Tuesdays with Isaiah (Chapter 24)

After bringing oracles to the nations individually (chapters 13-23), Isaiah now speaks a prophetic word about the earth as a whole.  While the Hebrew word translated “earth” in chapter 24 can mean “land” (referring to the land of Israel, for example), the global allusions (13, 21) point to an oracle for the nations of the earth.

The message Isaiah brings to the “inhabitants of the earth” (6) is meant to shake and alarm:  the Lord plans to shake the nations, winnow the peoples, and put a stop to the incessant pleasure seeking of its inhabitants.

The opening verses declare God’s intention to “empty the earth and make it desolate” (1).  His judgment will bring upheaval to the creation (“twist its surface”) and decimation to human populations (“scatter its inhabitants”—1).  All levels of society will be impacted: people and priest, slave and master, maid and mistress, buyer and seller, lender and borrower, creditor and debtor (2).  Every socio-economic strata will be “plundered” (3).  The certainty of coming judgment is emphasized by the tagline in verse 3: “for the Lord has spoken this word.”

Why this wide-spread demolition that leaves the earth mourning and withered?  God is judging the earth for its flagrant moral rebellion which has defiled the earth: “for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant” (5).  While only Israel had the revelation of God’s laws and statutes (Mosaic covenant), all humans carry an internal, God-given sense of right and wrong (Romans 2).  All peoples (including God’s people the Jews) had become guilty before the Judge of the earth.  The earth itself is now under the “curse” of God’s judgment and its “inhabitants suffer for their guilt” (6).

Verses 7-8 give a specific evidence of the world’s moral condition—its pursuit of pleasure and partying.  Wine and song, mirth and merry making characterize the peoples of the earth.  The earth’s inhabitants have become “lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God” (2 Tim 3:4).  God’s judgment stops the parties, removing the wine (the vines are withered) and stilling the songs (“the lyre is stilled”—8).  The public gatherings stop as people are “shut up” in their homes (10), lamenting the lack of wine and chance to party (11).  The cities are desolate with their gates “battered into ruins” (12).  Isaiah pictures entire nations as olive trees “beaten” to dislodge berries or as a grape vine after harvest—just a few pieces of fruit remain (13).

Suddenly, the mood and message of the chapter shift.  Verse 14 begins, “They lift up their voices, they sing for joy; over the majesty of the Lord they shout.”  From the west (literally, “the sea”) and from the east (literally, “the realm of light”), from the “ends of the earth” songs of praise are heard giving “glory to the name of the Lord, the God of Israel” (15).  We are not explicitly told who is singing (“They”—14).  Perhaps it’s the people who remain after the olive tree is beaten and the vines harvested.  Three times in three verses we hear them give “glory” to the Lord, the Righteous One.  Even in judgment, He is glorious.  In the midst of the world’s withering, He is worshiped.  As He brings judgment, there is reason for praise and joy—God is setting things right again.  He rules with justice.  Glory to His name.

Except, Isaiah seems unable to add his voice to the chorus of joyful praise.  He still has to live through a treacherous time.  So, he laments, “But I say, ‘I waste away, I waste away. Woe is me!” (16).  Strangely, Isaiah cannot rise above his own situation to join the songs of praise.  He groans under the betrayal he experiences around him: “For the traitors have betrayed, with betrayal the traitors have betrayed” (16). 

Isaiah’s personal pain pulls the rest of the chapter back to the theme of coming judgment.  In verses 17-18, Isaiah warns the earth that “terror and the pit and the snare are upon you.”  Those who flee in terror to save their lives will fall into a pit. Even if they climb out of the pit, they get caught in a snare.  They can run, but they cannot hide from the God who has “opened the windows of heaven” to pour out his judgment (18).

Isaiah describes the earth as “utterly broken”, “split apart” and “violently shaken” (19). Staggering like a drunken man, the earth falls, unable to rise again (20).  Judgment has come from God: “For on that day the Lord will punish the host of heaven, in heaven, and the kings of the earth, on the earth” (21).  God judges angelic hosts (demons) and rulers of nations (along with their people).  Even the sun and moon are affected, eclipsed by the greater glory of the “Lord of hosts” who “reigns on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem.”  The chapter ends with the “elders” covered by the glory of God (23).

In some ways, Isaiah 24 compresses the story of humanity from start to finish into one chapter.  Told from the vantage point of the final judgment on earth (24:1; Rev 6-20), Isaiah looks back to the source of the world’s trouble: transgressing God’s laws, violating His statutes and breaking the eternal covenant.  This happened early in human history when Adam and Eve transgressed God’s command and covenant (24:5; Gen 3).  As a result of this rebellion “a curse devours the earth” (24:6).  Sadly, instead of turning back to God, humanity has tended to pursue a selfish agenda, as lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God (24:8-11; 2 Tim 3:1-4).  God’s patience eventually runs out and His judgment rushes in.  His judgment causes upheaval in creation (24:1) as He deals with rebellion among the angels (24:21; Satan and his demons Rev 20) and among the rulers and kingdoms of the earth (24:1; Rev 18-20).  As the human story ends, the Lord is reigning supreme from Jerusalem (24:23; Rev 21-22), with the sun and moon eclipsed by His greater glory (24:23; 22:5).  Untold in Isaiah 24—but introduced to the storyline later in the book—is the coming of the Servant of the Lord who suffers in the place of ruined sinners, bearing the curse of sin to provide a way for people to return to God and find forgiveness and hope (Isa 53; Romans 5; Gal. 2).

Behold Your God

All peoples are guilty of disobeying God’s laws and defiling His earth.  Though not all people have God’s written law, all have His laws etched on their hearts (Romans 2:14-15).  As such, all are held responsible for the sins that defile humanity and our habitat (4-5).  Here we see an expression of the truth Paul sets forth in Romans 3:9-10: all are guilty and under the weight of sin.  All of us stand under God’s judgment.  Only in the gospel do we find hope for rescue and liberation—for ourselves and for creation (Romans 8:17-25).

The Lord’s judgment reaches to the heavens and across all the earth. This oracle of judgment is far reaching, encompassing the earth (1).  Even the earth itself groans under the ravages of human sin and the withering effects of God’s judgment (4; see Romans 8:19-22). Though God’s global judgment stretches to the “ends of the earth” (16), it doesn’t stop there.  It also reaches to the heavens as God deals with the hosts (or “powers”—NIV) of heaven (21).  This judgment, though sweeping and severe, brings praise from those who live through it (14-16).  Even in judgment God is glorious and just.

Here Am I

God’s servants feel the effects of God’s judgment on the world.    Isaiah declares coming judgment on a sinful world.  He also suffers under the effects of living in a world marked by treachery (16).  He has already seen his own sinfulness, admitting he is a man of unclean lips and heart (Isaiah 6:1-4).  Having been cleansed and commissioned, he still lives among a people of unclean lips and experiences the withering effects of wide-spread sin.  Here is a reminder that God’s servants are not immune from suffering in this broken world (Romans 8:17).  But we have assurance that the wickedness will one day be judged and God’s kingdom will come to earth (23).

Even when we struggle to join the songs of praise, we can express our hearts to God.  Isaiah speaks of those who joyful join voices to praise the God of glory (14-16).  But he is not able to join in the joyful songs; he withers under the weight of a fallen world (16).  There will be days when he does join his voice to the chorus of praise (chapters 40-66), but there are also times when he laments in pain.  God is willing to allow him to express both.  The same holds true for us as we “groan” awaiting the renewal of all things (Rom 8:23-25).

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