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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 14, or, Son of the Dark before Dawn

Here it is! With an essay below, as usual.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 14

1. Yes, God will open his heart in mercy to Jacob, will still choose Israel, and give them guidance back to their own soil. And outsiders will be joined onto them, grafted onto Jacob's household.

2. Then the people will take them in, bring them to the place that belongs to them, and the house of Israel will incorporate them into God’s fatherland as servants and handmaidens — they’ll take their captors captive and dominate the ones who beat them down.

3. And it happens On the Day God lets you find release from the idols’ agony, and from your angst, and from the unrelenting slavery that made you slaves:

4. You’ll brandish that old adage against Babylon’s king — you’ll say, ‘see how tyrants meet their end; how golden cities meet their end.’

5. God breaks the club of the wicked and the sceptre of the rulers,

6. The one that pounds down nations in fury, an endless pounding; the one that dominates clans in rage; that persecutes with no restraint.

7. The whole earth falls quiet in peace at last . . . a song of triumph bursts out!

8. Even the cypress trees gloat over you, and the cedars of Lebanon: ‘since you were laid flat, no one climbs up on us to cut us down.’

9. The Grave lurches to meet you from beneath as you come. She rouses up dead bodies to meet you, all the chieftains of the earth: she stands them up from their thrones, all the kings of the nations.

10. They’ll all talk back at you and say to you, ‘you too. Your strength is sapped like ours; you look just like us.’

11. Your pride is brought down to the Grave and the noise of your instruments. Maggots make their nest under you, and larvae cover you.

12. How fallen you are from the heavens, you morning star, son of the dark before dawn. You’re hewn down to the earth — you, who drained the strength of nations.

13. It was you who said in your heart, ‘I will mount up to the heavens. Up higher than the stars of this god I’ll elevate my throne, and settle on the mountain of assembly on its far northern flanks.

14. I will mount over the crests of the clouds. I shall become akin to the highest power.’

15. But in fact you’re brought down to the Grave, to the bowels of the abyss.

16. People who see you will narrow their eyes at you, and scrutinise you, asking each other: ‘is this the man that made the earth quake, shook kingdoms,

17. Laid the cosmos flat like a wasteland and razed its cities, never opened the door of his prisons?’

18. All the kings of the clans — all of them — sleep in their majesty, each in his own house,

19. But you, you’re rejected from your own mausoleum like a loathsome branch, a garment from a slaughtered body, gored with a blade, plummeting to the bedrock of the abyss. Like a trampled corpse.

20. You won’t be united with them in their tomb, because you ravaged your land and slaughtered your people. The seed of the wicked will go unmentioned for the rest of time.

21. Set things in order to massacre his sons for their father’s wickedness, so they never stand tall and take over the earth or occupy the whole surface of the world with cities.

22. ‘I stand against them,’ declares God with his Legions. ‘I cut down Babylon’s sons and her survivors, her sons and her scions too,’ declares God.

23. ‘I lay her out as property for the albatross, as a watery marsh. I sweep across her with sweeping annihilation,’ declares God with his Legions.

24. God committed himself. He promised: ‘just see if it doesn’t happen the way I picture it, and stand firm the way I planned,

25. To crack Assyria apart in my land, and stomp it flat on my mountain, and lift his yoke off of them; his burden will lift off their shoulder.

26. This is the plan planned over all the earth, and this is the hand stretched out over all the nations.

27. As God with his Legions is planning it, who’s going to avert it? His hand is outstretched — who’s going to push it back?

28. It was the year King Ahaz died when this burden came into being.

29. Don’t celebrate, Philistia in your full force, because the club that battered you is broken: out of the serpent’s stump springs forth a viper. Its fruit is a winged snake of flame.

30. The first-born sons of beggars will find food and pasture; the needy will bed down in peace of mind. But your root will die at my hand, and your survivors will be executed.

31. Wail, gate. Howl, city. Melt away, Philistia in all your force, because smoke comes from the far North, and there’ll be no going off alone at the times ordained.

32. What will they say in response to the nation's messengers? That God fixed the foundations of Zion, and his nation’s poor will rely on its protection.

'How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!' (verse 12). This is among the most famous lines in Isaiah, made doubly famous in English by this magisterial translation from the early 17th century (the King James Version, or KJV). It refers to the king of Babylon, who had ambitions to conquer the whole world and more: 'it was you who said in your heart, "I will mount up to the heavens. Up higher than the stars . . . I shall become akin to the highest power"' (verses 13-14). But though Babylon conquered Jerusalem and forced its population into exile in 598/7 and 587/6 BC, by 539 BC this great oppressor of the Jews would be overturned by Cyrus the Great and his Persian armies (see further Chapter 13). And so the Babylonian monarchs, who felt so sure they could be greater than gods, found themselves 'brought down . . . to the bowels of the abyss' (verse 15).

I hope you'll bear with me while I make one nitpicky point to explain why I've translated verse 12 differently than the justly celebrated KJV. 'Son of the morning': the word rendered as 'morning' is shah-char (שָׁחַר). Now, shah-char is closely related to another word, sha-char (שַׁחַר), which does mean 'dawn' or 'morning.' But note the different vowel in the first syllable: the word Isaiah uses has a long 'ah' sound, which means not quite 'morning' but the 'dark' or 'dusk' just before sunrise. So the king of Babylon's title here is not 'son of the morning,' but something more like 'son of the dark before dawn.'

A small change, but it matters. Babylon's king is not the light that shines in the morning: he's the 'morning star,' which shines brightest in the pitch dark just before sunrise.* When the sun does rise, its light floods the world and overwhelms that of the morning star entirely. In the moment of exile, the Jews' darkest hour, Babylon's king seemed magnificent in splendour and divine in power. But, Isaiah promises, the apparent brilliance of that power was an illusion created by the darkness of this world. There is a sunrise coming which will show Babylon for what it really is: an insignificant point of light soon to be snuffed out by the death that comes to every mortal man.

We have heard some of this before, in Chapters 7 and 8 especially. There, when Assyria seemed poised to conquer the world, God insisted that the Jewish kings hold fast and wait: Assyria would fall just like every other kingdom. And sure enough, it was Babylon that rose to prominence over Assyria then, just as Persia will now eclipse Babylon.

That's an enduringly hard lesson to learn, because God doesn't claim that any of these worldly kingdoms are less threatening than they seem. Assyria, Babylon, Persia: They remain bright in the dark, these morning stars, monstrous in the suffering that they can cause on Earth. Isaiah never promises that exile won't be a nightmare for the Jews.

Instead, the prophet makes an utterly audacious, an almost preposterous prediction: when God reveals himself and redeems his people, the joy of that salvation will burn inestimably brighter than the suffering which preceded it. 'The people walking in the pitch black dark' will see 'light, vast light' (9:1), and the brilliance of that light will swallow up everything that came before (see also 25:7-8). The suffering which the Jews face becomes insignificant, not in absolute terms, but in relative terms: exile, conquest, slavery, even death, will pale in comparison to what comes afterwards.

Here as always, Jewish history is a picture of every human life. We will not all of us, thank God, be faced with such awful prospects as those which faced Israel. But none of us will be spared the consequences of sin. Among those consequences are grief, loss, and death: pains and privations built terribly into the structure of the world, certain to oppress all of us who inhabit it. God does not lie to us. He does not tell us that those oppressions are less than they are. Instead he insists that he is more than they are, that his love for us will endure infinitely beyond them. That love, as impossible to imagine as it is consoling to contemplate, is magnificent enough to blot out even our worst suffering.

This is the season of Advent. During these weeks the Christian church, like Israel, confesses its need of a light to shine brighter than sin. We believe that this light once came bodily before our eyes in naked and suffering human flesh. When that suffering ended and that flesh was lifted from the grave, we saw confirmed the promise that human life, when sustained by the mercy of God, can outlast the very worst that sin has to throw at it. Your diseases, your disappointments, your overwhelming agonies and your stupid little mistakes: these, even these, are morning stars. In the darkness of this pre-dawn world, they may be all you can currently see. But the true sun is coming back, and at its rising every morning star will be as nothing in comparison to the vastness of its light.

Rejoice evermore,


*There is some speculation that this name, 'morning star' (the Hebrew chey-lel, הֵילֵל), may be a reference to some other myth, perhaps based on astrological observations. Possible candidates include Phaeton, son of the Greek sun-god Helios who borrowed his father's chariot with disastrous results, or the Arabian storm god 'Athtar. Others think that a Caananite legend told the story of the goddess Ishtar, who was associated with Venus, mounting a divine rebellion before being hurled into the underworld (Venus shines brightly before daybreak and then plummets below the earth, much like a rebellious god ascending to heaven and then being cast down). The parallel with the Christian myth of Satan is obvious, and its acceptance by the Christian Church Fathers is behind the KJV's use of 'Lucifer.'
But the Hebrew word simply means 'bright' or 'clear,' and may only refer to the Babylonian king without further reference to legend. The question of which king is also uncertain -- it may be Nebuchadnezzar II, who took Jerusalem, or his son Belshazzar, or even Nabonidus, who was ruling when Cyrus made his conquest. Depending on one's views about Isaiah's authorship (on which see note to Chapter 1), this passage may have originally been written about an Assyrian king, before being edited later to deal with Babylon.
I owe all of this information to the wonderfully generous Dr Cat Quine. See further James D. G. Dunn and John William Rogerson, Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003), p. 511.

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