THE ARM OF FLESH Isaiah 28–32
“Woe to those . . . 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” (Isa. 31:1).In condemning Judah’s failure to consult the Lord before rebelling against Assyria, these chapters of Isaiah serve as a warning to us as well. We are to look to God for guidance. And do His will.
The messages in this section of Isaiah date from about 705B.C Sargon, one of Assyria’s most successful rulers, had just died. The leaders of Judah saw this as an opportunity to rebel against Assyrian domination, and made a treaty with Egypt. The decision was foolish because while the Egyptian power once again extended to all its traditional territory, Egypt remained weak. It could offer no significant military help to any ally. The decision was also wrong because the leaders of Judah had failed to consult God. Thus an angry Isaiah interrupted the festival announced by Judah’s leaders to celebrate their declaration of independence from Assyria. In graphic images and plain words Isaiah denounced Judah’s leaders. Now they were tipsy with the drink served at their premature celebration. In acting without consulting God, they showed that even before they had one bowl of wine they had as little judgment as any drunk! We need to visualize an angry Isaiah and drunken, dulled leaders as we read these chapters.
Isaiah condemned Judah’s decision to rebel against Assyria and make a treaty with Egypt. That treaty was a covenant with death (28:1–29), and God’s unresponsive people would suffer humiliation (29:1–24). Plans made without consulting God will fail (30:1–31:9), yet God’s plan to establish a righteous kingdom will succeed (32:1–20). In His time God will arise. Jerusalem will again experience peace (33:1–24).
Understanding the Text
“The remnant of His people” Isa. 28:1–6.
Isaiah repeated a warning given the Northern Kingdom, Israel, before Samaria’s fall some 20 years before. The earlier warning came true. So would the warnings Isaiah was about to utter concerning Judah. How much easier to learn the lessons of history, rather than learn by painful personal experiences! God’s Word enables us to avoid disastrous mistakes by showing us what happens when the Lord’s people fail to consider and do God’s will. Verses 5–6 remind us that human failure to obey God cannot thwart the accomplishment of His purposes. All that our disobedience does is rob us of blessings we would otherwise have experienced. “Do and do, do and do” Isa. 28:7–22. Isaiah’s words made no sense to the tipsy celebrants in Jerusalem. Unable to grasp Isaiah’s message, the priests mumbled, “Who is he trying to teach?” while the prophets muttered, “To whom is he explaining his message?” The repeated phrases, “Do and do, do and do, rule on rule, rule on rule,” have been taken to (1) represent the mutterings of the drunks, who could only catch and repeat phrases Isaiah uttered, or (2) to represent the way young children are taught the basics in school, by rote and repetition. Another possible interpretation is (3) that these phrases represent the legalistic way in which Isaiah’s hearers approached faith. They could not comprehend the invitation to peace through trust in God imbedded in Scripture. All they could see were the ritual rules. Whichever is intended, the people of Isaiah’s day would not understand God’s message. So God determined “with foreign lips and strange tongues” to speak to this people (v. 11). The Assyrians would speak in a language God’s people could not mistake—the language of sword, fire, devastation, and misery. If we do not listen to God’s quiet, loving voice, He remains capable of grabbing us by the shoulders, and shaking us until we pay attention! “It will break in pieces like pottery” Isa. 30–31. Again and again these chapters stress the futility of relying on anything other than God. Perhaps the clearest expression of this is found in 31:3: “The Egyptians are men and not God; their horses are flesh and not spirit. When the Lord stretches out His hand, he who helps will stumble, he who is helped will fall; both will perish together.” We’re so vulnerable to the attitude seen here in the people of Judah. We keep on putting our trust in things we can touch, see, and feel. The Persian poet Omar Khayyam put it this way: Ah, take the cash, And let the credit go. Nor heed the rumble of a distant drum. You and I, however, are to listen for that distant drum, and ignore the cash! We know that the only things that are real, the only things that offer true security, are spiritual and not material. If we keep this truth clearly in mind, and act on it, we will be safe from the sin that brought disaster on ancient Judah. “This is the way; walk in it” Isa. 30:21. Modern airliners have a special guidance system for landings. If the plane strays either right or left of the flight path, a warning is sounded, and the pilot brings it back to the correct bearing. God had this guidance system long before manned flight was dreamed of! If our relationship with the Lord is characterized by “repentance and rest” and “quietness and trust” (v. 15), then God will speak to our hearts when we stray to the left or right of His path for us. His Spirit will speak to our hearts, and tell us “this is the way; walk in it.” The Christian life is a supernatural life. We can’t explain how God’s Spirit guides us. But we can and do hear His voice. “Till the spirit is poured upon us from on high” Isa. 32:1–33:24. Isaiah constantly contrasted the dark days of divine judgment with the brightness of the kingdom the Lord will establish afterward. The pattern is clearly seen in these chapters. Isaiah’s fellow countrymen had doomed themselves to anguish and mourning. But God’s plans to bless His people cannot be overturned by the wickedness of any number of generations. In a beautiful passage Isaiah said that the Promised Land will become a waste—but only ’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. Justice will dwell in the desert and righteousness live in the fertile field. The fruit of righteousness will be peace; the effect of righteousness will be quietness and confidence forever. Isaiah 32:15–17
I Don’t Know(Isa. 29)
It’s frustrating to teach folks who simply won’t learn. My wife once asked one of her 11th-graders a question about a short story they were studying. The story was called, “The Sculptor’s Funeral.” Her question was, “Who died?” The student she asked replied, “I don’t know, I didn’t read the story.” She asked the question again. “Well, read the title and tell me, who died?” And the irritated student answered, “I told you I didn’t read the story! I don’t know.” I expect Isaiah felt the same frustration as he tried to communicate God’s message to his unwilling listeners in Judah. They were as dense as drunks. It was like giving a book to a person, only to have them hand it back and say, “I can’t read.” The words of Isaiah simply made no sense to the people of Judah. Today we wonder, Why? Why didn’t the people of Isaiah’s day grasp his message? Why couldn’t they see what seems so clear to you and me? But the Lord explained (v. 13). The people of Judah had a superficial faith. In modern terms, verse 13 says: “They go to church. They sing hymns, and mouth the creeds. But while the preacher gives his sermon their thoughts are on other things. Their ’worship’ isn’t of Me. It’s just doing things that others expect—showing up on Sunday, dressing right, supporting what to them is more of a ’club’ than a community of faith.” When religion fails to focus on God, but deteriorates to a mere social convention, then the hearing of churchgoers is dulled. God speaks. But they can no more hear Him than can a man lying in the gutter in a drunken stupor (vv. 9–10). How do we protect ourselves from this kind of dullness? Today, as then, it is a matter of the heart. Going to church isn’t something we are to do because it’s expected. We are to go to church to worship God, to learn more about Him, to express our love in worship, praise, and generous giving. When we come near to God with our whole heart, then you and I will hear God speak to us. And we will understand what He says.
Get your heart and not just your family ready for church next Sunday.