Isaiah 24:1-13

The prophet Isaiah ministered to the people of Judah during the reigns of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz and Hezekiah.  This would place the writing of this book sometime during the 8th century BC.  This period of time was turbulent and God’s people were constantly under the threat of invasion from the powerful Assyrian Empire.  The Northern kingdom was conquered by the Assyrians and taken into exile.   According to 2 Kings 18:14, the Southern kingdom was forced to pay tribute to the Assyrian’s who were also subjecting all the surrounding lands.  Although, the threat of invasion was ever present for the people of God the prophet Isaiah warned Judah against relying on Egypt (Is 20:6) and proclaimed full reliance on Yahweh for deliverance.  Ultimately, Judah came to be the only kingdom among its surrounding neighbors who was not conquered by the Assyrians.  The God of Israel intervened to deliver His people from the Assyrians as is recorded in 2 Kings 19:35-37.   

The authorship of this canonical book is no stranger to controversy and critical skepticism.  Many critical scholars do not attribute the majority of the text to Isaian authorship.  They advocate authorship of chapters 24-27 and chapters 40-66 to people other than the historical Isaiah.  Internal evidence from the text we are considering in this project is even cited as proof for non-Isaian authorship (24:2).  It is beyond the scope of this project to provide an adequate defense of Isaian authorship.  We will qualify at the outset, however that we subscribe to Isaian authorship based on the lack of compelling evidence to question that its to the contrary. 

The text that we will be considering in this project will include the first 13 verses of the 24th chapter of the book of Isaiah.  This particular text begins an entire section of apocalyptic literature (chapters 24-27), which is known as the proto-apocalyptic.  The following is the text as rendered by the English Standard Version (ESV):       

1Behold, the LORD will empty the earth (1) and make it desolate, and he will twist its surface and scatter its inhabitants. 2And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the slave, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the creditor, so with the debtor. 3The earth shall be utterly empty and utterly plundered; for the LORD has spoken this word. 4The earth mourns and withers; the world languishes and withers; the highest people of the earth languish. 5The earth lies defiled under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed the laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant. 6Therefore a curse devours the earth, and its inhabitants suffer for their guilt; therefore the inhabitants of the earth are scorched, and few men are left. 7The wine mourns, the vine languishes, all the merry-hearted sigh. 8The mirth of the tambourines is stilled, the noise of the jubilant has ceased, the mirth of the lyre is stilled. 9No more do they drink wine with singing; strong drink is bitter to those who drink it. 10The wasted city is broken down; every house is shut up so that none can enter. 11There is an outcry in the streets for lack of wine; all joy has grown dark; the gladness of the earth is banished. 12Desolation is left in the city; the gates are battered into ruins. 13For thus it shall be in the midst of the earth among the nations, as when an olive tree is beaten, as at the gleaning when the grape harvest is done.

 

As noted above, this text along with surrounding chapters 13-35 come from the time before Assyria attempted to conquer Judah which was in 701 BC. (2) It is apparent that this section is now uniting into one, as it were, all those enemies of God’s people which he had previously (chapters 13-23) discussed individually.  However, rather than a judgment upon local nations this text is a universal announcement of judgment upon the covenant-breaking earth not excluding the nation of Judah. (3) Others disagree and promote that chapters 24-27 are solely concerning Judah and not the rest of the world.  Kissane argues that Isaiah 24-27 consists of two distinct poems 24-26:6 outlining God’s plan concerning the future of Judah and 26:7-27 consisting of Zion’s prayer for deliverance and Isaiah’s response conveying a message of hope and deliverance. (4) Although, the reference to priests (vs 2) and the everlasting covenant (vs 5) give the appearance that Judah may be the sole entity described in this passage the rest of the text makes it difficult to limit it to the geographical limits of Palestine.  A priestly class was not unique to Judah and the covenant appealed to could refer to the covenants with Adam or Noah, which are universal to all humanity. This is especially difficult when you consider the previous chapters that were pronouncing judgment upon individual neighboring nations, and now the author goes from the specific to the universal.  The text explicitly refers to the earth, which is not limited to Palestine, in 5 of the 6 first verses and 7 times overall from verses 1-13.  Based on these reasons alone, it seems reasonable to conclude that Isaiah had in mind more nations than that of Judah.  Another interesting view is held by Calvin, who promotes a different opinion from both of those mentioned above.  He writes that this prophecy is about the world, however it is limited to the known world of the Jews.  This would include only the surrounding nations of Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Moab, etc. (5) It is difficult to deny the fact that when Isaiah was writing this passage the term earth or world would have only meant to him the nations known to him.  Although, we can concede that this may be what Isaiah originally intended by reference to the earth, Isaiah’s knowledge of this matter was probably limited.  It seems that violence would not be done to the doctrine of inspiration to conclude that the true author of the text, God, had a much larger area in mind by intending the term earth to refer to its entirety.   Now that we’ve taken some time to set the context, let us now move to a closer examination of the individual verses in question. 

Beginning in verse 1 the word for “behold” is also used in other passages by the prophet Isaiah (7:14, 25:9 and 26:21).  The term infers that an important announcement is about to take place, which will be comprised of what Yahweh will do to the earth in the future.  The words that follow describe a dreadful judgment that is coming upon the whole earth.  Much of the language within this verse hearkens back to terrible judgments of the past, which help us to envision both the great and terrible nature of the judgment to come. 

 

The first pronouncement of emptying the earth and making it desolate is reminiscent of the judgment against Sodom and Gomorrah.  The cities of the plain were described as being “like the garden of God” (Gen 13:10) before the day of reckoning came.  Those who visit this area now would be hard pressed to find the lush and beautiful landscape, and would only find a desolate wasteland.  A wasteland that shows the signs of being scorched by fire and sulfur, which on that day smoked like a “furnace” (Gen 19:28) in the land.  At the beginning of his prophecy Isaiah referred to these two cities (1:9) in appealing to God’s grace in sparing Israel thus far from the wrath that they deserved.  However, the Lord’s wrath will be unleashed on the appointed day to judge the unbelieving earth from inside (Is 3:9) and outside (Is 13:19) of God’s covenant for their acts of defiance and rebellion against their Creator just as Sodom and Gomorrah.

 

 

The prophet goes on to say that the very surface of the earth will be twisted.  This illustration appears to be referencing back to the creation (Gen 1) where the earth was formless and void.  The intensity of the judgment to come will have almost a reversal affect on the original creation. This is consistent with later revelations indicating a new heavens and a new earth (2 Pet 3:10) will replace the old, which will be destroyed.  Again the Lord will cause the inhabitants of the earth to be scattered as was the case at the Tower of Babel (Gen 11).  This scattering, however will be more terrible causing men to flee for sanctuary (Is 2:19) rather than a flight from confusion. In verse 2 a list of contrasting classes of people is given by the prophet.  The significance of the contrasting categories appears to be two-fold.  First, it illustrates that this coming judgment will be complete and will affect all human beings universally.  Second, it seeks to clarify that God is not a respecter of men and no distinctions or social classes will escape His just retribution.  In a fallen world this provides a message of hope to the oppressed and a message of warning to the oppressor.  Although, the day of reckoning is a fearful thing to consider it is also a day of hope for the people of God, especially those who are under persecution.  Since on that day, a reckoning will occur and all the wrongs, injustices, and terrible acts of indecency will be reconciled.  Evil will not go unpunished and the Lord will completely vindicate His name against those who set themselves against His will.

This verse is also used by critical scholars to suggest that it was written during the post-exilic period.  The evidence they point to is due to the lack of comparison between a king and the people.  The fact that the text contrasts the people with the priesthood rather than a king, they conclude supports authorship during Israel’s later history without a king.  At a glance this view appears to hold some merit, however seems to be reading more into the text than should be allowed.  Young argues it would be awkward to contrast the king as an individual with the people who are multiple.  All the other contrasts within verse 2 are one to one, so why would Isaiah include an unequal comparison with one and the many?  It seems to be much more appropriate to have the contrast between groups (priesthood and people) rather than the group (people) with the individual (king). (6)

 

In verse 3 it repeats that this judgment will empty the earth, however this time adds emphasis to it with the term “utterly empty”.  This theme will be repeated in the forthcoming verse when descriptions of the cities are given.  The emptying of the earth will be the result of it being “utterly plundered”, which provides the illusion of a conquered people whose spoils are being looted by their invaders.  Both descriptions are to reinforce the fact that this judgment will be complete in its scope.  The author then adds, “for the Lord has spoken this word”, which is the most sure and powerful word there is.  At the word of God, the creation came out of nothing, He said “let there be light”…and there was light.  God’s word is the most authoritative word in the entire universe and nothing can revoke it.  This all to say, that the judgment being described in verses 1-3 will for certain take place in history.

 

In verse 4 we are given an image of the earth that is languished or exhausted without any strength left as a result.  The joy and glory of the earth will be turned to mourning and it will wither away like grass.  Isaiah draws this contrast later in his prophecy (40:6-8) between flesh that withers like grass and the word of the Lord, which stands forever.  The proud and those who lift themselves up, “the highest people of the earth” will be humbled (Is 2:12).  However, this will not just be limited to the pride of men, but even the principalities of the heavenly realm (Is 14:13-14 & 24:21).  He again reiterates that all will be subject to judgment, since all have sinned. 

In verse 5 the reasons for this judgment are pronounced.  God’s law has been transgressed and His eternal covenant has been broken.  As a result, the earth is under a curse and one day that curse will come to fruition.  The earth is described as being defiled in the same manner as the land of Canaan became defiled and vomited the people out of the land.  The judgment on the Canaanites was also announced before it happened (Gen 15:16) and when their defilement was complete, judgment came.  It seems reasonable to suggest that God’s judgment on the inhabitants of the Promised Land through the sword of Israel foreshadowed the greater judgment to come upon the earth.  In the same manner, the defilement of the earth will reach its completion and the Lord will put an end to the wickedness (Deut 9:5), abominations (Lev 18:24-30), and shedding of innocent blood (Psalm 106:38) once and for all.

 

The eternal covenant referred to here by Isaiah is defined in three different ways by others.  Those who subscribe to the prophecy being solely directed at Judah define it as the Mosaic covenant.  However, this is a problematic interpretation if this passage is truly universal in nature since the nations were not given the Mosaic covenant.  Others who subscribe to the universal nature of this prophecy define it as the Noahic covenant.  This view is wanting especially in light of its decree against murder Gen 9:6, which is a contributing factor to the defilement of the land.  However, this is problematic since the Noahic covenant is not conditional in nature.  These difficulties appear to be resolved, however if we define it as the covenant with Adam made after creation.  Hosea a contemporary of Isaiah who ministered to the Northern kingdom provides some insight into our solution.  In pronouncing the coming judgment against the Northern kingdom for transgressing the Mosaic covenant, he draws a contrast with the father of mankind in Hosea 6:7.  He compares Israel’s transgression with that of Adam’s, which implies that there is another conditional covenant similar in nature to the Mosaic.  This covenant of works or covenant of creation is conditional and universal in nature.  It is this covenant that will be the basis of judgment against mankind who has committed transgression against it.    

In verse 6 we have a summary of the consequences brought forth through the fall or breaking of the everlasting covenant, which were previously describe in verses 1-4.  It also appears to reinforce the conclusion we made in verse 5 by referencing the curse that covers the whole earth, caused by Adam’s sin.  A concession must be made, however in pointing out that the curse thus far defined does bear similarities with those pronounced in the Mosaic legislation. Young argues that although this is part of the universal covenant the language here has Mosaic overtones – (Deut 28:15ff and Lev 26:14ff) “It is a curse that comes from God, for it is the consequences of the transgression of His law.  It is not, however, limited to the Israelites, but, inasmuch as the inhabitants of the entire earth have transgressed affects the whole world.  It is the same curse that lies over fallen mankind in the picture given by the Apostle (Rom 1:18-3:20).” (7) It may be argued then, that the explicit moral legislation of the Mosaic covenant is synonymous with the implicit works required in the covenant with Adam.  However, rather than receiving the explicit laws written on tablets of stone all nations have implicitly received them having them written on the heart.  Thus, humanity remains accountable before God without excuse and subject to the curse. As was the case with Israel (Deut 28:62), however it will also be the case with the inhabitants of the entire earth.  That is, a remnant will be preserved and delivered from the impending judgment.  The righteous will not be swept away with the wicked, the judge of all the earth will be just (Gen 18:23-25).  And as He was able to deliver Noah and Lot from the destruction of the wicked (2 Pet 2:4-9), God will also deliver His elect and preserve them in the judgment to come.

 

In verse 7 we enter a section that continues to define this coming judgment and describes some of the consequences forthcoming.  Verses 7-9 all share in common the theme of drinking and feasting the nations indulge in, which will come to an end. About this passage Calvin comments, “their luxury, intemperance, and feasting, are rapidly surveyed, because amidst so great abundance they proudly disobeyed God.  Such ingratitude was not peculiar to the Jews or that age, but it is universally found that they who enjoy abundance rebel against God, and indulge themselves too freely.” (8) These drinking parties were full of excess and immorality whose participants were oblivious to the laws and the covenant they so nonchalantly rebelled against.  The prophet pronounces a cessation to these intoxicating festivities filled with singing and music being replaced with mourning and bitterness.     

In verse 10 the place where these festivals occur, the city, will no longer provide sanctuary for them.  The fortifications of the city will be broken down and the houses within will be inaccessible.  It is unclear whether the text is describing the cities as vacant with no ability to enter the houses or whether the cities will be vacant since all the inhabitants are barricaded within their houses fearing the judgment to come.  Regardless of which interpretation is made, the city, the sign of reliance on human strength and protection (Gen 4:17 (Cain) Gen 10:9-12 (Nimrod)) defying the protection of God will be destroyed.  The city founded by man, which served as a sanctuary for iniquity protecting the immoral and godless will not endure the coming judgment.  Its permanence was a sign of allegiance to the kingdom of this world and a denial of the age to come (Heb 11:9-10).

 

Verse 11 returns to the themes present in verses 7-9 adding a full picture of what will occur when “the vine decays” and the “revelers stop”.  On that day there will be an outcry for the wine, which is no longer available to drown out the conscience allowing unbridled behavior to be indulged.  Thus, all the joys induced by the pursuit of instant gratification will be lost.  The only thing left will be the memories of sin and rebellion, which have alienated them with their Creator from whom there is no escape.  Similar pronouncements are made in Scripture against Moab (Isaiah 16:10), Judah (Isaiah 5:11-13), Israel/Ephraim (Hosea 2:10-13) and Babylon (Rev 18:3).  This is not to condemn drinking in and of itself, but the drunkenness combined with wicked behaviors is not of the Lord.       

 

After the return to the theme of drinking in verse 11, verse 12 returns to the description of what is to occur in the city.  The prophet goes onto describe the city as a place of desolation this is in contrast with the previous description of a place of drunken revelry.  The fortifications of the city will not be able to hold back the judgment to come.  The prophet goes on to give the image of the gates of the city being battered to ruins.  The gates were usually the most vulnerable place on the fortified city, however it was also the most heavily guarded.  Necessary to provide access to the city during the day the gates would be closed at night and the main place of defense during a siege.  Our Lord used this imagery in Matt 16:18 when describing the effect the kingdom of God will have upon the kingdom of Satan.  Essentially, those gates will not be able to hold back the kingdom of God.  There will come a day however when the gates of the city, the city whose builder is God, will no longer need to be closed.  It is Isaiah himself who foretells this day later in his writing (Is 60:11) when the city of God will be the only city and the gates will not need to be closed.   The conclusion of our section is reached in verse 13, which tells us the affect that the descriptions provided in the preceding verses will have.  The judgments that have just been pronounced in verses 1-12 are said to be analogous to harvesting an olive tree or a grape vine.  However, as is alluded too in verse 6 gleanings, or a remnant, will not be consumed and escape the impending judgment.  The imagery of harvesting an olive tree has been used before by Isaiah (Is 17:6) concerning Israel.  During this time olive trees would be harvested with the beating of sticks, which would cause the olives to fall off of the tree.  Likewise, the earth will undergo violence on the day of reckoning when our Lord settles the accounts of the wicked.  Only some will survive that day, only those who remain in Christ similar to the gleanings that remain on the olive tree or the grape vine.  

 

The people of God at this point were at a crossroads in redemptive history.  The line of kings descended from David was not always faithful to the Lord.  Uzziah and Jotham were relatively good kings, however they were both indifferent about the idolatry occurring at the high places (2 Kings 15:4 and 2 Kings 15:35).  Ahaz, a wicked king, assumed the throne (2 Kings 16:1-3) and formed an alliance with the Assyrians.  All the while the Northern kingdom had become just as wicked as the Canaanites they had displaced (2 Kings 17:8) and provoked the anger of the Lord who caused them to be taken into exile. At this time the Southern kingdom received a king, Hezekiah who was like his father David, and was faithful to the Lord 2 Kings 18:1-6.  However, he was not the promised one and it was his son, Manasseh, who led the Southern kingdom further into the same practices as the North and provoked the Lord’s anger against the people (2 Kings 21:11-15).

 

Although Israel was supposed to be a light to the nations holy and set apart to the Lord (Ex 19:4-8), history was proving that they were unable to live up to the standard.  As a result, the coming judgment that Isaiah speaks of in our passage would not only apply to the nations, but the people of God as well.  The people of God were just as guilty as the rest of the nations participating in the sin and rebellion against the Creator.  So who can escape this judgment?  Even those who received the oracles of God had failed to enter on their own accord.  Who will be able to stand on that day?

 

In the beatitudes our Lord says the pure in heart will see God, the merciful will receive mercy and peacemakers will be called sons of God (Matt 5:3-11).  However, if these are the requirements we must fulfill we allare miserably deficient (Rom 3:9-23) and have no hope to escape or stand (Ps 130:3).  Yet, as the prophet pronounced in our passage there will be a remnant and some will escape. But how, how are we, like Rahab, spared from the emminent destruction?  God must remain faithful to His nature and bring all law-breakers to justice.  So, does God compromise His justice and overlook the transgressions of the remnant?  Not at all, God’s justice is completely satisfied even with respect to the remnant.      The remnant, however does not bear the punishment for their law breaking a substitute stands in their place.  This one, namely Christ Jesus the lamb of God stands in their place to bear the judgment on behalf of the remnant (John 1:29).  This frightful description of judgment, mourning, and being devoured by the curse is borne by this substitute.  The lamb of God is exposed to the wrath of God who metes out His justices against the iniquity of His people upon the blessed Savior.  And now that God’s anger at our sin is fully satisfied and fully propitiated it is fully spent and no longer waiting for us on that day.  Now the only wrath that is left is for those who sins have not been borne by the substitute. 

This, however is only half the story there is more good news left to be told.  Not only has Christ redeemed us from the curse of sin and taken God’s judgment in our place, He also fulfilled the law on our behalf.  As a perfect lamb without blemish He fulfilled all righteousness on our behalf.  And this righteousness is given to us to cover us like a garment (Col 1:18-22), so that we may be presented holy and blameless before the Father.  This transaction or exchange of our sins and judgment for righteousness and glorification is ours in Christ.  In Christ we escape this judgment and can enter into the city of God where the gates will never be closed.  Just as the gleanings that remained on the olive tree or grape vine, we who are in Christ will not be taken by the reapers during the harvest.  For all intents and purposes we deserve to be consumed with the rest of this fallen world, however God found it pleasing to spare us to pluck us out of the fire (Zech 3:2) that will come on that day.

Now as the people of God we can read this text and know for certain that we have been spared from the justice we deserve.  We can know that this world is not our home that we are citizens of a heavenly city (Eph 2:17-19).  Some day the kingdoms of this world will be the kingdom of our God and His Christ. It is in this hope we can have confidence and persevere through the trials of life and proclaim the good news to others.  Since we know that this day will come like a thief in the night we should be diligent in strengthening the faith of those within covenant community and appealing to those outside to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.  For it is only in Christ that anybody can escape this judgment and be delivered from the justice of God.

 

1 Isaiah 24:1 Or land; also throughout this chapter

2 Harris, RL “Isaiah” The Zondervan Pictorial Encylopedia of the Bible- Volume 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Corporation, 1975)3 Young, Edward The Book of Isaiah (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, 11; Eerdemans, 1969) 146-147

4 Kissan, Edward The Book of Isaiah- Volume 1 (Dublin, Browne and Nolan Limited – The Richview Press, 1941) XXV

5 Calvin, John (1550) Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah-Volume 1 (Calvin’s Commentaries, 7; Baker, 2005) 165

6 Young, Edward The Book of Isaiah (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, 11; Eerdemans, 1969) 151

7 Young, Edward The Book of Isaiah (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament, 11; Eerdemans, 1969) 158-159

8 Calvin, John (1550) Commentary on the Prophet Isaiah-Volume 1 (Calvin’s Commentaries, 7; Baker, 2005) 165

 

Responses

  1. […] The question is what is the eternal covenant referenced in this passage.  I would and have (see my exegetical paper on this passage to support the thought) argued that this is a reference to the CoW, which is still in affect […]


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