Prophetic acrostic (inspired by Lamentations, for Pentecost 17C)

The lectionary reading for this Sunday contains selections from two acrostic poems in the book of Lamentations. The first reading is Lam 1:1–6, “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people”, a lament about the desecration of the city of Jerusalem by the Babylonian invaders. The psalm offered is Lam 3:19–26, probably because it contains a counterpoint to this lament in the famous words of hope, “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:22–23).

An acrostic poem begins each line with each letter of the alphabet, in order, line after line. It is an aide-de-memoire for recalling the lines of the poem in order. Thus, in Hebrew, which has 22 letters in its alphabet, Lam 1 has 22 verses, each new verse beginning with the next letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetical order. There are 22 verses in chapters 1, 2, and 4 of Lamentations; chapter 3 has 66 verses, so each letter commences three verses before moving on to the next letter.

There are other acrostic poems in the Hebrew Scriptures, including Psalms 9 and 10 together, Psalms 25, 34, 37 (2 verses per letter), 111 (two letters per verse), 112 (also two letters per verse), 119 (which has 176 verses, meaning eight lines for each of the 22 letters!), and Psalm 145. There are also acrostic poems in praise of the eset chayil: “a woman of valour, who can find? she is far more precious than jewels” (Proverbs 31:10–31), and in the oracle of judgement at Nahum 1:1–9, “a jealous and avenging God is the Lord, the Lord is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and rages against his enemies”.

Psalm 34 in Hebrew,
showing its acrostic structure

In recognition of the selections from acrostic poems that are provided by this Sunday’s lectionary, I have written my own attempt at an acrostic poem, including some of the key motifs that we encountered in the recent course on The Prophets.

Anger burns fiercely in your potent words,

Burning, raging, searing into our hearts;

Compassionate, merciful, you say that you are

Drowning out all our anxieties and fears. Yet,

Every breathe of inspiration that comes,

Flowing with energy, abounding in intensity,

Greets my heart with a stunning announcement:

How can I pardon you? while sin abounds

I cannot let it pass by, I cannot forgive!

Justice you desire, justice you call for,

Kindling a sense of righteousness in my heart,

Leading me along the paths of equity.

May this be how we live, how we are,

Nurturing all that you want us to be.

O Lord of hosts, look down on our lives;

Pity our inequities,

Pardon our transgressions,

Quieten our hearts,

Quicken us with grace.

Restore us to righteousness,

Revive our hearts,

Send again your spirit;

Strengthen and sustain us,

Teaching us the way that you would have us walk.

Under your guidance, we will be faithful,

Vowing to serve you in all of our ways.

When we are judged righteous,

Excelling in your ordinances,

You will delight in us,

Zealous for your ways.

*****

See also

How lonely sits the city (Lamentations 1; Pentecost 17C)

Last week’s Hebrew Scripture passage was full of hope. Jeremiah, under arrest in the royal court (Jer 32:1–3), was planning for a future—a personal future, as well as a future for the besieged nation. He arranges, through Baruch, to purchase a field from his cousin Hamael, the son of his uncle, Shallum (32:6–15). He tells the people of Judah that, even though the Babylonian army was encircling the land and he was unable to move about freely, nevertheless the time would come when God would ensure that ‘houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land’ (v.15). He demonstrates a firm, unwavering trust in God.

This week, the lectionary turns our attention to the book of Lamentations, which comes immediately after the book of Jeremiah, and which, by tradition, is attributed to Jeremiah, even though these is nothing at all in the text that makes this connection. Jeremiah, remembered for being a gloomy naysayer, seems to be a good match for this depressing text—the loss of hope and the growth of despair amongst the people is evident throughout the five chapters of Lamentations, and nowhere more than in these opening verses (Lam 1:1–6).

The passage sounds notes of mourning, with bitter tears and a sense of betrayal, hard servitude and enduring distress, a sense of suffering and loss of privilege, all contributing to a deep malaise, as the poet has sunk down into the depths of despair. Perhaps the link with Jeremiah can be validated by referring to one of his early pronouncements: “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … for the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me” (8:18–22).

God echoes this mournful attitude: “oh that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people” (9:1); then later, in an oracle over Judah, “if you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive” (13:17); and still later, in an oracle over Moab, “more than for Jazer I weep for you, O vine of Sibmah” (48:32).

The weeping that Jeremiah and God display is expressed in the poems of lament found in the book of Lamentations; “for these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears”, the author mourns; “for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed” (Lam 1:16). All five chapters of this book express a forlorn hope that the punishment being experienced by the people of Judah might come to an end.

However, that hope remains unfulfilled, from the opening lament, “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people! how like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” (1:1); to the final disconsolate prayer, “restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure”(5:22).

Lamentations contains beautiful poetry, carefully crafted, skilfully compiled; it is aesthetically powerful, its form conveys a message spoken deep from the depths of human emotions. This opening chapter, like three of the four which follow, is an acrostic poem—each new verse begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetical order. As there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, there are 22 verses in chapters 1, 2, and 4. Chapter 3 has 66 verses; each letter commences three verses before moving on to the next letter. (The final chapter also has 22 verses, but they are not arranged in any alphabetical order.)

The first four chapters employ a strict rhythmic pattern, known as a qinah rhythm: three stresses followed by two, which F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp describes as “the rhythmic dominance of unbalanced and enjambed lines” (Lamentations, Westminster John Knox, 2002). The pattern is suggestive of the broken, disjointed existence of the people.

In these five chapters, the author reveals much of how he, and the people, are lamenting their situation in the aftermath of the savage destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 587/586 BCE. Chapter one paints a picture of the deserted, desolate city: “the roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter” (1:4). Chapter four provides a detailed portrayal of the destruction of the temple: “how the gold has grown dim, how the pure gold is changed! the sacred stones lie scattered at the head of every street” (4:1).

The poems describe the traumatised state of the people in the immediate aftermath of this conquest. They suffer affliction (1:7, 9; 3:1, 19) and captivity (1:18), grief (3:32, 51) and suffering (1:3, 5, 18), hunger (2:19; 4:4, 9) and thirst (4:4). They express lamentation (2:5, 8) and mourning (1:4; 2:5; 5:15), with tears (1:2, 16; 2:18; 3:48), crying (2:12, 16, 18, 19; 3:8, 56), and weeping (1:2, 16; 2:11). As we read through the poems, we hear a constant, depressing cry: why have you let this happen, O Lord? why have you done this to us, O God?

These five poems bear many similarities with the “psalms of communal lament”, such as Pss 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, 86, and 90, and the psalms of individual lament, such as Pss 3, 6, 13, 22, 25, 31, 71, 77, 86, and 142. In the face of God’s seeming inaction and unresponsiveness to pleading prayers, what is there to do, other than to lament?

The experience of the Shoah (Holocaust) in 1939–1945 has led many Jewish writers to reflect this attitude. It is not “giving up on God”, but resting in the pain and grief, venting about this to God, and hoping against hope that, in time, there may be a reversal of fortunes—a change of mind by God.

One writer notes that “Lament allows us to fully face and name our pain, and it creates space for future resolution and hope without glossing over our trauma. It gives us permission to protest life’s difficulties, to scream, cry, vent, plead, and complain in the presence of God and others. It lets us ask the hard questions without condemnation: Why did this have to happen? How could you allow it? Where are you in the midst of it? It allows weeping without explanation. It might be messy and uncomfortable, but it’s the first step towards healing.” (Whitney Willard, “Lamentatations: the volatile voice of grief”, https://bibleproject.com/blog/lamentations-voice-of-grief/)

These poetic expressions of lament (the psalms of laments, as well as the “confessions” of Jeremiah and Lamentations itself) also inform some elements of the way that the passion of Jesus is narrated in the canonical Gospels; although these accounts are told with a knowledge of the resurrection, there is grief, sadness, and despair at the fate of Jesus, with perhaps a note of patient lament at some moments in those narratives.

Lamentations is recited annually by Jews on the fast day of Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av, usually in late July or early August), to mourn the destruction of both the First Temple (by the Babylonians in 586 BCE) and, on the same day (it is believed) the Second Temple (by the Romans in 70 CE). The book provides a fitting way to remember the two greatest moments of national grief and loss, many centuries later.

See also

God, merciful and gracious: themes in The Prophets

That God’s grace is central to who God is and how God relates to human beings, is a fundamental claim in the writings of Paul. This affirmation is key to the extended theological,discussion we find in Romans, Paul’s longest letter, where Paul affirms that those who believe “are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Rom 3:24).

After citing the example of Abraham, justified by “the righteousness of faith” (4:13), which means that the promise rests on grace (4:16), Paul explains that, “since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand” (5:1–2).

So Paul rejoices that “the grace of God and the free gift in the grace of the one man, Jesus Christ, [has] abounded for the many” (5:15), and he tells the Romans that “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace” (6:14). It is God’s grace which marks the life of those who believe in Jesus as Messiah—the Messiah who, in an act of supreme graciousness, “while we were still weak, at the right time [this Messiah] died for the ungodly” (5:6).

Even when considering his unbelieving brothers and sisters in Israel, Paul insists that “God has not rejected his people” (11:1), for “the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (11:29); accordingly, “there is a remnant, chosen by grace” (11:5), demonstrating that God remains persistently faithful to God’s people, for “if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works, otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (11:6). God’s grace is the key.

This key theological motif is signalled in the standard greeting that we find at the start of every one of Paul’s seven authentic letters—“Grace to you and peace”, or some minor variant (Rom 1:7; 1 Cor 1:3; 2 Cor 1:2; Gal 1:3; Phil 1:2; 1 Thess 1:1; and Phlm 3). The greeting appears as well in many of the other letters collected in the New Testament (Col 1:2; Eph 1:2; 2 Thess 1:2; 1 Tim Q:2; 2 Tim 1:2; Tit 1:4; 1 Pet 1:2; 2 Pet 1:2; 2 John 3; Rev 1:4).

A blessing of grace also closes each of Paul’s authentic letters (Rom 16:20; 1 Cor 16:23; 2 Cor 13:13; Gal 6:18; Phil 4:23; 1 Thess 5:28; Phlm 25) as well as a number of other letters (Col 4:18; Eph 6:24; 2 Thess 3:18; 1 Tim 6:21; 2 Tim 4:22; Tit 3:5; Heb 13:25; 2 Pet 3:18) as well as the very last book of the New Testament (Rev 22:21). Each time, it reminds us of this central theological claim about God: God is a god of grace.

In reporting on the activities of Paul, the writer of Acts notes that his preaching told of the grace of God (Acts 13:43; 14:3; 20:24, 32). Indeed, in a rare moment of theological concordance, Peter is said to have concluded his speech to the council in Jerusalem with a characteristically Pauline flourish, affirming that “we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they [the Gentiles] will” (Acts 15:11).

So God’s grace is central to early Christian understandings of God—and the fourth evangelist places it front and centre in his portrayal of Jesus, “the Word [who] became flesh and lived among us”, known to us as being “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). (None of the Synoptic Gospels employ the precise term; many commentators, however, influenced by the predominance of grace in Pauline theology, interpret the way that Jesus offers forgiveness of sins—Mark 2:10 and parallels; Luke 23:34; Acts 5:31; 10:43; 13:38—to be an expression of God’s grace.)

The letter to the Hebrews describes Jesus as being seated on “the throne of grace”, which we are to approach “with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:16). The letter attributed to James affirms that God “gives all the more grace”, citing the text that “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (Jas 4:6, quoting Ps 138:6), whilst 1 Peter closes with a claim that was is contained in that letter reveals something of “the true grace of God” (1 Pet 5:12). That God is gracious is a fundamental theological claim in the New Testament.

*****

This is not a new insight into the nature of God, however. Centuries before, faithful Israelite people had grasped the same insight and expressed it in clear and unambiguous ways. The prophet Joel attests that God is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).

The same note is sounded by another prophet, Jonah; in his prayer to God, begging that God take his life, he affirms that “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2).

It is the very same affirmation about God which an explicit priestly writer placed on the lips of Moses, after the account of the Golden Calf and the smashing of the first set of tablets containing The Ten Words. Here, Moses is instructed to cut two new tablets of stone, in preparation for renewing the covenant. The Lord then passed before him, declaring, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin” (Exod 34:6).

During the time of King Hezeziah (king of the southern kingdom from 715 to 686 BCE, after the reign of Ahaz), once the neglected Temple had been cleansed and sanctified, Hezekiah restored the worship of the Lord in the Temple, informing the people that “the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him” (2 Chron 30:8–9).

Still later, after the southern kingdom had been exiled to Babylon, the prophet Jeremiah affirmed that God pledges to the exiled people, “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they shall be my people”, and then affirms that “the people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness”, and continues by restating that “I have loved you with an everlasting love; therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you” (Jer 31:1–3).

These are the opening words of the chapter that contains Jeremiah’s most famous oracle, in which God promises, “I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah … I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people … I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more” (Jer 31:31–34). That is deep, deep covenant love, expressing God’s thoroughly grace-filled character.

Later still, as the people returned to the land and the city, after Ezra had reinstated the Law in Jerusalem and the people had celebrated the Festival of Booths, Ezra prayed at a ceremony to recommit to the covenant, praising God as “a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.” (Neh 9:17). Again, we hear that central affirmation about God, who is also described as “the great and mighty and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love” (Neh 9:32).

It’s a mantra that appears in a number of Psalms. In one, a cry for divine help, we hear, “you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps 86:15). Here, the psalmist pleads, “turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl; show me a sign of your favour, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me” (Ps 86:16–17).

In another psalm, a thanksgiving in praise of God’s steadfast love, we hear the familiar refrain, that “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps 103:8). This psalm continues, “He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” (Ps 103:9–13).

In another psalm of praise, the psalmist exults, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honour and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.” (Ps 111:2–5).

And in yet another psalm of praise, the psalmist affirms, “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; the Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (Ps 145:8–9). It is this God, gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, to whom people of faith turn in regular prayers of supplication and petition.

So we need to let go of the archaic and inaccurate claim that “the God of the Old Testament is a god of wrath, the God of the New Testament is a god of love”. God, in both testaments, with equal intensity and equal integrity, is a God of love, abounding in steadfast love—a God of grace, indeed!

*****

Alongside this strong prophetic affirmation of the grace of God, there is a similarly-strong thread that insists that God will judge the people of God in accordance with their faithfulness, or infidelity, to the covenant that God has made with them. Thus, alongside the God of grace in texts of the Hebrew prophets, stand many texts about the wrath of God, to be delivered on The Day of the Lord. See https://johntsquires.com/2022/09/12/the-day-the-end-themes-in-the-prophets/

How are we to reconcile these two aspects of God? That is the task that our biblical witness invites us to undertake for ourselves!

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/08/16/justice-and-only-justice-you-shall-follow/

As I watched visions in the night, I saw one like a human being (Daniel)

In this series on the prophets of ancient Israel, the figure of Daniel is something of an anomaly. He does not say “woe is me”, as many of the priests do. He does not stand and declaim words of divine judgement on the people for their sinfulness. He does not deliberately use symbolic actions to dramatise his message, as do many other prophets, although his book is replete with many symbols that invite—indeed, require—interpretation.

Whilst he does speak of the wrath of God (Dan 9:16), this to be executed “later, in the period of wrath” (8:19; 11:36). Like other prophets, he does affirm that “the God of heaven” exhibits mercy (2:18; 9:9) and prays seeking that mercy from God (4:27; 6:11). He also affirms the covenant of Israel with their God (11:28–35), although this is set in the context of specific timeframes: a period of seventy weeks (9:24), including a period for “a strong covenant with many” for one week (9:27), followed immediately by “an abomination that desolates, until the decreed end is poured out on the desecration” (9:27).

Daniel himself is never “called to be a prophet”, as we have seen in other prophetic books; he is introduced as one of a number of “young men without physical defect and handsome, endowed with knowledge and insight”, who were chosen “to be taught the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (1:3–5). Indeed, the Israelite Daniel is given a Babylonian name, Belteshazzar (1:7; 4:8), and his entire story takes place in the Babylonian court.

(The Chaldeans were part of the Babylonian Empire; centuries earlier they had settled beside the Euphrates in what became the southeastern edge of the Babylonian Empire. Abraham is said to have come from Ur, a city in the region of the Chaldea; see Gen 11:31; 15:7.)

The story of the prophet Daniel is thus set outside Israel, in the time of exile, after the conquest of the southern kingdom by the Babylonians in 587 BCE (Dan 1:1–2; see 2 Kings 25). Daniel had been chosen to serve in the court of Nebuchadnezzar, who reigned from 605 BCE to 562 BCE (Dan 1:3–7); when the Persians took control of the Babylonian empire in 539 BCE, Daniel continued to serve in a position of some power.

Scholars believe, however, that the story is told at a much later time, after the exile—perhaps even during the time of Seleucid superiority in the second century BCE. Two centuries after they had returned to the land of Israel, rebuilt their Temple, restored their cities and towns, and living under Persian rule, the people of Israel were over run by the troops of Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, as he swept across the eastern Mediterranean region as Far East as modern day India. A new foreign power, and a new attitude towards the religion and customs of Israel.

Initially the interaction between Israelites and Macedonians was one of integration. Greek became the language of trade; syncretism marked the religious life of the people, as they adopted Greek customs. But when Antiochus Epiphanes came to power over the region, he introduced an altar in the temple to receive pagan offerings—something which, in Israelite eyes, was known a “desolating sacrilege” (Mark 13:14; 1 Mac 1:54). This appears to be clearly described in the final vision, recounting how forces “shall occupy and profane the temple and fortress, abolish the regular burnt offering and set up the abomination that makes desolate” (Dan 11:31).

A clear reflection of the exile experience is that an extended section of the book (2:4b—7:28) is written in Aramaic, a language which evolved from Hebrew because of the influence of Babylonian culture and language on the exiled Israelites. The rest of the book (like all the rest of Hebrew Scripture) is written in Hebrew. Whereas Aramaic became the common language of Jews even when they were living back in Israel (and this was the case by the time of Jesus), Hebrew was preserved as the holy language of scripture.

Curiously, the book has two distinct parts, which overlap this linguistic division; each part is likely to have originated in a different time after the exile. The first six chapters recount stories about Daniel, who was serving in the court and enjoyed friendly relations with the monarch; the style is one found in other legends about courtiers and dream interpreters. Chapters 7–12 comprise a series of apocalyptic visions which appear to contain some very direct references to events that took place in the second century BCE. These chapters come “from the mouth of Daniel”, as it were, rather than being stories about him (as in chapters 1–6).

*****

This first half of the book of Daniel contains a number of dramatic scenes. In these first six chapters, we find some striking stories about Daniel (given the Babylonian name Belteshazzar) and his companions, each of whom are also given Babylonian names (Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego). While Daniel and his companions are serving in the Babylonian court (1:3–18), a number of dramatic incidents are narrated.

One striking aspect of Daniel is that he provides interpretation of the king’s two dreams (chapters 2 and 4). To the intense frustration of King Nebuchadnezzar, none of his wise men are able to explain the meaning of the first dream about a huge statue made of gold, silver, bronze, iron, and clay; he is on the brink of having them all executed (2:12–13) when Daniel intervenes.

It is then that we learn that Daniel has been gifted by God to be “a revealer of mysteries” (2:47), and he is able to explain what each element in the dream signifies (2:24–45), and to assure the king that “the dream is certain, and it’s interpretation is trustworthy” (2:45). As a result, Daniel is promoted and his three friends are installed in responsible and powerful positions (2:46–49).

However, under the influence of “certain Chaldeans” (3:8), the three friends of Daniel are denounced and are cast into the fiery furnace by an infuriated king (3:19–21). Miraculously, the three men survive this ordeal; King Nebuchadnezzar “was astonished”, called the three mean out of the furnace, blessed them, and condemned those opposing them to be “torn limb from limb, and their households laid in ruin” (3:24–30).

The king subsequently has a second dream, and the narrative follows the same pattern: the king is afraid, he calls his wise men, they are unable to provide any explanation, and then Daniel is asked to offer an interpretation, because “you are endowed with a spirit of the holy gods” (4:18). Once again, Daniel’s interpretation is offered—but what he foresees for the king fails to please him; and just twelve months later, “the sentence was fulfilled against Nebuchadnezzar” and he becomes mad: “he ate grass like oxen, and his body was bathed with the dew of heaven, until his hair grew as long as eagles’ feathers and his nails became like birds’ claws” (4:33).

This time of madness fortunately is soon lifted. Nebuchadnezzar prays to God: “I blessed the Most High, and praised and honoured the one who lives forever” (4:34–35), praising God “for all his works are truth, and his ways are justice” (4:37). What follows is an account of “a great festival for a thousand of his lords”, organised by Belshazzar, the son of Nebuchadnezzar—but during the festivities, those present demonstrate their pagan traditions, as they “drank the wine and praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone” (5:1–4).

During the feast, fingers of a human hand wrote on the wall of the palace (5:5–9). The king’s advisors were (once again) unable to understand what what written; Daniel is brought in and offers an interpretation of “the writing on the wall” (5:10–31), warning the king of the end of his kingdom: “you have been weighed on the scales and found wanting”, so the kingdom will be divided between the Medes and the Persians (5:25–28). So it was that Daniel was clothed in purple and accorded a high ranking in the kingdom (5:29); but Belshazzar was killed that night, leading to the accession of Darius (5:30–31).

*****

Daniel was thus thrust once again into the murky arena of national politics (then, as now, a fraught environment!). Whilst Daniel exercised his role as a satrap under Darius the Mede, a conspiracy was formed against him as opponents looked to bring him down. When he is caught praying to the Lord God, despite the interdict of the king (6:1–15), he is thrown into the lion’s den (6:16).

The next morning, the king hurries to the den, and finds Daniel alive; his prayers have miraculously saved him (6:19–22). Daniel is released from the lion’s den and rescued from danger (6:23–28); Darius issues an edict praising “the living God” whose “kingdom shall never be destroyed, and his dominion has no end; he delivers and rescues, he works signs and wonders in heaven and on earth” (6:26–27).

If the story was written (as is thought by many) during the time of the Seleucids, its depiction of a foreign ruler who is positively disposed towards Israel’s God is striking. Under Antiochus Epiphanes, the colonising forces of the Macedonians “built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant; they joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil” (1 Mac 1:14–15). Antiochus not only erected an image in the temple (the “desolation of sacrilege”), but even had the scrolls of Torah collected and burnt—many centuries before the Nazis did this (you can read the details of his rule in 1 Mac 1:41–64).

The author of Daniel is writing political literature as political critique. We know that Antiochus provoked a political uprising led by the Maccabees, the sons of Matthias (1 Mac 2—6)—figures later upheld as heroes by the Zealots in the time of Jesus. The book of Daniel provides a rationale for the zealous ideology of the Maccabees, seeking to put in place a righteous leadership in Israel.

Carol Newsom observes that “in several narratives in the book of Daniel, the king humbly confesses the sovereignty of the God of the Jews, acknowledging that he rules by the will of God” (“Political Theology in the Book of Daniel: An Internal Debate”, Review andn Expositor, vol. 109, 2012, pp.557–568). Prof. Newsom continues, “other parts of the book depict the gentile king as being part of God’s plan, but a part that will ultimately be destroyed as incompatible with divine sovereignty.” We see this clearly in view in chapters 1—6.

*****

By contrast, Prof. Newsom observes that when we read on into chapters 7—12, we encounter “the most negative view of gentile kingship, finding it to be monstrous and utterly evil. Although one can understand the different perspectives based on particular historical circumstances, a more fruitful hermeneutical approach is to read the different perspectives in Daniel as a never-fully-resolved conversation about the good or evil nature of political power, a conversation that continues to this day.” In this way, the book of Daniel is quite timely and relevant.

In this second half of the book (chapters 7–12) we read a series of visions seen by Daniel. The opening vision of the four beasts (7:1–8) famously contains a description of “one like a human being [son of man] coming with the clouds of heaven [who] came to the Ancient One and was presented before him” (7:13–14). This vision appears to inform the later words of Jesus, when he predicts that people “will see ‘the Son of Man coming in clouds’ with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26) and tells the Jerusalem Sanhedrin that they will see “‘the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven’” (Mark 14:62).

The involvement of the angel Gabriel (chapters 8 and 9) brings the decree of “seventy weeks … to atone for iniquity” (9:20–27) and opens up a full-scale apocalyptic scenario, with battles, floods, the rise of a warrior king, shifting alliances amongst the various kings, more battles, the besieging of a city, the dominance of a “contemptible person”, the profaning of the temple and violation of the covenant in Israel, the disrespecting of “the God of gods” (10:1–11:39).

It also leads to a grand vision “at the time of the end” (11:40–12:13) when “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (12:2), thereby providing a key Hebrew Scripture text which is used in discussions of the resurrection as reported in the New Testament.

The notion of “The End” has been developing in prophetic literature, emerging from the earlier prophet’s declarations about “The Day of the Lord”. This theme will continue to be developed and expanded in apocalyptic texts both in Second Temple Judaism and in earthly Christian texts in the New Testament and in works of the following century or two. See

At this time, a “man in linen” declares that “when the shattering of the power of the holy people [namely, Israel] comes to an end, all these things would be accomplished” (12:7). The language is reminiscent of the extended apocalyptic response that Jesus gives when his disciples ask him, “what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?” (Mark 13:4).

Daniel, the supreme interpreter, has been able to make sense of all that has gone before; at this point, however, he “heard but could not understand” (12:8). The “man in linen” informs him that “the words are to remain secret and sealed until the time of the ends (12:9); Daniel is dismissed and the story ends. The ending invites readers to “make sense” for themselves of what they have read—and so, apocalyptic speculation continues unabated to this day!

More importantly, perhaps, is the observation that apocalyptic speaks not only into the future, but especially into the present time of the author; and therefore, the political edges of the narrative and especially of the apocalyptic visions portray what is needed to remain faithful to God in the challenges of those times. That dynamic translates into a challenge for us, today.

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There’s a good discussion of politics and religion in the book of Daniel in this article: https://spectrummagazine.org/sabbath-school/2020/daniel-and-empire-then-and-now

Is there no balm in Gilead? (Jeremiah 8; Pentecost 15C)

The prophet Jeremiah lived at a turning point in the history of Israel. The northern kingdom had been conquered by the Assyrians in 721 BCE; the elite classes were taken into exile, the land was repopulated with people from other nations (2 Kings 17). The southern kingdom had been invaded by the Assyrians in 701 BCE, but they were repelled (2 Kings 18:13–19:37).

King Hezekiah made a pact with the Babylonians, but the prophet Isaiah warned that the nation would eventually fall to the Babylonians (2 Kings 20:12–19). Sure enough, after Babylon conquered Assyria in 607 BCE, they pressed hard to the south; the southern kingdom fell of Judah in 587 BCE (2 Kings 24–25) and “Judah went into exile out of its land” (2 Ki 25:21).

Jeremiah lived in the latter years of the southern kingdom, through into the time of exile—although personally, he was sent into exile in Egypt, even though most of his fellow Judahites were taken to Babylon. The difficult experiences of Jeremiah as a prophet colour many of his pronouncements.

Early in the opening chapters, as Jeremiah prophesies against Israel, he reports that God muses, “you have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?” (3:1). The idolatry and injustices practised by the people of Israel have caused God concern. Throughout the poetry of the prophetic oracles in chapters 1—25, God cajoles, encourages, warns, and threatens the people.

“I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful” (3:13), the Lord says; then Jeremiah instructs the people, “put on sackcloth, lament and wail: ‘the fierce anger of the Lord has not turned away from us’” (4:8). Next, God says, “I am now making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall devour them” (5:14), and then, “take warning, O Jerusalem, or I shall turn from you in disgust, and make you a desolation, an uninhabited land” (6:8), and so on, for 25 chapters.

Whilst God laments the “perpetual backsliding” of the people, who “have held fast to deceit, they have refused to return” (8:5), the prophet laments, “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (8:18–22). That is the passage that is offered by the lectionary this coming Sunday. The grief of the times led Jeremiah to an expression of utter despair: “is there no balm in Gilead?” (8:22).

The region of Gilead was the mountainous northern region of Transjordan, the land to the east of the Jordan River—an area which now is in the nation of Jordan. Whilst it was not part of the land of Canaan, it was promised to “half the time of Manasseh” (Deut 3:13; also Num 32:40). A medicinal perfume was made from a balsam shrub that grew in the area; it is noted in the Joseph story as being carried by a company of Ishmaelites who “came from Gilead with their camels bearing spicery and balm and myrrh, going to carry it down to Egypt” (Gen 37:25).

This balm is also included in the present which Jacob later sent to the ruler of Egypt: “a little balm, and a little honey, spices, and myrrh, nuts, and almonds” (Gen 43:11). According to Josephus, the Queen of Sheba brought “the root of the balsam” as a present to King Solomon (1 Ki 10:10; Antiquities of the Jews 8.6); the balm was later noted, admiringly, by a string of writers (Pliny, Tacitus, Florus, and Diodorus Siculus). It forms a saying in contemporary life, referring to a certain cure,

Jeremiah continues after this oracle of woe to denounce the worship of idols that the people perpetuate (10:1–16) and their breaches of the covenant (11:1–17). As a result, his life is placed in danger: “I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter, and I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes” (11:18–20). He declares that God condemns others who are prophesying; “they are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them; they are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds” (14:13–18).

The prophet then dramatises his message of divine judgement on the people with reference to the familiar image of the potter, shaping and moulding the clay (18:1–11), a broken earthenware jug (19:1–15), two baskets of figs (one bunch good, the other inedible; 24:1–10), and “the cup of the wine of wrath” which, when “all the nations to whom I send you drink it, they shall drink and stagger and go out of their minds because of the sword that I am sending among them” (25:15–38).

The message of Jeremiah up to this point is stark, confronting, demanding: turn around, reshape your life, repent—or suffer the consequences. It’s no wonder that he felt aggrieved and despairing; who would respond? It’s a message that remains confronting and demanding for us, today. How do we respond?

I have chosen you … rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion (Haggai and Zechariah)

Alongside the writings of Trito-Isaiah, there are a further two prophets whom we can date to the specific time soon after the exiles had returned to Jerusalem. The books of Haggai and Zechariah each open with a specific date, both placing their activity in the time of Darius, King of Persia. Malachi is not dated, but is generally considered to have been written fairly soon after Haggai and Zechariah. (The remaining “minor prophets”, Jonah and Joel, however, contain no such indication as to their date.)

Haggai and Zechariah are located in the period when the exiles in Babylon are returned to Judah late in the 6th century BCE, by decision of the Persian King, Cyrus (whom Deutero-Isaiah, you may remember, described as God’s “Messiah”). In his decree, Cyrus acknowledges “the Lord, the God of heaven” and states that “any of those among you who are of his people … are now permitted to go up to Jerusalem in Judah, and rebuild the house of the Lord, the God of Israel” (Ezra 1:2–4).

Under Nehemiah as Governor, worship is reinstituted in Jerusalem (Ezra 3:1–7), the walls around the city of Jerusalem are rebuilt (Neh 2—6, 12), and the Temple is rebuilt and rededicated (Ezra 5–6). After this, the Law is read in the city under the guidance of Ezra, a priest who is also described as a scribe (Neh 8) and the covenant with the Lord is renewed (Neh 9–10).

Initially, there was opposition to the rebuilding works from “the enemies of Judah and Benjamin” (Ezra 4:1–16), and with intervention from King Artaxerxes, work on the temple ceased (Ezra 4:17–24). The narrative in Ezra reports that “the prophets, Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo, prophesied to the Jews who were in Judah and Jerusalem, in the name of the God of Israel who was over them” (Ezra 5:1), and work on restoring the temple recommenced (Ezra 5:2).

Further opposition emerged (Ezra 5:3–17), resulting in intervention from King Darius that decreed “let the house be rebuilt … let the Governor of the Jews and the elders of the Jews rebuild this house of God on its site … let it be done with all diligence” (Ezra 6:1–12).

The end result is that the prophets of the Lord and the rulers of the Persian Empire together ensure that the temple is restored: “So the elders of the Jews built and prospered, through the prophesying of the prophet Haggai and Zechariah son of Iddo. They finished their building by command of the God of Israel and by decree of Cyrus, Darius, and King Artaxerxes of Persia” (Ezra 6:14).

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What is it, then, that Haggai and Zechariah say to the people? The prophetic words of Haggai are nestled within a relatively brief narrative telling of this return to Jerusalem; they were delivered over a short period of time from “the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month, on the first day of the month” (Hag 1:1) until “the twenty-fourth day of the ninth month, in the second year of Darius” (Hag 2:10, 20).

In the course of those three months, Haggai condemns the people for failing to rebuild the ruined temple while people live in “paneled houses” (1:4), encourages the people to “go up to the hills and bring wood and build the house” (1:8), and then declares that “the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts” (2:9).

Haggai then relays an ominous word of the Lord: “I am about to shake the heavens and the earth, and to overthrow the throne of kingdoms; I am about to destroy the strength of the kingdoms of the nations, and overthrow the chariots and their riders; and the horses and their riders shall fall, every one by the sword of a comrade” (2:21–22). Yet this short book ends with a positive note for the future, promising to make Zerubbabel, who led the first wave of exiles to return to Judah, “like a signet ring, for I have chosen you” (2:23).

(An excerpt from Haggai appears in the lectionary on the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost.)

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Zechariah dates his opening prophecy to “the eighth month, in the second year of Darius” (Zech 1:1), which places him as a contemporary of Haggai. Zechariah begins witha familiar prophetic refrain: “return to me, says the Lord of hosts, and I will return to you, says the Lord of hosts” (1:3), noting that when this message was presented to earlier Israelites, “they repented and said, ‘the Lord of hosts has dealt with us according to our ways and deeds, just as he planned to do’” (1:6).

What follows this opening salvo is a report of eight visions (1:7—6:8). They are dated to “the twenty-fourth day of the eleventh month, the month of Shebat, in the second year of Darius” (2:7), two months after the final prophecy of Haggai. The visions combine glimpses of hope with reminders of the need to remain faithful to the covenant: “if you will walk in my ways and keep my requirements, then you shall rule my house and have charge of my courts” (3:7). The fourth vision (3:1–10) includes the figure of “the accuser” (ha-satan in Hebrew) standing at the right hand of Joshua, to accuse him (3:1).

At the conclusion of the eighth vision there follows words of condemnation (7:1–7) and punishment (7:8–14), citing classic prophetic notes: “render true judgments, show kindness and mercy to one another; do not oppress the widow, the orphan, the alien, or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another” (7:9–10).

Then come words of promise (8:1–23): “I will return to Zion, and will dwell in the midst of Jerusalem; Jerusalem shall be called the faithful city, and the mountain of the Lord of hosts shall be called the holy mountain” (8:3). Once again, prophetic injections are offered: “speak the truth to one another, render in your gates judgments that are true and make for peace, do not devise evil in your hearts against one another, and love no false oath” (8:16–17).

An oracle pronouncing judgement on other nations then follows (9:1–8), followed by a joyful celebration of the restoration of Judah (9:9–11:3), introduced by a rousing shout of joy: “rejoice greatly, O daughter Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter Jerusalem! Lo, your king comes to you; triumphant and victorious is he, humble and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech 9:9). This verse is well-known, of course, from its quotation in the story of Jesus’s entry into the city of Jerusalem (Matt 21:5).

The remaining chapters continue the note of exultation about the future, reworking the motif of “the day of the Lord” so that it signals joy for Jerusalem and terror for other nations (12:3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11; 13:1, 2, 4; 14:1, 4, 6, 8, 9, 13, 20, 21). A triumphant note of universalism is sounded: “on that day “the Lord will become king over all the earth” (14:9) and “all who survive of the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the Lord of hosts, and to keep the festival of booths” (14:16).

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See also

I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while: the God of the prophet Ezekiel (2)

Ezekiel the priest; Ezekiel the ben adam, the human one; Ezekiel was captured by the Babylonians in 599 BCE, sent into exile, but nevertheless was seized by the spirit, given visions from the Lord, and charged with speaking the word of the Lord not only to the people with him in exile and to those later taken into exile in 587 BCE, but also to those who remained in the land of Israel after the Babylonian conquest at that time. His dramatic, vivid visions, and his potent, articulate proclamations, make for exciting—and troubling—reading.

See part one at

After Ezekiel is granted his numerous visions by the spirit, he often enacts them with tangible items. He sees the siege of Jerusalem, and portrays it with a brick and iron plate (4:1–8). He sees the destruction of Jerusalem, and uses a sword to shave his hair, to dramatise this (5:1–17). He sees the ravaging of the altars of idols throughout the land, and claps his hands and stamps his feet to demonstrate the destructive anger of the Lord at this (6:1–14).

“On the sixth year, in the sixth month, on the fifth day of the month”, says Ezekiel (with his relentless priestly eye for detail), “as I sat in my house, with the elders of Judah sitting before me, the hand of the Lord God fell upon me there”. He describes the “figure like a human being” that he sees, and in characteristically careful detail he describes the scene unfolding before him; a scene of “the great abominations that the house of Israel are committing here, to drive me far from my sanctuary”, as God laments (8:1–18).

So extensive are these abominations that God concludes, “I will act in wrath; my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity; and though they cry in my hearing with a loud voice, I will not listen to them” (8:18). As a result, “the glory of the Lord” leaves the temple and is taken by the cherubim up and away from the earth (10:1–22). Those in exile are informed that their exile is due punishment from the Lord (11:1–12), but also that after sufficient punishment, they will return to the land (11:14–25). The “glory of the Lord” remains absent from the city until, in the final sequence of his visions, Ezekiel sees the new temple, built in the city, and “the glory of the Lord filled the temple” (Ezek 43:1–5; see also 1 Ki 8:11; 2 Chron 7:1–2; Exod 40:34–35; and cf. Isa 6:1, 4; Rev 15:8).

One of Ezekiel’s visions uses typical prophetic imagery to portray Israel as a female child, abandoned by her parents, but taken in by the Lord, who waited until she was  at an age for love, and then he “spread his cloak over her” – that is, he seduced her (16:1–14). He then complained, “you trusted in your beauty, and played the whore because of your fame, and lavished your whorings on any passer-by”, worshipping other gods, even engaging in foreign rituals of child sacrifice (16:15–34).

As a result of this, God threatens that he will execute a fulsome punishment. The blame is placed squarely on Israel, depicted as a woman engaging in countless acts of adultery—even though, in the patriarchal society of the time, the male priests, kings, and elders were the ones responsible for the decisions to erect images of other gods and to encourage the worship of pagan deities.

Only after he visits his punishment, does God then say, “I will satisfy my fury on you, and my jealousy shall turn away from you; I will be calm, and will be angry no longer” (16:35–43). And so, God promises forgiveness; “I will remember my covenant with you in the days of your youth, and I will establish with you an everlasting covenant” (Ezek 16:60; also 37:26), echoing the exact phrase also used to describe the covenants with Noah (Gen 9:16; and perhaps Isa 24:5), Abraham (Gen 17:7, 13, 19; 1 Chron 16:17), and David (2 Sam 23:35; Isa 55:3), and indeed with Israel as a whole (Ps 105:10; Isa 61:8; Jer 32:40; 50:5).

The character of God in this sequence of events is deeply troubling, and takes us to the heart of the issue; both deep loving kindness and savage wrath are part of this God’s nature. The prophet gives consideration to punishment as retribution (18:1–32), the need to abstain from idolatry (20:1–32), and judgement on idolatry and injustice practices (“father and mother are treated with contempt in you; the alien residing within you suffers extortion; the orphan and the widow are wronged in you”; 22:1–23). In each case, God wrestles with the tension between executing judgement and withholding wrath, between upholding justice and demonstrating covenant love.

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A dramatic enactment ensues, when Ezekiel proclaims that God declares judgement on “the bloody city”, saying “set on the pot, set it on, pour in water also; put in it the pieces, all the good pieces, the thigh and the shoulder; fill it with choice bones; take the choicest one of the flock, pile the logs under it; boil its pieces, seethe also its bones in it … heap up the logs, kindle the fire; boil the meat well, mix in the spices, let the bones be burned” (24:1–14). The meat being placed into the pot is nothing other then the residents of “the bloody city”. The savage imagery is brutally confronting.

Yet judge the falls not only on Jerusalem; Ezekiel declares God’s judgement on the Negev (20:45–49) and, in an extended series of oracles, on Ammon, Moab, Edom, Philistia, Tyre, Sidon, and Egypt (chs. 25–32). The repeated words, “raise a lamentation over … “ (19:1; 26:17; 27:2, 32: 28:12; 32:2, 16) and the relentless reference to “the day” (26:18; 27:27; 30:2–3, 9, 18; 31:15; 32:10) drive home the message that God’s justice brings persistent terror and requires harsh punishment. “The day of the Lord is near; it will be a day of clouds, a time of doom for the nations” (30:2–3)—the motif appears regularly through the prophets, and into later apocalyptic literature.

As the destruction of Jerusalem occurs (33:21–29), Ezekiel berates “the shepherds of Israel”: “you have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them” (34:4).

Where is God during this time of exile? Ezekiel affirms that God is present: “I will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness” (34:11–12). The extended oracle ends with the affirmation, “you are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God, says the Lord God” (34:31). The mercy of God is bound up with the justice of God. The resonances with Psalm 23, as well as the sayings of Jesus in John 10 and the well-known parable of Jesus found in Luke 15 and Matt 18, are clear.

There follows an extended blessing on Israel (36:1–38) and the vision of bones brought to life in the valley (37:1–28), followed by visions relating to Gog and Magog (38:1–39:20; and see Rev 20:7–8). Finally, the exile ends, and Ezekiel speaks of the restoration of Israel to their land (39:21–29); “I will never again hide my face from them, when I pour out my spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God” (39:29).

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The issue of being in exile, away from the land that the Lord God had long ago given to the people of Israel, was a difficult situation for those who sought to remain faithful to the covenant with the Lord God. This matter exercises Ezekiel. He knows that exile is the consequence of Israel’s idolatry and infidelity (5:1–7:27). “Alas for all the vile abominations of the house of Israel—for they shall fall by the sword, and by pestilence … and any who are left shall die of famine” (6:11–12), say the Lord; “I will make the land desolate … then they shall know that I am the Lord” (6:14). Exile, it would seem, is a fair punishment.

The sense that the psalmist expresses—“how could we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps 137:4)—is not a view that Ezekiel would have agreed with. Whilst the psalmist grapples with the loss of all that is familiar and valued—no temple, no familiar rituals, no priests, not being in the homeland—Ezekiel is able to find spiritual nourishment in his exile. The many visions he sees and oracles he proclaims attest to the robust nature of his own spiritual life!

Indeed, it appears that there were some who had been able to remain in Judah who maintained that the exiles had forfeited their place within the people of God, for “they have gone far from the Lord; to us this land is given for a possession” (11:15). Ezekiel disputes this, stating that the Lord God has said, “though I removed them far away among the nations, and though I scattered them among the countries, yet I have been a sanctuary to them for a little while in the countries where they have gone” (11:16). The promise is that God will not abandon the people in exile, nor regard them as no longer his people.

As a sign of his confidence that God will maintain his commitment to Israel, Ezekiel tells in detail his vision of the new temple that would, he believed, be built in the land (40:1–43:27), as well as the role of the Levitical priests in that temple (44:15–31) and various provisions that would be in force after the return to the land (45:1–46:24).

The priests in this temple would be charged with the range of expected duties relating to the sacrifices and offerings, but Ezekiel also indicates that “they shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and show them how to distinguish between the unclean and the clean; in a controversy they shall act as judges, and they shall decide it according to my judgments” (44:23–24).

This detail is quite telling; it shows that Ezekiel considered priests to be learned in Torah and to have judicial responsibilities, making decisions about adherence to holiness prescriptions. This is the role that prophets took to themselves, instructing the people about the ways that they keep God’s justice and the ways that they fail in this; it is also the role that the scribes and Pharisees exercise when we encounter them in the New Testament. In the opinion of Ezekiel, the law of the Lord continues to be completely relevant and vitally important, through all the trials of the times in which he lives.

A final vision details the water flowing from the temple, the abundant trees growing beside the river, and the food sources for the people (47:1–12). The portrayal of the river evokes the scenes of Eden, where “a stream would rise from earth, and water the whole face of the ground” (Gen 2:6; cf. Ezek 47:1), providing fertile ground for the Garden of Eden, in which “the Lord God made to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” (Gen 2:9; cf. Ezek 47:7–12), and from which four rivers flow in abundance (Gen 2:10–14).  The vision of Ezekiel offers a wonderful ecologically vibrant scene!

This vision ends with an affirmation that Israel will be a broad, inclusive society: “the aliens who reside among you … shall be to you as citizens of Israel … in whatever tribe aliens reside, there you shall assign them their inheritance” (47:21–23). Ezekiel ends by reporting how the land will be divided schematically amongst the twelve tribes (48:1–35), in the way that the book of Numbers provided a systematic allocation of the land prior to the conquest of Canaan (Num 34:1–15). And so, from the first verse to the last chapter, Ezekiel’s book provides careful, schematic, detailed information, as befits a prophet who is a priest.

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See also

Unless you are angry with us beyond measure (Lamentations)

In one of his oracles, Jeremiah expresses the deep anguish of God for the people: “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … for the hurt of my poor people I am hurt, I mourn, and dismay has taken hold of me” (8:18–22). The Lord echoes this attitude: “oh that my head were a spring of water, and my eyes a fountain of tears, so that I might weep day and night for the slain of my poor people” (9:1).

This weeping recurs in later chapters: in an oracle over Judah, “if you will not listen, my soul will weep in secret for your pride; my eyes will weep bitterly and run down with tears, because the Lord’s flock has been taken captive” (13:17); and in an oracle over Moab, “more than for Jazer I weep for you, O vine of Sibmah” (48:32).

This weeping is also expressed in the poems of lament found in the book of Lamentations; “for these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears”, the author mourns; “for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage; my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed” (Lam 1:16). Tradition presumes that the author, who is never identified, is the prophet Jeremiah; many scholars, however, believe that there were a number of authors whose work has been collected into this single short book.

The five chapters of Lamentations express a forlorn hope that the punishment being experienced might come to an end. However, that hope remains unfulfilled, from the opening lament, “how lonely sits the city that once was full of people! how like a widow she has become, she that was great among the nations!” (1:1); to the final disconsolate prayer, “restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored; renew our days as of old—unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure” (3:22).

There is a tight numerical and alphabetical arrangement throughout this book. The first four chapters are acrostics—each new verse begins with a letter of the Hebrew alphabet, in alphabetical order. As there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet, there are 22 verses in chapters 1, 2, and 4. Chapter 3 has 66 verses; each letter commences three verses before moving on to the next letter. The final chapter also has 22 verses, but they are not arranged in any alphabetical order.

The first four chapters employ a strict rhythmic pattern, known as a qinah rhythm: three stresses followed by two, which F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp describes as “the rhythmic dominance of unbalanced and enjambed lines” (Lamentations, Westminster John Knox, 2002). The pattern is suggestive of the broken, disjointed existence of the people.

In these five chapters, the author reveals much of how he, and the people, are lamenting their situation in the aftermath of the savage destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 587/586 BCE. Chapter one paints a picture of the deserted, desolate city: “the roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals; all her gates are desolate, her priests groan; her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter” (1:4). Chapter four provides a detailed portrayal of the destruction of the temple: “how the gold has grown dim, how the pure gold is changed! the sacred stones lie scattered at the head of every street” (4:1).

The poems describe the traumatised state of the people in the immediate aftermath of this conquest. They suffer affliction (1:7, 9; 3:1, 19) and captivity (1:18), grief (3:32, 51) and suffering (1:3, 5, 18), hunger (2:19; 4:4, 9) and thirst (4:4). They express lamentation (2:5, 8) and mourning (1:4; 2:5; 5:15), with tears (1:2, 16; 2:18; 3:48), crying (2:12, 16, 18, 19; 3:8, 56), and weeping (1:2, 16; 2:11).

Since the city lies in ruins (2:5, 8), people put on sackcloth and throw dust on their heads (2:10); they hear songs of taunting (3:14, 61) and their enemies wag their heads and clap their hand at them, as they hiss and gnash their teeth (2:15–16). We might notice the allusion to this verse in the passion narrative (Mark 15:29–30; Matt 27:39–40) and the overtones of judgement in the gnashing of teeth in apocalyptic parables of Jesus (Matt 8:12; 13:42, 50; 22:13; 24:51; 25:30).

The people are rejected (1:15; 5:22) and filled with bitterness (3:5, 15) and wormwood (3:15, 19); their flesh and skin waste away (3:4). Permeating all is the anger of the Lord (2:3, 21, 22; 3:43, 66; 4:1); his wrath is intense (2:2; 3:1; 4:11) and he sends his fire to consume (1:13; 2:3, 4; 4:11). The fiery God of vengeance that we see in Jeremiah as well as in other prophets, is alive and well in the book of Lamentations.

And yet, despite this dominance of divine wrath and fury, a beautiful fragment which praises God sits in the middle of the book: “the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (3:22). This poetic expression introduces a brief oasis of hope (3:22–33) in the midst of many lines of anguish, grief, and anger; God is praised for showing mercy, faithfulness, and compassion.

Sadly, this mood does not hold; the poems lapse back into questioning God and lamenting God’s inaction in the face of the people’s suffering. To be sure, God has been right to act in this way: “the Lord is in the right, for I have rebelled against his word” (1:18); “as he ordained long ago, he has demolished without pity” (2:17); what took place was “ for the sins of her prophets and the iniquities of her priests, who shed the blood of the righteous in the midst of her” (4:13).

In the middle poem, there is a call to repent: “let us test and examine our ways, and return to the Lord” (3:40); but then, a plea for God to intervene and change his mind: “you have taken up my cause, O Lord, you have redeemed my life; you have seen the wrong done to me, O Lord; judge my cause.” (3:58–59). However, this poem ends with a savage plea for God to deal with the Babylonian conquerors: “Pay them back for their deeds, O Lord, according to the work of their hands! Give them anguish of heart; your curse be on them! Pursue them in anger and destroy them from under the Lord’s heavens!” (3:64–66).

The final poem is an extended lament on the situation of Israel, framed with prayers of petition: “remember, O Lord, what has befallen us; look, and see our disgrace!” (5:1); “restore us to yourself, O Lord, that we may be restored” (5:21)—although the final pessimistic word laments, “unless you have utterly rejected us, and are angry with us beyond measure” (5:22). So the series of poems closes on this note of utter desolation.

These five poems bear many similarities, not only with the “confessions of Jeremiah”, but also with the “psalms of communal lament”, such as Pss 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, 86, and 90, and the psalms of individual lament, such as Pss 3, 6, 13, 22, 25, 31, 71, 77, 86, and 142. In the face of God’s seeming inaction and unresponsiveness to pleading prayers, what is there to do, other than to lament?

The experience of the Shoah (Holocaust) in 1939–1945 has led many Jewish writers to reflect this attitude. It is not “giving up on God”, but resting in the pain and grief, venting about this to God, and hoping against hope that, in time, there may be a reversal of fortunes—a change of mind by God.

One writer notes that “Lament allows us to fully face and name our pain, and it creates space for future resolution and hope without glossing over our trauma. It gives us permission to protest life’s difficulties, to scream, cry, vent, plead, and complain in the presence of God and others. It lets us ask the hard questions without condemnation: Why did this have to happen? How could you allow it? Where are you in the midst of it? It allows weeping without explanation. It might be messy and uncomfortable, but it’s the first step towards healing.” (Whitney Willard, “Lamentatations: the volatile voice of grief”, https://bibleproject.com/blog/lamentations-voice-of-grief/)

These poetic expressions of lament (the psalms of laments, as well as the “confessions” of Jeremiah and Lamentations itself) also inform some elements of the way that the passion of Jesus is narrated in the canonical Gospels; although these accounts are told with a knowledge of the resurrection, there is grief, sadness, and despair at the fate of Jesus, with perhaps a note of patient lament at some moments in those narratives.

Lamentations is recited annually by Jews on the fast day of Tisha B’Av (the ninth day of the month of Av, usually in late July or early August), to mourn the destruction of both the First Temple (by the Babylonians in 586 BCE) and, on the same day (it is believed) the Second Temple (by the Romans in 70 CE). The book provides a fitting way to remember the two greatest moments of national grief and loss, many centuries later.

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To pluck up and pull down, to destroy and to build (Jeremiah 1–25)

Continuing my series of blogs on the prophets: today, Jeremiah, who was called to be a prophet at an early age (Jer 1:4–10). Some commentators consider him to be in his early 20s, while others note that the distinctive Hebrew word used in this passage indicates he was in his teens. When he heard God declare to him, “I appointed you a prophet to the nations”, the NRSV translation says that the young man replied, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy” (1:6).

Actually, when they say he replied, “Ah”, he was using a Hebrew word that actually means “alas” or “woe is me” (see also 4:10; 14:13: 32:17; and also Joel 1:15). Strong’s Concordance says this is “a primitive word expressing pain”—so, more like “ouch!!!” So perhaps it’s better to think of his response as more like “oh no, oh no, oh nooooo—I couldn’t possibly do that! no way at all!!”. Jeremiah just did not want this gig at all. See my sermon on this passage at

Yet Jeremiah faithfully carried out the task committed to him; it is thought that he was active from the mid-620s in Judah, through into the time of exile in Babylon, from 587 BCE onwards—that is, over four decades—although Jeremiah himself was exiled, not into Babylon, but into Egypt (Jer 43:1–7).

The task he was given when called to be a prophet was to declare the coming judgment of God on the people of Israel, for continuing to ignore their covenant commitments. The Lord tells him, “I will utter my judgments against them, for all their wickedness in forsaking me; they have made offerings to other gods, and worshiped the works of their own hands” (1:16). As encouragement, he urges the young man to “gird up your loins; stand up and tell them everything that I command you” (1:17).

Jeremiah proclaims both God’s judgement and God’s hope for repentance by the people. This dual focus appears in God’s instructions to Jeremiah “to pluck up and to pull down, to destroy and to overthrow” but also “to build and to plant” (1:10). In his later years, in solidarity with the people who have been “plucked up” into exile in Babylon, Jeremiah urges his people to make the best of their time in exile: “build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat what they produce … seek the welfare of the city” (29:5, 7). Many centuries later, a clear allusion to that same oracle is made by Simeon as he meets the infant Jesus: “this child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel” (Luke 2:34).

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The overall progression of the book is chronological, as it be­gins with the call of Jeremiah (ch.1) and ends with an account of the destruction of Jerusalem (ch.52). Nevertheless, the arrangement of the book is more topical overall, rather than chronological, since oracles on the same topic are grouped together even though they may have been delivered at different times. There are various theories as to how the book was put together; most scholars believe that someone after the lifetime of Jeremiah has brought together material from collections that were originally separate.

Indeed, A.R. Pete Diamond concludes that “like it or not, we have no direct access to the historical figure of Jeremiah or his cultural matrix”; we have “interpretative representations rather than raw cultural transcripts”, and thus he argues that the way we read this book should be informed by insights from contemporary literary theory, and especially by reading this book alongside the book of Deuteronomy, as it offers a counterpoint to the Deuteronomic view of “the myth of Israel and its patron deity, Yahweh” (Jeremiah, pp. 544–545 in the Eerdman’s Commentary on the Bible, 2003). Whereas Deuteronomy advocates a nationalistic God, Jeremiah conceives of an international involvement of Israel’s God.

The chronological disjunctures can be seen when we trace the references to various kings of Judah: in order, we have Josiah in 627 BCE (Jer 1:2), jumping later to Zedekiah in 587 BCE (21:1), then back earlier to Shallum (i.e. Jehoahaz) in 609 BCE (22:11), Jehoiakim from 609 to 598 BCE (22:18), and Jeconiah in 597 BCE (22:24), before returning to Zedekiah in 597 BCE (24:8) then back even earlier to Jehoiakim in April 604 BCE, “the first year of King Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon” (25:1)—and then further haphazard leaps between Zedekiah (chs. 27, 32-34, 37–38, and 51:59) and Jehoiakim (chs. 26, 35, 45) as well as the period in 587 after the fall of Jerusalem when Gedaliah was Governor (chs. 40–44). It is certainly an erratic trajectory if we plot the historical landmarks!

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The topical arrangement is easier to trace: 25 chapters of prophecies in poetic form about Israel, 20 chapters of narrative prose, and six chapters of prophecies against foreign nations. Early in the opening chapters, as Jeremiah prophesies against Israel, he reports that God muses, “you have played the whore with many lovers; and would you return to me?” (3:1). The idolatry and injustices practised by the people of Israel have caused God concern. Throughout the poetry of the prophetic oracles in chapters 1—25, God cajoles, encourages, warns, and threatens the people.

“I will not look on you in anger, for I am merciful” (3:13), the Lord says; then Jeremiah instructs the people, “put on sackcloth, lament and wail: ‘the fierce anger of the Lord has not turned away from us’” (4:8). Next, God says, “I am now making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall devour them” (5:14), and then, “take warning, O Jerusalem, or I shall turn from you in disgust, and make you a desolation, an uninhabited land” (6:8), and so on, for 25 chapters.

Whilst God laments the “perpetual backsliding” of the people, who “have held fast to deceit, they have refused to return” (8:5), the prophet laments, “my joy is gone, grief is upon me, my heart is sick … is there no balm in Gilead? Is there no physician there? why then has the health of my poor people not been restored?” (8:18–22). As Jeremiah denounces their worship of idols (10:1–16) and breaches of the covenant (11:1–17), his life is placed in danger: “I was like a gentle lamb led to the slaughter, and I did not know it was against me that they devised schemes” (11:18–20).

Others prophesying are condemned by God; “they are prophesying lies in my name; I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them; they are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds” (14:13–18). The prophet dramatises his message of divine judgement on the people with reference to the familiar image of the potter, shaping and moulding the clay (18:1–11), a broken earthenware jug (19:1–15), two baskets of figs (one bunch good, the other inedible; 24:1–10), and “the cup of the wine of wrath” which, when “all the nations to whom I send you drink it, they shall drink and stagger and go out of their minds because of the sword that I am sending among them” (25:15–38).

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The punishment that is coming to Israel is a cause of great grief for Jeremiah, and so he is sometimes known as “the weeping prophet” (see 9:1; 13:17; 22:10). He doesn’t sit easy with the terrors associated with the execution of God’s justice in the nation—perhaps we can resonate with the angst of this ancient figure?

The most common criticism that I hear of Old Testament passages is about the terrible violence of the vengeful God—an element of Israelite religion that seems quite at odds with so much of modern sensibilities. Jeremiah gives a clear and potent expression to this image, when he has Jeremiah report that God says, “I myself will fight against you with outstretched hand and mighty arm, in anger, in fury, and in great wrath. And I will strike down the inhabitants of this city, both human beings and animals; they shall die of a great pestilence” (21:5–6).

A number of passages in the first main section of this book are seen to reflect this angst about a powerful, vengeful God—they are often called “Jeremiah’s confessions”, as he confesses his pain and grief to God, and prays for a release from his condition (see 11:18–23; 12:1–6; 15:10–14; 15:15–21; 17:14–18; 18:18–23; 20:7–12; 20:14–18). These “confessions” share stylistic and thematic similarities with the “psalms of lament”, such as Pss 44, 60, 74, 79, 80, 85, 86, and 90 (psalms of communal lament), and Pss 3, 6, 13, 22, 25, 31, 71, 77, 86, and 142 (psalms of individual lament).

“Woe is me”, or “woe to us”, is a common phrase in Jeremiah’s oracles (4:13; 4:31; 6:4; 10:19; 13:27; 15:10; 22:13; 23:1; 45:3; 48:46). It is the same term that we found in Isaiah’s call (Isa 6:5) and oracles (Isa 24:16), Hosea’s declarations (7:13; 9:12), Micah’s prophecies (Mic 7:1), and Ezekiel’s utterances (Ezek 13:18; 16:23; 24:6, 9). All lament the imposition of divine justice in ways that wreak havoc amongst the people.

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Jeremiah conveys the specific timetable of God’s judgement in explicit announcements: first, “the whole land shall become a ruin and a waste, and these nations shall serve the king of Babylon seventy years” (25:11); then, “after seventy years are completed, I will punish the king of Babylon and that nation, the land of the Chaldeans, for their iniquity, making the land an everlasting waste” (25:12).

The result of this is conveyed in another oracle, when God declares, “I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply” (23:3). The end result, it seems, will be positive; but the process of journeying to that desired end will be difficult, to say the least.

The seventy years noted in these prophecies (25:11–12) has occasioned some debate amongst the scholars: was this a prediction of exact years, an approximation of the length of time of the exile, or a symbolic statement, typical of biblical numbers, which should not be taken literally? (such as, 40 years means “a long time”, 1,000 means “very many”, seven means “complete” or “fulfilled”, and so on).

Many conservative commentators (and especially Seven Day Adventists) who take biblical texts literally, spend much time and ink in wrestling with this issue! One such commentary or, for instance, notes that, if this is an exact period of 70 years, it could be: (a) from the initial attack of Nebuchadnezzar II of Babylon against Jerusalem in 605 BCE, to the return of the Jews under Cyrus of Persia in 536 BCE; or (b) from the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BCE to the completion of the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem in 516 BCE.

He continues by noting that some scholars claim that “these years were in actuality shortened by God’s mercy, since when one works backwards from 539 B.C. (the occasion of the capture of Babylon), it is obvious that none of the traditional starting dates—605 B.C., 597 B.C., or 587/86 B.C.—provides a time period of exactly seventy years”. Some other suggestions include that “these years represent a lifetime, since Ps 90:10 presents seventy years as a normal human lifespan”, or that “the expression [is] simply a term that referred to the period of desolation for a nation”, as it is used in that way in an Esarhaddon inscription concerning Babylon. (Ross E. Winkle, in an article in Andrews University Seminary Studies, 1987, vol. 25 no. 2, pp. 201–202)

Jeremiah invites our consideration in a number of ways. He continues the prophetic tradition of speaking truth to power. He begins a development which sees the role of Israel’s God as stretching beyond the bounds of Israel. He expresses personal emotional angst with regard to the aggressive, power-based actions of God. And, as we shall see next week,

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‘Here I am; send me’: the prophet Isaiah (Pentecost 9C, 10C)

In the lectionary, the next two Sundays include passages from the prophet Isaiah—namely, the opening oracle (1:1, 10–20) this Sunday, and the story of the vineyard and its failure to produce good fruit (5:1–7). So, in the course on The Prophets that Elizabeth and I are teaching, we come to Isaiah.

We are considering the book of Isaiah in three parts, as most scholars believe that these three sections originate from three different periods during the history of Israel. The first section (chs. 1–39) is located in Judah in the eighth century BCE, as the final decades of the northern kingdom of Israel play out. Two decades after conquering the north, the Assyrians attempted to gain control of the southern kingdom, but that effort failed. These events provide the context for the activity of Isaiah and the oracles include in chapters 1–39.

The second section of Isaiah (chs. 40–55) dates from the time of exile for the southern kingdom, after the people of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians in 587 BCE; it offers words of hope as the people look to a return to the land. Then, the third section (chs. 56–66) is dated to a time when the exiles had returned to Judah, sometime after 520 BCE. By convention, the three parts are known as Isaiah, Deutero-Isaiah, and Trito-Isaiah.

The opening verse of the book of Isaiah says that Isaiah son of Amoz saw a vision concerning Judah and Jerusalem “in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah” (Isa 1:1). That places his prophetic activity over a period of some decades in the latter part of the 8th century BCE. Amos and Hosea had been active a little before Isaiah, but in the northern kingdom. Isaiah was a contemporary of Micah in the southern kingdom; both prophets would have known about the attacks on towns in Judah by the Assyrian king Sennacherib in 701 (see 2 Kings 18–19; Micah 1:10–16; Isa 7:17; 8:1–4, 5–8).

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Isaiah was based in the southern kingdom, and the account of his call (6:1–13) takes place in the temple in Jerusalem, for Isaiah “saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (6:1). This location, as well as a number of subsequent passages, suggest that Isaiah served as a “court prophet” to various southern kings; we see Isaiah providing prophetic advice to Ahaz (7:1–17) and Hezekiah (37:1–38; 39:1–8; 39:3–8).

Isaiah, by Jean Louis Ernest Meissonier (1815–1891)

The call narrative is dated quite specifically (“in the year that King Uzziah died”, 6:1), suggesting that Isaiah began his activity right at the end of Uzziah’s reign, around 740 BCE. The prophet, initially reluctant (6:5), eventually accepts the call (“here I am; send me!”, 6:8), and hears the difficult charge given to him: “Go and say to this people: ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’ 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” (6:9–10). It’s a charge that we hear at a number of places in the New Testament: beside the Sea of Galilee (Mark 4:10) and in a house in Rome (Acts 28:26–27).

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In the opening oracle (1:1–31), the prophet berates Judah as a “sinful nation, people laden with iniquity, offspring who do evil, children who deal corruptly, who have forsaken the Lord, who have despised the Holy One of Israel, who are utterly estranged!” (1:4). Justice and righteousness have disappeared (1:21–22); the rulers “do not defend the orphan, and the widow’s cause does not come before them” (1:23). The covenant with the Lord has been seriously damaged.

The main substance of this oracle involves a criticism of the worship practices in the Temple (“bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me; new moon and sabbath and calling of convocation—I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity; your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates”, 1:10–15). Instead of these rituals, God demands that the people “wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow” (1:16–17).

The prophet indicates that God will countenance repentance and a return to the covenant: “Zion shall be redeemed by justice, and those in her who repent, by righteousness” (1:27); but if there is no repentance, the familiar prophetic indication of divine punishment is heard: “rebels and sinners shall be destroyed together, and those who forsake the Lord shall be consumed” (1:28). Thus, the dual themes of punishment and forgiveness are sounded early; they recur throughout the rest of this section of the book.

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There are many well-known oracles in the ensuing chapters. First comes the vision of when “nations shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (2:1–4; the same oracle appears in Micah 4:1–4). Next, the concept of the faithful remnant is introduced (4:2–6; see also 10:19–23; 11:10–11, 16; 28:5).

Isaiah tells the story of the nation in God’s “love-song concerning his vineyard” (5:1–7); after “my beloved” undertakes all the activity required to establish and nurture the vineyard, only wild grapes were produced; and so, “he expected justice (mishpat) but saw bloodshed (mispach); righteousness (tsedakah) but heard a cry (seakah)” (5:7). What follows is a searing denunciation of the ills of society: the excesses of a debaucherous elite, the oppressive state of the lowly (5:8–23). As a result, the Lord threatens invasion of the land (5:24–30); “he will raise a signal for a nation far away, and whistle for a people at the ends of the earth; here they come, swiftly, speedily!” (5:26). The threat from Assyria looms large in this oracle.

There is mention made of a group of disciples of the prophet (8:16–22), as well as the children of the prophet, who serve as “signs and portents in Israel from the Lord of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion” (8:18). These children are named as Shear-jashub, meaning “a remnant shall return” (7:3), and Maher-shalal-hash-baz, meaning “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens” (8:3).

Both names provide testimony to the fate that lies in store for Judah: the planned attack by Assyria will fail (7:4–9), and “the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria will be carried away by the king of Assyria” (8:4). The mother of these two sons, unnamed, is simply “the prophetess”, who “conceived and bore a song for Isaiah (8:3)—although married to the prophet Isaiah, might she have been a prophet in her own right?

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Chapters 7–11 deal with the Assyrian threat; we know about the Assyrian interest in Israel and Judah from 2 Kings 15—20 and 2 Chronicles 28—33. These chapters of Isaiah include oracles that are well known in the church because of their Advent connection, when the lectionary offers them, inferring that they are “predictions of the coming Messiah”. Isaiah speaks of “the young woman [who] is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel” (7:14); in context, this is a promise to king Ahaz, that God will not desert him and his people, even as they experience “such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria” (7:17). What lies in store for Judah (7:18–25) will need this assurance to help them survive it.

Then comes reference to “the “child [who] has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6), and the “shoot [which] shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots; the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him” (11:1–2). This will lead to the promised time when “the wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them” (11:6)—a wonderful Messianic prophecy.

However, in reading Isaiah, we need to banish thoughts of a Messiah to come centuries later; in each case, Isaiah was not foretelling a far-distant event, but forthtelling to the king and the people of his time. In the midst of injustice and aggression, the prophet assures Judah that, in their own time,j “the root of Jesse … will raise a signal for the nations, and will assemble the outcasts of Israel, and gather the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth” (11:10–16).

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Chapters 14 to 21 contain a string of oracles against other nations (Babylon, Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Damascus, Ethiopia, and Egypt). The destruction of Jerusalem is foreseen (22:1–25) before resuming further oracles, against Tyre (ch.23) and against the whole earth (ch.24). God’s wrath is cosmic in scope: “on that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven in heaven, and on earth the kings of the earth” (24:21). Anticipatory celebrations are reported (chs.25 to 27) before further oracles of judgement erupt, against corrupt judges, priests, and prophets (28:1–29), who have entered into a “covenant with death … [an] agreement with Sheol” (28:18).

The siege of Jerusalem is graphically described by the prophet (29:1–24) and further oracles reinforce his message: both judgement, “they are a rebellious people, faithless children, children who will not hear the instruction of the Lord” (30:9); and compassionate mercy, “the Lord waits to be gracious to you; therefore he will rise up to show mercy to you; for the Lord is a God of justice; blessed are all those who wait for him” (30:18).

Foreign alliances are futile (chs. 30–31), for “a king will reign in righteousness, and princes will rule with justice” (32:1). Under this king, justice will prevail (chs. 33–34) and “the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing” (35:1–10).

In the wonderful vision of chapter 35, “the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water” (35:5–7). One commentator calls this “a majestic poem on God’s final salvation of his people” which goes “beyond restoration to the land … it speaks of a restoration of all creation” (McConville, Exploring the Old Testament, vol. 4, The Prophets; SPCK, 2002, p.21).

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The final scenes of the first section of the book involve Isaiah and Hezekiah, who was king from 716 to 687 BCE. Whilst most of the book comprises oracles in poetic form, chapters 36–39 are prose narratives concerning the events of around 701 BCE, when the Assyrians pressed into Judah. Isaiah provides Hezekiah with a prediction of the failure of the Assyrian assault, saying that the Lord had told him, “I myself will put a spirit in him, so that he shall hear a rumor, and return to his own land; I will cause him to fall by the sword in his own land” (Isa 37:7). And so it comes to pass; Judah is saved, the future looks positive—for the moment.

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