Reflections on Isaiah 33

Where do we find justice in the world?

When we learn of the latest atrocities committed by nations against one another – or against their own people – the opening cry of Isaiah 33 feels very relevant.  Why is it that the nation, bent on destruction, dealing treacherously, does not itself experience what it revels in dishing out?  In Isaiah’s time – why does Assyria seem to be able to dominate the area; to conquer and devastate its neighbors.  Will God intervene?

The declaration in Isaiah is essentially – yes; at least in the sense of the reality that what goes around, comes around – there will be a time when the pattern of destruction and betrayal will return to bite those who embrace it.

In the meantime, what are we to do?  Verse 2 echoes the call of the Psalmist – to cry out for God’s grace, to wait for God’s strength daily, to trust God as salvation in times of trouble.   It’s interesting – this isn’t a call to passivity, but notice where ultimate deliverance is located – not in our action or ability, but in God’s intervention.

How do we find ourselves responding when things get tough?  Are we tempted to run?  To fight?  Something different?

 

Verse 3 poses an interesting question — who is the ‘your’ referring to?  Is it referring to God’s majesty, before whom the nations scatter?  Could be.  Certainly as the chapter unfolds, we read about God’s ability to dramatically intervene.  Yet it could also refer to the unnamed nation (though in context most likely Assyria), whose actions create panic and destruction, plundering the land like locusts devastating a field of crops.

Where is our stability in the chaos?

In the midst of such a time, verses 5-6 point to a different response than flight, fight or fear.  For God to be exalted in the midst of this is a claim of trust that God is bigger than even these powerful and arrogant nations, and that in the midst of this destruction, God is yet at work to redeem it.  Isaiah still envisions God present in Zion (i.e. Jerusalem), worthy of worship, filling the city / its people with justice and righteousness -> notice how consistently that emphasis on God’s character and wise leadership comes up.

Critically, Isaiah insists that: “he [God] will be the stability of your times, abundance of salvation, wisdom and knowledge.’

Wow – in our own times, when so few things feel stable; in the political and cultural turbulence of the day, where are we tempted to find ultimate security in what are essentially ‘false gods’?

  • If only we have the right laws?
  • If only we have a strong enough military / police?
  • If only we get the right people elected?
  • If only we get rid of (or shout down, or ignore) the people who don’t think like us?
  • If only we save enough money, or hoard enough things?

But the treasure God offers to those who fear him — that is, the fear that is awe and respect that results in the actions of trust and obedience — is stability, salvation, wisdom and knowledge.

Can you think of times when God has provided those treasures to you in the midst of a difficult situation?

The second section in the chapter describes the unfolding chaos of war; the lifting up of the warriors while those who had sought peace lament.  The roads are empty, the land is being devastated, from Lebanon in the north, to the coastal plain of Sharon in the west, to Bashan east of the Jordan, to Mt. Carmel.  At this point, the Lord responds – those who have sought to stir up war, will end up devastating themselves.

Who can live with God?

But when that happens; when God intervenes — it’s not necessarily good news for everyone (at least those who want to continue getting their own way, living by destroying and taking advantage of others).  It’s not even good news to everyone in Zion.  When God is revealed – some of the people; the godless, the sinners, are terrified.  When God is revealed, and his power and righteousness compared to a devouring fire, and everlasting flame, the question becomes: who can live with this God?

It’s a pretty wild question – we all like the idea of a God who fights for us, who is on our side (and though we wouldn’t want to put it this way, who is tame enough to be on our side.)  But if God is righteous and just; then to the degree we don’t actually want righteousness and true justice; this image of a cleansing, purifying fire is terrifying indeed.

In fact, the response Isaiah poses is that the only ones who can live with God are those whose lives and words are righteous and upright – that is, embracing what is true, and right and just.  And since those are often just fancy words if we don’t bring it to earth, we find an example in those who despise profiting from oppressing others, who reject bribes, who do not feed their minds on what diminishes and harms others — looking on evil, hearing of bloodshed.   I don’t hear this as a willful ignoring of the world around us as much as what we choose to embrace, to take into our lives, to allow to form us.

This prompts the question of what we are really seeking, and whether it will be good news for us when God arrives?

But – we might say – Christians say that God is merciful; that God does not deal with us as we deserve, or else we would all be without hope.  Definitely!  That message of grace is our hope (and notice that the chapter ends on a word of forgiveness).   In the Gospels, we find that Jesus’ message of the arrival of the Kingdom of God is received as good news by many sinners and outsiders.  The thing is, God doesn’t cease to be righteous or just to accommodate us — but calls us to turn to, to seek out, to desire, to embrace that righteousness and goodness, even if we are not there yet.  The big question remains: do we want what God offers us?

In Isaiah, it is those who desire and embrace what is good that find they find a home with God.

They will see the powerful oppressor pass away, and the land established in peace and security.

In this context, how do we hear Jesus’ command to seek first the Kingdom of God — and what does that call from us today?

Reflections on Isaiah 32

Note – this is a continuation of a shared reflection and discussion on Isaiah that began on Facebook.  Past reflections may be posted here retroactively as time permits.   


What I find in this chapter is ultimately about leadership, a message that should be read in the context of the kinds of leadership Jerusalem had been experiencing in Isaiah’s time, the effects of that leadership, and the promise of a different kind of king, and the effect that would have on the people.   The leaders and people of Jerusalem had been looking to an alliance with Egypt to serve as protection against the Assyrians (who had wiped out the northern tribes by violence and exile).   Instead, God called on the people to return to and trust in Him – ‘the one whom they have deeply betrayed’ – who is truly able to protect them from the armies of Assyria.

Chapter 32 opens with the description of a wise ruler (as opposed to a foolish one).

The characteristics are worthy of note.  A good leader exercises that power and authority (rule) with:

  • Righteousness (Hebrew: sedeq – what is right, what is honest and good)
  • Justice  (Hebrew: mispat – exercising judgment according to what is just)

What is the effect of righteous and just leadership on the people? (v.2)

But what they people are experiencing is the effect of foolish and wicked leadership.  (v. 3-5) [the start of verse 3 indicates that this section isn’t yet a reality, but reflective of a reality when the king rules with righteousness and justice]

  • The eyes and ears of the people are closed and they do not hear or understand
  • The people are rash instead of using good judgment
  • The people do not communicate clearly
  • They call the foolish noble, and the villainous honorable.
  • The people’s needs are not cared for. (i.e. the hungry are not fed, the thirsty are deprived of relief)
  • The poor are ruined by the lies of these leaders
  • The [leaders] speak folly, plot iniquity, practice ungodliness

This is all in contrast to the noble, who aim at – plan for – better things, and stand by what is generous.

The impact of noble and wicked leadership on the people is a timeless reality.  What is our responsibility in our own time and place?  While it may be easy, even accurate, to look at present examples and make connections, let’s start closer to home and do some reflecting.

  • In what ways do we use our authority and power?  Are we in this for ourselves?   
  • Where are we tempted to listen only to things that support our point of view over seeking the truth?
  • Where are we quick to speak before thinking, or to pass on memes or information that may not be accurate?
  • Where are we quick to point out the failings of those we are against, while quick to overlook those who are on “our side”?

 

The chapter continues with a description of those who are complacent; they are an image of those who have ‘enough’ in life; they are doing well with the status quo, and they are at ease, looking forward to continuing to enjoy life as it is.  But Isaiah warns that this attitude is out of sync with the reality around them.  

The center section of the chapter reflect on those (in this case, women) who are complacent with the way things are.  There are threats on the horizon, but they have enough for the moment, and look forward to more of the same.  Except that it won’t be the same.  Isaiah warns the people that instead of complacency, they should be responding with a lament for what is to come; the orchards that will turn to thorns and briers and the joyful city become desolate.

  • What is going on around us that we are tempted to be complacent about?  
  • What kind of response would be more appropriate?
  • What kind of response reflects Christ-likeness and the kind of wisdom lifted up in this chapter?

The last section of the chapter speaks of the desolation of Jersualem continuing until “a spirit from on high is poured out on us.”  That is, until God intervenes – not militarily, but in a way that transforms us from the inside.  We then see the impacts of that outpouring of God’s spirit in the effects on the people and the world.

  • If we read this back through the lens of Pentecost, where Christians believe God’s Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples, then what do the following images evoke for you in terms of understanding what it means to live in light of the Spirit of God as Christians and what that means for the world we live in?