This blog continues my commentary of Isaiah
10 Woe to those who enact unjust decrees
and draft oppressive legislation
2 to deprive the impoverished of justice
and rob my people’s poor of their rights,
looting widows and preying on orphans!
3 What will you do on the day of punishment,
when calamity comes from afar?
To whom will you flee for help?
Where will you leave your wealth,
4 so as not to squat among the prisoners
or fall among the slain?
Even after all this, his anger remains,
his upraised hand still threatens.
5 “Oh Ashur, the rod expressing my anger!
The club in their hands is my fury!
6 I am sending him against a hypocritical nation,
ordering him to march against a people who enrage me,
to take the spoil and the plunder
and trample them down like mud in the street.
7 That is not what Ashur intends,
that is not what they think;
rather, they mean to destroy,
to cut down nation after nation.
8 For their king says,
‘Aren’t all my commanders kings?
9 Hasn’t Kalno sufferee like Kark’mish,
Hamat like Arpad, Shomron like Dammesek?
10 Just as my hand reached the kingdoms of non-gods,
with more images than in Yerushalayim and Shomron;
11 so won’t I do to Yerushalayim and her non-gods
what I did to Shomron and her idols?’”
12 Therefore when the Lord has done everything he intends to do to Mount Tziyon and Yerushalayim, “I will punish the king of Ashur for the boasting that comes from his proud heart and from revelling in his arrogant looks. 13 For he says,
“‘With my own strong arm I have done this,
and with my wisdom, because I’m so clever!
I erased the boundaries between peoples,
I plundered their stores for the future;
as a mighty man, I subjugated the inhabitants.
14 My hand found the riches of the peoples like a nest;
and as one gathers abandoned eggs,
I gathered the whole earth!
Not one wing fluttered,
not one beak opened or let out a chirp!’”
15 Should the axe glorify itself
over the one who chops with it?
Should the saw magnify itself
over the one who moves it?
It’s as if a stick could wave
the hand that raises it up,
or as if a wooden staff could lift
someone not made of wood.
16 Therefore the Lord, God of armies
will shrink his well-fed ones;
and in place of his glory,
a fire will be kindled that will burn and burn.
17 The light of Isra’el will become a fire
and his Holy One a flame,
burning and devouring
his thorns and briars in a single day.
18 The glory of his forest
and of his fertile land
he will consume body and soul,
like an invalid wastes away.
19 So few forest trees will remain
that a child could list them!
This is a strong prophecy against a) unjust government and b) the arrogance of a great power.
The prophet targets the Judaean court and its bureaucracy for unjust decrees that favour the rich over the poor. He specifically picks out the scribes whose hands frame and publish these rulings.
The Scottish government has recently announced its desire to refuse UK welfare legislation, the so-called Universal Benefit, which reduces provision for poor and disabled citizens and subjects them to degrading checks. Those who have enacted these unjust decrees, along with those who framed them, should reckon not only with the opposition of the Scottish Government but, as the scripture says, with that of God. To find Nicola Sturgeon and God on the same side ought to make even Theresa May think again. Isaiah is never embarrassed by the awkward justice of God, even when it runs counter to the worldly wisdom of his people and their king.
There were of course sacred stories that depicted a God of justice who sided with Israeli slaves rather than Egyptian overlords, but I think it’s also true to say that injustice spoke to Isaiah like a blasphemy against God, which provoked the voice of God to speak within and through him. Injustice is in his experience an abomination before God.
He applies the same judgement to the conquering Assyrians, the regional superpower. Israel’s God of armies is using Assyria to punish his people for their refusal to obey his justice, but the superpower should not imagine it is anything more than a tool in the hands of God. The arrogance of Assyria is well – represented by Isaiah who invents a soliloquy which expresses it. The metaphor of the nest which is robbed without a cheep of protest is a brilliant evocation of the voice of the conqueror. The prophet insists that the great power is only a stick in God’s hand, nothing more. This gives perspective to the USA, China in the present day: they may be used by God but they are not Gods; they may be able to treat other nations as no more than nests being raided by eagles, but the day when they will will be reduced to forests destroyed by fire is not far off.
Of course, the day when Assyria was destroyed by the Persians did arrive, but Isaiah’s prophecy is not justified by that eventuality, but by his conviction that unjust power cannot long survive the passionate justice of God, which is for him the ruling power of the universe. We do not need to agree with his theology to respond to his faith in the ferocity of the just God. Nothing unjust will stand for long, he promises. I wish I could share his confidence.