Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Michael Banner - 15/08/2012

Good morning.

‘Damascus will cease to be . . . and will become a heap of ruins’ – words, not as they might be, from the editorial pages of a newspaper commenting on the current crisis in Syria, but from the Book of Isaiah, written approximately 2700 years ago.

Contrary to what is claimed by some excitable websites in the US, Isaiah and other Old Testament prophets were not in the business of predicting the far flung future – they were not the Nostradamuses of their day, peering into crystal balls to make misty predictions about geo-political disturbances some three millennia hence. No. They are, in fact, more like our contemporary commentators in newspapers, warning us against the course on which a nation is set. Isaiah’s message, in particular, is not a matter of vague futurology but of immediate political relevance to his own time: Jerusalem’s arrogant and unjust rulers have appealed for help in their local squabbles to the regional super-power of the era, Assyria (located in what is now north east Iraq), and both Jerusalem, and neighbouring Damascus, says Isaiah, will come to rue the day. And so it was. Damascus was devastated in 733 b.c., and Jerusalem became a vassal of the Assyrian empire. Yet Isaiah’s last word to his contemporaries is not doom and gloom, but of hope for a future beyond impending disaster – if only the rulers will repent of their pursuit of petty self-interest and respect the principles of God’s law.

Isaiah may not have had a crystal ball, but like any political commentator, insofar as he has grasped something of the springs of human action and its likely consequences, he has a message not only for his own time. I suspect that we may not need much persuading of the relevance of Isaiah’s claim that when political life is dominated by selfish jockeying for position, it promises no good future for a nation – for in Syria, we seem to be witnessing an historic and vibrant culture and country, in which west and east met, and where Christians, Muslims and Jews lived and worshipped side by side, falling apart, as sectarian and sectional interests tussle for advantage. Our difficulty is not in embracing Isaiah’s pessimistic analysis of political dysfunction, then, but rather in finding any ground for hope as this tragedy unfolds with a seemingly fatal inevitability.

Isaiah was a prophet, not a politician – a moralist, if you like, concerned with the overarching principles that should guide political actors even as they struggle to make hard choices, amidst all the details, demands and uncertainties on the ground. But on this he is surely right: that there is only hope ever for the future if politicians, now as then, take their ultimate bearings from the clear demands of the moral law which he annunciates: ‘seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.’

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