Judah is a sinful nation, weighed down with iniquity. They are not the seed of Abraham, but the seed of iniquity. Their worship is abominable to Yahweh, because their hands are covered with innocent blood. They have not done good, or sought justice, or reproved the ruthless, or defended the orphan or pleaded for the widow. And therefore, the Lord sends His prophet to pronounce oracles of woe and trouble and tribulation against His people.
Woe to those who add house to house, expanding their territory and their lands and their houses until they live alone in the land, until they have squeezed the poorer Israelites from the land, the land that Yahweh intended for everyone to share.
Woe to those who rise early to drink wine.
Woe to those who pull their iniquity behind them like a cart, who don’t go anywhere without their iniquity.
Woe to those who call good evil and evil good, who can’t tell the difference between sweet and bitter.
Woe to the those who are proud, who are wise in their own eyes.
Woe to the judges who are drunk when the sit for judgment, and who seek bribes to take away right judgment from the innocent.
Woe, woe, woe, woe, woe – six woes. Yahweh threatens to afflict Judah and Israel, but they don’t turn, they don’t change. He stretched His hand out against them as He once stretched out His hand against oppressive Egypt, but they don’t turn from their oppression and injustice. And so, even though the Lord has poured out His wrath on His people, “His anger is not spent, and His hand is still stretched out.”
The problem in Isaiah is not simply impiety, the failure of individual Israelites to follow the Lord and keep His covenant. The failure is a national failure, and the problem is a problem of public justice and righteousness. The problem is judges who don’t defend the weak, and greedy landowners who keep adding more and more property to their holdings and squeeze everyone else out, and the indulgent lifestyle of the wealthy young, who drink from morning to evening. That’s the problem the Lord sets out to address, and He addresses it by bringing woes on Israel, trying to turn Israel from her injustice.
That is all in Isaiah 5. Six woes, and the warning that the Lord’s anger continues to burn because Judah and Israel have not responded to the Lord’s anger by turning back to Him. And in chapter 9-10, Isaiah resumes where he left off.
Four times the Lord repeats that same threat: “In spite of all this His anger does not turn away, and His hand is still stretched out.” And then again, “In spite of all this, His anger does not turn away, and His hand is still stretched out.” And then again, and then again. He has tried everything to bring Israel back. He has brought afflictions, and then new afflictions, and still Israel and Judah do not turn.
He sends out a word, a word of judgment, and the judgment falls on Jacob. The people of Jacob, here the Northern Kingdom, know that He has sent this calamity, this woe, and yet they don’t respond. The word of Yahweh that falls on Samaria causes things to fall down, specifically things that are made of bricks and sycamore. The men of Babel used bricks to construct their city and tower, and the Egyptians used bricks to build their storage cities and pyramids, and put the Hebrews to work making bricks for these projects. Now, the people of Samaria have become like the men of Babel and like the Egyptians, building in rebellion against Yahweh. The only other time Isaiah refers to bricks, he is talking about brick altars (65:11), and so it’s possible that this is what he has in view here. The word of the Lord falls on Samaria, and when the word falls, the brick altars and the wooden shrines of the northern kingdom collapse.
But that does not stop the rebellion of the North. Instead, they remain proud and determined to have their idolatrous shrines and altars. If Yahweh knocks them down, then the proud people of Samaria are going to build up their altars again, but this time with cut and polished stone, build them better than they had been, stronger and with more precious materials. If the Lord knocks down their shrines, they are going to rebuild, and this time not with cheap sycamore but with more expensive cedar.
And because of that, Yahweh is going to raise up adversaries and enemies against the people of the North, as He did against Solomon when Solomon built idolatrous shrines for his many wives. The Lord is going to add to the afflictions of Samaria by opening the jaws of the Philistines and the Arameans. The two nations on the east and west are going to form a large set of jaws, a gaping maw that is going to swallow down Samaria. Still, Samaria does not turn, and therefore, the Lord’s hand, the hand that brought afflictions and plagues to Egypt, is still stretched out against them.
So the Lord tries a different tack. He has toppled their shrines and altars, and now he will cut off their leaders. He pictures the kingdom of Israel as an animal’s body, and He is going to lop off the head and the tail. He pictures Israel as a set of plants, from the high tree to the low bulrush, and He is going to pluck off the top of the tree and cut down the bulrushes. All the leaders of Israel are going to cut off, whether the highest and most honorable or the least honorable.
He breaks through the metaphor and speaks literally in 9:15. The head and palm branch is the elder and the honorable man, the men who are truly lifted up. The tail and the bulrush, the lowest of the leaders of Israel, is the false prophet. Both groups, and all the groups in between are misleading the people. Instead of leading them into abundant life, they are leading them into confusion. They cause the people to wander aimlessly.
The Lord is not only going to rachet up the judgment by cutting off the leaders, the head and tail, but He is also going to go on the warpath. Verse 17 describes the Lord carrying out holy war against the people of Israel. They have become like the Canaanites in the land. They are full of foolishness and they are all godless and evildoers. So the Lord will have no pity. He won’t spare the young men, and He won’t have any pity on orphans and widows. He is going to carry out a war of utter destruction against the people of Israel.
Still they don’t repent, and so His anger does not turn, and His hand is still stretched out. So the Lord tries yet another tack. He has toppled their shrines and altars; He has cut off head and tail, and now it’s time for burning. Yahweh’s anger burns, His “nose” burns. That’s what causes Israel’s destruction. The land is burned up by the fury of the Lord’s anger, and the people themselves are fuel, they are food for the fire. But that is not all that Isaiah says here. The fire that burns Israel comes from Yahweh, but there is another fire at work here, the fire of wickedness, a fire that consumes briars and thorns, and sets the forest aflame. The implication is that Yahweh’s anger burns up the land precisely by enflaming the wickedness of the people. Yahweh wants to clear the land of thorns and thistles, and He wants to burn up the forest. But He does it by giving the people over to their wickedness. It’s a Romans 1 judgment. In Romans 1, when the human race pursues idols, the Lord gives them over to sexual impurities and perversions; when they persist in sexual perversion, He gives them over to all sorts of other sins. Here too, the Lord burns Israel in judgment, in fury and wrath, by giving them over to the fire of their own wickedness.
Part of the fire of wickedness that the Lord unleashes against Israel in His fury is the wickedness of social strife. No one spares his brothers. It is a war of all against all, each man devouring his own neighbor. So Yahweh is going to give them over to their cannibalism. It is a grim description of a horrific siege. He will give them over to famine, so that they won’t have enough to satisfy them. And they will become so ravenous that they won’t simply start eating each other, but each will eat the flesh from his own arm.
And even now, after all this, Israel does not turn, and the Lord’s hand is still stretched out.
And then we come to another woe. Woe, woe, woe, woe, woe, woe – 6 woes from chapter 5. We expect a seventh, but we don’t get it until chapter 9. Here is the climactic woe.
The seventh woe is a woe concerning Sabbath, the seventh day. Israel was supposed to be a sabbatical people. They were to keep Sabbath, that was one of the marks of Israel’s distinctive life. But for Israel Sabbath-keeping was not merely resting on the seventh day. Sabbath-keeping characterized Israel’s entire life, and it meant canceling debts, freeing slaves, celebrating the festivals and inviting the Levites and the strangers to join. It meant giving justice to the widow and the orphan, and not showing deference to the rich and powerful. But Judah and Israel have not kept Sabbath, and they have not enacted justice, and this seventh, Sabbatical woe warns that they will come under God’s judgment because their judges pass unjust decisions, deprive the needy of justice, rob the poor of their rights. Instead of protecting the weak, they prey on the weak, making war on them and plundering them. And the Lord is going to bring a day of punishment, devastating from a far country. The people will be taken away into captivity, or they will lie among the slain.
Still, even after all this, even after Yahweh has toppled their altars, and cut off head and tail, and stoked up a fire, even after all this, they don’t turn, and so the Lord doesn’t turn either, the Lord doesn’t back off. His hand is still stretched out.
Yahweh’s entire aim in stretching out His hand is to bring His people back in. His hand is a hand of judgment, a hand that cuts and burns. But His hand is also the hand of benediction, the hand of the shepherd that gathers the people back to Himself. If Israel tries to flee from the stretched-out hand, they won’t ever get away. God’s arm is infinitely long, and they can’t run far enough to escape. But if they turn back, the arm will gather them in, and hold them, and embrace them. In all His anger, the anger that does not turn away, His one aim is to make His people turn back to Himself. He afflicts because He loves us, and wants us to return to Him. He afflicts as a Father disciplines His children. And He doesn’t want to chase you away but to bring you back.
But affliction is not the final solution to all this. Stretching out His hand to knock things down and cut and burn is not Yahweh’s final solution to the problem of Israel’s injustice. It doesn’t work. The ministry of condemnation isn’t effective in ending injustice and idolatry in Israel. Yahweh’s solution is to raise up a king of justice.
Chapter 8 ended with a description of the people of Judah and Israel lurching into exile, lurching toward the darkness, toward distress and gloom. But that was not the end of the story. In the very place where exiles were captured and taken away, in the very place where the gloom gathered, in that place the Lord broke through the gloom and made light shine.
All the emphasis is on God’s work on behalf of His remnant. He will give them light, fruitfulness, gladness, and plenty (vv. 2-3). It will be like the victory of Israel in the days of Gideon (v. 4; cf. Judges 6-8). It will be like a new exodus, when the yoke of Egypt was removed from Israel’s shoulders (cf. Leviticus 26:13). The reversal occurs because of the birth of a child (v. 6), another of the accumulating references to the child identified as “Immanuel” in 7:14.
It’s always a child. The turning point is always the birth of a child. It was a child promised at the gates of Eden. Yahweh promised Abraham a child. He opened the womb of Hannah and of Manoah’s wife. He opened the womb of Mary the virgin. It’s always a child, the hope and promise.
But this child is not just any child. The child is a Davidic prince (v. 7), but He is something more: His name is “Mighty God” and His kingdom will extend peace and righteousness forever. Verse 6 gives this child seven titles: He is wonderful, like the wonder-working God of the exodus. He is a sage, a wise counselor. He is God. He is a mighty man. He is eternal-Father. He is the prince of peace.
And when this child comes, the Lord will bring justice. This is the purpose of the coming of the child, the coming of the Christ. The Christ doesn’t come to rescue us from the injustice of the world. The child doesn’t come to carve out a spiritual safe zone in the world. The child is born to take the throne of David, and to rule His kingdom, and to bring justice and righteousness and peace. In the face of the injustice of Israel, Yahweh promises a king of justice.
But even that doesn’t quite get to the Lord’s response to the injustice of Israel. It’s not merely that He sends along a king to take over, to break some heads. That would be just a continuation of the ministry of condemnation. The sequence of judgments in chapters 9-10, though, give us a clue to the ultimate response to public injustice, strife, and social decay. The sequence in chapter 9 is a sacrificial sequence. The Lord throws down altars and shrines. We are in a temple/liturgical setting. Then the Lord cuts Israel and Judah in pieces. Then He stokes up a fire, and then He gives them to self-cannibalism. Israel is being sacrificed: Dismembered, burned, eaten. That is the form that the judgment takes.
Yahweh’s response to Israel’s injustice is to sacrifice Israel.
And that remains His intention and purpose and work. The Lord deals with injustice by placing a king on David’s throne, but that Davidic king is Himself Israel. He becomes Israel, and therefore suffers Israel’s fate, not only along with Israel but for Israel. And in the fulfillment in Christ, He suffers the fate of Israel by becoming the sacrifice for Israel. Yahweh’s justice triumphs over Israel’s injustice when the child is cut, when he is placed on the altar of the world, when He is given over to be food, when He becomes sacrificial Israel to deliver sacrificial Israel.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis.