The Isaiah Project: Chapter 33, or, Strangers in a Strange Land
Welcome back! We are officially halfway through the Book of Isaiah. What a journey. Please enjoy this week's chapter and essay.
1. Oh doom for you: you plunder but are not plundered, you betray but they didn’t betray you. When you’ve completed your plunder, you’ll be plundered. When your betrayal is finished, they’ll betray you.
2. God, have mercy on us: we’ve put our high hopes in you. Be their muscle in the mornings, yes indeed, and save us in our moment of oppression.
3. The peoples skittered away from the voice of the rabble. The nations fled in all directions from your exaltation.
4. And your loot gets hoarded up like caterpillars hoarde; like locusts scuttle back and forth he will pace back and forth over them.
5. God is on high because of his dwelling in exalted realms; he saturates Zion with justice and righteousness.
6. And it happens: when your moment comes, your security is the riches of salvation, is wisdom and knowledge, is fear of God. This is his stockpile.
7. See the lionhearted among them on the outside: they scream. The messengers of peace sob bitterly.
8. The roads are ravaged; the journeyman comes to a halt. He has voided the covenant, rejected the cities, given no thought to men.
9. Earth wails and wanes; Lebanon is revolted with itself and topples. Sharon is like a wasteland; Bashan and Carmel are rattled.
10. ‘Now I stand, says God; now I am on high; now I am lifted up.
11. You’re impregnated with straw; you’re giving birth to dry wheat; your own breath will consume you like a flame.
12. And the nations are inflamed like lime. They are thorns, cut down and burned in the flame.
13. Listen, you, far away: hear what I’ve done. And you, close by: know my strength.
14. On Zion the sinners are petrified; a shudder seizes the godless: ‘who among us will dwell in consuming flame? Who among us will dwell in burning forever?
15. The one who walks in righteousness and proclaims upright things, who rejects ill-gotten gains and yanks his hands away from receiving bribes; who stops up his ears from hearing blood-soaked words and screws his eyes shut from seeing evil:
16. He, he will rest his head in exalted realms; his fortress will be a barracks of rock; he will be given his bread; his water will be secured for him.
17. The king in his loveliness: your own eyes will see a vision of him, and behold the land that stretches far and wide.
18. Your heart will ponder nightmares. Where is the accountant? Where is the manager of funds? Where is the one who tallied up the towers?
19. You will not see the defiant nation — the nation with a language too deep for you to hear, a tongue that sputters so you understand nothing.
20. Behold Zion, city of our congregations: your eyes will see Jerusalem, a quiet resting place — a tented tabernacle not to be dismantled. Not one of its nails will ever once be extracted, nor will any of its tackling be torn away.
21. Because there God will be, magnificent, a place of rivers and of rivulets spreading wide their fingers for us: not one oared ship will go along them, nor magnificent galleys pass through.
22. Yes: God is our judge, God our lawgiver, God our king; he will save us.
23. Your tackling is slackened; there was no firming up the mainmast for them, no unfurling a sail — and then the spoils of a massive loot are divvied up; the crippled prey upon the prey.
24. No, the one who rests his head there won’t say, ‘I’m faint with fever.’ The people living there will have their guilt lifted off of them.
This is a chapter about foreign invasion. It's about 'the nation with a language too deep . . . to hear, a tongue that sputters so you understand nothing' (verse 19). Isaiah is foreseeing days when Israel will be beaten down by the Assyrians and Babylonians, peoples utterly alien to them in language, belief, and practice. The Jews of the 8th century BC were committed to cultural isolationism by centuries of tradition and commandment. Since their distant ancestor Abraham (then Abram) had been called to worship one God, they had been marked out as different from everyone around them. The Hebrew word for 'holy' (קֹדֶשׁ, qodesh) literally means 'set apart': the entire identity of the Jewish nation consisted in its uniqueness, its difference from the surrounding cultures which worshipped multiple gods and lived by other rules.
The result was that by the time Isaiah preached, Babylon and Israel were mutually unintelligible to one another. Certain elites of both societies learned to speak each other's language, but for the vast majority of Jews the Babylonians would have seemed impossibly distant, separated by an unbridgeable cultural chasm. It was because the Israelites forsook their commitment to the God who set them apart that they found their nation conquered and absorbed by these outsiders. That tragic fact has been the subject of the past few chapters.
Now, however, Isaiah turns his attention to the eventual fate of those outsiders themselves, which is hardly a more appealing prospect. 'When you've completed your plunder, you'll be plundered,' announces the prophet in verse 1. 'The nations are inflamed . . . . They are thorns, cut down and burned in the flame' (verse 12). Because Israel, though it is bitter, recalcitrant, and unjust, is still God's. Its true distinctiveness lies not in its virtue, which has failed, nor in its strength, which is paltry, but in the mere fact of its having been chosen. By consequence those foreign nations who invade it, though they may be temporarily victorious, must eventually fall like all the nations before them.
Those of us who are Christians without Jewish heritage are in an odd position as we read these verses, because of this strange fact: we are the foreign nations of whom Isaiah speaks. Or at least we were. Not having been born into the Jewish race, we are among those who would have found Israel strange, unnerving, and extremist -- a radical sect demanding an intolerant adherence to one God above all others. As always in Scripture, when we come to meet the outcasts we find that we are staring ourselves in the face. If we had been born in Isaiah's day, we would have been the outsiders. The foreigners. The strangers with strange speech and many gods.
As a result, this downfall of Assyria and Babylon -- this eventual triumph of God's Israel over the many peoples of the world -- is our rescue and our grace. Because once Jerusalem was captured, and once its people were scattered into the surrounding tribes and empires, a process was set in motion which would eventually dissolve the barrier between Israelite and gentile. That barrier seemed unbreachable as long as Israel and its ancient customs stood firm. But when Jerusalem fell and the Jews dispersed into the surrounding nations, it was only a matter of time before all those nations, and everyone in them, would find themselves equally broken and in need of rescue from the one true God.
At that time the Messiah would come to re-establish Jerusalem as 'a quiet resting place -- a tented tabernacle not to be dismantled' (verse 20). Anyone -- Jewish or not -- could flee back to this new Jerusalem for refuge from the chaos to which all worldly nations are subject. It is for that reason, and that reason alone, that these scriptures of Isaiah's are the object of our study and interest today. Had Jerusalem never fallen -- had the people of Israel never been scattered among the nations, and had those nations themselves not suffered their own fall as a result -- the Jews might have stayed set apart forever. We foreigners would have been born outside of God's own chosen family.
Instead, the sins of Israel were used for the good of the world. Though they lost their homeland, the Jews never lost the love of God -- they only exported it. We can read these scriptures, can understand the language and the theology of the chosen race, because the God who chose them has made us who were strangers into his beloved. The Babylonians, but for the grace of God, are us. It is by grace, and grace alone, that we were taken in.