Forthright Magazine

The cosmic language of the prophets (Part 3)

A variety of statements can prepare us for what is coming. “Once upon a time …,” “Here’s the annual financial report,” “In 1775, George Washington …” and “Ingredients: 2 cups of flour …” all trigger our minds to understand how to interpret what comes next.

We also naturally apply such genre awareness to the lyrics of songs. “Ain’t no sunshine when she’s gone.” None of us would run outside expecting a solar eclipse or other solar event if  “she” were to drive away.

How strange that while these words can sweep us into gut wrenching sadness, yet when a biblical prophet lyrically casts a similar vision of gloom, people start checking to see how bright the sun is outside! We should not abandon genre awareness when reading scripture.

Rather, recognizing that a prophet’s message is cast in poetic language should prepare us to appreciate and interpret their dramatic cosmic imagery. Just as a song’s lyrics can invite us into deep feelings, so too the prophets used powerful metaphors for engaging their hearers’ hearts and minds.

Consider how Isaiah described the king of Babylon’s conquests. “Is this the man who shook the earth, the one who made kingdoms tremble? Is this the one who made the world like a wilderness, who ruined its cities …? (Isaiah 14:16-17). 

Notice the Hebraic poetic parallelism! Shaking the earth conveys the same message as making nations tremble. Transforming the world into a wilderness is a poetic metaphor for destroying cities! Don’t check with a seismologist for an earthquake or expect an apocalyptic desert outside!

Well, if a man can shake the earth and turn the world into a wilderness, how did the prophets describe God’s ability to destroy a nation or people? Singing the blues to Pharaoh about his dismal future before the king of Babylon, Ezekiel revealed God’s intentions:

“When I snuff you out, I will cover the heavens and darken the stars; I will cover the sun with a cloud, and the moon will not give its light. All the shining lights in the heavens I will darken over you; I will bring darkness over the land … when I bring about your destruction among the nations.” (Ezekiel 32:7-9).

Expect the prophets to dig into stark apocalyptic cosmic imagery when God goes on the war path! The lights go out in the heavens while the land or even the whole earth burns up or trembles, streams dry up and wilderness chaos overwhelms (Isaiah 5:24-25; 9:19; 13:1-13; 14:23,26; 15:1,6; 19:1,5; 34:8-10). Ain’t no sunshine when God brings ruin upon a nation!

Isaiah described Edom’s destruction: “dead bodies will send up a stench … All the stars of the heavens will be dissolved and the sky rolled up like a scroll; all the starry host will fall like withered leaves from the vine … my sword … descends on Edom in judgement.” (Isaiah 34:3-5).

Warning ancient Israel that the day in which God would act toward them would not be a day of salvation but a day of destruction, Amos announced: “Why do you long for the day of the LORD? That day will be darkness, not light. … Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light – pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness? I hate, I despise your religious feasts …” (Amos 5:18,20-21).

Foretelling Babylon’s fall, Isaiah proclaimed: “the stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light.” (Isaiah 13:10). When God destroys, there ain’t no sunshine, only darkness fills the day.

If the metaphorical language for God judging a nation involves turning out the lights, how are God’s gracious blessings portrayed? As we might anticipate, the darkness becomes light as the sun shines much brighter (Isaiah 30:26; 42:16). Good thing this is not literal! Furthermore, water quenches the thirsty desert bringing forth fertility as dangerous animals disappear (Isaiah 41:19; 44:4; 51:3; 55:13; 65:25).

So what type of cosmic imagery might we expect if God takes a conquered nation and sets them on a whole new trajectory of independence, blessings and prosperity? Such a new thing would obviously be a much better world for them!

This brings us back to the theme of this series of articles. We have already seen that the context of Isaiah 40-65 deals with exilic and post-exilic Israel. What might this suggest about Isaiah’s language regarding new heavens and a new earth?

Have we paid attention to Isaiah’s crescendo regarding a new thing or new things God would do for Israel, or at least for the remnant? (Isaiah 42:9; 43:18,19; 48:6-8; 62:2). What had been called “Abandoned” and “Desolate” would have a new name! (Isaiah 62:2-5). Furthermore, Isaiah portrays God’s blessings with cosmic metaphorical imagery:

Sounds of violence will no longer be heard in your land, or the sounds of destruction and devastation within your borders. 

“You will name your walls, ‘Deliverance,’ and your gates, ‘Praise.’

The sun will no longer supply light for you by day, nor will the moon’s brightness shine on you;

The LORD will be your permanent source of light—the splendor of your God will shine upon you.

Your sun will no longer set; your moon will not disappear;

the LORD will be your permanent source of light; your time of sorrow will be over” (Isaiah 60:18-20)

Hebraic parallelism explains that this imagery about a permanent source of light should be understood in terms of God ending their current sorrow. Post-exilic Israel would experience a new day!

Similarly, Isaiah goes on to explain God’s acting in new ways as God creating new heavens and a new earth. Former hardships will be forgotten in view of new experiences. Jerusalem will be a joy as distress is vanquished. God’s blessings, which will be poured out, are described as people living past 100 and enjoying the fruits of their labors. (Isaiah 65:17-23) No longer would any enemy steal the fruit of their labors!

Yet, we might be left with a question. Since God’s word must be fulfilled and Israel never experienced such post-exilic blessings, then must not these texts foretell the world’s end? Before making such a leap, we need to consider another aspect of prophecy next week.

The first article in this series is: Isaiah’s new heaven and earth (part 1 – interpretation principles)


Barry Newton
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