In this essay we will complete the large section of the book that began at 13:1, the section in which Isaiah shows that God is the master of the nations. We saw in chapters 13-23 his judgment on the various nations, in 24-27 his triumph over the nations, and in 28-33 the folly of trusting the nations. In chapters 34-35 Isaiah concludes the section by showing the results of trusting God over against trusting the nations. And Isaiah does it by means of a sharp contrast between the two chapters. In chapter 34 Isaiah shows a productive land turning into a desert, which illustrates trusting the nations instead of God. And in chapter 35 he shows a desert turning into a garden, which illustrates trusting God instead of the nations.
34:1-4 expresses God’s judgment against the nations in general. Notice that God calls the whole world to gather around to hear the pronouncement of judgment. But as John Oswalt points out, Isaiah is not calling them as witnesses. He is calling them to receive their sentence. You will remember that Isaiah detailed the judgment of the nations beginning back in chapter 13. But now it is judgment day. The wrath of God is ready to be poured out. And it is pictured as a slaughter. Verse three tells us that added to the slaughter will be the humiliation of exposure of bodies. That is, instead of burying the dead they will be left to the vultures and other carrion eaters. That was, and still is, a shameful end.
Verse four has an apocalyptic ring to it. Even “the host of heaven” will be affected by the judgment. Some want to interpret the “host of heaven” as referring to literal stars, though most would not interpret it as a literal falling of the stars from the sky. Others believe it refers to the pantheon of gods represented by the stars in many ancient religions. If the latter was intended, then the message is that God will deal with the “gods” as well as the followers of those gods. The fact that such gods do not exist is not important. Isaiah’s point is that God will deal with the unbelieving nations in a complete way. He will destroy their gods as well as their armies.
Now then, in verses 5-17 Isaiah turns to the country of Edom as a representative nation. Edom was one of Israel’s oldest and fiercest enemies. Thus Edom was typical of those nations who opposed the ways of God. So Isaiah chose to use her in this representative way. She represents all of the nations, and her fate represents their fate.
The first aspect of the nations, as typified by Edom, was that they would become a sacrifice. This is seen in verses 5-8. “When my sword has drunk its fill in the heavens,” refers to the destruction of “the host of heaven” that we saw at the beginning of verse four. When God has destroyed the gods of his enemies, he will turn his sword on the nations in judgment. Verse six speaks of “a sacrifice in Bozrah.” Bozrah was the leading city of Edom. Notice the extensive language of sacrifice: “the blood of lambs and goats,” and “the fat of the kidneys of rams.”
The “wild oxen,” “young steers,” and “bulls” likely represent the leaders of the nations who will be killed. And as verse eight tells us, “the Lord has a day of vengeance.” In other words, he has a timetable in respect to judgment. We may not know when the day will come, but it will come.
Not only will Edom (representing the nations) be a sacrifice, verses 9-17 reveal that she will be desolate. In other words, these verses picture the horrible future of those who reject God. Interestingly, the language used verses 9-10 reminds us a little of the language used in regard to Sodom and Gomorrah. Isaiah pictures the land as a total wasteland. It will turn into burning pitch and sulfur. And this condition will last forever.
In verses 11-15 Isaiah goes on to say that following the judgment the land of Edom (and all of the of the nations she represents) will be populated only by various desert animals. Once again at this point we must remind ourselves that we are reading poetry. Obviously, if the land were nothing but burning pitch and sulfur, not even desert animals could live there. Verses 9-10 do not have to be understood with absolute literalness. And we must remember that Isaiah has used this image of animals taking over human habitations before (13:21-22; 14:23).
Except for the raven, the names of the animals mentioned in these verses are not certain. But they are not important. What is important is the fact that the palaces and fortresses will fall and the people will leave them deserted.
Verse 12 is very difficult. The NIV translates it: “Her nobles will have nothing there to call a kingdom, all her princes will vanish away.” On the other hand, the NRSV reads, “They shall name it No Kingdom There, and all its princes will be nothing.” Either way the point is that there will no longer be a kingdom there, and the princes will lose their power.
No one knows what book Isaiah meant by the phrase “the book of the Lord” in verse 16. Oswalt opts for the idea that the Hebrews held a concept of “a heavenly book of destiny.” And Isaiah mentions it to assure his readers that his prophesies and their salvation are certain. He assures them that the names of those who trust in the Lord are written in God’s heavenly book. Now Oswalt doesn’t comment on what he thinks Isaiah meant, in verse 17, that God would portion out to his people, or what they would possess forever. It seems to me that, with verses 16-17, Isaiah already has shifted to the positive side that he is bringing out in chapter 35. And what the people will possess forever is the garden of chapter 35.
All right, I already have given a hint regarding chapter 35. It is a direct contrast to chapter 34. In chapter 34 the representative land of Edom is transformed into a desert. Here in chapter 35 the desert is changed into a garden. No actual desert is identified, because just as Edom represented the nations in general in chapter 34, the desert in chapter 35 represents the land and people in general who will be transformed by God’s grace. The picture Isaiah is painting shows that trusting the nations results in a desert (ch. 34). But trusting in God results in a garden (ch. 35).
The joy and singing we see in verses two are natural responses to the presence of God. In addition, the desert will take on the glory of lush areas like Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon because of the glory of the Lord. The fearful and helpless can take courage, because God not only will come, but he also will deal with their enemies and save them.
Verses 5-7 go on to express God’s salvation in end-time language. The word “then” emphasizes the future aspect of God’s promise, and it refers to when God comes. And notice that there will be two major signs of God’s salvation. One is the healing of the blind, deaf and lame. And the other is the flowing of an abundance of water in the desert. Of course abundant water can turn a desert into a garden. But we must keep in mind that Isaiah frequently has used the blind and deaf to symbolize a negative spiritual condition. The phrase, “the haunt of Jackals” ties this material to chapter 34. The same phrase was used in 34:13.
In verses 8-10 the end-time is very much in view. The safety and security of this holy highway is the exact opposite of what we saw back in 33:8, where no one could travel safely. This highway is holy, not because of something to do with the highway itself, but because of the holiness of those who walk on it. The term, “fools,” usually is interpreted to mean unsophisticated people. Even simpletons will not go astray on the holy highway. But Oswalt reminds us that “fools” in the Old Testament are people who reject the ways of God. So he translates the last line of verse eight, “No fools will stumble [upon it].”
Verse nine tells us, once again in contrast to chapter 34, that no ferocious beasts will be found on the holy highway. And verse 10 declares that the holy highway leads to Zion, the holy city. The redeemed will come to the city with joy and singing. Moreover, sorrow and sighing will be no more. Truly, God is the master of the nations; and he can be trusted to save the faithful.