Isaiah 24-27, concluded
As we have seen, chapters 24-27 of the book of Isaiah represent a complex and multifaceted composition. This is indicated by the different ways that commentators have analyzed the structure of this material. While a variety of approaches might be adopted, I believe that a definite structure can be discerned, especially in chapters 25-27. I touched upon this in last week’s study; the basic pattern in 25:1-26:6 is found also in 26:7-27:6, and I would summarize it as follows: an eschatological poem, in several sections, followed by two “day of YHWH” stanzas. These concluding stanzas, which involve the expression “in/on that day” (bayyôm hahû°), emphasize the coming Judgment by God upon the nations of the earth.
Here is my outline of this section, according to the pattern established above:
- Part 1—Contrast between the righteous and the wicked (26:7-11)
- Exhortation for YHWH to act in judgment (vv. 12-13)
- Part 2—Contrast between the fate of the righteous and wicked (vv. 14-19)
- Exhortation for God’s people in the face of the coming judgment (vv. 20-21)
- Stanza 1 on the Day of YHWH (“on that day…”, 27:1)
- Stanza 2 on the Day of YHWH (“on that day…”, vv. 2-5)
- Closing refrain—Israel’s restoration (v. 6)
- Part 1—Contrast between the righteous and the wicked (26:7-11)
The main eschatological poem (26:7-21) is divided into two parts, each of which emphasizes a contrast between the righteous (i.e., the faithful ones of Israel) and the wicked (i.e., the faithless and the other nations). The initial couplet of 26:7 establishes this, focusing on the righteous, using the language of Wisdom poetry (and Psalms):
“(The) path for (the) just (person) is (all) straightness,
[Straight (One)], the track of (the) just (person) you make level”
In passing, it is worth noting the text-critical question involving the word in square brackets (y¹š¹r, “straight”). It disrupts the rhythm of the couplet (otherwise 3-beat, 3+3), and is omitted by the Greek Septuagint [LXX] version. If original, it involves a wordplay with the noun “straightness” (mêš¹rîm, an intensive plural); the path of the righteous is straight because the One who is straight (i.e. YHWH) makes it so.
Verses 8-9 describe the character and behavior of the righteous; by contrast, the character of the wicked is described in vv. 10-11. The paradigmatic Wisdom Psalm, contrasting the righteous and wicked, is Psalm 1 (discussed in an earlier article); and this section of the apocalyptic Isaian poem follows the same general wisdom-pattern. If the path of the righteous is “straight”, the wicked “twists” and perverts (vb ±ûl) things, moving away from YHWH (v. 10); such a person is unable to see God’s hand, even as it is raised to deliver judgment (v. 11). The righteous seek after God’s judgments, and, in the New Age, they become the vehicle through which God’s own righteousness is communicated to all people.
This raises an interesting point about the identity of the righteous and wicked. As in chapter 24 (see on vv. 14-16ff in the previous study), the focus seems to be on the righteous and wicked among Israel—the point of the message being that the faithless ones will suffer the same fate/punishment in the Judgment as the other wicked nations. This is how I understand the sense of the final couplet here in verse 11:
“and they will feel shame (at the jealous) zeal of (your) people,
even (as the) fire of your oppressors shall devour them!”
The construct phrases “zeal of (your) people” and “fire of your oppressors” are best understood as object genitives—i.e., the zeal God shows for His people (the faithful ones), and the fire He unleashes on His enemies. This language leads into the exhortation for YHWH to act in judgment, as is appropriate for the righteous (v. 12) and wicked (v. 13), respectively. In verse 13, the sense of the wicked has shifted to the nations (such as the Babylonian empire) who oppress God’s people and are enemies of YHWH.
Part 2 (vv. 14-21) of the poem deals with the contrasting fate of the righteous and wicked, in terms of death and the afterlife. Here the order of treatment is reversed: first the fate of the wicked (“[the one]s being dead shall not live”, v. 14), then that of the righteous (“your dead [one]s shall live”, v. 19). Bracketed within these two statements is a difficult passage (vv. 15-18) in which the people of Israel call out to YHWH, reflecting on their troubled history and suffering as a nation. It is worth considering these verses in a bit more detail; they may be further divided into two portions:
The image of a pregnant woman (and her labor pains) came to be a widely-used symbol, in Jewish eschatology and apocalyptic, for the time of distress that marks the end of the current Age and beginning of the Judgment. Early Christian eschatology made effective use of the same motif (Mark 13:8 par; 1 Thess 5:3; Rom 8:22; Rev 12:2ff, etc). Here, however, it is the exile of Israel and Judah that is primarily in view, seen both as a time of distress (ƒar) and a chastening instruction (mûs¹r) by God. The motif of the woman in labor gives to this suffering an even greater sense of apparent hopelessness. The people writhe in pain and cry out to God (in His presence), and yet give birth only to the wind (rûaµ), not to a child; the wording here in verse 18 is significant:
“We were pregnant, we twisted (in pain), (but) as it (was),
we gave birth (to the) wind—
salvation we did not achieve (on) earth,
and (one)s dwelling (in the) inhabited (world) were not made to fall (as newborn children)”
The specific language is difficult, especially in the final line, and was apparently misunderstood by the Greek LXX. The word y®šû±â (“salvation”) is used in an ironic (negative) sense, referring to the failure to secure the lasting success of the people through child-bearing (understood symbolically). There may also be a specific allusion to a failure by Israel to fulfill its role as the people through whom God will bring the light of truth to all other nations (see above, on verses 8-11). Despite this lack of national success and blessing, the situation will change markedly with the restoration of Israel in the New Age. As in the famous prophecy in Ezekiel 37, this restoration-promise is here expressed in terms of new life from the dead (i.e. resurrection). The climactic words in verse 19 make this clear:
“Your dead (one)s will live,
your corps(es) will stand up (again)—
wake (up) and cry (for joy),
(you the one)s sitting in (the) dust!
For your dew (is) a dew of (pure) light,
and (the) earth will make (the) shades fall (as newborn children).”
As in verse 18, the use of the verb n¹¸al in the Hiphil stem (i.e. “cause to fall”) to refer to childbirth (i.e., the falling/dropping of newborn children), has caused confusion for both ancient and modern translators. Otherwise, however, the imagery is straightforward—the dead bodies of the righteous will live again in the New Age. The only real question is whether this resurrection-motif is simply symbolic (as in Ezek 37), or is to be taken literally as a promise of future bodily resurrection (cf. Daniel 12:2f).
Many commentators would question the extent to which Israelites in the Kingdom period believed in life after death, much less in a bodily resurrection; however, there would seem to be more afterlife allusions in the Old Testament than are commonly admitted, even throughout the earlier poetry. Such beliefs were expressed figuratively, primarily through a developed poetic (and mythological) idiom, and so are not stated as clearly as we might like. In any case, by the mid-6th century B.C., the increasing occurrence of resurrection-imagery in the Prophets suggests that the motif is drawing upon older, established traditions.
The poem concludes with an exhortation to the people of Israel (vv. 20-21) to prepare themselves for the coming Judgment. In particular, YHWH will punish the nations for their wickedness, violence and oppression, and the warning for Israel, repeated throughout these chapters, is that those who are unfaithful will share in this punishment. The emphasis on the Judgment leads into the two “day of YHWH” stanzas (27:1, 2-5), followed by a closing refrain (v. 6). I feel it is worth examining these verses in some detail, so I will be devoting several supplemental notes this week to their study, along with a separate note on the final poem of chaps. 24-27 (27:7-13). This will complete our study here on the Isaian Apocalypse, which must be considered only an introductory survey meant to illustrate how the principles and methods of Biblical criticism can help us understand such a challenging text of Prophecy, and to elucidate its message and meaning.
Next week, we will move further ahead in the book of Isaiah, to chapters 36-39, where we will explore how the historical episode of the Assyrian invasion of Judah under Sennacherib (and the siege of Jerusalem) was handled within the Isaian Tradition.