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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 21, or, Bring Water

This next chapter ushers in a new section of Isaiah's prophecy. It's short (consisting only of Chapters 21, 22, and 23) but intense. It begins below with a translation, and there's an explanatory essay introducing the new themes below that. Recordings, as ever, are available for purchase here.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 21

1. The burden of the desert wasteland by the water:
Like cyclones pass across the south, it comes: from desert regions, from a fearsome land.

2. A harsh vision is recounted to me — the deceiver deceives and the destroyer destroys. Arise, Elam; Medes, besiege. I’ve brought their sighing to an end.

3. And so my groin is wracked all over with convulsions — contractions seize me like the contractions of a woman giving birth. I was bent double at the sound; I was panicked at the sight.

4. My heart palpitated, shudders unsettled me; he turned an evening of pleasure into a horror for me.

5. They set the table. They keep watch in the watchtower. They eat. They drink. Get up, captains! Anoint the shield with oil!

6. Because so says my Master to me: ‘go, station someone at the watch. Let him tell what he sees.

7. When he sees a chariot with a yoked pair of steeds; a chariot of donkeys and a chariot of camels, let him stand at attention. Let him pay close attention.

8. He called out like a lion: ‘to the watchtower, master! Master, I’m standing still, standing for days, and on my guard; I hold my position for nights on end.

9. And look: this cavalry of men has come, a yoked pair of steeds. And in response he said, ‘Babylon is fallen, fallen, and all the carvings of their empty gods are broken on the ground.

10. Oh my trampled husks, young ones on my threshing floor — what I hear from God with his Legions, Israel’s god, I tell you.

11. Dumah’s Burden:
Someone calling out from Seir: ‘Guard! What news from the night? Guard! What news from the night?’

12. The guard said, ‘dawn comes, and night too. If you’re going to ask, ask. Turn around. Come back.

13. The burden on Arabia:
You’ll spend the night in thick Arabian woods, you Dedanite pilgrims.

14. When you go to meet a thirsty man, bring water. People living in Tema’s territory met a fugitive, and they brought their bread.

15. Because it’s the teeth of swords they’re fleeing from, from the teeth of swords drawn and bows bent, and from the mouth of a massive war.

16. Yes, so says my Master, my god, to me: ‘in one more year, like the year of a contract, all the majesty of Kedar will be spent.

17. And the number of archers still left, those strong sons of Kedar, will dwindle: God, Israel’s god, has proclaimed it.

Babylon didn't fall just once. It was beaten down again and again, battered into submission by other powers who saw it as a rival in their quest for world domination. The city itself had been there for over a millennium: founded beside the Euphrates river around 2300 BC, it had been formidable in its might when led by the great King Hammurabi. By Isaiah's day, though, it had effectively been crushed under Assyria's heel. During the last two decades of the eighth century an ambitious warrior king, Merodach-Baladan, led Babylon in revolt against Assyrian colonisation. But no matter how many times it rose up, Babylon was knocked down again, first by Assyria and then, eventually, by Cyrus the Persian emperor.

This chapter of Isaiah tells the story of a 'desert wasteland' which will fall in terrible chaos -- that wasteland is definitely Babylon, but there's some uncertainty about which fall Isaiah was foretelling. It may have been the Persian conquest in 539, but it may also have been the equally devastating invasion by King Sennacherib of Assyria in 689. What is certain is that Isaiah's mood darkens yet further in this chapter, ushering in a new section of the prophecy. The chapters to come are grim with foreboding, haunted by a sense of dread that some as-yet indefinite catastrophe will sweep across the world before long.

Chapters 13 through 20 depicted the suffering of non-Jewish ('gentile') nations, focussing on the eventual mortality and impotence of all human kings. But always there was some hint that suffering would lead somewhere, some suggestion that the loss of empire would convince the gentiles to repent and seek God's mercy. Now, in chapters 21 through 23, we see a mournful vision of cities brought low without consolation, of wartime conditions and desperate scrambling for survival. The ambiguity about Babylon adds to that effect, I think: we don't know which conquest is being referred to here because we're meant to feel the amalgamation of them all, the relentless onslaught of suffering visited upon ordinary citizens as king after king sees his delusions of grandeur put to shame.

What is the use of such scripture? True, it comes in the context of a larger vision which will eventually be redemptive. Babylon's fall, the extinguishing of mortal hopes, even the capture of Jerusalem, will at last be the occasion for humanity to reckon with its fallen state. Having come to terms with the full extent of their brokenness, the faithful will be made ready to accept God's offer of grace and salvation. But there is hardly a hint of that hope in this chapter -- why dwell in the despair without so much as a glimpse of the rescue to come?

I think the answer is simple, if paradoxical. The Bible does not ask us to reckon with the tragedies of our fallen world simply to rub our faces in them -- Isaiah has a purpose in making us look head on at our own vulnerability and need. Repentance and salvation are the ends to which suffering and grief are only the means. But here is the paradox: true suffering, and true grief, include despondence and loss of hope. If full cognizance of the world's brokenness is the only thing that leads to redemption, then it may be necessary to feel for a time as if redemption is nowhere to be found.

Let me put this hard teaching another way: it is simply a fact that the depths of human pain include within them a sense of futility and despair. To claim otherwise -- to tell a truly suffering man in his deepest misery that even he can look ahead to see what good will come of his nightmare -- is to offer empty piety that makes a mockery of the sufferer's real emotional state. Sometimes there is no payoff yet to be seen; sometimes the mind only dimly grasps by faith a distant hope which the heart simply cannot feel. Sometimes the invitation to buck up and stay optimistic is the last and most truly intolerable burden that can be laid upon you in your agony.

Christians are guilty of this sometimes, myself included: we know that hope is a virtue, so we berate ourselves and others for losing it. If we really believed in the goodness of God, we think, we would keep a sunny outlook even when things truly get bad. But that is not, in the last analysis, how Christ himself did things. Naked and abandoned on the cross, at the hour of his death, the saviour of the world did not show us by example how to grin and bear it. He lifted his voice to heaven and cried out the words of a psalm: 'my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' God does not patronise our pain by telling us it will all be alright. No, God sanctifies our pain by suffering it with us himself.

Remember this next time you are going through hell: God does not require of you that you feel okay. He has instead made for you the only real provision that can do justice to the worst of times: he has made space in scripture for you to confess how bleak things look from where you stand. Those words from the psalm that Christ uttered on the cross, these chapters of Isaiah which bewail the falling of the world's kingdoms: these are holy words of honesty in pain. They acknowledge your bereavement and so bless you right where you are, no bucking up required.

'My heart palpitated, shudders unsettled me; he turned an evening of pleasure into a horror for me' (verse 4). Isaiah offers no comfort here because there had to be a place where comfort was extinguished. Those places simply do exist in our world, and a God who will save that world must be a realist about the actual state of things. 'When you go to meet a thirsty man, bring water' (verse 14). This is the command of a God who sees us as we are and sends us to one another with what sustenance we can bear. When you see real bereavement, don't bring platitudes, or Hallmark cards, or promises that it'll be okay: those are for later. Bring water. Bring pizza, bring chocolate, bring kleenex. Sit, and listen, and wait. God will make things right whether you feel like he will or not.

Rejoice evermore,
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