The Isaiah Project: Chapter 16, or, The Weeping of a Jealous God
A very happy new year, and a warm welcome back to the Isaiah Project. All things being equal, this will be the year that we finish our journey together through this astounding prophecy. If you're new to that journey, welcome! You might like to check out my introduction to the project or my recent summary of where we've gotten so far. Or, if you'd like to dive right in, the latest chapter is below and followed by a short commentary. Recordings are available for purchase here as always.
The leaders of Moab (a non-Jewish territory east of the Dead Sea) appeal to Israel for help in the face of an invasion.
1. Send a ram to the ruler of the land, from the Rock-City in the desert wasteland to the mountain, to Zion's daughter.
2. And it happens: like bird that flails and flutters, expelled from its nest, that’s how Moab’s daughters will be at the crossings of the River Arnon.
3. Bring us your guidance; make a verdict; cast your shadow like nightfall at high noon. Keep the exiles hidden; don’t expose the fugitives.
4. Let my exiles lodge with you — cover for them. Be Moab's hiding-place from the destroyer.
Yes, the usurper is finished; the destroyer is spent; the boot is through stomping the earth.
5. Then the foundations of a throne are fixed in mercy, and he takes his seat upon it in truth, in David’s tabernacle — judging and seeking justice, accelerating the onset of righteousness.
6. We’ve heard about Moab’s arrogance. About how very arrogant he is; his insolence and his arrogance and his furious temper; the things he brags that aren’t so.
7. That’s why Moab will wail for Moab: the whole of him will wail, for the deep foundations of Kir-Hareseth — you’ll whimper, ‘how broken they are.’
8. Because Heshbon’s fields are wilted, and Sibmah’s vine; foreign lords have smashed their first fruits. They’ve reached all the way to Jazer, staggered their way through the desert wastelands. Her branches are spread abroad; they’re across the ocean now.
9. That’s why I’ll sob with the sobs of Jazer for Sibmah’s vine. I’ll saturate you with my tears, Heshbon and Elealeh, because battle cries have fallen on your harvest and your farthest borders.
10. Joy and celebration are gathered up out of the vineyard; in the vineyard no one will sing or shout in triumph; in the wine vats no treader will tread out wine; I’ve broken off the shout of exultation.
11. And so the very core of me will resound like a harp for Moab, and my insides will moan for Kir-Heres.
12. And it happens: It is coming into sight, How Moab is all worn out on the lofty heights, and comes to his sacred place to pray, but cannot.
13. This is the Proclamation God proclaimed to Moab since time past.
14. And now God proclaims. He says, ‘in three years, like the years of a contract, Moab’s majesty will be held in contempt, in all its raucous magnitude, what’s left behind will be minuscule and feeble.
Only an utter catastrophe could have driven the Moabites to Israel for support. The historical details behind Chapter 16 are a little unclear, but we know this much: the deepest foundations of international order were in flux.
Moab was a region east of the Dead Sea whose inhabitants were constantly at war with the Jews (you can find a detailed map here). The Moabites, the Ammonites, the Philistines, and the Israelites spent most of the 12th through the 8th centuries BC battling over territory in what is now the Middle East. But near the end of the 8th century a new power grew mighty and threatened to eclipse them all: under King Sargon II and his son Sennacherib, the Assyrian Empire laid waste to Moab and made the whole surrounding region part of its kingdom -- except for southern Israel (for more detail, see my recent summary).
In this chapter, Isaiah depicts the rulers of Moab gathered together in an emergency council. These heads of state will send an envoy to 'Zion's daughter' -- that is, to the people of Jerusalem -- and beg for their citizens to be given asylum in Israel, which for now is the one place still safe from Assyrian encroachment (verse 1). This plea continues until halfway through verse 4 -- 'Let my exiles lodge with you,' beg the Moabite leaders. 'Be Moab's hiding place from the destroyer.'
Then comes Isaiah's response: somehow, from God's perspective, this terrifying threat has already been neutralised. 'The usurper is finished,' he says; 'the destroyer is spent; the boot is through stomping the earth' (verse 4). This is the so-called 'prophetic perfect,' an event in the future whose occurence is so certain that God has Isaiah narrate it as if it had already happened (for more on this mind-bending tense, see Chapter 2). In the immediate future, this will turn out to be true when Assyria falls at the hands of Babylon. But the danger will only really be past when God sends a saviour to bring peace on Earth once and for all (verse 5). If the Jews have any kind of security to offer the Moabites, Isaiah seems to say, it is this: Israel's God, and not its military, will protect anyone who trusts in him.
But Moab, it seems, would not accept those terms. Even when the threat of annihilation forced them to seek political aid from an old enemy, the Moabites still would not stoop so low as to abandon their own deities and offer Israel's God their undivided allegience. Because of this arrogance (verse 6) they were left defenseless against the horrors of imperial invasion (verses 7-14).
If there had been any kind of safety available to the Moabites besides God, I truly believe he would have given it to them. But in fact the very idea is a contradiction in terms. He is the fount of all life, and by definition everything that lives does so because he sustains it. The Israelites could have offered physical protection. But even if that protection had been effective, it would have been so because of the power God invested in it as part of his created universe.
By demanding worship from the Moabites, Isaiah essentially forces that point. Yes, salvation is available, and yes that salvation will take tangible form. Everyone who trusts in it will ultimately find himself able to survive any kind of catastrophe. But in order to grasp that salvation the Moabites were asked to confess that, though it might come in part through human agents, it would not come from human agency. Instead, salvation would come from God via whatever means -- natural or supernatural -- he chose to adopt.
I think this is what it means to have a 'jealous' God (see Exodus 34:14). Not that he is petty, or that he feels hurt and resentful when we prefer other things to him -- those are features of human envy, not divine jealousy. The latter is a ferocity of love which knows that ultimately nothing other than God will repay our trust. Everything on which we rely for security -- kingdoms and princes, the US army and the United Nations, heaven and earth themselves -- will one day dissolve into dust. If we lean on anything other than God, we will at last find ourselves fatally betrayed (Matthew 24:35; Luke 21:33; Isaiah 40:8). And so someday, whether now or at the end of our lives, he will strip us of everything else and leave us no choice but to rely on him or on nothing at all.
This is a hard lesson, taught by a God who knows he has nothing better to offer us than himself. This God longs to embrace us, to the point of weeping alongside us when we suffer the consequences of rejecting that embrace (verse 9). And in that weeping, and in those outstretched arms, there is room, always, to shrug off every arrogance and turn away from every false pretender to the throne of salvation. No such pretender will suffice: only our God, our jealous God, can be trusted to the end.