Isaiah 28

Grounds for Hope

Commentaries by William A. Dyrness

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Trent Davis Bailey

A Wonderful citrus orchard , c.2017, Photograph, From 'A Kingdom from Dust', The California Sunday Magazine, 31 January 2018; © Trent Davis Bailey

God’s Ploughing and Planting

Commentary by William A. Dyrness

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Oranges grown in California’s central valley, often on immense farms, are harvested from January to June. The dust of this barren part of the earth has become fertile.

The ploughing and planting that is necessary for such bounty is not random, but carefully planned, like the ordered rows of the orchards. But the beauty and order of these rows of trees may well be lost on the farm workers of California, many of whom work long hours for low wages (Arax 2018). These millions of oranges do not simply ‘drop down from the sky’ (Arax 2018: 50). Indeed, for some, the labour and the water used to irrigate the crops are seen as purloined, or in Isaiah’s words, ‘snared, and taken’ (v.13).

This third section of Isaiah 28 lays out the planning necessary for the earth to yield its abundance. Every farmer knows its importance. It is an expression of the wisdom God has embedded in creation. But this section is also a parable of what God is doing with Israel. Like the wise farmer, God plans and plants with care.

God’s ordering has justice at its centre—God’s ‘community development programme’ includes uprooting and ploughing under, as well as planting and harvesting. Farmers may have learned their practical wisdom from God’s creation; its human implications were something that Israel’s religious leaders had forgotten. As a result, they can only speak gibberish (v.13). They have constructed their own order instead of trusting YHWH’s and in the process made a covenant with death.

Perhaps Israel’s leaders thought they were the authors of their own prosperity, forgetting that their wisdom came from elsewhere: from YHWH. But when the people forgot the central focus of Isaiah’s message—‘Cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow’ (Isaiah 1:17)—it was YHWH who had to plough and uproot.



Arax, Mark. 2018. ‘A Kingdom from Dust, February 4, 2018’, The California Sunday Magazine

Goldingay, John. 2014. The Theology of the Book of Isaiah (Downers Grove: IVP)

Watts, John. 1986. The Book of Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)

Barnett Newman

Onement, I, 1948, Oil on canvas and oil on masking tape on canvas, 69.2 x 41.2 cm, The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Gift of Annalee Newman, 390.1992, © Barnett Newman Foundation / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York; Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art / Licensed by SCALA / Art Resource, NY

Longing for a Just Order

Commentary by William A. Dyrness

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In 1948, Barnett Newman painted Onement I, which he claimed was his artistic breakthrough. That same year he specified the purpose of his artistic work:

We are reasserting man’s natural desire for the exalted.… Instead of making cathedrals out of Christ, man or ‘life’ we are making them out of ourselves, out of our own feelings. The image we produce is the self-evident one of revelation, real and concrete. (Newman, in Rose 1968: 160)

This work was the first of his famous ‘zip’ paintings where a painted vertical strip both divides and unites the canvas. Though Newman claims this ‘cathedral’ is made out of his own feelings, it may also reflect something of his own Orthodox Jewish heritage, for the strong vertical also suggests a plumb line that sets a standard against which deviation can be measured.

In this central section of Isaiah 28, the prophet exposes the folly of Israel. Though they should be able to relax and trust in YHWH’s providence (v.12), they followed the advice of inebriated priests and made a covenant with death (v.15)—a reference to their attraction to the Canaanite god Mot = death—by aligning themselves with Egypt against Assyria. As John Goldingay writes: ‘Making Egypt their refuge is an act of blasphemy. YHWH is supposed to be their refuge, their shelter’ (Goldingay 2014: 137). To establish this place of security God promises ‘a sure foundation’ (v.16) and a line for justice, a plumb line (v.17) that both separates justice from injustice and unites those who trust in YHWH.

However much Newman claimed to trust his self-made ‘cathedral’, his work references another aim: to find some standard, a line that can be trusted. Even the title of this work, Onement I, recalls the ancient root of the word ‘atonement’: making into one, suggesting a yearning for reconciliation that, in that post-war period of hope in the West, recalls the experience of eighth-century BCE Israel.



Goldingay, John. 2014. The Theology of the Book of Isaiah (Downers Grove: IVP)

Newman, Barnett. 1968. ‘The Sublime is Now’, in Readings in American Art: A Documentary Survey, ed. by Barbara Rose (New York: Praeger)

Yasin Akgül

A Kurdish Syrian woman walks with her child past the ruins of the town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, March 25, 2015, Photograph; Yasin Akgül / AFP / Getty Images

The Death of a Country?

Commentary by William A. Dyrness

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In 2010 visitors to Syria would still have found a quiet and peaceful country, though under the surface resentment seethed against a Ba’athist dictatorship that had ruled the country for almost half a century.

But in March 2011 everything changed for Syrians, as a revolution and civil war turned vibrant cities like Kobane and nearby Aleppo, their suqs, mosques, and richly ornamented houses, into ruins. Both government and rebels sought outside alliances, precariously harnessing the self-interest of foreign powers. To compound matters, ISIS (so-called Islamic State) took every opportunity to advance its bloody campaign. By 2017, 400,000 Syrians had been killed and millions had fled their homes in search of peace and security for their families. Meanwhile, the ruling family and their supporters lived in safety in Damascus, protected and defended by foreign military allies.

In 721 BCE the world changed for Israel as well: Samaria was devastated and shortly after, Jerusalem was attacked. Their leaders too had become indulgent, turning dangerously to Egypt for assistance. The people would suffer for their misguided priests ‘bloated with rich food … overcome with wine’ (Isaiah 28:1b).

This photograph offers a poignant glimpse into modern Syria’s suffering. A Kurdish Syrian woman is returning with her son to her home in Kobane in March 2015, after it was reclaimed from ISIS, and seeing the devastation of her city. The destruction of cities and the direct experience of these events are apparent in both this photo and the words of Isaiah: these ‘documents’ expose us to devastation as they narrate not from a distance, but in close-ups.

International aid to Kobane has been pitiful, and most of the city is still a wilderness. But Isaiah promises something that seems hard to imagine when faced with such catastrophic scenes of devastation: that God will be a spirit of justice and strength (v.6). That in the midst of their loss, a standard of justice and a vision of beauty will appear, holding out hope for a ‘crown of glory’ (v.5) to a people ‘broken and snared and taken’ (v.13c).

After devastation, there may still be a return; a renewal.



Van Dam, Nikolas. 2017. Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (London: I. B. Tauris)

Watts, John. 1986. The Book of Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)

Trent Davis Bailey :

A Wonderful citrus orchard , c.2017 , Photograph

Barnett Newman :

Onement, I, 1948 , Oil on canvas and oil on masking tape on canvas

Yasin Akgül :

A Kurdish Syrian woman walks with her child past the ruins of the town of Kobane, also known as Ain al-Arab, March 25, 2015 , Photograph

God in Creation and History

Comparative commentary by William A. Dyrness

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In 720 BCE, the people of Jerusalem and Samaria could have been forgiven for thinking that their lives would never be the same again. Samaria, the beautiful capital of the Northern Kingdom, was being destroyed before their very eyes. Its people were carried off by the Assyrians, while some fled south for safety in Judah. Jerusalem was also attacked during the campaign of Sargon II, though the Kingdom of Judah would continue to survive for more than a century.

The Prophet Isaiah had begun his ministry in Judah in the 740s and would prophesy both in the North and South for around fifty years. His prophecies consist of short pronouncements put together in collage-like chapters; chapter 28 contains three sections that pronounce YHWH’s judgement on both the North and South.

However, despite this chapter’s emphasis on God’s judgement, Isaiah also offers two very different grounds for hope.

One is the promise of justice and restoration that the people had received from their forefathers, who had trusted this God and had known God’s blessing. In verses 14–16 Isaiah portrays this as ‘a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation’, in which they can place their trust. The other source of hope was found in the wisdom of the created order, its fertility and bounty, which had provided for them over the generations; this had come from the Lord and it offered a parable of YHWH’s own planning and planting (vv.23–29). The promises to the Fathers, and the wisdom that God placed in the created order were concrete evidences that YHWH had plans for good and not for evil.

The three images brought together here are chosen to offer visual commentary on both the judgement Isaiah pronounces and the hope that (so he suggests) resides in the apparently tragic consequences of that judgement.

Poignantly, in just the region of Isaiah’s prophecy, the Syrian revolution and civil war has resurrected age-old resentments and devastated a land rich in history and beauty. A distinguished historian of this war writes: ‘The beautiful picture that once existed has been destroyed to such an extent that Syria can never be the same again’ (Van Dam 2017: 63). The tragedy seems to be unending; it unfolds before our eyes in daily images—like this woman and her son, walking through the ruins of their home city as they return to it. In Isaiah 28, the prophet speaks of the destruction of the land of YHWH’s people and dares to portray such fury as the work of YHWH: ‘Mighty and strong; like a storm of hail, a destroying tempest’ (v.2)—an image that the prophet was in fact using of the invading Assyrian forces. How could that destruction be the work of God?

The vital central section (vv.14–22) which holds together this chapter suggests one answer. A ‘tested stone’, a ‘sure foundation’ (v.16) is evoked, which will be both a refuge and a standard of justice—a line, a plummet (v.17). This image of ‘foundation stone’ is picked up in the New Testament—even Christ uses it (along with Psalm 118:22) to refer to his own ministry (Matthew 21:42). But in the typical fashion of Hebrew aesthetics, this image is piled onto other images—testing stone, cornerstone, line of justice, a plummet or plumb line—offering together a richly resonant sense of stability and strength.

Something of this multi-valence is captured in Barnett Newman’s famous Onement I (1948). While the ‘zip’ series which this inaugurates will feature the vertical line, dividing and uniting, the title evokes a deeper sense of reconciliation; a making what is separate into one. The title and Newman’s own religious heritage make it difficult not to make these connections.

The book-end last section (vv.23–29) suggests another answer to our question about God’s involvement in this destruction. These verses contain the picture of that second source of hope: God’s blessing in the ever-renewed fertility of the earth—seedtime and harvest. Trent Bailey’s photograph of California’s orchards portrays the wonder of the land’s goodness, if with an acknowledgement of the way their human technologies aspire to their own ‘wonderfulness’.

But God’s planning, like that of the farmer, includes uprooting as well as rooting, and no human endeavour works marvels by itself. The plumb line is suspended over our projects of farming the earth—as over all human activity. The beauty of Samaria was brought to nothing. And if stolen water and exploited workers are what fund our splendid achievements they too will not endure for ever.



Arax, Mark. 2018. ‘A Kingdom from Dust, February 4, 2018’, The California Sunday Magazine

Goldingay, John. 2014. The Theology of the Book of Isaiah (Downers Grove: IVP)

Van Dam, Nikolas. 2017. Destroying a Nation: The Civil War in Syria (London: I. B. Tauris)

Watts, John. 1986. The Book of Isaiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans)

Next exhibition: Isaiah 44:21–45:8

Isaiah 28

Revised Standard Version

28Woe to the proud crown of the drunkards of Eʹphraim,

and to the fading flower of its glorious beauty,

which is on the head of the rich valley of those overcome with wine!

2Behold, the Lord has one who is mighty and strong;

like a storm of hail, a destroying tempest,

like a storm of mighty, overflowing waters,

he will cast down to the earth with violence.

3The proud crown of the drunkards of Eʹphraim

will be trodden under foot;

4and the fading flower of its glorious beauty,

which is on the head of the rich valley,

will be like a first-ripe fig before the summer:

when a man sees it, he eats it up

as soon as it is in his hand.

5In that day the Lord of hosts will be a crown of glory,

and a diadem of beauty, to the remnant of his people;

6and a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgment,

and strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.

7These also reel with wine

and stagger with strong drink;

the priest and the prophet reel with strong drink,

they are confused with wine,

they stagger with strong drink;

they err in vision,

they stumble in giving judgment.

8For all tables are full of vomit,

no place is without filthiness.

9“Whom will he teach knowledge,

and to whom will he explain the message?

Those who are weaned from the milk,

those taken from the breast?

10For it is precept upon precept, precept upon precept,

line upon line, line upon line,

here a little, there a little.”

11Nay, but by men of strange lips

and with an alien tongue

the Lord will speak to this people,

12to whom he has said,

“This is rest;

give rest to the weary;

and this is repose”;

yet they would not hear.

13Therefore the word of the Lord will be to them

precept upon precept, precept upon precept,

line upon line, line upon line,

here a little, there a little;

that they may go, and fall backward,

and be broken, and snared, and taken.

14Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers,

who rule this people in Jerusalem!

15Because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death,

and with Sheol we have an agreement;

when the overwhelming scourge passes through

it will not come to us;

for we have made lies our refuge,

and in falsehood we have taken shelter”;

16therefore thus says the Lord God,

“Behold, I am laying in Zion for a foundation

a stone, a tested stone,

a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation:

‘He who believes will not be in haste.’

17And I will make justice the line,

and righteousness the plummet;

and hail will sweep away the refuge of lies,

and waters will overwhelm the shelter.”

18Then your covenant with death will be annulled,

and your agreement with Sheol will not stand;

when the overwhelming scourge passes through

you will be beaten down by it.

19As often as it passes through it will take you;

for morning by morning it will pass through,

by day and by night;

and it will be sheer terror to understand the message.

20For the bed is too short to stretch oneself on it,

and the covering too narrow to wrap oneself in it.

21For the Lord will rise up as on Mount Peraʹzim,

he will be wroth as in the valley of Gibeon;

to do his deed—strange is his deed!

and to work his work—alien is his work!

22Now therefore do not scoff,

lest your bonds be made strong;

for I have heard a decree of destruction

from the Lord God of hosts upon the whole land.

23Give ear, and hear my voice;

hearken, and hear my speech.

24Does he who plows for sowing plow continually?

does he continually open and harrow his ground?

25When he has leveled its surface,

does he not scatter dill, sow cummin,

and put in wheat in rows

and barley in its proper place,

and spelt as the border?

26For he is instructed aright;

his God teaches him.

27Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge,

nor is a cart wheel rolled over cummin;

but dill is beaten out with a stick,

and cummin with a rod.

28Does one crush bread grain?

No, he does not thresh it for ever;

when he drives his cart wheel over it

with his horses, he does not crush it.

29This also comes from the Lord of hosts;

he is wonderful in counsel,

and excellent in wisdom.