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The polyvalent perspective of the book called Isaiah with respect to the nations raises its head again in the broad horizon celebrated by the hymn that is the book’s twenty-fifth chapter.

The first five verses appear to present a kind of conversion narrative in connection with ‘strong peoples’ and ‘cities of ruthless nations’ who seem to have been moved to their turning by YHWH’s care for the poor.

O LORD, you are my God; I will exalt you, I will praise your name; for you have done wonderful things, plans formed of old, faithful and sure.

For you have made the city a heap, the fortified city a ruin; the palace of aliens is a city no more, it will never be rebuilt.

Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you.

For you have been a refuge to the poor, a refuge to the needy in their distress, a shelter from the rainstorm and a shade from the heat. When the blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm, the noise of aliens like heat in a dry place, you subdued the heat with the shade of clouds; the song of the ruthless was stilled.

Isaiah 25:1-5 (NRSV, emphasis added)

The text does not leave in doubt the reality of the subjugation of ‘strong peoples’ and ‘ruthless nations’.

Indeed, they find themselves on ‘the mountain of the Lord’ (verse 6, just following) precisely because their city and palace have been leveled. Verse 5’s verbs conclude the first section of this oracle with divine activities that leave no doubt about the matter. YHWH subdued the short-lived heat of the peoples (תכניע) and stilled the song of the ruthless (יענה, rendered by NRSV somewhat lyrically by the passive ‘was stilled’ for the Masoretic Text’s 3ms active deployment of a verb often rendered more prosaically as to humiliate).

Clearly, these peoples are considered to be nations that YHWH has subjugated as the outworking of his ancient purpose (25.1).

Yet is not at all apparent that this outcome is one that the peoples themselves lament. Indeed, verse 3 could be read as the vocabulary of mere conquest, forced upon unwilling victims. But in context, particularly the context provided by the oracle from verse 6 forward, there seems to be yet again an element of willing participation in the deportment of the conquered.

Therefore strong peoples will glorify you; cities of ruthless nations will fear you.

Isaiah 25:3 NRSV)

Verses 6-10 will fill in the picture, if indeed those verses are to be read as a unity with verses 1-5, as appears to me to be the case. Its scattering of ‘all’ across the range of its protagonists insinuates a banquet where all—past historical enemies included—lift their cups together and tuck into the feast with the careless abandon of friends.

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In chapter nine the prophet denounces the pride of Jacob/Israel. In doing so, he affirms two common components of prophetic discourse and inverts another.

The people did not turn to him who struck them, or seek the LORD of hosts.

So the LORD cut off from Israel head and tail, palm branch and reed in one day—elders and dignitaries are the head, and prophets who teach lies are the tail; for those who led this people led them astray, and those who were led by them were left in confusion.

That is why the Lord did not have pity on their young people, or compassion on their orphans and widows; for everyone was godless and an evildoer, and every mouth spoke folly. For all this his anger has not turned away, his hand is stretched out still.

Isaiah 9:13-17 (NRSV, emphasis added)

We look first at the commonalities that are here affirmed. First, the oracle deploys the frequent pattern in which YHWH strikes and heals or perhaps strikes in order to heal. Here this frequent tripe is interrupted but is not aborted. The wider context of the Isaianic Vision will assure us that Jacob/Israel—or a portion of the nation—did posture itself for the healing portion of YHWH’s engagement with his people. Within this oracle, however, we have only a warning that this has not yet occurred.

Second, the aforementioned failure on YHWH’s part to relent is consolidated by what can only be described as a refrain in the early chapters of the book:

For all this his anger has not turned away, his hand is stretched out still.

Isaiah 9:17 (NRSV)

Insofar as these two components of the oracle are concerned, the passage is continuous rather than discontinuous with its surroundings.

However, the content of verse 17 (verse 16 in the Hebrew text) just prior to this refrain slightly modifies and then rather radically inverts a common prophetic concern:

That is why the Lord did not have pity on their young people, or compassion on their orphans and widows; for everyone was godless and an evildoer, and every mouth spoke folly.

Isaiah 9:17 (NRSV)

Isaiah and his prophetic counterparts frequently delineate the most vulnerable victims and therefore the first affected by injustice as the poor, orphans, and widows. Here, the latter two—orphans (יתומים) and widows (אלמנות)—make their customary appearance as those who receive more mercy. ‘The young people’ (בחוריו) stand where one might expect ‘the poor’, yet it must be admitted that they are the object of a different verb (לא ישמח, shall not rejoice over; NRSV follows 1QIsa/a’s לא יחמול, shall not have compassion upon).

The radical inversion, one that occurs with something of a prophetic bite, is that it is not the unjust who will show themselves hard-hearted against the plight of Israel’s young, widows, and orphans. It is YHWH himself, the one exalted in this book precisely for his justice, righteousness, and compassion!

The text provides a justification for its astounding declaration:

…for everyone was godless and an evildoer, and every mouth spoke folly.

Isaiah 9:17 (NRSV)

This is not the only moment in which the Vision of Isaiah presents a ‘strange work’ of YHWH, one to which he appears to have been driven by his people’s exasperating behavior but which does not flow from his nature.

For the LORD will rise up as on Mount Perazim, he will rage as in the valley of Gibeon; to do his deed—strange is his deed! and to work his work—alien is his work!

Now therefore do not scoff, or your bonds will be made stronger; for I have heard a decree of destruction from the Lord GOD of hosts upon the whole land.

Isaiah 28:21-22 (NRSV)

We also read that YHWH is the author of darkness, woe, and calamity (see 31.2, 42.23, 45.7, 50.3, 54.16). Yet the passage under scrutiny is no less jarring for the company of its friends.

YHWH, in the Isaianic vision, goes dark. He becomes unmoved by the plight of the victim, a collaborator in the deeply rooted injustice that is both cause and consequence of Israel’s deaf ears and blind eyes.

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One of the dominant motifs for Israel’s judgement in the book called Isaiah is the felling of the mighty tree that is Jacob/Israel. In fact, this notion occurs in the prophet’s Generative Encounter at Isaiah 6.13. There, restoration is hinted at—arguably—by the final clause, where ‘the holy seed’ and ‘its stump’ appear to refer to a remnant of the people that is eventually to be restored.

Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a terebinth or an oak whose stump remains standing when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.

Isaiah 6:13 (NRSV, quotation marks removed)

The stirring oracle of regeneration that appears in the book’s fourth chapter does something quite similar.

On that day the branch of the LORD shall be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be the pride and glory of the survivors of Israel.

Isaiah 4:2 NRSV)

In a manner that anticipates several restoration motifs in this book, the ‘fruit of the land’ and quite possibly ‘the branch of the Lord … and the fruit of the land’ stand over against ‘the survivors of Israel’. The images are not, by appearances, coequal.

There exists a different interpretation of the syntax and the vocabulary that removes this ambiguity, reflected as early as the Septuagint and as recently as the Jewish Publication Society’s English translation of the Hebrew Bible:

Τῇ δὲ ἡμέρᾳ ἐκείνῃ ἐπιλάμψει ὁ θεὸς ἐν βουλῇ μετὰ δόξης ἐπὶ τῆς γῆς τοῦ ὑψῶσαι καὶ δοξάσαι τὸ καταλειφθὲν τοῦ Ισραηλ…

Isaiah 4:2 (LXX)

But on that day God will gloriously shine on the earth with counsel, to uplift and glorify what remains of Israel.

Isaiah 4:2 (NETS = New English Translation of the Septuagint)

In that day, The radiance of the LORD Will lend beauty and glory, And the splendor of the land [Will give] dignity and majesty, To the survivors of Israel.

Isaiah 4:1 (JPS)

It would probably be inaccurate to render this interpretive tradition as anti-messianic. Rather, it represents a non-messianic reading of a text that jostles uneasily with the Masoretic tradition. Targum Jonathan is an early voice that reads the text messianically in a way that reflects the path taken by most translation of Isaiah into modern languages, including English.

In that time the Messiah of the Lord will be for joy and for glory, and those who perform the Law for pride and for praise to the survivors of Israel.

Isaiah 4:2 (The Aramaic Bible)

For our purposes, it is important to note that the Masoretic presentation of 4.2 envisages a dual presence in the land inhabited by restored Israel, one that perhaps foreshadows the presence of the intensely personified servant over against a restored remnant population in the fourth servant song at 52.13-53.12. In each case, the people are there, alongside another presence that remains enigmatic that is at points a collective and at others a singular entity, yet always profoundly conjoined to the people.

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Isaiah’s Vision of Visions (2.1-5) is shared by the book of Micah in its fourth chapter. It is much disputed whether one borrowed from the other or whether both drew their visionary waters from a common well. In the book called Isaiah, this short glimpse of a prophetically imagined future becomes the deeply driven pillar of the entire adventure. It is Isaiah’s very Vision of Visions.

Both editions, that of Micah and that of Isaiah, speak identically of the nations’ animated conversation as they flow on their riverine course all the way up to recently elevated Zion. A feature of the exchange appears to bear out the wider impression that in Isaiah salvation is from the Jews and for the nations.

I refer to the combination of the verb ירה (to teach) with the preposition מן (conventionally, from) mediating the verb’s relationship with its direct object דרכיו (his ways). Nowhere else in the Hebrew Bible, outside of Micah’s and Isaiah’s shared vision, does this construction appear.

In my view, the preposition is best understood as partitive מן, an established manner of communicating ‘part of’, ‘some of’, or ‘a portion of’. If we apply what we know of the expression to its appearance in Isaiah’s Vision of Visions (and of course Micah’s version of the same), verse two comes to read as follows:

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 some of his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem.

Isaiah 2:3 (NRSV, adapted for partitive מן)

There is nothing in the ebullient eagerness of the nations that suggests a limited appetite for YHWH’s instruction. Rather, the limit seems to apply to their expectation.

In the turned-on-its-head world that the prophet glimpses, aliens stream to lowly Zion now elevated above the vastness of the world’s topography, hungering and thirsting after righteousness as a later prophet might have described them. Yet even they cannot imagine that the God of Jacob might slake their entire thirst, might lay out the full banquet for such unwashed late arrivals.

So, in a reading of the text that appears to me entirely defensible, they hedge their bets.

…that he may teach us some of his ways…

‘Perhaps we’ll be allowed some tasty crumbs’, one almost imagines them to hope.

Little do they know.

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Isaiah 60 must figure in anyone’s list of the most powerfully lyrical of this long book’s offerings. This chapter’s vision of Zion’s restoration is breathtakingly beautiful.

Along the way, it gathers up the components of the book’s multi-faceted view of ‘the nations’ and their destiny and presents a composite—a hopeful reader might dare say coherent—picture that is not reductive and therefore demands patient rather than dismissive reading or radical reconstruction.

In the paragraphs that follow, I attempt to enumerate the pertinent allusions to those nations and to abbreviate the nature of the light that each casts on what I am persuaded is indeed a coherent if complex presentation.

First, restored Zion is brightly lit. By contrast, the nations live in darkness but are drawn (והלכו, shall come).

Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

For darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the LORD will arise upon you, and his glory will appear over you.

Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your dawn.

Isaiah 60:1-3 (NRSV)

Second, the nations exercise important agency in transporting Zion’s sons and daughters back to their maternal city. The nations’ wealth accompanies them to Zion. Their animals (camels, young camels, flocks, rams) perform oddly anthropomorphic deeds: they ‘proclaim the praise of the Lord’ and ‘minister to you’. In spite of their alien provenance in nations near and far, those animals are also rendered acceptable on YHWH’s altar in a way that appears to connect with YHWH’s glorification of his ‘house’.

Lift up your eyes and look around; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from far away, and your daughters shall be carried on their nurses’ arms.

Then you shall see and be radiant; your heart shall thrill and rejoice, because the abundance of the sea shall be brought to you, the wealth of the nations shall come to you.

A multitude of camels shall cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba shall come. They shall bring gold and frankincense, and shall proclaim the praise of the LORD.

All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered to you, the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to you; they shall be acceptable on my altar, and I will glorify my glorious house.

Isaiah 60:4-7 (NRSV)

The long section from verse 8 to verse 16 presents the most mixed picture of the lot. A posture of willing anticipation is likely signaled in the expression ‘the coastlands shall wait for me… to bring…’. Non-Jews are described in their complementary roles of transportation, construction, and urban enrichment. As counterpoise to the aforementioned anticipation, there appears to occur a less than comprehensive embrace of new realities on the part of the nations. For example, ‘kings shall be led in procession’, an image of military conquest by almost any light. Further, ‘the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste’. And then, the ‘descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, all who despised you shall bow at your feet; they shall call you the City of the Lord, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel’.

This last, complex image clearly denotes subjugation. Does it also suggest conversion from one perspective to another that is wholly new and perhaps not the product of sudden persuasion alone? I suspect that it does.

Finally, a maternal-filial metaphor merits particular scrutiny: ‘You shall suck the milk of nations, you shall suck the breasts of kings’. At the risk of pressing the metaphor too rudely, it appears in the light of other quite positive maternal imagery in this book that the nursing mother that is ‘nations’ and ‘kings’ executes her maternal labors with the tenderness and even fulfillment that are so often native to the experience.

The passage in full reads as follows:

Who are these that fly like a cloud, and like doves to their windows?

For the coastlands shall wait for me, the ships of Tarshish first, to bring your children from far away, their silver and gold with them, for the name of the LORD your God, and for the Holy One of Israel, because he has glorified you.

Foreigners shall build up your walls, and their kings shall minister to you; for in my wrath I struck you down, but in my favor I have had mercy on you.

Your gates shall always be open; day and night they shall not be shut, so that nations shall bring you their wealth, with their kings led in procession.

For the nation and kingdom that will not serve you shall perish; those nations shall be utterly laid waste.

The glory of Lebanon shall come to you, the cypress, the plane, and the pine, to beautify the place of my sanctuary; and I will glorify where my feet rest.

The descendants of those who oppressed you shall come bending low to you, and all who despised you shall bow down at your feet; they shall call you the City of the LORD, the Zion of the Holy One of Israel.

Whereas you have been forsaken and hated, with no one passing through, I will make you majestic forever, a joy from age to age.

You shall suck the milk of nations, you shall suck the breasts of kings; and you shall know that I, the LORD, am your Savior and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.

Isaiah 60:8-16 (NRSV)

How is one to assimilate the breadth of expression with regard to nations and kings that is gathered into this single chapter?

An interpretation that is consonant with the wider picture in the Vision of Isaiah of the peoples’ destiny and at the same time accomplishes an attentive reading of chapter sixty would seem to produce the follow conclusion: Zion’s restoration will turn the tables on the historic power relationships that have exalted some nations over Israel/Jacob. Some nations will welcome this revolution. Some will reject it. The preponderance of expression addresses the former group and suggests they will undertake their new role vis-à-vis Zion with some combination of anticipation, fulfillment, and tenderness. This vision is consonant with the Vision of Visions in Isaiah 2.1-5, though its imagery represents an alternative expression of that succinct description of the prophet’s imagined future.

Isaiah 60 is therefore a hopeful declaration for all peoples except those (few?) who will resolutely resist the divine purpose it propounds.

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If in fact the first chapter of the book called Isaiah is a preliminary summons to attentive reading, then the book itself begins at 2:1, as has been argued elsewhere. Further, if chapter 1 is that kind of convocation to well-postured reading, then we should expect attacks throughout the book on a certain kind of piety.

What other conclusion could one derive from this savage debasement of the liturgy of the bloodstained in the book’s first chapter?

Hear the word of the LORD, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!

What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats.  

When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation— I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity.

Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them.

When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.

Isaiah 1:10-15 (NRSV)

Yet even there, the text offers a path to healing of the breach. It involves a conscious and determined turn towards the kind of practical justice that cleans the bloodied hand.

Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.

Isaiah 1:16-17 (NRSV)

In the light of the entire context, this prophetic denunciation is probably not a wholesale rejection of cult in favor of ethics. Indeed, the liturgy briefly sketched here appears not to be formally aberrant. Rather, it is likely the contradictory ethics of its practitioners that is under fire.

The nuance is instructive, not least when we encounter similar deconstruction of liturgy in chapter 58. It is necessary to take the entirety of the chapter’s first twelve verses into account, sarcasm directed at the the people’s apparent piety included.

Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! Announce to my people their rebellion, to the house of Jacob their sins.

Yet day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways, as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness and did not forsake the ordinance of their God; they ask of me righteous judgments, they delight to draw near to God.

‘Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?’ Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day, and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist. Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the LORD?  

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs 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 them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; your vindicator 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 for help, and he will say, Here I am. 

If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil, if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday.

The LORD will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail.

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 live in.

Isaiah 58:1-12 (NRSV)

Just as is true of the discourse of Isaiah 1—representative as it is in my view of the entire Vision of Isaiah—it is possible to read the first installment of this prophetic screed against the liturgy as a dismissal of cult itself and an option for a countervailing ethics that has no place for formal, enacted religion. Tempting as this option is, it is belied by the concluding verses of the oracle.

If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the LORD honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the LORD, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.

Isaiah 58:13-14 (NRSV)

Clearly, the concluding words of this oracle are preoccupied with ‘the sabbath’ (לשבת ,משבת) and ‘my holy day’/’the holy day of the Lord’ (לקדש יהוה ,ביום קדשי). One might argue that Sabbath has been entire reconfigured here in terms of the justice activities of the early part of the oracle. However, the emphasis on ceasing certain activities—‘not going your own way, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs’—makes such a radical assessment unlikely.

Rather, the anti-liturgy jeremiads of chapters 1 and 58 seem to conserve an estimable place for the cult. However, they surround that sacred space with deeply ethical demand that expects of YHWH’s worshippers the same משפת and צדקה that the Vision of Isaiah insists are among the God of Jacob’s most prominent qualities.

Then bring those sacrifices. Then lift this prayerful hands.

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In classical Isaiah criticism, the third section of the book begins with chapter 56. Labeled Trito-Isaiah—the ‘Third Isaiah’—the section is assigned to the period of Persian domination. Chapters 56-66 do in fact seem to have much to say to the circumstances and indeed the disappointment associated with the return of exiles to Jerusalem and the struggle to establish a Jewish Commonwealth in the land they had been forced to abandon two generations earlier.

The argument has much to say for itself, though recent decades have not been kind to overly neat dissection of books like this one. In any case, chapter 56 hurries on to one of the book’s most lyrical exclamatory passages, one that is warmly welcomed by modern and post-modern readers with our appetite for the widest possible embrace. Indeed, foreigners and eunuchs are there welcomed into robust inclusion in the liturgy and the identify of Israel on the basis of their attitude towards YHWH rather than their ancestry or their anatomy.

So strong is the magnetic pull of such an invitation that the reader hops over the chapter’s first two verses as though they had little or nothing to add up front. Yet have something they do.

Verses 1-2 embody the delicate sequence that one might call ethics before theophany.

Thus says the LORD: Maintain justice, and do what is right, for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.  

Happy is the mortal who does this, the one who holds it fast, who keeps the sabbath, not profaning it, and refrains from doing any evil.

Isaiah 56:1-2 (NRSV, emphasis added)

The sequence that exhorts believers to act now in a certain way because the deity will soon act in a corresponding manner is part and parcel of biblical ethics. The most familiar prayer to be found on Christian lips turns it into words addressed to God himself:

Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Matthew 6:10 (NRSV)

Although the verse cited refers explicitly only to divine activity, the context of the prayer—with its reference to human need and the very this-worldly matter of forgiving others the offenses they have committed against us—alludes to the matter of human behavior in a world where God’s rule has not yet been completely established.

In this light, Isaiah 56.1-2 hardly make a unique contribution to the matter under discussion. But their voice does make itself heard, particularly in the book’s third section in which qualities like משפט (justice) and צדקה (NRSV, what is right) that are typically representative of divine action become exhortations toward appropriate human behavior.

This little oracle is not complex. It offers a straight-forward explanatory clause that clarifies why משפט and צדקה are commanded:

…for soon my salvation will come, and my deliverance be revealed.

כי־קרובה ישועתי לבוא וצדקתי להגלות

NRSV’s rendering of צדקה as ‘what is right’ in the first line of 56.1 when it refers to human conduct and as ‘my deliverance’ in the second line when it is YHWH’s work parallel to his ‘salvation’ exemplifies the difficulty faced by the translators when appropriate human and divine activity are represented by the same word. Arguably, the NRSV translators might have been better served—and we with them—if they had allowed the continuity to remain clear in English. The ESV manages to accomplish this without undue rigidity:

Thus says the LORD: ‘Keep justice, and do righteousness, for soon my salvation will come, and my righteousness be revealed.’

Isaiah 56:1 (ESV, emphasis added)

In any case, Israel is here exhorted to do work like YHWH’s work because he will soon be doing it undeniably on his own. The expansive embrace of the ensuing verses should no doubt be read in the spirit of this divine-human collaboration.

‘Do this now’, runs the prophetic summons to ethics in a critical moment, ‘because YHWH will soon be upon us, and it’s what he’ll be up to when he comes’.

Ethics before theophany.

Righteousness now as one can. A greater righteousness soon.

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The splendid redemption oracle that is the book’s fifty-second chapter begins with a series of imperatives to Zion/Jerusalem. Together form a comprehensive picture of her erstwhile degradation as well as of a glorious new identity. They restore agency to the downtrodden personified city. Zion becomes an actor rather than merely acted upon.

Awake, awake, put on your strength, O Zion! Put on your beautiful garments, O Jerusalem, the holy city; for the uncircumcised and the unclean shall enter you no more.

Shake yourself from the dust, rise up, O captive Jerusalem; loose the bonds from your neck, O captive daughter Zion!

Isaiah 52:1-2 (NRSV)

The exhortation’s rhetoric is worthy of careful attention.

First, it initiates with the double-cognate-imperative that is a signature of the book’s second half from the moment it announces itself in the very first words of Isaiah 40.1:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

נחמו נחמו עמי, יאמר אלהיכם

Isaiah 40.1 (NRSV)

Then the passage draws the reader’s intention to its intensely vocative address to the recipient of its imperatives:

O Zion … O Jerusalem, the holy city … O captive Jerusalem … O captive daughter Zion!

ציון … ירושלים עיר הקדש … שבי ירושלם … שביה בת ציון

Arguably, however, the most striking feature of summons is the manner in which it returns agency to the community of the exiles in the figure of the personified city. There is no mention of anyone doing anything for her. Rather, she is exhorted to rouse herself in a way that embodies a new reality, indeed a new identity. The imperatives, six of them if double imperatives are counted as one, flow as follows:

Awake, awake! עורי עורי

Put on your strength! לבשי עזך

Put on your beautiful garments! לבשי בגדי תפארתך

Shake yourself from the dust! התנערי מעפר

Rise up! קומי

Loose the bonds from your neck! התפתחי מוסרי צוארך

Zion is addressed as able, as capable, as possessing the resources utterly to change her lot.

Where she has lain sleeping, she is urged to wake up. Where she has been weak, she is summoned to strength. Where she has been disheveled and unkempt, she is is ordered to put on the garments of her glory. Where she has crouched in the dust, she is commanded to shake herself clean. Where she has crouched passively, the imperative is to rise up. Where she has been enchained, she herself—as though her captors were no more—now removes the iron restraints from about her own neck.

The Vision of Isaiah will eventually assign to Zion a series of new and empowering names. In the light of this astonishing oracle, they seem almost an afterthought. Zion is here summoned to become already what those new names will signify.

The city hitherto acted upon with barbaric cruelty becomes in the prophetic imagination the actor. Even YHWH stands aside, as it were, before the stunning protagonist of a new reality impregnated with strength, dignity, beauty, and freedom.

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The book called Isaiah describes and eventually presumes a trajectory of divine purpose that provides considerable context for important moments of the tale it tells. The reliability of its restoration promises to Israel/Jacob hinges upon the integrity of this divine intentionality as it is announced and executed in its various stages.

Simply put, if YHWH’s purpose has been reliable when its primary focus was dealing with Israel’s misconduct, then dispirited exiles can be called upon to trust its reliability when it forecasts a bright and imminent new dawn. In the light of long traditions of reading the book that receive it as an unrooted bundle of predictions, one uses the word ‘forecasts’ cautiously. Yet the book itself is less wary than this.

Although Isaiah 48.1-5 serves in great measure as the antechamber to that bright dawn, these verses bear inspection on their own terms.

Hear this, O house of Jacob, who are called by the name of Israel, and who came forth from the loins of Judah; who swear by the name of the LORD, and invoke the God of Israel, but not in truth or right.

For they call themselves after the holy city, and lean on the God of Israel; the LORD of hosts is his name.  

The former things I declared long ago, they went out from my mouth and I made them known; then suddenly I did them and they came to pass.

 Because I know that you are obstinate, and your neck is an iron sinew and your forehead brass,

 I declared them to you from long ago, before they came to pass I announced them to you, so that you would not say, ‘My idol did them, my carved image and my cast image commanded them.’

Isaiah 48:1-5 (NRSV)

In a context of superficial—though perhaps deeply felt—identification with YHWH and ‘the holy city’, the prophet makes clear that Jacob’s conduct has not proceeded ‘in truth or right’. It is critical to understand that the oracle is part of a summons embrace YHWH’s new dawn, but as an introduction to that summons it casts a retrospective glance. This is precisely because the prophetic burden must establish that YHWH has always done what he has said he will do. There is a kind of theodicy at work here, no longer for the primary sake of establishing the rightness of YHWH’s judgement but rather in order to present a case for the fidelity between YHWH’s word and YHWH’s deed. The sequence of the two, one might say, has been entirely trustworthy.

The former things, italicized above and just here, must refer to YHWH’s warnings ‘through his prophets’ and to the eventual reality of the exiling storm that broke upon Judah. That calamity did not come without warning. Then suddenly these things became deed rather than word. פתאם (here, suddenly) occurs four times in Isaiah, each time with reference to large-scale disaster of which YHWH claims authorship. The point in our present instance seems to be that after long warning, the circumstances of Judah’s destruction crashed suddenly upon her walls.

At the end of the passage, the prophet has YHWH explain that this word-deed, warning-execution sequence served a specifically anti-idolatry motive. YHWH was describing his sovereignty over times and peoples so that it might not be attributed to other agents.

These are ‘the first things’ over which YHWH claims unalloyed sway. In a moment, the text will claim for him similar sovereignty over new and better things that lie just over the near horizon. That claim, the discourse asserts, will be every bit as reliable as its early compeers.

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Isaiah’s anti-idolatry polemic takes a decisive turn in the book’s forty-fourth chapter, which open with a summons to ‘Jacob my servant, Israel whom I have chosen’. The first eight verses outline the incomparability of YHWH vis-à-vis other powers, with the emphasis placed upon YHWH’s reliability if his servant Jacob/Israel will only trust him. The principal motivation for such confidence in YHWH rests upon his ability to know the future and to bring it to fruition in the life of those who dare to trust him.

At verse 9, however, the anti-idolatry and anti-idolater rhetoric becomes considerably more pointed. The opening salvo, directed against idol-makers, is clear enough:

All who make idols are nothing…

Isaiah 44:9 (NRSV)

More easily lost in translation or by a too accelerated reading is the insistent negation that occurs in the ensuing diatribe, structured around the Hebrew negative particles אין ,לבלתי , בל and לא. This negation is consistent with the Isaianic demand that idols—to say nothing of their artisans—are nothing. One must read beneath the quite exquisite satire in order to capture the formal contribution that undergirds it. I will attempt to clarify the point by illustrate and annotation:

All who make idols are nothing, and the things they delight in do not profit (בל־יועילו); their witnesses neither see nor know (בל־יראו ובלּידעו). And so they will be put to shame. Who would fashion a god or cast an image that can do no good (לבלתי הועיל)? Look, all its devotees shall be put to shame; the artisans too are merely human. Let them all assemble, let them stand up; they shall be terrified, they shall all be put to shame.

The ironsmith fashions it and works it over the coals, shaping it with hammers, and forging it with his strong arm; he becomes hungry and his strength fails (lit. ‘and there is no strength’), he drinks no water (ואין כח לא־שׁתה) and is faint. The carpenter stretches a line, marks it out with a stylus, fashions it with planes, and marks it with a compass; he makes it in human form, with human beauty, to be set up in a shrine. He cuts down cedars or chooses a holm tree or an oak and lets it grow strong among the trees of the forest. He plants a cedar and the rain nourishes it. Then it can be used as fuel. Part of it he takes and warms himself; he kindles a fire and bakes bread. Then he makes a god and worships it, makes it a carved image and bows down before it. Half of it he burns in the fire; over this half he roasts meat, eats it and is satisfied. He also warms himself and says, ‘Ah, I am warm, I can feel the fire!’ The rest of it he makes into a god, his idol, bows down to it and worships it; he prays to it and says, ‘Save me, for you are my god!’

They do not know, nor do they comprehend (לא ידעו ולא יבינו); for their eyes are shut, so that they cannot see, and their minds as well, so that they cannot understand. No one considers, nor is there knowledge or discernment (ולא ישיב אל־לבו ולא דעת ולא־תבונה) to say, ‘Half of it I burned in the fire; I also baked bread on its coals, I roasted meat and have eaten. Now shall I make the rest of it an abomination? Shall I fall down before a block of wood?’ He feeds on ashes; a deluded mind has led him astray, and he cannot save himself or say (ולא־יציל את נפשו ולא יאמר), ‘Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud?’

Isaiah 44:9-20 (NRSV)

An incisive if low-profile irony may lie in the the question the idolator does not manage to ask, anchored as it is by the negative introducer הלא:

Is not this thing in my right hand a fraud? (הלא שקר בימיני)

Isaiah 44.20c

The artistry of the prophet, upon scrutiny, is part and parcel of the anti-idolatry component of the Vision of Isaiah. Here is strong, dismantling rhetoric, insisting that idols are inert, useless, the complete disappointment of the idolater’s pretension.

It will be complemented in the passage just following by an equally persistent cataloguing of YHWH’s disparate activities. Idols do nothing. YHWH never quite stops doing. Isaianic and indeed wider biblical monotheism is seldom rehearsed via the assertion that other gods and powers do not exist. Rather, its native dialect is YHWH’s incomparability. Here, YHWH is quite busy. The idols, nothwithstanding the earnest activism of their makers and devotees, just stand around doing nothing. Indeed, you’ve got to prop them up to stop them tipping over where the children play.

Before hope’s profile arises afresh in the following verses and in celebration of YHWH’s redemptively active nature, the prophet allows us to glimpse the terrible contagion of nothingness that flows from idol to idolater, justifying the profoundly ironic conclusion that stands paradoxically at the head of this passage:

All who make idols are nothing…

Isaiah 44:9 (NRSV)

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