In our last essay we studied Isaiah 26-27, a unit that we termed “The Day of the Lord.” I reminded you that Isaiah’s larger point is that God is the master of the nations. We saw in chapters 13-23 his judgment on the various nations. Then in chapters 24-27, we saw God’s triumph over the nations.
In today’s essay we study chapter 28. Chapters 28-29 begin a new, larger section that deals with the folly of trusting other nations. Oswalt terms the two-chapter sub-section, “Woe to the Drunken Rulers.” He begins in chapter 28 with the rulers of Ephraim, the northern kingdom.
Notice that Isaiah pictures Ephraim’s leaders as drunkards and the northern kingdom’s glory as a faded garland of flowers. Notice that he also describes them as bloated with rich food.
In verses 2-3 Isaiah says that the Lord has sent “one who is mighty and strong” to burst upon them like a hailstorm so severe that it strips the plants of their leaves. And a downpour of rain follows that flattens the stalks in their fields. This strong and mighty one is Assyria. And the “proud garland” of Ephraim will be trodden under the feet of the Assyrians. In verse four Isaiah changes his image. He declares that the proud garland will be like an early fig that is quickly eaten.
In verses 5-6 we once again see Isaiah shift, as we so frequently have seen him do, from the present to the future. “In that day,” meaning in the end time, the faithful remnant will experience a different end from the drunken rulers of Ephraim. They will have the glory of the Lord as their garland. The Lord will be a crown of beauty for them. He will provide a spirit of justice; and he will provide strength. In other words, the Lord will achieve his ultimate purpose, regardless of present failures.
Now then, there is a scholarly debate about whether Isaiah continues to talk about Ephraim in verses 7-13, or here at verse seven begins to talk about Judah. Oswalt believes the change comes at verse 14, and that is the way I have handled it, though the issue could go either way. It is not a crucial question. But in any case, I will treat verses 7-13 as though Isaiah still is dealing with Ephraim.
Verses 7-8 indicate that the rottenness Isaiah has been pointing out reaches even to the religious leadership. The priests and prophets of the northern kingdom also are drinking heavily, and it is affecting their work. They stumble in their official judgments. Indeed their behavior is disgusting. They vomit all over the place, and no one cleans it up.
In verses 9-10 Isaiah seems to give voice to the drunken leaders, who wish to justify themselves and their behavior. They sarcastically ask, “Whom will he [meaning Isaiah] teach knowledge, and to whom will he explain the message? Those who are weaned,” and so on. In other words, who is Isaiah that he should teach us as though we were toddlers? In that culture children were weaned between three and five years of age. Children also were taught by simple repetitive instruction, “line upon line, here a little, there a little.”
In verses 11-13 we see Isaiah turn the mockers’ words back on them as a word of judgment. Because they have refused to hear the message, the Lord will instruct them in simple, repetitive ways. It will be a means of judgment.
At verse 14 Isaiah definitely begins to speak about Judah, if he had not already begun to do so back at verse seven. As this sub-section indicates, the leaders in Jerusalem were just as senseless as those in Samaria; and Isaiah speaks directly to them. “Scoffers” are the opposite of the faithful. They mock the faith and intentionally lead others away from God. When such people become rulers, their impact is horrendous.
Verse 15 tells us that they have made a “covenant with death and with Sheol” that they expect to save them from the “overwhelming scourge.” This covenant could refer to actual sorcery on the part of the leaders of Judah; or more likely, Isaiah was using sarcasm to express his disgust with their structure of lies. Either way, their lies will not save them.
In verse 16 we see that God himself is laying a structure in Zion that contrasts with the refuge of lies that the rulers are depending on. It is a “foundation stone” on which one can build with confidence. It is not clear what Isaiah had in mind with this image. He could have been thinking of many things: the law, the temple, the true believers, the remnant, etc. He may have been thinking of the coming Messiah, as he clearly was in chapters nine and eleven. Of course we Christians certainly see here at least a symbolic reference to the coming Messiah, Jesus Christ.
Under the new structure, justice and righteousness will be the standard of measurement. Those who trust will not panic; and as Isaiah continues in verses 17-18, the refuge of lies will be swept away; the covenant with death and Sheol will be annulled; and the “overwhelming scourge” will beat them down.
Verse 19 indicates that the “overwhelming scourge” will come not once, but again and again. And the terrors that come with it will come again and again. Verse 20 probably reflects a popular proverb about a bed’s being too short, or the bed covering being too narrow. In our own culture, people have become so much taller in recent decades that this is a very literal problem for many.
Verses 21-22 close out the sub-section in a powerful way. With images from the past Isaiah declares that the shaky covenants of the scoffers will fall, because the Lord himself will assail them. As God took the field against the Philistines at Mt. Perazim (2 Sam. 5:20; 1 Chr. 14:11), and as he struck down the Canaanites that were fleeing from Gibeon (Josh. 10:11), God will once again fight his enemies, even if they are in Israel.
Oswalt labels the last sub-section of chapter 28 (vv. 23-29), “The Laws of Nature.” As you can see, Isaiah uses the farmer as an illustration. In verses 23-24 Isaiah uses rhetorical questions to make his point. Of course the farmer doesn’t plow and harrow the same ground over and over, day after day. Of course the farmer knows the appropriate ways to sow and plant seed. Verse 25 spells it out. He scatters the extremely fine dill and cumin seeds across the prepared earth; and he plants the larger seeds, like wheat, barley, and spelt in rows and in their own plots. And notice in verse 26 that the farmer learned these things from God.
Next, in verses 27-28, Isaiah shifts from plowing and planting to threshing. The farmer also knows how to thresh the various kinds of grain. Different techniques are used with the differing sized grains. Dill and cumin are threshed with a stick or a rod, because the seeds could be crushed or lost. But the larger grains are threshed with a threshing sledge (a kind of sled), a wagon wheel, or horses hooves. But none of the grains are pulverized. They simply are separated from the chaff.
Verse 29 again suggests that the farmer knows these things, because he has learned them from God. But verse 29 also ends the section begun at verse 14, and so it means something more. It suggests that God has provided spiritual as well as physical counsel and wisdom. And only scoffers would be foolish enough to ignore it.