In this essay we are studying 2:1-4:6. John Oswalt terms the section, “The Problem: What Israel Is Versus What She Will Be.” And 2:1-4, the first segment in the section, reveals “The Destiny of the House of Israel.”
Notice that 2:1 contains a superscription that is very similar to the very first verse of the book. Scholars generally agree that it is there because at one time it introduced an independent saying or collection of sayings, and it was not edited out when the material it introduced was incorporated into the text of Isaiah.
At verse two Isaiah begins to build on the theme of restoration he mentioned in 1:26. Eventually Israel will be the lighthouse to the nations that God, from the beginning, has intended it to be. In days to come, the word of the Lord will go out from Zion to teach the nations his ways. He will judge the nations, and there will be peace.
Interestingly, verses 2-4 also appear in Micah 4:1-3, which gives the scholars much to talk about. Most believe that both Isaiah and Micah obtained the material from a common prophetic heritage rather than one from the other.
At verse five Isaiah turns from ideal Israel seen in verses 2-4 back to the reality of Israel in Isaiah’s day. Oswalt calls this segment, which continues through 4:1, “The House of Jacob Forsaken.” The first sub-section is 2:5-22; and Oswalt labels it, “Trusting in Mankind and Idols.” Then Oswalt calls, verses 2:5-11, the first segment within that sub-section, “Full, But Empty.”
Notice that Isaiah calls Israel to “walk in the light of the Lord” (v. 5). The reason for the call is they have not been doing it. Indeed they have been doing the opposite; “they have forsaken the ways of” of their people (v. 6). Then Isaiah gives details of his charge against them. They were influenced too much by foreign nations, which led to their dabbling in magic and divination, which had been forbidden by the Mosaic Law (Lev. 9:26; Deut. 18:9-14) (v. 6). And their land was filled with wealth, armaments (chariots), and idols (vv. 7-8).
The people of Israel thought they were on the right path. During King Uzziah’s reign, they were prosperous. But as Isaiah points out, Israel was on the wrong path; and they soon would be humbled and brought low (v. 9). They would find themselves hiding from God’s judgment in rocky and dusty places (v. 10). And their eyes would be cast down in shame (v. 11). So they were full, but empty.
Verses 12-17 expand on the theme of verses 9-11. Israel was high, but they will be brought low. Notice the parallels between verses 11 and 17. Israel will be brought low, and God will be exalted.
Verses 18-22 bring the larger sub-section to a climax. On God’s judgment day (2:12a), the foolishness of idol worship in Israel shall come to an end (v. 18). And the people will take refuge in caves and holes as they flee in terror from the judgment of the Lord (v. 19). Notice that they will abandon their idols to the moles and bats, meaning in the caves (v. 20).
Oswalt considers verse 22 to be a key verse. Notice that Isaiah did not tell the people to turn away form idols. He said to turn away from “mortals,” from human beings. In other words, the idolatry was a result, not a cause. It was the result of their putting themselves, rather than God, at the center of their lives.
Now then, Oswalt entitles the next sub-section, 3:1-4:1, “The Folly of Human Dependence.” In verses 3:1-8 Isaiah declares that God will remove all support from Jerusalem and Judah, including the basics of bread and water, verse 1. But there also will be a loss of human leadership. Notice in verses 2-3 that all areas of leadership would be affected: military (warriors, soldiers, captains of fifty), political (judges, elders, dignitaries), and religious (prophets, diviners, counselors, magicians, enchanters. And he says that the end result will be that the future leaders of Judah will be incompetent “boys” instead of men, and anarchy will prevail, verses 4-5. Indeed things will get so bad that possession of a cloak will be taken as qualification to rule; but no one will want to rule, because there will be nothing left to rule, verses 6-7. Then in verse eight Isaiah sums it all up by saying that Israel’s problem is defiance of the Lord, and the coming political destruction is due to Judah’s moral failures.
In verses 9-15 Isaiah pronounces judgment on Israel. Notice that the faces of the people reflect their brazen sins. And they have brought the judgment on themselves. But in verse 10 we see that there are some innocent people in Israel who “will eat the fruit of their labors.” That is, they will be rewarded for not going the sinful way of the others. But the others will receive judgment. They will reap what they have sown. This is an important principle. God is consistent. Those who live according to his ways will be blessed, if not now, ultimately. And those who defy God will ultimately, if not now, receive judgment.
Verse 12 shows us that Isaiah believed that the incompetents already were ruling in Judah, and they were leading the nation down the wrong path. And in verses 13-15 he indicts the leadership for devouring the vineyard and oppressing the poor. Here we see another important principle. When governments get corrupt, the poor always suffer. It is the poor and helpless who suffer first and most often.
In the next sub-section, 3:16-4:1, Isaiah expresses what the judgment will be like by turning once again to the image “daughters of Zion” to represent the people of Israel. And then the judgment becomes a trade of shame for beauty.
I am not going to go over these verses with a fine-tooth comb. But I will observe that it is amazing how similar the beauty aids of Isaiah’s day were to our own. I suggest you look over the list and make your own comparison.
Notice that verses 18-23 are prose rather than poetry, and the text would flow smoothly without them. Therefore some have challenged their authenticity. Oswalt takes the position that the observations are correct, but that does not make the verses inauthentic.
Now look at verses 24-26. They set forth the humiliation that Judah, Jerusalem and her women will one day face. The key phrase in verse 24 is the last one, “instead of beauty, shame.” The idea is that God, by his judgment, will strip away every aspect of human glory; and the result will be disgrace and shame.
Verse 26 verifies that the “daughters of Zion” represent Jerusalem and Judah as well as the women. It is clear that the “gates of Zion” refers to Jerusalem. Verse 4:1 sums up the condition of the women after the male population is decimated by warfare. Isaiah’s point is that this kind of humiliation and shame results from dependence on ourselves instead of dependence on God.
The final sub-section of the larger section is 4:2-6. In this closing segment, Isaiah brings his readers back to Israel’s eventual restored glory. The phrase “in that day” is a literary marker that Isaiah has been using throughout the section (2:12, 17; 3:7, 18; 4:1).
The phrase “branch of the Lord” in verse two normally in the Old Testament refers to the Messiah (Jer. 23:5; 33:15; Zech. 3:8; 6:12). Scholars are divided over whether that is what it means here. Oswalt believes it is a messianic usage, in which case the fruitfulness mentioned is a figurative, spiritual fruitfulness. At any rate, after the cleansing fires of judgment, those who remain in Jerusalem will be holy, because God will have washed away their sinfulness. Finally, as we see in verses 5-6, the Lord will create a covering of protection over all of Zion. The imagery of the cloud and fire bring the Old Testament passages Ex. 13:20-22 (the pillars of cloud and fire that led Israel during the Exodus) and Num. 9:15-23 (the covering of the tabernacle) to mind, especially the latter. However here the cloud covers all of Mt. Zion. Thus we see what Israel is versus what she should be.