Isaiah has been prophesying about the sins of the nation of Judah and the impending judgment due for their sins. However, with each pass of prophetic judgment, Isaiah also declares the great graciousness of God who will not give his people what they fully deserve. Chapter 28 described the perpetual wickedness and constant debauchery of the people. They hate listening to God’s word being proclaimed, they are full of drunkenness, and they are putting their trust in other nations for their deliverance rather than the living God. The layout of this chapter may seem backward to what we are used to. We are used to the problem being stated and then the resolution to the problem being declared. However, in this chapter we are going to see the outcome to the problem first (29:1-8), then we are going to hear what the problem is (29:9-16), and conclude with how the problem will be resolved (29:17-24). In the end we will be blown away by the generosity of God’s grace.
The Outcome to the Problem (29:1-8)
The first four verses describe the judgment that is going to occur against Jerusalem. Notice that Jerusalem is called, “Ariel,” which most scholars believe means “altar hearth.” Therefore the first verse begins with a sarcastic tone. Jerusalem is the altar and they keep performing their feasts and sacrifices year after year. But distress and judgment is falling on the city. God is going to encircle the city, besiege it, and raise siege works against it. The city is going to come under attack and be surrounded. The proud nation will be brought low.
But verses 5-8 describe a radical reversal. With the city surrounded and under attack, the multitude of the foes will be like small dust and passing chaff. Those who are going to fight against Jerusalem will suddenly be nothing, like a dream or vision in the night (29:7). The throng of foes will turn to dust. God will come as the Lord of armies against these foes. It is going to look hopeless and devastating. But it will be more like a bad dream. You will wake up and it will all over and gone. This is an amazing declaration about what is going to take place. Jerusalem is going to be under attack. But suddenly it will all end, just like a dream. The enemies that thought they would have their fill will end up empty-handed (29:8). What we see is God is trying to wake his people up by bringing a judgment against them, but at the last hour taking the judgment away so that they will see the glory of God and turn to him. This prophecy appears to be speaking about the future event when Assyria would surround Jerusalem, but one night an angel of the Lord would drive back the 185,000 soldiers (2 Kings 19:35) without the inhabitants of Jerusalem doing anything. It would be the gracious work of God. Why is all of this happening? What are the people doing that God is bringing severe distress and judgment?
The Problem Declared (29:9-16)
The problem is that the people are blind. Isaiah utters this as, “Shock yourselves and be shocked!” You have blinded yourselves. Isaiah says that you want to be blind and that is your problem. This is astonishing and appalling. Who would want to not see? Who would want to remain in the dark? Humans do! Listen to what the apostle John records:
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. (John 3:19 ESV)
We love the darkness. We have blinded ourselves and do not want to see the light. It truly is an astonishing thing. Rather than seeing, knowing, and comprehending the truth, we would rather remain in the darkness, not knowing, not seeing, not comprehending but simply living in a delusion. They are staggering and behaving foolishly, but not because they have drunk wine. It it because they walk in the darkness. Further, the Lord has contributed to this. The Lord is described as pouring out on them a spirit of deep sleep. God has given them the urge to sleep by withholding prophets and seers. If you want to walk in darkness, then you will walk in darkness. If you want to be blind, then stay blind. God has sent them word and prophet only for the people’s rejection to blind them further. Why would God send more prophets? You have rejected the word of the Lord. You have chosen your path.
Verses 11-12 explain further their foolishness. The one who cannot read does not exert himself to open the scroll. It is too hard! It is too much work! God is trying to give the people a message, but the people are saying that it is too hard to figure out. It is not worth the effort. Imagine the picture Isaiah is painting. Read this scroll from the Lord and the response of the people is that the scroll is sealed. They do not want to put forward any effort to find out the will of the Lord. It would be like giving a person a Bible and the response being that the book is closed and therefore he won’t read it. Verse 12 condemns the people even further. The one who cannot read does not bother to learn how so as to learn the message from God. It would be like saying the book of Isaiah is a little difficult and I don’t wan’t to learn it. The people are indifferent to God’s word. They are lazy and disinterested.
But verse 13 is the kicker to the story. The people are acting like they do care. They draw near to God with their mouths and honor God with their lips. They say all the right things. Their words suggest they are not indifferent or lazy toward God. But their hearts show otherwise. This condemnation is very real and something we need to pay careful attention to. The people do not care to get to know the Lord. They do not want to put in the effort to know what God has to say. So how do the people know what to do? Listen to the rest of verse 13: “Their fear of me is a commandment taught by men.” The NIV renders this idea well also, “Their worship of me is based on merely human rules they have been taught” (Isaiah 29:13 NIV). The point is that they do not seek to know the Lord and put forth the effort to study and listen to God’s word. Rather, their fear of the Lord and their worship are based on what others have taught them, and not their own passion for him. They do not desire to know the Lord. They do not give all their effort to seek him. They are doing what they are doing simply because they have been told to do what they are doing. They are doing these things to do these things. It is just habit or ritual. It is just doing what they have been told to do. There is no passion. Their hearts are far from the Lord. They are lazy and disinterested toward the things of God.
Jesus quoted this text and made the same application to the people while he walked the earth. Jesus condemns the Pharisees for going through the motions, keeping the rules, and knowing their own commands, but not caring for and passionately pursuing the words of God (Matthew 15:1-14; Mark 7:1-13). There are so many points that God is trying to teach us in this prophecy and in the way Jesus applied this prophecy.
1. Do we seek to know God or just receive what others have told us about God? The people were unwilling to learn the ways of God. They simply relied upon what they knew. This is the trigger that turns an enjoyable, exciting relationship with our Lord into a boring, ritualistic religion that has no meaning or power. My purpose as a teacher is not merely to impart to you information about God’s word. Nor am I to preach so that you will just “follow the rules.” My preaching is to show you the glory of God through his word so that you will want to know God for yourself. If my teaching is all you receive from the scriptures, then you have not tasted that the Lord is good and worth your time and effort. Is it too much work to turn off the television and open your Bible? The people were lazy and indifferent toward the word of God.
2. Notice the outcome of not seeking to truly know God through his word: we are blinding ourselves. This should be a scary proposition for us to consider. We keep ourselves from walking in the light and knowing the truth and, perhaps the most important, from knowing the glory of God when we do not seek him. We are missing out on experiencing an unbelievably deep relationship with God. I cannot express to you the joy and strength I have from spending time in the word of God every day. Seeing the glory of God is absolutely life changing.
3. This is the method by which God operates. Jesus would tell parables to see who would spend their time thinking about what he said and come to him for an explanation for his teachings (cf. Matthew 13:13-17). God did not reveal his message on a kindergarten level. He revealed himself in such a way to cause people to seek after him, to learn about him, and explore the depths of his glory. Understanding God does not just come to you. You must engage him and exert to find him to enjoy the riches of his grace. These people in the days of Isaiah are indifferent and will not give the effort to seek the greatness of God.
Even though the people act with great indifference, God would continue his great love and do something astonishing and wonderful that will put down the wisdom of the world (29:14). The cross is the mind-blowing act that will be the wonderful act of God for the world. However, before Isaiah explores what God will do, he interrupts himself with the final condemnation of this chapter concerning the people in verses 15-16.
Isaiah exposes the wickedness of our hearts. The people say within themselves, “Who sees us? Who knows us?” This is the lie of sin. We think that no one knows what we are doing. We think that our sins will have no effect on ourselves nor on others. This thinking reveals our determination to be our own masters. We want to live in our sinful ways thinking that there will be no consequences. We want to be in charge of our lives. We want to rule our ways. But listen to Isaiah’s words in verse 16. We have life completely upside down. Who do you think you are! “Shall the potter be regarded as the clay?” Do we have the right to be our own masters and live our own ways? Listen to the arrogant declarations of our wicked hearts. First, can the thing made say to the maker, “He did not make me?” Of course the created cannot deny the creator. The made cannot deny the maker. Yet we are people who are created by our Almighty God and still deny our Creator. How we have life upside down! We are blinding ourselves, not seeking the Lord, and acting like we are masters over our lives. Second, can the thing formed say to the one who formed it, “He has no understanding?” Who do we think we are to suggest that our Creator does not know what he is doing! Do we have more wisdom than God? But we act like it when we do not seek to learn the ways of God and trying to be masters over our lives.
How The Problem Will Be Resolved (29:17-24)
But God is going to do something when he sends Christ “in that day” (29:18). The deaf will hear the words of the book. Also out of the gloom and darkness the eyes of the blind shall see. The meek and humble will obtain fresh joy in the Lord. The poor will glory in the Holy One of Israel. The great reversal will occur. God’s true people will hear the words of the Lord. God’s book will not be “blah, blah, blah” to them and they will desire to read his words. They will not blind themselves by ignoring God’s message. They will come out of the darkness and their blind eyes will see the glory of the Lord. God’s people will not be arrogant in their knowledge or their ways. They will not act like they are masters of their lives. They will find joy after joy in the Lord and glory in the living God. These people will not be put to shame and have nothing to fear (29:22). These are the works of God’s hands. We have been molded and formed by our Creator to be his workmanship that he called us to be. We will honor God and keep his name holy. We will respect the holiness of God and stand in awe of who he is. His holiness will be central to our lives.
This is what God has called us to be. So how have we done? The final verse gives us great hope since we have been wicked in our hearts like these people. Those who go astray in spirit will come to understanding and those who complain will accept instruction. It is not too late. We can come to understanding and no longer be darkened and blind. Christ is the light which is shining into this world and into our hearts. Repent and receive the instruction of the Lord. Listen to his words and walk in the light of the Lord (Ephesians 5:8-14).