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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 1, or, What is the Point of All This

Welcome to the Isaiah Project. Starting here I’ll be going chapter by chapter through my new translation of the Book of Isaiah, meditating and commenting upon each chapter in turn. And I’d like you to help me. First and foremost, this translation is for you: the English speaker who, for whatever reason, wants to hear these incendiary prophecies afresh. I’d like to know what you think about the words as I’ve rendered them, and how they could be more what they’re intended to be. Which is why I’ll start by saying a little bit about what, in fact, they are intended to be, and why I’ve written this translation in the first place.  

It all started around Christmastime last year. People read Isaiah – or bits of Isaiah – a lot during that part of the church calendar. Jesus himself claimed to be the Messiah whose coming is so vividly foretold in these chapters (see especially Luke 4:14-30). Ever since then, Christians have gone back to this prophecy when they want to meet the God who steps bodily into our broken world and shoulders the burden of saving it. Advent, the season of waiting to celebrate Christ’s birth, is a particularly good time for reading what Isaiah said when he, too, was waiting for a saviour. When the Jews were facing violent subjugation at the hands of the Babylonian and Assyrian empires, Isaiah looked ahead towards the promise that God would one day emerge in triumph to liberate his people.  

And so I’m sitting in church, and I’m listening. ‘The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.’ ‘Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.’ And I’m thinking, these words deserve to be famous. They’re magnificent, and in the King James Version (KJV) – the version we hear sung in George Frideric Handel’s glorious oratorio, Messiah – they’re among the triumphs of English literature. But, precisely because of their familiarity, they’re hard to really hear for all they’re worth. They have the well-worn feel of Bing Crosby’s crackly old Christmas album, or of tinkling jingle bells: comforting, easy, familiar.

Which is not how you feel if you’re screaming out for God to rescue you from murder, or slavery, or worse. These words, as Isaiah spoke them in his day, are words of bloodshed and fire, of dirt and sweat and desperation. ‘Like a pregnant woman getting close to giving birth, when she writhes and screams in her labour pains — that’s how we’ve been in your presence, God’ (Isaiah 26:17, my translation). These are the words of a man wrestling with the bitterest kinds of pain and dispossession, wondering how the God of justice and truth will make it right. Part of Isaiah’s resonance for Christians comes from the fact that we consider ourselves to be in much the same position, spiritually speaking: trapped under the heel of our own sin. Wracked with shame at how far short of our ideals we fall. Desperate for God’s liberating mercy. To grasp the joy of the forgiveness Christ promises, we have to really hear Isaiah when he tells us about anguish and sin.  

But language changes. This is one of those things that’s so true it’s easy to miss: every day people invent new words, or use old words in new ways. It’s like ground shifting under our feet – even though the actual text of the KJV stays the same year to year, it no longer has the same immediacy for us because we speak a different kind of English. That’s why even a modern translation like the New International Version (NIV) goes out of date and needs refreshing for the next generation. We need new English that will do again for us in 2018 what Isaiah’s Hebrew would have done for its first listeners. We can never get all the way back there, but we can try, and so I’m trying: I’m trying to do with English what Isaiah does with Hebrew.  

And man, he does some amazing stuff. The celebrated Christian apologist C.S. Lewis wrote that ‘a great poet, who has “loved, and been well nurtured in, his mother tongue,” may also make great alterations in it, but his changes of the language are made in the spirit of the language itself.’* That’s Isaiah exactly. He’s got this masterful grasp of the Jewish literary tradition in which he writes – his words are richly studded with careful allusions and callbacks to earlier scriptures. But his ownership of Biblical language lets him invent new and powerful ways of using it, fresh plays on words and modes of expression that were latent in the Bible’s style but waiting to be opened up at the right moment.  

Take just the very first half-line of the prophecy itself for example (Isaiah 1:2a). ‘Hear, heavens; earth, lend your ears.’ That pairing is the classic way to describe the totality of creation in Hebrew: the heavens (shamayim) and earth (’eretz). ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth’ – from the very first line of Genesis, God calls these two basic features of the world into being. Now Isaiah hears God speaking again into that same world, and he commands it to listen: ‘hear, heavens; earth, lend your ears’ – in Hebrew, shim‘u shamayim, ve-ha-’ezini ’eretz. You can hear what he does with the language, those repeated sounds and letters that I’ve put in bold: hear, heavens. Shim‘u shamayim. Similar imperatives come up in Deuteronomy (32:1), but Isaiah flips around the word order to get that sound effect. It’s like a jazz riff on a familiar tune, an old standard made new with an arresting but seamlessly natural innovation. This is bold and creative language, but it's in perfect step with the tradition and aimed right at the ancient foundations of the universe.**  

But this is also a message with an audience, a time, and a place – it’s rooted in the here and now of Isaiah’s day. That’s why those same two commands come up again in line 10: hear (shim‘u) and give ear (ha-ezinu). This time, though, the call is addressed to the rulers and citizens of ancient Israel, who are compared here with those epitomes of perversion and venality, Sodom and Gomorrah. Isaiah started preaching in 740/39 BC to a nation in constant danger of annihilation.*** The massive Assyrian empire was determined to bring the whole Middle East to its knees. The Jewish King Ahaz came under pressure, on pain of invasion, to join an anti-Assyrian coalition with two other Palestinian states, Aram and Ephraim. For Isaiah, though, the question wasn’t whether to make this or that alliance so much as whether or not to rely on God: do we trust our own military maneuvering to see us through this disaster, or do we trust the might of our redeemer?  

We shouldn’t act like that’s an easy question. Only from the complacent security of a dominant global superpower could we scoff with blithe self-assurance at the recalcitrance of Israel: oh, they of little faith. But they were under existential threat from a military juggernaut – of course their first response would have been to weigh their options and provide for national security. Ours would be too. When the rubber meets the road, prayer and repentance sound like much less practical priorities than strategy and politics.  

Nevertheless, Isaiah demands that Judah see things differently: no amount of martial prowess will save them if they’re rotten from the inside out. And rotten they are, says Isaiah: ‘Your leaders are mutinous. Accomplices to thieves – all of them relishing bribes, hunting out graft’ (1:23). In this state of moral putrefaction, the people can make all the sacrifices and perform all the rituals they want: God will neither hear them nor help them. And so Isaiah grabs them by the collar and demands that they listen. Give ear: God makes his proclamation.  

What makes Isaiah profound is the connection between that urgent plea – hear this, now, in this moment – and that majestic call through all time and space – hear, heavens. Earth, lend your ears. There is always, in these chapters, that double vision: this is concrete statesmanship with real stakes, but its implications and its significance are cosmic. The events that unfold among these human individuals will echo through all the heavens and shake the whole earth.  

Isaiah looks forward to the day when God will set his people free from Babylonian slavery. But as he looks he sees a glimpse of that latter day when God’s Messiah will set all the faithful free from the imprisonment of sin. If we keep coming back to this prophet again and again, if we read him every year, it is for this reason: that by peering into the heart of his moment Isaiah saw deep into the core of creation and God’s plan for it. Which is why what he says to Jerusalem in the 700s BC he says also to us in 2018 – if we can only listen. If we can only hear.  

So let’s try together. I’ll keep sending out these chapters, and you keep telling me what you hear – what speaks to you, what resonates, what’s clear and what’s not. Don’t worry if you know nothing at all about Hebrew. Just tell me how the translation strikes you and I can use that feedback to make it more alive. The first chapter is below – I’d be honoured if you’d share this journey with me.  

Rejoice evermore,
Spencer  

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 1  

1. The vision of Isaiah son of Amoz, which he saw about Judah and Jerusalem in the days when Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah were kings of Judah  

2. Hear, heavens; earth, lend your ears:
God makes his Proclamation.
‘I made my sons grow, raised them up, and they – they revolted against me.  

3. An ox knows his herdsman; a donkey knows his master’s paddock – Israel doesn’t know. My people don’t understand.  

4. Oh, doom! Sinful nation, population heavy with corruption, offspring of the evil ones, destroyer sons . . . They abandoned God. They disdained Israel’s Sacred One. Their backs are turned.  

5. To what end? You still get pummeled; again and again you mutiny. Your whole head is in a fever; your whole heart is faint.  

6. From pad of heel to crown of head, the whole structure is unsound: gashes and bruises and wounds oozing. They’re not staunched, not bandaged, not eased with oil.  

7. Your land – laid waste. Your cities – burned in fire. Your soil and substance – right in front of you there are invaders eating it, and it’s laid waste – like a ruin toppled by invaders.  

8. But Zion's daughter is left behind: like a tent in a vineyard, like a shack in a patch of cucumbers, like a city under siege.  

9. If the God of Legions hadn’t left stragglers for us – just a few – we would be like Sodom; we would look like Gomorrah.  

10. Hear God’s Proclamation, you elites of Sodom. Lend your ears to our god’s teaching, people of Gomorrah.  

11. What good are all your sacrifices to me?’ says God. ‘I’m stuffed full. Offerings of goats; milk from fat cows; bull’s blood; sheep and rams: I take no pleasure in them.  

12. When you come to show yourselves before me – who asked for that from you? To trample my courtyards?  

13. No more: stop bringing worthless gifts, sweet-smelling incense . . . it’s vile to me. New moons and sabbaths, assemblies called together: I can’t bear corruption and pious congregations.

14. Your new moons and your meeting days: my soul deplores them; they’re a heavy load on me and I’m tired of carrying it.  

15. So when you stretch out your palms I’ll hide my eyes from you. Even when you multiply your prayers, you’ll get no audience from me. Your hands are full of blood.  

16. Wash. Get pure. Get the evil of the things you do out of my sight. Let go of evil.  

17. Learn how to make good. Hunt after justice. Give relief to victims and justice to orphans. Plead the widow’s case.  

18. Come here,’ says God; ‘let’s talk this out together. If your sins are like scarlet, they’ll turn white like snow. If they flush like crimson, they’ll be like wool.  

19. If you’re content to listen, the goodness of the earth will be your food.  

20. But if you refuse in defiance, then you will be food for the sword. God’s mouth makes this Proclamation.  

21. How did she whore herself out, this city stronghold secure in belief? She was full of justice; righteousness used to spend nights in her. But now killers do.  

22. Your silver’s become trash; your wine’s diluted with water.  

23. Your leaders are mutinous. Accomplices to thieves – all of them relishing bribes, hunting out graft. They give no justice to orphans; the widow’s plea never reaches them.  

24. And so the Master, God of Legions, Israel’s Juggernaut, declares: ‘Oh, I’ll get relief from the persecution pressing on me, get revenge on my enemies.  

25. I’ll put my hand back on you, and like lye I’ll scour your filth away, extract all your impurities.  

26. I’ll put your judges back, like at the beginning, and your advisors, like at the start. After that they’ll call you city of righteousness, stronghold secure in belief.  

27. Zion will be ransomed in justice, her homecomers in righteousness.  

28. But the shattering of the rebels and of the sinners is one and the same: those who desert God will be eaten alive.  

29. The brawny trunks you lusted after will put them to shame in the end. The gardens you chose will bring you reproach,  

30. Because you’ll be like a tree trunk with withering leaves; like a garden with no water.  

31. The powerful are for kindling now, and the things they do become sparks. They’re engulfed, both of them together, with no one to extinguish the flame.  

-- -- --  

Notes:

* This passage is from the second of Lewis’ three 1943 lectures at the University of Durham, collectively entitled The Abolition of Man. The poet whom Lewis quotes is the English Romantic John Keats (The Fall of Hyperion Canto 1, lines 14-15).

** For more calls to heaven and earth as witnesses to the divine voice, see Deuteronomy 4:26, Jeremiah 2:12, Psalms 50:4-6, 69:34, 1 Chronicles 16:31, and so on.

*** A word on Isaiah the man/men: since the 19th century, scholars have tended to agree that the 66 chapters of Isaiah as we have them are not the product of one author but of two, three, or even a whole school of them. Without getting into the high weeds, the basic idea is that Isaiah of Jerusalem himself produced chapters 1-39 starting in 740/39 BC, before the Babylonian exile. Chapters 40-55 seem to presuppose so much knowledge about that exile that many have concluded they were written during it (598/7-538 BC) by a second author (‘Deutero-Isaiah’). In which case 56-66 seem on similar grounds to have been written after that period by yet a third author (‘Trito-Isaiah’).
I do not have anything like the expertise to resolve this question, if indeed it can ever be resolved. What I can say is that translating all 66 chapters has left me with an overwhelming impression of the text’s unity as a literary composition and as a depiction of God. Both the style of the Hebrew and the character of the Messiah who emerges seem to me to represent one singular vision – variegated and multi-layered but ultimately unified in its approach. Whatever the circumstances of its original composition, the text as we have it has been carefully arranged and compiled by ancient readers with a profound sensitivity to its message and meanings. Whether in doing so they were remaining faithful to the work of one man, or participating in a trans-historical collaboration orchestrated by divine providence, is largely irrelevant to my own experience of the text. That is because, from my perspective as a believing reader, the author and editor of all scripture is ultimately God as mediated by human intercession. For these reasons I’m going to refer to ‘the prophet’ and to ‘Isaiah’ at all points during this project. By this I mean the literary persona of the single speaker who presents himself in the text as a deliverer of God’s word. If you’re interested in the historical question, though, J. Alec Motyer writes a cogent history of the debate in outline – Motyer argues powerfully for one author, but he does so with ample reference to the many scholars who disagree for those interested in pursuing them. Motyer, J.A. 1993. The Prophecy of Isaiah. Illinois: IVP Academic, pp. 25-30.

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