Isaiah part 18: The Third Cycle (chap. 24-27)
It is not called the third cycle ‘of oracles’ because this section does not have the structure of an oracle. Its basic outline is:
- A city of meaninglessness: world history planned around the people of God (24:1-20).
- The end of waiting: the King shall reign (24:21-23).
- The world rejoicing in salvation: the blessings of Mt. Zion (25).
- The strong city: waiting in hope (26).
- The final gathering: the universal Israel (27).
The central theme is a city destroyed and a city established (Mt. Zion or Jerusalem). Of all sections of Isaiah this offers the least help in discerning the actual historical situations that prompted it. But as we always say, if God doesn’t tell us something, then we don’t need to know it, and it is fruitless to go looking for it. We look at this section as a whole and place it in the grand strategy of chapters 13-27. As we stand in the midst of this prophetic revelation, it points our eyes toward a grand city which is the hope of the whole world. God bids us to look and behold its beauty. “You will live here through the blood of My Son,” God says, “and My Son shall illume the whole city for you.”
Now it will come about that
In the last days,
The mountain of the house of the Lord
Will be established as the chief of the mountains,
And will be raised above the hills;
And all the nations will stream to it.
3 And many peoples will come and say,
"Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
To the house of the God of Jacob;
That He may teach us concerning His ways,
And that we may walk in His paths."
For the law will go forth from Zion,
And the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah:
"We have a strong city;
He sets up walls and ramparts for security.
2 "Open the gates, that the righteous nation may enter,
The one that remains faithful.
3 "The steadfast of mind Thou wilt keep in perfect peace,
Because he trusts in Thee.
4 "Trust in the Lord forever,
For in God the Lord, we have an everlasting Rock.
And the city has no need of the sun or of the moon to shine upon it, for the glory of God has illumined it, and its lamp is the Lamb.
But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, 23 to the general assembly and church of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, 24 and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than the blood of Abel.
At the time of Isaiah, the people of God lived in Zion, but they had lost zeal for the city of God. They must come on a pilgrimage back to the Lord, and Isa 24-27 expresses this double pilgrimage on a grand scale.
The Lord’s people are preserved amid a crashing world. The promises of God linger around them while they sometimes feel anxiously that the Lord is taking far too long, but patience is a virtue of God. God promises that the whole world of saints will dwell in Zion with the King of glory, and in fact, though the saints are caught up in the turmoil of history in places that look nothing like the perfect city, God tells them compassionately that they already dwell there.
Come, my people, enter into your rooms,
And close your doors behind you; Hide for a little while,
Until indignation runs its course.
even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus.
In the first series, Moab turned, through pride, from security in Zion (chapters 15-16); in the second series, Gentiles turned to their neighbors for needs and protection, but they remained unmet (21:13-17); now, in the third, on Mt. Zion, every need is met, though the pride of some men continue to stand aloof from it. The first two series saw the people of God collapse under worldly securities (17) and self-sufficiency (22), but now the saints stand with God in perfect peace because Jesus Christ has purchased them and made them His own and they will dwell forever in the city that bears and protects His name.
Chapter 24 - the city of meaninglessness: world history planned around the people of God.
The remnant of God’s children are the center of His plans for the world. In a world rushing quickly to witness its own collapse, the people whose joy is in the Lord are secure.
The earth will experience total devastation - the natural and the human world.
Behold, the Lord lays the earth waste, devastates it, distorts its surface, and scatters its inhabitants. 2 And the people will be like the priest, the servant like his master, the maid like her mistress, the buyer like the seller, the lender like the borrower, the creditor like the debtor. 3 The earth will be completely laid waste and completely despoiled, for the Lord has spoken this word.
The reason is sin.
The earth mourns and withers, the world fades and withers, the exalted of the people of the earth fade away. 5 The earth is also polluted by its inhabitants, for they transgressed laws, violated statutes, broke the everlasting covenant. 6 Therefore, a curse devours the earth, and those who live in it are held guilty. Therefore, the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men are left.
Man’s problem is a simple matter. It is not his style of government, though some are certainly better than others. His problem is not his culture or his environment. His problem is his sin. His solution is only in the One who condemned sin in the flesh (ROM 8:3) and who will make him alive in the Spirit (ROM 8:9). Sinful human beings, not carbon dioxide, are the supreme environmental threat.
The word “scattered” in verse 1 sets the scene for the city (v. 10) and brings us back to the original Babel, the city where the people sought their own providence and security in a cohesive society without God, who is the only cohesion of unity (COL 3:14).
Verse 2 shows us contrasting pairs: priests/people - religious; master/servant … mistress/maid - domestic; seller/buyer - commercial; showing us every aspect of life is under the sentence.
The scene painted with Isaiah’s words takes us back to creation (the earth a ‘wasteland;’ Hebrew - tohu used in GEN 1:2), as well as the flood (vs.18), and Babel (vs. 10). The cyclical nature of history is driven by God in ways we cannot know, but in patterns we can certainly see if we have eyes to see them.
In verse 5 the earth is polluted or tainted beneath its dwellers as they stomp around on it. The earth produces thorns and thistles. On one hand, - it fights against man and does not readily yield its bounty to him but turns its productive powers against him. On the other hand, the earth that God pronounced ‘good’ has been damaged. The garden is in the process of becoming a wilderness. The earth has been defiled and polluted “under” [Hebrew: tachath] its people, meaning under their dominion. The earth waits and longs (to personify it) to be redeemed with the people of God (ROM 8:21).
Three charges are leveled against man: they refused to hold to and live by divine revelation (transgressed laws), they created their own innovative morality (violated statutes), and annulling the covenant in which God opened up the way of fellowship with Himself.
We then come upon the first (vv. 7-12) of two contrasting sections that lie at the heart of this poem. Verse 7 uses the same words as verse 4 (mourns and withers) so as to tie them together. Sin brought a curse upon the earth and its people, and now we trace the progress of the deadly contagion as it kills the sources of joy (7), ends the experience of joy (8-9), and banishes joy (11), while the city lies ruined and defenseless (10, 12). Sin is no joke, and hence the people of the body of Christ, set free from sin and death and made alive by the Spirit, are designed by God to be filled with joy; the fruit of the Spirit and the abiding presence of Christ as they happily do God’s will.
The new wine mourns,
The vine decays,
All the merry-hearted sigh.
8 The gaiety of tambourines ceases,
The noise of revelers stops,
The gaiety of the harp ceases.
9 They do not drink wine with song;
Strong drink is bitter to those who drink it.
10 The city of chaos is broken down;
Every house is shut up so that none may enter.
11 There is an outcry in the streets concerning the wine;
All joy turns to gloom.
The gaiety of the earth is banished.
12 Desolation is left in the city,
And the gate is battered to ruins.
The reference to wine is not a call to t-totalism, but to temperance. The backdrop is the revelry of a people solely looking for earthly and immediate satisfaction. Their only desire is the “buzz” without thought of the will of God in whatever they do. The merrymakers have lost a natural joyful temperament and need alcohol to return their joviality. God’s creation will not work for those who exclude its Creator. The irony is that they look to the earth to provide their happiness, and by doing so, they are destroying it (the vine decays).
The word “mourns” can also mean “flat.” The beer and the wine are flat; they bring no satisfaction while darkness in the minds of the people long to find satisfaction in them.
In verse 10 we return to creation. “The city of chaos” is a translation that makes us miss it. It is the city of tohu (GEN 1:2). This symbolic city represents man’s greatest achievement. The city (GEN 11:1-9) is man’s largest and most distinctive human product in the endeavor to secure, provide for, and structure his life, but it is built without God and so becomes a very sad sight indeed - a city of futility and meaninglessness (tohu).
I looked on the earth, and behold, it was formless and void;
And to the heavens, and they had no light.
The divine potter brought the clay into being but it rejected the imprint of His hand. Man’s world was formed without God, making it one without stability and life. It deprived itself of God and so deprived itself of all that makes it habitable and meaningful. It is dark, unstable, empty of life and without a hint of purposeful activity. The ‘city of tohu’ lives without the ordering, life-giving hand of God, opting for a life on its own, within itself, depending on itself. Consequently, it is unstable and without purpose, spinning on the wheel but having dismissed the potter, its ever-changing shapes and fashions not dictated by purpose buy by whimsy. Life is simply one thing after another. Rejecting the moral absolutes of vs. 5, everything is relative and ultimately individualistic. Humankind’s great world city is the city without meaning, a rebirth all over the globe of Babel, where they thought they could find on earth and in themselves all they needed for secure community and a future, and they found only disorder, division, and meaninglessness. Thus, Isaiah looked to the Babylon he knew and the ongoing spirit of Babylon in men’s hearts ever-present in world history, and would bring news of its end to their ears.
Within the ruin of the city are the houses with doors barred. This speaks of the spirit of fear with pervades the people. Life in the city of tohu is a scary and lonely one. There is no fellowship, no love, no brotherhood, but only lonely individuals behind doubly locked doors drinking copious glasses of booze that fail to stimulate good feelings (vs. 11).
A good point is made about vs. 11. In the city of meaninglessness, humankind, shut up to themselves, can only turn to what has been tried and failed. Instead of concluding that the remedy failed making it prudent to lay it aside, they actually go at it harder.
Isaiah is a master of inserting hope where we would least expect it. The ‘few’ of verse 6 become a worldwide ingathering, and as the song of the city fades, their song rises all over the earth singing to the righteous one. It’s like viewing a city destroyed, buildings lying in rubble throughout its streets, gray and lifeless, and then suddenly people are seen coming out from behind the piles of bricks from all directions and joining together as they sing “Glory to the Righteous One.”
For thus it will be in the midst of the earth among the peoples,
As the shaking [beating] of an olive tree,
As the gleanings when the grape harvest is over.
14 They raise their voices, they shout for joy.
They cry out from the west concerning the majesty of the Lord.
15 Therefore glorify the Lord in the east,
The name of the Lord, the God of Israel
In the coastlands of the sea.
16 From the ends of the earth we hear songs, "Glory to the Righteous One,"
Yet, just before the hope there is a continuation of the preceding context. It is the ‘beating’ of the olive tree with a staff that is pictured in vs. 13, which is exactly how they harvested them, but to us it is a picture of the ‘grim reaper’ at work world-wide. But then comes an emphatic pronoun - “These are they who …” identifying the newcomers on the dark landscape. Unfortunately, this emphasis upon the people is not translated in the NASB.
The new people shout loudly and with joy their excited cries of God’s glory, but their background is destruction, making their song ever more striking.
In verse 15, Isaiah uses an imperative ‘give glory’, which is a device to indicate his own excitement in what his prophetic ears hear. The saints will come marching and singing out from the ruins of the earth in great joy over the Savior who gave His life to deliver them. You can’t get much more beautiful than that.
The voices are world-wide; from every peoples, Jews and Gentiles (the east and the islands). They sing of God’s splendor or grandeur [Hebrew: sebi translated ‘glory’]. Only Isaiah uses this word of the Lord. These people know that God’s righteousness has saved them - ‘Righteous One,’ meaning that they understand that God’s justice was satisfied by the blood of the Lamb, and for this they are eternally thankful and joyful.
Returning to the wasting away of the earth.
This cry is parallel to 21:3-4, where Isaiah went into shock and horror when he saw the destruction of Babylon. I don’t envy this great prophet when he has to witness these scenes. The earth and her inhabitants waste away, cursed, diseased, and with no escape possible.
But I say, "Woe to me! Woe to me! Alas for me!
The treacherous deal treacherously,
And the treacherous deal very treacherously."
17 Terror and pit and snare
Confront you, O inhabitant of the earth.
18 Then it will be that he who flees the report of disaster will fall into the pit,
And he who climbs out of the pit will be caught in the snare;
For the windows above are opened, and the foundations of the earth shake.
“Woe is me” is exactly as Isaiah said of himself in 6:5. Isaiah feels the condemnation of others as deeply as he felt his own long before, the difference being that the coal from the altar touched the prophet’s lips, meaning the furnace of judgment, he knew, fell upon his King and not himself, and thus he was set free. He now witnesses the condemnation of the people of the world who refuse the fires of the altar.
Notice the beautiful repetition - treacherous four times, and in vv. 18-20, ‘earth’ five lines in a row. It is meant to ring in our ears. Earth, earth, earth, earth, earth - look what you’ve done to her! She should be a paradise, but she is a meaningless, dark, unordered place. Treachery, treachery, treachery, treachery - look at yourselves! You should be holy and righteous, but you murder each other, steal from one another, hate and devour your neighbor, and then you lock yourself in your puny little house.
What may sound overdone in English is very powerful in Hebrew. To show this I’ll give you Robert Alter’s translation (which if you want to read the OT, I highly recommend).
And I said: I have a secret, I have a secret - woe is me.
Traitors betrayed, in betrayal betrayed,
Terror and pitfall and trap
against you, dweller of the land!
And who flees from the sound of terror
shall fall into the pit
and who gets up from the pit shall be caught in the trap.
Shattered, the earth is shattered,
all broken to pieces the earth,
toppled, the earth has toppled.
Reeling, the earth reels like a drunkard
and rocks back and forth like a hut.
And its crime lays heavy upon it -
it has fallen and no longer shall rise.
This final section matches the theme of destruction by the will of God, and it again indicates the moral causation - man’s crime. The Hebrew is pesha (sounds like our pish-ah) which means transgression, but also means rebellion, which seems to fit better here.
Then it will be that he who flees the report of disaster will fall into the pit,
And he who climbs out of the pit will be caught in the snare;
For the windows above are opened, and the foundations of the earth shake.
[back to the NASB]
It is like the flood, the forces coming from heaven [widows above opened] and earth [foundations shake] combining to destroy everything, and there is no escape. From all of this it shall never recover (‘no longer rise’).
The earth is broken asunder,
The earth is split through,
The earth is shaken violently.
20 The earth reels to and fro like a drunkard,
And it totters like a shack,
For its transgression is heavy upon it,
And it will fall, never to rise again.
This is what man has chosen - a world without the authoritative and ordering hand of God. Justice is always satisfied. They reap what they have sown. Thank God for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, our beautiful King.
Thank God for His indescribable gift,
Pastor Joe Sugrue