Reflection: Isaiah 32 and 34: Societal Chaos
by Beth Snodderly, July 20, 2017
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The need for international development exists because societies and their land are in chaos to one degree or another. In Isaiah 32 societal chaos is being overcome by the intervention of God’s Spirit. In this chapter we see a metaphorical image of the consequences for societies whose people practice ungodliness, who use wicked schemes to leave the hungry empty, and who destroy the poor with their lies: “The fortress will be abandoned, the noisy city deserted; citadel and watchtower will become a wasteland forever” (Isa. 32:14).
Destruction and desolation are inherent in a person or society rebelling against God. Evil choices are the evidence of a mind in opposition to God, and that mind or society can be characterized by the physical metaphor of tohu wabohu—destroyed and desolate. It is destroyed because it isn’t working the way God made it to work—it is twisted, turned to wrong purposes, therefore purposeless from God’s perspective. It is desolate because the Spirit has withdrawn from that life or society. Ezekiel’s vision of the Spirit in the wheels leaving the temple and the land (Ezek. 10:15-19) serves as a visual metaphor of what happens when a person’s mind or a society is twisted and turned to wrong purposes. Evil choices result in the Spirit leaving (“My Spirit will not contend with humans forever” [Gen. 6:3]), and the withdrawal of the Spirit of God leaves behind a desolate person or society that will self-destruct without the intervention of the Spirit. “God will stretch out over Edom the measuring line of chaos (tohu) and the plumb line of desolation (bohu)” (Isa. 34:11).
When the people of God, in whom the Spirit of God dwells, are absent, the Spirit of God is also absent, resulting in desert-like conditions in the physical, social, and spiritual realms. But when Spirit-filled people of God bring the light of Christ into a society and enough people respond to the outpouring of the Spirit, then we see real development in that society:
[Destruction and desolation] ... till the Spirit is poured on us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field seems like a forest. The Lord’s justice will dwell in the desert, his righteousness live in the fertile field. The fruit of righteousness will be peace; its effect will be quietness and confidence forever. My people will live in peaceful dwelling places, in secure homes, in undisturbed places of rest (Isa. 32:15-18).
Isaiah is describing shalom: the goal of international development. (See the WCIU Press book, The Goal of International Development: God’s Will on Earth as It Is in Heaven.)
These verses in Isaiah 32 give an attractive description of the results of the Spirit’s outpouring: flourishing, peace, and safety. What might Isaiah have had in mind that would bring about the outpouring of the Spirit on a chaotic and desolate society? In the first verses of the chapter, the prophet seems to be saying that leaders’ deliberate choices to follow God’s ways, the opposite of the ungodly ways being practiced, will bring the presence of the Spirit. The description at the beginning of Isaiah 32, of a group of rulers collaborating to do what is right, harmonizes with Jesus’ saying, “where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them” [through the Spirit] (Matt. 18:20). “See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice. Each one will be like a shelter from the wind and a refuge from the storm, like streams of water in the desert…. No longer will the fool be called noble nor the scoundrel be highly respected ...” (Isa. 32:1, 2, 5).