Isaiah 28: A Deal with Death

Isaiah 28: Listen to an audio file

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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:

Isaiah 28 takes place during Hezekiah’s reign. “The setting is the restless period of intrigue with Egypt which led to Hezekiah’s revolt against Assyria and the reprisals of 701 bc … but the prophecies frequently break out of these narrow confines” (D.A. Carson, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, S. Is 27:12).

Key verse:

Isa. 28:16 – Therefore the Lord God said: “Look, I have laid a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation; the one who believes will be unshakable.”

Quick summary:

Robert B. Hughes and Carl J. Laney write: “Ephraim was the chief tribe of the northern kingdom of Israel. As the people mocked Isaiah’s prophecy as nonsense (28:9–10), so they would get their fill of the nonsensical language of the Assyrians (28:11)…. Instead of trusting in shaking alliances (28:15), God’s people were to rely on the firm Cornerstone, the Messiah (cf. Ps. 118:22; Rom. 9:33; 10:11; 1 Pet. 2:6)…. God works in many different ways to accomplish his purposes (Isa. 28:23–29)” (Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary, S. 263).

Take note:

Paul refers to Isa. 28:11 in 1 Cor. 14:21 to demonstrate the purpose of tongues as a sign of God’s judgment on unbelieving Jews. The people in Isaiah’s day mock the prophet’s words as incoherent babbling, so God promises to “speak to this people with stammering speech and in a foreign language” (v. 11); that is, they will be conquered by the Assyrians, who speak in a language they cannot understand. In the same way, the apostle Paul writes, the spiritual gift of tongues serves as a sign to the unbelieving Jews of his generation that God’s judgment is once again about to descend on Israel. This occurs in 70 A.D. as the Romans sack Jerusalem, destroy the temple, kill more than 1 million Jews, and scatter the rest worldwide in the Diaspora.

As new believers speak in tongues – dialects, or human languages unknown to them – on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), their Spirit-filled glorification of God is greeted by some Jews with derision: “But some sneered and said, ‘They’re full of new wine!’” (v. 13). Peter addresses all of the Jews from around the world gathered in Jerusalem for this important feast and declares that “these people [speaking in tongues] are not drunk, as you suppose … On the contrary, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel …” (vv. 15-16). As his sermon, proclaiming Jesus as Messiah, draws to a close, Peter warns his fellow Jews. “And with many other words he testified and strongly urged them, saying, ‘Be saved from this corrupt generation’” (v. 40). Sadly, many first-century Jews reject the words of Peter and Paul and are swept away in God’s judgment at the hands of the Roman legions.

The Drunkards of Ephraim (Isa. 28:1-6)

This seems to be an early prophecy before the fall of the northern kingdom and its capital city of Samaria in 722-21 B.C. Isaiah paints an interesting picture in verses 1-4. He compares Samaria, an affluent city set on a hill, to a garland on a drunkard’s brow. The glory of this once-great city is fading and God is about to bring swift judgment upon Ephraim’s clueless drunkards (v. 1). The “devastating hailstorm” in verse 2 no doubt symbolizes the Assyrians, who will snatch the capital city like a passing traveler snatches a ripe fig (v. 4). There is a day, however, when the clouds depart and the Lord of Hosts – “a crown of beauty and a diadem of splendor” – will adorn the believing remnant of Israel (v. 5). The Lord Himself, active among and engaged with His people, provides “a spirit of justice … and strength” in stark contrast to the corrupt and inept leaders of the northern kingdom (v. 6).

Vomit-covered Tables (Isa. 28:7-13)

Isaiah now returns to the image of the northern kingdom as a drunkard (cf. v. 1). He refers to the people and their leaders – meaning the priests and prophets – as revelers at a banquet where the tables are covered with vomit and the stench is inescapable (v. 8). “They were intoxicated even when supposedly seeing visions (the false prophets) or when rendering decisions (the false priests). No wonder the nation was ripe for judgment” (John F. Walvoord, Roy B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary:  An Exposition of the Scriptures, S. 1:1077).

The speakers in verses 9-10 likely are the priests and prophets spoken of in verses 7-8. Offended that Isaiah is speaking to them like children, they mock the prophet as if he’s speaking baby talk. “The Hebrew of v 10 is a jingle, almost the equivalent of our derisive ‘blah blah,’ but not quite as meaningless (D.A. Carson, New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, S. Is 28:7). “A little here, a little there” is a method used to teach children. So essentially the priests and prophets employ simple repetitive phrases used with youngsters to make it clear they are insulted by Isaiah’s speech and want nothing to do with the message or the messenger.

Isaiah’s response is that if the people won’t listen to his plain-spoken message of repentance, they will be lectured by their conquerors, who speak a difficult and foreign language. He’s referring, of course, to the Assyrians, who are bearing down on the northern kingdom and who will deliver God’s judgment to its citizens. Although the Lord offers His people “rest” and “repose” (v. 12), they refuse to listen. Therefore, God will turn their mocking back on them and they will “go stumbling backwards, to be broken, trapped, and captured” (v. 13).

A Deal with Death (Isa. 28:14-22)

Isaiah has strong words for Judah’s leaders, whom he calls “mockers,” perhaps in part because of their childish taunting of the prophet in verses 9-10. Instead of leading the people responsibly, the nation’s rulers scoff at the threat of judgment. “We have cut a deal with Death,” they boast, and when judgment comes “it will not touch us” (v. 15). Why would they say such a thing? In the Ugaritic pantheon of gods, death is personified as the god of the underworld. Jerusalem’s leaders are trusting in false gods to save them from the “overwhelming scourge,” the Assyrian invasion. But with “falsehood” on their lips and “treachery” in their hearts, their trust is misplaced. They will come to ruin.

In verse 16, Isaiah gives the Lord’s response to Jerusalem’s arrogant rebellion. “Look, I have laid a stone in Zion,” says the Lord, “a tested stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation, and the one who believes will be unshakable.” God, not idols or human resistance, is the only true source of physical and spiritual salvation. Whether Isaiah is thinking of the cornerstone as Messiah is not completely clear; however, other Scripture passages make this connection (Zech. 10:4; Eph. 2:20) and both Paul and Peter quote this verse as Messianic (Rom. 9:33, 10:11; 1 Peter 2:6). Lawrence O. Richards makes an interesting observation: “In human construction, the same stone cannot serve both as the foundation of the building and the capstone, which holds the arch atop it together. But the Messiah is both foundation and capstone in God’s building, both the beginning and end. What’s more, this stone both is God and is laid by God. Only Jesus, sent by God and yet God the Son, could possibly fulfill this requirement” (The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed., S. 425).

Next, the Lord responds to each of Jerusalem’s boasts. “Your deal with death will be dissolved,” He tells them. “Your deal with Sheol will not last. When the overwhelming scourge passes through, you will be trampled” (v. 18). This message will bring sheer terror on those who realize its implications. To seek the intervention of false gods in the midst of God’s judgment will be as futile as sleeping comfortably in a bed that is too short or seeking warmth in a blanket that is too small. Destruction will sweep down into Judah. Mount Perazim and the valley of Gibeon (v. 21) are near Jerusalem, where David defeated the Philistines (1 Chron. 14:11, 16). Just as God defeated David’s enemies, He now threatens to defeat David’s kingdom. Therefore, Jerusalem’s leaders are warned to stop mocking God’s prophet, and to cease trusting in idols. The Lord’s wrath is coming.

The Plowman (Isa. 28:23-29)

This chapter ends with a message of hope as Isaiah shares the parable of the plowman. Just as the farmer employs different steps – plowing, planting, threshing – to produce a variety of crops, so the Lord will take the appropriate steps to purify His people. “A farmer must crush his crops to get the desired results. For example, caraway and cumin, aromatic herbs, are beaten out with a rod or stick, not threshed, because their seeds are so small. Grain is ground by millstone, after the wheat stalks are threshed…. Similarly God … is the Master ‘Farmer,’ who knows how to handle each ‘crop.’ Therefore the Southern Kingdom should submit to Him because He is wonderful in counsel (cf. 9:6) and magnificent in wisdom (cf. 11:2)” (Walvoord and Zuck, S. 1:1078).

God’s purpose in punishment is not to destroy His people any more than the farmer’s object in threshing is to obliterate his crop; rather, it is to produce an abundance of fruit. Isaiah challenges his listeners to look to the farmer’s ways to vindicate God’s work among the citizens of Judah.

Closing Thought

Warren W. Wiersbe comments: “Perhaps the people of Judah rejoiced to hear Isaiah announce the fall of their rival kingdom, but their celebration was shortlived; for the prophet then announced that Judah was guilty of the same sins as Samaria and therefore was in danger of judgment … Jerusalem watched the Northern Kingdom fall to the Assyrians, but this judgment did not bring them to repentance. When we start saying to ourselves, ‘It can never happen to me!’—it is sure to happen!” (Be Comforted, S. Is 28:1).

Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips

One comment

  1. Annette

    Such a blessing to me and my family your exposition and teaching has been. Thankyou for sharing it and thank the Lord for His gifts of prophecy and teaching. God bless you- Annette