Second Monday of Advent: Discerning the times
Ah, you…who do not
regard the deeds of the Lord,
or see the work of his hands!
Isaiah vividly describes the “wild grapes” or spoiled fruit of Israel’s social life in a series of accusations framed as “woes” (vv.8,11-12) that continue into tomorrow’s reading (vv.18,20-22). The Hebrew hoy! can be simply an attention-getter (hey!), a pronouncement of doom (woe!) or a cry of lament (ah! or alas!), as at a funeral or other sorrowful event. In our text these are all combined.
Expressing his own cry of pained response to the violent outcry with which yesterday’s reading ended, Isaiah invites us to mourn over the plight of our land. Moreover, since yesterday’s reading ended with the audience implicated in the crime, standing guilty as charged, he invites us also to mourn over our own plight.
We are part and parcel of a culture which values land speculation and acquisition, two activities that displace the poor, until—contrary to the mandate to “fill the earth” (Gen 1.28)—we are “left to live alone in the midst of the land” (v.8). We are implicated likewise in a culture that thrives on hedonistic self-gratification, hungering for amusement and entertainment, rising early and lingering late to satisfy our cravings (vv.11-12). Just as Isaiah had to admit his complicity in his people’s guilt and uncleanness (6.5), so it is well-nigh impossible for us to live in contemporary North America and not be deeply affected by the dominant acquisitive and hedonistic pattern of life around us.
But the tragedy is compounded by the fact that our too-full lifestyle makes us blind to the crisis of the times, with little scope to discern God’s large deeds in history (v.12), especially God’s “strange” or “alien” deed of judgment, as Isaiah later expresses is (28.21).
Isaiah describes this judgment as a desolation of both houses and fields, precisely the thing the wealthy have been over-acquiring. Large, beautiful houses will stand empty (v.9) and crops will fail: vineyards will yield only a gallon of wine per acre and cereal crops will produce only one-tenth of the seed required to plan them (v.10). Contrary to popular wisdom, our headlong pursuits of economic growth is ultimately unprofitable and unfruitful. Although it may appear similar to genuine justice, it yields a wasteland, unfit for human life and well-being.
Exactly how this inhuman desolation will happen is only hinted at by Isaiah. He makes brief mention of exile (v.13) or deportation, usually the result of military invasion. By this time Israel—with perhaps Judah as well—was already being annexed by Syria (Aram) to the north. The image of Sheol, the underworld, opening its mouth and swallowing both the nobility and the multitude (vv.14-17) is likely a symbolic reference to a recent major earthquake (see 2.6-22 and 5.25b). If so, Isaiah daringly discerns in these political and natural disasters the righteous and just deed of Yahweh, by which the haughty are brought low and the Lord is exalted (vv.15-16). In much the same way Jesus describes the Roman siege of Jerusalem (Luke 21.20-24), accompanied by portents in the heavens (21.25-26), as the coming judgment of God, “in fulfilment of all that is written” (21.22).In Isaiah the result of these disasters is that the land is depopulated and lambs and goats wander untended, grazing among the desolate ruins (v.17). But our gospel text hints of a salvation beyond judgment and encourages us to raise our heads, even in this bleak landscape, in hopeful anticipation of the Advent of the Son of Man, as we discern our redemption drawing near (21.27-28).
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.