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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 24, or, Songs in a Strange Land

It's a good one this week, folks. Translation below, then essay; recordings here.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 24

1. See God emptying Earth out, effacing it. He turns it on its head; he sends everyone living there scattering.

2. And it happens to the people like it happens to the priest; to the servant as to the master; to the maid as to the noblewoman; to the customer as to the merchant; to the patron as to the client; to the creditor as to the credited.

3. The earth will be emptied, emptied. It will be pillaged, pillaged, because God has proclaimed this proclamation.

4. Earth wails; it wanes away. The world withers; it wanes away. Earth’s exalted people wither.

5. The Earth is corrupted beneath the people who live on it, because they’ve transgressed against what’s taught, violated what’s ordained, voided the eternal covenant.

6. And so: a curse consumes the earth, and everyone living there is implicated in it.
And so: everyone living on Earth is inflamed; pitifully few men are left behind.

7. The fresh vintage laments; the vine withers; every once-delighted heart is moaning.

8. The glee of tambourines stops short; the ruckus of the celebrators dies down; the glee of strumming strings stops short.

9. No one’s drinking wine and singing; liquor goes bitter in the drinker’s mouth.

10. The town in chaos is broken apart; every house is shut tight against entry.

11. In the streets, someone screams for wine. All delight goes dark; glee recoils from the Earth.

12. All that’s left in the city is desolation. The gate is struck and destroyed.

13. This is how it will be in the heart of the Earth, within every community: like an olive tree when it’s shaken; like puny grapes when the grape-harvest is done.

14. But them . . . they raise their voices. They shout in triumph; they bellow with pride in God across the sea.

15. And so magnify God in your flashes of light, on islands in the ocean — GOD by name! Israel’s god!

16. From the farthest wingtips of Earth they sing, and we hear it, legions arrayed in the cause of righteousness.
But I say, ‘Oh, I, I am thin, thin. The deceivers deceived me, they blinded me, oh, they deceived me, they left me blind.’

17. Terror and traps and tripwires are all around you, you who live on the Earth.

18. And it happens: anyone who runs away from the voice of the terror will fall in the trap, and whoever gets up from inside the trap will catch on the tripwire: the windows swing open in the exalted realms, and the earth’s foundations are rattled.

19. Earth breaks up into broken pieces; Earth is annihilated into nothing; Earth dissolves in dissolution.

20. Earth staggers, staggers like a drunk and gets dismantled like a hut, and its defiance weighs heavy upon it, and it falls, and it doesn’t get back up again.

21. And it happens On That Day: God will bring a reckoning upon the legion of exalted ones in exalted realms, and upon the kings of humankind on human territory.

22. And they’ll be rounded up, prisoners rounded up into a dungeon pit, and shut off in an enclosure, and visited after many days.

23. And the moon will flush with shame; the sun will be abashed, because the God of Legions will reign on the mountain, Zion, and in Jerusalem, and before the elders will be majesty.

We’ve come to the end of an unsparingly mournful sequence in Isaiah’s vision. For the past eleven chapters, the prophet has watched in tears as every hope he had was dashed. Jerusalem was supposed to be the shining city on a hill, the lone beacon of virtue where the Jews showed the world what it looks like to honor God. This was the city built by the chosen people, in which they had been specially commissioned by the almighty himself to act justly and walk humbly.

Instead, Jerusalem’s elites enriched themselves mercilessly at the expense of the lower classes, and her kings allowed the worship of foreign idols in exchange for fleeting alliances with apparently stronger nations. These two infractions were really one and the same — by abusing the poor, the ancient Israelites revealed that even if they claimed to love God they regarded his commandments as optional and so considered him no god at all. The moral decadence of the society made manifest an inward atheism which was bound eventually to express itself in outright apostasy, as indeed it did when King Ahaz allied himself with Assyria’s empire and gods.

The immediate result of this would be conquest at the hands of Babylon, but the real implications of Jerusalem’s fall were far wider-ranging and more devastating even than exile and slavery. We miss the point entirely if we regard this catastrophe as merely historical, and its import as merely an indictment of 8th-century Judaism. That would suggest that we, had we been in the Jews’ position, would have had a better shot at getting it right. Which, of course, is the exact opposite of the case: God himself chose the Jews to be his own people. By definition, there was no one in the world more likely to be righteous than them. If humanity had any hope at all of building a perfectly just society, that hope was Jerusalem.

And Jerusalem had failed. Only one valid conclusion can be drawn from that failure: no human being or culture, however promising, can be perfect. Not ancient Israel, not the Holy Roman Empire, not 21st-century America. However confident we may feel in our own systems of ethics and government, we cannot possibly be more assured of their merits than the Jews of antiquity were assured that the Torah and the Mosaic Law were perfect in their entirety. But even when we are given guidelines for holy living by God himself, what they reveal more than anything is the inner brokenness which makes us incapable of following them. That revelation comes through ancient Jerusalem, but by logical necessity it applies to every other nation and time. Isaiah’s finger is pointed not at the Jewish people — or, not only at them — but at you and me.

Which is why, in Chapter 24, we pull back from the particularities of history and see the cosmic ramifications of the Babylonian conquest. ‘Earth wails; it wanes away. The world withers; it wanes away’ (verse 4). This is a picture of the natural end towards which all great cities, all proud nations, and all human persons must eventually be consigned at the end of time without divine intercession. It is a picture as poetic and expansive as it is brutal and unflinching: not only in one place or era, but ‘within every community’ and forever, there will be ‘terror and traps and tripwires’ to ensnare all flesh (verses 13, 17, 20).

And yet, in the midst of it all, Isaiah hears music of a different strain. ‘Them . . . they raise their voices. They shout in triumph; they bellow with pride in God across the sea’ (verse 14). ‘From the farthest wingtips of Earth’ come the songs of ‘legions arrayed in the cause of righteousness’ (verse 16): distantly, an unseen and unnamed choir sings praise to God. Even now, in the darkest days of human history, ‘they sing, and we hear it.’

Maybe these are the voices of angels. Maybe Isaiah is hearing music from a world beyond our own fallen one, untouched by our suffering. But I don’t think that’s all he’s hearing. I think these are also the voices of the human faithful, those few remaining believers who, though they have come to know their own unrighteousness, nevertheless proclaim that God is good enough to forgive. I think there were those who sang these songs even in exile, even when the destruction of Jerusalem made them see how desperate the condition of mankind really was.

The Jews were scattered all over the world, driven from their country and sent to ‘islands in the ocean’ where they served cruel taskmasters (verse 15). Some of them were even commanded by their Babylonian captors to sing, in response to which they fell on their faces by unfamiliar shores and wept. They wondered how they could possibly sing songs of their home and their God now that both seemed gone (Psalm 137). But I think Isaiah knew they would find it in them to sing all the same. If the prophet heard voices of faultless angels in a blessed heaven, I think he heard those voices in unison with a battered people who would sing on far-off shores in defiant hope for the forgiveness of sins.

That’s what faith is. It’s not church potlucks and clean living, though those things are good. It’s not rituals and recitations, though those can have value too. Faith is finding yourself bereft of any human hope, up to your knees in a disaster of your own making, and still proclaiming that God can set things right. Faith is waiting for those ‘flashes of light’ (verse 15) in which your heart sees what your eyes cannot: that no catastrophe, not even death, will ultimately separate you from the love of God. Forgiveness awaits all who affirm that certainty in the teeth of this sinful world. When believers sing with that kind of hope, the songs of the angels and the songs of the fallen are one and the same.

Rejoice evermore,

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