Saturday, December 17, 2011

Background to Isaiah (Unquenchable Fire, part 2)


Isaiah 66:24, along with the two verses that proceed it, are the summation of the entire book of Isaiah. Isaiah was writing to the nation of Judah from about 740 to 687 BC. This was during the period when the waning Assyrian empire was trying to reassert her power in the Ancient Near East. Isaiah prophesied that the king of Assyria would invade the land of Judah as judgment against her sins (Isaiah 7:17; 8:7-8) and he also prophesied that the Northern Kingdom of Israel (sometimes also called Samaria after its capital) would experience God’s righteous judgment for her sins (Isaiah 9:8-21).

These prophecies against Israel were fulfilled very dramatically when the brutal Assyrian leader, Shalmaneser, put Samaria under siege (2 Kings 17:1-5). His successor (and probable usurper), Sargon II, proceeded to take the Northern ten tribes of Israel into captivity in B.C. 722 (2 Kings 17:6-41). The Assyrians then made their way to the Southern kingdom of Judah and laid waste the entire land except for the city of Jerusalem, which remained under King Hezekiah’s control (2 Chronicles 32; Isaiah 36-37). Only the city of Jerusalem was delivered.

Hardly do we finish reading Isaiah’s account of Jerusalem’s deliverance (chapters 36-37), then Isaiah gives us an ominous foretaste of Judah’s downfall at the hand of another empire: the Babylonians. Chapter 39 recounts how King Hezekiah was visited by the Babylonian envoys and foolishly showed them all of his treasure. When Isaiah learned from Hezekiah what had happened, he said:

“Hear the word of the LORD of hosts: ‘Behold, the days are coming when all that is in your house, and what your fathers have accumulated until this day, shall be carried to Babylon; nothing shall be left, says the LORD.” (39:5-6)

This judgment that the Lord prophesied was not simply a punishment on Hezekiah for his foolish diplomacy. Rather, it is the expected response to Judah’s sin. The Lord had promised to bring siege and exile on His people if they were disobedient (Deuteronomy 28). The first half of Isaiah builds the case against Judah by showing just how disobedient she has become (see Isaiah 1 and 3 as just two examples). In short, Judah can expect to experience from Babylon what Israel had already experienced from Assyria: siege, genocide, destruction and exile.

And that is exactly what happened. The Assyrians were defeated when the Chaldean king Nabopolassar (c.658 - 605 BC) joined forces with the Medes, a tribe from the Persian hills, to wage an attack on their stronghold of Nineveh in 612 BC. King Nabopolassar established a new Babylonian monarchy while his son, King Nebuchadnezzar, finally defeated the Assyrians and established Babylon as his capital. Though Nebuchadnezzar’s empire was not as large as the Assyrian empire had been, he accomplished what the Assyrians could not: he captured the Southern kingdom of Judah (including Jerusalem) in BC 586, carrying the Jews into captivity and destroying Solomon’s temple (2 Chronicles 36:15-21).

Return from Exile

When Isaiah foretold this impending calamity against Judah, his message of doom was also tinged with comfort. Throughout all of Isaiah’s prophecies the theme of judgment is interspersed with the theme of redemption and return from exile. After reading the account of Hezekiah and the Babylonian envoys in Isaiah 39, and God’s subsequent pronouncement of judgment upon Judah, we are immediately given a promise of comfort and restoration (though it has been a matter of debate whether Isaiah 40 to 66 was written by the same author). Isaiah 40:1-2 speaks of the time when Jerusalem (shorthand for the nation of Judah, just as Samaria is often shorthand for the nation of Israel) will be comforted, having received double from the Lord’s hand for all her sins. Moreover, verses 3-4 speak of God’s presence returning to His people (an important Biblical motif, signifying the return of God’s favor).

As the second half of Isaiah builds, we find that the return of God’s presence to His people becomes focused in the person of God’s servant. Sometimes the servant is clearly the person of Cyrus (Isaiah 45), who was God’s instrument for overthrowing Babylon (an event described in Daniel 5 and predicted in Isaiah 13). However, as we work our way through the various servant songs of Isaiah it becomes clear that Cyrus is a type of a greater Servant, even as Israel’s return from physical exile under Cyrus functions is a metaphor of the entire earth’s release from spiritual exile. This greater Servant is one in whom God delights, who will have God’s Spirit poured out on him (11:1-5; 42:1), who will defeat the idols of the world (44:6-20), who will enable the Abrahamic promises to be fulfilled that God’s people might become a light to all nations (42:6), who will release His people from their continuing state of spiritual exile (42:7; 44:24-28), and who will achieve this deliverance by suffering substitutionally for Israel’s sins (53).

Again, the physical deliverance from exile instituted by Cyrus (Isaiah 45) functions as a metaphor for the greater New Exodus brought by God’s Servant – an Exodus from spiritual exile that will bring YHWH’s people, and through them the entire world, out of spiritual bondage. This international perspective surfaces in chapters 49, 56, 60 & 61, where Gentiles and foreigners come into covenant with Israel’s God. But just as the exile and restoration of Israel functions as a metaphor for the exile and restoration of all humanity, so it also functions as a metaphor for the renewing of the natural world (Isaiah 65:17-25).

Such renewal is often described using the language of “the new heavens and the new earth.” Texts such as Isaiah 40:9-11 and 52:7 speak about a royal herald announcing the glad tidings that Israel’s God has come to restore His people, to renew and reign on the earth. This renewal is also described in terms of God defeating the idols of the nations through judgment. For example, chapter 11 had spoken of the Rod from the stem of Jesse bringing His people back from exile (11:11-16), restoring the natural world (6-8) and extending the knowledge of the Lord to all the Gentiles throughout the whole earth (11:9-10), yet the same passage also makes clear that the Servant’s means for accomplishing these ends is that He must first strike the earth with the rod of His mouth and slay the wicked with the breath of His lips (11:4). This is an important theme that recurs again and again throughout the Isaianic narrative: when YHWH’s Servant begins restoring Israel (and by extension the whole earth), He will do this by judging the idols and prevailing over the gods of the other nations. Similarly, in Isaiah 41:21-29 God had issued a challenge against all idols, and his answer is that His servant will reveal His glory by prevailing against His enemies and extending His worship throughout the whole earth (42:8-13).

YHWY’s Vindication and the Ancient Near Eastern Religious Context

All of this makes complete sense within Isaiah’s Ancient Near Eastern context. Ancient Near Eastern culture was one in which each nation had its own special god. The Babylonians had Marduk, the Cannanites had Baal, and so on. Artifacts and documents from the time indicate that each nation considered that its god was enthroned in a heavenly palace above the lesser gods (the gods of the other nations) and symbolically enthroned in an earthly palace or temple. The temple was the place where heaven and earth joined and where the god of your nation, which you considered to be the supreme god, was symbolically enthroned.

Now as a consequence of each nation believing that their god was supreme above the gods of the other nations, they also believed that their nation would one day become supreme over the other nations. The two ideas were connected. If your god was really the highest deity, there was only one way for him to demonstrate that supremacy, and that was through the god causing your kingdom to be victorious in battle and eventually to conquer the world. The god of your nation was the one who ruled in the heavenly realm and he would demonstrate his superiority by triumphing over the gods of the other nations and ruling the earth through his favored nation.

So what would happen if your kingdom was being defeated in war? You could conclude that your god is weak and that perhaps he is not as supreme as you believed. This is the backdrop to Sennacherib’s boast against the Lord in chapter 36:18-20. The gods of the other nations have been powerless to protect their people from the might of Assyria. That is one of the reasons why subjugated peoples (including, unfortunately, God’s own people during times of trial) had no problem switching to the religion of those who had conquered them. Had not their own god proved powerless? However, another option for those who were being defeated in war was that perhaps your god was angry. He might still be the supreme god but is letting this trouble befall you in order to teach you a lesson – perhaps that you needed to offer more sacrifices or build more images of him. Or your nation’s god might be showing patience, being in no rush to vindicate himself, but willing to bide his time at it. Whatever the reason might be, everyone in the Ancient Near East was agreed about the fact that when your god did decide to act decisively to vindicate himself, there was only one way to do it: he would make his people rule over the nations of the earth even as he ruled over the gods of the other nations in heaven.

The above sketch of Ancient Near Eastern assumptions is true on a purely historical level, yet it also has profound spiritual truths embedded in it. The Bible teaches that YHWH is enthroned in the heavens high over the gods of the other nations (Exod. 15:11; Ps. 82:1, 86:8, 89:6, 95:3, 96:4, 97:9, 135:5). Further, it teaches that YHWH’s heavenly supremacy will one day be established by His people ruling the earth (Daniel 7:27). This is the backdrop to the work of the Servant in Isaiah. The second half of Isaiah specifically connects YHWH’s defeat of the false gods/idols with his vindication and the establishment of His rule throughout the whole world. Isaiah 60:5-10 speak of the wealth of the Gentiles pouring into Zion and foreigners turning to the God of Israel. Moreover, when Isaiah 65:25 invokes Edenic conditions, this is a significant signpost to the fact that God’s people will be ruling over the earth even as Adam and Eve ruled in the garden. While such rulership could involve God’s people ascending to positions of authority over the rest of an unwilling mankind, passages such as Zechariah 9:23 and Micah 4:2 make it more likely that it involves the complete proliferation of true worship throughout the earth. But either way, the God of Israel will vindicate His name by defeating the gods of the other nations (which is to say, the idols) and establishing his rule (which is to say, peace and justice) throughout the world.

Now read Isaiah 42:8-13 in light of this Ancient Near Eastern backdrop:

I am the LORD, that is My name; and My glory I will not give to another, nor My praise to carved images. Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them. Sing to the LORD a new song, and His praise from the ends of the earth, you who go down to the sea, and all that is in it, you coastlands and you inhabitants of them! Let the wilderness and its cities lift up their voice, the villages that Kedar inhabits. Let the inhabitants of Sela sing, let them shout from the top of the mountains. Let them give glory to the Lord, and declare His praise in the coastlands. The LORD shall go forth like a mighty man; He shall stir up His zeal like a man of war. He shall cry out, yes, shout aloud; He shall prevail against His enemies. (42:8-13).

The Ancient Near Eastern formula couldn’t be clearer: God will establish His supremacy over the gods of the other nations by establishing His rule on the earth. In order to do this He will have to first defeat His enemies and destroy the carved images (as if in silent answer to  Rabshakeh’s question of 36:18-20).

Isaiah sometimes describes this defeat in terms of God’s enemies being converted and at other times in terms of God’s enemies being killed off. No doubt the itinerary for getting there involves some of each. Yet the end result is an eschatological vision of an earth entirely devoted to the worship of YHWH, a vision that Isaiah describes by using the language of the new heavens and the new earth. The Servant Song of Isaiah 42 explicitly connects the Servant’s judgment upon the idols with His establishment of a new order: “I am YHWH, that is my name; and My glory I will not give to another, nor my praise to carved images. Behold, the former things have come to pass, and new things I declare; before they spring forth I tell you of them.” (42:8-9).

This sets the backdrop for the New Heavens and the New Earth which we read about in Isaiah 65. References to the New Heavens and the New Earth is another way of talking about the return from spiritual exile that the Servant brings. Brevard S. Childs explains this most helpfully in his commentary on Isaiah.

“The description that follows v. 17 [in chapter 65] and provides the context by which the understand the new heavens and earth is portrayed always in relation to God’s faithful people, who experience the entry of God’s rule within transformed Jerusalem. The imagery of joy and absence of weeping is set in contrast to the sorrow through which the community of faith has come. The planting of vineyards and the enjoying of its fruits is simply the converse of Israel’s experience of exploration and conquest. Verse 23 summarizes this eschatological hope: ‘They shall be the offspring blessed by Yahweh.’ The link with the promise to the suffering servant is fully evident: ‘[H]e will see offspring…From the agony of his soul he will see’ (53:10-11). The promise in chapter 65 is not an apocalyptic flight into an imaginative world of fantasy, but the fulfillment of God’s will taking shape through the entire book of Isaiah. Verse 24 once again repeats the theme of chapter 65 of God’s utter accessibility in his calling and answering those who seek his presence.” Isaiah, Brevard S. Childs (Westminster John Knox Press, 2001), p. 538.

Restoration Through Judgment

Isaiah unfolds to a climax like concentric circles. At the beginning the destruction of Babylon and other specific nations has become judgment of the entire earth, just as the return from exile becomes restoration of all humanity.

This state of affairs doesn’t arrive all at once. We have already seen that in order for God’s Servant to bring about the New Exodus for His people, and through them for the entire earth, the idols have to first be dealt with. Just as Isaiah connects God’s judgment against His people with His redemption of them, so God’s judgment against all the idols and wickedness among the nations is connected with His redemption of the nations. For example, Isaiah pronouncements against the people of Egypt (19:1-17) and Assyria (10:5-19) end in God promising to redeem Egypt and Assyria (19:18-25):

In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and the Assyrian will come into Egypt and the Egyptian into Assyria, and the Egyptians will serve with the Assyrians. In that day Israel will be one of three with Egypt and Assyria – a blessing in the midst of the land whom the LORD of hosts shall bless, saying, ‘Blessed is Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel My inheritance.” (19:23-25)

Given the relation between judgment and restoration, it is not surprising that in passages such as Isaiah 11:4, 41:21-29 and elsewhere, the ministry of the Servant is connected specifically with judgment. YHWH will vindicate His name and prove that He is supreme by judging the idols, defeating His enemies, slaying the wicked, establishing the government of His Servant and restoring the earth. These great promises culminate in the final Servant song in chapter 61, as the Servant speaks to describe the type of culture that he will create.


Further Reading

Complete Unquenchable Fire Series

Hell, Universalism and Some Remaining Questions



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