One of the aspects of Isaiah’s prophecy that has been of interest to our study through this book is that God uses typological fulfillment. We explained typological fulfillment to mean that while a particular prophecy had a particularly immediate fulfillment, there would be a greater, fuller reality to come to pass when the Messiah arrived. The first time we encountered typological fulfillment was in chapter 7 where a sign was given to the people that God would deliver them. A young woman would have a son and call his name Immanuel for God is with them. But Matthew comes along, moved by the Holy Spirit, and says that this was fulfilled not only in the days of Isaiah, but in a greater way when Jesus was born to the virgin Mary. As we come to Isaiah 33 we see this typological fulfillment occurring again. There is serious foreshadowing occurring in this text and to keep one’s eyes strictly on a near-term fulfillment with Judah and Assyria leads to serious interpretive problems (which we will notice later in the study). So as you read this chapter, watch for this typological fulfillment. Look for the meaning to the people who heard Isaiah but also look for how Jesus is the greater fulfillment.
The problem for our prophecy is that Judah is under attack and threat from the world power of the day, the Assyrian Empire. The year is about 701 BC. God said that he would deliver Judah if they would put their faith and hope in him. However, they have not done. They have decided that they would rely on their own might and their own power. As they attempt to rely on their own power and the alliances made with other nations, Assyria is sweeping through Judah and is successfully attacking the nation’s fortresses and cities. This oracle is a message against Assyria in Isaiah 33. Assyria is the “destroyer” and this is what God has to say about them and what it means for God’s people.
When Self-Reliance Fails (33:1-9)
The oracle begins with the problem that Assyria has treacherously acted against Judah. This event that the prophecy is referring to is likely that which is recorded in 2 Kings 18:13-17. The king of Assyria attacked Judah and Hezekiah, the king of Judah, asked to pay tribute to Assyria for them to stop attacking. So Hezekiah paid 300 talents of silver and 30 talents of gold and all the silver and gold in God’s temple and the king’s palace. But after taking the tribute, Assyria continued its attack on Judah. Verse 1 identifies this moment as a betrayal. But once they are done betraying others, they themselves will be betrayed.
Yet again Judah thought that they could solve their problem. This time they thought they could find relief by paying their way out of this mess. Once again, it did not work. Self-reliance always fails. The failure of self-reliance leads to next response: “Uh, oh! Help us, Lord!” In verse 2 we see Isaiah leading the prayer of the people for God to be gracious and to be their salvation during this time of trouble. Now that they have exhausted all their options, the king and nation are crying out to the Lord for deliverance. Why do we make this mistake so often? We want to look to our own power rather than the power of the Lord. We make the Lord the God of last resort. Only when all my power and efforts fail, then will I make my prayer to the Lord. The Lord hates this for we are showing our lack of faith in him.
Verses 5-6 record how the Lord is able to deliver. The Lord is exalted. He dwells on high. He will fill Zion with justice and righteousness. He will be your stability. Knowledge, wisdom, and the abundance of salvation will be your stability. If you want stability in your life then you need to seek the knowledge of the Lord, the wisdom of the Lord, and the abundance of salvation that the Lord offers. The fear of the Lord is the treasure. This matches how the writer of Proverbs begins: “The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7 ESV). The fear of the Lord must be the treasure of our lives if we want stability in life. The fear of the Lord is the start of everything yet how few people make it their treasure, their utmost desire and pursuit. Why do we have to be devastated in life before we come to this truth? This devastation and brokenness is described in verses 7-9. The heroes are crying in the streets. The roads are empty and destroyed. The areas described in verse 9 were renown places for futility but now have become desert.
God Responds To Brokenness (33:10-13)
Notice that the change happens in verse 10. “Now I will arise.” The Lord says that now he will arise and be exalted. God is going to act. Why now? Why is it now that God will act? Why not act earlier before Assyria had come through and destroyed the nation? I believe verses 7-9 are the answer. The people had not been broken in heart yet. They thought that they could save themselves. They thought they could rely on themselves. Now in verse 2 they are calling out to the Lord for his grace because they are broken. God responds to our brokenness. Listen to the words of the psalmist: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise” (Psalm 51:17 ESV). We must never outgrow the humility of brokenness before God. God receives our brokenness, not our self-sufficiency and self-reliance. Now God will act! God will act for his own exaltation. Now he will be exalted by his own actions. Stand back and watch the Lord at work!
Listen to how God views our efforts. “You conceive chaff; you give birth to stubble; your breath is a fire that will consume you.” God says to Jerusalem that their actions were futile. Your payments to Assyria did nothing. Your plans did not save you. Your strength did not deliver you. God says that all you did was burn yourself with your efforts. If you have children, you know this truth. Children think they can do things themselves, and hurt themselves trying, even though you are offering to help. In their stubborn independence, they hurt themselves. God tells Judah that their efforts did nothing and now God will act so that the people are like thorns cut down and thrown into the fire. All people need to hear what God has done, both near and far, Jews and Gentiles. The might and strength of the Lord is to be acknowledged! Only God can deliver. Stop relying on yourselves!
Responding To The Consuming Fire (33:14-16)
Rightly, the sinners are afraid and the godless are trembling (vs. 14). They now ask a very important question: “Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire?” Who can stand in the presence of our awesome God? Now the people recognize their lowliness. This is a healthy fear of the Lord when we see the holiness and might of the Lord. Sinners must be aware of their situation before the Lord. Sinners deserve the wrath of God and are powerless before him. God’s fire of holiness is a threat to sinners. Our efforts give birth to nothing. At the mere voice of the Lord people flee, nations are scattered (33:3), and the peoples are destroyed (33:12). The people recognize that they cannot control, oppose, or manipulate the glory and power of the consuming fire. Just submit! Who can live with the consuming fire? We expect the answer to be that no one can dwell with the Lord as a consuming fire. But listen to the gracious answer in verse 15.
God declares that change must happen. Here is the call to deep repentance. The one who walks righteously and speaks uprightly can dwell with the consuming fire. God says that those who live transformed lives can be in my presence. The answer is not worship God more or offer more sacrifices. The answer is repentance. Live a changed life in keeping with God’s law. Listen to what God has to say and practice it. Listen to how practical God is in verse 15. The one who can dwell with the consuming fire “stops his ears from hearing of bloodshed and shuts his eyes from looking on evil.” Refuse evil. Stop looking at the things you are looking at that are sinful. Stop watching filth on television and in movies. Stop listening to sinful things. Get away from those things! Those who do so can expect God to be their refuge rather than the source of their wrath. Now you can come into fellowship with God where he will give you your sustenance. Now God will be there for you.
God Responds With Grace (33:17-24)
The remainder of this section speaks to what God is going to do with grace. The hope is to a glorious future in the Messiah, not to their present circumstances. Isaiah begins, “Your eyes will behold the king in his beauty.” Listen to the words of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8). You will see the king in his beauty and the land will be vast. It is interesting to me that commentators do not know what to do with this part of the prophecy. The reason why is that the land was never vast. The land of Judah never came close to the vastness of the land possessed under the reign of Solomon. This is because Isaiah is not speaking about the physical boundaries of the political nation of Israel. Isaiah is speaking about the physical boundaries of the glorious kingdom of God, whose rule is over all the earth with Jesus as the king (cf. Isaiah 32:1). Now the people of God will live in security. Those who stand against you will be removed (33:18-19). We noted at the beginning of the lesson that this prophecy has typological fulfillment. Yes, Isaiah is prophesying that the terror of Assyria will disappear and they will not speak against Judah and Jerusalem any longer. But we just noted that verse 17 was not fulfilled. Verse 20 was also not fulfilled. Zion is described as a habitation that is untroubled, immovable, and never plucked up. Yet we know that 130 years later, Jerusalem was invaded and destroyed by the Babylonians. So we must understand this prophecy like we understand 2 Samuel 7 and Isaiah 7. It is a prophecy with typological fulfillment. Yes, Assyria will be removed but it is looking toward a greater fulfillment to come when the king of righteousness arrives. When the king comes, Zion will be liberated. The city will stand like an indestructible, permanent tent. The king will come and free his people to live permanently with God the consuming fire.
Notice the unusual image in verse 21. There (that is, Jerusalem/Zion) the Lord in his majesty will be a place of broad rivers and streams. There are no rivers in Jerusalem. So we are affirming that this prophecy is looking for its fulfillment in the coming of Christ the King. The image mirrors Ezekiel 47 where streams would flow from Zion when Christ came. The picture is the blessings of God pouring out to his people so that no one can come against them. God is there. Nothing can harm them. Zion will be sufficient in God. We have the Lord and are therefore sufficient. Verse 22 is the basis for this promise. We will be protected and sustained because the Lord is our judge, our lawgiver, and our king. He will save us. Helpless Zion are now pictured taking the spoils of the enemies. Even the lame will take the plunder and prey (33:23)! God will ruin your enemies. God is saying that when we stop relying on ourselves and trust him completely, he will be our strength and supply our needs. God will defend those who come to him with a broken spirit.
The final verse is powerful for those who are God’s people. No one in Zion will say, “I am sick.” The people who dwell in Zion will be forgiven their sins. Judgments will not need to fall upon us because we will be forgiven of our sins. The consuming fire dispenses abundant grace. Turn to God as your refuge. Refuse the urge for self-sufficiency and independence. Trust in the Lord. Experience a transformed life. Listen to what God says. Then there is nothing to fear. Find God after your failure and receive salvation and grace.