A new section launches with chapter 28 where Isaiah speaks of the coming judgment upon Israel (both northern and southern kingdoms) for their refusal to remain faithful to the Lord their God (chapters 28-35). While most of God’s revelation in these chapters focuses on Israel’s failure and consequent judgment, there are glimmers of hope and a promise of a brighter future (especially chapter 35).
As chapter 28 begins, we see a pathetic picture of Israel’s condition—both in the northern kingdom (1-13) and southern kingdom (22). The chapter concludes with a reminder that the same Lord who has given wisdom to farmers on growing crops is, by implication, the One who can teach His people wisdom they need for all of life (23-29).
Ephraim (the ten northern tribes), like a fading flower, lives in the twilight of its former glory (1). The city at its head—Samaria—is about to be plucked and “trodden underfoot” (2-3). Their drinking and dissipation have “overcome” the nation turning it into a pitiful drunkard (2). The Lord stands ready to send “one who is mighty and strong” to finish them off (3). Like a “first-rip fig before the summer,” the head of the nation (Samaria) will be plucked and swallowed up (4).
Before Isaiah proceeds with the description of an intoxicated, incapacitated nation, he offers some words of hope for the remnant who do trust the Lord (5-6). Though the nation will be trampled and its glory “trodden underfoot,” those who trust in the Lord find Him to be their glory, guide (“spirit of justice”) and strength (5-6). Even in the darkest of days (“In that day”—5), the faithful find God’s faithfulness sustains them.
Beginning with verse 7, Isaiah seems to shift his indictment of Judah, focusing attention on the dissipation of their spiritual leaders: “These also [like those is Ephraim] reel with wine and stagger with strong drink: the priests and the prophets reel with strong drink” (7). Instead of speaking God’s words to the people, the prophets and priests in Judah are throwing up in their drunken stupor (7-8). Later, Isaiah will call them “scoffers” (14, 22) which implies their drinking comes from an abandonment of trust in the Lord and His wise ways.
Verses 9-10 could be taken as the words of Isaiah or the priests and prophets. While it’s difficult to be dogmatic, the flow of thought favors the drunken priests and prophets. In light of this sorrow state, Isaiah asks a probing question: “To whom will he teach knowledge, and to whom will he explain the message? Those who are weaned from the milk, those taken from the breast” (9). They seem to dismiss God’s messages as too elementary and simplistic for them: “For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little” (10).
Isaiah responds by saying God will continue to speak to His people; however, now He will speak through the “foreign tongue” of invading armies; the Lord sends “one who is mighty and strong” to trample the nation (11, compare with verse 2).
God’s people refused to listen to His words of help and hope. They would not accept God’s precepts as the path to life, peace and rest: “This is rest; given rest to the weary; and this is repose’ yet they wound not hear” (12). As a result, God’s remedial lessons of “precept upon precept. . . line upon line. . . here a little; there a little” would only result in his people experiencing judgment. They will “fall backward and be broken and snared and taken” (13).
Verse 14, which begins with “Therefore”, turns to Judah and its leaders with the devastating implications of their cynicism and self-reliance: “Therefore, hear the word of the Lord; you scoffers, who rule this people in Jerusalem” (14). These foolish rulers (a scoffer is a category of fool in the book of Proverbs) think they’ve come up with a way to stay safe when trouble floods the land. They smugly congratulate themselves for deceitfully devising a way to protect themselves. Convinced they have “made a covenant with death” (15), they feel bulletproof: “when the overwhelming whip passes through it will not come to us” (15).
The Lord will have none of it. He will depose and dispose of these scoffers, breaking their covenant with death by allowing judgment to take them out (16-19). In their place the Lord has laid (or “will lay”—Dead Sea Scrolls) “a precious cornerstone” in Zion (16). This “tested stone” will be a “sure foundation” (16). The cornerstone (a reliable ruler) will make “justice the line and righteousness the plumb line” (17). Those who trust in God’s cornerstone will “not be in haste”; they will not be frantically rattled when trouble comes. Instead, they will find the “rest” and “repose” God promises those who trust and obey.
However, the foolish scoffers in charge of Jerusalem will be “beaten down”—their covenant with dead annulled (18). No matter what they devise, it will not succeed. The bed they lie on will be too short to stretch out and their covering too small to suffice (20). In short, their devious plans for protection will come up short when God’s judgment comes.
Isaiah speaks of the Lord rising up as he previously did against Israel’s enemies on Mount Perazim and in the Valley of Gibeon (21). However, this time the Lord will do a “strange” and “alien” work, rising up against His own people (21). He will fight against “the whole land” of Israel (22).
In light of their disgusting present and fearful future, Isaiah concludes the chapter by giving a parable that contains God’s wisdom (23-29). He asks questions that had obvious answers for a farming community. “Does he who plows for sowing plow continually?” Does the wise farmer not actually plant seed after plowing? The obvious answer is “Yes”, for this farmer is “rightly instructed; his God teaches him” (26). And once the crop is ready, does this same farmer not reap and thresh the grain according to its type: dill, cumin or wheat? Again, the answer is “Yes.” For a farmer has learned the ways of God who is “wonderful in counsel and excellent in wisdom” (29).
The chapter ends without explicitly making the rather obvious point. Just as farmers have learned to follow God’s wise ways in farming, so His people should follow His wise ways in life. Only when we live in God’s ways will we reap God’s blessings.
Behold Your God
The Lord expects His leaders to be sober minded and just. Ephraim’s spiritual rulers (priests and prophets) are called out for giving way too strong drink. Whether because of a desire for pleasure or an escape from pain, the Lord is disgusted by spiritual leaders who “stagger” and “reel” in a drunken stupor. Judah’s rulers are blistered for devising plans to keep themselves safe rather than trusting in the Lord and protecting His people.
The Lord points the way to peace and rest for those who will listen and obey. The Lord had spoken to His people about finding rest and repose in their weariness. Sadly, they would not listen or obey (12). I want to be one who does hear and heed His Word to find His rest.
The Lord thwarts our schemes to protect ourselves. The plans devised by Judah’s leaders to protect themselves from the invasion of death will be annulled by the Lord. He holds the power of life and death and overrides our small plans to protect ourselves rather than trust in Him. Only in the Lord can we find security and justice.
The Lord establishes a rock-solid leader for His people. The Lord establishes a rock-solid leader for His people—a cornerstone. The New Testament makes it clear this Cornerstone is the Lord Jesus (Eph 2:20). He is the One who makes justice the line and righteousness the plumb line (17). He rules with the justice and wisdom of God.
Here Am I
As I am faithful to the Lord, He will provide what I need to do His work and will. Isaiah, in the midst of excoriating the unfaithful spiritual leaders of Ephraim, has a word of promise and hope for the faithful remnant. God will provide them with the “spirit of justice” so they can lead justly; He will strengthen them to fight those who attack (6). Though situations can seem bleak and even under God’s judgment, I can expect Him to resource me to do His work and will as I glory in Him.
I rejoice that God has indeed laid a precious cornerstone for His people—the Lord Jesus. What Isaiah foresaw came into full view with the coming of Jesus. He is the cornerstone (Eph 2:20) for His people. He is the leader we need. I can rejoice and follow Him.
I can gain wisdom about God’s ways by observing God’s world. Farming becomes the classroom for teaching God’s people wisdom. Just as there are wise ways to plant and harvest, so there are wise ways to live. Learning God’s ways involves learning from His Word (precept upon precept) and from His world (lessons from life; concepts from creation).