This blog continues my commentary of Isaiah in the Complete Jewish Bible version
8 Woe to those who add house to house
and join field to field,
until there’s no room for anyone else,
and you live in splendor alone on your land.
9 The Lord of armies said in my ears,
“Many houses will be brought to ruin,
large, magnificent ones left empty;
10 for a ten-acre vineyard will produce
only five gallons of wine,
and seed from five bushels of grain
will yield but half a bushel.”
11 Woe to those who get up early
to pursue intoxicating liquor;
who stay up late at night,
until wine inflames them.
12 They have lutes and lyres, drums and flutes,
and wine at their parties;
but they pay no attention to how The Lord works
and never look at what his hands have made.
13 For such lack of knowledge
my people go into exile;
this is also why their respected men starve
and their masses are parched from thirst.
14 Therefore Deathland has enlarged itself
and opened its limitless jaws —
and down go their nobles and masses,
along with their noise and revels.
15 The masses are made low, the nobles are humbled —
proud looks will be brought down.
16 But The Lord of armies is exalted through fair judgement
God the Holy One is consecrated through justice.
17 Then lambs will be able to feed
as if they were in their own pasture,
and those wandering through will eat
from the ruined fields of the overfed.
18 Woe to those who begin by pulling
at transgression with a thread,
but end by dragging sin along
as if with a cart rope.
19 They say, “We want God to speed up his work,
to hurry it along, so we can see it!
We want the Holy One of Isra’el’s plan
to come true right now, so we can be sure of it!”
20 Woe to those who call evil good
and good evil,
who change darkness into light
and light into darkness,
who change bitter into sweet
and sweet into bitter!
21 Woe to those seeing themselves as wise,
esteeming themselves as clever.
22 Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine,
The mighty mixers of strong drinks,
23 who acquit the guilty for bribes
but deny justice to the righteous!
24 Therefore, as fire licks up the stubble,
and the chaff is consumed in the flame;
so their root will rot,
and their flowers scatter like dust;
because they have rejected the Teaching
of the Lord of armies;
they have despised the word
of the Holy One of Isra’el.
This is Isaiah’s denunciation of an affluent society which has forgotten its roots in justice and worship of the one God. These people are mainly not criminals but good time boys and girls who think they have a right to enjoy themselves, trivial people whose neglect of justice is more closely allied to the power of death than they realise. It’s not that they have rejected morality, no, they have their own morality, where heroism is drinking a lot and physical prowess is demonstrated by mixing cocktails. It’s a reversed morality where moderation is wrong and bribery is right; where ignorance is light and learning dark; where neighbourly concern is bitter and competition is sweet.
Their affluence leads them to buy up land and houses so that ordinary people cannot find accomodation. Art and artificers are reduced to providing for their parties. They have all the smart news at their fingertips but no clue as what God is doing in their own history. The selected details of their lifestyle ring true across the 2500 years since Isaiah constructed his word picture.
The language is continuously interesting, resounding with rhyme and assonance, hissing and crackling with alliteration, manipulating the syntax to express derision. Isaiah is a great poet in a style which stays close to passionate speech but is capable of special effects. The crucial image of Deathland, Hebrew She’ol, stretching its gargantuan gullet to accomodate the tasty mouthful of slaughtered partygoers, is splendidly graphic. It suggests that there is an inner connection between their destructive triviality and the fate that sweeps them away: they are in league with Death. They mockingly demand that God’s response to their behaviour should be speeded up; bring it on, they say. The connection between triviality and evil is also depicted in the images of the thread and the rope. They begin with something so slight it seems negligible but ends with a serious weight of wrongness. Isaiah well understands the demonic appeal of affluence, which starts as a choice and ends as an addiction.
Their fate will bring them to the ground but will exalt the fair judgement and justice of the holy God, whose teaching and prophetic words they have ignored.
This is a classic denuciation of many affluent groups down the ages, and is perfectly relevant to the UK today. As Christmas approaches we see clearly how the demonic triviality of capitalism, with its goods and grottoes, its Santas and sales pitches, its Black Fridays and Sunday markets, its luxuriies and loan sharks, insult the poor and destroy their fragile economies. The fact that this is accomplished in the name of Jesus, is a blasphemy which should move the Christian Church to united action: not to “put Christ back into Christmas” but to get Him the hell out of it. If believers are tempted to be mealy-mouthed about this or any societal crime, they have the language of Isaiah to shame them into something more resolute.