Sunday, May 15, 2011

Great are the Words of Isaiah: Chapter 45

In chapter forty-five, Isaiah develops and extends the temple imagery he introduced in chapter forty-four; the chapter division is a modern imposition on a seamless section of text. After rebuking Israel for corrupting the temple ordinances the Lord promises that Cyrus, a future king of Babylon, will help Israel to rebuild the temple (44:28), introducing this unborn leader as a type of all temple worshippers: “Thus saith the Lord to his anointed, to Cyrus, whose right hand I have holden [. . .] I will give thee the treasures of darkness, and hidden riches of secret places [. . . for] I have even called thee by thy name: I have surnamed thee [. . . and] I girded thee” (45:1-5) Cyrus has been anointed and clothed, as Aaron and his sons were anointed and clothed preparatory to entering the temple, and he has received a new name signifying his entrance into covenants with the Lord, as Abraham and Sarah received new names (Genesis 17:5-7, 15).

After describing Cyrus’s entry into the temple’s holy place and holy of holies (its “secret places,” where he is to receive “hidden riches”), Isaiah launches into a description of the creation from God’s perspective: “I form the light, and create darkness . . . . Drop down, ye heavens, from above, and let the skies pour down righteousness: let the earth open, and let them bring forth salvation, and let righteousness spring forth together; I the Lord have created it” (Isaiah 45:7-8).This first-person narrative of creation gives way to a series of seemingly unrelated questions. Isaiah, speaking for the Lord, seems to anticipate criticism in verses 9-10: “Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker! Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? Or thy work, He hath no hands? Woe unto him that saith unto his father, What begettest thou? Or to the woman, What hast thou brought forth?” (Isaiah 45:9-10). The English language of these questions appears wholly unrelated to the theme of creation introduced after Cyrus’s initiation into the “secret places,” but the Hebrew suggests that these verses extend Isaiah’s interest in the creation.

The Hebrew word translated into English as “Maker” is the same used to describe Adam’s creation from the dust of the earth: “And the Lord God FORMED man of the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). When Isaiah warns Israel not to “strive” with the “Maker,” he’s referring to the Creator of Genesis. Later in that same verse, the Hebrew verb translated as “makest” is a word almost omnipresent in the Genesis creation narrative (Genesis 1:7, 11, 12, 16, 25, 26, 31; 2:2, 3, 4, 18). So Isaiah’s admonition not to ask “What makest thou?” could be read as an injunction not to question the Lord’s purposes in creating the world. Why would we interrogate the Lord concerning the creation? Because, as Isaiah reminds us in verse 10, that creation resulted in Adam and Eve’s Fall, bringing pain and suffering into our lives. The Hebrew verb translated “begettest” is the same used by God to proclaim Eve’s curse: “I will greatly multiply thy sorrow and thy conception; in sorrow thou shalt BRING FORTH children” (Genesis 3:16). And “brought forth” at the end of verse 10 carries with it a sense pain, suffering, and affliction in the Hebrew. These verses, in other words, seem to question the purpose of the creation and the necessity of a Fall which brought pain and suffering into the world.

After introducing Cyrus as a representative temple worshipper and giving a first person narrative of the creation, Isaiah warns Israel not to question God’s motivations in creating a world where the Fall could take place. He warns Israel not to judge rashly, but he also, in verses 11-19 explains that God would be more than happy to answer their questions concerning the Fall and its necessity. Isaiah frames this invitation to learn about the creation and Fall in the form of a chiastic poem:

A) Ask me of things to come concerning my sons, and concerning the work of my hands command ye me (11)
B) I have made the earth, and created man upon it: I, even my hands, have stretched out the heavens, and all their host have I commanded (12)
C) I have raised him [Cyrus] up in righteousness, and I will direct all his ways: he shall build my city, and he shall let go my captives, not for price nor reward, saith the Lord of hosts. (13)
D) Thus saith the Lord, The labour of Egypt, and merchandise of Ethiopia and of the Sabeans, men of stature, shall come over unto thee, and they shall be thine: they shall come after thee; in chains they shall fall down unto thee, they shall make supplication unto thee, saying, Surely God is in thee; and there is none else, there is no God. (14)

E) Verily thou art a God that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Saviour. (15)

D) They shall be ashamed, and also confounded, all of them: they shall go to confusion together that are makers of idols. (16)
C) But Israel shall be saved in the Lord with an everlasting salvation: ye shall not be ashamed nor confounded world without end. (17)
B) For thus saith the Lord that created the heavens; God himself that formed the earth and made it; he hath established it, he created it not in vain, he formed it to be inhabited: I am the Lord; and there is none else (18)
A) I have not spoken in secret, in a dark place of the earth: I said not unto the seed of Jacob, Seek ye me in vain (19)

Most of these chiastic parallels are clear; the D) sections are the most difficult, but both verses describe idol worshippers in Egypt, Ethiopia, and elsewhere who will, Isaiah explains, eventually recognize the impotence of their idols. The poem begins and ends by inviting Israel to acquire knowledge, and specifically knowledge of the creation; those invitations belie the accusation by idolatrous peoples situated at the center of this chiasmus. The idolatrous complain that God “hidest thyself”; by bracketing this complaint with God’s open invitations to learn of Him, Isaiah demonstrates that God is anything but reclusive and unwilling to answer our questions. Isaiah ironically highlights the wrongheadedness of these complaints by situating them at the center of his poem, the one place that would have been least ‘hidden’ in the entire poem. 

God wants Israel to gain the “hidden riches” of knowledge available in the temple; he wants to explain the purposes of creation and the need for a Fall. Isaiah’s chiastic poem shows Israel just how open and inviting He is: He’s initiated a foreigner, Cyrus, into the temple’s “secret places,” as a sign that all are welcome to learn the mysteries of God.

1 comment:

Jo Jo said...

We are all invited indeed and I'm grateful you instructed me further.