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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 3, or, The Daughters of Zion

Here's this week's translation, with some further thoughts below.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 3

Isaiah sees Jerusalem corrupted by material wealth; he proclaims a vision of the day when God will bring justice back to Israel and to the world.

1. Look: see the Master, God with his Legions, taking Jerusalem’s sustenance away, taking the staff Judah leans on. All the sustenance of bread and all the sustenance of water.

2. Taking away the war hero, fighting man, judge and prophet, fortune teller and elder statesman,

3. Captain of squadrons, man of high rank, mentor, wise man, conjurer, silver-tongued scholar.

4. I give them boys for rulers, and infants will be sovereign over them.

5. And then the people tyrannise each other, man against man and neighbour against neighbour. Children will disdain their elders, and lowlifes disdain the men of consequence.

6. To the point that a man will grab hold of his brother in their father’s house: ‘The mantle is yours — you be our captain, with this crisis on your hands.’

7. He’ll take up an oath On That Day, saying, ‘I won’t be the one to patch this up: there’s no bread in my house, and no mantle. You won’t appoint me the people’s captain.’

8. Because Jerusalem has collapsed and Judah is fallen: their tongues and the things they do are against God, to embitter the eyes of his majesty.

9. The looks on their faces bear witness against them. Their sin! Like Sodom they tell all about it. They don’t keep it hidden. Oh their souls, their souls! They’ve lavished evil upon themselves.

10. Say this for the righteous: that it is good. That the fruit of the things they do will be their food.

11. Doom, oh, for the guilty man, this evil: what his own hand accomplishes is what will be done to him.

12. My people! Infants tyrannise them, and women lord it over them. My people, your guides lead you astray; they destroy the paths you travel on.

13. God rises to argue his case, then stands to bring judgment upon the nations.

14. God will advance in justice upon the elder statesmen of his people, and their leaders. ‘You were the ones who devoured the vineyard; the plunder from the poor is in your houses.

15. What do you get out of beating down my people, and grinding down the faces of the poor?’ declares my Master, the God of Legions,

16. And God says, ‘because of how Zion’s daughters put on airs and strut around with necks outstretched, batting their eyes, sashaying as they go with bangles jangling on their feet,

17. The Master will disfigure their scalps, these daughters of Zion, and God will lay their cavities bare.

18. On That Day my Master will sweep away the elegance of the bangles, and the ribbons in their hair, and the gems around their necks,

19. The chokers and the bracelets and the veils,

20. The wigs and the anklets and the girdles, the corsets and the charm-stones,

21. The rings and nose-piercings,

22. The changes of outfit, and the cloaks, and the capes, and the purses,

23. And the pocket mirrors, and the linen, and the turbans, and the gauze.

24. Then it happens: where there were perfumed exhalations a stench will arise,
and a gash where there was a girdle,
and bald heads where there was coiffed hair,
and burlap garments where there was fine attire.
Where there was beauty, burn wounds.

25. Your grown men will fall by the sword, and your war heroes will fall in battle.

26. Then her gates will wail and weep. Emptied, she'll sit on the earth.

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Zion is God's throne, and her daughters are God's people. That's the bare bones of what you need to know in this chapter of Isaiah: the poetic phrase 'Zion's daughter' refers collectively to all the Jews chosen by God and living in Israel's sacred capital of Jerusalem. In the south of that city stands the literal mountain of Zion. It was captured by David, the first truly great Jewish king, in the 10th century BC.

Another king was fated to emerge from David's descendants and take his place on Zion. This king would be the Messiah anointed by God to rule the world in justice, the Messiah who emerges so dramatically in the words Isaiah preached to Jerusalem. If you had been there to hear the prophet back then, you could have looked southwards up to the very peak where God's righteous king would one day be seated in triumph.

One day, but not today. Because Isaiah's words are for a time when Israel has lost sight of what matters. In chapter 1 we got a prophetic picture of Zion's daughter reduced and abandoned — Isaiah foretold a coming disaster that would empty out Jerusalem, leaving only a few 'stragglers' behind (1:8-9). Here, in Chapter 3, we learn more about why that has to happen: in their prosperity, the Israelites have forgotten the God who gave them all they have.*

And so now we get a picture of Zion's actual daughters, not the idealised holy people but the frivolous socialites strutting around in tacky gems, 'necks outstretched, batting their eyes' (3:16). These are real individuals, but as always Isaiah makes them stand in for something bigger — for the arrogance rampant among a ruling class that piles up wealth at the expense of the helpless. The prophet looks around at these so-called daughters of Zion, parading through Jerusalem's streets past hungry beggars and impoverished widows, and he is disgusted with what God's people have become.

It's important to stress that wealth and pleasure, in and of themselves, are not what's being condemned here. Not too long from now (Isaiah 25:6), we'll get a vision in which God personally offers humanity a rich feast of 'fine, sophisticated wine' and 'fat cuts of meat.' The whole point of Israel is that it's the 'land of milk and honey' where a generous deity showers his people with gifts. Good food and family homes, strong cities with well-built towers: these are central delights of the divinely created universe. God is not why we can't have nice things.

But God did warn his people, right before they occupied their promised land (Deuteronomy 8:11-14): be careful, he said, or else 'once you've eaten your fill, . . . once your flocks and your silver and your gold and everything you have has grown abundant, then your heart will grow haughty and you will forget God, your own god.' That's the error here: not just having material possessions but fixating on them, taking pride in them and relying on them for your happiness. Isaiah's Jerusalem has forgotten the God who gave all these good things, and the righteous use of them in his name that makes them good to begin with.

Still. We have to reckon with the ugliness of what happens when God shows up in this chapter. Line 17: 'the Master will disfigure their scalps, these daughters of Zion.' When God 'lays their cavities bare' in retribution, that means exactly what you think it means.

This will come up again in Isaiah: the remedy for sin often looks like a visitation from a pitiless avenger, ripping clothes and flesh off of human bodies and tearing our ill-gotten gains out of our blood-soaked hands. We may think we want a God who rectifies injustice, but can we countenance the violence, the apparent relish, with which Isaiah shows him doing it?

I have no easy answers for that question, because this is not an easy prophecy. It is what Jesus' followers might have called 'a hard teaching' (see John 6:60). But like all hard teachings, Isaiah's cry for repentance is not his destination but his starting point. This prophet makes us feel the jealousy of our God not so that we can become disgusted with our excess but so that we can remember where our gifts come from and what they are for.

Everything we own will one day be taken from us, now or at the hour of our death. That tragic fact is the beginning, but not the end, of wisdom. Because hidden at the source of all our delight in those transient and potentially corrupting possessions — present always in the satisfaction of a bookshelf carved and stocked with care, or in the bliss of whisky shared with friends — is a core of excellence and communion which does not die even when houses and nations collapse. Isaiah knows how imperative it is that we learn this heartbreaking truth: 'Grass withers. Blossoms wilt. But the proclamation of our god will stand fast for eternity.' (Isaiah 40:8).

So somehow over the course of these sixty-six chapters, in the midst of conquest and exile, Isaiah and his people — along with those of us who follow their journey — have to get past this place of decadence where God has been forgotten. We have to get through this hideous unmasking in which God snatches away everything we own, back to that mountain where God feeds us with the rich and true feast he promises on Zion.

And if the first step down that road is to lose all the stuff you thought you needed; if you're too far gone to recall that you can do without it; if you're clutching it with a death grip for fear of losing it; then perhaps the best and hardest thing a loving father can do is prise open your white-knuckled grip and take away your iPhone, or your jewelry, or your fancy car, or whatever poor excuse for God you were using to bring you some flimsy shadow of joy. Maybe the first thing God does is tear all your favourite things out of your hands, but maybe the next thing he says is, 'look: you never needed any of this.'

Jesus' own hard teaching was this (John 6:51): 'I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live forever.' At Isaiah 55:2, God says: 'why are you shelling out money for things that aren’t bread? Why do you toil to get nothing that satisfies? Listen, oh, listen to me and eat good things; let your souls relish fat cuts of meat.' At this painful beginning of a long prophecy and a difficult story, we can trust in this consolation: that when God takes away 'all the sustenance of bread and all the sustenance of water' (3:1), he never does so but to give us the fountainhead of real water and the sustenance of true bread in its place. He empties our hands so he can give us himself.

It's a long journey for the Israelites of Chapter 3 to get from where they are to that feast on the mountaintop. We'll follow them there together. See you next week.

Rejoice evermore,

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*In Isaiah's day, what was once the single nation of Israel had split into two kingdoms: one (containing Jerusalem) referred to as 'Judah', and another called 'Israel'. But Isaiah also uses the word 'Israel' in its original sense, meaning the whole unified Jewish nation and its people. That is how I use it here too.