Isaiah (Part 15): Judgment of Nations (Ch 13-24)

03/19/2012 07:56


Even a quick read through Isaiah won’t shake the impression that the thirteenth chapter begins a new section. Chapters 11 and 12 gave such a dramatic description of the Messiah’s gift of peace and joy to the remnant that renewing the other of Isaiah’s twin themes of judgment and hope weighs on us. In chapters 11 and 12 the Messiah executes peace. In chapter 13, God will “execute My wrath” (13:3).

Throughout the previous section (chapters 6 through 12), our heads turned back and forth, as in viewing a tennis match, from judgment to hope—earth dwellers to heaven dwellers, self-centered focus to God-centered faith. Our next section, chapters 13 through 39, still focuses on the two themes, but the back and forth approach slows considerably. In fact, the initial and greater part of this section solidly views judgment. Yet, my label for this portion is “Remnant Providence.” This title reminds us that even though judgment is strongly in view, God’s purpose focuses primarily, not on those he judges, but on those with whom he will have relationship.

Reviewing our overall outline, then, we have the following:

Isaiah 1-5 – Introduction

Isaiah 6-12 – Remnant Promise

Isaiah 13-39 – Remnant Providence

You could take issue with me on these labels. After all, the promise to the remnant was God’s providence for them. So why am I drawing a distinction between those two sections? The perspective, I believe, is slightly different. Isaiah 6-12 was closely tied to the historical setting of the time. Isaiah approached Ahaz about Judah’s reliance on God. Ahaz rejected God as caregiver. God still provided care in removing the threat of Ephraim and Aram, but his means—Assyria—also became the tool of judgment he wielded against Judah for their rejection.

In Isaiah 13-39, God’s judgment sweeps much broader to force us to reflect more on principle than the historical setting. We see, paraded before the judgment throne, many nations throughout Israel’s history whose self-centered arrogance earned them God’s reproach. While each nation had literal existence and activity, the movement from one to the next, coupled with their similar sin of trust in self, teaches a spiritual lesson prompting us to view this section as more than Israel’s immediate history, and more as the history of humankind from fall to final rescue.

Isaiah is a difficult book to read. Help comes from understanding the history, but more assistance ties to organizational awareness. In the previous section, seeing the repetition of focus on failure, judgment, and remnant helped us realize that God intended the organization to show progressive revelation. The remnant began as a seed in chapter 6 and grew through the repeating storyline to the bloom in chapters 11 and 12. If we back away from the details in our current section (chapters 13-39), we could possibly see this whole section, not as something new, but as a final cycle to the same failure-judgment-remnant revelation from the last section. However, the switch of historical setting, I think, separates this section from the last.

Expanding the outline into a little more detail for the section we are beginning, we see this:

I. Isaiah 1-5 – INTRODUCTION



     A. Isaiah 13-24 – Nations Judged

     B. Isaiah 25-35 – Thy Kingdom Come

     C. Isaiah 36-39 – Return to Historical Present

This new section of Remnant Providence has its own difficulties of organization. We begin in chapter 13 and the first part of 14 with judgment on Babylon. Why Babylon? If we get too comfortable with the answer that it is historically the next nation confronting Israel, we may be shaken in the last half of chapter 14 when judgment switches back to Assyria. Furthermore, as we continue reading, we go further back to judgment on Egypt before running headlong into another section on Babylon’s judgment in chapter 22. Although history is an easy organizer, sometimes God’s intent is to show something other than historical development.

To get a grip on the organization, let’s start by going back to our question of why start with Babylon. We know most about Babylon from the book of Daniel. In Daniel 2:31-38 we read the interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the image. The head of gold represented the king or, more precisely, the Babylon kingdom. Notice that in verse 37, Daniel makes clear to the king, “The God of heaven has given you sovereignty, power, strength, and glory.” Therefore, Nebuchadnezzar has been told by God through Daniel that Babylon has been raised up not as a result of human effort, but because God caused it. Although the king gives immediate credit to God, he soon forgets. Thinking only of the golden glory of Babylon, the king, the king creates a statue totally in gold and requires all the people to bow to it. Further, Nebuchadnezzar ignores God’s hand in Babylon’s success as he views the great city from his rooftop. He muses, “Is this not Babylon the Great that I have built by my vast power to be a royal residence and to display my majestic glory?” (Daniel 4:30). By this, Babylon becomes the first world empire, in direct conflict with God’s covenanted people—the nation of Israel.

Of course, we will recall that before Babylon, Egypt, as a dominant world leader, had opposed the children of Israel. But the picture wasn’t complete there because Israel had not yet become a nation. Only after they leave Egypt does God form Israel into a nation. God’s important picture is this national image of Israel as a nation of God that is pitted against the world’s nations who aspire to glory in arrogant self-exaltation. That conflict of the world versus God’s people continues from Babylon, not only through Persia, Greece, and Rome, but also to the ends of the earth to the end of time. Thus, Babylon is not only the first empire in this self-centered versus God-centered divergence, but the Bible’s more intimate description helps Babylon become representative of the self-centered in the conflict.

Our Isaiah section, therefore, begins with Babylon, not because of chronology or because Babylon was the greatest and most vast of empires (it was not). Rather, Babylon is placed first in this section because it represents all nations opposed to God and God’s people. Babylon represents the glory of humanity versus the glory of God. Even in the very last book of the Bible, John still uses Babylon in this representative way.

It is because Babylon is representative of all nations that the later chapter 21 returns to Babylon as a specific nation (and not the representative nation) to show God’s judgment on it. Isaiah 13 through 14:23, then, are intended not to show judgment on the specific nation, but rather as an introduction to the whole subsection of judgment (Isaiah 13-24). An general outline of Isaiah up to this point would be as follows:

I. Isaiah 1-5 – INTRODUCTION



     A. Isaiah 13-24 – Nations Judged

           1. Isaiah 13-14:23 – Introduction to Judgments

As we enter this section, then, we must keep Babylon’s dual representation in mind. It is a physical nation, representing all nations of the world. But it is also a spiritual representation of all those who maintain self-centered focus (as opposed to a God-centered focus). If we fail to bear both the physical and spiritual elements in mind, we will lose our way when we come to a verse such as Isaiah 14:1 in which the Lord still has compassion on Jacob, but then uses words of absolute judgment on Israel and Jerusalem in chapters 17 and 22. Paul gives us the only way to understand this apparent conflict. In Romans 2:28-29, we learn that the true Israel of God are not the physical seed of the nation but rather those who have benefitted from Christ’s atonement—all those of faith. There was a literal, physical nation of Israel, and they did have covenant relationship with God (Genesis 15 covenant). However, the spiritual Israel—the remnant; those of faith—are the ones who will benefit from everlasting relationship.

The subsection of Isaiah 13-24, titled Nations Judged, may be best understood if we organize it into four divisions:

1. Isaiah 13-14a – Introduction to Judgments

2. Isaiah 14b-17a – Immediate nations in conflict with Israel

3. Isaiah 17b-22 – Expansion to surrounding nations

4. Isaiah 23-24 – Expansion to the world

The immediate nations are those that we already have been reading about. Aram to the north and Assyria to the farther north and northeast are two. Philistia and Moab came into conflict with Judah when Judah was weakened by Syria’s attack.

The expansion to surrounding nations includes Cush and Egypt to the southwest, Babylon to the east, and Dumah and Arabia to the south and southeast.

Finally, the expansion moves worldwide. This is indicated first in speaking of Tyre and Tarshish (coastal cities to the northwest) and Cyprus (an island off the northwest coast), which are significant for their ships and, therefore, symbolical expansion to the rest of the Mediterranean world. Isaiah 24, then, speaks of judgment for the whole earth.