The Isaiah Project: Chapter 25, or, A Feast on the MountaintopHappy Easter everybody! Isaiah is here with an appropriately (if only intermittently) cheerful vision. It is below, with an essay following. Recordings are available here.
The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 25
1. God! You are my god — I will exalt you; I will praise your name, because you have done miracles, given true guidance from long ago and far away, secure in truth:
2. You made what was once a town into a pile of rubble; made an armored city into a ruin; made a fortress filled with foreigners into nothing. For the rest of time it won’t be built.
3. And so a mighty nation will magnify you; a city of ruthless peoples will fear you,
4. Because you are power for the needy, power for beggars in their oppression; shelter from the deluge; shade from the scorching heat; when even the breath of the ruthless is like a deluge against the city ramparts.
5. You subdued the roar of foreign crowds like scorching heat in a desert, heat in the shade of a cloud. The song of the ruthless ones will be brought low.
6. And God with his Legions will make a feast,
For all the nations,
On this mountain,
Of fat things.
A feast of fine wine and fat cuts of meat. Fine, sophisticated wine.
7. He will devour, on this mountain,
The veil that veils over all nations —
The shroud spread across every race.
8. He will devour death forever, and my Master, God, will wipe tears off of every face.
As for the ignominy of his people: he will banish it from the earth —
For so God proclaimed.
9. And it will be said On That Day, ‘Look: our god. This is him, we put our high hopes in him, and he saved us. This is God; we put our high hopes in him — we will celebrate and rejoice in his salvation,
10. Because God’s hand will hover over this mountain, and Moab will be trampled under him, like straw trampled into a pile of dung.
11. And he stretches wide his hands in their midst, like a swimmer stretches his hands to swim, and he brings their arrogance low, though their hands are cunning and deft.
12. He brings low the fortress and the lofty ramparts of your walls, humbles them, wrenches them to the ground, into the dirt.
Anyone can predict disaster, but only a prophet can comfort his people. Human nature is broken and earthly peace is flimsy; if you foretell the collapse of the social order you'll probably be proven right by history sooner rather than later. Every great society has its visionary doomsayers: Athens had Plato, Rome had Cicero, and the American Republic has seen its fair share of pessimism lately too. Things being what they are, it's always easy to look at the world and see it ending.
Isaiah has done exactly that in our most recent verses; in the previous chapter (24), he foretold not only the conquest of Jerusalem but the wholesale decay of the human species and the evanescence of all biological life. He knew that the Jewish people would face appalling torment at the hands of their captors in the years to come, and he knew that if God's people were lost for good then the world's one great hope would be extinguished.
And yet the prophet still heard singing. From distant shores, he said, 'legions arrayed in the cause of righteousness' were proclaiming God's praise (24:14-16). Isaiah's faith -- his certainty in the face of every disaster that he knew would come -- was that God remained sovereign and good despite it all. In the midst of it all, in fact: God had chosen the Jews knowing they would fall, knowing that King Ahaz would apostatise and Nebuchadnezzar II would invade, knowing that his children would not listen and their city would not stand. In the fullness of that knowledge, he had chosen them still, and he had promised to intervene and keep the light of the world from flickering out. So even on the brink of exile, even when the worst was still to come, Isaiah heard singing.
In this chapter, the prophet speaks the words of that song. This is the poetry of the eternal promise -- a hymn about what it will be like when God at last sends his Messiah to restore Jerusalem and gather his people back. It is unabashedly lavish in its detail, fleshy and physical in its sensory delight. You can almost imagine Isaiah standing on the holy mountain of Zion and proclaiming, 'God with his Legions will make a feast . . . on this mountain, of fat things. A feast of fine wine and fat cuts of meat. Fine, sophisticated wine' (verse 6).
In previous chapters, we saw Isaiah's disgust at the material excess of 8th-century BC Jerusalem. We heard him predict that God would deprive his people of the riches which they had hoarded unscrupulously and to which they had become cripplingly attached. But here we are reminded that neither God nor his prophet despises physical abundance or pleasure per se. On the contrary: good food and fine wine are the tangible evidence that God himself chooses to give of his own surpassing goodness. Loving him and being with him, says Isaiah, is like relishing a hunk of tender meat.
But in order to love God's gifts rightly, we have to love God more than them. Sometimes that takes deprivation, which is what the Jewish people are about to suffer at the hands of Babylon. Riches in Jerusalem have surpassed mercy and justice in importance, which means that riches have become instruments of death rather than delights of life. Knowing that the Jews will therefore suffer a period of hunger and pain in order to re-learn their reliance upon God, Isaiah does not neglect to assure his people in no uncertain terms that loss is not the final word. Pain is to come, but it is pain in service of richer joy and deeper pleasure. That promise is what will sustain the faithful in hope as they go into exile.
It is also that promise, and only that promise, which can sustain us in the face of this fallen world. We Christians spend a lot of time insisting that suffering is baked into human life, and we're keen to proclaim that God is good nevertheless -- that he has taken our brokenness into account and will save us in the end. But in order to make that insistence plausible, we have to found our hope on the genuine and unmitigated pleasure of what is to come. If Christians are warned against hedonism then we are also, it seems to me, forbidden from that dour disdain of pleasure that too often makes religion grim and tight-lipped. God's gifts are good, and what God promises is better still. All true pleasure, if properly enjoyed, is sanctified by God as a foretaste of how excellent it will be to meet him. That day of days will be a feast indeed.