This paper has several objectives. Through the Three Worlds of the Text criteria it examines the historical context of Isaiah, the Proto-Isaiah 2:6-22 pericope, and, finally, seeks to not only come to an understanding of the biblical concept of the “Day of the Lord” theology but also how such a theology is helpful for Christian believers today.
The Three Worlds of the Text Template
The “Three Worlds” of the text is a helpful criteria for engaging in biblical hermeneutics (Martin, 2013: 205). First, it provides a guideline for the exegete to focus attention in certain areas that each ask their own set of unique questions. For example, the World of the Text criterion examines genre, structure, and narrative, the World Behind the Text elucidates the authorship, culture and history, and the World in Front of the Text looks to examine how a text has been understood, interpreted, and utilized within religious communities long after it was penned (BCE Religious Ed, 2016). The template thus employs a method of objectivity as well as allowing for a consideration of the subjectivities inherent in divergent socio-cultural contexts. This paper uses the Three Worlds method for examining the book of Isaiah and the Isaiah 2:6-22 pericope.
The Book & the Prophet
Questions related to author and authorship are integral to the The World Behind the Text criterion. Internal biographical evidence from Isaiah tells us he was referred to as “the prophet” (38:1). A simple view of the role of a prophet is one who “bubbles up, like from a spring” (from the Hebrew Nabi). In other words, a prophet is one who bubbles up with the revelations and words of God (Ritenbaugh, 2003). Internal evidence also suggests the prophet had a family. He had a wife of whom is referred to as “the prophetess” (8:3) and two sons, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz and Shear-jashub. Where the latter are concerned, biblical names are often imbued with meaning symbolic or representative of divine revelation and hope. One observes this in the names of Isaiah’s two sons, for example, Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz means “Spoil quickly, plunder speedily” (8:3) and Shear-jashub means “A remnant shall return” (7:3). These prophetic names are predictive of future events related to the fate of Judah and its relationship with surrounding nations, for example, Shear-jashub (“A remnant shall return”) is likely a reference to the Assyrian captivity in which a remnant of Israelite captives would one day return to their homes (see 2 Chron. 31:1).
Isaiah was active in ministry during the 8th century BC. Historians are able to pinpoint this with some certainty given that the opening of the book says he ministered during the reigns of several kings of Judah (Isa. 1:1). Isaiah started out during the reign of Uzziah and continued through the rulerships of Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah. Given that historians are fairly certain when king Uzziah died, it is likely that Isaiah first begun prophesying somewhere between 750-740 BC just prior to the king’s death.
However, the connection the prophet has with the text bearing his name is more complicated. The traditional view was that the entire book (66 chapters) was penned by the prophet himself on two separate occasions separated by 15 years (Sperry, 1961: 84). However, contemporary scholarship suggests that much of the book was composed during the Babylonian captivity and later, and the consensus today is that the book was not penned by one person but a few (Brueggemann, 2003: 159; Petersen, 2002: 47-48; Stromberg, 2011: 2; Sweeney, 1998: 75-76). Originating with German theologian Bernhard Duhm, scholars generally divide the book into three separate categories: Proto, Deutero, and Trito Isaiah (Petersen, 2002: 47-48; Sweeney, 1998: 78). Proto-Isaiah runs from the first chapter until chapter 39, contains the words of the prophet and emphasizes the restoration of Judah. Deutero-Isaiah (chapters 40-55) is thought to be the work of an anonymous author writing some time within the 6th century BC during the Exile. Trito-Isaiah runs from chapters 56-66 and is thought to have been composed after the Jews returned from exile in Babylon. Given our 2:6-22 pericope, any analysis this paper does here engages Proto-Isaiah.
The Ancient Near East
An important feature of the World Behind the Text is the socio-historical context in which a text speaking of real people and places was penned and took its form. Isaiah’s 8th century BC ministry took place within the Ancient Near East (ANE) during the Iron Age (1200 – 539 BC). Acknowledging this backdrop is imperative given that the ancient world differed greatly from our contemporary one. When one reads in these ancient accounts details of legal concepts, national and tribal identity, and things like marriage one cannot think of these in the same way she thinks of them today. We have to put on ancient spectacles, so to speak, in hope to learn about how the ancient world functioned.
This part of the world, commonly referred to as the Ancient Near East, was distinctive in several ways (Walton, 2014). This area in which the prophet Isaiah ministered, despite possessing a hot, dry climate, was primarily an agricultural one, and we find this reflected in Isaiah’s extensive usage of ecosystemic imagery in the 2:6-22 pericope and beyond. It was also a land in which powerful empires both flourished and fell. At the beginning of the Iron Age, Assyria would begin to amass power and grow to become a major force lasting over three centuries until Babylon, in the late 7th century, took the throne. Power transition occurred again when the Persians conquered the Babylonians and built a massive empire stretching well into Egypt. The tiny nation of Israel would often be caught in the middle of these power shifts and thus be at the mercy of forces beyond its control.
We learn from Proto-Isaiah, which speaks primarily to a pre-exilic Israelite audience, that the prophet’s ministry was in full flow during the time of the Assyrian crisis. This was a pivotal moment in Israel’s history in which the powerful kingdom of Assyria, under monarchs Tiglath-Pileser III and Shalmaneser V, conquered and destroyed the northern kingdom (Ross, 2004). Assyria also became a threat to the southern kingdom of Judah who, we learn from Isaiah, engaged in a number of sinful practices including the likes of idol worship deemed evil in the eyes of their God. The Assyrians conquered the northern kingdom and took captives from a number of the tribes (1 Chron. 5:26; 2 Kings 15:29). This was a well thought out and established strategy employed by the Assyrians as a means to disinvest their enemies of any political power and therefore future threat (Lemche, 1998: 85). In this mix the Israelites cultural and ethnic identity were under threat which would explain why, in the middle of these major power shifts, they became so confused (Ross, 2004). After all, how could they believe, in the face of all that was happening to them, that God still cared for them? Rather, it would appear that either their God had forgotten them or he was inflicting punishment upon them for their sins. One could certainly imagine these concerns being at forefront of their minds at the time.
The Day of the Lord Theology
The Day of the Lord is an important theological theme in many of our biblical texts (Coogan, 2009: 260). It is found in numerous places within both the Old and New testaments. The manner in which the Day of the Lord theology is employed by the biblical authors is diverse and elastic in nature, and varied depending on the time period of the author’s writing (Komoszewski, 2002). For example, in the New Testament it is mostly used in conjunction to a final day of divine and apocalyptic judgment believed to take place at the end of the world (see Matthew 24:29-31; 1 Thes. 5:2; 2 Corinthians 1:14; Acts 2:17-21; Rev. 6:12-17). Moreover, a wide reading of the Old Testament prophetic literature, penned and circulated centuries prior to the 1st century Christian movement, also evidences a broad understanding of this theology.
It is clear that it has a duality to it (Komoszewski, 2002). On one hand it denotes God pouring out his divine wrath on his enemies (Joel 2:1-2; Zech. 1:14-15). Amos, the minor prophet of the 8th century BC, provides us with an early example of this theology in which he describes the catastrophic events that will occur on this day, “Woe to you who long for the day of the Lord… Will not the day of the Lord be darkness, not light – pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?” (5:18-20). Similar to Amos, a reading of the Day of the Lord theology in the prophetic literature provides a vast array of imagery used that connects it to images of military conquest, supernatural power and calamities, and natural disasters. Despite its gloomy nature in some of the biblical texts, the Day of the Lord is also characterized by God’s pouring out of blessings on his people (Hos. 2:18-23; Mic. 4:6-8; Joel 3:9-21; Zech. 14:6-9; Zeph 2:7).
The timing of this day is a complex question. According to some authors its time is “near” or imminent (Isa. 13:6; Ezek. 30:3; Obad. 1:15) whereas, to others, it has already occurred in the past through God’s judgement that had already taken place on the nations of Egypt (Jer. 46:10), Philistia (Jer. 47:4), Edom (Isa. 34:8), and Babylon (Isa. 13:1). Moreover, the Day of the Lord is also conceived as future orientated. The prophet Isaiah, for example, prophesied that for the Israelites there will come a day that will be “beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land will be the pride and glory of the survivors in Israel” (Isa. 4:2-6). Isaiah saw a time in which God’s people would turn away from their idols and turn to their one true God (2:18; 20; also see Joel 2:12-14). According to Joel all the nations will finally recognize the one true God on this day (3:17) although, as Zephaniah tells us, it will be too late for those whose path is death and destruction (2:12-14). Nonetheless, as theologian Ed Komoszewski explains, the Day of the Lord is not only directed at specific nations or collections of people but also at evil in general, it is about “bringing judgment to evil wherever it may be found in fallen creation,” (Komoszewski, 2002) and thus emphasizes the sovereignty of God and his judgement over nations and people.
Isaiah & The Day of the Lord Theology
The above outline has elucidated the underlying biblical ideas relating to this theology. It is also a theology, nonetheless, that constitutes a major section of the second chapter of Isaiah whereby the prophet goes to some lengths to describe the Day of the Lord (2:6-22). This is our earliest use of the phrase, as the prophet declares, “For the day of the LORD of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and lofty, and upon every one that is lifted up; and he shall be brought low” (2:12).
According to the prophet, God’s outrage is at the sins of Judah. Through an employment of a harsh tone and hyperbolic language, the prophet describes Judah as being a nation full of objects of wealth and strength (a land full of “silver and gold” and “horses” and “chariots”) that have been turned into idols of worship. Judah has thus become a nation full of things that have made them sinful in the eyes of their God. These include their idolatrous behaviours in their worshipping of deities fashioned by their hands (v. 8) as well as their importation of sinful “pagan customs” and practices of “divination” from the East (v. 6-9) .
Moreover, a major theme in our pericope is that of God’s condemnation of human pride and its accompanying arrogance. As a result of pride and the numerous other sinful behaviours Isaiah mentions, God has abandoned his people (v. 6). But according to the prophet, God will not leave it there for a day will come in which God will humble the arrogant (v. 11), bring low the proud, those who exalt themselves (v. 11-12), and the arrogant men (v. 17). The images and metaphors the prophet uses to described the severity of these sins are fascinating: Judah’s pride and arrogance are as tall as the cedars of Lebanon (v. 13), as overshadowing as the towering mountains, hills, and as unmoving as the fortified walls (v. 14-15). The all-knowing, all-powerful, and holy God of Israel will not forget these sins and will one day come in great judgement (the Day of the Lord, according to Isaiah). On this day the people will flee to caves in the rocks and to holes in the ground out of fear for God’s presence (v. 19). God will come in his splendor and majesty and the earth will shake (v. 19). The idolatrous idols made of silver and gold will be destroyed (v. 18; v. 20), and all the glory will go to God alone for it is he alone who “will be exalted in that day” (v. 17).
The Believer & The Day of the Lord Theology
Although the biblical teachings on the Day of the Lord are expansive, the general underlying notion is straightforward which suggests God’s sovereignty over all evil and sin. As Komoszewski explains, it is God’s promise of the “ultimate and permanent undoing of evil, and the lasting transformation and redemption of that which has been ravished by sin” (Komoszewski, 2002). This theology is pertinent to believers today. Why? Because just as it was with Isaiah and the pre-exilic community of whom he addressed, 21st century Christ followers are facing their own challenges. Most western believers are not threatened by impending doom on behalf of foreign empires but many of them exist in the face of intense struggle. Christian believers the world over exist in societies in which man made idols, not necessarily of gold and silver (although it is often the case), are driving motivators in the lives of the people they love and those they interact with in their homes, schools, and places of work. These idols are always temptations in the life of the believer too. Moreover, although Assyria and Babylon are out of the picture, many believers are facing fear brought on an unknowable and unpredictable future. Certain nations threaten any notion of global coexistence, secular and alternative spirituality ideologies snatch away our children in our backyards, and other religions, like Islam, are soon predicted to dominate the religious domain in terms of sheer numbers alone. Thus, what the underlying premise of the Day of the Lord theology provides is hope that even in the face of all these challenges God will come through for his people for a last time in human history.
This paper concludes with a few points. First, scripture is deep in meaning, and this is true in scriptural views of the Day of the Lord theology. Isaiah particularly employs this theology as suggestive of a future event of God’s judgement, and third, the general premise behind the Day of the Lord theology supports a message of hope for the Christian believer today.
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