Isaiah (Part 38): Plan in Prophecy (Ch 32-33)
The tone of Isaiah changes beginning with chapter 32. Prior to this chapter, greater emphasis was placed on the rebellion by Judah, Israel, and other nations. We saw God’s heart of longing for their return; we read of the judgment on each nation and the use of Assyria as the tool of God’s judgment; and we understood the specific failures of Judah’s leadership both in abuse of their authority in not giving proper care to the people and in turning to other nations for security and hope. In chapter 32, God presents, in more concise and flowing fashion, his plan of rescue for his people after judgment has fallen.
As he did with the other nations, God uses Assyria to bring judgment to Judah. The Assyrians were descendants of Asshur, one of Shem’s sons (Genesis 10:21). Asshur’s brother was Arpachshad from whom the Jews descended. So these two peoples had a common Semitic ancestry. Cush, the son of Shem’s brother, Ham, had a son named Nimrod who, we learn in Genesis 10:11, built the city of Ninevah, Assyria’s capital. Building a city did not mean a lot of carpentry work. Cities were built by applying political or economic focus to an area. The people were descended from Asshur, but apparently Nimrod came along to set up trade between Asshur’s family and the people of the southern Mesopotamian valley.
The first interaction we know of between Israel and Assyria is recorded, not in the Bible, but from archeological discovery of records of an Assyrian king named Shalmaneser II. In 854 BC, Shalmaneser recounted a battle with its neighbor Syria in the region of Karkemish. He said, “I desolated and destroyed, I burnt it: 1200 chariots, 1200 horsemen, 20,000 men of Biridri of Damascus; 700 chariots, 700 horsemen, 10,000 men of Irhulini of Hamath; 2,000 chariots, 10,000 men of Ahab of Israel . . . these twelve kings he [i.e. Irhulini] took to his assistance.” The year is just about the time of Ahab’s death recorded in I Kings 22. Apparently, after Assyria defeated Syria, Ahab decided the time was right to attack the weakened Syria to win back the city of Ramothgilead. But a stray arrow took his life.
The next historical record is included on the Black Obelisk, an artifact now kept in a British museum. This shows Jehu (who followed Ahab’s son, Ahaziah, on Israel’s throne) paying tribute to Shalmaneser II.
This was all about a hundred years or so before the events of Isaiah’s time. The Assyrian king at the beginning of Isaiah to whom Ahaz pays tribute is Tiglath-pileser III. He was followed by Shalmaneser IV in 727, who defeated Israel in II Kings 17-18. Hezekiah became king of Judah in the mid 720s BC. About the same time, Sargon II became king of Assyria. Sargon II is responsible for raising Assyria to its imperial glory days. Sargon was followed by Sennacherib in 705 BC.
The specific history of interaction with Assyria in Hezekiah’s time began with Hezekiah paying tribute to Assyria as did all the other vassal nations in the area. But when Babylon began to revolt (i.e., stopped paying tribute), other nations, including Judah paid close attention. Was Assyria losing its power and its grip? With the death of Sargon, Hezekiah joined the revolt. But Babylon’s defeat caused Judah to look elsewhere for support, and thus they allied with Egypt. But Assyria marched around the fertile crescent, defeating Tyre, Philistia, Egypt, and Israel’s northern kingdom. And they marched through the southern kingdom of Judah all the way to Jerusalem’s gates. Hezekiah, having nowhere else to turn, pleads to God. This is the lesson that God was teaching through his judgment using Assyria. And when Hezekiah pled, God listened and struck the Assyrian troops gathered about Jerusalem with disease. About 185,000 died, and Assyria retreated home never to bother Judah again.
Of course, Sennacherib’s record of the event does not include any mention of God’s hand against them. He explains only that he tore up the countryside, and chased Hezekiah into Jerusalem like a caged bird. Sennacherib could not tell of his destruction of Jerusalem because, of course, he did not destroy it but simply left. Thus, although the Assyrian account differs from the biblical account in many aspects, there is no conflict. Certain portions of the story are just omitted.
That was the history. Beginning in Isaiah 32 we view this history first in poetic and prophetic form before reaching the narrative that will begin in chapter 36.
The first section of chapter 32 (the first 8 verses) provides an introduction of sorts. We are told that a king would come to reign righteously. Who is this king? Some say Hezekiah. He was, after all, considered a good king. He did seek God. His reign did realize peace and security after God dismissed the Assyrian threat. But there are inadequacies with the Hezekiah picture. Many interpreters believe the king mentioned here is Christ, the truly Righteous One who will reign with unparalleled justice. Hezekiah does fulfill the picture in part. But as with the rest of the OT story, we see it moving to the climax of all history in Christ and his reign.
Beginning with verse 9 Isaiah’s prophecy moves sequentially from judgment to rescue. Verses 9 through 14 speak of the coming Assyrian attack—the judgment of God on Judah. Isaiah speaks with scorn against the overconfidence of the people. Their confidence was in themselves and their alliances. And for this wrongly placed overconfidence, God calls them a bunch of…women? Really? God is insulting them by calling them women? Here is a good place to recognize the importance that culture and intent have on a passage. The insult does not have anything to do with inferiority of being. The insult has to do with the cultural limitations placed on women of the day. The men fought the battles. The men ran the political, economic, and religious aspects of life. The women (without television, internet, or even a daily newspaper) learned whatever they would learn from the men. Thus, if a woman were confidant that Judah could stand against Assyria, her confidence would be based on hearsay and loyalty, without proper strategic knowledge. She would be forming opinions in ignorance. And that is the insult meant for Judah as a whole. They faced Assyria thinking—ignorantly—that their alliances or self-help would withstand the onslaught.
But everything changes for those who turn to God. We read in verse 15 that “the Spirit from heaven [was] poured out on [them].” This New Testament phrasing carries the same New Testament meaning. It is not the Spirit coming to defeat the enemy and secure the land. The enemy’s defeat and the land’s security occur AFTER the Spirit is poured out on the people. The repentance and turning to God brings heart and attitude relief first, altering behavior, turning dependency to God. When this happens, the result is in righteousness and peace.
Chapter 33 presents events after this changed perspective. The first verse prophecies that Assyria the destroyer of nations and betrayer of peace agreements, will itself be destroyed. The prayer of verse 2 continues through verse 6 with hope and confidence in God to deliver, to be exalted for his righteousness and justice, to provide rest.
Verses 7 through 9 picture the destruction that Assyria had wreaked on Judah outside Jerusalem’s walls. But in verse 10, both because Judah’s heart has turned back and Assyria’s heart is filled with pride, God moves. God “rises,” “lifts” himself up, and “will be exalted.” In this trio of movement imagery, God displays his intention of exalting the justice and righteousness which he is through his action in rescuing Judah and destroying Assyria.
The final section (vv14-24) begins showing the trembling of those Jews who remained untrusting. But quickly the focus shifts to those whose confidence has been placed in God. They realize God’s blessing: security, food, and water (34:16).
The chapter draws to a close in verses 21 through 24. Verse 21 calls God the majestic One. In contrast, the majestic vessels (ship imagery of other nations) will not be able to come against the land protected by Judah’s majestic God. God is Judge, Lawgiver, and King, effecting salvation. Continuing with the ship imagery, verse 23 shows that Judah is not a majestic vessel. It was not by Judah’s might and power that she withstood the onslaught of the might Assyrians. Rather it was God that secured them and gave them, the weak (“lame”) the plunder. And their sin was forgiven.