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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 8, or, The Waters of Shiloah

Welcome. We're back in the 730s BC this week — if you want to be completely up-to-speed, you might check out last week's essay on Chapter 7. But hopefully you can get something out of this week's chapter on its own, too — as usual, the recording is above, the translation and the essay below.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 8

King Ahaz of southern Israel rejects God's help in the conflict with King Rezin of Aram and King Pekah of Ephraim. God proclaims that Ahaz, Rezin, and Pekah will all be conquered by Assyria.

1. God spoke to me: ‘get yourself a massive slab, and chisel onto it in words everyone can read — FOR SWIFT-TO-PLUNDER-SPRINT-AT-PREY.

2. And I’ll call witnesses to testify, secure ones I can trust: Uriah the priest, and Zechariah, Jeberechiah’s son.

3. I approached the prophetess, and she conceived, and gave birth to a son. God spoke to me: ‘call him by the name Swift-to-Plunder-Sprint-at-Prey.

4. Because, before the boy knows how to call out ‘father’ and ‘mother,’ the might of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off before Assyria’s king.

5. And again God proclaimed still more to me. He said,

6. ‘Because this nation rejected Shiloah’s water with its gentle current, because they’re delighted with Rezin and the son of Remaliah,

7. Because of that, look: here is the Master, making waters rise against them from the river. Mighty teeming waters: Assyria’s king and all his majesty. He rises along all his channels and comes up over all his banks.

8. He washes over Judah. He overflows right up to neck-height, and the unfurling of his wings expands to fill the wideness of your land, God-With-Us.

9. Scream, nations, and be shattered. Lend your ears, everyone from distant regions of the Earth: strap on your battle gear and be shattered. Strap it on and be shattered.

10. Plan your plans: they’ll come to nothing. Proclaim your proclamations: they won’t stand, because of God with Us.

11. Because this is how God spoke to me — like his hand was gripping me, keeping me from walking on this people’s path, and saying:

12. ‘Don’t say it’s treason whenever this nation says something’s treason. Don’t fear what they fear — don’t let it shake you.

13. The God of Legions is the one you shall hold sacred. He’s what you shall fear; he’s what shall shake you.

14. He’s what you’ve got for a sacred place, but also for a stone that trips them up, and for a rock that buckles their knees, the two houses of Israel — a snare and a trap for those living in Jerusalem.

15. Plenty of people among them will trip and fall, and be broken, and captured, and snared.

16. Stash the testimony away. Seal up what God teaches among those who’ve learned from me:

17. I hold out for God, the one hiding his face from Jacob's house. I put my high hopes in him.

18. Here I am, and the children God gave me, as signs and omens in Israel from God with his Legions who dwells on Mount Zion.

19. Now when they say to you, ‘go consult the psychics and mediums, the ones that mutter and chant under their breath’ — shouldn’t a nation consult its God? Or should they consult the dead on behalf of the living?

20. As for what’s taught and what’s testified: if what they say isn’t like this Proclamation, then it sheds no daylight.

21. Harrowed, starved, they'll journey across the land. It happens: in their starvation they'll fume with anger, curse their king and their god, and turn to face upwards,

22. Or stare at the ground. See: oppression. And pitch black, fearsome darkness — there they are, shoved out into the gloom.

23. Still, no darkness for her in her miseries. In time gone by he subjected the land of Zebulun to scorn, and the land of Naphtali. He brought heavier burdens on her, by way of the ocean over the Jordan, Galilee of other nations.

There is a pool in Jerusalem called Shiloah, and its waters washed the feet of Judah’s kings. Outside the city was a spring called Gihon whose streams fed Shiloah; that's where David, Israel’s first great monarch, had his son Solomon anointed to succeed him. David’s descendants in the tribe of Judah – Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah – were ruling in Jerusalem when Isaiah prophesied there.

When Ahaz took the throne of southern Israel in the 730s BC, Jerusalem was facing an onslaught from the powerful armies of Aram and Ephraim. God sent Isaiah to meet Ahaz as the young king was frantically trying to secure Shiloah’s water supply against attack (see last week’s Chapter 7, especially verse 3).

Because Shiloah, though it had slaked Jerusalem’s thirst for generations, was a tactical nightmare. Gihon’s water streamed overground into the city, making it an obvious target for siege warfare. All Ephraim and Aram had to do was cut off the flow, and the Jews would find themselves parched in a desert wasteland. Dying a slow death while their enemies waited, armed to the teeth.

God knew this, of course: he was the one who had chosen where Jerusalem would stand. He had scoped out its territory and marked its borders just as he had knit Isaiah’s body together, sinew by sinew, in the hollow of his mother’s womb. Just as he mapped out your every synapse and plotted the course of every vein in my body, God charted every street and outlined every building in Jerusalem (cf. Isaiah 49:1-2, 16).

So God knew how vulnerable the pool of Shiloah would be, just as he knew how vulnerable our flesh would be – how exposed the whites of your eyes and how fragile the yearnings of my heart. He put them all in place with his own hands: your eyes, my heart, Isaiah the prophet, Ahaz the king, and the pool of Shiloah.

Isaiah called upon Ahaz to rely on that providence. The king was invited to leave Shiloah untouched, to wait it out while Aram and Ephraim came to ruin. To believe, against all odds, that God would keep Shiloah’s water flowing and Jerusalem’s walls secure.

I remarked last week what a terrifying request that is. Most believers know something like the feeling: we say we trust God, but then we have to do something that looks preposterously risky – to tell a truth that might destroy us, or give up a stable job to pursue some deeper calling. And though in the past God has always pulled us through, still the immediacy of our fear may win out and we may refuse God’s invitation.

In Isaiah 8, Ahaz refuses and Jerusalem is lost. Verses 6-8: ‘Because this nation rejected Shiloah’s water,’ Israel will now be prey to ‘Assyria’s king and all his majesty.’ It’s a pivotal moment in a tragic story: Ahaz chooses human strategy over divine planning, abandoning the reliance on God that sets Israel apart from the rest of the world. Thus the chosen kingdom becomes only one among many minor principalities: Isaiah no longer calls it ‘my nation’ but ‘this nation’ (verse 6). And just like Aram and Ephraim, just like all the other Palestinian states relying merely on their own acumen, ‘this nation’ will now be enslaved by Assyria.

Therefore a few truly faithful Jews, a ‘remnant,’ must now form their own subculture. ‘This is how God spoke to me,’ says Isaiah, ‘like his hand was gripping me, keeping me from walking on this people’s path’ (verse 11). Those who listen to God’s prophet will cling together in hope, waiting defiantly throughout exile and subjugation for a saviour to rescue them.

Yet this very catastrophe is what will prepare the faithful to recognise that saviour when he comes. They could hardly have known it then – we can hardly fathom it still – but heaven’s anointed Messiah shows himself precisely to those who ‘hold out hope for God’ in subjection and suffering (see verse 17).

Immanuel, ‘God-with-us,’ is the name Isaiah gives in Chapters 7 and 8 to the child who will restore David’s line. A child, God with us: God with infant eyes and flesh as soft as yours and mine, with nerve endings knit together in a woman’s womb. God with a heart as open to attack as the pool of Shiloah, and blood that flows as freely as water from Gihon’s spring.

And when that God presents himself on the cross, his body battered like Jerusalem’s walls, then we see the Christ who rescues us even when we bring utter disaster upon ourselves. Who uses our own betrayal to prove once and for all that God can indeed raise dead bodies and fallen people back into glorious life. Isaiah’s remnant held out hope, and so do we: hope that in chaos, in brokenness, in our own petty failures, God is not gone. He is more with us than we know.

Rejoice evermore,