We occupy a very different place than the people who would have first heard Isaiah’s words. We are separated by time, distance, and culture. We see the world through a lens colored by modernity. Instantaneous communications, industrial manufacturing, information economies, chillingly technological warfare—all these shape our view of the world, a world very much removed from the world of Isaiah and his audience. Moreover, we live in a society that has not seriously been threatened from without in over a generation. Even in the height of the last global conflict, our nation’s borders were not threatened and our shores have not seen foreign armies for over 185 years. Though we have had periods of unrest, internal conditions have not threatened the existence of our nation since our Civil War over 135 years ago. We also live in a culture that values individual initiative and responsibilities over communitarian values. We believe in the “self-made man” and the idea of pulling oneself up by one’s own bootstraps.
There is also personal experience that must be accounted for. As a single, childless person, I acknowledge that metaphors of rebellious, faithless children do not have the same impact with me as they might another. I have relatives who continue an agrarian way of life, but I have never lived on a farm or depended on an agrarian way of life. I have lived, with the exception of my years as a law student and then a seminarian, in relative material comfort and financial stability. In short, my world has never been in the kind of peril that Isaiah’s was.
Encountering the Text
Looking at the text for the first time, one is struck by particular images that leap from it. Immediately, beginning at verse 8, one reads the word “tablet” and pictures Moses coming down from Sinai, carrying the tablets of the Torah in his hands.1See, e.g., Beuken, Isaiah II (Vol. 2): Isaiah Chapters 28-39, 159. Beuken agrees with my impression that this verse casts Isaiah as ‘a prophet in the footsteps of Moses.’ (Internal citations omitted). One next encounters the image of “faithless children” “refusing to heed” and with the image of Moses in mind, pictures the Cecil B. DeMille-esque bacchanalia of idolatry and disobedience in which the Children of Israel partook in Moses’ absence. One next encounters images of breaking: the break in the high wall, the smashing of pottery, of things shattered, broken into shards. One cannot but think of Moses smashing the tablets of the Torah out of disgust for the disobedience of the children of Israel.
It is surprising to have such a reaction, given that one is reading Isaiah, and Isaiah does not use the Sinai covenant tradition. Nevertheless, images such as these resonate across a number of traditions. But the images are not all of Sinai and violence. Stillness, quietness, and calm trust come to the fore at the end of the text. In the dust that settles after calamity, there is calm and hope.
It is not a familiar text. It is not in the Revised Common Lectionary, there are no hymns using it for lyrics, it has not been set to music by G. F. Händel in The Messiah. Nevertheless, it is not wholly unfamiliar. The motifs and themes of the text are recognizable. We recall from other parts of scripture passages challenging the people to rely on God, not on themselves, and to heed the words of the prophets. We may not be familiar with this text per se, but we have read these words before. It is reminiscent of everything from other prophetic writings to the writings of Paul.
The text is composed in verse, employing parallelism throughout. The opening verses engage in a seconding parallelism,2See, e.g., Petersen and Harold, Interpreting Hebrew Poetry, at 27, et seq. instructing the prophet to write upon tablets and inscribe upon a scroll. The following verses use a matching parallelism within the first colon, followed by an intensifying parallelism in the second to describe the nature of the people: “For it is a people of rebellion, deceptive children/children not willing to hear the Instruction of YHWH//” (v. 9). One also encounters an intensifying parallelism in the verses describing the consequences of Judah’s rebellious nature:
its breaking is like that of a potter’s vessel
that is mashed so ruthlessly
that among its fragments not a sherd is found for taking fire from the hearth,
or dipping water out of the cistern.” (v. 14, NRSV)
Throughout the text, the poetic literary form is very effective in driving home the point being made, the judgment being pronounced.
In the Hebrew Masoretic Text, Chapter 30 is divided into the following portions: verses 1-5, 6-11, 12-14, and 15-18.3Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. 4th ed. 1967, 718-720. The first, second, and fourth sections are marked with petuhot (פ); the third with setumot (ס). Notwithstanding this, many English translations prefer to view verses 8-17 as a unit, preceded by verses 6-7 and followed by verses 18-26.4See, e.g., The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books; JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. 2nd ed. The REB and the NIV follow the divisions of the MT. Marvin Sweeney, too, follows the textual divisions preferred by the NRSV and the JPS.5Sweeney, Isaiah 1-39: With and Introduction to Prophetic Literature, 386-387. In spite of the cues provided in the MT, there is a natural division beginning at verse 8, where YHWH commands his prophet to write. However, it is much less clear whether the text of verse 18 should go with the text preceding it or following it. Sweeney, the NRSV, JPS, Seitz,6Christopher R. Seitz, Isaiah 1-39. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. and Brueggemann7Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39. Westminster Bible Companion. all prefer the latter, REB and NIV the former, apparently influenced by the change from a message of judgment to hope. I am of the opinion that the indications from the MT (the presence of a ס) and the change from poetry to prose argues for the inclusion of verse 18 with the text preceding it, and see no reason why a message of hope could not end a passage on judgment.
The text, then, is divided into three main subsections: Subsection A—Verses 8-11: YHWH’s instruction to write; Subsection B—Verses 12-14: Announcement of Punishment; and Subsection C—Verses 15-18: Basis for Punishment with Promise.8After Sweeney, supra, modified. Each section begins with a basic statement or messenger formula:
עתה בוא כתבה על לוח אתם ועל ספר חקה
|Now go, write it upon tablets before them and upon a scroll inscribe (v. 8 )
לכן כה אמר קדש ישראל
|Therefore, thus has said the Holy One of Israel (v. 12a)
כי כה אמר אדני יהוה קדוש ישראל
|Therefore, thus has said my Lord YHWH, the Holy One of Israel (v. 15a)
This opening statement is followed by an elaboration. Subsection A elaborates by describing the people’s desire not to hear the truth. Subsection A, may be seen as the third sub-unit of a larger unit spanning verses 1-11 which is an oracle concerning YHWH’s dissatisfaction with Judah’s turning toward Egypt for its deliverance.9Ibid., 390. Subsection B elaborates by describing in colorful imagery what the punishment will be like. Subsection C elaborates by announcing in detail the reason for the punishment.10Ibid.
There are a number of interesting intertextual links in the text. The opening command in verse 6, in which the prophet is told to “write it upon tablets…and upon a scroll inscribe…” echoes a similar command earlier in Chapter 811“Bind up the testimony, seal the teaching among my disciples” (Is. 8:16 (NRSV)). and in other prophetic writings, notably in Habakkuk 2:2-3.12 Conrad, Reading Isaiah, 133 (quoting “And the Lord answered me:/Write the visions; make it plain upon tablets, so he may run who reads it”).
Another intertextual link can be seen in verse 10, where we read the following:
אשר אמרו לראים לא תראו
ולחזים לא תחזו–לנו נכחות
|who say to the seers, “Do not see,” and to the visionaries “Do not see visions for us of the true things…”13Author’s translation. Others, “Who said to the seers, ‘Do not see,’ To the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy truth to us…’” (JPS); “…who say to the seers, ‘Do not see’; and to the prophets, ‘Do not prophesy to us what is right…’” (NRSV))
In it, we find an interesting parallel to Isaiah’s own call narrative in Isaiah 6:
ויאמר לך ואמרת לעם הזה שמעו שמוע ואל תבינו וראו ראו ואל תדעו
|And he said, “Go and say to this people, ‘Continue to hear and do not understand. Continue to see and do not know.”
There is thus a parallel between God’s instruction to Isaiah and the very behavior in which the people engage.
I have chosen to translated חֹזִים as “visionaries”(rather than prophets or seers) because it helps make a connection to the very first verse of the Book in which the חֲזוֹן יְשַׁעְיָהוּ “the vision of Yeshayahu/Isaiah” is proclaimed. Words for vision and seeing occur throughout the Isaianic text, occurring in more than 80 verses in the Book of Isaiah.
This text is part of a much larger prophetic sweep within the book of Isaiah. Chapters 28-35 contain oracles concerning the enemies of YHWH in the land.14Conrad, supra, 122. Among these chapters, chapters 28-33 are often associated with chapters 1-12—the opening oracles of judgment and deliverance— which appear to be firmly set in 8th Century BCE Jerusalem and are thus the work of Isaiah of Jerusalem.15Ibid., 123. The features of Chapter 30 point to an initial composition with redaction. At the core of the Chapter is an 8th Century BCE text by Isaiah of Jerusalem (verses 1-18) with a likely 7th Century BCE redaction during or after the time of Josiah.16Ibid., 395.
A theme throughout this larger cycle in chapters 28-35 is the arrogance, wrong-headedness, and ineptness of the leadership of Judah.17Ibid., 125 Chapter 30 fits squarely into this cycle, lambasting the people and leadership of Judah for making poor decisions rather than trusting in God.
The text follows directly upon an oracle in verses 1-7 declaring the futility of relying on Egypt. There is no attempt to make a link to the Exodus, thus reflecting Isaiah’s place within Southern, Judahite Zion theology, as opposed to Northern Sinai theology. Instead, the futility of an alliance with Egypt is determined as a result of Judah’s lack of trust in YHWH rather than an undoing of the Exodus.
The text is prophetic instruction, providing guidance to individuals or groups.18Sweeney, at 393. Though instructional, the text nevertheless contains prophetic judgment speech and promise of salvation.19Ibid. Indeed, the text is followed by a lengthy description of deliverance and redemption, when Zion shall be saved and Assyria punished.
The text was composed in a time of great crisis. Noting the difficulties faced by Assyrian kings Sargon and then Sennacherib in the maintenance of their empire, King Hezekiah of Judah believed the conditions were right for the re-establishment of Judah as an independent power.20Isserlin, The Israelites, 88. Judah entered into alliances with Egypt and Babylon, and with various Philistine towns.21Ibid. The coalition was ineffective when Sennacherib approached and laid siege to many Judean cities, including Jerusalem. It is this crisis that informs our understanding of the oracles in the text.
Isaiah has a definite theological message he is trying to impart to his people: “salvation and strength are the consequence of firm trust and quiet confidence in God’s abiding attention and concern for Zion.”22Seitz, supra, at 219. No human scheme can match the power and purpose of God. All that is required, from king and subject alike, is trust.23Ibid. No human alliance, even with Egypt, can deliver Judah. Judah’s hopes rest solely in YHWH’s faithfulness to Zion. By grouping verse 18 with the verses that precede it, we can see it as a commentary on wrong behavior and an invitation to change to an attitude of trust in YHWH.
Isaiah operates within the royal/Davidic tradition and the Jerusalem/Zion tradition.24See, e.g., Frick, A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures, 388. At times, these traditions are in uneasy tension with the very institutions they would uphold: for it is the behavior of the monarchy in its political alliances with foreign powers that are the subject of Isaiah’s concern.
Engaging the Text
As noted at the outset, we live in a very different time and place than Isaiah’s readership. And yet, as I write this I note that I am thinking of another Israel, beset by enemies without and within. An Israel looking to Egypt for help. An Israel armed against a threat from Syria. Sometimes it seems that the particulars have changed, but the story remains very much the same. As in the crisis in Isaiah’s day, we hope and wait for God’s justice and peace.
Walter Brueggemann sees the issue presented in the text as between two plans: God’s plan and Judah’s plan.25Brueggemann, supra, at 239. As Christians we might take it further than that—as an issue between human initiative and divine initiative. It is hard for us, living in a culture that values individual initiative so highly to simply be “still” and “quiet” assured that our “victory shall come about through calm and confidence.” (v. 15, JPS). One cannot help but think of Paul’s admonition that there is nothing we can do to achieve salvation (יְשׁוּעָה), but trust in YHWH. Here, Isaiah’s own name provides the title to his text: יְשַׁעְיָהוּ Y’sha‘yahu “YHWH is Salvation.”
Finally, as Christians, we are by definition an eschatological people. We, like our Jewish brothers and sisters, await God’s in-breaking reign and the establishment of God’s justice. Often we seek to do something, to take some action to bring about God’s reign. Some act through violence, others through social justice, others through devotion and prayer. We tire of waiting. But, the words of the prophet still speak to us, and we can take heart from the promise of the final verse assuring us our patience is not in vain:
And therefore YHWH waits to be gracious to you
And therefore he will rise up to be merciful to you
For a God of justice is YHWH
Happy are all who wait for him
Barker, Kenneth, ed. The NIV Study Bible: New International Version. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House, 1985) follow the divisions of the MT.
Beuken, William A. M., Isaiah II (Vol. 2): Isaiah Chapters 28-39, tr. from the Dutch by Dr. Brian Doyle, Leuven: Peters (2000)
Brueggemann, Walter. Isaiah 1-39. Westminster Bible Companion. Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster John Knox Press(1998)
Conrad, Edgar W., Reading Isaiah, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress (1991).
Ebor, Donald, ed. The New English Bible. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1961. Reprint. Oxford: Oxford University Press (1970).
Frick, Frank S. A Journey Through the Hebrew Scriptures. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace & Company (1995).
Isserlin, B.S.J., The Israelites, London: Thames and Hudson, Ltd., (1998).
Meeks, Wayne A., ed. The HarperCollins Study Bible: New Revised Standard Version, with Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, (1993)
Petersen, David L. and Kent Harold, Interpreting Hebrew Poetry, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, (1992)
Rudolph, W., and K. Elliger, ed. Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. 4th ed. 1967. Reprint. Stuttgart: Deutsche Bibelgesellschaft (1990).
Seitz, Christopher R. Isaiah 1-39. Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Louisville: John Knox Press (1993).
Stein, Rabbi David E. Sulomm, ed. JPS Hebrew-English Tanakh. 2nd ed. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society (1999)
Sweeney, Marvin A. Isaiah 1-39: With and Introduction to Prophetic Literature, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans (1996).