Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel logo

God’s Word for You

Isaiah 30:1-11

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, March 24, 2008

Woe to the Obstinate Nation

When I was a boy, our stairs took a left turn on the third step as you went down. To my brother and me, this was platform just begging to jumped on. If you hit it wrong, the wall was there to stop you. So we jumped almost every time we went down. Mom warned us, “Don’t jump on those stairs!” But our sinful human natures got the better of us—until the day my big brother jumped and broke through that creaky wooden step. I remember seeing him trying to pull his leg out of a hideous gaping crack, as if the stairs were trying to swallow him whole. Although we had been warned many times, we didn’t think that those stairs would ever break. And when they finally did my brother got hurt.

God’s call to Judah is a little bit like my mom’s warnings about the stairs. If Judah jumped to Egypt, they would only get hurt.

30 “Woe to the obstinate children,”
     declares the LORD,
“to those who carry out plans that are not mine,
     forming an alliance, but not by my Spirit,
     heaping sin upon sin;
2 who go down to Egypt
     without consulting me;
who look for help to Pharaoh’s protection,
     to Egypt’s shade for refuge.
3 But Pharaoh’s protection will be to your shame,
     Egypt’s shade will bring you disgrace.
4 Though they have officials in Zoan
     and their envoys have arrived in Hanes,
5 everyone will be put to shame
     because of a people useless to them,
who bring neither help nor advantage,
     but only shame and disgrace.”

In the days of the patriarchs, Egypt had been a place of refuge from famine. But God had made Egypt useful to his people through a man named Zaphenath-Paneah. This man was partial to the Israelites, and gave them special favor. It was through him that the people of Israel were given the land of Goshen, where they lived for four hundred years in the most productive land Egypt had to offer. Without Zaphenath-Paneah, Jacob and his sons would not have survived the great famine. Of course, Zaphenath-Paneah was not the man’s original name. It had been given to him by Pharaoh (Genesis 41:45) when he made him second in command over the whole nation. Zaphenath-Paneah was an Israelite himself. His other name was Joseph.

It was only because God worked through Joseph that Egypt had been useful to Israel. But in Isaiah’s time, people began to see Egypt itself as a place of refuge. Throughout the time of the Assyrian crisis, Israel had the habit of running to Egypt to help, like boys jumping down the steps, thinking that Egypt would always catch their fall. But what Israel never quite noticed was that this never worked. There was no Joseph in Egypt any more. Sometimes the Egyptians came to their aid (and got beat whenever they fought a battle against Assyria), and sometimes they never came at all. Either way, they never helped.

(The cities in this passage might be there for irony. Zoan was one of the places in which the Israelites had been enslaved. Hanes is pronounced with two syllables, HAN ace. This is the only time it’s mentioned in the Bible. It’s probably a city in the Nile Delta, perhaps even an island-city within the Nile itself.)

6 An oracle concerning the animals of the Negev:
Through a land of hardship and distress,
     of lions and lionesses,
     of adders and darting snakes,
the envoys carry their riches on donkeys’ backs,
     their treasures on the humps of camels,
to that unprofitable nation,
     7 to Egypt, whose help is utterly useless.
Therefore I call her
     Rahab the Do-Nothing.

The Negev is the place between Israel and Egypt (Genesis 13:1). Both Abraham (Genesis 20:1) and Isaac (Genesis 24:62) had lived there for a time. The animals here represent the many dangers of just getting to Egypt at all. There were lions as far north as Samaria (2 Kings 17:24) and David might not be speaking figuratively at all when he says, “Roaring lions tearing their prey open their mouths wide against me” (Psalm 22:13). And the Israelites had encountered snakes in the Negev after their battle with the king of Arad (Numbers 21:1-7).

God’s point here is that it wasn’t worth facing these very real dangers to ask for help from a country that would do nothing. They might have the reputation of a great monster (Rahab was a kind of sea monster, Job 26:12), but they were a toothless monster confined to a cage: Rahab the Do-Nothing.

8 Go now, write it on a tablet for them,
     inscribe it on a scroll,
that for the days to come
     it may be an everlasting witness.
9 These are rebellious people, deceitful children,
     children unwilling to listen to the LORD’s instruction.
10 They say to the seers,
     “See no more visions!”
and to the prophets,
     “Give us no more visions of what is right!
Tell us pleasant things,
     prophesy illusions.
11 Leave this way,
     get off this path,
and stop confronting us
     with the Holy One of Israel!” (NIV)

The people wanted the prophets to stop preaching. Paul warned Timothy that “the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths” (2 Timothy 4:3-4). This was nothing new at all.

Many people don’t mind hearing about God as long as they are not personally accused of sinning. It’s easy to go to church on Easter and hear the beautiful resurrection gospel, but it’s never easy to hear about our sins. But avoiding God’s law really avoids his gospel as well. And apart from these basic teachings of God’s word, there is no way to heaven. Anything apart from Christ, who was crucified for our sins, is like running to Egypt for help. Or jumping down the stairs thinking nothing bad will happen. It won’t do any good—and in the end, it will do nothing but harm.

Our God has rescued us from our sins. We turn to him, and keep our eyes fixed on him. His forgiveness is our peace.

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.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.