Isaiah 16: An Object of Contempt

Listen to an audio file (2.8.09)

Download a worksheet for further study


Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment

Part 2: Historical Interlude

Part 3: Salvation

Chapters 1-35

Chapters 36-39

Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

Chapter 16 is a continuation of the prophecy against Moab that begins in chapter 15. It likely takes place during the reign of Hezekiah when the Assyrians are trying to gain control of the countries around Judah; however, some scholars place this earlier, about three years prior to Assyria’s invasion in 732 B.C.

Key verse:

Isa. 16:14  And now the Lord says, “In three years, as a hired worker counts years, Moab’s splendor will become an object of contempt, in spite of a very large population. And those who are left will be few and weak.”

Quick summary:

Arriving in Edom, the Moabite refugees should turn to God through their neighbor Israel, but in pride they refuse to do so. As a result, the fruitfulness of their land will cease.

Take note:

Isaiah provides a three-year time frame for fulfillment of this prophecy. Whether this is Sennacherib’s invasion in 701 B.C. or an earlier invasion is not clear. However, Isaiah’s listeners throughout Judah and Moab are able to see the fulfillment of his prophecy and confirm that he is speaking the word of the Lord. If the short-term prophecies come to pass, Isaiah’s credibility is enhanced as he foretells Judah’s judgment, the virgin birth of the Messiah, and the Messiah’s reign on the throne of David.

The Plea of Moab (Isa. 16:1-5)

The one place the Assyrians cannot conquer is Jerusalem, although they have tried (see Isa. 36-37). But rather than flee to Mt. Zion, the Moabite refugees flee south to the fords of the Arnon River and the rock city of Sela (Petra) in Edom. From there, they send a request for asylum to the king of Judah, along with sheep as a form of tribute (see 2 Kings 3:4).

Isaiah is not impressed with their plea. He calls the Moabites extortionists, spoilers and oppressors, and says the nation is destined to be destroyed. Why so harsh? Because the Moabites want Judah’s protection but not Judah’s God. Verse 5 is messianic, pointing to the day when the Messiah will sit on the throne of David and reign in righteousness and mercy. 

The Pride of Moab (Isa. 16:6-14)

Warren Wiersbe’s comments on these verses are instructive:

We can understand the pride of a city like Babylon (14:12-14), but what did the tiny nation of Moab have to boast about? Their pride kept them from submitting to Judah, and this led to their defeat. Their boasting would turn into wailing and their songs into funeral dirges. Moab would become like a vineyard trampled down and a fruitful field left unharvested. Isaiah 16:9-11 describes the prophet’s grief-and the Lord’s grief-over the destruction of Moab. “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked” (Ezek. 33:11). Isaiah could have rejoiced at the destruction of an old enemy, but instead, he wept (Prov. 24:17-18)” (Be Comforted, S. Is 15:1).

Moab’s pride (v. 6) is perhaps best understood in light of her idolatry (v. 12). Although on the run from the Assyrians and facing certain defeat, the Moabites reject Israel’s God and cling instead to the idol Chemosh on Mt. Nebo. There, Isaiah points out, the Moabites will become fatigued with burdensome and empty rituals, and their prayers will not prevail.

Chemosh is the national god of the Moabites, known as the destroyer, subduer, or fish-god. In Scripture, the Moabites are called the “people of Chemosh” (Num. 21:29; Jer. 48:7, 13, 46). Solomon, under the influence of his idolatrous wives, introduced the Israelites to the worship of Chemosh. He built a high place in the mount before Jerusalem (1 Kings 11:7), but Josiah abolished this idolatrous worship (2 Kings 23:13).

The Moabites have always had close ties with Israel (see Gen. 19:30-38; Ruth 4:10, 18-22) but oppose them spiritually and politically (see Num. 25; Judges 3:12-14; 1 Sam. 14:47; 2 Sam. 8:2, 11-12; 2 Kings 3). The Lord makes it clear that her day of reckoning will come within three years. Whether Assyria’s invasion in 732 B.C. or 701 B.C. is in view – it is difficult to set this chapter specifically in either time frame – most people who hear this prophecy live to see it fulfilled and learn that the God of Israel, unlike the idol Chemosh, is true and trustworthy.

Final Thought

The prophecy concerning Moab makes several key theological points, according to Gary V. Smith: “First, God controls what is happening to all the people on earth and he understands why they wail and suffer pain and ruin…. Second, God’s message and his relationship with people is one of identification with the pain of the sufferer (15:5; 16:9)…. Third, God warns people about the future and then confronts them with their errors (particularly pride) for two reasons: (a) so that they will have some comprehension of why they will suffer (16:6), and (b) so that they will have an opportunity to choose a different path” (New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, p. 338).

Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips