Isaiah 27: Accomplishing Redemption

Isaiah 27: Accomplishing Redemption

I’ve been at this series on Isaiah 24-27 for some months now. It’s taken so long mostly because I’ve been working at it slowly as I have time, and not because my series is that in-depth. The thing that has struck me in studying the passages for this series is the richness of the material. The amount of material I find that ends up only as an entry in my notes or an underlined passage in one of my reference sources is quite astonishing. In this chapter I will cite a few translations that in themselves provide creative suggestions for translation difficulties in this passage.

I would suggest reading this chapter in several translations and trying to follow the logic through the chapter. Very often we don’t in Isaiah, because in many of these poetic passages it is hard to make sense of what’s going on in context. But I would suggest that there is a context, that the combination of the verses and passages is not accidental, but because of the literary style of the text, and the fact that so much is written in poetry it’s simply difficult to follow that logic.

The basic logic that I see in this text is the move from a people who are not definitely on any side. They might be faithful to their God and then again they might not. We have almost a precursor to the concept of the remnant as presented in 2nd Isaiah (chapters 40-55), in which only a small portion of the people are faithful, and the whole is to be reduced to that remnant who then bring restoration.

This theme occurs often in apocalyptic literature. The good guys and the bad guys have to be separated and clearly distinguished. As a result it is very, very right that God destroys the bad guys, and it is also imperative that God avenge the good guys. This theme has guided my translation in a couple of places. Theology should follow translation rather than precede it, but translation is impossible without sense, and if you compare several different translations of this chapter you will see quite a difference in the sense that is portrayed. A sparse Hebrew text leaves us to fill in the holes based on our understanding, and that is not an easy task.

Places where this passage is quoted in the New Testament are indicated by red text and allusions are indicated in blue text with the reference in {braces}.

(1) On that day —
YHWH will take vengeance with his sword,
harsh, great, powerful,
On Leviathan the slithering snake,
On Leviathan the slimy snake.
He will kill the sea-dragon.

The critical thing to note about this portion of the text is that its use of Leviathan and “sea-dragon” or “sea-serpent” indicates that we’re talking in the language of creation-myth, and thus also in the language of eschatology. In scripture God’s creative power is also his authority and power to destroy and to recreate. By starting out to state that the sea-dragon will be killed on that day, the writer tells us the setting is eschatological.

I take this indication as definitive. I believe there is enough indication that the chapter is a unity. True, it is made up of individual elements from various sources, but they have been combined into a unified whole. By opening the next section with the same phrase “on that day” the writer tells us that the pleasant vineyard and the slaying of Leviathan are tied together. This means that the vineyard, the abandoned city, and YHWH’s actions as told in verses 12 & 13 should all also have an eschatological setting.

(2) On that day —
“There’s a pleasant vineyard,”
Sing for it!
(3) “I YHWH watch over it.
I water it as needed.
Lest harm come to it,
I watch it day and night.
(4) I have no anger.
Oh that I had thistles and thorns,
I would come against it in battle,
And burn it all together.
(5) Or instead it could seize my protection,
It could make peace with me.
It could make peace with me!
(6) In coming days Jacob will put down roots,
Israel will blossom and bloom,
And will fill the face of the earth with fruit.

There are several questions in this passage. Are the thistles and thorns a defensive wall? Are they part of the vineyard? Is YHWH attacking the enemies of the vineyard, or is he threatening to attack the vineyard?

In my view, the eschatological sense, and also the parallels with the vineyard of Isaiah 5 indicate that the thistles and thorns are themselves part of the vineyard. YHWH wishes that his vineyard was either one thing or another. This calls to mind Revelation 3:15, and God wishing that the people of Laodicea were either hot or cold. In this case, he wishes that he either faced thistles and thorns, against which he could vent his wrath, or that on the other hand his vineyard would make peace with him. God’s anger is spent, but he still does not have the desired result.

Notice, on the other hand, the NCV translation of this passage:

I am not angry.
If anyone builds a wall of thornbushes in war,
I will march to it and burn it.
But if anyone comes to me for safety
and wants to make peace with me,
he should come and make peace with me.”

That is taking the thornbushes in quite a different sense than I have, and I have some difficulty comprehending how “I am not angry” fits in with the rest of the passage. This is simply one of many options. The NCV translation can certainly be justified linguistically. I’m just not certain it can be fitted properly into the context. On the other hand, some might accuse me of bending the evidence in order to fit a patter with my own translation.

Again compare the JPS Tanakh:

There is no anger in Me:
If one offers Me thorns and thistles,
I will march to battle against him,
And set all of them on fire. –Isaiah 27:4

That’s a third option, and there are more. I’m not going to try to exhaust the options either here or in the abandoned city. There are simply too many.

(7) Has he been struck with the same blows
as the one who struck him?
Has he been slain in the same way
as the one who slew him?
(8) With measured acts you contended as you sent her away,
Speaking harshly like the east wind.
(9) So in this way only will Jacob’s guilt be purged,
In this will all the results of his sin be turned aside. {Romans 11:27b, LXX}
When all the stones of the altar are shattered like limestone,
When sacred poles and incense altars no longer stand.

Reformation is the only way in which things in Judah can be made right. Forgiveness is tied to repentance, and repentance means changing one’s life. God has exercised judgment on his people. He has now exercised judgment against those who oppressed Israel. But after all has been said and done, the only thing that will result in a new people is for them to turn from their idols and to become totally God’s possession.

(10) For the fortified city stands alone,
An emptied pasture,
Abandoned like the wilderness.
Oxen graze there.
They lie down and eat her branches.
(11) When her cuttings are dry and break off,
Women come and light them on fire.
Because it is not an understanding people,
So their maker will not have compassion,
The one who formed them will show no mercy.

The key issue in this passage is whether this is Jerusalem or the “other city” that stands against it, Babylon in apocalyptic imagery. I believe this is the opposing city. The dominant expression about Israel in this entire chapter is hope, though there is the desire for repentance and for them to become fully reconciled to their God. The other city is the one that will be completely destroyed. In later apocalyptic, of course, that “other” city would be portrayed receiving a much more explicit judgment.

(12) It will happen on that day —
YHWH will beat out the people like grain, {Matthew 3:12}
from the Euphrates to the brook of Egypt.
And you will be gleaned one by one, Israelites!
(13) It will happen on that day —
The great shofar will be blown,
and those who are lost in the land of Asshur,
and those who are scattered in the land of Egypt
will come and worship YHWH,
on the Holy Mountain in Jerusalem. {Matthew 24:31}

Verses 12 and 13 to me confirm the remainder of my interpretation of the chapter. Compare verse 12 to the preaching of John the Baptist in Matthew 3:12, separating wheat from chaff, so that the wheat can be saved and the chaff burned. Besides the scattering, however, there is an ingathering, as people are brought from all corners of the earth to return to God’s people in their home.

As I see it, and as I have translated it, Isaiah 27 serves as a “little apocalypse” portraying the world at its end, when God is stepping in to do judgment.

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