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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 15, or, A Quick Recap

Hello again,

This week we wade deeper into the history of non-Jewish regions surrounding Israel, their conquest at the hands of Assyria and Babylon, and their consequent inclusion both in Israel's suffering and in the hope of divine salvation. This seemed like a good time to take stock of the major power players in this ancient drama, and to remind ourselves where Isaiah stands in salvation history. So I've done that below, but to start you may find this map helpful -- it shows Moab, the region east of the Dead Sea which is the subject of this chapter, and some of the surrounding areas (including Israel).

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 15

1. The Burden of Moab
On the night Ar, City of Moab, is obliterated, left silent — on the night Kir is obliterated, he is left silent.

2. He went up to Baith and Dibon, the high places, to sob. Over Nabo and over Medeba, Moab will wail. And on all their heads is baldness; every venerable beard is shaved off.

3. In their alleyways they put on burlap clothing, and on their rooftops and in their city streets they’ll wail, breaking down in sobs.

4. And Heshbon will scream, and Elealeh. Their voice is heard all the way to Jahaz, and so Moab’s armed battalions will lament out loud: his own soul will torment him.

5. My own heart will lament out loud over Moab. His fugitives will sprint to Zoar, like a three-year-old heifer, by Luhith’s upward pass: they’ll go up it with sobs. On the road through Horonaim, they’ll raise a loud lament for their brokenness.

6. Because Nimrim’s waters will be left in desolate silence: the meadow is desiccated; the grass is wiped out; there is nothing green.

7. So all the profit they made, their carefully counted wealth, is what they’ll carry with them to the Riverbed lined with Willows.

8. Yes, the loud lament reverberates in Moab’s borders. And the wail reaches Eglaim, and the wail reaches Beer-elim.

9. Yes, Dimon’s waters are saturated with blood: I’ll pile still more onto Dimon — a lion for Moab’s refugees, and for those left behind from the homeland.

At this point in Isaiah's rather involved story, it's been suggested to me that a recap might be useful. I think that's a great idea, so here's A Whirlwind Tour through Salvation History in 800 Words or Less (No Really!).

Isaiah of Jerusalem lived and preached in the capital of ancient Israel between the 8th and 7th centuries BC. By that time the Jewish promised land had split into two kingdoms -- one, often called 'Judah' after the tribe from which its kings came, was in the South and contained Jerusalem itself. The other, in the North, was led by a line of kings started in the 10th century by the rebel Jeroboam -- since Jeroboam was from the tribe of Ephraim, this northern kingdom was often called 'Ephraim.'

God made Isaiah a prophet in the year that King Uzziah of Judah died (c. 740 BC -- see Chapter 6). Shortly afterwards, Uzziah's young grandson Ahaz took the throne in Jerusalem when the empire of Assyria was growing strong under King Tiglath-Pileser III (a mouthfull hereafter shortened to TP3). Ephraim (remember, that's northern Israel) was joining forces against Assyria with another, non-Jewish people, the Aramaeans (from what is now Syria). Like the Moabites and Philistines, the Aramaeans were traditional enemies of Israel. But now that a bigger threat loomed on the horizon, the northern Jews of Ephraim were ready to make common cause with Aram, and both were threatening King Ahaz of Judah (southern Israel) with terrible consequences if he didn't join in the alliance.

Terrified, Ahaz appealed for help to Assyria, and TP3 obliged by laying waste to Aram's capital, Damascus (see 2 Kings 16). In Isaiah's eyes this represented a disastrous error, because God had promised that Aram, Ephraim, and Assyria would all come to nothing if Ahaz simply waited in faith (see Chapters 7 and 8).

TP3, followed by his sons Shalmaneser V (reigned 726-21 BC) and Sargon II (721-705 BC) built a massive empire which conquered (among others) Ephraim, Aram, and Moab. But as the years rolled by the Assyrian kings grew weak. In 626 BC their empire was taken over by the Babylonians, who had previously been under Assyrian control (see Chapter 10). Between 605 and 586 BC King Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon conquered Jerusalem and drove its Jews into exile until 539. Then the Achaemenid Persian king Cyrus conquered Babylon, after which he sent the exiles back to Jerusalem (see Chapter 13).

All this amounts to three competing interest groups. First, Judah and Jerusalem: the heart of the promised land where God pledged to bless his people. Those people had fallen prey to hedonistic corruption and political infighting, so that the North split off and formed a second interest group in collaboration with the foreign powers of the world ('gentiles' such as Aram). Ephraim had given up the reliance on God that a unified Israel was supposed to cherish, and under Ahaz even Judah did the same. So God sent a third set of powers -- the Mesopotamian juggernauts of Assyria, then Babylon, then Persia -- to stop both Judah and Ephraim in their tracks.

In a sense, then, Assyria and Babylon are God's nuclear option. Since his chosen people have insisted on putting their trust in the powers of the world -- since they have become one of those powers rather than a nation set apart -- they must suffer the turmoil and conquest which those powers inevitably suffer.

And yet God uses that very suffering to redeem both the Jews and the other nations. Once Aram, Babylon, Ephraim, Judah, and Assyria have crushed one another pitilessly into the ground, some among them will recognise that all humanity can do if left to its own devices is eat itself alive. Only then will those who recognise the wages of their pride turn to God and, remarkably, find him ready to save them from this disaster of their own making.

Since Chapter 13 we have ben reading about the 'burdens' suffered by gentile nations like Assyria and Moab. As I wrote a few weeks ago, by including these nations in Isaiah's vision God is incorporating their downfall into the larger trajectory of salvation -- using their pain to make them recognise their need of him.

More than that: having taken them into his care, God is not only working with these nations' agony but going alongside them through it. Notice what's hidden at the centre of Chapter 15: as the people of Moab lament from every corner of the region, suddenly, in their midst, God cries out with them. Verse 5: 'my own heart will lament out loud over Moab.' This God not only pardons humanity's rebellion but suffers its consequences in solidarity with them. And though we too rebel, though we suffer and need mercy, we too have it always at hand -- because the God of Moab and of Israel is our God too.

Rejoice evermore,
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