Isaiah (Part 12): Israel's Judgment Explained (Ch 9b-10a)
Following the Messiah discussion of the first 7 verses of chapter 9, God and Isaiah present four strophes explaining why Israel deserves judgment. The first of these, from verse 8 to 12, highlights self-reliance—the trust Israel placed in itself apart from God. Verse 8 tells us that the Lord sent a message. Originally, Hebrew was written with only consonants. The Masoretes inserted vowels and other notations for the sounding of the words. For example, Jehovah or Yahweh, the name for God meaning the Existent One, was written simply as YHWH (of course, in Hebrew letters, not the Arabic letters I’m using). The Masoretes were credited with placing the vowels within that construct so that we understand it as YaHWeH. Of course, without vowels, sometimes it was guesswork to come up with what word exactly was intended. Verse 8 has such an instance. The Hebrew word for message or word (again using Arabic letters) is dabar. Originally, that would have been written DBR, without the vowels. The Hebrew word for pestilence is deber. So, originally, it would also have been written DBR, with the reader understanding which word was meant by the context. The trouble with verse 8 is that the Masoretes decided this was dabar – word or message, even though the LXX had translated it as death (similar to or as a result of pestilence). This is really not so much of a problem. In Hebrew, the word or message is so intricately connected with both the cause or sender of the message and the effect or event of the message that the meaning is pretty much similar. We call Jesus the Word, not because he merely carried a message, but because he is God; he is conveying the message; and he is the good news that effected redemption. Here in Isaiah 9:8 we find that the message from God is connected with his judgment, so that the Masoretic text and the LXX both provide the same understanding and force.
Most commentators explain that in this section, God returns focus from the ultimate Messianic fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy to the immediate fulfillment with regard to Assyria. I agree that a return to the current time is the background of this section, but it should not block all other view as the focus. The focus is not on Judah’s conflict with Assyria. The focus is on those who have abandoned God. It is the juxtaposition of judgment and hope—earth-dweller and heaven-dweller.
Verse 8 also tells us that this message is to Jacob. Many scholars hold the position that this message is to only the northern kingdom, Ephraim. In support they point to verse 9 that specifies Ephraim and its capital Samaria. Alec Motyer, writer of one of the most respected commentaries of Isaiah of our time, argues that verses 1-7 of chapter 9 were for Judah while verse 8 and on concerns Ephraim. This is, however, not the case. First, verse 8 just told us that the message was for Jacob. Notice it does not use the identifier Israel. If it had there might be more confusion because the name Israel is often used to designate the northern kingdom. But Jacob identifies all of the tribes. Second, the prophecy of 9:1-7 is not directed at Judah, as Motyer insists. Verse 1 begins in Zebulun and Naphtali, not Judah. Third, the prophecy of 9:1-7 is directed at the remnant, not Judah. It is not all Judah who will see the dawn and welcome the Messiah. Reading through the Gospels should convince us of that. The balance here is that 9:1-7 speaks to the remnant, while 9:8 and on speak to the earth-dwellers of all Israel.
Some translations make verse 9 sound as if it is specifying Ephraim. The NASB reads, “And all the people know it, That is, Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria.” The “that is” of the NASB are inserted for that interpretation, but do not appear in the Hebrew. The sense of verses 8 and 9 intimate inclusion not limitation. It is not: “It came against Israel, that is, only all the people of Ephraim.” Rather, the passage should be understood: “It came against Israel, not just Judah, but all the people—Ephraim too.”
Israel’s failure in this first strophe can be seen in verse 10. They were cut down by Assyria but they argue that they can build themselves back up—even better than before. The cedars in place of sycamores pictured this betterment. Cedars were prized for their towering image and straight, soft, long-lasting wood useful in building. Those in Israel had been given the prophecy by Israel, written down on parchment (8:1). God had told them that Assyria would come, conquer Ephraim, and then move on to conquer Judah. Yet, still the Israelites did not look to God. They were still impressed with themselves to arrogantly proclaim that they would rebuild without him.
God, however, says no. This attack was just the beginning. Others would follow. Verse 11 speaks of Rezin’s enemies. Rezin was the king of Aram. The sense is that not just Aram, but all Aram’s adversaries—other nations surrounding Israel—would turn against Israel in their wounded condition. Aram AND Philistia would attack.
The strophe ends, as all four do, with the remark that God’s hand is still raised to strike. As long as the people remain unrepentant, God will still judge.
The second strophe focuses on the falsehood by both Israel’s political leaders and prophets. The head (political leaders, called head because they hold responsibility for the nation) and the tail (prophets, called tail because they are to guide/maintain balance) are cut off. Without God, both will be ineffective. Thus, the people will be misled. But notice that this does not give the people an excuse. They are still accountable for dismissing God in believing the false prophets and in following the false elders. God’s hand is still raised to strike.
The third strophe emphasizes the harm that these people of Israel do to each other. The fire here does not refer to judgment. Verse 18 tells us that the fire is the wickedness of the people. Their wickedness destroys the land like fire. Remember that land is usually used to depict security and provision. The fire destruction destroys their security and provision. They begin to turn on each other, eating “the flesh of his own arm” (v.20). Verse 21 explains verse 20, noting that Ephraim and Manasseh attack Judah. God’s hand is still raised to strike.
The final strophe also begins with the inhumanity of Israelite against Israelite in oppression. The focus of this stanza is on the result. Even though they swindle, cheat, and plunder, they will not be satisfied. Destruction and misery come charging at them. They look around for help, but find no one to help—no one, because they still refuse to look to God. Their end is in captivity or death. And still God’s hand is raised to strike.
Therefore, the focus of each of the four strophes can be summarized as follows:
1. Strophe 1 (9:8-12): They do not rely on God – Do Not Receive from God
2. Strophe 2 (9:13-17): They believe a lie – No Faith
3. Strophe 3 (9:18-21): They harm each other – No Love
4. Strophe 4 (10:1-4): The find no satisfaction – No Hope
The image of God in each of us is the following:
Conceptual Intelligence (truth)
Conscious Morality (goodness)
Perceptive Aesthetic (beauty)
Truth, goodness, and beauty are apprehended from God’s revelation. This relates to strophe 1 in which the people refused God’s revelation. The result was that the faith (strophe 2), love (strophe 3), and hope (strophe 4) were all broken and resulted in judgment. The judgment came because they lost purpose—reflecting God through their imaging qualities in relationship.
In the second part of chapter 10 (verses 5-11), God explains how he would use Assyria as his instrument of judgment. In verses 5 and 6, he makes clear that he is the one to wield Assyria. And his wielding is intended to punish, not to annihilate. Assyria’s intent, however, is to annihilate. But those plans are thwarted by God.
Notice that in arrogance Assyria expects Judah to be just like the other city-states conquered. 2 Chronicles 32:9-19 provides greater detail of how Sennacherib (Assyria’s king) discounted Judah and Judah’s God.
However, verses 12 through 19 proclaim judgment on Assyria. Assyria is not being judged for attacking God’s people, Judah. Judgment comes to them because Assyria, like those in Judah, acted arrogantly dismissing God (v.12). Judah is a nation called out in covenant. But all humankind was created by and owes life, breath, and allegiance to God. Without excusing the rest of the people of the world, God has narrowed his focus while at the same time expanded his progressive revelation to that narrowed focus. He did this all for purpose. Note the progression—
Nations (people) --> Israel --> Judah --> Remnant --> Jesus
As God gives greater revelation, the intent is that the reflection of the image should shine brighter. Of course, in the narrowing progression we do not really see a greater spirituality except as a direct result of God’s hand. Thus, Jesus is the ultimate revelation and the perfect reflection or expression of God. Note the following verses:
John 14:9b – “The one who has seen Me has seen the Father.”
Hebrews 1:3 – “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of His nature.”
John 10:30 – “The Father and I are one.”
We are clearly to understand the unity and oneness between God and the man, Jesus. And we are also meant to understand that that same unity and oneness is God’s intent for us as well.
John 17:21 “May they all be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I am in You, may they also be one in Us.”
Ephesians 4:5 “one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
But how would that come about. How could we be one with God. We become one with God as we become one with the perfect expression of God. Isaiah 9:6 mentions that Jesus is—
Wonderful Counselor – that is, the miracle-working bearer of the Good News
Mighty God – that is, the exact expression of God
Eternal Father – that is, he establishes relationship with us
Prince of Peace – that is, relationship established through the satisfaction (removal) of wrath
The glorious exchange that effects this oneness with Jesus and with God is through the Exchange. Jesus took our sins on himself. He became sin, or, in other words, he became one with sin. In doing so, his death, ended sin for us. The exchange is that we receive his righteousness. It is not simply that we are righteous because we have no more sin (as N.T. Wright would have us believe). Rather, we have been given Christ’s righteous life to present before God as our own. We were made one with him in righteousness. Second Corinthians 5:21 says, “He made the One who did not know sin to be sin for us, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” And that righteousness is sealed for us by the Holy Spirit. Second Cor 1:21-22: “And it is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” (ESV).