Only a Few
20A time is coming when the survivors from Israel and Judah will completely depend on the holy Lord of Israel, instead of the nation that defeated them. 21-22 There were as many people as there are grains of sand along the seashore, but only a few will survive to come back to Israel's mighty God. This is because he has threatened to destroy their nation, just as they deserve. 23The Lord All-Powerful has promised that everyone on this earth will be punished.
24Now the Lord God All-Powerful says to his people in Jerusalem:
The Assyrians will beat you with sticks and abuse you, just as the Egyptians did. But don't be afraid of them. 25Soon I will stop being angry with you, and I will punish them for their crimes. 26I will beat the Assyrians with a whip, as I did the people of Midian near the rock at Oreb. And I will show the same mighty power that I used when I made a path through the sea in Egypt. 27Then they will no longer rule your nation. All will go well for you, and your burden will be lifted.
It is hard to read Isaiah in separate daily readings, as his message is full of allusions to what he has said earlier, and forward to what appears later. “A remnant will return” (v 21, ESV) is the meaning of his son’s (improbable!) name, “Shear Jashub” (7:3), and is one of the main themes of the whole book. God will punish, but only to restore in the end to a glorious kingdom.
Secondly, he is writing here of judgment, which makes for uncomfortable reading. And thirdly, he is writing from an over-arching viewpoint, looking at God’s ultimate purpose to create for himself a holy people.
To understand this passage we need to step back and see what God was doing in history at this time when Israel was surrounded by military powers, Assyria and Egypt, and struggling to find a way to defend itself. Isaiah, filled by the Spirit with prophetic imagination, can see beyond their struggle to a time when Assyria would itself be destroyed – by God’s sovereignty over history (v 25). But first he would allow the northern territory of Israel to be taken captive by them.
How could this be? How could a God of love allow this to happen to his people? We may need to rethink our idea of God’s judgment and not be influenced by our own experience of human judgment. Judgment and love can co-exist. Hosea describes how judgment breaks God’s heart: “How can I give you up, O Israel?” (Hosea 11:8). In today’s passage there is the remarkable statement, “Destruction is decreed, overflowing with righteousness” (v 22 ESV), not there in the CEV, presumably because of its difficulty. Those of us who have children may have some inkling of how natural consequences can have a salutary effect.
In the end (“in that day” ESV), all will be well (v. 27). This was fulfilled first when Jesus came, bringing the kingdom of God, and ultimately, in a time yet future, when he returns and a new cosmic order is in place (Revelation 21:1-4). As Christians, we have a foretaste of that.
Father God, help us to understand the Scriptures when they are hard. Help us to pay attention to your warnings to us, and commit ourselves to whole-hearted obedience. Amen.