Old Testament prophecies usually have a historical and future context. The historical context is often a word of judgment based on the failure to obey God’s revealed will, relating to how we treat one another and others. The future context is often a word of hope and restoration.
This is seen in three passages in Isaiah 7, 9 and 11 that relate to the historical situation of Israel in the general time frame of 740-700 B.C. It is important to remember that the Jews were divided against one another following the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which was between 1000 to 922 B.C.
The southern kingdom, under the direct line of David, was composed of two tribes: Judah and Benjamin. The capital was Jerusalem. This kingdom was destroyed in 587 B.C with the Babylonian Conquest.
The northern kingdom was composed of the 10 remaining tribes, and its capital was in Samaria. The northern kingdom is called Israel in the Old Testament historical and prophetic books; it is also known as Samaria, and sometimes Ephraim. This kingdom was destroyed in the Assyrian Conquest of 721 B.C.
The Holy Spirit called His prophets to speak judgment and hope to one or both of these kingdoms. In the north the primary prophets were Elijah, Elisha, Amos and Hosea. In the south the primary prophets were Isaiah, Micah, Jeremiah, Zephaniah, Nahum and Habakkuk.
The three prophecies in Isaiah 7, 9 and 11 concern Judah during a time when Syria (Damascus), Israel (the northern kingdom) and Assyria were threatening the southern kingdom. These messages from the prophet Isaiah were also promises related to the coming Messiah.
Many pastors will preach from these three passages about the virgin birth of Jesus and Him as Immanuel (Is. 7:14). They will preach that “unto us a child is born …” from Isaiah 9:6. They will also preach from Isaiah 11:1, which says: “There shall come forth a rod from the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots.”
Recently in reading these three passages again, I found myself intrigued by Isaiah 9:1 through 10:4. The prophetic promise of the Messiah, rooted in the historical experience of the 700s B.C., gave great hope for the Jews and for the world. You can hear that hope in “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” (9:2), and “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government shall be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (9:6).
As I continued to read the rest of the chapter, I heard a change in prophetic tone and saw a repeated refrain of judgment: “For all this His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still” (9:12, 17, 21; 10:4). Four times this refrain of judgment is announced against the northern kingdom of Samaria, or Israel.
You can think of the refrain as a conclusion to four verses of a judgment song. It is doubtful many churches today sing songs like this! But we must turn our ears to listen as the body of Christ and as His witnesses in our nations.
The first judgment song of Isaiah 9:8-12 is based on “pride and arrogance of heart” (9:9). The Septuagint (Greek) translation of pride is “hubris.” It is a flaw of individuals, and nations, in thinking we are self-sufficient. It is the arrogant idea that we are a law to ourselves, and that we are not bound by God.
The second judgment song of Isaiah 9:12-17 is an indictment of leaders who cause the people to err (9:16). Even though God brings judgment, the people refuse to repent because their leaders fail to repent and rightly discern the judgment upon them. Pride and arrogance have blinded leaders to the true situation.
The third judgment song of Isaiah 9:18-21 reveals that the sins of pride and rebellion have consequences; these sins turn people against one another. The wickedness of the land is like a consuming fire that burns up the land (9:18, 19). Brother turns against brother, people group against people group. The spirit of material and political greed consumes all.
The final judgment song is Isaiah 10:1-4, and it is directed to leaders, politicians and judges “who decree unrighteous decrees, who write misfortune, which they have prescribed to rob the needy of justice, and to take what is right from the poor of My people, that widows may be their prey, and that they may rob the fatherless” (10:1, 2).
The indictment in this passage is clear: The powerful have oppressed the powerless in order to satisfy the greed of their prideful hearts. The refrain sounds clear after each song: “For all this His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still.”
In this year as the IPHC has focused on the important issue of justice, I cannot help but be humbled by what Isaiah wrote about Samaria. The prophets were students of God’s Word (especially Deuteronomy), and they were astute observers of their own people. They were also knowledgeable of the national and international politics of their day.
All of this is brought together in these songs and the divine refrain. There comes a time in the life of a nation when divine judgment cannot be avoided. The evil is too great, too deeply embedded and too pervasive in spirit. Judgment is the only solution.
Our task as God’s people in such an environment is to live righteously, speak courageously, intercede for divine mercy and remember the hope that is in the gospel. That hope speaks to our individual sin and to the sins of the nation to which we are assigned to live as witnesses.
Originally published in Encourage magazine.