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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 30, or, The God Who Waits

Hello again! Below, please find our latest chapter, followed by an essay as ever.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 30

1. ‘Oh, doom for defiant sons,’ declares God, ‘getting advice, but not from me; planning plans to get covered, but not with my spirit, to amass sin upon sin.

2. Going down to walk right into Egypt, without asking for words from my mouth — to strengthen themselves with Pharaoh’s strength, and take refuge under Egypt’s shadow.

3. Pharaoh’s strength will be your disgrace; your refuge under Egypt’s shadow will be your humiliation.

4. Because his elites were at Zoan, and his messengers have drawn near to Chanes.

5. They were all ashamed of the people that couldn’t be profitable to them, couldn’t help or bring profit, but only shame, even loathing.

6. The burden of beasts in the wildlands:
In a land of pressure and oppression — out of which come lioness and lion, viper and winged serpent of flame — they will carry their wealth on donkeys’ shoulders, their treasures on camels’ haunches, to a people that offers no profit.

7. And Egypt’s help will be empty, useless. And so I called on them, in all their bluster, to just settle down.

8. Now go: write for them on a slab, set it down on a scroll — it will be until the Day to come, on and on until forever:

9. How this is an embittered nation of dishonest children, sons who don’t want to listen to what God teaches.

10. Who say to those that see, ‘don’t see,’ and to those with vision, ‘don’t show us your vision of what’s wholesome; make your proclamations to us smooth; give us a vision of delusion.’

11. Get out of the way. Veer off to the side of the road. Get Israel’s Sacred One out of our sight.

12. Therefore, so says Israel’s Sacred One: ‘because you rejected this proclamation, because you rely on calumny and perversity, because you depend on them,

13. Therefore this guilt will be on you, like a fracture ready to descend on you, swelling and bursting through your high levees, whose shattering comes instantaneously, in an instant.

14. He’ll shatter it, the way a potter’s jar is broken to bits. He’ll spare nothing: in its breaking there will not be so much as a shard to be found that could carry a flame from a hearth or water from a puddle.

15. Because so said God, my Master, Israel’s Sacred One: ‘With a change of direction, with a coming to rest, you will be saved. Your strength will be in serenity and trust. But you wouldn’t accept.

16. You said, ‘No: we’ll run away on horseback.’ So you’ll run away. ‘We’ll be swift on our chariots.’ So your persecutors will give swift chase.

17. A thousand of you will run from the rebuke of a single one of them, from the reproach of five of them, until you’re left at the peak of the mountain like a beacon, like a flag at the top of the hill.

18. And so God will wait to show you mercy, and so he will rear up to show you spacious compassion, because God is a god of justice — blessed are those who wait for him.

19. Because, people who live on Zion, in Jerusalem, you who have sobbed will sob no more. Merciful God will show mercy at the sound of your wailing voice; as soon as he hears it, he’ll answer you.

20. Now, my master will give you bread of oppression, and water of persecution, but your teacher will no longer be driven away; your own eyes will be the ones that see your teacher.

21. And your ears will hear the proclamation at your back, which says: ‘this is the path. Walk in it, whether you turn to the left or the right.

22. And you will make the casings of your silver idols filthy, and the overlay of your golden sculptures; you’ll toss them out like soiled menstrual cloths — ‘get gone,’ you’ll say to them.

23. And he gives rain to the seed you sow, which you sow in the soil, and bread comes from the soil’s produce, and it’s rich and plump, and your flocks will graze On That Day, in lush pasture.

24. And the oxen, and the colts that work the soil — the provender they eat will be cleansed, winnowed with shovel and fan.

25. And it happens on every lofty mountain, and every elevated hill: streams and tributaries on the day of massive slaughter, when the towers fall.

26. And it happens: the light from the moon becomes like the light from the sun, and the light from the sun will be seven times what it was, like the light of seven days in one — on the Day when God bandages his people’s brokenness, heals the wounds from the beating they took.

27. See: the Name of God comes from far away, blazing with his fury, magnificent and weighty in its burden. His lips are frothing with anger and his tongue is like a flame that devours.

28. His breath is like a river overflowing, reaching up to the throat, to sift through nations with his sieve of nullification, when the halter that misleads is in the people’s jaws.

29. Your song will be like when you consecrate a sacrificial feast in the night; the joy of your heart like when you step in time with pipes and go onto God's mountain, onto Israel’s rock.

30. And God will make his magnificent voice heard; make visible the descent of his arm — in righteous indignation, in a blaze of devouring flame, an expansive downpour, a scattering of hailstones.

31. Yes, out of God’s voice comes devastation for Assyria, that club he used for beating.

32. And it happens: wherever the sceptre of foundation passes by, the sceptre God laid upon him, there will be tambourines and strings, and in convulsions of war he will wage war against them.

33. Yes, in Topheth the hearth was set in order long ago, in preparation for the king himself, made wide and deep, its piling up for conflagration and its abundant lumber — God’s exhalation, like a river of sulphur, sets it all alight.

-- -- --

There is a famous story that the ancient Greek philosopher Plato told at the beginning of his masterwork, the Republic (page 327c). It goes like this: Socrates, the wisest man in Greece, was invited to spend the night with some friends at a colleague's house. Socrates wasn't interested -- he asked his hosts if he could persuade them to let him bow out gracefully. 'Can you possibly convince us,' they replied, 'if we're not listening?' At this, even the great sage was stumped: 'I cannot,' he answered, and he stayed.

It's a casual anecdote that conceals a bitter truth: reason is powerless if it falls on deaf ears. Isaiah, too, knew this well. Back in Chapter 6, when he first received his commission to prophecy, God sent him to the Jewish people with a chilling proclamation. 'Fatten these people’s hearts,' said God. 'Weigh down their ears; shut their eyes. Otherwise they would see with their eyes, and with their ears, listen, and understand in their hearts, and turn, and find healing' (6:10). I have written already about what I think this means: that each time you shut out God's voice you make it more difficult to hear. Atheism, like belief, is self-reinforcing. Each has its own internal logic which, once its premises are accepted, becomes harder and harder to think your way out of.

The really fearsome thing with which Isaiah must now cope is that this entrenchment of disbelief extends beyond individual lives and imprisons whole generations in the sins of their fathers. Parents teach their children systems of value and ways of looking at the world -- there's no escaping that, for good or ill. Isaiah is contemplating an Israel which for years has been led by dishonest priests and depraved monarchs, fathers who instructed their sons in corrupt systems of life and government. I bet God's words were echoing in the prophet's mind: it is not just one person but a whole nation whose eyes have been shut. The people are not just choosing the wrong path: they are born already on it.

Hence God's words in the present chapter: 'with a change of direction, with a coming to rest, you will be saved. . . . But you wouldn't accept' (verse 15). The Israelites have reached a point at which they are hurting so bad that they neither know they are hurting nor want to be healed. They demand that their truth tellers silence themselves -- they 'say to those that see, "don't see," and to those with vision . . . "make your proclamations to us smooth; give us a vision of delusion."' Isaiah was sent with a call to repentance. But repentance was the solution to a problem whose existence the people refused to acknowledge. There was nothing he could do but prophesy, and wait.

Because Isaiah's predictions would come true, and when they did a chastened people would find the salvation they thought they could do without. Isaiah composed this chapter on the verge of a disastrous alliance between Jerusalem and Egypt -- a failed attempt to rebuff Assyrian power which would be the Jews' last stand before the inevitable Babylonian conquest. The horror of that tragedy would be the shock that awakened Israel to its need of divine deliverance. This was pain as 'God's megaphone' (to paraphrase the apologian C.S. Lewis): catastrophe used to make undeniable a dysfunction which would otherwise go unnoticed beneath the surface.*

God knew that the alliance with Egypt was doomed, and he knew that the Jewish King Hezekiah would pursue it anyway. '"we'll run away on horseback,"' say the Israelites to God in verse 16. Very well, says God: 'so you'll run away.' His people had chosen to rely on Egypt's human cavalry and reject him, the source of all life. The only consequence which could possibly ensue, then, was death. A lesser god would have abandoned humanity to that death. But the true God refused: even as his people hurtled inevitably towards destruction, he stayed with them. When at last they saw the sorry state they were in, he would be there to receive them. Verse 18: 'God will wait to show you mercy.' At the end of their collision course, the Israelites would find their God waiting.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Israel is all of us. We are born disfigured, not only by our own wrongdoing but by injuries inflicted upon us and, often, by the poisonous ideologies in whose intellectual atmosphere we are raised. But even if we are powerless to think or work our way out of those ideologies, even if the hideous logic of sin must run its course, even then when we find ourselves broken from going astray we will learn that God has not lost us. No indeed, but in the very the moment when our pain makes known to us our need of his grace, we will see him there to provide it. 'God will show mercy at the sound of your wailing voice,' says Isaiah: 'as soon as he hears it, he'll answer you' (verse 19).

Rejoice evermore,

*C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 1940. See pages 57-8 in this online edition.

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