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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Isaiah 28

Verses 1-29



ABOUT 725 B.C.

Isaiah 28:1-29

THE twenty-eighth chapter of the Book of Isaiah is one of the greatest of his prophecies. It is distinguished by that regal versatility of style, which places its author at the head of Hebrew writers. Keen analyses of character, realistic contrasts between sin and judgment, clever retorts and epigrams, rapids of scorn, and "a spate" of judgment, but for final issue a placid stream of argument banked by sweet parable-such are the literary charms of the chapter, which derives its moral grandeur from the force with which its currents set towards faith and reason, as together the salvation of states, politicians, and private men. The style mirrors life about ourselves, and still tastes fresh to thirsty men. The truths are relevant to every day in which luxury and intemperance abound, in which there are eyes too fevered by sin to see beauty in simple purity, and minds so surfeited with knowledge or intoxicated with their own cleverness, that they call the maxims of moral reason commonplace and scorn religious instruction as food for babes.

Some time when the big, black cloud was gathering again on the north, Isaiah raised his voice to the magnates of Jerusalem: "Lift your heads from your wine-bowls; look north. The sunshine is still on Samaria, and your fellow-drinkers there are revelling in security. But the storm creeps up behind. They shall certainly perish soon; even you cannot help seeing that. Let it scare you, for their sin is yours, and that storm will not exhaust itself on Samaria. Do not think that your clever policies, alliance with Egypt or the treaty with Assyria herself, shall save you. Men are never saved from death and hell by making covenants with them. Scorners of religion and righteousness, except ye cease being sceptical and drunken, and come back from your diplomacy to faith and reason, ye shall not be saved! This destruction that looms is going to cover the whole earth. So stop your running to and fro across it in search of alliances. ‘He that believeth shall not make haste.’ Stay at home and trust in the God of Zion, for Zion is the one thing that shall survive." In the parable, which closes the prophecy, Isaiah offers some relief to this dark prospect: "Do not think of God as a mere disaster-monger, maker of terrors for men. He has a plan, even in catastrophe, and this deluge, which looks like destruction for all of us, has its method, term, and fruits, just as much as the husbandman’s harrowing of the earth or threshing of the corn."

The chapter with this argument falls into four divisions.


(Isaiah 28:1-6)

They had always been hard drinkers in North Israel. Fifty years before, Amos flashed judgment on those who trusted in the mount of Samaria, "lolling upon their couches and gulping their wine out of basons," women as well as men. Upon these same drunkards of Ephraim, now soaked and "stunned with wine," Isaiah fastens his Woe. Sunny the sky and balmy the air in which they lie, stretched upon flowers by the heads of their fat valleys- a land that tempts its inhabitants with the security of perpetual summer. But God’s swift storm drives up the valley-hail, rain, and violent streams from every gorge. Flowers, wreaths, and pampered bodies are trampled in the mire. The glory of sunny Ephraim is as the first ripe fig a man findeth, and "while it is yet in his hand, he eateth it up." But while drunken magnates and the flowers of a rich land are swept away, there is a residue who can and do abide even that storm, to whom the Lord Himself shall be for a crown, "a spirit of justice to him that sitteth for justice, and for strength to them that turn back the battle at the gate."

Isaiah’s intention is manifest, and his effort a great one. It is to rob passion of its magic and change men’s temptations to their disgusts, by exhibiting how squalid passion shows beneath disaster, and how gloriously purity shines surviving it. It is to strip luxury and indulgence of their attractiveness by drenching them with the storm of judgment, and then not to leave them stunned, but to rouse in them a moral admiration and envy by the presentation of certain grand survivals of the storm-unstained justice and victorious valour. Isaiah first sweeps the atmosphere, hot from infective passion, with the cold tempest from the north. Then in the clear shining after rain he points to two figures, which have preserved through temptation and disaster, and now lift against a smiling sky, the ideal that those corrupt judges and drunken warriors have dragged into the mire-"him that sitteth for justice and him that turneth back the battle at the gate." The escape from sensuality, this passage suggests, is twofold. There is the exposure to nature where God’s judgments sweep their irresistible way; and then from the despair, which the unrelieved spectacle of judgment produces, there is the recovery to moral effort through the admiration of those purities and heroisms, that by God’s Spirit have survived.

When God has put a conscience into the art or literature of any generation, they have followed this method of Isaiah, but not always to the healthy end which he reaches. To show the slaves of Circe the physical disaster impending-which you must begin by doing if you are to impress their brutalised minds-is not enough. The lesson of Tennyson’s "Vision of Sin" and of Arnold’s "New Sirens," that night and frost, decay and death, come down at last on pampered sense, is necessary, but not enough. Who stops there remains a defective and morbid moralist. When you have made the sensual shiver before the disease that inevitably awaits them, you must go on to show that there are men who have the secret of surviving the most terrible judgments of God, and lift their figures calm and victorious against the storm-washed sky. Preach the depravity of men, but never apart from the possibilities that remain in them. It is Isaiah’s health as a moralist that he combines the two. No prophet ever threatened judgment more inexorable and complete than he. Yet he never failed to tell the sinner how possible it was for him to be different. If it were necessary to crush men in the mud, Isaiah would not leave them there with the hearts of swine. But he put conscience in them, and the envy of what was pure, and the admiration of what was victorious. Even as they wallowed, he pointed them to the figures of men like themselves, who had survived and overcome by the Spirit of God. Here we perceive the ethical possibilities that lay in his fundamental doctrine of a remnant. Isaiah never crushed men beneath the fear of judgment, without revealing to them the possibility and beauty of victorious virtue. Had we lived in those great days, what a help he had been to us-what a help he may be still!-not only firm to declare that the wages of sin is death, but careful to effect that our humiliation shall not be despair, and that even when we feel our shame and irretrievableness the most, we shall have the opportunity to behold our humanity crowned and seated on the throne from which we had fallen, our humanity driving back the battle from the gate against which we had been hopelessly driven! That seventh verse sounds like a trumpet in the ears of enervated and despairing men.


(Isaiah 28:7-13)

But Isaiah has cast his pearls before swine. The men of Jerusalem, whom he addresses, are too deep in sensuality to be roused by his noble words. "Even priest and prophet stagger through strong drink"; and the class that should have been the conscience of the city, responding: immediately to the word of God, "reel in vision and stumble in judgment." They turn upon Isaiah’s earnest message with tipsy men’s insolence. Isaiah 28:9-10 should be within inverted commas, for they are the mocking reply of drunkards over their cups. "Whom is he going to teach knowledge, and upon whom is he trying to force ‘the Message’," as he calls it? "Them that are weaned from the milk and drawn from the breasts?" Are we school-children, that he treats us with his endless platitudes and repetitions.-"precept upon precept and precept upon precept, line upon line and line upon line, here a little and there a little." So did these bibulous prophets, priests, and politicians mock Isaiah’s messages of judgment, wagging their heads in mimicry of his simple, earnest tones. "We must conceive the abrupt, intentionally short, reiterated and almost childish words of Isaiah 28:10 as spoken in mimicry, with a mocking motion of the head, and in a childish, stammering, taunting tone."

But Isaiah turns upon them with their own words: "You call me, Stammerer! I tell you that God, Who speaks through me, and Whom in me you mock, will one day speak again to you in a tongue that shall indeed sound stammering to you. When those far-off barbarians have reached your walls, and over them taunt you in uncouth tones, then shall you hear how God can stammer. For these shall be the very voice of Him, and as He threatens you with captivity it shall be your bitterness to remember how by me He once offered you ‘a rest and refreshing,’ which you refused. I tell you more. God will not only speak in words, but in deeds, and then truly your nickname for His message shall be fulfilled to you. Then shall the word of the Lord be unto you ‘precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little and there a little.’ For God shall speak with the terrible simplicity and slowness of deeds, with the gradual growth of fate, with the monotonous stages of decay, till step by step you ‘go, and stumble backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.’ You have scorned my instruction as monosyllables fit for children! By irritating monosyllables of gradual penalty shall God instruct you the second time."

This is not only a very clever and cynical retort, but the statement of a moral principle. We gather from Isaiah that God speaks twice to men, first in words and then by deeds, but both times very simply and plainly. And if men deride and abuse the simplicity of the former, if they ignore moral and religious truths because they are elementary, and rebel against the quiet reiteration of simple voices, with which God sees it most healthy to conduct their education, then they shall be stunned by the commonplace pertinacity, with which the effects of their insolence work themselves out in life. God’s ways with men are mostly commonplace; that is the hardest lesson we have to learn. The tongue of conscience speaks like the tongue of time, prevailingly by ticks and moments; not in undue excitement of soul and body, not in the stirring up of out: passions nor by enlisting our ambitions, not in thunder nor in startling visions, but by everyday precepts of faithfulness, honour, and purity, to which conscience has to rise unwinged by fancy or ambition, and dreadfully weighted with the dreariness of life. If we, carried away upon the rushing interests of the world, and with our appetite spoiled by the wealth and piquancy of intellectual knowledge, despise the simple monitions of conscience and Scripture, as uninteresting and childish, this is the risk we run, -that God will speak to us in another, and this time unshirkable, kind of commonplace. What that is we shall understand, when a career of dissipation or unscrupulous ambition has bereft life of all interest and joy, when one enthusiasm after another grows dull, and one pleasure after another tasteless, when all the little things of life preach to us of judgment, and "the grasshopper becometh a burden," and we, slowly descending through the drab and monotony of decay, suffer the last great commonplace, death. There can be no greater irony than for the soul, which has sinned by too greedily seeking for sensation, to find sensation absent even from the judgments she has brought upon herself. Poor Heine’s "Confessions" acknowledge, at once with the appreciation of an artist and the pain of a victim, the satire, with which the Almighty inflicts, in the way that Isaiah describes, His penalties upon sins of sense.


(Isaiah 28:14-22)

To Isaiah’s threats of destruction, the politicians of Jerusalem replied, We have bought destruction off! They meant some treaty with a foreign power. Diplomacy is always obscure, and at that distance its details are buried for us in impenetrable darkness. But we may safely conclude that it was either the treaty of Ahaz with Assyria, or some counter-treaty executed with Egypt since this power began again to rise into pretentiousness, or more probably still it was a secret agreement with the southern power, while the open treaty with the northern was yet in force. Isaiah, from the way in which he speaks, seems to have been in ignorance of all, except that the politician’s boast was an unhallowed, underhand intrigue, accomplished by much swindling and false conceit of cleverness. This wretched subterfuge Isaiah exposes in some of the most powerful sentences he ever uttered. A faithless diplomacy was never more thoroughly laid bare, in its miserable mixture of political pedantry and falsehood.

"Therefore hear the word of Jehovah, ye men of scorn, rulers of this people, which is in Jerusalem!"

"Because ye have said, We have entered into a covenant with Death, and with Hell have we made a bargain; the ‘Overflowing Scourge,"’ a current phrase of Isaiah’s which they fling back in his teeth, "when it passeth along, shall not come unto us, for we have set lies as our refuge, and in falsehood have we hidden ourselves" [the prophet’s penetrating scorn drags up into their boast the secret conscience of their hearts, that after all lies did form the basis of this political arrangement], "therefore thus saith the Lord Jehovah: Behold, I lay in Zion for foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner-stone of sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste." No need of swift couriers to Egypt, and fret and fever of poor political brains in Jerusalem! The word make haste is onomatopoetic, like our fuss, and, if fuss may be applied to the conduct of high affairs of state, its exact equivalent in meaning.

"And I will set justice for a line, and righteousness for a plummet, and hail shall sweep away the subterfuge of lies, and the secrecy shall waters overflow. And cancelled shall be your covenant with Death, and your bargain with Hell shall not stand."

"‘The Overflowing Scourge,"’ indeed! "When it passeth over, then ye shall be unto it for trampling. As often as it passeth over, it shall take you away, for morning by morning shall it pass over, by day and by night. Then shall it be sheer terror to realise ‘the Message’!" Too late then for anything else. Had you realised "the Message" now, what rest and refreshing! But then only terror.

"For the bed is shorter than that a man can stretch himself upon it, and the covering narrower than that he can wrap himself in it." This proverb seems to be struck out of the prophet by the belief of the politicians, that they are creating a stable and restful policy for Judah. It flashes an aspect of hopeless uneasiness over the whole political situation. However they make their bed, with Egypt’s or Assyria’s help, they shall not find it comfortable. No cleverness of theirs can create a satisfactory condition of affairs, no political arrangement, nothing short of faith, of absolute reliance on that bare foundation-stone laid in Zion, -God’s assurance that Jerusalem is inviolable.

"For Jehovah shall arise as on Mount Peratsim; He shall be stirred as in the valley of Gibeon, to do His deed-strange is this deed of His, and to bring to pass His act-strange is His act."

"Now, therefore, play no more the scorner, lest your bands be made tight, for a consumption, and that determined have I heard from the Lord, Jehovah of Hosts, upon the whole earth." This finishes the matter. Possibility of alliance there is for sane men nowhere in this world of Western Asia, so evidently near convulsion. Only the foundation-stone in Zion shall be left. Cling to that.

When the pedantic members of the General Assembly of the Kirk of Scotland, in the year 1650, were clinging with all the grip of their hard logic, but with very little heart, to the "Divine right of kings," and attempting an impossible state, whose statute-book was to be the Westminster Confession, and its chief executive officer King Charles II, Cromwell, then encamped at Musselburgh, sent them that letter in which the famous sentence occurs:

"I beseech you in the bowels of Christ, think it possible you may be mistaken. Precept may be upon precept, line may be upon line," he goes on to say, "and yet the Word of the Lord may be to some a word of Judgment; that they may fall backward, and be broken, and be snared, and be taken! There may be a spiritual fulness, which the world may call drunkenness; as in the second chapter of the Acts. There may be, as well, a carnal confidence upon misunderstood and misapplied precepts, which may be called spiritual drunkenness. There may be a Covenant made with Death and Hell! I will not say yours was so. But judge if such things have a politic aim: To avoid the overflowing scourge; or, To accomplish worldly interests? And if therein you have confederated with wicked and carnal men, and have respect for them, or otherwise have drawn them in to associate with us, Whether this be a covenant of God and spiritual? Bethink yourselves; we hope we do.

I pray you read the Twenty-eighth of Isaiah, from the fifth to the fifteenth verse. And do not scorn to know that it is the Spirit that quickens and giveth life."

Cromwell, as we have said, is the best commentator Isaiah has ever had, and that by an instinct born, not only of the same faith, but of experience in tackling similar sorts of character. In this letter he is dealing, like Isaiah, with stubborn pedants, who are endeavouring to fasten the national fortunes upon a Procrustean policy. The diplomacy of Jerusalem was very clever; the Covenanting ecclesiasticism of Edinburgh was logical and consistent. But a Jewish alliance with Assyria and the attempt of Scotsmen to force their covenant upon the whole United Kingdom were equally sheer impossibilities. In either case "the bed was shorter than that a man could stretch himself on it, and the covering narrower than that he could wrap himself in it." Both, too, were "covenants with Death and Hell"; for if the attempt of the Scots to secure Charles II by the covenant was free from the falsehood of Jewish diplomacy, it was fatally certain, if successful, to have led to the subversion of their highest religious interests; and history has proved that Cromwell was no more than just in applying to it the strong expressions, which Isaiah uses Of Judah’s ominous treaties with the unscrupulous heathen. Over against so pedantic an idea as that of forcing the life of the three nations into the mould of the one Covenant, and so fatal a folly as the attempt to commit the interests of religion to the keeping of the dissolute and perjured king, Cromwell stands in his great toleration of everything but unrighteousness and his strong conviction of three truths: - that the religious life of Great Britain and Ireland was too rich and varied for the Covenant: that national and religious interests so complicated and precious could be decided only upon the plainest principles of faith and justice: and that, tested by these principles, Charles and his crew were as utterly without worth to the nation and as pregnant with destruction, as Isaiah felt Assyria and Egypt to be to Judah. The battle-cries of the two parties at Dunbar are significant of the spiritual difference between them. That of the Scots was "The Covenant!" Cromwell’s was Isaiah’s own, "The Lord of Hosts!" However logical, religious, and sincere theirs might be, it was at the best a scheme of men too narrow for events, and fatally compromised by its association with Charles II. But Cromwell’s battle-cry required only a moderately sincere faith from those who adopted it to ensure their victory. For to them it meant just what it had meant to Isaiah, loyalty to a Divine providence, supreme in righteousness, the willingness to be guided by events, interpreting them by no tradition or scheme, but only by conscience. He who understands this will be able to see which side was right in that strange civil war, where both so sincerely claimed to be Scriptural.

It may be wondered why we spend so much argument on comparing the attempt to force Charles II into the Solemn League and Covenant with the impious treaty of Judah with the heathen. But the argument has not been wasted, if it have shown how even sincere and religious men may make covenants with death, and even Church creeds and constitutions become beds too short that a man may lie upon them, coverings narrower than that he can wrap himself in them. Not once or twice has it happened that an old and hallowed constitution has become, in the providence of God, unfit for the larger life of a people or of a Church, and yet is clung to by parties in that Church or people from motives of theological pedantry or ecclesiastical cowardice. Sooner or later a crisis is sure to arrive, in which the defective creed has to match itself against some interest of justice; and then endless compromises have to be entertained, that discover themselves perilously like "bargains with hell." If we of this generation have to make a public application of the twenty-eighth chapter of Isaiah, it lies in this direction. There are few things, to which his famous proverb of the short bed can be applied more aptly, than to the attempt to fasten down the religious life and thought of the present age too rigorously upon a creed of the fashion of two or three hundred years ago.

But Isaiah’s words have wider application. Short of faith as he exemplified it, there is no possibility for the spirit of man to be free from uneasiness. It is so all along the scale of human endeavour. No power of patience or of hope is his, who cannot imagine possibilities of truth outside his own opinions, nor trust a justice larger than his private rights. It is here very often that the real test of our faith meets us. If we seek to fit life solely to the conception of our privileges, if in the preaching of our opinions no mystery of higher truth awe us at least into reverence and caution; then, whatever religious creeds we profess, we are not men of faith, but shall surely inherit the bitterness and turmoil that are the portion of unbelievers. If we make it the chief aim of our politics to drive cheap bargains for our trade or to be consistent to party or class interests; if we trim our conscience to popular opinion: if we sell our honesty in business or our love in marriage, that we may be comfortable in the world; then, however firmly we be established in reputation or in welfare, we have given our spiritual nature a support utterly inadequate to its needs, and we shall never find rest. Sooner or later, a man must feel the pinch of having cut his life short of the demands of conscience. Only a generous loyalty to her decrees will leave him freedom of heart and room for his arm to swing. Nor will any philosophy, however comprehensive, nor poetic fancy, however elastic, be able without the complement of faith to arrange, to account for, or to console us for, the actual facts of experience. It is only belief in the God of Isaiah, a true and loving God, omnipotent Ruler of our life, that can bring us peace. There was never a sorrow that did not find explanation in that, never a tired thought that would not cling to it. There are no interests so scattered nor energies so far-reaching that there is not return and rest for them under the shadow of His wings. "He that believeth shall not make haste." "Be still," says a psalm of the same date as Isaiah-"Be still, and know that I am God."


(Isaiah 28:23-29)

The patience of faith, which Isaiah has so nobly preached, he now proceeds to vindicate by reason. But the vindication implies that his audience are already in another mood. From confidence in their clever diplomacy, heedless of the fact that God has His own purposes concerning them, they have swung round to despair before His judgments. Their despair, however, is due to the same fault as their careless confidence-the forgetfulness that God works by counsel and method. Even a calamity, so universal and extreme as that of whose certainty the prophet has now convinced them, has its measure and its term. To persuade the crushed and superstitious Jews of this, Isaiah employs a parable. "You know," he says, "the husbandman. Have you ever seen him keep on ‘harrowing and breaking the clods of his land’ for mere sport, and without farther intention? Does not the harrowing time lead to the sowing time? Or again, when he threshes his crops, does he thresh for ever? Is threshing the end he has in view? Look, how he varies the rigour of his instrument by the kind of plant he threshes. For delicate plants, like fitches and cummin, he does not use the ‘threshing sledge’ with the sharp teeth, or the lumbering roller, but the fitches are beaten out with a staff and the cummin with a rod.’ And in the case of ‘bread corn,’ which needs ‘his roller and horses,’ he does not use these upon it till it is all ‘crushed to dust."’ The application of this parable is very evident. If the husbandman be so methodical and careful, shall the God who taught him not also be so? If the violent treatment of land and fruits be so measured and adapted for their greater fruitfulness and purity, ought we not to trust God to have the same intentions in His violent treatment of His people? Isaiah here returns to his fundamental gospel: that the Almighty is the All-methodical, too. Men forget this. In their times of activity they think God indifferent; they are too occupied with their own schemes for shaping life, to imagine that He has any. In days of suffering, again, when disaster bursts, they conceive of God only as force and vengeance. Yet, says Isaiah, "Jehovah of hosts is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in that sort of wisdom which causes things to succeed." This last word of the chapter is very expressive. It literally means furtherance, help, salvation, and then the true wisdom or insight which ensures these: the wisdom which carries things through. It splendidly sums up Isaiah’s gospel to the Jews, cowering like dogs before the coming calamity: God is not mere force or vengeance. His judgments are not chaos. But "He is wonderful in counsel," and all His ways have "furtherance" or "salvation" for their end.

We have said this is one of the finest prophecies of Isaiah. His political foresight was admirable, when he alone of his countrymen predicted the visitation of Assyria upon Judah. But now, when all are convinced of it, how still more wonderful does he seem facing that novel disaster, with the whole world’s force behind it, and declaring its limit. He has not the temptation, so strong in prophets of judgment, to be a mere disaster-monger, and leave judgment on the horizon unrelieved. Nor is he afraid, as other predicters of evil have been, of the monster he has summoned to the land. The secret of this is that from the first he predicted the Assyrian invasion, not out of any private malice nor merely by superior political foresight, but because he knew-and knew, as he tells us, by the inspiration of God’s own Spirit-that God required such an instrument to punish the unrighteousness of Judah. If the enemy was summoned by God at the first, surely till the last the enemy shall be in God’s hand.

To this enemy we are now to see Isaiah turn with the same message he has delivered to the men of Jerusalem.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 28". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".