Isaiah 57: No Peace for the Wicked

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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:

Chapter 57 is part of the second major section of Isaiah and deals less with Judah’s immediate plight than with its future deliverance from Babylonian exile and ultimate glory.

Key verse:

Isa. 57:13 – When you cry out, let your collection [of idols] deliver you! The wind will carry all of them off, a breath will take them away. But whoever takes refuge in Me will inherit the land and possess My holy mountain.

Quick summary:

To their ignorance and moral blindness (Isa. 56:9-12), Judah’s leaders have added idolatry and immorality. Yet the Lord refuses to give up on them. If any of these backsliders trusts the Lord and humbles himself, the Lord will heal him and lead him. The promise of peace, however, is balanced by a stern warning: “But the wicked are like the storm-tossed sea, for it cannot be still, and its waters churn up mire and muck. There is no peace for the wicked …” (vv. 20-21).

Take note:

Verse 15 is a remarkable passage. The “High and Exalted One” lives in “a high and holy place,” yet He also dwells with “the oppressed and lowly of spirit.” How can this be? First, consider that God is like none of His creatures. He is above all things, and in contrast to the idols that the people of Judah worship in vain, His eyes are too pure to look on evil, and He can’t tolerate wrongdoing (Hab. 1:13). He is the uncontested master of the universe and has the right to judge all things. He is higher than the highest; higher than the nations and the heavens (Ps. 113:4). At the same time, He is accessible to those who humble themselves before Him and is especially kind toward the faithful who suffer oppression. What will the Lord do for these people? “He will give them reviving joys and hopes sufficient to counterbalance all the griefs and fears that break their spirits. He dwells with them, and his presence is reviving” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible: Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 57:13).

The Righteous Perish (Isa. 57:1-2)

The chapter begins with a bleak assessment of the situation in Judah, where the leaders are so corrupt and the social and spiritual fabric so torn that the righteous must die to find peace. Isaiah suggests that many of the righteous will die, mercifully, before the Babylonian invasion and therefore be spared the consequences of the nation’s depravity.

Warren Wiersbe comments: “God permitted the unrighteous leaders to live and suffer the terrible consequences of their sins, but the righteous people died before the judgment fell. The godly found rest and peace; the ungodly went into Captivity, and some of them were killed. Rebellious people do not deserve dedicated spiritual leaders. When His people reject His Word and prefer worldly leaders, God may give them exactly what they desire and let them suffer the consequences” (Be Comforted, An Old Testament Study, S. Is 56:9).

The Pagans Denounced (Isa. 57:3-13)

Judah and Jerusalem are polluted with idols in the days leading up to the Babylonian captivity. Although King Hezekiah and King Josiah are godly leaders who destroy the high places and campaign against Judah’s slide toward destruction, the people are determined to indulge in paganism. Isaiah and Jeremiah preach passionately about the consequences of abandoning God, but their message ultimately falls on deaf ears.

The Lord likens idolatry to sexual immorality, which often is a part of pagan practices. The people are called “sons of a sorceress, offspring of an adulterer and a prostitute!” (v. 3). In public and in private, the citizens of Judah are inflamed with lust for their false gods. In the groves under green trees, they visit the shrine prostitutes. In the valleys, they offer their children as sacrifices (Hezekiah’s apostate son, Manasseh, would burn his own son as a sacrifice to Molech – 2 Kings 21:6). Under cliffs and among the smooth stones of the wadis, they worship gods who cannot hear them or help them. On the mountaintops and behind closed doors, they persist in idolatry and immorality. The Lord pulls no punches in confronting the people. He calls them “rebellious children” and a “race of liars” (v. 4).

The people also are guilty of consorting with foreign leaders and trusting them for protection. “You went to the king with oil and multiplied your perfumes,” the Lord says; “you sent your envoys far away and sent [them] down even to Sheol. You became weary on your many journeys, [but] you did not say ‘I give up!’” (vv. 9-10a).  The Israelites even embrace the paganism of their foreign allies in order to curry their favor. All the while they are hedging their bets, retaining a cursory acknowledgement of the God of Israel. On their doorposts and gates they write the laws of God as He instructed them to do (Deut. 6:9, 11:20), but inside they worship idols “in secret,” a duplicitous religious practices that God finds detestable (Deut. 27:15). In the end, the Lord describes their religious pluralism as a lie; it is neither faithful to God nor true to paganism. As a result, their actions will bring God’s judgment and their idols will provide no comfort.

The Lord’s patience with the Israelites is seen by some as silence, or perhaps abandonment, or even worse, as tacit approval of their idolatry. But He will be silent no longer. “I will expose your righteousness,” He declares in verse 12. The outward righteousness of His people will be exposed for what it is: empty religious ritual. And when His judgment falls, He invites them to call upon their idols for salvation: “When you cry out, let your collection [of idols] deliver you! The wind will carry all of them off, a breath will take them away” (v. 13a). Even so, there is hope, for the God of Israel remains merciful: “But whoever takes refuge in Me will inherit the land and possess My holy mountain” (v. 13b).

The Contrite Comforted (Isa. 57:14-21)

The Lord draws a sharp contrast between Himself and His people in order to reveal His holiness and their sinfulness. While the people are two-faced liars, intoxicated with idolatry, He is “the High and Exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy” (v. 15a). That reality should bring the Israelites to their knees in fearful repentance, just as the Law should cause every person to see his or her wretchedness in the light of God’s perfection. The purpose of the Law is not to save us but to make us aware of our sinfulness. As the apostle Paul writes in Rom. 3:20, “for through the law [comes] the knowledge of sin.” But God doesn’t leave us in this hopeless state. He sends His Son, who lives a sinless life and fulfills the law, then dies in our place on the cross, conquering sin and death on our behalf. Therefore Paul proclaims a few verses later, “For we conclude that man is justified by faith apart from works of law” (Rom. 3:28). The message to the Israelites of Isaiah’s day, and to us, is that Holy God desires a relationship with sinful people, who are forgiven of their sins and made holy by God’s grace. Those who persist in idolatry – whether it’s the worship of a stone pillar or the determination to live a self-indulgent life independently of God – will find themselves outside the security and protection of the one true and living God.

The Lord reacts decisively to sin. “Because of his sinful greed I was angry, so I struck him; I was angry and hid,” He says of the self-righteous in verse 17. Yet Yahweh’s heart is tender and His mercy is evident. “I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will lead him and comfort him and his mourners,” He promises in verse 18, foreseeing repentance. God’s gracious act of redemption produces a natural response in His people; it creates “words of praise” (v. 19).

The exhortation to prepare a road for the people of faith in verse 14 harkens back to Isa. 40:3-5, which speaks of a road being prepared for the Lord. But now the people are walking to the Lord. Even though He is majestic, exalted and holy, He desires fellowship with His people and invites them into His presence. All of this is possible, not because men and women have merited God’s favor, but because an infinitely compassionate God sent His Son to invade Satan’s kingdom and rescue believing sinners from death and hell. The praises that flow naturally from the lips of the redeemed produce a glorious habitation for the Redeemer.

The wicked, on the other hand, will never experience peace. Like the storm-tossed seas, they will find rest elusive and will never stand with the redeemed upon the calm sea of glass before the throne of God in heaven (Rev. 4:6, 15:2). Their sinful activities “churn up mire and muck” (v. 20), a stark contrast to the cool, clear living water Messiah offers (John 4:10-13, 7:37-39; Rev. 7:17). The question to all people today is: Which water do you prefer – the murky, churning waters of a self-centered life, or the clear, cool, satisfying waters of a Spirit-led life?

Closing Thought

Matthew Henry writes: “The wicked … are always like the sea in a storm, for they carry about with them, [1.] Unmortified corruptions. They are not cured and conquered, and their ungoverned lusts and passions make them like the troubled sea when it cannot rest, vexatious to all about them and therefore uneasy to themselves, noisy and dangerous…. [2.] Unpacified consciences. They are under a frightful apprehension of guilt and wrath, that they cannot enjoy themselves; when they seem settled they are in disquietude, when they seem merry they are in heaviness; like Cain, who always dwelt in the land of shaking. The terrors of conscience disturb all their enjoyments, and cast forth such mire and dirt as make them a burden to themselves…. My God hath said it, and all the world cannot unsay it, That there is no peace to those that allow themselves in any sin. What have they to do with peace?” (S. Is 57:17).