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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah’

There is no measured reciprocity in YHWH’s mercy as this is sketched out in the book of Isaiah. The logic of quid pro quo has no place here, in this landscape of abundant pardon.

Seek the Lord while he may be found; call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; let him return to the Lord, that he may have compassion on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon. For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:6–9 ESV)

The call not to let the opportunity of experiencing YHWH’s mercy—forgiving and restorative—is based in part on the perhaps limited window of its availability. One should seek him ‘while he may be found’ and call upon him ‘while he is near’.

But the other motive for such questing after YHWH in this season, when he is unusually close at hand, is that his compassion to those ‘wicked’ and ‘unrighteous’ people who will forsake what they have become and return to YHWH is articulated as ‘abundant pardon’. In fact, it is the disproportionate mercy with which YHWH will embrace those who return that sets the context for a passage which is usually quoted in the abstract, as though it simply marked a generic difference between how YHWH reasons and how people think. In reality, the prophet is getting at something far more concrete and specific than that:

‘My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8–9 ESV)

The ways and thoughts that are so patently superhuman (if one may use that term without trivializing its subject) are the ways and thoughts of abundant pardon. That is, there is no restrictive calculation, no reductive logic, no parsimony about the forgiving mercy with which YHWH embraces the evil man who returns to him.

Those familiar human measurings-out of grace with which we are so damningly familiar are as low in altitude as a level swamp is against a soaring bank of cumulus clouds. One can speak as though the two can be compared, but in point of fact they can only be contrasted. The former is very much unlike the latter. The two are not even close to each other in scope and scale.

To hew to verse nine’s precise cadence, neither the way YHWH thinks about pardon nor the way he acts to forgive can be captured in the small bowls and measly cups of human reckoning.

There is no self-help in the prophet’s insight, no tawdry bootstraps to be yanked up, no pathetic morality to be offered as bait to a god who is reluctant to forgive but might just be persuaded if one is sufficiently sad and sincere. YHWH is not like that, does not play that game.

If human forgiveness is our starting line, our point of reference, we can know nothing of divine pardon. The one is not a suitable analogue to the other. At our best, a very good man might forgive an evil man who is sorry. YHWH is not like that.

With him, abundant mercy is like nothing we have ever seen.

 

 

 

 

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Few of the book of Isaiah’s statements about the ‘servant of the Lord’ are as densely packed as the image-rich section begins at Isaiah 49.1.

Listen to me, O coastlands, and give attention, you peoples from afar. The Lord called me from the womb, from the body of my mother he named my name. He made my mouth like a sharp sword; in the shadow of his hand he hid me; he made me a polished arrow; in his quiver he hid me away. And he said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’ But I said, ‘I have labored in vain; I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity; yet surely my right is with the Lord, and my recompense with my God.’

And now the Lord says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him—for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord, and my God has become my strength—he says: ‘It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.’ (Isaiah 49:1–6 ESV)

First, we have the expression of profound intimacy between the servant and YHWH. This is made explicit throughout the passage, but the reader should not miss its implicit expression in the passage’s first words. The opening summons (‘Listen to me … give attention’) is sometimes offered in the book of Isaiah by the prophet with the immediately following declaration that ‘YHWH has spoken’. At other times YHWH himself seeks to use this convening expression himself.

Here, remarkably, it is the servant who both calls hearers to attention and delivers the content of the declaration: in this case, that YHWH is the initiator of the servant’s existence and his purpose. The effect of this transfer of a familiar and authoritative convening expression to the servant’s lips seems to effect an elevation of his status.

Second, there is an unwavering focus in this passage upon the plight of the coastlands, the far-off peoples, the nations, and the farthest end of the earth. Although some would argue that these expressions pertain to Jews who are found in those places, it seems to me that the traditional understanding that these are non-Jewish people(s) enjoys the preponderance of support from the data. The conventional view also enjoys the support of the juxtaposition in verse 6, where the comparatively ‘light thing’ of the servant raising up the tribes of Jacob and bringing back ‘the preserved of Israel’ stands over against what is by implication a weightier achievement: enlightening the nations and extending YHWH’s salvation to the end of the earth.

It appears that the developing profile of the servant, strengthened in this passage in measure that must not be overlooked, includes genuinely redemptive activity and achievement in the interest of gentile nations.

Third, one notes the juxtaposition of word and weaponry. That is, both here and elsewhere the servant’s principal occupation seems to be announcing YHWH’s redemptive purpose and calling people to participate in it. Yet the servant affirms in these verses that YHWH has made (both for deployment and for safeguarding, perhaps in the latter case until the appropriate moment) him to be like a sword and an arrow. These two poles come together in the exquisite detail that …

(YHWH) made my mouth like a sharp sword.

The implication is that the servant’s verbally centered activity serves to change fates and destinies in the way that battle changes the status quo of warring nations in one direction or another. His role is here not consoling or affirming, but rather one that intends deep change. That is, he does not consolidate and strengthen what is; rather he transforms it into something new.

Fourth, we should not overlook the note of wearying labor in the servant’s commission. The book is not sparing with the vocabulary that here comes into play once again, with a Hebrew verb like יגע carrying the reader’s mind to an arguably more famous passage like Isaiah 40.27-31.

Why do you say, O Jacob, and speak, O Israel, ‘My way is hidden from the Lord, and my right is disregarded by my God’? Have you not known? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength. Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.’ (Isaiah 40:27–31 ESV)

There, as in chapter 49, it is Jacob/Israel who contemplate the tragedy of final weariness and find that YHWH’s strength (כח) becomes the effective counterpoise to their fatigue in the face of unrelenting demands.

Finally, this passage insists upon what emerges here as part of a developing theme in the book of Isaiah: Jacob/Israel (here identified also as the servant) and YHWH find themselves in a mutually glorifying relationship. Honor and glory (at times complemented by ‘beauty) flow back and forth between YHWH and the servant as the former pursues his purpose and the latter his commission.

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Isaiah is not so much the herald of unlikely beginnings as he is the prophet of unpromising re-starts.

His signature is not the tale of origins, but rather the anticipation of dead things springing quietly to life. In chapter 11 of the book that bears Isaiah’s name, the prophet assumes the destruction of the Davidic monarchy. Having done so, this compelling oracle goes back to Jesse, the father of David, the shepherdly antecedent to kings and kingdoms. It is as though a fresh start requires a radical retreat to the moment before the long trajectory of Israelite disappointment in its kings had set off upon its tortuous arc.

There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit. And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and might, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide disputes by what his ears hear, but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist, and faithfulness the belt of his loins. (Isaiah 11:1–5 ESV)

This unnamed scion of the house of Jesse emerges from a dead tree, cut down to stump and left to rot amid the leveled forest of kingdoms that did not pan out.

His intimacy with YHWH is breathtaking. In this closest of relationships lies his capacity. Indeed, he is saturated with YHWH’s enabling Spirit, which rests upon him in the way a dense fog takes virtual possession of the valley upon which it descends. In consequence, this new David—if that is how we are to understand this Jesse’s son—is not hobbled by Israel’s eventual blindness and deafness. He sees and listens through appearances, through posturing, through the national hypocrisies which make claims to rightness and inevitability that fool all but the most perceptive watcher.

As a result, justice rather than sham manipulations of the powerless by the powerful takes its life-generating place at the core of the nation’s shared life.

As so often in this long book, we are moved to deep yearning by such lines. And then left to ask in something close to interpretive exasperation …

But who is this … ?

 

 

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The plethora of names in Isaiah 7.1-9 requires a complete reading if we are to make sense of it.

In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzziah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remaliah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but could not yet mount an attack against it.When the house of David was told, ‘Syria is in league with Ephraim,’ the heart of Ahaz and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.

And the Lord said to Isaiah, ‘Go out to meet Ahaz, you and Shear-jashub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Washer’s Field. And say to him, “Be careful, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remaliah. Because Syria, with Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, has devised evil against you, saying, ‘Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Tabeel as king in the midst of it,’ thus says the Lord God: ‘It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass. For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. And within sixty-five years Ephraim will be shattered from being a people. And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is the son of Remaliah. If you are not firm in faith, you will not be firm at all.’”’ (Isaiah 7:1–9 ESV)

The manifest terror of Ahaz and his vulnerable Judahites is captured in the image of hearts shaking ‘as the trees of a forest shake before the wind’. The careful reader might sense in the prophet’s allusion to a wind (רוח) the barest of hints that another ‘wind’ (רוח in Isaiah and elsewhere refers often to YHWH’s ‘spirit’) also blows across Judah amid what can only be experienced as an existential crisis. It is the latter breeze that is capable of effecting the prophet’s bidding to calm down and refuse to panic, even as this divine rustling stands as well behind YHWH’s bold declaration that the machination of Judah’s enemies ‘shall not stand and shall not be’ (v. 7).

Whether such a play on רוח is intended or not, it is worthwhile to listen carefully to YHWH’s defining down of Judah’s conspiring enemies. The detail is one more evidence entered in support of this book’s insistence that things are seldom what they appear to be.

Ephraim and Syria are capable of destroying Judah with their multi-faceted scheme to terrify, to conquer, and set up a puppet king in Jerusalem and Judah. Why else would Judahite hearts shake as leaves before the twin threat of these two neighboring countries’ conspiracy?

Yet from the divine angle of vision—where things are as thunderings seraphim know them to be but as we below seldom do—Ephraim and Syria are merely ‘these two smoldering stumps of firebrands’.

YHWH knows, the prophet would insist, the limits of our enemies as we ourselves cannot. The book’s crisis-saturated insistence that ‘God is with us’ (Emmanuel) makes itself known here via a different grammar: It shall not stand, and it shall not be.

These smoldering stumps, YHWH knows, will soon grow cold, their flame and even their smoke a foggy memory, harmless and pathetic.

Meanwhile Judah, or a remnant of it named after the prophet’s accompanying son, will turn and return. Will live on in YHWH’s presence and by his strength.

The prophet’s summons to a terrified people to ‘be careful, be quiet, do not fear’ is not evasion of awful reality, but rather insight into that which is deeply, genuinely, invisibly real.

 

 

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It would be wrong to say that the structures and patterns of cult and liturgy lack value in the legacy of a biblical prophet like Isaiah. In fact, some of the prophet’s most stirring emphasis of YHWH’s redemption of Israel including the shocking inclusion into worship of people like foreigners and the badly mutilated, who were conventionally excluded.

Yet in the book’s final paragraph YHWH seems entirely unimpressed by, say, a temple constructed for his repose. He could make for himself a thousand of these if the whimsy struck him.

Thus says the Lord: ‘Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.’ (Isaiah 66:1–2 ESV)

Whenever Isaiah assaults religion and its liturgical observance, he does so for one of two reasons. Either the prophet declares ritual performance useless in the absence of an ethic worthy of YHWHS’ people. Or he is by contrast elevating something that is of still greater value than cultic observance, as welcome a thing as the latter might be.

Here Isaiah’s emphasis falls on the second of these motivations.

Limitless and unmeasurable as YHWH is, his acutely focused attention falls on one small detail amid the swirling twin dramas of creation and Israelite nationhood: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.

When one steps back, takes a deep hermeneutical breath, and considers the claim that is made here, it is simply astonishing.

This humble person, this broken spirit, this trembling listener may be found inside Jerusalem’s temple but is at least as likely to lean painfully against a wall, hungry and alone in some distant corner of the city. Whatever is his location, YHWH’s attention bypasses the magnificences of temple and cult to take this small figure into his gaze, needy of a word,  spirit ground down, unimpressive in every way.

Except that YHWH, in divine fascination, can scarcely avert his gaze.

 

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The brilliant tale of Judah’s national resurrection in the Book of Isaiah’s sixtieth chapter is populated with glimpses of the nations’ contribution to Jerusalem’s beautification.

It seems that distant nations streaming to glorified Zion carry with then not only Jerusalem’s long-lost children as these come finally home. As remote peoples ‘come to (Zion’s) light and kings to the brightness of (Zion’s) shining’, they also bring with them the richest product of their culture and economy. They import into the now glorified city the ‘abundance of the sea’ (המון ים) and the ‘wealth of the nations’ (חיל גוים), even the representative ‘glory of Lebanon’ (כבוד הלבנון).

Whatever the ratio of willingness to obligation that we should perceive in the motivation of these pilgrimage-making nations and islands, whose ‘coastlands hope for (YHWH)’, the fact is that the best of who they are and what they produce is crucial to the fantastic beautification of the now joy-filled city of Zion. My own sense is that the nations’ participation is mostly willing and enthusiastic. Zion is become a world city, in fact the world city.

The repurposing of the city’s gates stands out poignantly at the core of the prophet’s depiction.

City gates have a filtering purpose. They are opened up when the forthright defensive purpose of the gates and the city walls whose perimeter they briefly interrupt is not required. Yet the opening of the gates is transparently an interruption of what walls do, an exception to their crucial purpose of defense and exclusion.

As Zion is glorified, defensive need declines almost to the vanishing point. The gates are flung open day and night, for threat (along with darkness and mourning) has disappeared. The gates have been repurposed.

 

Your gates shall be open continually; day and night they shall not be shut, that people may bring to you the wealth of the nations, with their kings led in procession. (Isaiah 60:11 ESV)

As YHWH’s momentary wrath gives way to his restorative mercy upon Judah (v. 10) and the city’s desolation cedes to the murmurs and shouts of happy crowds, the space occupied by gates loses its reason for being. Unless, that is, its artificial barriers are eradicated and the influx of the city’s former despisers—having themselves experienced a repurposing—are waved in with their heavy, glorious cargo.

 

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The dark days before Israel’s destruction by Assyria’s might left few untouched. Even the children.

Then the Lord said to me, ‘Take a large tablet and write on it in common characters, “Belonging to Maher-shalal-hash-baz.” And I will get reliable witnesses, Uriah the priest and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah, to attest for me.

And I went to the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son. Then the Lord said to me, ‘Call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz; for before the boy knows how to cry “My father” or “My mother,” the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away before the king of Assyria. (Isaiah 8:1–4 ESV)

When the prophet affixes this grim moniker to his baby boy, he signals the imminent destruction of Israel’s threatening neighbors. The name means ‘Hasten the booty, speed the spoil!’.

Yet there is no relief in the tale, for this same Assyrian bulldozer will scrape the land clean of Israel’s ten northern tribes, the storied ‘lost tribes of Israel’.

The prophet’s role was no 9-to-5 schtick. It went home with him.

The extremes of the Isaian legacy cannot be underestimated. When the prophet’s burden is grim, it is very, very grim. When it is exuberant, deserts bloom to the sound of it.

In each case, the book taunts the reader out of his complacency, urging him to look beyond the siren of the war-dogs’ baying, prodding her to ask ‘What in YHWH’s name is going on here?’

What is his purpose? The question’s uncomfortable relevance does not expire.

 

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