[K:NWTS 5/3 (Dec 1990) 29-38]
Orphans exploited and their inheritance plundered. Widows robbed and their pleas for redress unheeded. The poor oppressed and their hopes crushed. The blind afflicted and the deaf abused. Rich who became richer via greed and corruption. Rulers and political leaders who ruled through bribes and violence. Theologians and priests who resorted to prostitutes and encouraged religious syncretism.
It was an era of shadows—ominous shadows of deep and pervasive darkness—approaching darkness, threatening darkness, present darkness. A darkness which might be felt. Felt in the gate where judges took bribes from wealthy special interest groups in order to defraud the helpless of their rights. A darkness which might be felt—felt in the palace, where kings and rulers demanded kick backs for political favors and promoted injustice by patronizing the wicked. A darkness which might be felt—felt in the market place where fat cat landlords racked the rents of the poor even while they attended all the proper religious activities. Felt in the commercial centers, where merchants extorted unjust profits through false weights and measures. Felt in the community, where the wealthy added house to house and field to field, where sumptuous living produced lavish homes and palaces trimmed with ivory in-lay, where the real estate market was cornered by seizing homes and land—even by violence if necessary—so that land development could advance at over-inflated prices. A darkness which might be felt. Felt in the temple and cult centers, where father and son used the same sacred whore; where prophets divined—for the proper donation; where drunken revelry provided the expected counsel—if the price was right. A darkness which might be felt. A pall of darkness infected this culture.
Prophets to the Darkness
Isaiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah—the 8th century B.C. prophets—witnessed this darkness—felt this darkness—prophesied to this darkness. How vacuous their words seemed—how irrelevant to the practical concerns of their day—how far removed from the "needs" of their contemporaries. These bold nebiim chronicled the injustice and unrighteousness, the greed and covetousness, the abominable lewdness and sacred pornography—the hypocrisy and duplicity of an era of unbounded prosperity. The common motif of injustice and unrighteousness runs like a thread through the record of each of the 8th century prophets.
For three transgressions of Israel and for four I will not revoke its punishment because they sell the righteous for money and the needy for a pair of sandals. They trample the head of the helpless in the dust and turn aside the way of the humble (Amos 2:6,7).
Therefore because you impose heavy rent on the poor and exact a tribute of grain from them, though you have built houses of well-hewn" stone, you will not live in them; For I know your transgressions are many and your sins are great. You who distress the righteous and accept bribes and turn aside the poor in the gate (Amos 5:11,12).
Ephraim is a merchant in whose hands are false balances; he loves to oppress (Host 12:7).
Woe to those who scheme iniquity, who work out evil on their beds (Mic. 2:1).
Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field until there is no more room. Who chase after rewards and love a bribe; who do not defend the orphan nor does the widow's plea come before them (Is. 5:8; 1:23).
Present Darkness as Harbinger
This is but a partial catalogue of the darkness which hung over 8th century B.C. Palestine. This darkness within Israel was the harbinger of the darkness from without. From the north, a little cloud—like a man's hand—rolling westward—enveloping every land in its path. From the land beyond the river, from the plains of Mesopotamia, from the halls of a palace on the Tigris—a cloud—a dust-cloud of troops—ruthless, brutal soldiers—relentless, unstoppable—swirling westward—enclosing Syria, Lebanon, Phoenicia, Palestine. A dark cloud of military might—a war machine from Iraq—an 8th century B.C. Iraq. At the center of this advancing cloud, Tiglath Pileser III, "the Great King, the King of Assyria, the King of Sumer and Akkad, king of the four rims of the earth, king of the universe."
The long shadow of Assyrian vengeance was stretching over Palestine. Vengeance which would remove the wicked, the oppressor, the corrupt, the debauched. The day of the Lord was at hand and it would be darkness, not light. Not more avarice, more revelry, more lechery, but darkness—pitch darkness—death, destruction, judgment—darkness! Palestine would look for light to Egypt—to the land of the Pharaohs they would go seeking light in the face of the approaching darkness from Assyria. They would look for light to the Baals and Asherah—to the groves and high places. Palestine would look for light to the throne rooms of the palace halls. To Uzziah—whose leprosy cursed his flesh even as his presumption clouded his judgment (2 Chron. 26:16-23). To Jotham—who never entered the Temple of the Lord (2 Chron. 27:2). To Ahaz—bloody Ahaz who burned his children in fire (2 Kgs. 16:3,4). And that brood of assassins—monarchs who sat upon the throne of Samaria in the northern kingdom—Shallum, Menahem, Pekah (2 Kgs. 15:10,14,25).
A City of Righteousness and Justice
A city set on a hill—a nation placed as a beacon to the cosmos. Righteousness and justice were to distinguish her; tsedek and mishpat were to be her badge. Under her wings, the widow and the orphan were to find refuge in the shelter of the law of the Lord and the charity of a just society. The blind were to be lead and the deaf beckoned by the kind and tenderhearted. The poor were to find justice in the gate; the needy to find just weights and measures. The oppressed were to be covered by their advocate, the righteous king. The pious were to be fed the word of God as they experienced the worship of the thrice Holy One on his holy hill.
The Burden of Isaiah
The vision which Isaiah announces—from the very first verse of his great prophetic book—the burden-vision of Isaiah is the vision of coming darkness. Assyria to rout the northern kingdom and reduce her to silence and lamentation—the silence of death and the lamentation of exile. And poised on the prophetic horizon, the heir apparent to Assyria—a nation which would reduce Judah in like manner. The purview of the prophet perceives this successor in the panorama of darkness—this drama of the kingdom of death: Babylon, her name—great Babylon of the nations. Isaiah's burden is the nations rising in conspiracy—a conspiracy of dread darkness—a conspiracy against Zion, city of the great king, king of the universe—a conspiracy against Zion and her renegade kings. Night about to fall on Israel. Dusky shadows approaching Judah.
The Eschatology of Isaiah
"Behold, a king will reign righteously, And princes will rule justly. And each will be like a refuge from the wind, And a shelter from the storm, Like streams of water in a dry country, Like the shade of a huge rock in a parched land" (Is. 32:1,2).
The eschatology of Isaiah is the eschatology of the ideal king in the ideal Zion. It is an eschatology of reversal—the reversal of the present evil age—the dawn of the better age to come. An age in which the eschatological king will reign in righteousness and justice. An age in which the eschatological Zion will be a city of righteousness and justice for the poor, the oppressed, the outcast. The king who appears in Isaiah 32 is a king whose rule is the counterpart of God's rule. As God himself reigns in righteousness and justice, so this coming one will rule in righteousness and justice. As God himself is a refuge from the storm, a covert from the wind (Is. 25:4); as the Lord himself is a refreshing stream in a dry and thirsty land, so Isaiah's coming one is a shelter from the storm, a shadow of a mighty rock within a weary land. This eschatological king inaugurates a kingdom in which the shadows are shadows of grace—the shelters are shelters of mercy—the clouds are clouds of refreshing.
In this 32nd chapter, the eschatological king and his messianic reign are graphically portrayed by Isaiah's language. The prophet's inspired words contain dramatic literary devices which enrich the imagery of his eschatological vision. Within the first three verses, we find: assonance (vowel repetition); alliteration (consonant repetition); word play; simile (a "like" or an "as" comparison); metaphor (verbal analogies); rhythmic sound; paronomasia (repetition of words close but not identical in sound); terrace pattern (stair-step ascendancy of imagery); and finally, what I believe to be, a remarkable sound inclusio.
Listening to the Text
Identification of these literary devices requires the use of the Hebrew text. The one who cannot read Hebrew or the pastor who does not use his Hebrew Bible will not discover these powerful literary devices. That pastor will reduce this passage to a topical moralistic message about the pursuit of justice and righteousness in our daily lives. He will exhort us to be just and righteous—all salient enough, but not at all what Isaiah is talking about. You see, it is possible to have all the right doctrinal positions and miss what the Bible is saying because you do not listen to the text as it was inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is possible to have impeccable credentials of orthodoxy and prostitute the word of God to your own superficial agenda. Isaiah 32 is a passage to which you must listen—you must listen to it as it was inspired of the Spirit—listen to it as it flowed from Isaiah's pen as he was moved and carried along by the Holy Ghost. Listen . . .
hen letsedeq yimlak melek
ulesarim lemishpat yasoru
wehayah ish kemachabe ruach
refalgay mayi betsayon
ketsel sela kavedh
welo tishenah ene roim
weazne shomeim tiqshavnah
Hearing the Word of God
As you listen to the sounds, as you listen to the roots, you begin to hear the Word of God.
yimlak melek ulesarim yasoru
Paired words with their rhythmic word play. A word play on the royal imperium of the eschatological messianic king. Literally—"he will king, the king, and rulers will rule." With the alliterative letsedeq and lemishpat, this coming king will king "in righteousness" and his holy entourage will rule "in justice." The word play repetition enforces the just and righteous purpose of this coming royal figure. How will he king? In graphic contrast to the monarchy of Isaiah's day, this coming one will be king in righteousness (tsedeq) and his rule will be the rule of justice (mishpat). The eschatological kingdom of the messiah is where the widow finds justice, the orphan finds righteousness, the poor find relief and the oppressed find redress. This One will not judge by what his eyes see, nor make a decision by what his ears hear, but with righteousness will he judge the poor and decide with equity for the meek of the earth (Is. 11:3,4).
Verse 2 continues the pattern of alliteration: we...ke...we...ke...be...ke...be. The threefold ke introduces a series of terraced similes: "like a refuge"..."like streams"..."like the shade." This terraced sequence encompasses the vivid comparisons of rest, refuge, shelter—from the wind or storm, from the parched wilderness, from the searing sun. With sensation which stirs the emotions, Isaiah projects an eschatological messianic reign in which the needy will find refuge—like a shelter from the storm; the thirsty will be refreshed—like streams of cooling water in a desert; the weary will be relieved—like the shadow of a might rock within a weary land. These shadows—these glorious shadows of the approaching messianic era—are not the ominous shadows of judgment and vengeance, death and darkness—not the shadows of the hostile world kingdoms at enmity with the kingdom of God—these shadows are the shades of Messiah—the shelters of a kingdom in which peace, rest, quietness dwell for evermore. God himself will be a refuge from the storm, a shade from the heat, a defense to the helpless, a strength to the needy (Is. 25:4). In that eschatological Zion, the glory-cloud will be the canopy, for the Lord of that heavenly Zion will stretch his glory like a shelter to give shade from the heat, a defense to the helpless, a strength to the needy (Is. 4:6). They shall not hurt nor destroy in all my holy mountain (Is. 11:9)!
Verse 3 is a rhymed stanza intoning a dramatic reversal in the spiritual condition of the people of God. That spiritual condition was graphically displayed to the prophet in his temple vision of chapter 6. Preach to a people who will not hear; command a people to wake up who will not see. Render their hearts insensitive, their ears dull and their eyes dim lest they see with their eyes and hear with their ears and understand with their hearts and repent...(Is. 6:9,10). Isaiah's message falls on deaf ears; his pleas to behold the coming vengeance of the Lord are met with closed eyes. But with the dawn of the eschatological era
tishenah ene roim
weazne shomeim tiqshavnah
Even the Hebrew vowel pattern dramatizes the eschatological reversal. Listen...listen: ah…e…im…e…im…ah. Do you hear it? The reverse pattern of the vowels is strikingly chosen to reinforce the marvelous reversal of spiritual blindness and deafness as the Messianic era dawns. When Messiah-king comes, the eyes which have been closed will be opened to the word of the Lord; ears which have refused to listen will hear the word of God gladly. Then, then shall the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped (Is. 35:5).
The Righteous Kingdom of Messiah—Jesus
This messianic vision is not remote to us. Not a far distant ideal.
It has been a present reality—actualized provisionally in and through the person and work of Messiah-Jesus for 2000 years. This king is our Lord. And his kingdom is his church. A kingdom of righteousness and justice in process of realization: where the vulnerable find protection; the poor and oppressed find refuge; where justice is done to all; where righteousness cannot be corrupted; where the blind see the Lord of glory and the deaf hear the good news of salvation—in such churches, this kingdom is being realized.
But where the rich get richer through the exploitation of the helpless; where special interest groups in the church use their power and prestige for purposes of leverage and self-interest; where money talks in the church rather than justice and righteousness; where arrogant ecclesiastical leadership places certain persons above the rule of right; where collusion and conniving deprive the meek and humble of truth and justice; where the church's self-perception becomes so self-serving that no assessment of what is clearly right is possible; where the pastoral office is used for the purpose of sexual exploitation and tyranny—in such a kingdom, the darkness may still be felt. And against such a kingdom, the invectives of the prophet Isaiah are still leveled. The church which will not be conformed to the justice, righteousness, meekness and humility of her Lord—that church will be overshadowed with death and darkness!
But where the meek hear him gladly—where the rich are sent empty away—where the mighty are put down from their seats—where those of low degree are exalted—where the poor are raised up out of the dust, where the needy are lifted up from the ash heap (Lk. 1:51-53)—there the messianic kingdom is present in justice and righteousness. There, in that messianic kingdom, where the Spirit is poured out from on high; the wilderness becomes a fertile field and the fertile field a forest (Is. 32:15). And justice dwells in the fertile field and righteousness abides in the forest (32:16). And the fruit of righteousness is peace and the effect of righteousness is quietness and assurance (32:17). And the people of God dwell securely in undisturbed resting places (32:18). They behold the king in his glory, even as Isaiah saw the thrice Holy One high and lifted up in his glory. Under the glory-canopy they dwell peacefully—justly—righteously—under the shadow of his wings.