Isaiah 28 – A Word to Drunkards
Isaiah 28 begins an eight-chapter section (28-35) mostly directed to the southern kingdom of Judah. Since it is often most effective to address a sin present in a third party, and then apply it directly to the person, Isaiah will first speak of the sin of Israel, then switch the focus to Judah.
A. The sinful state of the drunkards of Ephraim.
1. (1-4) A flood of judgment upon the drunkards of Ephraim.
Woe to the crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim, whose glorious beauty is a fading flower which is at the head of the verdant valleys, to those who are overcome with wine! Behold, the Lord has a mighty and strong one, like a tempest of hail and a destroying storm, like a flood of mighty waters overflowing, who will bring them down to the earth with His hand. The crown of pride, the drunkards of Ephraim, will be trampled underfoot; and the glorious beauty is a fading flower which is at the head of the verdant valley, like the first fruit before the summer, which an observer sees; he eats it up while it is still in his hand.
a. To the drunkards of Ephraim: In Ephraim (another name for the northern nation of Israel, because the tribe of Ephraim was a prominent tribe in that nation), drunkenness was a significant enough problem that the Lord directed Isaiah to directly address the drunkards of Ephraim.
i. This is one of several passages of Scripture that speaks to drunkards. Proverbs 23:29-35 speaks of the folly of drunkenness. Ephesians 5:18 tells us to be filled with the Spirit instead of being drunk. Romans 13:13, 1 Corinthians 5:11, 6:10, 11:21, Galatians 5:21, and 1 Peter 4:3 each contain commands against drunkenness. Jesus specifically warned against drunkenness in the last days (Luke 21:34-36).
ii. Our society pays a terrible price for drunkenness; the direct effect on the drunkard is bad enough, but the extended costs are staggering. Yearly, in the United States, alcohol is responsible for almost 100,000 deaths (25,000 by drunk drivers alone), 6 million non-fatal injuries, and more than $100 billion in economic losses such as unemployment and loss of productivity.
iii. Drunkenness is behind many other crimes and sins. Many drunkards either commit violent or sexual crimes, or become victims violent or sexual crimes. 75% of the men and 55% of the women involved in date-rape situations had been drinking or taking drugs just before the attack. The FBI says that 50% of all rapes involve alcohol.
iv. Drunkenness is heavily promoted in our culture, and advertising often targets young people, recruiting them to a future of heavy drinking. The average television viewer sees 90,000 incidents of drinking on TV by age 21, and 100,000 beer commercials by age 18. Many of the commercials use cute animals and upbeat music that appeal to young audiences.
b. Woe to the crown of pride, to the drunkards of Ephraim: Like any other sin, drunkenness is connected to pride, so much so that Isaiah likens the drunkards of Ephraim to a crown of pride. Much of the self-hatred and self-despising drunkards feel is rooted in too much focus upon one’s self, which is the essence of pride.
c. Whose glorious beauty is a fading flower: Drunkenness makes everything beautiful and good in our lives fade away. Many men and women have gone from the top to skid row because of drunkenness.
d. To those who are overcome with wine: When alcohol overcomes us, we are in sin. When it impairs our senses, our thinking, our judgment, or our reflexes, we are overcome with wine and it is sin.
i. One might wish that there was a strict prohibition against drinking alcohol in the Bible, but there isn’t. Jesus made wine (John 2:1-10) and drank wine (Mark 14:22-26), and was even unjustly accused of being a drunkard (Matthew 11:19). Paul recommended the use of wine to Timothy, knowing that is was more pure to drink than plain water (1 Timothy 5:23). The Bible regards drink, moderately used, as a gift from God (Psalm 104:15). So, while the Bible allows the moderate use of alcohol, it strictly condemns drunkenness.
ii. What is drunkenness? Some only consider a person drunk if they are “passed-out drunk.” But whenever alcohol impairs our senses, our thinking, our judgment, or our reflexes, we are overcome with wine and it is sin. Whenever we feel compelled to drink, or have difficulty not drinking, we are overcome with wine and it is sin. If we have to hide our drinking, or are secretly ashamed of our drinking, we are overcome with wine and it is sin.
iii. Overcome is the Hebrew word halam, which literally means “to strike down” and by implication means “to hammer, to conquer, to beat down, to overcome, to hit with a hammer.” The same word is translated pounded in Judges 5:26, describing when Jael pounded a tent peg through the head of Sisera. When you get drunk, that’s what you are doing to yourself.
e. Behold, the Lord has a mighty and strong one: The drunkard needs to know that God is stronger than the drunkard, stronger than the power of alcohol, stronger than anything. If the drunkard is powerless to stop his drinking, God has the power to help him stop – or the power to judge him (the drunkards of Ephraim will be trampled underfoot).
f. Like the first fruit before the summer, which an observer sees; he eats it up while it is still in his hand: The drunkard needs to learn the value of delayed gratification. The gratification of drinking may be intense and immediate, but it fades quickly and crashes hard. The drunkard must learn the value delaying immediate gratification for a future benefit, instead of eating the fruit . . . while it is still in his hand.
i. The importance of appreciating the value of delayed gratification has been measured in what has been called the marshmallow test. A researcher gave this choice to a four year old: “I am leaving for a few minutes to run an errand and you can have this marshmallow while I am gone, but if you wait until I return, you can have two marshmallows.” Researchers at Stanford did this test in the 1960s, and a dozen years later they found that the kids who grabbed the single marshmallow tended to be more troubled as adolescents, and the one-marshmallow kids also scored an average of 210 points less on SAT tests. Learning to delay gratification is important!
2. (5-6) The beauty of the Lord replaces the faded beauty of Ephraim.
In that day the Lord of hosts will be for a crown of glory and a diadem of beauty to the remnant of His people, for a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgment, and for strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate.
a. The Lord of hosts will be for a crown of glory and a diadem of beauty: Sometimes when we see the faded glory that comes with sins like drunkenness, we can grow discouraged or depressed. But even if all the glory of man fades because of disobedience and sin, God’s glory remains. When we are completely “ungloried” because of the wreckage of sin, we can set our focus on the glory of the Lord.
b. For a spirit of justice to him who sits in judgment: When our glory has faded because of our sin, we may lose our judgment and discernment. But then we can receive them from the Lord.
c. And for strength to those who turn back the battle at the gate: When our glory has faded because of our sin, we may lose our strength and ability to fight. But then we can receive them from the Lord.
3. (7-8) The corruption of drunkenness in Judah.
But they also have erred through wine, and through intoxicating drink are out of the way; the priest and the prophet have erred through intoxicating drink, they are swallowed up by wine, they are out of the way through intoxicating drink; they err in vision, they stumble in judgment. For all tables are full of vomit and filth; no place is clean.
a. They also: Since Isaiah mentions the priest and the prophet in this section, it seems that they also refers to the people of Jerusalem and Judah. If the people of Ephraim had a problem with drunkenness, so did they also.
i. “Judah had caught this disease of Ephraim . . . Sin is more contagious and catching than the plague.” (Trapp)
b. They also have erred through wine and through intoxicating drink are out of the way: Drunkenness always leads to error and takes us out of the way – the way of wisdom and God’s will.
c. The priest and the prophet have erred through intoxicating drink: Drunkenness is something that can touch any person, at any stage of life. Even the priest and the prophet can find themselves under the tyranny of drunkenness (swallowed up by wine).
d. For all tables are full of vomit and filthiness, so that no place is clean: Drunkenness leads to this kind of degradation and disgrace. This is because of the way alcohol works. Alcohol is a depressant; it “loosens” people because it depresses their self-control, their wisdom, their balance and judgment.
i. This makes the idea of being “drunk in the Holy Spirit” especially unbiblical and offensive. The Holy Spirit does not depress us; He has the exact opposite effect. The Holy is a stimulant, and He moves every aspect of our being to better and more perfect performance. Of those who act silly or crazy claiming to be “drunk in the Holy Spirit,” the most charitable thing to say is that they are simply acting in their own flesh, because they certainly are not being led by the Holy Spirit of God.
B. God’s message to those who are ripe for judgment.
1. (9-10) The simple message is mocked.
“Whom will he teach knowledge? And whom will he make to understand the message? Those just weaned from milk? Those just drawn from the breasts? For precept must be upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.”
a. Whom will he teach knowledge? These are the words of the drunk, ungodly prophets and priests described in Isaiah 28:7-8. They ask Isaiah, the godly prophet, Whom will he teach knowledge? And whom will he make to understand the message? In their mocking minds, Isaiah’s message is fit only for children (Those just weaned from milk).
i. “Verses 9 and 10 portray the sarcastic reaction these Judean leaders had to Isaiah’s words of rebuke. They were tired of Isaiah’s strictness and of his recurring application of God’s laws. The string of monosyllables in verse 10 may mean that the Judean leaders regarded Isaiah’s message as meaningless or as child’s play.” (Wolf)
ii. “Many commentators have been puzzled by verse 10 and have wrestled to make sense of the Hebrew. The truth of the matter seems to be, as the NIV margin suggests, that it is not meant to make sense. Isaiah’s words had hardly penetrated the alcohol-impregnated atmosphere that surrounded his hearers.” (Grogan)
iii. “Thus this good prophet became the drunkard’s song. Any man may be witty in a biting way, and those that have the dullest brains have commonly the sharpest teeth to that purpose.” (Trapp)
b. Precept upon precept: With this, the drunk, ungodly prophets and priests mock Isaiah’s teaching. “It is too simple. It is simply precept upon precept . . . line upon line . . . here a little, there a little. We are so smart and spiritually sophisticated and advanced that we can go on to deeper things.”
i. In their mocking of Isaiah’s message, they actually pay him a great compliment. It is a beautiful thing for God’s truth to be presented precept upon precept . . . line upon line . . . here a little, there a little. When the word of God is properly presented, there is something for both the simple and immature to receive, and also something for the great saint to rejoice in and be fed.
2. (11-13) Isaiah warns of the consequences of rejecting the simple message of the Lord.
For with stammering lips and another tongue He will speak to this people, to whom He said, “This is the rest with which You may cause the weary to rest,” and, “This is the refreshing”; yet they would not hear. But the word of the Lord was to them, “Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little,” That they might go and fall backward, and be broken and snared and caught.
a. With stammering lips and another tongue He will speak to this people: If the simple, straightforward message is rejected, God will find another way to communicate to the hard-hearted. He will send unusual messengers to bring the word.
b. The message of rest and deliverance (this is the rest . . . this is refreshing) will be rejected (they would not hear). But it wasn’t the fault of the word of the Lord – the word of the Lord was to them, “Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, line upon line, line upon line, here a little, there a little.”
i. This is the blessed way to present God’s word: precept upon precept, line upon line. Isaiah takes the taunt of the drunkards and receives it as a compliment. God’s messengers are to present all of God’s word (without skipping a line), and to present it simply.
ii. This also implies that we can’t receive all aspects of God’s message at once. “It is an excellent thing that the gospel is taught us by degrees. It is not forced home upon men’s minds all at once, but it comes thus, ‘Precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little and there a little.’ God does not flash the everlasting daylight on weak eyes in one blaze of glory, but there is at first a dim dawn, and the soft incoming of a tender light for tender eyes, and so by degrees we see.” (Spurgeon)
c. In fact, the result of the faithful presentation of the word of the Lord for those who reject isn’t good for them: That they might go and fall backward and be broken and snared and caught.
3. (14-15) The false confidence of sinful leaders.
Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scornful men, who rule this people who are in Jerusalem, because you have said, “We have made a covenant with death, and with Sheol we are in agreement. When the overflowing scourge passes through, it will not come to us, for we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood we have hidden ourselves.”
a. You scornful men, who rule this people who are in Jerusalem: Sadly, some of the simple and immature were those who rule this people. They needed to hear the word of the Lord just as everyone did.
i. There is no one too high, too exalted, too mature, too advanced for the word of the Lord, and to hear it precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little and there a little.
b. We have made a covenant with death: The rulers of Jerusalem were extreme in their rejection of God, and felt they had an “agreement” with death and the grave (Sheol). They proudly believed the overflowing scourge of God’s judgment and correction would not come against them.
i. They had no fear of death, and thought they had made friends with death and the grave. This same way of thinking is common in our modern world. The ungodly should fear death, because with death ends all opportunity for repentance, and their eternal doom is sealed. Satan has a significant interest in making the wicked feel that death is their friend.
ii. A 1996 Los Angeles Times article told the story of Heidi, a 15-year-old who lived in Rancho Palos Verdes. She attended one of the nation’s finest public schools, where she played soccer as a sophomore. She loved horses, and had recently been baptized into the Mormon Church. Chris was a 16-year-old surfer from San Pedro, who got A’s and B’s, took college prep courses, and had a part time job working a gas pump. His grandfather said he was a well-adjusted kid. Chris played guitar in a garage band, and was deeply affected by the suicide of grunge singer Kurt Cobain, and how he had devoted a creative writing project to the subject of suicide. A friend of Chris’ said: “He was kind of death-happy. Not sad, but more like, ‘The other side is gonna be so much more fun.’ More like, ‘I can’t wait to die.'” On Saturday, March 16, Heidi swiped the keys to her mom’s white Plymouth Horizon, sneaked out and met Chris in San Pedro. Late that night, Heidi and Chris hiked 100 feet down a rugged path, then ducked through a hole in the chain-link fence to get to a narrow concrete spillway known as “the diving board.” On the ledge, they set down a blue cigarette lighter, and cigarette butts arranged in an arrow point to the sea, which lay 150 feet below. Then they both jumped to their deaths. Chris and Heidi were both deceived into thinking that death could be their friend, but the moment they passed into eternity, they would have given anything to go back to the world where they could repent and get right with God.
c. We have made lies our refuge: This is their strength! This is their protection! What slender confidence!
i. In his sermon titled Refuges of Lies and What Will Become Of Them, Charles Spurgeon lists six lies that men try to take refuge in: 1. The lie that we are, or can be good enough. 2. The lie that fate or predestination determines all, so there is nothing for us to do. 3. The lie that places confidence in new, false teachings. 4. The lie that religious profession is enough. 5. The lie that one can have a saved soul and an unchanged life. 6. The lie that trusts an old experience instead of an ongoing relationship.
4. (16-19) The security of the Messiah and the precarious place of sinners.
Therefore thus says the Lord God: “Behold, I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation, a tried stone, a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation; whoever believes will not act hastily. Also I will make justice the measuring line, and righteousness the plummet; the hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters will overflow the hiding place. Your covenant with death will be annulled, and your agreement with Sheol will not stand; when the overflowing scourge passes through, then you will be trampled down by it. As often as it goes out it will take you; for morning by morning it will pass over, and by day and by night; it will be a terror just to understand the report.”
a. Behold, I lay in Zion a stone for a foundation: In contrast to the weak, narrow foundation of the wicked (we have made lies our refuge, and under falsehood we have hidden ourselves), God has a solid foundation for our lives – a stone for a foundation.
i. What is this foundation? 1 Peter 2:6 applies this passage directly to the Messiah, Jesus Christ. He is the foundation for our lives, and only with a secure, stable foundation can anything lasting be built. Anything “added on” to the house, not built upon the foundation, is sure to end up in wreckage.
ii. Who lays this stone? Behold, I lay in Zion. It is God’s work. We are unable to provide the right kind of foundation for our lives, but God can lay a foundation for us. We are asked to behold God’s foundation, appreciate it, wonder at it, value it, and build our lives upon it.
b. A tried stone: Our Messiah was tried, was tested, and was proven to be the glorious, obedient Son of God in all things.
c. A precious cornerstone: Our Messiah is precious, and a cornerstone. The cornerstone provides the lines, the pattern for all the rest of the construction. The cornerstone is straight and true, and everything in the entire building lines up in reference to the cornerstone.
d. A sure foundation: Our Messiah is a sure foundation, and we can build everything on Him without fear.
e. Justice the measuring line, and righteousness the plummet: In God’s building, it isn’t just as if He establishes the cornerstone and then walks away and allows the building to be built any way it pleases. Instead, He keeps the building straight with justice and righteousness.
f. The hail will sweep away the refuge of lies, and the waters will overflow the hiding place: The ungodly leaders of Jerusalem made lies their refuge, and found a hiding place under falsehood (Isaiah 28:15). But the storms of life and God’s judgment would sweep away their refuge of lies and their hiding place. They had built on the wrong foundation, and would therefore see destruction.
g. Your covenant with death will be annulled: The ungodly leaders of Jerusalem thought they made a “deal with death,” but will find that God will annul their covenant with death. When His scourge of judgment comes, they will surely be trampled down by it.
i. And the scourge of judgment will not touch them lightly. Morning by morning and by day and by night they will feel the sting of God’s correction.
5. (20-22) Advice to those ripe for judgment.
For the bed is too short to stretch out on, and the covering so narrow that one cannot wrap himself in it. For the Lord will rise up as at Mount Perazim, He will be angry as in the Valley of Gibeon; that He may do His work, His awesome work, and bring to pass His act, His unusual act. Now therefore, do not be mockers, lest your bonds be made strong; for I have heard from the Lord God of hosts, a destruction determined even upon the whole earth.
a. The bed is too short . . . the covering so narrow: The rulers of Jerusalem had to realize that their present place was precarious, and they could find no refuge where they were at right then.
i. Their rejection of God gave them no peace, no rest, and no warmth. What can be worse than trying to sleep in a bed that is too short? With trying to keep warm with something so narrow that he cannot wrap himself in it? Yet this is a picture of the world, working, striving, longing for their bed – and when they gain it, it is too short and has no proper blankets! The child of God, on the other hand, is given rest and peace and covering by Jesus Christ. We shouldn’t long for the short beds and narrow coverings of the world; we should thank God for the place He gives us in Jesus Christ and enjoy it!
b. For the Lord will rise up: The rulers of Jerusalem had to realize that fighting against God was always a losing proposition. There was no way they could win that battle, because God would always do His work, His awesome work.
c. At Perazim, the Lord accomplished a great victory for Israel in the days of David (2 Samuel 5:20). At Gibeon, the Lord accomplished a great victory for Israel in the days of Joshua (Joshua 10:11). In those cases, the Lord fought for Israel, but if her leaders did not repent, they would soon find the Lord fighting against Israel. This use of God’s strength against His people is surely His awesome work, or as the King James Version puts it, His strange work.
d. Now therefore, do not be mockers: The rulers of Jerusalem had to realize the danger of mocking God with their “deals with death” and haughty words against God.
6. (23-29) The timing of the farmer and the timing of God.
Give ear and hear my voice, listen and hear my speech. Does the plowman keep plowing all day to sow? Does he keep turning his soil and breaking the clods? When he has leveled its surface, does he not sow the black cummin and scatter the cummin, plant the wheat in rows, the barley in the appointed place, and the spelt in its place? For He instructs him in right judgment, his God teaches him. For the black cummin is not threshed with a threshing sledge, nor is a cartwheel rolled over the cummin; but the black cummin is beaten out with a stick, and the cummin with a rod. Bread flour must be ground; therefore he does not thresh it forever, break it with his cartwheel, or crush it with his horsemen. This also comes from the Lord of hosts, who is wonderful in counsel and excellent in guidance.
a. Give ear and hear my voice: The rulers of Jerusalem had to listen to God’s word, and pay attention to His voice.
b. Does the plowman keep plowing all day to sow? The end of Isaiah 28 is a poem relating the work of God to the work of a farmer. A farmer doesn’t only plow; he knows when to stop plowing and when to level the ground, when to plant, and what to plant where. He uses different tools at different times, and works them all together to produce crops. In the same way, God knows what instruments to use in our life, and what time to use them. We don’t have to doubt or despair at what God is doing in our lives, because He is an expert farmer, working on us with all His wisdom.
i. “He used the proper instrument and procedure at the proper time to accomplish His purposes among His stubborn people.” (Wolf)
c. Who is wonderful in counsel and excellent in guidance: The phrase wonderful in counsel is the same words used to describe the Messiah in Isaiah 9:6 (Wonderful Counselor). It reminds us of the perfect timing and wisdom of God’s work in our lives.
© 2001 David Guzik – No distribution beyond personal use without permission