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Here a Little and There a Little
In the previous two chapters of Isaiah, he had focused on the wonderful future that awaits Israel and Judah. But now he returns to his dire theme of warning. In this chapter we have first a condemnation of Ephraim followed by one addressed to the "scornful men...in Jerusalem" (verse 14).
While this prophecy could have been given earlier, its position in the text would seem to date it to shortly before Sennacherib's invasion of 701 B.C.—two decades after the deportation of Ephraim. So the warning to Ephraim, the chief of the northern ten tribes, was very likely a message intended for Israel of the last days. Indeed, the wording of verses 5-6 and particularly verse 22—"destruction determined even upon the whole earth"—makes that rather clear.
Verses 1-8 show that the people of Israel have become drunk. While this could denote a problem with actual alcoholic drunkenness, it is more likely meant to signify spiritual drunkenness, as in other scriptural passages. The people become practically intoxicated through false ideologies and their own stubbornness. In this state, they are incapable of understanding what God has to say to them—and thus are blind to His truth.
Verses 9-10 explain the way God reveals knowledge—and it is a major key to understanding the Bible. It is not merely as a babe drinking milk (compare Hebrews 5:13). Rather, we must work at studying the Bible. It is somewhat like assembling a jigsaw puzzle, with the message of truth scattered throughout its pages. We must search out all that the Bible has to say about a particular subject—bringing scattered information together—to understand God's truth about that matter: "For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little and there a little" (Isaiah 28:10).
Some reject this concept by pointing to the context of the people's blindness and drunkenness and the repetition of the above phrase in verse 13, where it is added, "...that they might go and fall backward, and be broken and snared and caught." But that is actually consistent with interpreting verses 9-10 as relating the proper way to understand. In fact, it should help us to better grasp the point God is making. God has revealed His truth here a little and there a little for this very purpose—so that when those in the world, whose minds are willingly closed to His truth, attempt to comprehend it, they are unable. To them it seems one great mass of confusion—indeed it seems drunkenness when they themselves are the ones who are spiritually drunk. And they fall backwards over it, tripping and stumbling. But to those God has called to understand His purpose, it all comes together—and it all makes sense. For the same reason Jesus spoke in parables—so the multitudes would not understand but His true followers would (Luke 8:10).
The context, then, is this. God has arranged His Word so that spiritually drunk people are unable to comprehend it. They trip and stumble over it as drunkards trip and stumble in general. They refuse to hear (Isaiah 28:12)—indeed, they refuse to hear and heed the way to understand given in verses 9-10—so they remain drunk. That was true in Isaiah's time—and, sadly, it remains true today.
The mention of the foundation and cornerstone (verse 16), quoted by the apostles Peter and Paul as referring to Jesus Christ (Romans 9:33; Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:6), also reveals this prophecy to have a later application. Paul emphasized that "whoever believes" (Isaiah 28:16; Romans 10:11) was not restricted to the Jews—and explained this as opening the way for the gentiles to come to God. Moreover, Isaiah 28:11-12 is quoted by Paul in discussing the subject of speaking in tongues (1 Corinthians 14:21).
Covenant With Death
Isaiah mentions Jerusalem's leaders making a "covenant with death" or "agreement with Sheol [the grave]" (Isaiah 28:14-15, 18). "The phrase simply means that the people of Israel [or Judah] thought they had an agreement worked out by which they could avoid death. But God will soon annul that and strike His people with judgment (Isaiah 28:28)" (Bible Reader's Companion,note on verse 15). In Isaiah's day, perhaps this applied to the nation's agreement with Egypt or Babylon to defend against Assyria. Yet, because some of this passage apparently refers to the end time as we've seen, the covenant with death may as well. In that context, it could refer to an Israeli pact or treaty with Europe that may initially preserve the Jewish state—an agreement such as that made with Antiochus Epiphanes in the second century B.C. (see Daniel 11:23) and later with the Romans. None of these agreements has preserved the people of the Holy Land—and neither would any made in the end time.
Isaiah 28 contains some powerful imagery from Israel's history in verse 21. The mention of God rising up as at Mount Perazim refers back to a battle David fought with the Philistines when they sought to get rid of him soon after he became king of the combined northern and southern tribes (compare 2 Samuel 5:17-20; 1 Chronicles 14:8-11). The "Valley of Gibeon" refers to the famous "Joshua's long day" battle against the Amorites in defense of Gibeon, when God not only prevented the sun from setting, but also used hailstones to kill even more Amorites than the Israelites killed with the sword (compare Joshua 10:6-14).
What should be disconcerting to the Israelites is that in this prophecy God's wrath is directed against them rather than against their enemies.
Finally, in the last few verses of Isaiah 28, God uses some harvesting analogies that contain both a warning and some encouragement. The farmer uses his judgment on how much the grain needs to be ground. God, the farmer, will continue to "grind" Israel through trials as long as He determines it is necessary. It's not up to Israel, "the grain" in the analogies, to say when God should bring their trials to an end. But God adds two encouraging thoughts. He reminds Israel that He is aware of the fact that some types of grain need delicate threshing methods, lest the grain be ruined. To be sure, some of the trials He allows His people to endure are truly "gentle" by comparison to what they could be without His oversight. The other point is that, regardless of how much threshing needs to be done, it's only part of the process. That is, Israel can count on the fact that at some point, "the grinding"—that is, the trials—will cease, and God will move on to the next part of His plan.
As David wrote in Psalm 103, "For He knows our frame; He remembers that we are dust" and "the mercy of the LORD is from everlasting to everlasting" (verses 14, 17).