William Kelly Major Works Commentary
Woe to the crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim, whose glorious beauty is a fading flower, which are on the head of the fat valleys of them that are overcome with wine!Isaiah Chapter 28
This portion, which is intimately connected with Isa. 29, gives us a clear and detailed view of the ways of God with His people and His land, more especially with Jerusalem, in the last days. Israel is to fade as a flower, Jerusalem to be in sore displeasure, but delivered gloriously and for ever. I trust it may be seen plainly how impossible it is to apply what the Holy Ghost announces here, as a whole, to anything that has yet been accomplished. We must leave room for a further and closer bearing of these "woes" of the prophet.
Now simple as this may be, it is immensely important. For even many Christians are looking onward for the gradual progress (not testimony alone) of the gospel. They expect that by the blessing of the Holy Ghost upon the preached word, the nations are to be by degrees brought in; moral evil, infidelity, every form of superstition, all the pride and worldliness of man to be slowly broken down, when the power of the Holy Ghost shall fill men's hearts with righteousness and peace and joy, and thus the world in general become the reflection of God's will and ways. To such persons the assertion seems strange that there is to be a total change of dispensation; that God, having first taken us away to be with Christ above, is going to restore Israel into pre-eminence in their own land, - not to convert them simply and bring them into the Christian church, but to lead them to repent and receive their Messiah. Then they shall have their own distinctive promises and the new covenant made good to them, Jehovah's glory shining upon Zion, themselves exalted above all nations, who will take a place of conscious willing inferiority to Israel, and vie with one another which shall pay most honour to the chosen of Jehovah. All this, with many weighty consequences, involves such a mighty revolution in people's thoughts, that those more accustomed to the word of God can hardly conceive what an immense draft it makes upon the faith of those who are unversed in the prophetic word; how repugnant it is to all that is most cherished in their minds; and what a death-blow it gives to what they had fondly considered the legitimate hope of the church.
If we come to God's word as the only source of truth and sure test of all previous thoughts, nothing can be plainer; for here we have clearly a vision of the terrible blow that is to fall upon Ephraim, which is not only the name of a particular tribe, but the general designation of the ten tribes who mustered under that leading tribe. Judah and Ephraim are the two chief titles by which the prophets continually contrast the two houses of Israel. What the prophet communicates here is the "woe" that is to fall specially on Ephraim, that is, on those we call the ten tribes. This furnishes us with means for judging the time and circumstances of its fulfilment, because no such judgement as is here described ever historically fell upon the Jews. The others (i.e. Israel) were carried away into captivity to Assyria, and were never as a people restored to the land. Isaiah wrote when this dreadful blow was falling upon Israel, and goes onward to their last days, even to the days when Christ Himself, first in faith, then in delivering power and glory, shall be connected with Judah's remnant.
Looking at the past history of the people, we fail to see any such connection of Christ with Judah, anything that answered to this recourse to the tried Stone, save in those disciples who left the synagogue for the church at a later epoch. The ten tribes were swept away at an early day, and later on the two tribes were carried to Babylon, whence emerged only an inconsiderable remnant of Judah. The prophecy therefore has not yet been accomplished; and that which has not been must be fulfilled. Surely no canon of interpretation can be surer or plainer than this. Scripture cannot be broken: the word of God must be verified sooner or later. The end of this age is the ripe season for making good the bulk of prophecy. Therefore the one question here is whether anything has occurred really and fully corresponding with these judgements to fall on the ten tribes and Judah with Jerusalem also. That there never has been an adequate accomplishment will be manifest enough as we pass on. To the believer the fulfilment is future and certain.
"Woe to the crown of pride of the drunkards of Ephraim, and to the fading flower of his glorious beauty, which [is] on the head of the fat valley of them that are overcome with wine! Behold, the Lord hath a mighty and strong one, as a storm of hail, a destroying tempest; as a storm of mighty waters overflowing, shall he cast down to the earth with might" (or, hand) (vv. 1, 2). It is not to be thought that drunkenness is to be taken in its merely literal acceptation. It represents their dreadfully excited and stupefied and besotted state, given up to their own pleasure and self-indulgence to the shame of the true God. What intoxication is among men with its frightful natural effects, such in a large moral sense will be the condition of these proud insensate men of Ephraim. Fulfilled at whatever time it may be, plainly it will be in Israel as such. "The crown of pride of the drunkards of Ephraim shall be trodden under feet; and the fading flower of his glorious beauty, which [is] on the head of the fat valley, shall be as an early fig before the summer; which [when] he that looketh upon it seeth, while it is yet in his hand, he eateth it up" (vv. 3, 4). And true glory follows: "In that day will Jehovah of hosts be for a crown of glory, and for a diadem of beauty unto the remnant of his people; and for a spirit of judgement to him that sitteth in judgement, and for a strength to them that turn the battle to (or, at) the gate" (vv. 5, 6). Yet was the condition of Judah better?
"But these also have erred through wine, and through strong drink are they gone astray; the priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink, they are swallowed up of wine, they are gone astray through strong drink; they err in vision, they stumble [in] judgement. For all tables are full of vomit [and] filthiness [so that there is] no place" (vv. 7, 8). In vain had God met their weakness, and fed them with infants' food. "Whom will he teach knowledge? and whom will he make to understand the message? [them that are] weaned from the milk, [and] drawn from the breasts? For [it is] precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, there a little" (vv. 9, 10). Another dealing is needed and will surely follow. "For with stammering lips and with strange tongue will he speak to this people: to whom he said This [is] the rest, give ye rest to the weary; and this [is] the refreshing. But they would not hear. Therefore shall the word of Jehovah be unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken and snared and taken" (vv. 11-13). Not with that child like instruction which they had slighted, but with the foreign tones of enemies would He scourge them. They would not have His words of rest for the weary, they must needs have a nation they understood not. It was a judgement on their unbelief.
Thus the Assyrian is first represented as a hail-storm coming down from the north on Ephraim, "a mighty and strong one," "as a storm of hail, a destroying tempest, as a flood of mighty waters overflowing." It is the "king of the north," as he is last described in Daniel 11:40. Attention has been already drawn to the mistaken supposition that the lawless one, who is to be manifested as "the king" in Palestine, is the only danger for the Jews. No doubt he, though their king, is at bottom an enemy of the worst character. For what can be more afflicting or disastrous than to have one in your very midst whom you have embraced as a friend, and who turns out the bitterest foe?
Such will be the case when the Antichrist appears in the midst of the Jews and reigns, accepted by them as the Messiah. The Antichrist will be in lawless ways and in false pretensions what the Lord Jesus was in deed and in truth. Though He was God, when He came as man among men, never did He assert His rights as God in His ordinary path here below, however true the glory of His person was to faith. When did He ever use the Godhead to avert trials and sufferings, or man's contempt of Him? He invariably waited on God and trusted in Him. His obedience as man contributed only the more, because of His divine dignity, to prove that He was willing to encounter all shame and reproach, yea, the death of the cross, that God the Father might be glorified. Antichrist will, on the contrary, use all that Satan gives him (and Satan will endue him with such energy as never has been possessed before by man upon the earth), putting forth all power, and signs, and lying wonders. The consequence will be that the Jews, who characteristically look out for external tokens and prodigies, will accept and worship him as both Messiah and Jehovah their God in Jerusalem.
This is the person who, as 2 Thess. 2 warns us, is to come, as well as the apostasy. With him first of all will the shining forth of the Lord Jesus deal; though the day of the Lord will take in the whole course of judgements, from its first destruction of the enemy's power on earth till the end of the thousand years. All this period will be for the display of divine glory, but conspicuously in the execution of judgement from time to time on those that oppose themselves. Thus, of the other enemies of Jehovah, the chief is Daniel's king of the north, or, as other prophets designate him, the Assyrian scourge that comes down upon Ephraim. Clearly he is an enemy that rises up against the people and the land; whereas Antichrist will reign in the land, being there received by the Jews, and probably a Jew himself, for otherwise he could hardly hope to pass himself as Messiah. But the other external enemy, though he may set up to understand dark sentences (Daniel 8:23), takes, of course, an antagonistic attitude, as a fierce king and mighty man of craft.
From Isa. 28-29. we hear of two attacks on Jerusalem in the coming day. First of all the enemy assails Ephraim, entering the Holy Land from the north, on which occasion he has it all his own way. He humbles the pride of Ephraim, and is allowed of God to gain a partial success over Jerusalem also. "Therefore hear the word of Jehovah, ye scornful men, that rule this people which [is] in Jerusalem. For ye have said, We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol are we at agreement: when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come unto us; for we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood have we hid ourselves. Therefore thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Behold, I lay for foundation in Zion a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner [stone], a sure foundation: he that believeth (or, trusteth) shall not make haste. Judgement also will I appoint for a line, and righteousness for a plummet; and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall overflow the hiding-place. And your covenant with death shall be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, ye shall be trodden down by it. As it passeth through, it shall take you; for morning by morning shall it pass through, by day and by night; and it shall be terror only to understand the message. For the bed is shorter than that [one] can stretch himself; and the covering narrower than that he can wrap himself. For Jehovah will rise up as [on] mount Perazim, he will be wroth as [in] the valley of Gibeon; that he may do his work, his strange work, and bring to pass his act, his unwonted act. Now therefore be ye not scorners, lest your bands be made strong: for I have heard from the Lord Jehovah of hosts, a consumption, and [one] determined upon the whole earth" (vv. 14-22). Was this the case in past history? Supposing you look at Sennacherib and his army (2 Kings 18), what is there like it, save as a preparatory type? Was not his power completely humbled before the Jews? (2 Kings 19). Was it not a godly son of David who then reigned at Jerusalem? Had not Ephraim been swept off years before? It is manifest and certain that Sennacherib never gained an advantage over Jerusalem; whereas this power is to be victorious in the first instance, and even in the second to reduce them to the utmost, when total ruin befalls the enemy.
Mark the language of the prophet here, "Wherefore hear the word of Jehovah, ye scornful men, that rule this people which is in Jerusalem . . . I have heard from the Lord Jehovah of hosts a consumption and [one] determined upon the whole land" (or, earth). Compare with this Isaiah 10:23 in the first section of the prophecy. The fact is, when Sennacherib came of old against Jerusalem, the pious king Hezekiah ruled there who, instead of making a covenant with death, implored the help of Jehovah against the scornful king of Assyria. The result was that the angel of Jehovah smote the host of Assyria, so that there fell no less than 185,000. Save that the Assyrian will once more oppose the Jews, there is scarce a feature in the past which is not the reverse of what we have here.
Let rationalists, if they will, conclude that the book (for the Spirit of God they deny) has made a mistake; believers may be assured that it mainly looks onward to the judgements of the last days. Indolent readers, unintelligent or prejudiced commentators, may slur over the distinctive points of the prophecy, turning what they can to moral profit. But if a man follows out the matter closely, he must accept the truth of the future or become a rationalist, that is, an infidel. It is perfectly certain that nothing which approaches the prediction has yet occurred. Therefore the only legitimate inference to be drawn from it is, either that the prophecy is yet to be fulfilled, or that the pseudo-prophet was guilty of a lie or a flourish. The Christian, on the contrary, believes that God has written nothing in vain, and that every word, not yet accomplished, must be fulfilled to the letter; among the rest this wonderful dealing in which God is to make "the land of beauty" the grave of man's pride and power.
Then God will appear for the everlasting deliverance of poor Israel. And that very people, now so proverbial for their obstinate rejection of Christ, will go forth zealously spreading the tidings of divine mercy to the ends of the earth. What an evident contrast with that which exists now! Israel will be brought into their own land and blessed there, when Jehovah of hosts shall reign in mount Zion. Now God has no land that is more particularly holy. The land, holy in His purpose, is (1896) the possession of the Turk. It is still largely a waste country, though proofs of fertility are not wanting in the midst of barrenness. How is so vast a change to be brought about? When consummated, God will lead Israel to build a magnificent temple. The priests, the sons of Zadok, shall minister in due order. The land shall be divided among the twelve tribes after a new fashion. This and more we know from the last chapters of the prophet Ezekiel. Indeed abundant proofs are manifest elsewhere to any person moderately acquainted with the prophecies.
At present the characteristics are, Israel rejected, the Gentiles called, the church formed in union with Christ on high and by the Holy Ghost here below, in which church is neither Jew nor Gentile. Thus the character of blessing for man is entirely altered. Instead of outward honour resting upon the Jews, they are cast out and dispersed, and have yet to pass through a fiery tribulation at the close. We are God's people, His children now, not they. Peace in Christ is ours, but in the world we have tribulation. In the days that are at hand all will be changed: God, instead of rejecting the Jews, will again choose them to stand forth in their own land, converting them to Himself, quenching all tendency to rest on ordinances, and taking idols for ever away; whereas they formerly and persistently mixed up idols with the worship of Jehovah, later and worse still they rejected their own and His Christ.
Plainly therefore a new state of things must have come in. The prophecies may take us down to the change; but how is the change itself to be brought about? By more tremendous judgements on Israel, and especially on their enemies, than the world has ever witnessed; not only on a great nation, but on the east and west, their old enemies, represented in their descendants. All nations of the earth, in short, will have their representatives there and then. The result will be that God will judge all the nations, at length blessing His ancient people according to the promises He had assured to the fathers, then accomplished to the children. In order to bring about this change, not only must there be an execution of judgement, but also the removal of the heavenly saints to be with the Lord above. As long as the church goes on here below, it is impossible, morally speaking, that God could accomplish these events of a wholly contrasted character. For it is contrary to all analogy that God would act upon two opposite principles at the same time. For instance, how could God both give and withhold outward honour for a Jew? How form the church at the same time that He restores and owns Israel? If a Jew were to believe now, he, baptised by the Holy Ghost, becomes a member of Christ's body; whereas what we find in the prophets is, that a godly Jew in the last days remains a Jew. The Lord will quicken his soul, no doubt; but he will be found in his own land, where, instead of suffering, he will be blessed in earthly things. Thus it is an altogether different state here below. To this the New Testament supplies the key. Before Jehovah begins thus to work in Israel, the church is removed to heaven.
Hence in the Revelation the great initiatory lesson is taught, that when "the things that are" (or the seven churches) terminate, when those that truly believe now are seen glorified with the Lord in heaven, then (Rev. 7) God takes up a new work among Israel and the Gentiles, who will be, both of them blessed, but even so, presented as distinct from each other. Without doubt the Jews will return to their land in unbelief, and Satan will induce them to install a man as their Messiah who will draw them by degrees to worship himself and an idol in the temple of God. Some might think it strange to assert that these civilised and christianised nations, which count it impossible that the educated could worship idols or the Antichrist, should fall into these very snares. But scripture is explicit, that those who now boast of progress, knowledge, and religion will at that time fall into idolatry and the anti-Christian pit. All western Europe will be drawn into perdition with the mass of the Jews. God will have previously translated to heaven all properly called Christians. Then the apostasy will take place, though in the midst of this fearful evil the Spirit of God will work, specially among certain of the Jews, who will go through this scene faithful to God, some being killed for the truth, and others surviving in the flesh - a remnant God will reserve to Himself to make of it the nucleus of a new Israel. The Lord Jesus will appear in the midst of this lawlessness, and will execute judgement upon the ungodly, preserving the spared remnant who thereon become the chosen means of spreading the knowledge of Jehovah's glory for the millennial age.
When the Holy Ghost says, "Because ye have said, we have made a covenant with death" (v. 15), we are not to suppose that this is to be taken as if they confessed it. God is rather exposing their real mind in its evil and ruin. They may boast of their covenant, but they do not know it is with Sheol. They are deceived to accept a false Messiah, whose power will turn out to be of Satan; but they are ignorant of the cheat. Jews would not openly say that they had entered into a compact with the devil: a man must be in an extraordinary state of blindness and defiance of God in order to own such a thing. Nor does the word of God at all limit us to such an interpretation. The reference, one may suppose, is to those that enter into a covenant to save themselves from the king of the north. It appears to be a compact entered into between the false prophet and the Beast. The power that scripture designates as the Beast is the emperor of the west, the last Roman ruler when that empire re-appears.
There was a living man, even of late, said to have his mind set on some such scheme: it is a notorious fact, that within the last few years the project had entered into the brain of one who proved that an idea was apt to govern him. Nor is it absolutely new, this yearning after the reorganisation of the empire, with Rome for its capital. The plan is not to overthrow other European nations, but to make them subject kingdoms, each having its king, under one supreme head. That this was the theory of a recent monarch, there can be no more question than that it was the idea of another before him. I may add, that he, too, like his predecessor, meddled with the affairs of the Holy Land, and that both sought to have a hold of Rome. Some of us have held these interpretations of the prophecies long before the war of the holy places or the possession of Rome. They were thoughts derived not from political events, but from scripture, the shadows of coming events. Plainly then a great power shall arise, in scripture called "the Beast" or the revived Roman empire, with this peculiar form, that instead of putting aside the various kings of Europe, it will allow of separate kingdoms under him, nominally independent but really dictated to by the emperor. He accordingly will be the contracting party with the apostate Jews, in concert with their king the Antichrist; the emperor of the west being the political head, as the prophet-king will be the spiritual head of Christendom (then properly Antichristendom). Thus Jerusalem, which has been the cradle of professing Christendom, will be its grave. As to the particular person who will effect all this one says nothing. He shall be revealed in his own time. The great point is the manifestation of the chiefs at Jerusalem and Rome. Rome will be the centre of an earthly empire, with separate but dependent kings in western Europe, each having their kingdom subject to the one head. This is one feature. The other is, that many Jews will be in their own land, and will be allowed to form a kingdom; and that this will bring them into the hands, not of Christ, but of Antichrist.
When the Jews are there, the rest of the great drama will follow; they will soon have its predicted leader. Then comes the scene spoken of here. In order to strengthen themselves against the great northern oppressor, or the overflowing scourge, they enter into a covenant with "the Beast." In vain do they think to escape. At this very time God will raise to Himself the hearts of a little band of faithful Jews, who will feel assured that the wicked prince cannot be their Messiah; that the true God is a holy God; that His servant, their promised King, must be, not the man of sin but of true righteousness. The false Messiah they refuse, their hearts in penitence cry, Blessed is He that cometh in the name of Jehovah. These are here individually spoken of as "he that believeth" (v. 16). The rest plot, make preparations, and hope to be saved from the overflowing scourge. But no; God will permit the mass to be trodden down (vv. 17-20). They shall in no wise escape. The first attack upon Jerusalem is to be successful. In the next chapter we see a very different result, when the people in the city have been purged and Jehovah interferes. (Compare Zech. 12 - 14)
Thus Jerusalem is the great battle-field of the nations, and the main platform of the judgements of God. We do not speak now about the last eternal judgement - the great white throne; for this has nothing to do with the earth. Heaven and earth will have fled away before that. Remember there is to be a judgement of the habitable earth, not only a judgement of the dead, but also and previously of the quick. Every baptised man professes that Christ is coming to judge the quick and the dead. How few truly understand and believe it! All its acts will not take place at the same time. One form of the judgement of the quick comes before us here. The reason why Jerusalem becomes the scene of God's judgements on the nations is that Jerusalem, Judah, and the people of Israel are the chosen centre of God among the nations. In the latter day He will resume His former relations with Israel, though on a better and everlasting ground.
What solemn words in vers. 14-22 for the scornful men ruling in Jerusalem! In vain do they plead past favour or present privileges. Jehovah should rise up to do His work, His strange work, and accomplish His act, His strange act. He loves not vengeance but mercy. But mockers are odious: most of all in Zion. A consumption, therefore, is determined upon the whole earth. He is the same unchanging God: let them not presume because of His long-suffering.
Even with man it is not always ploughing, nor always time to sow. Threshing comes at last, and in divers modes and measures. So will it be in God's judgement of the earth. "Give ye ear, and hear my voice; hearken, and hear my speech. Doth the ploughman plough all day to sow? doth he [all day] open and break the clods of his ground? When he hath made plain the face thereof, doth he not cast abroad dill, and scatter cummin, and set the wheat in rows and the barley in an appointed place and the rye in the border thereof? His God doth instruct him in judgement, he doth teach him. For the dill is not threshed with a threshing instrument, neither is a cartwheel turned about upon the cummin; but dill is beaten out with a staff, and cummin with a rod. Bread [corn] is ground; for he will not ever be threshing it; and though he drive the wheel of his cart and his horses [over it], he would not grind it. This also cometh forth from Jehovah of hosts; he is wonderful in counsel, great in wisdom" (vv. 23-29). The discipline of the people under the mighty hand and the profound wisdom of Jehovah had been in vain through their unbelief. The dull earth yielded far better fruit to the husbandman. But the day of Jehovah is yet to come, and hastens. For yet a very little while He that cometh will come and will not tarry. And every righteous one shall live by faith.
Behold, the Lord hath a mighty and strong one, which as a tempest of hail and a destroying storm, as a flood of mighty waters overflowing, shall cast down to the earth with the hand.
The crown of pride, the drunkards of Ephraim, shall be trodden under feet:
And the glorious beauty, which is on the head of the fat valley, shall be a fading flower, and as the hasty fruit before the summer; which when he that looketh upon it seeth, while it is yet in his hand he eateth it up.
In that day shall the LORD of hosts be for a crown of glory, and for a diadem of beauty, unto the residue of his people,
And for a spirit of judgment to him that sitteth in judgment, and for strength to them that turn the battle to the gate.
But they also have erred through wine, and through strong drink are out of the way; the priest and the prophet have erred through strong drink, they are swallowed up of wine, they are out of the way through strong drink; they err in vision, they stumble in judgment.
For all tables are full of vomit and filthiness, so that there is no place clean.
Whom shall he teach knowledge? and whom shall he make to understand doctrine? them that are weaned from the milk, and drawn from the breasts.
For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little:
For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people.
To whom he said, This is the rest wherewith ye may cause the weary to rest; and this is the refreshing: yet they would not hear.
But the word of the LORD was unto them precept upon precept, precept upon precept; line upon line, line upon line; here a little, and there a little; that they might go, and fall backward, and be broken, and snared, and taken.
Wherefore hear the word of the LORD, ye scornful men, that rule this people which is in Jerusalem.
Because ye have said, We have made a covenant with death, and with hell are we at agreement; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, it shall not come unto us: for we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood have we hid ourselves:
Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD, Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation: he that believeth shall not make haste.
Judgment also will I lay to the line, and righteousness to the plummet: and the hail shall sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters shall overflow the hiding place.
And your covenant with death shall be disannulled, and your agreement with hell shall not stand; when the overflowing scourge shall pass through, then ye shall be trodden down by it.
From the time that it goeth forth it shall take you: for morning by morning shall it pass over, by day and by night: and it shall be a vexation only to understand the report.
For the bed is shorter than that a man can stretch himself on it: and the covering narrower than that he can wrap himself in it.
For the LORD shall rise up as in mount Perazim, he shall be wroth as in the valley of Gibeon, that he may do his work, his strange work; and bring to pass his act, his strange act.
Now therefore be ye not mockers, lest your bands be made strong: for I have heard from the Lord GOD of hosts a consumption, even determined upon the whole earth.
Give ye ear, and hear my voice; hearken, and hear my speech.
Doth the plowman plow all day to sow? doth he open and break the clods of his ground?
When he hath made plain the face thereof, doth he not cast abroad the fitches, and scatter the cummin, and cast in the principal wheat and the appointed barley and the rie in their place?
For his God doth instruct him to discretion, and doth teach him.
For the fitches are not threshed with a threshing instrument, neither is a cart wheel turned about upon the cummin; but the fitches are beaten out with a staff, and the cummin with a rod.
Bread corn is bruised; because he will not ever be threshing it, nor break it with the wheel of his cart, nor bruise it with his horsemen.
This also cometh forth from the LORD of hosts, which is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in working.