Saturday, September 7, 2013

Exploring Isaiah 33




Isaiah 33 is a tricky chapter.  (I encourage you to go there and take a look through it to familiarize yourself before I start doing wacky things in this post.)  One of things that I found tricky about it when I was first reading it was that it is such a mix of good and bad things happening.  You think Isaiah is talking about wicked people and then suddenly it seems like he is talking about righteous people, and then he goes back again, so it is like spiritual whiplash. 

But take that thought--a mix of good and bad--and you'll see that will help you make sense of it.  When I was trying to make sense of it, I got the idea to try highlighting in one color the verses that seem to describe wickedness and destruction, then highlight in a different color the verses that seem to describe righteousness and trusting the Lord. 

The mix of good and bad is what it will be like before the Second Coming--Good people interspersed among bad people. They each will be reacting in very different ways to the dangerous events of that time, and we get a picture of their reactions in this chapter. 

Historically the things described in this chapter were fulfilled in Isaiah’s day when Jerusalem was miraculously delivered from the invading Assyrians, but we get hints from the chapter summary that it is a type of events before the Second Coming.

I’m going to group all the verses together that seem to talk about the wicked and discuss some things, then I will group all the verses together that talk about the righteous and discuss more.

The Wicked

1 Woe to thee that spoilest, and thou wast not spoiled; and dealest treacherously, and they dealt not treacherously with thee! when thou shalt cease to spoil, thou shalt be spoiled; and when thou shalt make an end to deal treacherously, they shall deal treacherously with thee….
3 At the noise of the tumult the people fled; at the lifting up of thyself the nations were scattered….
7 Behold, their valiant ones shall cry without: the ambassadors of peace shall weep bitterly.
8 The highways lie waste, the wayfaring man ceaseth: he hath broken the covenant, he hath despised the cities, he regardeth no man.
 9 The earth mourneth and languisheth: Lebanon is ashamed and hewn down: Sharon is like a wilderness; and Bashan and Carmel shake off their fruits….
11 Ye shall conceive chaff, ye shall bring forth stubble: your breath, as fire, shall devour you.
12 And the people shall be as the burnings of lime: as thorns cut up shall they be burned in the fire….
14 The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?....
23 Thy tacklings are loosed; they could not well strengthen their mast, they could not spread the sail: then is the prey of a great spoil divided; the lame take the prey.

Woe to thee that spoilest, and thou wast not spoiled (v1) – These are people who loot others, although they’ve never been looted themselves.  They aren’t looting out of revenge; they are opportunists taking advantage of general disorder and chaos, which means they are fundamentally dishonest people.

Woe to thee that…dealest treacherously, and they dealt not treacherously with thee! (v1) – These people betray trust, also opportunistically, not out of revenge. 

when thou shalt cease to spoil, thou shalt be spoiled; and when thou shalt make an end to deal treacherously, they shall deal treacherously with thee (v1) -- Isaiah promises these people who loot and betray trust that there will come a time when they will experience everything they made others suffer, and it will happen when they think they are secure.

At the noise of the tumult the people fled; at the lifting up of thyself the nations were scattered (v3)—This speaks of people fleeing and nations scattering when there is a noise, a tumult, and when someone whom Isaiah simply refers to as “thyself” is lifted up.  I suspect this person may be the glorified Christ coming in the air.  It may be a noisy entrance.

Behold, their valiant ones shall cry without: the ambassadors of peace shall weep bitterly (v7) --  We get the sense here that the tough military men will be very distressed, as will all the diplomats and ambassadors.  This is notable because soldiers historically are known for a stiff-upper-lip, “tough guy” culture.  Cry among them now and you’ll be considered a pansy.  Likewise, one would think diplomats train themselves not to show their emotions in order to allow them to make negotiations skillfully.  So when ambassadors cry, you know the options are exhausted and have failed and there is nothing else to do.  The overall message for this line is that even the most emotionally reserved among the wicked will be absolutely distraught.

The highways lie waste, the wayfaring man ceaseth: he hath broken the covenant, he hath despised the cities, he regardeth no man. (v8) – We get the sense that travel has been totally disrupted if highways lie waste.  It could be that they are empty, or it could mean that they have been destroyed.  As a reader I get the sense that some destructive person(s) in charge have broken treaties and attacked cities, killing indiscriminately, not caring about what eminent men may be in their way.  Now, before we get alarmed, we need to remember that this is among the wicked. 

The earth mourneth and languisheth: Lebanon is ashamed and hewn down: Sharon is like a wilderness; and Bashan and Carmel shake off their fruits (v9) – Lebanon was known for its forests.  To speak of Lebanon being ashamed and hewn down is to express an environmental catastrophe of wood waste.  If Sharon is spoken of as a wilderness, we can take a cue from the bad things happening that Sharon is supposed to be a garden spot, but that it has been made desolate.  Bashan and Carmel are fruitful places, so “shaking off their fruits” expresses a destroyed harvest and imminent famine to come.

Ye shall conceive chaff, ye shall bring forth stubble (v11) – The chaff and stubble is the waste part of the grain plant.  Isaiah is using this imagery of waste parts and the imagery of conceiving and bringing forth to express how the wicked only come up with terrible ideas that never have good results. 

your breath, as fire, shall devour you (v11) – Breath is supposed to give people life.  Here the idea is being used to express two possible principles.  1) The wicked were using the valuable breath the Lord had granted them, but using it to do evil things that would eventually bring destruction upon themselves.  2) Breath is sometimes used to express the life that comes from the Holy Ghost, and here we get the sense that if the Holy Ghost were to come upon these wicked people it would not purify them, only burn them up.

And the people shall be as the burnings of lime: as thorns cut up shall they be burned in the fire (v12) – Pretty plain words here.  The wicked will be burned.

The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings? (v14) – The wicked will not be the only ones in distress.  There will be some sinners in Zion, hypocrites, who will also be terribly afraid and wonder if anyone can survive the burnings that come from God.

Thy tacklings are loosed; they could not well strengthen their mast, they could not spread the sail: then is the prey of a great spoil divided; the lame take the prey. (v23) – Here the fate that comes upon the wicked is being compared to a warship that is very badly managed.  The tackling (ropes holding the sails) is loosed.  The mast is weak and the sails badly unfurled.  What happens to a ship that is badly run?  It doesn’t survive.  It gets captured, and easily too.  Evidently Isaiah wants to make the point that it will be really easy to bring the wicked down because of how badly they do things.  And all their ill-gotten gains will be divided.  (I don’t know if this means the wicked will destroy the wicked and loot them too, or whether the righteous will be given the spoil because none of the wicked are left.)

Now we move on to the good news.  What are the righteous doing at this time?

The Righteous

2 O Lord, be gracious unto us; we have waited for thee: be thou their arm every morning, our salvation also in the time of trouble….
4 And your spoil shall be gathered like the gathering of the caterpiller: as the running to and fro of locusts shall he run upon them.
5 The Lord is exalted; for he dwelleth on high: he hath filled Zion with judgment and righteousness.
6 And wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times, and strength of salvation: the fear of the Lord is his treasure….
10 Now will I rise, saith the Lord; now will I be exalted; now will I lift up myself.
13 ¶Hear, ye that are far off, what I have done; and, ye that are near, acknowledge my might….
[Who shall dwell with everlasting burnings?]
15 He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil;
16 He shall dwell on high: his place of defence shall be the munitions of rocks: bread shall be given him; his waters shall be sure.
17 Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty: they shall behold the land that is very far off.
18 Thine heart shall meditate terror. Where is the scribe? where is the receiver? where is he that counted the towers?
19 Thou shalt not see a fierce people, a people of a deeper speech than thou canst perceive; of a stammering tongue, that thou canst not understand.
20 Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities: thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down; not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be removed, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken.
21 But there the glorious Lord will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby.
22 For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; he will save us….
24 And the inhabitant shall not say, I am sick: the people that dwell therein shall be forgiven their iniquity.

O Lord, be gracious unto us; we have waited for thee: be thou their arm every morning, our salvation also in the time of trouble (v2) – This is the attitude of the righteous.  They ask for the Lord’s grace to give them the strength to make it through these very difficult times.  If you notice, this line is mostly a prayer.  This shows us how important prayer will be to the righteous.  “We have waited for thee” shows us that the righteous express their faith to the Lord that He will come eventually.  “Be thou their arm every morning” shows us the righteous will pray for their loved ones to have power to make it through the day.  “our salvation also in the time of trouble” shows us the righteous know the Lord can save them and they pray for it.

And your spoil shall be gathered like the gathering of the caterpiller (v4) – The righteous have their own spoil (loot or treasure) that they are gathering during this time, but it is not the kind of thing that the wicked are interested in. Think of that image of the caterpillar at work eating away at green things.  It’s a very gradual and slow process, right?  And just like the caterpillar eating green things, the righteous feast on the words of life.  Their spoil is what Jesus calls “treasure in heaven.” 

as the running to and fro of locusts shall he run upon them (v4) – This perhaps should have been put in the section about the wicked because it testifies of how Christ will attack the wicked with an unstoppable force the magnitude of which Isaiah could only express with a comparison to a cloud of locusts invading.  But it will be such a relief to the righteous because all their hopes will finally be confirmed.

The Lord is exalted; for he dwelleth on high: he hath filled Zion with judgment and righteousness (v5) – In Zion the righteous follow the Lord, even while the rest of the world destroys itself with wickedness.  Even during the winding-up days before the Second Coming, Zion will be a place of good judgment and righteous people.

And wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times, and strength of salvation (v6) – Our wisdom (from experience) and knowledge of the gospel will give us stability as we go through those difficult times, as will our deep acquaintance of the power of the Atonement of Christ.

the fear of the Lord is his treasure (v6) – Plain words here.  The Lord treasures the people who fear (trust) Him.

Now will I rise, saith the Lord; now will I be exalted; now will I lift up myself. (v10) – This is the Lord announcing it is time for Him to show forth even more power to the world than He has shown before.  It will become more and more obvious to everyone, especially the righteous.  (The wicked, of course, will close their eyes to it.)

Hear, ye that are far off, what I have done; and, ye that are near, acknowledge my might (v11) – The words of the Lord to the nations commanding them to hear what He has done should suggest even greater missionary efforts than we have seen thus far.  Even when the world gets more wicked, missionary work will accelerate.

While the hypocrites begin to wonder who will dwell with everlasting burnings, Isaiah answers the question firmly:  He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil (v15) – This gives us a laundry list of good things to do and particular evils to avoid in the last days.  Stopping ones ears and shutting one’s eyes to keep from hearing and seeing evil speaks of the importance of avoiding bad media influences. Despising the gain of oppressions suggests the importance of avoiding even distant associations with evil, such as profiting from vices or wars through business associations.  Avoiding taking bribes speaks of refusing to be diverted from rendering just judgments.  And of course, walking righteously and speaking uprightly should be obvious.

He shall dwell on high: his place of defence shall be the munitions of rocks: bread shall be given him; his waters shall be sure. (v16) – In ancient Israel at times of upheaval and danger, people would hide out in caves high in cliffs where they stockpiled supplies.  Isaiah uses this imagery to teach that the righteous will be in a position of safety in the last days and their source of nourishment will be uninterrupted.

Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty: they shall behold the land that is very far off. (v17) – Some of the Saints may have personal visitations with Christ or have visions of the celestial kingdom to comfort them when things get particularly desperate.

Thine heart shall meditate terror. Where is the scribe? where is the receiver? where is he that counted the towers? (v18) – The Saints who have inner peace will ponder the terror that the wicked are in.  They will also find that the officials who previously oppressed and threatened them will be swept away.

Thou shalt not see a fierce people, a people of a deeper speech than thou canst perceive; of a stammering tongue, that thou canst not understand (v19) – It may look like a foreign invader (with foreign language) is coming to wipe out the righteous, but they won’t get very far and Zion’s inhabitants won’t see them after all.

Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities (v20) – This is one of the things that makes Zion special—its solemnity about the things of eternity. (Contrast that with the wicked, who don’t take those things seriously at all.)

thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down; (v20) – This is truly a promise for Zion of the latter-days, since in the former days Jerusalem was destroyed, along with its temple.  Now, seeing the modern Jerusalem become a quiet habitation would be pretty miraculous, considering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has continued.  And we know that Isaiah means the temples will be safe places.

not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be removed, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken. (v20) – Zion’s stakes are established for good.

But there the glorious Lord will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby. (v21) – This is kind of a complex image.  For some reason I always think of nice, broad, calm rivers leading to a rich land and Viking longboats that could easily attack by rowing up that river if they decided to, but they never do.  It’s an image of obvious vulnerability that somehow is never taken advantage of by the wicked.

For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our lawgiver, the Lord is our king; he will save us (v22) – This is the faith of the righteous; depending on the Lord for deliverance in all cases.

And the inhabitant shall not say, I am sick: the people that dwell therein shall be forgiven their iniquity. (v23) – The righteous will find both temporal and spiritual healing, even in those tough times before the Second Coming.

I hope that helps you make more sense of this chapter.  There are some pretty neat promises in it that should give us hope as we move closer to the Second Coming.