[K:NWTS 4/2 (Sep 1989) 33-41]

A Tale of Two Cities: Isaiah and Worship

Isaiah 1:1-31; 6:1-8

James T. Dennison, Jr.

The great English Protestant allegory of the 17th century is John Bunyan's, Pilgrims Progress (no Protestant seminarian is adequately educated who has not read it). This Puritan product (yes, the Puritans were gifted with literary and theological genius)–this Puritan product has become justly famous for its description of the pilgrimage motif–the sojourn from the city of Destruction to the Celestial City. Less well known, but no less brilliant, is the great English Protestant allegory of the 16th century–Edmund Spenser's Fairie Queene. This Puritan or proto-Puritan product is justly famous for its dramatic portrayal of the Christian warfare.

Spenser's hero is the Redcrosse knight appropriately attired with a scarlet cross on his shirt, thus making him the symbol of the Christian. The Redcrosse knight is the champion of the fair lady Una who rides a gentle donkey beside which walks a lamb (Una is the symbol of the church). The sojourn of Redcrosse and Una involves combat–conflict with the forces of evil. They encounter Archimago (chief magician), Duessa (the false Una), Lucifera (Daughter of Hell) and Orgoglio (Pride). Spenser crafts a conflict on the Biblical model–a model well known to all spiritual warriors. Here is his principle theme: error and falsehood when bold, plain, self evident are quickly recognized and defeated. So it is when Redcrosse delivers Una from the fearsome dragon in the dungeon of black, horrid Error. But when Archimago, the magician, conjures up a duplicate image of the Lady Una in the embrace of another, Redcrosse runs away out of grief and hurt at being betrayed. Yet he has not been betrayed–only deceived by the false Una (Duessa). For a great while, Redcrosse is ensnared by Duessa, but Una pursues her knight, finds him and draws him back to herself out of her great love for him. Spenser's genius is to show us how the apparent is not always the real; how the discernible–even in spiritual matters–is often the opposite of the genuine; how deceit often drives the faithful from the truth. Like Bunyan, Spenser's allegory is the tale of two cities–the heavenly Jerusalem and the citadel of Babylon. For Spenser, the great whore of Babylon is the Roman Catholic church–where appearance is deception, the guise of religion like a magician's spell, a chimera of lies, a phantasm of treachery and impurity.

Jerusalem As She Is

The great whore for Isaiah is Jerusalem. Strange allegory this! Zion, the city of the great king, is a harlot (1:21). She has become Sodom and Gomorrah (1:9,10). Indeed, appearances are deceiving. Jerusalem is not what she seemed. A city intended as the jewel of justice–the ruby of righteousness–a city set on a hill; Jerusalem is a harlot, unfaithful, treacherous, a city of rebels, a citadel of iniquity.

The chief locus of this duplicity was the temple. And in particular, the central deception was the worship service. At the temple, there were throngs of people. Multitudes trampled the courts of the temple–hustle and bustle, service upon service, activity upon activity. On the Sabbath; at the monthly new moon service; at the appointed feasts–Passover, Pentecost, Yom Kippur, Tabernacles. Why you couldn't keep the good folks away. And offerings–did they bring offerings! Burnt offerings, peace offerings, grain offerings–why what more could you ask? All that Moses prescribed, they brought. Piety by the bushel; holiness by the herd; sanctity by the sheepfold. And the fellowship–oh, the friends they met and the people they talked to, the news they caught up on and the gossip they passed on. And the motions–why they spread out their hands in prayer. They lifted their arms to the sky–what a pious sight, the smoke of their offerings ascending and the ascension of these holy hands. What ecstasy! What piety! What religiosity!

Why was all this apparently pious worship so much hypocrisy? Why were the temple worship services in Isaiah's day, the big con? Why was Sabbath assembly a most unholy convocation? Why was this apparent sanctity so much phoney baloney? One obvious answer is formalism. God doesn't like formalism. True and Is. 29:13 could be cited for support: "this people honoreth me with their lips but their hearts are far from me." Formalism was certainly part of Jerusalem's problem. But formalism is always a symptom. It is the outward motion of an inward public relations game. Well, what was the game? In the big con, you always hedge your bets–you may worship in the temple on Sabbath, but during the week you are sure to pay your respects to the gods of everybody else. Now in 8th century B.C. Israel, those gods were: first, sex (call him Baal for the playgirls and Astarte for the playboys); second, power (call him King Manipulation whose wife is Greed and offspring is Oppression); third, injustice (call him blind to the fatherless and the widow, but with big eyes for the big bucks–bribes, gifts, pay-off).

We are inclined to think that this Old Testament idolatry problem is pretty crass and easy to avoid. We tend to think it is pretty tepid stuff–after all, metal gods and wooden goddesses? Come on, we live in the 20th century!

I don't want to minimize the emptiness and vanity of idolatry. Isaiah doesn't in the masterful satire of the idol and its craftsman in chapter 44. But Isaiah knows what lies underneath the penchant for idols. He understands the psychology of idolatry–the psychical magic of cultic ritual. He knows the trappings of superstition which abound wherever idols are adored, fondled, kissed, carried, etc. Isaiah understands the fundamental pillar of idolatry–the attraction which it has and the reason it bedevils every generation. Idolatry is a form of psychological manipulation. You may take away the concrete image, but the manipulation will remain.

Modern Idolatry

What was Baal but a god to be manipulated! Manipulated out of a sense of dependence–dependence on the mythical, the numinous, the mysterium tremendum. Reenact his death and rebirth and you control the seasons–winter to spring. What was Astarte but a goddess to be dominated and used–submit to the sacred rite of prostitution and you control the female consort of the big boss god, Baal himself. But to manipulate requires the tactile, doesn't it–it requires the physical. Whether physical sex or the physical crafting of the image, to control the god you must touch, feel, handle. Feed the god with sacrifices. Attract the god with incense. House the god with a temple. Duplicate the god's sex life with your ritual sex life. Become the intimate of the god–so much so that your representative image of him is like having a friend on the hearth. So the god is your good buddy–your really, truly friend. He's so familiar, you know all the right moves to control him.

Now because your idol adoration is fundamentally manipulative, it is also fundamentally anthropocentric–man-centered, Pelagian, pagan. How do you keep it relevant? Keep the audience mesmerized with glitter–keep them feeling good. Idolatry–ritual manipulation. Worship in which the worshipper is in control. His needs are primary–he is stroked and affirmed. The god he adores is the god he controls–by raising his hands, by performing proper motions, by bringing the proper offerings, by entering the proper and prescribed activities of the religious group. Idolatry–psychological anthropocentrism–man in control of the gods through worship. Bewitching, seductive, alluring. Idolatry is Satan's perfect counterfeit of the truth. Because it feels so good; oh, Baal had an edge on us here–sexual pleasure is surely the supreme ecstasy. But make worship pleasure–focus on the good feelings of the worshippers–create that modern atmosphere where entertainment is the key (some may call it "celebration"–it is simply another more subtle form of idolatry).

Jerusalem As She Will Be

But this is the tale of two cities. Chapter one–often called the prologue to Isaiah–chapter one is even crafted around these two cities. You will notice the pattern of Sodom and Gomorrah in vss. 9 and 10. Further you will notice the pattern of reversal in vss. 21 and 26–the faithful city (Jerusalem) has become a harlot (vs. 21); she will be a city of righteousness, once again a faithful city (vs. 26). The inclusio is exact in the Hebrew. The eschatological reversal is emphatic. Even more dramatic is the structure of the entire chapter–a structure centered about these two cities–Jerusalem as she is; Jerusalem as she will be in the eschatological era. The transitional bridges in the Hebrew text are remarkable clues. Sodom and Gomorrah (vss. 9 and 10) are the bridge to the description of Jerusalem as she is. The duplication of Sodom and Gomorrah indicates a focus on the real Jerusalem. The transitional bridge in vss. 26 and 27 is indicative of the focus on the redeemed Zion. She is a righteous city (tsedek, vs. 26) filled with the righteous (tsedekah, vs. 27). She has judges (shôpêt, vs. 26) redeemed with justice (mishpat, vs. 27). She is restored (shuv, vs. 26) with the penitent (shabeyeh, vs. 27). There are two cities–two Jerusalems; the Jerusalem which now is in the 8th century B.C. and the Jerusalem which will be in the day of the eschatological redemption.

Into that eschatological city, the prophet Isaiah is ushered proleptically, by way of anticipation. Proleptically from the now to the not yet. From the Jerusalem which now is to the Zion which will be. (The vision is recorded in chapter 6.) In the Jerusalem which now is–in the temple of the Jerusalem which now in is–the house of Shalom on the hill of Salem. A house desecrated with pretense–a temple where worship has been a liturgy of idolatry–a sanctuary where the creature adores the work of his hands. In this temple-sanctuary, Isaiah sees the Lord himself. In this house where the theophanic presence of God was displayed to Solomon, where Mt. Zion became the designated replacement of Mt. Sinai–in this house, Isaiah is given a glimpse of the royal throne room of the Almighty. In the royal temple house on the royal temple mount, Isaiah is ushered into the heavenly city of the great king. He is brought into the inner chamber–the qodesh qadashim. This is the meeting room of the Most High–the house of assembly of the All Glorious: glorious in loftiness, glorious in exaltation. This is the glory-presence on the mount. A theophanic glory-presence on the temple mount–in a cloud, through a cloud, with a theophanic cloud–glory upon the throne. In the council chamber, immense glory–all pervasive glory–glory which fills the house, the chamber, the royal throne room, the cosmos. For in this room, heaven and earth meet; indeed, in this room heaven is incarnate on the earth.

And the sound. Isaiah hears the chorus of the heavenly court–the liturgy of the spheres above the cosmos. These are antiphonal choirs–celestial antiphony in the rich cords of the trisagion–the threefold qadosh–the triple sanctus. Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus Dominus Deus Sabaoth–Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God of hosts. The seraphic anthem is the introit to the approach of one whose voice shakes the foundations of the house–the voice which causes mountains to quake and the earth to tremble–the voice which convulses the cosmos–heaven and earth groaning in antiphonies of yearning. Dread voice–awesome voice–voice veiled with cloud and smoke and darkness. Summoning voice–commissioning voice–summoning the servant, commissioning the prophet-servant–the servant of the voice–summoned, commissioned to be the echo of the voice–the echo of the kol Yahweh!

In all the divine council, with all the royal attendants in this throne room, there is none to echo the voice to the children of men. Who will go for us? The seraphs cover their lips and are mute. Whom shall we send? And no foot stirs. Woe is me, I am a man of unclean lips. How can my tongue duplicate the voice of the Lord? What is pretense in the presence of such glory as this? What is hypocrisy before such a presence as this? All is transparent at this footstool–the creature, the sinful creature, is abased, ashamed, unclean, undone. No contrivance; no manipulation; no counterfeit. This is real worship–no sham–no con–no man-centered domestication and trivialization of the thrice Holy One.

It is the fire that purifies. It is the fire that purges and consumes and sanctifies. It is the altar fire which cleanses–fire from the altar of holocaust, the altar where all is consumed in devotion and full consecration. This servant of the voice is commissioned in fire–fire which burns away sin and iniquity and self–fire which sears and heals and cleanses, so that those servant lips are now readied for the Word of the Lord. Readied to go at the bidding of the thrice Holy One–ready to speak what the Holy One lays upon those lips. Not the opinions of men; not the theories of the culture; not the agenda of church bureaucrats and public relations image makers–nothing but the Word of the Lord.

For this Word–for this word, a great multitude hungers–hungers and thirsts as they stream forth from the nations to go up to the hill of the Lord. Stream forth from the city of this world in pilgrimage to the city of the world to come. Stream up the cosmic mountain to worship at the feet of the Great King.

The Servant and the Way to Zion

Isaiah's prophetic vision is the vision of this road–a way through the wilderness to the cosmic mountain–a path through the valley of sorrows to the hill of the Lord–a highway via death and suffering to the temple mount in the Jerusalem which is above. Even Isaiah sees this road must first go through the Valley of the Shadow–the shadow of smoke rising from a smoldering city–the shadow the flames reflected on the ashen faces of shackled captives–the shadow of death which hangs over Judah and Jerusalem. The servant-prophet sees the servant-nation humiliated, rejected, executed. The Lord's servant-people captive, in bondage, led away to Babylon. The road for the servant-nation leads to suffering, death, exile.

And those who trudge down that road are like one other servant of the Lord. Ebed Yahweh–humiliated, rejected, executed. Ebed Yahweh–a man of sorrows in the Valley of Sorrows. Ebed Yahweh–who walks the road alone–and the shadow lying across that road is the shadow of a wooden cross. It is stained with blood–the blood of the Servant. It is a criminal's gibbet–no road of wealth and success for this Servant. No prosperity gospel on this highway. This road goes to glory, but by way of a gory tree. This road goes up to the cosmic mountain by a blood-stained path pioneered by the Suffering Servant. And you cannot come–no you cannot come up the city of the Great King except by the road the Servant takes. You cannot climb to the Zion above without first bearing the reproach of the Servant of servants below.

The real road to glory–the genuine path to that new city–the authentic highway to the everlasting throne room–is a road of scandal and offense–a road the world does not understand, a road the world despises. The road to glory is the road which echoes with suffering and death–for it is the road of the eschatological Servant-prophet of the Lord.

The One commissioned as the Word of the Lord in the sanctuary of the Most High. The One who is not merely the echo of the kol Yahweh, but the One who is the Word of the Lord. The One whom angels sing and seraphs praise. The One who passes through the fire–takes the wrath–endures the searing flames of judgment for others.

He has opened the path to the temple mountain. He has torn down the barriers to the qodesh qadashim. He has driven away the clouds–banished the smoke–driven away the darkness because he is the light of glory. He has taken an innumerable company by the hand and shepherded them to a city set on a hill. He has brought them into the holy of holies–purified them with his own blood–blood from the altar of his own sacrifice. He has brought them nigh to the throne of grace and placed the words of the antiphonal chorus on their lips–Holy, Holy, Holy; Worthy, Worthy, Worthy. And their hearts burn with them to worship in his temple city. In that Zion which is above, idolatry, anthropocentrism, self-serving ritual can never be real. For in that city, anything other than the glory of the Lord and his Servant is a sham, duplicitous, idolatrous.

A tale of two cities–a tale of two temples–a tale of two servant-prophets–a tale of two servant-nations and their destinies. A tale of two methods of worship–the one a sham, the other a realization of the glory of the spheres. Unlike Bunyan and Spenser, Isaiah's tale is no allegory. It is the normative model for all who understand his vision–the vision of the Lord, his Servant and the glory–yes the glory in worship–a glory which will be theirs about that crystal sea for ever and ever.

Westminster Theological Seminary
Escondido, California