for the Lord has spoken. (Isaiah 1:2)
From time to time, the heavens are invoked to listen to someone's testimony: against a sinner (Isaiah 1:2 and Psalm 50:4; compare Job 20:27, Jer. 2:11-12, and 51:48) or, on one occasion, in praise of YHWH (Psalm 32:1-3).
Let's take a closer look at Isaiah 1:2-3 —
Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth;The part about the ox and the donkey is clear enough — I get the point of that! But what's this "Hear, O heavens" business? Walter Brueggemann comments:
for the Lord has spoken:
"Children have I reared and brought up,
but they have rebelled against me.
The ox knows its owner,
and the donkey its master's crib,
but Israel does not know,
my people do not understand."1
The call to heaven and earth is a rhetorical assertion of indignation on Yahweh's part. Yahweh summons cosmic witnesses to observe the mess that has become of the relationship with "my people." Because Yahwism is monotheistic, Yahweh cannot summon other gods to observe, and so instead summons the most formidable of creatures, heaven and earth. Israel's failure in its response to Yahweh is a matter of cosmic concern, now made evident to the whole known world.2Note Brueggemann's use of the word "rhetorical". Clearly we're in the realm of metaphor here. Indeed, the prophets often express their message in poetry: hence modern translations break Isaiah 1:2-3 into eight short lines, instead of a single paragraph. And note the parallelism (so characteristic of Hebrew poetry) between lines 5 and 6, and again between lines 7 and 8.
If I'm not mistaken, the text is a rudimentary depiction of a courtroom scene. The heavens and the earth are called in to hear YHWH's testimony against "my people", that they might testify to the rightness of YHWH's verdict against Israel. This appeal to a "court" is a recurrent rhetorical device in the prophets, and I expect we will encounter it again.
Brueggemann says, "Israel's failure in its response to Yahweh is a matter of cosmic concern, now made evident to the whole known world." Indeed! That last phrase, "the whole known world," interprets the heavens and the earth in its standard sense, "the entirety of the cosmos".
In my opinion, the opening chapter of Isaiah is one of the most powerful, and terrible, texts in all of scripture. It reduces me alternately to terror and to tears.
God have mercy on the Church when inevitably we follow Israel down her backsliding path!
1Unless otherwise indicated, scripture is quoted from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.
2Walter Brueggemann, Isaiah 1-39, Westminster John Knox Press, 1998, ad loc.