To Us a Child is Born, 9:1-10:4 (cont’d)

Passionate about justice - sermon notes

Text: Isaiah 10

Should Christians devote themselves only to evangelism and personal morality, or should they concern themselves also with issues of social justice?

Consider the following scenarios:-

An elderly lady lives on her own just down the road from you. She has difficulty getting out. Do you (a) tell her that God loves her; (b) offer her a lift to the shops once a week, or (c) lobby for improved public transport so that she and people like her can get out and about themselves?

Someone you work with is being bullied by another colleague. Do you (a) hand each of them a copy of the Four Spiritual Laws; (b) offer to mediate between victim and offender; (c) agitate to get bullying and harrassment outlawed in your company?

You are walking through the centre of town late at night, and you come across a teenager who has been attacked and is lying in the gutter bleeding. Do you (a) invite him to church next Sunday; (b) apply first aid and then take him to the A & E department; or (c) join a campaign to make the streets of Norwich safer?

I’ve put the choices very crudely. But I want to suggest that many Bible-believing Christians feel more comfortable with issues of evangelism and personal morality than with matters of social justice. As John Stott has pointed out ‘the evangelical stereotype has been to spiritualise the gospel, and deny its social implications; while the ecumenical stereotype has been to politicise it, and deny its offer of salvation to sinners. The polarisation has been a disaster.’

It was not always so. In fact biblical Christians have a long and noble history of social involvement. The gospel has spread throughout the world very largely by a succession of great waves that we sometimes refer to as ‘revivals’. And as each wave has broken it has refreshed, cleansed and purified the society in dramatic and far-reaching ways. Take just one example. The early years of the 19th century in this country saw the end of exploitation of women and children in coal mines, the reduction of the working day in factories from 16 hours a day to a maximum of 10, the development of Trade Unionism, the transformation of the status of people with mental illness from that of abused prisoners to that of protected patients, the formation of the YMCA, the founding of the RSPCA, the promotion of public parks, garden allotments, workmen’s institutions, public libraries, and night schools. All these date from and are directly related to a period of evangelical revival that is known as ‘The 2nd Great Awakening’.

But what does the Bible itself teach about the need for the people of God to commit themselves to social justice?

In Isa 10 we are confronted by a God who has just about had enough with his sinful, wayward, ungodly people. Vv 1-3 form the climax of a passage that began in 9:8 and which speaks of a downward spiral of national decline, political collapse, social anarchy, and systematic injustice.

The Lord pronounces a woe on his own people, because of their unjust practices. Notice how he singles out for special mention the plight of the most vulnerable in society: this is absolutely typical. ‘Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.’

The chapter as a whole teaches a number of things about God’s justice. For one thing, it teaches us that God’s justice is inscrutable. In vv5ff, everything seems out of control. God’s people are going to be destroyed by Assyria, but then Assyria herself will be destroyed for over-reaching itself and putting itself above God. This section of the chapter is a classic on the issue of divine-sovereignty/human responsibility. Each nation is held accountable for its own actions. But God is sovereignly at work in their actions and counter-actions, weighing the nations in the balances, gradually, inexorably dispensing justice and righting all wrongs. This is good news. All who are crying out for justice can take heart from the knowledge that God, the just judge, is working his purpose out, however much the appearance may be to the contrary. We ourselves may feel hopelessly confused by wrongs and unjustices in our own world. But we can, we must, take heart from the fact that God is still ‘Lord of history’, and that he is working all things out, and is in the process of righting all wrongs, inexorably, inscrutably. The cries of the poor, the oppressed, and the exploited do not fall on deaf ears, and in the last day, if not before, they shall see that he has done ‘all things well’.

This chapter also teaches us that God’s justice is merciful. In vv20ff God, in faithfulness to his age-old covenant, promises that ‘a remnant will return’. Though his people are to be punished severely, the long-term purpose is not destruction but discipline, not ruin, but redemption. God’s justice is merciful. It isn’t that he is somewhat just and somewhat merciful, not quite one thing nor the other, as though he can’t make up his mind. He is totally just and totally merciful. His mercy is always just, and his justice is always merciful.

This combination of justice and mercy constitutes the greatest moral problem in the universe: how can God be merciful towards sinners without compromising his justice? The answer is stated in no less than 14 different ways in Isaiah 53, that the suffering Servant of the Lord has suffered the penalty that we deserved: ‘We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ The answer is filled out in the NT, as in Rom 3:23ff ‘All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished–he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.’ 2 Cor 5:21 ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ This is no legal fiction, this is the one and only basis on which any of us can make our peace with God.

But the point I return to from Isaiah is this: the Lord loves justice; he hates injustice. Isa 61:8 spells it out: ‘I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity.’

God is so passionate about justice that he doesn’t just sit there contemplating it, or pontificating about it, or wringing his hands in despair when it goes missing: because justice is what he loves, justice is what he does. Psa 146:7-9 says, ‘The Lord upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free, the LORD gives sight to the blind, the LORD lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves the righteous. The LORD watches over the alien and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.’
God is so passionate about justice that he doesn’t just practice it himself, he wants his people to practice it too. In fact, he tells us that without justice the best of our public worship is a waste of time. This is the gist of Mic 6:6-8 ‘With what shall I come before the LORD and bow down before the exalted God? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousand rivers of oil? Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? He has showed you, O man, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ Amos 5:21 – “Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream!”

By the way, these two words, ‘justice’ and ‘righteousness’, are twin words, and together give a sense of the breadth of the concept. Indeed, in the NT when you read the word ‘righteousness’ you can often substitute the word ‘justice’ and get a good sense of the meaning. For example, when in Mt 5:6 our Lord says, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled,” you could equally read, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice.” To quote John Stott again: ‘biblical righteousness is more than a private and personal affair; it includes social righteousness as well. And social righteousness, as we learn from the law and the prophets, is concerned with the promotion of civil rights, justice in the law courts, integrity in business dealings and honour in home and family affairs. Thus Christians are committed to hunger for righteousness in the whole human community as something pleasing to a righteous God.’

‘The handmaid of justice is truth; the child of justice is freedom; the companion of justice is peace; safety walks in its steps; victory follows in its train; it is the brightest emanation from the gospel; it is an attribute of God.’
God is passionate about social justice, and he wants his people to be passionate about it too.

What about evangelism? ‘Woe to me if I do not preach the gospel,’ cries Paul, and we must echo his words in this and every age.

What about personal morality? ‘Strive for holiness, without which no-one shall see the Lord,’ urges the writer to the Hebrews, and we must take that command to heart also.

‘Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees, to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless,’ says the Lord through his prophet, and we are thus called fight for what is fair and right and true, and especially to uphold the cause of the most vulnerable.

How? By living lives that bear witness to a better way. By preaching it and teaching it in our churches. By engaging in social work and education. By using the media to influence society for good. By forming or joining pressure groups to affect legislation. By entering power structures, such as public services, trades unions, management and professional organisations, to change things from within. By running for elective office and by using our votes to elect better representatives. By boycotts, strikes and other forms of industrial action. By engaging in acts of civil disobedience. All these things, and many more, we can do, according to necessity and opportunity. Is it right to do so, to commit ourselves to social justice? God has said ‘Yes’; we dare not say ‘No’.

Isa 10:1 Woe to those who make unjust laws, to those who issue oppressive decrees,

Verses 1-4 – These verses provide the reason for the calamity that is to befall Judah.

‘The principle of retribution is an important biblical teaching. People reap what they sow, whether to destruction or benefit.’ (Gal 6:7,8) (New Geneva)

Unjust ‘means, first, “trouble, mischief,” then the specific mischief of idolatry, and then the trouble which sin brings. Here, therefore, is a complex thought: statues which spell trouble because they have been framed in wickedness.’ (Motyer)

Isa 10:2 to deprive the poor of their rights and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people, making widows their prey and robbing the fatherless.

Rights – ‘is not “justice” in the abstract but in the sense of getting a fair trial.’ (Motyer)

Over and again in OT teaching, when justice is spoken of, it is with particular respect to the weak, the defenceless, the disadvantaged and the marginalised, including widows, orphans, aliens and the impoverished. This ‘bias towards the poor’ is not found in Plato, for example, nor in Locke, whose view of a just society was one in which each person is free to pursue the good life as he or she sees fit, provided that a similar liberty is accorded to others. Contrary to what some have taught, the OT emphasis is not lost in the NT, but rather underscored (consider especially the words and actions of Jesus as recorded by Luke, e.g. Lk 4:18-21). The Gk dikaios and dikaiosyne, often translated ‘righteous’ and ‘righteousness’, could easily be rendered ‘just’ and ‘justice’ (see, for example, Mt 5:6,10).

‘In a culture where judges, not juries, render a verdict, false accusations, bribery, and influence peddling are the favored devices of injustice. (Deut 16:18-20 1 Sam 8:3 Pr 17:23 19:28 Isa 5:23 Jer 5:28 Eze 22:29 Am 2:6-7 Zec 7:9-10) The victims are disproportionately from the poor, among whom are the fatherless, the widow, and the resident alien. (Deut 27:19 Ps 82) The righteous judge must never show partiality to the rich, (Deut 24:17) nor for that matter to the poor; (Le 19:15) he must render true judgment at all times.’ (EDBT)

‘This crime has always been one particularly offensive in the sight of God, Isa 1:23. The widow and the orphan are without protectors. Judges, by their office, are particularly bound to preserve their rights; and it, therefore, evinces special iniquity when they who should be their protectors become, in fact, their oppressors, and do injustice to them without the possibility of redress. Yet this was the character of the Jewish judges; and for this the vengeance of heaven was about to come upon the land.’ (Barnes)

Isa 10:3 What will you do on the day of reckoning, when disaster comes from afar? To whom will you run for help? Where will you leave your riches?

What will you do? – ‘To whom will you fly? What refuge will them be?’ Implying that the calamity would be so great that there would be no refuge, or escape.’ (Barnes)

The day of reckoning – ‘The word is used here in the sense of God’s coming to punish them for their sins; compare Job 31:14 35:15 Isa 26:14 Eze 9:1. The idea is probably derived from that of a master of a family who comes to take account, or to investigate the conduct of his servants, and where the visitation, therefore, is one of reckoning and justice. So the idea is applied to God as designing to visit the wicked; that is, to punish them for their offences; compare Ho 9:7.’ (Barnes)

Disaster – The imagery is of a violent storm that destroys all in its wake.

From afar – from Assyria, vv5ff.

‘Sinners who set at nought right should consider seriously the solemn question of God by his prophet, “What will ye do in the day of visitation?” Men may evade this question now, but then they cannot. There shall be none to whom they can “flee,” and no place “where” they can “leave” for safety their wealth, which is now their chief “glory.” To be “without” the Lord, then, is to be numbered among those doomed to eternal vengeance. God uses ungodly men of might to be his “rod” for chastening his own people. But when the rod lifts itself against him who wields it, it is high time that it should be cast away dishonoured. Though sinners are employed to execute God’s purposes, yet, inasmuch as this is not in all their thoughts, they shall get no credit for it. Nay, further, inasmuch as, like the Assyrian, they ascribe the glory of their successes to themselves, and make an idol of their skill and prowess, robbing Yahweh of his due honour, they shall, after having been used for a time to execute unconsciously God’s purposes, be punished for their “stoutness” of heart and “high looks.”‘ (JFB)

Isa 10:4 Nothing will remain but to cringe among the captives or fall among the slain. Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised.

Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away – ‘Notwithstanding these calamities. The cup of punishment is not filled by these, but the divine judgment shall still be poured out further upon the nation. The anger of God shall not be fully expressed by these minor inflictions of his wrath, but his hand shall continue to be stretched out until the whole nation shall be overwhelmed and ruined, Isa 10:12.’ (Barnes)

God’s Judgment on Assyria, 5-19Isa 10:5 “Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath!”

10:5-34 deals with the downfall of Assyria. ‘This is an important treatment of God’s control of history, in the world at large and among his chosen people.’ (NBC)

‘These verses 5-19 are about the lordship of God over history and the need to keep a true perspective. This is more difficult in themodern setting when we do not have inspired prophets who can tell us what each entity of history is about, but the central message is no less true. No nation stands on its own. Every nation is subject to God, and every nation is serving God’s ultimate purpose.’ (Oswalt)

This section is paralleled in 11:1-16. In both, the audience is encouraged that Yahweh has finished using Assyria to punish Judah, that Assyria will fall like a mighty forest that has been felled, and that a remnant from Judah will return to Yahweh.

“Woe to the Assyrian!” – Yahweh has been using Assyria to punish Judah, but Assyria’s own woe, or moment of punishment, is coming – as is Judah’s moment of restoration, the restoring of a remnant.’ (Goldingay)

This ‘was not so much designed to intimidate and appal the Assyrian himself as to comfort the Jews with the assurance that calamity should overtake him. The ‘Assyrian’ referred to here was the king of Assyria-Sennacherib, who was leading an army to invade the land of Judea.’ (Barnes)

‘”Woe to the Assyrian!” is the way this section begins (see NIV). Though God used Assyria to chasten Judah, he would not permit his “tool” to exalt itself in pride. Assyria was his rod, club, axe, and saw (10:5, 15, 24); but they treated the Jews like mud in the streets (Isa 10:6) and plundered the land like a farmer gathering eggs. (Isa 10:14) God’s purpose was to discipline, but the Assyrians were out to destroy. (Isa 10:7) They boasted of their conquests (Isa 10:8-14; see 37:10-13) but did not give glory to God. Because of their arrogant attitude, God would judge Assyria, for the worker certainly has mastery over his tools! Like a wasting disease and a blazing forest fire, God’s wrath would come to this proud nation and its army. He would cut them down like trees in the forest (10:33-34). In the days of Hezekiah, God wiped out 185,000 of the Assyrian soldiers (37:36-37); and the great Assyrian Empire ultimately fell to Babylon in 609 B.C. In spite of Assyria’s conquest of the Northern Kingdom and its intention to destroy Judah, God would save a remnant so that “the twelve tribes” would not be annihilated. (Ac 26:7 Jas 1:1 Rev 21:12) “The remnant shall return” (Isa 10:21) is the translation of the name of Isaiah’s older son, Shear-jashub. In verses 28-32, Isaiah traces the advance of the Assyrian army as it invaded Judah and marched toward Jerusalem. But God’s word to the people was, “O my people that dwell in Zion, be not afraid of the Assyrian!” (Isa 10:24) Isaiah gave the same message to King Hezekiah when the Assyrian army surrounded Jerusalem in 701 B.C. (37:1-7). God used Assyria to discipline his people, but he would not permit this godless nation to go beyond his purposes. God may use unbelievers to accomplish his will in the lives of his people, but he is always in control. We need never fear the disciplining hand of God, for he always disciplines in love.’ (Heb 12:1-11) (Wiersbe)

‘The prophets were charged with the awful responsibility of announcing to Israel that the Lord had changed sides and was using the armies of other nations as his own army against Israel.’ (Isa 10:5-19 Jer 1:14-16 Hab 1:5-11 Joe 2:1-11) (DBI)

The same God who created and is sustaining all things (Ps 104:10-13) ‘directs the affairs of individuals and nations. He is more than an idle spectator of the human drama; he directs rulers and prompts people. There is, as Cambridge historian Herbert Butterfield once said, “a kind of history-making that goes on over our heads.” We call this history-making divine providence-God’s guidance of human events according to his purpose and plan. 19-3

The most dramatic depiction of this work of the Living God is in the message of the Hebrew prophets who spoke to the Assyrian and the Babylonian crises. As one empire after another sent its invaders surging across the barren wastes of the Middle East, these men of God traced the hand of God in the events.

First came Assyria, marching on northern Israel. And how did the prophet Isaiah interpret the invasion?

Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger,
in whose hand is the club of my wrath!
I send him against a godless nation,
I dispatch him against a people who anger me,
to seize loot and snatch plunder,
and to trample them down like mud in the streets. (Isa 10:5-6)

Israel had sinned; so judgment had to fall. Assyria’s invasion, then, was more than empire-building, more than one mighty kingdom’s swallowing up a helpless smaller state. According to the prophets, this incursion into Israel’s borders was a “club of God’s wrath.”
Early Christians read these prophecies and made them a part of their own Bible. From these Hebrew seers they learned to look at history morally. Like the Jews before them, Christians believe in a moral retribution at work in the very processes of time-a kind of judgment before the final judgment.’ (Bruce Shelley, Theology for Ordinary People)

“The rod of my anger” – Assyria is the ‘rod’ that is held in God’s hand, 9:12,17,21; 10:4, and it is wielded against ‘a godless nation’, v5.

Isa 10:6 I send him against a godless nation, I dispatch him against a people who anger me, to seize loot and snatch plunder, and to trample them down like mud in the streets.

I send him against a godless nation – ‘Surely the Assyrians are the ones who are “godless” and perverse. But the fact is, the Israelites have been given the covenant of God, and the Assyrians have not. The people of God know better, yet they pervert their way by turnnig their backs on the truth revealed to them.’ (Oswalt)

It may surprise us that God would send a proud, pagan nation against his own people. But that is in fact what he did, and Assyria herself was not absolved from guilt in doing so. ‘The twin truths of dvine sovereignty and human responsibility are held together in a fine tension here, as they are in Scripture as a whole.’ (Webb)

This passage draws attention to the way in which benig used by God is never any index of closeness to God. (cf. Mt 7:22f) It alsp draws out the implication that the purpose of the rod is to save the child, not kill it, Prov 23:13f.’ (Goldingay)

‘The tyrants of the world are but the tools of Providence. Men are God’s hand, his sword sometimes, to kill and slay, (Ps 17:13,14) at other times his rod to correct. The staff in their hand, wherewith they smite his people, is his indignation; it is his wrath that puts the staff into their hand and enables them to deal blows at pleasure among such as thought themselves a match for them. Sometimes God makes an idolatrous nation, that serves him not at all, a scourge to a hypocritical nation, that serves him not in sincerity and truth.’ (MHC)

‘All the power that wicked men have, though they often use it against God, they always receive from him. Pilate could have no power against Christ unless it were given him from above, Jn 19:11.’ (MHC)

God’s Control Over All Nations

‘God rules the destiny of all the peoples of the earth and of his people Israel in particular. This is in accordance with his own benevolent purposes in order to bring them all to a saving knowledge of himself. (Ac 17:24-28) Israel, as the nation through which the redeemer would come, was guided by God in a specific way. It included the call of Abraham, (Ge 12:1-3) the lives of the patriarchs, (Ge 17:3-8 28:20-21 49:22-25) bondage in Egypt, (Ge 15:13) redemption from Egypt, (Deut 5:15) guidance and sustenance in the wilderness, (Ex 13:21-22 Ne 9:19 Ps 105:39-41 136:16) entrance into the land, (Ex 15:13-18 Deut 4:37-38 Am 2:10) and the whole of their history, (1 Chron 29:10-13 2 Chron 32:22 Isa 43:1,15) including the judgments that fell upon them. (Deut 32:15-26 Jer 52:3 Mal 3:5) God also guides the destinies of all the nations of the earth. He is their king and ruler. (Job 12:23 Ps 22:27-28 47:7-9 Isa 14:24-26 Eze 29:19-20) He has foreseen all that will take place in the course of time, (Isa 22:11 44:7) guides the national destinies of the peoples of the earth, (Am 9:7) uses them in his service, (Job 12:23 Isa 10:5-14 Jer 27:3-7) and makes the choice as to who will do what in the accomplishment of his purposes.’ (Isa 49:1-7 54:16 Dan 2:21 4:34-35) (EDBT)

Isa 10:7 But this is not what he intends, this is not what he has in mind; his purpose is to destroy, to put an end to many nations.

This is not what he intends…his purpose is to destroy – Cf. Gen 50:20 Acts 2:23 13:27-30.

‘Isaiah’s critique of Assyria provides insight on the difficulty modern Christians feel about Israel’s own warmaking. The acts for which Assyria is faulted are the acts of Joshua’s people. The verbs in verse 7b are the verbs used of Israel’s acts in Deuteronomy and Joshua. On its own account, there Israel acts as executor of Yahweh’s anger at the behaviour of Canaanite peoples. The execution of Yahweh’s anger in punishing the wicked is also a theme in the NT. But in the OT the human agent is called to act as divine executor, not to act because the agent personally wants to destroy and kill. This does not resolve the difficulty of the fact that violence seems invariably to beget violence, even when its vision is to terminate it, and even when the violence is Yahweh’s (52:13-53:12 will take that issue as far as it can be taken). But this distinction does take the edge off one aspect of the difficulty (which is also a difficulty in parts of the NT).’ (Goldingay)

‘Why must the Assyrian prevail thus against them? Not that they might be ruined, but that they might be thoroughly reformed.’ (MHC)

Isa 10:8 ‘Are not my commanders all kings?’ he says.

The Assyrian king has placed himself above all gods, including Yahweh. Note the use of first-person pronouns (13 times) in these verses. This is a species of self-worship, and, like all forms of self-worship, can only bring down judgement upon itself.

Isa 10:9 ‘Has not Calno fared like Carchemish? Is not Hamath like Arpad, and Samaria like Damascus?

‘The cities here mentioned were all notably powerful and defended by strong forces, but they were helpless before the onward march of Assyria. The victors boasted that they had overcome all these kingdoms themselves and the gods who were worshiped there. Insignificant little Judah with her puny gods, they declared, would easily fall. But such contempt towards Jehovah was to result in the complete destruction of this haughty empire when he was through with it. Human rulers are but instruments in God’s hand, and they show utmost folly in boasting against him who uses them for his own purposes.’ (Wycliffe)

Isa 10:10 As my hand seized the kingdoms of the idols, kingdoms whose images excelled those of Jerusalem and Samaria-

Nations with far finer idols than those in Jerusalem and Samaria have falled before the Assyrian king: why should he think of himself as subject to Yahweh?

Isa 10:11 shall I not deal with Jerusalem and her images as I dealt with Samaria and her idols?'”

Isa 10:12 When the Lord has finished all his work against Mount Zion and Jerusalem, he will say, “I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes.”

When Jerusalem’s punishment is complete (for the time being) Assyria’s punishment will begin.

Isa 10:13 For he says: “‘By the strength of my hand I have done this, and by my wisdom, because I have understanding. I removed the boundaries of nations, I plundered their treasures; like a mighty one I subdued their kings.”

This statement, attributed to the Assyrian king, illustrates his ‘pride’, v12.

“Like a mighty one” – a variant spelling on the term for God used in 1:24. Verse 15 will explain that Assyria had a higher opinion of itself than it had for God.

Isa 10:14 “As one reaches into a nest, so my hand reached for the wealth of the nations; as men gather abandoned eggs, so I gathered all the countries; not one flapped a wing, or opened its mouth to chirp.'”

‘Divine retribution appears primarily in the flaws that are built into human political and economic systems. People create institutions, and for a time they serve the purposes of their designers quite well. But something always goes wrong. All systems face time’s withering test, and eventually judgment falls.

Time knows no favorites. People have tried a host of political structures: city-states, empires, republics, monarchies, parliaments, dictatorships, democracies, oligarchies. It doesn’t seem to matter, for what falls under God’s judgment in the course of time is not this or that system but human nature itself. Human nature seems to be marred by a fundamental flaw. Men and women cannot realize their own ideals. Time brings out the basic human willfulness, and the structure crumbles. The French Revolution affords a vivid example of how quickly a liberal movement can degenerate into a totalitarian autocracy. Within ten short years after the storming of the Bastille, France stumbled through democracy, a republic, a reign of terror, an oligarchy and a dictatorship.

The Hebrew prophets taught-and Christians believe-that God’s judgment in history falls heaviest on those who think of themselves as gods and fly in the face of providence by demanding that men and women worship their way of life. That was Assyria’s sin. Assyria’s rulers had no thoughts of serving God’s purposes. Their heads were filled with visions of empire. They were convinced that their own right arm had gained the victory.

As one reaches into a nest,
so my hand reached for the wealth of the nations;
as men gather abandoned eggs,
so I gathered all the countries;
not one flapped a wing,
or opened its mouth to chirp. (Isa 10:14)

But Assyrian arrogance was no frustration for God. Isaiah asks, “Does an ax raise itself against him who swings it?” (10:15). As soon as the Lord has used Assyria to bring Israel to its knees, he dealt with the haughtiness of the invaders.

Later in the prophetic era came Babylonia, sweeping down on Judah. Like Isaiah before him, the prophet Jeremiah called Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon, God’s servant. (Jer 25:8-9) He had come to judge God’s people, to bring them to their senses.

This is tough faith. It takes a special kind of person to see the hand of God in the suffering of one’s own nation, especially at the hands of an empire that is no less ruthless or cruel. One prophet, Habakkuk, dared to raise that issue. His problem was that God seemed to wink at the wickedness of the invaders:

Your eyes are too pure to look on evil;
you cannot tolerate wrong.
Why then do you tolerate the treacherous?
Why are you silent while the wicked
swallow up those more righteous than themselves? (Hab 1:13)

God never gives the prophet a full answer. He tells him that the Babylonians’ day will come. Wickedness will not go unpunished. But the Lord has a purpose in the apparent tragedies of life. The man of God must rest assured that these sufferings are not the final answer. That will come in the end. Until then, the righteous person will live by faith in God, who is sovereign and just. (Hab 2:2-5)

According to Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk and their colleagues, then, human history is a mighty drama that the Lord God is staging on the earth. The nations are as a drop in a bucket before God. He raises up one ruler and disposes of another. He is the judge of the nations.

Men and women, however, have trouble reading the signs of the times. God’s wrath and mercy are mingled, so evidence of his judgment is always incomplete. He crushes wrong, but new wrongs appear. Only the future will reveal the full meaning of human experiences. God’s sovereignty will be evident only in final judgment and renewal. History must find its meaning in its end.

Isa 10:15 Does the ax raise itself above him who swings it, or the saw boast against him who uses it? As if a rod were to wield him who lifts it up, or a club brandish him who is not wood!

In his pride, the king of Assyria thought he was acting independently. But, on the contrary, the mightiest of nations are merely tools in God’s hands.

The ax – which would cut down the ‘forest’ of Judah’s pride, 6:13.

Isa 10:16 Therefore, the Lord, the LORD Almighty, will send a wasting disease upon his sturdy warriors; under his pomp a fire will be kindled like a blazing flame.

The flame of God’s holiness, once turned on Israel, 6:11f, will be turned on those who arrogantly things think themselves above God.

It is assumed, in the spirit of Rom 2, that a nation which does not enjoy the special revelation of God’s word nevertheless know right and wrong.

Isa 10:17 The Light of Israel will become a fire, their Holy one a flame; in a single day it will burn and consume his thorns and his briers.

The light of Israel will become a fire – A striking expression. ‘God as light can become God as devouring flame.’ (Goldingay) Mt 3:12 2 Thess 1:7-9 Heb 12:29.

It will burn and consume his thorns and his briers – the flame will consume the least…

Isa 10:18 The splendor of his forests and fertile fields it will completely destroy, as when a sick man wastes away.

…as well as the greatest in the kingdom, the splendour of his forests and fertile fields.

The destruction probably refers to the fall of the Assyrian army in 701 BC. 185,000 perished in a single night.

Isa 10:19 And the remaining trees of his forests will be so few that a child could write them down.

The remaining trees – lit. ‘the remnant of trees’, but there is no thought here, as there is in the next verse, of a revived remnant. After the destruction of his army, Sennacherib would have few soldiers (‘trees’) to accompany him on his hasty retreat to his homeland.

Isa 10:20 In that day the remnant of Israel, the survivors of the house of Jacob, will no longer rely on him who struck them down but will truly rely on the LORD, the Holy one of Israel.

In that day – This does not necessarily refer to any specific day, but rather to any time either of judgement or deliverance. ‘Here it speaks of that future time when all the punishment at the hands of the nations will be over and the purified “remnant” of God’s people will be brought home.’ (Oswalt)

God’s hand is not only seen in the downfall of Assyria, but also in the raising of Israel.

When Assyria is reduced to a remnant, the remant of Israel (not the nothern kingdom, but the whole 12 tribes, as the reference to ‘the house of Jacob’ demonstrates) will no longer rely on her, but will rely once again on the Lord.

The Remnant of Israel, 21-34Isa 10:21 A remnant will return, a remnant of Jacob will return to the Mighty God.

“A remnant will return” – This is the name of Isaiah’s elder son, Shear-jashub. There is reassurance here (a remnant will return), but also realism (only a remnant, v22). The prophet thus guards against false expectations, and warns that terrible judgement must precede partial survival. If people only hear the message of judgment, they will be inclined to give up; if they only hear the message of hope, they will be tempted to let up.

The theme of the survival of a remnant is strong throughout the OT. It was a remnant that survived the flood, and also a remnant that survived Sodom and Gomorrah. ‘(again and again throughout the history of Israel, the continuation of the faith seems to hang by a shoestring, such as the boy Samuel when the priesthood was deeply corrupted, or the boy Daniel when the entire army of Israel was cowed before the giant. In other words, despite the feact that biblical faith is a community faith, it is not a mass faith. That is, faithfulness always is intentional and accountable, and that often comes down to a handful.’ (Oswalt)

Isa 10:22 Though your people, O Israel, be like the sand by the sea, only a remnant will return. Destruction has been decreed, overwhelming and righteous.

Verse 22f is quoted in Rom 9:27-28

Destruction has been decreed – Although the saving of a remnant has just been spoken of, it is ‘only a remnant’ and the threat of demination still looms large. A more positive account will be given at the beginning of ch 11. For the time being, there is no easy reliance on ‘everything will turn out all right in the end.’

Righteous – ‘In Scripture, God is ‘the Judge of all the earth’, (Ge 18:25) and his dealings with men are constantly described in forensic terms. Righteousness, i.e. conformity with his law, is what he requires of men, and he shows his own righteousness as Judge in taking vengeance on those who fall short of it (cf. Ps 7:11, RV; Isa 5:16 10:22 Acts 17:31 Rom 2:5 3:5f). There is no hope for anyone if God’s verdict goes against him.’ (J.I. Packer, NBD)

The tentativeness of the return of the remnant is underscored by the added emphasis on destruction. It may be, as Goldingay suggests, that the message is this: ‘there is disaster (at the hand of Assyria) and return to Yahweh (e.g. in the time of Hezekiah and Josiah), but beyond that still more disaster (at the hands of Babylon).’

God's Righteousness

‘Righteousness is that attribute by which God’s nature is seen to be the eternally perfect standard of what is right. It is closely related to God’s holiness (or moral perfection), on one hand, and to God’s moral law or will as an expression of his holiness, on the other hand. Even though there is no distinction between righteousness and justice in the biblical vocabulary, theologians often use the former to refer to the attribute of God in himself and the latter to refer to the actions of God with respect to his creation. Hence, God’s justice is seen in the way he subjects the universe to various laws and endows it with various rights according to the hierarchy of beings he created. This is “legislative justice.” In addition there is “distributive justice,” in which God maintains the laws and rights by giving everything its due, or responding appropriately to created beings according to their value or place in the universe. His distributive justice with respect to moral creatures is expressed in the punishment of sin or disobedience (retributive justice) and the rewarding of good or obedience (remunerative justice; Rom 2:5-11).’ (D.W. Diehl, art. ‘Righteousness’ in EDT)

Isa 10:23 The Lord, the LORD Almighty, will carry out the destruction decreed upon the whole land.

Isa 10:24 Therefore, this is what the Lord, the LORD Almighty, says: “O my people who live in Zion, do not be afraid of the Assyrians, who beat you with a rod and lift up a club against you, as Egypt did.”

Do not be afraid of the Assyrians – This was the issue put before their king, Ahaz, in ch 7.

‘Essentially, the choice that Isaiah and his compatriots faces was whether to respond to the circumstances that threatened them with calm reliance on God or with a frenzy of self-help, using whatever means the wisdom of the age deemed most likely to succeed. And since the world is always with us, and has the same basic character from age to age, it is an issue which always faces the people of God in a multitude of ways small and great. In the book of Isaiah the issues of faith and unbelief are constantly related to the very pressing and practical business of political, national and personal survival, and this has a most important lesson to teach us. Faith is more than a means of justification; it is also a practical approach to the challenges of daily life, just as much for us as it was for those who faced the Assyrian threat. We are not only saved by faith; we live by it.’ (Webb)

This verse, and v26, remind us of the importance and value of memory. Recollection of great deliverances of the past helps us to face present threats with fortitude.

Isa 10:25 Very soon my anger against you will end and my wrath will be directed to their destruction.”

Isa 10:26 The LORD Almighty will lash them with a whip, as when he struck down Midian at the rock of Oreb; and he will raise his staff over the waters, as he did in Egypt.

Isa 10:27 In that day their burden will be lifted from your shoulders, their yoke from your neck; the yoke will be broken because you have grown so fat.

Isa 10:28 They enter Aiath; they pass through Migron; they store supplies at Micmash.

This paragraph (28-32) ‘depicts the Assrian army closing in on Jerusalem with terrfying speed and efficiency, and captures the horror felt by those in its path. The outlying towns mentioned are all to the north of the city, whereas when Sennacherib actually approached Jerusalem in the time of Hezekiah he did so from the direction of Lachish to the south, 36:1f. That is proof enough, if proof is needed, tha tthis is not a literal description of that event written after it happened. Rather, it is a vivid poetic portrayal of the apparent invincibility of the Assyrians. They sweep all before them and shake their fists at the very place which symbolises the Lord’s rule on earth, v32.’ (Webb)

Isa 10:29 They go over the pass, and say, “We will camp overnight at Geba.” Ramah trembles; Gibeah of Saul flees.

Isa 10:30 Cry out, O Daughter of Gallim! Listen, O Laishah! Poor Anathoth!

Isa 10:31 Madmenah is in flight; the people of Gebim take cover.

Isa 10:32 This day they will halt at Nob; they will shake their fist at the mount of the Daughter of Zion, at the hill of Jerusalem.

Isa 10:33 See, the Lord, the LORD Almighty, will lop off the boughs with great power. The lofty trees will be felled, the tall ones will be brought low.

The Assyrian army has just been described as a terrifying force. Here, however, it is viewed as a mighty forest, suddenly felled with great power.

Isa 10:34 he will cut down the forest thickets with an ax; Lebanon will fall before the Mighty one.

Note the irony: the nation which was an axe in God’s hand, v15, will itself be felled by him.

‘While God may use evil people to accomplish his purposes, this does not in any way diminish their accountability. We are in touch here with something we will not fully understand this side of heaven; it is part of the mysterious interplay between divine sovereignty and human freedom. We should, therefore, grasp it firmly and be profoundly grateful for it, for it will preserve us from either denying the reality of evil or fearing that it will ultimately triumph. Wicked men served God’s purpose by nailing Jesus to the cross, but the resurrection lays on them, and on all of us, the urgent need for repentance, Acts 2:23,36-38 17:31.’ (Webb)