3. Coming Destruction (5:26–30)

26 He raises a signal flag 1  to a distant nation, 2 

and whistles to it from the ends of the earth,

and behold, speedily, quickly, it comes.

27 There is none faint,

and none stumbles in it.

It is not drowsy,

and it is not sleepy.

28 Its arrows are sharp,

and all its bows are strung.

Its horses’ hooves are thought of as flint,

and its wheels are like the whirlwind.

29 It has a growl like a lionness,

and it roars 3  like the young lions.

It growls and seizes its prey;

it carries it off 4  and there is none to deliver.

30 It will growl over it in that day like the sound of the sea,

and if one looks to the land,

behold, the darkness of distress;

light darkened with its clouds. 5 

As he has detailed the wild grapes (vv. 8–25), so Isaiah has alluded to the coming destruction of the vineyard (vv. 13–17, 24, 25). Now he makes that allusion explicit in a powerful piece of poetry. The wild animals are called and now come to trample the vineyard. They come quickly but also insistently. Those who mocked Isaiah asked for God to hurry his work. Isaiah now assures them that God’s plan is coming to sudden fruition, more sudden than they can imagine. It is likely that he has Assyria in mind here, since Assyria was to ravish almost all of Judah before the eighth century was out, but the impact of the prediction is heightened by its figurative and poetic qualities. 6  For Isaiah at that point, it was not so important to specify who the destroyers would be as it was to indicate the imminent, irresistible, and wholly-to-be-expected nature of what lay ahead. If this segment is excised from its present setting, as many wish to do (see above on 5:25), then ch. 5 and the whole introductory section merely taper off to an ineffectual stopping point. But with these verses in place, the chapter and the section rise to a crescendo of intensity and emphasis that effectively underlines Isaiah’s understanding of Israel’s great need. 7 

26 Isaiah here introduces the theme which will be amplified later (esp. 10:5–34): the nations are but an instrument in the Lord’s hands. The great imperial armies sweeping the world in the ninth to the fifth centuries B.C. were not the shapers of the world’s destiny but were themselves shaped by the One who holds all things (cf. 40:21–24; 45:1–9). It is upon his signal that they rise and move; at his whistle they come out of their hive like bees to do his bidding. (Cf. the remarks of Cyril and Theodoret on the beekeeper’s use of a hiss or whistle; cf. also 7:18; Zech. 10:8.)

27–29 In these verses a succession of terse phrases, which actually begins with v. 26c, lends support to the picture of the rapid and remorseless onslaught of the enemy army. By not expressing the subject at any point, the cadence is shortened so that the feeling is one of quick march. 8  Verses 27 and 28 are chiastic, with v. 27 showing what is not the case, while v. 28 shows what is the case. There is no laggard, stumbling and sleepy. Neither is there anyone half-prepared, with broken sandal-thong or slack equipment belt. Instead, everyone is intent on the task, with arrows sharpened and bow already strung. 9  The horses’ hooves are hard as flint, so they will not break down on the journey, and the chariot wheels are turning so fast that they blur like a whirlwind (66:15; Jer. 4:13). The sound of the onrushing horde is like the roar of a lion at the moment of its spring. Like the lion, once this army has seized its prey and begun to drag it off, there will be no one to deliver Israel from its mouth. 10 

30 The army’s rumble is not only like the lion’s roar, it is also like the steady crash of breakers. This sound would be especially ominous, for the sea was an element about which the Hebrews always felt uneasy (Judg. 5:17; 2 Chr. 20:35–37; Jon. 2:1–9; Rev. 20:13; 21:1). But neither would there be any hope in the land, where they felt more comfortable. There would be only darkness and distress, the light of day being obscured by the clouds of battle.

 

FOOTNOTES
 

 1 nēs, “signal flag,” is a favorite term of Isaiah’s. God will not only raise a flag to call the destroyers (13:2; 18:3; 31:9), he will also raise one to call his children home (11:10, 12; 49:22; 62:10).

 2 Heb. gôyim, “nations,” but succeeding pronouns are singular and Jer. 5:15 shows the same form as gōy mimmerḥāq, suggesting that the plural m on gôyim was displaced from the following word.

 3 1QIsa has yšʾg, “it roars,” in accord with MT Qere (Ketib wešāʾag̱).

 4 plṭ, “to flee away,” is given the meaning “to make secure” in the Hiphil (BDB, p. 812), but perhaps to be understood as “to cause to go away,” thus “drag off.”

 5 Verse 30 is very difficult to interpret. The Hebrew is elliptical and open to several understandings. The opening phrase is “he/it will roar over him/it.” The context would seem to indicate that the army roars over its prey, but it is possible that it is the Lord who roars over the army (cf. Duhm, JPSV). Furthermore, the Masoretic punctuation supports “behold darkness, sorrow and light; it is dark in the clouds,” which is unintelligible. Finally, ʿarîp̱îm, “clouds,” occurs only here in Hebrew but is apparently cognate to Akk. irpatu. The combination of these difficulties has caused some scholars to suggest that a copyist incorporated here at the end of a section some miscellaneous marginal jottings. Cf. P. Skehan, “Some Textual Problems in Isaiah,” CBQ 22 (1960) 47; E. Zolli, “Jes. 5:30,” TZ 6 (1950) 23, 24.

 6 Gray’s comment on whether Assyria was at the end of the earth is telling: “Isaiah is a poet.”

 7 If the present chs. 1–5 are introductory and were put into their present order for that reason (cf. comment on chs. 1–5) then it is possible that materials reminiscent of other, subsequent materials (such as 5:25 is reminiscent of 9:7 [Eng. 8]–10:4) were consciously included here for their introductory function. Cf. P. Ackroyd, “Isaiah I–XII: Presentation of a Prophet,” VTSup 29 (1978) 43 n. 77: “We have to accept that elements, probably of a long poem, have been used deliberately to underline the judgment theme of 5:1–22 and must be interpreted in their present context.”

 8 Verse 28 begins with an ellipsis, lit. “which its arrows …,” the subject of the relative being the army.

 9 Bows were kept unstrung until just before the battle, at which time the bow was bent against the foot (Heb. dāraḵ, “trodden”) and thus strung. These warriors are ready for battle.

 10 Cf. an Egyptian palette depicting a lion eating a man in Views of the Biblical World, ed. B. Mazar (Jerusalem: International Publishing, 1960), III:110. See also the Nimrud ivory, ibid., I:98.