When we get difficult or bad news, we often try to negotiate with the bad news, to find a way around it. This kind of denial is a common part of the grieving process. One of the greatest human temptations is to believe that somehow, given enough knowledge, resources and time we’ll be able to negotiate with and even cheat death.
Read Isaiah 28-29
Two types of crown, signifying royal power, rule and glory are contrasted here. Ephraim or the northern kingdom of Israel is described as having a crown that appears proud and glorious but is the crown of the drunkard and will soon fade. In contrast, God has anointed his ruler to bring judgement and justice and the Lord himself will be their crown. In otherwise, their power and authority will come from God alone and so will be eternal and faultless (28:1-6).
If the kingdom is “under the influence” ruled by drunkards, either because the kings are specifically alcoholics or because the word sums up their reckless and greedy character, then not only the kings are addicts but the priests and prophets too. This is a kingdom that lacks godly leadership and lacks those who are able to speak soberly for the people to God and from God to the people. The prophets are like drunkards stumbling over their words and the people are themselves so intoxicated that they are incapable of responding to what God says, even when he offers rest. Therefore, part of their judgement is that God will speak through foreign tongues to them. If the prophets cannot communicate in their language clearly and the people cannot hear and understand clearly, then they might as well hear in Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian and Greek (28:7-14).
A repeated theme through the prophetic books is the complacency of the people. . So, attention turns back from the northern kingdom to Judah and Jerusalem. They believe that they are able to and have cheated death. They think they have made a covenant with it but it’s based on deceit, presumably a reference to the treaties and alliances they’ve made which they hope will protect them from invasion. However, they don’t intend to keep their side of the bargain. However, they have not cheated death. God stands for truth and righteousness so that the lies and schemes will not stand. God is establishing his ways, his covenant based on a surer foundation or cornerstone (28:15-22).
Whereas the people and their rulers are shifty and not to be trusted, God and his word can be. God keeps his word and fulfils his purpose. Just as ploughing and grinding are fixed processes that drag on for ever, so God’s purposes are fixed. He will do what he says and this means that judgement will come but it also means that there will be an end point to this (28:23-29).
Jerusalem is described as “Ariel” in chapter 29 and there are a number of possible meanings for this, including a simple corruption of the name Jerusalem and a reference to the “lion of Judah.” In which case, the lion is cornered and wounded. Another strong suggestion is that it refers to the city as an altar but failing to be an altar of pure sacrifices it becomes the altar where God’s judgement is poured out (29:1). The point is this, that Jerusalem, this mighty city home to David’s palace and stronghold has become something different. It is no longer the place where atonement with God is possible, it is no longer a place of safety, if David camped there, now God encamps against her. If the city had been proud and exalted, now it would be brought low and humbled (29:1-4).
The people of Jerusalem may be focused on the danger of enemy armies. They may see them as the potential source of death and so may be seeking to negotiate with them. However, God once again reminds them that as overwhelming and dangerous as the enemy seems to be, they are simply the warm up act. Judah should not fear Syrians, Assyrians or Babylonians, they should fear the Lord (29:5-10).
Once again God returns to the theme of Judah’s ignorant stubbornness. The prophecies from Isaiah are like a closed book to them because they do not truly engage their hearts in order to meet with the living God. They pay lip service to him, his word and their worship. So God will act again. God will keep on revealing the truth about himself, he will use blessing, warnings and finally acts of judgement (29:11-12).
The people are guilty of upside down, or back to front thinking. They like to believe they are in control and can dictate terms, as though clay can answer a potter back. They seek to put God in the dock. So, God will turn the world upside down, forests will become fields and fields forests. The powerful will be brought low and the humble exalted (29:13-21).
The section finishes with a promise that God will restore the fortunes of his people. There will be forgiveness. God will turn hearts around (29:22-24).
“We have made a covenant with death (28:15)
- How might we be tempted to “make a deal with death”?
- In what ways does our society think it can cheat death?
- Why is it dangerous to negotiate with death?
Lord God, thank you that we don’t have to attempt to cheat or negotiate with death. Thank you that Christ has died in our place and so defeated death.
 See Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, 1-39, 566-567.