It's Just a "Little" Apocalypse
Updated: Apr 3, 2021
Isaiah 24 starts a new section in this book that is full of both poetry and prose, historical narrative, and baffling apocalyptic descriptions. Apparently, Isaiah chapters 24-27 is known as the "Little Apocalypse" because it seems to refer to apocalyptic events without the full apocalyptic imagery that typically is part of the genre of apocalyptic literature. Just a "little" apocalypse, then. As we've already encountered pseudo-apocalyptic mentions earlier in Isaiah, I'm reminded of a Buffy the Vampire Slayer excerpt:
Giles (Buffy's British "Watcher" and mentor): "It's the end of the world."
Xander and Willow (friends of Buffy): "Again?!"
Or, as Giles politely stammered in a different episode, "Sorry to barge in. I'm afraid we have a slight apocalypse."
The problem with this chapter is how to interpret it. From the two dozen or so commentaries I've consulted on this, I've noticed a pattern. Older commentaries declare that this chapter is not very apocalyptic at all; it simply closes out the preceding chapters of prophesies against particular nations, this one primarily focusing on the fall of Judah. More recent commentaries, heavily influenced by dispensationalism (more on that fun word later), say that this is definitely about the apocalypse, complete with a tribulation, rapture...the whole shebang.
So, uh, some slight disagreement. I'm not going to directly weigh in on centuries of differing views of this chapter except to note that this disagreement connects with some problems we face in Christendom today. Namely, we often assume that Christians' view of things today was always thus. That our theology is 100% consistent with the apostles and that we haven't veered in a different direction. We also inevitably have a cultural lens that can be incredibly difficult to shake or even acknowledge. And, if anyone has veered in a different direction, we think that it can't possibly be the conservative Christians, the ones holding onto an "inerrant" view of the Bible.
Yes--that's the issue I'd like to address.
Dispensationalism is a relatively new viewpoint in Christianity (while some strands may have been present earlier, it came to prominence starting in the 19th century). It's a uniquely Protestant view and is largely pre-millennial in its eschatology. So, the Left Behind book and movie series should come to mind. It's a super-literal interpretation of Revelation 20, with a rapture, great tribulation, and a thousand-year Millennium of the reign of Christ. In this view, there are seven "dispensations" across history, starting with the innocence in the Garden of Eden and ending with the Millennial Kingdom.
Besides modern Evangelicalism largely holding to this viewpoint, it is not-- and has never been--the prevailing Christian view world-wide. And so, to automatically read Isaiah 24 through this lens is not ideal. Personally, I believe it's OK to grapple with mystery and not feel 100% confident in what one thinks will happen at the end of the world (see a recent blog post on not needing to always be right: https://www.isaiahfortoday.com/post/you-don-t-have-to-be-right-all-the-time). Tradition holds that Saint Augustine, upon being pressed by a skeptic to answer, "What was God doing before He created the world?" retorted, “Creating hell for curious souls"!
What's interesting in Isaiah 24 is the mention of covenants. God gives a clear reason as to why devastation is occurring, either for the land of Judah or the whole earth (or both?):
The earth is defiled by its people, they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes and broken the everlasting covenant. Therefore a curse consumes the earth; its people must bear their guilt.
In heavily individualistic American Christianity, it's good to remember that multiple strands within Christianity have long-recognized the importance of covenants and, in contrast to dispensationalism, see covenantal theology as interwoven throughout Scripture. I'll focus on the Reformed Protestant view here.
First off, what is a covenant? Most people are familiar with the covenant of marriage, so that's a great model for all Biblical covenants. I'll be relying heavily here on this great TGC article on covenants if anyone would like a longer description: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/essay/covenant-theology/
Covenants involve an agreement between persons, and this agreement includes mutual promises made. For example, vows being exchanged during a wedding ceremony.
Oftentimes, the covenant is the basis for the relationship itself. It marks the start of this unique relationship--marriage is again a great example here.
There are signs and seals that accompany the covenant. Examples include wedding rings for the covenant of marriage and the rainbow in the sky for the covenant God made with Noah after the flood.
The spoken word is key--the promises are often written down and are agreed to. For example, the marriage contract or the book of the Law in the Old Testament.
The emphasis is God's relationship with His people. Thus, eras are not based on dispensations but new and unique ways in which God interacts with humanity. This is known as "redemptive history"--there is a master plan and God is walking alongside us as the plan culminates in the ultimate renewal of all created things.
There are three theological covenants in this viewpoint: Redemption, Works, and Grace. I'll focus on the Covenant of Redemption; here's my summary:
The Trinity (Father, Son, Spirit) agree upon and enact a plan to redeem the world. God the Father sends the Son to save and redeem all of creation, and the Holy Spirit applies the benefits of this work to believing Christians. This is Plan A. God didn't need to quickly pivot in the moment after Adam and Eve sinned. This was always the plan.
It's a beautiful story and a powerful plan, and one that resonates deeply with the human experience. Those with and without religious backgrounds alike are often drawn to redemptive themes. Numerous lists exist that rank movies with the most redemptive themes. Here's one such list from imdb (https://www.imdb.com/list/ls068531036/):
The Passion of the Christ
The Shawshank Redemption
The Family Man
The Fisher King
...and many more. People love a good redemption story. How amazing to think that we're all living in one, if we would open our eyes to it!
Rather than God sitting passively in the sky judging us all the time, He is actively involved in history and is moving everything toward a culminating redemptive plan. But why do people still suffer now? Why can't He click His fingers and just make all the bad problems go away? There are dissertations, books, and treatises on this, but ultimately we need to accept a certain level of mystery simply because we do not have access to this information, which resides in God alone. Others emphasize the covenantal nature of this redemptive plan--it's not just a matter of God doing everything. We have a role to play as well, as participants in this covenant. And part of this role is transformation. It's not just a matter of the world changing around us--we need to change, too. As C.S. Lewis writes in Mere Christianity:
"...the Christian view is precisely that the Next Step has already appeared. And it is really new. It is not a change from brainy men to brainier men: it is a change that goes off in a totally different direction – a change from being creatures of God to being sons of God. The first instance appeared in Palestine two thousand years ago...I have called Christ the ‘first instance’ of the new man… He is not merely a new man, one specimen of the species, but the new man. He is the origin and centre and life of all the new men. He came into the created universe, of His own will, bringing with Him the Zoe, the new life….And He transmits it… by what I have called ‘good infection'...Until we rise and follow Christ we are still parts of Nature, still in the womb of our great mother. Her pregnancy has been long and painful and anxious, but it has reached its climax. The great moment has come. Everything is ready. The Doctor has arrived. Will the birth ‘go off all right’?”
Let us not be like those in Isaiah 24 who broke the "everlasting covenant." Rather, in being willing participants in the Covenant of Redemption, we take hold of the "life that is truly life" (I Timothy 6:19). Good Friday, celebrated today, is called "good" because Jesus' death was the pivotal moment when Christ enacted God's redemptive plan to cleanse people of their sins and usher them into a relationship with God Himself. We can now spend the rest of our lives exploring what it means to "take hold" of the life that Christ purchased for us. As the Apostle Paul says earlier in I Timothy 6:11-16:
But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses. In the sight of God, who gives life to everything, and of Christ Jesus, who while testifying before Pontius Pilate made the good confession, I charge you to keep this command without spot or blame until the appearing of our Lord Jesus Christ, which God will bring about in his own time—God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see. To him be honor and might forever. Amen.