Saturday, June 26, 2010

Isaiah 17-24: Bad News for [Your Kingdom Here]!!

Isaiah 17

Predictions -- an "oracle," actually, although that word seems oddly Greek-mythological to be popping up here -- of the doom of Damascus. Chockablock with vague details and metaphors.

Isaiah 18

Apparently, threats of agricultural failure to the people along the rivers of Cush,

which sends envoys by sea
in papyrus boats over the water.
Go, swift messengers,
to a people tall and smooth-skinned,
to a people feared far and wide,
an aggressive nation of strange speech,
whose land is divided by rivers.
Isaiah 19

Predictions of civil war and external conquest of Egypt, in which all classes of society will suffer. In that day the Egyptians will be like women (10), which is to say fearful and cringing. Shortly after this, the Egyptians will convert to worship of God, and God will respond by striking them with a plague and then healing them (He works, I have been told, in mysterious ways). Egypt, Assyria, and Israel will all live in peace, all worshiping together.

Isaiah 20

In the shorter term future, Assyria will lay a beating on Egypt and Cush and lead their captives away with buttocks bared. This particular prophecy, incidentally, was made during a period when Isaiah, the great Old Testament prophet, was going around naked because God had told him to (2). Does this enhance his credibility? You make the call!

Isaiah 21

Mostly rambling and, frankly, not-especially-coherent prophecies of colorful bad doings in Babylon, Edom, and Arabia. It ends, however, with a highly specific prophecy that Kedar will be destroyed as a major power within one year. Hmm. I don't know whether that one came true or not. I'm pretty sure Kedar isn't a major power now.

Isaiah 22

Another prophecy packed with strange and vague analogies and details, but the upshot is that Jerusalem will be doomed because of a combination of poor leadership, outdated defenses, and of course the wrath of God. God, in this prophecy, is disappointed by the lack of a proper mood of despair in the populace, and has formulated the city's downfall accordingly.
12 The Lord, the LORD Almighty,
called you on that day
to weep and to wail,
to tear out your hair and put on sackcloth.
13 But see, there is joy and revelry,
slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep,
eating of meat and drinking of wine!
"Let us eat and drink," you say,
"for tomorrow we die!"
Isaiah 23

God will crush the prosperous merchant town of Tyre to punish pride. After seventy years go by, though, she will return to her hire as prostitute (17) -- the general vibe in the Old Testament is never exactly pro-business -- except from then on all of the profits will be set aside for God and his followers.

Isaiah 24

OK, no doubt you are comfortably pitying those hapless MiddleEasterners of millenia back whom these prophecies all seem to menace. But don't get too comfortable.
1 See, the LORD is going to lay waste the earth
and devastate it;
he will ruin its face
and scatter its inhabitants-
2 it will be the same
for priest as for people,
for master as for servant,
for mistress as for maid,
for seller as for buyer,
for borrower as for lender,
for debtor as for creditor.
3 The earth will be completely laid waste
and totally plundered.
The LORD has spoken this word.
Details follow, but "completely laid waste" pretty much covers it.
17 Terror and pit and snare await you,
O people of the earth.
18 Whoever flees at the sound of terror
will fall into a pit;
whoever climbs out of the pit
will be caught in a snare.
The floodgates of the heavens are opened,
the foundations of the earth shake.
And as this happens,
23 The moon will be abashed, the sun ashamed;
for the LORD Almighty will reign
on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem,
and before its elders, gloriously.
Although who will be left to reign over and whether anyone will be around to appreciate all the glory is and open question.

Whether Isaiah was wearing any clothes while making this particular prophecy is not specified.

Next: I don't know, but I'm guessing that doom is involved.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Isaiah 11-16: There Goes the Neighborhood

Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom.  It's pretty unlikely that Hicks, a Quaker, would have bought into the more bellicose aspects of today's section of Isaiah, but this painting certainly epitomizes the whole 'wolf will live with the lamb' business.
Isaiah 11-12 offer more of what is I guess the roots of the messianic tradition in Judaism and Christianity. It begins by saying, famously I think, that "a shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse," and describes a figure of great wisdom who shall usher in an era of peace and glory, striking the earth with the rod of his mouth and slaying the wicked with the breath of his lips (11:4). Under this guy's leadership, everyone will get along; the wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat (11:6), and the cow will feed with the bear. (11:7) All of the rivalries within the Israelite kingdoms will vanish, and everyone will live together in peace.

Well, everyone who's anyone, that is. While the Israelites are enjoying their love-fest,
14 They will swoop down on the slopes of Philistia to the west;
together they will plunder the people to the east.
They will lay hands on Edom and Moab,
and the Ammonites will be subject to them.
So it's not really a vision of universal peace so much as one of God trying for the umpteenth time to get his chosen people to get their ducks in a row and to lay off of the Azeroth worship. Isaiah 12 is basically a suggested song of thanks and praise, ready for use when the big day comes.

Bad News for the Neighbors

Throughout the first dozen chapters of Isaiah we've seen a real duality of predictions concerning Israel. In some cases, Isaiah is predicting some serious suffering for the Israelites, in other cases he's predicting an eventual, if possibly rather far off, happy ending.

Beginning with Chapter 13, Isaiah turns his attention from the Israelites themselves to their neighbors and enemies. In these cases, the predictions are pretty much always grim, grim, grim. The twenty-two verses of Chapter 13 itself spell out the future for Babylon, and man, it doesn't look good.
9 See, the day of the LORD is coming
—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—
to make the land desolate
and destroy the sinners within it.

15 Whoever is captured will be thrust through;
all who are caught will fall by the sword.
16 Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes;
their houses will be looted and their wives ravished.

19 Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms,
the glory of the Babylonians' pride,
will be overthrown by God
like Sodom and Gomorrah.
20 She will never be inhabited
or lived in through all generations;
no Arab will pitch his tent there,
no shepherd will rest his flocks there.
21 But desert creatures will lie there,
jackals will fill her houses;
there the owls will dwell,
and there the wild goats will leap about.
22 Hyenas will howl in her strongholds,
jackals in her luxurious palaces.
Her time is at hand,
and her days will not be prolonged.
All of this is to be regarded as a good thing. In Isaiah 14, Verses 4 through 23 are -- explicitly -- as a long and, it must be said, rather smug taunt to be hurled at the King of Babylon when all of the dire events list above transpire. No, really. Look it up if you don't believe me. (The Bible has all sorts of weird stuff in it. How could I ever have come up with something like that?)

The rest of Chapter 14 is a prophecy of doom for Assyria...
I will crush the Assyrian in my land;
on my mountains I will trample him down.
His yoke will be taken from my people,
and his burden removed from their shoulders.
...followed by a prophecy of doom against the Phillistines...
Wail, O gate! Howl, O city!
Melt away, all you Philistines!
A cloud of smoke comes from the north,
and there is not a straggler in its ranks.
And Isaiah 15 & 16 are prophecies of doom against Moab....
1 An oracle concerning Moab:
Ar in Moab is ruined,
destroyed in a night!
Kir in Moab is ruined,
destroyed in a night!
2 Dibon goes up to its temple,
to its high places to weep;
Moab wails over Nebo and Medeba.
Every head is shaved
and every beard cut off.
3 In the streets they wear sackcloth;
on the roofs and in the public squares
they all wail,
prostrate with weeping.

5 My heart cries out over Moab;
her fugitives flee as far as Zoar,
as far as Eglath Shelishiyah.
They go up the way to Luhith,
weeping as they go;
on the road to Horonaim
they lament their destruction.
...and I note, looking ahead, that other kingdoms are lined up for prophecies of doom as the reading continues.

Biblical Prophecies in Long-Term Perspective

It's tough not to read these ancient prophecies of the future of the Middle East and not think about contemporary events in the region. And as you can see from the magazines at your supermarket's check-out line, any can can mangle the prophecies and the events together in such a way that, say, Isaiah 13 must be about the 2002 U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Well. I strongly recommend against getting too excited about this kind of interpretation. For one thing, the details don't line up with known historical events in anything but the most tenuous fashion, and that seems important when you are evaluating prophecy. Secondly, there is every appearance that Isaiah himself was expecting all that he predicted to happen pretty much right away -- indeed, he specifies that the fall of the Moabites will happen within three years of his vision (16:14), not 3000 years.

But let's say you want to grant Isaiah a great deal of poetic licence about the details of his prophecies, and suppose too that he simply didn't understand the depth of time involved in the visions that God sent him. In that case, the problem is just that in any place that is continuously inhabited for thousands of years, there will be some dark days and some golden years. Sure, Babylon fell. It has fallen lots of times, up to and including the suffering of today's Baghdad. Every very old city has fallen from time to time. Take "Babylon" out of the prophecy and replace it with "Paris" or "Rome" or "Japan" or "Cuba," and Isaiah's vision works just as well.

In other words, if your prophecies survive long enough, it's easy to be a successful prophet. I, Michael5000, predict that the city that you are currently living in will be struck by great sorrow and destruction sometime in the next 3000 years. And I'm right! I double-dog guarantee it. Sorry to be the bringer of bad news. (If it makes you feel any better, there will also be an era of peace and prosperity.)

NEXT: More prophecies of doom!

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!

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.