In these two chapters, we have a lament voiced for the coming destruction of Moab, a nation to Israel’s east (across the Dead Sea). Amidst the wailing (a word repeated multiple times in chapters 15-16), we hear another, surprising voice join in: the Lord Himself. While He is the One who brings devastation on the nation (“I have put an end to the shouting”—16:10), He also joins the lament (“Therefore, my inner parts moan like a lyre for Moab”—16:11). The Lord has taken no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek 33:11). He brings down the proud but grieves their demise.
Chapter 15, a short chapter of only 9 verses, wails with lament. The words “wail”, “cry” and weeping” occur multiple times to describe the response of the Moabites to the sudden destruction that has come upon them. In a night, cities like Ar and Kir are “laid waste”(1). The survivors of the carnage go up to their temple in Dibon to weep (2), heads and beards shorn, bodies clothed in sackcloth (2-3). The waters of Nimrim “are a desolation” (6) while the waters of Dibon are “full of blood” (9), likely the blood of those slain by the enemies. The grasslands are withered and trampled (6). The country is demolished.
The survivors scurry towards the borders, looking for refuge elsewhere. Carrying whatever precious items they have managed to preserve, they try to ford the “Brook of the Willows” (7). As they go, they drench the road with their tears and fill the air with their cries (5, 8). Sadly, even as they run, they are not safe. The Lord says he will send “a lion for those of Moab who escape” (9). The devastating judgment of God, carried out by an invading army, is not yet done.
Chapter 16 continues the storyline, picking up by focusing on the fleeing refugees. Isaiah addresses them in verse 1, telling them to bring a “lamb to the ruler of the land . . . to the mount of the daughter of Zion.” The Moabite refugees are instructed to give a gift (lamb) to the Israelites—their relatives through Abraham’s nephew, Lot—with the hopes of gaining safe refuge in Israel. Israel is told to “grant justice” and provide covering (“shade”), becoming a “shelter to them from the destroyer” (4).
Isaiah then envisions a time when the destruction of Moab has passed. He sees a day when a righteous ruler from “the tent of David” will reign over the nation, giving justice and doing righteousness” (5).
But that day is still in the future. Verse 6 jolts us back to the present destruction of Moab by underscoring the reason for their ruin: pride (6). Moab’s sinful heart is described in four ways: “his arrogance, his pride, and his insolence, in his idle boasting he is not right” (6). The tragic result (“Therefore—vs 7) is devastation that leads to national lament.
In verses 8-10, Moab is pictured as a spreading vine that had produced abundant grapes and raisins. But “the lords of the nations” have come to trample and destroy the vine, putting an end to the “joy and gladness” associated with harvest (10). The Lord takes responsibility for Moab’s demise; He has judged it for its pride. The final sentence in verse 10 makes that clear: “I have put an end to the shouting (at harvest time)”.
Amidst the Moabite wailing we hear another voice joining in the lament. Verse 11 tells us, “Therefore my inner parts moan like a lyre for Moab, and my inmost self for Kir-hareseth.” While the speaker could be Isaiah himself, the fact that this statement follows immediately after the Lord speaks of putting an end to the joy of Moab’s harvest, points to the amazing truth that God is mourning for Moab. Though offended by Moab’s pride, though responsible for Moab’s demise, He also mourns for Moab’s pain.
God mourns for Moab, even though the Moabites fail to seek him. Verse 12 tells us that they
head to their high place and pray to their own gods. Sadly, this does no good. The final coda of these two chapters points backwards and forwards. We learn that these words were spoken “concerning Moab in the past” (13). But now, the Lord declares that within three years (as counted by a hired worker), Moab will be brought low, and its population decimated (14).
Behold Your God
The Lord who brings judgment mourns for the judged. Throughout chapters 15-16, we hear an expression of sympathetic sadness for the devasted people of Moab. “My heart cries out for Moab” (15:5); “Therefore I weep with the weeping of Jazer for the vine of Sibmah” (16:9); “Therefore my inner parts moan like a lyre for Moab” (16:11). Who is the speaker of these words of lament? Either Isaiah or the Lord Himself. The text points us to the stunning conclusion that the Lord is the one expressing sadness. The textual evidence is that the speaker not only expresses words of mourning but also indicates he is the source of Moab’s judgment: “. . . I will bring upon Dibon even more, a lion for those of Moab who escape, for the remnant of the land” (15:9); “I have put an end to the shouting [of the harvest]” (16:10). Certainly, Isaiah could not take credit for bringing devastation to Moab; only God can do this.
This combination of judgment and sorrow reveals an amazing truth about our God. His compassion does not abate even when His judgment falls. His heart is moved by the grief He inflicts in His righteousness. He is not vindictive or gleeful when executing justice on the proud and sinful. What a wonderful revelation of the righteousness and mercy of our God. He does not allow sin to go unpunished; yet, he takes no delight in the death of the wicked.
The Lord laments but not in the same way people lament. Throughout these chapters, the Lord speaks of his lament over the destruction of Moab (15:5; 16:9, 11). However, his lament is not like the wailing and lament of the Moabites (or any people). We lament because of trouble we cannot stop or sidestep. We feel helpless, defeated and destitute. God laments without any sense of helplessness or hopelessness. He remains sovereign and in control of all things. He laments not because of being powerless, but because of the righteous judgment He has powerfully brought upon sinners. As Jeremiah would explain, “though he cause grief . . . he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men” (Lam. 3:32-33).
The Lord cares for people outside His covenant people. Moab had a chequered relationship with Israel since Moses and the people of Israel first traveled through its land on the way to Canaan. Yet the Lord remains compassionate towards the people of Moab, mourning their loss. Here is a further expression of God’s heart for the nations revealed to Abram in Genesis 12: “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). God’s heart is a global heart. Ultimately, Moab’s hope (like all nation’s hope) is in the coming of David’s heir to rule: the Messiah (16:5). In Him alone can the nations trust.
The Lord’s compassionate heart does not shelter us from His righteous judgment. Even though the Lord’s heart is soft towards Moab, the judgment He sends upon them is severe. In our day, the current thinking about God emphasizes His great love to the exclusion of His righteous judgment. People find it unthinkable that God could or would bring devastation on a nation—on women, children, young and old. Yet here in Isaiah 15-16, we see the Lord carrying out a ruinous judgment on the people of Moab. He does not excuse sin forever. Here is part of the answer we need in the current debate about the destruction of the Canaanites under Joshua.
Here Am I
I must feel compassion for those who suffer, even if their suffering is due to their own sin. If my heart is to mirror God’s heart, I cannot find pleasure in the judgment on the wicked. Even on peoples or nations who have been hostile to my tribe. I should ask the Lord to let my heart be soft for all who suffer, even when suffering is brought on by sin.
I should actively help those who are experiencing God’s judgment. The Lord instructs His people to be a “shelter” from “the destroyer” (16:4). In one sense, God is the one bringing destruction, through the agency of the Assyrian armies. Still, the Lord wants His people to open their hearts to help those fleeing as refugees to Israel. Though the Moabites had been inhospitable to Israel, Israel was not to respond in kind. Rather it was to be kind to those in need. (Note: Michael Kelly Blanchard’s song “Be Glad” uses the text of Isaiah 16 as part of his lyrics. “So be a light on the rim of the water, giving hope in a storm sea of night; be a refuge amidst the slaughter for these fugitives in their flight”).
I must guard against any kind of pride. The two sins explicitly called out in these chapters are Moab’s sin of false worship (15:2; 16:12) and pride. In 15:6 the Lord gives a four-fold indictment of Moab’s national pride: “his arrogance, his pride, and his insolence; in his idle boasting, he is not right.” The repetition only underscores the divine hatred of human pride. Lord, keep me from allowing pride to swell in my soul and spill from my deeds or words.
I must dig into passages in Scripture that initially seem to have little contemporary relevance. 2 Timothy 3:16 is not hyperbole: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” When I first read through Isaiah 15-16, I wondered at what God would want to communicate through a text about an ancient, extinct people group. As I have discovered again and again, these passages always contain buried treasure to those willing to dig in.