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Bible Commentaries

Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible

Isaiah 28

Verse 1

DIVISION IV (Isaiah 28-35)

These four chapters constitute almost one continuous prophecy regarding (1) the destruction of Ephraim; (2) the impiety and folly of Judah; (3) the danger of alliances with Egypt; and (4) the straits to which they would be reduced by the Assyrians.[1]

The date of these chapters is most likely that proposed by Dummelow: "This chapter must be assigned to a date prior to the capture of Samaria by the Assyrians (722 B.C.) and the fall of the northern kingdom."[2] Even many of the critical commentators agree that the date may not be placed "any later than just prior to the fall of Samaria (722 B.C.)."[3] Here, therefore, is an undisputed example of predictive prophecy.

The chapter may be divided thus: (1) Samaria's luxury, drunkenness, and infidelity pave the way for their ruin (Isaiah 28:1-6). (2) Even the rulers and the religious leaders are no more than filthy drunkards (Isaiah 28:7,8). (3) The nobility of Ephraim mock Isaiah (Isaiah 28:9-10). (4) Isaiah gives God's response to their mockery (Isaiah 11:13). (5) Judah joins Ephraim in their scoffing rejection of the Lord and takes refuge in a "refuge of lies" (Isaiah 28:14,15). (6)The true refuge is laid by God in Zion, "the stone," tried, precious, comer, etc. (Isaiah 28:16-19). (7) Human measures of security are inadequate; victory is with Jehovah only; therefore be not scoffers (Isaiah 28:20-22). (8) An agricultural parable is used to teach the wisdom of God's plans (Isaiah 28:23-29).

Isaiah 28:1-6

"Woe to the pride of the crown of the drunkards of Ephraim, and to the fading flower of his glorious beauty, which is on the head of the fat valley of them that are overcome with wine! Behold, the Lord hath a mighty and strong one; as a tempest of hail, a destroying storm, as a tempest of mighty waters over-flowing, will he cast down to the earth with the hand. The crown of the pride of the drunkards of Ephraim shall be trodden under foot: and the fading flower of his glorious beauty, which is on the head of the fat valley, which shall be as the first-ripe fig before the summer, which when he that looketh upon it seeth, while it is yet in his hand he eateth it up. In that day shall Jehovah of hosts become a crown of glory, and a diadem of beauty, unto the residue of his people; and a spirit of justice to him that sitteth in judgment, and strength to them that turn back the battle at the gate."

It would be well for America, especially her congressmen and other officials to heed the warning of God in this passage for Ephraim, whose drunken leaders led to the total destruction of their nation and to its disappearance from among the nations. We saw at Pearl Harbor what liquor can do for the defenses of a nation; but in spite of what must be obvious to every thoughtful person, the whiskey barons continue to corrupt the people.

The strange mingling of severe warnings and gentle promises of hope, especially noted in this chapter, is the result of Isaiah's discrimination between the leaders who are principally to blame for the approaching disaster and the rank and file of the people who are being misled. "He varies his tone and manner,"[4] accordingly as he addresses first one group, then another.

The city of Samaria on a hill, crowned with a wall around the summit, sat like a crown on the city dominating a fertile valley. The behavior of their leading men, being a group of sorted drunkards and practicing in their revels the social custom of crowning the head of a drunk with a garland, might also have suggested some of Isaiah's terminology here.

Verse two identifies God's instrument of destruction as the empire of the Assyrians, metaphorically described here as (1) a hail, (2) a destroying storm, and (3) as a devastating flood. The Assyrians were ready and would soon destroy Ephraim; but the Ephraimites continued to lead lives of, "libertinism and debauchery, in which even the clergy participated with disgusting excess."[5] Their egotistical and boastful over-confidence was noted by Rawlinson: "They said in their hearts, `We have taken to ourselves horns by our own strength' (Amos 6:4,5). They persisted in regarding themselves as secure."[6]

The practical interpretation of Isaiah 28:3 means that when the king of Assyria sees Samaria he will immediately take it and eat it up. It also indicates the ease with which Samaria would be taken. Its siege lasted less than three years (2 Kings 18:9,10); whereas the siege of Ashdod, according to Herodotus lasted 29 years, and that of Tyre lasted 13 years.[7]

"The residue of God's people ..." (Isaiah 28:5). This applies to the era afterward from the return of that "residue" from captivity, and ultimately to the establishment of the kingdom of Christ in the Messianic age. This meant that God would be by no means defeated by the debaucheries and rebellions of his people; but that God's purpose of blessing "all the families of the earth" in the "seed singular" of Abraham, the Messiah, would finally be accomplished no matter what Israel did (Genesis 12:3).

Such a joyful reference, however, was not dwelt upon by Isaiah. He turned his attention at once to the same shameful conduct in Judaea that existed in Ephraim. This was Lowth's position on Isaiah 28:5.[8] However, it seems to us that if there was indeed a focus upon Jerusalem, rather than Ephraim here it would have been announced, as in Isaiah 28:14.

Isaiah 28:6 is an additional promise of the righteousness that shall prevail in the days of Messiah.

Verse 7

"And even these reel with wine, and stagger with strong drink; the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink, they are swallowed up of wine, they stagger with strong drink; they err in vision, they stumble in judgment. For all tables are full of vomit and filthiness, so there is no place clean."

If Isaiah 28:5-6 are considered as a parenthesis, which they manifestly are, then these words are a continued description of the debaucheries of Ephraim. Some have tried to explain the drunkenness of Ephraim as A "spiritual" error; but the description of reeling, staggering, etc. is powerful evidence of common intoxication. Payne properly discerned this as an affirmation that, "Priests and prophets in the northern kingdom were no better than ordinary citizens."[9]

Verse 9

"Whom will he teach knowledge? and whom will he make to understand the message? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts? For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little and there a little."

We might paraphrase this mockery of Isaiah by the drunken rulers and leaders of Ephraim thus: Why, who does this man think he is teaching, a group of babies who have just been weaned? Is he trying to teach us our ABC's? These silly little sayings of his are nothing at all. They are just rule, rule, rule and law, law, law! J. B. Phillips has this, "Are we just weaned ... Do we have to learn that The law is the law is the law, the rule is the rule is the rule?" Such a mockery indicates that Isaiah's teachings might have been very simple and monosyllabic. Isaiah might have used the stammering, monosyllables of drunkards to announce some of his teachings. In any case, his hearers hated it!

God, through Isaiah, at once responded to the mockery.

Verse 11

"Nay, but by men of strange lips and with another tongue will he speak to this people; to whom he said, This is the rest, give ye rest to him that is weary; and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear. Therefore shall the word of Jehovah be unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, there a little; that they may go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken."

Well, here is tongue-speaking in the Old Testament; and as Kidner noted, "Paul quoted Isaiah 28:11 here in 1 Corinthians 14:21, affirming that `unknown tongues' are not God's greetings to a believing congregation";[10] but they are God's rebuke of an unbelieving and rebellious people.

The thought is, Very well, you reject Isaiah's messages from God; I will speak to you with the words of a cruel invader. You pretend not to understand what God says; but you will really not be able to understand the brutal language of your slave masters in Assyria.

Verse 14

"Wherefore hear the word of Jehovah, ye scoffers, that rule this people that is in Jerusalem: Because ye have said, We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol are we at agreement; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come unto me; for we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood have we hid ourselves:"

Practically all scholars suppose that Isaiah here does not mean that the leaders of Jerusalem actually spoke such words as these, but that their actions, instead of their words, indicated the thoughts and attitude in their hearts. There is also the possibility that the mention of a covenant with death and Sheol may mean that the leaders, "through necromancy, had actually invoked the false gods of the underworld."[11] Faith in the true God was at a low ebb in Jerusalem at the time indicated here.

In Isaiah 28:14, the focus actually shifts to the blind guides that were misleading God's people in Jerusalem. We are indebted to Payne for making this accurate division of the chapter. He wrote: "Isaiah 28:1-13 castigate the blind guides of the northern kingdom; and Isaiah 28:14-22 bring the rebuke home to Judah, and especially to the leading politicians in Jerusalem."[12]

Verse 16

"Therefore thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious cornerstone of sure foundation: he that believeth shall not be in haste. And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet; and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall overflow the hiding place. And your covenant with death shall be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, then ye shall be trodden down by it. As often as it passeth through, it shall take you; for morning by morning shall it pass through, by day and by night: and it shall be naught but terror to understand the message."


Isaiah had already revealed in Isaiah 8:14 that this stone would also be "a sanctuary, a stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense." Added to the three designations here, we have six adjectives for this Rock.

They are (1) elect; (2) cornerstone; (3) tried; (4) sanctuary; (5) stone of stumbling; and (6) rock of offense. It might also be added that Christ is the stone "from another world," and he is "the living stone" (Zechariah 3:9), and the "growing stone" (Daniel 2:34-35). For an extended discussion of this fantastic stone, see Vol. 6 of my New Testament Series, pp. 337-341.

It should be noted that the way of God's revelation is always, "here a little, and there a little," as mentioned in this very chapter. One must even put two passages of Isaiah together for the information here indicated. Paul also quoted these passages together in Romans 9:33.

We cannot agree with the scholars who interpret this stone as any thing or any person other than Christ. Kelley seemed to think it would be a literal rock upon which would be inscribed, "He that believeth shall not make haste."[13] Payne thought it "symbolized God's protection."[14] and Rawlinson wrote that "Jehovah himself would seem to be the Rock."[15] No! Such explanations should not even be considered. Only Jesus Christ fulfills the description of this Holy Rock as revealed in the Bible.

Before leaving this little paragraph, we should note the word-play mentioned in this place by Hailey. The priests had mocked Isaiah, saying, "Whom will he make to understand the message!" As the word came to Jerusalem, the message day after day and week after week would be of city after city falling to the Assyrians; but the scoffers would be able to understand the message of judgment and destruction repeatedly delivered to them with reports of many cities falling to Assyria.

Verse 20

"The bed is shorter than that a man can stretch himself on it; and the covering narrower than that he can wrap himself in it. For Jehovah will rise up as in mount Perazim, he will be wroth as in the valley of Gibeon; that he may do his work, his strange work, and bring to pass his act, his strange act. Now therefore be ye not scoffers, lest your bonds be made strong; for a decree of destruction have I heard from the Lord, Jehovah of hosts, upon the whole earth."

It makes no difference whether Isaiah 28:20 is a popular ancient proverb or not. It surely describes an uncomfortable and intolerable situation; and such are all human devices for security where moral and eternal things are involved. True security is with God alone.

The two place-names here give the sites of battles where David won significant victories over the Philistines (1Chr. 14:11,1 Chronicles 14:16). This verse, however, shows that God will now be on the side of Israel's enemy not as an ally of Israel. The terrible punishment of God's own people by the sword of foreigners was indeed a "Strange work, a strange act; but it was the `strange conduct' of God's people that lay behind God's strange work."[16]

Verse 23

"Give ye ear, and hear my voice; hearken, and hear my speech. Doth he that ploweth to sow plow continually? doth he continually open and harrow his ground? When he hath leveled the face thereof, doth he not cast abroad the fitches, and scatter the cummin, and put in the wheat in rows, and the barley in the appointed place, and the spelt in the border thereof?. For his God doth instruct him aright, and doth teach him. For the fitches are not threshed with a sharp threshing instrument, neither is a cart wheel turned about upon the cummin; but the fitches are beaten out with a staff, and the cummin with a rod. Bread grain is ground; for he will not be always threshing it; for though the wheel of his cart and his horses scatter it, he doth not grind it. This also cometh forth from Jehovah of hosts, who is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in wisdom."

This is a beautiful little parable drawn from the agricultural industry, the point being that such things as plowing and threshing have their specific purposes; therefore God's punishments of people, whether his own, or his enemies is purposeful, always looking forward to the projected results.

Fitches were a common herb, cultivated as a forage plant, or `black cummin,' whose aromatic seeds were a favorite condiment of the Greeks and Romans."[17] "Spelt was what we would call rye, or an inferior kind of wheat."[18] Even the farmer who belonged to a class of people probably despised by the drunken leaders of the people, knew that all of God's law must be respected and obeyed if one is to reap a harvest from the earth; yet those foolish leaders fancied that they could wantonly forsake all honor and morality, live in shame and debauchery, and that somehow, in spite of all that, God would enable them to go on unhindered in their licentious ways. What a terrible awakening awaited them!

Copyright Statement
Coffman's Commentaries reproduced by permission of Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. All other rights reserved.
Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Isaiah 28". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.