Saturday Series: Isaiah 24-27

Isaiah 24-27

In these studies focusing on the book of Isaiah, we have had occasion to examine the division of the book spanning chapters 13-27. These chapters represent a unified and coherent work, characterized by the nation-oracle form and genre. A careful critical examination indicates that a core of authentic Isaian material—that is, nation-oracles from the time of the prophet (the Assyrian period, late 8th century B.C.)—has been set in the later context of the Babylonian conquests of the 6th century. In the previous study, as part of an exegetical analysis of the poem in 14:4b-21, I discussed the theory that the oracle refers to the Assyrian ruler Sargon II who held the title “king of Babylon” (cf. the Assyrian context of vv. 24-27). On the basis of this theory, one may posit that an anti-Assyrian oracle, prophesying the (eventual) fall of the Assyrian empire, was subsequently applied (and reinterpreted) as a message of judgment against Babylon in the 6th century (some time before its fall to Persia in 539). Chapter 13 is an anti-Babylonian oracle prophesying the fall of the Babylonian empire (cf. also 14:22-23; 21:1-10).

The 6th century Babylonian setting also seems to be in view in chapters 24-27, serving as an inclusio (with chapter 13) for the entire work, enclosing all of the other (Isaian, etc) material in chaps. 14-23. Certain similarities in tone and style raise the possibility that chapters 13 and 24-27, on the whole, may have been composed by the same author (see Roberts, p. 194, 306). It is not only the judgment against Babylon that is emphasized in these chapters, but the nation-oracle genre has been expanded and developed into message of judgment with cosmic scope—that is, the poems in these chapters represent an oracle against all the nations worldwide (Babylon being only the most prominent). While this wider outlook is found in chapter 13 (vv. 4, 9-11ff), it is even more prominent in chaps. 24-27, the poems of which evince an eschatological and apocalyptic orientation. Indeed, commentators often refer to chaps. 24-27 as the Isaian “Apocalypse”.

The dating of these chapters remains in dispute, and, while most critical commentators would date them well after the time of Isaiah himself, there is a range of scholarly opinion on just how much later they were composed. The eschatological elements present in these poems, along with other aspects of language and style, make it unlikely that they were composed prior to the 6th century and the beginnings of the Persian period. J. J. Roberts, in his fine critical commentary (First Isaiah, Heremeneia [Fortress Press: 2015]) would date the section to the late 7th or early 6th century, which would be among the earliest estimates. A setting of the mid-6th century seems probable, but we shall see how well the exegetical and critical evidence bears this out.

By all accounts, Isa 24-27, as a unit, represents the earliest surviving example of Jewish eschatological and apocalyptic writing. It draws upon both the nation-oracle genre and the well-established prophetic tradition of the “day of YHWH” —an expression which refers to the time of God’s judgment against a particular nation or people. For the most part, the “day” is related to a specific nation; however, by the 6th century, and into the exilic and post-exilic periods, this concept began to be developed into a “day” when God would judge all the nations together. Perhaps the earliest example of this development is to be found in the oracle of Joel 3, which may have been written at time roughly comparable to Isa 13, 24-27 (i.e. in the early-mid 6th century). In the book of Joel, it is likely that the Babylonian conquests are in view, and that the future restoration of Israel (return from exile, etc) is tied to God’s judgment, not only on Babylon, but on all the nations of earth.

It is sometimes difficult to know, in apocalyptic writing, whether the worldwide dimension is meant to be taken in a realistic, concrete sense, or whether a local/regional situation is being described in cosmic terms. It should also be noted that, in such an early example of Jewish eschatology, the eschatological aspect is not nearly so clearly defined as in subsequent writings of the first centuries B.C./A.D. While a “New Age” is certainly envisioned for Israel and Judah, it is harder to be sure of how precise the author understood its connection with the end of the current Age (on a cosmic scale). However, the numerous allusions to the primeval history (including the Creation)—i.e. the beginning of the current Age—strongly suggests that the end of that Age is also in view.

The historical and literary factors outlined above provide the parameters within which we may embark on a critical study of the poems of chapters 24-27. It will not be possible to examine every verse in detail; however, a close study of key selected passages should prove most valuable, both for our understanding of the book of Isaiah, and as an example of Biblical (Old Testament) criticism in action. Let us begin with the opening lines of 24:1-13.

Isaiah 24:1-13

Verses 1-3

“See! YHWH is emptying out the earth and laying it waste,
and He twists its face and scatters (the one)s dwelling (on) it!” (v. 1)
“Emptied, the earth will be emptied out,
and plundered, it will be plundered—
for YHWH has spoken this spoken (word).” (v. 3)

The opening verses 1-3 emphasize that YHWH is about to make the earth empty and desolate (using the alliterative verb pair b¹qaq and b¹laq); the violence of this act is indicated by the additional verbs ±¹wâ (“twist”) and b¹zaz (“plunder”). The action is taken on the earth (i.e. the inhabited land) itself, in verses 1 and 3; however, in the intervening verse 2 the effect on the human inhabitants is described. The Hebrew noun °ereƒ can be translated “earth” or “land”; the former suggests a cosmic (worldwide) event, while the latter could be understood more plausibly as a local event. The Qumran Isaiah scroll (1QIsaa) reads °¦¼¹mâ (“ground”) instead of °ereƒ (“earth, land”) in verse 1.

Commentators have noted many instances where these poems in Isa 24-27 seem to borrow from existing works, including the unquestionable oracles of Isaiah, but also from the other prophetic writings, along with the Torah, etc. The author/editor appears to be drawing from written works—that is, it is a literary phenomenon, often referred to in Biblical and textual studies as intertextuality. Even in these opening three verses we may note the following:

    • Similarities in vv. 1, 3 with the vocabulary and thematic emphasis of (earlier) prophetic passages such as Nahum 2:2, 9-10.
    • The comparison with different groups/categories of people in society appears to be an expanded version of Hosea 4:9 (cp. Isa 3:4ff)
    • The use of the verb pûƒ in the Hiphil (“break apart, scatter”) in v. 1 likely alludes to the dispersion of humankind in the Babel narrative of Genesis (cf. 10:18; 11:4, 8-9).

These intertextual references suggest two main themes at work:

    • A development of the prophetic Day of YHWH motif, from the nation/judgment-oracles in Nahum, Hosea, et al.
    • The use of imagery from the Primeval History (and the Creation narrative) in Genesis, to indicate the manner in which the end of the Age will resemble its beginning.
Verses 4-6

“It dries up, the (entire) earth withers,
it languishes, the inhabited (world) withers,
(the) highest place languishes with the earth;
and the earth is corrupted under (the one)s dwelling on her,
for they have crossed over (the) instructions (of YHWH),
they replaced (His decree) inscribed (for all time),
broke (the) agreement binding (into the) distant (future)!
Upon this [i.e. for this reason], a curse has devoured the earth,
and (the one)s dwelling on her face guilt;
upon this, dwellers of the earth are diminished,
and (the) human (being)s left over (are just) a few.”

A range of literary references and (poetic) devices are packed into these lines, emphasizing repeatedly the great judgment that is coming upon all humankind. That it will affect every human being, regardless of social position or status, was already made clear in verse 2. The author intends the situation to parallel that of the great Flood in most ancient times, in the days of Noah, when the vast majority of humankind perished, and only a few survived. The reference to the “agreement binding (into the) distant (future)” (b®rî¾ ±ôl¹m, i.e. ‘eternal covenant’) is almost certainly an allusion to Genesis 9:16, and the covenant God established with humankind after the Flood. This is perhaps the first example of an eschatological application of the great Flood—that is, as a type-pattern of the Judgment that will come upon the world at the end of the current Age (Matt 24:37-38 par; 1 Pet 3:20ff; 2 Pet 2:5ff). Human beings, in their sinfulness, have violated this binding agreement (b®rî¾) with God, and so face the curse (°¹lâ) that is built into the ancient covenant format, as a punishment for failing to fulfill the terms of the agreement.

Verses 7-9

“(The) fresh (wine) dries up, (the) vine languishes,
(and) all (the one)s joyful of heart groan;
(the) delightful (sound) of tambourine has ceased,
(the) noise of (the one)s rejoicing has left off,
(the) delightful (sound) of (the) harp has ceased!
With a song they no longer drink wine,
(and the) beer is bitter for (the one)s drinking it.”

These verses provide a good example of how clever poetic form and style can serve to enhance the message of prophecy. A pair of couplets dealing with the drinking of alcohol (wine/beer) bracket a central tricolon on the joyful social activity and communal celebration that accompanies such drinking. The curse on the earth causes the wine to dry up, which ends up affecting human society. More than this, however, it illustrates how the joy of living is destroyed by the judgment, in ways that might not immediately be apparent.

The alliterative pairing of the the verbs °¹»al (“dry up”) and °¹mal (“grow weak, languish”) echoes that of verse 4 (see above). A separate(?) root °¹»al has the fundamental meaning “mourn, lament”, and it is likely that there is a bit of wordplay intended here—i.e., as the wine “dries up”, the people’s joy comes to an end and they being to “mourn”. The disappearance of joy is depicted in terms of musical celebration; the tricolon of verse 8 is a chiasm:

    • delightful sound of tambourine ceases
      • noise of the ones rejoicing leaves off (i.e. fades away)
    • delightful sound of the harp ceases
Verses 10-12

“(The) city of confusion is broken down,
every house is shut up from coming (in) [i.e. so no one can enter];
an outcry over (the) wine (is) in the (street)s outside,
all joy has gone down (with the sun),
(the) delight of the earth is removed.
Ruin is left (behind) in the city,
and crashing to ruins (the) gate is struck (down)!”

These three verses have a similar poetic structure to those of vv. 7-9: a pair of thematically parallel couplets (emphasizing destruction) surround a central tricolon dealing with the loss of joy in society. Again this loss of joy is tied to the image of the drying up of the wine (i.e. the withering of the vine on earth). Now, however, the sense of loss has shifted to the reality of a city facing destruction and ruin. This figurative city, using the synonymous nouns qiryâ and ±îr, is called “city of confusion” (qirya¾ tœhû), using the same word (tœhû, “confusion”) from Genesis 1:2, which describes the unformed chaos of the primeval universe before God established the created order. Given the context of chapters 13-27 (see above), it is possible that Babylon is foremost in mind, however, if so, it must still be maintained that this great city represents all cities of the nations. The book of Revelation famously makes considerable use of this same Babylon / Great-City symbolism. When the City falls in the Judgment, the order of the world—the natural and social order both—disintegrates, and the world falls into chaos and emptiness, just as in the primeval condition at the beginning of creation.

Verse 13

“For thus it shall be in (the) inner-part of the earth,
in (the) midst of the peoples,
as (the) shaking of an olive (tree),
as (the) gleanings when (the) harvest-cutting is finished.”

This rhythmically balanced quatrain closes the first part of the poem, and forms a thematic parallel with the opening verse (see above). The same themes of the destruction/shaking of the earth and the scattering of its inhabitants are found here, only set within the image of the harvest. The harvest, marking the end of the growing season and life-cycle, serves as a natural metaphor for the end of the current Age. Joel 3, possibly composed at around the same time as this poem, makes use of the same imagery in an eschatological context (v. 13). The book of Revelation, influenced by both passages, follows the same line of imagery, involving the vine harvest (14:14-20). The oracle against Babylon in Jeremiah 50-51, with its use of the harvest motif (50:16; 51:33) is also relevant in this context.

We will continue this discussion in next week’s study, as we consider how the poem in 24:1-13 fits into the overall scope and thematic structure of chaps. 24-27.

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