Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage (Isaiah 33) transports me to the turbulent time of 17th century Europe, an era of intense expansionism as the great nation states vied for power and dominance on land and sea. Gold and silver that had been plundered from New World empires poured into the European economy, helping give birth to capitalism. It is an era best known to young people today, though, as the golden age of piracy, popularized through the trilogy of Pirates of the Caribbean movies (soon to have a fourth installment). The quirky Captain Jack Sparrow led us through a complex maze of plot lines involving multiple betrayals, destructions, plunders, treasures, and parleys. You could hardly guess that this was also an Age of Enlightenment that brought us reason and science, when you are watching accursed skeletons steer a ship and a crazed crew chart a course for the end of the world (not to mention all that battle over a disembodied heart).
The 17th century was also the time when a real life contemporary of fiction’s Jack Sparrow, the Scottish King James, was giving the world a new translation of Isaiah (along with the rest of scripture). James paints a picture in the Elizabethan English language of a palace prophet charting a course for the end of the world as the ancient Israelites knew it, who was striving to place the disembodied heart of God back into the body-politic of Israel. The Isaiah of King James could well have been on Jerry Bruckheimer’s writing team; along with the complex maze of plot lines just look at the vivid imagery in the word choices of today’s passage: plunder, treachery, treasure, bribes, bloodshed, destroy, uproar, scatter, valiant, devouring fire, terror, plots, evil, fierce, galley, ship, rigging, oar, mast, sail. Sounds like the makings of a script Johnny Depp would be comfortable with. Isaiah was writing during an era similar to King James’ great expansionism, as middle eastern world powers vied for dominance on land and sea. The tiny nation state of Israel was caught in the middle of power struggles between Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia, and Jerusalem was seen as a strategic control point for these competing kingdoms. First one and then another would offer protection in return for allegiance. More than one parley for peace resulted in betrayal and bitter disappointment for the Kings of Judah. And in the midst of all this plotting, the prophet was on the scene, warning the people to stay true and maintain exclusive trust in God, and to avoid any alliance with foreign powers. The context of the passage today has Isaiah speaking as King Hezekiah steers the ship of state to the precipice of a waterfall in his negotiations with the Assyrian King Sennacherib. Isaiah would have the people resist this course of action and to drop anchor, to hold fast to their faith. His prophetic screenplay makes use of the image of piracy to convince his audience. The plunder of the powerful is cursed and their spoils will continue to be looted, time and again. It is not secure, no matter who gains dominance. God is portrayed in Calypso-like fashion, creating a turbulent uproar that will scatter those expanding empires and leave their loot for the lame to carry away. The only true treasure, the only wealth worth pursuing is the rich store of salvation, of wisdom, and the key to this treasure chest is the fear of the Lord, that is to say, the reverence and awe that leads us to adhere to the Way of Life. Putting one’s trust fully and firmly in the hands of God is the only way to access the treasure. And this means turning away from the evils of greed and violence that undergird those imperial agendas that define the world.
We live in another age of expansionism, this one marked not so much by competing nations as by corporate interests (who have no loyalty to any nation state) vying for power and dominance in the world. It’s another golden age of buccaneering, of a different kind where high-powered corporate pirates plunder the world for wealth and treasure. They just happen to be culturally respectable now and wear suits and ties, instead of eye-patches and cocked hats. The “pieces of eight” are now in the possession of the G8 (Gang of 8), which pushes policies of increased corporate control and de-regulation. Isaiah’s words are as relevant to us today as they were 2500 years ago. Do people of faith forge spiritual alliances with the Fortune 500 value systems of unrestrained growth? Or do we hoist a different set of colors and trust God, satisfied with the galley’s simple fare of the bread of life and the water of life promised by the prophet? Do we track down treasure troves of gold or do we seek the plunder-proof storehouses of salvation that offer the wealth of wisdom?
*Daily Passages are the weekday reflections of Stan Dotson, connecting culture to biblical texts. As always, your feedback and comments are welcome. Feel free to share where the passages take you in your journey of faith.