Study On The Book Of Isaiah
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The theme of these passages is a grand one, the majesty of God. The reason the gospel is so powerful is that it is no mere human invention; it emanates from the very throne of God. It is powerful because it is God’s gospel, and what a God He is! Amen? Isaiah paints a breathtaking picture of Him in verses 12-26. He created the universe as effortlessly as a skilled craftsman constructing a model on his workbench (v. 12). He is infinitely wise (vv. 13-14), totally sovereign (vv. 15, 17), worthy of more worship than we could ever give Him (v. 16), incomparable (vv. 18-20), and enthroned above the circle of the earth (vv. 22-24).
Lift up your eyes, says Isaiah, and see who it is who has given you His Word. There was plenty on the horizontal plane to discourage Isaiah and his contemporaries, and still more their successors who suffered the humiliation of defeat and deportation. But how could they give in to despair with a God like this? The danger, of course, was not that God would prove inadequate to their need, but that they would forget what God was like. That the God of Israel was the creator and Lord of the whole earth was not a novel idea; it was one of the most fundamental elements of their religious heritage. Their ancestors had seen the proof of it at the Red Sea, and for generations they had affirmed it in public worship. But such truth is not easy to believe when our world is in ruins. In the midst of suffering we can become almost too numb to grasp it. Isaiah therefore clothes the age-old truth in vivid language so that it will penetrate the dullness of those who are almost past hope, take a fresh hold of them, and lift them up.
No sooner has the truth of God’s power begun to take effect however, than an insidious doubt about His goodness begins to assert itself. “In view of all that has happened, can we really believe that God still cares for us? Isn’t the message that He will move heaven and earth to save us rather too superficial? Isn’t the truth rather that we are too small to be of more than passing interest to Him, and if that He ever really cared about us, surely He has long since ceased to do so?” (v. 27)
Isaiah knew that feeling all too well. He himself had been troubled by it many times in his own long pilgrimage of faith. But he had also learned enough about God to know that it was a lie. The glory of God is not just His power, but His servanthood; the fact is that no-one and nothing is too small to be important to God or worthy of His attention and care. God is not only strong Himself (v. 28), but He gives strength to the weary (v. 29). And therefore those who hope in Him will never do so in vain: They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint (vv. 30-31).
Isaiah 40:12-31 Reflection Questions:
If you are going through troubled times; how do you view God?
What are some of your favorite Scriptures you turn to when you need encouraging?
How much do you know about God? Are you studying Him daily?
In order to appreciate what follows, we need to pause for a minute to reflect on the probable course of Isaiah’s life in his later years. The last time we hear of him engaged in public ministry is in 701 BC, at the time of Sennacherib’s invasion (chapter 37). By then he would have been about 69 years old. By the time Hezekiah died, three years later, he would have been 72. We can be reasonably sure he lived on for some years after his public preaching ministry had come to an end. As early as 712 BC, about 20 years before his death, he could see that the Babylonian exile was coming (39:5-7). It must have weighed heavily upon him. For most of the following 15 years the more immediate Assyrian crisis demanded his attention and, with the accession of Manasseh and the fierce repression that came with it, it would have been impossible for him to preach at all. The nation and its leaders were no longer willing to listen. It would only be after they have reaped the full consequences of their apostasy that they would become teachable again, and then the word that they would need would not be one of judgment, but of restoration. It is likely therefore, as the movement from 39:5-7 to 40:1-11 implies, that in the latter part of his life Isaiah was called to a new task: to comfort God’s people in words that his disciples would cherish and preserve in the dark days ahead until Israel was at last ready to hear them.
The opening part of chapter 40 is like the overture to a great musical composition. The first thing we hear is three stirring commands, like three trumpet blasts: “Comfort…Speak…Proclaim!” (vv. 1-2). The tone is urgent; it is as though we ourselves are being addressed, first by God Himself (v. 1), and then by the anonymous “voice” that rings out in verse 3.The Lord is about to visit Zion. His royal way will be across the desert, and it’s imperative that appropriate preparations be made. “Cry out,” says another voice (V. 6a). There is tension in the air, because an urgent call to action has been issued, and so far no-one has responded. It is at this point at which people begin to squirm in their seats and everyone avoids the speaker’s eyes. Then at last someone speaks; “What shall I cry?” he says (v. 6b). Isaiah is not so much volunteering as acknowledging that he is the one whom the speaker has had in mind all the time. Isaiah has stood in God’s council and heard God calling him to specific ministry which he now takes up.
Isaiah’s new message is for people whose whole world has been shattered. And for people like that, cheap comfort is not only a waste of time, it’s cruel. Comfort that is not grounded in reality is no comfort at all. But the word that Isaiah is commissioned to bring to them is not like that at all; it is based on truth at every point. The first truth is that they are God’s people (v. 1). The covenant that God made with their ancestors at Sinai still stands. God is not indifferent to Jerusalem’s plight, in spite of the disasters He has allowed to come upon her. He still has plans for His people which are tied up in some way with that special place (v. 2).
The second truth is that they have been forgiven (v. 2). The penalty for their sins has been paid in full, and consequently they are to be released forthwith from hard labor. The royal pardon has come, the prison doors are flung wide open, and they are free! What good news this is; and no doubt the inner circle of Isaiah’s disciples long treasured these words. There is far more to this announcement of pardon than first meets the eye. There is a mystery here that will not be explained fully until chapter 53. But for now the announcement is allowed to stand alone in all its stark and bold splendor. You are forgiven! Your sin has been paid for! Your hard labor is over! What more comforting truth could there be for shattered people than that?
The third truth is that God will act to give concrete expression to the fact that He has forgiven them. He will not leave them where they are; He will bring them home (vv. 3-5). The processional way through the wilderness is not just the way for the Lord (v. 3), but the way for His people too, for He is going to take them with Him. He will tend, gather, carry and lead them as He brings them to Zion, like a Shepherd caring for His flock (v. 11). And as the watching world looks on, it will learn what kind of God He is; His glory…will be revealed, and all humankind will see it (v. 5). The Lord is a missionary God; what He does for His own, He does not for their sake alone, but that all may come to know Him.
The fourth and final truth is that God’s Word can be relied upon. It does not decay and fade away as we do, but stands forever (vv. 6-8). The person who cannot rest his or her whole weight on the Word of God can never know peace, for in the last analysis it can be found nowhere else than in a trusting relationship with the God who made us and rightly claims us as His own. It is trust in a person who is committed to us and has all the resources necessary to care for us. It is the Word of our God that Isaiah speaks of, a word or message that arises from a relationship. And the truth is that God’s Word has the same character as God Himself. It is unchanging and reliable as the God who speaks it.
Such comfort is good news indeed, so good that it cannot and must not be contained. It must be shouted confidently and fearlessly from the mountaintops (v. 9). The gospel of Jesus Christ is the gospel of Isaiah 40 transposed into a new, higher key. And it too, is far too important to be contained. It must be shouted from the housetops, not just for the cities of Judah, but for all the world to hear!
Isaiah 40:1-11 Reflection Questions:
Are ignoring God’s call for you? Take that first step of faith today!
How much do you rely on God’s Word? Do you apply it to daily life?
Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?
Are you reading God’s Word daily? How are you sharing the “good news?”
Who is the one being described in Isaiah 40:3 from the New Testament Gospel?
It may be difficult for us to think of Judah and Babylon as allies, but in 712 BC it must have seemed the most natural thing in the world. Babylon had been trying to break free of Assyrian domination ever since Babylon was conquered in 745 BC, and Merodach-Baladan (v. 1) was the hero of the resistance. At the same time Hezekiah had become the de facto leader of the anti-Assyrian coalition in southern Palestine. What could make better sense than co-operation between them? It certainly made sense to the Babylonians, who had apparently been watching events in Palestine with keen interest.
Envoys were dispatched with letters and a gift (v. 1), and they found Hezekiah in high spirits. His strength had returned, his storehouses were full, and his little kingdom was well armed and confident. He was flattered at being courted by one so famous, and did everything in his power to impress his distinguished visitors (v. 2). Events have moved too quickly. Action that required careful thought and wise counsel has been taken hastily and without careful consideration from wrong motives and, worst of all, God has not been consulted. But it is a hard truth for Hezekiah to accept. We can sense his defensiveness in the tense exchange of verses 3 and 4, and by the end of the chapter he has descended into pure child-like sulking (v.8).
Isaiah saw only too clearly that in the long term Babylon would prove to be an enemy rather than a friend. The royal treasure which the Babylonians had seen they would eventually carry off as plunder and with it the surviving members of the royal family (vv. 5-7). Hezekiah’s hasty alliance with Babylon was as much symptomatic of lack of trust as the more blatant sin of idol-worship which increasingly blighted the life of the whole nation. The apostasy that took place in his reign was so bad that its effects were irreversible; God decided that Judah would have to be totally demolished, and Babylon would be the instrument He would use.
Isaiah is relentless in hammering home the message that whatever we put trust in, instead of God Himself, will eventually turn on us and destroys us. So, as we come to the end of this crucial central section of the book, we are faced with the grim prospect of exile and the hard questions that it would inevitably throw up: Was there any hope of recovery, or was judgment to be God’s final word to Israel? Had the promises to David been cancelled or only put in suspension? Who was really in control of history, the Lord or the gods of Babylon? Was trust in the God of Israel even possible anymore? Paradoxically, it was precisely in this situation where all the external supports of Israel’s faith had been destroyed, that she was to learn in a deeper way than ever before what real trust in God was all about.
Isaiah 39:1-8 Reflection Questions:
What was the major sin of Hezekiah in verse 2 other than not consulting God?
Have you ever felt like Hezekiah after God has answered your prayers?
Have you had a personal lesson in what trusting God is all about? Journal on it.
The opening phrase, “In those days”, is deliberately vague and gives only a general indication of the time-frame of the narrative. In fact, this chapter and the next are effectively a flashback to something that happened before the events that have just been described. The deliverance of Jerusalem as pronounced here has already taken place in the previous chapter. So we have stepped back in time and back from the broad canvas of international events, to pick up something far more intimate and private (v. 1). It’s the crisis behind the crisis, so to speak.
For an individual of course, sickness can be just as much a crisis as an invasion is for a nation. Illness, especially if it is serious, brings us face to face with our mortality, and can put our trust in God on a razor’s edge. This is precisely the situation in which we find Hezekiah in this chapter. He is ill – very ill – and the word from Isaiah is that he is going to die (v. 1). Hezekiah is deeply shaken by the news. He turns his face to the wall and weeps bitterly (vv. 2-3). It is a helpful reminder to pray for our leaders. We have a tendency to forget that they are subject to the same weakness as ourselves. It can be very lonely at the top.
But Hezekiah is not alone, and his faith is not utterly extinguished. He does not just weep; he prays (v. 3). It’s a far cry from the robust prayer of 37:14-17 (it’s harder to be strong in a personal crisis than in a national one), but it is a prayer none the less, and shows that his face is turned, not just to the wall, but also to God. There is no praise, no pious resignation to the divine will, no expressed desire that God may be glorified – just a muted cry for help. It’s not much of a prayer, but it’s all he is capable of at this moment. But this is precisely the kind of backdrop against which God’s splendid grace shines to fullest advantage. And that is certainly the case here. Hezekiah is granted not only what he asked for, but much more. The Lord will add fifteen years to Hezekiah’s own life – and he will also defend and deliver Jerusalem (vv. 5-6). No wonder Hezekiah prayed with more robust faith next time! He learned something in this crisis which strengthened him for the next.
In verses 7-8 Hezekiah is given a sign to assure him that the Lord will indeed do as he has promised. According to verse 22 he had requested such a sign, an indication that his faith had not yet reached a point of confident rest. But at least he was disposed to believe, in contrast to Ahaz, who had refused to accept a sign when one was offered (7:10-13). There is all the difference in the world between someone who is disposed to believe and someone who is not. It is the difference between light and darkness. Hezekiah recovered as the Lord said he would.
In a sense, by the time we reach verse 9 of this chapter everything of importance has already happened. But in fact what follows is the most significant part of all, for here Hezekiah reflects, with the benefit of hindsight, on all that the experience has meant to him (vv. 9-20). Such lessons are priceless, but often it is only looking back, as Hezekiah does here, that we can see how suffering has been the means God has used to teach them to us.
But now it is time for us to widen our perspective again, for although Hezekiah was a human being like ourselves, he was also the king of a nation which had a unique place in God’s purposes. Because of this, his sickness and recovery could not be purely private affairs; they had the potential to change the course of history, as we will see in our study of chapter 39.
Isaiah 38:1-22 Reflection Questions:
Are you going through or have you gone through a personal crisis? How did it impact your faith?
Was your faith strengthened? Are you learning from your crises?
Why do you think it’s important to look back in hindsight on your personal crises?
Contrast this with 37:1-2, where Hezekiah tore his own clothes and asked Isaiah to pray. Now there is no tearing of clothes and he does his own praying. Here is a man who knows his way about in the realm of faith. He begins by committing all to God (v. 14) and then turns to asking (vv. 15-20).
What a magnificent prayer! And how feeble it makes our own prayers seem by comparison. It begins and ends with God, and its overriding concern is that God might be glorified in the situation. Hezekiah has gone up to the temple and spread out Sennacherib’s letter before the Lord. And now, as he begins to pray, he recalls who it is he prays to: O Lord Almighty of Israel, enthroned between the cherubim (v. 16a). This is no distant, unknown God, but the God who has revealed Himself to His people and is present among them. He is not just a local, national God, He is Creator of heaven and earth and sovereign over all the kingdoms of the earth (v. 16b).
Hezekiah’s prayer is magnificent because it arises from a deep and true understanding of who God is, and is fundamentally an act of worship. Such praying lifts people out of themselves and into the presence of God. And in that context, present problems are not lost sight of; they are just seen from a new perspective, and the cry for deliverance becomes a cry that God’s kingdom may come and His will be done (v. 20). The context of worship purges the cry of all pathetic self-interest and binds together the one who cries and the One who hears in a common desire and a common purpose. If only we could learn to pray like this, what times we would have on our knees, and what a difference we would see in the progress of the gospel in the world!
Such prayers do not go unheeded. Even as Hezekiah has been praying, God has been revealing His Word to Isaiah, so that Hezekiah scarcely has time to rise from his knees before he receives an answer (v. 21-22). We must not miss this, because it is part of the Bible’s strong teaching about prayer. Because someone has prayed, God steps in and changes the course of history. It is a breathtaking truth, and at first sight a worrying one, because it appears to put humans rather than God in control. But this is just an illusion. There is no conflict between God’s absolute sovereignty and the power of prayer, because, quite simply, this is the way God has chosen to work. Through prayer He draws us up into His purposes and involves us in what He is doing. What a privilege! Even the desire to pray is His gift.
The first word that Hezekiah receives is a judgment oracle against Sennacherib (vv. 22-29). The second word is a sign for Hezekiah himself (v. 30). The removal of Sennacherib will be only a means to an end, and Hezekiah will know that it is indeed the Lord who has done it by the positive things that flow from it (vv. 30b-32). The third and final word of Hezekiah again concerns Sennacherib: he will not be allowed to take Jerusalem. The Lord will defend it for His own sake and for the sake of David His servant (vv. 33-35). For all Hezekiah’s piety, the plans of God do not revolve around him, but around God Himself, and His servant. Hezekiah is saved, not for his own sake, but for the sake of another.
All that is needed to draw this chapter to its close, however, is the brief, almost matter-of-fact report that God did what He said He would do. He broke the morale of the Assyrian force with a single blow (v. 36), where upon Sennacherib obediently broke camp and headed for home (v. 37), and eventually met precisely the fate that the Lord had said He would (v. 38). The towering tyrant is dispatched in just three verses. All Hezekiah had to do, like his fathers of old was to “stand still and see the salvation of the Lord.” It brought king and people back to the exodus roots of their faith.
Isaiah 37:14-38 Reflection Questions:
Do your prayers include a concern that God is glorified or are they just for your wants and needs?
Do you see yourself as a partner with God in the course of history?
What is the main lesson you learned from this study?
There was no denying the seriousness of the situation, and Hezekiah’s torn clothes and sackcloth showed that he had no intention of pretending that things were other than they were. But he had three great resources: the Lord (v. 1), The Lord’s prophet (v. 2), and prayer (v. 4, 15). And Hezekiah resolved at once to use them all. He resorted to the temple of the Lord, he informed Isaiah of the desperate situation, and he both asked for prayer and prayed himself. This was perhaps Hezekiah’s finest hour. He was not perfect. In fact, the mess he was in was largely of his own making. But in the last analysis, he knew that the Lord reigned, and therefore nothing was impossible or hopeless. The pressure of circumstances had stripped him back to basics.
Isaiah’s response was immediate (v. 5). Isaiah is the channel by which God’s Word enters the situation and begins to transform it. It’s not just Hezekiah or the people that Sennacherib has demeaned, but the living God (vv. 4 & 6), and in doing so he over-reached himself. Isaiah saw very clearly that pride is the worst of all sins. It is the purest form of defiance possible; it is ousting God from the throne of our lives and putting ourselves in His place. It is the primal sin which all others grow. And it was especially, in this case, the sin of the king of Assyria. Now that threat is flushed out and confirmed: He will return to his own country, and there I will have him cut down with the sword (v. 7). In the last analysis, it is the Word of the Lord that will prevail, not the word of Sennacherib.
The Word which has entered the situation like yeast gradually begins to have its effect. Isaiah had spoken about God unsettling Sennacherib and of him hearing a report (v. 7). Unease is suggested by the fact that when the envoy returns, he finds that Sennacherib has temporarily broken off siege of Lachish and is fighting against Libnah (v. 8). He is perhaps expecting an attack from Egypt. If so, his suspicions are soon confirmed; he receives a report that an Egyptian force has indeed begun to move against him (v. 9). What happened next is unclear; neither the Bible nor Sennacherib’s annals throw any light on it. But since he continued to threaten Jerusalem, it is unlikely that the Egyptians had much success. In short, despite his successes, it was clearly in his own best interests to wind up proceedings in Palestine as quickly as possible. But what was to be done about Jerusalem? If it could not be frightened into surrender, the Assyrians could either mount a full-scale siege (which might last eighteen months or more) or decide that Hezekiah had already been taught a salutary lesson and leave him to lick his wounds. Sennacherib may well have been considering these options as Hezekiah went to prayer (v. 14).
Isaiah 37:1-13 Reflection Questions:
Have you ever found yourself in a big mess similar to Hezekiah’s? What was your first response, to turn to the world or to the Lord?
Do you have the same faith and trust as Hezekiah did?
What did the Lord strip Hezekiah from by allowing him to go this far in his troubles?
What is a primary lesson you learn from today’s study?
We come now to part four of Isaiah’s book (chapters 36-39). As we saw in the introduction, these chapters are in effect the pivot on which the book turns, and appear to have been designed to act as a bridge between its two halves. Likewise, the issue that these chapters throw into sharp relief is absolutely central to the book’s total message. It’s the issue of trust and where that trust should ultimately be placed. It is explored first against the backdrop of an Assyrian invasion that brought Judah to the verge of extinction, and then in the context of a diplomatic initiative from Babylon which appeared to offer Judah everything it needed. It was hard to believe, in these circumstances, that Judah’s security was in the Lord alone, and even harder to act on it. Ironically, it was the Assyrian invader who put the issue most succinctly: On whom are you depending? (36:5). It’s a question which the book of Isaiah forces us to ponder again and again, and with good reason, for our response to it will determine the whole shape of our lives.
Chapter 36 bounces us back with a sudden jolt from the glorious vision of the end to the very inglorious and frightening world of the here and now, or at least the here and now that Isaiah and his contemporaries had to wrestle with. True religion is always like that; it leads us not away from reality, but more deeply into it. It arms us with the knowledge of what will be, so that we can confront what is (however frightening it may be) with renewed courage and steadiness of purpose.
The invasion described so concisely and dispassionately in verse 1 was a devastating blow for Judah. Hezekiah had become embroiled in anti-Assyrian activity, and Sennacherib was determined to make him pay for it. He would teach the small states of the region a lesson they would never forget, and establish once for all the unassailable supremacy of Assyria in Palestine. As a key player in the recent unrest, Hezekiah was a special object of Sennacherib’s wrath. And the proud Assyrian arrived at the gates of Jerusalem with abundant proof of his invincibility. He had already swept across the north, down the Mediterranean coast and inland and northwards to Lachish. On his triumphant way he had attacked and captured all fortified cities of Judah (v. 1), and was in the process of doing the same to Lachish, Jerusalem’s last line of defense.
Sennacherib’s field commander presented Hezekiah’s men with powerful arguments for surrender. Egypt is in no position to help (v. 6); it’s no good looking to the Lord, because Hezekiah has destroyed most places where He was worshiped (v. 7); even if the Assyrians themselves were to give little Judah two thousand horses (they are taunting her now), she still could not defend herself (vv. 8-9); and in any case it is the Lord who has sent the Assyrians; they are His instrument to punish Judah, so what point is there in resisting (v. 10)? This speech is a classic study in the satanic art of sowing doubt and unbelief through subtly twisting the truth. Egypt was weak at this time, and in any case, the fall of Lachish would effectively cut off any Egyptian advance. The field commander’s warning about relying on Egypt echoes that of Isaiah himself.
The speech is so persuasive precisely because it contains so much that’s true. But its basic premise is false: namely, that the Lord has forsaken Judah, and therefore that trust is futile. It’s always Satan’s way to make us think that God has abandoned us, and to use logic woven from half-truths to convince us of it. This speech is so subtly devilish in character that it might have been written by Satan himself. The truth is that the Lord had brought Judah to the end of her own resources so that she might learn again what it meant to trust Him utterly. But He had not abandoned and would not abandon her.
Since the leaders appeared to be standing firm (no doubt to the field commander’s surprise), he decided another ploy. He had always meant the bystanders to overhear what he had to say; that was why he had used Hebrew instead of Aramaic. But now he addressed himself directly to them (vv. 13-20), and this time he is less subtle: they should forswear their allegiance to King Hezekiah (who is powerless), and entrust themselves to the great king, the king of Assyria, who will guarantee their prosperity (vv. 13-17). None of the gods of the other nations have been able to save them, so they should not listen any longer to Hezekiah’s lies about the Lord saving Judah (vv. 18-20). But the common people are not as easily swayed as the Assyrian expects them to be: they remain silent, as the king (Hezekiah) had commanded (v. 21). There are times when silence is the most eloquent testimony to whose we are and whom we serve.
So the ball is firmly back inn Hezekiah’s court (v. 22). The people will follow where he leads; in a sense, the lives of them all are in his hands. What will he do, and what resources can he call on at this fateful moment?
Isaiah 36:1-22 Reflection Questions:
In whom do you put your total trust in? If it is the Lord…how has that changed your life?
Has the Lord ever brought you to the end of your own resources so that you might learn again what it meant to trust Him utterly? Journal about it.
What would you do if you were in Hezekiah’s position?
In chapter 35 it is as though a brilliant shaft of light breaks through the clouds and all is bathed in splendor again. Arid wastes burst into bloom as the glory of the Lord comes down like refreshing showers, and the whole earth shouts for joy (vv. 1-2). It’s a vision to steady trembling hands, strengthen weak knees, and lift fearful hearts (vv. 3-4). The people addressed here remember the sights of home, but they are far away, and powerless to return. They have been conquered and brutalized, and their anguished hearts cry out for vengeance, retribution, and deliverance. But they have no strength to right the wrongs they have suffered or to bring those responsible to account. They are blind, deaf, lame, and mute; they have no power to help themselves; only God can save them. And the good news of this chapter is that He will do just that (vv. 5-7). He will raise up a highway for them and bring them home. They will enter Zion with singing…sorrow and sighing will flee away, and they will be overtaken by a joy that will never end (vv. 8-10).
Clearly, a situation of exile and return is in view here, something that will be developed at length in the second half of the book. But just as clearly, this chapter reaches beyond that to something else. The everlasting joy of this chapter corresponds to the everlasting destruction of the previous one. Beyond the judgments and blessings of history lie the final “everlastings” of salvation and damnation. These are the ultimate realities we have to reckon with. There are foreshadowing’s of them within history, but in Scripture something greater always looms up behind.
We of course, would like to have only one of these realities: blessing without curse, salvation without judgment, heaven without hell. And we are always in danger of rewriting the rules, so to speak, to suit our own inclinations. But the biblical revelation has a stubborn shape to it that resists all manipulation of this kind. It forces us to decision: we must have it as it is or not at all; accept it or make up your own religion. No quarter is given, either by biblical writers or by Jesus Himself. On the last day, some will go away to eternal punishment, and some to eternal life.
Let us concentrate for a moment on the highway of verse 8. It is the way to everlasting joy. It is the way to Zion, the city of God, and all that it symbolizes. In New Testament terms it is the highway to heaven. And it’s the Way of Holiness, which puts us in touch again with a major theme of the book. For Isaiah, holiness is the defining characteristic of God Himself. Above all else, God is Holy, so the way of holiness is not just the way to Zion, or the way to heaven; it’s the way to God! It’s not the golden streets or the pearly gates that make heaven what it is, but the presence of God. To be in heaven is to be with God forever, in totally joyous, unspoiled fellowship. And the way to heaven is provided by God Himself. It is for those who have been redeemed, or ransomed (vv. 9-10). These terms refer to powerful and costly deliverance. They have their roots in the exodus from Egypt, and find their final significance in the work of Christ, by which God rescues us from the power of sin and Satan. These acts of judgment and deliverance are the expressions, par excellence, of His holiness. Look at them, and you will see His holiness in action. The way of holiness is the way of salvation that God provides.
But it is also the way we must choose; it is not for the unclean or for the wicked fools (v. 8). It is for those who have chosen holiness as their way of life and renounced other ways. And what a glorious picture of holiness this chapter gives us! The way of holiness is the way of singing, joy and gladness (v. 10). No drabness here! The pursuit of holiness is the pursuit of God Himself, and the face that is set towards God will open to joy and gladness like a flower opening to the sun.
With this we have reached another resting-point in our journey through Isaiah’s vision. And as we pause and catch our breath, where do we find ourselves? At home, joyful and at rest in the presence of God; it’s where we long to be, and the only place where we will ever be totally content to stay. For we too are exiles, and our hearts cry out for home; for we cannot save ourselves, but the way has already been raised up for us, and we have already set out on it. Like the prodigal, we are on the way home, but we know far better than he did the welcome that awaits us. And this part of Isaiah’s vision is like a refreshing oasis on the way, where we can pause and gather strength for what remains of the journey. Joy and gladness and God Himself are up ahead, and with that certain knowledge we can rise above our weariness and set out again.
Isaiah 35:1-10 Reflection Questions:
Are you trying to make up your own religion by picking and choosing what you like from the Bible?
Have you ever found yourself to have no power to help yourself get out of the mess you’re in? How did God save you?
Have you chosen the way of holiness?
Judgment is the natural corollary of the fact that God is king (chapter 33). A king must rule, or he is no king at all, and that means that rebellion must finally be put down. The fact is that God is almost unbelievably patient, but Isaiah is clear that His just anger is a reality to be reckoned with, and we delude ourselves if we think otherwise. Hence the urgent call to listen in verse 1. God has put the world on notice that He will not tolerate insurrection forever.
God’s wrath is expressed every day in a thousand ways. Every morning’s newspaper provides more tragic evidence of the terrible price that the world is even now paying for its rejection of God. But this is nothing compared to what is to come; it is like tremors that precede an earthquake. And it’s the earthquake itself, the final shaking of everything that Isaiah sets before us. The language is concrete and vivid. Divine judgment is no theological abstraction here, but destruction, slaughter, stench, and blood (vv. 2-3). It is the sky rolling up like a scroll, and stars falling from the heavens like leaves from winter trees (v. 4). The end of the world is a reality which we instinctively push to the back of our minds because we find it too difficult to cope with, like the fact of our own approaching death. But the Bible will not allow us to evade these realities; it forces us to face them and live in the light of them.
God is king; that is the bedrock truth on which judgment rests. But He is also a warrior, and in verse 5 we meet His sword. It swings in a mighty arc from heaven to earth and finds its mark in Edom, Judah’s southern neighbor. Edom is representative here then, not of the nations in general, but of the enemies of Israel. And once we grasped that we are in a position to see clearly the purpose of God’s judgment. It is to uphold Zion’s cause (v. 8). The vengeance and retribution which this involves are expressions of God’s commitment to those He has chosen to be His people.
There is no direct correspondence of course, between this and the tragic political and territorial conflicts in the Middle East today. The line between God’s people and their enemies is quite differently drawn this side of the cross, as the rest of the book will make abundantly clear. Zion’s cause in this passage is a quite different thing from modern Zionism. However, there are theological principles which do still apply. From the moment God chose Abraham, the crucial question for others was how they would respond to him. They would be blessed if they blessed him and cursed if they cursed him. Their fate was in their own hands; they could choose their response, but not its outcome. It is the way God has always worked, and still does today. Only the particulars have changed. God now works through Christ and His people, but the same basic choice faces the world as faced ancient Edom.
The judgment on Edom is pictured as a terrible slaughter, but also a sacrifice (v. 6), which alerts us to something very significant about judgment as the Bible understands it. It is not just God acting to vindicate a particular group of people. Sacrifice is about recognizing who God Himself is and giving Him His due. Judgment is not just a judicial or military act; it’s a religious act. It is God acting to claim at last the honor that is due to Him as Creator and Ruler of the world. That is why the Bible ends with a great outburst of praise to God for His righteous judgments, for they mean not only the vindication of His people, but the vindication of God Himself. This is what we ask for when we pray, as Jesus taught us, “Your kingdom come, your will be done.” In its most profound sense it is a prayer for the end of the world.
Isaiah will not let us go until he makes one final point, and the time he takes over it is no doubt calculated to impress us with its gravity: there will be no reprieve from that last and terrible judgment. Edom is set before us as a smoldering ruin, gradually overrun by nettles, brambles and wild creatures, and never rebuilt (vv. 9-17). It is a picture of utter finality. Isaiah never shrinks from his responsibility to set this terrible truth before us. In the last analysis, Isaiah’s vision is a missionary vision, and every great missionary movement has derived its urgency from this truth: the world is in rebellion against God, and without the gospel people will be lost, utterly and eternally. Judgment may be necessary and right, but it is not what God delights in or the goal He is working towards!
Isaiah 34:1-17 Reflection Questions:
What could Edom have done to be the object of such fury on God’s part?
Who are some of Israel’s enemies today? What has recently happened at the United Nations against Israel? What was the United States response?
In what ways are you building a current and active relationship with Christ?
These two chapters are unified by their sustained focus on the theme of good government – government which is grounded ultimately in the presence of the Lord among His people and the recognition by them of His kingship. This theme is introduced at once in the opening line of chapter 32 and the climax is reached towards the end of chapter 33. For the most part Isaiah is looking forward in these chapters to a future, ideal situation – the dawning of a new age. But the context from which he speaks is anything but ideal. It’s a situation in which the complacent have to come to terms with stern reality when a destroyer is on the move and when diplomacy has failed and the nation’s leaders are distraught. It’s against this background that Isaiah pointed to the only alternative that could secure the nation’s future: government grounded in the kingship of God.
Isaiah develops his theme in four main movements. The first (32:1-8) sets out the nature of good government and the results that flow from it. The results of such government are spelled out in verses 2-5 of chapter 32. One result is security, conveyed by four images from the natural world in verse 2. Another result is the restoration of sight, hearing, good judgment and clear speech (vv. 3-4). Since Isaiah is apparently speaking here about the reversal of the conditions that prevailed in Judah in his own day, it’s best to take the blindness and deafness of verse 3 as the unresponsiveness to the Word of God, especially among the nation’s leaders. The fool and scoundrel of verse 5 are each described in turn in verses 6 and 7 before the contrast with the noble man is drawn in verse 8. This little discourse undoubtedly reflects what is happening all too often in Judah in Isaiah’s day. But good government will put an end to that.
The second (32:9-20) shows that there is no shortcut to this ideal; it can only come through judgment and the outpouring of God’s Spirit. It’s the men not women who bore the main brunt of Isaiah’s stern preaching. However here, he focuses on women, partly because of their shared responsibility as wives and partly because their demeanor was an indicator of prevailing attitudes. There is another reason also, Isaiah was going to issue a call to mourn and lament and such calls were customarily addressed to women as those who would be touched most deeply by the suffering that was anticipated. In little more than a year harvests would fail (v. 10), once cultivated land would be overgrown with thorns and briers (v. 13a) and Jerusalem would become a joyless city (v. 13b). In short Judah and Jerusalem would experience the full impact of the Assyrian invasion (v. 14). The new age of God’s blessing will be an age of material prosperity (vv. 15, 20) and true and lasting security (vv. 17-18) grounded in justice and righteousness (v. 16 which, as we have seen, are the foundational characteristics of good government. This new age of the Spirit was inaugurated at Pentecost and will be here in its fullness when Jesus the Messiah – who is both Spirit-endowed and the One who bestows the Spirit – returns in power to reign.
The third movement (33:1-6) summarizes in more specific terms the steps by which the new age will be ushered in: the Lord will arise, destroy the destroyer, and establish His rule. There is much in chapter 33 which reflects the last-minute turning to the Lord which took place in Jerusalem, led by Hezekiah, when Sennacherib’s envoys were at the gates. The treachery of the destroyer in verses 1-3 probably refers to Sennacherib’s treachery in accepting Hezekiah’s tribute and then preparing to attack. Isaiah speaks in this chapter of both the immediate blessing of deliverance from the Assyrians and of the final blessedness of Zion when all His purposes for her will be fulfilled.
The fourth and final movement (33:7-24) then fills out this summary by repeating each of its elements, but in a more expansive fashion. In this final movement the theme of divine government receives its most elaborate treatment. The lament in verses 7-9 shows the need for divine government by expressing the total bankruptcy of the human alternative. The answering oracle of verses 10-13 proclaims the Lord’s total adequacy (and intention) to deal with all who challenge His own authority and the welfare of His people. Here is the negative aspect of divine rule: Judgment. But this causes some anxious heart-searching among the people of Jerusalem themselves. Verses 15-16 respond to this by calling for the amendment of life which is the necessary accompaniment of repentance, for ultimately only those who reflect God’s own character can dwell with Him. Verses 17-24 then present the positive aspect of divine rule: the blessings that will flow from God reigning in the midst of His people.
After the climax of verse 22, two final touches complete Isaiah’s vision of the coming age. The first is a reminder to his contemporaries that they are utterly unable of themselves to bring it about. They are like a stricken ship, totally at the mercy of forces beyond their control (v. 23). The second is closely related to this, namely the assertion that the fundamental truth about all who inhabit the ideal world to come is that they will be forgiven people (v. 24). Only grace can get us from where we are to where we need to be. The blessings of God’s rule are for those who know that they are sinners in need of God’s forgiveness more than anything else. That is just as true for us today as it was for Isaiah’s original audience.
Isaiah 32:1-33:24 Reflection Questions:
Who do you think is this king mentioned in chapter 32:1?
Have you come to the realization that you are a stricken ship?
What are some of God’s blessings you are experiencing now?
Have you ever experienced God waiting till the last minute to come to your aid?
What’s the message here?