All my life the Bible has been very important to me. I read it as a child, not only the stories but the complex arguments of the Epistles, which I made the effort to try to understand in the language of the King James Version, the only one we used in those days. As a student I got immense pleasure out of browsing through the Bible, examining the meaning of words and tracing themes. My preaching was always firmly based on the Bible.
I have always regarded biblical fundamentalism as the Bible’s worst enemy. It is intellectually ridiculous, theologically unsound, and worst of all it can lay cruel burdens on people. Sadly, many people in the churches and outside them have never learned that there is a different way of reading the Bible. My aim is to get people to appreciate the Bible in a realistic way – not to try to condition their minds to believe in every word of it, but to see it as the expression of the spiritual experience and quest of many different people and to recognise kindred spirits across the centuries. Read in this way, it can come to life and be inspiring as well as inspired.
A Taste of Isaiah
Isaiah is one of the best-known books in the Bible. You may not believe that, but if you are familiar with Handel’s Messiah, or if you have been to carol services, you have heard quite a lot of Isaiah – ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son’, ‘the people that walked in darkness have seen a great light’, ‘unto us a child is born’, ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people’, ‘and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed’, ‘he was despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief’.
Apart from the Christmas and Easter associations, there are other familiar sayings that come from Isaiah – ‘and they shall turn their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks’, ‘Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts’, ‘the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid … and a little child shall lead them’, ‘the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose’, ‘behold, I create new heavens and a new earth’, and so on. You probably thought that last one came from Revelation, but Revelation copied it from Isaiah!
Isaiah is one of the longest books in the Bible (66 chapters), and very complex. Its composition took place over a period of about 200 years. The original prophet Isaiah lived in Jerusalem from before 740 to sometime after 700 BC. At that time the Assyrian Empire was expanding from its capital of Nineveh (in what is now northern Iraq) and taking over more and more of the ancient kingdom of David and Solomon. The independent northern kingdom of Samaria was completely obliterated in Isaiah’s time (about 721 BC), and before long most of the south was occupied and it was virtually only Jerusalem that was holding out.
But no empire lasts for ever, and Assyria was eventually taken over by Babylon. The Babylonians conquered Jerusalem in 597 BC and deported many of its citizens to Babylon. A few years later they returned to Jerusalem and completely destroyed it. Then after about 50 years, there was a change of regime in Babylon, and the Jews were allowed to return to their own country and start rebuilding Jerusalem. Chapters 40-55 of Isaiah reflect the joyful optimism of that time, but from chapter 56 onwards there is a change of mood, which seems to reflect a later time when the returned exiles were facing new problems.
So it seems that the book of Isaiah grew as later writers added to it. However, there are common themes. The later prophets felt they were speaking in the spirit of Isaiah. Apart from God himself, there is a main character throughout the book – the city of Jerusalem. We see it in all its injustice and corruption, its sufferings, its hopes and the glorious cosmic vision of the ‘new Jerusalem’ that still expresses the hopes of humanity today.
Chapter 1: A Very Angry Young Man
The book of Isaiah begins with a rant. The prophet is a very angry young man. He is furious about the appalling spiritual state of the nation. They have turned their backs on their God. The whole society is sick ‘from head to foot’, ‘covered with bruises and sores and open wounds’. From this graphic metaphor he turns to the literal situation – the country is devastated, its cities are burned to the ground, foreign invaders (probably the Assyrians) have brought everything to ruin. Jerusalem stands alone.
Here too the image is graphic: Jerusalem is like ‘a guard’s hut in a vineyard’ or ‘a shed in a cucumber field’. That image reminds me of an incongruous sight I saw in Manchester about fifty years ago. There had been a programme of what used to be called ‘slum clearance’. A huge area of criss-crossing streets had been demolished, but the empty space was still dotted with solitary pubs – street corners with no streets, locals with nowhere to be local to. This was Jerusalem as the prophet saw it – a capital city with no country.
People were comparing the situation with the legendary cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, destroyed long ago because of their sinfulness. Then Isaiah turns that description mercilessly onto the people: ‘Hear the word of the Lord, you rulers of Sodom! Listen to the teaching of our God, you people of Gomorrah!’ The ‘chosen people of God’ are no better than any godless city!
Is it because they are neglecting the worship of God? Far from it! They seem to be praying and sacrificing more than ever. But, says Isaiah, God doesn’t want their worship. This is very strange coming from someone who was probably a priest, if we can infer that from chapter 6, where he has a significant vision right in the heart of the Temple. It’s rather like a preacher getting into the pulpit one Sunday morning and saying to the congregation ‘You’re not wanted here – go home!’
Every aspect of worship is attacked and scorned. ‘Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me’. As for all the festivals and solemn convocations, God says ‘I am weary of bearing them’ and ‘even though you make many prayers, I will not listen’.
Then comes the reason: ‘your hands are full of blood’. And the solution: ‘wash yourselves; make yourselves clean’. But this is no ritual washing of the hands before prayer. Its meaning is spelt out: ‘seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’. Have we, 2700 years later, yet got the message that a society is judged in the sight of God not by how religious it is but by how it treats its most vulnerable members?
Chapter 2: A Global Vision
In the second chapter of Isaiah we find one of the most often quoted passages in the whole book: ‘… and they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more’.
However, we cannot be sure that those words originally came from Isaiah, because they are almost exactly duplicated in the book of Micah (4:1-4), and Micah adds a rather beautiful picture of peace: ‘… but they shall sit under their own vines and under their own fig trees, and no one shall make them afraid’. Isaiah and Micah were close contemporaries. Which one copied from which? Or were they both quoting a hymn that was going around at the time?
In its context, it is a prophecy about the Temple. It says that the day will come when the mountain of the Lord’s house (i.e., Mount Zion) will be ‘established in the top of the mountains … and all nations shall flow to it’. The nations will eagerly come to Zion to learn the law of Israel’s God, and as that law is recognised and obeyed throughout the world there will be no more war.
In one way those words have proved remarkably true. Today, three of the great religious traditions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – worship the God who was worshipped in that Temple 2700 years ago. All three of them regard Jerusalem as the Holy City, and the Law that was taught there has shaped the ethical traditions not only of the four billion people who follow those religions but also many others influenced by them. In other ways, of course, the prophecy is still a very long way from being fulfilled. There is as much war in the world as ever, and one of the bitterest conflicts is around Jerusalem itself.
Perhaps the weakness of that vision is that it is temple-centred. In Christian terms, it represents the idea that if everybody went to church it would be an ideal world. In my own country of Wales it is said that in the 1890s about 95% of the population belonged to a church or chapel and attended from time to time even if not every Sunday. But that certainly didn’t mean that Wales was the kingdom of heaven! It was a country of huge poverty, inequality and exploitation, and it took the rise of the Labour movement – frowned upon by some of the churches – to begin to make a difference.
Further on in Isaiah (chapter 11) there is another vision of a peaceful world, where ‘the wolf shall dwell with the lamb’ and ‘they shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain’. This world is to be brought about by the rise of a righteous king who will judge fairly and stand for the rights of the poor. A better vision perhaps? But the world has known many rulers who have started out with great ideals and have either failed to achieve them or become corrupted.
There is yet another vision near the end of the book (chapter 65) – the vision of a ‘new Jerusalem’ of peace and prosperity in which people dwell at peace in their own homes, eat and drink their own crops instead of producing them for others to enjoy, and a hundred-year-old is considered young! There is no mention here of the Temple or the King – it is society itself that is transformed. This is surely what we need to work and pray for today.
Chapter 3: The Evil of Inequality
Our traditional Christian theology and middle-class ethics have often blinded us to parts of the Bible. We sometimes think of the Old Testament prophets as tedious ranters or ‘hell fire preachers’, but the things that made them angry still make many people angry today.
One of their constant themes is inequality – conspicuous wealth existing shamelessly alongside dire poverty. The phrase ‘grinding the faces of the poor’ actually comes from Isaiah (3:15). The prophet attacks the rulers of the people: ‘the spoil of the poor is in your houses’. Most of us, looking around at our furnishings, our well-stocked food cupboards and fashionable wardrobes, would do well to ask where it all comes from. Who produces these things, what wage do they get, what conditions do they work in? Much of what we have today is spoil taken from the poor.
Isaiah then goes on to a biting satire of the richer people. He talks of the women, the ‘daughters of Zion’, who ‘walk with outstretched necks, glancing wantonly with their eyes, mincing along as they go, tinkling with their feet’. God, he says, will rob them of their expensively bought beauty and expose the ugliness of their real selves. He lists the things they are destined to lose: ‘the finery of the anklets, the headbands, and the crescents; the pendants, the bracelets, and the scarves …’ and so on. There is a list of twenty-one items, most of which we would see today in a fashionable boutique, including very ‘modern’ items like nose-rings! He sounds like a bit of a male chauvinist, but he does have a go at the men in other places!
His description of how all this will be taken away is grim: ‘Instead of perfume there will be a stench; and instead of a sash, a rope; and instead of well-arranged hair, baldness’. The men on whom they depend for their luxuries will ‘fall by the sword’ and they will search desperately for men to protect them. The details may be different, but those who warn us of ecological disaster and social breakdown are certainly in the spirit of Isaiah. So much is still the same.
Chapter 5. Isaiah the Protest Singer
We usually think of protest songs as something that took off in the 1960s as the standard diet of romantic love songs started sharing the stage with songs about war, civil rights, nuclear weapons, inequality and prejudice. But in fact the genre goes back much further than that, and there is at least one protest song in the book of Isaiah (chapter 5).
We can imagine Isaiah sitting in the street in Jerusalem plucking the strings of his lyre or harp or whatever was the equivalent of a modern guitar. Like some protest songs, it started off in the style of a love song: ‘Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard: my beloved had a vineyard on a very fertile hill . . .’
In the culture of ancient Israel the word ‘vineyard’ was often just as much associated with romantic love as words like ‘June’ and ‘moon’ are today. The song goes on to tell the story of how the singer’s ‘beloved’ took great care with his vineyard – turning over the ground, planting choice vines, building a watch tower and preparing the vat to store the grapes. But the produce is disappointing. The grapes are useless for making wine – no better than wild grapes.
Then the maker of the vineyard calls on the audience: ‘judge between me and my vineyard. What more was there to do for my vineyard that I have not done in it?’ The tone turns to that of a spurned lover – he will destroy the vineyard, remove its hedge and let it be overgrown with briers and thorns. His anger becomes cosmic: ‘I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it’.
But then the song comes to its real point, and the listeners suddenly realise that it is not just a love song: ‘For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the people of Judah are his pleasant planting.’
The lover is God, and the ‘vineyard’ that disappoints him is the nation. The image of Israel as a vine or a vineyard was also familiar. The bad fruit being produced instead of choice grapes is now spelt out: ‘he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!’
In the original Hebrew there is a dramatic juxtaposition of similar words: ‘justice’ is mishpat, ‘bloodshed’ is mishpach; ‘righteousness’ is tsedakah and ‘a cry’ is tse’aqah, a harsh guttural word to end what started as a sweet love song. Isaiah the protest singer!
Chapter 6. A Call, or a Warning?
The story of a prophet often begins with a call. Moses heard God speaking to him out of a burning bush. Samuel heard God calling him when he was a young lad sleeping in the temple at night. The book of Jeremiah begins with a very brief conversation in which God tells him he is destined to be a prophet, and his reaction is ‘I do not know how to speak, for I I am only a boy.’ Ezekiel, by contrast, has an elaborate vision that takes up almost the first two chapters of his book.
The story of Isaiah’s call comes in the sixth chapter of the book. This is rather puzzling – why is it not at the beginning? Scholars, of course, have their different theories about the way the prophets’ books were developed and ordered, but I like to think the reason may have something to do with Isaiah’s personal journey.
In the first few chapters, he is very much the angry young man, rather self-righteously attacking the people for their infidelity, corruption and injustice. Then, in chapter 6, he has a vision in the Temple that overwhelms him with a sense of his unworthiness to speak. He blurts out, ‘Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips’. He is growing up. He has come to the point many radical young protestors reach eventually, where they realise that the roots of what is wrong in the world lie within themselves as much as in others. At this point he experiences the grace of God: his lips are cleansed by a burning coal from the altar, and a voice says, ‘your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out’.
He then hears God asking the angels: ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ Confident now in his new status, he jumps to the challenge: ‘Here am I; send me!’ This is a unique situation – of all the biblical prophets, Isaiah is the only one who volunteers!
What follows is a real damper. In very dramatic and ironic language, God says to him, ‘Go by all means, but they won’t listen to you. What you preach will only make them more deaf, more blind, and less likely to change’. And when Isaiah asks ‘How long, O Lord?’, the answer is, ‘Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate’.
What a reflection of the times we are living in! All our preaching about the dire consequences of the way we are living, the dangers of extreme inequality, climate change and the collapse of society, seems to fall on deaf ears. In some quarters it seems to create even more resistance, and the human race still rushes ahead towards self-destruction. And yet, like Isaiah, those of us who see the dangers keep on repeating the message, because we have to.
There is just one glimmer of hope. The chapter ends with the picture of a great tree that has been chopped down and every bit of it burned until only a stump remains, but ‘the holy seed is its stump’. Even in that stump there is the possibility of new life. Do we have to wait for that, or is there still the possibility that humanity will come to its senses before it’s too late?
Chapter 7. What’s in a Name?
In the seventh chapter of Isaiah (v 14) we find one of the best known sayings in the Bible: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel’. It is quoted in the Christmas story (Matthew 1:23), where the translation of Immanuel is also given: ‘God with us’.
The context in Isaiah is complicated and a bit obscure. Isaiah is speaking to Ahaz, the king of Judah, who is in a panic. He has been told that there is a conspiracy against him. The neighbouring kingdoms of Syria and Israel (which was originally part of the same kingdom with Judah) are wanting to make peace with the advancing Assyrian empire, and want Ahaz to join in. He is reluctant, so they plan to invade Judah and replace him with someone more amenable to their plans. The prophet Isaiah is urging him to trust God and stand firm. Those two kings who seem so fiery, he says, are just ‘smouldering stumps’ and will not be around for long.
Isaiah then invites Ahaz to ask for a sign from God to assure him that this message is true. Ahaz is afraid of the change of mind this might force upon him, and he hides his fear with a show of piety, saying ‘I will not put the Lord to the test’. Isaiah then gives him a sign anyway.
This is where things begin to get a bit confused. A more accurate translation than the familiar one (New Revised Standard Version rather than the Authorised) says: ‘Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel’. The Hebrew word means ‘young woman’ – there was a different word for ‘virgin’. Isaiah was probably referring to a royal princess who was expecting a baby at the time. However, in the Greek translation that was more familiar to the writers of the New Testament, the Greek word for ‘virgin’ is used, leaving the way open to interpret the saying as a prediction of the miraculous birth of Jesus.
What follows is even more puzzling. Is it good news or bad news? ‘Butter and honey shall he eat …’. Scholars differ as to what is meant by this. Is it a symbol of peace and plenty, as in the ‘land flowing with milk and honey’, or does it mean the basic survival diet of a nomadic people cut off from proper food supplies? The meaning of the sentence is ambiguous too. Is Isaiah saying that by the time this child can choose what he likes to eat (i.e., by the time he is weaned) better times will have come. Or is he saying that this child, in spite of being named ‘God with us’, has a hard future ahead? The verses that follow suggest the latter – the whole land and its neighbours will be devastated by the might of the Assyrians.
So is the connection with the birth of Jesus based on a complete misunderstanding? Was Matthew doing what many preachers still do – taking a text out of context to make it mean what he wanted it to mean? We have to recognise that the New Testament writers treated the Scriptures in a traditional Jewish way that is different from our modern logical and scientific methods.
However, this does not alter our belief that God is revealed in Jesus in a special way that fulfils the ancient and persistent hope of the Jewish people, who can declare in all kinds of circumstances: ‘God is with us’. It could have originated as a war cry ‘God is with us, not you!’, but in Jesus we can see a much deeper and wider meaning: God is deeply embedded in human life, the Word made flesh and dwelling among us.
Chapter 9: ‘Unto us a child is born’
Isaiah is a complex book, stemming from different writers over a period of about 200 years. Even the original prophet Isaiah seems to have had a complex mixture of roles. We see him as an angry young man in chapter 1, as a scathing satirist in chapter 3, and a provocative protest singer in chapter 5. But he also seems to have been quite a high profile person in the kingdom of Judah. He has personal access to the king. In chapter 7 we hear him saying some blunt and challenging words to King Ahaz, and in chapters 37-39 he is the one King Hezekiah turns to for advice in a national crisis, and later for personal support in his illness. This suggests that Isaiah was not just a protester on the margins of society – he was part of the establishment, perhaps an official court prophet.
The poem in chapter 9 – ‘The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light …’ – shows us Isaiah in this kind of role. We know from a number of stories in the Bible that one of the traditional functions of a prophet was to bless the king and the army in their campaigns, to curse the enemy, and to celebrate victories and other special events. A court prophet’s function was a bit like that of a Poet Laureate.
The occasion that called for this poem seems to have been a birth in the royal family. Unlike the baby named ‘Immanuel’ in chapter 7, whose prospects were a bit confusing and doubtful, this birth is pure good news. The people are going to be released from oppression and war, a new time of prosperity is coming, and the sign of it is a new born baby heaped with great titles. Christians take these titles as applying to Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God, but in their original setting ‘Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace’ were the normal hyperbolic titles for a king. In ancient kingdoms, even sometimes in Israel, a king could be regarded as divine, and a familiar salutation was ‘O King, live for ever!’ This new born child was to restore the dynasty of David to its former glory – a glory inseparably tied up with justice and righteousness – and establish it with a secure future.
Is this the same Isaiah who had so many harsh things to say about the upper classes in Jerusalem, and so many messages of doom? But why not? There is a place for warning and the facing of grim reality, but those things by themselves cannot make a new world. We need dreams, celebrations and songs to keep hope alive.
We do not know who this prince was. If the king at that time was Ahaz, it could well have been his son Hezekiah, who certainly went down in history as one of the really good kings. However, as with all Scripture, its relevance is timeless and constantly able to acquire new meaning. Here we have a celebratory song, a hymn of unmixed joy and hope that points to Jesus and ultimately to the eternal kingdom of God.
Chapter 11: With the right king, a new world is possible
The ‘unto us a child is born’ song in Isaiah 9 was one of pure joy. In chapter 11 we find a song that seems to have been born out of disillusionment and a desperate longing.
The prophet looks at the reality of the kings of the line of David, and dreams that one day there will be a truly good king. He calls this king ‘a shoot from the stock of Jesse’. Jesse was the father of King David. It may be that this passage comes from a later time, when the dynasty had been cut off, or perhaps Isaiah is looking at the rottenness that has run through the whole dynasty and thinking that not even a descendant of David will satisfy his hopes. His hope is that God will create a new line altogether, as he did when he sent the prophet Samuel to the home of Jesse to find the future king from one of Jesse’s sons.
This king will have within him ‘the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD’. He will not make decisions on the basis of hearsay or first impressions, but will have the interests of the poor and the powerless at heart. The mark of his kingship will not be the pomp and display of a traditional king – he will be clothed with justice and faithfulness.
Then the prophet goes off on a flight of imagination. With a king like this, ‘the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them’. The whole world will become God’s sanctuary, the ‘holy mountain’, and no one in it will hurt or destroy. Is this a poetic way of saying that the strong and the weak in society will be at peace with one another, or is it a vision of the whole of nature being transformed, its cruelty giving way to universal harmony?
We are very familiar today with the euphoria that can come when a popular, idealistic leader takes the place of a corrupt and oppressive regime. But we are all too familiar with the disillusionment that sets in before long. The new leader turns out to be as corrupt as the old one, or stays in office long after they have outlived their usefulness. Even if the leader (as rarely happens) is someone of impeccable integrity, the reality of politics gets in the way and the promise is not fulfilled. Is it realistic to expect one person to bring about the transformation of a nation, let alone of the whole world?
Those words about the wolf and the lamb lying down together turn up again towards the end of the book (Isaiah 65) in the context of a transformed, peaceful and prosperous society, the new Jerusalem. In that vision there is no mention of a king – is that significant?
Chapter 19: A Vision of Unity
Much of Isaiah’s preaching was about all Israel’s enemies being defeated and punished, but in chapter 19 (verses 16-25) there is a very remarkable passage that speaks with a new tone. It is unusual in that, unlike most of the book, it is not poetry but prose. I wonder whether the idea was so revolutionary that the prophet was just thinking aloud, somewhat hesitantly, and not daring to proclaim it in the poetic style of a ‘word of the LORD’. That may be just my imagination, but I have not come across a better explanation.
In Isaiah’s time, the empires of Assyria (to the north-east of Israel) and Egypt (to the south-west) were fighting for control of the region, with the little kingdom of Judah squeezed between them.
The prediction moves step by step. First, Egypt will be in fear and trembling because the hand of God will be with Judah. Possibly Isaiah was envisaging the effects of an alliance of Judah with the far greater power of Assyria, or of Assyria simply taking over Judah and advancing on Egypt. The land of Judah would be a terror to the Egyptians because it was through that land that the Assyrian invasion would come. To the Jews this would be a terrible disaster – the annihilation of Judah as a nation – but Isaiah’s faith means he can see something positive even in that.
He goes on to say that there will be five cities in Egypt that ‘speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the LORD of hosts’. He names one of them as ‘the City of the Sun’ (presumably Heliopolis). The conquest of Egypt by the Assyrians would be an opportunity for Jews to move into Egypt and spread their faith. There would be an altar in the centre of Egypt and a pillar (an obelisk) at its border to signify the presence of Israel’s God in Egypt. The Egyptians would be converted, pray to the Lord to defend them, and offer worship to him. There would be a highway (i.e. free movement) between Egypt and Assyria. This would culminate in Egypt, Israel and Assyria being unified in worship of the one God as a blessing to the world.
It is interesting to see how this ancient prophecy has come true in a way. That whole region is united today in the worship of the same God who was worshipped in Jerusalem in Isaiah’s day. Unfortunately the region is as deeply divided as ever because the worshipping communities – Muslims, Jews and Christians – are at enmity with each other for historical and political reasons, just as much as for religious reasons.
Enmity between the nations is a major theme in the whole book of Isaiah – victory for one means humiliation for another – but his vision of ultimate peace and reconciliation in this remarkable little passage can surely keep our hope alive even today.
Chapter 24: A Warning for Our Time
‘Now the LORD is about to lay waste the earth and make it desolate, and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants.’
Isaiah 24:1-13 has an uncanny relevance for today. We can see the climate change crisis in almost every verse of it. The only difference today is that we hesitate to say it is God who is doing all this – we are all too aware that we human beings with our God-given and God-like power are doing it ourselves.
‘And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the slave, so with the master …’. The prophet goes on to list the various divisions of society – the buyers and the sellers, the lenders and the borrowers, the creditors and the debtors. No one will be protected by their economic status: in the end everybody will be affected. Of course, like every misfortune, from the current pandemic to the signs of climate change, its first effects are more on the poor than on the rich, but no-one will get away from it. Think of how rich people are now fleeing from California because of the climate chaos, and how world leaders are succumbing to the Covid19 virus. Whatever our position in society, we all inhabit the same planet and breathe the same air.
Isaiah goes on to say, ‘The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant’. What he had in mind was God’s judgment on the nation of Israel because they had broken their covenant with him. But isn’t there a more universal meaning to this? Human beings have been riding roughshod over the laws of nature instead of working with them, violating the natural relationship of creation and ourselves.
And so ‘the wine dries up … all the merry-hearted sigh … the city of chaos is broken down, every house is shut up so that no one can enter … the gates are battered into ruins …’. Society has broken down and all our resources have run out. ‘For thus it shall be on the earth and among the nations, as when an olive tree is beaten, as at the gleaning when the grape harvest is ended.’
Like all the biblical prophecies, this is not a prediction of fact – it is a wake-up call. God is giving us a chance to listen and change. It is interesting that this bleak picture is followed in the very next verse by a prophecy of joy! The positive visions are real, but so is the present danger. God invites us again to ‘choose life’.
Chapter 25: The Great Feast
Isaiah is full of both bad and good news, and some of the good news seems what we might call ‘ahead of its time’ in purely human terms, or in the language of faith, ‘truly prophetic’. In chapter 25 (verses 6-10) we have one of the high points of cosmic hope in the Hebrew Scriptures, and one of the rare hints of resurrection in the promise that God ‘will swallow up death for ever’. This is language that is taken up by the New Testament in the Book of Revelation, as is also the promise that God ‘will wipe away the tears from all faces’.
Like the vision of world peace in chapter 2, this one is centred on Mount Zion. In that chapter we see the nations of the world streaming to Jerusalem to learn of God’s ways and thus live at peace with each other. But in this one they will be coming for a party! ‘On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food, a feast of well matured wines …’. The image of feasting is often connected with sharing the loot after conquering other nations (as in Isaiah 9:3), but this feast is for all the nations to share.
Jesus was fond of the idea of a feast. We often see him enjoying meals, and he often mentions meals and celebrations in his teaching – notably in the parable of the feast the poor and the vagabonds enjoyed when the invited guests had all made excuses. Before his crucifixion, Jesus instructed his disciples to remember him with bread and wine, and as he gave them the wine he said, ‘I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God’.
Too often, the call of Christ is represented as a list of do’s and dont’s, but Jesus expressed it as an invitation to a feast. I have adapted the words of an old evangelical song, ‘Come, for all things are ready’. You are welcome to use it if and when you find it appropriate. The tune is in Sankey’s ‘Sacred Songs and Solos’, number 405.
Come, for everything’s ready, all the tables are laid.
It’s a free invitation, so don’t be afraid.
There is food here in plenty and the choicest of wine,
and God’s sent out the message, “Come in now and dine”.
Come and join in the party,
Come from near and from far!
God would love you to be there,
whoever you are.
We are sometimes too busy with our worries and care,
with jobs and with houses, not a moment to spare.
Life slips by so quickly as year follows year,
And God keeps on calling, but we’ve no time to hear.
There are others God calls in their hunger and need,
but we keep them out with our self-serving greed.
We grab the top places and the best of the fare,
but the food will just choke us till we learn how to share.
So let’s go for the real feast for ourselves and for all,
and let the world know of God’s wide open call.
Go out on the highways and invite them all in,
till the house has been filled and the party can swing!