8. The Defeat of the Forces of Evil and the Deliverance of the People of God (Isaiah 27:1-13)
This is the final part of the “Little Apocalypse” of Isaiah 24-27. It moves into eschatological events, spanning the time from Isaiah’s present days through the first return to the land all the way to the end of the age with the great return and the new creation. The fulfillment of the promises that bring blessing and peace will only be possible with the destruction of evil—the wicked on the earth and the evil spirit forces that are using them.
I. The LORD will destroy the forces of evil (1).
The final deliverance of God’s people must begin with the victory of the evil forces that sought to destroy her. Verse one announces this great victory over evil, but it does it using strange, mythological terms. Some argue that Isaiah is simply using pagan mythological ideas to express a victory for the LORD. But it is more likely that he is taking these views seriously, for behind pagan religious beliefs there were dark spirit forces at work.
The Babylonian religion had said that creation was accomplished by the cosmic victory of their god over ti’amat, the source of all the dragons or serpents of the deep. The sea monsters were the forces of chaos that ti’amat, the Deep, mustered to avenge the death of her husband; and so they had to be controlled. The ancient Babylonian creation myth (see Alexander Heidel, The Babylonian Genesis) has the god Marduk creating the universe after defeating Tiamat (lit. “salt water”), and then creating humans from the blood of the god Kingu. Some of these words are found in the literature of the Bible, albeit changed in meaning because the forces of nature are not deified. In fact, the Genesis account is a polemic against it. Yahweh God created the universe; and in the beginning the whole world was enveloped in darkness. At that time God’s Spirit hovered over the face of the “deep” (Hebrew tehom is the masculine cognate of Babylonian feminine word ti’amat). God controlled the chaos and gathered the waters into their places; but the deep was not a goddess.
Accounts of the Exodus (cf. Ps. 114) also use language that was familiar in the ancient world to reflect God’s victory over Sea, words such as the Deep, Rahab (serpent), and Leviathan, which are all forces of chaos to the pagans. To the writers of the Bible they are forces of chaos as well, but the chaos of nature, such as the ocean or rivers. They were never even considered to be gods by the Hebrews. And the writers chose to use the terms to make that point, that they may have been forces of nature but they were not gods, and that Yahweh, the God of Israel, could control them..
The prophet Isaiah, as indeed the rest of Scripture, sees the future events at the end of the age (the eschaton) as parallel to the accounts of the beginnings of the creation. At the beginning the LORD brought life out of the deep, as if to say what the pagans worship God manipulated. And accordingly, God will create again at the end of the age, a new heaven and a new earth, but only after he defeats all the evil forces that controlled the hearts and minds of the pagans. Isaiah has more to say about this than any other writer. Here, in chapter 27, that new creation will come about through a great victory over the forces of chaos once again; and while the Hebrews did not deify these forces of nature, they understood the pagans did, and in fact that the pagans worshiped them. Accordingly, these forces of nature were false gods, and that also indicated that evil spirits were in it all deceiving the world.
It makes good sense to see the two conflicts in their spiritual dimension, especially if the primary spiritual force behind pagan gods is the evil one himself, Satan. In the beginning, before Genesis, Satan was cast out of heaven to rule in darkness in this world. But at creation the LORD dispelled the darkness with light, corrected the waste and void, defeated and controlled the forces of chaos by limiting the oceans and fixing the dry land, and brought great blessing to His creation. And at the end of the age, Satan will be finally defeated once and for all before the new order of creation is established (Rev. 12).
This verse, then, announces victory over the kingdoms of this world, over the spirits behind them, underscoring the biblical polemic against pagan religion.
The verse begins with “in that day” which is an expression often used by the prophets for eschatological predictions, usually end-of-the-age predictions. Here the “sword of the LORD” is the means of the victory. Elsewhere in Scripture this is clarified as the decree that comes from His mouth, the Word of the LORD (so the figure would be implication [or hypocatastasis]).
The “weapon” is powerful: hard and great and strong. The threefold description of God’s powerful word underscores the certainty of His victory over evil.
Evil carries three descriptions here as well: Leviathan the gliding serpent, Leviathan the crooked serpent, and the monster that is in the sea.
Leviathan is an interesting motif in the Old Testament. It is used in Job with the meaning of the crocodile, although there are probably mythological allusions in that passage as well. In Ugaritic the term is Lotan; the pictures the Ugaritic texts provide are of a seven-headed dragon of the deep, viewed as the god of the underworld, the force of the ocean, or chaos. In this passage the term “monster” (tannin) is also used, and these two, Leviathan/Lotan and tannin, are paralleled in Ugaritic mythological texts. It is interesting that in the Genesis account of creation we are also told that God made also the great sea creatures (tanninim). The point is that they are just animals in the account; and the significance of this is that whatever the pagans worshiped—God made. In this sense, Genesis 1 becomes a polemic against pagan religion, and a theological explanation of “You shall have no other gods before me”—of course not, because none were before Him, He made them all.
The term “serpent” is also used here, with the adjectives of “crooked and twisting.” The serpent was venerated in Egypt (especially as the sacred cobra), Phoenicia (as the mother goddess of all living), and in Canaan (with snake worship). Of course, in the Bible the serpent is the representation of evil and death, or connected with death. The remarkable parallelism of these expressions in Isaiah 27:1 and in Ugaritic texts for the god of the deep cannot be overlooked; Isaiah is clearly alluding to the passages in his announcement of the great victory at the end of the age.142
It may be that the imagery in Isaiah is meant to be used in its figurative sense of the Deep—that is, Sea Water. The fact that the pagans had deities who ruled the deep need not have been carried into the allusion. The repetition of “Leviathan” in the passage may represent the two largest rivers known to the Hebrews, the Tigris and the Euphrates, which are akin to the sea, and like the sea are symbolized as monsters and destined to be tamed. Leviathan the gliding or the swift would be the Tigris (meaning “swiftness”), and Leviathan the crooked would be the Euphrates. The punishment of these elemental forces seems to be regarded as a necessary preliminary to the establishment of a new order, especially if they figuratively describe Assyria and Babylon respectively, and the spirit/gods behind them.
So the reptiles, even though of mythic origin, signify for Isaiah the chaos of the sea, but opposition from world powers as well with the spirit forces behind them. The LORD will put down all enemies, including the evil or Satanic spirits who had become false gods that the pagans feared. These spirits used things that the people feared or revered to draw their devotion.
For Isaiah, God’s power over the nations could only be complete when the gods the nations worshiped were destroyed.
The imagery of the two Leviathans for the rivers, as well as the monster of the sea, would then fit what we see in Daniel 7 and Revelation 12. The monster or dragon would be Egypt (see 19:5; Ezek. 29:3, 32:2), whereas the rivers would be the other two powers, Assyria and Babylon. If only one Leviathan were mentioned, it might represent the supra-terrestrial waters as the dragon would represent the sub-terrestrial waters. But the link to pagan mythology most certainly moves the whole interpretation into the world of spiritual darkness.
The key verb in here, translated “punish,” is the Hebrew verb paqad, normally translated with the meaning “visit.” All the detailed studies of this term show that it means a visit for blessing or for cursing; it means to change the destiny of someone or something. So in a passage on judgment it tells how the LORD intervenes to destroy.
II. The LORD will preserve His people (27:2-6).
This section also begins with “In that day,” announcing an eschatological message. Using the allegory of the vineyard, the prophet describes God’s care for His people Israel (2-6). The same figure was used in chapter 5, but there it led to judgment. Here the theme is hopeful throughout.
The text literally says, “Sing about a vineyard of wine.” The imagery of vines and branches is well known to students of the Bible. But the motif is a lot deeper when eschatology is considered. The theme was first introduced in Genesis 49 where God promised a king through the line of Judah (v. 10). But when the One comes “to whom [the scepter] belongs” (the translation of Hebrew “shiloh”), and the obedience of the nations will be his, “He will tether his donkey to a vine, his colt to the choicest branch; he will wash his garments in wine, his robes in the blood of grapes; His eyes will be darker than wine; his teeth whiter than milk.” Without getting into the details of this prophecy in Genesis 49, it will be sufficient to say that this early prophecy about the “Messianic Age” uses language of paradisiacal splendor and abundance. Accordingly, Jesus’ first sign in John 2 was to turn water into wine, a harbinger of the coming Messianic Age and an announcement that “Shiloh” had come.
Isaiah says that God watches over His vineyard, i.e., Israel. He waters it continually. As part of the allegory we would have to conclude that watering the vineyard refers to the provision of the Word of the LORD through the prophets (see Jer. 7:25; and see the imagery in Psalm 1:1,2, where the water is identified as the word). How else could God nourish a holy nation?
The allegory continues with a mention that if only briers and thorns were confronting Him, He would burn them out easily. This is an internal problem, not a reference to invasion. It refers to paganizers within the nation of Israel. But burning them out is tempered with a desire for them to come to Him in faith. God judges, but He offers the opportunity of refuge in the covenant.
This alternative for peace is actually extended before the section on judgment to follow. It is the message throughout Scripture—God offers His enemies peace! This, in the context, could refer to both unbelieving Israel and the foreign oppressors.
Verse six also announces that “in the days to come” the people of God will flourish. Here is the climax to the little allegory. “Israel” is used because the prophet means both Israel and Judah will flourish. He now changes the image slightly to make Israel a plant rather than a vineyard (hypocatastasis). It starts off with normal growth—planted, takes root, and buds. Since the prophet is addressing the nation of Israel that already was in the land, a prophecy about coming days must be something in the future when Israel will be brought back to the land. But his imagery takes an unusual turn: “and fill all the world with fruit.” Restored Israel will lead to the blessing of the whole world (as Gen. 49 said). Daniel also saw the kingdom of Messiah as a tree, and as a stone, that filled the whole world. In John 15 Jesus, the true Israel, is the vine, and His disciples the branches. That, at the very least, was the beginning of the fruit that would spread throughout the world. Paul in Romans 11 makes it clear that the Gentiles are wild branches that have been grafted into the tree. And so we now can witness the expansion of the Gospel. But He adds that God still has a purpose for Israel after the fullness of the Gentiles comes in; and it is to that purpose that the prophets speak.
III. The LORD will purify His people (27:7-11).
In this section the prophet address the nation as a whole, as “Jacob”. All Israel, both kingdoms, would be exiled; and many of their main cities demolished. The language is general enough to be applied to both Samaria and Jerusalem, meaning, the two captivities of Israel by the Assyrians and Judah by the Babylonians. God would use exile to purge Israel and make her into the holy nation and kingdom of priests that she was supposed to be.
In verse 7 the LORD is the subject of the sentence. The questions asked (reminiscent of Paul in Romans) expect a “No” answer. God did not strike Israel down. Rather, punishment would be tempered by mercy, for in exile, cruel as it was, people would survive. There was a future for Israel.
By an implied comparison [hypocatastasis] (“with his fierce blast”) and simile (“as on a day the east wind blows”) the prophet refers to the invasion from the east, from Mesopotamia—Assyria and/or Babylon. The judgment will be like the swift east wind that scorches the land.
According to verse nine this will be the way that God will make Israel deal with her sins. As in Isaiah 40, the point is that through this the sins will be atoned for. He is not referring to the objective basis of atonement, but the practical side of the experience. In exile they would come to penitent awareness of guilt. In other words, the people were removed so that sins would be removed. They will have a new attitude to the will of God. The verse is like Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Ezekiel 36:24-31.
The penitent and purified nation will show the fruit of its “atonement” by the destruction of pagan influence. They will return to do what they were supposed to do from the beginning. Unfortunately, it would take the Babylonian captivity to purge them of idolatry and make them fiercely loyal to God.
Verses 10 and 11 seem to be rather literal. All that is described in here are the effects of war (so in general could be called metonymy of effect)—abandoned cities, animals moving freely throughout, people gathering dry twigs, and the like. Isaiah sees the effects of war as the reversal of civilization.
The reason for all of this is the lack of understanding in the people—they are for the most part spiritually blind (see Isaiah 6 again). Isaiah likes wisdom motifs. So because of inner blindness—which led to pagan corruption, God would withhold His compassion and favor—even though He made them (see Isaiah 1 again). Of course, as Hosea announced, when they turned to the LORD in faith, then He would show them pity (Lo Ruhamah, “no pity,” the name of Hosea’s daughter used as an oracle, becomes Ruhamah, “pity”).
IV. The LORD will restore His people (27:12, 13).
The passage closes with two complementary images drawn from the Feast of Tabernacles. The first deals with the great harvest to be threshed. From beyond the Euphrates and from beyond the Wadi of Egypt (these are the boundaries of the Land), Israelites would be regathered. Never did Israel have the Land of Promise according to the biblical dimensions; and certainly never did a pure Israel possess it. Here God will “thresh” (hypocatastasis) through the lands of oppression, the chaff will be discarded, but the good grain regathered into the barn. Paul in Romans 11 carries the theme to its clear statement: “All Israel will be saved.” Ezekiel will explain in his wonderful vision of the dry bones that Israel will be regathered at the end of the age in two steps, first physically regathered (the bones come together), meaning restored to the land as a nation but in unbelief; and then there will be the spiritual quickening (the Spirit breathes life into the bones) in which the surviving Jewish people will come to faith in massive numbers.
The second image here is of the trumpet blast. The image, quite possibly the Word of God like a trumpet blast, calls or summons the people to the holy mountain, which he says now, is in Jerusalem. The apostle Paul used the image of the trumpet for the end of the age ingathering (like Israel’s festival of Ingathering at Tabernacles) at the coming of the LORD.
When the LORD gave Israel victory over Assyria, Babylon, and Egypt when He restored them to their land in 536, that was a great deliverance. But this passage was not fulfilled at that time (although it could have been used to explain the victory); in fact, some of the oracles of these end times were written by the prophets after the return from the exile. Evil still existed, Israel was not pure, and their stay in the land would not last but a few centuries and they would be scattered again. The fulfillment still lies in the future.
There is much that can be done with a passage like this, for it is a wonderful prophecy of God’s dealings with His chosen people. It serves as a comfort and a warning for us today as well as it did for ancient Israel.
As Paul said to the Romans, if God did not spare the natural branches, they should take heed lest he not spare them either. Believers are to learn from Israel’s mistakes. We have been grafted in; we are a kingdom of priests, and a holy nation. We are the branches of the vine. And even though our participation in the New Covenant in no way nullifies a future blessing for believing Israel, our concern in applying this passage is with us today primarily.
So I would first be clear that this is a prophecy for Israel, and for the great future victory over evil forces in the world, human and demonic. When that victory comes God will fulfill all His promises, especially those He made to Israel.
But I would also work the message to be applicable also to us who are in Christ. We know the eschaton will begin with a great celebration of victory over Satan and all his forces; and we know that the people of God will be preserved through the judgment, and will emerge purified to serve in the heavenly city. Thus, we can speak about an application in terms of how this hope purifies us (the apostle said whoever has this hope purifies himself), or in terms of bearing fruit throughout the world to demonstrate we are in the kingdom (our LORD said the kingdom was taken from them and given to a people bearing fruit). But we also know that in the future that hope will become reality. There is great evil in the world, demonic evil; and it will be destroyed completely, and the people of God purified and glorified to serve Him in the new heavens and the new earth.
142 See a detailed discussion of the Ugaritic texts in Gray, The Legacy of Canaan (Leiden: E. J. Brill).