Saturday, February 7, 2009

Behold the Glory of the Coming of the Lord: An Exegesis of Isaiah 7

Gustave Dore's depiction of Isaiah 7

Behold the Glory of the Coming of the Lord: An Exegesis of Isaiah 7

To most fundamentalist Christians, Isaiah 7 is welcomed as a harbinger of the coming of Jesus Christ. The references to Immanuel are seen as explicit prefiguations of the advent of the Savior, Jesus the Christ.

However, as this academic paper below argues, there’s another interpretation to this famed Biblical text. When he wrote this scripture, the Hebrew prophet Isaiah didn’t have on his mind the unique political ferment to come in the Galilee under the reign of the emperor Tiberius. He was thinking about trouble at home, right then. Specifically, he was talking about the oppression the Israelites were suffering under the yoke of the brutal Assyrian conqueror Tiglath-pileser III.

Tiglath-pileser III

This fact doesn’t discount the possible interpretation that this chapter represents one of the heralds of the Advent of the Christian Lord. But also let’s remember that not everything in the Old Testament has to pertain to the New.

A note: There is a famous controversy regarding the Biblical interpretation of Isaiah 7: 17, known as the Isaiah 7:14 controversy. As the Wikipedia entry summarizes:

The original Hebrew text of Isaiah 7:14 reads as follows (translated):

"Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign: behold, the young woman [ha-almah] shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el".[1]

Jewish scholars reason that [ha-almah] ("young woman") does not refer to a virgin and that had the Tanakh intended to refer to such, the specific Hebrew word for virgin [bethulah] would have been used. This view is often disputed by Christians (see below), and has been a point of contention between Jews and Christians since the formation of the modern Church. Jerome, in 383 CE, wrote in "Adversus Helvidium" that Helvidius misunderstood just this same point of confusion between the Greek and the Hebrew.

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A striking contemporary rendering of the Virgin Mary

An original transcription of Isaiah 7

ISAIAH 7 – King James Version

Isaiah's Message to Ahaz

1 And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it.

2 And it was told the house of David, saying, Syria is confederate with Ephraim. And his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind.

3 Then said the Lord unto Isaiah, Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shearjashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field;

4 And say unto him, Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be fainthearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin with Syria, and of the son of Remaliah.

5 Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah, have taken evil counsel against thee, saying,

6 Let us go up against Judah, and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeal:

7 Thus saith the Lord GOD, It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass.

8 For the head of Syria is Damascus and the head of Damascus is Rezin; and within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken, that it be not a people.

9 And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah's son. If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established.

10 Moreover the Lord spake again unto Ahaz, saying,

11 Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.

12 But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord.

13 And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also?

14 Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.

15 Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.

16 For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.

17 The Lord shall bring upon thee, and upon thy people, and upon thy father's house, days that have not come, from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah; even the king of Assyria.

18 And it shall come to pass in that day, that the Lord shall hiss for the fly that is in the uttermost part of the rivers of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria.

19 And they shall come, and shall rest all of them in the desolate valleys, and in the holes of the rocks, and upon all thorns, and upon all bushes.

20 In the same day shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired, namely, by them beyond the river, by the king of Assyria, the head, and the hair of the feet: and it shall also consume the beard.

21 And it shall come to pass in that day, that a man shall nourish a young cow, and two sheep;

22 And it shall come to pass, for the abundance of milk that they shall give he shall eat butter: for butter and honey shall every one eat that is left in the land.

23 And it shall come to pass in that day, that every place shall be, where there were a thousand vines at a thousand silverlings, it shall even be for briers and thorns.

24 With arrows and with bows shall men come thither; because all the land shall become briers and thorns.

25 And on all hills that shall be digged with the mattock, there shall not come thither the fear of briers and thorns: but it shall be for the sending forth of oxen, and for the treading of lesser cattle.

Isaiah 7 in Arabic

Isaiah 7 – Revised Standard Version

[1] In the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, son of Uzzi'ah, king of Judah, Rezin the king of Syria and Pekah the son of Remali'ah the king of Israel came up to Jerusalem to wage war against it, but they could not conquer it.

[2] When the house of David was told, "Syria is in league with E'phraim," his heart and the heart of his people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.

[3] And the LORD said to Isaiah, "Go forth to meet Ahaz, you and She'ar-jash'ub your son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool on the highway to the Fuller's Field,

[4] and say to him, `Take heed, be quiet, do not fear, and do not let your heart be faint because of these two smoldering stumps of firebrands, at the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria and the son of Remali'ah.

[5] Because Syria, with E'phraim and the son of Remali'ah, has devised evil against you, saying,

[6] "Let us go up against Judah and terrify it, and let us conquer it for ourselves, and set up the son of Ta'be-el as king in the midst of it,"

[7] thus says the Lord GOD: It shall not stand, and it shall not come to pass.

[8] For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin. (Within sixty-five years E'phraim will be broken to pieces so that it will no longer be a people.)

[9] And the head of E'phraim is Sama'ria, and the head of Sama'ria is the son of Remali'ah. If you will not believe, surely you shall not be established."

[10] Again the LORD spoke to Ahaz,

[11] "Ask a sign of the LORD your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven."
[12] But Ahaz said, "I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test."
[13] And he said, "Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?
[14] Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman [now believed to read: “virgin”] shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Imman'u-el.
[15] He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.
[16] For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.
[17] The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father's house such days as have not come since the day that E'phraim departed from Judah -- the king of Assyria."
[18] In that day the LORD will whistle for the fly which is at the sources of the streams of Egypt, and for the bee which is in the land of Assyria.

[19] And they will all come and settle in the steep ravines, and in the clefts of the rocks, and on all the thornbushes, and on all the pastures.
[20] In that day the Lord will shave with a razor which is hired beyond the River -- with the king of Assyria -- the head and the hair of the feet, and it will sweep away the beard also.

[21] In that day a man will keep alive a young cow and two sheep;

[22] and because of the abundance of milk which they give, he will eat curds; for every one that is left in the land will eat curds and honey.
[23] In that day every place where there used to be a thousand vines, worth a thousand shekels of silver, will become briers and thorns.

[24] With bow and arrows men will come there, for all the land will be briers and thorns;
[25] and as for all the hills which used to be hoed with a hoe, you will not come there for fear of briers and thorns; but they will become a place where cattle are let loose and where sheep tread.

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Behold the Glory of the Coming of the Lord: An Exegesis of Isaiah 7

In the tradition of the authors of many other Scriptural passages, the author of Isaiah 7 wrote to meet the spiritual needs of his time and place, which, in the context of a God of history, embraced his age's social and political needs as well. The story told in Isaiah 7 is a page of Hebrew history; and although the reason behind the use of the third person can be debated, the third person certainly lends to the account an air of historical authority.

The Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem: the Way of Sorrow, the pathway Jesus staggered down beneath the weight of his Cross on the way to Golgotha, the Hill of Skulls

The first verse pinpoints the exact political circumstances in which the episode is taking place, to clarify the import of the lesson being taught; for Isaiah 7 was written to instruct the Jewish people how to cope in the days of the decay of the throne of David, during what the prophets saw as the reneging of the Davidic covenant by the kings of Judah.

The situation described in Isaiah 7 is firmly set in the political context of the time. Syria and Israel forged an alliance against Assyria to drive into Judah, when it became apparent that Ahaz was content to placate the Assyrians. With the survival of the throne of David imperative, God, true to his obligation in the Davidic covenant, acted to save Ahaz. He sent Isaiah to reassure Ahaz that the Syro-Ephraimite invasion was fated to fail and that as a result of its perfidy, the state of Israel would disintegrate inside sixty-five years (vss. 7-8). The point of vss. 8-9 is illuminated by Bernhard W. Anderson in Understanding the Old Testament: "The head of Ephraim is Pekah, and the head of Damascus is Rezin; but these are men, not God!" (1) In v. 9, God advises that faith in Himself is the only sure foundation of the throne of David.

But as vss. 10-12 make clear, Ahaz lacks that faith. When offered a sign of the Lord's support, he declines, feigning piety, thus exposing his own lack of faith. In response, Isaiah offers a gratuitous sign. As a messenger of the Lord's word, he informs Ahaz of the future with which God intends to invest Jewish history. As a symbol of this destiny, Isaiah use the figure of Immanuel, whose very name, meaning "God is with us," signifies the concrete presence of God in the realm of human events.

From a modern viewpoint, many of the key details of Isaiah's description of the sign of Immanuel are obscure, but with a knowledge of their context, the significance of the sign becomes apparent. The sign of Immanuel heralds God's vastation of Judah for sundering the Davidic covenant. In his maturity ("when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good," v. 15), Immanuel will be forced to eat curds and honey ("the best food available to nomadic wanderers, but not the food of Ahaz's court" [2]), a portent of the times of ruination to come.

Before that time ("before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good"), Isaiah predicts, Yahweh will destroy both Syria and Israel for their malice (v. 16); yet for its faithlessness as manifested in Ahaz, neither is Judah to be spared. Initially Isaiah describes Judah's fate in symbolic terms. Like a pestilential swarm of insects, Assyria will ravage the land (vss. 18-19) with scathing humiliation (v. 20—"the hair of the feet" being a euphemism for pubic hair).

Then Isaiah foretells Judah's punishment with graphic realistic detail. Verses 21-22 warn of the poverty that will be visited upon the people: "a man with only one heifer and two sheep was a poor peasant (cf. II Samuel 12: 1-3).” (3) In a classic image of desolation, the land, once fertile, is described as destined to fall fallow, lapsing into a waste land (vss. 22-5). The chapter concludes in verse 25 with a picture of the land as fit only for livestock grazing, wholly devoid of human civilization.

In no uncertain terms, Isaiah 7 depicts the certain fate in store for the Hebrew people should they seek to abrogate the Davidic covenant with God. The narrative frame of verse 1, marking it as history, is designed to give the message added weight in that it emphasizes that a previous violation has already been punished, in such a manner; future infractions are sure to attract identical sparks from the Wrath.

Above all, Isaiah 7 stresses that the basis of the Davidic covenant (and so of the Hebrew state) is faith in God on the part of the Jewish rulers; had Ahaz followed Isaiah's advice. Judah never would have had to suffer the Lord's anger.

In the Old Testament, we see the spiritual leaders of the Jews striving to maintain the unique relationship of their people with God in the midst of changing circumstances. In the midst of the decline of the throne of David, Isaiah warns that straying from the Lord’s path will invite certain doom, a message that certainly resonates with us now.

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The joke's on us!

The wicked king: the false leader the Lord raised up to punish America for turning away from His path and not caring anymore

A hapless denizen of Sacramento's rapidly expanding new tent city, 2009: how come we have to pay the price for Bush's freebooting? And why isn't the Federal government helping her and the millions like her, instead of the big banks?

The original wicked king from Hollywood who paved the way for our current Babylonian Captivity


  1. Bernhard W. Anderson. Understanding the Old Testament (Englewood Cliffs, 1975), p. 310.

  1. R.B.Y. Scott, Exegesis, "The Book of Isaiah," The Interpreter's Bible. Vol. V (New York. 1956), p. 220.

  1. Ibid., p. 221.


Anderson, Bernhard W. Understanding the Old Testament. Englewood

Cliffs. 1975.

Scott, R.B.Y. Exegesis. "The Book of Isaiah." The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. V. New York, 1956.

Note: This is a revision of an academic paper I wrote for a Religion course while a senior at Princeton in April 1977.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

The Kingdom of God on Earth: The Vision of Daniel 7

The Kingdom of God on Earth: The Vision of Daniel 7

On this Website, I’ve touched on the Apocalypse and apocalyptic impulses in our society many times. For instance, you can read my other research and ideas on this matter in the following essays:

There’s no question that Daniel 7 had a powerful effect on early Christian apocalyptic thinking. But modern readers have a serious misconception about what the term “the kingdom of God on earth” meant to people in Biblical times. It wasn’t a dramatic ontological break in physical reality, like the heavens renting open magically and the Lord descending. It was the Revolution: a new social order that believers would create, based soundly on religious principles. The Essenes were the forefathers of Christianity—John the Baptist was an Essene, and he was Christ’s mentor—and by living out their apocalyptic faith, in anticipation of the coming war between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, they were trying to bring about the kingdom of God on earth.

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Daniel 7 (King James Version)

Daniel 7

1 In the first year of Belshazzar king of Babylon Daniel had a dream and visions of his head upon his bed: then he wrote the dream, and told the sum of the matters.

2 Daniel spake and said, I saw in my vision by night, and, behold, the four winds of the heaven strove upon the great sea.

3 And four great beasts came up from the sea, diverse one from another.

4 The first was like a lion, and had eagle's wings: I beheld till the wings thereof were plucked, and it was lifted up from the earth, and made stand upon the feet as a man, and a man's heart was given to it.

5 And behold another beast, a second, like to a bear, and it raised up itself on one side, and it had three ribs in the mouth of it between the teeth of it: and they said thus unto it, Arise, devour much flesh.

6 After this I beheld, and lo another, like a leopard, which had upon the back of it four wings of a fowl; the beast had also four heads; and dominion was given to it.

7 After this I saw in the night visions, and behold a fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great iron teeth: it devoured and brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with the feet of it: and it was diverse from all the beasts that were before it; and it had ten horns.

8 I considered the horns, and, behold, there came up among them another little horn, before whom there were three of the first horns plucked up by the roots: and, behold, in this horn were eyes like the eyes of man, and a mouth speaking great things.

9 I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.

10 A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him: thousand thousands ministered unto him, and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him: the judgment was set, and the books were opened.

11 I beheld then because of the voice of the great words which the horn spake: I beheld even till the beast was slain, and his body destroyed, and given to the burning flame.

12 As concerning the rest of the beasts, they had their dominion taken away: yet their lives were prolonged for a season and time.

13 I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him.

14 And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.

15 I Daniel was grieved in my spirit in the midst of my body, and the visions of my head troubled me.

16 I came near unto one of them that stood by, and asked him the truth of all this. So he told me, and made me know the interpretation of the things.

17 These great beasts, which are four, are four kings, which shall arise out of the earth.

18 But the saints of the most High shall take the kingdom, and possess the kingdom for ever, even for ever and ever.

19 Then I would know the truth of the fourth beast, which was diverse from all the others, exceeding dreadful, whose teeth were of iron, and his nails of brass; which devoured, brake in pieces, and stamped the residue with his feet;

20 And of the ten horns that were in his head, and of the other which came up, and before whom three fell; even of that horn that had eyes, and a mouth that spake very great things, whose look was more stout than his fellows.

21 I beheld, and the same horn made war with the saints, and prevailed against them;

22 Until the Ancient of days came, and judgment was given to the saints of the most High; and the time came that the saints possessed the kingdom.

23 Thus he said, The fourth beast shall be the fourth kingdom upon earth, which shall be diverse from all kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall tread it down, and break it in pieces.

24 And the ten horns out of this kingdom are ten kings that shall arise: and another shall rise after them; and he shall be diverse from the first, and he shall subdue three kings.

25 And he shall speak great words against the most High, and shall wear out the saints of the most High, and think to change times and laws: and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and the dividing of time.

26 But the judgment shall sit, and they shall take away his dominion, to consume and to destroy it unto the end.

27 And the kingdom and dominion, and the greatness of the kingdom under the whole heaven, shall be given to the people of the saints of the most High, whose kingdom is an everlasting kingdom, and all dominions shall serve and obey him.

28 Hitherto is the end of the matter. As for me Daniel, my cogitations much troubled me, and my countenance changed in me: but I kept the matter in my heart.

The Kingdom of God on Earth: The Vision of Daniel 7

Daniel 7 stands at the crux between Old and New Testament theology. As far as Old Testament theology is concerned, the sentiment expressed in Daniel 7 is the end of the road. With the gradual disintegration of the Mosaic and eventually the Davidic covenants, the later prophets, ranging from Hosea to Isaiah to Jeremiah, were forced to formulate a theology that grew progressively apocalyptic. After the surrender of the Hebrew faith to despair under prolonged foreign oppression, the spiritual needs of the Jews gave way at last to the full expression of their apocalyptic-messianic-eschatological longings, as expressed in Daniel 7.

As such, Daniel also served as a model for the visionary vehicle that (allegedly) John used in the book of Revelation to express the dire eschatological hunger of the first Christians. In fact, John explicitly adapts specific figures (i.e., the hydra-headed beast, the triumphant celestial white-haired figure on the throne) from Daniel in general and chapter 7 in particular. When you come to realize the profound extent of the widespread appearance of such apocalyptic images in the eschatological thinking that came to dominate the succeeding body of Christian theology, you appreciate the key significance of the book of Daniel and of chapter 7 in the main corpus of Judeo-Christian tradition.

Daniel formulated his vision (or it occurred to him) as a response to the gross humiliation the Hebrew people suffered under the Alexandrine empire following the revolt of the Maccabees. Among Biblical scholars, it is generally agreed that the four beasts of Daniel's vision represent the Babylonian, Median, Persian, and Greek empires respectively. (Certainly this interpretation is considerably strengthened by Daniel's use as a symbol of the griffin, which in ancient Mesopotamian iconography undoubtedly represents the Babylonian empire.) Taken thus, the vision stands as an overt prophecy of God's wrath unleashed on the four civilizations that subjugated Israel—a revenge effectuated through the agency of an apparently messianic being (the throned figure of verse 9).

There is little doubt that the last empire is regarded with the greatest terror and hatred. With its clearly leveling and culturally ameliorating intent ("it devoured and broke in pieces, and stamped the residue with its feet," v. 7), it is plainly identifiable as "Alexander's empire, with its policy of Hellenization" (2). In response to this threat of cultural assimilation and annihilation posed by the Greeks (and the monarch Antiochus Epiphanes in particular [3]), Daniel foresees the solution expressed by seemingly all religious minorities oppressed by an occupying force, a messiah. (4)

In Daniel's case, it is of special importance that the messianic "son of man" (v. 13) enacts the advent described in vs. 14 and 27, for it heralds what Jesus would call "the kingdom of God on earth." This importance stems not only from the fact that "the son of man" who serves "the Ancient of Days" (the Lord) is patently divine. As Arthur Jeffery notes, "In apocalyptic [,] men are symbolized by beasts, but celestial beings by the human form (cf. Enoch 89-90).” (5)

What is of superior significance concerning Daniel's vision of the advent is that it is explicitly the fulfillment of the covenant God made with Abraham, the contract of salvation through divine grace. Belief in this covenant fuelled the radical faith that inspired Jeremiah and the composition of the book of Job, when the Hebrew people failed to uphold the conditional covenants of Moses and David.

God's summons to Abraham in Genesis 12:1-3 entailed the promise of the homeland of Israel, a great historical destiny for his offspring, and sovereignty over the other nations of the world. In the same way, the mission of Daniel's "son of man" (quite possibly a messianic Davidic king acting as God's viceroy) is the fulfillment of God's bond, as vs. 14 and 27 clearly illustrate; the "son of man”’s anticipated works of glory correspond with the three major vows God swore unto Abraham.

In the moment of the deepest desperation Israel had yet known—the insidious campaign of religious/cultural eradication waged by Antiochus after the abortive Maccabean rebellion—the spiritual imagination of the Jewish people, as manifested in Daniel 7, turned to the foundation of their faith, Jehovah's covenant of grace with Abraham. In times of gravest crisis past—those of the authorship of the books of Jeremiah and Job, to be specific—Israel had reacted in a similar fashion with a return to the Abrahamic covenant combined with apocalyptic desires. (And be it not forgotten that Job, in Job 19:25-29, also hungered for a Redeemer.)

But never before had the thirst for an eschatological era been so overwhelming, or the need for a savior been so overpowering; it required a time of the sharpest emergency and desperation to bring into being the extraordinary longing of the character described in Daniel's vision. From subsequent historical evidence, it appears that the cultural tension intensified to the point that by the time of Jesus, it had reached the point where it could no longer be tolerated.

While some Hebrews continued to use visions similar to Daniel to express their crucial need for the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Abraham, others ceased to. By the reign of Tiberius, at least one body of believers was prepared to see the eschatological justification of the radical source of Israel's faith in Yahweh—his original covenant with Abraham—incarnated in the ministry of the man who advertised himself as Jesus the Christ.

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  1. Arthur Jeffery, Exegesis, "The Book of Daniel," The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VI. (New York, 1956), page 453.

  1. Ibid., p. 455.

  1. Ibid., p. 456.

  1. Vittorio Lanternari analyzes this significant phenomenon of nationalistic fervor as it appears in modern messianic cults in his The Religions of the Oppressed (New York, 1963)

  1. Jeffery, op. cit., p. 460.


Jeffery, Arthur. Exegesis. "The Book of Daniel." The Interpreter's Bible, Vol. VI. New York, 1956.

Lanternari, Vittorio. The Religions of the Oppressed. New York, 1963.

Note: I originally wrote an earlier version of this academic paper in April 1977 for a Religion course while a senior at Princeton.