For the Love of God, Volume 2/May 30
From Gospel Translations
Deuteronomy 3; Psalm 85;Isaiah 31; Revelation 1
ALTHOUGH ISAIAH 31 BEGINS ON a historical plane, as so often in this prophecy the text holds up a more distant horizon and a more extensive hope.
At one level Isaiah is still pronouncing divine woes on “those who go down to Egypt for help, who rely on horses, who trust in the multitude of their chariots . . . but do not look to the Holy One of Israel, or seek help from the LORD” (31:1). Isaiah resorts to sarcasm: God, too, “is wise and can bring disaster” (31:2). He resorts to metaphor: God can be likened to a lion perfectly able to fight (31:4), or to a flock of birds perfectly able to protect its own (31:5). That brings the reader to the pivotal verses of this chapter, the only ones written in prose: “Return to him you have so greatly revolted against, O Israelites. For in that day every one of you will reject the idols of silver and gold your sinful hands have made” (31:6-7).
There is no alternative to repentance, no other way to experience the blessing of the Lord. The nature of repentance in Scripture precludes the nonsense of partial repentance or contingent repentance. Genuine repentance does not turn from one sin while safeguarding others; partial repentance is as incongruous as partial pregnancy. Loyalty to God in selective areas is no longer loyalty, but treason. To repent of disloyalty in select areas, while preferring disloyalty in others, is no repentance at all. God does not ask us to give up this or that idol while permitting us to nurture several others; he demands, rather, that we abandon idolatry itself and return to the God against whom we have “so greatly revolted.” For God is more than able to defend his people against the might of Assyria, to unleash a sword “not of mortals” (31:8). The literal fulfillment of this promise is 37:36 (see meditation for June 5).
Yet the hints of a still greater deliverance in the more distant future are not hard to find. Once again Isaiah predicts what will happen “in that day” (31:7), that pregnant expression that so commonly signals prophetic foreshortening. Although the loss of almost two hundred thousand Assyrian troops, referred to in 37:38, occurred in 701 B.C., the final collapse of Assyria and its capital Nineveh, described in the closing verses of this chapter, would not take place for another century (612). Moreover, references to the fire of God in Zion (31:9) call to mind 4:2-6 and 29:5-8—visions of the destruction of all of Zion’s foes and of the Lord’s future reign.