My people go into exile for want of knowledge…(Isaiah 5:13a)
As Isaiah of Jerusalem surveyed the political landscape — at home and abroad — he could see that the days of the Kingdom of Judah and its capital, Jerusalem, were numbered. The other Jewish kingdom of Israel (to Judah’s north), with its capital city of Samaria, was about to be absorbed by the Assyrians. The Assyrian Empire, even as it expanded farther and farther westward, was possessed of a political instability that would eventually be its undoing. There was nothing secure — least of all tiny Judah — isolated and surrounded by enemies in every direction. The question of Jerusalem’s collapse was not about “If?”, but “When?”
And yet, the prophet saw this dire political situation within a broader theological framework. The political reality that confronted Judah was something more significant than the ebb and flow of nations. Isaiah was so bold as to believe that the superpower of the moment, the Assyrian Empire, was actually subservient to (and an unwitting agent of) the will of the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob!
The notion that nations are a means through which God would exercise judgment is a difficult idea for the average North American, with our fixation on the illusion of individual sovereignty (usually expressed under the category of “free will”), to accept. Isaiah, on the other hand, had no such difficulty. To see the Assyrians as agents of the Divine Will was actually a means of putting the dire situation of Judah in a larger framework of God’s actions in history.
From Isaiah’s perspective, God’s people would not go into exile because of military inferiority or a failure of national nerve. The God who had delivered the Jews out of Egypt, fed them in the wilderness, and given them the land they had occupied all these years, could certainly deliver the Covenant People from the likes of the Assyrians. No, what would send Judah into exile was a lack of knowledge. From Isaiah’s perspective the Covenant People had forgotten their identity, forsaken their God and failed to keep faith with the covenant that God had sworn to them in the Wilderness — between their escape from Egypt and their entrance into the Promised Land.
A lack of knowledge, in Isaiah’s parlance, is not the same thing as insufficient information. The people had plenty of information — they knew the stories, they had the Law, they were undoubtedly certain about their identity as the Covenant People — but the information did not translate into the kind of knowledge that would lead to right actions. The stage was set for exile, because (from Isaiah’s perspective), the people had exiled themselves from the knowledge of God long before they would be exiled from their homeland by any foreign invasion.
Isaiah’s warnings are particularly instructive for those of us who wait in the darkness of Advent for the searing brightness of the Light of the World. Where have we confused information for knowledge? When have we failed to act upon the knowledge we’ve been given? How have these failures put us under judgment? What are the places of exile in our lives? Will we open our eyes to see that “the Lord of hosts is exalted in justice, and the Holy God shows himself holy in righteousness”? And once our eyes are opened to this vision of God, how can we ever dare close them again?