One of the most disturbing truths of the Christian faith is the doctrine of hell. Atheists use it to deny the existence of a loving God. And Christians find themselves squeamishly defending the notion that a good God sends some people to a place of everlasting torment.
“Hell is of course the greatest evil of all, the realm of the greatest conceivable suffering,” writes Christian author Dinesh D’Souza in God Forsaken. “Consequently, hell poses perhaps the deepest difficulty for Christian theodicy [an attempt to reconcile the goodness of God with the existence of evil]. Far from resolving the theodicy problem, hell seems to make it even worse.”
Atheist Robert Ingersoll asserted that hell “makes man an eternal victim and God an eternal fiend.”
Anglican cleric John Stott, who wrote the influential book Basic Christianity, found the idea of eternal suffering so repugnant he rejected it in favor of annihilation.
Even C.S. Lewis shuttered at the concept of hell. “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power,” he wrote.
Where we are:
Part 1: Judgment
Part 2: Historical Interlude
Part 3: Salvation
When this takes place:
Most of chapters 2-12 likely was written during the reign of King Uzziah.
Isa. 5:5: Now I will tell you what I am about to do to My vineyard: I will remove its hedge, and it will be consumed; I will tear down its wall, and it will be trampled.
Isaiah uses a parable to foretell judgment on Judah, and then pronounces six woes on the people as he catalogues their sins.
The parable of the vineyard in verses 1-7 is similar to the parable of the vineyard owner Jesus tells in Matt. 21:33-44. At the same time, the woes pronounced on the wicked in verses 8-30 have a familiar ring. Jesus’ woes on the Jewish religious leaders in Matthew 23 are aimed at their arrogance, hypocrisy and self-righteousness. There appears to be a good reason Jesus quotes Isaiah so often: Just as the prophet foretells pending judgment on Judah for its sins, the Messiah foretells judgment on Israel for its vapid spiritual life.
Parable of the vineyard (Isa. 5:1-7)
This parable foretelling judgment on Judah is eerily similar to the parable of the vineyard owner Jesus tells in Matt. 21:33-44, predicting the destruction of Jerusalem and the scattering of Israel that occurs in 70 A.D. with the most notable consequence being the temporary setting aside of God’s spiritual blessings on Israel in favor of the church. In Isaiah, the pending judgment is national and focused mainly on the leaders’ social injustice. In Matthew, the pending judgment also is national but centers on the leaders’ spiritual coldness – particularly their rejection of Jesus as Messiah.
D.A. Carson summarizes the parable in Isaiah 5: “The parable brings home, as nothing else could, the sheer unreason and indefensibility of sin – we find ourselves searching for some cause of the vine’s failure and there is none. Only humans could be as capricious as that” (New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, Section Isaiah 5:1).
There is no mistaking the meaning of this parable. The vineyard is “the house of Israel” and the fruitless vine “the men of Judah” (v. 7). Like a wise, experienced, and caring husbandman, God has done everything necessary to make Judah a shining testimony of His greatness. He plans the vineyard, setting it on “a very fertile hill” (v. 1); prepares the soil, breaking it up and clearing it of stones (v. 2); plants it “with the finest vines” (v. 2); operates and watches over it, building a tower in the middle of the vineyard (v. 2); anticipates its fruitfulness, hewing out a winepress (v. 2); and expects it to “yield good grapes” (v. 2). So when the vineyard “yielded worthless grapes” (v. 2), God could legitimately ask, “What more could I have done for My vineyard than I did?” (v. 4).
God has blessed Israel and given her advantages no other nation on earth has ever experienced. Centuries later, after the resurrection and ascension of Jesus and before God revisits judgment on Israel through the destruction of the Temple and the Diaspora, the apostle Paul reminds his Jewish readers of their special place in God’s heart (Rom. 9:4-5). Nevertheless, Isaiah warns his fellow countrymen what God is about to do. He will remove His hedge of protection so it will be consumed (v. 5); tear down its wall so wild beasts and human plunderers will trample it (v. 5); abandon its care so that “thorns and briers will grow up” (v. 6); and even withhold rain so that it becomes a “wasteland” (v. 6). In practical terms, God is going to give up his special care of Israel so invaders will destroy it. He will even withhold the “rain,” likely a reference to the heaven-sent teachings of the prophets.
There is an interesting play on words in verse 7. Good looks for “justice” (mishpat) but finds “oppression / injustice” (mispach); He looks for “righteousness” (tzedakah) but hears “cries” (tzedkah) of wretchedness (The Treasury of Scripture Knowledge).
Woes for the wicked (Isa. 5:8-30)
Isaiah notes six distinct types of sin resulting in woes from the Lord. As D.A. Carson summarizes in the New Bible Commentary, “The attack has all the bite of personal portraiture. Here are the great, for all to see; they emerge as extortioners (8-10), playboys (11-12; cf. 22-23) and scoffers, whose only predictable values are cash ones (18-23)” (Section Isaiah 5:1). Specifically, the sins are:
- Disregarding Jubilee. “Woe to those who add house to house and join field to field, Until there is no more room, So that you have to live alone in the midst of the land!” (v. 8). The jubilee restoration of land every 50 years is designed to protect against greed, but the inhabitants of Judah are selfishly hoarding property (see Lev. 25:13; Micah 2:2). As a result, God will cause many houses to become desolate and the land to yield its fruit grudgingly (vv. 9-10).
- Drunkenness. “Woe to those who rise early in the morning that they may pursue strong drink …” (vv. 11-12). God’s people are indulging in strong drink and revelry without regard for the Creator and Provider of their food and drink. Their parties begin early, when it is especially shameful to drink (see Acts 2:15; 1 Thess. 5:7) and continue into the night. In verse 12, Isaiah refers to the tambourine among other musical instruments that are part of the reveling. The Hebrew word is tophet, and the tambourine are used to drown out the cries of children sacrificed to Moloch. Therefore, God will punish His people for their reckless living by sending them into exile, where they will suffer hunger and thirst – a stark contrast to the gluttonous food and drink found at their banquet tables (v. 13). Sheol, the abode of the dead, has “enlarged its throat” to accommodate the number of Jews who will die in exile (v. 14). In addition, the splendor of Jerusalem will be taken away, the common man will be humbled and the man of importance abased (v. 15). But “the LORD of hosts will be exalted in judgment” (v. 16).
- Obstinate perseverance in sin. “Woe to those who drag iniquity with the cords of falsehood, And sin as if with cart ropes” (v. 18). The rabbis used to say, “An evil inclination is at first like a fine hair-string, but the finishing like a cart-rope.” Jamieson, Fausset and Brown comment, “The antithesis is between the slender cords of sophistry, like the spider’s web (Is 59:5; Job 8:14), with which one sin draws on another, until they at last bind themselves with great guilt as with a cart-rope. They strain every nerve in sin” (A Commentary, Critical and Explanatory, on the Old and New Testaments, S. Isa. 5:18). While buried up to their necks in sin, the Jewish people seem to be questioning whether God is really in control of the nation, and they challenge them to show Himself by delivering them despite their obstinacy (v. 19).
- Perverted values. “Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who substitute darkness for light and light for darkness …” (v. 20). Matthew Henry writes that such people “not only live in the omission of that which is good, but condemn it, argue against it, and, because they will not practise it themselves, run it down in others, and fasten invidious epithets upon it-not only do that which is evil, but justify it, and applaud it, and recommend it to others as safe and good” (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible, S. Is 5:18).
- Arrogance. “Woe to those who are wise in their own opinion and clever in their own sight” (v. 21). Many in Judah think they know better than the prophet and therefore disregard the Word of God through Isaiah. The New Bible Commentary calls them “calmly omniscient.”
- Alcoholic excess and perversion of justice. “Woe to those who are heroes at drinking wine … who deprive the innocent of justice” (vv. 22-23). They know the value of money, but little more. The judges in particular bankroll their self-indulgence with bribes that favor the rich and deny justice to the innocent. They mix their drinks, not with water, but with spices for intoxication (Prov. 9:2, 5; Song of Sol. 8:2).
As a result of these sins, the people of Judah would be burned like dry grass, and their beauty vanquished like a flower turned to dust. When God’s judgment comes, He will use Egypt and Assyria, and later Babylon, as His rod of punishment. These ferocious powers descend on Judah as if God has raised a banner and called people from “the ends of the earth” to war (v. 26). While these violent conquerors are to be feared like a growling lioness or the roaring sea, they are under the sovereign hand of God and do as He pleases. This chapter ends darkly, with nothing but pending judgment, like storm clouds gathering on the horizon.
Gary V. Smith comments: “These woes assure the reader that God will judge sin severely. The lament conveys the truth that God is terribly saddened when his people reject him or his revealed instructions. Nevertheless, in the end he will hold all people accountable for their actions, especially his own privileged people” (The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, p. 182).
Copyright 2008 by Rob Phillips