Judah is in terrible shape (Isaiah 57). Yahweh told Israel to worship Him only at the temple, but the people worship on every hill and under every green and leafy tree. He commanded them to worship Him alone, but they are devoted to many gods.
Worshipers set up their beds on the high hills, beds where they offer sacrifice (Isaiah 57:7-8). They widen their beds, they uncover themselves before their gods. That may be quite literal. Some ancient religions included sacred prostitution among their religious rites. Or it may be a metaphor of Israel’s spiritual adultery. Whether literal or figurative, their shrines have become brothels, their worship a form of prostitution. They climb the high places, mouths wide, hungry for satisfaction from their idols (v. 4). They want their gods to satisfy their desires.
When they aren’t visiting their shrines, they are running here and there making alliances with foreign nations (vv. 9-10). It seems like good politics. Judah is a small, threatened nation in a world of great and growing empires. It’s good diplomacy to cozy up to powerful neighbors. Isaiah doesn’t see it that way. Their diplomacy is just another form of idolatry, another sign that they trust someone, anyone, other than Yahweh.
They are so afraid of the threats from other nations that they no longer remember God. They don’t call to mind what Yahweh did in Egypt, and what He did to the Canaanites, and what He did again and again in the time of the judges, and what He did through David, and how Yahweh delivered Hezekiah from the Assyrians. Fear makes them forgetful (v. 11).
When Joshua tore through the land, he broke down high places and altars, but Judah has rebuilt them. In place of the blood of Passover, they mark their idolatrous shrines on the doorposts. Instead of circumcising sons, they are slaughtering them (v. 5). Judah is the seed of Abraham, but Isaiah charges that they have become offspring of deceit, children of an adulteress and a prostitute. They are supposed to be sons of Yahweh, children of Israel, but they are instead sons of a sorceress and children of rebellion (vv. 3-4). Everything about Judah is inverted, turned inside out and upside down. Judah has become the new Canaan, as bad as the Amorites they once expelled from the land. Eventually, the land will spew them out too.
Judah has her prophets, but they aren’t much good (Isaiah 56:10-12). They are dogs that can’t bark. The watchmen who are supposed to warn the people are blind. The shepherds aren’t ready to feed the sheep, but greedy for unjust gain.
Worst of all, Yahweh seems to have given up on Judah. When they cry out to Him, He’s not going to answer anymore. Instead, He leave them to their idols, who won’t be able to help. The gods are nothings, vanities (hebelim), and Yahweh will drive them away with a breath (hebel, v 13). They are like chaff, and Yahweh is going to drive them away by the wind of His Spirit.
The people of Judah search for a God who can give revive, restore, satisfy, and comfort them, and some will find Him. Verse 15 tells us how and who. Yahweh is the exalted one, high and holy, the God who dwells on a high place. But this high and holy one, the one who dwells on a high place, also dwells with the contrite and lowly.
This is partly a promise that the Lord dwells with those who repent and turn from their sins. But Isaiah says something more radical. The word “contrite” means “ground to powder, pummeled to dust.” Judah has been trampled down, crushed, powdered by their enemies. Judah is so beaten down that it doesn’t even look like there’s a people left. Where there used to be a nation, there’s nothing but Adamic dust.
When Yahweh sees them beaten down, He puts His anger away and to draw near to live in ruins of Judah with the broken and weary and heavy-laden, to revive them again. He doesn’t do it because Judah has turned back to Him. Even though He disciplined His people, they go on in their own way (57:17). Yahweh promises to draw near anyway, and the only reason is His commitment to Abraham and His sheer compassion for His broken world.
Yahweh has done all this before. When Pharaoh trampled Israel, Yahweh had compassion and came to their rescue. At the very beginning, Yahweh formed Adam from the dust of the ground and breathed the breath of life into his nostrils. He knows how to make dust live. Breathing life into dust is one of the oldest tricks in the book.
Nor is this the last time Yahweh will do it. In the incarnation, the God of Israel comes to live with His crushed people in His ruined world. What God does in Jesus, He continues to do by the Spirit of Jesus. Christmas and Pentecost fulfill Isaiah’s promise that the high and holy God makes His home with a people reduced to dust so that He might raise up a new Adam. If you’re pounded to powder, you’re just the kind of home He’s is looking for.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.
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