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Monday, 11 September 2017

Isaiah 21:1-17: Darkest before the dawn?

Today we have a couple of oracles. Poetic, metaphorical, allusive and therefore not easy to fully understand.

Again, it's all to do with the political "churn" of rising and falling kingdoms, with that ever-pervading sense that God is behind and beyond all the machinations, grimly watching them fail, all of them.

There is a watchman. Maybe Isaiah is the watchman, maybe he isn't. But he's scared by what he sees. He's not scared by the mighty army coming towards him, he's scared by what is going to happen to them. This war machine is going to be taken apart, brutally, efficiently, ruthlessly.

Watchmen long for the morning. But it is still night, and in the reign of darkness, destruction is king.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Isaiah 19:1-20:6: Egypt, the first enslaver

Isaiah's eyes are still sweeping around his map of the world, and now he lights on Egypt.

Egypt was, of course, the ancient enemy, the enslaver of Israel. So as he begins with prophecies of doom against them, his hearers would have cheered.

But now, Egypt is beginning to have a more complex identity in the hearts and minds of the policy makers. In the light of the threat from Assyria, they are beginning to think of Egypt as an ally. Perhaps its strength can protect them from the might of the new kid on the block.

Egypt apparently thought so too - they engaged in a lot of meddling in the Palestinian states north of their territory, stirring them up against Assyria. From Egypt's point of view, Israel, Philistia, Aram and the rest were buffer states, and if they fell, the Assyrian threat would be on their doorstep.

Their friendly overtures to Israel and Judah were self serving - a bit like Russia cosying up to President Trump, while at the same time using fake news to destabilise and disorientate the people Allegedly.

Into to all this ferment Isaiah speaks in three ways. First, he has a prophecy of doom and destruction for Egypt, centred on the drying up of the Nile. The Nile is everything to Egypt, and if it's waters stopped flowing, Egypt's wealth and power would be cut off.

Second, he speaks about healing, with specific but unfulfilled (yet) prophecies about worship of Yahweh breaking out in Egypt, of blessings not curses emanating from that land.

And then third, he brings his attention back to the events of the present, and acts out a prophecy, as many of the other prophets do. He went around in a state of undress, saying this is what will happen to Egypt. The Assyrian king sent one of his generals to Ashdod, where there had been a rebellion. This general, who was called the Tartan, crushed the rebellion and sent captives stripped and barefoot back to Assyria.

See? said Isaiah. This has come true. Now trust me on the rest.

Thursday, 31 August 2017

Isaiah 17:1-18:7: Political security? Desolation, more like.

Isaiah returns to the fate of Ephraim, or Jacob, or Israel: the northern kingdom.

In the face of the Assyrian threat, the natural thing to do would be to band together with another small nation. There is strength in numbers.

What about Damascus? They're in the same boat as us. Surely the Arameans will come to our aid!

But Isaiah looks, and sees desolation in Damascus. Isaiah looks, and all across the countryside it looks as if the harvest has come early. All the growing crops have been cut down. Nothing to be seen but the leftovers that the poor were allowed to glean. Proud fortifications taken over by weeds.  It had happened before - when Israel took the land from the nations that had lived there before - their fortresses were left in ruins.

Isaiah looks, and sees it happening again. A nation of tall, smooth-skinned strangers are going to sweep over the land and ravage it.

And yet, and yet ... chapter 18 ends with an unlikely picture: these tall, smooth-skinned strangers are bringing tributes to the Lord! Even the Assyrians will bow the knee to Yahweh, the Holy One of Israel.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Isaiah 15:1-16:14: Pride goes before a fall

A long section to read today - Isaiah is still scanning the map of the region, and foreseeing trouble for Moab, another old enemy.

Isaiah describes the devastation of Moab. The worrying thing is that Moab is to the south of Israel, on the eastern side of the Dead Sea opposite Judah. If Assyria have got to Moab, they will probably have gone through Israel, and be knocking on the door of Judah.

Isiah describes weeping, mourning, distress and despair. The panicky leaders of Moab consider asking Jerusalem for help, and Isaiah imagines eavesdropping on their cabinet meeting.

He offers hope - if Moab could deal with its pride, it might discover that God's promises to Israel, of a king from David's line, might even extend to protect them. If they could shelter under David's throne, perhaps they would be safe. But they would rather trust in their own strength, and so they will fall.

Here's the lesson for us all - God's promises of protection can only hold good if we dispense with our pride.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Isaiah 14:1-32: surveying the sweep of world history

I have a mental picture of a royal court, a large table, spread with maps, the king and his counsellors poring over these very valuable documents, and Isaiah standing quietly in the corner, waiting for instructions; "will someone fetch me the map of Persia?"

I don't know if this is remotely likely to have ever happened. It's probably more likely that Isaiah was part of the inner circle of the Temple, more allied with the priesthood than the monarchy, but sometimes  can detect in his thinking that birds eye view of events that ordinary people probably never had.

Nowadays we can all watch the news and see a picture of the globe zooming in to a particular country, city, district, street, house, to allow us to understand where in the world this newsworthy event is taking place. In Isiah's day, many people would never travel beyond their daily horizon more than once a year.

In chapter 14, we have the long view. We are watching from the satellite, standing over the maps in the throne room, looking into the future. Assyria is the big threat right now, but Isaiah is looking beyond them for most of the chapter. There are signs that there is a new empire rising - Babylon - and one day it may eclipse Assyria. But Isaiah is seeing beyond even that day, and describing the mocking taunts that will accompany Babylon's fall.

Babylon, that hasn't finished rising as of yet, will inevitably fall. That thought brings comfort to the counsellors: never mind today's threat, tomorrow's threat will pass as well. At the end of the chapter, the fall of Assyria is almost mentioned as an afterthought, and as the picture zooms back in to the present, we realise that we are a turning point for Judah - Ahaz the king has died, and his son Hezekiah is untried as yet. The Philistines are jubilant - they think they've seen off an old foe - but this long view reminds Isaiah and us that it takes more than the death of a king to interrupt God's plans.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Isaiah 13:1-22: Who rules the world - Babylon?

We seem to be starting a new section here - we get a little intro: "A prophecy against Babylon that Isaiah son of Amoz saw."

Babylon wasn't really on the radar at this time - Assyria was the big threat. But babylon would sweep away Assyria. Later, the Medes are mentioned. The time will come when they sweep away the Babylonians. Empires rise and empires fall.

What Isaiah is inviting us to consider here is that God is behind this chaotic surging of  forces of political power. Like a conductor drawing forth crashing cadences from the orchestra with sweeps of his baton, God is conducting these superpowers as they boil up out of their territories and inundate everything in their path, only to be devoured themselves by the next.

Language of despair and terror makes us realise how it will feel to be on the ground, in the path of these oncoming storms. But behind it, we can see the arm of God. Yahweh is really in charge.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Isaiah 12:1-6: Thank you for saving me!

Isaiah allow himself a moment of grateful praise that he has been saved by God's mercy, and around him, he imagines a remnant of God's people similarly singing God's praise.

In his vision, that represented his call to be a prophet, Isaiah was cleansed from his sin by a coal taken from the altar. My commentaries tell me that when chapter 12 opens "in that day you will say..." it is you singular. One person is praising God for his salvation.

Isaiah himself? Maybe.

But he doesn't remain alone for long. The next time the phrase comes, in verse 4: "in that day you will say..." it is plural. Now it's Isaiah and friends. Now it's the righteous remnant, singing their praise to God.