• Lori

Isaiah 9-10: Interrupted by Grace

Updated: Dec 5, 2021

After his prophecy of the Child who would be King, Isaiah pointed out some things that would have to happen before the prophecy could be fulfilled: Israel had to be destroyed, Judah had to be humbled, and the king of Assyria had to face the truth: he was simply a saw in the hands of a carpenter Isaiah 9:8-10:18.

Israel’s pride had reached its apex. Discounting the LORD’s hand in their past and their future, they thought they were all that and a bag of chips. They had come to believe that no matter what came their way, they could overcome it, and not just overcome it, but prosper. Pride is a most convincing liar.

Isaiah was sent to tell them the truth.

As a first step in the humiliation of Israel, God would erode their borders from the north and the west. The Scriptures aren’t really clear as to how this would happen. The Arameans “devouring” Israel may have referred to the outcome of their shady alliance. While Israel thought they were securing an ally, Isaiah saw them being swallowed up. The Philistines, who were always giving Israel trouble, may have been attacking the western border at the same time, wearing Israel down. Whatever the case, God was shaking Israel’s confidence in their ability to hold it all together (verses 11-12).

“Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised.”

Why? Because “the people have not returned to him who struck them, nor have they sought the LORD Almighty.” They saw themselves as invincible. The LORD Almighty? Not needed.

Next, the LORD would unseat their corrupt leaders and lying prophets—the head and the tail—and there would be consequences for everyone in between. Then, as now, it’s not just wayward leaders who are held accountable, it’s also those who allow themselves to be led away (verses 14-17). Even those the LORD usually looked on with compassion would suffer in judgment, “for everyone is a hypocrite and evildoer.”

“Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised.”

The Lord would then step back and allow Israel’s own wickedness to consume them. He would stand by and watch as they bullied each other and wore themselves out. Instead of uniting to fight their common enemy, Ephraim and Manasseh would spar with each other, teaming up only to harass Judah. Preservation of their tribal boundaries took priority over preserving the nation (verses 18-21).

“Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised.”

The breakdown of society wasn’t just on a tribal scale. Within the tribes, those without families fell through the cracks. In a patriarchal society, widows and orphans were often forgotten when the husband or father died. A woman without a husband and a child without a father had no identity. A godly society is built on the interaction of families, tribes, and nations for the protection of all. But in Israel’s godless society, those in the position of caretaker were abandoning those under their care, and those who were supposed to be supporting the weak were, in fact, withholding from them (chapter 10, verses 1-4).

“Yet for all this, his anger is not turned away, his hand is still upraised.”

I see things in our society that aren’t much different. I’m struggling as I write this because I realize how much I’ve withheld from the weak and vulnerable in my own world. Stuff I could have easily given away. I have a supply of grocery cards in my car to give to the poor and homeless, but I hand them out hastily when conceivably I could pause long enough to include a word of encouragement. I justify my indifference with a logic based on self-preservation. “They may be dangerous,” I say. Really? What are they going to do to me in the grocery store parking lot in the middle of the day? “I can’t hold up the traffic behind me,” I reason. Really? How long does it take to say, “I know this won’t help much but I’ll pray that your situation changes.” Then do it while I drive on. “But they may be scammers,” I point out. Can I trust God’s nudge enough to leave the judging to Him? “What they really need to do is get a job,” I maintain. Maybe my small show of respect will give them the courage to try. OK, enough preaching. Back to the story.

In light of God’s anger at the rich for abandoning the poor, it seems strange that His wrath is expressed by abandoning His people. OK, so maybe it’s not. You reap what you sow: The godless Assyrians would destroy the godless Israelites. The Assyrians would steal the wealth that Israel’s leaders had withheld from their people. The Assyrians would trample down those in Israel who had exalted themselves. The Assyrians would go beyond victory to humiliate those who had humiliated the poor. What Israel had sowed, they would reap. But there was a silver lining: the destruction of all they had and all they were would make way for a remnant who would preserve all that God called them to be.

Isaiah takes a breath, and a strange thing happens. Out of his mouth comes judgment on the Assyrians for doing what God had ordered them to do: “Woe to the Assyrian, the rod of my anger, in whose hand is the club of my wrath!” So what’s up with that?

When God said, “I will send him against an ungodly nation, and against the people of My wrath I will give him charge, to seize the spoil, to take the prey (Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz) and to tread them down like the mire of the streets,” King Sennacherib said, “By the strength of my hand I have done this, and by my wisdom, because I have understanding. I removed the boundaries of nations, I plundered their treasures; like a mighty one I subdued their kings.” Quite a difference in perspective there.

So God said, “I will punish the king of Assyria for the willful pride of his heart and the haughty look in his eyes… his purpose is to destroy, to put an end to many nations.” The Assyrian king, adrenaline pumping, intended to go beyond his God-given assignment on to his own campaign of pride. (verses 6-14)

So Isaiah asks the question: “Does the ax raise itself above the person who swings it, or the saw boast against the one who uses it?” I think we all know the answer to that one. But the king of Assyria? Apparently not. “Therefore, the Lord, the LORD Almighty, will send a wasting disease upon his sturdy warriors...” (verse 16) Remember now, when Isaiah spoke this, he was prophesying the future; most of his prophecies didn’t come to pass until he was gone. But the fulfillment of this one he got to see. The narrative is recorded in Isaiah 36 and 37. If you’re not familiar with it, or even if you are, I encourage you to read it. It’s worth your time.

It begins: “In the fourteenth year of King Hezekiah’s reign, Sennacherib king of Assyria attacked all the fortified cities of Judah and captured them.” Isaiah 36:1

And it ends: “Then the angel of the Lord went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies! So Sennacherib king of Assyria broke camp and withdrew. He returned to Nineveh and stayed there.” Isaiah 37:36-37

So that was the end of that.

“Judgment and preservation kiss each other.”

J. Alec Motyer, The Prophecy of Isaiah, pg. 116; InterVarsity Press.

Beginning with that little incident back in Eden, judgment has been set in motion by the actions of man. Like a dam holding back the flood, God’s mercy stands in the path of sin’s consequences, while behind the dam the pressure builds. At just the right time, God opens the floodgates and releases a measure of His judgment.

Remember this from a couple of weeks ago? “Inasmuch as these people refused the waters of Shiloah that flow softly, and rejoice in Rezin and in Remaliah’s son; now therefore, behold, the Lord brings up over them the waters of the River, strong and mighty—the king of Assyria and all his glory; he will go up over all his channels and go over all his banks. He will pass through Judah, he will overflow and pass over, he will reach up to the neck…” Isaiah 8:6-8

God had granted Assyria the power to flood through Israel, to carry off their population, and to give Judah a good scare, but He chose to close the gates before Judah was destroyed. Why? For the sake of Immanuel.

When the king of Assyria, who had boasted that the God of Israel sent him (Isaiah 36:10), began to boast in himself, he tried to jump the dam and get ahead of the grace of God. So this time, when God opened the floodgates to release judgment, it was Assyria who was washed away, its lofty ambitions wiped out in one night. There was no question who got credit for that one.

The LORD and the king of Assyria had the same purpose, but very different motives. God didn’t loose the Assyrian flood to go wherever it pleased to destroy whoever it wanted. It was released and directed by God to accomplish His purposes alone, and in the end, the Assyrians were punished for their excessive conquest and the king’s pride and haughtiness.

Judgment for Assyria had been on its way long before God’s anger with Israel was stirred. They had been God’s enemies for 3000 years, but He had held back their judgment while they were carrying out His will. When the mighty river of the Assyrians overflowed its banks on its way to submerge Judah, the LORD held back the waters for Judah. He said, “This far, and no further.” For the sake of Immanuel, God’s grace interrupted their destruction.

God was grieved by His people’s sin, but He wasn’t surprised. He had ordained their end from the beginning. He let them wander around in the middle. For both Israel and Judah, it was their decisions that determined the long and arduous route they would take—the white water rapids of a fast-flowing river rather than the soft flowing stream of Shiloah. But at just the right time, God dammed up the flood, plucked Judah out of the waters and set them back in a pool of total dependence. From there He could reveal Himself as sovereign.

Man’s foolishness doesn’t have to play out to its natural conclusion. God intervenes. That’s why you and I are here right now reading about His scary goodness. God’s grace, by its very nature, interrupts the course of human history. Thank God for the divine interruption of grace that moved us out of the way of judgment’s flood: Jesus, Immanuel, God with us.