Serpent Lifted Up PDF Print E-mail
Written by Peter J. Leithart   
Monday, 08 August 2011 15:57

Yahweh lays a brief, cryptic “burden” concerning Philistia on Isaiah “in the year that King Ahaz died” (Isaiah 14:28-32). We know from the opening chapters of Isaiah (chs. 7-8) that Ahaz is a fearful, vacillating, Saul-like king of Judah. Frightened of the alliance of Israel and Aram that stands against him, he tries to strengthen his position by allying with Assyria. That makes him an important regional player, but it is an act of unfaithfulness. Isaiah tells him he should stay politically weak and rely on Yahweh instead.

The death of a king, and especially of a comparatively well-connected king, is a political crisis for any nation. The opening of the burden concerning Philistia reminds us of the commission of Isaiah that we studied in Isaiah 6, which happens in the year King Uzziah died. There Isaiah is assured that even though Uzziah is dead, Judah still has a king, a holy one high and lifted on His throne in the temple, surrounded by seraphim. Here again, in spite of the death of a king, Yahweh assures His people through Isaiah that Judah is not impotent. They look dead to the Philistines, and so the Philistines are tempted to rejoice at the death of Ahaz and try to take advantage of the situation by flexing their muscles at Judah’s expense.

Philistia had better watch out. Once, long ago, David was the rod that struck the Philistines. When Israel faced the giant Goliath, the giant dressed in snaky scales and bearing a huge spear, Saul cowered in his tent while David took a sling and five stones and felled the serpent with a single headshot. He was a rod in Yahweh’s hand against Philistia in the way that Assyria is a rod in Yahweh’s hand against Judah in Isaiah’s own day. Now the rod is broken, and not just because Ahaz has died. The Davidic dynasty is neutered by the life of Ahaz, by his refusal to depend on Yahweh, by his tendency to imitate Saul’s fear and faithlessness rather than David’s fearless faith.

But the fact that the rod of David is broken, the fact that Ahaz has been faithless and is now dead, doesn’t mean that Judah is vulnerable. Though cut down to the root, but the tree of David can revive. It is a broken rod, but Yahweh can heal broken rods. Once, the Philistines knew all about the exodus. Cousins to Egypt (Genesis 10), the Philistines knew about the plagues and how Yahweh beat down Egypt and set His people free (1 Samuel 4-6). When the rod of David breaks in the days of Ahaz, though, they forget the lessons of the Exodus. They should have remembered that Yahweh turns rods – even broken rods – into serpents (Isaiah 14:29). What looks like a broken rod, what looks like a tree sawn down to its roots, will produce not only a serpent, but fiery flying things like the fiery serpents that attacked Israel in the wilderness (Numbers 21). The Philistines will be struck, because they are not children who play at the viper’s den (Isaiah 11).

In the immediate context, the burden concerning Philistia is a prophecy about the revival of the Davidic dynasty under Ahaz’s son and successor, Hezekiah, cast as the new David opposite Ahaz’s Saul. Hezekiah fights Philistines, the first king to fight Philistines since David: Hezekiah “defeated the Philistines as far as Gaza and its territory, from watchtower to fortified city” (2 Kings 18:8). Like David, Hezekiah turns Judah from their idols, away from their idols of power and politics, toward Yahweh. He even destroys Nehushtan, the bronze serpent of Moses, the bronze serpent that healed the snake-bit Israelites in the wilderness, which had become an object of veneration and worship in Judah. David crushed the head of the bronze-clad serpent Goliath; Hezekiah, a new David, breaks the serpent in pieces, and is himself a fiery serpent against the Philistines. Because Judah turns back to Yahweh, and because the Davidic king trusts in Him, the helpless find a place to graze in security.

That’s why the city gate of the Philistines opens its mouth in wailing and crying (Isaiah 14:31). The tide turns against the Philistines, and instead of rejoicing in triumph over Judah, they come under assault. Smoke rises in the north, and where there is smoke there is fire, fire to consume the Philistines, the fire of Yahweh and Yahweh’s Davidic king, roaring down from Yahweh’s throne in the far north.

Though David made his reputation as a Philistine-fighter, he also had Philistines friends. He spent the last years of his exile in the Philistine city of Gath – Goliath’s hometown – as a vassal of King Achish, and throughout David’s reign Gath remained a friend and ally. David conquered Philistia, and brought Philistia into the orbit of Israel. It was a conquest, but it was also a refuge for the Philistines. Isaiah promises that the same will happen again in the days of the new David. When the viper rises from the roots of the Davidic tree, when Yahweh re-establishes Zion, the afflicted of the people, including the afflicted of Philistia, will find refuge in Yahweh’s holy mountain (Isaiah 14:32).

The burden to Philistia is a warning: Don’t rejoice over the broken rod. Don’t rejoice over David on a cross. But it is also a promise: David is a serpent rising from the roots, a serpent lifted up, to whom all men will look to be healed.

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