Posts Tagged ‘Isaiah’

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.

Here, the prophetic exclamation decries its perversion. One feels the pathos of memory in these remembering words: she who was full of justice …

That personified city, Zion of old and Zion of heart-felt ideals, has become a whore. An ideal betrayed drips greater pain than the mediocre malaise of an ideal never known.

Jerusalem has suffered a tragic moral collapse, a high-altitude fall into confused depths where self-interest and the sale of righteousness at the market rate have supplanted the concern for the weakest members of the community that was once held sacred. So far are the community’s judicial gatekeepers for caring about the most important things that only poetry can express the profound loss of it: … and the widow’s cause does not come to them.

There can be no hope, it would seem, for such a traitorous, defiled people.

Yet, stunningly, the verses that follow speak of divine armaments deployed against the powerful perpetrators of this collapse—not to exterminate but to purge. It will be an application of ardent justice so that justice—all but extinct within these walls—might live again, to the  joy of the orphan and the widow’s consolation.

Mercy will indeed prove new in the morning. New and restorative of lost things, though fearfully burning until the refining is over.

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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.

This divine fascination in those whom onlookers might consider marginal appears also in the book of Isaiah.

In a chapter that is saturated with Isaianic code words for both exaltation and humiliation, we learn that YHWH makes his residence in paradoxical extremities of his universe:

For thus says the One who is high and lifted up, who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy: ‘I dwell in the high and holy place, and also with him who is of a contrite and lowly spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly, and to revive the heart of the contrite.’ (Isaiah 57:15 ESV)

The earliest translation of the Hebrew Bible finds this choice of lodging scandalous for a high and holy deity like YHWH. The Septuagint translator, tasked with the disquieting task of translating such an audacious Hebrew work of sacred literature into Greek, quietly airbrushes out the shock of it:

This is what the Lord says, the Most High, who dwells forever in lofty places— Holy among the holy ones is his name, the Lord Most High who rests among the holy ones and gives patience to the faint–hearted and gives life to those who are broken of heart. (Isaiah 57:15 NETS)

YHWH’s generous spirit remains intact in this translator’s work, but he certainly shares neither roof nor tear-stained floor with the objects of his charity. The scandal, as sensed by the Septuagint translator, throws a light upon the remarkable insistence in the Hebrew Bible that YHWH dwells with the broken.

Then again, near the end of the long book called Isaiah, we find YHWH’s fascination located once more where we might least expect to glimpse it:

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)

The passage possess a rhetorical structure similar to the other two that I’ve cited. It first introduces something grand that might be presumed to represent the preferred object of the Lord’s attention (sun, moon, high and holy lodgings, Jerusalemite throne and temple), then asserts that he actually cares more for something or someone that we might have considered a marginal detail—even a blemish—upon his creation. In every case, YHWH or his biblical spokesperson reports that the Lord is most fascinated, most drawn to human beings who are humble and/or humiliated.

The glory of the foil—those heavenly lights, that high palace, that immense throne—is not dismissed as anything less than beautiful or impressive. But it plays a distinctly second fiddle to YHWH’s human children in all their broken, lowly, and penitent straits.

What comfort, this, for readers like this one, no strangers we to the crushed spirit, hearts trembling before his word.

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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.

Fasting stands in as proxy for a whole range of religious activity that is here reduced to clumsy posing. Isaiah does not do this out of some animosity towards ritual, far from it. Some of the book’s most soaring promises concern doors swung open to those who have heretofore been excluded from that religious practice that the book does not tremble to call ‘delight’. On the contrary, ritual is affirmed when it structures the cadence of a  communal life that is fueled by attention to what YHWH is up to and oriented by the practice of shaping shared life around the creation and provision of justice.

Fasting that is part and parcel of such living is described like this:

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? (Isaiah 58:6–7 ESV)

The promises that attend to a community that lives in this way are lavish and bold:

Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry, and he will say, ‘Here I am.’ If you take away the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger, and speaking wickedness, if you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday. (Isaiah 58:8–10 ESV)

Yet the prophet’s efforts to describe a future where YHWH and his people cohabitate to the blessing of both does not take up the practice of assigning new names until verses 11 and 12. Here, that instinct for new names serves as a kind of climax to the deeply promissory nature of the chapter:

And the Lord will guide you continually and satisfy your desire in scorched places and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters do not fail. And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to dwell in. (Isaiah 58:11–12 ESV)

Sometimes a name identifies the person who has at one time in the past performed a deed that forever after marks the individual as having peaked or—better—having displayed his true nature in the moment of its performance. ‘That’s the guy who rescued five people from a burning house’, we might say. ‘We call him “the rescuer”.’

At other times, the name makes manifest a habit or an ongoing heroism that becomes the purest distillation of the named person. ‘She’s a one-woman Mercy Ship’, we might say, intending to suggest that her instinct or discipline for merciful acts has not yet reached its end.

It is possible that Isaiah 58.11-12 has something of both in view, though the accent falls on the former. The redeemed and the returnees of Judah will be known forever as the perpetrators of that glorious reestablishment of YHWH’s city in a land that had once been lost to them. Yet, because the Isaianic horizon is open-ended, it is not difficult to imagine the naming of a people whose glorious moment of re-construction will become more than just a well-remembered moment.

They will have become Repairer of the Breach, Restorer of Streets to Dwell In.

Promise becomes destiny, destiny becomes new nature. A people is re-born and grows to full stature, unable to leave a breach alone, unavoidably impatient with crumbling streets, destined both for blessing and to bless.

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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.

Second, the passage’s poetry itself gathers up the surprising element, the unexpectedly generous nature of YHWH’s gathering, that is found throughout Scripture. When YHWH has finished that gathering that might almost be expected of Israel’s ambitously loving deity, there will be still further work to be accomplished and, so, additional wonders to be reported. That is, YHWH will surprise his people yet again with those he rescues and retrieves. The community of the redeemed will be populated with new faces and unfamiliar accents.

One thinks here of that later prophet of Israel, one who to his peril declared himself to be king of YHWH’s kingdom. He, too, had outlandish thoughts about his gathering vocation:

So (Jesus) told them this parable: ‘What man of you, having a hundred sheep, if he has lost one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the open country, and go after the one that is lost, until he finds it? And when he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, “Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.” Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.’ (Luke 15:3–7 ESV)

The Gatherer’s arm is long, his legs sturdy, his purpose more unbounded than we know.

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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.’

Then, the prophet’s acclamation, is rudely interrupted.

… but not in truth or right. (v. 2)

It is so very like the Israelite prophets to insist, with ineluctable insight, that appearances and reality diverge even—perhaps especially—when a people claims to enjoy YHWH’s favor.

Centuries later, the apostle Paul considers himself to stand on solid polemical ground when he issues the otherwise startling claim that …

(I)t is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel,and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring … (Romans 9:6–7 ESV)

Just as an abundance of smoke hints strongly at the presence of fire, so self-confident claims of YHWH’s favor lead the astute observer to wonder what reality is being hidden, by whom, and for what reason.

Still, the most startling feature of Isaiah chapter 48 is that this harsh diagnosis of Israel/Judah is not placed here as a final word of denunciation and dismissal. Rather, the prophet is in diagnostic mode, for YHWH has in spite of his people’s obstinacy the unswerving purpose to bring them healing and a future.

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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 for 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 fetid swamp at sea level is over 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 uses 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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