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God’s Word for You

Isaiah 27:1

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, March 3, 2008

Deliverance of Israel

27 In that day,
the LORD will punish with his sword,
     his fierce, great and powerful sword,
Leviathan the gliding serpent,
     Leviathan the coiling serpent;
he will slay the monster of the sea. (NIV)

Since the rest of this part of Isaiah is about God’s judgment on the nations, it’s easy to sea that God would now use the picture of slaying a gigantic sea serpent to show what he means: It doesn’t matter how big and powerful a nation might think it is. God’s judgment reaches out to all people; God’s “mighty hand and outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 7:19) carries his judgment everywhere. For us, this is a reminder of how serious a thing repentance is. We cannot escape God’s wrath, and so we lay ourselves at God’s mercy, confessing our sins, and putting our trust in Jesus alone. Our forgiving God is also “mighty to save” (Zephaniah 3:17). His forgiveness covers over all our guilt; all our sins.

"Destruction of Leviathan". 1865 engraving by Gustave Doré.

So what about this “Leviathan”?

Outside the Bible, Leviathan turns up many times as a gigantic and terrifying sea-serpent. At least since the Middle Ages, Jews have mentioned it in the traditional prayer following the Feast of the Tabernacles (toward the end of September, Lev. 23:34):

May it be your will, Lord our God and God of our forefathers, that just as I have dwelled in this tabernacle (tent), so may I merit in the coming year to dwell in the tabernacle (tent) made of the skin of Leviathan. And next year in Jerusalem.

In the Bible (and this is the important point for us), Leviathan turns up five times. The Greek translation of “Leviathan” is sometimes “huge sea monster” (mega ketos, Job 3:8), sometimes Ethiopian (Psalm 74:14), and sometimes dragon (drakon, Psalm 104:26, Isaiah 27:1).

The Hebrew word is exactly the same as our English word. We call this ‘transliteration’ when we simply use the letters in a foreign word to form the English word. Although the beginning of the word is identical to the spelling of “Levi,” the words are not related. The root word of Leviathan is probably leviyah, “wreath, garland,” (Proverbs 1:9, 4:9) and might refer to the long, curved body of the creature. Some possible suggestions for the meaning include the entire ocean surrounding the earth, a crocodile, a sea creature, or a whale.

For 34 verses, Job 41 describes this creature in vivid language: “Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook or tie down his tongue with a rope? Can you put a cord through his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook?” “Can you fill his hide with harpoons or his head with fishing spears? If you lay a hand on him, you will remember the struggle and never do it again! Any hope of subduing him is false; the mere sight of him is overpowering.” “Who dares open the doors of his mouth, ringed about with his fearsome teeth? His back has rows of shields tightly sealed together; each is so close to the next that no air can pass between. They are joined fast to one another; they cling together and cannot be parted. His snorting throws out flashes of light; his eyes are like the rays of dawn. Firebrands stream from his mouth; sparks of fire shoot out. Smoke pours from his nostrils.”

Leviathan was certainly something to be feared: “May those who curse days curse that day, those who are ready to rouse Leviathan” (Job 3:8). It was an actual creature in the sea: “There the ships go to and fro, and the leviathan, which you formed to frolic there” (Psalm 104:26).

But finally, the main point in the Bible is that, whatever this creature is, it could not be destroyed by man. Only God could tame it or slay it, and so it was used to show God’s power over the world: “It was you who split open the sea by your power; you broke the heads of the monster in the waters. It was you who crushed the heads of Leviathan and gave him as food to the creatures of the desert” (Psalm 74:13-14; also in the Isaiah passage before us).

Although sometimes it was depicted as a real creature, as in Job, and sometimes as a means of talking about the “monstrous” nations that opposed God, the point is always that God is the one who is in control, and we put our faith and our trust in God alone.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

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