An Exegetical Paper on Isaiah 8:11-22
11 For the LORD spoke thus to me with his strong hand upon me, and warned me not to walk in the way of this people, saying: 12 “Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread. 13 But the LORD of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread. 14 And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. 15 And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken.”
16 Bind up the testimony; seal the teaching among my disciples. 17 I will wait for the LORD, who is hiding his face from the house of Jacob, and I will hope in him. 18 Behold, I and the children whom the LORD has given me are signs and portents in Israel from the LORD of hosts, who dwells on Mount Zion. 19 And when they say to you, “Inquire of the mediums and the necromancers who chirp and mutter,” should not a people inquire of their God? Should they inquire of the dead on behalf of the living? 20 To the teaching and to the testimony! If they will not speak according to this word, it is because they have no dawn. 21 They will pass through the land, greatly distressed and hungry. And when they are hungry, they will be enraged and will speak contemptuously against their king and their God, and turn their faces upward. 22 And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness.
In this portion of Isaiah’s prophecy the prophet is spoken to by God. The message is one of encouragement to stiffen the spine, as it were, of the prophet. The prophet was not to fear what the people all around him feared, nor concern himself over the short-sighted things they were concerned over. Rather, he was to fear the eternal God, and listen to His word.
The setting of this text is the Syro-Ephraimite war of 734-732 B.C., in which the forces of Israel (Ephraim) and Syria (Aram) to the north of Judah ally against the increasing pressures of the Assyrian empire. Most of what we know about this war comes to us from the pages of Scripture, with the primary sources being 2 Kings 16, 2 Chronicles 28, and Isaiah 7. As Robert Vasholz summarizes,
“The underlying cause was the awareness of the increasing strength of the Assyrian forces under a capable ruler, Tiglath-Pileser III. His rise and successful conquests northward and eastward proved him to be a potential menace to the independence of the small kingdoms to Assyria's west and south, particularly Syria (Aram) and Ephraim.”
However, because Judah under Jotham and then Ahaz refused to join forces with these two nations, the allied forces plundered the land of Judah. 2 Chronicles 28:5-8 informs us of an enormous amount of bloodshed and plundering which the people of Judah sufferers at the hands of Israel and Syria.
After having been a prosperous nation under Uzziah, the nation is now thrust into a state of chaos and worry, being shaken to the very core (see Isaiah 7:2). It is in this context that Ahaz seeks the help of the Assyrian king, Tiglath-Pileser III. However, rather than helping, Tiglath will himself end up afflicting the people of Judah (2 Chronicles 28:20).
With this setting in mind, let us turn to the text in Isaiah 8:11-22. I think we can helpfully break it into four narrative movements.
Don’t Fear What They Fear, v11-12
The LORD spoke to Isaiah with, “his strong hand upon me.” It is as if God is wanting to grab Isaiah by the shoulders or the arms and shake him: “this message is deadly serious - listen up!”
The people here seem to be gripped by conspiracy theories of some sort. Geoffrey W. Grogan argues in his commentary on Isaiah that these conspiracies were pertaining to the various political alliances Ahaz had in place. What is clear from the text is that these conspiracy theories are driving them to fear and dread. They are deeply concerned. This is how conspiracies often work, as conjectures about the unknown come to play a formative role not only in our thinking, but in our emotions as well.
God is not impressed by this line of thinking, and offers the only suitable counter and remedy to such mental games in the following verses.
There is One You Shall Fear, v13-15
The counter which God offers to the fear of man is the fear of the Lord himself. Drawing upon the truth of texts such as Proverbs 1:9 and 9:10, God speaks to Isaiah this simple truth: the only One worthy of fear is God. Wisdom begins here, and confidence does as well.
In verse fifteen, we encounter a familiar image of God as the sanctuary of his people. One’s mind is drawn to a text such as Psalm 46:1. However, what follows is a description of who this same Rock and Redeemer (Psalm 19:14) can be to those who fail to fear Him: a terrible and devastating foe. TO quote Old Testament scholar Geoffry W. Grogan,
“It is impossible in English to convey the terrifying force of the seven Hebrew words that constitute v.15. All five of the verbs end with the same long vowel, and four of these open with the same letter and follow one another in unbroken sequence.”
It’s as if God pulls out not only the logical, but the rhetorical stops to emphasize to his people their solemn responsibility to fear Him and no other. But how does one find the spiritual sustenance and ability to fear God in a world full of political intrigue and instability, economic flux, and personal crises?
Head for the Book!, v16-20
In order to fear the Lord and stay faithful to him, the prophet is determined to bind up the testimony and seal the teaching among his disciples. While commentators sometimes argue that this means Isaiah has turned away from public ministry and is now focusing on his disciples, it seems to me far more likely that this use of seal or bind has in mind connotations similar to Psalm 119:11, wherein the Psalmist says he has hidden God’s word in his heart, or Deuteronomy 6 which speaks of metaphorically binding pieces of the law upon your forehead, as you also write it in your home and bind it to the minds and hearts of your children.
This concept of binding as a tool for discipleship and keeping the people close to the Lord would be in line with verse 19 wherein the prophet contrasts consulting necromancers and mediums with inquiring of God, who is heard (v20) in and through the medium of His word.
In verse 18, the prophet proclaims that he and his children are signs and portents for the people of what God has and will do. As noted in the Faithlife Study Bible,
‘Isaiah refers to his sons who were given symbolic names foreshadowing the judgment, restoration, and redemption of Judah: Shear-jashub, “A remnant will return” (Isa 7:3); Immanuel, “God with us” (7:14); and Maher-shalal-hash-baz, “Spoil speeds, prey hastens” (vv. 3–4).’
One can build a narrative with these names, as the spoil speeds and prey hastens behind the oppressors who will carry off God's people. But they can be assured because a remnant will return. Best of all, they can know that one day God will be with them, and Isaiah's own name, “Yahweh is victorious” or “Yahweh is Salvation”, is fulfilled in the coming of another Immanuel, God with us. But first a warning.
The Price of Disobedience, v20-22
Refusal to heed the word of God is an indication of deep and profound spiritual darkness, which, for the Old Testament people of God, carried with it certain consequences in this world (see Deuteronomy 28:15ff).
The picture in these verses is of a famine with both spiritual and physical components, one in which the people fail to take any responsibility for their own actions and hearts, and instead blame both their king and their God. This has interesting parallels with the picture in Revelation 16 of people responding to the bowls of God’s wrath by not repenting, but rather cursing him.
This text ultimately is a warning. To follow the fears of the people will lead one down a road of spiritual destruction. To cry conspiracy or search out forbidden knowledge will lead you away from the only true source of wisdom and knowledge. Instead the people of God ought to fear him, trust him, and look to his word for their guidance.
Finally, it should be noted for the Christian that this isn’t an abstract truth. Peter picks up this passage in 1 Peter 3:14-15 to encourage believers to face hardships with resolute hope. Not only should we not fear what others fear, but we should not fear those other people if they themselves are the cause of our hardship. Instead, we are to set Christ the Lord apart as holy. He is in a class all by Himself, and is the only one worthy of our fear.
Barry, John. et al. 2012. Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2012, 2016).
Chisholm Jr., Robert B. 2002. Handbook on the Prophets (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic).
Grogan, Geoffrey W. 1986. “Isaiah,” in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Isaiah, Jeremiah, Lamentations, Ezekiel, ed. Frank E. Gaebelein, vol. 6 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House).
Jamieson, Robert, with A. R. Fausset, and David Brown. 1997. Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 1 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997).
Thomas, Robert L. 1998. New American Standard Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries : Updated Edition (Anaheim: Foundation Publications, Inc.).