This essay was first published in 2011 in Credenda/Agenda.
Isaiah 24 begins the section of Isaiah known as the “little apocalypse.” It’s a good name for this chapter. It’s a text of terror.
The world is coming apart at the seams. The earth is emptied; and not only that, but the earth is laid waste; and not only that, but its face is marred, and not only that but the people who live on the earth are dispersed like seeds (v. 1). It is a fourfold devastation, a devastation that reaches to the corners of the earth.
The earth is withered vine, and the high men and women of the earth are cast down (v. 7-9). It is like the end of harvest. Earth is an olive tree, shaken and shaken until all the olives are scattered over the ground. The earth is a grape vine, with only a few grapes left (v. 13). The earth is violently broken; and not only that, the earth is split open; and not only that, but the earth is shaken exceedingly; and not only that, but the earth reels like a drunkard; and not only that, but it totters like a hut that is ready to collapse (vv. 18-20).
As at the time of the flood, the windows of the heights open to let the water fall (v 18). As in the flood, the foundations of the earth are shaken. And it’s not just the earth. The hosts of heaven – the stars and their constellations – fall from the sky and into a pit, where they are locked up. When this day comes, the moon will, and the sun will be ashamed (vv. 21-23).
No one escapes. The priest is no safer than the people he serves at the temple, the master is no more secure than his servants; the mistress of the house is just as vulnerable as her maids. Lender and borrower, investment bankers and the poor suckers with interest-bearing loans – all are at risk (v. 2). There is no escape even if you flee the city at the first alarm. If you flee in terror when the report comes to the city, you’ll fall into a pit. If you are able to climb out of a pit, then you’re going to be caught in a bear trap (vv. 16-18). Everything is coming apart and there’s no safe place to be.
All the religious and social and economic divisions that seem so important to us, the boundaries and status distinctions that make up our social and political and economic worlds, all of them dissolve. People are like priest are like maids are like mistresses are like buyers are like sellers are like lenders are like borrowers. Cities and civilizations depend on such distinctions, and if they are being smudged together, the whole descends to chaos, mixed and kneaded together into a single undifferentiated lump of humanity. No wonder the city is turned to a “city of confusion” (v. 10). The word for “confusion” is tohu, the same word used for the watery formlessness of the original creation (Genesis 1:2). The earth was tohu-v-bohu, formless and void. The city returns to its formlessness, with no social order, no economic order, no sacrificial order at the heart of the city. It all withers and decays before it is burned to ashes.
All joy ceases (vv. 7-9). Once people gathered grapes and made wine and drank at feasts. Now, the only thing left to drink is bitter beer. Once people gathered to play music and sing and shout with joy, but now there is only the sound of lamentation and sighing. Joy is a kind of light, but joy has been turned to gloom. The city is a mourner: “Wasting to me, wasting to me, woe to me!” (v. 16).
Wine-drinking and song are temple activities, but the temple has grown silent. The festivities of the Sabbaths cease. Ironically, Isaiah uses the verb for Sabbath (shabat) to describe it. Shabat Shabats. Sabbath rest, Sabbath festivity, Sabbath wine, Sabbath joy have gone on holiday (v. 8).
It’s not just the content. Isaiah 24 is a text of terror because of the way it is written. Where will this happen? What city? To whom? When? Earth might mean the whole world, or it might mean the land of Israel. I think it’s likely the latter, but the passage is too vague for anyone to be sure. I think the city is Jerusalem, but we can’t be sure. It’s likely that this is a description of the future exile of Judah, since verse 1 tells us that the inhabitants of the land are scattered and verse 6 tells us that a few are left. But we can’t be sure.
The vagueness of the referent leaves us nervously glancing over our shoulders. This could happen any time anywhere to anyone. In the previous 10 chapters of Isaiah, the judgment has been targeted. Babylon, Moab, Egypt, Philistia, Edom – we know where there’s going to be disaster, and we can gain a little bit of comfort knowing that we aren’t there. If Babylon is being devastated, and we’re in Egypt, then we’re happy; and vice versa. We in the 21st century read these passages, and we know that Babylon and Edom and Moab don’t exist anymore. We don’t live in Jerusalem. It all seems safely distant, ancient history that doesn’t concern us. We can distance the text in time as well as in space. When the destruction is not specified, we don’t know where to turn. This text leaves us no escape. We flee, but we’ll fall into a pit; if we climb out of the pit, the text will snag us like a trap. It could happen anytime, anywhere, to anyone. Which means that it could happen to us. Any moment, my world could come to an end.
And it’s so loud, so repetitive. Isaiah isn’t content to speak. He shouts, he screams, he hollers. Flannery O’Connor once said, describing the cartoonish exaggerations of her stories: “To the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” She took that principle from the prophets. Isaiah, we know, preaches to the deaf and the blind. That is his mission (Isaiah 6). So he bellows; so he draws large and terrible pictures.
His shouts also make people deaf. He shouts and shouts and shouts, and nothing happens. He shouts again, still nothing happens. He stomps his feet and screams and strips off his clothes and walks naked, yet nothing happens. Soon enough, no one notices anymore. There’s Isaiah again, shouting and scrawling on the sidewalk. There’s crazy Isaiah, with his sandwich board, “The End Is Near.” Eventually his voice blends in as background noise. Prophecy becomes a shrill form of Muzak.
God gives Israel a heads-up, warns them way ahead of time, but it makes them complacent. God’s kindness deafens and blinds them. Thus God’s patience hardens. Thus apocalyptic shrieks express the mercy of God, and His severity. Better open our ears before go deaf and no longer hear the apocalypse prowling up behind.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.
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