Sunday, December 26, 2010

Great are the Words of Isaiah: Chapter 44

As previously noted, the land of Israel was dotted with temples during the prophetic ministry of Isaiah; in addition to the main (and famous) temple complex built by Solomon in Jerusalem, Israelites worshipped in at least fifteen other, smaller temples built to Jehovah. Unfortunately, Israelite patrons converted many of these temples to the worship of Canaanite gods, especially Baal and Ashtorath. Isaiah condemns this corruption of temple worship repeatedly in his messages to Israel but especially in chapter 44.

Through Isaiah the Lord reminds his people that they salvation can only be found in and through Him: "I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God" (44:6). But this reminder, as Isaiah knows very well, has come too late; the Israelites have already begun to worship other gods, abandoning their covenants and perverting temple rituals. Isaiah complains that "The carpenter stretcheth out his rule [a plumb line used to measure and square]; he marketh it out with a line; he fitteth it with planes, and he marketh it out with the compass, and maketh it after the figure of a man" (44:13). This carpenter--in his perverse usage of divinely appointed creative powers and methods--mocks a God described in the scriptures using those same tools to create the earth and to build the New Jerusalem ("When he prepared the heavens, I was there: when he set a compass upon the face of the depth," [Prov. 8:27]; "He hath compassed the waters with bounds, until the day and night come to an end," [Job 26:10]; in building a "city . . . holy unto the Lord" "the measuring line shall yet go forth over against it upon the hill Gareb, and shall compass about to Goath," [Jer. 31:38-40]).

This idolatrous carpenter imitates Yahweh by creating a figure in the form of a man, but unlike Yahweh, he has no power to animate it, to fill it with "the breath of life" (Gen. 2:7). This idol, Isaiah charges, is no more alive than the scrap wood that the idolatrous carpenter burns to bake his bread; without the breath of life, the idol is no more alive or powerful than the dust that Adam was formed from, and Isaiah warns that an individual who worships such idols "feedeth on ashes" (44:20). Because of his false worship the idolater "cannot deliver his soul, nor say, 'Is there not a lie in my right hand?'" (44:20). In abandoning the appointed forms of worship, Israel has forsaken their claim on "the saving strength of [God's] right hand" (Ps. 20:6); they have left "the path of life . . . at [God's] right hand" (Ps. 16:11) for "the hand of strange children; whose mouth speaketh vanity, and their right hand is a right hand of falsehood" (Ps. 144:7-8).

Notwithstanding these transgressions, the Lord reminds Israel of his love for them and invites them to return: "I have blotted out, as a thick cloud, thy transgressions, and, as a cloud, thy sins; return unto me; for I have redeemed thee" (44:22). Then, as if to compare the idolatrous carpenter's powers and his own, Jehovah reminds Israel of his own creations: "I am the Lord that maketh all things; that stretcheth forth the heavens alone; that spreadeth abroad the earth by myself" (44:24). Whereas the carpenter "stretcheth out his rule" the true Carpenter "stretcheth forth the heavens." By reminding Israel of the difference in the creative capacities of these two carpenters, Isaiah "frustrateth the tokens of the liars" (44:25) and--implicitly--calls on Israel to remember the tokens of their covenant with the Lord, tokens carved into their own flesh as well as their God's: "And he shall circumcise the flesh of your foreskin; and it shall be a token of the covenant betwixt me and you" (Gen. 17:11); "Behold I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands" (Isa. 49:16).

Isaiah isn't simply condemning idolatry in chapter 44; he's reminding Israel of their temple covenants, of the Lord's incomparable creative powers, and of the physical, fleshly tokens of their covenant relationship with Jehovah. He does condemn idolatry, but he also reminds Israel of the appropriate temple worship in which they have covenanted to participate exclusively.

1 comment:

Jo Jo said...

All I can say is I'm glad I'm related to you! I must have some of those genes, because Tanner and Hunter are so like you.