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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 29, or, The God of the Fallen City

Hello there,

We continue today with Isaiah's reflections on the crisis that will soon face Jerusalem. As always, the translation is below, followed by a short meditation. Also, a new addition: you can now donate to support the Isaiah Project by clicking on the button just above this note. 50% of all donations will go to Open Doors, a charity that supports persecuted Christians around the world.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 29

1. Oh, Ariel, Ariel, town where David pitched his tent: add year upon year, and let the festival days come around again,

2. Still I press hard on Ariel, and misery and mourning come to pass, come to pass for me like at the altar of Ariel.

3. And I pitch my tents to surround you, and tighten in against you with barracks, and mount a stronghold against you.

4. You’re brought low and proclaim from the ground, from the dust — what you say is lowly, and your voice is low like a ghost’s; from the dust your speech whispers.

5. But then your throng of opponents becomes like fine particles of dust, and your throng of brutal warriors like brittle wheat that slips away: it happens, in an instantaneous instant.

6. From the God of Legions comes your reckoning, in thunder and in seismic quakes, a huge voice, tempests and cyclones and a blaze of consuming flame.

7. And it will be like a dream, a vision in the night: the horde of every nation arrayed for battle around Ariel, every one of them arrayed against her and her bulwarks, to hem her in.

8. It will be like when a man dreams in his hunger, and look — he eats, but then he wakes up and he’s empty to the core. Or when a man dreams in his thirst, and look — he drinks, but then he wakes up and see, he’s faint with thirst, the soul in his core is longing. It will be like that for the horde of every nation in battle array on the mountain, Zion.

9. Let yourselves be stunned — get stunned. Get smitten with yourselves, you smitten drunks, drunk — but not with wine. Staggering, but not because of liquor.

10. Because God poured a spirit on you, the heavy breath of exhaustion, and shut your eyes tight. The prophets and your leaders, visionaries: he covered them.

11. And for you it will be a vision of everything, like the proclamations of a sealed book that they give to someone who knows his letters, saying, ‘read this aloud.’ But he says ‘I cannot; it is sealed.’

12. Then the book is given to someone who doesn’t know his letters, saying ‘read this aloud.’ But he says, ‘I don’t know my letters.’

13. Then my Master said, ‘because this nation draws near to me with its mouth and magnifies me with its lips, but its heart is miles away from me, and the fear they have for me is a commandment learned by rote,

14. Because of that, look: here I am again, making miracles happen to this nation, miracles and marvels. The wisdom of their wise men perishes, and the insight of the insightful among them is hidden.

15. Oh, doom for anyone who tries to hide his schemes from God in profundity: what they do is in pitch dark, and they say, ‘who sees us? Who knows us?’

16. Your malleability — one would think you were sculptor’s clay, like a made thing saying about its maker, ‘he didn’t make me.’ Or the sculpture saying to its sculptor, ‘he doesn’t understand.’

17. Won’t it be just a brief moment before Lebanon is back to being a fertile vineyard, a fertile vineyard you could think was a thick forest?

18. And the deaf, On That Day, will hear the proclamations of the book. And out of the depth of the pitch black dark, the eyes of the blind will see.

19. And in God the needy will abound with joy. The destitute among the human race will revel in Israel’s sacred one.

20. Because the brutaliser is wiped out, and the derider is done for; everyone who waits up all night for trouble is cut down —

21. Anyone bringing sin upon any person in any instance, or laying a trap for the rebuker at the gate, or turning away a righteous man over nothing.

22. Therefore so says God, the deity of Jacob’s household, who rescued Abraham: ‘Jacob will not be humiliated now; now his face won’t go white with shame.

23. No, when he sees his children, made by my hands, in the bosom of his family, they will sanctify my name, and hold sacred Jacob’s Sacred One, and tremble before Israel’s god.

24. And those who went astray in spirit will come to know real understanding; those who muttered under their breath will learn the received doctrine.

-- -- --

The fall of Jerusalem meant the annihilation of the world. To Isaiah, this was the city of God -- the physical location where divine sovreignty and justice were manifest on earth. We moderns, who tend to believe that God is not bound to any time or place, can hardly fathom what hope and urgency the ancient Jews invested in this city and this line of kings. Jerusalem (referred to as 'Ariel' in this chapter) was the place on earth where God's power, favor, and benevolence could be definitively seen and experienced. If the city were ever conquered, it would throw all of that into doubt.

Isaiah is reckoning with this in our present chapter. He can see that King Ahaz's rebellion against God set the chosen people on a path which must end with Jerusalem in rubble. What can it possibly mean?

Perhaps it means the whole thing was a lie to begin with. It almost seems like that in the opening verses: Jerusalem is 'brought low' and whimpers in its downfall 'like a ghost.' Has God given up on the human race? Did he not mean what he said when he promised to rule forever in Israel? Isaiah is forced here to grapple with these horrors as very real possibilities.

And yet even as these chapters acknowledge the violence of the catastrophe, they insist that God's wrath is not his final word. In the scope of salvation history, it will be 'just a brief moment' (verse 17) before things are set to rights. The enemies of Israel will dissolve from the earth 'like fine particles of dust,' and in retrospect their onslaught will look 'like a dream' (5-7). The fall of Jerusalem is a transitory stage in the unfolding of a new, glorious, and transformed world order wherein 'the needy will abound with joy' (19). But if so, why this terrible suffering? Why the misery en route to redemption?

God himself gives Isaiah an answer to this question in verse 13: '"because this nation draws near to me with its mouth and magnifies me with its lips, but its heart is miles away from me, and the fear they have for me is a commandment they learned by rote."' The high calling of servitude -- the abundant life of righteousness and charity to which Israel was invited -- has become a dead thing in corrupted hearts. It has atrophied so that Israel's allegiance to God is now an empty slogan. The people can quote Bible verses without hesitation, but the naked predation and injustice in their society proclaims them to be liars nonetheless.

Something like this happens to everyone who believes. We begin with a real commitment to righteousness, warm and compelling in each present moment. But over time our principles calcify within us and become distant ideas rather than living passions. We take our own goodness for granted and become complacent about actually loving God and neighbour. Israel's failure here is, as always, everyone's failure.

If this is simply our predicament, then maybe revlitalisation means sweeping out the remains of old structures and ways of thinking that have grown dry within us. Maybe that calls for a violent disruption of our favourite routines or most cherished comforts so that the essential reality of who God made us can find new expression in a new way of doing things. Maybe, for fallen creatures, that's what it means to be alive: a continual wreaking of small havocs. Maybe, this side of paradise, we were never really meant to be safe.

This is a harsh discovery. No one wants to lose hold of prosperity. But what Isaiah has seen in the foregoing chapters is that our best days are as corrupted as our worst. When Israel was throwing raucous victory parties, Isaiah said: the world calls you blessed, but I call you cursed. Even your triumphs need sweeping away and remaking in the image of God.

This is terrible news for us when everything is going great and we're on top of our game. But it's great news in the depths of our sorrows. In crippling grief and unendurable pain, Isaiah says: all this shall pass away. The very city of God, the one thing on earth you thought was stable and trustworthy, could collapse and leave you broken and still you will find: God lives. 'The destitute among the human race will revel in Israel's Sacred One.' 'Out of the depth of the pitch black dark, the eyes of the blind will see' (18-19). It is to those whom this life crushes that God brings comfort. He will sweep all things away to transform them into something better, and blessed is he who welcomes that day.

'God anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He sent me to bandage broken hearts; to announce liberty for hostages and jailbreak for prisoners' (Isaiah 61:1; Luke 4:18). 'It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick' (Mark 2:17). 'Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted' (Matthew 5:4). It is when you suffer the loss you thought you could never survive that God proclaims: yours is my kingdom. It is to you in your moments of anguish and doubt that he says: I am with you forever. Your job, your relationship, Jerusalem itself: even if all these things fall to pieces at your feet, take heart. God has promised to survive them all.

Rejoice evermore,
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