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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 22, or, Sobbing and Loud Grief

Greetings --

We have reached what is perhaps the bleakest chapter of Isaiah's vision. My reflections on it are below, and brighter days are to come (I promise).

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 22

Isaiah watches the people of Jerusalem celebrate in complacency and mourns for the horror that awaits them.

1. The burden of the Canyon of Vision:
What is it with you now? You’ve climbed all the way up onto the rooftops!

2. Ruckus fills the city of tumult — the town of joy! Your casualties aren’t casualties of the sword, and they didn’t die in war.

3. All your captains turned and ran together from the archers. They were tied up; anyone who was found in you was tied up together; they fled from far away.

4. That’s why I said, ‘look away from me: I’m sobbing bitterly; don’t try to console me for the ruin of my people’s daughter.

5. Because this day of ruckus and stampeding and chaos belongs to my Master, God with his Legions, in the Canyon of Vision, tearing the town down and hollering up to the mountain.

6. And Elam carried the quiver, on chariots with men and their steeds, and Kir uncovered the shield.

7. And it happened when your choicest valleys were full of chariots: the horsemen stood arrayed at the gate in full array.

8. Then he pulled back Judah’s covering, and On That Day you peered at the battle gear in the House of the Woodland.

9. And you looked hard at the schisms in David’s city — at how many there were. Then you gathered together the waters of the lowest reservoir.

10. Next you counted the houses in Jerusalem, and dismantled those houses to buttress the wall.

11. And you made a ditch between the walls, for the water of the older reservoir — but you didn’t look closely at the one who made it, didn’t really see the architect from far away.

12. And my Master called out, the God of Legions, On That Day: for sobbing and loud grief, for shaved heads and burlap clothes.

13. Look: pleasure and enjoyment, killing cattle and slaughtering sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine — eat and drink, because tomorrow we die.

14. And in my ears the God of Legions laid it bare: this travesty will not be purged from you until you die, says my Master, God of Legions.

15. So says my Master, God of Legions, to me: ‘go, walk up to this steward, over to Shebna, who oversees the house.

16. What’s with you here — who’s with you here, so that you’ve chiseled out a tomb for yourself, you who chisel a tomb on high and carve a resting place into the rock?

17. See, God will take you down like a wrestling champion with a takedown, will drape himself over you.

18. He will roll you around and around, roll you like a ball into a wide expanse of territory: you will die there. Your majestic riding gear will be a disgrace in your Master’s house.

19. And he’ll shove you out of your position, and tear you down from where you stand.

20. And it happens On That Day: I call out to my servant, to Eliakim, Hilkiah’s son,

21. And clothe him in your vestment, and clasp him in your belt, and put your sovereignty into his hand, so he becomes father to anyone living in Jerusalem, and to the household of Judah.

22. And I put the means of opening David’s house on his shoulder: he opens, and there is no closing; he closes, and there is no opening.

23. Then I drive him like a nail into a secure spot, right onto the throne of his father’s majesty.

24. Then all the majesty of his father’s house will hang from him, generations proceeding and being cast forth, all the minor utensils, every last receptacle, from the cups to the pitchers.

25. On That Day,' declares God with his Legions, the nail driven into a secure spot will be extracted — it will be sliced out, will fall, and the burden on it will be cut apart: God proclaims it.

I sometimes wonder whether composing the words above was the hardest thing Isaiah ever did. Chapter 22 describes the city of Jerusalem, capital of Israel and heart of the land God promised to the Jews (cryptically referred to here as the 'Canyon of Vision'). God's temple was in Jerusalem; so was the throne of those great kings descended from David in the tribe of Judah. Here was Zion, God's holy mountain; here was the righteous kingdom of the chosen people. And soon, Isaiah saw, it would all be in ruin.

No one knew this yet except Isaiah. When the Jewish king Ahaz brokered a treaty with the mighty emperor of Assyria, Jerusalem seemed secure. The threat once posed to sothern Israel by Damascus was now neutralised, and the city's well-heeled upper classes could enjoy their feasts in peace. It looked like a triumph. 'Pleasure and enjoyment, killing cattle and slaughtering sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine' (verse 13): that is what someone who visited Jerusalem would have seen in the 730s BC. People climbed up to the rooftops and hollered for joy (verses 1-2): Assyria, they thought, had saved them.

There may have been a time when Isaiah would have joined in the fun. Nothing is known about the prophet's early life, but in Chapter 6 he suggests that he was wrapped up in the hedonism and corruption of Jerusalem before God purified him. Maybe, before that moment, Isaiah would have been happy to feast and dance in celebration of the alliance with Assyria. Now, though, he looks out at his fellow countrymen and realises with horror that they are already as good as dead. 'Your casualties aren't casualties of the sword,' he says in verse 2. 'They didn't die in war' -- though they have avoided physical slaughter at the hands of Assyria, the concessions they have made to foreign gods in doing so amount to a kind of spiritual death. This loss of religious identity could only mean disaster in the end.

And sure enough Jerusalem, that once unshakable city of God, would be beaten into submission in the coming years by the very Assyrians on whom they had decided to rely. The invasion of southern Israel by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 BC was the first of several defeats that would culminate in total conquest at the hands of Babylon in 597 (see 2 Kings 18:17-19:37). As the tables turned on them, the Israelites would come to see what Isaiah already sensed: that Jerusalem's security was no longer built on the rock-solid foundations of its God but instead on the treacherously shifting sands of international politics. Soon the veil would be peeled back, the capital stripped of its fortifications, and the true precarity of Israel's situation revealed (verse 8). The people would scramble desperately to mount a futile defense against foreign invasion, tearing their own houses apart to buttress the city walls (verse 10). You can hear the bitterness of Isaiah's sorrow as he stares out at his people's ill-fated celebrations: 'eat and drink, because tomorrow we die' (verse 13).

There is no human answer to this kind of disaster. 'Don't try to console me,' sobs Isaiah in verse 4: what could anyone possibly say that would make this alright? Jerusalem represented every hope the Jewish people had for the world; its success was the very manifestation of God's favor. Now the kings and people of the city had willfully squandered that favor, had lost faith in the God who brought them out of slavery in Egypt. They would become slaves again now, but that wasn't even the worst of it: the true horror was the final failure of God's people to obey his commandments.

This unspeakable sorrow is also the bedrock of the vision Isaiah saw: when the kings of Jerusalem lost their faith, the utter perversity of the human heart was revealed for good. No one, not even God's chosen ones, could maintain righteousness. Looking out at the wreckage that is to come, Isaiah brings us to a reckoning with the hard fact that we are simply not capable of honoring God. If that was true for Jerusalem, it is certainly still more true for us, who live in a world where even the richest and most successful of human societies are still wracked with injustice, dissatisfaction, and depression. Isaiah sees it all in the fall of Jerusalem. He looks at this final indictment of human endeavor, this greatest disappointment of all time, and only one question remains: will God forgive?

In the coming chapters the answer will turn out to be, 'yes.' But to know the miracle of that answer, the impossibly expansive grace which it represents, we must reckon with how totally God's children had disappointed him. Appropriately for this season of Lent, Isaiah shows us what we are as he prepares to reveal who God is: we learn to know our brokenness, because only then will we understand just how mercifully we have been healed.

Rejoice evermore,

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