5. The Announcement of Judgment (Isaiah 8:1-22)
This chapter is actually part of the whole unit that runs through Isaiah 9:7, for the end of chapter 8 is a transition into chapter 9—the gloom and despair of those walking in darkness in the north of Israel who will see a great light, the Messianic age. This passage forms the judgment part of it, the judgment leading up to the coming of the deliverer. Clearly the focus is on the destruction that took place in Samaria in 722 B.C., but includes the invasion of even Judah at that time. However, the message centers on the positive note that God will be with them if they trust in His word and hold their integrity. So even in a passage about judgment there is the direction for positive application.
Naturally, though, since this is about the Assyrian invasion of ancient Israel, some abstracting23 will have to be done to make the application for today. That it was an oracle announcing a judgment for their sin makes it somewhat easier to bring across to New Testament teachings. In the final correspondence between this passage and the New Testament application, the New Testament announces an impending eschatological judgment on sinners throughout the world, beginning with wars in the latter days before Christ comes. But it is also possible to say that God uses such means as personal, national and international crises to judge sinful peoples even today, before the end of time. In either case, the only hope people have is the hope that Isaiah had to offer—to make the LORD our fear and to believe in His word and to hope for Him. The two alternatives are here in this chapter—the LORD is either our sanctuary or our stumbling stone—He is Savior or Judge. Paul rightly says that the Gospel was first revealed in the prophets, for this is basic to all subsequent revelation.
The expositor will have to determine how much of the chapter should be treated to get the message fully across. I would think that even if all the chapter is not included in the outlined exposition, it will all have to be brought in somewhere as part of the contextual discussion. It may be necessary not to deal with the last section about spiritism—and the point of the chapter can still be made—but that section does portray the wrong source of security, the antithesis of fearing, trusting and waiting on the LORD. Verse 18 makes a logical stopping point for the second major section, because it affirms the faith that is sealed by the signs. In this set of notes I shall outline and discuss the whole chapter. I believe I would deal with all three sections in a homily, but my major emphasis (and more time) would be on the second section. It is also possible to do some rearranging for rhetorical purposes: the first section lays out the crisis, then the last section shows the wrong approach, and then the middle section shows the right approach and the danger of missing it.
Here is a rough arrangement of the outline that could be developed to describe the contents:
I. Through the symbolism of the name Maher-shalal-hash-baz, the prophet announces the swift invasion of Assyria that would exile the northern kingdom, but only besiege Judah because it was protected by God (1-10).
A. By writing the oracle and by naming his son as a sign, Isaiah prophesied that Assyria’s invasion would be swift and complete (1-4).
1. God instructed the prophet to write in a public place the description of the swift plunder that was coming (1).
2. The prophet had a son and named him for the oracle of the swift plunder that was coming shortly on the land (2-4).
B. The prophet announced that because the people had defected in their allegiance, God was about to bring the Assyrian army to judge the land (5-8).
1. The people had rejected the peace of Jerusalem for military alliances outside the land (5-6).
2. God was about to bring the Assyrians to exile the northern kingdom and cover the land of Judah (7-8).
C. By challenging the invading army to do all they might, the prophet affirms the triumph of Judah because God is with them (9,10).
1. He challenges Assyria to invade and fight (9).
2. It will not work because God is with them (10).
II. The prophet warns the people that if they panic in the crisis and do not follow his example and fear and trust the LORD, then they will fall in the war (11-18).
A. The prophet warns the people that if they do not fear the LORD they will be lost (11-15).
1. The prophet himself was warned not to panic like the people were doing (11-12).
2. The prophet learned and proclaimed that the LORD was to be feared and sought for security (13-14a).
3. The prophet warned that those who refused would be quickly destroyed in the invasion (14b).
B. The prophet demonstrated by his faith and affirmed by the signs that security was in the LORD alone (16-18).
1. He had his words sealed and testified to among his disciples (16).
2. He affirmed that he was waiting in faith on the LORD who was his security (17).
3. He and his children were signs (18).
III. The prophet warned the people that if they were foolish enough to seek help from the spiritists they would be utterly lost (19-22).
A. It is foolish to consult the dead for advice when the only hope is in the living God (19).
B. It is necessary to test the spirits to know who is telling the truth (20).
C. Those who turn aside to idolatry and spiritism will be lost in utter despair and devastation (21-22).
Now, with this general outline in mind we may transfer the individual points and sub-points (where possible) to a more expository style—shorter, timeless, theological statements. But remember, they must be true to the passage as well as true today.
I. Although judgment for infidelity is certain, there is protection through Immanuel (8:1-10).
A. God’s judgment will be swift (1-4).
Verse 1 introduces the theme that judgment will be swift on Syria and the northern state of Israel. The prophet was to take a great tablet and write the message on it for everyone to see. He wanted his message attested—it was prophecy. So here we have the name Maher-shalal-hash-baz introduced, another of the sons of the prophet who served as a sign, an incarnate word. This is a war cry comparable to such given in Egypt and Canaan of the time. It means something like “Spoil—speed, prey—hasten.” The name is unique; it uses a combination of imperatives and nominal forms to cry out for a sudden plundering of the land. The name also uses repetition to stress the point: spoil//prey, and speed//hasten.
This is the first symbolic act of the section—the writing of the words for all to see in advance. It was a witness to the fact that the people had rejected the prophets’ warnings and now only swift judgment lay ahead.
Verses 2-4 record the second of Isaiah’s symbolic acts, the naming of the child with this name. Isaiah took faithful witnesses to record the writing of the name; and then he and his wife had a child and called him by the name Maher-shalal-hash-baz. The terminology in here has led many to conclude that this birth is what 7:14 prophesied, for it has “the prophetess, and she conceived and bore a son; then said Yahweh to me, ‘Call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz, for before the child shall know to …’.” There is certainly a familiar ring to these elements from the last chapter. But as noted earlier, such a view would require that Isaiah have married again, or that the term ‘almah be given a rather different meaning.
If this prophecy was given in 733 B.C., then the focus of verse 4 would be about 11 or 12 years later, 722, when Sargon took Samaria. Judgment was certain because they had rejected the LORD.
B. Judgment will be irresistible (5-8).
Verses 5-8 can be called the tale of two rivers, Shiloah and Euphrates. Shiloah was the flowing stream or canal in the city of Jerusalem. The prophet was using it as a figure of speech (hypocatastasis) for the legitimate Davidic empire, the theocratic administration of Israel. The people had rejected that and had turned to rejoice in Rezin and the northern coalition. So because they rebelled against the house of David, God would bring in the judgment, the River Euphrates. This river represents the king of Assyria and his armies, who will “flood” the land including Judah.
The section ends with a cry to the land, “O Immanuel.” The point of the expression is a reminder that the warning of 7:14 extends beyond this invasion. The expression ‘immanu-’el itself became a war cry for Israel; it declared the presence and protection of the LORD in battle, it described the land that was being protected, and it named the future Coming One who would signify the presence of God with His people.
C. Judgment will only be averted by God (9-10).
Verses 9 and 10 could be taken two ways, that Israel’s plans to defend herself will fail, or that Assyria’s plans will not be totally successful. I take the latter view because the verses seem to be addressed to the nations. The Assyrians may try their hardest to break and to dash in pieces the land of Israel, but their counsel will come to nought, and their declaration shall not stand, for “God is with us” (‘immanu-’el). If the former view is taken, then this cry of “God is with us” would be the thing that Israel trusted in that would not come to pass.
On this section Wildberger has some good comments, especially about the point of the strange name. He concludes by saying that to be confronted so clearly with God’s will to save and then still choose the way of unbelief could only result in a disastrous future, the seeds of which had been sown already.
II. Comfort is only for those who fear the LORD (8:11-18).
A. The LORD is a stone of stumbling if not feared (11-15).
The passage begins with the prophet receiving a warning in verses 11 and 12 not to take the view that the people took (that this was all a conspiracy and nothing more—it was indeed divine judgment), nor to fear just what they feared.
Verse 13 calls for the fear of the LORD of hosts (YHWH Seba’ot). If Israel were to panic it should not be because of foes, but because of the LORD (who has power over the body and the soul). Israel was to learn from this that the LORD was not like other tribal gods or friendly spirits who would protect His people without question.
There is a major textual decision you will have to make in here. Some of the commentators want to change “sanctify” in verse 13 and “sanctuary” in verse 15 to “conspiracy,” making the LORD the conspirator as well as the stumbling block and the spreading net. This would involve a change in the Hebrew letters of q-d-s to q-s-r. Any change in similar letters or order of letters is certainly possible; but if the MT makes good sense, and there is no sufficient manuscript evidence for the change, the suggestion should be rejected, even though it may be an interesting proposal. The verse says, “Yahweh of armies—Him shall you sanctify, let Him be your fear, let Him be your dread.”
In this verse we have the first section of our application. In view of the coming judgment one must sanctify and fear the LORD. The main word for “sanctify” is qaddesh, related to the word for “holy” we saw in Isaiah 1 and Isaiah 6. The word “fear” is yare’ (pronounced yah-ray); this word needs study. The term is a worship word, speaking of one’s devotion and adoration—reverence—for the LORD. But it also speaks of a shrinking back in respect and terror. The result of fearing the LORD, among other things, is the avoiding of sin. If the people were to be true worshipers, they would shave to sanctify and fear the LORD.
Verse 14 could be translated a little differently. Traditionally it has been rendered, “He shall be for a sanctuary, and for a stone of stumbling … .” “Sanctuary” does not fit very well—hence the attempt to change it. The term could simply state that the LORD is set apart, distinct; unlike other national gods, the LORD will be the one causing the distress on His own nation.
This section gives a different view of God. He is a stumbling stone, a slipping stone, a trapping net, and a throwing stick (the last two referring to catching birds). These are not essentially His nature that Israel had come to know. But if people rejected the LORD, then He would become these avenues to judgment for them. The metaphors all show that God will bring the people down.
Verse 15 gives the conclusion of the section, affirming that many will fall and be taken. The New Testament picks up the section and uses it to stress the point Isaiah is making clearly. If the LORD is not your salvation, He is your stumblingstone. Immanuel is not with us, if Immanuel is rejected. God has to be believed in before His name becomes real in our experience. Romans 9:32f. and 1 Peter 2:8 pick up the use of the metaphor of a rock that cannot be rejected or it will be a stumbling stone.
B. Those whom fear the LORD will hope in Him (16-18).
Verse 16 is the second time in the chapter that the Word of the LORD is to have witnesses. “Law” here probably means the clear teaching of the prophet Isaiah. It will be bound up and sealed by his disciples and kept as proof that he predicted the destruction ahead of time (Dt. 18).
Verse 17 tells of the prophet’s expectation: “I will wait for the LORD.” He can only expect the judgment now, for his teachings have been set aside. The Hebrew words for “waiting, hoping, and looking” all signify eager faith in the Word of the LORD that fully expects it to come to pass, but agonizes in the waiting. The words imply some anxious tension as part of the waiting and hoping; they are elsewhere used of twisting ropes and knots. But those who fear the LORD will wait for His Word to be fulfilled—having done all that they can do to warn others.
Verse 18 is Isaiah’s confirmation of the truth of what he has said. He and his sons are signs. Their names mean what his message said; and he wrote the name and the message with witnesses ahead of time as proof when it should come. Isaiah can say that he and his sons are proof that judgment was coming (Maher-shalal-hash-baz), but a remnant would return (She’ar-yashub) because salvation was of the LORD (“Isaiah,” Yeshayahu).
This verse is cited in the Book of Hebrews with a greater meaning. Christ in glory will say, “Here I am and the sons that You have given Me.” This is a different meaning—it is a midrash, an analogical application of the text. In heaven all the company of the redeemed will be evidence of a great judgment that was avoided by those who feared the LORD and put their trust in Him to find salvation.
III. Great despair and devastation comes to idolaters (8:19-22).
Not only is God not like friendly spirits who ignore the sins of the people, neither can He be manipulated into delivering them. This section is a warning against superstition; the last section was a warning against false fear and supposed conspiracy.
Verse 19 gives the third leg of the application (first: fear the LORD; second: hope in Him; third: pray to the living God). Isaiah is amazed that the people would turn to spiritism in the day of crisis (see the example of Saul going to the witch of Endor). The question is powerful: Should they seek the dead on behalf of the living?24 To pray to the dead, departed spirits instead of to the living God is utter folly.
Verse 20 gives the test. If they do not speak according to the truth of the teaching of Isaiah, the truth of Scripture, they are to be avoided. This is how the people can know whether these “wizards” and “necromancers” tell the truth or not. If they lie, they have no morning. This idea picks up the biblical theme of the wicked being in the darkness of Sheol.
Verses 21 and 22 form the transition to the next section. The imagery used here predicts a time of despair (faces turn upwards) and gloom and darkness. The images of darkness and light are implied comparisons; darkness would represent the effects of sin—oppression, pain, evil, gloom, hopelessness—and light would reflect the effect of righteousness through the Messiah—joy, freedom, hope, knowledge, and righteousness. But the prophet declares that the people will be filled with the gloom of judgment.
Note how this transition works: the people who walk in darkness have seen a great light! Of course, between the end of chapter 8 and the beginning of chapter 9 are 700 years. That is the way prophecy works.
Drawing on the summary of the exegetical points, the three Roman numeral points written as one sentence, we move towards a theological point by the same process that we changed the exegetical outline into an expository outline. An exegetical summary of the passage might read something like this:
Using the symbolism of a name the prophet announces the swift and certain destruction from the invasion of Assyria, and warns that genuine faith in the LORD is the means of escape and not foreign alliances or idolatry which will inevitably lead to doom and despair.
We may now try to write the theological idea in a more useful form for exposition. This will be more of a principle, and will lead smoothly into the application. It will not elaborate on all the details, but it will make the point of the passage in a positive way. Here is one way to do it: Those who wish to escape the imminent judgment of God must fear the LORD, trust in His Word, and pray to Him alone.
This instruction of REVERENTIAL FEAR, PATIENT HOPE and SINCERE PRAYER (or as Isaiah puts them, “Make Yahweh your fear,” “Wait for the LORD,” and “Should not a people seek their God?”) is applicable for us in the Christian era who know that judgment will yet fall on the earth and only the devout believers will be spared.
In terms of application, the easiest part will be if the message is addressed to people who have not put their faith in the LORD, or who may be delving into new age or spiritist things for hope and comfort. Their fear is wrong—they are afraid of the threats in life, and they fear spirit powers. The truth of Scripture is that if you fear the LORD (=trust and obey Him) you will not have to live in fear of life. For believers, the application is a little different. Of course, they may be living like the unbelievers—so God’s warning to Isaiah is the warning to them, not to fear what they fear. But it can be a tremendous message of comfort and assurance. The judgment, whatever kind, however severe, cannot harm them because the LORD is with them—Immanuel. They may rejoice in the safety and security that they have in the LORD, their sanctuary, and hope in Him for final deliverance. In the meantime, like the prophet Isaiah, they can warn others about false trust, and show their faith to a world that is lost. Any number of New Testament passages that promise escape from judgment for faith in the LORD are at the heart of this message. They may be brought in along the way or at the end. But the exposition must show how this passage, as other temporal judgment passages do as well, forms a picture of divine judgment for sin that can only be escaped through the promise of Immanuel.25
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Jensen, Joseph. “The Age of Immanuel.” CBQ 41 (1979):220-237.
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23 Abstracting must usually be done when a passage is so concretely related to a specific setting. If the text refers to Israel, we must generalize or abstract it to use the designation the people of God, or believers, or professing believers; if the passage mentions an Assyrian invasion, we must abstract to speak of divine judgment. It is like beginning with a species and finding the genus in order to move to our age and go back to a corresponding species. Otherwise, application is lost in the historical descriptions in the passage, or it is improperly connected.
24 These words are reflected in the Garden after the resurrection of Jesus: Why do you seek the living among the dead?
25 Lancelot Andrewes has a marvelous sermon on the name Immanuel; in it he plays on the words to show that if it is not Immanuel, it must be Immanu-hell.