An endless cycle of war and death—what did it mean?
Isaiah 21:3 At this my body is racked with pain, pangs seize me, like those of a woman in labor; I am staggered by what I hear, I am bewildered by what I see.
There is one easy way to picture the Middle East of Isaiah’s day: Simply follow today’s newspaper headlines and project backward in time. Then, as now, one nation would invade its neighbor, leveling cities and devastating the land and its people. The prophet Isaiah longed for an end to the cycle, much as modern-day residents of Lebanon or Israel do today.
Isaiah looked at the world with a kind of split vision. Around him he saw spiritual decay and the dreary cycle of war and death. Yet God had given him a clear vision of what his nation could one day become: a pure people, faithful to God, living in peace with “war no more.”
A Kingdom for a Purpose
With God’s view of the future shining brightly before him, Isaiah went about reinterpreting history. Others in Judah looked upon military invasions as terrible catastrophes. By contrast, Isaiah—though he felt anguish over the events—saw glimpses of a higher purpose.
Isaiah said that Judah had to endure pain and suffering in order to be purified. He counseled against making political alliances to forestall the punishment. God’s people had to go through the fire, and from the trials a remnant—a small remaining number of persons—would emerge that God could then use to accomplish his work. Isaiah went so far as to name his own son “a remnant will return” (Shear-Jashub) as a walking object lesson of his message to Judah (see Isaiah 7:3).
Why had the Jews been called by God in the first place? They were to be a “light for the Gentiles,” Isaiah said (see Isaiah 42:6), a nation used by God to bring his truth to other nations. And out of the land of Judah God would raise up a great Prince who would rule over all the earth.
Who Is in Charge?
In short, God had not discarded his people, no matter how bleak things looked. The Israelites would ultimately become a missionary nation, pointing others to God.
Above all other messages, Isaiah stressed this one: God is in charge of history. To Judah—surrounded by enemies, staggering from invasion, weary of bloodshed—God seemed far away and distant. Isaiah assured its inhabitants that the great powers of earth were mere tools in God’s hands; he would use them and fling them aside.