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Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah’

If there is a passage in the entirety of Isaiah’s massive volume that more precisely captures the book’s trajectory than does its fourth chapter, it is hard to imagine what that passage would be.

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. 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 4:2–6 ESV)

The brief oracle reckons with Zion’s filth and Jerusalem’s bloodstains without allowing this scrutiny to eclipse the beauty and glory that shall be hers.

The key to understanding how this paradox can stand occurs at the core of this brief prophetic declaration. Rarely does a future perfect deliver itself of more consequence:

… 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.

This is where the drama of collapse and rebirth becomes white hot. YHWH’s great expectations for his people are a future upon which he will insist with the most redemptive zeal. Yet Zion will not achieve her final destiny without the burning cleansing that is YHWH’s judgement. There’s no other way to get there from here.

The Hebrew משפט requires in each instance that the English translator choose ‘justice’ or ‘judgement’. The nuance is important each time the decision has to be made, and to some extend this linguistic necessity veils a most crucial fact: Zion will become full of justice only when she has survived the fulness of judgement.

For the student of this massive scroll, it can almost be said that chapter four says everything that must be said. The rest is commentary.

 

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The early verses of Isaiah’s fiftieth chapter are pregnant with enigma and resistant to simple theodicy.

Thus says the Lord: ‘Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce, with which I sent her away? Or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you? Behold, for your iniquities you were sold, and for your transgressions your mother was sent away. Why, when I came, was there no man; why, when I called, was there no one to answer? Is my hand shortened, that it cannot redeem? Or have I no power to deliver? Behold, by my rebuke I dry up the sea, I make the rivers a desert; their fish stink for lack of water and die of thirst. I clothe the heavens with blackness and make sackcloth their covering.’ (Isaiah 50:1–3 ESV)

On the one hand, the passage contains elements of that familiar prophetic explanation of national calamity. ‘It was for your iniquities that you were sold, and for your transgressions that your mother was sent away.’ (more…)

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Even if one did not know that the discourse of Isaiah will pivot repeatedly on the Hebrew word אמן—used of faithfulness, reliability, truthful sturdiness, and belief—the italicized exclamation that follows might hint at the direction to come.

How the faithful (נאמן) city has become a whore, she who was full of justice!

Righteousness lodged in her, but now murderers. Your silver has become dross, your best wine mixed with water. Your princes are rebels and companions of thieves. Everyone loves a bribe and runs after gifts. They do not bring justice to the fatherless, and the widow’s cause does not come to them. (Isaiah 1:21–23 ESV)

The book’s prefatory first chapter, after all, serves like a thematically dense prelude to a theatrical work, much as a pit orchestra might touch on all the themes soon to be broached by the actors on the stage. It soberly teases the reader with topics that will shape the core of the book’s sustained argument. Nothing lies nearer to that core’s core than justice. (more…)

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The famous rhetorical question of the eighth Psalm is widely mis-gauged:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? (Psalms 8:3–4 ESV)

The assumption behind the question is too often thought to be that human beings are too measly and pathetic to warrant such divine attention. In fact, the context suggests just the opposite: there is some intrinsic glory—albeit a veiled glory—in human beings that holds YHWH’s gaze:

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You have given him dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen, and also the beasts of the field, the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea, whatever passes along the paths of the seas (Psalms 8:5–8 ESV)

Next to the massive dimensions of the moon and the stars, humans are manifestly small creatures. One might not expect YHWH to find them fascinating and worthy of his care. Yet in spite of their humble bearing, we read that YHWH is mindful of them, cares for them, indeed has exalted them over the rest of creation. (more…)

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The Isaianiac rhetoric is fond of naming names. People and places are with abandon given new names that raise hopes, channel energies, and uncover unseen dignity.

En route to the magnificent promises of its eleventh and twelfth verses, Isaiah’s 58th chapter bites fiercely into the travesty that is mere religious ritual with no passion for justice at its core. (more…)

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In Isaiah 56, YHWH comes as close as Hebrew grammar allows to naming himself with a new name.

The Lord God, who gathers the outcasts of Israel, declares, ‘I will gather yet others to him besides those already gathered.’ (Isaiah 56:8 ESV)

Indeed, one could almost read the preface to YHWH’s declaration as …

YHWH, the Gatherer of the outcasts of Israel, declares …

Two things stand out. First, on my reading, this gathering impulse is not reported as one registers an event that happened once and may or may not recur. Rather, it seems that the syntax presents this gathering of Israel’s wandering daughters and sons as nearly intrinsic to YHWH’s persona. He not only gathers them. He is their Gatherer. Time and again. (more…)

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History, genealogy, and confession can all be faked.

On its way to a profoundly moving promise of ‘new things’ that will be both redemptive and easy to welcome, the 48th chapter of the book of Isaiah digs deep into Israel/Judah’s pretension. We see here the logic of ‘refining’ this people ‘in the furnace of affliction’, for from Isaiah’s perspective only a humble nation can receive YHWH’s future. And Israel will not be humble until she has been humbled.

Hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and who came from the waters of Judah, who swear by the name of the Lord and confess the God of Israel, but not in truth or right. For they call themselves after the holy city, and stay themselves on the God of Israel; the Lord of hosts is his name. (Isaiah 48:1–2 ESV)

The passage begins as though bent on heroic declaration. Jacob’s historical identity leads the nation to bask in the name ‘Israel’. And we are probably to imagine the very genealogical datum of procreation when we learn that Jacob has come ‘from the waters of Judah’. All this legacy is then complemented by the present-day activities of ‘swear(ing) by the name of YHWH and confess(ing) the God of Israel.’ (more…)

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