Isaiah, like all prophets delivers God’s counter perspective to the scenarios and environments that he lived amongst. The culture that Judah identified itself with was not the culture the Mosaic law was intended to precipitate. Negative cultures, world-wide, national, tribal or familial – and especially one’s own personal lifestyle and culture – need to be countered with God’s perspective. Prophetic activist types and national apostasies are often twinned in all the above listed groupings time lines and histories. The latter triggers the former.
A true prophet knows what time it is that he is living in. A prophet knows what kind of time it is. A prophet is a person that can see these things not because of his intellect or academic training (and that is not a remark to suggest that a prophet does not need any intellect or academic training). A prophet says what he hears from God. Yes the prophet is a human being who has his or hers own likes or dislikes whether it be food or people or even politics. The fact that the person is a prophet does not mean everything he ever utters is binding on the rest of the world. For instance, the fact that John the Baptist and Elijah wore Camel skin attire does not mean that his clothes in themselves have any prophetic meaning. What God shares with a prophet is then the burden of the prophet with which he requires integrity, discipline and character to reveal it exactly as given and not to pepper his revelation with his own imagination or preferences. The scriptures claim to be the undiluted word of God is an goal for all prophets to aspire to. One of the staple prayers of prophets is, “Oh Lord! Give me grace to repeat it exactly as you give it to me, and not to interfere with my own thoughts or opinions whilst explaining it.
A genuine prophet holds a prophetic (i.e, a God given) understanding of the mentality and mood of his time. Some see into the church world-wide, some into the church nationally. Some see into the secular world more clearly than they do the Christian world. God chooses His prophets and/or prophetesses and does nothing without telling at least one of them, sometimes many. A true prophet identifies and knows the trends of a society or group of people by hearing what God says. And God always deals with the roots of any issue.
Prophets are, at times, able to envisage trends and upcoming events by seeing, hearing, and receiving revelation in a huge number of different ways, and then declaring what God has said or revealed. In this manner, and by divine initiation a prophet may, at times, judge the foundations that exist in any society or even the hearts of national leaders. The words of a divinely inspired prophet, written, spoken or sung, are a veritable rock like force against the godless mentality of the day in which they are present. Referring now to the biblical writing classical prophets, we read how they saw their generation. This understanding enables us to see our own generation more clearly in the same perspective as God sees it. That is why they are important for every generation of believers.
God give us more prophets.
I share this elongated introduction to my thoughts concerning these last few verses of Isaiah 28 for a reason. There is so much prediction of gloom and judgement throughout what Isaiah has been saying thus far it would be easy to sink into depression listening to him.
To be sure the bright sunshine passages of a glorious future are richer in sunshine than the judgement lines are filled with cold and darkness, but they are always brief and fleeting. On top of that it was much easier for Isaiah’s contemporary audience to identify with the lines of judgement and sadness simply because they lived in a time and place where the circumstances and circumstance of their lives matched some of the stuff that Isaiah was shouting about. The glorious wonder of Jerusalem being the centre of the world with all peoples coming to visit and sit at the feet of the King – the Son of David – seemed like a futuristic dream – so far away.
The people were slipping into a deep depression like “Woe to us!” frame of mind. It must have been like seeing and hearing about all the surrounding nations are sinking – and we are one of the sinking vessels. I thought we were God’s chosen – but what is happening to them is happening to us. Israel the Northern kingdom has been dissipated and erased from the planet and here is prophet Isaiah saying that the same is going to happen to us. It’s doom, gloom and an existential void as to the purpose for living. Why should we live? What is life all about?
Then came Isaiah.
There is a couple of principles divulged in these last few verses of Isaiah 28. They aren’t deep or mystical principles of the spiritual life that the unchurched or unsaved man on the street would not understand.
The first principle is significant for all human beings in all relationships in all scenarios and contexts. It’s a principle that is true of best friends, enemies, lovers, newly-weds, work relationships and anywhere else with anybody else. It is a principle that is ever present in life and dealings with people. It’s so easy to grasp we might not even perceive it as a “principle.”
Today two people might laugh and joke with each other. Tomorrow they might differ on an issue and have a debate – or even an argument. Tomorrow the same two people, no matter how close or distant they are with each other might labour together silently in helping somebody, and then after that they might choose not to speak to each other for a while. Life has different moments for different purposes, moments we enjoy and moments we dislike. I might do all I can to teach you how to sing, or run the domestic accounts, and then I might come to a period where having taught you something, I stand back to see how you respond to do the job yourself. It’s the rhythm of life, the moving lights and shadows of everyday living. It’s the coping of circumstance and scenarios sometimes light and sometimes dark. But Isaiah was wanting to explain how God deals with his people, not just how a human being talks to and deals with other human beings.
The prophet discerns the heaviness and dark horizon of all he has shared, especially in chapters 24 to 27 and how it can be utterly weighing down the populace that have heard him and, by God’s grace, believed him. Have they nothing but bad and terrible news from God? Is there no hope? No brighter day on the way? Has the nation been so wicked that there is no redeeming feature of God’s word at this time? Is God’s plan so dystopian that all of mankind is to be destroyed and done away with?
Isaiah knows his audience well and sets out to explain the answer to this, the heaviest part of their query of life itself. The mighty prophet returns to parabolic explanations. He is fighting against utter despair in the hearts of the people and the horror of the death grip of hopelessness. He seeks to explain how the tone of God’s corrective and living word is hard for this moment, yet will be brighter at some future time.
That is the first principle he wishes to share with them.
The second principle to give them is that they are not just like other nations. Judah is populated by the chosen children of Israel. Judgement is coming, but they no more of Yahweh than anybody on the planet and this knowledge should lead them to repentance. Each person as well as each individual will be judged by Yahweh and treated as an individual in that judgement.
An understanding of the farming procedures and agricultural practiceof Isaiah’s day is almost essential to the right appreciation of some sections of his writings. That statement is actually true for the entire 66 books of the canon. This parable at the tail end of Isaiah 28 is one of those sections, and is a steadying anchor of a lesson that is a brighter and fuller perspective of what the future holds.
23. Give me your ear and listen closely to my voice; listen carefully and pay attention to my words
The opening line of Isaiah’s lesson suggests he is in a small gathering and asking his audience to gather round while he shares some heavenly nugget of truth that is going to lift their spirits. It’s a sort of – “Gather round my friends while I tell you something Yahweh has taught me and whispered in my ear,” moment. Isaiah shares this parable without even attempting an interpretation. He explains it all himself. I believe that is because the meaning is simplistically clear. Its point is self-evident. “I shall just paint this word picture and you will understand what I am focussing on.” Isaiah does not appreciate the sarcastic and negative mockery he has had thrown at him, mockery that is projected upon him because of lack of thought and insight by his audiences of the past. He is to speak of four essentials of difference of relationship that the farmer enjoys with the earth and how he relates to the soil.
24. Does the man ploughing his field, plough all the time continually? Does he go on working and turning the soil without end?
He is discussing a ploughman farmer of which there must have been countless people of such a position in his audience – not that they lived in Jerusalem. Never! Jerusalem had most of the Jewish elite, royalty, priestly seniors and the like. The poor that lived in Jerusalem were basically there to serve the elite who were in the majority. The ploughmen of Judah are to be likened to Yahweh Himself in the prophet’s plot line. Yes, Yahweh, the Lord Almighty Himself is to be viewed in Isaiah’s intimate sharing, as the farmer and what we think about the farmer, and how we hear Isaiah’s word sketch of what farmers do, we are to see Yahweh Himself and somehow parallel this “story of everyday country folk” with the Eternal Living God Himself. The prophet is describing the full cycle of the farmers preparation of, and use of the earth, the thoughtfulness behind the sowing of various types of seed in different manner and locations in the field, the reaping of the various seeds in different ways and the final grinding of the harvested seed. Each seed is individual as is the places of sowing and the sites for ploughing.
Verse 24 brings Isaiah’s word picture to the point that the first aspect of the agricultural cycle is to plough and break up the soil. But he (the farmer) will not plough endlessly. The job needs to be completed – that is, the entire field needs thoroughly ploughing before a different activity can be commenced. The prophet hits his audience between the eyes with two rhetorical questions. “Does the man ploughing his field, plough all the time continually? Does he go on working and turning the soil without end?” The fact that they are rhetorical questions and Isaiah does not even attempt to give a clue to answering leaves us with the imaginative picture of his audience shaking their heads or saying. “No! Of course not!” Having established the point that ploughing has to start at some point in time and the job actually has a completion and end, the prophet moves on.
25. Does he not, after making the face of the field flat and smooth, then plant the dill and scatter the cumin? Does he not plant the wheat in rows? The barley in its special place? And other wheat as a border around the field?
The farmer is no imbecile. The workers of the earth have a “knowledge” like the London Taxi drivers. To the non-agricultural mind the farmer is perceived as owning a particular style of wisdom. Yes indeed! The farmer perceives and diaries his necessary routine extremely wisely. He is aware of different procedures for different seeds. There are minor seeds and major seeds. Some are in the middle and main part of the field, some are on the edges. Dill, Cumin, wheat and Barley and other seeds. Each one has a different procedure. Wheat is in rows, but others are not. This knowledge is traced back to God Himself. It is a divine wisdom that the farmer follows. Possibly all from Adamic days? What do you think?
26. His God teaches and instructs him and shows him discretion and the right way to do things.
Isaiah draws a lesson from agriculture to show that God has restoration in mind and not simply judgment and destruction. By a series of rhetorical questions Isaiah reminds the people of a practical wisdom that comes from God Himself. Nobody ploughs merely for the sake of ploughing. The farmer prepares the ground according to the type of seed that is to be planted in various locations in the field according to the needs of each type of seed.
27. A farmer doesn’t use a sledge to thresh dill. He doesn’t use a wagon wheel to crush cumin. He uses a small stick to break open the dill, and with a rod or flail he opens the cumin.
Now the prophet leaps forward to the harvesting. The same approach is stated when looking at the threshing procedure. The cumin is harvested and made end-user friendly by beating. Harsher efforts would destroy the cumin. The grains for daily bread are harder and therefor need harsher crushing using boards with stones and the oxen for grinding the wheat.
The point is the self-evident common sense activity of different treatments of processing for different seeds. The farmer has been taught of God how to do such things. How much more does God know of dealing with His own creation? The foolish use of methods is strongly denied as being simply too unreasonable to even think of. If human farmers are so wise and sensible … how much more is God who gave the farmers the wisdom they utilise? This is the entire point of the parable.
28. The grain is ground to make bread. People do not ruin it by threshing it forever. The farmer separates the wheat from the chaff with his cart, but he does not let his horses crush it.
29. This lesson also comes from Yahweh the All-Powerful of Heaven’s hosts of Armies, who gives wonderful counsel, who is very wise and gives excellent wisdom.
The application of these two lessons, or parables, is that God will carry forward His purposes to their proper end. He is also concerned about purifying, not destroying. God will bring out of the purifying process a righteous remnant. Isaiah wants the scoffers to know that all this calls for praise to God for His wisdom and guidance. See Isaiah 9:6
This parable was necessary for those who were right in the thick of a highly complex situation and could not see the wood for the trees. They needed assurance that Yahweh would not deal too severely with His recalcitrant children.
The husbandman ploughs only that he may sow. He harrows the ground only that he may produce a level and unclodded surface on which to plant his seeds. And when he sows, he gives to every seed its appropriate place and usage. He scatters the dill and strews the cumin; but the wheat he sets, according to the Oriental fashion, in long rows, and the barley in a place specially marked out for it, so marked as to exclude the borders of the field. And he thus varies his modes of treatment, and adapts them to the several kinds of seeds, because God has given him sagacity and wisdom. Will God, then, who gave the husbandman this sagacity, be less observant of time and measure? Will He crush and waste the precious grain of His threshing floor?
People need to know that God has a mind, a purpose and is moving creation into a concluding process. God is not inscrutable.