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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 26, or, Like a Woman Giving Birth

Hello everyone,

Today's chapter continues Isaiah's poetic description of what salvation will be like at the end of days. Recordings can be purchased here; the translation and an essay are below.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 26

1. On That Day this song will be sung in Judah’s land:

A city of strength is ours.
Salvation: God laid it down as our walls and our reinforcements.

2. Open the gates:
A righteous nation that keeps the faith will come in.

3. You will fence off the mind that fixes on you with peace, peace
Because it trusts in you.

4. Trust God forever and ever:
In GOD WHO IS GOD is a rock for all generations.

5. Yes: he abased those who live in exalted realms; in the city set on high:
He brought it low, he laid it low to the earth,
He wrenched it down into the dust.

6. A foot will trample it down: the foot of the needy —
The relentless tread of the poor.

7. The righteous travel on a route made straight:
Oh You who Stand Straight and Tall, you smooth the path the righteous take.

8. Yes indeed, on the path of your judgment, oh God, we’ve put our high hopes in you.
Our souls have ached with longing for your name and the memory of you.

9. In my soul I ache with longing for you at night. My breath itself, in my insides . . . I look for you at dawn,
Because whenever your judgments are on Earth, whoever lives in the world learns righteousness.

10. Let the wicked man be granted mercy: he still won’t learn righteousness.
In the land of the straight and narrow, he’ll still do wrong, and he won’t see the splendour of God.

11. God: your hand is on high but they still have no vision;
They will, though. They’ll see. They’ll be ashamed of their fierce resentment against the people, oh yes,
your oppressors will be food for the flame.

12. God, you will ordain peace for us,
Because you’ve accomplished for us everything we had to do.

13. God. Our god . . . masters other than you have held us in their sway;
But thanks to you we remember your name.

14. The dead will never live, no, the ghosts will never rise —
That’s how you’ve reckoned with them, destroyed them and erased their memory.

15. You’ve gathered together a people, God, gathered a people together: you are magnified.
You had driven them far, all to the ends of the earth.

16. God, in oppression they became aware of you;
They poured out their whispered prayer when you disciplined them.

17. Like a pregnant woman getting close to giving birth, when she writhes and screams in her labour pains —
That’s how we’ve been in your sight, God.

18. We were pregnant, we writhed, but we gave birth to something like empty air . . .
We can accomplish no salvation on earth, no, not a single one of those who live in the world has come back to life.

19. But the dead who belong to you will live; so will my collapsing body: they will be raised.
Cut short your sleep, sing in triumph, you who lie in the dirt: the dewdrops upon you shine like dew in the light, and the earth is bringing its ghosts back to life.

20. Onward, my people, go into your chambers and shut your doors around you;
Hide just for a moment, until the rage passes you by.

21. Because — look: God, coming forth from his station, to bring a reckoning for the evil of everyone who lives on Earth:
Earth will lay bare her blood. She won’t hide her murder victims anymore.

When death came into the world, birth became agony. That's the story of Genesis 3, in which the world's first man and wife disobey God. No one quite understands why and how it happened, but everyone feels the consequences of it: ever since our first ancestors went astray, something bone-deep in us resists our divine calling to be and do good. There is rebellion in our DNA, and it frustrates our every effort at perfection. Painfully, tragically, each of us knows the feeling of being appalled by his own thoughts and actions.

The agony of this condition is how we know that we are at war with ourselves. The minute we undertake anything worthwhile, some deep-rooted mechanism of our being fights us with a feeling like gears grinding against one another. I want to give freely, but my emotions wrench me back with a spontaneous greed I can't control. Or I want to show mercy but feel nothing except the poison of rage. Maybe I win that fight, maybe I lose it, but no matter what it always hurts. Seeking virtue in this broken world means wrestling your own contorted self into submission.

I don't think anything delights God quite so much as new life, which is perhaps why pain in childbirth is a consequence of the fall. The most magnificent thing that human flesh can do is also the thing against which its very synapses and nerve endings rebel with the most ferocious kind of antipathy: in the instant that a child emerges into the light of day, sin and death assert themselves in rage against the body that dares act as conduit for God's creative power. Labour pains are a physical manifestation, in concentrated form, of what it means to do good in a fallen world.

Which is also why, in this chapter, Isaiah represents the salvation of that same world as childbirth on the part of the human race. Verse 17: 'like a pregnant woman getting close to giving birth, when she writhes and screams in her labour pains — that’s how we’ve been in your sight, God.' In line 18, the misery of our failure to attain righteousness is expressed as a horror akin to that of miscarriage: 'we gave birth to something like empty air.' Then, in line 19, as God steps in to accomplish what we can't, the prophet foresees the resurrection of the dead and the restoration of the human body. 'Cut short your sleep . . . , you who lie in the dirt: the dewdrops upon you shine like dew in the light, and the earth is bringing its ghosts back to life.'

Sin is not only our personal wrongdoing, though God knows there is enough of that to go around. It is the warping of all creation so that it resists divine love and militates against the abundance of life which is God's own joy. But if the pain of a woman in labour is the pain of life fighting against death, then every time we feel it we know that life is still fighting. A dead world does not suffer; it does not feel anything at all. The experience of pain and sorrow at the state of humanity is how we know that something alive in us is struggling against sin.

Christians believe that the birth of a child is what won victory for us in that struggle. Through her own labour, Mary gave us a son who will one day put an end to pain altogether. In light of that miracle, Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (8:19-23) that 'the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves . . . groan inwardly while we wait for the redemption of our bodies.' Paul's vision was the same as Isaiah's: the pain of childbirth is a sign of what it means to be human. It is the pain that tells us salvation is both needful and forthcoming.

'The dead who belong to you will live; so will my collapsing body: they will be raised' (verse 19). With those words Isaiah insists that God will bring the pregnancy of all creation to term. Though we inflict ghoulish harm on one another; though we let each other down in every way imaginable; still God will enter into our agony and live. Every time a mother gives birth, her pain and her joy are an embodied prophecy which testifies to this fact: that though the world is hell-bent on death, still and through it all, God will have life.

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