Isaiah - Judgment of the Nations
The relationship between two intertwined and contrasting aspects of Isaiah's message.
Summary of Chapters 1-12
Anyway, we’ve been studying Isaiah for eight weeks, and I think we’ll be wrapping it up in the next week or two, we’ll see. So far, we’ve looked at a variety of prophecies and themes from the first twelve chapters. And a lot of the themes introduced in the beginning of the book are repeated throughout the rest of the book.
Chapters 1-12 introduce Isaiah, describe his calling and visions. It focuses mainly on Israel, using metaphors and poetry, as well as plain and direct language, to describe the coming judgment, the impending oppression, as well as the promise of Immanuel and an eventual freedom from oppression.
It’s a message from God delivered by his messenger Isaiah (Yesha‘yahu). A message TO Israel, of judgment for Israel’s rebellion, intertwined with a message of hope in the fulfillment of God’s covenant promises.
In these first few chapters we were introduced to the idea of a coming “Day of Yahweh” and the phrase “On that day” becomes very familiar. We talked about how references to “that day” can refer to multiple events, in the short-term and long-term, things that happened in Isaiah’s lifetime, and when Jesus was born, and in the future yet to come. And again, it carries with it the promise of judgment as well as of hope.
Chapters 1-12 focus mainly on Israel, and especially on Jerusalem. When we get to chapter 13, the scope broadens a bit.
Chapters 13-23: Judgment of Nations
The next ten chapters, chapters 13-23, start to specifically call out a bunch of other nations and cities. It calls out the rampant rebellion and injustice present in these places, and describes what the consequences will be. It’s a sweeping judgment of the nations, all of Israel’s neighbors.
Don’t worry now, I’m not going to read through all ten chapters! I’m just going to give you a quick summary. Really, all ten chapters are each quite similar, because it’s almost entirely a section of judgment against these various nations. It’s a lot of bad news, and when you read through it, can seem a bit repetitive.
It is a long list of pronouncements against kings and kingdoms, prophecies of destruction and humiliation of tyrannical and violent regimes. That’s not to say that each section is cookie cutter or boring, there is a very colorful array of imagery and specific sins that get called out, but overall it’s a long stretch of bad news. That said, it still contains some little pockets, some little glimmers of hope. And in the context of the whole book of Isaiah, even the long passages of judgment fit in to the bigger picture of both judgment and hope being promised to Israel and to the world.
We’ve looked at both sides of Isaiah, as with the other prophets, of both the judgment and the hope. And I think we tend to see these two elements, Judgment and hope, as opposites. However, while they of course do contrast each other in many ways, they are not opposing, conflicting forces or ideals.
In the first few chapters, the judgment is described as a purifying fire, purging the old Jerusalem of idolatry and injustice, and making way for a new Jerusalem which will bring hope and peace to all nations. And I think it helps to keep that relationship in mind when we look at these long stretches of judgement: that judgment does not necessarily mean the absence of hope, because it can actually be an agent of hope, because judgment is the means of justice.
We’ll come back to that in a bit, but first I want to go over a list of the nations and cities mentioned in chapters 13-23. Here is a list:
- Damascus and Syria
- Babylon (again)
Looking at the map, we can see pretty much all of Israel’s neighbors accounted for, both near and far, both enemies and allies, and looking at the list, you can see that both Israel and Judah are included. So while it may seem at first like good news for Israel, because their enemies and oppressors will be destroyed, Israel isn’t left out. They don’t escape this judgment. Remember, the book started with them in the first place.
Again, I’m not going to read through all of these chapters, but I do want to bring out a few excerpts which show some of the prevailing themes which God is pronouncing judgment; the motivating factors which lead to the downfall of these kingdoms.
Large portions are dedicated to Babylon and Assyria, because in many ways those were the biggest and baddest empires at the time, and they were the two empires that would be used to send Israel and Judah into exile. 13 and 14 are directed mostly at Babylon, and in chapter 14 there are some very pointed remarks in reference to the king of Babylon:
Isaiah 14:12–19 NLT
12 “How you are fallen from heaven, O shining star, son of the morning! You have been thrown down to the earth, you who destroyed the nations of the world. 13 For you said to yourself, ‘I will ascend to heaven and set my throne above God’s stars. I will preside on the mountain of the gods far away in the north. 14 I will climb to the highest heavens and be like the Most High.’ 15 Instead, you will be brought down to the place of the dead, down to its lowest depths. 16 Everyone there will stare at you and ask, ‘Can this be the one who shook the earth and made the kingdoms of the world tremble? 17 Is this the one who destroyed the world and made it into a wasteland? Is this the king who demolished the world’s greatest cities and had no mercy on his prisoners?’ 18 “The kings of the nations lie in stately glory, each in his own tomb, 19 but you will be thrown out of your grave like a worthless branch. Like a corpse trampled underfoot, you will be dumped into a mass grave with those killed in battle. You will descend to the pit.
This king was so proud and interested in his own glory that he actually thought himself capable of ascending to heaven - becoming a god- even setting his throne above all other gods! In other words, taking the place of Yahweh, the almighty God. Of course, that didn’t happen, and this poem describes his downfall and humiliation instead.
Here’s another quick excerpt calling out Moab’s pride:
Isaiah 16:6 NLT
6 We have heard about proud Moab— about its pride and arrogance and rage. But all that boasting has disappeared.
In chapter 19, Egypt gets called out for their worldly sources of wisdom:
Isaiah 19:11–12 NLT
11 What fools are the officials of Zoan! Their best counsel to the king of Egypt is stupid and wrong. Will they still boast to Pharaoh of their wisdom? Will they dare brag about all their wise ancestors? 12 Where are your wise counselors, Pharaoh? Let them tell you what God plans, what the Lord of Heaven’s Armies is going to do to Egypt.
Throughout these ten chapters, these kingdoms and kings are being used as examples of worldly sin, and of Yahweh’s superiority. These nations represent various human conditions that are a result of sin: violence and oppression, idolatry, and various manifestations of pride, whether it’s self aggrandizement, or worldly “wisdom” or wealth.
Chapters 24-27: Judgment of Earth
After chapter 23, the judgment continues, but there is a shift. The previous ten chapters called out a bunch of cities and kingdoms by name, and then the next four chapters broaden the scope even further, and pronounce God’s judgment on the whole Earth. Chapter 24 starts out with this:
Isaiah 24:1–2 CSB
1 Look, the Lord is stripping the earth bare and making it desolate. He will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants: 2 people and priest alike, servant and master, female servant and mistress, buyer and seller, lender and borrower, creditor and debtor.
Verse 1 references the whole earth, and verse 2 is a list of opposites to include people from all walks of life.
To drive this home, Chapters 24 through 27 build contrasting portraits of two different, unnamed “cities” that don’t actually refer to any specific cities, they represent all of humanity.
The first city is described as a “city of chaos:"
Isaiah 24:10–13 CSB
10 The city of chaos is shattered; every house is closed to entry. 11 In the streets they cry for wine. All joy grows dark; earth’s rejoicing goes into exile. 12 Only desolation remains in the city; its gate has collapsed in ruins. 13 For this is how it will be on earth among the nations: like a harvested olive tree, like a gleaning after a grape harvest.
Then in chapter 26 a different city is described in contrast:
Isaiah 26:1–6 CSB
1 On that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah: We have a strong city. Salvation is established as walls and ramparts. 2 Open the gates so a righteous nation can come in— one that remains faithful. 3 You will keep the mind that is dependent on you in perfect peace, for it is trusting in you. 4 Trust in the Lord forever, because in the Lord, the Lord himself, is an everlasting rock! 5 For he has humbled those who live in lofty places— an inaccessible city. He brings it down; he brings it down to the ground; he throws it to the dust. 6 Feet trample it, the feet of the humble, the steps of the poor.
All of the language being used here is the same type of language that was used first just for Israel and Jerusalem, then for all of the surrounding nations, and now for the whole world. This positions Yahweh as the God, not only of Israel, but of all creation. And it makes it very clear that the Isaiah’s message of judgment and hope is a message for the whole world.
God chose Israel to be a special covenant people, but not to seclude himself from the world, rather to use them to reveal himself to the world, and bless all the nations of the earth through them. But because they failed to uphold the covenant, instead of bringing blessing upon themselves and the rest of the world, they failed in that role, and brought judgment upon themselves and the rest of the world.
And yet God still provides a thread of hope woven into the message of judgment.
Why So Much Judgment?
All of this brings me to an important question: why must there be so much judgment? Why did God make a point of weaving judgment and hope together in the narrative and prophecies of scripture?
This is something we’ve talked a little bit about, because judgment is obviously a major component of the prophets. But what I really want to explore is the relationship that judgment has with hope. Again, we see all throughout Isaiah that the messages of judgment, whether it’s to Israel, the surrounding nations, or to the whole earth, is intertwined with messages of hope for Israel, the surrounding nations, and to the whole earth.
And I mentioned before that while the language of judgment does contrast with the language of hope, that doesn’t mean they they are opposites, or that somehow the “hope” or the “love” of God “wins out” over the judgment, and the justice, and the anger of God. But I think we often struggle with this relationship between judgment and hope, or between anger and love, in our theology; in how we think about God.
It’s definitely a complex and challenging topic, and I think a lot of people get hung up on it. And we do have to recognize that to some extent our theology, our attempts to study and measure God will always be limited by our human limitations, as finite beings trying to understand an infinite, transcendent being. BUT that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t wrestle through difficult concepts, because God has revealed himself in ways that can be understood, even if it makes us uncomfortable at times!
Our theology tells us that God is merciful, loving, compassionate, and forgiving, right? And those are nice, comfortable attributes to assign to God. But he is also holy and just, and he does get angry, and there are consequences for rebelling against him. And those things aren’t as comfortable to think about.
In fact, we saw that in the beginning of Isaiah, when Isaiah witnessed the holiness of God, he saw his own unholiness and said “that’s it, I’m a goner!” It’s terrifying and it’s humbling to think about God when we actually think about the full picture of who God is, the full picture of how he’s revealed himself to us.
But that certainly doesn’t mean we should ignore part of the picture so we can just focus on what’s easy to process or what makes us feel warm and fuzzy. Though, in the end, I think we should appreciate the more full picture of God as being more reassuring than either part in isolation.
Isaiah presents us with a great opportunity to ponder this larger picture of who God is, and bring that into focus, because it’s clear throughout these chapters that God wants to proclaim both judgment and hope, not in opposition to each other, but in relationship with each other, and as an extension of who HE is, and his relationship with humans.
One of the most important passages in building a foundation for understanding who God is can be found in Exodus chapter 34. This passage has Moses encountering Yahweh on Mount Sinai, after bringing Israel out of Slavery in Egypt, and Yahweh is forming a covenant relationship with Israel, as a whole nation of people, for the first time, and they are getting to know Yahweh as their god, for the first time since he first appeared to their ancestors Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
Yahweh has already given the people the ten commandments, the terms of their agreement, their wedding vows, and now he’s about to make a declaration of who he is to Moses. It’s God’s own self-definition, his own systematic theology, though of course it’s not nearly as systematic as perhaps we’d like it to be, it’s still incredibly important, because it’s the foundation of Israel’s theology: not through speculation or astrology and divination, but from the mouth of God himself.
Exodus 34:4–8 LEB
4 And Moses cut two stone tablets like the first ones, and he started early in the morning, and he went up to Mount Sinai, as Yahweh had commanded him, and he took in his hand the two stone tablets. 5 And Yahweh descended in the cloud, and he stood with him there, and he proclaimed the name of Yahweh. 6 And Yahweh passed over before him, and he proclaimed, “Yahweh, Yahweh, God, who is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding with loyal love and faithfulness, 7 keeping loyal love to the thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, and he does not leave utterly unpunished, punishing the guilt of fathers on sons and on sons of sons on third and fourth generations.” 8 And Moses hurried and knelt down to the earth and worshiped.
Now, obviously there is a lot to unpack here, and I’m not actually trying to cover an entire doctrine of theology today. I just want to point out that in this passage, God characterizes himself as compassionate, and gracious, and with loyal love and faithfulness. But that he also describes himself as “slow to anger” which means that he doesn’t get angry quickly or easily, but that he can and will still get angry. In fact, you don’t have to look far in this story to find the first example of that actually happening. And Yahweh says that he forgives iniquity, and that he also holds people accountable for their sin for as long as it is perpetuated. It’s both, and. He’s loving, and forgiving, AND does not leave the guilty unpunished.
This is fundamental to who God is, as revealed from the first pages of scripture, in the garden of Eden, to the prophets and Exile, to Jesus and his life, death, and resurrection, to the message of Revelation and the end times.
While at first this can seem contradictory or conflicting, it really isn’t. At a fundamental level, a loving and compassionate God must also have a capacity for anger and a willingness to pronounce judgment. So I want us to ponder these two concepts: anger and judgment, and how they exist as expressions of love, rather than in spite of love.
I think it helps to wrap our heads around this by bringing it down to earth. As imagers of God, we can understand our relationship with God better when we understand our relationships with each other better. So, let’s think about these concepts in a human context for a moment.
Anger As an Expression of Love
If you think about it, you really would not want to be in a relationship with someone who never gets angry.
Now, it is not pleasant to be around someone who could be described as an “angry person.” Nor is it healthy to BE an “angry person” … someone who is characterized by anger, who is frequently or easily angry. However, if someone truly loves you, there are situations in which you would expect them to get angry, and the absence of anger would indicate an absence of love.
Picture your best friend in the whole world, someone you would say you love deeply. Picture someone coming along and completely humiliating them, with totally baseless claims, but publically dragging their reputation through the mud, with lies that you know are totally wrong, but that everyone else believes, and your friend is mocked and slandered, and loses everything they have because of it. Imagine them telling you all about this, and you just react with “oh well.” Your friend would not feel very loved by you, would they? No, the expression of love and empathy in that moment would be an expression of anger and indignation, and sorrow.
If a husband or wife is unfaithful to their spouse, when the trust that is fundamental to the covenant of marriage is broken, then there is a very healthy and valid anger generated that is an expected result of that. That anger is generated because of the love that exists in that relationship, and the complete absence of anger would indicate an absence of love.
If someone were to kidnap and harm your child in some way, of course that would make you angry! Only a parent who didn’t love their child would not get angry at that.
You get the picture.
Of course, we can experience and express anger to varying degrees of healthiness, and I doubt any of us need to be told to get more angry, more often, though I suppose it could be possible, that’s not the point. The point is to say that anger is neither inherently good nor inherently bad on its own. In our human experiences, we most often experience anger as a negative, destructive thing, BUT, whether we consciously acknowledge it or not, we also experience it as an expression, and an indication, of love.
God describes himself as “slow to anger” which characterizes him not as an “angry God” but as a God who has the capacity for anger, and through our own experiences with human relationships, we can understand that not as an inherent flaw or contradiction, but as an inherent result of having the capacity to love.
Judgment As an Expression of Love
In a similar way, we can think about human relationships to understand the concept of judgment as an expression of love. Anger and judgment are related concepts, because anger generally leads to judgments. But judgments are not always necessarily preceded by anger. So they are related, but separate.
A judgment, at its most basic definition, is a decision. We make decisions all day, every day, and we can describe people as having good or poor judgment based on the decisions they make. So, again, the concept of “judgment” is itself neutral, but can be perceived as positive or negative based on the context. And again, judgment is at times a necessary expression of love in human relationships.
For example, imagine coming across a group of small children who are throwing rocks through the windows of a house nearby. The loving thing to do would be make a judgment in that moment and stop them. Not only for the sake of the homeowner, but hopefully to also teach them why it’s not okay to throw rocks through windows, and that it’s important to respect other people’s property, and you might go so far as to make them very uncomfortable by bringing their parents into the situation, and if you’re the parent, and you love your child, you might try to reinforce that lesson by making them pay for the windows they broke. The unloving thing to do would be to simply ignore destructive behavior, or worse yet encourage it!
That’s just one of many examples you could imagine, and there are probably better examples that I could have come up with, but hopefully it gets the point across.
When we think about “judgment” especially in the bible, we might not immediately associate it with love, but we should!
Because the complete absence of judgment, specifically in relationships with other people, indicates a lack of love.
Now, I know we have barely scratched the surface of a huge topic. But this simple reminder can help us be more equipped to process these ideas and tackle portions of scripture like these chapters in Isaiah that are just judgment after judgment, yet still intertwined with hope and the promise of restoration and peace.
It can be overwhelming to try to comprehend the God of the universe and the decisions that he makes and to reconcile in our minds the theology of God being merciful and just and loving, and forgiving, and patient and angry sometimes. But it helps to step back and remember that God isn’t loving in spite of his anger, or forgiving in spite of his justice. It’s not that one characteristic of God “wins out” over the other. Rather, God judges because he loves, and we can understand this on a fundamental level, because humans operate in the same way. Of course, unlike humans, God is uncorrupt and perfect in his judgment.
God takes no pleasure in seeing humans live out the destructive consequences of their pride and rebellion and violence. In fact, it grieves him deeply! And he so loved this world full of violent, corrupt, prideful, violent, oppressive humans incapable of keeping their covenant agreement with him, that he came as a new kind of human, to take on the consequences of sin himself. In the life, death and resurrection of Jesus we see a culminating event of judgment and hope, and in his promised return we can expect a final judgment and a final hope, again wrapped up together in the same threads, and motivated by God’s love for humanity.