For the Lord has a day of vengeance, a year of retribution, to uphold Zion’s cause. Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur; her land will become blazing pitch! It will not be quenched night or day; its smoke will rise forever. From generation to generation it will lie desolate; no one will ever pass through it again. The desert owl and screech owl will possess it; the great owl and the raven will nest there. God will stretch out over Edom the measuring line of chaos and the plumb line of desolation. Her nobles will have nothing there to be called a kingdom, all her princes will vanish away. Thorns will overrun her citadels, nettles and brambles her strongholds. She will become a haunt for jackals, a home for owls. Desert creatures will meet with hyenas, and wild goats will bleat to each other; there the night creatures will also lie down and find for themselves places of rest. The owl will nest there and lay eggs, she will hatch them, and care for her young under the shadow of her wings; there also the falcons will gather, each with its mate. – Isaiah 34:8-15
This passage returns to the judgement of previous passages in Isaiah. In this case the judgement is on the land of Edom. There is some dispute about the exact boundaries of this land but apparently it was located southeast of the Dead Sea. This was some of the land through which the Israelites passed on their way to the promised land. What is being described here is a “year of retribution”. I am not sure what precisely the Edomites did to deserve this judgement but it must have been bad based on the severity of the consequences. “Edom’s streams will be turned into pitch, her dust into burning sulfur; her land will become blazing pitch!” What would a stream of pitch look like? It sounds like a stick mess to me.
A couple of years ago I took two students to do research and mapping on the Salmon River in Idaho. It was an amazing trip with all kinds of adventure, including rattlesnakes, whitewater, and pine pitch. The pine pitch came into the picture when one of my students decided he wanted to make a homemade “candle” out of of pine pitch. He diligently collected pine pitch for hour in a pop can before he tried out his makeshift candle. The end result was a feeble flame that emitted clouds of black smoke, but he was very proud of his smoky beacon.
I cannot even imagine the smoke and choking fumes that would arise from a stream of burning pitch. It would also tend to stick to anything that came into contact with it making putting it out rather difficult. My student found this out the hard way when he tried to extinguish his candle. The result was a sticky smoldering mess. It sounds like this is what is being described here — a sticky smoldering mess in the land of Edom.
I am not sure if there are any deeper spiritual meaning buried in this passage about streams of pitch. It does serve as a reminder that there are consequences to choosing to go our own way rather than God’s way. The result often resembles a very sticky smoldering mess. These consequences have a way of sticking to those around us as well. King David found this out when he chose to go his own way in the epic fail with Bathsheba and Uriah. The consequences of his choices “stuck” to his family for generations and created all sorts of dysfunction and dissonance for David and his family.
Prayer: God help us to make good choices so that we can avoid messy consequences that may stick to us for years to come.