Part 4/5 of a set of reflections written for Ware Episcopal Church on the daily lectionary during Advent 3.
5 Doom to Assyria, rod of my anger,
in whose hand is the staff of my fury!
6 Against a godless nation I send him;
against an infuriating people
I direct him to seize spoil, to steal plunder,
and to trample them like mud in the streets.
7 But he has other plans;
he schemes in secret;
destruction is on his mind,
extermination of nation after nation.
8 He says: Aren’t my commanders all kings?
9 Isn’t Calno like Carchemish?
Isn’t Hamath like Arpad?
Isn’t Samaria like Damascus?
10 Just as I took control of idolatrous kingdoms
with more images than Jerusalem and Samaria,
11 just as I did to Samaria and her false gods,
won’t I also do this to Jerusalem and her idols?
12 But when the Lord has finished all this work on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, he will punish the Assyrian king’s arrogant actions and the boasting of his haughty eyes.
13 He said, “By my own strength I have achieved it,
and by my wisdom, since I’m so clever.
I disregarded national boundaries; I raided their treasures;
I knocked down their rulers like a bull.
14 My hand found the wealth of the peoples
as if it were in a nest.
Just as one gathers abandoned eggs,
I have gathered the entire earth;
no creature fluttered a wing or opened a mouth to chirp.”
15 Will the ax glorify itself over the one who chops with it?
Or will the saw magnify itself over its user?
As if a rod could wave the one who lifts it!
As if a staff could lift up the one not made of wood!
16 Therefore, the Lord God of heavenly forces
will make the well-fed people waste away;
and among his officials,
a blaze will burn like scorching fire.
17 The light of Israel will become a fire,
its holy one a flame,
which will burn and devour
its thorns and thistles
in a single day.
18 Its abundant forest and farmland
will be finished completely,[b
as when a sick person wastes away;
19 its forest’s remaining trees will be no more than a child can count.
“Everything happens for a reason” is one of those phrases that gets trotted out again and again as some sort of solace whenever something bad happens. The wider implication, of course, is that God causes or plans things to happen in our lives—even the negative things. I won’t try to write a dissertation on this theology, but I do think that reading Isaiah forces us to confront God’s power over the rise and fall of nations, and thus God’s power over events in our lives.
Today’s reading in particular, with its focus on Assyria as the tool through which God punishes Israel, forces us to think about what it means to be a chosen people or nation. At first, it seems like Assyria is favored by God through their military prowess over Israel. But Isaiah’s prophecy makes it clear that Assyria, like Israel, must also undergo defeat for “arrogant actions”. The problem here is that both nations placed their national identity and trust in military power over God.
As we continue towards Christmastide, Isaiah forces us to reckon with this idolatry. Nation and power can only exist in perspective with our relationship with God. Jesus shows us where these things belong through his identity as human baby born in poverty, and as a political criminal who died on the cross. Salvation comes through our focus on God, and our discarding the “just in case” idols of power and might. Isaiah blatantly forces us to ask this question: what are the idols that we must discard or reprioritize during this time of waiting?