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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 9, or, Peace without End

A famous chapter this week — here's the translation, with a recording above and an essay below as always.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 9

Isaiah predicts the coming of a saviour who will bring Israel's wars to an end at last.

1. The people walking in the pitch black dark saw light, vast
Light: they were living on Earth under death’s shadow when radiance burst over them.

2. You made our population grow;
made their joy vast.
The way they rejoiced in your sight was like the joy at harvest-time,
like the celebrations when they pass out the plunder from battle.

3. Because the yoke of his burden and the bar across his shoulder,
the club in the hands that were beating him down —
You shattered them, like back in Midian.

4. Because every boot stampeding on shaken ground,
every uniform soaked in blood,
Will be for burning now —
fuel for the fire.

5. Because a baby is delivered to us, a son given, and the rule of law is on his shoulder.
He is called by the name:

6. For expanding the rule of law,
For peace without end,
On David’s throne and in his kingdom,
To ground it and uphold it in justice and in righteousness from now until eternity,
The fierce desire of God with his Legions is doing this.

7. My Master sent a Proclamation upon Jacob. It fell upon Israel.

8. And the people will know, all of them, Ephraim and everyone living in Samaria, with their arrogant and swelling hearts, who say,

9. ‘The baked bricks have fallen, but we’ll rebuild with carved stone. The sycamores have been hewn down, but we’ll replace them with cedars.’

10. So God raised up Rezin’s oppressors above him, and goaded his enemies on.

11. Arameans in front, and Philistines behind: they eat Israel by the mouthful. In all this his anger doesn’t turn back, and his hand still reaches out.

12. And the people don’t turn to the one who’s battering them. And they don’t seek out the God of Legions.

13. God cuts the head from off of Israel, and the tail too — the palm frond and the bulrush, in one day.

14. Elders and dignified men: these are the head. Prophets teaching lies: these are the tail.

15. The ones guiding this nation are the ones leading it astray, and the ones being guided are the ones being devoured.

16. That’s why my Master takes no joy in their finest men. He has no room in his heart for their orphans and widows, because they’re profane and rotten, all of them; every one of their mouths proclaims gibberish. In all this his anger doesn’t turn back, and his hand still reaches out.

17. Because depravity blazes like a devouring flame. It eats the thorns and choke-weed, ignites the close-packed forest — smoke coils high.

18. In the fury of God with his Legions the earth is charred black, and the people are food for the flame. No man shows his brother clemency.

19. On the right they’re tearing off hunks in their hand, ravenous. On the left they’re eating but they can’t get enough. Each man is eating the flesh of his own arm.

20. Manasseh eats Ephraim and Ephraim eats Manasseh. They’re united against Judah.

‘On the right they’re tearing off hunks in their hand, ravenous. On the left they’re eating but they can’t get enough. Each man is eating the flesh of his own arm.’

That is how Isaiah describes the sociopolitical condition of Israel in the 730s BC: brothers devouring each other alive. Long before, the Jewish people had split into two kingdoms – Ephraim to the North and Judah to the South. Now Ephraim has formed an alliance with the Palestinian nation of Aram in an attempt to resist imperial encroachment from Assyria. Terrified, King Ahaz of Judah is making plans to resist the immediate threat posed by Ephraim and Aram, thus ignoring Isaiah’s insistence that God has the bigger picture in hand.

And so Judah has given up its distinctive status as the nation which trusts God’s protection, becoming instead another frightened tribe in a brutal but fruitless struggle for territorial dominance. Ephraim and Judah, Palestinians and Arameans: every clan both inside and outside of Israel has been swept up into a chaos of ferocious infighting. Now, Isaiah declares, they will all be indiscriminately crushed under Assyria’s heel.

The first half of Isaiah 9 is world-famous. It heralds the saviour whom God will send to reunify Israel’s splintered government and alleviate the world’s gruesome hostilities. Less famous is this second half, in which the prophet describes the dire circumstances that necessitate such divine intervention. It is powerfully inspiring to think that God will establish ‘peace without end’ (verse 6). But it’s deeply unsettling to look at ourselves and see why it is we need him to do so. ‘Because depravity blazes like a devouring flame’ (verse 17): trapped in the stranglehold of their own factionalism, the people of the 8th century BC are compulsively annihilating one another. As always, we can recognise ourselves in them.

So we tend to read the first half of this chapter but ignore the second, and that is a mistake. The God who emerges in verses 1-6 is astonishingly glorious, but we run the risk of making him impossibly distant if we leave out verses 7-20. Isaiah’s saviour is not born into a serene world of brotherly love. He is born into this world, the world of social breakdown and betrayed alliances, of disunity and disappointment. It is in this world, and no other, that we must look for help from a mighty peacemaker whose power is greater than our own.

Miracle Mentor. Hero God. Father Forever. Sovereign of Peace (verse 5). These are the names of a Messiah who steps onto the scene when our own moral resources, such as they are, have been utterly exhausted. What we are waiting for – praying for – is not so much someone to fight our battles for us as someone to call off the war. To throw our blood-soaked garments into the fire (verse 4) and show us an entirely new way to live.

To be sure, it is not a matter of indifference what sides we choose. In both our political and our personal lives, the ethical struggles we face are real. We must think carefully where we stand. But even if we are fighting the good fight, it will not be our victory that saves the world. Because though we may be in the right, we are not righteous. We are all of us prisoners of a world addicted to recrimination and enmity in which we are inevitably complicit. And so even in our most bitter disputes we share one thing with our opponents, and that is a desperate need for God’s mercy.

Though Ephraim and Judah were at daggers drawn in human terms, in Isaiah’s eyes and in God’s they were identical: fallen children in need of rescue like you and me. Today as then, Isaiah declares that rescue is indeed forthcoming – as much to our worst enemies as to ourselves.

I find this message both welcome and offensive. Choose one of your most deeply held convictions, and then consider someone who does not share it. Can you really endure a God who will save you both? That is the God we have. He will prepare a table before you in the midst of your enemies (Psalm 23:5) – can you bear the thought of sitting down at it with them for eternity?

There will be murderers and criminals at that table. There will be gun rights activists and gay rights activists. And all of us who have waited for this Miracle Mentor, this Sovereign of Peace, will sit down – perhaps begrudgingly at first – at the table he lays for us. We will extend to one another the forgiveness which will be our mutual feast. Whatever battles we may have fought, whatever we may have won or lost, rightly or wrongly, we will know the true victory which is to lay down our arms. For though we ‘walked in darkness,’ though ‘on the left and the right’ we ‘ate one another alive,’ we have seen the shining of a great light and the birth of a Hero God. Now as always, on earth as in heaven, may his kingdom come.

Rejoice evermore,