The Waiting Is Over
Years ago, my husband and I took a trip we had been carefully planning and anticipating for three years. In those days the internet was still pretty new, so we went to the library to check out travel books, we visited the Triple A to get maps of where we hoped to go, we went to bookstores to get up-to-date tour brochures and self-guided tour books. We made several international calls to get our hotels, museum and event tickets, and rented cars arranged, we spoke with friends who remembered good places to go, and we saved our money, watching that account grow little by little.
Finally, it was the big day! We drove ourselves to the airport and boarded our overseas flight. The wait was over, and we could not have been more excited.
We still savor the memories we made together, the adventures we shared, zipping down wooden slides till our pants grew hot in the salt mines of Salzburg, drinking coffee at a little café over-looking a canal in Venice, taking the autobahn clear through Austria and straight into Italy on a ribbon of highway impossibly straight, traveling across deep canyons on trestle bridges and tunneling through mountains, staring in amazement at entire walls encrusted with masterpieces in the Uffizi.
The wait had been worth it.
There is something of that feeling in the song Isaiah heard sung in his vision.
It will be said on that day,Isaiah 25:9-10 (NRSV)
“See, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us.
This is the Lord for whom we have waited;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.”
For the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain.
The writer of Hebrews spoke of the many faithful who lived their entire lives in anticipation of what Isaiah surveyed.
All these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.Hebrews 11:39-40 (NRSV)
Even Isaiah did not receive what he saw with his own eyes. Like Moses, Isaiah could only gaze into the future. And you and I today are in the same place with Isaiah. We also wait patiently in faith, keeping watch as Jesus instructed, hoping for His return.
The Mountains of Moab
It feels abrupt to me, the way Isaiah left his musings on the beautiful distant scene he was describing, to give such an earthy, degrading picture of Moab’s undoing.
The Moabites shall be trodden down in their placeIsaiah 25:10-12 (NRSV)
as straw is trodden down in the manure.
Though they spread out their hands in the midst of it,
as swimmers spread out their hands to swim,
their pride will be laid low despite the struggle of their hands.
The high fortifications of his walls will be brought down,
laid low, cast to the ground, even to the dust.
Israel is a mountainous place.
- Mount Zion, the holy mountain of God, defined ancient Israel, and later ancient Judah. Even in first century Palestine, whether one came from the north, south, east, or west, every route led either “up” to Jerusalem, or “down” from Jerusalem, because Zion was the centerpiece.
- Mount Ebal and Mount Gerizim, the place of blessing and cursing, where the people of God first stood as they entered the promised land and followed through with God’s instruction to Moses, “you shall set the blessing on Mount Gerizim and the curse on Mount Ebal.”
- Mount Tabor,the site of Deborah’s military victory with Barak, her general.
- Mount Carmel, where God rained fire from heaven to complete the sacrifice prepared by the prophet Elijah. The prophets of Ba’al were all put to the sword that day in a decisive act of cleansing.
- Mount Hermon, upon which stood Moses, Elijah, and the transfigured Jesus, discussing the Day of the Lord.
The people covenanted with God at the foot of Mount Sinai in the wilderness, and Moses stood upon Mount Nebo when God showed him the vista of the Promised Land. To say that “one day the hand of the Lord will rest on this mountain,” meant much. This mountain was the emblem of all that is good and holy, all that is right.
Throughout the Bible there are contrasts between what is good and what is not, what God blesses and what God judges, those who will covenant with God and those who will reject God.
Symbol of Judgment
So now Isaiah contrasted the Lord’s hand resting upon Mount Zion, and the other mountains, those of Moab, crumbling finally into dust.
Though it is true that Moab would one day experience its final defeat when all its cities would eventually become archaeological mounds, this was not what Isaiah was prophesying. Rather, his oracle presents Moab as the opposite mountain, all that is hostile to God and the people of God. One day, these hostilities will be made no more, one way or the other.
John’s Revelation furnishes similar comparisons.
Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates.
Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and sexually immoral and murderers and idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood.Revelation 22:14-15 (NRSV)
It is a troubling picture, joyful people inside the city, miserable people outside it. Or, alternatively, joyful people on Mount Zion basking in the glory of the Lord, and miserable Moabites desperately flailing in manure.
Troubling References to Eternal Judgment
Yet even Jesus spoke of this.
- Matthew 8:12, “while the heirs of the kingdom will be thrown into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
- Matthew 13:42, 50, “throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
- Matthew 22:13, “Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
- Matthew 24:50-51, “the master of that slave will come on a day when he does not expect him and at an hour that he does not know. 51 He will cut him in pieces[a] and put him with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
- Matthew 25:30, “As for this worthless slave, throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’”
- Luke 13:28, “There will be weeping and gnashing of teeth when you see Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out.”
Added to these troubling images are the eleven instances Jesus speaks of hell, or the two later references to hell made by James and Peter.
Finally, there are three passages in the Greek scriptures which leave the impression of a conscious experience of God’s judgment that seems to last into eternity.
In the first passage, Jesus describes a place of burning where a rich man agonizes in torment for the evil he committed in his life. He cries out in his suffering, but cannot be heard by those who are with Abraham.
The second passage is found in one of the apostle Paul’s letters to the believers in Thessalonica, who were anxious and worried about some of their number who had already died, and who were possibly enduring early persecution, wondering when the Lord would return. Paul reassured them that those who were afflicting them would “suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.”
Was Paul speaking in hyperbole, or using symbolic language?
The last passage is found in John’s Revelation and speaks of a lake of fire receiving all those whose names are not found in the Book of Life.
Were these things similar to Isaiah’s vision?
Can we take these passages and images as emblems of final judgment against all evil, while resting in the hope that God will somehow rescue all people?