I always try to be especially attentive to repeated words used in the Hebrew Bible. Since the total number of words in classical Hebrew is a mere 8,000 (modern English has over 1,000,000 words!), it is often instructive to note when any of those words show up more than once in a short text. So it is here in Is.25. In verses 3-5, the word “ruthless” shows up three times: “ruthless nations,” we are told, will fear YHWH; a “ruthless wind” (or “blast of the ruthless” as NRSV translates) will not destroy those sheltered by YHWH; the “song of the ruthless” will finally be stilled.
How are we to understand that word “ruthless” in this context? In English, there is an extraordinary number of synonyms for this word; my thesaurus lists no fewer than twenty-four such words. They range from “pitiless” to “cruel” to “callous” to “brutal,” an array of meanings that encompasses among the most merciless words in the language.
The origin of the word is Middle English, where so many of our modern words find their root. The basic word, still much used today, is “rue.” “You will rue the day you were born,” we still say in our anger.” To rue is to bitterly regret something, so to be lacking in rue is to be devoid of regret, and thus to become ruthless toward one’s enemies. To be ruthless is to be vicious, unfeeling, heartless. Is.25 offers words from God that promise protection from the ruthless and a final end to ruthlessness altogether.
We live in ruthless times. I write this not one week removed from the greatest mass shooting in our nation’s history. A deranged man, Stephen Paddock, situated himself in a 32nd floor window in a Las Vegas casino, and for no more than 10 terrifying minutes sprayed random, automatic weapon’s fire on a huge crowd of concert goers below, killing more than 50 innocent people, and wounding over 500. No real motive has yet been discovered for this act of American terrorism. It was a deed of supreme ruthlessness, marked by savagery and inhuman brutality. To name it “inhuman” is to malign those non-human among us; few if any animals would resort to random violence on this scale. This man won and lost millions of dollars at high-end slot machines, but no particularly massive loss appeared to be the reason for his slaughter. He was simply ruthless.
Donald Trump, 45th president of the USA, continuously displays a ruthless streak in his appalling tweets, as he excoriates and demeans person after person, from protesting football players to world leaders, dubbing the leader of North Korea “Rocket Man,” to senators in his own Republican party, calling them “liddle Bob” and “Lyin’ Ted” and “Cowardly McCain.” Such language would be unacceptable from anyone in a position of authority anywhere, teachers, CEO’s, mayors, but our president engages in such calumny almost daily. Such ruthless language would get a person fired on the spot, yet Trump continues his reckless ways untrammeled. He once said that he could shoot someone in the middle of New York’s Times Square and not lose a single vote, and I fear he may just be right. He has become our ruthless leader in a day of ruthlessness, a veritable model of ruthlessness for our country and the world.
And so we have Is.25, a paean to a God who is said to be in the business of confronting and defeating ruthlessness. Even when the “blast of the ruthless was like a winter rainstorm” (Is.25:4), YHWH has been a “refuge for the poor, a refuge for the needy in their distress, a shelter from the storm and a shade from the heat.” We either believe this or we do not; we either act with God in these ways or we do not. In ruthless times, a time like Israel some 2600 years ago, or a time like our own, we join our God in confronting the ruthless among us or we choose to allow the ruthless to win. Such a decision is always a crucial one, now as much as at any time in history. We live in ruthless times, but we also live in a time when we trust that the “song of the ruthless will be stilled,” whether that song be a hail of bullets or a foolish, idiotic tweet