St. John’s Bible: Volume 5 – Prophets
Make Yourselves Clean, Isaiah 1:16-17
In the first 15 verses of Isaiah, the prophet deplores the desolate nation of Israel. Through his words, the Lord declares that he will not hear the prayers and cries of the people because of their sin. Then, verse 16 gives a glimmer of hope as Isaiah offers the way that the nation may return to the Lord by fleeing evil and doing what is good and just.
He Shall Judge Between the Nations, Isaiah 2:4
In Isaiah 2 the prophet foretells the establishment of the mountain of the Lord’s house, a promise that is fulfilled in the work of Christ and the growth of Christianity. In that time, Isaiah says that God will grant his presence and his wisdom to many peoples as well as carry out justice on the nations, as verse 4 asserts. Thus a great peace shall ensue, and weapons of death and destruction shall be turned into tools for husbandry, implying renewal and growth.
Vision of Isaiah, Isaiah 6
The first major illumination of the book of Isaiah accompanies chapter 6, in which the prophet recounts his vision of God calling him. With three arches bounding the top, ten burning lamp stands surround the edges, and fragments of a palace wall peeking from the background, we see a grand throne room, dominated by the purple shades of royalty. The throne where Isaiah beholds the Lord is designated by two blocks of gold, one at the seat’s base and the other at the top, outlining the head and shoulders of the King, whose entire figure is shadowy and shrouded in gold. The pieces of red cloth scattered throughout the image indicate the hem of the Lord’s robe filling the temple. The tiles of rainbow colors around the throne alludes to Ezekiel 1:28, which says, “Like the bow in a cloud on a rainy day, such was the appearance of the splendor all around. This was the appearance of the likeness of the glory of the Lord.” In verse 2, Isaiah describes the attending seraphs, represented in the illumination by the three sets of golden wings surrounding the throne. They cry out to one another, “Holy, Holy, Holy,” a chorus that is seen three times in the image, once in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. These words of praise point to a major theme of the attention of Christian prayer and worship in the The Saint John’s Bible. As a Bible commissioned by a community of Benedictine monks, the parts of Scriptures that surface in liturgy get special attention.
At the bottom of the illumination, lying prostrate before the throne is Isaiah, whose faintly outlined figure emphasizes the naked, vulnerable state of a human in the presence of the holy God. A seraph presses a flaming coal to Isaiah’s lips with a pair of golden tongs to cleanse him of sin. Finally, Isaiah’s response to the Lord’s call is seen at the bottom right of the illumination: “Here am I: send me!”
Messianic Predictions, Isaiah 9:2-7, 11:1-16
The passage in Isaiah 9 is familiar to many people from Handel’s great work, The Messiah, which is crowned by the great Hallelujah chorus. This illumination is likewise crowned with Hallelujahs. One can almost see the trumpets raised and blasting with the announcement. The theme of the rainbow, expressing the faithfulness and splendor of God, is echoed here, for the names of God are written on golden bows: “Prince of Peace,” “King of Kings,” “Everlasting Father,” “Immanuel,” and the announcement: “For unto us a child is born” and “God is with us”.
In addition to the bows and the words of this piece, there is an intricate geometric gold stamp that sparkles and shines like the stars or the sun or bursts of fireworks. This is truly an illumination of celebration. Donald Jackson, the main artist behind The Saint John’s Bible, has said of this page, “It is truly a living thing.” In its original the inks and gold leaf do seem to make the letters dance. Everything stands out clearly and distinctly, and the page has depth and movement.
Comfort, O Comfort My People, Isaiah 40:1-5
This text treatment of Isaiah 40 calms the fears and assuages the suffering of God’s people with its opening words, “Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.” It is an announcement of deliverance and a glimpse at the glorious plan of God’s redemption for his broken people. The “one who cries out in the wilderness” refers to John the Baptist, the last Jewish prophet, who in the New Testament foretells the coming of the One who would fulfill prophecy and bring comfort. In fact, Isaiah 40:3 is quoted in each of the four gospels to introduce John (Matt. 3:1, Mark 1:3, Luke 3:4-6, and John 1:23). In Matthew 17:3 the correspondence is deepened when Jesus tells the disciples that Elijah has already returned to prepare the way, and they know that he is talking about John the Baptist. The message of the Baptist heralds the coming of the kingdom of God, when all shall see the glory of the Lord through the advent of His Son.
Suffering Servant, Isaiah 52-53
Isaiah 52-53 make up the most well-known Suffering Servant Song as well as being a
profound prophecy about the person and work of Jesus Christ. Descending to earth, Jesus was oppressed and afflicted, bruised and accursed. This illumination brings together many types of pain and oppression in the world today. The image of the chain-link fence, familiar from refugee camps and wartime prisons, was taken from pictures of the fence around Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Closer to the figure, the confinement is still more oppressive, suggestive of prison bars. It even suggests the narrow bars of the Door of No Return at Elmina Castle in Ghana, the passage through which Africans were taken onto ships, bound for slavery in the New World. This association is also echoed by the dark figure itself. Drawn from images of starving children, victims of the African famines, it is a portrait of suffering. Oppression, injustice, neglect, war, and poverty are the result of our iniquity. Yet, here stands an emaciated, humiliated figure who is able to redeem us.
In Christ’s suffering, man’s hope is found, as seen in Isaiah 53:11, “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous.” The illumination reflects this hope with the streaks of rainbow color at the prisoner’s eye level and below the ladder, reminding one of the hope, deliverance, and redemption that God promises. At the base of the image is our sacrificial lamb, the one “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter.” As four gospels attest in their accounts of the crucifixion, Jesus was silent as he was led from his arrest and before his accusers.
Listen to Me, O Coastlands, Isaiah 49:1-4
Isaiah 49:1-4 comprises one of the four Suffering Servant passages. (The others are Isaiah 42:1-4, 50:4-9, 52:13-53:12). Here, the Prophet Isaiah proclaims a vision of God’s kingdom on earth that includes the Gentiles. Christians identify Jesus with the Suffering Servant. The Suffering Servant’s ministry will gather all nations, an event taking place in the era of the new covenant church. The Servant calls the people of God to repentance that the whole world might see God’s salvation.
Arise, Shine, Isaiah 60:1-3
This messianic prediction, declaring that the light of the world will come to all peoples, completes the cycle from birth through suffering to resurrection. The two pages are strewn with small points of divine light, illuminating the good news revealed in chapters 60-62. In the beginning was light, and light is a constant throughout the Scriptures. The continuing work of creation is celebrated in the renewing light of this passage. Gold leaf, at the center of illumination, reflects light throughout The Saint John’s Bible.
Chapter 61 uses imagery of regeneration to describe the renewal God brings his estranged people through His Son. As a bride being clothed in her wedding gown, the redeemed are covered by the “garments of salvation…[and] the robe of righteousness” that God provides (61:10). As fertile ground that harbors dormant seeds, God shall cause “righteous and praise to spring up before all the nations” (61:11).
Chapter 62 repeats the theme of light: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch (62:1).
Vision at the Chebar, Ezekiel 1:1—3:27
This startling illustration is of Ezekiel’s vision at the Chebar river. However, this is not an attempt at recreating the vision, but an amalgamation of various elements from it. For inspiration, Donald Jackson turned to the British Museum and to artifacts from the Babylonian exile. He believed the visions often included images that the prophets and other exiles regularly saw in Babylonian temples and courts. Ezekiel’s heavy use of similes to describe what he heard and saw as like thunder, fire, lightning, mighty waters, etc. suggests that the vision is beyond description. This illustration attempts to capture a similar air of astonishing and frightfully overwhelming apparitions.
There are three main elements in this illumination: the messengers, the wheels, and God’s throne. According to Jackson there are enough pieces here—heads, legs, bodies—to makes four complete creatures. The four heads for each have become the famous symbols for the Gospel writers: the human (Matthew), the lion (Mark), the ox (Luke), and the eagle (John). In front of these are gloomy, spooky heads with yellow eyes, based on burial masks made under Greek influence. Likewise, the wheels are based on Assyrian relief carvings. Their edges host the eyes spoken of in the vision, though Ezekiel may have instead been describing bronze studs commonly placed on chariot wheels to prevent wear on the rims.
At the top left of the illustration is a figure on a throne, with fragments of sapphires and rainbows. This passage is the source of the image of the rainbow for God’s glory, and the rainbow continues at the bottom of the image and reappears on the next page where Ezekiel sits eating the scroll.
Ezekiel’s vision,at Chebar – eating the scroll
Ezekiel’s Vision at Chebar – Eating the Scroll, Donald Jackson, Copyright 2005, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Valley of Dry Bones, Ezekiel 37:1—14
This two-page illustration draws on the contrast between destruction and promise in Old Testament prophetic visions. In this case it is the promise of new life to be breathed into the dry bones of a destroyed society. In Ezekiel 37, God takes Ezekiel to stand in a valley of bones and tells him, “these bones are the whole house of Israel” (37:11). The vision is of a dead people, a wasteland filled with the bones of the victims of many invasions. The people are not just physically dead; the entire society is spiritually dead and “dry,” having turned from God. The montage along the bottom of the page points to the destruction of war: a contemporary valley of bones more like a trash heap, the detritus of a spiritually dead society.
For inspiration and accuracy, artists Donald Jackson and Sarah Harris gathered horrific documentary photos chronicling the human suffering of the recent past. The skulls are based on photos taken of genocide and war in Armenia, Rwanda, Iraq, and Bosnia. The piles of broken glass suggest the broken windows caused by car bombs, suicide bombers, and terrorist attacks, as well as the empty shells of vandalized and abandoned buildings. At the center is a pile of eyeglasses, a well-known image from the Holocaust.
Among the wreckage, however, there is a glimmer of hope. The lightly colored spot on the right side is an oil slick. Just as an oily puddle will appear to have a rainbow on its surface, so also in the midst of this valley of dry bones there is hope and God’s presence. Across the image are 7 menorahs, a symbol of God’s covenant with His people. Gold squares indicate the presence of the divine, and are placed even in the darkest spaces of the image. Black bars turn to gold as they ascend and reach a dramatically different image of a rainbow: nature’s sign of God’s promise. The words at the bottom are now understood: “I will put My Spirit within you, and you shall live” (37:14).
Vision of the New Temple, Ezekiel 40:1—48:35
The book of Ezekiel spends a total of eight full chapters describing the vision of the Temple in Jerusalem. In it the LORD lays out a blueprint for rebuilding the Temple, although it is not a blueprint any architect would want to follow. Still, people have tried, and the basis for this illumination is a seventeenth-century engraving for a Dutch replica of Solomon’s temple. The engraving has been manipulated to give the effect of a vision and turned into more of a labyrinth than a blueprint. A gold ribbon, used with the wing motif at the beginning and end of the Prophets, metaphorically traces Ezekiel’s path through the labyrinth. In this way the vision again speaks to the theme of transformation, this time in terms of a journey. The prophet takes a winding path through the areas of the new Temple, with plenty of backtracking and long loops, much like the circuitous path of Israel back to God.
In a way the vision of the Temple is a creation story, and the garden at the East gate is a restoration of the Garden of Eden. Outside of it are palm trees, based on Assyrian engravings, egret images from Egyptian wall paintings, and the same fish stamps found in the Loaves and Fishes illustration. The gold block and stamped archway is God’s throne, reflecting off of the water at the base of the Temple gate. A rainbow—the sign of God’s promise—fills the whole space. On the facing page the twelve tribes of Israel are placed beneath the letter standing for their gate, as is prescribed in the biblical text. The presence of all twelve tribes—even the ten “lost tribes” of the Northern Kingdom—is a further picture of restoration.
Tribes of Israel, Izzy Pludwinski with contributions from Donald Jackson, Copyright 2005, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Vision of the Son of Man, Daniel 7:1—28
The two sides of this diptych represent the two sides of Daniel’s Vision of the 4 Beasts and the Son of Man. On the bottom left is the great beast, with its ten horns and tusks and fiery eyes. You can also see the small horn among the ten that has an eye and “a mouth speaking arrogantly.” The background is based on enlarged microscopic images of streptococcus bacteria, a contemporary form of a devouring beast. In the top left, we see a silhouette of the Ancient of Days, adorned with clothing and hair that is “white as snow” (7:9). Wheels reminiscent of Ezekiel’s vision at the Chebar are found in the center—one of them grinding over the head of a beast with four leopard heads—and fire exudes from all around. Looking closely, see many tiny black and purple lines which represent a crowd of “thousands upon thousands” (7:10).
On the right is the vision of the Son of Man, inspired by icons of Jesus. Notably, it is undertaken in an ethereal monochromatic blue, maintaining the fact that it is a vision, not yet an advent, of Christ. Above his head are the gold boxes that signal the presence of divinity. His feet are planted on the earth, and beneath his feet is a stamp like a rich carpet: a stamp used again in an illustration of Christ’s resurrected appearance to Mary Magdalene in John 20. The two visions are linked by a golden grid representing Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple, and John’s vision of the New Jerusalem. Clearly, many of the most prominent themes in the Bible accumulate here.
Demands of Social Justice, Amos 4
There is a strong connection between Deuteronomy 30 and Amos 4. In the former, God predicts a coming exile among one of the curses that will come upon Israel as a consequence of prolonged disobedience. Now, in Amos 4, God laments Israel’s refusal to return to Him. In between listing the curses designed to prod Israel back to God, we find the resounding refrain, “yet you did not return to me.” It is these words that are depicted here, fragmented and repeated, as a sign of the fragmentation of creation itself.
The illumination is broken into seven pieces, but the pieces are not even and ordered like the days of creation. Inside them, the black, blue, and green panels representing sky, sea, and earth are also neither fruitful nor ordered—rather, they are chaotic. This is a reminder that God did not just try to turn the people’s hearts with plagues and punishments but first tried to draw them close with all the beauty, order, and fruitfulness of the Garden. It is the people’s choice not to return to God that has made creation this way.
This illustration is titled, “Demands of Social Justice,” because the book of Amos is known for its vision of social justice. The fractured words also refer to the ways injustice and inequality fracture society. At the heart of this prophecy, however, is a reminder of the law and the covenant. God is a God of compassion, not violence and punishment. The people have a choice, and yet they turn from God and do not put in place the society that welcomes God and in which God will live.
Do Justice, Love Kindness, Walk Humbly, Micah 6:8
He Has Told You, Sally Mae Joseph, Copyright 2005, The Saint John’s Bible, Saint John’s University, Collegeville, Minnesota USA. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
A motto close the hearts of the Benedictines—the monastic order that commissioned this illustrated Bible—comes from Micah 6:8. “He has told you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (6:8). Sally Mae Joseph’s text treatment is a piece that points to God’s goodness and desire to see humans act with love. The people ask the question: “What what shall I come before the LORD?” Wanting to make amends for their transgressions and regain God’s favor, they wonder what kind and number of sacrifices God will require. The passage here is the answer, and it highlights three Benedictine values: justice, hospitality, and humility. God does not want sacrifices but right behavior and longs for a people who uphold these values.
Rejoice!, Zechariah 9:9—17, 10:1—5
For an illustration entitled, “Rejoice!” we do not see quite the fanfare or vibrant color scheme reasonably expected. Instead, there is a rather humble scene of a man riding a colt through palm trees. The colors are mostly a monochromatic yellow-tan, with a few colored boxes floating to and fro. This image draws on the link made between Zechariah 9—10 and the Triumphal Entry in the gospels. Jesus arrives in Jerusalem on a donkey, greeted by people singing Hosanna and calling him the messiah, the Son of David, laying down palms in his path (Matt 21:1—10). He does not come to rule, however, but to prepare for his crucifixion.
“The king” here arrives on a donkey, with head bowed. The donkey, moreover, is a colt, and the man’s feet hang almost to the ground. Both characters, in fact, look sad. The palm trees are an icon of Palm Sunday, but also of Ezekiel’s vision of the Temple. In the upper left-hand corner of the image is the shadow of a city. This is another indication that the vision has an eschatological dimension. The kingdom is not of this world, not even of Jesus’ time. Victory, we are told here, is not found in the portrait of a proud, conquering hero, but in our Suffering Servant.