Friday, October 29
Isaiah 3: Once again this chapter begins with “Jerusalem and Judah” (verses 1,8). The “staff and stay” (KJV), found twice in this verse, are the masculine and feminine forms of the same noun (mash‘en and mash‘enah). This combination formed an idiom indicating totality, not unlike our English “kit and boodle.” Every form of support, says Isaiah, is coming apart. Can famine (also mentioned in verse 7) be far off?
The prosperity attendant on the reign of King Uzziah was accompanied by grave social inequities and other evils. The present chapter of Isaiah speaks of two such: the lack of adequate leadership (verses 1-15) and the elaborate cultivation of female finery in clothing and adornment (verses 16-24).
The previous chapter ended with a warning about putting excessive trust in men (2:22). The present chapter continues this theme by listing the failures of Judah’s leadership. This first unit is enclosed by “the Lord, the Lord of hosts” (’Adon IHWH Savaoth–verses 1 & 15).
First, Israel’s leadership is in a state of collapse (verses 2-3), and with it all societal support and structure, including the basic technical crafts, such as carpentry. The leadership is immature (verse 4), so all of society disintegrates (verses 5,12). Since leadership is not taken seriously, serious men will not assume it (verses 6-7). Indeed, Isaiah knew that he was already seeing an excellent example of such a bad ruler in the person of King Ahaz (735-716). Meanwhile, in Judah’s sister kingdom to the north, Israel’s own puny monarchy was on its last legs, destined to fall to the Assyrians in 722.
The Lord will be the Judge for His oppressed and badly governed people (verses 12-15; cf. Psalms 50  and 82 , perhaps the liturgical texts on which Isaiah relies).
Second, the mention of women in leadership leads to a sarcastic description of the arrogant clothing styles for women in vogue at the time. Isaiah’s description is bound to remind a modern reader of a contemporary fashion show, in which a line of pretentious young ladies come strutting across a walkway, walking in ridiculous gyrating strides that have no purpose except to draw meretricious and lascivious attention to themselves: "the daughters of Zion are haughty and walk with outstretched necks and wanton eyes, walking and mincing as they go, making a jingling with their feet" (verse 16). Isaiah goes on with an obvious relish for sarcasm, listing the various articles of clothing and jewelry, all the way to purses and hand mirrors.
The first verse of chapter 4 goes logically with the present chapter. These vain, arrogant women, despite their vaunted allurements, cannot find husbands, because the casualties of warfare have claimed six of every seven men.
Saturday, October 30
Isaiah 4: Hitherto the prophet Isaiah, when writing of the Lord’s “day” (2:12,17,20; 3:18; 4:1), has portrayed it in the colors of judgment and retribution. In the present chapter he writes in terms of renewal.
Once again we discern a paralleled reversal of elements in the preceding parts of this book. Thus, the tragedy associated with marriage on the “day” (verse 1) is now replaced with the huppa, the bridal canopy (verse 5), the scandalous dress and behavior of Judah’s women (3:16-23) gives way to godly cleansing and beauty (verses 2,4), and the Lord’s glory, hitherto revealed in punishment (2:10,19,21), now redounds to the glory of the holy city (verses 2,5). Likewise, the revelation of the Messiah, the “Branch of the Lord” (verse 2) supplants the degenerate leadership described at length in the previous chapter. In short, the day of the Lord as Judge (3:17-18) becomes the day of the Lord as Redeemer (verses 4-5).
The “branch of the Lord” is the future Davidic king who will gather the Lord’s elect remnant. He is the fulfillment of the promises made to David (cf. 11:1; 53:2). He is portrayed as both human, the fruit of the earth, and divine, as branching forth from the Lord. This is Isaiah’s first explicit prophecy of the Incarnation.
This remnant, preserved and gathered by the Messiah (verses 2-3), has been transformed by the divine purging. Consequently, it is “holy” (verse 3), marked by a quality proper to God. These survivors have been purged by the spirit of judgment and burning (verse 4), a theme later to be taken up in the preaching of John the Baptist (Matthew 3:11-12).
The guidance of this remnant evokes the imagery of pillar of the Exodus, when the people were overshadowed by the divine shadow and fire (verses 5-6). Described here as a wedding canopy, the huppa, the marriage chamber is indicated (Psalms 19 :6; Joel 2:16). This rich metaphor evokes the Lord’s espousal of His people (cf. 49:17-18; 54:1-13), who will find shelter under that canopy (verse 6).
Sunday, October 31
Isaiah, 5: This final chapter of the Isaian preface is the most melancholy, as the divine judgment now looms most unmistakably over Jerusalem. What more can the Lord do (verse 4)?
This chapter breaks into two unequal parts: the parable of the vineyard (verses 1-7) and a description of its terrible harvest (verses 8-30).
First comes the description of the vineyard, which is an image much favored in the Book of Isaiah (3:14-15; 27:2-6; 63:1-6; 65:8-10). The poetry of the first verse is most striking: ’ashírah n’a lidídi shírat dódi lekármo / kérem hayáh lidídi beqéren ben shámen–“let me sing for my beloved my darling’s song of his vineyard; a vineyard my beloved had on a very fertile hill.”
As in our Lord’s parable of the vineyard (Matthew 21:33-44, with parallels in Mark and Luke), Isaiah builds his case gradually, not showing his hand until after the judgment is reached. He describes the vineyard’s construction, his friend’s care for it, and finally the failure of the vineyard to bring forth the fruit that was expected (verses 1-2). Then he calls, once again, on “Jerusalem and Judah” to pass judgment on the vineyard (verses 3-4). Having enumerated the punishments that will be inflicted on the faithless vineyard (verses 5-6), Isaiah at last identifies the vineyard as God’s own people (verse 7), but only after the judgment has been pronounced.
In the preparation of His vineyard, God spared neither effort nor expense (verse 2). The list of His labors signifies the various stages of His intervention in the history of salvation. Nonetheless, what did the vineyard produce? It brought forth be’ushim, a word that appears nowhere else in the Bible outside of this text (verses 2,4). Derived from the verb ba’ash, meaning “to stink,” the word may be translated as “stinky fruit.”
The fault, of course, lies on those charged with the cultivation of the vineyard—that is, the spiritual and political rulers of Judah. They are the reason the vineyard has produced stinky fruit. In this respect our Lord’s own corresponding parable is more explicit, laying the blame on Israel’s leadership.
The punishment of the vineyard, recognized by Israel to refer to Jerusalem’s destruction by Babylon in 587, involves the “briars and thorns” (verse 6) associated with man’s original fall (Genesis 3:18).
To God the realm of Judah has become a complete disappointment. In place of just judgment (mishpat) there is bloodshed (mispah). Instead of righteousness (tsidaqah) there is a distressful cry (tse‘aqah) (verse 7).
In the chapter’s long second part (verses 8-30), Isaiah enumerates the “stinky fruit” is a series of six “woes.” These offenses have chiefly to do with sins against social justice, such as the monopoly of property and resources (verses 8-10) and self-indulgence (verses 11-12). These will fittingly be punished by poverty, hunger, and thirst (verse 13), followed by death and ruin (verses 14-17). Those that satisfied their own appetites will now satisfy the appetite of the realm of death (verse 14).
The monopoly of real estate (verse 8), a special evil of the eighth century before Christ (cf. Amos 2:6-8; 3:10,15; Micah 2:2,9), violated the ancient rules of inherited property contained in the Mosaic Law (cf. Leviticus 25; Numbers 27:1-11; 36:1-2; Ruth 4:1-4).
Isaiah has now given us, then, the social, political, and religious context of his call to the prophetic ministry in 742, “the year that King Uzziah died.”
Monday, November 1
Isaiah 6: Having arranged several of his oracles as a preface, to set the historical and religious context for his call to prophesy (chapters 1-5), Isaiah now comes to the call itself. In this account the prophet hints at a paradigm for the entire religious reform of his own times, inasmuch as the revelation of God’s “triple” holiness brings him to a sense of his sinfulness and to a repentant obedience to the Lord’s summons.
Two kings are contrasted, the dying Uzziah and “the Lord, high and lifted up.” Corresponding to this contrast, two kinds of people are implied. There are those that place their trust in earthly monarchs, such as Uzziah, who reigned for more than half a century in Judah, or, in context, Tiglath Pileser III, who began his reign over Assyria and most of the Fertile Crescent three years earlier, in 745. In contrast to these, there are those that place not their trust in men, but in the Lord.
Uzziah was exactly the kind of monarch desired by the worldly. In every way by which the world assesses the success of a king, Uzziah was successful. Isaiah, however, speaks only of his death, and this twice (here and in 14:28). For the prophet the only thing finally significant about Uzziah was that he died. Thus, he represents the dead and decaying order constructed on rebellion against God.
The Lord is “high and lifted up” (here and in 57:15), the same expression that will describe God’s Servant (52:13).
He is manifest in His Temple, the locus of sacrifice, the place where heaven and earth are joined. About Him are the Seraphim, “the fiery ones,” each with six flame-like wings. They cover their eyes, not their ears, for they remain attentive to do God’s bidding. Before Him they cover their feet in humility, as though waiting for Him to dispatch them to do His will (verse 2). Meanwhile they chant to one another, in antiphonal responses, announcing the holiness and glory of God. Holiness is God’s glory hidden and unseen. Glory is God’s holiness revealed.
The revelation of God’s holiness in this vision of His glory causes Isaiah great consternation and fear. It is not simply the disquietude of the creature before the Creator, but the terror of the sinner in the presence of the All Pure. Isaiah now knows himself to be contaminated (verse 5; cf. Job 42:5-6; Luke 5: 8). He is “undone,” reduced to silence, recognizing himself at one with the world of sinners. He is part of a society that has polluted language at its source (cf. Psalms 12 : 1-4). His own lips are unclean, unworthy to participate in the seraphic hymn to God’s holiness. He is unable to do more than confess his vileness before the God to whom he will henceforth refer as “the Holy One of Israel.”
Because man cannot cleanse himself, a Seraph is dispatched to purge the prophet’s lips with a burning coal from the altar, the place of sacrifice (verse 6). This coal from the altar represents the purging power of that Sacrifice, of which all the biblical sacrifices are types and preparations, that Sacrifice that takes away the sins of humanity. This coal is so hot that even the Seraph, the “fiery one,” must handle it with tongs. The fire itself, burning perpetually (Leviticus 6:12-13), represents the divine holiness (Exodus 3:2-6; 19:18-25).
Isaiah’s sins are purged away by the sacrificial fire (verse 7). That is to say, his confession leads immediately to his purging, and this purging leads immediately to his calling as a prophet. The chapter’s remaining verses concern the conditions and purpose of Isaiah’s ministry.
If we took too literally and simply the Lord’s instructions to Isaiah (verses 9-10), we might imagine that the prophet was to speak in very obscure words, impossible to understand. In fact, however, his contemporaries thought his words so simple that they amounted to baby talk (28:9-10). And this is precisely the point. Isaiah is to speak with such utter clarity as to leave his hearers without excuse. Hardness of heart will be the only explanation of their failure to understand. His words will harden their hearts, in the same sense that the heart of Pharaoh was hardened by the repeated divine signs that Moses worked in his presence.
It was to the present verses of Isaiah that the writers of the New Testament had recourse in order to explain the tragic mystery to which they bore witness—namely, Israel’s rejection of the Messiah in spite of the utter clarity of His manifestation (Matthew 13:14-15; Mark 4:12; Luke 8:10; Acts 28:26-27).
Indeed, when John appeals to this Isaian text in reference to the Jews’ rejection of Jesus, he goes on to mention that Isaiah wrote these words in the context of his inaugural vision. In doing so, he identifies Jesus as the Lord whose glory Isaiah had beheld: “Therefore they could not believe, because Isaiah said again: ‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, / Lest they should see with their eyes, / Lest they should understand with their hearts and turn, / So that I should heal them.’ These things Isaiah said because he saw His glory and spoke of Him” (John 12:39-41).
The account ends with the foretelling of Jerusalem’s destruction and the deportation of the people (verse 11-12). These things came to pass because of what happened in the ministry of Isaiah, as the prophet’s sixth century editors knew very well. They pertain to that remnant in the final verse (13). Israel, like Isaiah, would be purged by fire. The remnant, the “holy seed” (4:3; 41:18; 43:5; 53:10; 59:21; 65:9,23; 66:22), would be the fulfillment of this prophecy.
Tuesday, November 2
Isaiah 7: The question of hope, raised in chapter 5, was somewhat answered in chapter 6. Isaiah had been cleansed, suggesting that Judah might also be cleansed and not perish. The theme of such hope continues in the present chapter.
The house of David was in dire straits by reason of international politics. It was the year 735. Assyria was on the offensive throughout the Fertile Crescent, thereby prompting local nations to form a coalition against this new power from the east. Syria (Damascus) and Israel (Samaria, Ephraim), the major partners in this coalition, had invaded Judah in order to add this latter to their alliance against Assyria (2 Kings 15:37). This invasion failed (verse 1; 2 Chronicles 28:5-8). A second invasion was imminent (2 Chronicles 28:17-18), this time with a view to replacing King Ahaz on the throne (verse 2). This plan, of course, placed the covenanted house of David in jeopardy.
Isaiah himself had recently fathered a son, to whom he gave a name symbolizing the idea of a “remnant” (Shear-Jashub, “a remnant shall return”), thus indicating the hope that he entertained with respect to Judah’s prospects. The prophet brings this son with him as he approaches the king to deliver the oracle that opens this chapter (verse 3). The son serves as a kind of prophetic enactment of Isaiah’s message to Ahaz. The prophet and his son meet the king at the aqueduct that provided Jerusalem with water prior to Hezekiah’s construction of an underground aqueduct some years later. Presumably Ahaz was inspecting the water supply in view of the coming siege.
Isaiah speaks the word of reassurance; the efforts of Syria and Israel will come to nothing, so Judah should not fear them. The king must put his trust in God (verse 4), because the promise of God trumps the proposals of men (verses 5-9). (The king, alas, had already sought the aid of Assyria against this coalition of the local states.)
Within sixty-five years, says Isaiah, Israel will cease to be a kingdom. Since this alliance of Syria and Israel was formed in 735 (that is, seven years after Isaiah’s call as a prophet), the ending year of the sixty-five years was 670, the very year during which alien migrants, brought by the Assyrians under the Emperor Esarhaddon (2 Kings 17:24; 2 Chronicles 33:11; Ezra 4:2), arrived from the east to settle the land of Samaria, the former kingdom of Israel. Isaiah ends with a plea for faith—“If you don’t stand in faith, you won’t stand at all” (ta’aminu . . . te’amenu).
The second oracle in this chapter, also addressed to Ahaz, has three parts. First, the king is again summoned to faith (verses 10-11). Second, Isaiah condemns the king for his unbelief (verses 12-15). Third, Isaiah foretells Jerusalem’s eventual downfall *verses 16-17).
Isaiah’s prophecy of the child (verses 14-16) concerned the fate of Damascus, the capital of Syria, which fell to the Assyrians three years later, in 732, and of Israel, which the Assyrians destroyed ten years after that. In this prophecy’s most elementary meaning, the intended child is any child conceived about this time. Such a child, says the prophet, would not reach the age of discretion (“able to distinguish right from wrong”) before the whole land would be over-run with Assyrians. There would not agriculture. The child would have only dairy products and honey to eat. They could call any such child “Emmanuel,” because the name means “God is (still) with us.” By the time the child reached the age of discretion, it would be all over for Syria and Israel. Indeed, Isaiah’s second son, soon to be conceived (8:1-4), would be such a child.
But there is more. This elementary meaning hardly justifies the exotic description given by Isaiah. The “child” is also more than just any child. He assumes dimensions that no mere child of earth could possibly support. He is also a particular child to be born some time in the future, and Isaiah will subsequently describe him in terms utterly unique. He will gather the scattered children of God (8:11-22; 11:12-13). This child is no longer just any child. He is a deliverer (9:3-7), even “God the mighty” (9:6). He would be in a most literal sense, “God with us” (Matthew 1:22-23). It is no wonder that Isaiah is sometimes called “the fifth Evangelist.”
Meanwhile Judah will have to suffer much because of Ahaz (verse 17). The short oracle that completes the chapter (verses 18-25) continues the theme of Judah’s coming trial. The Lord will “whistle” for invaders to attack from two sides (verse 18). The land will be utterly stripped, like a man whose whole body is shaved (verse 20). Farming will disappear (verses 21-22). All such labor would be wasted (verses 23-25).
Wednesday, November 3
Isaiah 8: Isaiah must take a large tablet, something that could serve as a conspicuous sign, and write on it in clear letters, “concerning Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, four words meaning “Quick-Spoil-Hurry-Booty” (verse 1). If this seems mysterious to us, it was no less so to Isaiah’s contemporaries. Witnesses to the event were recorded (verse 2), who could vouch for the date of the inscription.
Later, Isaiah is instructed to make this strange inscription the name of his second son (verse 3), who becomes an enfleshment of the prophet’s spoken message of impending doom (verse 4). When his prophecy has been fulfilled by the Assyrian invasion, the two witnesses could testify to the date of the prophecy. This prophetic act forms a striking but contrasting parallel to the Emmanuel prophecy in the preceding chapter.
In 734 Tiglath-Pileser, who had marched across the Fertile Crescent, turned his forces south, along the sea coast, to check the Egyptians, who might have been tempted to march north and intervene. He next neutralized King Hosea of Israel, depopulating a large section of Galilee. Finally, he turned his attention to Syria, which fell in 732.
Shiloh (verse 6) was the stream that flowed quietly from the spring of Gihon and provided water to Jerusalem. It symbolized the tranquility of obedient faith. This faith had been abandoned when Israel broke with the throne of David in 922. This faithless northern kingdom was now putting its trust in Syria and in its own apostate monarchy.
Syria and Israel would soon be visited by another river, the mighty Euphrates, which symbolized the Assyrian Empire (verse 7). These nations had chosen the world rather than God, and now the world would flood them over. The invasion would be so devastating that even Judah would feel the flood, barely able to keep its head above water (verse 8). In appealing to Assyria for help (2 Kings 16), Ahaz had submitted the Davidic throne to a foreign and Idolatrous power. It would never be the same again.
The second part of this chapter treats of the faithful remnant (verses 9-22). Isaiah mocks the coalition arranged against Judah (verses 9-10). His confidence is related to his inner separation from the infidelity of his contemporaries (verse 11), whom he exhorts to ignore the alliance arrayed against Judah (verse 12). They must fear God and not man (verse 13).
Isaiah speaks of his disciples, who will preserve his oracles until they have been fulfilled (verse 16; 50:4; 54:13). Indeed, it is to these Isaian disciples, who pertain to the remnant of which he speaks, that we owe both the preservation and the final form of Isaiah’s message. He gives further instruction to these disciples (verses 19-22).
Isaiah and his sons, meanwhile, remain as “signs” to Judah (verse 18: Hebrews 2:13). Like these two sons, Isaiah has a symbolic name—“The Lord saves.”
Thursday, November 4
Isaiah 9: This chapter is made up of two parts: a separate oracle (verses 1-7) and the first part of a longer poem (9:8—10:4).
The original setting for the opening oracle in this chapter (verses 1-7) was the Assyrian invasion into Syria and Galilee in 733. Now, for the first time, the Israelites suffer the wrath of the Assyrians, who come into the territory of the tribe of Naphtali, along the western coast of the Sea of Galilee and extending further north, and the land of the tribe of Zebulon, the area lying west and southwest of Naphtali, toward the Mediterranean Sea (cf. Joshua 19:10-16,32-39). Afflicted along with these western tribes was the land of Gilead, east of the Jordan valley (verse 1). These Israelite territories, in the eyes of the Assyrians, were indistinguishable from Syria and were treated accordingly, their populations deported a full decade before the downfall of Samaria in 722.
Isaiah calls these territories “Galilee of the Gentiles,” probably because non-Israelites populated much of it; the region had come under the influence and even the rule of the Gentiles since the period of Solomon (1 Kings 9:11).
With the disastrous arrival of the Assyrians, darkness fell on this whole region, but Isaiah prophesies the restoration of light (verse 2). The Messiah, after all, would come for the Gentiles as well as for the Israelites (11:10; 42:1,6; 49:6; 60:1-3). Christians see the fulfillment of this prophecy, for Israelite and Gentile alike, in the arrival of Jesus, who began His ministry in this very area (Matthew 4:12-17).
There is a problem in the Hebrew text of the third verse, which reads, “You have multiplied the nation and not increased the joy,” which is perfectly grammatical and makes no sense. This Hebrew reading, which is followed by the Latin Vulgate and the King James Version, comes from a copyist’s mistaking lo, “unto it,” as lo’, “not.” To make coherent sense of the verse it is reasonable, and seems necessary, to correct the text to “You have multiplied the nation and increased joy unto it.”
The following verse (4) goes on to enumerate the blessings that increased the joy of the people, comparing their blessings to Gideon’s liberation of Israel from the Midianites as recorded in Judges 6—8. Gideon’s victory, we recall, benefited the Galilean tribes of Asher, Zebulon, and Naphtali (Judges 6:35). Hence the propriety of Isaiah’s historical reference.
The Hebrew text of verse 5 contains a play of sounds impossible to convey adequately in English: “Every soldier’s boot (se’on) used in battle (so’en).” A fire will destroy all instruments of war, because the reign of the Messiah will be a reign of peace.
Which consideration brings us to verse 6, which indicates the reason for this coming era of peace, the birth of the Messiah. He is both a human child and a divine Son, described here in terms that fit only one person in history. His name is fourfold: “wonderful counselor” (like Solomon, but unlike the current king, Ahaz), “almighty God” (’El gibbór, corresponding to the Immánu El in 7:14), “everlasting Father” (indeed, the new Adam), and “prince of peace (sar shalom). This King will be the true Solomon—Shlomo, “man of peace”; his will be a true reign of peace (verse 7). This son of David will be David’s very Lord (Matthew 22:41-46).
There follows a poem in four stanzas (9:8—10:4), a “word” (dabar) sent from the Lord (verse 8). It is not clear whether this poem is a prophecy of the future or a reflection on the immediate past, but its message is clear: the inevitability of disaster when the divine word falls on deaf ears, and the divine judgment falls on hard hearts.
This disaster is described through the four stanzas: (1) the downfall of the nation (verses 8-12); (2) the suffering resultant from political chaos (verses 13-17); (3) the destruction of a social sense (verses 18-21); and (4) the loss of the moral order (10:1-4).
In the first stanza (verses 8-12) Isaiah is distressed because Israel seems not to have learned the spiritual and moral lesson contained in the disaster that has just befallen it. Still entertaining sentiments of grandeur, those Northerners plan to replace with cut rock the ruined bricks of their destroyed buildings, and to use expensive cedar to rebuild the sycamore beams of their demolished homes. These aspirations are symptomatic of the same spiritual sickness that the Lord had sent the recent calamity to cure.
And “send” (shalah is the important verb. These political tragedies do not simply happen. The Lord sends them, says Isaiah, using the same term by which other 8th century prophets interpreted the political disaster of that century (Amos 1:4,7,10,12; 2:2,5; 4:10; Hosea 8:4).
When the punishment falls, says Isaiah, “all the people, everyone of them, will know it” (weyad‘u ha‘am kullo) (cf. Hosea 9:7). Once refused, God’s word become His punishment (cf. 28:10-13).
The Northern Kingdom, Ephraim, was not saved by its alliance with Rezin, the king of Syria. On the contrary, the alliance simply provoked Assyrian reprisals. Neglecting God’s word, Israel had become a disposable pawn in geopolitics, pressed on the east by Syria and on the west by the Philistines (verse 12; cf. Amos 1:6).
The second stanza (verses 13-17) describes the ensuing collapse of the political leadership in the Northern Kingdom. The leaders mislead (verse 16), a fact illustrated by a pair of polarities, head and tail/brand and reed (verse 14), both of which mean high and low (verse 15). This loss of political leadership especially touches the young men that perish in battle and the families that are left behind (verse 17). The “single day” is a metaphor for “all of a sudden.”
It is difficult not to think that Isaiah’s references to political chaos in the north have in mind the constant political strife that ensued on the death of Jeroboam II in 753 until the downfall of Samaria in 722 (2 Kings 15:8-31). During those three decades Israel had six kings, five of whom grabbed the throne on the assassination of their predecessors.
The third stanza (9:18-21) describes the moral anarchy that reigned during this period, when the loss of adequate political leadership led to the collapse of the social order. It was expressed in radical selfishness, unbridled by ethical and social restraints. Brotherhood was betrayed (verse 19); there was no social cohesion (verse 21). Like fire, lawlessness fed on itself and therefore consumed itself (verses 18,20). The Lord, in punishment, permitted it to happen (verse 19).
Meanwhile the competing tribes of Joseph (cf. Genesis 41:50-52; 48:5) engaged in mutual destruction, never united except to invade Judah in the south (2 Kings 15:27).
Friday, November 5
Isaiah 10: There are three parts to this chapter: (1) the final stanza of the poem begun in the previous chapter (verses 1-4); (2) an oracle about God’s use of Assyria to accomplish His purposes in history (verses 5-15); (3) an oracle on the theme of the remnant (verses 16-34).
The first section of this chapter (verses 1-4), then, is the fourth and final stanza of the long poem begun in chapter nine (9:8—10:4).
The radical selfishness described earlier (9:18-21), combined with the dissolution of political restraints (9:13-17), increased the misfortunes of those already disadvantaged by the losses of war, namely, the widows and orphans of the slain (verse 2). Indeed, even the powers of legislation are used against these poor, those powers now usurped by the unjust and avaricious (verse 1). Hence, the poverty of the poor is worsened, and the weakness of the oppressed increased.
Such injustices, however, are the harbingers of the impending and ineluctable reckoning of God, which will (verse 3) come “from afar,” that is, from the forces of Assyria in the distant east. Those currently abusing their local power will not escape. The sense in the difficult wording of verse 4 is reasonably preserved in the NIV: “Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives or fall among the slain.”
The divine judgment prophesied in this poem is larger than the fall of Samaria to the Assyrians in 722. Considered in the full context of the canonical Book of Isaiah, this prophecy points to the final judgment on history by the King that appears at the end of time to separate the sheep from the goats. Indeed, the social sins condemned here by Isaiah are the very ones of which Jesus speaks in His famous parable of the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:41-43). The characteristics of the final Judge will be described in the third and final section of the Book of Isaiah, where we will read of the vindicating Warrior.
The second part of this chapter (verses 5-15) follows the imagery and theme of what immediately precedes it: the divine judgment implemented in history. This oracle is probably to be dated some time soon after 734, when Assyria began in earnest to menace the western half of the Fertile Crescent. Although the kingdom of Judah refused to join the local resistance to Assyria (the coalition of Syria and Israel, about which Isaiah had so much to say), the nation was bound to feel the geopolitical pressure of that great power coming from the east. This was especially the case after the fall of Samaria in 722 (verses 9-11).
This is, in short, an oracle on two views of history: the view of the Assyria, which imagined itself imposing its own political determination on the future, and the view of God, the Lord of history, who is using such nations to bring about His own purposes in the future. Who really governs history? asks Isaiah, and he is very clear on the answer.
The Assyrian conqueror, as he moved west and subdued Syria and Israel, did not think of himself as an instrument of the biblical God (verse 7). Indeed, it was the furthest thing from his thoughts (cf. 37:1-13). Nonetheless, from God’s perspective, and according to God’s purposes, the Assyrian was nothing more than an instrument in the divine hand (verses 5,14). He is nothing more than the rod of God’s indignation (verses 5,15), the ax in the grasp of the carpenter; effectively, the Assyrian had only the authority given him from above (verse 6; cf. John 19:11). The Assyrian was simply what one writer calls the agent of God’s “moral purpose.” (More than a century later this would be Habakkuk’s view of the Babylonians, and more than a thousand later this would be Augustine’s view of the Visigoths.)
At the same time, Assyria was morally responsible for the evil it inflicted on the peoples that it conquered. God’s sovereignty in history in no way excuses man’s moral responsibility in history (cf. Romans 9:17-19).
In a later part of Isaiah (37:28-29) this truth is expressed in the metaphor of the horse and rider. The Lord is the rider of whatever historical horse that He chooses. At the same time, that horse will simply do what horses do; it will act according to its nature. None of its horsiness is negated by the sovereign influence of the Rider. It is natural that the horse thinks of himself as the one in charge, but, says Isaiah, he is grievously deceived on the point.
Although Assyria’s invasion of Syria and Israel is the occasion of this oracle, Isaiah intended his words for Judah, which lies next in the path of the Assyrian boot. Indeed, the Assyrian already has Jerusalem in his sights (verses 10-12). Isaiah knows very well that the Assyrian will in a short time be pitching his tents in the siege of Jerusalem.
But Isaiah sees even further; he also prophesies that after the Assyrian has unwittingly served the historical purpose for which the Lord used him, he too will be cut off for his arrogance and cruelty (verses 12-15; cf. 14:13-16,25).
The third section of this chapter (verses 16-34) is an oracle on the theme of the remnant. This theme of the remnant follows logically from the preceding material about devastation and destruction.
As we begin this section it will be instructive to remark that St. Paul, as he begins his long treatment on the dialectics of biblical history (Romans 9—11), seems to be following the sequence in this chapter of Isaiah. As noted above, Paul met the objection of those who imagined that God’s sovereignty over history excused man’s moral responsibilities in history (Romans 9:17-23). Then Paul moved immediately from this topic to that of the remnant (Romans 9:27-29). In making this move, moreover, St. Paul explicitly quotes this tenth chapter of Isaiah, which is clearly his inspiration in Romans 9. Both the Pauline and the Isaian chapters, in fact, deal with the same subject: the achievement of God’s historical purpose through His own choice of instruments.
In the final oracle of the chapter of Isaiah (verses 16-34) the prophet repeats a double theme that we saw in the previous poem (verses 5-15): first, God uses the powers of this world to chastise His people for their infidelities, and second, He permits these worldly powers neither to destroy His people utterly nor to go unpunished for their own sins.
This oracle begins and ends by identifying God as “the Lord, Lord of hosts” (verses 16,33; cf. variations on this verses 23,24). The oracle is structured in two parts (verses 16-23 and verses 24-34), each of them beginning with “therefore” (verses 16,21) and containing the reference “in that day” (verses 20,27).
The true sovereign over history is not some paltry occupant of the Assyrian throne, no matter how impressive he seems to his contemporaries (as in verses 28-32). This thesis about history is what Isaiah enunciates in his references to “the Lord, Lord of hosts” (verses 16,23), “the Holy One” (verses 17,20), the “mighty God” (El gibbor–verse 21; cf. 9:5). The destruction of Assyria, therefore, will be the work of a day (verse 17; cf. 9:1; 10:3; 30:26-33; 37:36).
The places referenced in verses 28-32 are the cities and regions through which the Assyrian was obliged to go on his march to Jerusalem. Aiath seems to be the ancient Ai (cf. Joshua 7:2), about fifteen miles north of the capital, and Migron and Michmash (cf. 1 Samuel 14:2) are farther south. The “pass” through which the Assyrian army crossed at Michmash descended 300 feet into a valley, immediately followed by an ascent of 500 feet up to Geba. Ramah and Gibeah are only six miles from Jerusalem. Terror, meanwhile, has struck the neighboring town of Anatoth, five miles northwest of Jerusalem, and nearby Gallim, Laisha, Madmenah, and Gebim, these last two so far unidentified by archeology. Nob was but a single mile from the capital; there the Assyrians halt to establish surveillance over Jerusalem.
Marching thus triumphantly toward the holy city, the Assyrian forces have no idea that they are walking into fire, for the light of Israel is not extinguished. The Assyrians are to be feared no more than the Egyptians at the time of the Exodus (verse 24), no more than the Midianites at the time of Gideon (verse 26; Judges 7:25).
Isaiah’s comparison of Sennacherib (704-681) to Oreb is particularly appropriate, inasmuch as both men were punished after their respective battles were lost.
The “anointing” in verse 27 refers to the Lord’s messianic covenant with the house of David (cf. 28:16; 37:33-35; 38:5-6) and alludes to the messianic figure that emerges from the stock of Jesse at the beginning of the following chapter. This is a prophecy definitively fulfilled in David’s final and true Heir (cf. Matthew 28:18).
In fact, God is preparing to cut down this mighty forest of an army (verses 33-34). This image prepares the reader for the oracle that begins the next chapter. The coming destruction of the Assyrian forest clears the ground, as it were, for the new shoot from the stump to which the invading army has reduced the root of Jesse, the royal house of David. The first part of the Book of Isaiah will end with the prophet’s narrative of this event (chapters 36—37).