Wibble Wednesday: Good Things Happen to Good People (Isaiah 26)

Hard getting back into the saddle again. And soon enough I’ll have to go back to work. And this one’s a long’un.

Short snarky summary:more paeans of praise, noww with 60% more nationalistic fervor!

Isaiah comes out as a bit of a slog in the end. Not because on the level of individual chapters it’s badly written — it’s not — but because it’s so damn <I>repetitive</I>. After we saw a nice wide variety of themes in the first 15 or so chapters, we’re just cycling through variations on the theme after a while. So, for instance, chapter 26 reads a lot like chapter 25, down to feeling vaguely like a misplaced section of Psalms. This chapter even begins with an invocation making it clear that it is a song of triumph, an one to be sung in Judah, so it’s a very Judahite-specific victory anthem (in that it’s perhaps unlike the considerably less nationalistic works in Psalms). He describes the qualities of Judah as including “a mighty city” (presumably Jerusalem; no other city in Judah has similar universality), defended by God, who lets “a righteous nation enter”. So, yeah, we’re hammering real hard on blurring the lines of faith, righteousness, and national character here, collapsing all of these into the identity of Judah generically.

After this first stanza, the praise dials back to more generally god-oriented, and it’s more circmspect about who both the righteous and the wicked who will be destroyed actually are (so, for once, maybe I don’t have much to say about Assyrians specifically here). And twin to the defense of the righteous in the last verse, we absolutely have the scourging of the wicked as a theme: set aganst the mighty city of Jerusalem where the righteous are shielded, we in this verse see how God has “humbled the secure city,… leveled it with the dust”. In this echo of the last stanza’s mighty city there might be a veiled threat: God is protecting your city now, but he could do to it just as he’s done to others.

Actually, in addition to the veiled threat against Jerusalem, this stanza also includes a theme I find more appealing than the sual triumphalism. The evil city is not merely brought low, but specifically is trampled underfoot “By the feet of the needy/By the soles of the poor./The path is level for the righteous man.” I’m more a fan of social justice than of the harrowing of the faithless, and this framing suggests that social justice is <I>somewhere</I> in this act of ruination. It’s a bit opaque, but at leat suggests that the wickedness being purged is not simply ungodliness but lack of care for the needy, and that bringing the high low is ultimately a step towards equity. I like that read, anyways. It’s not the only way to read it, I suppose, but it dovetails well with the fact that social justice has been an active concern in earlier chapters.

But we descend back into tediousness with the next stanza, alas. It’s framed mostly as a bog standard focus on God’s might in an <A HREF=”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fINh4SsOyBw”>”Oh, Lord, you are so big”</A> vein, but some incidental details bring it a bit out of the doldrums. God’s judgment is specifically put forward as the only way to guide humans to righteousness: when the wicked are punished, we take it as an object lesson, and when they’re spared, they learnnothing and continue to do evil. It’s a pretty severe philosophy, and whether it’s harsh or outright cruel depends on how you define “righteousness”: when Isaiah’s in social-justice mode I’m somewhat on board with the salutary effects of some humbling, but if it’s all about beating up on people who don’t love God enough I’m a lot less happy about that.

And the next few stanzas certainly bring faith and nationality back to the forefront, with a lot of discussion of God’s proprietary relationship with his people. They love God and God loves them, and everyone who isn’t them is gonna get it. Worst of all, of course are those who themselves presumed to overmaster Judah themselves (and, OK, we can have one reference to the Assyrians in this commentary. But just one). Those nations “are dead, they can never live… You have dealt with them and wiped them out”. This is juxtaposed with a mention of how God has “added to the nation” which is pretty ahistorical; the overthrow of Judah’s oppressors has almost never actually resulted in their lands being annexed into Judahite hands. Notwithstanding, this stanza is long and vivid in its description of both Judah and its rivals, identifying both of them (cunningly enough) with a pregnant woman entering labor.

The rivals naturally are associated specifically with the travails and pains, and the anguished whispering that comes with the pain of childbirth. That’s a pretty simple metaphor, and one that doesn’t make much of the pregnancy aspect of their suffering (any other pain could serve just as well). But in describing Judah’s “pregnancy”, Isaiah delves into greater subtleties which might be the most interesting part of this chapter. Like the other nations, Israel suffers in travail, but the fruits of their labor (as it were) are delved into a bit more deeply, and their outcome is described as being like having “given birth to wind” in that they have no temporal victory. Nonetheless, the victory of Judah is presented as having some transcendent fruit, since even though their dead “have not come to life”, God will eventually “make the land of the shades come to life”. And just like that, our pregnancy metaphor goes careening into messianism, seeing as we kind of have to read the wholesale resurrection of the dead as basically messianic. The messianic aspect isn’t developed much further or embodied in a particular savior the way some other messianic threads have been (it is entirely possible that the consideration of the raising of the dead and the coming of the messiah as one and the same thing is a post-Isaiah innovation, and my inability to extricate them is a matter of my cultural conditioning; in such a case, this chapter might have nothing to do with the messiah whatsoever).

Anyways, the final stanza seems like it’s continuing, to some extent, the thread of a great reckoning and massive upheaval. The people are advised to “lock your doors… until the indignation passes”, while God comes to scourge the evil. All that was concealed will be rvealed, adn particularly murder, but you can escape if you just hide indoors. There are shades of the Pesach mythos in this, but presumably just as in that case, hiding indoors only works if you’re righteous yourself. It diesn’t say so specifically here, and the “lock your doors” bit reads a bit uncomfortably to me, reducing this tremendous day of wrath to something mundane you can avoid if you just don’t go out on the streets that day. If it’s a metaphor, it doesn’t work, and if it’s meant to be taken literally, it’s awfully unimpressive.