AGAINST THE WICKED Isaiah 13–23
“How the oppressor has come to an end! How his fury has ended! The Lord has broken the rod of the wicked, the scepter of the rulers” (Isa. 14:4–5).These chapters of Isaiah take a new direction, and communicate a single message: God surely will act against the enemies of the righteous.
The niv translates ˒adonay yahweh by “Sovereign Lord.” The first Hebrew word is an intensive form of the word for “master,” or “owner”; a form used only of God in the Old Testament. While the name itself, rendered “Lord God” in older versions, tells us little about the nature of God’s sovereignty, these chapters of Isaiah reveal much. Little Judah was surrounded by powerful enemies, who frequently brought God’s people into subjection. Yet the God of Israel was worshiped as Lord of the whole earth and Creator of the heavens. How could this vision of an all-powerful God be supported in view of the relative weakness of His people? Isaiah’s answer is found in this series of oracles-prophetic announcements of judgment-directed against Judah’s enemies. God is in complete charge of the flow of history. The Lord will judge the wicked world powers that have oppressed His people. One by one they will fall. As the decades march on, the fall of Judah’s enemies will provide evidence that God is God, and that the good He intends for His people will surely come to pass. At times we may feel overwhelmed, reading through chapters of the Old Testament which seem to us obscure or even perhaps irrelevant. Yet these oracles against the nations were not irrelevant to his listeners—nor are they irrelevant to you and me. They remind us too that, though the wicked may at times seem to prosper, God is sovereign. People and nations pass away and history flows on, channeled by God’s hidden power. In God’s time history will empty into an eternity that He has planned from the beginning, and all God’s people will be blessed.
Our sovereign God will overthrow all enemies of His people. Judgment will fall on Babylon (13:1–14:23), on Assyria and Philistia (vv. 24–32), Moab (15:1–16:14), Damascus (17:1–14), Ethiopia (Cush) (18:1–7), Egypt (19:1–25), Egypt and Ethiopia (20:1–6), Babylon, Edom, and Arabia (21:1–17). It will fall on contemporary Jerusalem (22:1–25), and on Tyre (23:1–18).
Understanding the Text
“An oracle concerning Babylon” Isa. 13:1–14:23. Why Babylon? In Isaiah’s day Assyria, not Babylon, was supreme. In Isaiah’s day the Medes, cast here as the agents of Babylon’s downfall, were allies rather than enemies. How could Isaiah speak so certainly of events that happened, not in his own time, but over a century later? Such questions have led some to insist that Isaiah could not have written this oracle. But such questions remind us of the sovereign power of God, who knows things that have not yet come to pass, and reveals them through His prophets. Perhaps one of the most striking images is found in 13:19–22, which pictures a deserted Babylon, so much a specter that no Arab will pitch his tent there, a home for wild animals that will scurry among its ruins. For well over 2,000 years the site of ancient Babylon has been just such a specter. The night winds have howled through heaps of ancient mud bricks, and superstitious Arabs have avoided and feared Babylon’s desolation. What an image of worldly glory! It flourishes for a moment. And then as history rushes on, worldly glory crumbles. How empty the ambitions and the achievements of the world. “Ar in Moab is ruined” Isa. 15:1–16:13. Moab had been an enemy of Israel from the days of the Exodus (cf. Num. 22–24). Isaiah announced that Moab would be devastated within three years (Isa. 16:14). Nestled among the predictions of destruction is a beautiful passage that reminds us of an important truth. God’s judgments are not vindictive, but are intended to bring blessing and peace. “The oppressor will come to an end, and destruction will cease; the aggressor will vanish from the land. In love a throne will be established; in faithfulness a man will sit on it—one from the house of David—one who in judging seeks justice and speeds the cause of righteousness” (vv. 4–5). “The glory of Jacob will fade” Isa. 17:1–14. The coalition of Syria and Israel, formed to resist Assyria, was doomed to fail. Damascus, the capital of Syria, would fall, leaving Israel exposed to the brutal invader. But Isaiah did not see Israel’s destruction as an unmixed evil. Stripped of national pride and glory, destitute, and starving, “Men will look to their Maker and turn their eyes to the Holy One of Israel” (v. 7). What we are likely to see as a disaster is often intended by God for some greater good. “Stripped and barefoot” Isa. 20:1–6. In the 1960s when Arthur Blessett marched in U.S. cities carrying a gigantic wooden cross, he was frequently ridiculed. But Blessett felt called, and was willing to be thought a fool for Christ. Isaiah must have felt something of a fool in the eighth centuryB.C, when he was told by God to wander the streets of Jerusalem stripped (to a loincloth) and barefoot for some three years. This relative of the royal family exposed himself to shame at God’s command, to serve as an object lesson. Soon the sovereign God would execute judgment against Egypt and Cush (Ethiopia), and their people would suffer Isaiah’s fate. God is unlikely to ask you or me to walk about in diapers or drag a cross. But there will be times when we feel a little embarrassed or foolish at the thought of doing something we feel convicted is God’s will. At such times let’s take heart from the example of God’s bolder servants, and put obedience first. “O city of tumult and revelry” Isa. 22:1–25. Jerusalem rejoiced over its deliverance from the forces of Sennacherib in 701B.C Isaiah, however, was distressed. The goodness of God should have led the people of Judah to repent (vv. 12–13), not to party! In this Isaiah reflected a thought expressed later by the Apostle Paul: “Do you show contempt for the riches of His kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?” (Rom. 2:4)
Move Over, God(Isa. 14:12–15)
The author of Ecclesiastes said it. “There is nothing new under the sun.” He was right. Try as hard as one can, it’s even impossible to invent a new sin! I suspect that’s one reason why so many commentators take Isaiah 14:12–15 not just as the description of some arrogant but petty Babylonian ruler, but as a description of Satan. Probably they’re right in seeing at least a reflection of Satan here. The passage does describe what is perhaps the root of every sin. Some call it pride. What it really is, is the intention of the creature to “make myself like the Most High.” It’s the intention of the creature to sit on the throne of the universe, and have its own way. If Satan is in view here, his intention was quite literal. He really did say in his heart, “Move over, God, I want Your throne.” You and I aren’t likely to express ourselves quite as blatantly. But all our sins do reflect the same attitude. What we feel and think is, “I want. . . . ” and “I will. . . . ” What’s wrong with that? It’s just that there is room in the universe for only one God. Our attitude should be, “What You will” and our desires, “What You want.” It may seem strange, but that one little change in pronoun can help us avoid the judgment that these chapters assure us will overtake the wicked. If in our heart of hearts we replace the “I” with “You,” a good and holy life will follow.
In the Christian life if not the alphabet, “U” always comes before “I.”
“Psychologist Bernard Rimland, at the Institute for Child Behavior Research in San Diego, has just published a simple test. “Make a list of 10 persons whom you know the best. After each name write either H (for happy) or N (for unhappy). Then go down the list again, this time writing S (for selfish) and U (for unselfish) after each name. Once you have completed your list, draw a table . . . count each category, and place the numbers in the appropriate cell. “When Rimland added up the cases of 1,988 people rated by 216 students in 6 college classes, he found that the happy/selfish category was almost empty (only 78 of the cases), while 827 fell into the happy/unselfish cell. Paradox: Selfish people are by definition devoted to bringing themselves happiness. Judged by others, however, they seem to succeed less often than people who work at bringing happiness to others. “Conclusion: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”—Cris Cox