The Bible records Israel’s attempts at making alliances with various neighbors from time to time (Isaiah 7:1-9; 17:3). These neighbors also made alliances among themselves (Isaiah 19:4-6). Even the southern kingdom of Judah made an ill-fated alliance with Egypt for help when the Assyrians arrived with ill intent at their doorstep (Isaiah 30:1-7; 2 Kings 18:20-21). But Judah had previously allied itself with that same Assyria, when the empire was in its infancy (2 Kings 16:7-9). The point of Isaiah 21-23 is that your neighbors can’t help you; only God can.
The one thing God has always been after in creation is relationship with his people. We see this when he walked in the cool of the garden where he had placed the first man and woman (Genesis 3:8). We see God’s desire for fellowship again in Christ’s action of opening the veil (Hebrews 10:19-22). Isaiah also develops this theme explicitly in Isaiah 31:1. But in these oracles against the nations (13-23), as they are called, Isaiah demonstrates, rather than explain, the futility of looking anywhere but to the Lord.
And, if anyone doubts this, Isaiah continues in chapter 24 to prophesy the destruction of the whole world. In other words, there will be nowhere to hide. The choices will narrow to two: God or nothing; God or destruction.
One of the defining characteristics about the modern world, especially in America during my lifetime, is the growing irrelevance of God in the popular expressions of our culture, such as schools, government, and media. There are countless places in today’s world to hide from the face of God. There are countless avenues of seeming help that do not involve a confrontation with God. We have many “neighbors” we can turn to. However, these chapters of Isaiah bring out the futility of this approach.
The word most often used to describe Isaiah 21 is “obscure.” Why is Isaiah 21 considered to be obscure?
First, who was the big superpower in Isaiah’s lifetime? Remember he lived during the reign of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. During the reign of Ahaz, Syria was the threat (Isaiah 7:1-9). But Hezekiah ruled for thirty years. During his days, Assyria became the hostile superpower of the entire region.
God used Assyria to punish the wickedness of Israel, Judah, and the surrounding nations. Assyria is the mighty army so often described throughout these chapters (for example, Isaiah 8:7-8).
But second, Babylon appears to be the subject of Isaiah 21:1-10. Verse 2 indicates that it will be the Medes and the Persians who attack and overcome Babylon, as in Isaiah 13. However, Isaiah 20 and then again Isaiah 21:11-17 appear to be describing the Assyrian invasion again. In other words, Isaiah’s prophesies appear to be out of order.
Complicating this is the long history of this area. At times Babylon had ascendancy over Assyria; at other times it was the other way round. Isaiah prophesied from 742 BCE to 686 BCE. The Babylonian captivity of Judah began in 586BCE. Although Isaiah mentions the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians (Isaiah 39:6-7), the bulk of his message concerned an earlier time. The Medo-Persians overcame Babylon while the Israelites were in captivity there. Therefore, if Isaiah 21:1-10 concerns this time frame, it would appear to be sorely out of context, not chronologically grouped.
However, even though the Neo-Babylonians devoured the Assyrian empire along with Jerusalem, prior to this event, the Assyrians overcame Babylon in 729 BCE. This fell within the earlier period of Isaiah’s prophecies.
Therefore, Isaiah 21:1-10 could possibly be predicting this earlier fall of Babylon to the Assyrians, rather than the later fall to the Persians. But then, what do we make of Isaiah 21:2, which mentions the Elamites and Persians? These areas were not part of the Assyrian empire.
To complicate matters even further, how does Isaiah 21:10 fit in? It doesn’t seem to belong with the section beginning in verse 11 about Edom. But neither does it seem to fit in with the prior section, verses 1-9.
Therefore, biblical scholars label this chapter “obscure.” Some argue for the later time period. Others argue for the earlier.
So What Is the Everyday Devotional Reader to Do?
The devotional reader heads straight for the gold. God’s message is clear: Babylon is fallen.
… 9 Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all her images and her idols have been crushed to the ground. 10 Hear, you that are left, and you that are in pain, hear what things I have heard of the Lord of hosts, which the God of Israel has declared to us. (CAB, LXE)
If ever anyone even thought of relying upon Babylon for anything, they had better not. Babylon is not worthy of trust–only the Lord is.
Is God a bully? Does he say, “Do it my way, or else I will beat you up?” In a sense, that is correct. If all one had of Isaiah were chapters 21-23, a casual reader might think God was a bully insisting on his own way.
Yes, indeed, God is sovereign. He will have his way. He insists that come the end, he alone will be exalted. As for being a bully, does a bully bend over backward calling people to change their allegiance from worshiping the enemy to following him? Does a bully incarnate and die on a cross to pay the cost of allegiance owed by all people? Do tyrants sacrifice themselves to bring blessing to others?
To the unsaved, God’s ways make no sense at all. In the Old Testament, God sends (or allows) calamity after calamity from mightier empires to fall upon Israel itself and the nations surrounding Israel. These devastations terrify. How can this possibly be a God of love?
Calling for Repentance
But God’s purpose has always been to call forth repentance. Even the mostly calamitous chapters from 21-24 provide this key.
Isaiah 22:11And you procured to yourselves water between the two walls within the ancient pool; but you looked not to Him that made it from the beginning, and regarded not Him that created it. 12 And the Lord, the Lord of hosts, called in that day for weeping, and lamentation, and baldness, and for girding with sackcloth; 13 but they engaged in joy and gladness, slaying calves, and killing sheep, so as to eat flesh, and drink wine; saying, Let us eat and drink; for tomorrow we die. 14 And these things are revealed in the ears of the Lord of hosts; for this sin shall not be forgiven you, until you die. (CAB)
More Than Isaiah
Many who lived in Isaiah’s time perhaps heard no other prophet. We today have the entire Scripture, both Old and New Testaments. Fortunately, some passages explicitly explain God’s ways. One example is Psalm 107.
Psalm 107:6 Then they cried to the Lord in their affliction, and He delivered them out of their distresses… 9 For He satisfies the empty soul, and fills the hungry soul with good things… 11 because they rebelled against the words of God, and provoked the counsel of the Most High. 12 So their heart was brought low with troubles; they were weak, and there was no helper. 13 Then they cried to the Lord in their affliction, and He saved them out of their distresses. 14 And He brought them out of darkness and the shadow of death, and broke their chains in pieces… 28 Then they cry to the Lord in their affliction, and He brings them out of their distresses… 43 Who is wise, and will observe these things, and understand the mercies of the Lord? (CAB)
Lessons to Learn from the Evil That God Allows
I. Yes, God allows evil.
The human suffering predicted in chapters 21 to 23 are difficult to read. Unsaved people hold this seeming harshness of God against him. A saved person–that is, one who has repented, received God’s mercy, and switched their allegiance–takes time to prayerfully pause and consider these chapters in the light of God’s larger plan of hope and salvation for the whole world.
II. Why does God allow evil?
First, the evil that will befall the nations comes from another nation. God did not create Assyria’s evil, murderous heart. He just didn’t stop them.
Second, and more importantly, God allows evil and human suffering in order to bring people to repentance to himself. He is calling people to change their allegiance and return to him.
Isaiah prophesied that these things would occur before they occurred. He did this in order to allow Israel and the nations time to repent. Another portion of Scripture enlarges upon this. That book is Jonah. In it, God explains the “Why?” behind prophesy. God sent Jonah to warn the Assyrian city of Nineveh that they were about to be punished. They listened, repented, and God spared them. (A century later, however, Nineveh did fall to the Medes.) God’s motive always is to bring people to repentance (1 Kings 8:47-51; Job 42:6; Psalm 78:34).
III. What’s the Big Deal About Repentance?
1. First, God is good. No matter how harsh God’s ways may seem, the ways of the wicked are far, far harsher. To understand God’s goodness, read, for example, the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:1-17). If all the world practiced these, how few would our collective troubles be!
2. On the other hand, the ways of God’s enemy, Satan, are twisted and foul. He covets his own power (Luke 4:5-7), lies, deceives, and seeks to kill (John 8:44). God will destroy Satan in the end (Isaiah 27:1; Revelation 20:2, 10). Unfortunately, those who have given their allegiance to Satan will go down with him. This is why God wants people to repent. He desires that no one should perish (Ezekiel 18:23).
Isaiah 19:1-15 and Isaiah 20:1-6 are like bookends for the section in between. That section, Isaiah 19:16-25, contrasts sharply with the bookends on both sides. Six times Isaiah states, “in that day,” in the middle section.
The first of these six segments is like a bridge from the concrete world of military and national powers to the spiritual world of connectedness in the Lord.
The structure (“in that day”) of these same verses matches the unusual content of the enclosed portion, Isaiah 19:16-25.
The Concrete World Contrasts with the Spiritual
In the concrete, physical world, Assyria will sorely defeat and shame Egypt and Ethiopia (Cush). In the spiritual world, somewhere, sometime (“in that day”), God the Lord will unite Egypt, Israel, and Assyria in blessing, good health, and unity. The question is, When does this blessing and unity occur? When, exactly, is “that day”?
“In That Day”
Isaiah uses the phrase “in that day” for the first time in Isaiah 2:11.
11 For the eyes of the Lord are high, but man is low; and the haughtiness of men shall be brought low, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day. (CAB, LXE)
If we consider the context for verse 11 as being the entire second chapter, then Isaiah 2:2-4 matches in tenor and tone Isaiah 19:16-25. Both passages describe a time of blessing and unity.
“In the Last Days”
I. The Gospel Period
Isaiah introduces chapter 2 with the phrase, “Now it shall come to pass in the last days.” However, “last days” may or may not be identical with “that day.” As previously stated, the portion of the text from Isaiah 2:2-4 sounds very much like Isaiah 19:16-25.
2 For in the last days the mountain of the Lord shall be glorious, and the house of God shall be on the top of the mountains, and it shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall come to it.
So, “last days” includes the period after Christ’s first advent, the gospel period, the evangelization of the world. That is where we are right now. Because the content clearly correlates well, that would also be the period of time Isaiah 19:18-25 refers to.
This section matches in tenor and tone Revelation 6:15-17. In fact, Revelation 6:15 quotes Isaiah 2:19 and 21. This scene as described truly is a “last day.” It falls at the close of human history, just as the final judgment draws near.
Plain English indicates that the phrase “in that day” in Isaiah 2:11 refers to the nearer context rather than the further. That is, it looks back to the time of wrath that began in Isaiah 2:9.
Therefore, we must conclude that sometimes the phrase “in that day” does not have a specific, exact meaning, but one that is context-based. So, the question becomes, what is the context of the passage in Isaiah 19:18-25? Clearly, the context indicates unity and blessing. Fulfillment of the prophecy of unity began to occur as soon as Philip jumped into the carriage with the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:26-39) and Paul began preaching his message of reconciliation in Christ (see, for example, Ephesians 2:14-22 and 3:4-10).
Isaiah 4:2-6 opens with “In that day, the Branch of the Lord will be beautiful and glorious, …” This section opens suddenly, abruptly, with no transition from the previous section. That section describes the religious shortcomings of Judah’s women in his day.
So, in this context, Isaiah does seem to have a particular day or season in mind for the phrase, “in that day.” He means the day of Messiah, the Branch. There again, the advent of Christ introduced the gospel era.
Notice, it is the content of the context that determines Isaiah’s meaning from one place to another.
The very next example of “in that day” confirms the conclusion of the prior section. All of Isaiah 5 describes a period of God’s judgment against his own people in the time period in which Isaiah lived. Context reveals that “in that day” refers to the same period of time in which all the judgments occur.
III. Chapter Seven
In chapter seven, Isaiah contains four rapid fire expressions of “in that day” (Isaiah 7:18, 20, 21, and 23). Each of these refers to the immediately prior context of Isaiah 7:17, the attack and invasion of the Assyrians.
Why do I sit here, searching through my concordance, reading Scripture far and wide, possibly “nit-picking” over the meanings of words? It is because words matter. Scripture matters. God’s intended meaning matters.
Is the Christian Era Spiritual or Concrete?
Is the Christian era spiritual or concrete? This is an important decision in biblical interpretation. The answer belongs to the realm of biblical presuppositions. Presuppositions describe the way a reader thinks before approaching a text. They include assumptions, beliefs, and preferences every reader carries with them inside their heart of faith. For my own biblical presuppositions, please see Isaiah: A Personal Devotional Journal–My Biblical Presuppositions.
The word “spiritual,” as I use it, refers to things of the Spirit. “Spiritual” has no bearing upon whether something is real or not. The Spirit of God is as real as real can be. But obviously, the Spirit is spirit. Spirit is not a concrete, physical reality. But it is in many ways more real than physical reality.
John 4:23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (ESV)
1 Corinthians 2:11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God. 12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (ESV)
Both Jesus and Paul in the quotations above are describing spiritual realities. How can a “spiritual” understanding of spiritual things be considered a misunderstanding? And yet, one often hears Christians accusing other Christians of “spiritualizing Scripture”, as they interpret certain verses according to spiritual realities rather than physical.
Is “In That Day” in Isaiah 19 Spiritual or Concrete?
The truth is that some Christians highly desire and are made joyful in the spiritual interpretation (having to do with the Spirit of God and his spiritual kingdom on earth) of certain Old Testament prophecies, such as Isaiah 19:18-25. Other Christians highly desire a “concrete” fulfillment of the same prophecies. By “concrete” I mean one which has a physical manifestation.
For example, some Christians respond with great joy when a Messianic Jew, a Coptic Christian from Egypt, and a former Muslim from Mosul, sit in the same congregation together on a Sunday morning to worship the Lord. (Or, perhaps, they sit in different congregations located worlds apart, but they worship in one Spirit, brothers and sisters in Christ nonetheless.) For these Christians, Isaiah 19:18-25 and Isaiah 4:2-6 have already been gloriously fulfilled.
Other Christians wait for the fulfillment of these Isaianic passages until some future time when there will be concrete countries matching their description. During those days, a physical Christ will sit in a physical temple in a physical Jerusalem and rule.
In other words, some Christians envision the PRESENT and the END as the two great movements remaining in history. Other Christians envision the PRESENT, a middle, concrete kingdom of Christ they call the MILLENNIUM, and then the END. For those who may not already know, I am of the former group.
Are these distinctions worth fighting about? Not really. They do, however, influence how one reads Scripture.
Why Do One’s Presuppositions Matter?
Those who claim that “in that day” in passages such as Isaiah 4:2-6 and Isaiah 19:18-25 refer to an as-yet-future time for Christ to reign physically on earth, before the last days of judgment and new creation, rob the present moment of its fulfillment of the blessings in Christ Isaiah presents. They rob us, the church down through the ages. The reign of Christ is now. His kingdom on earth is now. The Holy Spirit has been given now. We have these blessings in Christ now.
CONCLUSION: Ultimately, which camp one falls into is a matter of worldview: Is Christ and his kingdom in this present era about concrete realities or spiritual realities? Each reader must decide for themselves how they will answer the question of “When?” in this passage in Isaiah.
God’s message to Cush in Isaiah 18 may seem obscure to today’s readers. But God’s message to Egypt is crystal clear. Remember that Cush dominated Egypt in the 25th dynasty at this time in history (1). Isaiah’s use of the term “Egypt” might very well include Cush.
Spiritual Analogy: Confession–I love a car ride or a train ride where I get to sit up high and get a good view of anonymous people’s backyards. And, the longer the ride, the better. Weird maybe, but that’s me. Isaiah 19:1-15 is like a tour of people’s backyards, at a reasonable speed, like in a car on a two lane rural road, or on a train traveling a large distance.
What Does Isaiah See for Egypt?
Egypt’s idols will be worthless – 1
civil disputes will multiply – 2
Egyptians will fear and consult their idols and spiritists – 3
God will assign them cruel lords and kings – 4
a terrible drought will dry up the sea and the Nile – 5
the canals will stink and water plants will rot – 6
plants by the river’s banks will die and dust storms will blow away their agriculture – 7
fishermen of the Nile will groan and cry – 8
weavers of flax into linen will lose hope – 9
weavers of cloth will be broken and employees will be sad – 10
What About Egypt’s Wise People? Can They Help?
Scripture uses strong language to describe the “wise men” of Zoan (Tanis) who are really “fools” – 11
They give the king wrong advice contrary to what the Lord has planned (i.e., peace when there is no peace) – 12
The leaders of Zoan and Memphis, another major city, acted on false reports that led the nation the wrong way – 13
The Lord did this. He confused the leaders. They wander around like sick, drunk people. They have no clue where they are – 14
It will be total chaos which no one can solve – 15
“In That Day” — What Day?
Spiritual Analogy: When the tour train arrives at Isaiah 20:16 forward, it comes to a full station stop. Serious explorers debark. Some rent a room for the night. Without warning, Isaiah just took a trip in his time machine and plopped everyone down into a different era. After glancing at the the landscape around them, the tourists turn to ask one another, not, “Where are we?” (they are still in Egypt), but, “When are we?”
Signs Signaling a Change
“In that day” – 16
“In that day” – 18
“In that day” – 19
“… in that day” – 21
“In that day” – 23
“In that day” – 24
And so we ask, what day is this? Let us check our bearings, look around us for the big picture, and see what we can find.
First, I have a dispensational study Bible open in front of me. The study notes wrongly assert that in verse 16 and forward, “in that day” refers to the so-called “millennial” rule of Christ. Nothing in the text speaks of a “millennium.” That is a term Isaiah does not use. To so label this passage is reading into the text.
Second, has Isaiah already used this phrase in what we’ve studied so far? If so, what light can Isaiah shed upon Isaiah?
Uses of “That Day” in Isaiah
The phrase “that day” occurs 47 times in the book of Isaiah.
1-With reference to a time previously specified in the same context.
1. Some occurrences in their contexts make reference to a time period previously specified in the text. For example, Isaiah 2:12-22 describes a time of judgment. “In that day” occurs in Isaiah 2:17 and 20. These refer back in context to that specific time period Isaiah has been describing. This time frame appears to be defined in verse 12 as the last day.
Important: Note that although the event being described is future (in this case a day of final judgment), the introduction of it as a topic occurs in context prior to the first occurrence of the phrase “in that day.” A paraphrase would be, In the day that I have just been describing… In other words, it functions in its context as a grammatical marker, rather than as a specific day.
Other examples of the phrase grammatically pointing back to a prior event already specified in the immediate context are found in Isaiah 17:4, 7, and 9. Isaiah 17:1-3 describe what will happen to the nation of Syria. Immediately after these verses, verse 4 opens with, “And in that day, the glory of Jacob will be brought low…” Isaiah is not introducing here a new topic with its own time frame. Rather, he indicates that what will happen to Jacob will happen in the same day as what he just described will happen to Syria. In other words, these events will happen at the same time. Verses 7 and 9 are similar.
2. The use of “in that day” in Isaiah 19:16 appears to fall into this category. Verses 1-15 speak of a time of chaos and calamity for Egypt. Verse 16 speaks of an Egyptian response in keeping with those events. Verses 12 and 14 assign responsibility for Egypt’s troubles to the “Lord of hosts.” Verses 16 names the “Lord of hosts” as the one whom Egypt fears. Verse 17 extends that fear to Judah, the nation who represents the “Lord of hosts.”
3. Therefore, verses 16 and 17 most likely should be grouped with verses 1-15, because they speak of the same time period of devastation in Egypt’s history.
But, Then Comes Verse 18
Isaiah 19:18 In that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt that speak the language of Canaan and swear allegiance to the LORD of hosts. One of these will be called the City of Destruction. (ESV)
Does verse 18 signal the same time frame as the previous section, verses 1 to 17? Or, is this a totally different “day”? Why do we ask?
First, we ask because the subject from Isaiah 19:18 to the end of the chapter expresses a sudden and remarkable change. Egypt in biblical history served pagan gods. Isaiah 19:1 even speaks of their idols. But, Isaiah 19:18-22 describes an Egypt that has turned and now worships the Lord.
Isaiah 19:21 And the LORD will make himself known to the Egyptians, and the Egyptians will know the LORD in that day and worship with sacrifice and offering, and they will make vows to the LORD and perform them. (ESV)
Verse 22 sheds light on how we should view this latter portion of the chapter. Isaiah interprets Isaiah for us.
22 And the LORD will strike Egypt, striking and healing, and they will return to the LORD, and he will listen to their pleas for mercy and heal them.
That is, the Lord is behind everything in this chapter. First he strikes Egypt, then he heals them. He strikes, Egypt turns to the Lord and pleads for mercy (like Nineveh in the book of Jonah), the Lord listens, and he heals them.
Second, this change is remarkable. The travesties of the first portion of the chapter seem historical. They could easily fit a time period not too much later than when Isaiah prophesied. But Old Testament history doesn’t record a time when the pagan nations surrounding Israel repented and turned to the Lord.
Third, from a Christian point of view, this is wonderful, happy news. It causes us to rejoice. In verses 23-25, the good news gets even better. The great bully of both Egypt and Israel, Assyria, is included in God’s blessing.
Isaiah 19:23 In that day there will be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria will come into Egypt, and Egypt into Assyria, and the Egyptians will worship with the Assyrians. 24 In that day Israel will be the third with Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, 25 whom the LORD of hosts has blessed, saying, “Blessed be Egypt my people, and Assyria the work of my hands, and Israel my inheritance.” (ESV)
But what is going on? When does this happen? Slowly, Isaiah has transitioned us from what seems solidly historical to something that appears to be like “pie in the sky,” i.e., impossibly good news, like heaven.
Spiritual Analogy: This is why the imaginary train has pulled into the station and come to a full stop. The travelers are still scratching their heads. They go back and reexamine that phrase, “in that day.” They ask, Is there a particular, special day in Isaiah?
2-With Reference to a Special Day of the Lord
To Be Continued…
1 “The 25th dynasty was a line of pharaohs who originated in the Kingdom of Kush, located in present-day northern Sudan and Upper Egypt. Most of this dynasty’s kings saw Napata as their spiritual homeland. They reigned in part or all of Ancient Egypt from 747–656 BC.” Wikipedia
Here in America in the 21st century, Isaiah 18 seems like a very foreign, very old, and very opaque bit of writing. Why does the Bible contain a judgment against Cush? Is it even a judgment?
Admittedly, some parts of Scripture are more difficult to access than others. Isaiah 18 is one of them. And that’s okay. We pray, take what we can by faith, and try not to frustrate over what we do not understand. Many commentators admit to this chapter’s being difficult, and commentaries differ greatly in their interpretation of it. How will we ever find anything to apply to our own lives? We are like small children faced with an exotic plate of very adult food. Is there anything here for us to eat?
What Can Maps Tell Us?
Step one is to discover the location of biblical Cush. The two maps below begin to open up an explanation of why God even chose to include this country in Isaiah’s section on judgment against the nations.
The map on the right shows us the approximate location of what used to be Cush, superimposed on a map of Africa today. It lies just south of Egypt and shares the same river system with it.
And, we can see from the map on the left that at one time, the ancient Egyptian empire stretched out to include the geographical areas of Cush, Israel, and Judah. Egyptians were used to traveling in the narrow strip of Israel/Judah. For example, Genesis 37 reveals how Joseph’s brothers sold him to a caravan of Midianite traders bound for Egypt (Genesis 37:28).
Egypt was at times friendly toward Israel. We remember how Pharaoh during the severe famine of Joseph’s day welcomed that man’s family to live in Goshen. They lived there peacefully for at least a few hundred years before a later Pharaoh turned against them.
The map also shows that Assyria lay to the north of Israel. Compared to Egypt and Assyria, Israel (the two kingdoms) was small. Israel lay between Egypt on the south and Assyria on the north. These two nations were like a pincers that squeezed Israel in the middle. But God protected Judah. I am not aware of any portion of biblical history that speaks well of Assyria. They were highly aggressive.
What Can History Tell Us?
Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica (1) reveal that Cush (also known as Nubia), to the south of Egypt, was ethnically distinct from Egypt. The political histories, cultural histories, and as a result, the ethnic histories of the two nations often intertwined. At some points over the millennia, Egypt dominated Nubia. At other points, Nubia dominated Egypt. Cultural and ethnic mixing occurred. During the time of Isaiah, Cush dominated Egypt, even ruling it through its own family line of Pharaohs.
Isaiah prophesied during King Hezekiah’s reign in Judah (Isaiah 1:1). Cush played a critical role in King Hezekiah’s resistance to the Assyrian King. One section of an article in Encyclopedia Britannica (2) coincides nicely with 2 Kings 18:13-19:37. The biblical account mentions the kingdom of Cush in particular in 2 Kings 19:9. Isaiah 36-37 also covers this time period. Clearly, here is another biblical example of Cush/Egypt being friendly to Judah. It helped them resist the Assyrian invasion that had defeated the northern kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 17:6). It was in their own best interest to do so, since Judah stood as a buffer between them and Assyria.
When Assyria carried the northern kingdom of Israel into captivity (2 Kings 17:6 and 2 Kings 18:9-13), they also overran the fortified cities of Judah (2 Kings 18:13), all the way up to the walls of Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:17f). And even though Egypt/Cush was threatening Assyria (2 Kings 18:21, 24, 19:9) on behalf of Judah, it was God himself who saved Jerusalem in King Hezekiah’s day (2 Kings 19:32-37). He had announced that he would do so in Isaiah 8:7-8 and 14:24-25.
What Does Isaiah 18 Say Concerning Cush?
The short answer is: very little. And, one can read these seven verses many times without arriving at definitive clarity. Aside from the first word translated, “Woe,” the prophecy does not seem to be spoken against Cush. Cush is not the aggressor against Judah; Assyria is the aggressor against both nations. Many commentators say that Isaiah 18 is specifically about the history of Hezekiah, Assyria, and Egypt, briefly outlined above. The details of that history are not derived from this passage, however. Rather, they are incorporated into it (read into it.)
Specifically, Isaiah 18:1-2 appear to be the only verses of the chapter that reference Cush. These verses appear to indicate that Israel sends messengers to Cush for help. Then, Isaiah shifts abruptly to speaking about God and his city (verses 3-7).
What Does Isaiah 18 Say Concerning God?
Verses 3-7 form the main body of the oracle, and these verses speak about God and his city.
Isaiah 18:3 All you inhabitants of the world, you who dwell on the earth, when a signal is raised on the mountains, look! When a trumpet is blown, hear! (ESV)
Isaiah 18:3 Now all the rivers of the land shall be inhabited as an inhabited country; their land shall be as when a signal is raised from a mountain; it shall be audible as the sound of a trumpet. (CAB, LXE)
The book of Isaiah mentions the word “signal” or “sign” several times. Most frequently, the sign is from God and makes reference to an action he takes. Look, for example, at the following verse from a portion of Isaiah which speaks of judgment upon Judah.
Isaiah 5:26 He will raise a signal for nations far away, and whistle for them from the ends of the earth; and behold, quickly, speedily they come! (ESV)
But verse 3 is not about destruction, but blessing, especially as read from the Septuagint. In Scripture, inhabited land is blessed land.
Verse 4 confirms what I wrote about verse 3.
Isaiah 18:4 For thus said the Lord to me, There shall be security in My city, as the light of noonday heat, and it shall be as a cloud of dew in the day of harvest. (CAB, LXE)
In verse 4, Isaiah shifts to direct quotation from the Lord. This verse speaks reassurance to God’s people. First, there is no more secure time of day than during the bright, noon sunshine. Next, dew speaks of refreshment. Finally, the day of harvest speaks of promise. These images metaphorically describe God’s city (“My city,” Septuagint version), which is Zion, the city of the Lord Messiah. In confirmation, the entire passage closes with the name of mount Sion in verse 7.
Verses three and four together seem to indicate that there shall be security for all nations of the world in God’s own city. Mt Zion, God’s city, will be like a trumpet calling all nations to God.
Verse 5 introduces the topic of pruning. Many of the commentators I read speak of this verse as referring to the devastation upon Assyria the night that God smote Sennacherib’s army (2 Kings 19:35-36). But the language of agricultural pruning does not necessarily match that kind of devastation. Pruning in Scripture can be a good thing. Pruning strengthens an individual Christian, and it strengthens the church (John 15:2).
Pruning, of course, is not good for the cut off portion (Isaiah 18:6 and John 15:6). And, it is certainly possible, perhaps even likely, that verses 5-6 make reference to God’s havoc upon Assyria. However, it is also possible, that in keeping with the entire section, verses 3-7, God continues to speak in these two verses concerning his own city.
5 Before the reaping time, when the flower has been completely formed, and the unripe grape has put forth its flower and blossomed, then shall He take away the little clusters with pruning hooks, and shall take away the small branches, and cut them off;
6 And He shall leave them together to the birds of the sky, and to the wild beasts of the earth; and the fowls of the sky shall be gathered upon them, and all the beasts of the land shall come upon them. (CAB, LXE)
In other words, God’s city will be pure. Like a good husbandman, he will keep his grapevines well pruned. Verse 6 indicates that the cut off portions have no further use. They will be destroyed. Nothing will mar the city of God.
Two facts in verse 5 bear out the surmise that God is not speaking here of Assyria. First, the pruning occurs “before the reaping time.” However, Assyria was about to be defeated, as concerns King Hezekiah and Judah. Second, the verse clearly states that the grapes were “unripe” and the clusters were “little.” However, Assyria’s sin was already ripe in King Hezekiah’s day. Third, the images Isaiah uses describe a beneficial pruning, rather than a devastation of judgment upon a fully ripened, evil power, such as Assyria. Therefore, in keeping with the unity of verses 3-7 as a whole, I rather think that the entire passage speaks of God’s city, not Assyria.
Isn’t This Interpretation a Non Sequitur?
But wouldn’t that interpretation comprise a sudden shift from the chapters of judgment that preceded these five verses? Possibly so! Isaiah is filled with seeming non sequiturs. Remember, Isaiah’s main message is Messiah in relation to Israel. The prophet established the presence of Messiah in Isaiah 2:2-4, 4:2-6, 7:14, 9:1-7, and 11:1-12:6. There is also a very long apocalyptic vision in Isaiah 13:1-14:32. Having done all this, Isaiah the prophet is free to address his main theme at any time he wishes. And, as we will see, he will continue to do so.
Verse 7: A Picture of the Church
Verse 7 speaks of a time when presents will be brought to the Lord of hosts from all manner of people: from those who are afflicted and “peeled” and from a “great” people. The church draws from all kinds of nations and peoples.
Isaiah 18:7 In that time shall presents be brought to the Lord of hosts from a people afflicted and peeled, and from a people great from henceforth and forever; a nation hoping and yet trodden down, which is in a part of a river of His land, to the place where is the name of the Lord of hosts, the Mount Zion. (CAB, LXE)
On the other hand, perhaps the text speaks of only one nation characterized by two sets of contradictory images. First, the people are both “afflicted” and “great.” Second, the nation is “hoping” and “trodden down.” Don’t these contradictory images describe well the experience of the church as a whole down through the ages? The already/not yet nature of the church on earth matches these descriptors of suffering and fulfillment at one and the same time.
Verse 7 Unifies the Passage
As a means of uniting the passage, verses 3-7, verse 7 actually names the topic of the section that begins in verse 3: “Mount Zion.” Whenever a biblical text speaks of presents, or gifts, being brought to the Lord of hosts, the reference indicates worship. All manner of people shall worship the Lord in Mt Zion, both the “afflicted” and “great.”
As a further indication of unity, verse 7 describes the nation bringing the presents as living “in a part of a river of His land.” This harkens back to verse 3, which also speaks of an inhabited land of rivers. As a means of uniting the passage, verses 3 and 7 function like a set of bookends.
Conclusion and Application
So what is the application which we as Christians today can draw from this ancient text?
First, God’s dwelling is secure. This security contrasts starkly with the unrest, rumors of war, and actual wars that consume the people and nations here below.
Second, God’s dwelling is restful. The Masoretic text says in verse 4, “I will quietly look from my dwelling.” God sits high above human history. He calls people to dwell with him in his city. God inhabits his city in peace. As he watches history unfold, he is never surprised or caught off-guard.
Third, God’s city is pure. As a mindful gardener, he prunes his vine, his people, in season. He tosses away the unprofitable and harmful in order to encourage the strength and growth of his crop as a whole.
Finally, God’s city is a place of worship. People bring him gifts, offerings of hearts that acknowledge his sovereignty, his independence high above all, his blessings to them, and his power.
All of this contrasts with the mundane wars ever present on the human level of history, wars such as those between Assyria, Israel, and Cush.
Isaiah begins chapter 18:1-2 by mildly chastising Judah for looking to Cush for help. “Now” (vs 3), however, they have God and his city, Mt Zion. He is more than sufficient for all their needs. Chapter 18 reflects Isaiah’s concern throughout the book to call God’s people back to God.
2 “In 701 bce Shabaka backed the Hebrew king Hezekiah’s revolt against Assyria. The Assyrian king Sennacherib marched into Palestine and defeated an Egypto-Kushite unit at Eltekeh but failed to take Jerusalem, as Prince Taharqa appeared with reinforcements. Peace between Egypt and Assyria followed until the Assyrian king Esarhaddon began aggressive movements in Palestine. An attempted invasion of Egypt in 674 bce failed, but in 671 the Assyrians succeeded and expelled Taharqa from Memphis. Taharqa intermittently reoccupied Egypt, but in 663 bce the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal drove him and his successor Tanutamon out, sacking Thebes.” Available at Encyclopedia Britannica https://www.britannica.com/place/Nubia, accessed February 23, 2021.
The biblical city of Damascus was located in the north central portion of the Kingdom of Damascus.
The Kingdom of biblical Damascus was also known as Aram, and its people Arameans. Searching out the genealogy of the Arameans, we find that Noah had three sons. Shem, one of Noah’s sons, had five sons. One of these, Aram, gave rise to the people of Damascus, the Syrians. Another of Noah’s sons, Arpachshad, was the ancestor of Abraham (Genesis 10:22-24, Luke 3:34-36).
A search with a concordance reveals a long history between the Arameans and Israel. Sometimes these two nations were enemies. Other times they were “friends” (Isaiah 17:3). Readers may recall how Israel and Aram joined together to attack Judah, as recorded in Isaiah 7:1-9 (see Devotional Journal 25).
Most importantly for the context of Isaiah, the religion of the Arameans was pagan. Israel (the northern kingdom), at least at one time, followed the one true God, who had called them through their father, Abraham.
Two Vines Intertwined
Just as the history of Damascus and Israel intertwined throughout the historical books of the Old Testament, so does the prophecy against them in Isaiah 17. The chapter is not just against Damascus. Isaiah also speaks against Israel.
Perhaps as a reflection upon myself alone, I find the language of this chapter difficult to untangle, much as the relationship between Israel and the Kingdom of Damascus. Various translations treat the chapter a bit differently from each other. This chapter is one of the few times so far in this devotional that I recommend the Masoretic text above the Septuagint. Overall, its language is easier to understand, although ultimately, both textual versions say the same thing. The NKJV presents a coherent storyline.
What Does Isaiah Say?
Isaiah prophesies that Damascus will be severely reduced, just as Israel will. Beginning with words against Damascus (Isaiah 17:1-2), the prophet then compares the future of Damascus with the future of Israel in a single verse. Isaiah 17:3 states that the future of Aram will be like the future of Israel. He states, “…for you are no better than the children of Israel, even than their glory” (Isaiah 17:3, CAB). Both will be reduced to a remnant. It does not appear that Isaiah prophecies total destruction for either nation (cf. Isaiah 17:5-6).
Isaiah’s Three Metaphors
In the next section, Isaiah 17:4-6, “the Lord, the God of Israel” (LXE) speaks directly against Israel. The imagery clearly speaks of a stripping down that leaves a very small remnant. Isaiah uses three metaphors.
Israel will be like a man who has lost a great deal of weight after a severe sickness (vs 4).
It will be like a field of grain after a harvest (vs 5).
It will be like the small number of olives that straggle on the branches after the complete harvest is done (vs 6).
Because Aram is no better and neither is its glory, it, too, will be stripped to a mere remnant.
Looking Back to God and the Utter Futility of Proceeding Without Him
Verses 5 and 6 describe how only a remnant will be left in Israel. If the reader maintains a linear continuity, then verses 7-8 describe how the remnant will turn back to God their Creator and see again the Holy one of Israel. Remember that a remnant is a very small number. This is not a widespread revival. Even today, many people seek out God their Maker during times of extreme trial. Some continue in their new found faith, while others leave God again shortly after their situation improves.
Verse 9 jumps back to describing the desolation. Verse 10a repeats the reason for the judgment–that the people forgot the God who saves them. Verses 10b-11 describe the utter futility of attempting to succeed in their efforts in their own strength.
Their strong cities will be empty. (vs 9)
The cause of all this is that they have forgotten God their creator (vs 10, and see comment above concerning verses 7-8).
Their grapes will not grow, even if they use the best farming techniques (verses 10-11). For an agrarian economy, even one cropless year would be devastating.
Closing Metaphors Against the Attackers
In the Old Testament, God uses nations to punish nations. Isaiah 17 does not name who the attacker is. Isaiah 7:17-20, however, several times names the attacking nation as Assyria. Just as Assyria will also attack Judah and not prevail (see Isaiah 8:8), so Isaiah 17:12-14 introduces a ray of hope.
The KJV and NKJ adopt the interpretation that verses 12-14 are against the attacking nation. They are compared to a multitude of people, who cry loudly like the noise from the sea and the crashing roar of great waves. “…But God will rebuke them and they will flee far away, And be chased like the chaff of the mountains before the wind, Like a rolling thing before the whirlwind (Isaiah 17:13 NKJ)”
The NKJ just quoted lies within the Masoretic tradition. And, the Septuagint clearly labels the closing phrases of the prophecy against Damascus and Israel as being against the attacker.
Isaiah 17:14 Toward evening, and there shall be grief; before the morning, and he shall not be. This is the portion of them that spoiled you, and the inheritance to them that robbed you of your inheritance. (CAB)
Closing Thoughts and Applications
It is said that, “Elephants never forget,” but neither does God. For the last several chapters, whenever Isaiah mentions that Israel, the northern kingdom, will not be completely destroyed but left a remnant, I am reminded of Jesus’s ministry to the woman at the well in a town of Samaria.
Many pastors amplify a certain phrase that falls near the beginning of this narrative, “But He needed to go through Samaria,”(John 4:4 NKJ). The Samaria of Jesus’s day lay in the former area of Israel, the northern kingdom. Often, pastors emphasize that Jesus’s need concerned the woman herself. This is most likely true. But as concerns Isaiah, I think that Jesus’s need sprang from God’s faithfulness to his former child. This was the child who rebelled and left him completely–except for that very small remnant that he spared.
After the Samaritan woman believed and ran back to evangelize her whole town, Jesus stayed with them two whole days (John 4:28-29, 32-42). God is faithful, even when we are not (2 Timothy 2:13).
Isaiah 17 shouts a warning to the Christian church and to individual Christians of every era. In God’s eyes, the Arameans and the Israelites of the northern kingdom were nearly inseparable. This is demonstrated by the way the judgments against them intertwine. Further, Israel’s history after the death of Solomon reveals an unbroken sequence of unfaithfulness to God himself and to his precepts. Theirs was a history of compromise and self-concern.
Even while the New Testament was being written, faithful Christians were tempted to compromise their basic tenets of faith in order to fit in with and placate their neighbors. The temptations have never ceased. What are some compromises various churches have made in our own generations?
For example, which Scriptural beliefs have churches compromised in order to blend in with those who believe life occurred and developed through evolution? What about the New Testament miracles of Christ? Or, to what extent is the virgin birth emphasized by Christians today? How many Christians continue to tithe a full ten percent? Most readers can surely compose their own list of temptations and compromise rather readily.
But what about God? As an individual Christian, I judge no one’s heart. Believe me, I have a difficult enough time judging my own heart. God is the final arbiter of faith issues, as we live our lives before him. Nevertheless, Isaiah 17 tells an Old Testament prophetic history of a nation called by God. This nation forsook God’s ways and their faith in him. Ultimately, their character and habits became indistinguishable from the pagan nations around them. This was so much so, that God judged them along with their pagan neighbors. The judgment that applied to the one also applied to the other. Are churches of today headed in that direction?
It is even possible that verse 14b refers to Aram (Damascus), or even to the Assyrians who bring the devastation. However, the latter interpretation would involve a sudden change of subject.
How many of us reading this are parents or school teachers? Parents know what it is like to discipline their children. Sometimes our own child becomes involved in a neighborhood squabble. We turn to our child first, disciplining them for their part in the fracas. But then, as parents and adults, we discipline the other guilty parties as well. As parents, and school teachers, we learn that the fault seldom, if ever, involves just one party. Usually, more than one person or group is guilty.
The Bible Is Not So Different
In the early chapters of Isaiah, we saw how God dealt with his own children first–Israel and Judah. They were not innocent. God even allowed the bigger, neighborhood bullies of Assyria and Babylonia to punish them. But what about Israel’s neighbors? In this portion of Isaiah, God turns to punish some of Israel’s neighbors. Isaiah 15-16 concern Moab.
Who Is Moab?
Who is Moab? The Bible first references Moab in Genesis 19:37. Lot was Abraham’s nephew. When God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, he allowed Lot to escape with his two daughters. Not trusting God to take care of them, Lot chose to live in a cave. As a consequence of their God-doubting isolation, Lot’s eldest daughter led the younger in having incest with their father. The eldest then gave birth to Moab, and the younger gave birth to Ben-ammi, ancestor to the Ammonites. Moab and Ammon were Israel’s neighbors to the east of the Dead Sea. (See Genesis 19:29-38.)
Moab and Israel continuously squabbled and fought one another. Numbers 22:1 through 24:25 records the entertaining history of King Balak of Moab, Balaam the prophet, and Balaam’s donkey. Then, Deuteronomy and Judges often mention Moab’s contentions with Israel. Sometimes Israel had the upper hand against Moab. But at other times God used Moab to punish Israel. On a more positive note, “Ruth the Moabite” figures prominently in the genealogy of Christ (Ruth 1:1-4:22). But mostly, they fought. The back and forth fighting between Moab and Israel continues through 1st and 2nd Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles. Moab even figures into Psalm 60:8, 83:6, and 108:9. Biblical Moab and Israel very much resemble two siblings who often squabble with each other.
The Prophecy Against Moab
Isaiah 15:2 LXE announces a call for Moab to lament and loudly grieve the destruction against it. This includes apparent drought (Isaiah 15:6) and enemy attack (Isaiah 15:7-9). Some details of both the Greek (Septuagint) and Hebrew (Masoretic) textual traditions are difficult to decipher. See, for example, Isaiah 16:3-4. But the main lines are clear.
First, God is displeased with Moab. Second, its people are guilty of the great sin of pride (Isaiah 16:6). Third, the Moabites wear themselves out seeking help from their idols. These cannot deliver them (Isaiah 16:12).
Isaiah pinpoints Moab’s destruction to an exact number of years.
And now I say, in three years, of the years of a hireling [note: in other words, exactly three years], the glory of Moab shall be dishonored with all his great wealth; and he shall be left few in number, and not honored. (Isaiah 16:14, CAB)
Other Prophecies Against Moab
Other prophets before and after Isaiah spoke judgment against Moab. Amos, before Isaiah, prophesied its thorough destruction (Amos 2:1-3). Ezekiel (25:8-11), Jeremiah (Jeremiah 48:1-47), and Zephaniah (Zephaniah 2:8-9) prophesied against Moab after Isaiah.
Israel’s Greatest Sin With Moab
God favored Israel. He wanted to bless them. God chose Israel because he wanted a traceable ancestral line for his most highly favored Messiah. For these reasons, he wanted Israel to maintain faithfulness to him alone. God therefore commanded Israel not to intermarry with the pagan nations around them.
The people of Israel’s sexual relations with the Moabites is biblically well documented. Numbers 25:1-3f relates how these began. Micah 6:5 and Revelation 2:14 connect the dots between Balaam and this sin. (Not having been able to conquer Israel directly, the Moabites compromised them in this other way.) Even after the exile, Jewish men persisted in marrying Moabite and other foreign women.
God through Jesus Christ is awesome in his mercy and provision for all peoples on earth.
Jeremiah 48:47 Yet I will restore the fortunes of Moab in the latter days, declares the LORD.” Thus far is the judgment on Moab. (ESV) [Note: this verse is not present in the Septuagint, even in its alternate numbering.]
Does God Still Have National Favorites?
The question my heart keeps asking as I read Isaiah 15-16 is, “Does God still have national favorites?” I don’t believe he does. God’s intention for humankind is universal in scope (Genesis 3:15). And, God’s intention for Christ as King predates creation (Ephesians 1:4). Further, Abraham predates Moses. Scripture teaches that everyone who believes Christ by faith is a child of Abraham (Romans 4:9-13). And Abraham is heir of the world (Romans 4:13).
God has not changed from Old Testament days. God never changes. But the covenant, or working agreement, he made with humans has changed. First, there was the Old Covenant, which God declared null and void by the cross (Hebrews 8:13). And, there is now the New Covenant in Christ’s blood. The New Covenant includes everyone who is united with Christ (Hebrews 9:15). The New Covenant knows no national boundaries, since it is made with those who partake of the blood of Christ by faith (Luke 22:20). Therefore, God no longer relates to human beings according to their nationality, but according to whether or not they receive by faith the blood of his Son, King Jesus. Jesus said all this succinctly in John 18:36, “My kingdom is not from this world.”
God in the New Testament, beginning with Christ, looks upon all peoples of all nations differently than he did in the Old Testament. Consider Jesus’s revelation to the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well.
John 4:20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” 21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father. 22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. 23 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. 24 God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (ESV)
Also, Jesus speaks of his kingdom, to which all believers belong.
John 18:36 Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” (ESV)
Next we hear from the Apostle Paul.
Galatians 3:26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (ESV)
2 Corinthians 5:16 Therefore, from now on, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new. 18 Now all things are of God, who has reconciled us to Himself through Jesus Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation, 19 that is, that God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them, and has committed to us the word of reconciliation. (2Co 5:16-19 NKJ)
In the verses immediately above, Paul’s use of the phrase in verse 16, “according to the flesh,” includes genealogy and everything associated with the physical body. Likewise, verse 17 means that everything about the first creation, including physical descent, have passed away. Otherwise, the walls of division would still be present, even in the church. But, all walls separating one person from another, even nationality, have been removed. Listen to Paul again.
Ephesians 2:11 Therefore remember that at one time you Gentiles in the flesh, called “the uncircumcision” by what is called the circumcision, which is made in the flesh by hands– 12 remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. 13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. (Eph 2:11-18 ESV)
Finally, the Apostle John speaks.
Revelation 7:9 After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, 10 and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (ESV)
My heart cries a loud “Hallelujia! to the Lamb.” In the former days of Isaiah 15-16, Moab bickered and fought back and forth with Israel for centuries. But now in the Kingdom of Christ, the Christ-believing progeny of Moab are reconciled with the Christ-believing progeny of Israel. Both are reconciled to God in Christ. We are all one body in him. Christ is the head.
In chapters 13 and 14, God through Isaiah pronounces judgment against Babylon and Lucifer. Phase one of God’s judgment was against his own house. Judgment against God’s own house, the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah, dominated the first twelve chapters. Next, God through his prophet turns to phase two. Phase two is against many nations and cities. Chapters 13 and 14 concern Babylon. After this, Isaiah continues phase two’s judgment against many nations through Chapter 24. Then his attention turns to restoration for Judah, followed by judgment again against his own people. The prophet continues to alternate blessing for the redeemed and judgment for the unwilling throughout the entire book.
Isaiah’s Main Characters
When we think of the Book of Isaiah as a great biblical drama, we find strongly defined characters: 1) God, 2) God’s Messiah, who shares divinity with God, 3) Judah, the southern kingdom, 4) Israel, the northern kingdom, 5) God’s remnant, those whom he redeems, 6) the foreign adversaries, and 7) the new enemy, which is the enemy, Satan.
Notice that this list shows God’s household of Israel and Judah as separate from those whom God redeems. Both testaments teach concerning a remnant of Israel and Judah whom God saves. Gentiles are added to this remnant, as we learned in prior posts. What is NEW in chapters 13 and 14 is the well developed character, Lucifer, the enemy. Messiah also figures strongly in a few Septuagint verses.
Concrete or Symbolic?
What is it about a passage that causes a reader to search for multiple layers of meaning? One indication is the way the author uses words. Chapter 13 begins with what we might call hyperbole. First, the Lord speaks strongly through Isaiah as one who himself leads armies to “fulfill My anger,” or “wrath.” He calls the attacking nations “mighty ones,” or literally giants in Greek. The text speaks of “the sound of many nations upon the mountains.”
Second, as God’s speech continues, the destruction he decrees appears to be universal. These forces come from “a land afar off, from the utmost foundation of heaven; the Lord and his warriors are coming to destroy all the world,” (Isaiah 13:5).
Isaiah 13:4A voice of many nations on the mountains, even like to that of many nations; a voice of kings and nations gathered together; the Lord of hosts has given command to a war-like nation, 5 to come from a land afar off, from the utmost foundation of heaven; the Lord and His warriors are coming to destroy all the world. 6 Howl, for the day of the Lord is near, and destruction from God shall arrive…9 For behold, the day of the Lord is coming which cannot be escaped, a day of wrath and anger, to make the world desolate, and to destroy sinners out of it. 10 For the stars of heaven, and Orion, and all the host of heaven, shall not give their light; and it shall be dark at sunrise, and the moon shall not give her light. 11 And I will command evils for the whole world, and will visit their sins on the ungodly; and I will destroy the pride of transgressors, and will bring low the pride of the haughty. (CAB, Complete Apostles’ Bible, a modernization of Brenton’s Septuagint).
Revelation 16:19 The great city was split into three parts, and the cities of the nations fell, and God remembered Babylon the great, to make her drain the cup of the wine of the fury of his wrath. (ESV)
Revelation 16:14 For they are demonic spirits, performing signs, who go abroad to the kings of the whole world, to assemble them for battle on the great day of God the Almighty. (ESV)
If we classify the two passages in Revelation as end times texts, then why not the very similar passages in Isaiah? Is it possible that John derived some of his thought and language from Isaiah? And, there is an even likelier explanation–that the one God is behind all these passages.
Isaiah Himself Symbolizes
As it turns out, there is no need for the reader to question her recognition of symbolism in Isaiah 13-14. Isaiah himself uses symbolism. He turns God’s punishment of concrete, local Babylon into a symbol of God’s punishment of Satan.
Where Do We Find Isaiah’s Symbols?
First, Isaiah compares the destruction of Babylon to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrha (Isaiah 13:19). In this metaphor, Isaiah employs these two cities as symbols of God’s utter devastation. Just as God punished Sodom and Gomorrha, making them completely uninhabitable, so shall he do to Babylon. This is not the first time Isaiah has used Sodom and Gomorrha as symbols of God’s devastating judgment. He also did so in Isaiah 1:9.
Second, the reader is not imagining layers of meaning when she compares Babylon to Satan. Isaiah himself introduces this symbol.
Isaiah14:11 Your glory has come down to Hades, and your great mirth; under you they shall spread corruption, and the worm shall be your covering. 12 How has Lucifer, that rose of the morning, fallen from heaven! He that sent orders to all the nations is crushed to the earth. 13 But you have said in your heart, I will go up to heaven, I will set my throne above the stars of heaven; I will sit on a lofty mount, on the lofty mountains toward the north; 14 I will go up above the clouds; I will be like the Most High. 15 But now you shall go down to hell, even to the foundations of the earth! (CAB)
The reader should compare Isaiah 14:4-21 with Revelation 18. The two passages describe the same event: God’s judgment against Satan and his final destruction.
Why Is Isaiah’s Use of Symbolism in Chapters 13 and 14 Important?
Why is Isaiah’s use of symbolism in Chapters 13 and 14 important? It is important for the reader to recognize and acknowledge that Isaiah uses symbols early in the book. Such awareness opens a door for the reader’s further recognition of Isaiah’s use of symbolism in later chapters of the book. In some of those later chapters, an interpretive question arises, “Is Isaiah speaking solely of Israel the geo-political nation, or is he speaking of the church?” See, for example, Isaiah 60. This is a reasonable question to ask of Isaiah, especially because the book never uses the New Testament word “church.”
In the early chapters of Isaiah, God manifests his intentions for the church. “Church,” however, is a New Testament word. Isaiah often uses the word “remnant” or “seed” with reference to the saved of God’s Old Testament people. The many chapters covered in the book so far indicate clearly that God distinguishes among his people. Some constantly disobey his precepts and never repent. These people do not inherit his promises, whether or not they belong to geo-political Israel or Judah. Those who repent and seek to obey, Isaiah calls a remnant.
Isaiah 1:9And if the Lord of Sabaoth had not left us a seed [remnant, NKJ], we would have become like Sodom, and been made like Gomorrah. (CAB)
Isaiah’s promises of blessing for the remnant includes Gentiles who willingly come.
Isaiah 14:1 And the Lord will have mercy on Jacob, and will yet choose Israel, and they shall rest on their land; and the stranger shall be added to them; yes, they shall be added to the house of Jacob. (CAB)
Romans 11:21 For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. 22 Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off. 23 And even they, if they do not continue in their unbelief, will be grafted in, for God has the power to graft them in again. (ESV)
Notice in the previous set of verses that Isaiah prophesies what Paul expounds. The word “stranger” in Isaiah 14:1 refers to Gentiles. And Paul, for his part, addresses the Roman Gentile converts whom God grafted in to Israel’s vine.
Punishing the Punisher
God in the Old Testament used attacking nations to punish other nations. We have seen this in previous journal entries. First, God used the armies of Assyria to call down his judgment against Israel, the northern kingdom. When Assyria got carried away by its own pride and began attacking beyond God’s command, then God punished Assyria by means of the Chaldeans, or Babylonians (see Isaiah Devotional Journal 28 and Isaiah 10:12-16).
The conquering Babylonians fell prey to the same sin of willful pride. God describes their sin as Lucifer’s in Chapter 14, quoted above. Isaiah prophesies the destruction of Babylon, the concrete city (local, geo-political, rather than symbolic), in Isaiah 13:17-22. The Persian Medes accomplished its destruction.
Alexander the Great conquered the Medo Persian Empire in its turn. The Romans vanquished the Greek empire, etc. Human history relates that kingdoms never last. Even the most powerful and enduring people groups and nation states succumb to decline and death, always being replaced by another.
This is why the prophecies of the “everlasting” kingdom of Messiah are so important. His kingdom is unique in all of human history. Further, it is “not of this world” (John 18:36). It is of “heaven” (Matthew 4:17). In other words, Christ’s kingdom does not reside in any geo-political nation. No nation embodies his kingdom, because Christ’s kingdom is “not of this world.”
Some individual verses and statements in Isaiah 13-14 are confusing and arouse more questions than answers. But the main thrust is clear. God controls history and its kingdoms. God also favors the poor and needy (Isaiah 14:30, 32).
Isaiah 14:32 And what shall the kings of the nations answer? That the Lord has founded Zion, and by Him the poor of the people shall be saved. (CAB)
Verses which prophesy the destruction of Babylon the city that attacked Jerusalem lie side by side and interspersed with other verses of an apocalyptic, end times character. Isaiah foretells the casting of Lucifer, or Satan, into hell. He also foretells the devastation of earthly (concrete) Babylon, the city.
Among other accomplishments of these two chapters, Chapters 13 and 14, lay the foundation for further symbolism in the book of Isaiah.
But you dwell among the saints, O praise of Israel. (Psalm 22:(4)3, SAAS) (1)
The New Testament teaches that the risen Christ, the glorified Son of God, will marry his church (2). Now that’s a mystery, says the Apostle Paul (Ephesians 5:32).
Isaiah’s first peal of praise occurs in chapter 12. There God himself prophesies through his spokesperson Isaiah what his people, the church, will say “in that day.” This scene exemplifies what it means for Christ to be wedded to his church.
Why do I say Chapter 12 concerns the church? Simply because Isaiah writes repeatedly that God will save the remnant of his people and Gentiles (3). Jewish believers and Gentiles become one entity when Messiah comes bearing good news. This is also the understanding of New Testament authors, especially Paul. Luke verifies this understanding among the church fathers, primarily Peter (Acts 11:1-18; 15:1-31).
A believing remnant whom God will spare from his devastating judgment has been a theme from the beginning of Isaiah. Eleven times Isaiah speaks of a remnant of Israel in chapters 1 through 12. Six of these references occur in chapters 10 and 11. The time frame of chapters 10 and 11 take the reader to the advent of Christ and at least as far as the present. Nowhere in the first twelve chapters does Isaiah ever say that all Israel will be saved. While I do believe that other portions of Scripture indicate this, it is not here, not now.
Isaiah 10:22 And though the people of Israel be as the sand of the sea, a remnant of them shall be saved. 23 He will finish the work, and cut it short in righteousness: because the Lord will make a short work in all the world. (LXE)
Paul uses the above passage and others to explain how it is that Gentiles receive the Gospel and salvation. Simultaneously, for the most part, the bulk of Israel rejects that same gospel.
Romans 9:27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, 28 for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” 29 And as Isaiah predicted, “If the Lord of hosts had not left us offspring, we would have been like Sodom and become like Gomorrah.” (ESV)
God Remembers His Remnant
God does not forget his remnant of Israel. Chapter 11 picks up the theme begun in chapter 10. Isaiah weaves together the salvation promised the remnant with the salvation promised the Gentiles. Notice how he does this in the following verses.
Isaiah 11:10 And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall arise to rule over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust, and his rest shall be glorious. 11 And it shall be in that day, that the Lord shall again shew his hand, to be zealous for the remnant that is left of the people, which shall be left by the Assyrians, and that from Egypt, and from the country of Babylon, and from Ethiopia, and from the Elamites, and from the rising of the sun, and out of Arabia. 12 And he shall lift up a standard for the nations, and he shall gather the lost ones of Israel, and he shall gather the dispersed of Juda from the four corners of the earth. 13 … 16 And there shall be a passage for my people that is left [verb form of “remnant”] in Egypt: and it shall be to Israel as the day when he came forth out of the land of Egypt. (Isa 11:10 LXE)
The Remnant and the Gentiles
Jesus, Messiah, the root of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1 and 11:10), became the chief cornerstone of the Christian church. “In that day,”–the day of Messiah–the church included both the remnant of Israel and Gentiles. In addition to the verses already mentioned in Isaiah 11, Isaiah 12:4 makes this abundantly clear.
Isaiah 11:16 closes with mention of “the remnant of My people” (SAAS) (1). The very next verse, Isaiah 12:1, opens with the word, “And…” Grammatically, this “and” is a strong conjunction, και (kay). This word “and” connects the two paragraphs, which speak of the same topic. Therefore, when God addresses the people as “you” in chapter 12, he speaks to the same remnant, who is now worshipping him. God states the following.
Isaiah 12:1 And in that day thou shalt say, I will bless thee, O Lord… (LXE)
The conversation continues unbroken, as God speaks further to the same group of people, his remnant.
Isaiah 12:4 And in that day thou shalt say, sing to the Lord, call aloud upon his name, proclaim his glorious deeds among the Gentiles; make mention that his name is exalted. (LXE)
For proper understanding of the book of Isaiah, it is important to note that Isaiah includes both a Jewish remnant and Gentiles who turn to God in the day of Messiah. The New Testament, especially the book of Acts and the writings of Paul, bear ample witness to the fulfillment of these prophecies spoken more than 600 years earlier by the prophet Isaiah.