Sunday, June 06, 2010

Isaiah 5 – 7: Prophecies and Problems

Isaiah 5: Wine and Woe

Isaiah 5 begins with the “Song of the Vineyard,” which starts out nicely as a poem about how My loved one had a vineyard on a fertile hillside (1) and how he put a lot of work into the planting and the farm buildings and such. But the grapes turn out sour, so of course he destroys the farm and its buildings and renders it a wasteland where nothing can grow. This is not a variation on the “sour grapes” fable, but rather an analogy. Isaiah spells it out: the vineyard is Judah, and because the Israelites have turned out so badly, God is going to tear down his farm.

The remainder of the chapter is an extensive list of people to whom woe will come. These include:

  • Partiers -- Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine (11)

  • Skeptics -- to those who who say “Let God hurry, let him hasten his work so we may see it….” (19)

  • Barflies and Bartenders -- Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine and champions at mixing drinks… (22)

  • Perjurers -- who acquit the guilty for a bribe, but deny justice to the innocent.” (23)

  • Wiseasses -- Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes and clever in their own sight. (21)
I’m a little nervous about that last one.

There is also a strong note of hostility to the wealthy in Isaiah. The list of ne’er-do-wells begins, in fact, with
Woe to you who add house to house and join field to field till no space is left and you live alone in the land.
The Lord Almighty has declared in my hearing: “Surely the great houses will become desolate,
the fine mansions left without occupants.”
So if you had been inclined to dismiss Isaiah’s prophecies, keep in mind that not only did Judah in fact fall to foreign nations (as he predicts in 5:26-30), but he even seems to have anticipated the current crisis in the luxury housing market.

Isaiah 6: Whence Isaiah?

The Book of Isaiah didn't really have an introduction; it just began with Isaiah laying down some prophecy and woe. In Isaiah 6 we back up a little, and Isaiah tells us how he got his job. Apparently a few years back, he had a powerful vision of God and an entourage in the temple. During this experience, an angel – well, a “seraph” – put a hot coal in his mouth, and told him that this atoned for his sins. Then God charged him with the following mission:

9 He said, "Go and tell this people:
" 'Be ever hearing, but never understanding;
be ever seeing, but never perceiving.'
10 Make the heart of this people calloused;
make their ears dull
and close their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts,
and turn and be healed."
He is supposed to do this until Judah and Israel are destroyed, at which point a better Israel will emerge from the metaphorical or literal ashes of the first.

Now, I understand the idea here. God has a long-term plan that needs to be carried out, and things need to happen according to plan so that all will turn out for the best, or at least the way God wants it to turn out. The interesting thing, though, is that to judge from the preceding five chapters, Isaiah is doing the exact opposite of what God told him to do. He’s actually warning the people, trying to get them to mend their ways! He wants them to perceive and understand! So, I’m either missing the joke or God and Isaiah are not working from the same playbook. Indeed, Isaiah’s actions taken at face value suggest that he’s trying to protect Israel from God. That’s some serious hubris!

Isaiah 7: Two Prophesies About Israel

Isaiah has often predicted that Judah would eventually be swallowed up by its larger neighbors, which is in fact what happened. In Chapter 7, Judah is threatened by two an alliance of Aram and Ephraim, and the king – Ahaz, at this point – is pretty nervous about the situation. Isaiah goes to him and tells him that God says not to worry, Aram and Ephraim are small potatoes. It’s Egypt and Assyria that Judah needs to be concerned about; they will eventually crush Judah, but not quite yet. (It’s worth mentioning here that the growing power of Egypt and Assyria, and the likelihood of eventual annexation, must have pretty obvious to any local leader in the eastern Mediterranean in the time of Isaiah. Not to knock his gift for prophecy or anything.) He also predicts that the agricultural land of the Israelites will eventually become uncultivated wilderness. (This is in part true, and a far less obvious outcome at the time.)

Isaiah gets annoyed at Ahaz over what seems like a minor point of order, and in what seems like frustration issues another, stranger prophesy:
the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. 15 He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. 16 But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.
Huh! That is very interesting in two ways to a guy from a Christian background. First, it is highly interesting that we seem to have stumbled rather randomly on an explicit prediction of the coming of Jesus Christ. Secondly, it’s not a very good prediction of the coming of Jesus Christ. The timing is way off. Jesus won’t arrive until far too late to be a sign to Ahaz, or for that matter until centuries after the Assyrians haul the Israelites into Babylonian exile.

So, does Isaiah’s prophecy establish a direct link between Old and New Testament? Or – if we are to be strict and literal – does Isaiah’s prophecy necessarily require for its fulfillment a virgin birth sometime in the decade or so directly preceding the fall of Judah and the Babylonian exile? Mysteries!

NEXT: More similar mysteries, it looks like.

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