We are beginning to read Isaiah at Morning Prayer this week. His prophecy has been part of my sabbatical study. In writing an Advent and Christmas book he can hardly be ignored. I am drawn today to Isaiah’s reference to metals in connection with Jerusalem. He describes the City as like silver that has become tainted with ‘alloy’ or ‘lead’, and as such has become spoiled and not what it was.
Working on my book in the village of Laxey on the Isle of Man, which until about ninety years ago was one of the primary mining areas for lead in these islands - and produced a rich seam of silver too, I know that these metals do occur naturally together. This small village with its vast mine network delving more than 2,000 feet below the ground, also produced at one time as much zinc as all the other mines in these islands put together. The miners had to reach the lower levels by climbing down wooden ladders, and for protection they allowed the wax from their candles (which was their only light) to drip onto felt hats to harden them. These were unbelievably awful working conditions, and yet we know that in some parts of the world things will be little, if any, better today.
Anyway, back to Isaiah and his likening of Jerusalem to silver that has been tainted with lead or other ‘base’ metal. The prophet’s sense of purity is clear and uncompromising, but the interpretation requires care, especially around the sensitivity of what the purity of a people means. If Isaiah is claiming that the precious metal has been returned to the ore from which it was extracted or become tainted with something of a lesser value, let us note that he is referring to a moral decline here; a lessening of the ability of the people to respond to the needs of its society, because the willingness to remain committed to the welfare of all its people is being eroded.
Living, as we are through days when internationally and nationally there is a huge demand for equality and justice to be embraced, and yet the fear is that not enough people within countries or a strong enough consensus of nations in the international community can bring about the scale of change, such that the poorer parts of the world and the most vulnerable peoples can be spared the ravages of climate change and the consequences of the pandemic. If the silver of a nation’s will becomes undermined by the loss of its pure humanitarian compassion then it is indeed reduced to the ore from which it was created or tainted with the product of lesser values. Isaiah remains a book of valuable prophecy for every age.