The Isaiah Project: Chapter 13, or, the Burden of the Call
We're back! After a brief interim for thesis submission, I'm very glad to get to work on more Isaiah. As per usual, my translation is below and a short reflection follows.The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 13
1. Babylon's burden, which Isaiah son of Amoz Saw.
2. Lift up a flag on the mountain peak. Raise your voice; wave your hand for them, so they’ll come to the noblemen’s gates.
3. I gave my orders to the ones I made sacred. I even called my war heroes to come to my rage, the ones who take pride in my magnificence.
4. A voice of uproar on the mountains! A sound like a massive crowd, a fearsome voice of chaos from kingdoms of nations. They’re gathered together — this is God of Legions enlisting a legion for war,
5. Coming from the farthest regions of earth, from the ends of the heavens — God and the instruments of his fury, to crush the whole earth.
6. Wail, because of God’s Day drawing near: it’s coming like annihilation from the Almighty.
7. And so all hands will go limp, and every heart of every man will go slack.
8. Then they’ll be shaken: suffocation and constriction will pull tight around them, and contractions like a woman giving birth. Each one of them will stare in awe at his fellow man — their faces will flare up like lamplight.
9. See God’s Day coming, cruel in its fury and its seething rage, to bring earth to its destruction. He will exterminate the sinners from among us.
10. Yes, the stars of heaven in their constellations won’t radiate their light. The sun will be pitch black as it emerges, and the moon won’t pour forth its light.
11. I bring a reckoning of evil upon the cosmos, and corruption upon the wicked; I put a stop to the arrogance of self-satisfied men, and I topple the high grandeur of fearsome tyrants.
12. I’ll make humanity scarcer than pure gold; human bodies will be rarer than golden ore from Ophir.
13. And so I’ll make the heavens quake, and Earth will be knocked out of its place, in the fury of God with his Legions on the Day of his burning rage.
14. And it happens: like a hunted deer, or like a sheep with no one to corral it, every man will turn to his own people. Every man will go running to his own territory.
15. Everyone who can be found will be gored; everyone who can be snatched up will fall by the sword.
16. And their little babies will be torn to pieces while they watch; their houses will be looted; their wives will be raped.
17. Look who I’m rousing against them: the Medes, who’ll take no account of silver and won’t be appeased by gold.
18. Archers will tear their young boys to pieces; they’ll have no tenderness in their heart for the tender fruit of the womb, no mercy in their eyes for any mother’s son.
19. And Babylon, jewel of kingdoms, resplendent pride of the Chaldeans — it’ll be like when God turned the tables on Sodom and Gomorrah.
20. It will never be lived in again, or slept in from generation to generation. No Arab will pitch his tent there, and shepherds won’t settle their flocks there.
21. Then desert wildlings settle there instead, and howling beasts wander in to fill their houses — owls’ broods will sleep in their houses, and goats will caper there.
22. Then island creatures call to one another through their desolate hallways, and things with tentacles in their pleasure palaces. The moment is drawing right up close. The days will not be delayed.
Chapter 13 begins a new movement in Isaiah's vision. Throughout the previous chapters, the prophet heralded a day at the end of time when all the nations of the world, Jewish and non-Jewish, will worship the one God together. In 13 we come crashing back into history with a vision of how the Babylonian empire will suffer for its persecution of the Jewish people.
It took me a long time to get to grips with this chapter. My problem was this: just a moment ago, it seemed as if the nations outside of Israel were to be folded into God's salvific plan -- given mercy and welcome among Israel's redeemed congregations. 'The nations,' we were told, 'will all come flooding' to God (2:2-3); they 'will come to seek' Israel's anointed saviour (11:10). But now apparently Babylon, at least, is in for horrors of a kind that most of us can only imagine: 'their little babies will be torn to pieces while they watch; their houses will be looted; their wives will be raped' (13:16).
By the end of the 600s BC Babylonia would become the dominant power in Mesopotamia, usurping the Neo-Assyrian kings who so terrified the leaders of Isaiah's day (see especially Chapter 7) and forcing the Jews into devastating exile from their capital city of Jerusalem. Then in 539 Babylon would itself be overturned by the Achaemenid emperor Cyrus the Great. This would actually be good for the Jewish exiles, whom Cyrus sent back home (see Ezra 1:2-4). But for Babylon and its people, as Isaiah predicts here, Cyrus brought total and gruesome conquest.
If this is what it looks like to get claimed for God's kingdom, then you might think the Babylonians would have rather been left to their own devices, thank you very much. Why, when Isaiah has just foretold the expansion of God's mercy to include foreign nations, should he proceed to describe the coming demolition of one such nation in gruesome detail? Maybe this is the Babylonians getting their 'comeuppance' -- getting pillaged and enslaved just as they pillaged and enslaved the Jews. But if so, how can we square such vindictive recriminations with the notion that God will offer salvation to the gentiles?
Some weeks ago I asked how we can countenance the apparent relish with which Isaiah depicts God tormenting his own people, the Jews. That question, like this one, has no easy answers. But one thought does occur to me. We know already from Jewish history that, whatever being chosen by God means, it does not mean an end to suffering. Quite the opposite: since God called the Jews they have been enslaved in Egypt, starved nearly to death, dragged for years through scorching deserts, and subjected to almost ceaseless predation by territorial enemies on all sides of their promised land. If we were to look beyond the Bible and recount the history of Jews in modernity, the picture would certainly not get rosier.
All of which suggests to me that the distinguishing mark of God's favour in this fallen world is not happiness but meaning. Those whom God chooses to redeem do not escape suffering; often they seem to have it visited upon them by God himself. But at the same time they are given a framework -- at once cosmic, historical, and personal -- for understanding that suffering. We have seen this foretold again and again in the first twelve chapters of Isaiah: the pain that Israel experiences will be enormous, but it will be redemptive pain. Pain that takes away the sufferers' affluence and the materialist hedonism that has come with it, and leaves them instead with a raw dependence upon God alone (see especially Chapter 3). Even in the bitterest and most apparently senseless disasters, the faithful people of Israel may trust that somehow God is using even this to draw them near.
Perhaps that is the gift, unwelcome though it may be, that God through Isaiah extends to Babylon in this chapter. Who knows what would have happened to the empire had God not chosen to include it in his grand designs. Probably it would have fallen eventually: all empires do, and in some sense that is my point. Unless God had consented to devote attention and energy to Babylon, its collapse would have been just another convulsion in the ceaseless chaos of world history: Assyria, Babylon, Persia, and on and on without end or meaning.
Instead Babylon's destruction is incorporated into Isaiah's vision and so given a context within which it has significance and purpose. It is not simply a fall but a 'burden' (verse 1), a weight placed upon the Babylonian people to make them understand the gravity of their sin and, eventually, to make some among them realise how they need God.
Though it may seem bleak, this is in fact the best and truest hope to which men and women of faith are entitled. The only road through this broken world is a painful one that leads towards death: God does not offer us an outlet off of that road. Instead he walks ahead of us on it himself and, in Christ, shows that death is not its endpoint but a waystation beyond which it leads eternally into bliss. We are promised both of these things: 'in this age . . . persecutions, and in the age to come, everlasting life' (Mark 10:30). There is no escape from the whole of that promise; if we want the second clause we must acknowledge the first.
But in doing so we, like Babylon, will find that even our persecutions take on a kind of glory, if only in retrospect. God does not make our pain hurt less: he makes it mean more. Seen in the light of the resurrection our misfortunes will at last become not just falls but burdens, which we bear alongside him who bears for us the one great final burden of the cross.