As we have noted in recent essays, Isaiah has been a large point since 13:1; namely, that God is the master of the nations. We saw in chapters 13-23 his judgment on the various nations, and in chapters 24-27 his triumph over the nations. In this essay we will conclude a section made up of chapters 28-33 in which Isaiah is showing the folly of trusting the nations. In our last essay we studied chapter 32, the first half of a segment that John Oswalt called, “Behold the King.” And in this essay we are studying chapter 33, which completes the section.
Oswalt’s title for this chapter is “The King Redeems Zion.” As you see, the chapter begins with a word of woe to the “destroyer.” We have seen five woes thus far in the larger section. And all five of them were addressed to either Israel or Judah (28:1; 29:1; 29:15; 30:1; 31:1). But here in 33:1, the woe is addressed to the “destroyer.” The destroyer is not specifically identified, but we know from the context that it refers to Assyria. Looking at history, King Hezekiah paid a tribute to Sennacherib of Assyria to avoid war (2 Kings 18:13-16); but Sennacherib attacked Judah anyway. The treachery of Assyria that Isaiah was pointing to was her acceptance of the tribute when she had no intention of honoring the agreement. She took the money, but attacked Judah anyway. This particular prophecy of Isaiah’s probably was given between the time that Hezekiah paid the tribute and Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem in 701 BC. However Isaiah says that Assyria will receive what she has given. The day will come when she will suffer the same kind of treachery that she has practiced.
Verse two is a prayer. Interestingly it represents a complete change from what we saw in chapters 29-30. In those chapters God, through Isaiah, pleaded with his people to put their trust in him. But they refused to do it. They preferred putting their trust in Egypt. But now they are at the end of their rope. Now they are seeking God’s help. In chapter 37, verses 14-20, which of course we have not yet studied, Isaiah records King Hezekiah’s prayer in the temple in which he prayed for deliverance from Assyria. His attitude is very much the same as the attitude we see here in verse two, an attitude of total dependence on God for salvation.
In verse three Isaiah expresses the power of God. The NRSV translates “At the sound of tumult peoples fled before your majesty.” Literally it reads, “from the roaring voice, peoples flee.” The “roaring voice” may refer to thunder, because in those days people thought of thunder as God’s voice. The NIV does a fairly good job of translating by rendering it, “at the thunder of your voice.” The point is, when God manifests his power, the nations scatter like chaff. Then verse four declares that once God’s enemies have been driven off, the spoil is gathered up as thoroughly as when locusts strip a grain field.
The sub-section ends with exaltation of God in verses 5-6. In his greatness God will provide justice, stability, salvation, wisdom, knowledge, and fear of the Lord.
Now then, in the next sub-section (33:7-24), Isaiah presents the Lord as our King. It has two parts. The first part is verses 7-16. In those verses Isaiah reveals that God will arise. But first he depicts how hopeless Judah’s situation is. Of course their situation in respect to Assyria prior to God’s intervention was exactly that, hopeless.
Notice in verses 7-9 that neither the heroes (NIV “brave men”) nor the envoys, that is the diplomats, can help. Conditions are so unstable that no one can travel. All commerce has stopped. Assyria, after making a treaty with Judah and taking tribute from her, broke the treaty. The witnesses to the treaty are despised and ignored. And the land is thrown into mourning.
Notice how the people and the land are closely identified with each other. It is the people who mourn, but Isaiah can speak of the land as mourning. The four regions mentioned: Lebanon, Sharon, Bashan, and Carmel are the most fruitful in the country, including the area of the old Northern Kingdom. In any case, they no longer are fruitful.
Next, verses 10-12 show us God’s response to Judah’s desperate situation. Notice that the word “now” appears three times in verse 10: “Now I will arise,” “now I will lift myself up,” and “now I will be exalted.” The idea is that human failure is God’s opportunity. Judah’s leaders took the country to the brink of extinction. But now, God will arise and do his thing.
The context indicates that the “you” addressed in verse 11 is the destroyer. And of course the destroyer is Assyria. The point is that Assyria’s plans are like chaff and stubble. And her own breath, the fire that rages against Judah, will light her own funeral pyre.
Verse 12 tells us the “peoples” will be burned as a result. Oswalt points out that throughout Isaiah the term “peoples” refers to the nations round about Judah. And those nations have been part of Isaiah’s focus since chapter seven. As Oswalt puts it, “Because of the threat of some of these ‘peoples,’ [Assyria] Judah has been tempted to trust other ‘peoples’ [Egypt] rather than God. Now God says that all of these, threat and trust alike, are no more than tinder in his presence” (p. 598).
Verses 13-16 show us what response God expects from the people. When God calls upon “those who are far away” and “those who are near” to hear and acknowledge his might, he is addressing everyone. Everyone is to acknowledge his might.
Verse 14 tells us that sinful Jews in particular will tremble in fear when they see what God does to the Assyrians. Then Isaiah asks who can live in the face of the flames? And in verses 15-16 he answers his own question. It is the morally or ethically pure who will not perish in the flames. It is those who walk righteously and speak uprightly, those who despise the gain of oppression, those who wave away a bribe, those who want nothing to do with bloodshed or evil. They will dwell with God in the high places, and all of their needs will be met. In other words, what finally separates us from God is bad character.
Verses 17-24 detail the good results that would flow from the leaders of Judah admitting their helplessness and turning to God. They also point to the end-time King who will bring the spiritual healing of forgiveness. The latter is especially evident in verse 22. But first Isaiah promises that they would “see the king in his beauty” and “a land that stretches far away.” He is saying that the presence of the King means that the time of terror will fade into their memories (v. 18); the strange talking Assyrians no longer will be around (v. 19). Instead the divine King will make Jerusalem secure (v. 20). It will be like a tent that never is moved, a rather vivid image since tents by nature are movable.
Verse 21 says that in Jerusalem the Lord will be like a place of broad rivers and streams, meaning it will be like a place of bountiful water supply, always a welcome image in that land. Yet there will be no threat of large ships sailing up the river to attack. That’s another expression of security. Then verse 22 tells us that the Lord is their judge, meaning in the sense of the book of Judges. In other words, he is their deliverer. He is their lawgiver; he is their king; and he will save them.
This is the climax of the entire section of chapters 28-33. The idea is that we can trust God to save us, and he will. But the section also is the capstone of the larger section that we have been working on for a long time, chapters 13-33. God is the master of the nations.
Verse 23 is very difficult. It seems to be just stuck in here. It could refer to either Assyria or Judah, though Oswalt prefers Judah. He suggests that it means that the promised glorious future does not remove the present serious situation. Verse 24 tells us that Judah’s needs go deeper than a need for deliverance from oppression. She also has a spiritual need for forgiveness.