The Isaiah Project: Chapter 32, or, Footfalls from Afar
A short meditation on an important moment this week. Chapter below, with essay to follow as ever. Peace be with you.
1. See: the king will attain his rightful kingship, and the sovereigns their just sovereignty.
2. And it happens: there comes into being a man like shelter from the wind, and cover from the downpour; like streams of water in the desert; like the shadow of a massive crag in a parched land.
3. Then the seers’ eyes will not be shut, and the hearers’ ears will listen closely.
4. Over-hasty hearts will come to understand knowledge, and stuttering tongues will hasten to proclaim in clear tones.
5. No longer will foul men be called philanthropists, nor petty misers known for liberality.
6. No, vile men will proclaim their villany. Their hearts will do foul things just for the sake of sacrilege, proclaiming deviance against God, emptying out the starving soul and depriving thirst of its drink.
7. The instruments of the ungenerous are evil: he plans petty plots to sabotage the poor with lying words, even when the needy make proclamations of justice.
8. But the generous heart plans generous plans, and will stand on its generosity.
9. You blithe women — get up! Cocky daughters — hear my voice; lend your ears to the things I say.
10. A few days more than a year and you’ll be trembling, you cocky women, because the year’s crop will run out, and there’ll be no gathering it in.
11. Be afraid, tremble, you blithe, you cocky women — strip naked and wrap on burlap loincloths.
12. Pound at your breasts; mourn for the meadows of delight, for the fruit-bearing vine,
13. For my people’s soil — thorns and choke-weed will grow up, yes, over the whole house of delight and the town of exultation:
14. The citadels will be demolished, the thronging city evacuated; fortresses and towers will be craters for the rest of time — a delight for donkeys and a pastureland for flocks.
15. Until the spirit will be emptied out from the exalted realms onto us, and the desert wasteland becomes a vineyard, a vineyard so thick you’d think it was a forest.
16. Then justice comes to rest in the desert wasteland, and righteousness will settle in the vineyard.
17. And it happens: what justice brings about is peace, and what righteousness offers is serenity and trust until forever.
18. My people make their home in the shelter of peace, and in the resting-place of trust, and in quiet settlements.
19. But hail falls upon the forest’s downfall, and the city will be brought down into deep depression.
20. You are blessed who plant seeds beside the waters, you who send forth oxen and mules on foot.
There is a dim figure on a far horizon in this chapter of Isaiah -- barely seen, but soon he will approach to tower over these pages. We have read in previous chapters, and I have written in previous essays, about the Messiah: the saviour whom God will anoint to rescue Israel from the consequences of its (and our) sin. This man, whose coming is foretold in whispers and songs throughout all of scripture, figures mostly as a distant hope in what we have read thus far. Now, almost exactly halfway through the prophecy, he begins to take shape.
'There comes into being a man like shelter from the wind, and cover from the downpour; like streams of water in the desert; like the shadow of a massive crag in a parched land' (verse 2 -- cf. e.g. Psalm 48). Having foretold the violent anguish of Babylonian exile, having peeled back the thin skin of a wealthy Israel to reveal the moral putrefaction beneath -- having shown every last one of us that we are painfully less than we must be -- the prophet cries out with news of an impossibly triumphant hero who will avert our certain doom. It is our first real glimpse of him: this man who is like cool shade and quenched thirst, who relieves us from the parching heat of sin.
We have heard echoes of this language before, in Chapter 4: 'and for shade from the scorching heat in the daylight / There will be a tent: / A place to take shelter and hide / From the downpour, / From the rain' (verse 6). That was when we heard in the abstract about some gentle protection which would cover over the faithful and keep them from dying. That was a generality, a murmur about someonething hazy still unseen: now he is a man, flesh and blood, and he is coming.
In fact, the inkling of his coming was not only in the previous chapters of Isaiah. It was not even only in the Bible. There are intimations of similar divine shelter in, for example, Greek legends about gods who shroud their favoured beneficiaries in mist to hide them from their enemies (e.g. Homer, Iliad 3.381, Odyssey 13.189-90). Only here, in the true Scripture, it is God himself who becomes the shelter: he does not merely send forth a protective covering but is himself that protective covering. All that is generous and gracious in mankind's dreams of God is gathered up, at great personal cost, into the very body of this saviour who is to come.
With delicate, masterful artistry, Isaiah is going to bring the character and nature of that Messiah into greater and greater focus from hereon out. By the time we get to what are called the Suffering Servant Songs in Chapters 42-53, this towering figure will have become the whole focus and climax of the prophet's work. It may be that Isaiah himself discovered these things only gradually, learning and intuiting what the man would have to be like who could solve the problem of sin and save a world gone terribly wrong. For now, the anointed one is only a dim figure on a far horizon -- but soon, soon, he will be all in all.