Tuesdays with Isaiah (Chapter 14)

Chapter 14 continues the judgment oracle on Babylon (3-23) and then adds a short prophetic prediction about the coming judgment on Assyria (24-27) and Philistia (28-32).  But before addressing these three nations, Isaiah has a brief, consoling word for the people of Israel (1-2).

The opening verses—sandwiched between an extensive oracle of condemnation and punishment against Babylon (13:1-22; 14:3-23)—Isaiah brings a message of hope and help to God’s people.  In spite of appearances and expressions of God’s anger, He has not permanently cast off his rebellious people.  “The Lord will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel” (1).  This compassionate choosing will lead to their regathering from the lands to which they have been scattered; God will “set them in their own land” (1).  In fact, their former captors will escort them home and become their slaves (2). Those who were formerly captive will now rule over their captors.  In a divine reversal, the oppressed of God’s people will be exalted over their oppressors (2).

In verses 14-23, the redeemed people of Israel, now given rest from their “pain and turmoil and hard service” (3), take up a taunt as they trash talk the once-powerful king of Babylon.  They rejoice that the Lord has “broken the staff of the wicked, the scepter of rulers” (5).  Now, they say, the “whole earth is at rest and quiet” (7), even the forests in Lebanon sing out that they are no longer being chopped down in the service of the Babylonian armies (8).

As the taunt goes on, the once-mighty king of Babylon is pictured as making his descent into Sheol, being greeted by other dead kings—perhaps even ones he had killed (9-11).  They are seen as shadowy figures, rising from their thrones, to mock the Babylonian king for being “as weak as we” (10).  Pomp and glory have now been replaced by worms and maggots (11).

In verses 12-14, the taunt song quotes the arrogant words of the Babylonian ruler: his five famous (or infamous) “I wills.”   In his proud heart, he had said,

            I will ascend to heaven, above the stars of God.

            I will set my throne on high.

            I will sit on the mount of assembly in the far reaches of the north.

            I will ascend above the heights of the clouds.

            I will make myself like the Most High.

Instead, in a humbling of this proud king, he finds himself “brought down to Sheol, to the far reaches of the pit” (15).  Like the Wizard of Oz, exposed as a small man behind a curtain, the king of Babylon is no longer impressive: “Is this the man who made the earth tremble, who shook kingdoms?” (16). Instead of a burial fit for a king, he is cast off like a dead body thrown into a pit of the slain (18-19).

Why this ignoble end for the king of Babylon?  Verse 20 makes it plain:  he was responsible for destroying, not only other nations, but his own people.  For this reason, his dynasty is ended, his sons will be slain, his glorious cities be turned to “a possession of the hedgehog” (23).  The Lord will sweep Babylon away with “the broom of destruction” (23).

Following the oracle regarding Babylon’s king and its empire, Isaiah has a brief oracle about Assyria (24-27) and Philistia (28-32).  A much longer, more extensive prophetic pronouncement against Assyria was already given (chapter 10). This shorter word is more of an exclamation point on what was previously said.  In fact, this oracle focuses on the God who judges Assyria (and the nations).  The dominant message centers on the powerful, unstoppable nature of God’s purposes.  “The Lord of hosts has sworn, ‘As I have planned, so shall it be, and as I have purposed, so shall it stand” (24). The word “purposed” shows up in three of the four verses.  The big idea is that God’s plans stand; His purposes prevail.  They cannot be annulled or altered by any kingdom or king, including the Assyrians.  “For the Lord of hosts has purposed, and who will annul it?  His hand is stretched out, and who will turn it back?”  The answer?  No one.  And that includes the superpower of Assyria.  The Lord of hosts (armies) rules history.

The final oracle in chapter 14 addresses Philistia, a nation to west of Israel, situated on the Mediterranean coast.  This oracle is given “in the year that King Ahaz died” (28), an echo of the phrase found in Isaiah 6:1 about Uzziah.  Evidently, the death of Ahaz was seen as a blessing and opportunity by the Philistines.  They rejoiced, thinking this meant Judah would no longer be “the rod” that struck them (29). Isaiah quiets their celebration with the bad news that a bigger danger now confronts them: “from the serpent’s root will come forth an adder, and its fruit will be a flying fiery serpent” (29).  If they thought Judah troublesome, wait until they are attacked by Assyria (“out of the north”—31).  Rejoicing turns to wailing (31) as a more deadly attacker approaches their city gates.  The oracle ends with a brief shout out of good news to Israel:  “The Lord has founded Zion, and in her the afflicted of his people find refuge” (32).

Behold Your God

The Lord’s compassion for His people is unfailing.  After the debauchery described in the early chapters of Isaiah, we could easily conclude that the judgment God is sending on Israel will be terminal.  But here in Isaiah 14, we find that “the Lord will have compassion on Jacob and will again choose Israel” (1).  God’s love, while not unconditional (He does have expectations and standards and laws), is unfailing.  After the destruction of Jerusalem at the hands of the proud Babylonians, Jeremiah is still about to say (through his tears), “The steadfast love the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam 3:22-23).

The Lord sees pride as both demonic and deadly.  Theologians have long seen the five “I will” statements attributed to the king of Babylon as echoing the proud intentions of Satan himself.  What the Babylonian king meant figuratively (“ascending about the heights in the clouds, making himself like the Most High), the archangel Lucifer meant literally.  His exalted position and glory mutated into a proud desire for a heavenly coup.  He was thrown down from heaven (Rev 12) and now leads a temporary rebellion of demons (fallen angels) against God.  But like the king of Babylon, his doom is both coming and certain. 

The Lord’s plans and purposes prevail. Full stop.  In the oracle against Assyria, we see a repeated assertion that the purposes of the Lord stand firm regardless of the efforts of the nations.  As Psalm 33 declares, “The Lord brings the counsel of the nations to nothing; he frustrates the plans of the peoples.  The counsel of the Lord stands forever, the pans of his heart to all generations” (33:10-11). Even when the mountains are falling into the sea and the nations are in an uproar, God’s people can “be still” and know that He is God.  He will be exalted in the earth (Psalm 46).

Here Am I

A leader’s pride brings God’s destruction—on himself, those he leads, his family and reputation.  The taunt song aimed at the king of Babylon shows the wide-ranging destruction pride causes.  God brings low the leader who exalts himself, who sets himself up in God’s place.  This divine destruction not only takes out the proud leader himself, it sweeps away much more.  The leader’s people suffer destruction: “you have destroyed your land; you have slain your people” (20). But it hits closer to home: “Prepare slaughter for his sons because of the guilt of their fathers” (21).  Ultimately, all he stood for, his brand, his reputation is ruined: “I will cut off from Babylon name and remnant, descendants and posterity” (22).  Here is a sober warning about the deadly consequences of allowing pride to grow in our hearts as leaders.  All we hold dear will ultimately be swept away by the God who resists the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).

I must put pride in the dust before it puts me there.  The only sane and safe response to the sobering truth of the lasting judgment on the proud Babylonian king, is to put my own pride in the dust before it takes me and all I love down with it. 

The book, Hunting Eichmann, recounts the story of how Israeli operatives captured the former Nazi henchman in Argentina and then smuggled him out of the country on an El Al flight.  Several of the men who captured him were shocked when they saw him.  Fifteen years earlier, when he had worn his Nazi uniform and barked out orders to capture or kill Jews in Hungary, he seemed larger than life. Now he was reduced to a pitiful man, a shrunken version of his from self.  Like the King of Babylon who was greeted by those in Sheol, Eichmann was brought down to size. 

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