Isaiah (Part 17): Judgment – Assyria and Philistia (Ch 14b)
The introduction (Is 13-14:23) to the judgment section (Is 13-24) ends with verses 3-23 of chapter 14. In this passage we look at Babylon’s king from the perspective of the rescued at rest. In this introduction, Babylon is mentioned because of the specific arrogance displayed by this first world empire in conflict with the nation of Israel (Judah). However, the introduction uses Babylon in a figurative sense to indicate attack against the world system of self-centered, anti-God glorification. Notice that in these first verses we see Babylon, king, and oppressor mentioned in the singular, but verse 5 speaks of the wicked and rulers (both plural). The switch from plural to singular and back again indicates the figurative nature of the arrogant, anti-God rulers and nations.
Verse 6 tells us that these arrogant ones oppress in rage. Why are they so angry? The answer is that it is a natural result of the character of sin. Sin’s core is the exaltation of self (apart from God). The problem is that all of humanity wallows in the same sin. Therefore, my desire for self-exaltation is necessarily going to come into conflict with your desire for self-exaltation. The arrogant kings of the world—those with power—will, then, use their power to uplift themselves and suppress others. It is done by nation first (or whatever people grouping with which the powerful identifies—ethnicity, race, gender, etc.), but will eventually work its way to conflict in smaller and smaller groupings, down to the individual.
This section is also written from the time perspective following the downfall of the oppressor. Verse 7 tells us that “all the earth is calm and at rest.” This surely was not true regarding Babylon the nation. It was not even true specifically for Judah. After Babylon, Medo-Persia held lordship over captive Israel. And in the remote eastern empires of China, as well as the western Mediterranean world, conflict continued. But verse 7 is true in regard to its intent to show that God’s judgment ultimately will put the earth at rest.
Starting with verse 8, Isaiah changes from 3rd person to 2nd person. He refers to “you” when talking about Babylon’s king. But to whom exactly does he refer? Nebuchadnezzar established the empire and reigned for 40 years. His son, Evel-Merodach, took over afterwards for a short 2 year reign. Evel-Merodach’s brother-in-law then took the reins for the next four years. After a few months of a puppet king placed by the priests of Mardok, Nabonidus, and Aramean, became king of Babylon. While Nabonidus was leading his military in surrounding territories, he made his son, Balshazzar, co-regent to rule in Babylon during his absence. We wonder, then, to whom Isaiah is referring when he says “you” to the Babylonian king. The answer is that Isaiah is being specific not to a person but to the kind of rulership. The “you” is the arrogant, self-exalted reign of any ruler. This ruler, verses 9-11 tell us, will end up as all other rulers end up—stripped of glory by death.
Verses 12-15 highlight the fall of the proud. Many church fathers had interpreted these verses as referring to Lucifer since both Luke 10 and Revelation 12 speak of Satan falling from heaven. But, as the Reformers corrected, the context has nothing to do with Satan specifically. The context speaks of human pride and arrogance, operating and leading by self-will without thought of God. That human pride, although seemingly basking in glory in a kingly position, will be cast down—judged by God.
Verses 16-21 contrast the prideful glory of the arrogant kings with their actual end. Though they may think of themselves as glorious, and though they may think that long after they’re gone, their reputation and posterity will continue to be honored and glorified, their actual end in judgment is full of degradation and devastation.
Finally, God ends this introduction with strong words declaring his will. Judgment will come. The reputation, remnant, offspring, and posterity of the evil ones will be cut off. This is clear contrast to his glory and the glory of his people who will continue forever.
Following the introduction, we begin the first section of the judgment of nations. This section involves those nations that are in close proximity (location and time period) to the current state of Judah. They include Assyria, Philistia, Moab, Syria (Aram), and Israel. Throughout the judgment section, there are introductory statements mentioning an “oracle against” some nation. The word oracle is literally a burden or load. It is simply a prophetic utterance of judgment. Many commentators organize this poetical section by oracle, categorizing everything between mentions of oracle as units. But this creates difficulties in lumping together certain nations for no apparent contextual reason other than that the word oracle is missing. For example, Assyria is the first specific nation of judgment beginning in 14:24. There is, however, no declaration of oracle, forcing the oracle categorizers to include it in the introduction with Babylon. Further on, the judgment against Cush (18:1-7) does not start with the declaration of oracle. That would force us to regard it with the oracle against Damascus (17:1). Our approach does not categorize the section by the word oracle; we will categorize by nation.
In each discussion of nation, we read little about the time and historical event. While we can determine something about what is going on from history and other parts of the Bible, the details are missing in Isaiah. This could be simply because the prophecy is for people who will realize the judgment when it comes and don’t need further detailed mention of historical circumstance. But this prophecy is recorded not only for those nations undergoing judgment, but for us as well as we read and understand God’s judgment beyond the specific examples of those nations. In other words, the primary focus of these prophecies is thematic—on what and why God is judging—rather than simply on the specific event in the history of these nations.
The judgment on Assyria is recorded in 14:24-27. It begins with a statement of determination by God similar to how the introduction ended in verses 22-23. This thematic repetition helps transition from the general nature of the judgment in the introduction to the now specific judgment of each nation. We know from Isaiah 10 that God first used Assyria as an instrument of his judgment on Judah. But later in that same chapter we learned that God would judge Assyria as well for their own arrogance. In 14:25a we read that Assyria would be broken “in My land” and “on My mountain.” We know that Assyria did invade right up to the outskirts of Jerusalem, but their judgment did not really come right there at the city. They were broken in other battles at other places. The prophecy does not intend to give us physical location of Assyria’s judgment but rather figurative location. God uses the imagery of “land” to indicate security and rest. He uses “mountain” to indicate strength and kingdom. Therefore, 14:25a tells us that Assyria had threatened the security that God gives to his people and the kingdom of God’s people. It is in attack against these that Assyria was broken, and the oppression was removed from God’s people (14:25b).
Verse 26 speaks to the dual nature of these prophecies as being about specific nations but also about God’s overall plan in judging evil. Verse 26 states specifically; “This is the plan prepared for the whole earth.”
Isaiah 14:28-32 discusses the next judgment—the oracle against Philistia. At the beginning we learn that King Ahaz of Judah has just died. To understand this prophecy, we must understand a little of the history. Ever since David defeated Goliath, Judah had held superiority in the relationship between it and Philistia. Ever since David ascended to the throne, Israel (then Judah) had been a sovereign, independent nation. But 200 years later, the reign of King Ahaz changed all that. For the first time in Judah’s history, he plunges the nation into servanthood to Assyria. Judah had been weakened and still threatened by Ephraim and Aram. Instead of calling on God, Ahaz called on Assyria for protection and, in doing so, gave up some of the autonomy that they enjoyed.
So Philistia rejoices that the rod of David had been broken (14:29). But still Philistia approaches Judah with a proposition. Philistia is in league with Egypt to repel Assyria’s advancement. Philistia sends an envoy to Jerusalem to invite Judah to join the anti-Assyrian alliance. Egypt is in favor of this because instead of an Assyrian vassal nation at their doorstep, they would have a buffer zone to use to combat Assyria’s advance.
In verse 29, God tells Philistia not to rejoice in Judah’s weakness because out of that broken rod (which God likens to a root – see Ex 4:2 and 7:10-12), life would return. From the root would come a viper, and even beyond that would come a fiery, flying viper. What is a flying, fiery viper? Well, we’re not really sure. However, I think we could make somewhat of a good guess. The word for flying is not a casual glide through the air. It is more of a darting and fluttering. The NIV translates it as “darting” to give the picture of a snake that will dart out in its bite attack. But the word is also not simply a dart movement, but more a constant darting motion—more like a hummingbird constantly in flight and constantly darting back and forth. Additionally, the verse seems to distinguish between an ordinary viper and this flying viper.
The word is used in Numbers 21:6 to describe the serpents that attacked the children of Israel in the desert. The people could not simply move to another area to avoid the serpents; they had to pray that God would take them away. That seems more in line with flying serpents than simply the squirming kind. This flying reptile may be a pterosaur. Of these creatures, the historian Herodotus wrote: "There is a place in Arabia, situated very near the city of Buto, to which I went, on hearing of some winged serpents; and when I arrived there, I saw bones and spines of serpents, in such quantities as it would be impossible to describe. The form of the serpent is like that of the water-snake, but he has wings without feathers, and as like as possible to the wings of a bat."
The same Hebrew word is translated in Isaiah 6:2 as seraphim to describe how the angels around God appeared—shimmering and fluttering. It also seems to make more pictorial sense for Moses to have fashioned a bronze pterosaur with outspread wings to the pole in Numbers 21 for people to look upon and live. That pole and flying serpent would have imaged the cross perfectly.
Whatever this flying serpent creature was, it was a step beyond the slithering viper. God uses these two creatures to describe the rebirth of Judah and David’s line. The viper is surely Hezekiah who follows Ahaz and rebuilds Judah to a sovereign power. The flying viper fits in with our understanding of God’s specific and overall judgment in that beyond the mere earthly kings of Judah in David’s line, one would come who would sit on the throne forever—Christ Jesus.
Verses 30-31 go on to speak of the “firstborn of the poor”—a Hebrew idiom for conveying the superlative, in other words, the “poorest of the poor.” Judah was this poor nation which would be cared for while Philistia was the root that would be destroyed.
Verse 32 gives answer to the envoy from Philistia who asks Judah to join the anti-Assyrian league. God answers no. Judah did not need Egypt to protect them. God is the protector and provider for his people.