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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 17, or, The Blindness of a Heavy Heart

Hello there -- as always, it's a pleasure to present this week's chapter, with an essay below and recordings available to download here. Enjoy!

1. The Burden of Damascus
Look: Damascus, a city snatched out of existence. It will be a pile of rubble.

2. Its cities will be abandoned for all time. They’ll belong to livestock; flocks will bed down there with no one to scare them off.

3. The stronghold at Ephraim will be brought to an end, and the kingdom of Damascus, and those left behind in Aram, will be like the majesty of Israel’s sons, declares God with his Legions.

4. And it happens On That Day: Jacob’s majesty will drain from him, and his fleshy girth will waste away.

5. And it happens, like a reaper gathering up corn, when his arm reaps the yield; it happens like a gleaner gleaning ears of corn in Rephaim Valley.

6. But a few stray crops will be left behind in it — it’s like shaking an olive tree: two or three olives on the tips of the treetops, five or six on its outermost fruit-bearing boughs, declares God, Israel’s god.

7. On That Day dust will gaze upon its maker; humanity's eyes will see Israel’s Sacred One.

8. They won’t gaze upon altars made by their hands, or look at ones their fingers made — the fertility-gods or the sun-gods.

9. On That Day the sturdy cities will be like abandoned woodlands, like treetops abandoned in the face of Israel’s sons — and there will be desolation.

10. Because you forgot the god of your salvation, and lost the memory of your sturdy fortress — that’s why you’re planting lovely plants, but sowing them with foreign vines.

11. On the day you’ll get your plant to grow; at dawn your seed will bring forth fruit: a pile of it on the harvest day of misery and hopeless pain.

12. Oh doom! A raucous throng of many nations, like thronging waters, and a roaring rush of peoples, like many rushing waters roar.

13. Nations roar like many waters roar, but God chides them and they sprint back miles away; they’re chased away like hay on mountains in the face of the wind’s breath, like tumbleweed in the face of a hurricane.

14. The moment of evening comes, and look: disaster. Before the sun rises he’s nothing. This is what anyone who steals from us gets, the lot that anyone who robs us draws.

The people of Jerusalem must have been overjoyed to see Damascus fall. You might remember from Chapter 7 that Damascus was the capital of Aram (now called Syria) which had formed an alliance with Ephraim, the northern kingdom of Israel. Aram and Ephraim had agreed to band together against Assyria, but King Ahaz of Jerusalem and Judah -- southern Israel -- refused to join the alliance. When Aram and Ephraim tried to pressure Ahaz, he appealed to the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III (TP3) with a tribute of gold from Israel's temple. TP3 was well-heeled and ravenous for conquest; he readily obliged and crushed Aram, leaving its capital of Damascus in ruins -- its king slaughtered and its people deported (Isaiah 17:1; cf. 2 Kings 16).

In the short term that meant great news for Jerusalem. Aram had terrified Ahaz, and with good reason (see Isaiah 7:2). Now the enemy was reduced to dust while Jerusalem built an alliance with the most powerful man in the known world. Ahaz must have seemed like a shrewd negotiator and a hero to his people, who had narrowly escaped what looked like certain destruction at the hands of Damascus.

But in Isaiah's eyes, the conquest of Damascus was the day Israel's doom was sealed. Isaiah had told Ahaz that Ephraim, Aram, and Assyria would all be conquered if he simply waited long enough and trusted in the promises of God. Instead, Ahaz made his own provisions and swore fealty to Assyria, even going so far as to offer TP3 the treasure which was meant to be reserved for the almighty. The gold Ahaz sent to Assyria wasn't just gold: it was a vote of no confidence in God.

What's really chilling about that tradeoff is how well it seemed to work. Ahaz came back from his embassy to TP3 with plans to build a new altar in Jerusalem, meaning that the worship of Israel's God would take place next to sacrifices and offerings burnt in tribute to Assyrian deities. And, for the time being, there would be peace in a Jerusalem protected from its enemies by the mightiest armies available. For all anyone could tell, Ahaz's plan had worked.

But Isaiah saw what a disaster it was. 'You forgot the god of your salvation,' he laments in this chapter -- 'you're planting lovely plants, but sowing them with foreign vines' (verse 10). Whatever short term benefits the embassy to Assyria had, they would soon be rendered hollow by conquest from another power. Because God knew, as Ahaz couldn't, that the Babylonian empire would soon rise to destroy the Assyrian one. And then all of Ahaz's careful strategy would have maneuvered Jerusalem unwittingly into the exact conditions under which it, allied as it was with Assyria, would fall as Assyria did at the hands of Babylon (see further Chapter 15).

This story is a tragedy of blindness. Having dismissed the advice of God as it came to him from Isaiah, Ahaz became increasingly unable to see the world as God does. The king of Judah and Jerusalem chose to think in terms of immediate material benefits and political success: whoever has money and power, he decided, is the one who's on top. Assyria's king is rich and strong, so it's on him that Jerusalem should rely. And if the result is an obvious victory on the battlefield, then that's what counts as success. Ahaz was so wrapped up in these material calculations that he completely missed the obvious spiritual significance of his actions: in human terms, the gold he sent to Assyria was money well spent. But as a symbolic act it was a declaration of apostasy that the king hardly knew he was making. He barely even thought about the message he was sending to the world: I would rather have help from Assyria than from God.

This must be in some sense the fulfillment of God's terrible command to Isaiah in Chapter 6: 'Fatten these people’s hearts. Weigh down their ears; shut their eyes. Otherwise they would see with their eyes, and with their ears, listen, and understand in their hearts, and turn, and find healing.' Those words are often read as vengeful punishment from a petty tyrant, but in fact they are simply a statement of fact from the God of truth. When God issues commands, he speaks as the creator of a world in which humans have free will and choices have consequences. That is a world with rules, as it must be: without a dependable structure of cause and effect, no one action can be meaningfully chosen over another. It only matters whether I choose to eat salad or ice cream because those are distinct alternatives with predictable effects on my body, dictated by laws written into the structure of the natural world. Those laws are expressed in the Bible as edicts issued by the creator, because that's what they are: 'He says to the snow, "Fall on the earth," and to the rain shower, "Be a mighty downpour"' (Job 37:6). We experience the results of that command as what science calls the cycle of preciptitation: reliably, without fail, water condenses and falls to the earth. The will of God creates the rules of the world.

And just as eating ice cream will fatten my body, thinking in secular terms will fatten my heart. The terror of Isiah's story here isn't the spitefulness of God. It's our own human capacity to make choices that will lead us to see our sin as success. Ahaz chose -- quite understandably, from a mortal perspective -- to put his trust in a human king. That choice not only doomed his people but clouded his vision, made it seem to him as if everything was fine. He had no idea what he was doing.

Neither do we. Somewhere on some level each of us thinks this way, whether we are believers or not. The state of sin is such that we naturally experience world affairs and human politics as far more immediate and vivid than spiritual battles. To see how urgent those battles are, we need constant reminders that we do not serve the Assyrian empire, or the President of the United States, or the boss who writes our paycheck, but a king who is not of this world. And though our eyes are heavy now, there will come a day when 'dust will gaze upon its maker' and 'humanity's eyes will see Israel's Sacred One' (verse 7). That is hard -- impossible without supernatural help -- to believe. But it's the only way to see things as they really are.

Rejoice evermore,
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