Notes on Isaiah 28,29

David H. Linden    University Presbyterian Church, Las Cruces, NM  USA  revised, November 2010


We leave now the section of oracles related to the nations, chapter 13-27.  Those oracles had as their climax not the destruction of the Gentile world, but its ultimate salvation, (27:12-13). Even Assyrians and Egyptians will come to the Lord (19:23-25). But that was a look far into a future that would come after Christ and the atonement He would make.  In Isaiah 28-37, more attention is devoted to the current issues of Isaiah’s generation.  There will be some prophesies fulfilled in their generation.  When they see this they should be convinced and trust God the Lord for all He had to say about everything else.  In Isaiah 28 & 29 Assyria and Egypt are not named.  In chapters 30 & 31 it is explicit that Isaiah speaks against trusting in Egypt.  That information helps us understand chapters 28 & 29.


28:1-6   The Fall of Israel


28:1 Ephraim was Israel’s dominant tribe; Samaria, the capital, was located in Ephraim.  The ‘wreath’ was Samaria at the head of a valley, the crown of pride.  In pride they dared ignore the Lord in such complacency, they would indulge in wine with no sense of danger.    Their beautiful and glorious city would be captured.


28:2-4  The Lord (the word ‘Lord’ here infers sovereignty), had someone who would do that.  God would use Assyria to throw down Ephraim’s wreath to the ground.  Samaria would fall by the hand of the Lord and be trampled underfoot. It would fall as easily as picking a fig – gulp – it is swallowed and gone from sight. 


28:5,6   As Isaiah loves to do, the message is quickly reversed.  For Israel there is hope; justice will be found among them again, when the Lord will be the beautiful wreath valued by His people.  His true people are the remnant.  The covenant people were all called to have the Lord as their God, but many rejected Him, yet God preserved His elect remnant (Romans 11:5). In contrast to Isaiah’s day of great injustice, the Spirit of the Lord will affect the ruler or rulers to come.  (Compare Isaiah 11:1-3). This brief section is all there is in chapter 28 of Samaria; the rest is related to Jerusalem. 



28:7,8   The words “these also” show the text has switched from Samaria to the other capital, the scoffers who rule in Jerusalem (v.14). The drunken scene relates to more than intoxication.  The physical stumbling is matched by unsteady decisions the leaders make (v.7).   Priests and false prophets are part of this gross picture where vomit covers the tables.


28:9,10   They are mocking Isaiah as if saying, “What is this simpleton trying to teach us?”  They claimed he spoke to them as if they were children.  This mocking shows that the pride of the capital of Israel is matched by the lack of humility in the capital of Judah.  Any rejection of any word of God is a matter of a man thinking his wisdom is better than God’s, and that is manifestly very proud.  His message of not trusting in Egypt but in the Lord as the refuge against Assyria, was understandable to a child.


Isaiah could write an intricate book with masterful command of his language. He could write and speak effectively as a very educated man, yet he made the issue of repentance and faith very clear and very simple. There is no value in speaking over people’s heads. Yet God has chosen to give us Isaiah’s writings as one of the most intellectually challenging books in the entire Bible.


28:11  The message was rejected.  Their ridicule of a message from God as childish language is turned around on them.  Someday they will hear in their land strange languages from invaders.  In this way God will ‘speak’ in judgment against them.  They will struggle like children to learn the new language of invaders.  They would not hear what God had said plainly through Isaiah, so they would suffer defeat from a foreign power and be forced to hear the strange new words of the invaders’ language.  


28:14-19    They are called ‘scoffers’, a word used in Proverbs for those who ridicule the wisdom of God.  Proverbs 1:22-27 fits this part of Isaiah very well.  Scoffers or mockers in their godless ‘wisdom’ do not trust God’s promises.   The rulers in Jerusalem had another trust; an alliance with Egypt (30:1-7; 31:1-3).  This alliance is called a covenant, one in violation of a covenant with God.  They would covenant with Egypt to protect them from Assyria. 


Isaiah expressed his point as if they were really admitting they had made a covenant with death. In this way he ridiculed their alliance with Egypt as the falsehood it was. Instead of the resting place God offered (v.12) they have their different refuge and hiding place to shelter them in the storm to come, the Assyrian invasion. Who needs the Lord when one can have Egypt?  Assyria is again presented as a flood by use of ‘overwhelming’ (v.15), as in 8:6-8. 


In this setting of a false hope in a heathen nation that would let them down terribly, God gives one of the famous gems of His word about Christ.  To understand it well, we must see this as a call for a genuine trust in reaction to a false trust.  In Zion, God would establish a sure foundation, the very opposite of an unstable alliance.  He will set in Zion a stone – in Zion, the very place that is threatened.  Note these features:


·         In saying “Sovereign Lord”, God emphasizes His authority. The nations have their plans, but so does God, and His is the only one that will happen.

·         “I lay…” This is a way to say that His activity in the world is personal and direct.  Psalm 2:6 uses the same verb for the same message, “I have installed my king on Zion, my holy hill.”   Such language stresses God’s activity.  The zeal of the Lord will accomplish it (9:7).   

·         This promised stone is in Zion, the center of God’s rule on earth. 

·         The stone is tested.  To a builder that would mean it fits.  But in salvation, this is a way of telling us that this is the right stone to do what is needed.  The policy makers in Jerusalem had what they thought was a clever strategy.  But their idea did not fit the plan of God, nor meet the need for safety from the Assyrian threat.

·         The stone is precious to God.  For those not sure what this stone is, this is an odd thing to hear.  God does not mean the stone is pure jade.  The value of the stone lies in Who the stone is.

·         It is a cornerstone in the foundation, and the others must fit to it and be built on it.

·         Isaiah does not say, “trust the stone”, but the stone is connected in some way to faith.  In this text God does not say Who the stone is, but Zion was the city of God, the residence of the line of David which God had covenanted to maintain. In 33:6 it says the Lord is “the sure foundation”.

·         Those who trust will not be dismayed. “Dismayed” always has the sense of hurrying.


Who is the Stone?


In Romans 9:33 Paul quotes Isaiah 8:14 & 28:16 in a conflated quotation. He says, “the one who trusts in him.” Thus the apostle tells us the Stone is a person we should trust in and repeats this in Romans 10:11.  Then he says that that “no one can lay any other foundation than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ,” a reference to Isaiah 28:16.  In Ephesians 2:20,21, Christ is the chief cornerstone in the foundation of the church. Then Peter in 1 Peter 2:4-8 quotes three OT texts about Christ as the Stone, over whom men stumble in unbelief (Isaiah 8:14): the precious Stone of Isaiah 28:16, and the Capstone of Psalm 118:22.  So we know the Holy Spirit was speaking in this verse of Christ, the One in Whom we are to trust.   Jesus was not born in Zion, nor did He live there.  But as the Son of David, He is the One Who would rule in the capital city. He rules now in the heavenly city. Christ is the foundation on Whom a living building composed of all believers would be built, a holy Temple, the church.


28:17-19   The text speaks of justice and righteousness because the building will be built by such principles.  It is on a sure foundation, but the alliance with Egypt is tenuous. Their ‘building’, like the one on sand in Matthew 7:24-27, will be swept away in the coming flood.  Their covenant with Egypt will be worthless.  The invasion is coming; there will be no stopping it. They ridiculed the simple message (of God’s protection) in v.9; when finally they come to understand this current message (of judgment) they will be terrified.


28:20-22  They rejected a good place for repose, (v.12).  Now in v.20 they find a different bed, one that gives no rest – too short to stretch out on, with a blanket too narrow to give cover. Thus does the prophet show what a frustrating inadequate arrangement they chose rather than the protection of God Almighty. With the Lord they could sleep well while He watched over Israel (Psalm 121). 


In the past God rose up to struck down the Philistines at Perazim and Gibeon to preserve the throne of David.  (See 2 Samuel 5:17-25.)  He would do the same in Isaiah’s day but they did not believe Him.  This work of death is God’s alien and strange task, not His preferred work.  God in justice punishes sin and kills the wicked because He must to be true to Himself.  God saves sinners with grace and compassion because He delights to do so. He has no joy in the death of the wicked. While the prophet speaks, the message of God through Him continues to be mocked.  They should stop or their punishment would be greater.  The Lord had told Isaiah what was coming; it was a settled decision.


28:23-29  Illustrations from farming    When farmers plow the ground, they do not keep doing that one thing.  There is a time when plowing is no longer needed and it is time to plant. They learned that from God.  The God Who teaches man how to farm, must know how to do it Himself! He will not keep plowing in judgment; He will turn to planting.  His judgments are not just so He can judge His people.  Like a farmer, He has a purpose beyond that.   Likewise, just as different grains and seeds are harvested with different techniques, the Lord knows what He is doing.  A heavy-handed grinding would destroy certain seeds, so He will not do a similar thing.  God is wonderful in counsel, (same Hebrew words as in 9:6 of Christ!) and in wisdom; He will accomplish His purpose.   Just as a good result comes from all the plowing and threshing, these illustrations hint that that kind of wonderful result is coming, and it is in chapter 29.


Isaiah 29


29:1-4   Ariel the altar hearth    Ariel is Jerusalem; this is clear when it says “Mount Zion” in v.8.  The “city of David” in Luke 2 is Bethlehem, but in the OT, it was a section of Jerusalem (2 Samuel 5:6-9) where David settled.  God’s judgment (“I will besiege Ariel”) is likened to the fire in the altar, a fire necessary for consuming the sacrifice. At that altar the wrath of God was directed against the sacrifice offered for sinners. Thus calling Jerusalem ‘Ariel’, a word that sounds like “altar hearth”, connects well with the message of Jerusalem under the wrath of God for its sin. The historical setting is the attack on Jerusalem in 701 BC by Sennacherib, but the ultimate hand against Jerusalem was the Lord.  Three times we read “I” for the Lord Who besieges, encamps and encircles Ariel.  Earlier they mock Isaiah loudly and reject the message from the Lord; now they are humbled, speaking only in a whisper.


29:5-8    The change is so sudden we might fail to see that the situation has radically changed.  Jerusalem was under God’s judgment but, in His mercy, still alive.  In v.5 it is their enemies who are brought to the dust of death to be blown away like chaff.  Three times we read of the Assyrian hordes.


Assyria is not named.  Sometimes a historical situation not identified, and an enemy not named, helps us apply words like ‘the hordes’ of God’s enemies to other situations.  Most psalms are deliberately not specific as to their historical setting.  This helps us take the words of such psalms and apply them to our similar setting more readily.


The thunder, earthquake, and noise are not literal; they describe the suddenness of God’s action.  God reserves very carefully His sovereign right to act when and how He chooses.  The Second Coming of Christ, likewise, will be a sudden unannounced event to the world, the shock of all shocks. The suddenness here refers to the attackers of Jerusalem who think they have the city in their power, and then in one night find themselves in a very different reality.  The man having a dream finds it is just a dream the instant he wakes up; so it will be with the Assyrians.  The dreams in this text are of eating and drinking.  Their enemies may dream they will consume the city of God; they will not.  The same Lord punishing His people, saves His people when they call on Him.


29:9-14   In Isaiah 6:9,10 Isaiah was commissioned to go with a message that would blind those who heard it.   Willful blindness brings on judicial blindness.  God blinds people in their chosen falsehood when they are eager not to believe His truth. See the case of Ahab in 1 Kings 22. In 2 Thessalonians 2:9-12, speaking in the context of Anti-Christ, those who refuse to love the truth shall not have it.  God will send a spirit of delusion so that they will believe the lie.  This is similar to those devoted to sexual impurity; they will find that God abandons them to it (Romans 1:21-32), when the Lord gives them such depraved minds they will pronounce themselves normal. Thus the Lord brings on people a deep sleep, the punishment of being hardened by God (Romans 11:7,8,25).


Isaiah gives two scenarios of those who fail to get the message.  One can read but won’t; the other cannot read.  No one can be saved apart from accepting the Word of the Lord.  They must receive God’s truth as truth in order to believe its message.  With blind seers and prophets leading the blind (Matthew 15:14, a passage that quotes 29:13), the spiritual plight is horrible.  Only a divine intervention can save them; even having the Word of God in hand will not do it.  The problem God overcomes is a heart that will not believe. In the very presence of Christ Himself, most who heard Him did not believe even though they saw His mighty works (Matthew 11:20-24; John 6:36). Therefore He praised His Father,  “because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned” (Matthew 11:25). Hiding truth from wicked men is a form of justice. 


29:13 is a famous statement. (See Mark 7 & Matthew 15.) To God’s dismay, the outward activity of worship continued without a worshipping heart (1:10-17). This text raises another issue in worship: May we design our own worship service?   The historic Reformed position is that we may not “worship Him in any other manner than He has commanded in His Word,” (Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 96).  Thus we must not create our own rules or principles for how we will approach God. We must deduce the elements and principles of worship from Scripture.  If something is not there, we may not add it.   We must never forget that the most basic principle of worship is that sinners may approach God only by our Mediator. This means we come by way of the blood of Jesus shed for our forgiveness and acceptance (Hebrews 10:19-22).


29:14 is also a famous statement.  The wisdom of the wise will perish.   In 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, Paul dismisses the wisdom of the philosopher of this age and of this world.  There is no salvation in it.  Opposed to this, and deliberately contrasted to it, is the message of the cross.   By his wisdom, man has not known God.  By God’s wisdom, Christ, the One “Who has become for us wisdom from God” (1 Corinthians 1:30), we have everything: “our righteousness, holiness and redemption.”  


In the context of Isaiah 29, it is clear that the wisdom of trusting Egypt is folly.  God destroyed their ‘intelligent’ counsel by the defeat of Egypt.  The Assyrian horde assembled within sight of the walls of Jerusalem was one way God showed Jerusalem what He thought of their wisdom.  Those trusting in Egypt were wrong. The Assyrians, trusting in themselves and mocking the true and living God of the Jews, were wrong, and Isaiah’s gospel message to trust the Lord was right. It is part of Christian ministry to “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God” (2 Corinthians 10:1-6). It is the activity of the Lord who protects His glory and His truth to do the same.


A wonderful angle easy to miss in this famous verse is related to the words, “once more”.  It is also acceptable to translate them, “I will add to act.”  This could hint that a new fresh act is in view, namely the destruction of false wisdom, a prelude to the establishment of truth in the minds of those He will save.  Salvation is the theme of the next few verses.  The destruction of error is a blessing because it opens the door to truth, thus it is part of God’s saving work. 


29:15,16   V.15 opens with those who hide from the Lord (Romans 9:16-18), and the section ends with those who acknowledge the Lord (v.23).  Woe to those whose attitudes exclude God from their thinking.  They deny His oversight, which is about as atheistic a spirit as one will find in the OT – close to the fool who said in his heart, “There is no God” (Psalm 14:1). The answer to “Who will see us?” is “No one!” They must go to great depths because being an atheist is hard work.  Every wonder of creation must be denied as the work of an intelligent Lord.  Every ethical principle, however essential to life, must be denied as a reflection that we are created in God’s image.  The need to keep up a wall against pervasive truth is relentless and exhausting.


They get everything backwards.  “As if the potter were like the clay” is another way to say, “As if God were like man.”  God is transcendent and is not like us; we have been made to be like Him.  Isaiah shows that men may deny God’s distinctiveness (now a major problem among evangelicals in the views of Open Theism). Modern man also denies God’s sovereignty and role as creator when he says, “He did not make me”.  This is one of the chief confessions of falsehood to which the intelligentsia of our day is ardently devoted.  No one is welcome in their club apart from affirming evolution.  They also deny His wisdom (“He knows nothing”). We do not understand our own time in history unless we see that man struts across the earth asserting “I am the potter and God is the clay.”   The denial of God in these two verses is vivid, but it is the setup for the wonderful salvation this section moves to.


29:17-21   The turnabout is astonishing.  These verses cover nature, spiritual deadness, classes of society, civil stability, and a righteous legal system.   Earlier the words on the scroll were inaccessible; now the Word will be heard and the blind will see. When the humble and needy are part of rejoicing in the Lord, then the ones at the bottom of a society are not left out.  It is the Lord, the Holy One of Israel, they will worship.  The streets will be safe from violent persons and justice will be done in the courts. This has only one explanation in light of the blindness and hardening seen in the earlier verses.  God has moved to overthrow the wisdom of the world, and to change the hearts of men so they will believe. All of this asserts the benefits of the new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34), a topic Isaiah has not yet opened up fully. The changes in this segment are not possible apart from the work of the Holy Spirit. V.23 will claim that this great change is the work of God’s hands.




ARM of the Lord




29:22-24   The transformation continues from another angle. Both Abraham and Jacob learned to fear the Lord and live consistently in sincere respect for God.   If they could see their children in the generations that followed, it would be a tremendous shame to them.  By saving their children, God turns the hearts of the fathers approvingly to them (Malachi 4:6).


Salvation in terms of spiritual life is complete: in describing it as keeping God’s name holy; in acknowledging the holiness of the Holy One of Jacob; and in standing in awe of the God of Israel. The Lord of Jacob did much to change Jacob’s heart throughout his lifetime.   Now God says He will do it for Jacob’s children.  The wayward will be obedient, not going their own way (53:6), and teachable, because they will all be taught by the Lord (54:13).