Why are some of Jesus’s parables more popular than others? The story of the prodigal son, for example—why do we hear so much about it? The return of a wayward child strikes a deep chord. We all know friends, siblings, or church members who have turned away from God. We long for the joyful return described in Luke 15.
Isaiah 30 presents an Old Testament precursor to this story. This chapter describes the despicable idolatry of Judah and the lavish love of God the Father.
First, a bit of history: Isaiah prophesied to the kingdom of Judah from 740 BC until at least 681 BC. Assyria was the major political and military power of the time and the nations around Assyria lived in fear. These countries often negotiated alliances among themselves for protection. Judah, despite being commanded to the contrary, was not immune to this temptation.
Judah’s Alliance with Egypt
In Is 30:1–5, Isaiah lays out God’s displeasure with Judah. They are “stubborn children” (Is 30:1) who “set out to go down to Egypt without asking for my direction” (Is 30:2). They do this in order to “take refuge in the protection of Pharaoh” (Is 30:3).
Catch the irony—the dominant Old Testament story of deliverance (the exodus) is powerful because of how ruthless, bloodthirsty, and oppressive Pharaoh was toward God’s people. In the history of Israel, Egypt is a place of death! So how can Judah now seek life there?!
Isaiah tells us that Judah’s alliance with Egypt won’t even be successful. Notice the words “shame” and “humiliation” in Is 30:3 and Is 30:5. Why will they be ashamed? Because Egypt is “a people that cannot profit them” (Is 30:5).
The worthlessness of Egypt’s help reappears in Isaiah’s poem (Is 30:6–7). Notice especially in Is 30:7 where God says that “Egypt’s help is worthless and empty” and he refers to Egypt (“Rahab”) as a “Do-Nothing” (Is 30:7 NIV). There is more sad irony in this poem: God once led Israel out of Egypt full of treasure plundered from the Egyptians (Ex 12:35–36), but now Judah carries treasure back to Egypt (Is 30:6) as payment for protection.
A Rebellious People
Isaiah presented the basic accusation against Judah in Is 30:1–2; he now presents a deeper charge in Is 30:8–11. The children of God are not behaving like true children (Is 30:9), because they are “unwilling to hear the instruction of the Lord.” In this refusal, they don’t silence the prophets, they merely limit their speech. They don’t want to hear “what is right.” They only want to hear “pleasant words” and “illusions” (Is 30:10 NASB). And in a very revealing way, they want to hear “no more about the Holy One of Israel” (Is 30:11).
Note the clear connection between rejecting God and rejecting his word. The people realize that hearing a true prophetic word would mean being confronted with the Holy One, and they want no part of that. Since this Holy One is their father, they are acting like “lying children” indeed (Is 30:9).
A Word From God
As much as Judah didn’t want to hear from the “Holy One” (Is 30:11), they will hear from the Holy One (Is 30:12,15)! After summarizing Judah’s sin in Is 30:12, God details the consequences. Of the two violent metaphors used in Is 30:13 and Is 30:14, I found the smashing of the pottery particularly vivid. The jar will be shattered so completely that no useful piece will remain (Is 30:14).
Isaiah describes Judah’s refusal of God’s word and the corresponding punishment in general terms in Is 30:12–14, but he is quite specific in Is 30:15–17. In Is 30:15 we see the posture God requires for salvation. This is the word Judah rejected—God’s people had put their trust in the wrong place.
It is striking to read (Is 30:16–17) how God will punish Judah for their sin: He gives them what they want! They want to flee on horses, and God says they shall flee; Judah wants to ride swiftly, so God says their pursuers will be swift indeed. This is an astounding aspect of the way God punishes idolatry—idolatry is so terrible that receiving what we sought is an awful punishment.
God Waits to be Gracious
As we consider Isaiah 30:18–26, we transition from looking at the faithlessness of Judah to the faithfulness of God. God always relates to Israel/Judah as a loving father relates to his children.
Notice the way that God “longs” and “waits” to be gracious to Judah (Is 30:18 NASB). God is eager, on the edge of his seat to show compassion. But this is not separate from his character as the “God of justice.” In fact, he would be unjust if he let his children sin without consequence; he wants them once again to “long for him” (Is 30:18 NASB). Can you recognize the father of the prodigal son (Luke 15:20)?
When the people turn back to God and he answers their cry—this is a glorious reunion! “He will surely be gracious” to Judah (Is 30:19). “He will no longer hide himself” but Judah will behold their God (Is 30:20 NASB). Notice how great a reward God himself is in this passage! When Judah returns to God, they will see him (Is 30:20) and hear him (Is 30:19,21); he will offer corrective advice so they can walk in the way again (Is 30:21). Another dramatic result of this reunion is the destruction of their idols (Is 30:22). How could an imitation ever hold a candle to the one true God they have now beheld?
What follows in Is 30:23–26 is a picture of a renewed creation. As creation was cursed at the fall (Gen 3:17–18), so it longs for renewal when the sons of God are revealed (Rom 8:18–21). Notice in these verses the increasingly supernatural quality given to the descriptions of the creation: rich and plenteous yield from crops (Is 30:23), especially fine food for the helping beasts (Is 30:24), flowing streams on every hill and mountain (Is 30:25), a blindingly bright moon and sun (Is 30:26). God makes explicit the connection between creation renewal and the salvation of his people in a wonderful description at the end of Is 30:26—how better to describe the Lord’s salvation through loving discipline than to say he “heals the wounds inflicted by his blow”?
God Against the Enemies
In the final section of this chapter (Is 30:27–33), we see God turn his anger toward the nations (Is 30:28) in general and Assyria (Is 30:31) in particular. Isaiah speaks of the indignation and judgment of God, that his voice alone is like a consuming fire (Is 30:27,30). God will strike Assyria with the rod (Is 30:31–32) and the funeral pyre will be prepared and used for the king of Assyria (Is 30:33).
But in the middle of this discourse, Isaiah writes that Judah “will have a song” like in festival time and there will be “gladness of heart” (Is 30:29). The musical references to “songs,” “the flute,” and “tambourines and lyres” appear in both Is 30:29 and Is 30:32. With all of the judgment God is doling out, what is the cause for Judah’s great rejoicing?
Isaiah says that God will deliver Judah in a very practical way. God himself will fight the battle against Assyria (Is 30:32)! God’s compassion toward his people is always practical. How gracious would God be if his compassion were only a sentiment?
What does this chapter teach us? When rebellious children ignore God’s word and seek safety elsewhere, God will bring severe discipline through their idols. But God is eager to be gracious to his children; they need only cry to him and he will bless them richly and destroy their enemies.
Don’t miss Jesus in this passage. On our behalf, he is the one who never sought protection apart from God. He never ignored God’s word; he brought us God’s word. Jesus makes God’s gracious disposition toward his children possible; we have peace with God because Jesus was smashed to bits by God’s fury at our idolatry.
Do you find yourself seeking protection and safety apart from God? Does your wealth, or your family, or your health, or your morality offer you a more attractive refuge than God? Are you suffering God’s discipline because you have pursued an idol? Perhaps this is the call you need to turn back to him. He longs to hear you cry out to him and he is eager to be gracious to you.