Promise or Delusion?

How are we to take the prophet Isaiah’s vision of a new Jerusalem?

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Vision of the new Jerusalem, as envisioned by the French artist Gustave Doré, 1890

I’ve been reading my way through the Old Testament prophetic book of Isaiah. The prophets are full of denunciations of sin and forewarnings of divine judgment. But chapter 62 of Isaiah is very different. It is a magnificent vision of a new Jerusalem that God promises to create in the future.

It is a glowing vision. The prophet describes the restored city as a crown and diadem in the hand of God. The city will be renowned in the earth. Gentiles, who have oppressed the city, will now serve it. They will harvest the grain and grapes to feed the city’s residents, who will be called The Holy People.

The prophet in fact describes the city in the metaphor of a bride, decked out in all her jewels and finery. For the city will have been restored into a loving relationship with God, who is described in the metaphorical language of a bridegroom. The city that was once described as Forsaken and Desolate will now be called My Delight and Married.*

The passage is a beautiful note of consolation to the Jewish exiles living in Babylon.** They need not despair. Their exile is not the last word from God. What lies ahead of them is a glorious future, when all their misery will be transformed into joy.

My spirit flares up when I read the passage, just as the prophet describes Zion’s vindication shining out like the dawn. It gives me a hopeful heart.

A question, however, lurks in the background of my thoughts. When is this future that the prophet so lovingly proclaims? How should I as the reader understand the timing of that future?

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There are various options for understanding the prophet’s words. When the prophet spoke these words, he may well have expected that the glorious restoration of Zion lay in the near future. That’s why his words could be such a consolation to the discouraged exiles.

Is he saying to the exiles: Buck up! This exile is not going to last long. You will soon return to Zion, but when you do, you will return to a glorious city that will reverse all the conditions of life that you are now experiencing.

If that is what the prophet assumed the inspired words meant when he spoke them, then he was wrong. Yes, Jews would return from exile under the Persian emperor Cyrus and rebuild the city.

But the city they rebuilt was a shabby provincial city that the wider world would have largely ignored. We know from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah as well as from the prophetic books of Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi that life in this new Jerusalem was pretty precarious and demoralizing for a long time.

If this was the time frame that the prophet had in mind, then his words were not ultimately words of consolation, but words that fostered a great disappointment.

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But, of course, the prophet is never precise in identifying the timing he has in mind. For this reason, many Biblical scholars will argue that what the prophet is expressing is an eschatological vision. The Greek word eschaton means end, in the sense of terminal end. So eschatological has become an adjective that scholars apply to any talk about The End in the sense of the end of history.

The prophet then is describing a vision of Zion that will be realized when history comes to its grand and glorious conclusion. The eschaton will not only be the end as finis of history. It also represents the divine goal, the fulfillment, to which God has been ceaselessly working through all the complex forces of history. Yet it is an end whose locus will still be on the earth.

If this is how we are to read the vision, then its fulfillment has yet to come. Nothing so far that has happened in the history of Jerusalem has fulfilled the promise. The fulfillment lies yet ahead in an indeterminate future.

If we read the prophecy in this way, we understand that the prophet is holding out an existential consolation to the exiles in their present misery. But the consolation depends upon an indeterminate future date that may be far in the future beyond their own deaths and the deaths of their descendants. How well did this word console a people trapped in their daily struggle to survive in an alien land?

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A variation of this eschatological vision is the interpretation that what the prophet offers is a vision of heaven. Here is, yes, an eschatological vision, but the eschaton has been moved from the end of history to eternity. It is a description of life that will be fulfilled in eternity. This was a favored interpretation of medieval monks who looked forward longingly to that life after death that would be ours in Jerusalem the Golden, that is, heaven itself.***

In this interpretation the prophet’s words are words of consolation not just to the Jewish exiles in 6thcentury B.C. Babylon. They are inspiring words for all humanity. They open up to us a breath-taking cosmic vision. And so the prophet’s words remain an eternal divine promise. We can count on it because God is always faithful to his promises.

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 Or lastly we might read the prophet’s vision not as inspired expression but as just plain wishful thinking. He longs to speak a word of consolation to his dispirited compatriots. A vision of the glorious future of their ruined, devastated city might have seemed just what everyone needed. But is it grounded in any reality? Is it not just a cruel delusion?

I confess that I don’t know which of these options I find most persuasive. I like those that seem to nurture faith and confidence. Yet doubt creeps around the edges and raises pesky questions.

The Dance of Doubt and Faith

And isn’t that exactly the experience of a life of faith? We hear the promises of God spoken in Scripture. We take confidence in living because of those promises. And yet the circumstances of our lives as they unfold constantly call that confidence into question. Could all the promises we hear be in the end delusions?

Blaise Pascal famously described faith as taking a bet on God. I have placed my bet on God and his promises. But that does not mean that my faith ever completely silences the whispers of doubt. Doubt and faith dance together. And in the end we live by faith, not by certainty.

I’m curious how any of you my readers deal with  the questions that a passage like Isaiah 62 raise for me. If you would like to share your thoughts, I would welcome hearing from you.

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* The Hebrew words of My Delight and Married are the words Hephzibah and Beulah. Isaiah 62 is the source for what were once quite common names for women in the English-speaking world. I myself had an aunt who was named Beulah.

** I understand the prophet speaking in Isaiah 62 to not be the 8th century prophet under King Hezekiah, but an anonymous prophet, probably in Babylon, of the late 6th century B.C.

*** One of the most soaring descriptions of heaven as Jerusalem the Golden is found in the 12thcentury Latin poem De Contemptu Mundi  by the Cluniac monk Bernard. It reads:

Jerusalem the Golden,

With milk and honey blest,

Beneath thy contemplation

Sink heart and voice oppressed.

I know not, O I know not,

What social joys are there,

What radiancy of glory,

What light beyond compare!

The passage has inspired a number of Christian hymns that we regularly sing in church.

 

 

A Society in Collapse

What does a failing society look like? Isaiah’s answer.

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The ruins of Samaria, capital of the northern kingdom of Israel. Photo, circa 1925.

In Isaiah 9:8-10:11, Isaiah, a Jerusalemite prophet, turns his attention away from his own city to the northern kingdom of Israel* in his day. He sees its future as dire. And that future offers a warning of what lies ahead if the residents of Jerusalem continue in their present ways.

One can read this passage as the expected output of a court prophet. As a loyal Judean, he would be expected to predict the demise of his own country’s enemies. But that’s not quite what we find in this passage. Israel’s dire future is not punishment for its aggressive hostility towards Judah. Rather, the passage reads as a vivid description of a society that is collapsing within itself.

Not that Israel knows its future is precarious. The prophet says that in arrogance and pride the kingdom is harboring illusions of grandeur. Its ordinary dwellings built of brick have fallen (maybe because of an earthquake or maybe because of foreign invasion). But the kingdom plans to rebuild in stone, the construction material of palaces.

Likewise its normal groves of sycamore have been leveled. But the Israelites plan to replant them with cedar, another construction material of palaces. But if they do so, Isaiah says it will be a venture in wasted resources. The Lord has set his face against them. He will rise up the Aramaeans and Philistines to devour them.

As the passage moves on, the prophet turns his sight to the kingdom’s leaders who mislead the people. Its prophets speak lies; its elders lead the people astray. What is not clear is whether the leaders are consciously or unconsciously leading the country in wrong directions. The outcome, however, is the same. The people are left in confusion (Isaiah 9:14-16). No one is sure what the truth is.

Things are not working the way they should. People are indulging in excess, but coming away feeling dissatisfied. This is vividly conveyed in verse 9:20:

They [the people] gorged on the right, but still were hungry,

                        and they devoured on the left, but were not satisfied.

As a result, in frustration the people have turned on each other and fallen into civil strife, if not downright civil war (described in the metaphor of cannibalism). Manasseh, another tribe in the northern kingdom, is said to have devoured Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh. This tribal strife would have been poignant for Isaiah’s listeners. By tradition Ephraim and Manasseh were said to be the two sons of Joseph. Their aggression towards each other would have been seen as fraternal strife. The bonds of civic unity are breaking apart.

A Note of Realism About the Poor and Weak

Isaiah particularly denounces Israel’s leaders who have legislated decrees that oppress the poor and the marginalized in Israel’s society. These decrees rob the poor, especially the widows and orphans, of justice. They have become the prey of the strong.

Throughout the Old Testament, the welfare of the widow, the orphan, and the resident immigrant is an object of God’s special concern. Prophet after prophet will denounce God’s people for their neglect of these weak members of society.

But Isaiah injects a discordant note into what is a common theme. In verse 9:17, the prophet announces:

That is why the Lord did not have pity on their young people,

            or compassion on their orphans and widows;

for everyone was godless and an evildoer,

            and every mouth spoke folly.

 In this social collapse all fall under divine judgment, even widows and orphans. Why? Because everyone was godless and an evildoer. The sense I get when I read this is the thought that the poor and weak, despite the oppression they suffer, still buy into the illusions their leaders promulgate. If they could be rich and powerful, they would behave just as their oppressors do.

It is a note of realism that the poor and weak are not more moral just because they are poor and weak. Both the rich and strong and the poor and weak share in common illusions.

A Compromised Society Cannot Stand

The impact of all these social developments is that Israel as a society is fundamentally compromised. It does not have the unity, the strength, and the community resolve to stand up firm when outside pressures come bearing down. And those outside pressures are on its doorstep in the threat posed by imperial Assyria.

When that threat becomes actually real (as it does shortly afterwards), Israel does indeed fall. It is wiped out of the political landscape of the ancient Near East.

It is sobering to read this portion of Isaiah. How he analyzes Israel has enduring value as an analysis of any society that undermines itself with destructive partisan strife, injustice, and buy-in into illusionary thinking. For Isaiah that is a warning to his own community of Judah. Do not follow in Israel’s footsteps. Whether his description also speaks a warning to our own society today I will leave for each reader to decide.

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* The northern kingdom of Israel was also known as Ephraim (see verse 9:9), because the most prominent tribe in the kingdom was the tribe of Ephraim.

 

Inviting in the Devil

An ancient Bible story serves up a warning to Christians in the current political campaign.

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A scene from the obelisk of Shalmaneser III, showing the Israelite king Jehu paying obeisance to the Assyrian emperor.

 Sometimes when we read the Old Testament, we read ancient stories that seem to have no relevance to us today. So we shelve them away out of our consciousness. But sometimes–and now is one of those times, in my opinion–those ancient stories come keenly alive.

The Old Testament passage I am thinking of is Isaiah 7-12. These five chapters may be hard for an uninformed reader to follow, even though they contain some of the most beloved prophecies that we read in our Christmas services every year. But if you read them in their historical context, they speak of something much more sinister than Christmas tinsel.

The chapters deal with a national crisis that hits the kingdom of Judah under the reign of king Ahaz. Two of Judah’s neighbors, the kingdoms of Aram (centered in Damascus) and of Israel (centered in Samaria) have joined forces to invade Judah. Their intention is to overthrow Ahaz and install a puppet on his throne.

Faced with this deadly peril, Ahaz searches for a savior for his kingdom. He looks at the far-off but mighty Assyrian empire centered in Mesopotamia. Assyria is a powerful military machine and has subdued vast portions of the Middle East. Ahaz contemplates inviting its emperor to come to his rescue. That emperor will bully Aram and Israel into submission.

As Ahaz contemplates this course of action, God sends the prophet Isaiah to the king to warn him not to do this. Instead the prophet calls upon Ahaz to place his trust in God. If so, in a couple of years, Aram and Israel will no longer be threats because they will no longer be kingdoms.

As a seal guaranteeing that this will happen, Isaiah announces that God will give Ahaz a sign. He declares this sign in a passage that has reverberated through the 2,000 years of Christian history:

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

Christians have read this passage as a prophecy of the birth of Jesus. In an extended sense, the New Testament so reads it. But in its original context, it was meant to be an assurance to Ahaz to place his trust in God’s care.

Despite repeated words from the prophet, Ahaz ignores this word from God. He does invite in Tiglath-Pileser III, emperor of Assyria. Assyria invades, annihilates the armies of Aram and Israel. Judah is saved, but also now serves as a vassal of Assyria.

Under Ahaz’s son, Hezekiah, Judah seeks to re-establish its independence, political and spiritual. This provokes another Assyrian invasion that ravages the land. Judah’s cities are razed to the ground, their populations slaughtered or carried into exile, while the Assyrian king gloatingly boasts of his prowess in the carvings on his steles and palace walls.

Jerusalem survives only by the skin of its teeth. God directly intervenes for its salvation. But under Hezekiah’s heir, Judah becomes thoroughly submissive to Assyria, even being required to install the religious images of Assyria’s gods in the Jerusalem temple. Judah remains under Assyria’s thumb until the Assyrian empire suddenly collapses in 612-609 B.C.

Ahaz invited in the devil. He saved his throne and his life, but at the cost of corrupting Judah’s political independence and spiritual identity. He ignores the word of God that comes to him through the voice of Isaiah. He chooses political expediency over trust in God.

How An Ancient Story Comes Alive

How does this ancient story come alive for me today? By nature, I am reluctant to bring religion into politics. Often this ends up besmirching the name of God. But as I watch the current campaigns under way for the presidency, I am constantly reminded of this ancient Bible story and its warnings.

One of the striking features of the current Republican campaigns for the Republican nomination is the fervent support many Christians are giving to Donald Trump. This surprises many observers, including myself, because Trump seems to manifest many features that are at serious odds with an orthodox Christian lifestyle and morality.

One can hardly imagine someone who in his swaggering speech and values exemplifies less the spirit of Jesus. Trump trumpets the supreme value of winning, whereas Jesus teaches his disciples, If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all. (Mark 9:35)

So why are so many Christians throwing their support to Trump? I have asked myself that question. And in reading political commentators on the campaigns, I’ve noted that repeatedly observers report that many Christians in America feel under siege. They feel they are being attacked by the dual enemies of secularism and liberalism. The political leaders they elected cannot protect them. So they are looking for a strong arm to come to their protection.*

Trump promises to be that, saying he will protect Christianity. So they are flocking to an alliance with this seemingly strong arm, trusting that he will not turn on them in the end.

When I read news reports like this, I think of Ahaz and his appeal to the Assyrian emperor. An ancient story is repeating itself.

And so the preaching of Isaiah speaks to us again. In the words of the prophet:

For the Lord spoke thus to me while his hand was strong upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what it fears, or be in dread. But the Lord of hosts, him you shall regard as holy; let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. He will become a sanctuary, a stone one strikes against; for both houses of Israel he will become a rock one stumbles over—a trap and a snare for the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble; they shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken. (Isaiah 8:11-15)

Instead the prophet calls upon Judah to place its trust in its Lord, as he and his family will do:

I will wait for the Lord, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. See, I and the children whom the Lord has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. (Isaiah 8:17-18)

As Christians ponder where to give their support in this campaign, I ask them to read again and ponder this ancient story. For I fear that those Christians who look upon Donald Trump as the great savior and protector of Christianity are inviting in the Assyrian emperor into their land of Judah. The consequences for Judah were fatal in the end, politically and spiritually. They may likewise be for the cause of American Christianity today.

* One of those observers is the conservative opinion writer Charles Krauthammer, who wrote a column titled “Donald Trump: Defender of the Faith,” published in The Washington Post, on March 3, 2016.