The Isaiah Project: Chapter 2, or, The Final Days
Just a quick note to start with, and then this week’s translation. Isaiah, as I said last week, is a prophet rooted in history. He sees eternal truths unveiled in the political events of his time, and he uses those events as symbols and parables for those truths. Since most of the places and people he mentions are unfamiliar to a modern English reader, their theological implications can get lost on us sometimes. In my essays, I won’t always dwell on explaining this cultural context. But I’m compiling a glossary of the place names which are most laden with cosmic meaning for Isaiah. So when you see a word like Tarshish or Bashan in the translation, move your mouse cursor over it to see a quick, two-sentence explainer on why it matters to Isaiah. That way it won’t have to get in the way of understanding what he has to say.
The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 2
The prophet unfolds his vision of the final days when God will appear and set our sinful world to rights
1. What Isaiah, son of Amoz, Saw Proclaimed about Judah and Jerusalem
2. It happens in the final days:
The mountain of God’s house will be established at the head of the mountains, lifted above the hills.
The nations will all come flooding to it.
3. Then peoples come en masse.
They say, ‘come, and we’ll ascend to God’s mountain, to the house of Jacob’s god –
He’ll teach us his ways and we’ll walk on his paths.
Because what he teaches will emanate from Zion,
and God’s proclamation from Jerusalem.
4. And he gives justice to the nations, and adjudicates between the many peoples;
They hammer out their swords into blades for their ploughs, and their spears into pruning hooks.
No nation will wield a sword against another, and from then on they won’t teach the art of war.
5. House of Jacob! Come walk; let’s walk in the light of God.
6. Because you cast away your people, Jacob's house: they’re filled with the East, with fortune-tellers, like the Philistines. They simper over foreign children.
7. And their territory is packed full of silver and gold – there’s no end to their treasure troves.
And their territory is packed full of horses – there’s no end to their riding gear.
8. And their territory is packed full of empty gods. They’re prostrating themselves to things their own hands made – things their fingers did.
9. Men grovel in the dirt; humanity degrades itself – you shall not bear with them.
10. Come squeeze into this crevice – get hidden in the dust; keep from facing the terror of God and his awful magnificence.
11. Men’s arrogant eyes will be cast down; the height of humanity will grovel; then God is set apart in exaltation
On That Day.
12. Yes: there’s a Day that belongs to the God of Legions, over every self-important and high-minded thing, and over everything exalted: it will be cast down.
13. And over every cedar from Lebanon, lofty and uplifted,
And over every oak from Bashan.
14. And over all exalted mountains,
And over all uplifted hills.
15. And over every towering citadel,
And over every fortressed wall.
16. And over all the fleets from Tarshish.
And over all the sumptuous artwork.
17. Men’s arrogance will grovel in the dirt; the height of humanity will be degraded; then God is set apart in exaltation
On That Day.
18. He will obliterate every one of the empty gods.
19. And they’ll go into cliffside hollows, into holes they claw in the dust, to keep from facing the terror of God and his awful magnificence, when he stands to rock Earth to its core.
20. On That Day,
Men will toss their empty gods of silver, their empty gods of gold – which they made for themselves, to grovel in front of – toss them aside to the burrowing rodents and bats,
21. To go into the cut cliffside, the fissures and crags of the rock. To keep from facing the terror of God and his awful magnificence, when he stands to rock Earth to its core.
22. Cut yourselves off from men. Their life is exhaled from their nostrils; on what grounds should they be given any thought?
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Isaiah’s verbs are not like our verbs. That sounds like a dry and perhaps inconsequential thing to say, but it’s not. Verbs are the words we use to think about time. And how we think about time shapes how we see the world, in ways so deep they’re often imperceptible. This chapter of Isaiah is about the time at the end of time, ‘That Day’ when history as we know it comes to an end. When we ponder things that transcend our current experience – things like the end of the world – our language has to stretch and bend to accommodate them. ‘Eschatology’ – the contemplation of those final days – forces us to imagine the mysterious extremes of time and so to find unorthodox ways of using verbs. It pays to notice how Isaiah does so.
First, a brief (seriously) reminder of some high school grammar (sorry). Verbs describe action using something called ‘tenses.’ Tenses tell us things about the action described – one important thing that English tenses tell us is when the action happened. ‘I’m eating’ is present tense: it’s happening now. ‘I ate’ is past tense: it happened already.
But tenses can also tell us about the action’s state of completion. ‘I was eating’ and ‘I ate’ both happened in the past; but the first is ongoing, whereas the second is complete. To get a sense for the difference, try using them both in a story: ‘I was eating a sandwich when suddenly my hair caught fire.’ The eating is a developing process, capable of being interrupted by another event like spontaneous combustion or just a nasty case of indigestion. Compare that with, ‘I ate a sandwich before going to work.’ The eating is a finished task in a sequence of events, over and done before the next thing (going to work) happens.
In ancient Hebrew – unlike in English – there are basically only two tenses, and they have more to do with completion than with time.* The main thing a Hebrew verb’s tense tells you is not when it happens but how it happens: is it unfolding and ongoing? Or is it complete and self-contained? So at Genesis 1:1, we hear about a finished job: ‘God created the heavens and the earth.’ That’s the completed (‘perfect’) tense.
But at Exodus 3:14, Moses uncovers a perpetual truth, and that verb is different. From out of a burning bush, God’s undying voice speaks in the ongoing (‘imperfect’) tense: ‘I AM THAT I AM.’ The ‘I am’ is developing and alive, but it’s not fixed in time: you could translate it as ‘I am being what I am being,’ or ‘I will be what I will be,’ or even, if you’re feeling wild, ‘I (always) was what I am/will be.’
This, not-so-incidentally, makes Biblical Hebrew a good language for talking about God. Divine action is unlike human action: what you and I do, we do in time. There’s a definite ‘when’ for us which is captured by the definite ‘when’ of English verbs: I ate a sandwich (yesterday). But creating the world, or being the foundation of all existence, is different from eating a sandwich. God is and was and will be what he is and was and will be: there’s no rooting that ‘I AM’ in time because God’s life, unlike mine, has no beginning or end. His being is perpetually ongoing, better expressed by the Hebrew imperfect tense than by any English present or future.
Even ‘God created’ in Genesis 1 doesn’t sit easily on a timeline like we English speakers might assume if we’re not careful. ‘In the beginning, God created . . .’ In the beginning of what? Was there time before that first act of creation? Presumably not, and so the act itself must stand in some eternal beginning outside of history – the root and wellspring of all subsequent time. God’s creation is complete, but not momentary; it’s finished, but not over. This boggles the English-speaking mind and defies expression in our past or present tenses. But the Hebrew perfect captures it, well, perfectly: this is a completed action unbound by time.
Of course, Hebrew does have other ways to express time. One way is essentially to use the conjunction ‘and’ so that verbs come in sequence. If I say, ‘the sun sets and then the night falls,’ you know that night comes after sunset even though both of those verbs are technically in the present. Hebrew does similar kinds of things.
That’s where Isaiah comes in. Literally translated, the opening of today’s prophecy (2:2) goes something like ‘and then it comes to pass (complete).’** If this came in the middle of a sentence as part of a sequence, we might easily call it a future statement. But here at the beginning of the whole chapter, the verb is a little more disorienting than that. We want it to be future, as the ‘and then’ suggests, but the perfect form suggests something finished, a done deal.
You could put this another way by saying that there are two perspectives at work: there’s our perspective within time, from which events in the future haven’t yet happened. But then there’s God’s perspective outside and beyond time. From that perspective, God surveys all history as a completed whole, like a man looking down at an entire city from a vista on a hill.***
Isaiah, I think, gets both perspectives at once here. He gives us the future ‘and then’ – we’re still predicting something yet to come. But that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. The perfect tense tells us that though we’re not living in those last hours, their coming is sealed and certain. Sometimes in similar contexts commentators talk about the ‘prophetic perfect’ – the use of a perfect tense to show that though God’s plan is not yet accomplished, it will be as surely as if it already were. Maybe we dream with longing about the day when ‘no nation will wield a sword against another’ (2:4). Or maybe we shudder in terror to think of the moment when God ‘stands to rock Earth to its core’ (2:19, 21). But whatever we feel when we picture this final hour, we should treat it as a fact of our reality. Maybe it’s not happening to us now, but it will, and this is the time to respond.
English Bible translations tend to smooth out these jagged edges of prophetic time by using the future tense. There are excellent arguments and precedents for doing so: the future is our most straightforward English analog for Isaiah’s words here. Greek is comparable to English in this respect, and the ancient Greek translation of the Bible (the 3rd-2nd century BC ‘Septuagint’) also uses future tense verbs for depicting the end of days.
But I’m experimenting with another way of doing things. When languages with different structures come into contact, they have the potential to produce new modes of thinking and of imagining God – like two rocks striking against each other to make sparks. English and Hebrew aren’t just two different sets of grammar rules: they’re two different ways of seeing the world. Our ideas about time are written so deeply into our consciousness as we learn to talk that eventually we don’t even think about them anymore. For us who were raised to speak English, there’s past, present, and future because those are the verbs we’ve always had at our disposal. But things are different for Isaiah, and that’s important here. Because when That Day arrives and God walks among his people, present and future fold onto one another and explode every neat set of verbal categories, Hebrew or Greek or English, we could use to box them in.
So it’s illuminating to try fitting Hebrew predictions into English language, and to watch both of them unfold into something new. To capture the already-not-yet of Isaiah’s always-but-now prophecy in our future-or-past language, you have to find creative ways of describing what is, after all, an enormity beyond all present imagining. You can’t put each Hebrew verb literally into English – you have to make judgment calls about the effects of each one and look for comparable substitutes. For example, in that first line, I’ve attempted to combine an urgently vivid present with the distant strangeness of an unknown future: ‘it happens in the final days.’ From that moment on, Isaiah’s vision shifts evocatively between right now and end times, so I’ve tried to do the same in ways that will compel, rather than confuse, an English reader. That’s a tricky task, and this is a work in progress. Your thoughts and suggestions for revision are, as always, gratefully encouraged.
* When it comes to Hebrew verbs, I’m talking very generally about some controversial subjects and glossing over points of detail about which people far more expert than I have puzzled for centuries. I do believe in the truth of what I’m arguing here, but I want to make clear that I’m proposing a fairly adventurous approach to translation, and that everything I say is up for debate. If you’d like to read a much closer analysis of the Hebrew verb system which makes a nuanced argument and surveys some of the available scholarship on the issues to which I allude, you might like John A. Cook’s 2010 paper on ‘Reconsidering the so-called vav consecutive.’ You can find that paper here.
** Intriguingly, lines 2-4 of this chapter are almost identical with Micah 4:1-4. No one knows for sure whether Micah wrote them first and Isaiah borrowed them, or vice versa.
*** I am (perhaps obviously) very indebted here to St Augustine’s influential views on the nature of time and God’s relationship to it: see Confessions Book 11, Chapters 12-28. Augustine comes up in this intriguing Harper's essay on the physics of 'What Came Before the Big Bang', and cf. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity Book 4, Part 3: ‘Time and Beyond Time.’