel bows down; Nebo stoops; their idols are on beasts and livestock; these things you carry are borne as burdens on weary beasts. They stoop; they bow down together; they cannot save the burden, but themselves go into captivity.

Listen to me, O house of Jacob, all the remnant of the house of Israel, who have been borne by me from before your birth, carried from the womb; even to your old age I am he, and to gray hairs I will carry you. I have made, and I will bear; I will carry and will save.

To whom will you liken me and make me equal, and compare me, that we may be alike? Those who lavish gold from the purse, and weigh out silver in the scales, hire a goldsmith, and he makes it into a god; then they fall down and worship! They lift it to their shoulders, they carry it, they set it in its place, and it stands there; it cannot move from its place. If one cries to it, it does not answer or save him from his trouble.

Remember this and stand firm, recall it to mind, you transgressors, remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ calling a bird of prey from the east, the man of my counsel from a far country. I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.

Listen to me, you stubborn of heart, you who are far from righteousness: I bring near my righteousness; it is not far off, and my salvation will not delay; I will put salvation in Zion, for Israel my glory. (Isaiah 46:1–13 ESV)

The prophet presents Judah with a world in which folly and wisdom represent a carry-or-be-carried choice. Worshipping what one has created is not empowering, we are told. Just the opposite, it saps the life from everyone and everything. It is simply exhausting.

Finding oneself enveloped in YHWH’s redemptive purpose, on the other hand, is likened to the experience of being lifted up and carried to a worthwhile destiny rather than carried off into exile.

One thinks here of Jesus’ famous claim in the eleventh chapter of the gospel of Matthew.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28–30 ESV)

Though I am not aware of convincing evidence the Jesus purposely alludes to Isaiah 46, the rhetoric is strikingly similar both in intent and in means.

In Isaiah, prophetic sarcasm deploys emotional violence to clarify the consequences of idolatrous piety vs. confidence in YHWH. In Matthew, Jesus extends an invitation to abandon wearisome labor and to find rest under—ironically—a ‘burden’ of discipleship that he rests lightly upon human shoulders.

As with so many other things, neither religion nor work nor rest are necessarily what they appear on the surface of things to be.




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Readers of this blog will be familiar with Isaianic irony. The work of Israelite prophecy that we abbreviate as The Book of Isaiah does not instruct only with straight-forward words. Rather, its artistry drives its message home with relentless subtlety, some of which is inevitably lost when the book’s soulful poetry is translated into English or another modern language.

Nowhere is the subtlety more powerfully deployed than in the prophet’s anti-idolatry polemic. He finds the veneration of idols not only enslaving, but also astonishingly stupid. Idolatry, he insists, is a religious practice that wearies rather than invigorates the worshipper.

In chapters 44 and 45, the book indulges in a lengthy run of such sarcasm-with-a-purpose. YHWH’s creative abilities are articulated via a plethora of vocabulary that occurs with frequency in those moments when divine creation becomes the subject of the Hebrew Bible’s discourse. One verb stands out for its repetition in these two chapters: יצר or yatsar.  The word is commonly translated as to shapeto form, or to fashion. The reader with little command of Biblical Hebrew will recognize the verb’s three consonants ( צ , י , and ר ) in the verses quoted below.

No fewer than nine times in chapters 44 and 45, YHWH is seen to form or fashion important created works. The high-level persuasive task of the passage is to convince the reader that YHWH has been able to form Israel, his servant because he is unimpeded in all his creative whimsy. If he is free to form and shape whatever he wants to create, then he can certainly create and re-create Israel against all the odds of historical precedent and human calculation. For this reason, Judah/Israel’s demoralizing captivity in Babylon does not mean that she is doomed. On the contrary, she can become YHWH’s newest new thing. This otherwise despairing nation can become, in a national sense, born again.

Thus says the Lord who made you, who formed you (ויצרך) from the womb and will help you: Fear not, O Jacob my servant, Jeshurun whom I have chosen. (Isaiah 44:2 ESV)

Remember these things, O Jacob, and Israel, for you are my servant; I formed you (יצרתיך); you are my servant; O Israel, you will not be forgotten by me. (Isaiah 44:21 ESV)

Thus says the Lord, your Redeemer, who formed you (ויצרך) from the womb: ‘I am the Lord, who made all things, who alone stretched out the heavens, who spread out the earth by myself … ‘ (Isaiah 44:24 ESV)

I form (יוצר) light and create darkness; I make well-being and create calamity; I am the Lord, who does all these things. (Isaiah 45:7 ESV)

Woe to him who strives with him who formed him (את־יצרו), a pot among earthen pots! Does the clay say to him who forms it (ליצרו), ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles’? (Isaiah 45:9 ESV)

Thus says the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, and the one who formed him ((i.e., perhaps, Israel; ויצרו): ‘Ask me of things to come; will you command me concerning my children and the work of my hands?’ (Isaiah 45:11 ESV)

For thus says the Lord, who created the heavens (he is God!), who formed (יצר) the earth and made it (he established it; he did not create it empty, he formed it (יצרה) to be inhabited!): ‘I am the Lord, and there is no other.’ (Isaiah 45:18 ESV)

The prophet-poet would have made his point if this were all he had to say about the matter. But his sardonic wit wants to make a further point. It runs something like this: YHWH is the sovereign shaper of Israel and of all things. Yet idolators insist upon sweating over the forming and shaping of their own pathetic little gods, tiring themselves out in the ‘creation’ of gods who do them absolutely no good.

Idolatry makes the creature the creator and the creator the creature.

Taken from the same two chapters, the following three verses make the point.

All who fashion idols (יצרי־פסל) are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit. Their witnesses neither see nor know, that they may be put to shame. Who fashions (מי־יצר) a god or casts an idol that is profitable for nothing? (Isaiah 44:9–10 ESV)

The ironsmith takes a cutting tool and works it over the coals. He fashions it (יצרהו) with hammers and works it with his strong arm. He becomes hungry, and his strength fails; he drinks no water and is faint. (Isaiah 44:12 ESV)

The idolator makes himself a little YHWH, so he imagines. He creates his own god.

Still, the prophet’s satire has not exhausted itself, for in 44.9 he takes up the commonplace that the idols are nothing and extends it to the self-important idol-maker: All who fashion idols are nothing.

The modern reader who begins to discover the layers of sophisticated irony that make the book of Isaiah an enduring object of our contemplation might stop here, with a chuckle at those pathetic ancients who did such things and so became the butt of prophetic irony.

Yet one imagines that Isaiah’s sophisticated understanding of idolatry is as pertinent now as then, today as in pre-Christian antiquity. We modern and post-modern sophisticates labor hard over the things we worship, the constructs we assemble, the images we shape. Then we bow down to them, conceding to our pathetic little monsters mastery over our own very lives, our own destiny.

Imagining ourselves skillful and wise, we—like they—become nothing.

All the while, YHWH goes on forming and fashioning as he likes, via a simple word and with an implicit invitation that we should become the beauty he is creating in his world.

‘It cannot be!’, we decide, then return to our busy sanding and polishing, arms a bit sore and fingers worn almost to the bone.


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The long book called Isaiah displays a complex understanding of ‘the nations’.

One one extreme, it is capable of seeing them as naked adversaries to God’s chosen Israel. On the other, they are welcomed into the center of YHWH’s redemptive purposes.

In between, one can only admire the dexterity with which their existence, their behavior, and their destiny are so deftly explored. As with everything else in this book, their definition comes via an artful layering of truth upon truth. Each fresh level does not eradicate what has gone before, but rather reframes it.

The book’s monumental fortieth chapter recognizes the existence of these nations, but entirely dismisses the idea that their power or their multitude could restrain YHWH’s hand when he sets himself to redeeming his own people.

Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust. (Isaiah 40:15 ESV)

What can be said of the nations from this perspective is this: They are there, of course, but they don’t amount to anything.’

This, too, is a partial truth, for the book will have us understand in good time that these very nations share a destiny that is in some way glorious. Redeemed, purified, and brought to justice—the latter term itself is pregnant with pluriform resonance—they will bring their best cultural product with them on pilgrimage and with it beautify Zion itself.

Yet here, in chapter 40, they are seen in all their weightless impotence.

You can extrapolate a drop of water from a bucketful of the sloshing liquid if you strain at the mental task of it. But its loss won’t alter the weight of the load in any meaningful way.

If you squint carefully in just the right light, you can see the dust on a scale. But its presence won’t alter the outcome of the weighing. It is irrelevant.

So, in turbulent and threatening times, is the reader invited to consider the empires and powers of his generation’s globe. They are there, of course they are there. It is even possible to contemplate the horrors they are capable of visiting upon their neighbors.

Yet when YHWH sets about to accomplishing his purpose, the nations are best described as a drop in a bucket.

They are just dust.

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Isaiah turns often to speak of the storied, shadow-kept ‘servant of YHWH’  with clear designation that what the figure represents is a people. In about equal measure, the ‘servant’ is figured as a person.

The latter is the case in Isaiah 50.

The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary. Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward. I gave my back to those who strike, and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard; I hid not my face from disgrace and spitting.

But the Lord God helps me; therefore I have not been disgraced; therefore I have set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be put to shame. (Isaiah 50:4–7 ESV)

This servant assumes a learner’s pose. YHWH’s morning wake-up call joins a God-opening of his ears, so that he might learn. He learns willingly, though in context it cannot have been easily.

It seems that this servant’s formation—his education, as it wereis an abusive one. He is beaten, his beard is yanked painfully, the saliva of his detractors spatters him with their venom.

Only YHWH himself stands between abuse and defeat.

Curiously, what emerges from this painful experience is a rock-like strength. Knowing that YHWH stands with him in the presence of his enemies, he sets his face like flint.

There is a strength in weakness. We come to it only as we wipe other people’s spit from our bruised cheeks.

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unforgotten: Isaiah

Are those who die unjustly simply to be forgotten?

In a world like ours—battered and bleeding—it is for too many the farthest thing from an arcane question. The rubble of battlefield and broken neighborhood covers far too many lifeless bodies for that.

It has become for us, as it was in the beginning, a question most real.

The very first chapters of the biblical witness both affirm the validity of the question and declare that, at least in this first episode of fratricide, amnesia will not conquer the victimized dead, will not annul their enduring meaning, will not finally silence their cry.

Cain spoke to Abel his brother. And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him.Then the Lord said to Cain, ‘Where is Abel your brother?’ He said, ‘I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?’ And the Lord said, ‘What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to me from the ground.’ (Genesis 4:8–10 ESV)

Students of Scripture have often wondered whether Urzeit ist Endzeit (roughly: ‘first time is last time’ or ‘first epoch is final epoch’). That is, will a promised new heavens and new earth in some way be aligned with features of the primordial awakening of creation? Is there a correspondence between what was in the beginning and what shall be in the end?

The biblical canon’s answer seems to consist of a qualified yes.

What is more, when the biblical witness becomes most pressured to assure its readers that our awful in-between time is not simply a sad, violent descent into hell, it seems to focus most specifically on those elements of The Beginning that shall return to us in The End. We call such literature apocalyptic or revelatory, not least because its insistence that God’s future must be radically different than life as we have come to know it requires new information. It depends less on continuities with the present and more on sharp breaks from history’s path and its redirection towards something entirely new. Its truths cannot be derived from the reality we know, so they must be revealed or disclosed if we are to grasp them.

The 26th chapter of Isaiah is part of such an apocalyptic section.

Come, my people, enter your chambers, and shut your doors behind you; hide yourselves for a little while until the fury has passed by. For behold, the Lord is coming out from his place to punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity, and the earth will disclose the blood shed on it, and will no more cover its slain. (Isaiah 26:20–21 ESV)

Cain’s blood still cries, as it were, in the ears of the prophetic-apocalyptic author.

When the Isaianic voice shouts in strange verse about a cosmic resolution of those ills which threaten little Israel’s very existence in the face of marauding conquerors, it remembers the greater threat. This threat is not so much the danger that this Assyrian power or that Babylonian empire might devastate us yet again, but the higher and deeper threat that this might occur with no one looking on to prevent it nor even to lament the unjust silencing of the doomed when it has occured.

The text moves to assure its reader that YHWH has a punishment in store for those who swing the sword unjustly. But, significantly, there is more to this divine re-activation than merely the retribution that YHWH will visit upon the conqueror. The earth, we read, will disclose the blood shed on it. It will cease conspiring with the covering up of innocent blood, spilled from Abel’s time up to the present.

It is not an accident that hints of something like resurrection also occur as part of this cluster of ideas, nor that resurrection suggests itself even in these Isaianic verses, for only—by some logic—a rebirth and revivification is adequate to the silencing claims of lethal injustice. If life has been taken, life must be given again. No mere forensic accounting, no bare punishment of murders, is sufficient for the restoration of what has been lost.

But for now, in a prophet’s days long before ‘resurrection’ has become a way of thinking about such things, the text makes a quieter promise: these fallen ones, their blood covered over by aeons of dust and soil, shall not be forgotten.

Abel’s blood, their blood, still cries out as YHWH watches and takes notice.

What will he do for these righteous dead?


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The book called Isaiah quietly lays layer atop rhetorical layer as it ambles forward in the general direction of glorified Zion.

By the time one arrives at the stirring reversal of fortunes that takes the steering wheel firmly in hand at chapter 40, we have encountered the expression רעהו with a prefixed preposition multiple times. It has described the action of a derelict or judged person to his fellow or to his companion. In the Isaianic way, this otherwise neutral expression has accrued with each new layer a discernibly negative connotation.

And the people will oppress one another, every one his fellow and every one his neighbor (ואיש ברעהו); the youth will be insolent to the elder, and the despised to the honorable. (Isaiah 3:5 ESV)

They will be dismayed: pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labor. They will look aghast at one another (יחילון איש אל־רעהו); their faces will be aflame. (Isaiah 13:8 ESV)

And I will stir up Egyptians against Egyptians, and they will fight, each against another and each against his neighbor (ואיש ברעהו), city against city, kingdom against kingdom; (Isaiah 19:2 ESV)

Again, the term itself is neutral and unremarkable. Yet the accrued sense becomes one of panicked or malevolent reciprocity.

It is likely not an accident that a passage in the 41st chapter of the book reverses the nature of this very reciprocity. The text celebrates YHWH’s purposeful calling of the Persian monarch Cyrus, who would liberate the Jewish captives and make it possible for them to return home to a future in Judah. In the light of this stunning turn, which YHWH has purposed from the beginnings of time itself, the ‘islands’ and the ‘ends of the earth’ take in the events with trembling astonishment. For the moment, it is not critical to establish whether the personifying text is speaking of non-Jewish nations or of Jewish captives in those nations (I favor the former.).

The point rather is the way they interact.

Be silent before me, you islands! Let the nations renew their strength! Let them come forward and speak; let us meet together at the place of judgment. Who has stirred up one from the east, calling him in righteousness to his service? He hands nations over to him and subdues kings before him. He turns them to dust with his sword, to windblown chaff with his bow. He pursues them and moves on unscathed, by a path his feet have not traveled before. Who has done this and carried it through, calling forth the generations from the beginning? I, the Lord—with the first of them and with the last—I am he.

The islands have seen it and fear; the ends of the earth tremble.

They approach and come forward; each helps the other (איש את־רעהו יעזרו) and says to his brother, ‘Be strong!’ (Isaiah 41:1–6 NIV)

Suddenly, the reciprocal interaction of the subjects is positive, encouraging, and even redemptive.

A note of anti-idolatry polemic in the verse immediately following means that the tone here could be ironic and not as positive as I’m suggesting. But strong conceptual elements of chapter 41 combined with the conceptually similar mutual encouragement of nations in the programmatic vision of chapter 2 (… and many peoples shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths’, Isaiah 2:3 ESV) persuade me that the point here is a quite positive one.

When my neighbor turns to look at me, there is no longer murder in his eyes, but encouragement.

Redemption in the book of Isaiah comes in reversals infinitely grand and infinitesimally subtle. The reversal I call out here belongs to the latter category.

Yet it is no less potent for its small, layered scope and scale. In its syllables, one hears whispered rumor of ancient enemies becoming friends in the light of YHWH’s manifestation of blessing too long guarded in secret places.








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When the fifty-four chapter of the book called Isaiah addresses the exiled Jewish community as ‘Barren One’, it initiate one of the most stunning deployments of ironic negatives that Scripture and literature have known.

‘Sing, O barren one, who did not bear; break forth into singing and cry aloud, you who have not been in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than the children of her who is married,’ says the Lord. ‘Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities. (Isaiah 54:1–3 ESV)

After a vocative address (‘O barren one’) that defines the little community of un-belongers in terms of the experience of a woman that they have not known, the next two negative clauses drive further rhetorical nails into this coffin of deprivation. You who did not bear…. you who have not been in labor.

Has any woman ever been defined in terms more relentlessly cruel? Has any community had residual hope stripped more piteously from its tired embrace?

Yet the intent is exactly the opposite of the form, which is why the words ‘irony’ and ‘ironic’ nestle so comfortably as descriptors. The very next negative is not an additional rhetorical spitting out of what is not, but an exquisite turn towards that reversal of fortunes which is nearly synonymous with redemption in this book.

Such will be the pile-on of children returning to the bosom of this heretofore bereft woman, we read, that Lady Zion will need to unlearn her politics and economies of scarcity:

Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes. (Isaiah 54:2 ESV)

That is, the negatives re-start but with precisely the opposite effect than the one that has bound exiled Judah so fiercely to hopelessness.

Fear not, for you will not be ashamed; be not confounded, for you will not be disgraced; for you will forget the shame of your youth, and the reproach of your widowhood you will remember no more. (Isaiah 54:4 ESV)

Now the dam has been breached. The flow of negatives becomes a rushing river, yet for reasons that deprive Judah not of many things but of just one: her previous self-definition in terms of what she is not. All things have become new and Judah leaps into the in-creation reality of all that she is rather than all that she is not.

All Judah’s no’s, to borrow language from a later covenant, have become ‘yes’ and ‘amen’. All her battered hopes are made new.

Yet the prophet’s way with a pen allows us to read these New Things against the dark and life-denying parchment that had become Judah’s very being.

No has lost is grip. Redemption’s glow is now vivid. Ironic. Maternal and spacious. Laugh-making. The opposite of no and better than new.




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