Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Isaiah: Poet, Dreamer and Angry Young Man

Here is the gist of a sermon I preached recently.
I read from Isaiah, chapter 5: "Let me sing for my beloved a love song concerning his vineyard ..."

 Those of you who are of my generation will probably remember the rise of the “protest song”. In our young days, practically all popular songs were about romantic love, with rhymes like “moon” and “June” etc. Then, around the 1960s, we started hearing songs in the same kind of style, but their content was about war and peace, nuclear weapons, social justice etc.

This passage starts like a love song. Even “vineyard” in the Old Testament culture had associations with romantic love. The tone makes it obvious that it is not just about an agricultural failure, The vineyard owner is not trying to analyse what went wrong – he is angry with the vineyard. He even wants to command the clouds to stop raining on it! This is obviously the song of a spurned lover. But then it takes another turn: “For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel”. It is not just a love song – it is an indictment of the whole nation. “Vine” was also a symbol of Israel.

The end of the song is shocking and stark: “He expected justice (mishpat) but saw bloodshed (mishpach), righteousness (tsedakah), but heard a cry (tse’aqah).”

We do not often think of the prophets as singers, but they probably delivered many of their messages as songs. They were certainly poets. Their books too are like an anthology: we shouldn’t expect to be able to read the"m from beginning to end and follow a plot. It’s best to dip in and read one short passage at a time.

Poets are sensitive people who feel things very deeply. They have visions we think are unrealistic, nightmares we would rather not think about. Their logic is sometimes difficult to understand, but we can feel the passion of what they say. Their anger was not grim, puritanical “righteousness”: it was the anger we see today in demonstrators, marchers and protest singers. They were controversial, often mocked, imprisoned or even executed.

They were dreamers. The Book of Isaiah begins with the words “The vision  …”. He and the other prophets could have said “I have a dream”.  Martin Luther King was a preacher. His message was the dream of a world that could be different. It led him into political engagement and into death. Yet that dream has begun to come true.

We think of the prophets as predictors of the future. In a sense they were, but only because they saw deeply into the present time. Their messages were for their own time. Isa 7:14-15 is about a child who is about to be born and named “God with us” in confidence of a better time to come. 
Isa 9:6-7 is the celebration of a royal birth. The prophet is perhaps acting in the role of a Poet Laureate. The grandiose titles "Mighty God", "Prince of Peace" etc., were normal for kings in that culture. Isa 40: 3 is about the imminent return of the exiles from Babylon across the desert to Jerusalem.

These sayings acquired new meaning in new situations. But we do the prophet an injustice if we think he was only making some sort of magical prediction that would mean nothing to anybody till 700 years later.

The best way to read the prophets is:

  • don’t try to understand everything
  • don’t try to square it all with Christian doctrine
  • don’t feel you have to read it all
  • read what inspires you, give other passages a try, but treat it like an anthology of poetry
  • read it aloud
  • enter into the passion
  • try to imagine the story behind it
I closed by reading Isaiah 1:1-20. It is a young man’s rant. God is not impressed with religion. He’s tired of all the sacrifices, festivals, songs and prayers. What he wants his people to do is “seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow”.

How can we say that the Old Testament prophets are not relevant today?

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