As a new convert, Saint Augustine approached Ambrose, his bishop, and asked, “What should I read to prepare me for my baptism?” What a great question. For those who have been around the recently converted, you know of the energy and joy of newly found faith.
Augustine wanted to know. He had dipped his toe into philosophical inquiry and was no stranger to various modes of thought. But the gospel now had laid siege on his heart and mind. His inquisitive mind was piqued in new directions.
Ambrose’s answer to Augustine’s question makes me smile to this day. “Isaiah. Read Isaiah.” Not John, not Galatians, but Isaiah. Ambrose knew Isaiah’s role as the “fifth gospel” and was quick to point Augustine toward the orchard that is Isaiah. Unfortunately, however, Isaiah’s fruits are not low-hanging.
Augustine recounts in Book IX of his Confessions how he tore into Isaiah only to meet obscurity and difficulty at every turn. Augustine put Isaiah down and headed for greener pastures “until he could learn the Lord’s style of language a bit better.” Perhaps after today’s reading, we can empathize with Augustine.
The three chapters of our reading today begin what is referred to as the “Oracles Against the Nations.” Scholars have long noted a structural break in Isaiah between chapters 12 and 13, such that Isaiah 1-12 stands as a literary unit and 13-23 does so as well.
Isaiah 11-12 looks forward to the coming day of redemption when Jesse’s seed presses up as new growth in Israel’s cut down tree. Songs of salvation ring forth in Isaiah 12: “Behold, God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid; for the Lord God is my strength and my song, and he has become my salvation” (12:2). Isaiah 12 is all brass trumpets and kettledrums.
Isaiah 13-23 becomes a wide-angled lens for God’s sovereign reach over all nations, not merely Israel. Isaiah 13 and 14 bring together the arch nemeses of Israel and Judah: the Babylonians and the Assyrians. Before the book is over – and especially as we see when read alongside Kings – both Assyria and Babylon will leave their permanent mark on Judah. After ravaging the Northern Kingdom (722 b.c.), Assyria presses into Judah with a tyranny that leads right to Jerusalem’s gates (see Micah 1:10ff.). But God in his intervening grace and power protects Jerusalem from ultimate demise.
The Babylonians follow on the heels of the Assyrians as the dominant world power in the Ancient Near East. We are given intimations of Babylon’s destructive destination in Isaiah 39. Hezekiah is told about the Babylonians and the terror they would bring on Judah for his children and grandchildren. And that’s what happened in the sixth century b.c. Well, enough of the brief history lesson…
Isaiah 13 and 14 reveal God’s sovereignty over Babylon and Assyria too. Though used as the instruments of God’s judgment against his recalcitrant people, Babylon and Assyria would also experience God’s judgment. The book of Nahum is none too happy about the Assyrians. In fact, God’s sovereign reach extends to Philistia, Cush, Moab, Damascus, and even Egypt.
God’s giving it to Israel’s enemies in the teeth doesn’t surprise us. But there is more here. God’s sovereignty does not extend merely to the execution of his justice but also to the prevailing triumph of his grace. In Isaiah 19, Egypt, Assyria, and Israel are all blessed in the Lord. They know Yahweh; they worship him; they cry out for mercy; and God heals them. Little wonder Ambrose points Augustine to Isaiah. The gospel tears through this book.
When Jonah is sitting on the hillside pouting about God’s grace to the Assyrians, I guess we could put a straightforward question to him. Jonah, have you read Isaiah?