Vigil 2017 Hour Five: Isaiah

Is This an Isaiah Moment?

Mike Kelly

I have been reading and commenting on Isaiah for years in this vigil, and decided I needed to re-read the prophet to identify perhaps new insights and new inspiration. So I began at the beginning of the book of Isaiah in which the prophet identifies himself as son of Amos offering a vision related to Judah and Jerusalem during the 8th century BC. Much of the text relates to the reign of two kings of Judah, Ahaz and his son Hezekiah. Isaiah wastes no time articulating his perspective on the times, speaking as in the voice of God about Judah as:

A sinful nation, people laden with iniquity,
offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly,
who have forsaken the LORD, who have despised the Holy one of Israel…
And characterizes God is he writes as if God is speaking:
1:15: When you stretch out your hands,
I will hide my eyes from you;
Even though you make many prayers
I will not listen;
Your hands are full of blood….
16: remove the evil of your doings
from before my eyes;
cease to do evil,


The first five chapters of Isaiah swing manically between: the bitterest of condemnations of Judah, description of the utter dissolution wreaked upon Judah by the “Lord God of Hosts” conceived of as a form of military general who destroys society, and  brief, very brief, glimpses of a future of peace and justice.

I’m talking tonight exclusively about First Isaiah, written in the 8th Century BC, the first 39 chapters of the book we know as Isaiah. The consensus of Biblical scholars acknowledge how different is the rest of the book, written about two centuries later, commonly recognized as Second and Third Isaiah.

Our first reading, [Isaiah 5: 1-7, 20-25] building on the metaphor of a vineyard, is Isaiah at his poetic best, underscoring his deep love for Judah, and profound anger over the state of kingdom.

It is interrupted by an account of Isaiah’s vision of being summoned by God (6:5) where seraphs touch his lips with a burning coal and the voice of God asks “whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah replying, “Here am I; send me!” Immediately, God describes the impossibility of the task he urges on Isaiah  [6:9-13]:

Go and say to this people:
“keep listening, but do not comprehend;
keep looking, but do not understand.’
Make the mind of this people dull and stop their ears, and shut their eyes
so that they may not look with their eyes,
and listen with their ears,
and comprehend with their minds
and turn to be healed.”
Then Isaiah said, “how long, O Lord?” and God said,
“until cities lie waste without inhabitant…’
and the land is utterly desolate…
until the Lord sends everyone far away
and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
Even if a tenth part remain in it,
It will be burned again,
Like a terebinth or an oak
Whose stump remains standing
When it is felled.”

The holy seed is its stump.

This passage is cited in all four Gospels, but with a profoundly different  tone and meaning. The New Testament version is more like a complaint that the Jews aren’t getting or accepting the good news of Jesus. Matthew even spins the complaint into a rationale for teaching in parables that makes Jesus’ message more understandable. The Old Testament version is a deliberate act of an all-powerful God insisting that the Jews will not listen- an element of both his anger and passion to punish them.

God urges Isaiah to appeal to King Ahaz who is torn between a decision whether to ally with the so-called northern Kingdoms of Israel or with Assyria, the great regional power at the time. Isaiah’s advice to Ahaz dictated by God was to ignore the northern kingdoms and forge an alliance with a far more serious threat like Assyria. ((7:9b)

Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, do not let your heart be faint [7:4]

If you do not stand firm in faith,” Isaiah emphasizes to Ahaz, “you shall not stand at all.”[7:9b]

Asked to request that God give a sign that Isaiah’s advice is correct, Ahaz refuses  (7:13) and says “he will not put the Lord to the test.”. Isaiah then points out a sign. It is a woman with child about to bear a son whose name will be Emmanuel (God be with us). Ahaz’s refusal becomes both a symbol of Judah’s denial of faith and a sign of his fecklessness and foolishness to worry about the northern kingdoms whose weakness would soon lead to their devastation rather than to take on the more urgent task of coming to terms with a far larger threat, the Assyrians.

It is no exaggeration to state that the advice of Isaiah to Ahaz to stand firm in faith, to trust Yahweh, is a core message of Isaiah One. Faith, as one commentator on Isaiah, and Father Lawrence has constantly reminded us, cannot be translated as a verb in English, but it is a verb in Hebrew. It quite literally means trust, noun and verb.

Faith is not a matter of intellectual content or cognitive belief. “Faith is…precisely for times of conflict, threat, and danger, when circumstance dictates fear rather than trust. The prophetic summons to faith is an urging that the king engage in an attitude and a practice of confidence that flies in the face of an unambiguous circumstance of danger.” [1]

Isaiah’s charge from God is to prophecy something incomprehensible to his listeners, who will not accept the future obliteration of Judah, burnt to the ground except for a remnant, the human equivalent of a charred stump.

How are we to find meaning in this account? Our access to First Isaiah is seriously attenuated: almost three millennia separates us from a relatively obscure text strained from the vicissitudes of translation. Isaiah is composed of thoughts assembled over the course of several centuries by a wiki of writers and editors writing under the pen name of Isaiah.

The reason to pay attention to Isaiah are some striking similarities between our country and the situation of 8th century BC Judah:

Both of our societies are deeply troubled and divided.  We both live in perilous times where we are experiencing intense internal conflict as a society, arguably weak (or irresponsible) political leadership, deeply imbedded social structures within a society with rampant injustice and poverty.

The consequences of international conflicts are dangerous and threatening.

I was struck enough by these similarities to slow my reading of Isaiah and to contemplate whether our situation is similar enough to 8th century Judah to pose the question of whether conditions like these, like ours, are particularly suitable grounds for the emergence of Isaiah–like religious sensitivity and theological speculation.

Are we in an Isaiah moment?

There are, of course, profound differences between our modern society and the culture of the relatively primitive and obscure 8th century Judah—enough to make the comparison seem a bit preposterous.

The United States is more akin to the great powers of Isaiah’s time– like Assyria, and Babylon and Persia–compared to tiny and fragile Judah under real threat of obliteration by larger regional powers.

We are a secular society rich beyond the wildest imaginations of almost any society that has preceded us.

The consequences of international conflicts in today’s world are heightened by the speed of technology-enhanced weaponry and change involving loss of human life and culture precipitated by cataclysmic global warming and arming.

These differences could, at least, be said to augment massively the risks of complacency in the U.S. and modern western society, making it close to impossible for us to take Isaiah seriously. But these differences turn out to signal a similarity between contemporary America and the inhospitable situation of Isaiah when God literally ordered the prophet to speak, but abandon the possibility of success.

Two other differences between our society and the 8th Century Judah are worth thinking about seriously.

The first is that we are a democracy, not a kingdom. The whole notion of democracy did not exist in the Judah of Isaiah ‘s time. Just as faith cannot be translated as a verb in English, the same insight applies to the concept of “citizen” in a democracy. We would do well to discover in this time that citizen is more than a status, but amounts to an active verb premised on fulfilling obligations associated with an appreciation that trust is as fundamental to a successful democracy as it is to faith. Trust entails each citizen becoming active in treating other citizens with love and respect and engaging in persuading them —if only by standing up publically—to join common cause to pursue the right course for a democracy.

The massive and deeply flawed self-satisfaction of our society that has been growing over the last several decades gradually led to our failure to notice and act on the neglect and hollowing out of the American working class. Now, in the aftermath, we are surprised by analyses of mortality rates and the epidemic of drug addiction—a phenomenon captured by the phrase, death by despair. And we now have to live with the most startling and disruptive indicator of what has been happening in this country–the election of a government that threatens the character and competence of democratic governance.

But the most important difference between Judah and contemporary society is that God has changed.  First Isaiah’s God is almost exclusively a great warrior, the Lord of Hosts, and the prophet’s vision of peace and justice is deeply connected to the military might of the Lord of Hosts and with an assumption that God, like a good ruler, will govern well.[2] There is in First Isaiah the belief that God can intervene directly in human events to change the course of history. God can condemn and destroy people who purport to have faith in him but are not true to that faith.

We know that many of our fellow citizens share an Isaiah-One view of a war-like god who issues orders, and directly intervenes in society to punish the bad and reward the good. Staying with First Isaiah for any length of time makes one long for the God of Second and Third Isaiah which are texts two centuries and a world of suffering away. The God of Christianity is another half Millennium away. The concepts of God explicit in late Isaiah and the Gospels add dimensions of mercy, kindness, love, self-sacrifice and a kind of unknowing or sacred skepticism that make one long to escape the soldier-God that dominates Isaiah One.

My decision to stay with First Isaiah and longing to escape from it seemed justified by a little further reading into what only can be described a long series of chapters that are to the modern reader mostly a wasteland, from Isaiah chapters 13 to 39 many of which are rants against all ancient societies, all identified by Isaiah as doomed to fail.

Through all the predictions of catastrophe, the one message we can take appropriately from 8th Century Isaiah leads us directly to the resurrection we celebrate at the conclusion of this vigil. We are, today, in an Isaiah moment. The imperative of Isaiah One is to “Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, do not let your heart be faint [7:4] trust in God, stand firm in faith. The Isaiah moment for our times is to trust in God, trust in the miracle of resurrection, but also to trust in Democracy—a kind of trust that entails action to act as persons of faith and persons who take their citizenship governance seriously.

Let me close with the prayer [12:1-4] from Isaiah that we sang before my remarks tonight. It offers a visionary conclusion to the passages I’ve focused on this evening: they are worth repeating.

You will say in that day: (And we don’t know when that day shall be)
I will give thanks to you, O Lord,
For though you were angry with me,
Your anger turned away,
And you comforted me.
Surely God is my salvation,
I will trust, and will not be afraid,
For the Lord God is my strength and my might;
God has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you
Will say in that day:
Give thanks to the Lord,
Call on his name;
Make known his deeds among the nations;
Proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing praises to the Lord….

[1] Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39, 67

[2] This is true even for the great oracle in 9:1-7 “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” citing the former time and latter time and a newborn child titled with the formulaic Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Ever Lasting Father, and Prince of Peace. This is a reading at Christmas as a prophecy of Christ.  However appropriated, these titles and text appear to be related directly to promoting the Davidic dynasty of the kings of Judah. And the oracle of chapter 11 (“a shoot shall come from the tree of Jesse….the wolf living with the lamb”) is largely a vision of peace and justice, perhaps directed to exiles).


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