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Bible Commentaries

Dr. Constable's Expository Notes

Isaiah 28

The woe against Ephraim and Judah ch. 28

"The section begins (1-6) and ends (23-29) with double illustrations drawn from nature and agriculture. Between lies a meditation in eight broadly equal parts on how Jerusalem’s leaders refused the word of invitation and inherited the word of wrath (7-22)." [Note: Ibid., pp. 228-29.]

Verse 1

"Woe" (Heb. hoy), as mentioned earlier (cf. Isaiah 5:8; Isaiah 5:11; Isaiah 5:18; Isaiah 5:20-22; Isaiah 6:5), is a term of lament and threat. It expresses emotion, summons others, and connotes sympathy. Here the object of the prophet’s "woe" was the leaders of Ephraim, the Northern Kingdom of Israel. The reason for his "woe" was the pride of these representatives that was their outstanding mark and that resulted in their complacent revelry (cf. Amos 4:1; Amos 6:1; Amos 6:6). This nation and its leaders had been objects of admiration, but now their glory was fading, like the flowers they wore in garlands on their heads as they indulged in drunken revelry. Ephraim’s capital, Samaria, stood like a crown at the eastern end of the fertile Shechem Valley, which drained into the Mediterranean Sea to the west. A false sense of security led these leaders to spend too much time drinking wine, which now controlled them.

"The metaphor of drunkenness dominates the episode. It is a figure of Israel’s stumbling, bumbling life during the last decades of its existence (ca. 740-21 B.C.)." [Note: Watts, p. 362.]

Verses 1-6

The folly of Israel’s leaders 28:1-6

The prophet began by exposing the folly of the leaders of the Northern Kingdom. He condemned them for their proud scoffing. The "woe" appears at first to be against them alone, but as the chapter unfolds it becomes clear that Isaiah was pronouncing woe on the leaders of the Southern Kingdom even more.

Verse 2

Ephraim was in danger because the Lord had an irresistible agent who would humble her pride, as a storm overwhelms the unprepared. Assyria was that agent, but the prophet did not name it, perhaps because he wanted to emphasize the principles involved in the judgment.

Verse 3

With prophetic perfect tenses, Isaiah predicted the overthrow of Ephraim and its leaders. It was as good as accomplished. With hand (Isaiah 28:2) and foot (Isaiah 28:3), God would throw down and trample His people.

Verse 4

Ephraim’s pride (Isaiah 28:3) made her ripe for judgment. Her enemy would pluck her and consume her as greedily and as easily as a person who sees a ripe fig on a tree at the beginning of the fig season picks it, pops it into his mouth, and swallows it (cf. Hosea 9:10; Micah 7:1).

Verses 5-6

"In that day," when Ephriam would fall, the Lord would also preserve a remnant of the Northern Kingdom. He would be the true crown (king, cf. Isaiah 11:1-9) of His people and a source of glory for them, in contrast to their present fading garlands (cf. Isaiah 28:1; Isaiah 4:2-6). He would also become the standard and facilitator of justice for their judges and the strength of their soldiers (cf. Isaiah 11:2). This does not mean that the faithful Ephraimites would turn on their enemies and defeat them, but that they would find in the Lord all that they had looked for previously in the wrong places. Note that this note of mercy concludes a pronouncement of judgment.

Verses 7-8

The priests and the false prophets in Judah, on the other hand, drank so much that their visions and judgments were distorted, and they degraded themselves by vomiting all over their tables. [Note: See Leon J. Wood, The Prophets of Israel, ch. 7: "False Prophecy in Israel," for a good discussion of this subject.] Isaiah chose onomatopoetic words in Hebrew to mimic the staggering and stumbling of the drunkards: shagu-taghu, shagu-taghu, shagu-paqu.

Verses 7-22

The folly of Judah’s leaders 28:7-22

Isaiah now compared the pride and indulgence of the Ephraimite leaders to that of their Southern Kingdom brethren. The leaders of Judah were even worse. There is some debate among scholars about where reference to Ephraim’s rulers ends and where reference to Judah’s leaders begins. It seems to me that the context favors the change occurring between Isaiah 28:6-7.

Verses 9-10

These drunken leaders mocked Isaiah for the simplicity and repetition with which he presented the Lord’s messages (cf. Acts 17:18).

"Verses 9, 10 give us the jeering reply of the pro-Assyrian party of King Ahaz, who resisted the impact of Isaiah’s words recorded in the previous paragraph. They scoffed at his remarks as ’Sunday School moralizing,’ appropriate for infants but quite irrelevant to grown men who understand the art of practical politics." [Note: Archer, p. 628.]

"His [God’s] laws are like little petty annoyances, one command after another, or one joined to another, coming constantly." [Note: Young, 2:276.]

They accused Isaiah of proclaiming elementary teaching and of speaking to them like small children (cf. Isaiah 6:9-10). What Isaiah advocated was trust in the Lord rather than reliance on foreign alliances for national security. Isaiah built his hearers’ knowledge bit by bit, adding a little here and a little there. This is, of course, the best method of teaching, but it has never appealed to proud intellectuals who consider themselves beyond the simplicity of God’s truth. Similarly, today, many modern university professors of religion ridicule those who believe we should take the Bible at face value.

"There is no more hardened nor cynical person in the world than a religious leader who has seared his conscience. For them, tender appeals which would move anyone else become sources of amusement. They have learned how to debunk everything and to believe nothing (Hebrews 10:26-31), all the while speaking loftily of matters of the spirit (James 3:13-18)." [Note: Oswalt, p. 509.]

"How odd that the more correction we need, the less we think we need it." [Note: Ibid., p. 511.]

Verses 11-12

Isaiah turned his critics’ words back on themselves; what they had said about his words in mockery would overtake them. If God’s people refused to listen to words spoken in simple intelligibility, He would give them unintelligibility as a judgment (cf. Matthew 23:37). Since they refused to learn from a prophet who appealed to them in their own language, He would teach them with plunderers whose language (Akkadian) they would not understand, but whose lances they would take in. They would learn to rest on Yahweh from their foreign foe’s treatment of them if they refused to learn that lesson from Isaiah.

The Apostle Paul used Isaiah 28:11 to remind the Corinthians that messages in tongues (foreign languages), far from being a sign of spirituality, indicate that the recipients are spiritually immature (1 Corinthians 14:20-21). Likewise, Isaiah revealed that when people are so spiritually dull that simple messages do not move them, God will teach them through experience.

Verse 13

The Lord would continue to teach them bit by bit, and a little here and a little there, through hardship. The result would be retrogression, brokenness, entrapment, and captivity.

". . . in order for maturity to be reached, the child must be allowed to suffer the consequences of its actions. For the parent to intervene constantly and to nullify the results is to give the child a wholly misshapen understanding of life." [Note: Ibid., p. 513.]

Verses 14-15

The rulers in Jerusalem scoffed at the Lord’s Word, but Isaiah called on them to listen to it. "Scoffer" is the strongest negative term that the Old Testament writers used to describe the wicked (cf. Psalms 1:1-2; Proverbs 1:22; Proverbs 13:1; Proverbs 14:9; Proverbs 21:24; Proverbs 29:8). A scoffer not only chooses the wrong way, but he or she also mocks the right way. He or she is not only misled, but he or she delights in misleading others. The rulers had made a covenant with some nation (probably Egypt) that involved deception and falsehood (probably against Assyria). Israel had already made a covenant with Yahweh that guaranteed her security (Exodus 19 -Numbers 10). Why did she need to make another? The rulers thought that as a result of their covenant, the scourge of their dreaded enemy (Assyria) would not touch them. But Isaiah sarcastically told them that their covenant was really with Death and Sheol; death would be the outcome of their pact. They were the naive ones, not he (cf. Isaiah 28:9-10).

Verse 16

"In contrast to this supposedly clever diplomacy of power politics, God declares the true basis of Israel’s safety: the person and work of the Messianic Redeemer." [Note: Archer, p. 628.]

The Lord God’s response to His people’s lack of faith in Him was to reveal that He was doing something too. He was laying a firm foundation in Jerusalem that they could and should build on. This huge "stone" was tested, planted securely, and a sound basis for security. Ancient cornerstones were not the same as modern western ones. They were the largest and most determinative stone in the foundation of a building. Builders oriented the rest of the foundation in reference to this stone (cf. Ephesians 2:20), and it supported the major portion of the superstructure. What was this stone? I believe it was Messiah (cf. Psalms 118:22; Zechariah 3:9; Zechariah 10:4; Matthew 21:42; Mark 12:10; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; Romans 9:33; Romans 10:11; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:6).

The commentators have offered many interpretations of this cornerstone, and several of them have written extended discussions of the figure. In biblical usage, the figure of God as a stone goes back to Genesis 49:24 (cf. Deuteronomy 32:4; Isaiah 8:14-15). Since Messiah would be God (Isaiah 9:6), the interpretation of this stone as Messiah is in harmony with these other biblical uses of the figure (cf. Isaiah 8:14). God was doing something that would make possible a stable edifice (Israel), namely, preparing for Messiah. Those in Isaiah’s day who believed that God was working for His people would not panic. Perhaps Isaiah’s hearers did not recognize this as messianic prophecy when the prophet gave it (cf. Isaiah 7:14; Isaiah 9:6). Perhaps they thought that Isaiah just meant that God was doing something hidden that would result in the security of their nation, and they should trust Him.

Verse 17

The rulers had made a covenant in which they hoped (Isaiah 28:15), but God would make justice and righteousness the measuring standards by which He would act and judge His people. They thought they could avoid the "overwhelming scourge" (cf. Isaiah 10:22; Isaiah 10:26) of their enemy by taking refuge in a treaty (Isaiah 28:15), but God would allow them to be swept away by an adversary (cf. Isaiah 28:2).

Verses 18-19

Their signed agreements would prove meaningless. Their boast of immunity from catastrophe would prove hollow. They mocked a message leading to rest and chose to embrace a message resulting in terror. The scourge God would send would be like a marauding beast as well as a hailstorm and a flood.

"The Assyrian annals report numerous returns to the same areas, each return being accompanied by vast slaughter and pillage. The steady hammer blows of such an attack spread out over years, whether calculatedly so, or as a result of political exigencies elsewhere, could be expected to reduce a people to shivering terror, as the prophet noted here." [Note: Oswalt, pp. 519-20.]

Verse 20

The resting place and the cover the Judahites had chosen for themselves (Isaiah 28:12) would prove disappointingly uncomfortable. A treaty with Egypt would be inadequate.

Verse 21

A second reason for the Jerusalemites’ terror (cf. Isaiah 28:18-19) would be divine hostility. The Lord would rise up against His people to defeat them, as He formerly rose up to defeat the Philistines at Mount Perazim (lit. breaking forth) "like the break-through of waters" (2 Samuel 5:20; 1 Chronicles 14:11). He had also defeated the Canaanites in the valley of Gibeon with hailstones (Joshua 10:11). Defeating the Israelites was strange work for the Lord because He customarily defended them. Judgment is His "strange work," especially judgment of His own people, a work foreign to what He usually does, namely: bless.

Verse 22

Isaiah called on the rulers to stop being scoffers (cf. Isaiah 28:14), or their punishment would be worse. It was unavoidable, but by repenting they could lessen it. Thus, this section of the "woe" that describes judgment coming on Judah ends with a note of mercy, just as the section describing judgment coming on Ephraim did (Isaiah 28:5-6).

Verse 23

The prophet appealed to his audience to listen to him (cf. Mark 4:3; Mark 4:9), even though some of them were scoffers. What he had to say was very important for them. Failure to listen to God’s Word had been the fatal flaw of the leaders, but they could still hearken and respond. The prophet used two illustrations.

Verses 23-29

A call for repentance 28:23-29

How would the leaders of Judah respond? Would they continue in their chosen course of action and so suffer the fate of the Northern Kingdom, or would they repent and experience a milder judgment? Isaiah ended this "woe" by illustrating the alternatives and urging repentance (cf. chs. 5-6).

"Isaiah here proves himself a master of the mashal [proverb]. In the usual tone of a mashal song, he first of all claims the attention of his audience as a teacher of wisdom." [Note: Delitzsch, 2:14.]

Verses 24-26

A wise farmer follows a plan in his plowing and planting so each type of seed will grow best. Some seed requires planting under the ground and other seed on top. God teaches the farmer this discrimination just as God Himself practices discrimination in dealing with people. Earlier in this chapter Isaiah offered a promise of blessing (Isaiah 28:5-6), but later he promised blasting (Isaiah 28:14-22). God would use both instruments to deal with His people. Using both was not inconsistent.

Verses 27-29

Likewise a farmer threshes dill, cummin, and grain in different ways. This is also wisdom that Yahweh of armies teaches. A simple farmer learns how to plow, plant, thresh, and grind from God, by studying nature, and as he applies what God teaches, there is blessing. How much more should the sophisticated leaders of Judah learn from Him to trust Him.

". . . God measures the instruments of His purpose to the condition of His people; He employs what will best carry out His holy will." [Note: Young, 2:301.]

"The farmer does not plow for the sake of plowing, but rather to prepare for his intended crop. So also God prepares his garden for the crop he wishes to reap-the crop of righteousness from a holy people. To this end God must employ the cutting and crumbling force of disciplinary judgments, perfectly adjusted to Israel’s spiritual needs, just as the farmer (using the intelligence God gave him) uses the proper threshing instruments for each type of grain." [Note: Archer, p. 629.]

An implication of these two parables (Isaiah 28:24-25; Isaiah 28:27-28), not stated, is that God might deal differently with the Southern Kingdom than He dealt with the Northern Kingdom. The Jerusalemites should not conclude that because God would allow the Assyrians to defeat the Ephraimites, the same fate would necessarily befall them. A change of attitude could mitigate their judgment. So this whole "woe" ends with an implied offer of grace.

As things worked out, of course, God did allow an invading army to take the Judahites into captivity, after a different invading army had first taken the Israelites captive. But that did not happen at the same time. Sennacherib destroyed Samaria but not Jerusalem. God postponed Judah’s judgment because He found a measure of repentance there.

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Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 28". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.