Sunday, June 13, 2010

Isaiah 8-10: Prophecies of Punishments

Isaiah's fiery sermonizing in these three chapters is very much akin to what we have seen so far in his Book: dire predictions of the doom that awaits Judah at the hands of the Assyrians.

At the beginning of Chapter 8, Isaiah goes to someone called "the prophetess" -- her identity is not further explained -- and she conceived and gave birth to a son. He announces that before the child learns to speak, Israel will be destroyed by the Assyrian Empire as punishment for its centuries of failure to toe the line. So, I was a little fast off the blocks last week with the idea that Isaiah 7:14-15 was a flawed prophecy of the coming of Christ; it turns out that this is a different virgin birth. Apparently they are a little more common than I realized.

Isaiah is a demanding preacher, asking of his listeners two things that are not easily reconciled: to turn to God as their protector and to be in awe of the might and wrath of God as he destroys their society.

13 The LORD Almighty is the one you are to regard as holy,
he is the one you are to fear,
he is the one you are to dread,
14 and he will be a sanctuary;
but for both houses of Israel he will be
a stone that causes men to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.
And for the people of Jerusalem he will be
a trap and a snare.
Or again:
17 I will wait for the LORD,
who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob.
I will put my trust in him.
To put it simply: "God is going to inflict terrible punishments on you; turn to God for comfort and protection." It is a hard message.

Isaiah 9: A Happy Ending! Someday.

Isaiah 9 returns, at first, to a theme we saw earlier where a time of permanent peace and prosperity is promised for unspecified future times. Slaves will be freed and all of the military gear will be destroyed. Why? Here's why:
6 For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Is this a prediction of the coming of Christ? Handel apparently thought so, and nailed one of the great choral settings of all time in the Messiah. Having been burned last week, though, I am a little suspicious about predictions involving infants. It's worth mentioning, as well, that the government was in fact never on the shoulders of the notariously antiauthoritarian Jesus Christ, so except for the self-fulfilling aspects the prophecy does not actually fit the facts. But I suppose I'm getting ahead of the story, here.

In any event, the prophecy of the child to come is only two verses of interlude, after which we return to God's fury at the Israelites:
12 his anger is not turned away,
his hand is still upraised.
13 But the people have not returned to him who struck them,
nor have they sought the LORD Almighty.
19 By the wrath of the LORD Almighty
the land will be scorched
and the people will be fuel for the fire;
no one will spare his brother.
Isaiah 10: Being Assyrian Won't Help

The Assyrians, say God, are the rod of my anger, and as we've discussed his plan is to use their military expansion to show the Israelites what's what. And indeed, they swoop in and crush Israel proper on more or less the timeline anticipated by Isaiah. Judah is a different matter, and staggers along in an increasingly decrepit state for several more generations before it is eventually destroyed.

Does this mean that the Assyrians have found favor in God's eyes? Why no, it does not.
12 When the Lord has finished all his work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he will say, "I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes.
So God's intent, then, is to use the Assyrians and then dispose of them as well, destroying their army with disease and their sacred artwork with fire. When that happens, a tiny remnant of the Israelites will be able to escape from Assyrian slavery and return to their homeland. Isaiah 10:20-34 goes into great detail about the return of the Israelites from captivity, just as we have already seen in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah would happen a few generations after the fall of Judah. It is suggested, although not stated, that this return to the Promised Land is the utopian future promised by passages like the first verses of Isaiah 9. But that clearly can't be right, because you and I live after the end of the Babylonian exile and we are still waiting for our universal peace and prosperity. At least, I think we are.

NEXT: 56 more Chapters of Isaiah! But not all at once!

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