Series: Our God Saves
- Aug 29, 2021
- Mark Vroegop
- Isaiah 21:1-23:18
“The oracle concerning the valley of vision. What do you mean that you have gone up, all of you, to the housetops, you who are full of shoutings, tumultuous city, exultant town? Your slain are not slain with the sword or dead in battle. All your leaders have fled together; without the bow they were captured. All of you who were found were captured, though they had fled far away. Therefore I said: “Look away from me; let me weep bitter tears; do not labor to comfort me concerning the destruction of the daughter of my people.” For the Lord God of hosts has a day of tumult and trampling and confusion in the valley of vision, a battering down of walls and a shouting to the mountains. And Elam bore the quiver with chariots and horsemen, and Kir uncovered the shield. Your choicest valleys were full of chariots, and the horsemen took their stand at the gates. He has taken away the covering of Judah. In that day you looked to the weapons of the House of the Forest, and you saw that the breaches of the city of David were many. You collected the waters of the lower pool, and you counted the houses of Jerusalem, and you broke down the houses to fortify the wall. You made a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the old pool. But you did not look to him who did it, or see him who planned it long ago. In that day the Lord God of hosts called for weeping and mourning, for baldness and wearing sackcloth; and behold, joy and gladness, killing oxen and slaughtering sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine. “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” The Lord of hosts has revealed himself in my ears: “Surely this iniquity will not be atoned for you until you die,” says the Lord God of hosts” (Isaiah 22:1–14, ESV).
There’s a sobering warning from Jesus that haunts me. It’s found in Matthew 23 as he warns the scribes and Pharisees about their incorrect evaluation of themselves as they consider biblical history. Jesus confronts them about building tombs of the prophets and decorating the monuments to the righteous while assuming that they are different—even better—than their forefathers.
Jesus rebukes them for saying, “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets” (Matt. 23:30).
Their error is looking back into history with the clarity of time and the absence of specific circumstances, thinking that they would have listened to the prophets. However, standing in front of them is the greatest prophet, Jesus, and they won’t listen to him. After his coming crucifixion, they won’t listen to his disciples either. And in so doing, they not only repeat the error of the past, but they make it worse with their blindness and hypocrisy.
Aren’t you glad that we don’t do that?
Of course we do! One of the many reasons we are studying the Old Testament book of Isaiah is because I fear that we might be unaccustomed to listening to the prophets. Candidly, one of my failings as a pastor is not teaching enough from the Old Testament prophets. I think this is only my second series on an Old Testament prophet in almost thirty years of pastoral ministry.
Old Testament prophets are helpful because they issue timely warnings about belief and behavior to entire communities. They tend to cut through our “status-quo religion,” and they identify strong cautions to all of us. If you read the prophets, they should make you uncomfortable. Their messages were not generally well-received. In most cases, it wasn’t until later that their wisdom and value were really felt—at least by most people.
So, as we study another series of warning oracles in Isaiah 21-23, I think it’s important to ask what our posture is toward this book. You should expect that, quite regularly, Isaiah pushes your buttons and makes you think in ways that are uncomfortable.
It’s important to remember that as we study this book. Reading and studying the Bible should provide hope, but it also should regularly challenge us in ways that we might not entirely like.
Isaiah 21-23 is another heavy text. Remember that the audience of this book is the people of God: Israel to the north and Judah to the south. Chapter 22 addresses God’s people but on either side of that address are warnings to other nations that are designed to warn the people of God.
These chapters tell us to watch out for trusting in earthly alliances, self-sufficiency, and financial success.
- Earthly Alliances
The first oracle relates to the futility of putting trust in the alliances that human beings make. Nations are formed by the gathering of people with common interests and commitments. Throughout history alliances, deals, and cooperation are pursued out of a desire for mutual benefit.
Partnerships, treaties, politics, associations, and coalitions are formed in order to provide a kind of protection.
The country in view here is Babylon (v. 9). As I shared last week, the nation represents more than just the actual nation. Babylon is a metaphor for the highest earthly evil (Rev. 18). The apostle John sees the entire world as one vast Babylon.
This prophecy looked to the future as a warning to the people of God and especially King Hezekiah that they not put their trust in the powerful nation Babylon. This is a warning that Hezekiah wouldn’t heed. In chapter 39 the king attempts to impress envoys from Babylon. He shows them the wealth and treasuries of the kingdom, along with his military might (Isa. 39:1-4). It brought a confrontation from Isaiah (39:5-8).
In Isaiah 21 we see that Babylon is described as “the wilderness in the sea” and that it was devastated by “whirlwinds” (v. 1). At the time this would have seemed impossible. Babylon was a massive superpower with compelling alliances. The nation could be a powerful protector.
But Isaiah highlights the coming betrayal. Verse 2 indicates that the alliance will crumble. There will be political tricks and national backstabbing which will lead to destruction. As a result, Isaiah is in internal turmoil (vv. 3-4) while alliances are being formed and considered over meals and celebrations (v. 5).
Isaiah is instructed to post a watchman for the coming invasion. And the watchman announces the judgment: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon and all the carved images of her gods” (v. 9). This judgment concludes with an affirmation that this warning is from the Lord of hosts (v. 10).
Commentator Gary Smith says, “They were depending on Babylon to help them undermine the power of Assyria (39:1–8), but if Judah follows this path, they will soon find out that Babylon will give them no help at all. Instead, Babylon will be defeated (21:9) and the people of Judah will be oppressed (21:10). The prophet’s message is simply this: do not put your trust in Babylon or any other political power.
The people of God were afraid because of the rising Assyrian threat. And that fear created the temptation to place their trust in an earthly alliance. In other words, their trust in God was eclipsed by their practical trust in human power. The real challenge is that this is how the world works. Alliances are what humans do, and they aren’t always bad. Often they are really good.
Wherever there are humans, there are going to be political alliances. Whether it’s in a family, a neighborhood, church, school, or government, groups are formed. And we need Jesus-loving Christians in all those settings, but with one key difference. We need Christians whose trust in Jesus exceeds their trust in political alliances. You’ll have to search your own heart as to where that line is. But just know that biblical history is filled with examples of earthly alliances that were birthed out of spiritual distrust in the living God.
Or as the psalmist said: Psalm 20:7 – “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God.”
The second warning that I want to highlight is specifically addressed to the people of God. Now, this comes after two smaller oracles to Dumah (Edom) and Arabia (vv. 11-15) where they are warned about God silence and the coming night on their nations.
God’s people, however, are part of the “valley of vision” (v. 1). Jerusalem isn’t in a valley, so this seems to mean that God’s people are being taken into a valley, and it may mean that there are things that they will see or need to see.
In verses 1-2, we see that the people are celebrating and rejoicing when they should be weeping. Some commentators think that Isaiah has in mind a situation where the people are celebrating a temporary victory only to not realize that they haven’t gotten to the root problem. Isaiah is weeping and full of alarm in verses 4-7. He sees a future day of judgment, and he laments that God has taken away “the covering of Judah” (v. 8).
What follows in verses 8b-11 is the central message of this chapter. When the people realized what was happening, they scrambled to fix the problems. They grabbed their weapons from the House of the Forest, a building near the temple (1 Kings 7:2). They analyzed the breaches in the wall and collected water for the coming siege (22:9). They made additional provisions for a pool of water (v. 11). Those of you who have been to Israel will know that Hezekiah built an underground tunnel to carry the water from an outside spring into the center of the city.
All of these things weren’t necessarily bad or sinful in themselves. But the problem is what we read in 22:11 – “But you did not look to him who did it, or see him who planned it long ago.” There seems to be a play on words here to make the point. They collected the waters, counted the houses, broke down the houses, and made a reservoir, but they did not look to him who did it. They looked to the weapons and saw the breaches in the wall, but they did not see him who planned it long ago.
Now, it’s important to keep things in balance here because some of their preparations would have been wise actions and represent good leadership. The book of Proverbs commends this:
A prudent person foresees danger and takes precautions. The simpleton goes blindly on and suffers the consequences (Prov. 22:3, NLT).
Isaiah isn’t commending a kind of fatalism that justifies a lack of wise planning and preparation. He’s rebuking the people because they are trusting in their preparations. In other words, they are so full of panic and fear that they put all their focus on how to regain control of the situation. This is a subtle form of self-sufficiency.
If you are not yet a Christian, this is a good place for me to talk directly to you. This last year may have shown you moments where you came face-to-face with your inability to control your own life. Perhaps that created frightening levels of fear, anxiety, anger, or verbal outburst. Maybe you found yourself becoming obsessive about something, drinking too much, or having trouble sleeping. It may be that this year has actually shown you how vulnerable you are, and maybe you are looking for some answers to some big questions like “Why am I here? What is my life all about? How do I deal with my guilt? What is my purpose?” We’d love to talk with you about how Jesus answers those questions.
If you are a Christian, I trust you know that our control issues don’t evaporate when we come to Christ. Where have you found self-sufficiency surfacing? It may show up in your emotions as you struggle with intense levels of frustration, anger, or sadness. It may surface in too much time spent thinking about your finances, working your side hustle, positioning yourself at work, or cutting back on generosity because you want to hoard your money. It can manifest itself in watching the news too much, embracing conspiracy theories that make you feel like you are in the know, or over-researching something. It can surface in talking out of both sides of your mouth or even pretending as if everything is okay.
Verses 12-14 highlight the partying of God’s people as they celebrate their perceived protection. They are living without regard for what God might want to tell them. Rather than embracing a time of self-reflection and repentance, they are naively optimistic.
What’s more, we can put our self-sufficient trust in leaders. We feel more secure when our people are in charge. And verses 15-25 provide an illustration of the futility of placing too much hope on people as well because “the peg that was fastened in a secure place will give way. . .and the load that was on it will be cut off” (22:25).
Several years ago, I preached a sermon series on Lamentations and that became the basis for a book I wrote on lament. The impetus for the sermon series was because I sensed that Christians were unfamiliar with being exiles and didn’t know how to deal with lingering sadness. The fourth chapter of Lamentations mourns the futility of placing our sufficiency. Which of these is your tendency?
- Fixating on financial security
- Treating people like saviors
- Craving cultural comfort
- Idolizing spiritual leaders
- Presuming divine favor
Self-sufficiency takes many forms. We need to regularly ask ourselves if we are truly trusting in the Lord.
- Financial Success
The final areas of judgment and warning are connected to commerce and financial success. The message is clear: God rules not only over nations but over economies as well. Military might is impressive and attractive. But financial security and success are equally as powerful.
Isn’t that true today? The power brokers are not only those who occupy seats in Congress but also those who meet in boardrooms and run companies. Power often requires capital. Those who control capital have a lot of influence.
In chapter 23, we’re introduced to Tyre. It was a city in Phoenicia, just north of Israel. Since it was positioned on the Mediterranean Sea as a commercial port, economic might characterized the city. During the days of Isaiah, the city was an island about half a mile from the shore. Today, it’s all connected by a peninsula, owing in part to Alexander the Great who conquered Tyre by building a land bridge to the island.
In the same way that the book of Revelation uses Babylon as a picture of evil, we also hear about “the Great Prostitute” who is seated on many waters (see Revelation 17).
In verses 1-3, we see the calling for lament because of the destruction. Their cooperation with Egypt that brought them great wealth will come to an end (v. 3). In verses 4-7, word will spread about the destruction of Tyre and its effects.
There are two signature texts here:
“Who has purposed this against Tyre, the bestower of crowns, whose merchants were princes, whose traders were the honored of the earth? The Lord of hosts has purposed it, to defile the pompous pride of all glory, to dishonor all the honored of the earth” (Isa. 23:8–9).
“Wail, O ships of Tarshish, for your stronghold is laid waste” (Isa. 23:14).
God is sovereign not only over the nations and kings, but also over economies, commerce, and wealth. And this is yet another category of our human existence upon which we can sinfully trust. Taken with Babylon, this warning serves as part of the bookends in warning the people of God.
Ray Ortlund says:
Babylon and Tyre together typify all human societies. Babylon symbolizes ruthless political power, and Tyre symbolizes dishonest commercial success. Babylon was a land power, Tyre a sea power. Babylon used force; Tyre used seduction. The strategies differ from one culture to the next, but what matters in the one kingdom of man is money and power and ego and visceral pleasure—all the things that belong to time rather than eternity. This is our brilliant, heroic, costly, empty world.
How true and right he is. Earthly alliances, self-sufficiency, and financial success can be the alluring idols of any age—including ours.
In light of these warnings written in the eighth century, permit me to ask us a few questions:
- Do you have a spiritual posture of listening? Most of the history of God’s people is characterized by being stiff-necked and not listening. Would you be quick to hear, slow to speak, and slow to be angry? (James 1:19)
- Have politics, selfishness, or materialism grabbed too much of your heart? Fear and self-protection can drive us toward these allurements. Again, here’s Ray Ortlund:
The prophets understood the power of the Babylon-Tyre of this world. They saw that this world is not only the opponent of faith, it’s also the seductress of faith. The world not only punishes all who follow Christ; it also panders, tempting believers away from Christ. The devil doesn’t much care either way. He’ll use harsh intimidation, and he’ll use soft seduction—whatever works, as long as we lose sight of Christ, so that our faith no longer overcomes. That is the spiritual battle being fought deep in our hearts every day.
- God aims to redeem what’s broken in us and around us. At the end of chapter 23, we get a glimpse of God’s redemptive power.
Her merchandise and her wages will be holy to the Lord. It will not be stored or hoarded, but her merchandise will supply abundant food and fine clothing for those who dwell before the Lord” (Isa. 23:18).
God redeems the brokenness of Tyre such that the nation becomes yet another conduit of God’s grace.
This, dear church, is where Isaiah and all the prophets lead us. If we’ll listen. They show us the path of redemption such that the testimony of Isaiah is clear: God saves sinners.
So, turn to him.
Ó College Park Church
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 For full explanation of these categories, see chapter seven in Dark Clouds, Deep Mercy – Discovering the Grace of Lament.