Isaiah 22: The Valley of Vision
Updated: Dec 5, 2021
I’m so glad my salvation doesn’t depend on my understanding of the book of Isaiah! This oracle had me completely confused. It’s so hard to think like a prophet prophesying the future while I’m sitting in the here and now looking at the past. (Remember that piece of elastic?)
So I leaned heavily on my friend J. Alec Motyer and his knowledge of Hebrew inclusios, perfects, and participles. Here, in my language, is Motyer’s explanation of this bewildering chapter:
The oracle against the Valley of Vision opens with Isaiah venting his frustration at the sad fact that his contemporaries are oblivious to what is headed their way (verses 1-2a). He reveals to them what God has revealed to him: a vision of their coming encounter with the Babylonian army (verses 2b-7). He then rehearses their regrettable actions during the Assyrian siege (verses 8-12). And then, in verse 13, he basically says, “You haven’t learned a thing, have you?”
(By the way, here’s a section of a handy-dandy graphic that’s helped me as I’ve struggled through the Old Testament. I would have shared it sooner, but I’ve been waiting for permission from Lionel Windsor and Mark Barry to use it. I haven’t heard back from them yet but I’ve decided that this qualifies as “personal use” because I’m sharing it with friends without remuneration. So the next time you hear from me, I, like the apostles John and Paul before me, may be writing from prison. If so, your prayers will be remuneration enough.)
At its core, this oracle against Jerusalem is a condemnation of self-reliance and the lack of confidence in God’s ability to save. So here’s Isaiah’s message to his people and God’s instruction for us:
It’s not really clear why Isaiah calls Jerusalem the “Valley of Vision.” Perhaps because of the geography—although the City of God is called Mount Zion, parts of Jerusalem lie in the valleys around the temple hill. Or because it was there, in Jerusalem, that Isaiah received his vision. Or perhaps it was Isaiah’s personal valley—this vision wasn’t a high point in his ministry. Speaking this oracle caused him a lot of pain—he was watching the ruin of his people, the city that he loved.
Therefore I said, “Turn away from me; let me weep bitterly. Do not try to console me over the destruction of my people.” (verse 4)
Different versions of the Scriptures present Isaiah’s opening statement in different ways. Commentators and scholars like Motyer, who base their understanding on their in-depth knowledge of the Hebrew language (like I would know!) seem to favor interpretations like these:
What in the world is wrong with you?
Why have you climbed on your housetops and started celebrating?
The whole city is in an uproar, full of noise and wild parties. (NCV and VOICE)
Can you hear the frustration in Isaiah’s voice?
The cause for the uproar isn’t clear, but Motyer and others propose that the revelers were celebrating the opening of Hezekiah’s tunnel. The tunnel, an engineering marvel, was commissioned by King Hezekiah in preparation for the Assyrian siege (2 Kings 20:20 and 2 Chronicles 32:30). Jerusalem’s natural water source was the Gihon Spring, which flowed into Jerusalem, provided the city with sufficient water, then flowed on down the Kidron Valley. But during his reign, Hezekiah had workmen cut a conduit in the rock underneath the City of David to keep all of the water inside its walls, which is kind of handy when the enemy army is camped right outside your gates. But the Lord took exception to that. He had provided Jerusalem with a sufficient source of water and He expected them to trust Him to protect it. Hezekiah’s manmade method of securing it was just one more instance of God’s people relying on their own resources rather than respecting His provision.
True to His nature, the Lord intervened on their behalf anyway, and Jerusalem was spared (2 Kings 19-20). But the people’s hard-heartedness and hard-headedness had sealed their fate. They wouldn’t survive the Babylonian siege, and Isaiah, seeing the coming judgment, is outraged—they are up on their rooftops partying instead of praying.
Middle Eastern houses usually have a flat roof sporting a terrace, and weather permitting, the terrace is used as a place to eat, sleep, entertain, and pray. In this case, the roof was the scene of the party. Another feature of Middle Eastern houses is a ground-floor courtyard. The windows opened onto the street, so they were covered with lattice to keep the public from looking in. This lattice also kept the residents from looking out. No one-way glass yet. So when there was a noise outside the compound, curious residents ran up to the roof to see what was going on. Well, something is going on alright, but Isaiah is the only one who can see it. An army is coming! He tries to broadcast his vision to his city, but they’re not listening. They’re up on the housetops partying.
For posterity’s sake, Isaiah goes on to report what he’s seen anyway:
All your leaders ran away together, but they have been captured without using a bow. All you who were captured tried to run away before the enemy came.
Now in my Bible, verse 3 reads as if it happened sometime in their past but historically that wouldn’t make sense. During the advance of the Assyrians, the leaders hadn't fled from Jerusalem and neither were they captured—the Lord distracted the Assyrians before they ever reached the city. It does make sense though if Isaiah is seeing the coming of the Babylonians. In fact, his prophecy sounds just like the narrative of 2 Kings 25:1-6:
So in the ninth year of Zedekiah’s reign, on the tenth day of the tenth month, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon marched against Jerusalem with his whole army. He encamped outside the city and built siegeworks all around it. The city was kept under siege until the eleventh year of King Zedekiah. By the ninth day of the fourth month the famine in the city had become so severe that there was no food for the people to eat. Then the city wall was broken through, and the whole army fled at night through the gate between the two walls near the king’s garden, though the Babylonians were surrounding the city. They fled toward the Arabah, but the Babylonian army pursued the king and overtook him in the plains of Jericho. All his soldiers were separated from him and scattered, and he was captured.
So it was verses 2 and 3 in Isaiah 22 that were the cause of my confusion. Past tense, future events? Future tense, past events? Oh brother. But if the experts say these verses were a part of Isaiah’s vision of the future, who am I to argue? Some say Isaiah’s vision was so intense he recorded it as if it were happening before his very eyes.
My confusion arrested, Isaiah continues:
The Lord, the Lord Almighty, has a day of tumult and trampling and terror in the Valley of Vision, a day of battering down walls and of crying out to the mountains.
Elam takes up the quiver, with her charioteers and horses; Kir uncovers the shield. Your choicest valleys are full of chariots, and horsemen are posted at the city gates.
As in his other prophecies of wartime, Isaiah identifies the coming tumult as the Lord’s doing. The Lord will stir up the Babylonians and their allies (Elam and Kir) and they will fill the valleys around Jerusalem with their chariots and station their soldiers outside the gates.
(Now I’m not sure why Isaiah didn’t put verse 3 here—it seems to me that would have made a lot more sense—but it’s Isaiah’s book and he gets to write it as he likes.)
In verse 8, Isaiah returns his attention to the siege they had just survived:
The Lord stripped away the defenses of Judah, and you looked in that day to the weapons in the Palace of the Forest. You saw that the walls of the City of David were broken through in many places; you stored up water in the Lower Pool. You counted the buildings in Jerusalem and tore down houses to strengthen the wall. You built a reservoir between the two walls for the water of the Old Pool, but you did not look to the One who made it, or have regard for the One who planned it long ago.
He recounts the people’s frantic activity as they prepared for the Assyrian siege, gathering weapons, storing up water, strengthening walls. Yet they hadn’t even consulted with the “One who planned it long ago.” But hey, with all of their resources, they didn’t have to! They had this! And when the Lord lifted His hand and allowed the enemy forces to advance, Judah looked to their armory instead of their God. They had failed the trust test again.
Now back to Isaiah’s little talk with his neighbors:
But see, there is joy and revelry, slaughtering of cattle and killing of sheep, eating of meat and drinking of wine! "Let us eat and drink,” you say, “for tomorrow we die!”
This time, Isaiah is addressing the other side of the self-confidence coin. Whether full of self-confidence or lacking it, it's the “self” thing that's the issue. In both cases—way too much confidence or none at all—we are thinking our life is in our hands and we get to decide what it’s worth. The comment in verse 13 indicates that Isaiah’s generation was choosing to live their lives in the moment and, frankly, didn’t care about tomorrow. They’d forgotten who they were and to whom they belonged. Self-reliant, self-governed, self-centered, self-ish.
The Lord Almighty has revealed this in my hearing: “Till your dying day this sin will not be atoned for,” says the Lord, the Lord Almighty.
To finish out the oracle, Isaiah illustrates his lesson on misplaced confidence with a couple of case studies: two men in the king’s court, Shebna and Eliakim.
Shebna was King’s Hezekiah’s right-hand man and wanted everyone to know it. He carved a fancy tomb for himself high in the rocks to display his power and wealth, not just to his contemporaries, but to the generations to come. Obviously, he hadn’t listened very closely to Isaiah or he would have known that the future of Jerusalem lay in Babylonia and no one would get to see his elaborate sepulcher. His reward for his self-promotion? So glad you asked. The literal translation of verse 17 is priceless: “Look, the Lord is going to throw you far away, big man…” History doesn’t record where the Lord threw the big man, but it wasn’t anywhere close to his tomb in the rocks.
Self-confident Shebna was replaced by Eliakim and Isaiah had good things to say about him. He was a father figure to the people of Judah and he handled his authority honorably. He was “like a tent peg in a firm place.” Solid, dependable, a source of security for his people. And therein was the problem. If Eliakim became the one the people relied on, the weight would be too much for him and they would all come tumbling down.
The simple truth is we aren’t sufficient to meet all of our own needs or the needs of others. Oh, we may do alright for a while, but the stress of it all will eventually break us and take us captive—captive to our own reputations or to the expectations of others.
So Isaiah makes it pretty clear: God alone is worthy of our trust.