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ISAIAH 24-27: THE CONTEXT
Most scholars treat chapters 24-27 as a unit. The theme of chapter 24 is sounded in its opening words: “Behold, Yahweh makes the earth empty, makes it waste, turns it upside down, and scatters its inhabitants” (24:1a). That chapter tells of God’s judgment on an earth that “is polluted” and whose inhabitants “have transgressed the laws” and broken covenants (24:5). It tells of terrible things—”fear, the pit, and the snare” (24:17)—a world that “is utterly broken” (24:19)—the “armies of the high one on high” and “the kings of the earth… gathered together, as prisoners are gathered in a pit” (24:21-22).
The purpose of those cataclysmic events is found in the last verse: “Then the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed; for Yahweh of Armies will reign on Mount Zion, and in Jerusalem; and before his elders will be glory” (24:23).
The note of judgment continues in chapter 25 (our text). It speaks of Yahweh making “the city into a heap, a fortified city into a ruin” (25:2). It speaks of Moab “trodden down in his place, even like straw is trodden down in the water of the dunghill” (25:10b, which is not included in the lectionary reading).
But this note of judgment is counter-balanced by praise to Yahweh for doing wonderful things (25:1). Yahweh is a refuge to the poor and provides shade from the heat and shelter from the rainstorm (25:4). He offers hope, not just to Israel, but to “all peoples” (25:6). He “will swallow up death forever” (25:7)—and “will wipe away the tears from off all faces” (25:8).
Chapter 26 is a song of victory to “be sung in the land of Judah” (26:1). It speaks of resurrection, saying, “Your dead shall live. My dead bodies shall arise” (26:19), expanding the thought of death being swallowed up that was introduced in 25:7.
Chapter 27 opens with the promise of Yahweh punishing Leviathan and killing “the dragon that is in the sea” (27:1)—an act that will make it possible for Israel to sit in a pleasant vineyard and sing about Yahweh’s victory over evil (27:2). That chapter ends with a promise that Yahweh will gather the scattered people of Israel, so that “those who were ready to perish in the land of Assyria, and those who were outcasts in the land of Egypt, shall come; and they will worship Yahweh in the holy mountain at Jerusalem” (27:13).
This section is sometimes known as the Isaian apocalypse, because of its apocalyptic themes (judgment, devastation, the eschatological banquet, and victory over death).
In summary, these chapters speak of Yahweh’s victory over evil and the blessings that will accrue to Israel and “all peoples” (25:6) as a result of that victory.
ISAIAH 25:1-5. YAHWEH, YOU ARE MY GOD
1Yahweh, you are my God (Hebrew: elo·hay).
I will exalt you! I will praise your name, for (Hebrew: ki) you have done wonderful
things, things planned long ago, in complete faithfulness and truth. 2For you have
made a city into a heap, a fortified city into a ruin, a palace of strangers to be no city.
It will never be built. 3Therefore a strong people will glorify you. A city of awesome
nations will fear you. 4For you have been a stronghold (Hebrew: mah·seh) to the poor,
a stronghold to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shade from the heat,
when the blast (Hebrew: ru ah—breath or spirit) of the dreaded ones is like a storm
against the wall. 5As the heat in a dry place will you bring down the noise of strangers;
as the heat by the shade of a cloud, the song of the dreaded ones will be brought low.
“Yahweh, you are my God,”(elo·hay) (v. 1a). This chapter begins with this very personal affirmation that Yahweh not only is God but is “my God.” Other nations might worship or fear their gods, but Israel is alone in this sense of personal relationship with God—an emphasis that has continued into the Christian faith.
“I will exalt you! I will praise your name” (v. 1b). A God who invites this kind of personal relationship is deserving of praise—and praise comes naturally to a person who feels this kind of kinship with God. The prophet goes on to express this exaltation throughout the balance of this chapter.
“for (ki—because) you have done wonderful things, things planned long ago, in complete faithfulness and truth” (v. 1c). The prophet offers two reasons for praising Yahweh, and introduces each of these reasons with the little Hebrew word ki, which means “for” or “because.”
The first reason for praising Yahweh is that Yahweh has done wonderful things. He has not thought up these wonderful things “on the fly” in response to new situations, but has done them according to plans that he “planned long ago”—plans that are “faithful and sure.”
Yahweh had a plan for the world in the beginning. It began as a beautiful garden watered by “a stream (that) would rise from the earth, and water the whole face of the ground” (Genesis 2:6)—a garden full of trees bearing good fruit. God planned the garden for the couple’s enjoyment and sustenance, but their sin ruined their paradise. But God has a plan for redeeming humans from sin. This is an old plan—conceived along with the conception of the earth in the beginning—a plan that is “faithful and sure.”
“For (ki) you have made a city into a heap, the fortified city a ruin, a palace of strangers to be no city. It will never be built” (v. 2). The second reason for praising Yahweh is that he destroyed the evil city. The city’s fortifications did it no good—it is now a ruin. The “palace of aliens”—the building that stood as a symbol of the evil city—lies in ruins. The evil of this city will not return. The palace will never be rebuilt.
There are a number of theories concerning the identity of this city:
• Given the destruction of Jerusalem in 586-587 B.C., some scholars have proposed that it is Jerusalem. This seems unlikely on two counts. First, its crowning architecture was “the palace of aliens,” which is wholly unlike the crowning architecture of Jerusalem—God’s temple. Second, verse 2 makes it clear that this evil city was destroyed permanently, but verse 6 suggests that Mount Zion—Jerusalem—will be the site of the great “feast of fat things” (25:6). Also, we know that the Israelite exiles were finally able to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city and the temple.
• Others have proposed that the evil city was Babylon. However, Cyrus conquered Babylon without the kind of violence suggested by verse 2.
• Others have suggested that the city represents cities in general—places where money and power are the coin of the realm—places where the rich live in luxury and the poor often live in miserable circumstances—places where attitudes about sin and evil are highly casual at best and supportive at worst.
• Or the city could be a metaphor for evil wherever it might be found—and evil is to be found in every great city and tiny village.
Whatever the intent regarding the identity of the city, this verse praises Yahweh, because he has destroyed the evil that the city represents—destroyed it totally and permanently.
“Therefore a strong people will glorify you. A city of awesome nations will fear
you“ (v. 3). Because Yahweh has demonstrated his power to destroy evil, people who considered themselves strong will glorify him and ruthless nations will fear him. It stands to reason that ruthless nations should fear this powerful God who deals ruthlessly with evil, but we are surprised to see that strong peoples will glorify him. The implication seems to be that, having seen a convincing display of Yahweh’s power, some of those who might subject to Yahweh’s wrath will repent of their evil and begin to worship Yahweh.
“For you have been a stronghold (mah·seh) to the poor, a stronghold to the needy in his distress” (v. 4ab). This image of God as a refuge is common in the Old Testament (Psalms 14:6; 46:1; 104:18; Proverbs 14:26; Isa. 4:6; 28:15, 17; Jeremiah 17:17; Joel 3:16; etc.). The idea, of course, is simply that God provides protection for those who are unable to protect themselves.
“a refuge from the storm, a shade from the heat” (v. 4c). The people of that time and place were subject to the whims of nature and weather in ways that we are not. Most of us are not genuinely threatened by weather except in extreme circumstances such as hurricanes or tornadoes. We might feel ourselves threatened in extreme cold or hot weather if a power failure disables our ability to heat or cool our houses. But there are people living among us who understand the significance of shelter from rainstorms and shade from the heat. Homeless people come to mind. Elderly people who cannot afford air conditioning come to mind. Third-world people by the billions come to mind. Heavy rains have the potential to wash away people’s livelihoods. Heat waves routinely kill elderly or otherwise vulnerable people. The people to whom the prophet was writing would know the danger represented by weather. They would appreciate the significance of life-giving shelter and shade.
“when the blast (ru ah—breath or spirit) of the dreaded ones is like a storm against the wall. As the heat in a dry place will you bring down the noise of strangers; as the heat by the shade of a cloud, the song of the dreaded ones will be brought low“
(v. 4d-5). The division between verses 4 and 5 was obviously misplaced here. Verse 4d goes with verse 5. These verses repeat the thought expressed in verse 4a-c, but they personalize the danger. It is “the dread ones” who are “like a storm against the wall.” It is “the noise of strangers” that is “as the heat in a dry place.” In other words, the rainstorm and heat in these verses is a metaphor for evil people. But Yahweh sends a cloud to provide life-giving shade from the heat. He silences the song of ruthless people. He protects his own.
ISAIAH 25:6-8. A FEAST OF FAT THINGS FOR ALL PEOPLES
6In this mountain, Yahweh of Armies (Hebrew: yhwh seba·ot—Yahweh Sabaoth) will make all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of choice wines (Hebrew: sema·rim), of fat things full of marrow (Hebrew:sema·nim), of well refined choice wines. 7He will destroy in this mountain the surface of the covering that covers all peoples, and the veil that is spread over all nations. 8He has swallowed up death(Hebrew: ham·ma·wet—the death) forever! The Lord Yahweh (Hebrew: ado·nay yhwh) will wipe away tears from off all faces. He will take the reproach of his people away from off all the earth, for
Yahweh (Hebrew: yhwh) has spoken it.
“In this mountain, Yahweh of Armies (yhwh seba·ot—Yahweh Sabaoth) will make all peoples a feast of fat things“ (v. 6a). We first heard of the mountain of the Lord in chapter 2, where Isaiah son of Amoz saw a vision that “the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it” (2:2). That mention of “all peoples” fits with the mention of “all peoples” in 25:7.
This verse introduces an entirely new vision—that of a great banquet hosted by Yahweh, the Lord of hosts. First, Yahweh will rid the world of evil and then he will host a great banquet. He will invite not only Israel, but “all peoples.” The Old Testament focuses on the Israelites as the people of God, but it also includes sun-breaks that allow light to shine on others as well. This is one of those sun-breaks.
“Yahweh of Armies” (yhwh seba·ot—Yahweh Sabaoth) (v. 6a). Sabaoth means “hosts” or “armies.” Yahweh Sabaoth could mean that Yahweh is the Lord of Israel’s armies—or it could mean that Yahweh is the Lord of the hosts of heaven—or it could mean both. The basic idea is that Yahweh is Lord of all.
While the name of this mountain is not specified (except that it is the mountain of the Lord of hosts), the last chapter promised that “Yahweh of Armies will reign on Mount Zion, and in Jerusalem” (24:23), so it is likely that “this mountain” is Mount Zion.
“a feast of choice wines (sema·rim), of fat things full of marrow (sema·nim), of well refined choice wines (sema·rim)“ (v. 6b). Note the word play between well-ages wines (sema·rim) and marrow (sema·nim).
Unlike today, rich food was not an everyday staple in that time and place. People ate simply, and most people could enjoy meat only occasionally. Typically, they would eat a light meal at midday and a larger meal at the end of the work day. Bread was the staple food—vegetables are mentioned only occasionally in the Old Testament. People raised olives for oil, and enjoyed grapes, both fresh and dried (raisins), as well as wine made from grapes. “Rich food filled with marrow” and “well-aged wines strained clear” would be rare and prized.
Most people would be able to enjoy the kinds of food mentioned in this verse only on special occasions, such as a wedding banquet. On such occasions, the host would spend as freely as possible to provide guests with abundant quantities of food and wine. For most people, hosting this sort of banquet would be a budget-buster, so they devised ways of stretching their funds to make them go as far as possible. For instance, when Jesus turned water into wine at Cana, the chief steward, not knowing where the wine came from, said to the bridegroom, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and when the guests have drunk freely, then that which is worse. You have kept the good wine until now!” (John 2:10).
Kings and other wealthy people could serve lavish banquets, but only for their closest friends and associates. Even a king as rich as Solomon could not afford to host a grand banquet for “all peoples”—nor would a king be inclined to do so if he could. Great banquets were one of the things that distinguished kings from common people, and kings are always interested in maintaining those kinds of distinctions.
But the feast mentioned in this verse is not a banquet hosted by an ordinary family. It isn’t even a banquet hosted by a king. It is a banquet hosted by “Yahweh of Armies”—the one who created all that is—the one who owns the cattle on a thousand hills (Psalm 50:10). The Lord of hosts can afford to serve the finest foods and wines from beginning to end. The Lord of hosts can afford to provide fine foods for “all peoples” —and that is exactly what the Lord of hosts intends to do.
A wedding feast hosted by an ordinary family would typically last for a week. A wealthy family might host a wedding feast for two weeks. The prophet gives us no idea how long the Lord’s feast might last, but we should assume that it will be a very long party.
“He will destroy in this mountain the surface of the covering that covers all peoples, and the veil that is spread over all nations” (v. 7). We might wonder about the meaning of “the covering that covers all peoples” and “the veil that is spread over all nations,” but the third part of this verse explains. Yahweh of Armies “will swallow up death forever.” In fact, the wording is stronger than that—Yahweh of Armies “will swallow up THE death forever.” There will no longer be a need for burial shrouds—the kind of shrouds now required for “all peoples”—because all peoples die. The Lord of hosts will bring an end to death.
The next chapter gives a further glimpse into this triumph over death. It says:
“Your dead shall live. My dead bodies shall arise.
Awake and sing, you who dwell in the dust;
for your dew is like the dew of herbs,
and the earth will cast forth the dead” (26:19).
The New Testament continues with this theme. The Apostle Paul says that because of the work of Jesus Christ, “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54).
But Seitz sees the shroud and sheet as “symbols of the vast destruction that God has wreaked on all nations and peoples, but is about to remove” (Seitz, 190).
“He has swallowed up death (ham·ma·wet—the death) forever! The Lord Yahweh (ado·nay yhwh)will wipe away tears from off all faces“ (v. 8a). These will certainly include tears associated with mourning, because death will be no more (v. 7). However, people shed tears for a host of reasons—illness, financial problems, natural disasters, frustrations, marriages gone wrong, children gone wrong—the list is nearly endless. But the Lord God will wipe away all these tears at his mountaintop banquet—will wipe them away from the eyes of “all peoples” (v. 6).
The author of Revelation alludes to these verses when he says that God “will wipe away from them every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; neither will there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain, any more. The first things have passed away.” (Revelation 21:4)
“He will take the reproach of his people away from off all the earth” (v. 8b). While it is not clear when this chapter was written, the book of Isaiah is centered on the exile of the Israelites in Babylon—a fifty-year exile in which they became vassals of the Babylonian conquerors. When the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem, they destroyed the city and killed most of its inhabitants. They took those whom they permitted to live to Babylonia to serve as slaves. The disgrace of Israel could not be more complete.
We should note that those things happened according to Yahweh’s will. The people sinned, and Yahweh allowed them to be conquered and humiliated as the first step toward their redemption.
But now the prophet describes what the redemption will look like. The Lord of hosts will make a great feast on Mount Zion, not just for Israel, but for all peoples (v. 6). He will destroy death (v. 7), will wipe away tears (v. 8a), and will remove the disgrace of his people (v. 8b).
“for Yahweh has spoken it“ (v. 8c). This is the clincher. Yahweh has spoken these words, so we can be assured that the events pictured in these verses will come to pass. God’s word had the power to create the heavens and the earth, so God’s power is certainly able to do the things described in these verses. Furthermore, God is faithful, and can be counted on to do what he promises.
ISAIAH 25:9-10. BEHOLD, THIS IS OUR GOD!
9 It shall be said in that day, “Behold, this is our God! We have waited for him, and he will save us! This is Yahweh! We have waited for him. We will be glad and rejoice in his salvation!” 10a For in this mountain the hand of Yahweh will rest.
“It shall be said in that day, ‘Behold, this is our God! We have waited for him, and he will save us! This is Yahweh! We have waited for him. We will be glad and rejoice in his salvation'” (v. 9). “In that day” refers to the day of the great feast hosted by the Lord of hosts. The prophet doesn’t specify who will say, “Behold, this is our God.” At first reading, we would expect it to be Israel. However, we have been told that the Lord of hosts will welcome “all peoples” to his great feast, so surely all those who have been invited to the table will “be glad and rejoice in (Yahweh’s) salvation”—Christians as well as Jews.
“For in this mountain the hand of Yahweh will rest” (v. 10a). We use our hands to make things and do things, so we associate hands with power. “The hand of Yahweh” is a common phrase in the Old Testament—found more than 100 times. In this verse, the hand of the Lord resting on this mountain means that Yahweh has established his power and authority on this mountain. The fact that mountain is singular in this verse—and that Moab is named as the verse continues—suggests that the mountain in question is Moab’s mountain. If this is correct, then there is a dramatic contrast between the feast hosted by the Lord of hosts atop the mountain of the Lord in verse 6 and the punishment to be meted out by the hand of the Lord on Moab’s mountain in verse 10.
ISAIAH 25:10b-12. MOAB WILL BE TRODDEN DOWN
10b Moab will be trodden down in his place, even like straw is trodden down in the water of the dunghill.11He will spread out his hands in its midst, like one who swims spreads out hands to swim, but his pride will be humbled together with the craft of his hands. 12He has brought the high fortress of your walls down, laid low, and brought to the ground, even to the dust.
The lectionary reading doesn’t include these verses, but the preacher needs to be aware of them. As noted in the CONTEXT section above, the theme of judgment runs through these chapters, especially chapters 24 and 25. If we are to be faithful to the Biblical message, we must include both judgment and grace in our preaching. Grace alone is cheap. If there is no judgment, who needs grace?
Just as Yahweh allowed his own people to suffer humiliation and death because of their sins, so also Yahweh will allow the Moabites—Israel’s enemies—to suffer humiliation and death because of their sins. Earlier, the prophet said:
“We have heard of the pride of Moab,
that he is very proud;
even of his arrogance, his pride, and his wrath.
His boastings are nothing” (16:6).
Moab’s humiliation will be complete. The imagery used is that of people drowning in a dung-pit—in a septic tank. The efforts of the Moabites to save themselves will prove futile. God will breach their high walls and destroy them utterly.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
Brueggemann, Walter, Westminster Bible Companion: Isaiah 1-39 (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
Goldingay, John, New International Biblical Commentary: Isaiah (Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001)
Motyer, J. Alec, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries: Isaiah, Vol. 18 (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1999)
Oswalt, John N., The New International Commentary on the Old Testament: The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39 (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1986)
Scott, R.B.Y. and Kilpatrick, G.G.D., The Interpreter’s Bible: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Vol. 5 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1956)
Seitz, Christopher R., Interpretation Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1993)
Smith, Gary V., The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39 (Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 2007)
Tucker, Gene M., The New Interpreters Bible: Isaiah, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001)
Tucker, Gene M. in Craddock, Fred B.; Hayes, John H.; Holladay, Carl R.; Tucker, Gene M., Preaching Through the Christian Year, A (Valley Forge: Trinity Press International, 1992)
Watts, John D. W., Word Biblical Commentary: Isaiah 1-33 (Dallas: Word Books, 1985)
Young, Edward J., The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 19-39, Vol. 2 (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1969)
Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan