Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah’

One of the many paradoxes that the book called Isaiah places before us lies almost hidden in the binary choice that the prophet declares in the book’s eight chapter.

And when they say to you, ‘Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,’ should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. (Isaiah 8:19–20 ESV)

It might seem, even to a reader who is committed to the view of things that the biblical text advances, that the choice here is that of living, breathing, even activist religion over against a reliable deposit. That is, between a religiosity that is brewing with live mischief although patently opposed to YHWH’s way over against an orthodox faith that is solid, if a little inert.

It might seem to others, perhaps less inclined to look with favor on ‘what the Bible teaches’, that the most advantageous choice is not exactly an easy one to discern.

Yet the prophet’s language here, upon slow reading and closer inspection, shows that the field of play is not quite so ambiguous. The choice, when things are seen as they are, is not a difficult one to decide.

Here is paradox, indeed, but not much ambiguity.

In fact, the prophet fills the left column of his legal pad with all things deathly, the right with all things alive.

The chirping and muttering of the necromancers, the presumed rumination of the mediums, are for all their apparent vocal dexterity nothing more than death dressed up in the ‘got-your-attention-didn’t-I’ robes of death itself. Isaiah considers the consultation of them a sit-down visit with darkness and decay. People who engage in such doomed conversation ‘have no dawn’.

On the other side of the page, the ‘life’ column fills up with ‘God’, with ‘the living’ themselves, and then—this is where we might stray off course when tracking the prophet’s logic—with ‘the law and the testimony’ and with ‘this word’.

Let’s suppose for the moment that ‘the law and the testimony’ and ‘this word’ roughly abbreviate the accumulated declarations of the prophet in YHWH’s name. More than this is likely insinuated, but we can do without that complication for now.

The prophet aligns these written-down words not with stultifying tradition or a ‘dead letter’, but rather with a God who is very much alive and—the detail is critical—aligned with and active among ‘the living’ who surround the prophet and who are in this terrifying moment scared a little witless.

In the prophet’s view, YHWH has spoken—through him and others—an accumulated deposit of reality that can be declared in street or temple but in awful moments of imminent doom like this one can be written down, consulted, whispered aloud, and treasured.

Far from being inert, we are to understand this ‘law (better, ‘instruction’) and testimony’ as life-containing and life-giving. If other sources of supposed counsel require the dead and lead only to death, this ‘instruction and testimony’ hints at new growth, at fresh eruptions of life, at possibilities still unknown. Though quiet and even silent in this moment, this little reservoir of truth holds the promise of shouting, of dance, of song when the night has faltered and the dawn has come.

If this is how things really are, then why should a people consult the dead on behalf of the living?

Just so.




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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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