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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 28, or, A Good King in Dark Days

Hello there,

I'm pleased to offer the next portion of our translation. We move into a new historical period with this chapter, so the essay below explains a little bit about the themes of what's to come.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 28

1. Oh, doom to the garland of pride on the head of Ephraim’s drunks, and the wilting bloom of their doe-eyed beauty, on the head of those engorged gullies, drowsy with wine.

2. See, my Master has someone firm and unrelenting, like hail pouring down in a fearsome tempest of annihilation, like a downpour of voluminous water overflowing — he will let it drop onto the earth with his hand.

3. The garland of pride on Ephraim’s drunks will be trampled underfoot,

4. And the wilting bloom of their doe-eyed beauty, on top of those engorged gullies, will be like the first fruit in the final days before summer ends: when the seer sees it, he devours it while it’s still in the palm of his hand.

5. On That Day God with his Legions will be the garland of beauty, and the diadem of loveliness, for those of his people still left behind;

6. He will be the spirit of judgment for anyone who sits on the judgment seat, and the conquering hero for anyone who turns the battle towards the gate.

7. But they too are lost in their wine, they stagger in their liquor — priest and prophet lost in liquor, consumed with wine. They stagger under liquor’s influence; their vision wanders; they go astray in their verdicts —

8. Yes, every table is covered in vomit and feces, with no space left.

9. Whom can he teach to know? Who can be made to understand what he hears? Children weaned off of milk, who have just outgrown breastfeeding —

10. For it comes rule by rule, by rule by rule. Lesson by lesson, by lesson by lesson. A little here, a little there.

11. With sputtering lips and foreign tongue, it will be proclaimed to this people,

12. To whom it was said: ‘this is rest; give this rest to weary. This is tranquility.’ But they didn’t want to hear.

13. God’s Proclamation came to them rule by rule, by rule by rule. Lesson by lesson, by lesson by lesson. A little here, a little there — because they’d go forth, but then stumble back, and be broken, and trapped, and captured.

14. And so: hear God’s Proclamation, men of mockery, rulers of this people in Jerusalem.

15. Because you said, ‘we’ve cut a deal with death, and with the Grave; we’ve laid out our shared vision:
When the Whip goes whipping out over everything, it’ll pass us by; it won’t come near us, because we made a shelter out of lies, and we are hidden in deceit.’

16. Therefore so says God, my Master: ‘watch me lay a foundation stone down on Zion, a stone that’s been tested, cherished; a keystone, a foundation of foundations. No rush; he’s secure.

17. And I lay down justice and righteousness as weights and measures, and hailstones sweep away that shelter of lies; the waters submerge their hiding place.

18. Then your deal with death will be purged from the record. The vision you shared with the Grave won’t stand: The Whip that whips out over everything will pass through, and you’ll be crushed under it.

19. Whenever it passes through, it will take you. Morning by morning it will pass through, by day and by night, and even just to hear about it, when you really understand, is to shudder with fear.

20. Because the bed is too short to stretch out in, and the blanket too thin when you wrap yourself up.

21. Because like the mountain, Perazim, God will stand; in his rage he will quake like the canyon in Gibeon — to do the things he does, those unfamiliar things, and to serve the way he serves, that outlandish service.

22. Now then: don’t get too snide, or the chains that hold you will be strong: I’ve heard about an annihilation from my Master, God of Legions. It’s being carefully worked out across the whole earth.

23. Lend your ears and listen to my voice. Pay attention: hear what I say.

24. Does the ploughman plough through the whole day planting seeds? Does he break open his clods of soil?

25. When he’s smoothed out its surface, doesn’t he scatter the fennel seeds and throw forth cumin? Doesn’t he put the first-tier grain and the designated barley and the spelt each in the plot where they belong?

26. He disciplines him for the sake of justice. His god teaches him.

27. Because it’s not with a threshing-sledge that he cracks open the seeds. He doesn’t roll a cart’s wheel over the cumin: it’s with a club that he beats the seeds, and the cumin with a sceptre.

28. Is grain ground for bread? He won’t thresh it ceaselessly, or crack it with his cart’s wheel, and his horsemen won’t grind it.

29. This too emerges from God of Legions: he is miraculous in mentorship; he expands his thought.

-- -- --

Today, Isaiah sees something new coming. It's distant at first, the details unclear: all we can tell directly from this chapter is that both northern and southern Israel are convulsing with unruly celebrations and extravagant self-indulgence. To the north, in Ephraim, drunkards in the 'wilting bloom' of their transitory youth stumble blindly through the streets (verses 1-6). To the south, Judah's capital city of Jerusalem is slick with the excrement of appalling debauchery (7-13). But what are they celebrating?

The hint of an answer is in verse 15: "'we've cut a deal with death,'" laugh the ruling classes of Israel. This much sounds familiar. For his first 27 chapters, Isaiah has focussed on the doomed political alliances of Ephraim (with Damascus) and Judah (with Assyria) -- commitments to foreign policy and foreign gods which expressed a deep and fatal apostasy in the heart of the chosen nation. The final culprit in that story of decline was King Ahaz of Judah, whose conspiracy with Assyria protected Jerusalem from a momentary threat but left it vulnerable to Babylonian devastation in the long run.

But though those failures are in the background of what is to come, Chapter 28 also points forward to a new crisis and a world after Ahaz. With Judah cosied up to Assyria, Ephraim and Damascus became vassal states between 732 and 722 BC. By the time Ahaz's son, Hezekiah, took the throne (c. 715), Assyrian rule dominated the whole region around Jerusalem. This was an enourmous imperial power, formidable but unstable: every time one of its kings died, outskirt cities like Damascus would see a chance to rise up and reclaim independence. When they did, the rival kingdom of Egypt was quick to offer military aid in a ferocious attempt to chip away at Assyrian power. Hezekiah came of age in a turbulent world of intrigue and insurrection, trapped between two volatile empires and with the heat of revolution in the air.

In 704, the tension boiled over: the Assyrian king Sargon II died, and his son Sennacherib succeeded him. Egypt smelled blood, and she wanted Jerusalem on her side. In the Egyptian promise of manpower and support, Hezekiah saw his chance to gain a little security for his embattled nation. But the deal was rotten, and Isaiah knew it. God had shown him that Egypt would buckle under Sennacherib's eventual onslaught. So the prophet counselled Hezekiah to hold fast and trust God, just as he had counselled Ahaz -- but like his father before him, Hezekiah made the wrong choice. As we'll see in the chapters to come, the 'deal with death' in verse 15 is Jerusalem's contract with Egypt: an attempt to avoid that unstoppable 'Whip that billows out over everything' which is Assyrian conquest. When Egyptian strength dissolved, it would prove once again that only God's word is trustworthy.

What makes Hezekiah's story truly tragic is that, by all accounts, the young king was a good man. A better and more righteous man than his father: the second Book of Kings says that 'there was no one like him' for kingly leadership in obedience to God (18:5-8). In Hezekiah, then, we see Isaiah wrestling with something different, something sadder and more complex, than he had to under Ahaz. The older monarch was manifestly and constitutionally impious. His failures, though they ruined a nation, were ultimately his own. But Hezekiah, though he stumbled in the case of Egypt, was in general an admirable man and ruler. In another time, he might have overseen prosperity and promise for the Jewish people.

But what Isaiah sees in Hezekiah is this: we are not simply guilty of committing individual sins. We are also born into the sins of our fathers, weakened by the broken structures they left behind and in which we operate. It's there in the first half of this chapter: Hezekiah's Israel is the one Ahaz left behind. It's an Israel of hedonistic nihilism content with momentary and short-sighted political gains at the expense of righteousness. Small wonder that this last great king, try though he might, could not save his nation. The moment he slipped up even once, the whole machinery of history, already geared towards catastrophe, magnified his error a hundred fold.

In the chapters to come, we'll follow Isaiah as he mourns over the painful realisation that even good men are born into a fallen world. We'll ponder with him over what might now be called the 'great man theory' of history, the question of how much one individual can do to change the course of events. And we will hear him affirm that despite it all, though even the good and decent among us are powerless over sin, still God is mighty and willing to save.

Rejoice evermore,
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