5. God's Help vs. Man's -- the Assyrian Crisis (Isaiah 28-35)


Audio (29:04)

Isaiah has given us a glimpse of the final Day of the Lord in chapters 24 to 27. But now we begin a series of prophecies in which the Lord reveals the inner corruption that will result in devastation of the northern kingdom, Israel, and which will turn Judah into a vassal of Assyria. In fact, corruption and godlessness can put any nation in the path of God's judgment.

Kingdoms of Israel and Judah at the time Isaiah began his ministry, about 750 BC.
Kingdoms of Israel and Judah at the time Isaiah began his ministry, about 750 BC. Larger map.

Woe to Israel (28:1-13)

The first prophecy concerns Israel, the northern kingdom. Ephraim is the dominant tribe, so here Ephraim becomes the name by which the northern kingdom is referred.

The prophecy roundly condemns the drunken revelry of the rulers, who party on, seemingly oblivious of the judgment about to fall on their nation. The wreaths of authority and honor[136] worn by the partyers will be trampled by their enemies, says the prophet.

Severe judgment will fall on the northern kingdom. In that day the nobles'crowns will be gone, but Yahweh himself will be revealed as the crown and glory of the remnant that is not killed or exiled. In this prophecy of judgment comes an encouraging word:

"5 In that day the LORD Almighty
will be a glorious crown,
a beautiful wreath for the remnant of his people.
6 He will be a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgment,
a source of strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate." (28:5-6)

In the place of injustice, Yahweh will inspire justice in the judges. In the place of utter defeat, Yahweh will help the warriors defend the city when the siege comes to the very gate of the city -- literally fulfilled when Sennacherib besieged Jerusalem in 701 BC, only to be defeated by an angel of the Lord (2 Kings 19:35-36).

But the drunken leaders of the northern kingdom have no desire to learn. God explains to them just how to find rest from their enemies.

"'This is the resting place, let the weary rest';
and, 'This is the place of repose'--
but they would not listen." (28:12)

They have rejected truth. They are like toddlers that learn slowly, by rote --

"For it is: Do and do, do and do,
rule on rule, rule on rule;
a little here, a little there." (28:10)

If they refuse to learn from Yahweh the easy way, then he will teach them the hard way -- by the foreign nations that take them into exile, who speak to them in unfamiliar languages.

"Very well then, with foreign lips and strange tongues
God will speak to this people." (28:11)

If we persist in being stubbornly unteachable, God may use extreme -- and sometimes uncomfortable -- means to instruct us. Paul quotes Isaiah 28:11-12 in 1 Corinthians 14:21 to make a point that speaking in tongues to impress unbelievers will be perceived as foolishness.

In Jerusalem, A Precious Cornerstone (28:14-22)

The rulers of Judah are little better. Though they observe God's judgment on the northern kingdom, they continue to scoff in their unbelief and arrogance towards Yahweh. They proclaim some kind of "covenant with death" that they won't be conquered, probably referring to a military alliance they have made with Egypt, supposedly guaranteeing success in their rebellion against Assyria.

The prophet caricatures their boast:

"We have made a lie our refuge
and falsehood our hiding place." (28:15)

How many people do you know who take refuge in falsehoods they mostly believe -- and act on? For example: I am happier when I drink or use drugs. Or, I'll get a husband, even if I have to engage in immorality to get him. False beliefs like these hold people in bondage -- and they cannot free themselves. The gospel's truth can set them free, if they will just take heed. But so many prefer the popular lies of the culture, and the falsehoods they hold more dear than God's truth. Here, in the case of Judah's reliance on Egypt, the Judeans have deceived themselves, and will indeed be swept away, but they will not thwart God's plan.

For the second time in this chapter, in the midst of doom and gloom, we see a bright light. The rulers of Jerusalem have built their strategy against Assyria upon a foundation of empty promises and lies about being aided by Egypt in case of war. This foundation was shoddy and ultimately crumbled. But the foundation God is laying is solid and his standard is perfect righteousness.

"16 So this is what the Sovereign LORD says:
'See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation;
the one who trusts will never be dismayed.
17 I will make justice the measuring line
and righteousness the plumb line....'" (28:16-17a)

A sure foundation must be constructed with quality materials as well as with accurate tools so that it is totally level and plumb. But the Lord is talking here about a spiritual building, not a physical one.

This is clearly a messianic passage prophesying the day of righteousness that the Messiah will usher in. This "precious cornerstone" is ultimately a designation of Jesus the Messiah (1 Peter 2:6-8). He is the foundation of the New Israel (1 Corinthians 3:11; Ephesians 2:20). And those who trust in him will never be disappointed (Romans 9:32-33; 10:11). Two further prophecies about this Stone are quoted in the New Testament:

"The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone." (Psalm 118:22)

"For both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes men to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall." (Isaiah 8:14a)

Jesus is God's chosen Son, yet the "builders," the arrogant, self-serving chief priests and elders in Jerusalem, rejected him (Matthew 21:42 = Mark 13:10 = Luke 20:17-18; Acts 4:11-12), they stumbled over him, rather than trusting in him (Romans 9:32-33; 11:9; 1 Peter 2:8).

The unrighteous leaders will never find rest; they will twist and turn, but not be comfortable. They have made their bed; now they must lie in it, but their preparations have been inadequate.

"The bed is too short to stretch out on,
the blanket too narrow to wrap around you." (28:20)

Now the prophet turns to the Lord's "strange work," his "alien task" (28:21) of bringing destruction to his own people. As at Mount Perazim when he broke out on the Philistines like a flood (2 Samuel 5:20; 1 Chronicles 14:11) and struck down the fleeing Canaanites at Gibeon with hail (Joshua 10:11), so the Lord will bring awesome destruction upon Judah.

As a farmer applies the treatment appropriate for a particular situation (28:23-29), so does the Lord. Threshing is necessary to separate the grain from the chaff, but it must seem brutal to the stalks that suffer under it. In this parable, Isaiah teaches that, in his wisdom, God will only thresh his people to the extent necessary to achieve his intended result -- of making delicious bread in the end.

Q1. (Isaiah 28) How are we humans able to justify and deceive ourselves so easily? Why do we hold onto lies that guide our lives? Why do people stumble over Christ, the tested foundation stone, and his righteous standards? How can we help people come to the truth? What is the alternative if they don't, according to Isaiah 28:21?
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Woe to David's City (29)

Now Isaiah turns specifically to the city of Jerusalem. "Ariel" ('arî'ēl) seems to be another name for Jerusalem. It could mean "Lion of God" (ʾarî, "lion"), or perhaps "hearth of God," that is, his home[137] -- we're not sure.

Isaiah prophesies a siege of Jerusalem that brings its people low -- starving and in despair. But when all seems lost, the Lord will come with his great wind and the enemies will disappear like blown chaff (28:2-6). When his people awake, their enemies will seem like only a bad dream. They will be gone (28:7-8).

The siege of Jerusalem prophesied here found fulfillment during Hezekiah's reign when Sennacherib besieged Jerusalem in 701 BC, but withdrew after a plague from the Lord struck his army (Isaiah 38).

By their own rebelliousness, God's people have refused to listen to his prophets. Thus they are blind. And because they choose falsehood rather than truth, God has "sealed their eyes" -- that is, their court prophets, and "covered their heads," that is, their seers (29:9-12).

Isaiah gives insight into the nature of the nation's rebellion in a passage quoted by Jesus to describe the Pharisees and teachers of the law in his day (Matthew 15:7-9):

"These people come near to me with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men." (29:13)

A great danger of religious people -- like you and me -- is that we tend to so institutionalize and systematize our religion that we no longer seek the Lord himself, but instead hold a cold orthodoxy. Jesus said that this passage described the Pharisees of his day (Matthew 15:7-9). Too often, our precious doctrines are not the teaching of scripture, but dogmatic interpretations -- "rules taught by men." Our hearts can be far from the Lord while we practice our religion with great fervor. Jeremiah said:

"The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.
Who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9)

My dear friends, Isaiah's indictment of the people of his time should cause us to search our hearts and repent, lest it be true of us too.

The prophet continues by portraying the utter foolishness of thinking that God can't see people's plans and know their hearts. He uses a parable of the potter and the clay.[138]

"You turn things upside down,
as if the potter were thought to be like the clay!
Shall what is formed say to him who formed it, 'He did not make me'?
Can the pot say of the potter, 'He knows nothing'?" (29:16)

If you've heard agnostics and atheists rail against God and blaspheme Jesus, then you know the utter foolishness that people can find themselves in. They say stupid things out of their own arrogance and ignorance. So can we, if we're not careful. Again and again, Jesus taught his disciples humility!

Q2. (Isaiah 29:13) Have you ever seen a religious person go through all the religious motions, but whose heart is far from God? How can we detect this in ourselves if it applies to us? What is the remedy? How can you tell if your practice of religion is merely following "rules taught by men"? What is the danger of a rule-based faith? How does it differ from a love-based faith?
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The Promise (29:17-24)

Now the prophet looks to the future. Right now the people seem deaf, and the prophecy is sealed up, but a complete transformation is coming. Lebanon, which was then (and is now) a mountainous region, will become a fertile field, even a forest! Isaiah seems to be speaking of the Last Days when the Messiah comes, even though he sees this as being "a very short time."

Those who are deaf and blind now will then both hear and see. It will be a time of righteousness, when the poor are no longer exploited.

"19 Once more the humble will rejoice in the LORD;
the needy will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.
20 The ruthless will vanish,
the mockers will disappear,
and all who have an eye for evil will be cut down --
21 those who with a word make a man out to be guilty,
who ensnare the defender in court
and with false testimony deprive the innocent of justice." (29:19-21)

Again we see God's heart that insists on justice for the poor and vulnerable.

In that day God's people will reverence the Lord and honor his holiness. The prophecy closes with a note of hope:

"Those who are wayward in spirit will gain understanding;
those who complain will accept instruction." (29:24)

This will not be merely forced submission, but growing faith and teachability.

Woe to the Obstinate Nation (30)

At present, however, Judah would rather put its trust in Egypt's help against the Assyrians rather than trusting in the Lord.

"1 'Woe to the obstinate children,'declares the LORD,
'to those who carry out plans that are not mine,
forming an alliance, but not by my Spirit,
heaping sin upon sin;
2 who go down to Egypt without consulting me;
who look for help to Pharaoh's protection,
to Egypt's shade for refuge.'" (30:1-2)

Instead of honor, the Egyptian alliance will end in shame and disgrace.

This trust in Egypt amounts to rebellion against the Lord and his prophet. God promises judgment like the sudden falling of a wall or the complete shattering of pottery.

"In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength,
but you would have none of it." (30:15)

Because they will not repent of their unbelief and rebellion, they will end up fleeing from their enemy. Note the element of grace offered here:

"Yet the LORD longs to be gracious to you;
he rises to show you compassion.
For the LORD is a God of justice.
Blessed are all who wait for him!" (30:18)

The prophet foresees that the Lord will indeed hear their eventual cry for help when they experience "the bread of adversity and the water of affliction." And he will guide them.

"Whether you turn to the right or to the left,
your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying,
'This is the way; walk in it.'" (30:21)

In the future, the Lord will bless his people abundantly and will heal them.

"The moon will shine like the sun,
and the sunlight will be seven times brighter,
like the light of seven full days,
when the LORD binds up the bruises of his people
and heals the wounds he inflicted." (30:26)

When the Lord brings vengeance on their enemies, his people will worship.

"And you will sing as on the night you celebrate a holy festival;
your hearts will rejoice as when people go up with flutes
to the mountain of the LORD,
to the Rock of Israel." (30:29)

Though his people are rebellious now, the day will come when all that will change.

Q3. (Isaiah 30:15-29) Why does God long to show us grace (30:18)? What does that say about God's character? What prevents his grace? Have you ever experienced the kind of guidance Isaiah mentions in verse 21? What is necessary in us so that we can hear God's voice?
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Woe to Those Who Rely on Egypt (31)

"Woe to those who go down to Egypt for help,
who rely on horses,
who trust in the multitude of their chariots
and in the great strength of their horsemen,
but do not look to the Holy One of Israel,
or seek help from the LORD." (31:1)

Ultimately, it will not be Egypt that saves Jerusalem, but Yahweh himself.

"Like birds hovering overhead,
the LORD Almighty will shield Jerusalem;
he will shield it and deliver it,
he will 'pass over'it and will rescue it." (31:5)

Ultimately, Assyria will fall, the Lord declares. He is Yahweh,

"whose fire is in Zion,
whose furnace is in Jerusalem." (31:9)

Q4. (Isaiah 31:1) Why do we tend to seek help from every source except the Lord? In what way is this similar to idolatry? People haven't changed. Jesus recognized this tendency. What was the remedy he taught his disciples in Matthew 6:31-33?
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The Kingdom of Righteousness (32:1-8)

Isaiah seems to seesaw from judgment in the present to an exalted view of the Kingdom in the Last Days.

"See, a king will reign in righteousness
and rulers will rule with justice." (32:1)

It will be a time of knowledge and returning to the Lord, where the noble once again are honored and fools are no longer respected.

The Women of Jerusalem (32:9-20)

In the present, however, he has a word for the complacent women of Jerusalem who imagine that everything will go on as usual. Within one year disaster will fall,

"The fortress will be abandoned,
the noisy city deserted." (32:14a)

Now the prophet fast-forwards again to the Kingdom in the last day.

"15 ... till the Spirit is poured upon us from on high,
and the desert becomes a fertile field,
and the fertile field seems like a forest.
16 Justice will dwell in the desert
and righteousness live in the fertile field.
17 The fruit of righteousness will be peace;
the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever." (32:15-17)

Distress and Help (33)

In poetic terms, the prophet describes the destruction and judgment. The prophet calls out:

"O LORD, be gracious to us; we long for you.
Be our strength every morning,
our salvation in time of distress." (33:2)

Interspersed throughout the chapter are signs of hope and glimpses of the peaceful future in the Kingdom of God.

"5 The LORD is exalted, for he dwells on high;
he will fill Zion with justice and righteousness.
6 He will be the sure foundation for your times,
a rich store of salvation and wisdom and knowledge;
the fear of the LORD is the key to this treasure." (33:5-6)

Who is the only "sure foundation" for our times in the twenty-first century? The Lord!

Now the prophet describes the horror of a coming time of destruction. The military alliance with Egypt comes to naught. "The treaty is broken, its witnesses are despised, no one is respected" (33:8). Finally, in desperation, people cry out: "Who can stand this consuming fire?" (33:14). The answer sounds much like Psalm 24:3-4 -- "He who has clean hands and a pure heart" -- the person who fears the Lord. Notice the clear ethical terms in which righteousness is displayed.

"15 He who walks righteously
and speaks what is right,
who rejects gain from extortion
and keeps his hand from accepting bribes,
who stops his ears against plots of murder
and shuts his eyes against contemplating evil --
16 this is the man who will dwell on the heights,
whose refuge will be the mountain fortress.
His bread will be supplied,
and water will not fail him." (33:14-16)

Q5. (Isaiah 33:14-16) How does ethical behavior display love for God? How does it display love for man? How does the corruption of taking bribes destroy righteous government?
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Now the New Jerusalem and its king open before the reader.

"Your eyes will see the king in his beauty
and view a land that stretches afar." (33:17)

"20 Look upon Zion, the city of our festivals;
your eyes will see Jerusalem, a peaceful abode,
a tent that will not be moved;
its stakes will never be pulled up,
nor any of its ropes broken.
21 There the LORD will be our Mighty One.
It will be like a place of broad rivers and streams...." (33:20-21a)

In that day there will be no merely human king.

"For the LORD is our judge,
the LORD is our lawgiver,
the LORD is our king;
it is he who will save us." (33:22)

At present, Jerusalem is like a crippled ship.

"Your rigging hangs loose:
The mast is not held secure,
the sail is not spread." (33:23a)

But in the Day of the Lord, the New Jerusalem will be a place of wealth, of healing, and of forgiveness.

"23b Then an abundance of spoils will be divided
and even the lame will carry off plunder.
24 No one living in Zion will say, 'I am ill';
and the sins of those who dwell there will be forgiven." (33:23b-24)

This passage reminds us of descriptions of the New Jerusalem in the closing chapters of the Book of Revelation that speak of streams and healing.

"Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life,
as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb
down the middle of the great street of the city.
On each side of the river stood the tree of life,
bearing twelve crops of fruit,
yielding its fruit every month.
And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations." (Revelation 22:1-2)

Hallelujah!

Judgment against the Nations (34)

Chapter 34 speaks of terrible, bloody, and final judgment upon the nations that rebel against God -- especially in Edom.

"God will stretch out over Edom the measuring line of chaos
and the plumb line of desolation." (34:11)

It will never again be inhabited except by desert creatures and owls.

Joy to the Redeemed (35)

But for God's people, who have dwelt in a parched land, hope is coming!

"1 The desert and the parched land will be glad;
the wilderness will rejoice and blossom.
Like the crocus, it will burst into bloom;
2 it will rejoice greatly and shout for joy.
The glory of Lebanon will be given to it,
the splendor of Carmel and Sharon;
they will see the glory of the LORD,
the splendor of our God." (35:1-2)

The whole chapter is a wonderful psalm of hope to those who had almost lost hope.

"5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow." (35:5-7)

Salvation has come and the desert has been transformed by Life!

But the New Jerusalem is not just a place of abundance. It is a spiritual place for those who love the Lord.

"8 And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness.
The unclean will not journey on it;
it will be for those who walk in that Way;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
9 No lion will be there,
nor will any ferocious beast get up on it;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
10 and the ransomed of the LORD will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away." (35:8-10)

I love this passage that talks about "the redeemed" and "the ransomed of the Lord"!

"Redeemed" in verse 9 is gāʾal, here a passive participle describing those who have been bought back by the gōʾēl, the kinsman-redeemer, who is responsible to pay for the release of family members who have been sold into slavery to pay their debts. The kinsman-redeemer frees them. "Ransomed of the Lord" means "ransomed by the Lord." The word is pādâ , "ransom, rescue, deliver." The basic meaning of the Hebrew root is "to achieve the transfer of ownership from one to another through payment of a price or an equivalent substitute." Jesus is our Kinsman-Redeemer who paid the price for our redemption, "the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect" (1 Peter 1:18-19).

And so the joyous pilgrimage of former exiles and captives approaches Jerusalem with joyful music. These prophecies were fulfilled in part when the exiles returned to Jerusalem beginning in 538 BC following their Babylonian captivity. There was great joy and profound recognition that God had released them from their bondage.

Q6. (Isaiah 35:1-10) How do you think these verses brought hope to their first readers? What is promised here? Why do you think Isaiah relies on heavily figurative language to communicate these promises? How does he describe the "highway of holiness"? Who will walk on it? Who won't? What does it mean to be redeemed and ransomed?
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Dear friends, we too have much to be thankful for! For the final fulfillment of these prophecies will be found in the New Jerusalem when Christ comes and brings us home. One day we too will be in that procession that enters the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, with joy on the Day when Christ returns for his people.

"The ransomed of the LORD will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away." (35:8-10)

Come soon, Lord Jesus!

Prayer

Father, help us to have ears to hear you when you speak to us. Help us not to be stubborn and willful so that you must discipline us. Heal our hearts and open our ears, we pray. Fill us with your Holy Spirit afresh and anew today. In Jesus'name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

These chapters are rich in evocative prophecy. Here are just a few of the gems which are found here.

"16 So this is what the Sovereign LORD says:
'See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation;
the one who trusts will never be dismayed.
17 I will make justice the measuring line
and righteousness the plumb line....'" (Isaiah 28:16-17a)

"These people come near to me with their mouth
and honor me with their lips,
but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me is made up only of rules taught by men." (Isaiah 29:13)

"In repentance and rest is your salvation,
in quietness and trust is your strength,
but you would have none of it." (Isaiah 30:15)

"Whether you turn to the right or to the left,
your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying,
'This is the way; walk in it.'" (Isaiah 30:21)

"O LORD, be gracious to us; we long for you.
Be our strength every morning,
our salvation in time of distress." (Isaiah 33:2)

"For the LORD is our judge,
the LORD is our lawgiver,
the LORD is our king;
it is he who will save us." (Isaiah 33:22)

"No one living in Zion will say, 'I am ill';
and the sins of those who dwell there will be forgiven." Isaiah (33:23b-24)

"5 Then will the eyes of the blind be opened
and the ears of the deaf unstopped.
6 Then will the lame leap like a deer,
and the mute tongue shout for joy.
Water will gush forth in the wilderness
and streams in the desert.
7 The burning sand will become a pool,
the thirsty ground bubbling springs.
In the haunts where jackals once lay,
grass and reeds and papyrus will grow." (Isaiah 35:5-7)

"8 And a highway will be there;
it will be called the Way of Holiness.
The unclean will not journey on it;
it will be for those who walk in that Way;
wicked fools will not go about on it.
9 No lion will be there,
nor will any ferocious beast get up on it;
they will not be found there.
But only the redeemed will walk there,
10 and the ransomed of the LORD will return.
They will enter Zion with singing;
everlasting joy will crown their heads.
Gladness and joy will overtake them,
and sorrow and sighing will flee away. (Isaiah 35:8-10)

End Notes

[136] "Wreath" (NIV), "garland" (NRSV), "crown" (KJV) is ʿaṭārâ , a generic word for crown, a symbol of honor and authority. It is to be distinguished, however, from nēzer, the royal or priestly crown. It could be made of gold or silver, or be a simple wreath of flowers (Carl Schultz, ʿāṭar, TWOT #1608a).

[137] See Ezekiel 43:15f, 'arî'ēl, "altar-hearth."William S. LaSor, "Jerusalem," ISBE 2:103ff.; Young (Isaiah 2:304-305, fn. 1) thinks it might mean "man of" (following the Urgaritic), thus meaning, "belonging to God, possession of God."

[138] Other lessons taught from the potter and the clay are found in Isaiah 45:9 and Jeremiah 18:1-10.


Copyright © 1985-2017, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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