Monday, February 1, 2016

Uzziah and the Low Priest

Well. . .what are you staring at?

I'm a harmless old man now--a brown, curled leaf that clung to the twig all winter, only to fall away in the first sigh of spring.  I'm the dried husk of a locust or the skin shed by a snake, bearing the shape but not the substance of a man. I'm an outcast from the fine houses of my friends, from the holy house of God, and even from my own house, the palace. For yes, I'm also the king of all Judah--except when I'm taking a nap or am otherwise indisposed.

Hear ye, Far Isles, and tremble!  The great King Uzziah roars--like a house cat--and raises, with a stump that used to be a hand, a trowel for a scepter.  

They kicked me out of the castle seven years ago when I lost my health and set me up here in the gardener's shed.  My son Jotham rules as prince regent in my stead.  I'm still the brains of the operation, you understand.  But I'm scarcely in a state to entertain foreign dignitaries.  

My amusements are few.  Listening to birds.  Smelling the earth after rain.  I used to have a small flower garden, but I had to give it up.  It's too dangerous for me to use the tools because I can't tell when I've been cut.  And then there are the visits from the priest.  He's usually good for a laugh, though I doubt he would return the compliment.

I met Isaiah--the Low Priest I call him, just to aggravate him. He'd like to be high priest when he grows up, but he'll never make it.  He has other fish to fry, if I'm any judge.  Anyway, I was saying, I met the low priest because I sent for a priest, and he was apparently the one they could most easily spare. He wasn't happy to come, because every time he left me, he had to go through a tedious purification ritual, and there was a waiting period before he could work in the Temple again. 

But even if I am a leper and a doddering old fool besides, I am the king.  And he came.  You bet your sister's sweet virtue he came.

Old Testament lepers

I sent for a priest because I wanted to tell my story, to have it set down for all who come after me.  A man's story should not die with the man.  And more than that, my story is the story of a nation.

"Write down," I told him, "that when I was sixteen, my father Amaziah was assassinated, and I ascended to the throne. By popular demand as well as by right of succession.  I may be a dry leaf now, but once I was a fig in full bloom.  Consider my accomplishments, I said to the fire-haired young priest.
"I pushed back the borders of Judah almost to where they were in Solomon's time.  I opened new trade routes.  I flattened the filthy Philistines into flapjacks and raised cities of Judah from their rubble. The chicken-hearted Ammonites gladly paid tribute just to keep me at a safe distance. My fame spread clear down to Egypt.

"Set down, Priest," I told him, "that I Uzziah built the fortified towers, dug the cisterns, dressed the vineyards, tilled the fields. For me the Promised Land finally kept its promise. I turned the barren Negeb into a garden, and now I can't be trusted with a spade. Write that too," I commanded,"and there's more to tell."

Isaiah, by Raphael

"I was afraid of that," he said, his hair falling in his eyes. 

"Write that I surrounded Jerusalem with spandangled machines of war that could shoot arrows and sling boulders. And that my foreign policies brought peace." 

"Peace?" he interrupted.

"Peace and prosperity. During my reign, coins clinked in the coffers, silks rustled in the markets, and wine ran like the Red Sea over Pharoah's army. I once knew a nobleman who had a solid gold statue of a goddess--stark naked!"

He shook his head in disaproval.

"But, the problem was," I continued, "the problem was that the serfs who worked his land were naked too. And hungry. The system isn't perfect, I'll admit, but times have been pretty good."

"For whom?" asked the cheeky young prophet, his face still red about the goddess.

"For most people," I bellowed.

That was the end of our session. Nothing wearies a man so much as the recounting of his own glory.

Old Testament battle

One day, Isaiah came and found me confined to bed, where I've been ever since. "The time grows short," I told him. "Write down the story of my pride and my fall."

He tried to make me more comfortable, but seeing that was impossible, he just wrote what I told him. How that one day seven years ago, when I was at the pinnacle of my power--and probably drunk as well--I decided to make an offering to the Lord.  "All by myself," said I, "bypassing the priests and Temple turkeys. I put on the vestments of a priest and stormed through the gates of the Temple, right on into the altar of incense. I took hold of the golden censor."

Isaiah look mortified, but I continued.

Isaiah, by Michelangelo

"Azariah the high priest and a clucking, cackling brood of low priests, maybe eighty of them, came charging in to oppose me. There's always been a power struggle between the priesthood and the monarchy, and they were hot for a confrontation. 

"'Leave the sanctuary,' they cried. 'You have broken faith. You are cut off from the glory of God!'

"Well, that did it. I figured the only thing I had broken was their pride. I've always thought they were a bunch of pompous, prune-faced fools, and I opened my mouth to tell them so. 

"But somehow the words thickened in my throat, cutting off my air. The earth stopped in its track and everything seemed to be happening underwater or in a dream. I felt a sting on my forehead like the strike of a serpent. I watched the look on their faces change from anger to fear, and to a man they backed away. 

"Then the earth shook and fell open like a great wound. The heavens thundered. Some said later that God spoke, but I doubt it. There wasn't much left to say.

"I put my hand to my head and felt the scab of a leper. 'Unclean!' shouted the high priest.

"'Unclean, unclean!' shouted the low priests. I fled from the Temple as one stricken by God. And stricken I have remained."

Isaiah silently cried as he wrote the story he knew so well but had never heard from me.

I never sent for him again, but in a few months he returned. In these seven years, it is the only time anyone has come without a direct command. He happened to find me at home, rather than out leading a military campaign or building a tower. 

His hair was still in his eyes, but he looked taller. He had come to tell me a vision, a vision that is the end of my story and the beginning of his, if I'm any judge. But that is of no importance.

The angel cleanses Isaiah's lips
Seems he was serving in the Temple not long ago, alongside the half-deaf Josiah and the half-wit Amos. Josiah was offering prayers--rattling on and on like he does--and he never saw a thing. But Isaiah saw the Lord God sitting on a High Throne, his skirts trailing through the Temple. And smoke, smoke everywhere--and the doorposts knocking like the young priest's knees. Great winged angels cried, "Holy, holy, holy" to the One who sits shining on the throne. Wonder was the lad didn't faint at the sight.

Then a dragon took a coal from the altar with tongs and touched it to Isaiah's mouth. And God told the low priest to go and prophesy to this people, "DESOLATION!"

"How long, Lord?" cried the low priest.

"Till cities lie desolate, till the earth is wasted."

"How long till what?" shouted Josiah. And the vision vanished.

Oh, my cities!  My strong towers and vineyards! My people! We had come full circle, he and I. It was Isaiah's turn to tell the tale and mine to weep.

And what of this One, I asked him, this One who sits on the High Throne surrounded by dragons? Is this the sweet shepherd our father David sang about? Is this the tender vinedresser? Is this the one we placate with tithes and offerings and burnt rams? What if we don't know Him so well as we think? Before this High King, the kings of the earth are but insects. What if Yahweh Seboath turn against us in wrath? Will we shoot arrows at the heavens or sling stones at the stars?

But if I tell Judah to repent, they won't listen. He is a curled leaf, they will say. He is the skin shed by a snake. See, on his deathbed the old geezer hallucinates. You must go, Low Priest. You must turn their hearts. Tell them your vision. Tell them of the High Throne, the dragons, the tongs. 

Tell them that in the year poor old Uzziah died, you saw the Lord.

Photo Credits:
    Snakeskin, (C)opyright / PlazacCameraman
    Hezekiah, by Rembrandt
    Old Testament lepers, by Roger McLassus
    Isaiah, by Raphael
    Old Testament battle, by the art Bible, Princeton Theological Seminary
    Isaiah, by Michelangelo
    angel with live coal, Greek Catholic icon
    dried leaves (sawtooth oak), by Ram-Man
    Judgement--stained glass, detail, at Eichstätt