Isaiah Week 6

Isaiah as Apocalypse: Isaiah 21:1–27:13

By Bo Lim

Seattle Pacific University Associate Professor of Old Testament

Read this week’s Scripture: Isaiah 21:1–27:13


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One theologian has said that apocalyptic is the mother of all Christian theology. [Author’s Note 1] Really? Shouldn’t Christology (the doctrine of Christ) or soteriology (the doctrine of salvation) be the mother of all Christian theology?

Before we can even interrogate this statement, we have to first ask, what do we mean by the term “apocalyptic”? Does it refer to the “end of the world”? Are we talking about Armageddon, a final battle between the forces of good and the forces of evil described in the book of Revelation? Is this the stuff of the popular Left Behind novels and movies? Is apocalypticism the stuff of doomsday cults and millennial movements?

Scholars have identified the following characteristics of the biblical genre of apocalyptic [Author’s Note 2]:

  1. It gives a particular interpretation of the end of history.
  2. It is revealed through heavenly beings or seers.
  3. It reveals how this present world will be replaced by another one. 

The books of Daniel and Revelation are understood as apocalypses since they refer to heavenly beings revealing divine secrets in sealed documents. In a similar manner, Isaiah possesses elements of apocalyptic when the prophet refers to “my secret, my secret” [Author’s Note 3] (24:16), and in 29:11 Isaiah’s vision comes in the form of a sealed document. So in this sense the book of Isaiah is an apocalyptic prophecy that contains mysteries of God’s kingdom that can be revealed only by heavenly beings in the future.

Reading Isaiah as an apocalypse helps us understand the peculiar nature of its vision and highlights its radical message. How are we to understand the seeming contradictions in this week’s reading? As we have already seen, Isaiah speaks about the heavens and the earth, the present and the future, judgment and salvation. In order to understand the particulars of Isaiah, one has to comprehend its narrative framework and its cosmic scope, and in this regard apocalyptic provides a helpful category to help make sense of the text.

Wilderness of the Sea and the Valley of Vision

While Isaiah 21 and 22 fall within a collection of oracles concerning the nations, they don’t directly address any nations. Isaiah 21 is addressed to the “wilderness of the sea,” and Isaiah 22 concerns “the valley of vision.”

Scholars have tried to pinpoint the historical circumstances that elicited these prophecies, but to no avail; they are historically ambiguous. It seems the prophecies are meant to be read together, since they lack a specific national address. The chapters make reference to Elam (21:2; 22:6), yet scholars have been unable to determine whether an eighth-century or sixth-century set of circumstances is being described. What we have instead are two oracles that contribute to the message of Chapters 13–23 regarding Yahweh’s sovereignty over the nations.

Isaiah 21:9 speaks of the destruction of Babylon. This text can refer to either the destruction of the city by the Assyrians in 689 B.C.E., or the Persian conquest of Babylon in 539 B.C.E. Given the vast historical scope of the book of Isaiah, both events can be subsumed within this prophecy. The portrait of the prophet overcome with the pain of observing these events in 21:3–4 mirrors the description of the day of the LORD in 13:6–8:

Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty! Therefore all hands will be feeble, and every human heart will melt, and they will be dismayed. Pangs and agony will seize them; they will be in anguish like a woman in labor. They will look aghast at one another; their faces will be aflame.

In our reading of this passage in last week’s Lectio, we observed that it described not the judgment inflicted on Babylon, but rather the judgment Babylon inflicted on others. Later, in Isaiah 13:17–22, we read of how Babylon itself will be punished. The day of the LORD is a manifestation of God’s judgment of the cosmos in history, and in this sense it can occur on multiple occasions culminating in a final day when evil is eradicated and the righteous vindicated. By applying the language of “day of the LORD” in 13:6–8 to Babylon in 21:3–4, Isaiah teaches that God’s cosmic judgment now falls on Babylon as well. What goes around comes around.

Chapter 22 addresses how one should respond to victory in war. This passage recounts the deliverance of Jerusalem during the Assyrian crisis of 701 B.C.E., when Sennacherib’s forces were defeated by the angel of the LORD (see Isaiah 36–37). This event plays a pivotal role in the theology of the book of Isaiah. Even though the southern kingdom Judah was delivered, Assyria wreaked great havoc upon the land during its invasion. Judah is filled with the slain (22:2), the land is overrun with chariots and cavalry (22:7), and the city walls are breached (22:9).

One might think that God might allow Israel a little bit of “excessive celebration” in their victory, given that Israel was in such dire straits under Sennacherib, but such is not the case. Israel is judged for how it responds to the crisis as well as to its own victory. The Assyrian assault called for weeping and mourning, not joy and festivity (22:12–13) or shouts of exultation (22:2). Isaiah 22:15–25 describes how the scribe Shebna exploited others for personal gain during this situation by building an elaborate private tomb for himself. Because of Jerusalem’s inappropriate response to the crisis, the day of the LORD’s judgment is deferred until the Babylonian conquest of 586 B.C.E.

How one acts in times of tragedy as well as triumph tells a lot about one’s character. Unfortunately, we too often observe inappropriate reactions to crises and victories. Sadly, people use occasions of famine, war, and recession to exploit others. For example, the price of food, gas, and water soared after Hurricane Katrina.

In addition, sometimes people engage in inappropriate celebration in times of victory. New York Times columnist David Brooks recalls that, when the Allied victory in WWII was announced, Bing Crosby got on the radio, and, rather than gloat in our triumph, remarked that he felt humbled that America had gotten through the war. The proper reaction to victory or deliverance ought to be generosity and humility.

Chapter 23 concludes the oracles concerning the nations, with a focus on Tyre. At that time Tyre was regarded as without equal in terms of honor, riches, and prestige. It was the center of international trade, and its glorious rise and subsequent downfall is elaborately described in Ezekiel 28. For this reason, a focus on Tyre appropriately concludes the oracles concerning the nations, as 23:9 reminds us, “The LORD of hosts has planned it — to defile the pride of all glory, to shame all the honored of the earth.” In addition, Yahweh’s instrument of choice for judgment, Babylon, which was featured in Chapter 13, is also highlighted in 23:13: “Look at the land of the Chaldeans! This is the people; it was not Assyria.”

The Tale of Two Cities: A Sequel

While certainly Chapters 24–27 possess distinct literary features, they ought not to be considered unique biblical literature. We have already read apocalyptic texts earlier in Isaiah, so, when we read of the devastation of the entire earth in 24:1–3, it is not new to us (compare to Isaiah 13:4–11). The only mention of specific nations besides Israel is the mention of Moab in 25:10, and Egypt and Assyria in 27:12–13.

Instead, the focus is on an unnamed city and mountain, and the heavens and the earth. Recall that the vision of Isaiah began from the perspective of the heavens and earth (1:2) and a focus on a city (1:2–2:5). In Chapters 24–27, we revisit these themes, and, in some sense, these texts address the problem set forth in Chapters 1–2. We once again are introduced to a city of desolation as well as a city of glory.

Isaiah 24:10–13 describes the utter destruction and condemnation of the city of chaos. In 25:2, the city is demolished into a heap, and the palace or citadel of foreigners will never be rebuilt. In contrast, 26:1–2 describes a strong city, one defended by walls and bulwarks. The last mention of a city in these chapters is in 27:10, which describes a fortified — yet deserted and forsaken — city. The question remains: What city or cities are spoken of here? Samaria? Jerusalem? Babylon? Isaiah is notably unspecific. It appears that the text is intentionally ambiguous on this point, as is commonplace in apocalyptic literature, so as to be applicable to multiple scenarios. Within the book of Isaiah, the representative cities are Jerusalem and Babylon, so it seems appropriate to correlate them to the cities mentioned in this section.

We ought not to think of Jerusalem and Babylon as historic entities, but rather as eschatological images, or theological tropes, within the book. That is, we are to see them for what each symbolizes and represents. Much more than cities is being spoken of in Isaiah 24 — the desolate city represents God’s judgment of the cosmos. The city is of “chaos” (tōhû, 24:10), a rare term in the Bible used both to describe the wilderness in Deuteronomy 32:10 and the earth prior to creation in Genesis 1:2: “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep.”

Because of the vast wickedness of humanity (Genesis 6:5), God flooded the earth and returned it to its primordial state. Isaiah 24:5 describes how “The earth lies polluted under its inhabitants; for they have transgressed laws, violated the statutes, broken the everlasting covenant.” This everlasting covenant may very well be the covenant made with Noah in Genesis 9, where God promised he would never again flood the earth.

In Isaiah 24, we read that this covenant has been broken because of the gross sins of the earth, and now God will destroy the earth again in the manner of the flood. Isaiah 24:18 — “For the windows of heaven are opened, and the foundations of the earth tremble” — repeats the language of Genesis 7:11: “on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.”

Since this is an apocalyptic vision, not only will the earth be judged, but the heavens as well. Isaiah 24:21 speaks of how Yahweh will punish not only the kings of the earth but also the hosts of heaven, a reference to the armies of heaven. Isaiah 27:1 describes Yahweh defeating with his cruel, great, and strong sword Leviathan, “the twisting serpent,” “the dragon that is in the sea.” Leviathan, as in sea monster? Does God carry a big sword to defeat gigantic beasts?

A common image or symbol for primordial evil in the Ancient Near East took the form of a serpent, dragon, or sea monster, and was named Leviathan or Rahab. The Baal Myth, a Ugaritic text, tells the similar story of how their weather god, Baal, “smite[s] Lôtan, the fleeing serpent, [and] finish[es] off the twisting serpent, the close-coiling one with seven heads.” [Author’s Note 4]

What are we to make of this similarity? Israelites shared with their pagan neighbors a deep sense of the reality of primordial evil — an evil that affects people and nonhuman creation on earth but dwells in the heavens. This evil was persistent, and threatened the earthly and heavenly order. What all people, Israelite or not, were in search of was a solution to this human predicament.

Yahweh reveals to Israel that he is Lord of all of the heavens and earth. Whereas other nations may be impotent in the face of such evil, or at best their gods could only subdue evil for a season, Israel’s god triumphs over evil once and for all. Later on, in Isaiah 51:9, we hear the prophet cry out to God, “Awake, awake, put on strength, O arm of the LORD! Awake, as in days of old, the generations of long ago! Was it not you who cut Rahab in pieces, who pierced the dragon?”

These texts remind us that evil operates not merely in human hearts and human institutions, but throughout the cosmos, including the spiritual realm. That is why Christians need to remember that, as we seek justice on the earth, “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).

Once evil is defeated once and for all, Israel and the nations can dwell in the New Jerusalem described in Isaiah 26 and 27:12–13. This is a strong city, where only the righteous can enter. For this reason, wickedness must be eradicated. Isaiah 26:19, one of only two passages in the Old Testament that explicitly speak of resurrection (compare Daniel 12:2), indicates that the resurrected will dwell there. Building upon the images of a great ingathering, a new exodus from among the nations (Isaiah 11:10–16; 19:18–25), Isaiah 27:12–13 indicates that those long considered lost among the nations, such as Assyria and Egypt, will experience a great homecoming.

If apocalyptic is the mother of all Christian theology, then it is the assurance that Yahweh will defeat evil once and for all, and establish his righteous kingdom on earth; that is to be the driving force for all of our theology.

Questions for Further Reflection

  1. Why does Isaiah describe God’s judgment of earthly nations in apocalyptic language?  Why not just say, “Babylon will conquer Assyria and Persia will conquer Babylon.” Do you think there are implications associated with the manner in which the message is delivered?  If so, what are they? Are there other places in Scripture where the delivery method is as important as the message itself?
  2. Dr. Lim notes that our reactions in times of both triumph and tragedy are windows into our character. How is this theme demonstrated in our text for today?  How have you seen it demonstrated in your everyday life?
  3. Much of Chapters 24-27  focus on the existence and defeat of primordial evil. In what sense does primordial evil manifest itself in the world today?  In other words, what are our present “rulers, authorities, cosmic powers of this present darkness, and spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places?” (Ephesians 6:12)  What sort of posture or attitude should we take in response to these things? What is Yahweh’s response to evil?
  4. What does Dr. Lim conclude about the role of the apocalyptic in Christian theology? What word of hope, encouragement, or challenge does that bring to you?

Author’s Notes

Author’s Note 1

This saying is attributed to Ernst Käsemann, one of the premier New Testament scholars of the 20th century.


Author’s Note 2

John J. Collins, The Apocalyptic Imagination: An Introduction to the Jewish Matrix of Christianity (New York: Crossroad, 1984), p. 4.


Author’s Note 3

Most translations assume a unique meaning to the word rāz here (NRSV: “I pine away, I pine away”; NIV “I waste away, I waste away”), but these translations have no lexical basis. It seems the Aramaic loan word rāz “secret” is being used here.


Author’s Note 4

William W. Hallo and K. Lawson Younger, eds., The Context of Scripture (Brill, 1997), 1:265.


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