Thursday, January 19, 2017

Spiritually starving the laity: Comments on Isaiah 28-29

The professional clergy in the church today sometimes appear to be actively stifling strong Biblical teaching. They seemingly filter out any difficult teaching in order to keep everybody comfortable and calm.

Jerusalem, in Isaiah's day, had a problem with weak teaching. It was a struggle for Isaiah and he wrote about it in chapters 28-29. His message was one of warning regarding the coming threat from the Assyrian Empire. The Northern half-nation of Israel was about to come to an end (or it had already been decimated by the time Isaiah wrote chapter 28). His warning was that the Southern half-nation of Judah was equally threatened as Israel from the Assyrians. Isaiah warned that any international political alliances were a mistake for Judah. Unfortunately, the religious leaders in Jerusalem believed they had a better understanding of international affairs and a better plan of action concerning the Assyrians. Their plan involved international politics. To them, hashing out treaties was the wiser and more prudent action. For one, it was easier to forge treaties than to call for moral reform of the people of Judah. Politics is easier than godliness. Isaiah's message was that the people need to be taught to practice righteousness and then God will be their defense against the Assyrian army. He reiterates his point in Isaiah 28:16-17 which says that as much as the building of the temple was God's work, so is the righteousness of Jerusalem. If Jerusalem lives up to the righteousness implied by the resident temple, then God will be the defense against Assyria. Here is the text with my comments.
Isaiah 28:7-29:16
These also reel with wine
    and stagger with strong drink;
the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink,
    they are confused with wine,
    they stagger with strong drink;
they err in vision,
    they stumble in giving judgment.
All tables are covered with filthy vomit;
    no place is clean.
That is, the office of the priesthood has become the office of decadence. The priests are more interested in excelling in their positions than in actually teaching. They say,
9 “Whom will he teach knowledge,
    and to whom will he explain the message?
Those who are weaned from milk,
    those taken from the breast?
These people are simple people. We need to keep it basic and what you are trying to teach them is upsetting. Our preaching needs to be totally directed at the spiritual babes in Jerusalem.
10 For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
    line upon line, line upon line,
    here a little, there a little.”
The language sounds like mumbling; so Isaiah is accused of teaching gibberish. The charge is that the people get lost trying to follow Isaiah's sermons. All they hear is the kind of talk adults make in the Peanuts cartoons.
11 Truly, with stammering lip
    and with alien tongue
he will speak to this people,
I think Isaiah is still quoting his priestly critics. Since common people cannot accept Isaiah's message, they say, he might as well be up there stuttering. It is possible that Isaiah's Judahite accent is being mocked by listeners in Ephraim (Isaiah 28:1); but we soon learn that Isaiah is preaching to Jerusalem (Isaiah 28:14), not Ephraim. Thus, Isaiah is accused of preaching a message so complicated he might as well be preaching in a foreign language.
12 to whom he has said,
“This is rest;
    give rest to the weary;
and this is repose”;
    yet they would not hear.
Isaiah's message to Jerusalem was to relax and focus on righteousness; but the priests taught that they should relax because Jerusalem has a treaty―and they made no mention of moral reform. That would be too upsetting.
13 Therefore the word of the LORD will be to them,
    “Precept upon precept, precept upon precept,
    line upon line, line upon line,
    here a little, there a little;”
in order that they may go, and fall backward,
    and be broken, and snared, and taken.
Isaiah means that if the people ignore his preaching, they will suffer when the Assyrians come to Jerusalem.
14 Therefore hear the word of the LORD, you scoffers
    who rule this people in Jerusalem.
15 Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,
    and with Sheol we have an agreement;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
    it will not come to us;
for we have made lies our refuge,
    and in falsehood we have taken shelter”;
Because the priests have sabotaged Isaiah's preaching in favor of a treaty agreement ("covenant with death") with Assyria...
16 therefore thus says the Lord GOD,
See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone,
    a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation:
    “One who trusts will not panic.”
17 And I will make justice the line,
    and righteousness the plummet;
hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,
    and waters will overwhelm the shelter.
I will hold Jerusalem to a moral standard the same way I held the temple builders to an architectural standard. It is not an unreasonable moral expectation. If God finds righteousness in Jerusalem, then God will be their refuge. If not,
18 Then your covenant with death will be annulled,
    and your agreement with Sheol will not stand;
when the overwhelming scourge passes through
    you will be beaten down by it.
19 As often as it passes through, it will take you;
    for morning by morning it will pass through,
    by day and by night;
and it will be sheer terror to understand the message.
20 For the bed is too short to stretch oneself on it,
    and the covering too narrow to wrap oneself in it.
If you try to hide from the terror under your bed covers, you will find the covers to be too short.
21 For the LORD will rise up as on Mount Perazim,
    he will rage as in the valley of Gibeon
to do his deed—strange is his deed!—
    and to work his work—alien is his work!
Perazim and Gibeon are mentioned in 1 Chronicles 14:11-16. This is strange and alien work for God because he would rather bless than punish.
22 Now therefore do not scoff,
    or your bonds will be made stronger;
for I have heard a decree of destruction
    from the Lord GOD of hosts upon the whole land.
There follows an example of farming. Farmers plant and harvest at the proper times and with the right tools and methods. This is God's wisdom. God's counsel has purpose and it is best followed. International alliances, in this case, rebuff God's wisdom.
23 Listen, and hear my voice;
    Pay attention, and hear my speech.
24 Do those who plow for sowing plow continually?
    Do they continually open and harrow their ground?
25 When they have leveled its surface,
    do they not scatter dill, sow cummin,
and plant wheat in rows
    and barley in its proper place,
    and spelt as the border?
26 For they are well instructed;
    their God teaches them.

27 Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge,
    nor is a cart wheel rolled over cummin;
but dill is beaten out with a stick,
    and cummin with a rod.
28 Grain is crushed for bread,
    but one does not thresh it forever;
one drives the cart wheel and horses over it,
    but does not pulverize it.
29 This also comes from the LORD of hosts;
    he is wonderful in counsel,
    and excellent in wisdom.

29:1 Ah, Ariel, Ariel,
    the city where David encamped!
Add year to year;
    let the festivals run their round.
2 Yet I will distress Ariel,
    and there shall be moaning and lamentation,
    and Jerusalem shall be to me like an Ariel.
On the meaning of the word "arial," John Goldingay says,
It means "God's lion," but a similar word means "hero" in Isaiah 33:7, while "Ariel" sounds the same as a word for the hearth around the temple altar where animals were burnt in sacrifice (see Ezekiel 43:15-16). (Understanding the Bible Commentary on Isaiah)
In other words, Isaiah warns that if the current ignorance persists the city of Jerusalem (Ariel) will become like one giant altar (ariel) on which the whole city is sacrificed.
3 And like David I will encamp against you;
    I will besiege you with towers
    and raise siegeworks against you.
4 Then deep from the earth you shall speak,
    from low in the dust your words shall come;
your voice shall come from the ground like the voice of a ghost,
    and your speech shall whisper out of the dust.
When I (God) am done with you, you will be dead. Then, the only voice you will have for preaching is the voice of the dead.
5 But the multitude of your foes shall be like small dust,
    and the multitude of tyrants like flying chaff.
And in an instant, suddenly,
6 you will be visited by the LORD of hosts
with thunder and earthquake and great noise,
    with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire.
7 And the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel,
    all that fight against her and her stronghold, and who distress her,
    shall be like a dream, a vision of the night.
8 Just as when a hungry person dreams of eating
    and wakes up still hungry,
or a thirsty person dreams of drinking
    and wakes up faint, still thirsty,
so shall the multitude of all the nations be
    that fight against Mount Zion.

9 Stupefy yourselves and be in a stupor,
    blind yourselves and be blind!
Be drunk, but not from wine;
    stagger, but not from strong drink!
10 For the LORD has poured out upon you
    a spirit of deep sleep;
he has closed your eyes, you prophets,
    and covered your heads, you seers.
That is, the people have been happily blinded. This blindness came upon them through their own resistance to the truth of Yahweh.
11 The vision of all this has become for you like the words of a sealed document. If it is given to those who can read, with the command, “Read this,” they say, “We cannot, for it is sealed.” 12 And if it is given to those who cannot read, saying, “Read this,” they say, “We cannot read.”
The priests were asked to teach something that was written in a scroll. It may have been something that Isaiah himself wrote. The priests declined to teach from the scroll claiming that it was sealed. The uneducated commoners wanted to study the scroll; but unfortunately, they could not read. This lack of learning was thus entirely the fault of the priests whose responsibility it was to provide good teaching (Hosea 4:6). Incidentally, the Church of Jesus Christ of Later Day Saints (Mormons) believe Isaiah 29:11-12 is a prophecy predicting the coming of the Book of Mormon. This connection is made because Joseph Smith was allegedly given the Mormon revelation as it was written on some tablets; but the tablets were written in a dead language and Smith could not read them. We observe here that these verses are not predictive. In them, Isaiah explains the plight of the people in Jerusalem due to the overly simple teaching of the priests. The scroll of the vision was not sealed. It had become to them "like the words of a sealed document."
13 The Lord said:
Because these people draw near with their mouths
    and honor me with their lips,
    while their hearts are far from me,
and their worship of me is a human commandment learned by rote;
At least the priests taught the proper order of worship so everyone knew what to do in the assemblies.
14 so I will again do
    amazing things with this people,
    shocking and amazing.
The wisdom of their wise shall perish,
    and the discernment of the discerning shall be hidden.

15 Ha! You who hide a plan too deep for the LORD,
    whose deeds are in the dark,
    and who say, “Who sees us? Who knows us?”
16 You turn things upside down!
    Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?
Shall the thing made say of its maker,
    “He did not make me”;
or the thing formed say of the one who formed it,
    “He has no understanding”?
The priests thought they knew a better way to go with contemporary conditions. They say, There is no need for too much focus on moral behavior. That kind of teaching is antiquated. We have thought about it and we have a better way.

Today in our congregations, there is a desire to teach in ways that do not challenge the believer to more meaningful righteous living and greater knowledge of God and Christian godliness. Are we afraid we are going to upset someone?


  1. Good stuff, Brother.

    1. Wow. Thanks. I fear it may be a bit too expository for some readers. It covers almost two chapters in a major prophet.