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Getting Isaiah Part 1: The Problem with Getting Isaiah

Assyrians impalingLet’s be honest. Reading “The Prophets” is hard. Well, reading them isn’t hard, at least not in translation, but understanding them is. I’m talking about books like, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel and The Book of the Twelve… what we like to call “the minor prophets.”

These books are victims of a common condition among Christians that I like to call, “I-have-no-idea-what-they’re-talking-about” syndrome. It is an understandable psychological disorder brought on by the fact that these prophets chose to write mostly in poetry, and to assume a great deal of knowledge on the part of their audience… like how to read Hebrew Poetry… but also other stuff too.

Not only might a prophet assume that his audience knows who Assyria is and what Assyrians are like, he might also assume that his audience knows that at the time of his preaching or penning of said prophetic sermon that a specific dynamic existed between his people and a rising Assyrian Lord… and his thug army. He might assume that his readers know what “making a covenant” with pagans entails, or what the economic and social implications are of becoming a vassal state (i.e. heavy tribute paying servant state) of an Assyrian king… even of a specific Assyrian king.

Since said prophet is thinking of his initially intended audience, he is correct; his audience understands all these things. Herein lies the problem. We are NOT his initially intended audience. So, unless Christians do their homework and learn these aforementioned, assumed facts (and a bunch more just like them) the sermons of these writing prophets have a way of seeming impenetrable. Even worse are those who assume that they DO understand them without doing the same much needed homework.

This is a sad state of affairs because the prophetic sermons of these men are amazing, powerful, insightful concerning the human condition, theologically provocative, and worth every minute that anyone might choose to spend unpacking them. These documents are among the greatest pieces of literature from the ancient world.

So… today, I’ve decided to help you out just a little bit with the book of Isaiah. You can read things I’ve already written on penetrating the poetry of these books by searching my site for “Poetry,” but today I thought that a little insight into the events behind Isaiah’s prophetic sermons might help.

In my next post, I will describe 12 specific events that stand behind any given prophetic sermon in Isaiah. Today, however, it will be helpful to give a general sense of the atmosphere of Isaiah’s Judah, which is different than, say, the atmosphere of Amos’ Northern Kingdom, or even of Jonah’s Judah at an earlier stage in history.

The ancient world was generally unstable. There was no peace movement, no civil rights movement, no general consensus that violence won’t solve all our problems, nor that slaughter, enslavement, or wanton pillaging was wrong. Large populations with power hungry rulers sought to build empires, dominating weaker populations, raping them economically (and sometimes physically) to enrich their own, setting up puppet governments whose sole job was to keep everyone quiet while the great Lord had his way with the produce of their lives.

The goal of most people was to live simple unmolested lives, (like today) but they were forced to do this under constant threat from chaotic forces in nature, amid the gods, within society, and from outside threats… like those power hungry rulers seeking to swallow up the peoples around them.

The ANE (Ancient Near East) had general approaches to dealing with threats of chaos, which I detail in my course THE MAN BEHIND THE CURTAIN: A CONCEPTUAL BACKGROUND TO BIBLICAL THEOLOGY (You should hire me to come teach this course at your church… no seriously, you should.)

In response to basic conceptions of God, Man and Reality various peoples cultivated conceptions of Sacred text & ritual to confront cosmic chaos, law & wisdom to confront societal chaos, and war & covenant to confront international chaos. These, however, were social mechanisms whose implementation was dependent on varying circumstances. What specific people did in the face of extreme threat was dependent on their worldview, character and faith… just like today.

Frankly, scared people say and do stupid things. It is often in moments of fear and confusion that we discover exactly what we really believe about the world. So here is a summary of the dynamics at work in Isaiah’s Judah.

After a long period of relative stability across the ANE, one great and dangerous power re-emerges intent on swallowing up the ANE’s riches—Assyria. (Not unlike Putin’s seeming design to recapture the lost glory of the Soviet Union.)

In a bunch of smaller kingdoms, (Syria, Israel, Judah, Edom, Moab, Ammon, the Philistines and the like) rulers and people become afraid and spend a lot of time trying to figure out a way to 1. Stay free 2. Minimize the damage and loss that seems destined to befall them, 3. Form coalitions with each other in which they swear oaths before each other’s gods to work together to defeat this common enemy. Most of these kingdoms are pagan, worshiping vile gods.

There are bigger powers, like Egypt and Babylon who seem a beacon of hope for struggling nations. It behoves these stronger kingdoms to support the efforts of these smaller kingdoms to either create a buffer between themselves and Assyria (i.e. Egypt) or to get the much needed financial and military support against Assyria (i.e. Babylon).

YHWH has promised in His covenant with his people to protect them, if they will keep His covenant (an important of part of which is to NEVER covenant with a pagan, making oaths before pagan deities… you do remember that “Thou shalt have no other gods before me,” shtick right?).

When the heat is on, however, and the threat looms large, every citizen, and every ruler is forced to ask one simple question, “Will I trust my life into YHWH’s hands, or will I betray my covenant with YHWH in hopes of saving my own skin right now?”

So, we have:

  1. A Faith, whose commands and theology are standardized in sacred literature.
  2. A Threat, which makes maintaining that faith seem risky.
  3. Scared People clamoring for compromise… also threatening.
  4. A Corrupt Path promising immediate relief.
  5. An important choice… 1. remain faithful, trusting God, however it turns out or 2. yield to the temptations and pressures of compromise and corruption in order to work out one’s own deliverance.

Now, these Judeans are beginning to sound more and more like you and I do.

One thought on “Getting Isaiah Part 1: The Problem with Getting Isaiah

  1. Juliet-A says:

    I think your writing would benefit from a brief edit by an English major. You need just a bit of work on that. example: Judeans cannot sound like “I”. They can sound somewhat like “me”. Vial is spelled vile. a vial is a container. You see, my occupation is to edit my husband’s writing, which is exclusively about trees. I would like to find time to read the rest of what you have to say about the ANE, which is really interesting to me.

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