In our last essay we studied Isaiah 28, the first part of a two-chapter unit in which Isaiah condemns the rulers and religious leaders of Ephraim and Judah. I reminded you that this is part of a huge section that began at 13:1 that shows that God is the master of the nations. In chapters 13-23 we saw his judgment on the various nations; in chapters 24-27 we saw God’s triumph over the nations; and in the last essay we began a section, chapters 28-33, in which Isaiah is showing the folly of trusting the nations.
Chapter 29 continues Isaiah’s message to Judah, but he focuses his attention on the city of Jerusalem, which is the city of God. In verse one Isaiah refers to Jerusalem symbolically as “Ariel.” The meaning of “Ariel” is disputed, but it probably means “altar hearth.” Therefore the idea is that Jerusalem was the very heart of the only religious cult that pleased God. At least Jerusalem perceived herself that way. The truth was that God was not pleased at all.
Notice in verse three that God’s response to Jerusalem would be to place it under siege. Now Assyria will be the besieging power, but notice that Isaiah does not mention Assyria. It is God who will do it. And many in Jerusalem will be stressed.
At verse five Isaiah shifts from judgment to redemption, as he often does. Isaiah wanted his readers to know that God could, and still would, save them. The enemies are as dust or chaff to God (v. 5). When God acts, the enemies and their might will seem like a bad dream to Jerusalem (vv. 6-7), and like a nightmare to the Assyrians (v. 8). All of this came true when the Lord decimated King Sennacherib’s army as it laid siege to Jerusalem in 701 BC (2 Kings 19:35-36).
At this point Isaiah shifts back to judgment. Earlier in the section the Hebrew leaders, especially those of Ephraim, were accused of literal drunkenness. In verse nine the drunkenness referred to is figurative rather than literal. Isaiah’s warnings have fallen on deaf ears, just as the Lord had predicted. As verses 9-10 indicate, the rulers of Judah are blind; they have fallen asleep; and their prophets have covered their ears. But notice in verse 10 that Isaiah once again says all of this is God’s doing.
In verses 11-12 Isaiah declares that the leaders are like people who can read, but who do not, because the documents are sealed. Or they are like people who simply cannot read. Either way, these people lack the spiritual insight to understand the plain meaning of God’s revelation.
Verses 13-14 are a brief oracle of judgment. The charge is that their worship is hypocritical. They say the right things, but their hearts are far from God. So God will once again do amazing things before this people. I believe this is a reference to the miraculous deliverance from Sennacherib in 701 BC. As God delivered the people from Egypt in a miraculous way, he will deliver them from Assyria in a similar miraculous way.
Notice that we have the this “woe” of the section in verse 15. In 28:1 it was, “woe to the proud garland of he drunkards of Ephraim.” Then in 29:1 it was, “woe to Ariel,” meaning Jerusalem. And now it is “woe to you who hide a plan.” The NRSV translates, “hide a plan too deep for the Lord.” That makes no sense. The NIV is much better. It translates, “woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the Lord.”
The point is that Judah’s leaders have made a secret plan with Egypt for Judah’s protection from Assyria. In other words, this secret plan is the same as what Isaiah, in chapter 28, called “a covenant with death and with Sheol” (28:15). Verse 16 makes it clear that they have made the plan apart from God. They are turning things upside down; they are like clay telling the potter what to do; they are telling God that he has no understanding.
But verse 17 tells us that God is going to do some turning upside down of his own. The forests of Lebanon, in this book a symbol of the mighty (2:13; 10:34; 33:9; 35:2; 60:13), will be turned into a field and a field into a forest. Verses 18-19 illustrate verse 17. The deaf will hear; the blind will see; and the meek (that is the humble) and the poor will exult God.
On the other hand, verse 20 tells us that the “tyrant” (NIV “ruthless”), that is the oppressor, will be no more; the “scoffer” (NIV “mockers”) will cease to exist; and “those alert to do evil (NIV “have an eye for evil”) shall be cut off”. Verse 21 defines “those alert to do evil” as those who give false testimony in a lawsuit, those who cheat in negotiations at the city gate, or those who in some other way deny justice to some in the right.
In verse 22 the “therefore” introduces a summary. It is unclear exactly what Isaiah meant by the phrase, “who redeemed Abraham.” He probably meant it in the very general sense of saving him from sin and death. At any rate, when the people of Israel finally trust God, they no longer will be ashamed. And the response of Jacob (Israel) will be to sanctify, that is, declare holy God and his name, as we do in the Lord’s prayer, “Hallowed be thy name (matt. 6:9). And according to verse 24, there will be positive results among the wayward.