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Politics of Scripture, Sacred Texts

The Good News in Judgment—Isaiah 6:1–13

Isaiah’s call to prophesy judgment against Israel challenges us to remember God’s sovereignty over all political systems, even those that are disastrous in our eyes. Could God’s judgment be the decisive turning point toward healing?

1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. 2 Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. 3 And one called to another and said:
     “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
     the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. 5 And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. 7 The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” 8 Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!” 9 And he said, “Go and say to this people:
     ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend;
     keep looking, but do not understand.’
     10 Make the mind of this people dull,
          and stop their ears,
          and shut their eyes,
     so that they may not look with their eyes,
          and listen with their ears,
     and comprehend with their minds,
          and turn and be healed.”
11 Then I said, “How long, O Lord?” And he said:
     “Until cities lie waste
          without inhabitant,
     and houses without people,
          and the land is utterly desolate;
     12 until the LORD sends everyone far away,
          and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
     13 Even if a tenth part remain in it,
          it will be burned again,
     like a terebinth or an oak
          whose stump remains standing
          when it is felled.”
     The holy seed is its stump.

This week’s lectionary readings are like a call and response.

The call: Yahweh directs Isaiah to proclaim words of judgment: “Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand!”

Mocking words, these. As some have heard from parents or grandparents, “If you keep making that face, pretty soon you’ll look that way all the time.” Isaiah is sent to the people of Judah with a message to similar effect, though in more serious terms.

“How long?,” Isaiah asks in return. How long will the people honor Yahweh with their lips, while shutting their eyes to the injustice that fuels the growth of their wealth and comfort?

We might direct Isaiah’s questions toward ourselves: how long will ours be a politics of hate, stupidity, and bickering? How long will we insist on our rightness and righteousness, refusing to allow that others, too, have something worth saying? How long will we plug our ears and cover our eyes, ignoring the ways that our prosperity depends on the impoverishment of others?

“Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people, and the land is utterly desolate; until the LORD sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.”

This is no politics of hope. Before things get better, Isaiah learns, they are going to get worse. Much worse.

Here is the “God of the Old Testament” that makes many of us uncomfortable. But isn’t it discomfort that often forces us to see the truth? Isn’t that the whole point?

The people cannot see the truth. They will not see the truth. Isaiah’s job is, somehow, to make sure the people aren’t healed before they’ve learned. “Make the mind of this people dull, and stop their ears, and shut their eyes, so that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears, and comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”

These days, we don’t like to make such proclamations. They’re impolite in good theological circles. But are they untimely? Can we interpret the political chaos of our time as a form of divine judgment?

Can we ask whether there is a theological reason that many of our politicians seem rather, well, short-sighted? Perhaps we should have the courage to ask this question. And no doubt this means that each of us must also have the courage to ask ourselves whether we have plugged our ears in order to block the call to repentance that God is speaking to us.

If we take the words of Isaiah to heart, we might expect that our eyes and ears will continue to be blocked until whatever illness is coursing through the veins of this country has run its course. I don’t mean to suggest that we should sit on our hands and wait for the coming apocalypse. But it is worth tarrying here for a moment. Before we jump to more comfortable topics or to hopeful activism, Isaiah challenges each of us to ask whether and how we are contributing to the general destruction we see all around us.

It is not an easy question to ask. But we cannot exclude ourselves from the divine judgment that seems to plague us, just as Isaiah could not exclude himself when confronted with the holiness of God. “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

But here we might also stop to consider the early Christian idea of God as physician. Of course, we could imagine that Yahweh is simply being vindictive. He wants the people to suffer. So he asks Isaiah to blind them for just a little longer, so that Yahweh can watch them suffer just a little more.

But there is another way of viewing the matter. Origen responded to a similar perspective, which claimed that “the God who ‘renders to each man according to his desert’ renders ill to the evil out of hatred towards them.” Against this view, Origen argues, “the truth is that those who have sinned need severer remedies for their cure, and it is for this reason that he brings upon them the afflictions which, though aiming at improvement, seem at the moment to convey a sense of pain” (On First Principles, 2.5.3).

Thus, Origen continues, “as physicians supply aids to sufferers with the object of restoring them to health through careful treatment, so with the same motive God acts towards those who have lapsed and fallen into sin.” Origen turns to Isaiah for support on this last point: “Isaiah teaches that even punishments which are said to be inflicted by fire are meant to be applied as a help, when he speaks thus about Israel: ‘The Lord will wash away the filth of the sons and daughters of Zion, and will purge away the blood from the midst of them by the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning (Isa 4:4)” (On First Principles, 2.10.6).

So is Isaiah actually mocking the people? Is Yahweh actually asking Isaiah to dull the minds of the people in order to prevent their healing? Or is Isaiah doing something more akin to what Jesus did, when he rubbed saliva on a man’s eyes (Mark 8:23) in order to grant him sight? Perhaps there is painful healing truth even in the sarcasm itself.

Perhaps Isaiah is provoking the people in order to open their eyes, just as Elijah provoked the prophets of Baal, asking whether Baal’s had fallen asleep or was away on a journey. Isaiah’s remedy is painful. But it seems that Origen is right to see it as a necessarily painful means to a good end.

If the “call” of this week’s readings is one of judgment, the “response” is one of good news. But it is really only when we have recognized good news in the proclamation of judgment that we can see how the response is a fitting one.

If we are unable to see words of judgment carrying an implicit message of good news, it will be difficult to read Isaiah 6 as having much to do with Psalm 138:7, “Though I walk in the midst of trouble, you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies; you stretch out your hand, and your right hand delivers me.”

If we cannot see good news in Isaiah 6, then 1 Corinthians 15:1-4 seems to come out of nowhere: “I would remind you…of the good news that I proclaimed to you…that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures.”

And if Isaiah 6 tells us that Yahweh is a God of spiteful and vindictive anger, the miracle of the catch of fish in Luke 5 must have been performed by someone who has nothing to do with that God. But we learn that this cannot be the case when we see Peter’s response to Jesus: “when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, ‘Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!’”

One might have expected Peter and his friends to ask Jesus to go into business with them. But Peter doesn’t experience Jesus’ miracle as salvation. He experiences it as judgment, much more like Isaiah’s frightening vision in the temple than the cheery scenes we are accustomed to finding in the Gospels. So there is a message of judgment, somehow, in the saving work of Jesus, just as there is a message of salvation in Isaiah, a fire and brimstone preacher if ever there was one. If Jesus didn’t sound something like Isaiah, would it really be possible for these fisherman to have “left everything” after such a catch? Isn’t there a sense in which Jesus’ miracle here was just as painful as the remedy prescribed by Isaiah? Given Peter’s response to Jesus, I can only imagine that it was.

If judgment and salvation come together, then perhaps Isaiah offers more hope for our time than it seems at first glance. Perhaps Isaiah offers us the assurance that God is bringing good out of evil, making right that which is not right, healing that which is sick. If this is true, then in response to the message of Isaiah and the miracle of Jesus, we can pray, “The LORD will fulfill his purpose for me; your steadfast love, O LORD, endures forever. Do not forsake the work of your hands” (Ps 138:8).

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