The Prophet Series: Isaiah part 20: the strong city waiting in hope - chapter 26
In Isaiah’s oracles we have seen Israel making an alliance with Syria, Judah making alliances with Egypt, Assyria, and Babylon, and even Jerusalem rejoicing in a deliverance from invasion due to a water tunnel rather than to God. God’s city (meaning God’s people) abandoned the way of faith for collective strength and self-reliance, but here in chapter 26, at last, we see the city dwelling in perfect security and peace.
The imagery of the city is strong in the word of God. So far in this section of Isaiah (13-27) we have seen a city that is no more (17:1), forsaken cities (17:2), strong cities deserted (17:9), and broken, cannibalized city (22:9-10), and a city of meaninglessness (24:10). When Satan tempted the Lord, he offered Him the kingdoms of the earth in all their splendor. A city is man’s highest achievement, containing his technological, academic, and economic achievements. It’s enormous skyscrapers, lights, parks, roads, houses, stunning public buildings all being a testimony to man’s ingenuity, stamina, strength, and wisdom. But in so many of the biblical pictures, like the ones documented above, they are all built without God in mind. Their ancient blueprints are preserved and shared from generation to generation - Babylon the Great.
God in response builds His own city. Jerusalem, where He dwelled, had failed, but God’s promises do not. The old Jerusalem was an experiment of sorts, with the outcome being known to God and subsequently to the prophets. Was the experiment a failure? Not at all. It only showed what a nation chosen by God and blessed immensely by Him would do when His Law, love, and salvation were rejected. Jerusalem would fall, and has fallen, but God’s promises never fail. In chapter 26 we find the Lord’s city where at long last His people are secure within the bulwarks of salvation and enjoying a faith-based peace.
Secure in peace.
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.
In these first four verses there are four 3-line stanzas: the city’s strength (vs. 1), qualifications to entrance (vs. 2), perfect peace and its foundation (vs. 3), and a call to maintain trust in Him (vs. 4).
The people dwell in safety, and the city is there for them to enter; they don’t build it. The righteous enter, but that they are not sinless is shown in vv. 16 and 18. They are right with God though they are sinners because of their faith. The Hebrew says they are those who “keep faith.” The noun “faith” is in the plural, expressing amplitude - though they fail at times, they are committed to the Lord in faith.
O love the Lord, all you His godly ones!
The Lord preserves the faithful,
And fully recompenses the proud doer.
The lack of faithfulness is attested to the Israelites who turned God’s truth upside down, and rather than worshipping Him they worshipped idols.
"They sacrificed to demons who were not God,
To gods whom they have not known,
New gods who came lately,
Whom your fathers did not dread.
18 "You neglected the Rock who begot you,
And forgot the God who gave you birth.
19 "And the Lord saw this, and spurned them
Because of the provocation of His sons and daughters.
20 "Then He said, 'I will hide My face from them,
I will see what their end shall be;
For they are a perverse generation,
Sons in whom is no faithfulness.
Righteousness and faithfulness are marks of the true Zion.
"Then I will restore your judges as at the first,
And your counselors as at the beginning;
After that you will be called the city of righteousness,
A faithful city."
"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.
In ISA 26:3 “perfect peace” is in Hebrew “shalom shalom” and is an idiom of duplication expressing that which is full or complete. The Seraphim use it in ISA 6:3 and our Lord used it every time He spoke “Amen, amen.” Perfect peace is full and never leaves. Jesus told us that He wouldn’t give us the cheap, temporary peace that the world gives, but His peace in which there are no disturbing elements.
Yet, perfect peace is not forced upon us. It comes with a certain faith - “the steadfast of mind who trusts Him.” “Steadfast” is a passive participle meaning ‘maintained, steady, or undeviating’ and the passive shows us that trust in God keeps the mind steadfast and undeviating.
In a feeble attempt to imagine the righteous who are living during our Lord’s Millennial reign we can at least attempt to identify with a life on earth when Satan and the demons are locked away and the presence of the Lord is physically, visibly seated on the throne of David. Within the walls of His city, at that time, peace of mind is undeniable. Yet, the church lives in an age where those physical factors contributing to peace are absent. Our Lord is at the right-hand of God and the kingdom of darkness is very active, while at the same time it is demanded of us that we live with perfect peace in our minds. Faith is our only recourse. We are without sight of the Lord or the walls of His city. We are, however, possessing eyes of the heart that perceives through faith “the hope of His calling, what are the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints, and what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.” (EPH 1:18-19); and that He “made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus” (EPH 2:5-6).
People have lived behind thick walls before, only to be overrun and destroyed. This has happened to Jerusalem twice (586 B.C. and 70 A.D.). Rocks mean nothing. It is the Rock that is the foundation of our faith. Only Yavah is an everlasting Rock - ISA 26:4 “Trust in the Lord forever, For in God the Lord, we have an everlasting Rock.”
Total defeat of the enemy.
"For He has brought low those who dwell on high, the unassailable city;
He lays it low, He lays it low to the ground, He casts it to the dust.
6 "The foot will trample it,
The feet of the afflicted, the steps of the helpless."
Peace is in part secured by ending all external threats. The Lord has a ‘strong city’ while mankind independent of Him has as a ‘lofty city’ (“unassailable” - sagab = inaccessibly high, lofty). Note also that the people of the Lord don’t help build His city, nor do they assist in bringing His enemies low. As the people come and enter a city completed and a banquet prepared, they also trample upon the dust of an enemy crushed.
Rewinding time to the pilgrim’s progress.
The way of the righteous is smooth;
O Upright One, make the path of the righteous level.
8 Indeed, while following the way of Thy judgments, O Lord,
We have waited for Thee eagerly;
Thy name, even Thy memory, is the desire of our souls.
9 At night my soul longs for Thee,
Indeed, my spirit within me seeks Thee diligently;
For when the earth experiences Thy judgments
The inhabitants of the world learn righteousness.
Quickly Isaiah reverts back in time to the pilgrims who are on their way to the Lord’s city. In vv. 1-5 they are entering in the future, but in these three stanzas they are looking to the journey. Naturally, it is not an experience of a physical journey, but one of faith. The faithful wait for the Lord, longing to be with Him, but still remain in this world. They hold to Him and look at their lives as a pilgrimage much like John Bunyan did.
For the believer, life is a straight path from salvation to eternal glory, and the rough patches along the way are smoothed out by trusting in Him and choosing righteousness. The words “smooth” and “level” in vs. 7 contain the same root word meaning right or straight. God makes the path right and straight and the righteous take that very way. Therefore, life’s experience on God’s path is one of the ways in which the Lord shares His nature with us.
In vs. 8, while the pilgrims wait for the Lord (wait for their promotion to Zion), “Yes indeed” (vs.8) they follow His law (“Thy judgments” - mispatim = commandments or judgment pronounced and executed). While they wait, they walk in obedience. And if they find themselves in the midst of a world suffering from the judgments of God, they wait patiently for Him. They do not long for altered circumstances, but rather for a fuller revelation and experience of His name. The “desire of our soul” means the deepest desire; nothing compares with it.
In vs. 9 there is the desire of the individual which matches that of all the righteous in vs. 8. There is no such thing as the people of God apart from the individuals composing it. If one sees problems in the body of Christ, the proper place to look for solutions is within. We cannot make others long for God, but we can evaluate and enrich our own longing, which in turn will make us brighter lights to the world.
Sometimes we become very aware of God’s judgments falling on the world around us and we patiently rejoice, not in their suffering, but in our Lord’s faithfulness as many of the world’s inhabitants learn righteousness. And, in fact, even those who don’t respond to God learn something of righteousness when they feel the pain of judgment upon their false way, coming to know in some part that the path away from God is wrought with pain and danger.
The stubborn wicked.
Though the wicked is shown favor,
He does not learn righteousness;
He deals unjustly in the land of uprightness,
And does not perceive the majesty of the Lord.
11 O Lord, Thy hand is lifted up yet they do not see it.
They see Thy zeal for the people and are put to shame;
Indeed, fire will devour Thine enemies.
In these two verses God shows grace (favor), the straight path (land of uprightness), and then His hand, which may be lifted up for blessing or chastisement. We still see the pilgrims, the righteous, journeying through the world and seeing firsthand the stubbornness of the wicked, who do not see the hand of God. Even to those who have a fleeting recognition of God, the world’s many agnostics and sceptics, God remains marginal, incidental, and insignificant - they don’t see Him.
But then Isaiah informs us that the blind wicked will actually see something of God - His zeal for His people. And in light of that desire, they will be put to shame. On the day of judgment they will see that God has a zeal for the welfare of His own, and those who remained obdurate in the face of divine testimony, of judgment or providence, will be put to shame. Failing to recognize God who made Himself plain to them, fire (judgment) will devour them.
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, 19 because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. 20 For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. 21 For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. 22 Professing to be wise, they became fools, 23 and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures.
God manifests His zeal for His own.
Lord, Thou wilt establish peace for us,
Since Thou hast also performed for us all our works.
13 O Lord our God, other masters besides Thee have ruled us;
But through Thee alone we confess Thy name.
14 The dead will not live, the departed spirits will not rise;
Therefore Thou hast punished and destroyed them,
And Thou hast wiped out all remembrance of them.
15 Thou hast increased the nation, O Lord,
Thou hast increased the nation, Thou art glorified;
Thou hast extended all the borders of the land.
In vv. 1-4 the pilgrims arrive at Zion in “that day.” In vv. 5-6 the lofty city of man is brought low. In vv. 7-9 the pilgrims are seen traveling to Zion and patiently, longingly, and obediently living their lives as in the world but not of the world. In vv. 10-11 the wicked are shown for who they are; God is revealed, grace is offered but rejected, and blindness is their overall character. God has zeal for His own, and now in vv. 12-15 is the manifestation of that zeal.
As extensive as this chapter is, don’t get bogged down. As you read and digest Isaiah’s words, and yes it takes time (I have been working on this article for several hours), remember that these words describe you. If you are a believer in Christ, you will one day approach Zion (HEB 12:18-24), and the Lord’s banquet and His perfect peace will surround you. You don’t have to read all of this in one sitting. Read, ponder, rejoice, and return and read some more. God has preserved these words for us as He has preserved us so that we may know them and be surrounded by His perfect peace today.
In vv. 12-15 the Lord shows His concern or zeal for His people. Vs. 12 says that God has made peace our portion, matching vs. 3 where peace belongs to those who trust, knowing God’s providence. In the next line, God has done all of our works. It is the message of PHI 2:12-12, we choose the way and God empowers us on it and makes the way work. And this reveals the plight of the wicked. All work has to be done by God. Our salvation has to be performed by Him, and that is His offer to the human race. Those who reject that offer join the community of the lofty, meaningless city where the citizens choose self-reliance, sadly living behind shut doors in a gray and lifeless world.
In vs. 13 the faithful have lived under other rulers, decent ones and very bad ones (Pharaoh, Assyrians, Babylonians, Nero, Stalin, Hitler, Mao), yet in adversity or prosperity, they confess the Lord alone as their King and trust Him. How many, who are strangers to us, lived righteously under such petty, evil rulers and glorified God? How many, faceless to us, are doing so right now? No matter what sight says, the Lord will not give up His rulership of His own. And through the knowledge and understanding of His word and the Holy Spirit within us, we are gifted and empowered in fidelity towards Him. Be loyal despite persecution or pain and the Lord within you will bring it to its completion.
In vs. 14, the enemies of God are gone and forgotten. In eternity, will we hear their names or remember their history?
In vs. 15, God alone has increased the nation and the land. Ezekiel, Jeremiah, the Psalmist, and the Lord Himself would say that God acted toward His own for “His name’s sake.” In salvation, in blessing, in peace, and in the plenty of the increased land, the recipients can claim no merit.
Out of the dust - resurrection.
O Lord, they sought Thee in distress;
They could only whisper a prayer,
Thy chastening was upon them.
17 As the pregnant woman approaches the time to give birth,
She writhes and cries out in her labor pains,
Thus were we before Thee, O Lord.
18 We were pregnant, we writhed in labor,
We gave birth, as it were, only to wind.
We could not accomplish deliverance for the earth
Nor were inhabitants of the world born.
19 Your dead will live;
Their corpses will rise.
You who lie in the dust, awake and shout for joy,
For your dew is as the dew of the dawn,
And the earth will give birth to the departed spirits.
In vv. 5-6 the Lord brought the lofty down into the dust; here (vs. 19) He brings His own people out of the dust - alas resurrection!
First, in vs. 16, the people of God were disciplined. No one is sinless. Yet, the chastening of God upon the saved results in them seeking Him in their distress, and from that they produce fruit again (HEB 12:11).
Vv. 17-18 has the potential of many shades of meaning. The pain of labor is akin to the discipline upon the people. In Israel’s case, the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities produced much pain, and likewise, all discipline for the moment is sorrowful and not joyful (HEB 12:11), but afterwards it produces the peaceful fruit of righteousness. So then, we might expect a birth representing fruit from the saints in vs. 18, but we find that they gave birth only to the wind. The birth, therefore, was not from the saints but was expected from the world who witnessed the chastening of the saints (“deliverance for the earth”). It was the world, who in vs. 9, were to experience “Thy judgments” and hopefully “learn righteousness.” But the wicked did not. One of the judgments witnessed by the world is God’s discipline of His own people, and the hope of the people of God is that they would all experience birth, but “Nor were the inhabitants of the world born.”
The lack of birth from the wicked is contrasted by a miraculous birth in vs. 19 - the resurrected saints of all ages. The promise of bodily, physical resurrection gives assurance to all generations that salvation is no mirage, but rests on secure promises of divine action. The resurrected are like dew in vs. 19 - everywhere in abundance and ready to be lifted up to join the air as the day draws nigh. Dew is symbolic of the heavenly contribution to earthly well-being (DEU 33:28), royal favor (PRO 19:12), and divine blessing (HOS 14:5; manna EXO 16:13-14).
We know that the doctrine of resurrection from the revelation of the Old Testament was a hot-button issue some time before the time of Christ because the Sadducees didn’t believe in it, and they even tried to corner Jesus with it (MAT 22:23-33). Alongside the Sadducees of old, modern critics of the Bible search for ways to repudiate the Bible’s claims to resurrection. Jesus’ reference in defending the doctrine was a very old one; that God was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, then asking something none of them had given thought to before, “He is not the God of the dead but of the living.”
“And many of those who sleep in the dust of the ground will awake, these to everlasting life, but the others to disgrace and everlasting contempt.”
To accept the physical, bodily resurrection from the dead is to acknowledge God’s ultimate authority, for even the most arrogant of men know that they can’t accomplish it. Death puts a limit on the subjectivity of perception. All men who reject God and claim truth to be a relative concept could never call death “relative.” Death is the greatest of absolutes. And if death can be overcome then the one who can do it is the master of the absolute and therefore the master of truth. Only One has ever walked out of a grave. To acknowledge it is to acknowledge Him as Master and Lord of all truth. And so, they deny it, twist scriptural revelation in order to swipe its plain truth from the pages of the Bible.
Yet, critics aside, many in Israel who loved the Lord had failed to see the salvation/deliverance of God in the land of the living. They slept in their graves with the covenant promises unfulfilled. Yet here and elsewhere was the conviction that they shall yet rise again and behold Zion complete and made ready for them. As for us, we have and behold the risen Lord as our Husband and King. He is one with us and we with Him. He “made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus (EPH 2:5-6). Out of the dust we shall come and walk through the open gates of Zion, and not as disembodied spirits, but bodily, physically, men and women blessed beyond dreams for all of eternity.
The pilgrim never forgets compassion for the lost he sees along the way.
Come, my people, enter into your rooms,
And close your doors behind you; Hide for a little while,
Until indignation runs its course.
21 For behold, the Lord is about to come out from His place
To punish the inhabitants of the earth for their iniquity;
And the earth will reveal her bloodshed,
And will no longer cover her slain.
The call is to open the gates, as the poem began in vs. 2. “Close the doors” represents security. And finally, we are not to forget or ignore that the wicked will be punished, so that our hearts do not grow hard towards mankind.