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THE PENTATEUCH --- GENESIS ---EXODUS--- LEVITICUS --- NUMBERS --- DEUTERONOMY --- THE BOOK OF JOSHUA --- THE BOOK OF JUDGES --- THE BOOK OF RUTH --- SAMUEL --- KINGS --- I & II CHRONICLES --- EZRA---NEHEMIAH---ESTHER---PSALMS 1-73--- PROVERBS---ECCLESIASTES--- SONG OF SOLOMON --- ISAIAH --- JEREMIAH --- LAMENTATIONS --- EZEKIEL --- DANIEL --- --- HOSEA --- --- JOEL ------ AMOS --- --- OBADIAH --- --- JONAH --- --- MICAH --- --- NAHUM --- --- HABAKKUK--- --- ZEPHANIAH --- --- HAGGAI --- ZECHARIAH --- --- MALACHI --- THE GOSPEL OF MATTHEW ---THE GOSPEL OF MARK--- THE GOSPEL OF LUKE --- THE GOSPEL OF JOHN --- THE ACTS OF THE APOSTLES --- READINGS IN ROMANS --- 1 CORINTHIANS --- 2 CORINTHIANS ---GALATIANS --- EPHESIANS--- PHILIPPIANS --- COLOSSIANS --- 1 THESSALONIANS --- 2 THESSALONIANS --- 1 TIMOTHY --- 2 TIMOTHY --- TITUS --- PHILEMON --- HEBREWS --- JAMES --- 1 & 2 PETER --- JOHN'S LETTERS --- JUDE --- REVELATION --- THE GOSPELS & ACTS
General Background and Authorship.
It cannot be doubted that ancient testimony agrees with one consent that Isaiah was the writer of the whole book. In support of this we should note the following:
That is not to say that there may not have been a few updatings to the book and an occasional clarification. All such literature was subject to necessary modernisation by scribes desirous of making what was written intelligible to later readers by a modernisation or by a note, but there are no grounds for seeing these as extensive or as altering the sense.
One solid argument that has been posited constantly by reputable conervative scholars, and which all those who are against unity of authorship have failed to answer, is this. If the author was not Isaiah, how did the great figure who supposedly prophesied in the second part of Isaiah from chapter 40 onwards, the most superlative of the prophets, totally disappear from view in so short a time, not even to be remembered? This is strange indeed if the author was any other than Isaiah, indeed in our view almost incomprehensible. Imagine what honour would have been accorded to such a man when his prophecy about Cyrus within a fairly short time came true. And yet no one remembered him. Nor is there any evidence that schools of different prophets continued through the centuries, constantly updating their works, and that is especially noteworthy in view of the fact that other great prophets like Jeremiah and Ezekiel had arisen meanwhile, who would surely have connected up with them, and yet they not only do not mention them or even seem to know of them, but also spoke of themselves as though they stood alone (e.g. Ezekiel 2.5; 22.30), apart in the case of Jeremiah from his own supporters. Yet the idea of schools of prophets who carried on the tradition of their masters is almost essential if alternative positions about Isaiah are to be credible
Both internal and external evidence can be adduced as supporting this unity of authorship. The title for God as "The Holy One of Israel," which reflects the deep impression that Isaiah's vision in chapter 6 made on him, occurs twelve times in chapters 1 to 39 and fourteen times in chapters 40 to 66, but only seven times elsewhere in the entire Old Testament. Similar key phrases, passages, presentations, words, themes, and motifs likewise appear in all sections of the book as the commentary will make apparent.
Furthermore in 40.9 the cities of Judah are still seen as standing, as are the walls of Jerusalem in 62.6. See also 43.6; 48.2. And it is Canaanite religion that is castigated (e.g. 44.9-20; 57.5-7). Thus these verses appear to have been written before the exile. The flavour of the writings is Palestinian (44.14 - trees of the type were not common in Babylon; 41.19; 55.13) whereas there are no indications of its being written by someone knowledgeable about Babylon. Passages which suggest that it was not written in Babylon include 43.14; 52.11; see also 41.9; 45.22; 46.11.
All this being made clear we can see no reason for doubting Isaianic authorship for the whole book. (Arguments brought forward against Isaianic authorship of the whole will be dealt with at the appropriate places).
An Analysis of The Book.
From one point of view the Book of Isaiah can be divided into seven main parts, 1-12; 13-23; 24-27; 28-35; 36-39; 40-55; 56-66. These can be summarised as follows:
What is clear from this analysis is that central in Isaiah all through is the sinfulness of Israel, and God’s purpose to deliver a remnant of them, the promise of a Deliverer under different guises (the coming an Anointed King , an Anointed Servant, A Mighty Warrior, and an Anointed Prophet) the return of exiles from all parts of the world, a promise of the re-establishment of His people and His final aim to establish a new Jerusalem with heavenly connections.
The Main Themes of Isaiah.
We now come down to the question as to what the main themes of Isaiah are. His book is so many faceted that it is a bold person who is dogmatic on such a question, but we can certainly select certain main themes. And the first answer must be that he reveals Yahweh’s power in judgment and deliverance. Indeed that is the idea that binds the whole book together.
The Majority View.
The majority would see Isaish as basically divided into two main sections, Isaiah 1-39, and Isaiah 40-66, although there are many variations when it comes down to detail, and many would sub-divide 40-66.
On this basis we have in the first 39 chapters a stress laid on the need of His people to trust in Yahweh, to look to Him and depend on Him alone, and to reject dependence on other nations. In the background is Assyria, while it especially centres on the failure of two kings of the house of David, that house which had been promised that it would survive for ever, Ahaz and Hezekiah. And these kings are both seen to fail in their different ways. Both were faced up with the question of whether they would trust wholly in Yahweh, and both let Him down, one through fear and the other through pride. And they represented the attitude of almost the whole people. For the attitude of the people is also revealed as one of disobedience and sin. They too on the whole are seen as having rejected Yahweh as the One Whom they would trust and totally obey. Thus judgment is declared as necessarily coming on all, for all have sinned. But God makes clear that He will keep His promise to David by raising up a child uniquely born (so as not to be seen as a son of Ahaz or Hezekiah), and yet seen as being connected with the house of David (7.14; 9.6-7; 11.1-4). Furthermore final deliverance for a purified remnant is also guaranteed and chapter 35, which ends the section prior to the historical interlude of 36-39, closes with a picture of Paradise restored. 36-39 is then seen as providing a connecting history between the two parts.
The second part of the book from chapter 40 onwards then stresses that God as Creator and Sovereign will act, in spite of Israel’s undeserving and clearly revealed failure, to make Jerusalem free (40.1-31; 41.27; 62.11-12; 60.14; 62.1-5; 65.19-25); to raise up His Servant (41-53; compare 61.1-3); to save and redeem a purified remnant of His people (49.6); to be revenged on Egypt and Assyria (43.3; 45.14; 52.4-6); to destroy the great anti-God, the city of Babylon (43.14; 46.1-2; 47.1-15; 48.20); to be the Saviour and Redeemer of His people (41.14; 43.3, 14; 44.21-23; 54.5; 59.20-21; 60.16); and through them to bless the world (42.6; 49.6-7; 60.3, 6-7). This will include the bringing back of His people from all around the world (41.9; 42.15-16; 43.5-6; 49.22-23; 60.9-10; 66.20). Following this will come the restoration portrayed in the final chapters of Isaiah.
Central to both sections right from the beginning is the fact of God’s activity to bring this about, a theme which recurs again and again. Indeed one of the striking things about the book is the way in which, in the midst of gloom and judgment, Isaiah suddenly reiterates the promise and certainty of God’s future deliverance.
A Growing Minority View.
The discovery at Qumran of a large Isaianic scroll (Isaiah a), far predating any that we have previously had, has revealed an interesting situation, and that is that in that scroll the division into two halves does not occur at the end of chapter 39, but at the end of chapter 33. At the end of chapter 33 there is a deliberate short break of three lines, prior to chapter 34, while there is no break between chapters 39 and 40, even though the opening of 40.1 is on the last line of a column.
This is of especial interest because the appeal in 34.1, ‘Come near you nations to hear and hearken, let the earth hear, and its fullness, the world and all things that come forth from it’, (speaking about the nations), can easily be seen as paralleled with the appeal in 1.2, ‘Hear O heavens, and give ear O earth, for Yahweh has spoken’, (speaking concerning the situation of Israel/Judah). Thus it might appear from this that Isaiah’s prophecy was not only divided here in order to split it into two at this point for convenience, so as to fit onto two equal scrolls, but was designed in this way, with each section intended to have its own emphasis. This would then tend to confirm that 1.1 was to be seen as opening the whole prophecy in its two sections.
This suggestion might be seen as supported by interesting parallels between the two sections which are then revealed. For example:
The first section 1-33 might then be seen as very much describing Yahweh’s appeal concerning Israel and Judah, resulting in the coming of their everlasting King (7-11) and judgment on the nations who have failed her, including Babylon as a city (13-23), and ending in the picture of final fulfilment in chapter 33, with the everlasting Tabernacle of Jerusalem being established in a place of broad rivers and streams (33.20-21), and with the people healed and forgiven (33.24; contrast 1.4-9). While the second section, commencing with chapter 34 onwards, might then be seen as Yahweh’s appeal concerning the nations, resulting in the coming of the Servant of Yahweh on behalf of the nations, and judgment on Babylon as a city (46-47) and Edom (63.1-4), (as representing all that is worst in the nations), and ending with the picture of final fulfilment described in 65-66, with the ideal Jerusalem being established (65.17-25; 66.10) in a place where peace is extended to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like an ever-flowing stream (66.12), with all nations restored and worshipping Yahweh. If that is so then chapter 34 can be seen as introductory to all that follow it, in the same way as chapters 1-2 (or 1-5) were introductory to 3-33.
God as Creator, Redeemer, Saviour and Judge.
A number of titles and descriptions are used of Yahweh by Isaiah which bring out these emphases.
The People Of God.
The second main theme is that of the idea of God’s people (Jacob/Israel/Judah). They are continually seen as sinful, rejected, and facing judgment, as requiring to be refined (1.25; 4.4; 48.10), and destined to be cut back, and to be decimated, until only a purified remnant remains whom He will restore (6.13 and often; 1.26-28; 4.3-6; 10.20; 27.6; 29.17-19; 32.1-8, 15-20; 33.20-22; 35; 40.1-5, 9-11; 44.1-5; 49.5, 22-23; 51.3; 55.5, 12-13; 57.15-19; 58.11-14; 60.11-14; 61.9; 62.1-5; 65.9-10, 17-25; 66.10-13, 22-23), who are then to be augmented by people from the whole world who will be blessed through them (2.3-4; 11.10; 19.18-25; 42.6; 49.6-7; 56.6-7; 60.3-7; 66.21, 23). For he declares that God will act as Saviour and Redeemer to set apart to Himself the remnant of His people who are to be His servants, ministers and witnesses to the world (43.10; 61.6), and will call on men and women in that world to enjoy Him and His presence in the everlasting future (25.6-8, 60.19-21) thus forming a new Israel out of the old.
The Coming Son Of David And Servant Of Yahweh.
A third theme arising from the above is the theme of the coming Son of David through Whom God will act in the fulfilment of His purposes. God had raised up David and had given him promises that his house would continue for ever as rulers over His people (2 Samuel 7.9-16). Isaiah now tell us that as the sons of David failed in this task, revealing their unwillingness to trust in and obey Yahweh alone, God set aside the natural line of the Davidic house (7.11-14; 39.6) with the promise of One Who would be born of a virginal young woman (7.14), of the stock and roots of Jesse (David’s father) (11.1), Who would Himself be at the same time the root of Jesse (11.10), who would receive universal power and dominion (9.7), would be called Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (9.6), and would be endued by the Spirit of Yahweh (11.2), with the purpose of ruling the whole earth (11.4-9), for to Him all nations would seek (11.10). He was to reign in righteousness and be the defence and shelter of His people (32.1-3), established triumphantly in His beauty (33.17).
The theme of God’s promises to David underlies much of Isaiah’s thinking (16.5; 22.9; 29.1; 37.35; 38.5; 55.3), including as it does the everlasting covenant and the sure mercies of David (55.3), both guarantees of God’s faithful working through that house. It is therefore an underlying assumption that affects the interpretation of many passages where his name is not mentioned. God calls him ‘My servant’ David (37.35), a title only given to few through history, but regularly used of David elsewhere, see especially Ezekiel 34.23-24; 37.24-25 where it refers to the coming greater David
This is then amplified in the second part of the book where the mysterious Servant must surely, in the light of 9.7 and 11.1-10, include connection with the Davidic house and the everlasting covenant. For as with the David to come He is to be ‘My servant’ (42.1; 49.3; 52.13), He is to have the Spirit on Him (42.1 compare 11.2), He is to bring justice to the Gentiles (42.1 compare 11.10), He is to set justice in the earth (42.4 compare 9.7; 16.5; 32.1; Jeremiah 23.5; 33.15), He is to be a covenant of the people for a light to the Gentiles (42.6 compare 55.3; 11.10), and He is to set free the prisoners held by the enemies of Israel (42.7; 61.1-2). He is chosen from the womb (49.1 compare 7.14), represents in Himself the true Israel (49.3) as the king was always seen to do (see Lamentations 4.20), and is to raise up the tribes of Jacob and restore the preserved of Israel, and to be for God’s deliverance to the ends of the earth (49.6; compare Psalm 2.8-10), before Whom kings will kneel and bow (49.7; Psalm 89.27). He is to be exalted (compare Psalm 89.19) and lifted up and be very high, before Whom great kings will be dumb (52.13, 15 compare Psalm 89.27), but must first go through great humiliation on behalf of His people (50.6; 53). Thus King and Servant are closely connected.
But why does Isaiah then not clearly associate Him with the Davidic king? The probable answer is twofold. Firstly it lies in the fact that Isaiah had slowly come to recognise that the house of David as known to Israel at that time was unfitted for such a service. So in his later years he did not want the people to look to the reigning monarch and his heirs as a possible Messiah. That may well be why from chapter 41 onwards he speaks of Him as ‘the Servant of Yahweh’, a complete contrast with the then current Davidic house, with a unique task of restoration and humiliation to perform. It is emphasising that the present house of David cannot be described as His Servant, which is why the new king is to be born of a virgin. And secondly it is because the Servant is in fact more than the Davidic house. He is to be seen as having been active from, and is the fruit of, the call of Abraham (see in the commentary).
The Significance of Mount Zion.
A fourth theme is that of Mount Zion. This is to be differentiated from the theme of Jerusalem, although associated with it (2.2-4; 24.23; 37.32). Mount Zion is specifically the dwellingplace of Yahweh (8.18), from where He reigns (24.23), the link between earth and heaven (2.2), contaminated by man and having to be purified (10.12), but to be raised above all the mountains of the earth that all nations might seek Him (Isaiah 2.2; 4.5; 18.7; 27.13). While connected with Jerusalem, it is not in Isaiah to be seen as simply synonymous with it. It has a heavenly vista.
The Different Aspects Of Jerusalem and Zion.
A fifth and related theme is that of Jerusalem/Zion. This is seen from different aspects.
The point is that a restored Jerusalem in one way or another is seen as the focal point of Yahweh’s activity and future blessing because that alone was within the people’s conception. Isaiah knew that the old Jerusalem was rejected, but in a world where an afterlife in heaven was not even conceived of as a possibility, (it was a new idea which he was introducing as best he could), its centrality as a restored and glorified and much enlarged city was the only means available to indicate to the people God’s final triumph. And that is why it was depicted as lit by the presence of Yahweh (60.19-20), and was to be everlasting.
But we must appreciate how the people saw Jerusalem. To them it was the city of God, the holy city. To be there was to be as near to God as it was possible to be. It was their ideal, their dream, even when many were following idolatry. And it was the place where Yahweh dwelt on earth. Thus the prophets (apart from Ezekiel who went beyond it to a heavenly Temple and sidelined Jerusalem - 45.1-8) saw in Jerusalem, as glorified and transformed, the symbol of the culmination of their hopes, for it was where the dwellingplace of God would always be found. But the final list of references in Isaiah regularly use language that goes well beyond the idea of an earthly Jerusalem, and in chapter 2 Isaiah raises that dwelling place to a higher plain (2.2-3). They speak of what Jerusalem represents for the world in terms of God’s salvation, a Jerusalem beyond Jerusalem, and include within it all God’s blessings on the whole true people of God, both Jew and Gentile. The love of Jerusalem was used to point forward to a greater Jerusalem, a New Jerusalem which had attributes of Heaven, and which the New Testament would speak of as actually raised there (Galatians 4.26; Hebrews 12.22), together with a new Sanctuary where God could be met with (Hebrews 8.2; 9.7, 11, 24; 10.19-22) .
Thus ‘Jerusalem’ will be the city of righteousness, where all are righteous (1.26-27), it will be the city where all without exception are holy (4.3), it will be a place where the full glory of God will be revealed in all its splendour and where God reigns (24.23), it will be a strong city with salvation as its wall and bulwarks (26.1), it will be a city with a secure foundation, founded in God (28.16), it will be a place of no more weeping (30.19), it will be a place where Yahweh is exalted and dwells on high, filling it with justice and righteousness (33.5), it will be immovable and indestructible, where Yahweh is with His own in majesty as Judge, Lawgiver and King (33.20), it will be a place of everlasting joy where His people obtain joy and gladness and where sorrow and sadness find no place (35.10; 51.11), it will be lit only by the light of Yahweh (60.19-20), it will be a newly created city (65.18), it will be in the newly created new heaven and the new earth (65.17; 66.20-22). Thus Paul could refer us to the Jerusalem which is above (Galatians 4.26) and the write to the Hebrews to ‘mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem’ (Hebrews 12.22), while Revelation depicts it as the eternal state (Revelation 21-22).
There are some who, having no prophetic vision, literalise even these verses, and as a result debase them. However we must remember that prophecy had to be given in terms of the life-situation, background and understanding of those who heard it. When early missionaries went to the eskimos they spoke of seals instead of sheep, of the harpoon of God instead of the sword of the Lord and of the great igloo in the sky instead of Heaven, otherwise their message would have been meaningless. In the same way the prophets were prophesying to people who had no conception of Heaven. They thus spoke of it in terms of a glorified Jerusalem. Later John in Revelation would speak of it as a city of gold, with gates of pearl and forming a perfect cube with Apostles as its foundation. None of the descriptions, however, were to be taken literally. In our reading of them we must use discernment.
I am often asked what Heaven will be like. I have to speak in terms of joy and light and peace and fulfilment, but some want more detail than that, especially those who think in childlike simplicity. Some express disappointment that there will no pearly gates. Some want to live in the many mansions. That is the kind of description they want, and it is impossible to satisfy them in any other way. Should we rob them of this picture which means so much to them and gives them the right idea if not a strictly literal one? I am happy to use them as pictures. In the same way the Israelites were a farming and practical people. To describe the future glory to them in a meaningful way it was necessary to describe it in terms of fruitful fields, of plentiful rain, of glorious rivers, of plenteous cattle, of abundant trees and of a glorious land which was theirs. That was their idea of Heaven. And that is how God revealed it to them through the prophets. But that it is a picture comes out in Hebrews 11. The reality is greater far than that, as Hebrews 11.10-14 makes clear.
The World City.
A sixth theme is ‘the city’ which is seen as in contrast to Jerusalem. This is the world city which is doomed to destruction (24.10, 12; 25.2; 26.5), the world in opposition to God. When Cain first rejected God he built a city (Genesis 4.17) and when man was scattered by God it was because he had built himself a city, Babel (Babylon) (Genesis 11.1-9). The idea of the city thus became that of something that was corrupted, a bastion of idolatry and in opposition to God and His ways, something that could be contrasted with the wilderness experience of Israel which was looked back on in an idealistic fashion (consider Jeremiah 2.2; Hosea 2.14). This city is then seen by Isaiah as epitomised in Babylon. This is why when dealing with Babylon he seems to go over the top. On the one hand he is dealing with one of a number of countries who sought alliances with Israel/Judah, but on the other he sees Babylon alone as the great ogre, the great enemy of God, the great city that represents the world at its worst and most dangerous, the city for which there could be no mercy which must be permanently destroyed.
His Unique Treatment Of Babylon and Edom.
In stark contrast to the hope that is constantly found throughout the book, even for places like Egypt and Assyria (19.24-25), is the fate of Babylon and Edom. In the future that is coming there is hope for neither. Both are depicted as needing to be irretrievably destroyed by apocalyptic judgment (for Babylon see 13.9-11, 20-22; for Edom see 34.8-10; 63.1-6). One because it represents all that stands against God, the world city that seeks to exalt itself to heaven, the centre of all that sums up idolatry and licentious living. The other because it represents the brother who deserted the covenant community and rejected every offer of return to that covenant. Edom represents the brother who turned traitor to the people of God, and stands for those who from within for ever reject the covenant. Babylon was Pilate. Edom was Judas.
Isaiah’s treatment of Babylon is significant. The very name seemed to stir up his antagonism against it. He sets up Babylon as depicting the great enemy of all that is of God. It is possible (although not necessarily so) that this idea first arose for him when Babylon approached Judah with a view to an alliance resulting in Hezekiah showing the Babylonians all his treasures and military strength (39), thus bringing a cold chill in Isaiah’s heart as he thought on all that he knew about Babylon. But it went further than that, for this simply roused up his thoughts about Babylon as he knew of it from ancient times, Babylon the ever present threat to God’s purposes. To him it was the ever belligerent Babylon from centuries past, Babylon belligerent and arrogant through the ages, and it became to him a symbol of God’s battle against the rebellion of man. For whatever else aroused his concern there can be no doubt that Isaiah saw Babylon as different from anywhere else.
The name and thought of Babylon took his mind back to the traditions of his people. It was the building of a city that first indicated man’s rebellion against Yahweh (Genesis 4.17). This then expanded into Babel (Shinar) which was the beginnings of the first world empire (Genesis 10.10-11). It was Babel which was the place where man set himself up in opposition to God resulting in their scattering around the world (Genesis 11.1-9). As Shinar it was one of the places whoce kings invaded Canaan in the time of Abraham, and had to be defeated by Abraham (Genesis 14.1). So behind every ancient threat there had loomed Babylon. Thus he saw it as the ancient enemy, set up in opposition to God, and something to be avoided at all costs. Indeed contact with it could only bring disaster on God’s people (39). That is why in chapters 13-14 Babylon is emphatically seen as more than just another traducer, but is set up as a great and boastful city, and is depicted as arrogant in its claims and in its direct opposition to the Most High. And that is why its end is depicted in apocalyptic terms far exceeding the fate of any of the other nations, an end which is again stressed in 21.1-10. Of all cities Babylon is seen as the only one which is ultimately doomed, the only city for which there is no hope. It had become to Isaiah a symbol of all that was evil in the world.
It is because of its constantly looming presence that this view is then taken up again in the second section. It had by this time gained further prominence by being the city from which Assyria was exercising its authority. (When Manasseh was taken away by Assyria it was to Babylon that he was taken). There it is seen as the antithesis of the Servant. God’s purpose is to work through the Servant. But Babylon is opposed to all that the Servant stands for. Thus, in 43.14, while dealing with the question of the Servant, God promises that for His people’s sake He will destroy Babylon. It was true that Babylon, the ancient enemy, would at some stage be allowed to spoil Jerusalem and carry off the princes of the house of David (39.7), as a result of their own folly. But in the end it too would be spoiled and humiliated. This destruction of Babylon is then presaged in 46.1-2 where the humiliation of Babylon’s gods (almost certainly by the Assyrians under Sennacherib) is seen as significantly preparatory to the final full expression of the destruction of Babylon in chapter 47, which is confirmed in 48.14. In chapter 47 it is again made clear that it is being destroyed because of its extravagant claims. There is no mention anywhere of world empire, just of this great, looming, grotesquely vain city which is the champion of idolatry and the occult.
And finally all foreigners are told to flee from Babylon 48.20, for Babylon represented all that men must flee from. Whether taken there by force (11.11; 39.7) or going there by choice for trading purposes, or for the pleasures that it offered, they were not to cling to it but to flee from it. For Babylon was the home of decadent luxury and the headquarters of gods and of the occult, was to be shunned at all costs. It was doomed.
It is this concentration on Babylon as the arch-enemy of God that has made scholars read chapters 40-55 as referring to the Babylonian captivity. But that all has to be read in. That is not Isaiah’s emphasis. These chapters are not centred on what we know of as the Babylonian captivity, nor is the Babylonian captivity a central thought in them. Indeed there is no thought anywhere in those chapters of Babylon as the world ruler. The thought of that is remarkably absent. They are centred on the great spectre of ‘Babylon’ as the ancient enemy.
What Isaiah spoke of was a looming Babylon, a threatening Babylon, a predatory Babylon (as in Genesis 14), a Babylon that would hinder the work of the Servant. While Isaiah did recognise the harm that Babylon would do to Judah (14.3; 39.7) there is no reason to think that he knew of its ‘world empire’, only of its pretensions to claim such a position. He knew what it essentially was. The fact that Babylon did become such a world empire for a time was a remarkable confirmation of all that Isaiah said, but there is no reason to think that it was in Isaiah’s mind. To him Babylon represented the arch-enemy of God, not the prime holder of exiles and ruler of the world.
Edom also is dealt with in an unusual way. They are the people of the curse (34.5). A brief offer was made to them to return to Yahweh (21.11-12), but it was clearly rejected for in the end they face apocalyptic judgment (34; 63.1-6). For them there will be no return. Their end is final. There is no end day hope for them. They were the people descended from the line of promise through Isaac who had rejected their birthright. They are subject only to the Day of Vengeance (34.8; 63.4). This can only be because they are seen as the supreme rejecters of the covenant, the brother tribe whose eponymous ancestor deserted the covenant people and which thereafter constantly turned traitor against Jacob/Israel. History, however, indicates that many Edomites were forced to submit to Israel and become Jews at the point of the sword. So although it was a judgment on them there was an element of mercy for them too (from God’s eternal standpoint) for they were now forcibly introduced to the covenant, and many no doubt genuinely responded to it, and the Gospel that arose from it.
The Use Of The Terms Israel, Jacob, Zion, Jerusalem In Isaiah.
Excluding genitival use connected with the name of God (e.g. ‘Holy One of Israel’, ‘God of Israel’, ‘Holy One of Jacob’, etc.) Israel occurs 48 times, Jacob occurs 37 times, Zion occurs 47 times and Jerusalem occurs 47 times. The uses tend to be spread over the whole book except that after 49.1-6 ‘Israel’ occurs rarely and even then only genitivally (the only exception to this is in 63.16 where it specifically refers to the patriarch).
‘Israel’ occurs three times in chapters 1-5, eleven times in 6-12, six times in 13-23, twice in 24-27, once in 28-35, sixteen times in parallel with Jacob and five times on its own (making twenty one in all) in 40.1-49.6, not at all in 49.7-55, and after 55 it occurs three times genitivally (56.8; 63.7; 66.20). Included in the above are ‘house of Israel’ in 5.7; 8.14; 14.2; 46.3 and 63.7; ‘children of Israel’ in 17.3, 9; 27.12; 31.6; 66.20; and ‘outcasts of Israel’ in 11.12; 56.8. It can therefore be seen that, apart from in the chapters that follow the naming of the Servant as ‘Israel’ in 49.3, it occurs fairly uniformly although with an increase in use in 40-49, where it very closely connects with their descent from Abraham and the idea of the Servant.
‘Jacob’ occurs three times (as ‘house of Jacob’) in 1-5, four times in 6-12, twice in 13-23, twice in 24-27, once in 28-35, twenty one times in 40.1-49.6 (sixteen in parallel with Israel), not at all in 49.7-55, four times in 56-66. The picture is therefore to some extent similar to that of Israel except for its occurrence four times after 49.6. It too in 40-49 has in mind the descent from Abraham. In these cases in 40-49 ‘Zion’ or ‘Jerusalem’ could not be used as they did not tie in with the necessity for the descent from Abraham as God’s Servant.
‘Zion’ occurs eight times in 1-5, five times in 7-12, three times in 13-23, once in 24-27, ten times in 28-35, twice in 36-39, four times in 40-49, seven times in 50-55 (all in 51-52), and seven times in 56-66. Here it is clear that it is spread fairly uniformly through the book, with twenty nine times in 1-39 and eighteen times in 40-66, which includes a cluster of seven in 51-52. It tends especially to be used in relationship to God as dwelling among His people, and does not in most cases simply mean the people of God (see section on Zion above).
‘Jerusalem’ occurs eight times in 1-5, six times in 6-12, twice in 13-23, twice in 24-27, five times in 28-35, six times in 36-39 (where we would expect it), five times in 40-49, four times in 50-55 (all in 51-52), nine times in 56-66. Here again we have twenty nine in 1-39 and eighteen in 40-66, with a cluster of four in 51-52. Its use is similar to that of ‘Zion’.
In so far as these comparisons can be used at all this would tend to support unity of authorship, taking into account the occasional difference in emphasis required.
Did Isaiah Have The Exile of Judah To Babylon Directly In Mind?
One of the strongest arguments put forward for dating the second part of Isaiah (40-66) to a date long after the death of Isaiah himself, is the supposition that this second part is dealing with the downfall of the later Babylonian Empire and the return from Babylon of the deportees of c.587 BC, which would have had no real interest for the prophet prophesying in the first half of the book as he never raises the question of a future exile for all God’s remaining people in Babylon (in chapter 39 only the sons of Hezekiah are in mind).
However, quite apart from the danger of seeking to declare what God could and could not do with relation to future prophecy, we should note that, contrary to the impression that has been given by many scholars, there are in fact no certain grounds in the second half of the book for suggesting that that part mainly has the Babylonian exile in mind. The truth is that a cursory reading of the section from 40 to 55 by someone not already imbued with the idea of the Babylonian exile would certainly not result in the reader thinking that it mainly referred to the return of such exiles. There is in fact not one clear reference to any return of such exiles. When exiles are expected to return, they are expected to return from all over the world.
Indeed the remarkable fact, given how so many commentaries interpret these chapters as referring to the Babylonian empire, is that Babylon is only mentioned four times in Isaiah from chapter 40 onwards, in 43.14; 47.1; 48.14, 20, and we might perhaps include 46.1 (compare five times in 13-22, and four times in 36-39). Let us then first consider those verses.
43.14 reads, ‘For your sake I have sent to Babylon and I will bring down all of them as fugitives, even the Chaldeans, in the ships of their rejoicing.’ Whatever else this means it is clearly referring to the Babylonians as becoming fugitives because of God’s judgment coming on Babylon, probably emphasising the fact that as the great anti-God they will be rendered powerless, so that they cannot prevent God’s triumphs which will result in the return of exiles to Judah from all parts of the world (43.5-6). Anything else has to be read into it. (In the light of 46.1 where their gods also become fugitives this would seem to refer to a successful Assyrian invasion). Here Babylon, as it always had, stood for everything that was in opposition to God (compare Genesis 10.10; 11.1-9).
46.1 reads, ‘Bel bows down, Nebo stoops, their idols are on the beasts, and on the cattle, the things that you carried about (in triumph at your festivals), are made a load, a burden to the weary. They stoop, they bow down together, they could not deliver the burden but themselves are gone into captivity.’ This almost certainly refers to the time when Sennacherib, having captured Babylon, took its gods back to Assyria, as we know he did. (Cyrus did the very opposite. He restored gods and Temples to their original state).
47.1 reads, ‘Come down and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon, sit on the ground without a throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans.’ All that this and what follows requires is that at some stage Babylon invaded Judah and took captives to Babylon as already described in 39.6-7 (see verse 6), and had possibly earlier received other exiles by Assyrian transportation (11.11 - Shinar), and was subsequently punished by God for its treatment of them. We know in fact that such an invasion from Babylon as the tool of Assyria resulted in Manasseh being taken to Babylon (2 Chronicles 33.11), no doubt along with other important people, as prophesied by Isaiah in 39.6-7, long before Babylon became established as a world empire, and it is probable that some were exiled there in earlier Assyrian invasions (just as Babylonians were transported to Samaria). None of this necessitates, or even suggests, a Babylonian ‘world’ empire. Had we not known of it from other sources no one would ever have guessed it from Isaiah’s prophecies.
48.14 reads, ‘Assemble yourselves all of you, and hear. Who among you has declared these things (that God has created everything and controls everything)? The Lord has loved him. He will perform his pleasure on Babylon and his arm will be on the Chaldeans.’ These words need only mean that whoever declares God to be what He is (probably referring either to Isaiah or the Servant) will see his pleasure performed by God on Babylon. To suggest that Cyrus truly believed that Yahweh as the first and the last was the creator of the world and its controller, and as a result of that belief would conquer Babylon, is to go to the extremes of interpretation. Cyrus honoured all gods, and as a result had no special belief in any of them except in a general kind of way. He had no special belief in Yahweh.
48.20 reads, ‘Go you forth from Babylon, flee you from the Chaldeans, with the voice of singing declare you, tell this, utter it even to the ends of the earth. Say you, the Lord has redeemed His servant Jacob.’ All this requires is that Israel/Jacob was subjugated at some stage by Babylon, and that therefore, because of the judgment that God would consequently bring on Babylon, many who are dwelling there are to flee and declare that the reason for the judgment is that God is delivering His people. But Babylon was ever a predator and this could refer to any time when it was being belligerent towards Judah (e.g. 2 Chronicles 32.11).
It should be apparent from the above that there is no requirement in any of them that Babylon become a world empire. All that is required is that they become powerful enough to act as bullies in the region, something that happened many times. And any indications of their subjugation is in terms of Assyria, not Persia.
It is true, of course, that the Babylonian exile did figure prominently in future thought, witness the genealogy of Matthew 1.1-17. But we should seek for details of that in Ezra, Nehemiah, Zechariah and Haggai, not in Isaiah. The emphasis on Babylon which is found in most commentaries on Isaiah, arises simply because the movement back of exiles of which we have the most knowledge did commence from Babylon with official sanction, and we are lacking in records of the return of exiles from elsewhere at any other time. So we read the return of the Babylonian exiles into Isaiah. But that should rather be seen as a reminder of how little information we have and that our point of view on history tends to be based on the records that were preserved, not as evidence that that is the only return of exiles that actually happened. Indeed we have no need to doubt that the re-establishing of Israel was in the end much more complicated than the records we have suggest, (important though they are because they are all that we have got), in line with Isaiah’s wider predictions. For it must be stressed that Isaiah’s concentration was on a universal return of exiles, not on a return from Babylon, on which he lays no emphasis at all.
Why then does Isaiah lay such stress on Babylon? The answer to that question is because he sees it as the ever-threatening arch-enemy of God, as it had been from the beginning of time (Genesis 10.10; 11.1-9). It is the arche-type of all oppressors and boasters against God. It has nothing to do with people being exiled there, nor is there in Isaiah any reference to a ‘world’ empire. The return of exiles to which he did look forward was not specifically from Babylon, but from all parts of the world. He saw it as incorporating returnees from many places (11.11), with Assyria and Egypt being very prominent (27.13; 52.4). It is true, of course, that the term ‘the land of Assyria’ could include Babylonia at the time of their widest empire, for Assyria conquered Babylon, but only as a secondary consideration. In this regard it must be seen as significant that chapter 52, which is widely interpreted of the Babylonian return, only actually mentions Egypt and Assyria.
The fact is that our emphasis on returning exiles from Babylon in interpreting Isaiah does not come from the book itself, but from the subsequent history as known to us, which we then read back into Isaiah. It is not the emphasis of Isaiah’s prophecy. It is true that he does have a kind of emphasis on Babylon, mainly in the first half of his prophecy, but that is for a very different reason than the return from exile. That has to do with the massive impact that the image of Babylon continually made on the ancient world, and had done from the beginning (Genesis 10.10; 11.1-9). However, as mentioned above, when Isaiah speaks of returning exiles, he sees the return as taking place from many parts, including especially Egypt and Assyria.
So as we have already emphasised, there is neither a stress on Babylonian exiles in the book, nor is there anywhere any firm suggestion of Babylonian supremacy over the world. Indeed, with one possible, but by no means certain, exception, whenever returning from exile is mentioned it is in general terms, as in the first part of Isaiah (see 11.11-12; 35.8; 43.5-7; 45.13; 49.22-27; 51.11; 52.11-12 taken with 52.4 where Assyria is in mind, and with 30.22 and 66.20; 60.4; 62.10; 66.20) without any mention of Babylon (except in 11.11 as Shinar). It thus has in mind the exiles taken from Galilee and Samaria, and those Israelites scattered as refugees to different countries, and not the later Babylonian exile.
It is true that in 48.20 reference is made to a ‘fleeing’ from Babylon, but that would be an unusual way of speaking of returning exiles, especially exiles returning with the permission of their overlord (see 52.12). Indeed if it was such a reference it would be unique. And it is in total contrast to the picture given of returning exiles elsewhere. The idea of ‘fleeing’ could equally apply to Jews who had taken up residence in Babylon for trading and other purposes who were fleeing from its coming judgment, or indeed to any foreign inhabitants of Babylon (47.15; compare 13.14 where such will flee from Babylon), of whom there would be many. For we should note that many took up residence in such cities, not because they had been exiled, but because of their attractions to the sensual and because they were bold-hearted and looked for advancement, or beause they had lucrative business in mind. And even if we were to assume that a return of some exiles from there may possibly be included in the general references to returning exiles, the main thought in 48.20 is unquestionably rather that of men fleeing from all that Babylon stood for (see chapters 13-14 and especially 13.14), and from its devastating destruction, than of a return from exile.
The truth is that Babylon (Shinar) as such is only seen by Isaiah as one minor place among many from which exiles were to return (11.11-12), something which does not require the later Babylonian exile. For we must keep in mind the fact that some of the earlier exiles from the northern kingdom may well have also been placed in Babylonia, as they were in Media. It is true that after the Galilean conquest Assyria is said to have transferred the exiles ‘to Assyria’ (2 Kings 15.29). But 2 Kings 17 makes it apparent that that means the Assyrian Empire as a whole, for while in verse 23 all the exiles from Israel are again referred to as being exiled ‘to Assyria’, we also know from there that that included Media (2 Kings 17.6). Thus ‘to Assyria’ clearly meant to the Assyrian Empire. And as Babylonians were transferred to Israel by the Assyrians in 2 Kings 17.24, it seems equally probable that the reverse happened, with exiles from the northern kingdom being transferred to Babylonia (to say nothing of later Judean exiles under Sennacherib). And this could further be seen as supported by the fact that later Manasseh was transferred to Babylon by the Assyrians (2 Chronicles 33.11) who were operating from Babylon, which serves to confirm this suggestion. That being so any hint of Babylonian exiles in Isaiah (of which there are almost none apart from 11.11-12) could have in mind mainly exiles from the northern kingdom, and thus not have Judah in mind at all.
The truth as we have already seen is that almost nothing is said about Babylon in 40-66 with regard to exiles, and little actually as regards Babylon at all, apart from two prominent chapters. In 46.1-2 the taking of the Babylonian gods into captivity, which is mentioned in humiliating terms for the gods, was almost certainly by the Assyrian king, Sennacherib. It was Sennacherib who infamously removed Marduk (Bel) from Babylon. Cyrus rather encouraged the worship and return of local gods and sought the support of the priests of Marduk not their enmity. It is true that in 47.1-5 the humiliation of Babylon itself is described, but that could equally refer to the same situation under Sennacherib as 46.1-2 (we would actually expect it to in view of the context), for her boast to be ‘the lady of kingdoms’ (47.5) ties in with the false claims of 13.19 that she is ‘the glory of kingdoms’. But this high status, which she claimed throughout history, was originally humbled by ‘the kingdoms of the nations’ (13.4), which probably refers, at least in the first instance, to the Assyria confederacy. Neither necessarily has in mind overall supremacy for Babylon. Babylon’s claim to be the glory of the kingdoms was rather of long standing and was simply based on their view of their own ancient glory and of their long time huge reputation, rather than on world conquest. And neither refers to exiles.
It is true that in 48.14 we are told of one whom Yahweh loves in a context of God performing His pleasure on Babylon without a name being given. This is often interpreted as referring to a conqueror of Babylon, although it does not say so, but even if it does mean that, it could be referring to any conqueror of Babylon who was thought of in terms of being God’s instrument. In our view, however, it actually applies to Isaiah and/or the Servant of Yahweh, and not to a conqueror at all (see above and on those verses), and rather has in mind the toppling of Babylon as the great ANTI-GOD.
So the only reference to Babylon which can be at all connected with the idea of exiles after chapter 39 is found in 48.20 where the command comes to flee from Babylon. But as we have seen even this is by no means definite. Those who are told to flee could have arrived in Babylon in any number of ways as we have suggested above, and as 13.14 confirms. And this was just the kind of terminology that we would expect from one who saw Babylon as the great enemy of God, had just prophesied its destruction (47; 48.14), and knew that there were Israelites and many foreigners in Babylon, without it necessarily signifying that they were a main source of exiles. It is true that in later times exiles would return from Babylon, but in that case there was no question of them fleeing. They came sedately with the approval of the reigning monarch, as do all returning exiles throughout the remainder of the book. Rather than ‘fleeing’, they are ‘assembled’ and ‘gathered’ (11.11-12; 56.8). They are given every assistance from the peoples (14.2; 49.22-23; 60.4; 66.20)
On the other hand we do know from 39.6 that Isaiah expected at least the princes to be exiled to Babylon, and probably others. What then might seem more surprising in the light of this would not be that he refers to them, but that he does not specifically refer to them, if they had already been exiled when he gave his prophecies. If he does in 48.20 (which as we have seen is doubtful) then he only refers to them indirectly, and that at the most once, and even then in a unique way, whereas elsewhere exiles are seen as returning triumphantly from all parts, as triumphantly as the Babylonian exiles would also do in practise. That can only be because their situation was to him very much secondary. He had no fixation about exiles in Babylon. If there were any, he saw them as merely part of the great worldwide exile. And in fact we never gain from Isaiah the impression of a Babylonian ‘world empire’, only of a powerful and arrogant city.
All this then may be seen as suggesting an earlier date for chapter 40 onwards rather than a later one, one well before the time of Nebuchadnezzar. It suggests that the whole Book of Isaiah knew nothing of the great Babylonian empire, even though he recognised the danger that Babylon, the enemy of the nations and of God from as far back as Genesis 10-11, would always pose because of its pride and its belligerency.
Certainly we do have good grounds for knowing that Isaiah did have divinely revealed forebodings about what Babylon would do to Judah in the future (39.6-7; 2 Kings 20.17-18). Indeed he had cause to have them in view of Genesis 10-11, and Babylon’s continuing reputation. And he was equally certainly shrewdly aware, as Hezekiah with his inflated ideas of his own importance failed to be, that such a powerful nation only sought for assistance to a small state like Judah as a temporary expediency, and that if the rebellion was successful it would swallow Judah whole. Furthermore he had the example of what Assyria had previously done to Israel to enable him to appreciate the consequences that would follow, and would be deeply aware of the religious implications of being too closely connected with Babylon. But that is not to see it as a world empire, only as a dangerous threat.
Thus his foreseeing that Judah would be spoiled by Babylon, with some of the nobility of the nation, including the king’s sons, taken into exile, did not need a Nebuchadnezzar to bring it about. Once he had the foreboding that Babylon was bad news for Judah, he could really only come to one conclusion, and that was that at some stage there would be exiles in Babylon, as in other parts of the world. For in his experience that was what such conquerors did, and it was what Deuteronomy 28.63-67 had warned of. The only question in his mind would be, what then? What would follow?
We must remember that even in Isaiah’s day Babylon was not always in subjection to Assyria. When they were they were a reluctant vassal and broke free a number of times. And when they were free they were a powerful force in their own right (otherwise they could not have broken free). Thus there was every reason why he could see them as acting independently of Assyria against Judah without seeing them as a world empire.
So the truth is that in Isaiah 40 to 66 his emphasis is not on the defeat of a Babylonian world empire and a specific return of exiles from Babylon but on God’s activity in the spiritual restoration of His people, in the course of which he describes exiles and refugees returning to the land of Israel from all parts of the world and the destruction of the great anti-God, Babylon, (representing all who opposed Yahweh), necessary if Yahweh was to be supreme. For he was confident that God would fulfil His everlasting covenant and that God’s people would be brought back to the land with the future secure, regardless of what Assyria, Egypt or Babylon or anyone else did. If he did see Babylonian exiles as among them, it was only as one group among many. But it was not primary. This is not strange as written by Isaiah, looking out with a world view, but it would be passing strange of someone to whom the return from Babylon had become of supreme importance.
It is true that someone who was influenced by the subsequent history, and the later Old Testament books, which can result in our putting an overemphasis on the Babylonian exiles, and looking at it from that background, might see it as referring mainly to the Babylonian captivity. It appears to add meat to the bones. But this partly arises because we have no records of the return of other exiles, (for the re-establishing of Israel was undoubtedly much more complicated than these books make it appear). And it is not the impression that Isaiah really gives. It is ‘read in’.
So they would not then be basing that position on what is actually written in the book, but on the fact that events similar to what Isaiah describes did occur at that time. They would be basing their suggestion on what happened historically and was later recorded, with a reading back of it into Isaiah. But it must again be stressed that there are no emphatic grounds in the text of Isaiah for doing so. It is always something that has to be read in. For nowhere in Isaiah is the final Babylonian captivity ever referred to directly, and Babylon is not even prominent in it except as the supreme enemy of God.
One further point to be considered, however, is the reference to Cyrus in 44.28; 45.1. This is often seen to be the clinching point in the argument. But we must recognise here that it is more than a possibility that Isaiah already knew of the young Cyrus who would shortly become Cyrus I of Persia, (grandfather to Cyrus the Great), and may well have visited the Persian court. Thus the fact that God revealed to him that from the house of ‘Cyrus’ would later come restoration for Jerusalem and the temple (44.28-45.1), while remarkable in view of later history, is not necessarily an example of simply receiving a name out of the blue (although compare 1 Kings 13.2 for a precedent), nor is it necessarily an indication of the Babylonian world empire (Babylon is not mentioned in the context). He may well have had the house of Cyrus I in mind in these verses. And it is significant that in Isaiah the defeat of Babylon is never connected with Cyrus.
It must also be recognised that during the lifetime of Isaiah a new situation did face Israel, Judah and Jerusalem. They had never before faced such powerful enemies from the north as Assyria proved to be, invaders who came and stayed, and who carried people into captivity, and demanded tribute from afar. They had, of course experienced it from Egypt, but Egypt had always been a neighbour. And yet soon they were to experience such adversaries with a vengeance. We can understand therefore why Isaiah should see a continual threat of impending doom and look further afield for a possible deliverer who was on friendly terms with Judah. For Isaiah himself in fact points out that this need arose from their own lack of obedience and trust by which they demonstrated their unfitness to be their own saviours with God’s help, and as a consequence drew attention to themselves and brought down on themselves these great marauding nations which were greedy for power and wealth (in Ahaz’s case, Assyria, in Hezekiah’s, Babylon). Thus the need for God Himself to call in a foreign shepherd.
On the other hand the suggestion has been put forward that ‘Coresh’ (translated Cyrus) is not referring to a name, but is a description (e.g. ‘the crushed one’), referring either to Jerusalem, or the Servant, or the house of David. In this regard note in 44.28 the parallelism:
It will be noticed that 44.28 does not necessarily require the total destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, only the fact of their being damaged by invading forces when, say, Babylon took Jerusalem, which could refer to its capture in the days of Manasseh. Nor does it say that the ‘rebuilding’ of Jerusalem and re-establishing of the Temple (which would come into disrepute once Jerusalem was captured) was the work of Koresh. ‘That says’ could parallel ‘even saying’ referring in both cases to Yahweh (see also verses 26-27 where similar statements are described as made by Yahweh). Nowhere in the whole passage is there any thought of Babylon. Assuming it to refer to the house of Cyrus the thought is rather of the rise of Persia as an instrument of God’s will. For we should note that Coresh does appear as the name of Cyrus in Ezra 1.1 and regularly.
Some have suggested that Cyrus’ name was inserted as an explanation by a later scribe, but without evidence such suggestions are always to be looked on suspiciously, especially as it is also included in LXX. It must, however, be admitted that it is a possibility.
However, when during his lifetime Isaiah actually saw what happened to the northern state of Israel as its important people were carried off into exile, something that previously would undoubtedly have seemed unbelievable, and later no doubt saw Judeans suffering the same fate when Assyria invaded Judah, (they captured many cities including Lachish even if they did not capture Jerusalem), he may well have taken this as a warning of what could also finally be the fate of an unrepentant Judah and Jerusalem, even though it might be by another hand whose activity was brought to his mind by Hezekiah’s folly (39.6-7). Burdened by all this we might expect that he would then, under God’s inspiration, seek and enunciate a solution for the restoration of Jerusalem and the return of all these exiles. And having had friendly relations with the court of Persia he may well have seen ‘the house of Cyrus’ as Israel’s future hope. Thus there is no reason why his prophecies, which were to lay the foundation on which other prophets would build, for all prophesied in the light of these events, may not have included reference to that house in a general way.
Background History To The Book Of Isaiah.
In order to understand parts of Isaiah better, and indeed all the 8th century BC prophets (Hosea, Amos, Micah), it is helpful to appreciate some of the history that lies behind it.
a). Religion in Israel/Judah.
On first arrival in Canaan from the wilderness the Central Sanctuary, the Tabernacle, was the one place to which the tribes looked as the place that united the tribes in worship (Deuteronomy 12.5). It was the one permanent sanctuary, first at Gilgal (Joshua 4.19-20; 5.8-9; 10.43), then, at least temporarily, at Shechem, where the people were probably related to the Israelites and not Canaanites (Joshua 8.30-35; 24.1), and then later at Shiloh (Joshua 18.1). It was the place where the covenant was constantly renewed, and where the tribes were intended to meet together to reaffirm their unity within that covenant. We must remember that the Tabernacle was transportable, and may thus have moved between different sites until it eventually settled more permanently at Shiloh.
But provision had also been made for altars to be erected at places where God revealed His name (Exodus 20.24-26), and it would appear that, as the tribes spread, Exodus 20.24-26 was appealed to as allowing for a simple form of local worship on temporary altars. Thus we have, for example the legitimate altar of Elijah - 1 Kings 18.30-32 - built on a site on Mount Carmel where ‘the altar of Yahweh had been thrown down’. Note also Gideon’s action in Judges 6.26, where he built an altar replacing at the same time the altar of Baal. We must remember in this regard the difficulties that many would have had for various reasons such as distance, hostile environment, etc. in reaching Shiloh.
But there are a number of indications that, up to the time of Samuel, apart from in times of apostasy, Israel’s religious history was firmly, if spasmodically, centralised around the Central Sanctuary, the Tabernacle, at least theoretically. That is not to say that the whole of Israel, or even a good part of it, were continually faithful to the covenant that God had made with them through Moses. We know only too well that it was not. There were ups and downs, and they needed constant rebukes. But at least the covenant was periodically acknowledged and recognised at that Sanctuary, when they could get there (both apathy and oppressors might well have inhibited such gatherings), at least by the faithful.
However, the Bible itself in fact makes clear that all was not straightforward. From not long after the time of Joshua the rot had already begun to set in (Judges 2.7). All kinds of religious practises were being observed in different parts of ‘Israel’, with the result that allegiance to the Central Sanctuary and the Law of Moses was being diminished. But one thing that the periodic invasions by neighbouring enemies regularly did was bring them back to some kind of allegiance to the Central Sanctuary, and therefore to the Law of Moses, something revealed by their response to the call to arms (Judges 3.27; 5.9-18; 6.34-35 with 7.24; compare 12.1-2; 20.1). This is one lesson learned from the Book of Judges (see Judges 2.11-23). Thus it would appear that at the time of Eli the Central Sanctuary was operating successfully (1 Samuel 1-4).
Then came the capture of the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh by the powerful Philistines, who as one of the Sea Peoples had arrived from overseas, and had established themselves on the Coastal Plain, (after the original Israeli conquest of large parts of Canaan). This was seemingly followed later by the destruction, presumably by them, of the Central Sanctuary at Shiloh (Jeremiah 7.14; 26.6, 9). At one blow this threw the whole position of the Central Sanctuary in Israel’s religion into a chaos. The official Tabernacle had presumably been destroyed, although priests may well have escaped taking with them some of the sacred accoutrements, including possibly the bronze altar, while the Ark itself remained in a private house, although carefully watched over, and was no longer used as a central focus of worship (1 Samuel 7.1), a situation which continued up to the time of David (2 Samuel 6.2), probably partly because the Central Sanctuary was seen as in abeyance (1 Kings 3.2).
It was the powerful presence of Samuel, the child of the Central Sanctuary (1 Samuel 3), that seemingly came to the rescue, for he now became the one to whom the people who were faithful to Yahwism looked. It may well be that he set up a new temporary Tabernacle, which he sent before him to prepare for his coming at different selected sites as he himself went around acting as judge of Israel (1 Samuel 7.16). It may well have been erected at times at Mizpah (1 Samuel 7.5; 10.17), at Ramah, which was also referred to as a high place (1 Samuel 7.17; 9.25), and at Gilgal (1 Samuel 10.8; 11.15; 13.4), and even therefore possibly at Bethel (1 Samuel 7.16). 1 Kings 3.2 explains that different high places were in use because of the uncertainty arising from the destruction of the Central Sanctuary. These may have resulted from the destruction of the original Central Sanctuary. They were emergency times.
Once Saul became king a Central Sanctuary appears to have been in use at Nob. See 1 Samuel 21.1-6; 22.11-22. But although the Ark had been returned to Israel, it was not in use for worship, nor had it been united with whatever Tabernacle was in use, which would therefore undoubtedly have been seen as diminishing the significance of the new Tabernacle.
It would appear from all this that both Samuel and then Saul, still cooperated with the activities of some kind of Central Sanctuary, until Saul himself destroyed it (1 Samuel 22.17-21). But even so he probably replaced it with a new one with Zadok as Priest, for it would have been required by the people. Zadok was in a different line of descent from Aaron as compared with Ahimelech and Abiathar. But we can see why the people would be becoming disillusioned by it and might have had more confidence in the high places set up at revered sites.
After Saul had died and David had become King of Judah in Hebron he probably also established a Tabernacle with Abiathar, who had escaped from Nob with the official ephod (1 Samuel 23.6), as Priest, first at Hebron (2 Samuel 2.4, 11) and then at Gibeon. This would be apart from the Central Sanctuary maintained by Ishbosheth. He would hardly have wanted Judah to look to the Central Sanctuary in Israel. This would explain why for the first time there were two Chief Priests (2 Samuel 15.24, 29, 35; 17.15; 19.11; 20.25; 1 Kings 4.4). In 2 Samuel 8.17 Zadok and Abiathar’s son Ahimelech are named as priests. Presumably at this time Abiathar had become semi-permanently unclean, possibly through some skin disease, with his son therefore acting in his place. It would seem that under David the Tabernacle continued as the Central Sanctuary (moved at some stage from Hebron to Gibeon) while once Israel was again united another sacred tent held the Ark of the Covenant of Yahweh in Jerusalem.
In fact, the Ark and the Tabernacle would not again be reunited until Solomon brought both within the orbit of his new (and from the point of view of many Israelites his unacceptably newfangled) Temple. As we have seen 1 Kings 3.2 tells us that it was as a result of confusion with regard to which was the Central Sanctuary that local ‘high places’ had arisen. As we know there had been long before been an illegitimate one at Dan (Judges 18.27-31), a high place which had rivalled Shiloh (Judges 18.31), had seemingly ceased along with it, and was revived again after the death of Solomon (1 Kings 12.29). Other high places may, for example, have been at Mizpah, Ramah, Gilgal, Hebron and Bethel (see above), and places like Shechem, noted as holy sites where Yahweh had revealed His Name.
These high places probably in general followed the patterns of Tabernacle worship (there would be plenty of unemployed priests around, who had escaped the devastation at Shiloh and had not been at Nob). The sanctuaries would differ from one another in regard to orthodoxy, for we only have to read the Book of Judges to recognise that in certain areas religious practise no longer followed a strict Mosaic pattern, and often became ‘Canaanised’ (Judges 2.11-13). This had been almost inevitable once the tribes had split up and were separated from each other by Canaanite conclaves (Judges 1.27-36), with whom they cohabited and became friendly, while at the same time different areas were being subjected to various invasions by neighbouring enemies (as illustrated in Judges where different invasions affected different groups of tribes). Practises would have crept in which then over time established themselves as ‘orthodox’. Furthermore Yahweh was almost certainly being worshipped as ‘Baal-i’ (my Lord - see Hosea 2.16), which would add to the confusion and result in Canaanite tendencies thus creeping in even among some of the faithful. The describing of God as Baali would explain why Saul named his son ‘Eshbaal’ (man of Baal - 1 Chronicles 8.33; 9.39), changed by later writers to Ishbosheth (man of shame). Compare also Merib-baal (hero of Baal - 1 Chronicles 8.34; 9.40a - which became Mephibosheth).
The idea behind building the Temple was to re-establish the one Central Sanctuary and legitimise Jerusalem, thus replacing the prominent ‘great high place’ at Gibeon which was seemingly at that stage the place where the new Tabernacle was erected (1 Kings 3.4; 8.1-11), and also aiming to replace the high places. But opposition to the idea of the Temple continued throughout its history, and it was continually rivalled by the ever popular ‘high places’ (bamoth, a term which came to mean local shrines whether on hills or not), which were seen by many as more legitimate than one established in ‘Jebusite’ Jerusalem (religious custom is very tenacious), despite the efforts, firstly of Solomon, and then of a few later kings, and especially of Hezekiah and Josiah, to eradicate them. They varied in orthodoxy, with many becoming openly syncretistic and containing Canaanite additions. The Song of Solomon may well have been written partly with the aim of trying to win the people over to the Temple, with the love between Yahweh and His people in the countryside (expressed in the high places), becoming worship on the mountains of spices - the mountains of Jerusalem where incense was again being offered).
The division of the kingdoms posed a further problem for the northern kingdom, because clearly its rulers did not want the people to continue looking towards Jerusalem. This was why the sanctuaries at Bethel and Dan, two recognised ‘holy places’, were officially set up (1 Kings 12.29-33) to replace Jerusalem. Bethel was where Jacob had had his vision (Genesis 31.13; 35.1, 7; and compare Judges 20.26), and had probably been a high place under Samuel (see above), and Dan had been a local sanctuary for many years in the time of the judges (Judges 18.29-31). Both therefore had past religious associations which were probably revered. (The need to set them up demonstrates the felt need for there to be a Central Sanctuary). It may well be that each golden calf was intended to represent the bearer of the invisible Yahweh (gods were sometimes pictured on the backs of bulls), but it was all too easy to link them with Baal, who was worshipped in the form of a bull, and many worshippers probable saw them in that way. This was why the prophets inveighed against them.
We must probably distinguish with regard to ‘high places’ those which were built at what were at least recognised as sacred sites to Israel, and were basically Yahwist, even if sometimes tinged with Canaanite ideas, and were therefore allowed to continue even under ‘good’ kings for the purpose of offering incense and sacrifices (1 Kings 15.12-14; 22.43; 2 Kings 12.3; 15.4), and those built on every high mountain and under every green tree where they were blatantly Canaanite (1 Kings 14.23-24; 2 Kings 16.4; compare also 2 Kings 11.18).
The Temple, however, received a huge boost to its being conceived of as uniquely ‘holy’ by the seemingly miraculous deliverance of Jerusalem under Hezekiah (37-38; 2 Kings 18.13-19.37), so that its inviolability as the only Sanctuary that had remained untouched by the invaders, became a byword (the idea grew that Yahweh would never allow His Temple to be destroyed - Jeremiah 7.4, 14), until its final destruction by Nebuchadnezzar. However, it still did not permanently oust the high places. These were, however, always seen as dangerous by true prophets because they encouraged syncretism, and watered down the covenant (as with church groupings today they were no doubt a mixed bag, with some being conservative and some liberal). This was why allowing the high places to continue was seen by the prophets as the equivalent of allowing unorthodoxy to flourish, and of watering down Yahwism. Of course, once the Temple itself became affected with idolatry as a result of the activities of Ahaz, that became the first place that had to be ‘purified’, which could only fully happen once Judah was ready to establish its independence (having the altar of the overlord in the Temple was compulsory, and to remove it an act of open rebellion).
The Rise Of Assyrian Influence in Palestine.
From the time of Joshua, apart from the invading Philistines who settled as a hierarchy on the Coastal Plains towards the end of Joshua’s life (Joshua 13.2-3; Judges 3.3), and the Mesopotamian Cushan-Rishathaim (Judges 3.7-11), who enforced tribute for a short period, Palestine and its surrounds were largely free from distant outside interference, with Palestine only being affected by neighbouring irritants, the most powerful of whom were Egypt and Syria, the latter constantly seeking to dominate it once David and Solomon were out of the way. All appear to have been unaffected by the thought of distant, more powerful enemies, and were blissfully unaware of the gradual growth in the already formidable power of Assyria and Babylon north of the Euphrates.
Egypt, which when it was strong saw the city states of Canaan as very much their vassal states (as revealed in the Amarna letters in 14th century BC), was on the whole going through a weak period, and having had to cope with the Hittite empire, then had to deal with the invading Sea peoples, to say nothing of pressure from the Sudan. So apart from an incursion by Merenptah in the time of the Joshua/Judges, when there was a clash with Israel, (the incursion is mentioned in ‘the Israel stele’ set up in Thebes, where Israel is cited, and in an inscription at Amada in Egypt, but not by the Israelite records that we have, probably because its effects were too brief and relatively minor), they appear to have left Israeli-occupied Canaan alone, while under David and Solomon Israel had a powerful empire in its own right, with Egypt being seen as an ally, and relations with Palestine being friendly. Egypt were content with this situation, as it safeguarded their own frontiers. The situation changed after Solomon’s death and Egypt, having provoked disorder by returning the Egyptian trained and ambitious Jeroboam to Israel (1 Kings 11.40; 12.2-3), reasserted its claims with an invasion in 5th year of Rehoboam’s reign (1 Kings 14.25), which encompassed both Judah and Israel, although how far this was more than a raid in order to obtain substantial booty is not known. A later attempt by Egypt to exercise its overlordship failed miserably (2 Chronicles 14.9-15; 16.8). Egyptian influence had waned and would in fact in the future only be a burden to Israel as it made promises that it could not fulfil. It was only sustained by its reputation.
Meanwhile, following the end of the Hittite empire, which had been kept in check as a result of its rivalry with Egypt, the threats of Assyria and Babylon were at this stage nowhere apparent. They were too busy elsewhere to bother about Syria and its neighbours. To Israel and Judah they did not appear to be a threat worth worrying about, a distant people about whom little was known. Thus none quite realised the power of the nations beyond the Euphrates who were engaged in battling with each other. The greatest worry for Israel and Judah at this time, therefore, was the ever belligerent Syria, the dominant power in the area.
That situation changed, however, when first Ashur-nasir-pal II (883-859 BC), who invaded the coastal cities of Phoenicia and Philistia, and then Shalmaneser III (858-824 BC), who having subdued threats from elsewhere, took an interest in Hamath, Syria and Israel’s other northern neighbours, became recognised as a danger. The result was that Ahab of Israel joined a coalition against this Assyrian threat which at the Battle of Qarqar in 853 BC seemingly, in their view, neutralised it, although somewhat indecisively They no doubt hoped rather optimistically that that was the end of the matter.
Failing to recognise that there was a permanent threat the coalition then at some stage split up (local interest prevented it from surviving for too long) and the result was that Syria, now vulnerable and on its own, and exhibiting its usual belligerence towards its neighbours, again came under counter-threat from Assyria’s growing power, and while Shalmaneser did not succeed in capturing Damascus he did devastate much of Syria, and records that he also received tribute from Tyre, Sidon and ‘Jehu the son of Omri’, now ruling over a very much weakened Israel.
Still not realising the ever growing threat that Assyria presented, because it was still establishing itself in its own region, the one time allies, and especially Syria, were now continually at each other’s throats, with Syria regularly dominant, and when the Assyrian threat failed to materialise further (they were busy defending their position elsewhere) it seemed as though there was nothing else to fear. They could now continue squabbling among themselves, making themselves weaker and weaker. The result was that fifty years after the Battle of Qarqar Israel’s ‘2,000 chariots’ (as recorded in Assyrian annals) had become 10 (2 Kings 13.7) and they were under the dominance of Syria. The peoples of the area were slowly undermining their own power base.
The forays of Adad-nirari III (811-782 BC) and Shalmaneser IV (782-773 BC) against Syria, bringing it under total subjection, only assisted Israel, and were probably seen as a blessing, for, with Syria weakened, Israel under Jeroboam II, and Judah under Uzziah (Azariah) regained their strength. Assyria was probably seen by them more as useful than as a threat, another power that could help to neutralise the power of Syria, but with its own power undreamed of. And in the following period there was again a period of quiet as Assyria were kept busy elsewhere, and Syria were busy squabbling somewhat unsuccessfully with Hamath. At this stage Assyria was fighting for its life against the kingdom of Urartu. But none were really aware of just how powerful it was, or how powerful it was becoming. It was just seen as a distant land which occasionally came into the area seeking booty and tribute, conveniently weakening Syria.
Meanwhile Israel and Judah, at peace with one another were enjoying a period of prosperity, expansion and success not known since the time of Solomon. However, on the death of Jeroboam II (753 BC) Israel appears to have slipped into a period of anarchy, while the succession was being determined (2 Kings 15.8-16; vividly portrayed in Hosea 5.13; 7.1-7, 11; 8.4; 10.3 ff; 12.1), but all appeared rosy for Judah, until Uzziah died around 740 BC, the year in which Isaiah had his inaugural vision (Isaiah 6), although as usually occurs in periods of prosperity, they were accompanied by the moral decay against which Hosea and Amos constantly spoke out.
But with the death of Uzziah the dark clouds were gathering. Under Tiglath Pileser III (744-727 BC), who had at last gained substantial Assyrian ascendancy over Bablylon and Urartu, interference in the region became even more marked. It appears in fact that in his last years Uzziah had led a coalition which had driven Tiglath Pileser back (if the Azriau of Yaudi of Assyrian texts is to be identified with him), but with his death resistance appears to have evaporated, and the result was that Rezin of Damascus had to pay tribute along with others, including Menahem of Israel (2 Kings 15.19-20) and Hiram of Tyre. All were now part of the growing Assyrian empire.
For although no one had as yet realised it, Assyrian policy had now altered. They no longer saw their conquests as mere tributaries, but as part of the growing Assyrian empire, and thus when there was rebellion it would be punished, not simply by means of a punitive expedition, but either by incorporating the area as an Assyrian province, or by the removal of its aristocracy elsewhere, to be replaced by foreigners.
Unaware of this changing situation, and with a view to withholding tribute, Rezin of Damascus, and Pekah, the son of Remaliah (who had assassinated Menahem’s successor Pekahiah, probably because he was pro-Assyrian) sought to force Ahaz into an alliance with them and with others (Isaiah 7; 2 Kings 16.5-6) against Assyria for the purpose of withholding tribute. As a result Judah was subjected to invasion on all sides (2 Kings 16.5-6; 2 Chronicles 28.17-18). Ahaz, who was probably totally unaware of the real power of Assyria (as they all were apart from people like Isaiah), and only knew that in the past they had mainly been helpful in restraining Syria, then determined to look to Assyria for assistance. This was very much against Isaiah’s advice (7.1-12), who assured him that if he would trust in Yahweh, Yahweh would deliver Judah and keep it free. Ahaz ignored Isaiah’s warnings and thus becoming tributary to Assyria for what he probably fondly hoped at the time (going by previous precedent) would not be too long a period (2 Kings 16.7). He was not to know that Assyrian policy had changed so that their aim was now empire-building. The result was that he drew Assyria’s attention to Judah. From now on they also would be incorporated as part of the Assyrian empire.
Tiglath-Pileser (Pulu) obliged, and in around 734 BC his invasion reached down as far as Gaza. Following this both Israel, and then Syria were overcome (2 Kings 16.9). In the course of this Rezin was slain, and Israel was being decimated until Pekah was assassinated by Hoshea who immediately sued for peace and paid ruinous tribute (2 Kings 15.30). He was allowed to rule over what remained of Israel, but a large part of Israel in the region of ‘Galilee and all the land of Naphtali’ and in ‘Gilead’ had its aristocracy removed into exile and they were now incorporated into the empire as Assyrian provinces (2 Kings 15.29). Damascus was also taken and its aristocracy exiled, and Syria was divided up into Assyrian provinces. Ahaz and Judah meanwhile became totally subject to Assyria, and an Assyrian altar was introduced into the Temple.
Ahaz seemingly sought to take his revenge on God, Whom he no doubt blamed for his troubles. Not only were Assyrian gods worshipped in the Temple alongside Yahwism, but he encouraged a multiplicity of altars and high places of the worst kind (2 Kings 16.4, 10-18; 2 Chronicles 28.23-26) and even sacrificed his son to Molech (2 Kings 16.3). Ahaz subsequently died in 716/715 BC and was replaced by Hezekiah, who had for a number of years been co-regent with his father.
Meanwhile when Tiglath-Pileser died, Israel under Hoshea, encouraged by promises of help from Egypt (2 Kings 17.4), and in association with Hamath, saw their opportunity to withhold tribute. Even now they did not appreciate quite how powerful Assyria was, or how the empire was now seen, and the result was that what remained of Israel was subdued with many being carried into exile, while Samaria was besieged by the forces of Shalmaneser V and his son Sargon II, and finally taken in around 722 BC (2 Kings 17.5-6; 18.9-10). It was the end of Israel. The aristocracy was deported (2 Kings 17.6) and replaced by an aristocracy introduced from elsewhere (2 Kings 17.24). Gaza had also sought to regain independence from Assyria with the support of Egypt, and Sargon then moved down and defeated the Egyptian army which had come to support Gaza. All this was being observed closely by the prophet Isaiah, who, having been spurned by Ahaz, was biding his time.
The result of all this was large numbers of exiles from first Galilee and Naphtali, and then from the whole of Israel and Samaria, being carried far away, a situation of which Isaiah was well aware (Isaiah 11.11), and could not be happy with.
Meanwhile, with the advent of Hezekiah Isaiah came into his own, for Hezekiah regularly looked to him for advice (without necessarily taking it), and there was no doubt reaction by loyal Yahwists against the innovations of Ahaz. This was also accompanied by the fact that Sargon’s attentions were being called on elsewhere. Babylon under Merodach-baladan, together with the Elamites, had broken free from his yoke, and had defeated the forces sent against them, thus gaining independence, and there was trouble in Phrygia and rebellion in Carchemish in Syria, while Urartu were also stirring up trouble. The Assyrian empire was only held together by force of arms and Sargon could not be everywhere at once. If vigilance relaxed rebellion ensued. He first of all destroyed Carchemish and sent its population into exile, then proceeded against Urartu and broke its power completely (leaving an opening for the Cimmerians, an Indo-aryan barbarian people from the Caucasus, to obtain a foothold). Then he proceeded against the Medes.
It was probably as a result of the lack of Assyrian pressure that, against the advice of Isaiah, Hezekiah took the opportunity presented to enter into negotiations with Ashdod and Gath and other neighbours with a view to withholding tribute, and this with the encouragement of Egypt (an influence Isaiah constantly warned against). Fortunately he appears not to have become too involved because when in 713 BC Sargon moved against Ashdod and Gath and sacked them (Isaiah 20.1-3), he spoke only of ‘subjugating Judah’ and there were apparently no reprisals. That probably simply indicated that tribute was duly paid. Ashdod became an Assyrian province, and when the leader of the rebellion fled to Egypt, the noble Egyptians promptly handed him over to Sargon.
Meanwhile Hezekiah was re-establishing Yahwism and seeking to close down the high places and remove anything that savoured of idolatry (2 Kings 18.3-5; 2 Chronicles 29.3), something of which Sargon was aware and of which he later sought to take advantage (2 Kings 18.22), although as long as the Assyrian altar was left untouched he was not concerned with local religious affairs. That these reforms did not meet with wholehearted approval comes out in the ease with which the high places could later be restored (2 Kings 21.3). Temple versus local shrines was still an issue, as it had been since at least the time of Solomon. But Hezekiah could do nothing about the Assyrian altar in the Temple, for to do so would have been to bring the wrath of Sargon down on him. We cannot doubt, however, that both he and loyal Yahwists felt its presence deeply.
Then in 705 BC Sargon of Assyria was killed. The death of a powerful king very often resulted in civil unrest as rivals vied for the throne, and was thus seen as a good time for subject nations to rebel. And this time was no exception. Marduk-apal-idinna (Merodach Baladan) of Babylon combined with the Elamites in a bid for freedom, and persuaded other nations to join in (this may be the time described in Isaiah 39). Egypt, now under a more powerful Pharaoh, offered support, and along with Babylon encouraged their northern neighbours, including Judah under Hezekiah, to join the rebellion (Isaiah 30.1-7; 31.1-3). The ringleader of the coalition that resulted was the king of Tyre, along with Ashkelon and Ekron, and probably promises from Moab, Edom and Ammon. Against the advice of Isaiah, who described it as rebellion against Yahweh, Hezekiah became prominent in the coalition, and agreed that the king of Ekron, who had wanted to remain loyal to Assyria, should be imprisoned in Jerusalem.
Eventual retaliation was to be expected, and Sennacherib, having defeated Babylon, moved down on the rebellious coalition. Tyre was first crushed, and never really recovered, and the result was that the coalition began to fall apart. Many (including Moab, Ammon and Edom) raced to pay tribute. However, Ashkelon, Ekron and Judah stood firm, hoping for Egyptian aid. First Ashkelon was dealt with, and then Ekron, while an Egyptian army coming to the aid of Ekron was defeated. There were wholesale executions and deportations. Then Sennacherib turned his attention on Judah. In his own words, ‘forty six cities of Judah I besieged and took, and shut up Hezekiah like a caged bird in Jerusalem’ (see Isaiah 1.2-9). Hezekiah, advised by Isaiah (Isaiah 1.5), recognised the hopelessness of his position and sued for terms (2 Kings 18.13-16). Sennacherib probably agreed because he recognised how difficult Jerusalem would be to take (it was not easily accessible) and had pressing engagements elsewhere. As a result Hezekiah had to release the king of Ekron and pay a heavy price. Parts of Judah were confiscated and handed over to others, and huge tribute was required, including some of his daughters and concubines.
What follows this is not quite clear. The only thing that is sure is that it was a lot more complicated than the Bible narrative suggests, mainly because the Bible narrative was more concerned with Yahweh’s triumph than with historical details. Some consider that having made the treaty Sennacherib changed his mind as a result of news of the gathering of another Egyptian army which he would shortly have to face (which he may well have blamed on Hezekiah’s duplicity) and then hoped to deal with Jerusalem once and for all before it arrived. Others consider that what is described in 2 Kings 18.17ff; Isaiah 36-37 occurred some time later. But either way he advanced on Jerusalem and besieged it hoping to make it surrender by a show of strength (2 Kings 18.17 ff). Meanwhile the Egyptian army arrived and was unable to defeat Sennacherib (2 Kings 19.9; Isaiah 37.9) And it was then that as a result of Yahweh’s intervention Jerusalem was miraculously delivered, partly as a result of bad news from home (2 Kings 19.7; Isaiah 37.7), and partly as a result of a plague caused by the angel of Yahweh (2 Kings 19.35; Isaiah 37.36).
The final result was Isaiah’s vindication and the growing up of the doctrine of Jerusalem’s inviolability.
The Prophetic Future.
It is often said that what some call ‘the church age’ is never referred to by the prophets but was a great unknown mystery. It is said that they saw only the future of the nation of Israel. But more than anyone else Isaiah reveals the falsity of such a position. Isaiah clearly indicates that many of the nations will join themselves with Israel becoming priests of Yahweh (66.21), that ‘strangers’ who join themselves with Yahweh will be put on equal terms with the people of the land (56.3-8), and that nations will join themselves with Israel. The hope he offers is a hope for the world. The Servant of the Lord will be a light to the Gentiles (42.6; 49.6).
Prophecy in the Bible is a declaration of what is to come. The different strands are not necessarily distinguished. It is all seen as one future. It is we who must draw out the different strands and see them in the light of the whole picture. As we shall see in the commentary, they were not prophesying so that we could write a book on the second coming or on the church age as clearly differentiated by them, but were writing of the whole of God’s future plans as one. One sentence could depict events separated by centuries, and even millenniums (e.g. 61.2 as confirmed by Jesus Himself). For Scripture is not a cold doctrinal statement, it is a revealing of doctrine in the everyday course of life, thus maintaining it as living doctrine. (Even Romans is a letter with a practical purpose).
The whole of salvation history from beginning to end has behind it the same basis, God reaching out through His grace to man who is to respond in faith on the basis of the shedding of blood. Adam was ‘saved’ in this way, as were the patriarchs, and as were all who were saved through the ages. God at different times took different initiatives; the calling of Abraham, the deliverance of Israel and His making of a covenant with them so that they could become a kingdom of priests, and supremely the coming of Jesus and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, but God’s way of salvation never changed even though it was expressed in differing ways.
God chose Abraham and the patriarchs to be His special witnesses to the world, and they blossomed into ‘Israel’ (which was made up of many nations - Exodus 12.38). And Israel blossomed into the true church which is the Israel of God. The New Testament makes quite clear that the true church is to be seen, not as replacing God’s Israel or as being separate from God’s Israel, but as being God’s Israel. Those who become true Christians are true sons of Abraham (Galatians 3, especially verse 29), are the Israel of God (Galatians 6.16), are fellow-citizens with God’s true people (Ephesians 2.11-22), have entered into the covenant of promise, and are branches of the true vine (John 15.1-6) and have been grafted into the olive tree (Romans 11). They are the true ‘dispersion’ (James 1.1; 1 Peter 1.1).
So when Isaiah and the other prophets speak of the true remnant of Israel they are including the church whether they were fully aware of the fact or not. It was, of course, in a certain sense ‘a mystery’. It was not something openly enunciated in great detail and clarified in doctrinal precision, but it was an intrinsic part of all that they taught. They spoke better than they knew.
Time References In Isaiah.
Finally we must consider time references in Isaiah. These are extremely important. Some have depicted Isaiah as having two times in view, his own times and the end times, with a great gap in between. And in a sense that is true as long as we do not put a limitation on the length of the end times (which have lasted for at least two thousand years). For Isaiah’s range was far greater than that. It is true that he saw things in terms of now and the future, but he saw that future as containing many elements of God’s activity. It was a future of many strands, all of which must be fulfilled because of what God had promised and because of Who and What He was. ‘In that day’ referred to the future ‘day’, the time of God’s restoration from beginning to end, and that day covered all that future, and was inclusive of both the first and second comings of Jesus Christ. It spoke of the times when God would act in the fulfilment of His purposes whenever that might be. We must not restrict it because of our limited view of prophecy and our pedantic ideas as to what we call ‘the end times’. God revealed to him the whole of the future stretching out before him in a great panorama in terms of ‘His day’. And we must ever remember that in New Testament days they saw themselves as being, and spoke of themselves as being, in ‘the end times’.
The New Testament view is that ‘the end times’ began at the resurrection ‘He was revealed at the end of the times for your sake’, says Peter (1 Peter 1.20), so that he can then warn his readers ‘the end of all things is at hand’ (1 Peter 4.7). So to Peter the first coming of Christ had begun the end times. Likewise Paul says to his contemporaries ‘for our admonition, on whom the end of the ages has come’ (1 Corinthians 10.11). What could be clearer? The first coming of Christ was the end of the ages, not the beginning of a new age. The writer to the Hebrews tells us ‘He has in these last days spoken to us by His Son’ (Hebrews 1.1-2), and adds ‘once in the end of the ages has He appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself’ (Hebrews 9.26-28). So those early writers saw their days as ‘the last days’ spoken of by the prophets. And Jesus Himself drew attention to the fact that the acceptable year of Yahweh in Isaiah 61.2 was separated from ‘the day of vengeance of our God’ (Luke 4.17-19).
Chapters 1-5 Concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
The first five chapters of the prophecy are introductory to the whole. They are a message ‘concerning Judah and Jerusalem’, and are God’s word to them through Isaiah. They consist of three long sections in which the sinfulness of, and judgment on, Israel/Judah is defined, interwoven with two sections which depict the final glorious future which God purposes. They are presented in a general vein with no particular historical identifications for they are intended to be a general picture of the future. The specifics will appear later on. Their message, given in some detail, is that Israel have sinned against the very order of creation, and specifically against the covenant, and must therefore face severe judgments unless they repent, but that God will finally deliver a remnant who will inherit all His promises, including His promise to bless the world through them (Genesis 12.3), and that He will finally be openly exalted so that all nations will look to Him.
We may analyse them thus:
In ‘a’ the emphasis is on the state of the whole nation including both Israel and Judah, and the same applies in the parallel. In ‘b’ the emphasis is on Yahweh’s final triumph, as it is in the parallel, with the former emphasising the exaltation of Yahweh and resulting blessing while the latter emphasises the blessing of His people. In ‘c’ and parallel the emphasis is centred on Judah and Jerusalem and its condition. In ‘d’ the stress is on the coming Day of Yahweh and in the parallel on its impact.
This must now be looked at in detail:
Isaiah Outlines The Message He Is Bringing (1.1-31).
This introductory message is also presented in balanced chiastic form.
1.1 ‘The vision of Isaiah, the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem, in the days Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.’
Isaiah’s prophecies date from the year of Uzziah’s death (6.1) in aound 740 BC, through the period when the independence of Judah was lost by Ahaz, who refused to trust Yahweh for deliverance and instead turned to Assyria for help (2 Kings 16.7), to the great success under Hezekiah when Yahweh amazingly delivered Jerusalem from Assyria (36 to 37). But when, in contrast, Hezekiah looked to men for deliverance and not to Yahweh (39.1-6) and allowed Babylon to know the size of his treasures, Isaiah foresaw what this would mean for the future. It was not wise to reveal one’s treasures to a predator of the nature of Babylon.
Isaiah’s prophecies are said to be a vision of the future for Judah and Jerusalem. For he knew that that future would in the end be the consequence of the sinfulness of his people, and their rejection of God’s ways as revealed in His covenant. It would result from the state of the nation which these opening chapters describe. But beyond that he saw hope, for he knew, as God revealed to him, that finally their future lay in the hands of God, and that God would not fail in His promises to Abraham that through his seed all the nations of the earth would be blessed (41.8; 51.2; Genesis 12.3 and often), or in His promise of the rise of a great king of the house of David who would rule in God’s name and whose seed would rule an everlasting kingdom (9.6-7; 11.1-10; 55.3-4; 2 Samuel 7.13-16; Psalm 2; 89), even though later consideration made him reinterpret the idea.
So in chapters 6-11 he depicts the replacement of the earthly Davidic house which had failed to trust Yahweh, with One who will be miraculously born, can be described as the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace, and Who will have everlasting dominion, and will fulfil all the promises to David (9.6-7). While in 41-55 he depicts the seed of Abraham as being Yahweh’s Servant, fulfilling the promises made to Abraham, and resulting in One Who will give Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world (53). And in 59.20; 61.1-2; 63.1-6 he reveals Him as the Redeemer Who comes with an offer of redemption to His people
The prophecies are gathered in thematic rather than chronological order. Prophecies made by him at different times are selected and put together to form a theme. This explains why sometimes connections may seem disjointed, and a certain abruptness is found in the narrative. For it was not originally written as one whole. (This refers especially to the first half of Isaiah). Prophecies made at different times and in differing circumstances were thus brought together to present a unified picture.
Thus the purpose of the first chapter is to lay the foundation for the whole book, which it summarises. It firstly brings out God’s view of His people’s moral condition, and why judgment was so necessary, followed by His view of their religious superficiality, and how their whole attitude needed to be changed. It then deals with His requirement for a complete change of heart and mind, declaring why refinement would in the end also be so necessary, and how He would bring about deliverance in the future, while destroying the wicked. It describes how the old harlot Jerusalem will become a new Jerusalem, the city of righteousness, and utterly condemns the turning of Israel/Judah to Canaanite religion. In a slightly different order this is precisely what we find in chapter 66. And the book itself will finally finish with the description of the new heaven and the new earth, the true worship of the redeemed and the final fate of the wicked (66.22-24). It is a declaration of the triumph of God in the face of the intransigence of His people and of the world.
He Calls On Creation To Be Aware of God’s Judgment on His People (1.2-9).
The book begins with a chiasmus, a pattern which had been commonly used in the Pentateuch, and which has also been depicted above, whereby statements are made, and then applied one way or another in reverse order.
Opening Indictment (1.2-3).
Note that in ‘a’ the heavens and earth are to hear but in the parallel His people do not consider. In ‘b’ even though Yahweh has spoken, in the parallel Israel do not come to knowledge. In ‘c’ He has nourished and brought up children and this is compared with the ass eating at his master’s crib. But in ‘d’ their rebellion against Him is seen as in direct contrast with the ox knowing his owner.
The book begins with Yahweh calling loudly on the heavens and the earth to witness His words, spoken in judgment against His people. Let them take note as to why what must be, must be. There are two aspects to the charge. The first is that He had given them dominion over creation along with the rest of mankind. And the second is that Israel had been especially privileged in being chosen by Him as His children. They are His ‘firstborn’ (Exodus 4.22), especially chosen and adopted by Him. Not only had He given them dominion over all creation, but these were the ones whom He had especially brought up and fed. He had loved them and watched over them (Deuteronomy 32.9-14; Exodus 4.22; Hosea 11.1, 3-4). And yet even so they have rebelled against Him.
This, He declared, is unnatural. While the ox is obedient to his owner, and the ass recognises and feeds from his master’s crib, Israel neither knows the One Who feeds her, nor acknowledges His right to control her. She is base and ungrateful, not even willing to attain to the standards of the brute beasts.
Ox and ass rightly acknowledged their owners and masters, the ones whom God had set over them, man. But the ones to whom He not only gave this privilege of being set over creation, but actually especially chose as His son, have in their turn refused to recognise their own Owner and Master, while at the same time accepting from His hand the right to rule the brute creation. Such was their ingratitude and rebellion. No wonder that nature is called on to bear witness and be scandalised.
‘Hear, O heavens, give ear, O earth.’ Heaven and earth are often called on as solemn witnesses (Deuteronomy 4.26; 30.19; 31.28; 32.1; Psalm 50.4; Jeremiah 2.12; 6.19; Micah 6.2), for God is the Creator Who rules over them. But it is particularly apposite in this case. Israel is rebelling against the natural order of creation.
‘Yahweh has spoken.’ He has given His verdict. Sentence is passed. Compare 1.20; 16.14; 22.25; 24.3; 25.8; 37.22; 40.5; 58.14; 2 Kings 19.21; Jeremiah 13.15; Joel 3.8; Obadiah 1.18. We note that Isaiah has no doubt that he has received the genuine word of Yahweh.
‘THEY (of all people) have rebelled against me.’ The ‘they’ is emphatic, ‘they of all people’. And that is what seems so incredible. These especially chosen ones, to whom He has shown such love, for whom He has done so much, these are the very ones who have rebelled against Him, while in contrast the animal world in its turn goes on, in spite of often unkind and unreasonable treatment, in submission and obedience to men. What a lesson we can learn from our domestic animals.
These people were especially His from among mankind because He had chosen and adopted them, and had thereby raised them above all others. He had showered His mercies on them. He had not only made them in His image, but had delivered them from bondage with His outstretched arm. How great therefore was their ingratitude.
Note the two aspects of their rebellion. They do not recognise and respond to their Owner, and they do not eat at their Master’s crib. They are both disobedient and idolatrous. They are His especially set apart people (Exodus 6.6-7; 19.5-6), and yet they do not genuinely ‘know’ Him, they have no personal and vital relationship with Him, there is no genuine response in their hearts towards Him. They are cold towards Him. Nor do they ‘consider’ what they are doing, they do not see to the heart of things, they fail to recognise their privilege and responsibility. They are too taken up with other things. There is nothing more prominent in creation than the ingratitude of man towards God. Men receive all at His hand, and then refuse to do what He asks. We must beware that we are not like that too, with our even greater privileges.
‘Israel does not know. My people do not consider.’ We find here that Judah and Jerusalem are included in the term ‘Israel’. God’s wider people who trace their source back to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob/Israel are still in mind. And they are neither aware of Him nor consider His ways. (Note that in Isaiah ‘Israel’ can sometimes mean all God’s people, and can sometimes refer to the northern kingdom alone. Like all the prophets he sees both kingdoms as one, and only split because of the sinfulness of the people).
These words sound a clarion call to all. All of us need to review our lives in the light of them and ask how we ourselves are behaving with regard to our relationship with God. Are we any indeed any better than they?
The Majority Are Like Sodom and Gomorrah (1.4-9).
Isaiah now describes the condition of Judah, which would include refugees from Israel. This can be analysed as follows:
In ‘a’ the sinful state of Judah is described, and in the parallel what the final result has been for them. In ‘b’ they are asked why they allow themselves to be so stricken, and in the parallel their desolation as a result is outlined. In ‘c’ their sores and wounds are seen as unbandaged and untreated, and in the parallel their resulting continual state of devastation is described.
In this construction we have four parallel statements followed by another four parallel statements, emphasising both aspects of his words. ‘Sinful, iniquitous, evildoers, corrupt’, followed by ‘have forsaken, have despised, have estranged themselves, (have gone) backwards. It sums up their seemingly hopeless situation.
Indeed these next few verses are all preparing the way for what is to come. In them Isaiah is declaring Yahweh’s verdict on what remains of Israel after the destruction of Samaria, and how, as a result of the vision of the glory and holiness of Yahweh (Isaiah 6.1), the sinfulness of the people has been brought home to him. It is a declaration of how Isaiah now sees them as a result of the experience of that vision.
They are no longer a ‘holy nation’ (Exodus 19.6), no longer His true people, but a ‘sinning nation’ who constantly ‘fall short’ (chata’) of God’s standard as revealed in His Instruction (the Torah, the Law, the first five books of the Bible), they are a people burdened down with (literally ‘heavy with’) their ‘wickedness’, that is, with their corrupted and sinful character and natures. They no longer behave as the seed of Abraham (Psalm 105.6) but rather as the seed of their fathers who were evildoers, and it is as their fathers’ children that they deal ‘corruptly’, as those who are similarly ‘marred and ruined’ (shachath).
This manifests itself in their attitudes, lifestyle and behaviour. ‘They have forsaken Yahweh’, that is as the One Who was their Overlord with sole rights to their obedience. Other gods and other things have been allowed a place in their lives and thoughts, and His ways are being ignored and set aside. His ways are seen as being too demanding.
‘They have despised the Holy One of Israel.’ They had uniquely had the privilege of knowing God as the Holy One, as the One ‘set apart’ and lifted high, as unique and majestic both essentially and morally, revealed at Mount Sinai and through His Torah (the first five books of the Bible). He is the glorious One, ‘set apart’ in their worship as unique by the holiest of angelic beings as being alone worthy of worship (Isaiah .6.1-6). He is the uplifted One, high and lofty, Who inhabits eternity (57.15). And His presence and intense purity is such that when revealed it makes men deeply aware of their own total sinfulness and unworthiness (Isaiah 6.5; Job 42.5-6), with the result that they cringe in His presence.
But although they had been privileged to be chosen as His own people, and had behind them all this background, they had not ‘seen’ Him, indeed they had failed to such an extent that they had shown rather that they despised Him by their attitude both to Him and to His Instruction (Law). They had closed their eyes to Him and did not go in awe of Him. This was their condemnation.
They, in fact, would not have seen it in that way. They probably considered that they observed all necessary ritual requirements. They were probably fairly satisfied that they had given Him His due. Did they not indeed carry out the requirements of the cultus? Should He not be satisfied? But Isaiah’s point is that it is the very way in which they do this that demonstrates how much they despise Him (verses 11-12). Their very sacrifices are an insult to Him because they are designed to keep Him satisfied while they themselves ignore what He has commanded. They think that He can be thrust to one side, that once ‘dealt with’ through ritual He can be dismissed, while they proceed to do as they wish. They are totally unaware of the nature of the One with whom they have to do.
‘They have estranged themselves.’ By their actions and attitudes they have withdrawn themselves from Him and have actually chosen in reality to disinherit themselves, to make themselves ‘estranged’ as though they were ‘strangers and aliens’ to Him. By their behaviour they have made themselves no longer an essential part of the covenant relationship with God, and are even satisfied for it to be so. No indictment could be greater than that. All of us must choose. We cannot love God and mammon. Let us make no mistake about it. There is no part in any covenant for those who refuse to obey Him.
‘Backwards.’ The word stands stark and alone (translators sometimes add words such as ‘are gone). They have been on the move, but it has been backwards. Instead of going forward with God, they have gone back to darkness and to idols.
‘Seed of evildoers.’ The idea of the seed is prominent in the book. They prided themselves on being the seed of Abraham and of Jacob (41.8; 45.19, 25; 65.23), some would be the seed of the Servant (53.10 compare 44.3), but here they are declared rather to be the seed of evildoers, an expression that depicts the most evil of men (compare 14.20).
He now points out what this has brought them to. He describes Israel as being like someone dreadfully ill, and asks why in that condition they are so foolish as to carry on rebelling when it can only lead to further distress. Their head throbs, their heart faints, their whole body is covered with wounds, bruises and festering sores completely untreated. No one has closed their wounds or bound them up, or applied healing potions to them. They are sickly and untended. Yet by their behaviour they are deliberately asking to be smitten again. He cannot understand why they do it. Why do they not stop, and consider, and listen to God? These ideas were taken from the Torah. For a similar description compare Deuteronomy 28.58-62. See also 28.21-22, 35; Leviticus 26.16.
This picture of Judah and Jerusalem as the sick man of the Near East is vivid and descriptive. In their rebellion they are shown as having fared very ill. But they are seen to have brought it on themselves. They have been stricken in order that they might repent. And yet because of their continuing behaviour and refusal to repent they will be further stricken. They are sick indeed. Why do they do it? Why do we do it?
This now illustrates the illustration. Note again the pattern. First the four parallel descriptions of judgment followed by the fourfold picture of the consequence , with verse 9 then following it up. Part of their sickness is due to the fact that they are under invasion, their country desolated, their cities burned, and Jerusalem stands alone with no one to help. The whole of the land is under the conqueror’s cruel boot. And as he will point out later, this is not so much because their kings were incapable, but because they had failed to trust in Yahweh. Had Ahaz not called on the Assyrians for help, and had Hezekiah not revealed their wealth to the Babylonians, they might have been left alone, with the help of Yahweh, as a small nation under His protection which was not worth troubling. But they had been unwilling to trust Him. Thus they had had to enter into their foolish alliances with foreign nations who would only swallow them up.
‘Your cities are burned with fire.’ This was regularly seen in Israel as indicating a particular retribution (Numbers 31.10; Deuteronomy 13.16; Joshua 6.24, 8.8; Judges 1.8; 18.27; 20.48).
‘Strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate as overthrown by strangers.’ Here the partial duplication is deliberate and for emphasis. There is a double emphasis, both actively and passively, on the fact that they are devoured by strangers, by aliens, by the unknown, something far worse and horrific than being invaded by neighbours.
Furthermore the aliens destroy everything in front of their eyes, and they do it as savagely as only aliens would, so that when they look on what has been done, they see that it has indeed been left totally desolate, in such a way as would only be done by strangers. Neighbours might invade but they would not normally cause so much damage, (especially to trees which take so long to grow, contrast 37.24), since they would have more consideration for the future and of the possibility of retaliation and reciprocation. So here they are depicted as first seeing the action of desolation ‘as by strangers’, and then as gazing on the consequences.
‘And the daughter, Zion, is left like a booth in the wilderness, like a lodge in a garden of cucumbers, like a besieged city.’ The reference is to Jerusalem, built around Mount Zion, seen as God’s adopted daughter. It is suggesting that she now stood, solitary, and lonely, and vulnerable, a vulnerable young woman with none to support her, like a shepherd’s solitary lean-to in the wilderness, or a lonely watchman’s hut in a cucumber garden, open to the ravages of evil men. The idea includes both solitariness and helplessness, with Jerusalem seen as standing alone, and as flimsy and not strong enough to stand against her attackers.
‘Like a besieged city.’ That is, cut off from all help and communication, solitary and alone. See also Deuteronomy 28.52-55.
This possibly reflects the situation described in chapters 37-38 when Judah appeared to be on its last legs. If that is so it is clearly here considered as carrying an important, permanent message for Judah and Jerusalem.
What they deserved was total destruction, as had happened to Sodom and Gomorrah, but this had not happened because Yahweh of hosts in His mercy had left a few to survive so as to build up the future. Had He not done so there would have been nothing left of Jerusalem. She would have disappeared in the same way as Sodom and Gomorrah had (Genesis 19.28).
‘Yahweh of hosts.’ This is the absolute description of power, a title found regularly throughout Isaiah. He is overlord of all heavenly beings, the hosts of heaven (Genesis 32.2; Psalm 103.21; 148.20) and especially of the hosts of God (Joshua 5.14), overlord of all that is in the heavens (Psalm 33.6; Deuteronomy 4.19), and overlord of all that is on earth (Genesis 1.2), and of all earthly hosts. He is Lord of All. And thus against ‘Yahweh of hosts’ none can stand. And it was He Who had determined that there would be survivors, which is why there were.
While these pictures could be describing any severe invasion they fit best with the Assyrian invasion in 701 BC (2 Kings 18.13-17). The Assyrians were truly aliens, and savagely destructive, and it was during their invasion, when city after city was devastated, that Jerusalem was left as a last bastion in Judah.
This description of the moral and religious state of Judah and Jerusalem, and its result, is preparatory to the whole book, revealing their sinful state and explaining why God will act as He will in His judgments. But they also give hint of a future hope through the description of the preservation of a few as a result of the mercy of God, an idea which will recur again and again. The word used here is not, however, the usual one for the remnant. They are not here a spiritual remnant, but merely a group of survivors.
We should learn from this that when troubles come upon us we need to consider whether they are the result of God giving us a warning. Alternately of course they may be the result of the attacks of the Enemy. But either way we should learn from them.
What God Has Against His People (1.10-15). God’s Hatred of Any Outward Religion Which Is Not Matched By Inner Response.
In these verses Isaiah stresses that there is little benefit in continuing with outward forms of religion unless they also respond to its inner demands.
This again from 1.10-15 presents us with a chiasmus, with their description as Sodom and Gomorrah paralleling their not hearing and their hands being filled with blood (10 with 15b); their offerings in which He has no delight being paralleled with the feasts that He cannot abide (11 with 14); their trampling of His courts being paralleled by the iniquity and the solemn meeting (12 with 13c), and the vain oblations being compared with the offering of incense unacceptably (13a with 13b).
‘Hear the word of Yahweh.’ Both rulers and people are called on to hear what Yahweh has to say. Taking the idea up from verse 9 they are spoken of vividly as being like rulers of Sodom and like people of Gomorrah, cities renowned for their wickedness, cities which had already experienced judgment long before and had been totally wiped out (Genesis 19). There is an indication here of how God saw Jerusalem and Judah, and an implied threat as a result. If the rulers and the people do not hear, and if they continue to behave in the way that they do, they too will be utterly wiped out. Like all His judgments, this judgment is a morally based judgment. Its purpose is to win them back to the covenant. But if they will not hear, then destruction, similar to that which was inflicted on Sodom and Gomorrah, can only await them.
Other nations saw their gods as fickle and unreliable, acting on a whim or a preference, their behaviour totally unpredictable and thus requiring that they be manipulated or bribed. None of them saw their gods as deeply concerned about the morality of their people. But the prophets revealed that Yahweh, the true God was not like them. His behaviour towards His people was always morally based and consistent, and had only in mind the triumph of goodness and the people’s final good. It stressed that only if they were morally true could God truly accept them as His people. That was to be their destiny, whatever refining fires would be required to make them so. And it also stressed that because He was holy He would have to eradicate sin and wickedness, and that that required, and would always result in, judgment unless they repented and became truly reconciled to Him.
God declared that He now received no pleasure from their sacrifices and offerings. They were meaningless to Him, and unacceptable. He had had enough of them. This is not an indictment of the sacrificial system and feasts of Israel, but of its total present misuse. Samuel had said to Saul in a similar situation, “Has Yahweh as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as obeying the voice of Yahweh? Behold to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Samuel 15.22), and Saul’s failure had resulted in his final rejection by God.
Thus God is here stressing that without moral response and behaviour, without love for Him and obedience to His laws, all religious ordinances are in vain. Such do not work automatically. He is the God of the covenant, and within that covenant the offerings and sacrifices are ways of finding mercy and propitiation for sin in both personal and public responses towards God, and the feasts are a means of fellowship with God. But without responsive obedience to the covenant they are worthless. The God of the covenant demands full response to the covenant, and that includes primarily trust in Him and obedience to His requirements for living. Then the remainder too is acceptable and will achieve its purpose. But without that it is all nothing
‘To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices to me?” says Yahweh. “I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts, and I do not delight in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he-goats.’ Sacrifices and offerings were still being multiplied in the temple. The priests still went about their daily service. There was more than enough of it all. But their hearts were not in it. There was no loving response, no dedication. It had all become meaningless ritual (compare Ecclesiastes 5.1-7). It had become an automatic ritual, a routine without significance. So God was satiated with their hypocritical offerings. He had had enough of them. He no longer delighted in what they did. Woe betide us when God no longer delights in what we do and what we offer.
Especially poignant is the rejection of the blood. It was the shedding of blood, the life poured out, that made atonement (Leviticus 17.11). It was therefore that on which the people’s hopes would have rested. But it no longer ‘delighted’ God. It was no longer acceptable. It was therefore no longer effective. They achieved no atonement. Without response and obedience in their daily lives all their religious activity was dross. Without repentance there was no forgiveness.
For the similar views of other prophets see Amos 5.21-24; Hosea 6.6; Micah 6.6-8; Jeremiah 7.21-23. The prophets did not reject the ordinances of the Mosaic covenant, but they did stress their secondary importance to responsive obedience (trusting and obeying). Without the latter their ordinances were worse than useless. Their purpose was to establish a vibrant and living relationship with God, and a true means of atonement. Without responsive obedience they did neither.
‘When you came to appear before me, who has required this from you (‘at your hand’), to trample my courts?’ Note that God still acknowledges at this point that the temple could be seen as His earthly dwellingplace, for He speaks of ‘My courts’. They have the great privilege of having His earthly dwellingplace among them. But His point is that they treat it lightly without due regard to Him. They forget that they are His courts that they are entering. Instead of being invitees, and treading lightly and discerningly with true regard, they are behaving like trespassers, trampling over everything without discernment. They treat it as their own. Was this really what they thought that God would accept of them?
‘Do not bring vain oblations any more, incense is an abomination to me, new moon and sabbath, the calling of assemblies - - . I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn meeting.’ He no longer wants oblations that mean nothing. There is no point in offering incense when it is just a ritual to pander to God, and not a loving, responsive offering from the heart. It has by this become an abomination to Him, as also have the new moon celebrations, and the sabbath, and the calling together of His people at special times, for they are but automatic ritual while their hearts are elsewhere. It is all meaningless and fruitless.
‘I cannot endure iniquity and the solemn meeting.’ The idea of a combination of iniquity and the solemn meeting with God are incompatible, and yet these people partake in both at the same time. It is the essence of hypocrisy. Even while they engage in the solemn required meetings ‘with God’ they carry iniquity in their hearts, and even practise it, as though God did not see (compare 1 Corinthians 11.21-22). But they should recognise that their iniquity separates them from God (59.2). Thus the solemn meetings have become pointless. They are a meaningless act. He cannot even bear to be there, for they make Him sick. It is a sad day when God cannot bear to be at our church gatherings, and when we make Him sick (compare Revelation 3.16).
This phrase cuts into the theme which continues in verse 14, and demonstrates how deeply God feels about it all. He is so moved that He has had to break in and point out that while there is iniquity present and undealt with, nothing that they do can please or satisfy Him or enable them to meet with Him, for He cannot bear it. Compare Jeremiah 7.11; Matthew 21.13.
Here the positive aspect of approach to God is dealt with. They celebrate the new moon monthly, they gather at the appointed feasts. Outwardly all seems well. But God hates these feasts and their presence at them. He is troubled and disturbed by them. They distress Him. They weary Him. And He will thus not hear their prayers. He deliberately turns His eyes away. He refuses to hear them. And why? Because their hands are full of blood. They are disobeying His Instruction (His Law) in the covenant and going their own way. Not all actually commit murder, but all participate in what occurs without protest. They are satisfied with conditions as they are, and because they do not protest, they are thus participators in it. They are to blame for what they allow.
The main appointed feasts were those commanded in the Law; Passover and Unleavened Bread (Exodus 23.15; Leviticus 23.5; Exodus 12; Numbers 28.16-25; Deuteronomy 16.1-8), the Feast of Weeks (Harvest, Firstfruits - Exodus 23.16; 34.22; Numbers 28.26) and the Feast of Tabernacles or Ingathering (Exodus 23.16; 34.22; Leviticus 23.34; Deuteronomy 16.13). They were intended to be joyous feasts during which they rededicated themselves to the covenant and gave thanks for God’s goodness to them as revealed in their harvests of lambs and kids, harvests of grain, fruit and vintage, while at the same time remembering how He had delivered them from bondage, and continually delivered them from sin as they brought their sacrifices of atonement.
But their feasts were no longer a joy to God. ‘My soul hates’. The expression indicates that He hated them with all the intensity of His being because they were an outward act with no inner meaning. They were a sham. During them their hearts were not turned towards Him and to His Instruction, but to their own sin and pleasure.
‘And when you spread forth your hands I will hide my eyes from you. Yes, when you make many prayers, I will not hear.’ God would not, and will not, hear the prayers of those who are not committed towards Him. This applies as much today as it ever did. Instead of His face shining on them, His eyes will be hid from them. He will not hear. He will be deaf to their prayers.
Modern man has a glib view of prayer, assuming that God will listen to anyone. But Isaiah 59.2 explains that God does not hear those whose sins have separated them from Him, Psalm 66.18 tells us that if we regard iniquity in our hearts the Lord will not hear us, and Proverbs 28.9 (compare Proverbs 15.8, 29; 21.13) tells us that the prayers of one who turns away from God’s instruction are an abomination. This is the Biblical view of prayer. The New Testament similarly requires the lifting up of ‘holy’ hands (1 Timothy 2.8), and a true heart (Hebrews 10.22; James 4.3; 1 Peter 3.12). So all warn us that a man’s heart must be right if his prayers are to be heard. It is not that he must be worthy and deserving. None are that. It is that he must be in a right relationship with God (and Jesus adds that he must have a forgiving heart - Matthew 6.15).
‘Your hands are full of blood (literally ‘bloods).’ To have the hands full was to be dedicated to something. Thus these people are dedicated to the way of violence. They approve a leadership that resorts to violence, they benefit from violence, they make no complaint against it, they are ready to go on benefiting by it, and thus they partake in its guilt. This description parallels their description as Sodom and Gomorrah (verse 11).
The Response That God Requires (1.16-20).
What God requires of them is a complete change of heart and a renewing of their lives.
Here again we have a chiasmus. The call to put away evil in verses 16-17 contrasts with the refusing and rebelling in verse 20. Learning to do well parallels being willing and obedient in verse 19, and in verse 18 we have two parallel descriptions of cleansing.
This is not urging them to take part in the ritual washings and cleansings of the cult ritual but is a contrast to them. They are not in themselves to be seen as sufficient. The actual carrying out of the literal rituals is not what is being required here. They would be lumped with the sacrifices, incense and feasts as fruitless ritual. It is the moral application that is required. In order to be truly clean the people must become morally clean. Using later terms they must repent and believe, receiving God’s mercy and forgiveness. They must wash themselves by their repentance towards God and cleanse themselves by claiming His mercy. (Washing was always preparatory, cleansing what necessarily followed) This will then result in positive living, by putting away their evil behaviour totally so that God could see it no more, by ceasing to do what was wrong, by learning to do well and seeking for the application of true justice, by restraining (or reproving) the oppressor and acting in defence of orphans and widows.
Note that it is not enough just to behave well personally, that behaviour must overflow into acting against oppressors and reaching the needy in society, showing concern for the poor and helpless. It must be full-orbed righteousness.
This is not just an emphasis on good works, it is a stress on covenant righteousness, on the righteousness that should result from their compact with God. Their response is to be response to the covenant. Morality without religion was unknown in Israel. The point is that they have been concentrating on the ritual ordinances of the covenant (although somewhat perfunctorily) while ignoring its essential moral demands, they have not revealed righteousness in response to the Great Deliverer. Thus they have been missing its essence, God’s gracious deliverance of them and His righteous requirements in the light of it, which were to result in a transformed people. The ten commands and their later exposition lay at the heart of the covenant.
‘Wash -- cleanse.’ This is a process. They are not describing the same thing. Washing with water is never said to cleanse in the Old Testament ritual, it was preparatory to cleansing. It washed off the filth of the flesh (including the body odours) prior to an approach towards God, or to waiting in the presence of God. The only water that ‘cleansed’ was that mixed with the ashes of the heifer, ‘the water for purification’ (Numbers 19.17, 20-21; 31.23 compare 8.7). Constantly the one who has washed in ordinary water is regularly informed that he will not ‘be clean until the evening’ (Leviticus 15.2-24). It is the period of waiting before God in humble dependence subsequent to washing that cleanses. Thus steady progress in becoming clean before God is in mind here, although in this case not by ritual but by repentance, response and behaviour.
The contrast is between before and after. The scarlet and the red have especially in mind the ‘bloodiness’ of verse 15. By repenting and becoming renewed in accordance with the covenant their bloodstained hands and clothing will become transformed so that they are as white as snow, as white as wool. They will be forgiven and transformed from being those who approve of, and gain by, violence, by the way of harshness and self-gain, to being those who follow God’s non-violent ways, the way of compassion, and this will be true both without and within. Thus will they become acceptable to God and clean before Him (verse 16).
‘Come let us reason together.’ This is probably intended to have a forensic sense, like pleading in a court of law. The Great Judge reminds them that they are in court before Him and pleads with His people that he might restore them to His mercy.
The choice is laid before them. They must either be willing to respond to His covenant and become obedient to His instruction, in which case their inheritance will be theirs, and ‘they will eat the good of the land’, or they can continue refusing to respond to the covenant, and continue their rebellion, in which case they will be devoured by the sword, that is, the sword will ‘eat them’ instead of them eating the good of the land.
So the stark choice is that they can choose to eat or be eaten. They can either have blessing in the land by loving God and walking in His ways (Deuteronomy 30.15-16), in fulfilment of the covenant, or they can receive judgment by the sword, and be devoured by it.
‘For the mouth of Yahweh has spoken it.’ Isaiah wants them to be in no doubt that this is the solemn word of Yahweh. He has said it and they can be sure that He will do it, either the one way or the other (compare 1.2).
For the whole passage from verse 2-18 note the progression. In verse 2 the heavens and earth were called on as witness to what Yahweh has declared and determined on His people, in verse 10 the rulers and the people of the wicked city were themselves called on to consider their ways, and in verse 18 all who will hear are called on to be willing to respond God’s appeal. Again, in verses 4-9 their state is revealed, in verses 11 to 15 they are assured that no vain ritual can cleanse them because of the state of their hearts, and in verses 16-20 they are called on to receive the new cleansing and new hearts that they need by response to Yahweh and His covenant.
In some ways this call to repent comes to us also, day by day. We need constantly to consider our ways, not morbidly but sensibly; to wash and cleanse ourselves by repentance and reception of forgiveness; to ask ourselves whether our worship is becoming stereotyped and formal, or whether our worship is still heartfelt and true. Thus will we retain a genuine relationship with God and avoid His chastisement.
God’s Purpose For The Future (1.21-26).
The call having been made to Israel for response, God describes their present state and guarantees that in the end He will bring their transformation about.
In this remarkable passage we find ‘the faithful city which has become a prostitute’ (verse 21), being finally restored to being ‘the city of righteousness the faithful city’ (verse 26b-27); perverted justice (verse 21) becoming true justice (verse 26), the dross that filled her (verse 22) being removed (verse 25); the rebellious princes (verse 23) being finally restored (verse 26a), injustice (23b) being dealt with by the Mighty One of Israel avenging Himself on those who are enemies of His covenant (verse 24). Note again the characteristic chiastic construction on which it is based, the remedies being in inverted order to the problems.
A Further Description of Their State Before God (1.21-23).
The question now is, how has Israel got herself into this state? The description of her downfall is potent. She had been ‘a faithful city’, like a faithful wife to Yahweh, but now she was behaving like a prostitute. She had been true living, but now she was loose living. She had been full of discerning judgment, with righteousness lodging in her, but now she was indwelt by murderers.
Isaiah is possibly looking back to the time of David, who for all his faults was a good and wise king, and to the first part of the reign of Solomon, both somewhat idealised. And possibly in more recent memory to the time of the good king Uzziah, again idealised (‘the good old days’). Then Jerusalem had been faithful, a faithful wife to Yahweh. But now she had become a prostitute.
This may well to some extent have in mind the idolatry into which Ahaz had led Jerusalem and Judah, especially his dalliance with child sacrifice, partly by choice, and partly because of his treaty with the Assyrians (2 Kings 16). But it goes further than that. The whole city is in mind. The failure is widespread. They have followed the king’s lead, and idolatry and injustice have become rampant. They seize every opportunity for pagan worship, and are taken up with everything but God.
As always the result of their ignoring the covenant and following such ideas was immoral behaviour and unfair and unreliable ‘justice’. She who had been full of discerning judgment in accordance with the covenant, who had been the dwellingplace of righteousness as determined by that covenant, had now sunk to the level of other nations. They had become ‘murderers’, men of blood (compare ‘bloods’ verse 15). This could include the idea of the child sacrifices, which were seen by God as an abomination. But it also had prominently in mind the use by evil men of the judicial system to get rid of those who opposed them, or to weaken the position and resolve of others from whom they sought to gain advantage, even to the point of the calling on the death sentence. Life had become relatively cheap because justice had become slack and open to manipulation by bribes and pressure.
1.22 ‘Your silver has become dross, your wine mixed with water.’
This may have in mind that dishonest trading had become rampant. That silver sold as pure was in fact impure, or even a sham, and that wine was being watered down for sale. But it almost certainly also includes the wider idea that their lives and behaviour have suffered in the same way. Men are no longer pure and trustworthy. They can no longer stand the test. They have become dross (compare Jeremiah 6.28-30; Ezekiel 22.18). They are watered down, their fullness spoiled. They have become insipid to the taste.
The chief men of the city are in rebellion against the covenant, ignoring God’s laws. The very ones who are the focus of justice are consorting with those who are dishonest and untrustworthy. Everyone is out for what they can get, looking for backhanders and not being willing to do anything without being rewarded, and the cause of the needy goes unresolved because it is not worth either time or consideration. And this is because the needy bring no gifts, only their needs.
This is always the sign of a decaying society. Politicians ignore God’s laws and consort with those who are dishonest, even resorting to threats or worse. Bribery and backhanders in business and civic life become rife. Justice is made a show of, but is not really available to all or carried into effect. Outwardly all is well. Inwardly all is rotten. And the result is the continual deterioration of society. How much we see of it today. We must ensure that we are not a part of it.
The Great Clean Up (1.24-26).
God now speaks. Without His action there would be no hope and no future, but He declares His intention to act in sovereign power and bring about that deliverance. Finally the future is bright for those who will receive it because the future is God’s, but only for those who will receive it. We should note that it is not a blanket promise. Not all Israel were the true Israel (Romans 9.6). Those who were unwilling to receive His offer of mercy would be condemned (verses 28-31).
Following the pattern of ideas of the previous verses, but in reverse order, we begin with the One Who is in complete contrast to the princes. No doubt they made much of themselves and exalted themselves, but the threefold description of the One described here is all prevailing. The contrast is deliberate. Beside Him they are but pygmies. He is the Lord, Yahweh of hosts, the Mighty One of Israel. Note the great stress laid on His power. Firstly He is the Sovereign Lord, the Great King. Secondly He is the One Who rules and controls all things, whether above the heavens, in the heavens or on the earth. He is the Creator and Sustainer of the Universe. Thirdly He is the Mighty Saviour and Deliverer (49.26; 60.16). Just one title would have been sufficient, the combination is overwhelming.
‘Ah, I will ease myself of my adversaries, and avenge myself on my enemies.’ Yahweh will take over from the princes and bring about His will. He will ease the sense of righteous burden in His own heart at the behaviour of those who have proved to be His adversaries by ignoring His covenant, by thrusting them from Him. Thus will He satisfy His own righteous requirements against those who are His enemies. Only foolish man would have dared to take up such a position against God.
‘Ah!’ This is full of feeling. God’s reaction is not mechanical.
‘I will turn my hand on you and purge away your dross as with lye, and will take away all your impurity (literally ‘tin’).’ Furthermore He will Himself act sternly by the removal of the dross and the impurities in His people by His own hand. He will vigorously scrub them clean, removing all trace of impurity. There is a mixed metaphor here, although to ‘purge with lye’ may well have been a recognised figure of speech. Soap (lye) would not usually be used for removing dross, except dross given a wider meaning, but it ties in better with verse 16. ‘Turn the hand’ usually depicts hostile action (compare Psalm 81.14; Amos 1.8; Jeremiah 6.9). The thought is forceful. It will be the rough treatment of a stern but merciful master on an undeserving servant. Their period of refining will not, however, be pleasant. It is only man, not God, who thinks that sin can be easily dealt with.
‘And I will restore your judges as at the first, and your counsellors as at the beginning.’ This is His final aim. Justice and proper guidance for His people. A righteous rule. This, speaking in human terms, will be obtained by the raising up and appointing of new Justices and new Counsellors who will measure up to the best of what has gone before. In other words His people will be properly ruled and shepherded.
Looking back from our standpoint we can see how God has been carrying out these works through the ages. He has raised up teachers for His people, through John the Baptiser, through Jesus Himself, through His Apostles, and through those who have faithfully followed them in the ministration of God’s word. And through their ministration He has been refining a people for Himself in readiness for them being with Him in the City of Righteousness.
‘Afterwards your city will be called, The City of Righteousness, the Faithful City.’ The result of all this will be that their dwellingplace will be called ‘the city of righteousness’, the city in which no impurity or dross can be found, the city where all is seen as right before the righteous Judge, a city satisfying even to God Himself. A city completely true to the covenant. (We must therefore add, a heavenly city - Revelation 21-22 - no earthly city could be like this).
(Many literalise such descriptions but as mentioned in the introduction prophecy had to be given in terms of the life-situation, background and understanding of those who heard it. When early missionaries went to the eskimoes they spoke of seals instead of sheep, of the harpoon of God instead of the sword of the Lord and of the great igloo in the sky instead of Heaven, otherwise their message would have been meaningless. In the same way the prophets were prophesying to people who had no conception of Heaven. They thus spoke of it in terms of a glorified Jerusalem. Later John in Revelation 21 would speak of it as a city of gold, with gates of pearl and forming a perfect cube with Apostles as its foundation. None of the descriptions were to be taken literally. So in all our reading we must use discernment. And this applies throughout all the prophets. We must discern what they are trying to say).
‘The faithful city.’ This in contrast to the prostitute city of verse 21. It will be wholly true to Yahweh. Its dedication and response to God will be total. But it is also ‘faithful’ because of its new enduring nature. The word used for ‘faithful’ contains within it the sense of enduring. It will be an everlasting city.
‘Zion will be redeemed with judgment, and her converts (those who return) with righteousness.’ The result will be that Zion will be redeemed in justice and righteousness. She will have been fully restored to what she should be. Note how ‘Zion’ here represents the true Israel, the Israel within Israel, ‘her converts’ (‘those who return, who turn again’). The term ‘Israel’ has two aspects, outwardly it is the people who declare that they are Yahweh’s people, but, in contrast, in Yahweh’s eyes it is those who are Yahweh’s true people, the spiritual part of Israel. They are the true Israel. For all who are not true are in the end to be ‘cut off’ because they are not true Israel. The two ideas are thus constantly held in tension.
This redemption with justice and righteousness will be by the exertion of God’s delivering power. Redemption (see also 29.22; 35.10; 51.11) always indicates a cost (Exodus 13.13; 34.20; Leviticus 25.29; 27.27; Numbers 3.48; Deuteronomy 15.15), and it must necessarily be so for otherwise it would not be in justice. In some way God has taken the cost on Himself (this cost will be stressed in 52.13-53.12). So will His people be accepted as just and right before Him.
This verse (verse 27) is an important seed verse. Zion was very much the city of David, so that it contains embedded within it the idea of the Davidic kingship, the king over Zion, and the idea of the holy remnant, both of which will be prominent later on. But we see here how closely the idea of Zion and the people are seen as one. Zion is her people.
Doom and Gloom (1.28-31).
In contrast with this glorious future for the true Israel, is the fate determined for those who are untrue, those who do not respond to God’s activity, as described in verses 28 onwards.
In contrast with the redemption of the righteous is the fact that transgressors and sinners (the opposite of the just and the righteous) will be destroyed, and those who forsake Yahweh, those who are unfaithful, will be consumed. God’s mercy will not reach all. Some will turn from it. Not all God’s nominal people are God’s true people. Time will reveal which are which.
This sudden change of pronoun appears constantly throughout the Old Testament as the writers seek to bring home their words more personally. In that day those who perish will, in their perishing, be ashamed of the sacred oaks to which they have made obeisance, the very oaks which ‘you hearers’ still do ‘desire’ (seek to worship). And you will be confounded because of the sacred gardens, symbols of the fertility cult, that you have set your heart on, but which fail you in the end. ‘Ashamed’ and ‘confounded’ do not just include embarrassment, but also the sense of their failure. These in which they trusted have let them down. They have been fools.
The sacred gardens were places to which men went for their unnatural activities with sacred prostitutes and loose women as they sought to influence or imitate nature through their manifested behaviour. Possibly they also sought to absorb life from the trees. But it would do them no good. The gardens had nothing real to offer.
Instead of gaining life force from their sacred oaks, their sacred watered gardens and their sacred activities, which in their vain hope and lust they saw as life-giving, these will rather be like a fading oak whose leaf withers and is cast off, and like a waterless garden which has no source of life, and is therefore bare and empty. For the gods can give no life. They are lifeless themselves. Even the strong man, with his ‘work’ (i.e. his idol which he has made for himself), will be like tow, that is, a piece of hemp or similar flammable material, made ready for burning, and lit by a spark. Both man and idol will burn up together. No one will be able to prevent it or put out the flame.
So God is finally merciful to His own. He chastens that He might restore. But for those who will not respond mercy finally runs out. For them there can only be judgment.
Note. Yahweh as sovereign ‘Lord’ (adonai) is a regular feature of Isaiah. As sovereign Lord He judges His enemies, delivering and refining His people and destroying His enemies (1.24-28); He removes from sinful Judah and Jerusalem their mainstay (3.1-3); He punishes the vain and arrogant women (daughters of Zion) with scabs and takes away the jewellery and ornaments in which the women delight (3.16-23); He will wash away the filth of the daughters of Zion and purge Jerusalem from its bloodiness (4.4); He thwarts the enemies of Jerusalem and Judah (7.7), even the powerful Assyria (7.20); He will bring up mighty Assyria against His people because they look elsewhere than to Him (8.7); His word reveals itself against His opponents (8.8); He turns away from those who do evil (9.17); He will perform His work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem (10.12); He will bring judgment on the king of Assyria (10.16); He will bring about His determined will (10.23); He will work on behalf of His true people (10.24); He will cut down their enemies (10.33); He will bring back His people from all over the world (11.11); and so on to 65.13-18 where He provides blessing and a new heaven and a new earth to the faithful remnant. End of note.
The next section of the prophecy is found in chapter 2.1-4.6 divided up as follows:
It will be noted that the subsection commences and ends with the promise of God’s powerful activity, and of glorious days ahead, with in between these, in stark contrast, the true position and behaviour of the people, together with their consequences when they have to face the Day of Yahweh. Glory and judgment are carefully balanced against each other.
Chapter 2 The Glorious and Terrible Visions.
The thought in chapter 1 continues in this new oracle. There will be redemption and deliverance for God’s true people, reaching out even to the nations of the world (verses 2-4). But there will be terrible judgment on those with unresponsive hearts (verses 11-22).
2.2-4 is in fact repeated with minor variations in Micah 4.1-3. It is quite probable that Micah received the words from the master.
Analysis of 2.1-5.
Note that in ‘a’ we have the word which Isaiah ‘sees’ concerning ‘Judah and Jerusalem’ and in the parallel the call for ‘the house of Jacob’ to walk in Yahweh’s light (which Isaiah has seen). In ‘b’ Yahweh’s Dwellingplace is exalted that the nations might flow to it, and in the parallel nation no longer lifts up sword against nation. In ‘c’ many nations seek to Yahweh to learn His ways and walk in His paths (what Israel are singularly failing to do), and in the parallel, the word goes forth from Jerusalem and He judges between the nations.
But we may also see progression, as Yahweh is exalted before the nations, who flow towards His Dwellingplace in order that they might learn from Him, and the result is that His word goes forth from Jerusalem so that He rules over the nations and universal peace prevails.
2.1 ‘The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.’
This heading suggests that at least some of Isaiah’s prophecies were already in writing prior to their being brought together. It may cover the whole section to 4.6 or even to 5.30. As Isaiah believed that what he spoke was directly from God we would expect him to put it into writing. He considered that what he had to present was an enduring message from God, and the recording of it in writing would serve to confirm this fact.
The Glorious Vision (2.2-4).
‘In the latter days’ signifies a long distance forward, and an undefined period, referring to the days when things will begin to come to their consummation. The prophets never doubted that in the end there would be a glorious future for the true remnant among the people of God. It had to be so for they knew that God would necessarily bring about His final purposes, and would become All in All.
In fact the New Testament writers all saw themselves as being in these ‘latter days’. They saw them as beginning with the coming of Jesus and the sending forth of the Holy Spirit, for they saw these latter days as being the days of the Messiah and the days of the infusion of the Spirit as constantly promised by God (Acts 2.16-17, 36; compare 1 Corinthians 10.11; Hebrews 1.2; 9.26; 1 Peter 1.20; 4.7; James 4.8; 2 Peter 3.3 which in context he was applying to his own day although recognising it could last over a thousand years; 1 John 2.18; Jude 1.18).
Note that the description here is not strictly geographical but exalted. The mountain site of Yahweh’s earthly dwelling is to be raised up and made pre-eminent. It will tower over the mountains. All other mountains and hills will be below it, and all the nations who seek Him will flow upwards to it. It should be noted that this is not the exaltation of Jerusalem, it is the exaltation of Yahweh in His house, and is deliberately paradoxical. And as though they were great rivers the nations will flow upwards, contrary to nature, drawn up to Him. Note how this latter promise demonstrates that not only the remnant of Israel, but also the remnant of all nations would seek Yahweh.
The vision should not be taken pedantically. This is no ordinary mountain, and no ordinary result. It is the mountain of Yahweh’s house that is lifted up, not Jerusalem. The other mountains and hills are clearly the lands of the nations, while the rivers flowing upwards represent their life-blood, their peoples (as the great rivers were the life-bloods of nations). The thought has in mind the responsive people of all nations who are thus connected with the river of life. So God’s house is exalted in order that all may see His glory and all may come to Him. We can appreciate from the picture why Paul spoke of ‘the Jerusalem which is above’ (Galatians 4.26), and Hebrews speaks of ‘Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem’ (12.22). Our eyes should not be towards Jerusalem, but towards God’s heavenly Dwellingplace (1 Kings 8.27).
But the nations saw their mountains as the homes of the gods. That is why worship took place at the high places which were originally on mountains, and many of their temples would be built on mountains, or, like the ziggurats, be designed to represent mountains. Thus the subservience of all the mountains to the mountain of Yahweh indicates the subservience of all their gods, and they are then left behind by the peoples in the upward flow of the responsive among those peoples to God. God is being raised above all that He might draw all to Him (compare Ephesians 1.19-23 where the idea is put in New Testament terms. See also John 12.32). The ‘mountain of Yahweh’ can be compared with the ‘heavenly places’ of Paul.
That Isaiah connects this with Jerusalem in some way the next verse makes clear, but Jerusalem is significantly not mentioned as being raised along with Yahweh’s house. Jerusalem is rather the place from which God’s dwellingplace is raised up and from which the testimony will then go out, a testimony which will point to the exalting of the house of Yahweh, which has been raised above all things, and from there they will take Yahweh’s instruction to the world. Jesus may well have had verse 2 in mind when He spoke of the Temple of His body, which after three days would be raised up (John 2.19, 21).
Note the careful wording. The instruction of Yahweh, and the word of Yahweh, go out from Zion/Jerusalem, but the message itself points to the exalted house of Yahweh on the mountain of Yahweh, raised above all mountains and hills, with the nations flowing to Him and His mountain, not to Jerusalem as such, (although closely connected in Isaiah’s mind with Jerusalem) that He may teach them His ways.
Ezekiel in chapter 40 onwards expanded this vision. He described the heavenly temple coming down on ‘a very high mountain’ some distance away from Jerusalem in ‘the holy portion’ away from the city (45.1-6). For to him Jerusalem had been defiled and was no longer fit to be seen as the place where Yahweh dwelt. And he sees the rivers flowing out from the temple to bring life to the world (47). None of these descriptions must be pressed too literally. They were speaking of God’s final triumphal activity without trying to define it too closely. It was in the end beyond their (and our) understanding. God was finally to be sought in a place exalted beyond and above the earthly Jerusalem. ‘The hour comes when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, will you worship the Father -- for the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and in truth, for such does the Father seek to be His worshippers. God is Spirit, and those who worship Him, must worship Him in spirit and in truth’ (John 4.19-23).
It is now emphasised that many nations will then seek to Yahweh. But it is to His ways and His paths that they will seek, and they will go to the exalted mountain on which is the house of Yahweh. They are not said to be strictly seeking to Jerusalem. They are seeking to a higher than Jerusalem, they are seeking to the exalted Lord.
On the other hand they do recognise quite specifically that they are seeking to ‘the God of Jacob’. They recognise that their blessing must come to them through the God of the fathers, the God of Israel, through the Abrahamic covenant as confirmed to Jacob (Genesis 12.3 as confirmed to Jacob in 28.14), Who has been highly exalted. Thus those blessings must therefore first come to them through God’s chosen people, His nation of priests (Exodus 19.6), the people of the God of Jacob, and that is why Zion/Jerusalem is now described as the place from which that truth will go out to the world.
This idealised vision may well have been in Jesus’ mind when He informed the woman of Samaria that salvation was of the Jews (the house of Jacob), but that in the future worship even the mountain of Jerusalem would be replaced (John 4.19-23).
Such a reaching out with God’s instruction did begin when the witness of Israel, dispersed by exile, resulted in many Gentiles turning to the God of Israel, and centuries later His truth would even more powerfully stream out into the world through the followers of Jesus, reaching out from Jerusalem to the ends of the world (Acts 1.8), as they pointed to their exalted Lord. So Jerusalem would indeed be the starting point of the blessing, proclaiming the exalted Lord Who was Himself raised over the nations.
And all this is finally to result in God’s universal rule. He will act as Judge over the nations, the One Who is the final Authority and Determiner of justice, and as the Arbiter who advises and reproves. The result will be universal peace and total cessation of war. Weapons will be turned into instruments for good, and used to provide for the needs of the world. Heaven has no need of weapons. All will be under Him. His everlasting kingdom of peace will finally have come.
The Davidic king is here kept in the background. But his presence would be assumed to be in Jerusalem, and is later exemplified in 9.6-7. It would be assumed that it would be through him as Yahweh’s anointed that Yahweh would dispense his justice and reproof. This is made abundantly clear elsewhere (e.g. 2 Samuel 7.8-16; Psalm 2; 89.19-37).
So the whole picture is that of the presentation of the coming of the future everlasting kingdom in terms that Isaiah and the people could to some extent understand and appreciate, symbolised in the exalting of the mountain of the house of Yahweh above all mountains, with Jerusalem, at least initially, its connecting point to earth. The extravagant language and conceptions should warn us against taking it too literally, for it is ‘the mountain of Yahweh’s house’ that is being exalted rather than Jerusalem. Taking it too literally would later lead to the idea of the inviolability of the temple on the Temple Mount, which led Israel astray, and many later superstitions about Jerusalem, which even affect people today.
To us the vision goes even deeper. For we are aware that the mountain of Yahweh’s house has been exalted even to heaven, and that the word of Yahweh continues to go out from that heavenly temple, of which we are a part, through His people, and that one day in the new heaven and the new earth (see Isaiah 66.22) all will come under His sway and wars and fightings will be no more.
NOTE. There are some who rather prosaically simply equate ‘mountain of Yahweh’s house’ and ‘mountain of Yahweh’ with ‘Zion’ and ‘Jerusalem’ as though Isaiah was just using four expressions for the same place. But as we have suggested above we do not consider this permissible in this case. For ‘the mountain of Yahweh’s house’ is here mentioned as synonymous with ‘the mountain of Yahweh’ and ‘the house of the God of Jacob’, with stress on its being uniquely exalted. The stress is on Yahweh, His mountain and His house, seen as one together, being raised and exalted, not on the mountain as simply a geographical place connected with a city, but as raised so as to connect with Heaven. It is an exalted vision. Compare, ‘I dwell in the high and holy place with him also who is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite’ (57.15). Furthermore if we do simply insist on equating such terms we would actually make it impossible for Isaiah to express anything distinctive, whereas he is clearly striving to do precisely that here. Prophetic declarations go beyond the pedantic. Compare 66.1 and the vision of Solomon in 1 Kings 8.27.
The ancient name of Zion, could be applied to both the holy mount and to Jerusalem, and often was, and Jerusalem was undoubtedly closely associated with Mount Zion, and Mount Zion with Jerusalem (10.12; 24.23). But this was because His people in their great city, which was built on more than one mountain, were seen as closely connected with Yahweh in His holy mountain. ‘Mount Zion’ in its use is not the equivalent of Zion. ‘Zion’ had ceased to be simply the name of one particular mountain, and had become rather the name of a place connected with that mountain, and indeed came also to mean the people when in a far land (Zechariah 2.7). But ‘Mount Zion’ was especially the place where God had His earthly dwellingplace (and in Hebrews 12.22 had become heavenly). It was ‘the city’ to which Abraham looked (Hebrews 11.10, 16).
So in Isaiah 2 it is the mountain as related to Yahweh, ‘the place where Yahweh dwells’ (see 8.18; Psalm 74.2), that is being exalted, not the city of Jerusalem, for although they were seen as closely associated they were not synonymous. It was the error of seeing them as one that resulted in the false doctrine of the inviolability of Jerusalem which was so solidly refuted by Nebuchadnezzar (and later by Titus) in practical fashion.
Indeed ‘Mount Zion’ became as much an idea as a place, as the New Testament makes even clearer (Hebrews 12.22; Revelation 14.1). Even the Psalmist could say that it could not be moved but abode for ever (Psalm 125.1). Israel knew full well that no temple and no mountain could contain Yahweh of hosts. Solomon stated quite baldly, ‘Will God in very deed dwell on the earth? Behold heaven, and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You, how much less this house that I have built’ (1 Kings 8.27 compare Isaiah 66.1). So as a concept it was in Jerusalem and yet not in Jerusalem. It was the place of contact between earth and heaven. See 66.1.
‘Mount Zion’ is the place where God will manifest Himself because it is both His heavenly and His earthly dwellingplace (4.5), and is described as ‘the place where Yahweh dwells’ (8.18). It was His earthly dwellingplace because the temple was on Mount Zion, but when it is so used it is not just being used as the equivalent of Jerusalem. It is being so used because of the presence of the temple, which was seen as representing a greater Dwellingplace, and a greater Mount Zion (consider Micah 4.7; 1 Kings 8.27). In the same way here in Isaiah it is Yahweh’s house that is being exalted not the city. There are no grounds for simply equating ‘the mountain of Yahweh’s house’ with ‘Zion’ and ‘Jerusalem’ when used as here (although it is possibly done in Psalm 48.2, but then the emphasis is on it as the city of the Great King). It is to miss the way that those such as Isaiah thought. Ezekiel would take it one step further. He removed the mountain of Yahweh’s house from Jerusalem altogether (Ezekiel 45.1-8). End of Note.
The Appeal To Respond (2.5).
2.5 ‘O house of Jacob, come and let us walk in the light of Yahweh.’
This parallels the ‘come’ of the nations (verse 3). If the nations are to ‘come’ to be blessed by the God of Jacob, then the house of Jacob must first ‘come’ to walk in His light. This is the first imperative. They must let the light of His instruction shine on them (8.20; Psalm 43.3; Psalm 119.105) so that they might then themselves be a light to the nations (9.2; 49.6; 58.8; 60.1-3). Indeed to walk in the light of Yahweh is to walk, not only in the light of His instruction, but in the presence of the One Who is the glorious and all prevailing light (Psalm 27.1) from whom His own may receive inner strength (Psalm 27.1). So Isaiah pleads with his people to respond fully to Yahweh so that together with him they might fulfil their divinely appointed function as a holy priesthood to the nations, and be the source of His Instruction flowing out to the world.
Notice his use of ‘us’. Ever aware of his own sinfulness (6.5), but also conscious of God’s mercy in forgiveness, he longs that they may join with him in his walk with Yahweh and in bringing Yahweh to the nations.
This call also comes to us to walk in the light of Christ (1 John 1.7), asking that His light may shine on us daily, revealing the hidden things, so that we may bring them to Him for cleansing and forgiveness and walk in newness of life. We are to walk as children of light (Ephesians 4.17; 5.8)
The Awful Situation of His People Before Yahweh And Its Future Consequences (2.6-22).
In contrast with the glorious vision that we have just seen, of Yahweh’s triumph and people flocking to God, is the contrasting scene that follows. It is a scene of unrelieved gloom although still pointing to Yahweh’s triumph.
Analysis of 2.6-22:
Note the powerful contrasts and comparisons. In ‘a’ Israel (the house of Jacob) are totally taken up with their relationships with men so that God has ceased having dealings with them, and in the parallel He tells them to cease from men who only have a noseful of breath. In ‘b’ they are taken up with silver and gold, and all worship the work of their own hands, and in the parallel they cast away their idols of silver and gold and hide ‘from the terror of Yahweh and from the glory of His majesty, when He arises to shake mightily the earth’. Note how this last phrase is repeated from ‘c’, a typical chiastic construction, compare for example Exodus 18.21b-22a with 18.25b-26a; Numbers 18.4 with 7, 23 with 24; Deuteronomy 2.21 with 22; 31.6 with 7.
In ‘c’ they are to enter into the rocks and hide themselves from the terror of Yahweh and the glorious splendour of His majesty, and men will be humbled before Him (rather than before idols as in verse 9), and in the parallel they will do so. In ‘d’ Yahweh’s day is against all that is proud and haughty, and all that is lifted up and it will be brought low, and in the parallel that is what happens so that Yahweh, Whose day it is, will be exalted. In ‘e’ He is against all the trees of Lebanon and Bashan which are high and lifted up, and in the parallel against the great ships made from those trees for trading purposes. And in ‘g’ He is against their mountains and hills (on which they worship idols) and in the parallel against their lofty towers and fenced walls (in which they trust).
His Recognition Before Yahweh Of Israel’s Position (2.6-9).
However, Isaiah is really in no doubt about their true position. There are no scales before his eyes. He now turns to God and outlines the position of the people, for he knows that he is seeking to call them out from the dreadful darkness in which they live, which has resulted in their being forsaken by God, into His marvellous light, and that unless God acts there is little hope for them.
He has to recognise and acknowledge that in fact God’s people are far from the light. God has forsaken them even though they are of the house of Jacob with all that that could have meant for the world. Six reasons are given for their forsakenness, divided into two sets of three.
The first set of three relates to unfaithfulness to Yahweh. They are filled or satiated from the east, they are soothsayers like the Philistines, they strike hands with the children of strangers.
The world changes little. The Western world still looks to the East because it wants religious titillation without the necessity of yielding to God’s demands, it still looks to divination and the occult because it is spiritually bankrupt, it still indulges in sexually stimulating activities for the wrong reason. Here we have God’s stern warning that His people should avoid the occult. It leads into darkness.
The second three references relate more to their ambitions in life. The building up of wealth, the building up of military strength, and the multiplying of man-made idols. A man is after all known by his ambitions. They were also the three things that they trusted in. They thought that it was their wealth which would cushion them from adversity, their armaments which would be their protection against the enemy, and their idols which would ensure their food supply. Thus they no longer felt that they needed Yahweh.
But those who have full arsenals tend to use them and to feel powerful through having them. They no doubt helped to contribute to injustice as they made the princes feel strong and invulnerable. And yet it was because these finally failed them, and they could not defend themselves from their enemies among their neighbours, that they finally sealed their own fate by calling in the Assyrian aliens, whose power they never even comprehended in their wildest dreams, and who would finally tread them down (2 Kings 16.7). They called in what they hoped would be a helping hand, and it turned out to be a jackboot. Unwise associations can destroy the soul.
Idolatry is a means of making the idea of God manageable. A means of making Him earthly. A means by which He can be manipulated by priests. By representing Him in some earthly shape such as a perfection of manhood, or a brute beast, or a serpent, or a statue, He becomes more like ourselves and thus less demanding, less morally different (compare Romans 1.18-23). And we can then walk away and leave Him behind in His Temple. But in Israel it was made clear that God was not open to manipulation, was not restricted to His Temple, was not in any form known to earth, did not think like an earthly creature and did not act like one. He was the invisible God. His throne was among them but He travelled the heavens and did His will wherever He would. And His demands were totally unconnected with earth, they dealt with the heart and morality of man.
‘And the mean man is bowed down, and the great man is humbled. Therefore forgive them not.’ Literally ‘adam (man from the generality of men) is bowed down and ’ish (the important man) is humbled.’ Both prostrate themselves before the work of their own hands. All are involved from the lowest to the highest. Almost the whole nation grovelling before nonentities. They have basically lost their true humanity.
‘Therefore forgive them not.’ This gives an appearance of being harsh, but the Hebrew negative imperative sometimes indicates certainty that something will not happen rather than a strict plea or command (compare Psalm 34.5b; 41.2b. See 6.10; 7.4; 8.9 for the imperative used to indicate certainty of outcome). Therefore here we should translate ‘there is no way that they can be forgiven’ rather than seeing it as being a plea that they should not be forgiven. Their behaviour has been so appalling that judgment is inevitable (compare on the whole passage Micah 5.10-15).
The effects of the desire for power and wealth, and the making of idols of what they admire, are the constant cause of the downfall of men’s spirituality. We need to be constantly on the watch lest it happen to us. No man, however spiritual, is immune.
The Terrible Vision (2.10-22).
This vision is in direct contrast with the Glorious Vision of 2.2-4. On the one hand glory, now, on the other, judgment. Here we have a picture of the destiny of those who fail to respond to God’s mercy.
The construction, at first simple, is in fact complicated. From verse 10 to verse 19 there is a build up from man fleeing to the rocks before the terror of Yahweh and the glory of His majesty (verse 10), to his being mightily humbled and Yahweh exalted (verse 11), to the final bringing down of all that men exult in (verses 12-16), to a repetition of his being mightily humbled and Yahweh exalted (verse 17), to a repetition of his fleeing to the rocks before the terror of Yahweh and the glory of His majesty (verse 19), during which time the idols will pass away (verse 18).
But then is added that He is arising to shake mightily the earth (verse 19b), which leads on to a further description of man’s casting away his idols (verse 20) and his fleeing to the rocks for a hiding place from the terror of Yahweh and the glory of His majesty (verse 21), followed by a repetition of the fact that He is arising to shake mightily the earth. The whole picture is applied in Revelation 6.15-17 to the final day of wrath. The repetitions witness to the truth of the words and the certainty that they will come about.
Note how the literary form is in couplets and then finally culminates in one great statement, ‘And Yahweh alone will be exalted in that day.’
At present these men are brought low before their idols and bow before them (verse 9), and yet are proud and haughty before Yahweh, but the day is coming when the opposite will happen. It will be before Yahweh that all men will be brought low and will bow down. This will occur when He appears in His glory. For He is to appear in His true splendour as the Judge of all the earth (Genesis 18.25), and His presence will be enough in itself to bring it about. None will be able to stand before Him. They will flee before Him and seek shelter in caves and try to bury themselves in holes in the dust because of their awareness of the glory of His majesty, and because of their fear of Him. For then they will indeed behold Him in His true splendour, as He is. In that day only One will be exalted, and that One will be Yahweh.
Their quest for a hiding place will, of course, be in vain. There will be no hiding place, just as there was no hiding place for man in the Garden of Eden at the approach of Yahweh there.
‘A day of Yahweh of hosts.’ This is any day when Yahweh acts in judgment, when Yahweh ‘has His day’. It can be near or far depending on context. The description here would to some extent fit the approaching severe judgment by the Assyrians, for Lebanon, Transjordan (Bashan) and Tyre (ships of Tarshish) would all be affected by them, but Isaiah is later confident of delivery from Assyria, whereas the description here is final. And here it is Yahweh alone Who is exalted, and the idols utterly pass away. The context also places it in ‘the latter days’ (2.2). It is therefore a picture of Yahweh’s final days of reckoning, the opposite of 2.2-4, of which the Assyrian invasion is but a foretaste.
It will be a day of accounting for ‘all that is proud and haughty, and all that is lifted up, and it will be brought low.’ Thus primarily in mind is all that is exalted, depicted by means of objects mentioned mainly because they were famous for their proud status, the tall cedars of Lebanon and the strong oaks of Bashan of which they were so proud, the mighty mountains and the high hills on which they worshipped idols, the tall towers, and the strong walls from which men would shout defiance at the enemy, and in which they trusted to keep them safe, the tall-masted ships of Tarshish (Ezekiel 27.5-8, 25), manufactured from the great trees, and which were the great ships that went long distances, conquering the sea and returning with iron ore, (Tarshish means ‘refinery’), and then finally the magnificent imagery of great kings as depicted in their inscriptions, possibly having in mind especially their victory trophies. All this that man glories in will cease.
The ‘pleasant imagery’ may be any large inscriptions such as those depicting gods, or those inscribed as trophies of victory, or may even be another word for another type of splendid ship in parallel with the ships of Tarshish (the meaning of the Hebrew word is uncertain, but signifies ‘the object gazed on’). However the detail is clear. All that man gloried in and saw as most imposing and permanent would fall in that day, his tall and mighty trees toppling to the ground, his great mountain fastnesses brought low, his powerful fortifications overwhelmed and his mighty ships sunk. Nothing that we exult in will stand in God’s final day.
Again there is twofold emphasis on man’s pride being humbled, and here it is ’adam and ’enosh, mankind in general and men as frail and mortal, that are in mind (contrast verse 9). And we then have twice more repeated the description of the glorious and majestic appearing of Yahweh (compare verses 10-11), the threefold repetition emphasising its prime importance. This is describing the end of time. His appearance in splendour will be manifested to all. But now is added twice that He is arising mightily to shake the earth. The glorious appearing is accompanied by the mighty shaking. His appearing will deal finally with all man’s pride and arrogance (2.12-17), and with all idols (elilim - ‘nonentities’), which will utterly pass away (2.18). They will be tossed to the rats in the dust ,and the bats in the caves, in final recognition of their utter uselessness (2.20). God will be all in all.
Thus will idolatry cease, the gods of the nations be humiliated, tossed away and destroyed. Thus will proud man be humbled in a way far deeper than his self-humbling before the idols in verse 9. Thus will men, the god-makers, seek to hide as man once sought to hide in the Garden of Eden, but while in Eden it was among the trees, which had been God’s provision for him, here it is in caves, rocks and holes in the ground from which he had dug his gold and silver, the very gold and silver from which his idols were made. Anywhere will do to get away from the terrible vision.
The picture of man fleeing to his hiding places while casting away his gold and silver idols, made for him by men, is vivid. They have in the end proved useless. And why? Because the majestic splendour and glory of Yahweh has been revealed. Beside that nothing can stand. Beside that the gold and silver artificial splendour of the idols pales into total insignificance. Here is the true glory, the glory of God. The cry of the seraphim in 6.3 is supremely fulfilled. ‘The whole earth is full of His glory’.
The huge contrast between the pictures in 2.2-4 and 2.10-21 brings out the constant contrast in Scripture between the triumph of God in His people and the fate of the remainder of mankind. On the one hand universal triumph and glory, on the other universal judgment and despair. The complicated interweaving of the fulfilment of Isaiah’s words in history as they came to their own in the spreading of the Gospel, the establishing of the Kingly Rule of God and His constantly repeated judgments on nations, leading up to the final consummation in the future in the rapture and resurrection of God’s people, the glorious appearing of Jesus Christ and the judgment of those in rebellion against God, followed by the everlasting heavenly kingdom, was outside the prophet’s awareness. He presented all this in terms that could be understood. It was ‘the future’ in ‘the latter days’, that is ‘days far from now’.
The final lesson from this great vision is that every man must give an account of himself to God. While He is the Merciful God He is also the Terrible God. We must never treat lightly our responsiveness to Him lest it prove false at the last (Matthew 7.22). ‘It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God’ (Hebrews 10.31) unless we do so through Jesus.
Final Comment (2.22).
2.22 ‘Cease from man whose breath is in his nostrils, for in what way is he to be accounted of?’
This is one of the interjecting verses that we often find in Isaiah, although it fits into the chiasmus. Compare 2.5; 3.9b-11. As there it connects what has been said with what follows. ‘Cease from’ here means ‘do not look to, do not rely on’. He is saying that man, unlike God Whose breath is in Himself and permanent, is but an earthly creature who depends on breathing noseful by noseful for his life and whose breath can easily be taken away. He is not therefore to be counted on, or even taken into account, in a major crisis (3.1) or in the face of eternal things such as have been described (2.19). It is to God that man should look, not to men. He alone is dependable in the greatest crises. Those who rely on God rather than men will be better able to face the soon-coming crisis (chapter 3)
This is not to say that we should not depend on each other when difficult times arise, but rather stressing where final dependence must lie. The truth is that man may often well not have the solution, and that man is not always dependable, whereas God does always have the solution and is always dependable. For it is only God Who can breathe life into men.
Chapter 3 (to 4.1) The Coming Fate of Judah and Jerusalem.
This passage splits up into two, 3.1-15 and 3.16-4.1. The first deals with Yahweh’s judgment on the men, the second with His judgment on the women.
The first passage (3.1-15) can be analysed as follows:
In ‘a’ we have a commencing reference to the Lord, Yahweh of hosts, and His people are to have their bread and water taken from them, and in the parallel it is their own princes and authorities who have crushed and ground them, and it ends with a reference to the Lord, Yahweh of hosts. In ‘b’ we have references to the elders and others who lord it over His people, and in the parallel Yahweh will lord it over these very rulers. In ‘c’ children will be their princes and the babes (or the ruthless) will rule over them, and they will be oppressed, and in the parallel children will oppress them and women rule over them. In ‘d’ no man will agree to rule over the ruin that their country will become, and in the parallel they have rewarded themselves with evil, and while it will be well with the righteous, it will be woe to the wicked who will receive the reward of their hands. In ‘e’ Jerusalem and Judah are ruined because their tongue and their doings are against Yahweh, provoking the majesty of His eyes, and in the parallel their faces reveal their sin, and their behaviour that they are like Sodom.
All that Jerusalem/Judah Depend On Is To Be Taken Away So That Society Will Disintegrate Towards Even More Evil (3.1-9a).
Having covered world judgment Isaiah now brings it home to the local situation. He points out that things are about to go from bad to worse in Judah and Jerusalem even in the near future, and that days of disaster are coming on them which will result in loss of leadership, removal of those who are the stays of society, and the general disintegration of authority, and of society, with life reaching rock bottom. Men will long for leadership and will not be able to find it. There will be no one to rely on. And all because they have forsaken Yahweh. That is why things are looking dismal for them.
From final judgment Isaiah moves back to present judgment. All earthly things that Jerusalem/Judah rely on are to be taken away by their Sovereign Lord, Yahweh of hosts (for, whatever the secondary cause, and these were the very types removed into exile, it will be Yahweh Who has done it). The whole stay of bread and the whole stay of water is possibly figurative for the people on whom they depend as described in verse 2, seen as essential to survival. They are seen as like life’s essentials. Or it may signify the loss of the actual basic things of life, the very bread and water which are essential for life, the very basic stuff on which they rely (see verses 7-8). Both would be true.
Note how those described are leaders whom the people will themselves come across. The military protectors, the judges, those who give guidance, including the professional prophets, the local rulers, and those involved in magic, diviners, fortune tellers, seekers to the dead, and the like. The mention of the latter reveals the true state of Jerusalem. They are no longer looking to Yahweh but to the occult.
It was such leaders that were taken into captivity from Samaria in 722 BC, and if that had already happened Isaiah may well have had that in mind as an example. The same will one day happen to Judah and Jerusalem if they do not mend their ways.
This may signify that their wise rulers will die leaving the country literally ruled by children overseen by regents, or alternatively that their princes will begin to behave like children in their behaviour and decisions (compare verse 12). Most probably the latter. The word translated ‘ruthless’ is of uncertain meaning. The parallel suggests babes, but the root suggests ruthlessness. Either way the point is that leadership will be undependable, and even bad, and certainly not wise.
The fabric of society is about to disintegrate. People will be free to behave as they like, oppressing each other. Children will run wild, and children and base, unworthy people will be able to flout those worthy of authority. Life will become undisciplined and uncertain.
3.6 ‘When a man takes hold of his brother in the house of his father, and says, “You have clothing. You be our ruler and let this ruin be under your hand.” In that day he will lift up his voice and say, “I will not be the one who binds up, for in my house is neither bread nor clothing. You shall not make me a ruler of the people.” ’
Wherever the people turn to find someone to take the responsibility of leadership, those called on will find any excuse to decline. They will claim not to be qualified.
‘You have clothing.’ That is ‘you wear the kind of clothes which indicate that you are of leadership potential’, that is, those of the elder or favoured brother or of the more sophisticated. Or it may suggest that so low have things become that fine clothes are themselves to be seen as a sufficient recommendation for leadership. They indicate that at least this man has something to distinguish him, some measure of success, a sad way of selecting a leader but necessary because there is no other.
‘This ruin’. They recognise the state that things have come to. The man is to rule over a ruin.
The reply, a mere excuse, is that he does not have the qualifications or resources for the task. He is no better than anyone else. It is not his position to make things right, ‘to heal’. Nor does he have the resources to give the people what they need. He has no bread or clothing to dispense.
Thus all confidence in themselves will be lost. Their proud boasting will be no more. Alternately the reference to ‘neither bread nor clothing’ may have in mind conditions of extreme poverty where he himself is destitute.
Ruin is coming on Jerusalem and Judah, and all because they have turned away from Yahweh, a condition revealed by their words (their tongue) and their behaviour. They continually speak and act in such a way as to provoke Yahweh in His glory, and judgment must necessarily follow.
‘The eyes of His glory.’ His full glory may not yet have been revealed (2.21) but His eyes see them, and they are eyes which look out from the glory of what He is. Thus His ‘glorious’ eyes are provoked.
The faces and behaviour of the people give them away completely. They do not even try to hide it. They have sinned so much that they openly reveal what they are by the evil and selfish look stamped on their faces, a look which they then carry out into practise, just as Sodom had, and they are simply bringing woe on themselves, and rewarding themselves with evil. The principle established here is that it is the nature of society with weak leadership to disintegrate towards evil and selfishness. And this is what has come on them because of their failure to look constantly to God. Men tend to get the leadership that they deserve.
What Men Sow They Will Reap - A Wisdom Song (3.9b-11).
Isaiah comes in with a further interjection (compare 2.5; 2.22), this time concerning the righteous and the wicked. He declares woes on the wicked and blessing on the righteous. He proclaims woe on his people because they have brought their own evil on themselves, and then makes a general contrasting statement about the righteous and the wicked. Both have brought on themselves what they will receive. It will in the end be well with the righteous because they will eat the fruit of their behaviour, it will be woe to the wicked, and ill with them, because what they deserve from their behaviour will be done to them.
The comment on the righteous was necessary. He has been proclaiming continual doom. It was therefore essential to assure the righteous that God would not overlook them. In one way or another in the midst of judgment God would be their stay.
The Failure Of The Leaders of the People (3.12-15).
Isaiah now bemoans the lack of leadership that will have brought God’s people to their situation, continuing the theme that the people have no one to rely on. They are oppressed by ‘children’ and ruled by ‘women’, people who are immature and callous and weak. That is why the people are in their present state, because those who should set them right have rather caused them to err. The ‘ways of their paths’ have been swallowed up. This may mean that the course they have taken has led to their judgment, or alternately that the signposts they should have been given have instead been taken away.
It is open to question whether ‘women’ should be taken figuratively or literally. If the former it is the derogatory ‘they are a lot of women’, if the latter it refers to women manipulating their menfolk. Compare the parallel in verse 4.
But Yahweh has now taken up His stance to judge the peoples, He will therefore enter into judgment with these elders and princes who have led them astray. The elders are the civic leaders, the princes, the executive. He will point out to them that they have ‘eaten up the vineyard’ (literally ‘burned’ and therefore ‘laid bare’) which is Israel, have fleeced the poor and made themselves rich at their expense, and have thus crushed them and ‘ground’ their faces so as to produce benefits for themselves. It is a disgraceful thing when politicians are corrupt and greedy, and especially when the leaders of God’s people utilise their position to make themselves rich at the expense of others.
Note that Israel is here God’s vineyard. Compare 5.1-7. Jesus had people such as this in mind when He spoke of the wicked husbandmen over the vineyard in Mark 12.1-11.
‘Yahweh stands up to plead, and stands to judge the peoples.’ For a similar picture of Yahweh calling the whole earth together so that He may judge His people see Psalm 50.
The Failure of Their Wives (3.16-4.1).
Having described what will come on the men God now turns to the women, for they are no better.
These verses can be analysed as follows:
In ‘a’ we have a vividly descriptive picture of women walking in vanity, and in the parallel their desperation for a man to bear their children when their calamity comes. In ‘b’ the Lord will smite them with a scab, and remove their glorious clothes from them, and in the parallel will be rottenness and baldness and branding and they will be clothed with sackcloth. And in c and d we have a listing of all that they treasure, which subsequently they will lose.
Because Of Their Vanity, And The Behaviour That It Results In the Women Will Lose Their Treasured Possessions (3.16-24).
3.16 ‘Moreover Yahweh said,
It is not only the leaders of the people who are failing them, but their wives as well. With their arrogant attitudes and frivolous and mincing ways they are bringing dishonour on God. They could have been doing so much good but they are mainly taken up with themselves, and must take their share of the blame for the condition of the nation. The description of women at the height of fashion is vivid and is a warning to any age.
Note how the aim of the women is all levelled at drawing attention to themselves. The tinkling with the feet is caused by their fashion accessories, by their ankle chains; with the mincing being the result of the chains joining both legs and causing short steps. The wanton eyes, the flirting, is a feature of such women, always seeking to entrap men, even if only for ‘fun’. This is forever God’s condemnation on such overall behaviour, especially while others go in need.
So while the men are taken up with business (2.7a), and war (2.7b), with fine ships (2.16a) and beautiful works of art (2.16b), the women are taken up with fashion, attention seeking and flirting. Their land is filled with idols!
And because they glorify their beauty and reveal their wantonness the sovereign Lord will smite them with scabs and expose their shame. The punishment will fit the crime. It is the idea that is prominent not the literal execution.
‘In that day.’ That is the day when Yahweh acts whenever it is. Sometimes it refers to local action (3.7) and sometimes to God’s final day of action (2.11) depending on context. The prophets saw all God’s judgments as in the end one, both the more localised and the final.
So ‘the sovereign Lord’ will act against all the excessive refinements of spoiled and pampered women. This is not specifically the condemnation of each item but of the whole picture in what it represents. They were arrogant and self-seeking, and lolled in luxury while there was poverty and suffering all around them. They were vain, proud, arrogant, selfish and spendthrift. But it will return on their own heads. Both old age and invasion will wreak their havoc. Instead of sweet spices, disgusting smells; instead of beautiful girdles, chafing ropes; instead of glorious hair, baldness; instead of corsets, signs of mourning; instead of beauty they will be branded.
The transitoriness of it all is being brought out. There is no guarantee that any of it will last. The positive side is well brought out by the New Testament in 1 Timothy 2.9-10; 1 Peter 3.1-5; Titus 2.5. God says, ‘Do not labour for what perishes, but for that which endures to eternal life’ (John 6.27).
Isaiah no doubt obtained his detailed information from his womenfolk and not all the translations are certain. Some words are rare, referring to fashion accessories of the day, and have had to be guessed at. But the total picture is not affected.
They Will Also Lose Their Menfolk (3.25-4.1).
These women will also lose their menfolk in the troubles that are coming, so that they will have no one to protect them and provide them with their luxuries. How different things would have seemed if they had only trusted in Yahweh.
The switch in persons and subject is common in Hebrew writings. From speaking of the women he now speaks to them, and then about their ‘mother’ Zion, and then again about them, all in three sentences.
Part of the consequence of their way of living and of their deliberately ignoring His instruction, is that not only will they suffer themselves as in 3.24, but they will also lose their men, those who are their ‘might’, their strength and protection. Thus will the gates of Zion mourn. The gates, where there would usually be an open space, probably the only one in the town as houses crowded in on each other, (such cities were rarely the result of planning), were the place to which people went for public and communal activity. So they will weep together there, languishing on the ground (compare 47.1).
‘Seven women.’ Seven is the number of divine completeness and perfection. Here the idea is ironic. Such a group of women will plead with one man to give them his name, even though they promise that they will not be financially dependent on him. There will be so few men that it will be the only way that they can achieve desired fulfilment. Not to be married was seen as a reproach and a shameful thing.
So the passage (3.1-4.1) ends as it began with those who have sinned having no one to look to because they have forsaken Yahweh, the men are leaderless and oppressed, the women destitute and husbandless. But while in one sense it is His doing, it is quite apparent that they have brought it on themselves, assisted by the behaviour of those who are set over them.
Chapter 4.2-6 The Restoration.
It is important to recognise here that Isaiah is looking forward and seeing the whole future as one. He is not just referring to the long distant future, but to the whole future stretching into time. He sees imminent judgment as coming, judgment which is not always necessarily to be seen as final judgment, although often including that idea, for it is a precursor to it. And he recognises that inevitably one day God’s final judgment will come, followed by restoration for His own, without any idea of how long that too will take or how it will be accomplished and in what stages.
It is thus wrong to refer all the judgments the prophets foresaw to the distant future as though they were specifically only to happen in the end days. The prophets saw near and far as though the future was composed of distant peaks, mountain after mountain rising up one after the other, going far into the distance with no awareness of what lay between them. There was no time scale, only an awareness of what God was going to do through the time to come, and indeed must do in accordance with His promises. We look back and divide up, and in so doing often go too far. They looked forward to the working of God, and saw it all as one large whole stretching before them.
We must ever remember that the main purpose of prophecy was not to foretell the future so that the events could be marked off, but to proclaim what Yahweh was going to do with the future, in judgment and deliverance. So chapter 3 fits happily between chapters 2 and 4 without necessarily indicating the same period of time, and indeed 2.2-4 can cover what we might call a whole dispensation.
This adequately explains many so called difficulties, difficulties such as the immediate judgments on Tyre and Babylon, and their resultant destructions which occurred centuries later (Isaiah 13.17-18 with 19-22; Ezekiel 26.7-12 with 26.3-4, 14), being seen as one, and why they could all be included in one prophecy. He saw the picture as a whole.
Here, having looked at the coming judgment of God’s people, Isaiah follows it with the description of further refining judgements (4.3), followed by final restoration and the everlasting kingdom, without necessarily implying that the two are close timewise. (He did not know whether they were or not).
In ‘a’ we have the picture of a glorious future in a fruitful land, while the Branch of Yahweh may well refer to the ‘hoped for’ king, and the people who will spring from Him, and in the parallel a picture of total protection from all forms of trouble. In ‘b’ the people will now all be truly set apart in true holiness, and in the parallel will thus enjoy the visible signs of the presence of Yahweh, and will be under His wedding canopy. In ‘c’ the Lord will have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and in the parallel will have purged the blood of Jerusalem from its midst, by the spirit of judgment and by the spirit of burning.
The Time Of Restoration (4.2-6).
Isaiah now points forward to the time of restoration which will follow His judgments. For Yahweh’s whole purpose is to produce for Himself a people holy to Him. Its fulfilment lay in ‘the Israel of God’ which would one day spring from the old Israel (Galatians 6.16).
‘In that day.’ This is a vague connecting time reference meaning a time when God is going to act. It indicates that what is to happen will spring out of what has been described, it will spring from God’s activity some time in the future. In other words following Israel’s low point God will act to improve the situation. Chapter 3 had continual reference to Israel from that time onwards, and ‘in that day’ is simply bringing out that God will not finally leave things like that. He will not for ever leave His people helpless.
Many interpret this ‘branch or shoot of Yahweh’ as referring to the flourishing of the vegetation and the fruit of the land once the judgment in chapter 3 has taken place and those who remain are left in the land, and thus a parallel to the second part of the verse. They see this as what is intended by ‘the sprouting of Yahweh’ (compare its use in 61.11). Compare the desert blossoming like a rose in 35.1 and see 32.15-18 where the pouring out of the Spirit like rain is similarly referred to the fruitfulness of the land, where ‘the fruitful field’ will ‘become a forest’. Thus, they say, God will reveal through the luxurious growth in the land His great favour and graciousness to His own. This it is suggested is especially so in the light of the fact that there has as yet been no reference to the coming king. Had there been we might well have seen it as referring to Him as in Jeremiah 23.5; 33.15; Zechariah 3.8; 6.12.
The whole verse certainly does have the revival of nature in mind, but along with it we should undoubtedly see the reviving of men’s hearts. Compare 32.15-18 with 44.1-5; 61.11. Thus we may see in this description of ‘the sprouting of Yahweh’ the seeds of the idea of the new birth, the regeneration of His people. Compare 55.10, ‘making it bring to birth and bud’ (the particular mood of the verb ‘bring to birth’ almost always means literal birth). The result being that not only the land but also the people are transformed, for they are ‘called holy’ (verse 3). This would certainly tie in with the teaching of John the Baptiser about the coming Great Harvest (Matthew 3.7-12).
However, it may well be that the terminology of ‘the Branch’ as referring to the coming king was already in use (compare 11.1-2) and was already current in the hopes of the people as referring to the hoped for future king, as they looked forward into their future, in which case we may also include that here. For they looked to a king like David who would rule over them wisely and make them triumphant over their enemies and set them high above the nations of the world (Psalm 2), and such a king would elsewhere be likened to the effects of the falling down of rain (Psalm 72.6). Thus we may well see ‘the Branch of Yahweh’ here as representing such a king, as part of God’s overall pouring out of blessing, especially so in the light of the fact that one of Isaiah’s later themes is the failure of the house of David and the raising of a new and glorious king under Yahweh Who will rule triumphantly for ever.
This would then explain how the Davidic king is later seen as the Branch (Shoot), (Jeremiah 23.5; 33.15; compare ‘the true Vine’ of which His people are the branches - John 15.1-6) once the revelation about Him has been made clear. See 11.1, although the word used for ‘Shoot’ there is not the same. The root used here is also found in 61.11; Genesis 19.25; Psalm 65.10; Ezekiel 16.7; 17.9, 10; Hosea 8.7. Thus the ‘sprouting of Yahweh’, which is referring to His renewed people, later certainly becomes especially identified with the One Who sums up His people in Himself, the coming great Davidic king (Jeremiah 23.5; 33.15; Zechariah 3.8; 6.12), Who is Himself the representative of His people. And we may therefore see this ‘Shoot of Yahweh’ as being both the coming king and the regenerated people over whom He will reign. We can compare how the true Israel as the great servant of Yahweh (42.1-4; 49.1-6) is finally seen as summed up in the One Who is the Suffering Servant (50.4-9; 52.13-53.12) Who Himself bears their sin. It thus has in mind the fruitful reign of Christ over His people in this age, and the eternal blessing in the age to come.
For the fact is that the ‘shoot’ here was regarded as a messianic reference as early as the Targums, the Aramaic interpretive translation of the Old Testament that grew up after the Babylonian exile and possibly began during it. The Targums arose as a result of the fact that Aramaic became the language of the people so that the reading of the Hebrew text needed to be supplemented with Aramaic explanatory material, which gradually became formalised and was later committed to writing. The earliest extant written Targumic material is from 2nd century BC (from Qumran). So messianic ideas were early seen as included here when the Targums were written.
It is noteworthy that there is at this stage no mention of returning from exile. That is not yet in view. The idea is rather of the remnant remaining after a massively destructive invasion. Once God has judged and refined His people through judgment and fire, those remaining will be called ‘holy’ to Yahweh. The language is apocalyptic. The thought is that they will not only be called ‘holy’ (set apart to God) but will be accepted by God as holy (made so that they are seen as worthy of that separation to God). So the basic pattern is simple. There will be refining judgment, resulting in a holy remnant remaining, who are purified and cleansed from sin and made acceptable to God through His Spirit.
The vision ties in with 2.2-4. The people of God, refined and purified through God’s judgments, will be sheltered by God’s heavenly tabernacle (see verses 5-6). God will have a pure people for Himself. The aim is therefore to describe God’s method of redeeming for Himself a true people for eternity. What will be left when God’s judgmental and refining work is over will be that true people.
Isaiah, who like all the prophets was limited by his understanding that the future must lie in this world, even though new and recreated (66.22), is depicting the final result in terms that his hearers can appreciate. But the New Testament reveals its deeper significance. The sovereign Lord will separate for Himself a new Israel (Romans 11; Galatians 3.7, 29; 6.16; Ephesians 2.19-20 with 12; James 1.1; 1 Peter 1.1; Revelation 7.4-8; 14.1) who will have their part in the heavenly Jerusalem (Galatians 4.26; Hebrews 12.22) once those who are unworthy have been rejected (Romans 11.17, 20). And the names of those who are His true people will be written in heaven (Luke 10.20). This will follow God’s judgments on the rejected part of the old Israel through judgment and burning, which will root out and wash away the filthiness (dung, vomit, that which disgusts) and purge the bloodguiltiness (1.15, 21), resulting in the new Israel made up of those still part of (the faithful in Israel), or grafted into (the saved nations), the olive tree (Romans 11.16-17).
‘He who is left in Zion, and he who remains in Jerusalem, each will be called holy.’ The idea is that what God had aimed at in Exodus 19.6 will be achieved. This could only literally happen in the everlasting kingdom unless we are to adulterate the meaning of ‘holy’. They are not so in any so-called millennial kingdom, for even to those who believe in such a kingdom that fails in the end. Nor will earthly Israel ever be so. They were called to be a ‘holy nation’ (Exodus 19.6), but they failed. So God will now raise up His own holy nation, consisting of holy individuals, each separated to God and endued with His holiness. They will be truly holy. This is the ultimate, not an intermediate stage.
‘Even everyone who is written among the living in Jerusalem.’ In those days cities had their lists of citizens which contained the names of all alive in the city. When they died their names would be expunged. That God has such a list of His own comes out regularly (Psalm 69.28; Daniel 12.1; Malachi 3.16; Luke 10.20; Philippians 4.3; Revelation 3.5; 13.8; 17.8; 20.15). Those whose names God has recorded are the ones who will be made holy. They will be the ones who will be in the new Jerusalem.
‘When the Lord shall have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from its midst.’ A thorough washing and purging is necessary. As it is wrought by the Spirit of judgment and burning it clearly includes the destruction of the wicked as well as the purifying of the righteous. It is not the same as 1.16, although we need not doubt the Spirit’s work of cleansing on all those who respond to God.
The filth of the daughters of Zion referred to here has been described in 3.16-24 (note especially the rottenness instead of sweetness in verse 24) demonstrating that God does not treat such behaviour lightly. But it is the arrogance and total selfishness and superficiality that is being rebuked rather than the specific details referred to, although the latter were symbolic of the former. The men are seen as blood guilty (1.15, 21). Their sins are hatred, violence and a determination to get what they can at any cost.
‘By the spirit of judgment and by the spirit of burning.’ This could refer to a ‘wind’ of judgment from God seen as blowing over Jerusalem, bringing judgment and wafting the flames. Or it could refer to the Spirit of God so active. In view of the purifying nature of the activity, and its purpose, it is probably better to see a reference to the Spirit of God, depicting God’s personal activity in the events. It is the action of the sovereign Lord. The difference between ‘spirit’ and ‘Spirit’ in such contexts is marginal. Both are depicting the direct activity of God.
The word used here for ‘dwellingplace’ regularly refers to God’s heavenly dwellingplace or the ‘foundation’ of His throne (Psalm 33.14; 89.14; 97.2; Isaiah 18.4; 1 Kings 8.39, 43, 49; 2 Chronicles 6.30, 33, 39) and only rarely to the earthly temple as God’s dwellingplace (1 Kings 8.13; 2 Chronicles 6.2; Daniel 8.11). Thus there is a heavenly air about it. ‘Her assemblies’ are those who gather there, His purified people (compare 4.2-4; Revelation 14.1-5).
He ‘creates’ over it. The word is only used of God creating, and the verb never takes an object. Thus it appears to signify creation out of nothing. It is used of God’s activity in producing something new that only He can produce (compare Genesis 1.1, 21, 27).
The cloud by day and fire by night are reminiscent of God’s presence as revealed with His people in the wilderness journey where He acted in this way as guide and protector (Exodus 13.21-22 and often). Thus Yahweh will be personally present with His people in His heavenly dwellingplace as He was with His people of old when He redeemed them from Egypt and made His covenant with them.
‘Over all the glory a canopy.’ Over His revealed glory will be a ‘canopy’, a chuppa. This is the name used for the wedding canopy under which the bride and groom sat during the wedding feast. This would instantly spring to the mind of the hearer when he heard the word. Yahweh is here seen as ‘married’ to His people through the covenant (compare 54.5; 62.5). They do not have to go desperately seeking a husband like the women in 4.1, for Yahweh is their husband and lord.
There will also be a pavilion to provide protection from heat, rain and storm, that is from trials and troubles and the vicissitudes of life. Thus will God watch over His people in the everlasting kingdom.
The word for ‘pavilion’ when connected with Yahweh is used of a place of divine mystery and protection, a place where He and His own are secreted in mystery and safety, away from where men can interfere (Psalm 18.11; 31.20). It is regularly used of temporary booths in which men found shelter (1.8), especially at the Feast of Booths (or Tabernacles). Its whole idea is that of protection.
The picture behind this chapter is glorious. It describes those who are the sprouting of Yahweh, His true people, made beautiful and glorious; gives a guarantee to them of full provision for all their needs; describes their being accepted by God as made holy; declares that all sin will have been washed away; and guarantees the continual presence of God with them in cloud and fire; and declares that over all the glory will be a ‘chuppa’, a wedding canopy, signifying the closest possible relationship with God. And this accompanied by full protection from all that could harm them. And all possibly under the tender rule of ‘the Shoot of Yahweh’.
While it is in the end a picture of the final state the principle is continuous. We need not doubt that it includes the present state, for those who have come under the Kingly Rule of God have thereby already become citizens of Heaven (Philippians 3.20; Ephesians 2.6) and are under His special protection. They are already in the Kingdom of His Beloved Son (Colossians 1.13). He is the Vine and we are the branches.
Chapter 5 The Sinful Condition of His People and Coming Judgment.
This chapter takes us back to chapter 1.2-15, 21-23; 3.1-12; 3.16-4.1 and on to chapter 6. It is a penetrating analysis of the sins of Israel, and explains why God must deal with them severely. It prepares us for the revelation to Isaiah in chapter 6 of his own deep sinfulness, which he shares with his people. But it is also a warning to us that God does not treat sin lightly.
It commences with the description of God’s supposed people as His fruitless vineyard who have avoided all His ministrations. And it declares on them six woes, which will then lead on to Him bringing distant nations from afar against them.
God’s Fruitless Vineyard (5.1-7).
In the first few verses we find a song, which was possibly sung by Isaiah at the celebration of the vintage harvest, as he gathered with men who were singing vintage songs at a wine festival, and sang a song of his own compilation. As Isaiah began his song it would at first appear to them to be an innocuous general love song, listened to appreciatively by all, and especially as it became sad, until it finally delivered to them a devastating message. We can imagine the hearers first going along with the song, then sympathising with the young man described, and finally to their horror being brought face to face with the fact that it is spoken against themselves. For the whole compare Jeremiah 2.21.
We can analyse the song and its interpretation as follows:
In ‘a’ we have the picture of the wellbeloved’s vineyard, and in the parallel we are told that Yahweh is the wellbeloved, and that the vineyard is the house of Israel and the men of Judah. In ‘b’ we have the careful preparations put in motion by the wellbeloved, and in the parallel the reversal of them. In ‘c’ we see his hopes for it, and in the parallel the failure of those hopes. And in ‘d’ and parallel comes the call to consider the rightness of the situation.
The Song of the Vineyard.
5.1-2 ‘Let me sing concerning my well-beloved a song for my beloved touching his vineyard.
We see here Isaiah singing to the people in a way that draws their attention. It is often wise in witnessing to draw men’s attention and win their sympathy in a general way concerning things that they are interested in, before presenting our message, and that was what Isaiah was doing here. This may well have occurred at the vintage festival, and Isaiah begins seemingly innocuously with what appears to be a general love ballad, until it suddenly produces a sting in its tail. In the ballad the young woman is speaking of her wellbeloved and intends to sing him a song about his vineyard.
The song is about the work and labour involved in establishing the vineyard. First a fruitful hill was sought out, then it had to be dug and cleared of stones, then he planted in it the choicest vine, built a watchtower, made a vat ready for receiving the produce, and then waited for the harvest. All the hearers would be listening and smiling. They had most of them done it themselves. And then comes the crunch line. It produced nothing but wild, evil-smelling grapes! The whole effort had been fruitless. The final result was devastating.
‘A very fruitful hill.’ Literally ‘a horn, son of oil’. The horn here represents ‘a peak’. ‘Son of oil’ represents one which will produce much olive oil and is thus fruitful.
Judgment On The Vineyard.
The song is now applied, and sympathy sought for the young man. What a shame that after all his hard work he had nothing to show for it! All his listeners would be nodding sympathetically. But then suddenly in verse 7 he reveals that it is Yahweh Himself Who is the beloved, it is He Who is speaking through Isaiah. The song was a parable. The vineyard was Israel (verse 7), and the One Who laboured on it Yahweh Himself. And He asks them to judge for themselves whether He could have done any more for His vineyard than He had done, knowing that the answer could only be ‘No’. Then He challenges them as to why it has produced useless grapes. Let them pass judgment on themselves.
We may consider that the fruitful hill was Canaan, the gathering out of the stones referred to the defeating of the inhabitants of the land with the help of Yahweh, the choicest vine was Israel itself, the watchtower was Yahweh’s watch over His people, the winevat His expectations of them (compare Psalm 80.8-18). On the other hand it may only be intended to be a picture of God’s total care and expenditure of effort on behalf of His people. Either way the vineyard, Israel, should have produced choice fruit, but all that had resulted was ‘stinking fruit’, inedible, useless grapes, depicting the present unacceptable condition of the people of Judah. No wonder that He was dissatisfied.
‘What could have been done more?’ Literally, ‘what more to do?’ There was nothing more. All had to admit that all that was divinely possible had been done.
‘I looked.’ That is, waited confidently and expectantly, and inspected it often in the expectation of choice fruit.
The picture is intended to be dramatic. All would recognise that the difference between a vine that produced choice grapes and one that produced useless fruit was the direct result of the care heaped on it, and yet here was a vine that had been totally and lovingly cared for, and yet had produced bad fruit as though no care had been lavished on it. It was an incredible anomaly. As with the example in 1.3 it was unnatural.
Then follows the prophetic judgment.
The total desolation of the vineyard is now promised. Because it only produced wild stinking grapes it will be returned to its wilderness state as would be suitable for ground that only bore wild grapes. A place that can only produce wild grapes deserves to be a wilderness. All that has been put into it will be destroyed or removed. All its protection will be torn away. It will be desolated and receive no further attention. It will become a place of briars and thorns, a wild place. It will enjoy no life-giving rain. It will be returned to what it was. God will return His people to bondage and to captivity, to poverty and to spiritual barrenness. There will be no more blessings of the Spirit (Isaiah 32.15).
The application of the parable is confirmed. Note that Israel and Judah are still seen together as His people, they are all part of total Israel. They all still came within the ambit of God’s covenant, and were His vineyard and His choice planting in which He had once delighted. They would have been welcomed by Him if they had responded to the covenant, but they had rebelled against it. That was why the northern kingdom languished and would soon be under foreign rulers. That was why Judah was now under sentence. For God looked on and sought to find justice being applied by His people according to His covenant, but instead He found oppression everywhere. He looked to find a state of righteousness, of covenant fulfilment, of right relations, but all He heard was the cry of the oppressed and the needy. He had no alternative but judgment.
There is a play on words here. Justice is mishpat, oppression (bloodshed) is mishpach, righteousness is tsethaqa, a cry is tsa‘aqa. The words sound very similar, but the difference spelled tragedy. The good fruit God looked for was justice (‘mishpat’ - the righting of wrongs) but all He found was oppression (‘mishpach’ - the inflicting of wrongs), He sought righteousness (‘tsethaqa’ - right relationships and behaviour - compare 60.21; 61.3) but all He found was a cry resulting from their violence (‘tsa‘aqa a cry resulting from wrong relationships and behaviour).
We should note in the presentation of the song the tender way in which Yahweh is thought of as ‘the Beloved’. This can be compared with the approach of Hosea (e.g. 2.14). God wanted His people to love Him as well as being in awe of Him (Deuteronomy 6.5). But they had spurned His love by their behaviour.
Finally there is a thought for ourselves. What kind of fruit are we producing in our own lives. Are we truly fruitful, or are we just producing wild grapes? We cannot justifiably call Him ‘our Beloved’ if our lives do not produce the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22).
The Six Woes of God (5.8-30).
A series of woes are now declared on the people of Israel because of their various sins. The vineyard had produced smelly grapes, now woe must come on it. They are a warning that God sees the ways of all men, whether in business, in pleasure-seeking, in their thinking or in their attitudes, and will surely call them all to account. Woes in Scripture can be divided into two kinds, those which express God’s determination to act in judgment, and those which represent sad events for people in the course of history (e.g. Matthew 24.19). These six woes are of the first kind.
The woes with their aftermath can be analysed as follows:
In ‘a’ the people who try to take possession of the land and exalt themselves will in the parallel be humbled, and their land will be filled with darkness and distress. In ‘b’ the heavy drinkers will be the same in the parallel, in both cases resulting in humiliation and desolation. Note how in both cases the words end with a reference to Yahweh of hosts and the Holy One of Israel. ‘C’ refers to those who ‘draw sin with cart-ropes’, but are blasphemous in their utterances, exulting in their sins, while in the parallel are those who are self-opinionated and self-conceited. In ‘d’ we have the centre of all sin, the turning of good into evil, and light into darkness.
The First Woe (5.8-10).
The picture here is of the man of influence and wealth taking over surrounding land by fair means or foul, and adding it to his own, and then turning his house into a Great House by adding buildings (compare Micah 2.2, 4, 9). As a result, instead of enjoying covenant fellowship with his close neighbours he dwells in solitary splendour, for all his one-time neighbours have been expelled. They would then have had to become servants or even bondmen. Their ‘glory’ has been taken away for ever (Micah 2.9).
This was directly contrary to what Israel was all about. When the land was originally allocated as God’s gift to His people (Leviticus 25.2) the intention was that each man should have his own piece of land in perpetuity. All were to be free men. And although the land may have to be mortgaged in hard times, always in the end it was to revert to its original owner. (See Leviticus 25.13, 23-24; Numbers 27.1-11; 36.1-12; Ruth 4.1-4). But now unreasonable influence, unfair means and dishonest pressure were being exerted by powerful men to acquire and permanently possess such land, and permanently subject their fellow Israelites to servitude. God’s covenant was being overturned, and His people degraded. And we need not doubt that the fifty year rule was being set aside. God’s will was being thwarted.
The gradual accumulation of wealth is never in itself condemned, unless it interferes with a man’s responsiveness to God. But doing so at the expense of others and especially when it was in direct disobedience to God’s will, is constantly condemned.
God’s concern about this is a reminder that God watches over all men’s business dealings, whether corrupt or just purely greedy, and will call men to account for them. It will be no good in that day saying, ‘it was business’. God will reply, ‘no, it was gross iniquity’.
‘In my ears, the ears of Yahweh of hosts, of a truth, many houses will be desolate, even great and fair, without inhabitant.’ ‘In my ears’ may refer back to verse 7 bringing out again that the cries of the oppressed reach His ears. Or it may refer to the very cry of the fields at the mistreatment of their owners (compare Genesis 4.10) as reaching His ears. Either way the cries of distress reach His ears, and they are the ears of Yahweh of hosts. (The Hebrew is literally, ‘In my ears Yahweh of hosts’). Thus the great and fair houses that have resulted will assuredly be desolated, their inhabitants removed, their widespread fields yielding but a pittance. As they have done to others, so will be done to them.
‘For ten acres of vineyard will yield one bath, and a homer of seed will yield but an ephah.’ An ‘acre’ was literally ‘a yoke’, the amount that could be ploughed by a yoke of oxen in one day. Thus ten such large areas will produce only one bath (about twenty seven litres or six gallons). We are possibly to see in this that the expectation was that one acre would normally produce a bath. An ephah is a dry measure and is the tenth part of a homer (Exodus 16.36). Thus again what is sown produces only one tenth. Thus all activity in the fields will only produce a small proportion of what should have been produced.
The Second Woe (5.11-17).
The first woe was against greed and avarice, the second is against over excess in pleasure seeking. It was one of the dangers, especially of those in high positions, that they could leave their responsibilities to others while they indulged themselves. These drank day and night and spent their time in no doubt ribald and sensual musical entertainment (compare 22.13; 28.1, 8; Hosea 7.5; Amos 6.5-6). Overindulgence in music and dancing can be as intoxicating as overindulgence in drink.
These were men who could have made a great difference in society, but instead they were saturated with fleshly indulgence. Their whole thoughts were on pleasure, and, in contrast, they did not take regard to the work of Yahweh, which should have been their main aim and responsibility. They were too taken up with themselves and their delights. Many today are similar. All thoughts of God and His requirements are dismissed by indulgence in music, drink, sport and drugs.
‘They do not regard the work of Yahweh, nor have they considered the operation of His hands.’ God and His ways are dismissed. For the ‘work (po‘al) of Yahweh’ see Deuteronomy 32.4 where the stress is on His faithful and righteous judicial work; Job 36.24 where the stress is on his general government of the universe; Psalm 44.1 where the stress is on His delivering power; Psalm 64.9-10 where the stress is on His judgments. Thus these men do not take note of what He has done, and what He is doing, because they are saturated with music and wine and pleasure.
The ‘operation (work - ma‘aseh) of His hands’ can describe His work of judgment (10.12; 29.3); His miraculous works (Exodus 34.10); His work of creation (Psalms 8.3, 6; 19.1); and His overruling of creation (Psalm 92.4-5). Thus these men ignore His activity in the world. They are too pleasure ridden to consider it, or even notice it, and thus fail to fulfil God’s demands. But the consequences of this will soon come on them.
And because these men and their compatriots had failed to ‘know’ God Israel would suffer (or had suffered). They would find themselves captive, whether in exile or in their own land, subjected to the authority of outsiders.
It is constantly important to recognise that Hebrew only has two tenses, (although seven conjugations) the direct and indirect, the complete and incomplete. They were more concerned with the completeness and incompleteness of actions than with chronology. Thus the use of the perfect tense does not always depict past action, but rather action seen as completed whether past or future.
Here it may simply be a way of expressing the completeness and certainty of what God would do in the future, (often erroneously called ‘the prophetic perfect’) rather than indicating that it was in the past. It is saying that it is a certain and sure judgment that either has or will assuredly soon come on them in devastating completeness. Alternatively it may be seen as a comment added later by the prophet declaring the fulfilment of God’s verdict on their behaviour. But however we see it, it is depicting the consequence of their behaviour.
So through their ‘lack of knowledge’ of God, because they had failed to know and observe His ways, they are or were destined for captivity. And Israel, the northern kingdom, would indeed go into captivity and exile in 722 BC, even while Isaiah was still alive, their honourable men and their people chained and pleading for food and water. And Judah also would be invaded and made desolate, with captivity and exile for them also a certain but more distant prospect, unless they repented. Then would the pleasure ridden leaders, and the pleasure ridden people, instead of being able to overindulge themselves, be famished and thirst-ridden, and all because they had failed to know Yahweh and acknowledge and trust Him.
But worse. The grave would open its mouth to them in its own great thirst, a mouth gaping and wide open, and it would swallow up huge numbers of them. And into it would go their glory, and their pomp, and those who ‘rejoiced’ and behaved hilariously in their wild parties and excesses. ‘Their glory’ may indicate their important men in their grandeur and splendour, or the whole of what they gloried in, including paradoxically their glorying in the cult of Yahweh (contrast 4.2).
Note how the punishment is made to fit the crime. Because they overindulged their ‘thirst’, they themselves would thirst, and a thirsty grave will swallow them. What men sow they will reap. We may not fear captivity in our day, but the grave awaits us all.
‘And the mean man is bowed down, and the great man is humbled, and the eyes of the lofty are humbled.’ The result will be total humiliation for all, both poor and wealthy, both insignificant and grand, and even for the royal house itself. Men lowered their eyes before the great, but even those who are so lofty that they do not need to lower the eyes will find that they are made to do so by what will come on them.
‘Sheol’ - the unseen shadowy world of the dead, unknown and unknowable. The grave and what lay beyond it. It was seen as a land of shadows, of grave-like creatures, where there is no joy or reality. There was then no concept of a satisfying afterlife.
In contrast with the humbling of rebellious man will be the exaltation of Yahweh. His righteous acts and judgments will result in the exaltation of His name, and all creation will declare the rightness of what He has done. He will be revealed as ‘the Holy One’, the ‘Set Apart One’, set apart by His righteousness. The word ‘holy’ means that which has been set apart for a sacred purpose (so paradoxically the cult prostitutes were called ‘holy ones’ by those who followed the cult) thus God as the Holy One is the One essentially set apart in His uniqueness. And that uniqueness is here declared to consist in His total righteousness, His total moral purity, rightness, and goodness. He is the essence of all that is right, and true, and wholesome, and good.
The words that follow may be seen in various ways. Either as wholly depicting the glorious future of His own when He achieves His final triumph, and also welcomes ‘strangers’. Or as a total picture of the final desert of the rebellious. Or as a contrast the one with the other.
In the first interpretation it is saying that so great will be the prosperity of His people that not only will they feed in their own pasture, in what God has given them, and grow fat in the best sense (compare Micah 2.12; Jeremiah 31.10), but there will be so much to spare that aliens and wanderers will be able to feast on it too. There was certainly a literal fulfilment of this in the shorter term in periods during the pre-Christian period when Israel comparatively greatly prospered, and even moreso spiritually in the days of the early church, but its greater, more figurative, fulfilment awaits that day when we feast with Him before the throne (John 14.2; Revelation 7.16-17).
Alternately the thought may be that all that once belonged to those wealthy, condemned Israelites, will from this time on merely be pasture for lambs, who will be able to wander anywhere and graze among the ruins of what is left, while aliens and strangers will feed in the waste places which were once their prosperous estates. It could thus be depicting that they have lost everything.
Or it may be that we are to see the reference to the lambs as referring to the blessing on the remnant, while the second part of the verse refers to the judgment on the rebellious as bringing blessing to ‘strangers’ because the land becomes available to tramps. In view of the fact that Scripture regularly depicts God’s own true people as sheep or lambs this may seem the most probable interpretation. Out of the devastations of judgment will come blessing for the righteous, who will feast on God’s pasture, while what the rebellious gloried in will become a waste place, but God will then turn this to the benefit of aliens who will gain from what the rebellious have lost. Thus will come triumph out of disaster.
The Third Woe (5.18-19).
So great is the enthusiasm of the people for sin that they draw it along with them in great quantity. They lasso it and make it follow them in their ways. But the ropes are ropes of emptiness and deceit, of vainness and uselessness, of folly. They can only bode ill for them. Significant in this is the deliberate nature of it all. This is not sinning through weakness and frailty, it is deliberate indulgence in sin. They do it, not because they cannot help it, but because they want to do it.
And indeed so great is their sin that they mock God. They say, if God is going to act why does He not hurry up? They are waiting, they say. Why does He not get on with it? Let Him get on with it quickly so that they may see it. And they add that if He wants to advise them, let Him do so plainly and in such a way that they know that it is from Him. Let Him produce another Sinai. Man always thinks he knows what God should do.
It is not that they want Him to or expect Him to. (Although the same request might have been made in a godly fashion, compare Revelation 6.10). In their hearts they are denying the possibility (compare Jeremiah 17.15; Zephaniah 1.12; Psalm 10.3-6). They have no real expectation. The very blasphemy is drawn out by their use of the title ‘the Holy One of Israel’. They are treating commonly and carelessly what is most holy.
So does sin grow. It began with greed and avarice (the first woe), it went on to selfish overindulgence and excess of pleasure seeking (the second woe), now it has expanded into gross sin overindulged in and careless blasphemy. As men gain more, and find ease and grow in sin, so do they become more blasphemous and more careless of God. But things will shortly become even worse.
The Fourth Woe (5.20).
Three aspects of what God and His word are, are in mind here, what is good, what is light and what is sweet. What is good is of God, for the idea of goodness is essentially linked with God (Psalm 25.8; 34.8; 54.6; 86.5; 100.5; 107.1; 118.1, 29; 119.68; 135.3; 136.1; 145.9; Nahum 1.7). Thus what God requires is good, and what He is against is evil (Psalm 37.23). But these men glory in the opposite. They glory in evil, and call it good, while condemning and castigating what is really good.
‘Light’ too speaks of what God is and of His truth (2.5; 9.2; Psalm 27.1; 36.9; 43.3; 118.27; 119.30). He is men’s light, and as His light shines on men they see and know the truth and it guides them and makes them free. But these men turn to darkness and the things of darkness, and call them light. Their backs are towards God and they choose evil. They seek to distort God’s truth, and replace it with a parody of God’s truth. They exalt their own wisdom at the expense of the word of God.
And God’s word is regularly seen as ‘sweet’, but these men see it as bitter. So these men in turning from good and from light are turning from God and replacing God’s way and will by their own way and will. They are rejecting God and choosing themselves and their own way. They are not just questioning morality, they are questioning God.
The words ‘light’ and ‘sweet’ are regularly associated by the Psalmists with the word of God (For ‘light’ see Psalm 19.8; 36.9; 43.3; 118.27;119.105, 130; Proverbs 6.23; for ‘sweet’ see Psalm 19.10; 55.14; 104.34; 119.103; 141.6 - although not all the same Hebrew word). They are the essence of God’s truth which brings light and is sweet (compare Isaiah 8.20 and compare 2.5). Indeed to those who would find light Isaiah says that they should put their trust and confidence in God (50.10). But these people turn away from that word. They corrupt it, and turn men from it. Thus do they make good evil, light darkness and what is sweet bitter.
Indeed in their rejection of the word of God they themselves see it as bitter. It is too demanding, they say, it is too hard. So they replace it with ‘sweet’ words of their own which are in fact really bitter in their effect, for they result in evil consequences for all. This was the essence of the false prophets. They said what people wanted to hear, and thereby destroyed them (28.7; Jeremiah 5.31; 8.10; 13.13; 14.13-18; 23.9-15, 25-29; 27.9-15; 29.8-9; 37.19; Lamentations 2.14; Ezekiel 7.26; 13.2-3, 4, 9, 16; Amos 2.12; Micah 2.11; 3.5-6).
God’s word may sometimes seem bitter, but in the end its effect is sweet for those who respond, and it is always sweet to the believer even when its consequences are bitter because it is God’s word. The contrast between bitterness and sweetness, where what is sweet becomes bitter, is especially found in Revelation 10.9-10. There it was sweet because it was God’s word, but was bitter because of its sad message. What is sweet because it is God’s word often turns out to be bitter in practise for the unbeliever, for to the unbelieving and disobedient God’s word can only result in bitter consequences. What seems at first pleasant can therefore have appalling consequences. But that bitterness often finally results in sweetness for those who respond to it as is evidenced by the chastenings of God on His people (Hebrews 12.11).
End of note.
Those described here in Isaiah have in fact turned morality inside out. They have found rational and religious grounds for doing what God condemns as evil, and they condemn what is good, and by clever arguments make it seem wrong and unworthy (compare Micah 3.2; Amos 5.7; Malachi 2.17). They replace light with darkness, and so commend darkness that it is made to seem like the new ‘light’. Men follow after their idols and their ways. But Jesus would later point out that if the light within a man was darkness, how great was that darkness (Matthew 6.22-23). They make what is sweet seem bitter, and they offer as sweet what is essentially bitter suggesting that it will produce sweetness, although bitterness continues to lie underneath and will be experienced in the end.
The clever in mind can always find arguments that support their positions. It is always possible to bolster any position for a while, until time and events prove it fallacious and dangerous. But then it is often too late and many have fallen thereby. Today it often goes under the name of ‘research’. ‘Research shows’, they say, but it often reaches its solutions by inadequate means and rests on men’s opinions and optimism. It regularly assumes man’s essential goodness and fails to take into account his continual strong tendencies to sin and selfishness and perversion. And thus it comes to the wrong conclusion, while believing it to be right. And it goes in fashions and thus often turns out to be simply giving us man’s failing opinions which have ignored crucial factors time and again.
So those people whom Isaiah had in mind earlier would have put up ‘sound’ economic arguments for their land-grabbing, they would have defended strongly their sensual living, they would have plausibly argued for their gross sins, but God points out that none of their pleas will prevent the inevitable consequences. For when nations behave so, the end may be delayed, but it will only finally end in disaster. And so it is woe to them.
The Fifth Woe (5.22).
5.22 ‘Woe to those who are wise in their own eyes, and prudent in their own sight.’
This sentence is short but it is vibrant with significance. This is the final stage downwards. Man has replaced God in his own estimation. Man has become the ultimate arbiter, the all-wise one. God is no longer necessary. Now man propagates his own ways, and calls on all to follow. He no longer listens to God’s word. He no longer wants God. He is self-sufficient. He has said in his heart that “there is no God” (Psalm 14.1). And he thinks that he knows exactly what to do. He has finally become the ultimate fool.
But such men regularly reveal their folly by their lives. Many a great thinker who has advised others has made shipwreck of his own personal life. For when it comes to living most men are fools. The armchair savant becomes the lonely divorcee.
Such were some in Isaiah’s day, and sadly they were often advisers to the king (28.14-15 compare 29.14). Instead of looking to Yahweh, and seeking a word from Him, they proudly looked to their own wisdom and knowledge, and consequently guided him to disaster. Was it to such that Ahaz listened when he turned to Assyria for help, binding and subjecting Judah to Assyria into the future? (See chapter 7). Was it to such that Hezekiah looked when he laid bare to the Babylonians what was in his treasure house? (See chapter 39). And so instead of trusting in God they trusted in their own wisdom and Judah and Jerusalem were led back into bondage.
The Sixth Woe (5.22-23).
Suddenly some of the great that have been described are seen as what they are. They truly are mighty men and strong men, heroes and champions - but only at drinking and pouring out wine! So what in the end they are seen as mighty at is drinking, and the only thing that they can use their strength for is to mingle the drinks. But as for their wisdom and their uprightness, they accept bribes, get the wicked acquitted and ensure that the truly righteous are found guilty. They too are turning morality upside down, in this case not by argument but by the way in which they behave.
A man is finally known not by what he claims for himself, or what others claim for him, but by what he does, and is finally to be assessed, not by his words but by his actions. We have only to examine the background lives of some thinkers of our own day to recognise how fallible is their wisdom. They are not wise enough to run their own lives satisfactorily. They are blind leaders of the blind.
‘Who justify the wicked for a reward, and take away the righteousness of the righteous from him.’ There is no sadder or more fearful picture than the Judge who allows himself to be influenced by pressure and bribery, whether the bribe is money, flattery or promotion. It is the beginning of the disintegration of society. Men will then begin to take the law into their own hands. But sadder still it is when those who are truly righteous have their reputations taken away from them by false accusations and deceit.
The Consequences of Their Deterioration in Behaviour (5.24).
This ‘therefore’ looks back to the previous four woes. By their behaviour, attitudes, wisdom and self-indulgence these men have rejected the instruction of the mighty Yahweh of hosts, and have despised the word of the supremely Holy One. They have refused to listen to His voice. They have revealed themselves to be stubble and dry grass, the emptiness that is left when the former fruitfulness has gone. So will they be burned up and consumed, as the stubble is burned up in the fields once the fruitful yield has gone, and as the useless dry grass shrivels and collapses down into the flame.
The sad thing is their unawareness of this. They think that their lives are taking root and blossoming. But really their root is like stubble, a useless rejected waste, and their blossom is like dry grass, set to be burned to ashes.
‘Because they have rejected the instruction (Law) of Yahweh of hosts, and despised the word of the Holy One of Israel.’ That is the essence of the matter. They have rejected the Almighty One and the Holy One. God is too big and too moral for them. They want to settle for something less. But that also reveals the greatness of their crime. They have rejected the One Who is over all, the only One Who can pull them from the morass in which they find themselves.
The Prime Source of Their Punishment (5.25).
God does not overlook sin even though He bears long with it. For sin arouses His righteous ‘wrath’ against sin, that sense of antipathy to what He knows sin to be. The reference may be to an earthquake, with the hills trembling and the people struck down and lying in the streets unburied. He may indeed be referring back to the great earthquake in the days of Uzziah (Amos 1.1; Zechariah 14.5), a huge earthquake long remembered, which would have shaken the people and made them think, and even for a time seek God. But the spiritual effects of that (such as they were) had passed and the people had returned to their normal way of living. So Isaiah has to warn them that that earthquake and its passing does not mean that God’s anger is now assuaged. He still intends more punishments against them because of their intransigence and continued disobedience.
The idea of natural disasters as judgments of God is found constantly in the Old Testament. The interweaving of divine action in this way with such disasters is beyond human understanding. But they are a reminder that God created a world in which such things could occur so that they might contain a lesson for man, a lesson that Israel should have learned here.
Alternately the trembling of the hills was often a way by which a conqueror described his own progress. Thus this may have been a way of describing the approach of such a conqueror, with Isaiah now describing the approach of foreign armies. Those certainly soon came, first on Israel and then on Judah. The powerful Assyrian armies swept in, Israel was devastated, Samaria their capital city was destroyed, the leaders and artisans were carried off into captivity, and later Judah itself was invaded and its cities devastated. For even though Jerusalem itself might be spared by the decisive action of God in smiting the Assyrian army, the remainder of Judah suffered terribly.
‘The hills have trembled.’ When God acts, nature trembles at His mighty power. Great conquerors often spoke of the hills trembling at their approach. How much more then at the approach of the instruments of Yahweh.
‘Their carcasses were as refuse in the middle of the street.’ The only place where refuse could be tossed in most cities was as far away from the houses as possible, in the middle of the street (which were not very wide). There it lay and stank until it was borne away. Thus would their dead bodies also be cast out as rubbish, to rot and await the collector.
‘For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.’ Whichever type of judgment was in mind this time it would not be enough in itself. For Israel His action in bringing the Assyrians against them was to have lasting, permanent results, and so it would for Judah in the future (by means of the Babylonians) unless they listened to his message. Let them not think that this time the judgment would come and pass. It would continue. They would be carried away into captivity, into exile, once again being in bondage as in Egypt, awaiting deliverance. God’s hatred of sin could no longer allow them to go on as they were.
For this final phrase compare 9.12, 17, 21; 10.4. This was not just a solitary warning. There it would be repeated fourfold. A good phrase deserves to be repeated.
The fact that the phrase is taken up again and that woe continues to be pronounced in chapter 9.8 onwards suggests either that chapters 6 to 9.7 have been deliberately inserted into a pre-existent prophecy by Isaiah, or that 9.8-10.4 is a deliberate attempt to connect back to this chapter. Either way 9.8 onwards is therefore to be seen as a continuation of these prophecies. It will be noted that chapters 6.1-9.7 begin with the throne of Yahweh, God in heaven, and end with the throne of the new God-raised David, God’s representative on earth. Isaiah continually seeks to avoid too much continual emphasis on wrath. Thus in the midst of wrath he presents God’s solution.
God Summons The Instruments of His Wrath (5.26-30).
When God in His wrath raises His banner the nations will flock to do His will. They are there awaiting His call. At this time Assyria was ‘the ends of the earth’ to Jerusalem and Judah, for they were a ‘far off’ nation with which they had had little to do. But when Yahweh calls they will come.
However we interpret verse 25 these verses are clear indication of a powerful invasion. For the enemy will come, summoned by Yahweh, responding to His whistle (‘hiss’) and they will come quickly with nothing to hinder them, not even a broken belt or shoe fastening. They will be tireless and their approach inexorable, wide awake, alert and with no faltering.
The powerful intermingling of a description of an invincible enemy and awesome natural forces is again repeated. Their ferocity and speed of approach is emphasised. Their arrows are sharp and their bows ready for war, the hooves of their horses are sharp and strong, their chariot wheels whirl at frightening speed. And as they come they yell their battlecries like young lions in their strength roaring at their prey, and then they will pounce and seize the prey, growling their satisfaction, and none will be able to prevent it.
For the One Who could prevent it is the One Who has summoned them to the task. And those others that Israel and Judah had previously looked to for help will be unable to give it. Indeed the approach will be like that of the beating of a powerful sea against the storm battered shore, and against equally storm-battered ships; while turning landwards for relief will provide none, for it will be equally shrouded in the same fearful heavy-clouded storm.
So do we come to the end of his first section of Isaiah in which he has been concerned to lay down the basis of his message without specific historical application. He has revealed the extent of the sinfulness of those who claimed to be His people. He has demonstrated that only those who respond to Him are truly His people. He has declared the glorious future that God has prepared for those who are truly His, and the judgment that awaits those who are not. And has clearly indicated that that glorious future will be shared with some from the peoples of all nations. In the end all the glory will be His.
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