This week our house church group read through Isa 34-35. The two chapters juxtapose starkly antithetical visions of what God’s vindication of God’s people looks like.
In Isa 34 there is the negative side of the coin: Israel’s enemies destroyed for Israel’s sake. It is one of the most gruesome depictions of slaughter in scripture: “The stench of their corpses will rise, the mountains will melt with their blood… Yhwh has a sword covered with blood… it is soaked with fat…”
And then there are descriptions of the place being haunted by beasts and demons–the inhabitants of the uninhabited land that has returned to the primal state of desolation and desertion, of being formless and void.
Those are hard verses. We don’t much like the imagery of destruction and slaughter as the picture of salvation.
On the other side of the coin is the new-creation imagery of ch. 35.
In contrast to the sword of the Lord making a cultivated place a desert, ch. 35 depicts a desert becoming a fertile field.
In contrast to the demonic haunt that was to be Edom, ch. 35 promises the presence of Yhwh’s glory.
In the face of those panicking at the sound of oncoming armies there is the promise of Go’s presence to save.
Everlasting joy is the promise for those streaming back to Zion.
And right in the middle of Isa 35 are a few promises that Jesus claims as markers for his ministry in Matthew 11:
Then the eyes of the blind will be opened,
and the ears of the deaf will be cleared.
He might well have included the next lines as well: “Then the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing.”
What difference does it make for how we read Isaiah that Jesus claims to bring fulfillment of this moment in the story–one marked by both severe judgment and by miraculous restoration?
On the one hand, I do think that the Jesus story provides us with some leverage for distancing God’s work of salvation from the slaughter of human “enemies.”
Here is one of those places that the disciples and their first century compatriots might have looked to in order to bolster their expectation that God’s deliverance would entail a military defeat of Rome.
But Jesus denied that expectation, demonstrating instead that the hope for everlasting joy was not predicated on the slaughter of human enemies. Paradoxically, it depended on being willing to be slaughtered by those enemies instead.
The cross subverts many expectations, and most directly it subverts the expectation that the people who I think are against me must pay the ultimate price if I am going to get the ultimate prize.
Now the New Testament still has its fair share of judgment language and expectations of such in the future. So we’re not entirely off the hook, here.
But, at very least, the Jesus story tells us that the delay (or elimination?) of such a future for the “bad guys” is a display of the kindness, grace, and patience of God. (“God is not willing that any should die,” 2 Peter 3).
One reason why I think it’s absolutely crucial to read the whole biblical narrative in light of the defining climax of the story is precisely to get leverage on the fuller disclosure of the identity of God as that is made known in God’s works of salvation. And that allows us to say that, in the end, Isa 34’s judgment was not the necessary co-requisite for Isa 35’s salvation.
But this puts us in another pickle.
Isa 35 is a picture of glorious restoration, not [only] of the spiritual lives of people, but of bodies and the natural environment. Jesus claimed that his healing miracles were a picture of this.
So if we are going to commit to a story that claims to be the fulfillment of Isa 35, and allow that to mute the expectations of violence from Isa 35, we are left with an even greater burden to be the people who show through the transformation of the physical world that we inhabit that redemption has truly begun.
This is the frightening part of affirming the Jesus story: it will not allow us to say that intangible, immeasurable factors like “my personal relationship with Jesus” are the markers of the coming Kingdom.
If the Kingdom of God has begun to draw near then the blind must see, the deaf must hear, the power of the Spirit of God must be showing itself greater than the powers of the world.