Hope is not only conveyed through the images; hope rests in them. The promised visions shape a future that God will eventually make real: or, better, that he will make concrete in human time and space, for they were already real when God revealed them to me.
Author’s Introduction: Imagine if Homer, Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, and the other great poets of ancient Greece, Rome, and the Middle Ages had been given the gift, not only to peer into the twenty-first century, but to correspond with us who live in that most confusing and rudderless of centuries. Had it been in their power to do both of those things, what might they say to us? How would they advise us to live our lives? What wisdom from their experience and from their timeless poems might they choose to pass down to us?
Isaiah: On Hope
Though God shows me the terrible things that will happen to those individuals and nations who disobey him, he shows me as well the greater hope that he has in store for his chosen people. He allows me to see the springs that will one day bring life to the barren desert, the fruit that will one day flower from the buried seed, the joy that waits, silent and hidden, on the other side of sorrow.
For so many years, all that came out of my mouth was judgment, judgment, judgment. I was surrounded on all sides by God’s white-hot wrath against the Assyrians and the Philistines, the Moabites and the Edomites, the Arameans and the Phoenicians, the Egyptians and the Babylonians. And, alas, against Israel and Judah as well.
Indeed, I saw, and was forced to pass on, how God would use the pagan nations to punish Israel for her sins. Do not think, my friends of the future, that just because God uses you to rebuke and even punish someone else that you are therefore righteous and blameless yourself. God used the wicked nations as a stick to beat Israel, a stick that, in its turn, would be broken and thrown into the fire.
There is a great difference between being a friend of God’s will and a tool of his wrath. If you are of the former group, do not become boastful; the time will come when you will fall, and great will be that fall. God has shown me what happens to those nations whom he uses to punish his people and what happens to his people when they recklessly and disobediently put their trust in one of those nations.
Beware you do not become a pawn in a game of power that you can neither control nor understand. For such games are still played in your day and age.
Still, I have not written this letter to warn you about God’s wrath, but to open your eyes to the mercy and comfort that resonate beneath the wrath, ever ready to burst forth into the glorious light of day. It is of that hope that I would write.
Even in the midst of those seemingly endless judgments that God put in my mouth, rays of hope kept breaking through. I caught glimpses:
Of a holy Mountain toward which all the nations would be drawn.
Of the swords of war beaten into the plowshares of peace.
Of spears that maim and kill made into hooks that prune and bring fertility.
Of a Branch that will spread its arms over a land and a people renewed.
Of a new Pillar of Smoke and Pillar of Fire to protect and illumine.
Of a Child, a Son of David, whose birth will change the world.
Of a Divine Counselor and Prince of Peace whose kingdom will endure forever.
Of One on whom the Spirit of wisdom and counsel and understanding will rest.
Of a place where lion and lamb shall lie together and a child shall lead them.
Of that Mountain again, now covered as thickly and deeply with the knowledge of God as the waters cover the fathomless sea.
I am aware that in your age, hope has been dismissed as a flimsy, insubstantial thing, an immature way of escaping from reality. Many of your wise men, I have found, consider hope a negative force that distracts people’s minds from building the future.
But without hope, there can be no future; without vision, the people perish.
God created the world out of words, but he holds it together with images. The images I listed above are both the promise and the realization of Israel’s redemption. Hope is not only conveyed through the images; hope rests in them. The promised visions shape a future that God will eventually make real: or, better, that he will make concrete in human time and space, for they were already real when God revealed them to me.
The Mountain, the Branch, the Child: all are parts of a greater reality that God will eventually write over our lesser reality. For what I saw in my prophetic glimpses were not just random pictures, but God’s Kingdom breaking in.
But let me write now of the latter set of visions that God sent me when I could no longer bear the seemingly endless succession of judgments that troubled my dreams. One by one, the pagan nations tore away at the heart and soul of Israel. In the end, God showed me, even the faithful remnant of Judah would fall to the might of Babylon. And when that happened, the glorious Temple would be destroyed, and the offspring of Judah dragged into captivity.
There I thought the visions would end, for what could succeed such a calamity, such a final and total ending to the people of God?
But hope remained.
Even as I thought to lay down my prophetic mantle and retire into the wilderness, God sent me the longed-for word: comfort. And with it, a new set of images to make that comfort concrete:
A Voice in the desert, not distant and detached, but rich and embodied.
Valleys lifted up and mountains torn down to make a highway for the Lord.
Young men of Judah casting aside their weariness and rising on wings like eagles.
A Servant of the Lord who will be as meek and gentle as he is strong and mighty.
Then a different Servant, a pagan anointed by God to end his people’s bondage.
And then the former Servant again, now a man of sorrow, despised and rejected.
And behind it all, the feet of one on a hill crying out good news to Zion.
And then I knew and understood that in and through these images, God had won the victory. Long before Judah would fall and be taken to Babylon, God had already written that victory in indelible images of comfort, promise, and hope.
Be of good cheer, my friends of the future. Hope is real.
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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Prophet Isaiah” (c. 1700) by Antonio Balestra (1666-1740), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.