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

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.

So God asked 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. Jerusalem was called 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 to rely on human strategy rather than on divine planning, ensuring that Jerusalem will be crushed by the Assyrian empire along with Aram and Ephraim. Israel is no longer ‘my nation’ but ‘this nation’ (verse 6): having rejected God’s protection, the chosen kingdom becomes just another minor principality to be enslaved by Assyria.

And so 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.

And 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 bones broken and his body crushed 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 he can indeed bring dead bodies and fallen people back to 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,

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