Twelfth Sunday after Trinity: Isaiah 29:17-24

Distress and judgment shall come upon Jerusalem!  Isaiah says very clearly that foreign armies will surround the city and bring it down to the ground.  “And you will be brought low; from the earth you shall speak, and from the dust your speech will be bowed down” (Isaiah 29:4).  Yet this judgment will be swift and intense.  Isaiah compares the coming of these armies to “fine dust” and “passing chaff” (Isaiah 29:5).  They “shall be like a dream, a vision of the night” (Isaiah 29:7).  The fire of the Lord descending upon Jerusalem shall come quickly and pass by so quickly that there will be no time to prepare.

However, a yet greater judgment than this is poured out upon Israel.  The Lord is hardening their hearts because of their sins.  They will be blind, drunk without drinking wine, and asleep (Isaiah 29:9-10).  This is the Lord’s judgment upon a sinful and rebellious people, lest they turn and see and be healed (Isaiah 6:10).  Paul cites this verse in Romans 11:8 as evidence that the Lord will bring about a great wonder through this hardening.  Israel will stumble so that the nations may be brought in.  Everything will be turned right-side up.  Even the “spirit of deep sleep” in Isaiah 29:10 points to this, because it is the same sleep God poured out on Adam (Genesis 2:21), on Abraham (Genesis 15:12), and on Saul and his army (1 Samuel 26:12).  It is a sleep which marks a great turning point in the history of God’s salvation.

But Israel cannot see this for what it is.  They are like men attempting to read a sealed book or illiterate men who cannot read it at all (Isaiah 29:11-12).  Jesus cites Isaiah 29:13 against the Pharisees in Matthew 15:8-9, because the hardness of the hearts leads them, as it did their fathers, to honor God only in words and not with their heart.  Therefore, the Lord will “again do wonderful things with this people” (Isaiah 29:14) who He once delivered from Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm (Deuteronomy 4:34).  He will turn things upside down in His almighty power.  As Paul says when he cites Isaiah 29:14 in 1 Corinthians 1:19, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men,” a reversal which finds its fullest expression in Christ crucified, the stumbling block of the Jews.

Yet this is a stumbling block because the clay desires to say that it is not made by the potter or that the potter lacks understanding (Isaiah 29:16).  Why should God upset everything in this way?  Why should Jerusalem, the city of God’s favor (1 Kings 11:36), be cast down?  “But who are you, O man, to answer back to God” (Romans 9:20)?  God will do as He pleases for His own purposes, hardening Israel to bring in the fullness of the Gentiles.  “How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways” (Romans 11:33)!

Therefore, the lectionary reading for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity describes this reversal which is meant to make Israel jealous (Deuteronomy 32:19-22).  Lebanon, noted for its forests throughout Scripture (Judges 9:15; 1 Kings 4:33; 5:6; 7:2; etc.), will be reduced to a field, perhaps an orchard.  But the fruitful field will be regarded as a mighty forest.  Those who are deaf shall hear.  Those who are blind shall see.  The ruthless will come to nothing.  Those who watch to do evil will be cut off.  “Then Isaiah is so bold as to say, ‘I have been found by those who did not seek me; I have shown myself to those who did not ask for me.’ But of Israel he says, ‘All day long I have held out my hands to a disobedient and contrary people’” (Romans 10:20-21).

Jacob will then see his children in his midst, the children of the promise, because “it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7).  His jealousy for the Lord will lead to a real change of heart.  Those who have gone astray will understand and those who murmur against God will accept His instruction (Isaiah 29:24).  No longer will stumble over the cornerstone Christ, but they will believe in Him and be grafted in again to their own natural tree.  The sons of Levi will be purified, and they will offer up a sacrifice in righteousness (Malachi 3:3), living sacrifices, holy and acceptable to God (Romans 12:1).