Understanding Isaiah

I don’t know about you, but I am fully enjoying our reading of Isaiah. Isaiah has never been as familiar to me as other books of the Bible. But as we are reading through it this time, I see myself gaining not just some knowledge of this book. But even more important, I’m gaining some understanding of it as well.

A large part of that understanding comes from catching that “abstract” which I talked about in the previous post. But an equally large part of it comes from somewhere else. It comes from what I have seen as I read the condemnations Isaiah has pronounced on both Israel and the nations around her.

The Sins of the Nations

These condemnations largely come in chapters 13-35. Many scholars break these chapters up into small sections, and they may be right to do so. Whether or not they are, though, the point remains that Isaiah is largely condemning just about everyone in these chapters. To use his terminology, he is “prophesying against” everyone. He is predicting “woe” for them. He is pronouncing woe upon them, actually. He is judging them for the sins they have committed and is telling them with full prophetic authority that they will be punished for those sins.

Now passages like these are not unique. We will find many passages like these as we continue through the prophets. Some of those passages will be exactly like these. They will be a series of condemnations of the nations (Judah, Israel, Edom, Moab, Ammon, Philistia, Assyria, Babylon, etc.). In fact, there will be a couple of books like Obadiah, Nahum, and Zephaniah that will be nothing other than condemnations of one nation or another, or at least as close to “nothing other” than you can get.

These were the kind of passages that bothered me when I first read through the prophets. I know now that they bothered me because I misunderstood them. And it is no wonder that I misunderstood them.

I was, after all, a 19-year-old kid with very little experience reading the Bible all on his own without any guidance or input. I can’t imagine a better environment for misunderstanding the Bible than that. But for better or worse, that’s the way I did it. And because I did it that way, I misunderstood passages like these. I grossly misunderstood them and thus I grossly misunderstood the prophets and thus I grossly misunderstood God.

Were the Prophets Happy?

Here’s how that happened: I read these passages with the misunderstanding that the prophets were happy that the nations were going to be judged and punished in this way. I thought the prophets were not just condemning these nations (which they are) but were doing so with great glee.

And because I thought the prophets were to be condemning the nations, I thought God (the power behind the prophets) was likewise happy to be condemning the nations. I thought God was either happy to be doing this or was at least ambivalent about doing this. The misunderstanding I got about God from these passages was that He was either eager to smite people or was unconcerned about whether or not people got smote.

A God Who Loves Us

Fortunately, I learned over the years that this is indeed a misunderstanding. I learned that neither God nor the prophets are anything like what I saw them as in these passages. The gift of Jesus Christ is proof of this, of course. There is no greater proof that God is neither happy to smite us nor unconcerned about whether or not we get smote than Jesus’ coming and sacrifice.

The many statements that God loves and forgives us are proof of this, too. So are the many times God relents from these condemnations, and the many times the prophets beg Him to relent from these condemnations. And the many times He says in the prophets that He doesn’t want to condemn in this way is further proof of this.

Strange Work

But I found yet another proof of this in our reading. I found another statement that is going to help us overcome this misunderstanding of God and bring us into a proper understanding of God. This statement is Isaiah 28:21. There, Isaiah says this:

The Lord will rise up as he did at Mount Perazim,
he will rouse himself as in the Valley of Gibeon—
to do his work, his strange work,
and perform his task, his alien task.

Isaiah is clearly talking about God doing some judging and punishing here. But look at how He describes that judging and punishing. He calls it God’s “strange work” and “alien task”. He says it is strange and alien to God. Not normal. Not natural. Not what God always does or usually does or enjoys doing. But that which God Himself finds strange and alien.

Creation vs. Judgment

And this is true. Creation is what is normal and natural to God. Not condemnation. Creation. Creation, after all, came first. That was God’s initial act. And creation continues to happen a whole lot more than condemnation.

God is creating or re-creating all around us all the time. Ask yourself this question: how many times have you seen hellfire and brimstone vaporize someone, and how many times have you seen a baby born or a harvest grown and flowers blooming over and over again? So creation is clearly more normal and natural than condemnation. So is blessing. So is forgiveness. So is reconciliation. So is love.

There is a reason for condemnation, though. There has been a reason ever since the Fall and there will continue to be a reason until the Final Judgment. It is clear that the condemnations Isaiah is describing here were not just God’s anger against sin but the steps God had to take to restrain and eliminate sin. Nonetheless, it is still true that condemnation is not His default or preferred work. It is, and always will be, His strange work. And that makes Him a very good and great God.

Pastor Doug McCoy
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