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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 4, or, Cloud and Fire

A short poem this week, and a meditation below.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 4

A calamity is coming to Israel, but those who survive it will be purified and live in God's shelter on the holy mountain of Zion.

1. Seven women will clutch at one man
On That Day.
They'll tell him, ‘we’ll eat our own food. We’ll wear our own clothes. Just let us be called by your name! Take away our disgrace!’

2. On That Day
The Branch of God will unfurl into majesty and splendour,
And the fruit of the Earth into excellence and beauty,
For Israel's refugees.

3. Then it happens: the survivors in Zion,
And the ones still left in Jerusalem,
Will be spoken of as sacred,
Every one of them inscribed into life in Jerusalem,

4. When my Master scrubs away the grime from Zion's daughters
And the blood from Jerusalem —
Scours it away from her core
With a breath of justice,
With a burning spirit.

5. Then God creates —
Over the whole structure of Mount Zion,
Over the congregations called together —
Cloud in the daylight, and smoke,
And the brilliance of fire: a flare in the night,
Yes: a canopy above all majesty.

6. 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.

-- -- --

When the Jews were released from slavery in Egypt there were years of hunger and suffering still ahead. Freedom was the first and fundamental gift they received from God when he rescued them, but it was not an easy or a pleasant gift. It meant fending for themselves in hostile deserts, scrounging for food and running for their lives. Many of them asked to go back into bondage: at least in Egypt, they said, we had plenty to eat and drink (see Exodus 16).

It was forty years they wandered like that, and all the way it was cloud and fire that led them. They were guided by the God who had bestowed upon them this dubious honour, this onerous responsibility of coming into their birthright. Heaven’s king had built them by hand to know liberty, a gift he valued above all worldly comforts and would grant to them at all costs.

Their God — our God — is both a loving and a fearsome one, terrible and magnificent at once. So though he chastised them severely for their complaining, though he insisted on schooling them in the harsh art of autonomy, he did not leave them: he appeared before them and led the way through the wilderness. But since the mystery of his righteousness was too tremendous for them to behold directly without dying, he shrouded himself in pillars of cloud at sunrise and fire at nightfall. He showed the path and lit up the dark, day after day until they reached Israel (see Exodus 13).

Centuries later, Isaiah of Jerusalem preached to inheritors of that promised land who had forgotten the meaning and value of their ancestors' hard-won freedom. By the 700s BC an empty, lawless hedonism had infected and disfigured Israel's society, trapping it in an endless cycle of degradation and oppression.

Chapters 2 to 4 of Isaiah have a complete, self-contained message; they may have been distributed on their own as a pamphlet in the streets of Jerusalem. These words predict a day when the city's decadence will be exposed by an invading empire. Having abused their liberty, the Israelites will now lose it so they can remember its worth: God will permit the Babylonians to drive them from their territory and back into captivity.

But even in this, God is not abandoning his chosen people. If he loved them less — if his passion for them were more cautious and less fierce — if, in other words, his devotion were human and not divine — he might hold back from this most hideously painful task of re-education. He might protect them from suffering the consequences of their corruption.

But these are his sons and daughters, and he made them to be free. Just as he forced them out of Egypt, now he will force them into Babylon, and though they will be subjugated he will not for one second let them think he intends for them to stay that way. Instead he sends his servant Isaiah with a final poem, Chapter 4, to close this section of his prophecy.

Which is why, having bewailed the calamity to come, Isaiah glimpses a distant future when Israel will endure and be purified. A few 'survivors,' will be 'left in Jerusalem' to keep memory and faith alive (verse 3). Once the exile has done its nightmarish work, once God has 'scrubbed the grime' away from his people, the 'refugees' will get back to Jerusalem and stand on its holy mountain of Zion (verse 4).

Then, On That Day, the God who never left them will reclaim as his own the children whom he refused to let go. They will meet him beneath that same 'cloud in the daylight' and 'brilliance of fire' which guided their forefathers out of Egypt (verse 5).

Maybe it goes without saying, but maybe it bears repeating, that here as always the Jews stand in for us all. In them and in their painful history, God paints a picture of what transpires between him and every human soul. Though we relentlessly choose to reject him, though we willfully pervert his gift of liberty, though we fight him kicking and screaming every step of the way, still he will have us and he will have us free.

You and I live in the bondage of sin. But the very light of the living God burns in these prophetic words to lead us towards repentance, redemption, and release. Remember that the next time you sit imprisoned by your own shame, haunted by the people you've betrayed and the hurts you've inflicted stupidly upon yourself again and again: though you must acknowledge your guilt you need not remain a slave to it. The God of cloud and flame and freedom is your God, and he will not stop until you accept forgiveness and live. He will not desert you; he will go before you; he has planted his pillar of fire on Zion and he means for you to see it up ahead. Hear the words of Isaiah, Jerusalem's prophet. Walk towards the mountain and be free.

Rejoice evermore,