This blog continues my commentary on Isaiah in the Complete Jewish Bible version.
25 This is why The Lord’s anger blazed up against his people,
why he stretched out his hand against them and struck them
[so hard that] the hills shook,
and corpses lay like trash in the streets.
Even after all this, his anger remains,
his upraised hand still threatens.
26 He will give a signal to faraway nations,
he will whistle for them to come
from the ends of the earth;
and here they come, so fast! —
27 none of them tired or stumbling,
none of them sleeping or drowsy,
none with a loose belt,
none with a broken sandal-strap.
28 Their arrows are sharp,
all their bows are strung,
their horses’ hoofs are like flint,
and their [chariot] wheels like a whirlwind.
29 They will roar like lions —
yes, roaring like young lions,
they growl and seize the prey
and carry it off, with no one to rescue.
30 On that day they will growl at them,
like the sea when it growls —
and when one looks toward land,
one sees darkness closing in;
the light is dissipated
in the obscuring clouds.
This is Isaiah’s take on the Assyrian army. He is impressed by its mobility, its readiness for battle, its modern equipment, its aggression. And he mimes these qualities in language which is in itself swift, moving in paired clauses, which change their grammatical shape while maintaining their focus on the army which the Lord has whistled up, as one might whistle for a working animal, in this case from the ends of the earth. There’s no doubt that the Lord is in charge.
How could Isaiah see a vicious enemy as sent by God? It is an aspect of that “mishpat” that fair judgement which is characteristic of the Lord. The people of Israel and Judah have neglected the just commandments of the Lord; now the Lord exercises his justice by sending the ruthless Assyrian army.
I do not think I share Isaiah’s faith that the course of history is determined by God. He sees that God’s people are free to worship idols and neglect the Teaching, the Torah, of God, but he also sees God’s freedom to respond to their rebellion through human agents, in this case, the warlike Assyrians. The symmetry of these competing freedoms appealed to the Prophets’ sense of justice: history is not meaningless, although it may be brutal: God is not mocked. That same view of history allows Isaiah to have hope for his people. If they abandon idolatry and turn towards God and his Teaching, God will restore their fortunes and give them peace.
The trouble with this view is that if God’s people are conquered, it must be because of their sin.
I sense that there is some connection between the evil done by a nation and its ultimate collapse; its resolve is reduced by its own injustice just as its enemies are multiplied by its violence – as we might see for example, in the case of Nazi Germany. That sense is probably justifiable as long as it remains vague. But if we try to make it into a rule of history, we immediately come up against the countervailing fact that reasonably just nations seem to fare no better in the long term. The truth is more like that stated eloquently by the Scottish poet William Dunbar:
No state in erd here standis sicker
as with the wind wavis the wicker
wavis this warldes vanitie
( no state/ estate on earth here stands securely; as the willow wavers in the wind, so wavers the pride/ emptiness of this world)
The prophetic confidence that obedience to God means security in this world looks to me like a busted flush.
Does this invalidate Isaiah’s message? I don’t think so. He stands against idolatry and injustice in the name of the God of justice, a stance which is just as relevant now as in the 8th century BCE. His theology of history expresses a profound human longing, which, alas, is not borne out by the facts.