Isaiah 13–27 is perhaps the most challenging portion of Isaiah to read and understand. Yet, it plays a significant role in impressing the weight of God’s glory on the reader. Jim Hamilton has rightly argued that God’s glory is found salvation and judgment, and no book confirms that argument better than Isaiah.
Indeed, to feel the weight (N.B. In Hebrew, the word glory, kavod, comes from the word heavy, kavēd) of God’s glorious salvation, we need to come to grips with God’s holy judgment. And no part of Isaiah presses us down into God’s judgment like Isaiah 13–27. That may be one of the reasons why these chapters are difficult, but I would suggest there are others too.
In what follows I want to look at why this section is hard to understand. Then I want to show how these chapters fit together and what we can gain from them. May these reflections help us to read Isaiah and see the glory of God in his salvation and judgment.
Four Reasons Why Isaiah 13–27 is Hard to Understand
Here are four reasons why reading Isaiah 13–27 may be challenging.
1. The historical (and ancient) details of the passage (may) make the judgments on the nations seem irrelevant.
While all of Isaiah addresses an ancient people, this section makes the reader feel the historical distance of Isaiah. As a result, it takes work to understand the geo-political history of eighth century Palestine and surrounding countries. Without this knowledge the metaphors and judgments are opaque at best, but with a growing understanding of the history, the Lord’s judgment become clear.
2. The length of this passage is challenging.
Whereas readers of the New Testament can read a chapter of Ephesians and “get something out of it.” Such New Testament Bible reading habits, however, train us to read a verse, a paragraph, or at most a chapter, in order to make sense of God’s Word. But here, Isaiah is only understood when we read “longer.” In this case, Isaiah 13–27 is one literary unit, which must be read together.
3. The predominant theme of judgment makes these chapters unappealing.
From the security of our suburban couches, the ongoing promises of judgment on God’s enemies doesn’t mean much. However, when we realize how wicked the world is and how threatening evil is, we come to see the goodness of these chapters. The Holy One of Israel is going to put an end to the hubris of the nations who are destroying his people. Take note: the Lord also includes a prophesy of judgment on Israel—for the enemies of God outside Israel are permitted access to God’s holy mountain because of his people’s sin.
4. The sparse words of salvation and hope make these chapters very different from Isaiah 7:14; 9:1–7; 11:1–10, or Isaiah 40–66.
If you are reading Isaiah as a whole, you may find that chapters 1–12 include many words of comfort peppering the themes of judgment. Likewise, if you are most familiar with Isaiah 40–66, which begin “Comfort, comfort, my people . . .” (40:1), you might find the darker themes of Isaiah 13–27 confusing. Even if you know, theologically, that the light of the gospel requires judgment and wrath, it may be hard to know where to see them in these chapters. Yet, as I will try to show below, they are there.
For these four reasons—and we could cite more—we may struggle with Isaiah 13–27. We might even put the book of Isaiah away, frustrated with this ancient prophet. This is what I did the first time I read Isaiah 13–27. Discouraged by the endless list of judgments, I put my Bible away and returned to what I could understand in the New Testament. Thankfully, when I returned to Isaiah (a few years later) I had some help from professors at seminary and begin to see how the New Testament relies so heavily on Isaiah.
Still, until reading Isaiah this month I haven’t seen how to put this section together. But now, with an eye to the whole section, as one of seven “tracks” that runs throughout the book, I am beginning to see a bit more of how these chapters might be held together. In what follows is an outline of the book, plus a guide to find springs of life (i.e., verses of encouragement) as your read through these chapters. I hope they help you as you read this wonderful book.
Isaiah 13–27: Salvation Comes After Judgment
Here’s a basic outline of this section.
A Babylon Prophecy (13:1–14:32) – Typological opening that starts in the East and expands to the world
B Four Historical ‘Prophecies’ . . . with hidden promises of hope (e.g., 14:32; 16:5; 17:7–8; 18:7; 19:16–25)
B1 Philistia (14:28–32)
B2 Moab (15:1–16:13)
B3 Damascus (17:1–18:7) . . . Three Woes (17:12; 18:1)
B4 Egypt (19:1–25) – Worshipful Ending (vv. 18–25)
C Historical Promise of Judgment (20:1–6)
B’ Four Sarcastic ‘Prophecies’ . . . with mocking names
B’1 Wilderness by the Sea = Babylon (21:–10)
B’2 Dumah = Edom (21:11–12)
B’3 Arabia = ?? (21:13–17)
B’4 Valley of Vision = Jerusalem (22:1–19)
C’ “Historical” Promise of Salvation (22:20–25)
A’ Tyre Prophecy (23:1–24:23) – Typological conclusion that starts in the West and expands to the world
From this outline, we can notice a few things.
1. This section is setup with two bookends that focus on Babylon and Tyre.
These train our eyes to go in different directions—first East (in Babylon) and then West (in Tyre). I believe the judgment themes are being employed historically, but also typologically. This means, that judgment in these accounts is not only specific to Babylon and Tyre, but indicative of the way God will bring judgment to all nations—those we find in chapters 14–22 and also all other nations from all time. I don’t have time to show this typology, but perhaps I can another day.
2. The chapters are organized by parallel lists of judgments—four historical and four sarcastic prophecies.
These are well-balanced, with the first four prophecies addressing historical nation-states around Israel and the second four doing the same, only Isaiah employs language to address them by mocking names. Jerusalem, which is the mountain where God dwells, is called a “valley of vision.” This hints at the blindness they have, for how can you have vision in a valley?
3. These sections close with an historical promise of judgment and salvation.
These two themes match the theme of the entire book. Simultaneously, we should see how the promise of salvation for Egypt and Assyria in Isaiah 19:18–25 matches the promise of salvation in Isaiah 22:20–25. Themes of salvation are slight in chapters 13–24, but they are there. In context, these chapters stress judgment, but they also show a path of salvation to those who take refuge in the Lord. This salvation will be found in Jerusalem (Zion) as it is described in Isaiah 25–27, which must be read with Isaiah 13–24.
At the same time, these springs of life (as seen in 14:32; 16:5; 17:7–8; 18:7; 19:16–25) are mentioned to offer hope to the nations. As Isaiah unfolds, it promises salvation to Jews and Gentiles alike. In fact, by the end we discover that true salvation comes on the other side of Israel’s judgment. And in the judgment of Israel by means of the death of Christ, salvation is offered from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth.
In this way, these promises of salvation amidst the words of judgment are meant to spur on Israel (and all readers of Isaiah) to return to their Lord. This is how Paul would come to understand it, as he saw Isaiah being fulfilled in Christ. He preached the gospel of salvation and judgment to the nations in hopes that his kinsman according to the flesh would become jealous and return to the Lord. Romans 9–11 explains his way of thinking, and Isaiah explains where he got his ideas.
Keep Reading Isaiah 13–27
Altogether, Isaiah 13–27 contain streams of living water that ultimately lead us to the river of God’s delight in chapters 25–27. If you can keep your eyes out for these promises, you will be aided as you traverse the dark chapters of Isaiah 13–27.
At the same time, do not short circuit the importance of the drumbeat of judgment in these chapters. In our day, God’s holiness is often ignored and his judgment is made lightweight. The heaviness of these chapters, therefore, is a necessary necessary antidote to our small views of God. To feel the full force of God’s saving grace, we must remember the heaviness of judgment.
With that in mind, let these words of judgment search your own heart, that they might bring you to a place where the good news of a refuge in Zion, through the death and resurrection of God’s Servant Jesus Christ, is your singular hope.
Truly, this is what Isaiah is all about and the more we read the book (in context) the more we will see the beautiful promise of God’s salvation.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds