In 2012, pop rock group Imagine Dragons recorded the hit song, "Radioactive." Despite references to it in its lyrics, this song is apparently not really about the apocalypse. Isaiah 13, however, is.
During my first read of this chapter this year, I was struck with the horrific violence. It could definitely be a passage that would lead some to close up their Bible and complain that the God of the Israelites promotes violence. However, as with any type of literature, it's crucial to learn about the historical context and intent of what is actually being written.
First off, we yet again see a situation where punishment is doled out for the sin of pride. Only two related sins are mentioned as bringing on the apocalyptic violence:
I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins,
I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless
So far in Isaiah, these are the primary sins that God tells Isaiah to prophesy about. In the NIV Bible translation, "pride" is mentioned 54 times. C.S. Lewis called pride "the essential vice, the utmost evil." It is the sin attributed to Satan for why he was cast out of heaven. One of the Bible passages where we have a snapshot into a behind-the-scenes on the supernatural and Satan's fate is this chapter and the next.
If pride is such a huge deal, one would think Christians would devote a lot more mental and verbal space to it, that pride should at least deserve a mention when identifying what is really concerning about the world we currently live in.
It seems to me that we are often faddish about what sins are considered the really bad ones. It's extra challenging when a culture views a particular vice as a virtue. Or, when they turn a blind eye to it because it can be a pretty useful sin when what one is after is power...
Anyway back to the violence...Many Bibles title this chapter, "A Prophecy Against Babylon." However, commentary after commentary going as far back as I could find indicates that this entire chapter has a double-meaning. The full prophesy can't possible pertain to Babylon, for a number of reasons.
Babylon (present-day Iraq) was indeed defeated by the Medes and Persians, just like this chapter says. However, rather than the horrific violence described here, Babylon ends up surrendering without a fight. The images of babies dying and people being hunted down never happens. John Calvin wrote, in his commentary on Isaiah,
"It may be asked, Was this destruction as cruel as Isaiah here describes it to be? or history gives a different account, and Daniel himself, who was an eye-witness of this destruction, relates that the city was only taken, for the Medes and Persians spared the citizens and inhabitants."
We even see this in the Biblical book of Daniel, where Daniel calmly stays in his government post through this fairly peaceful transition of power.
There is more that is going on here, then. What is the "more"? The Day of the Lord, the Biblical term for the end times, when Christ returns and all is made right.
So, this chapter is largely about a future, cosmic cataclysm. Someone is indeed going to be punished for his pride, and we'll learn who in Chapter 14. Rather than an actual, physical human battle, we see the very constellations thrown into disarray. The sun and moon go dark. The animal kingdom is awry.
This blog is supposed to be about "Isaiah for today." What possible connection can there be with talking about the apocalypse in 2021?
Well, in 2020, the Doomsday Clock was set at 100 seconds to midnight. This is the closest to a potential apocalypse that the clock has ever been set to in its 70-year history. In 2021, the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (who I will call the "Keepers of the Clock of Doom") decided to keep the clock set at the 100 seconds marker.
What factors went into this decision? Continued threat of nuclear war, climate change...the usual. Plus, a pandemic and the lack of global preparation for said pandemic. And now, "cyber-based disinformation," is the phrase they used. That's a useful term! Here's their fuller description of the issue and what to do about it:
"Furthermore, focused attention is needed to prevent information technology from undermining public trust in political institutions, in the media, and in the existence of objective reality itself. Cyber-enabled information warfare is a threat to the common good. Deception campaigns—and leaders intent on blurring the line between fact and politically motivated fantasy—are a profound threat to effective democracies, reducing their ability to address nuclear weapons, climate change, and other existential dangers." (https://www.hstoday.us/subject-matter-areas/cybersecurity/nukes-climate-change-cyber-disinformation-push-doomsday-clock-to-100-seconds/)
Wow. So, some extra issues there. Extreme distrust. Governments using cyber-disinformation warfare. Individuals thinking they're thinking independently but actually falling into their own country's, or another country's, cyber-based disinformation and spreading these untruths further.
The Clock Keepers include additional recommendations for what to do, such as establishing norms of behavior, both domestically and internationally.
That's pretty good advice for the Church right now. What behavioral norms should be set so that we can follow Philippians 4:8?
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things.
Calvin, in reflecting on Isaiah 13, sees this chapter as a good warning to be humble, gather wisdom, and pray.
The Rule of Saint Benedict uses the phrase, ora et labora, or pray and work.
Benedict taught contemplation and action as going hand-in-hand. I have been fortunate to have a good many mentors and teachers, both those presently living and those who left their writings for us to follow.
As Marina Berzins McCoy says at IgnatianSpirtuality.com, contemplation involves learning how to be and surrendering to God's grace, learning how to see and being attentive to God's work in the world, and learning how to love in action.
One without the other is incomplete, and entire groups of Christians have historically erred on one side or the other. Contemplation without action can be isolated, exclusive, and self-focused. Action without contemplation can result in feelings of self-righteousness and may attempt to serve without actually being connected with what God is doing.
In these challenging times, ora et labora is a fantastic rule to live by.