Therefore the anger of the Lord
was kindled against his people,
and he stretched out his hand
against them and struck them.
The woes Isaiah began describing in yesterday’s reading here become broader and more sweeping, and quickly pile up in an intensifying series of abrupt accusations (vv.18,20,21,22). Alas! he cries again and again in pained acknowledgement of the people’s sins. Isaiah pictures his hearers slowed down by the heavy burden of their justice, which they drag along like a treasure they can’t part with (v.18). Yet they demand immediate action from God, goading the Lord to provide a sign and so prove himself (v.19). We, of course, don’t ask mockingly, but pray earnestly for God to act decisively in our historical situation to set things right (which usually means to set our immediate situation to rights). The irony, of course, is that this is precisely our calling, our task, to set things right (to do righteousness), if only we would cast off the ropes of injustice with which we have bound ourselves.
But we are blind to what is right, says Isaiah, confusing evil with good, darkness with light, bitter with sweet (v.20). Unaware of our blindness, we claim wisdom and shrewdness for our social ideals and policies (v.21). But our wisdom is only the expertise of self-gratification (v.22); in matters of justice we are proudly inept, and leave suffering relentlessly in our wake (v.23). What is the root of the problem? We have rejected God’s word or torah for our lives (v.24). Instead of submitting to the instruction of the just and righteous Creator, we have bound ourselves to our false ideals, believing we can determine for ourselves what is right.
Therefore, says the prophet, dry rot has set in to the land. Since the vineyard is unfruitful, its root and blossom are about to be consumed like tinder disappearing in flames (v.24a). Isaiah makes it clear that this destruction is no chance occurrence, but is due to the anger of Yahweh kindled against the people’s injustice (v.25). This is God’s ironic answer to prayer for him to act speedily and visibly, that we may know it (v.19). Instead of the expected repetition of God’s exodus deed of old, when with mighty hand and outstretched arm (Deut. 4.34; 7.19; 11.2) God opened the sea and delivered Israel to new life, this time when God stretched out his hand the earth opened, in judgment, not salvation, and the mountains quaked and the corpses piled up like refuse in the streets (v.25).
But don’t think it’s over, says Isaiah. In ominous words he will later use as a refrain (9.12,17,21 and 10.4), the prophet declares: “For all this God’s anger has not turned away, and his hand is stretched out still” (v.25). As the first sprouting of leaves indicates that a summer of riotous growth is coming (Luke 21.29-31), so Judah’s early troubles will be followed (as Isaiah later makes clear) by the rise of the Assyrian empire, which will threaten the very existence of the nation in the years ahead.
In our own time we might ask what world-wide recession and structural unemployment bode for our economic future. Are they temporary malfunctions of the system or omens of the worse to come? Could we be entering a period of massive judgment that “will come upon all who live on the face of the whole earth” (Luke 21.35)? Of course, we would prefer not to think such negative thoughts at Advent. But our text encourages us to face reality boldly, on guard and alert (21.34-36) to the crisis of our times.
Dr. J. Richard Middleton serves as professor of biblical worldview and exegesis at Northeastern Seminary.
From The Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations. Used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers.