5 Woe to Assyria, the rod of my anger;
the staff in their hands is my fury!
6 Against a godless nation I send him,
and against the people of my wrath I command him,
to take spoil and seize plunder,
and to tread them down like the mire of the streets.
7 But he does not so intend,
and his heart does not so think;
but it is in his heart to destroy,
and to cut off nations not a few;
8 for he says:
“Are not my commanders all kings?
9 Is not Calno like Carchemish?
Is not Hamath like Arpad?
Is not Samaria like Damascus?
10 As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols,
whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria,
11 shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols
as I have done to Samaria and her images?”
12 When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes. 13 For he says:
“By the strength of my hand I have done it,
and by my wisdom, for I have understanding;
I remove the boundaries of peoples,
and plunder their treasures;
like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones.
14 My hand has found like a nest
the wealth of the peoples;
and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken,
so I have gathered all the earth;
and there was none that moved a wing
or opened the mouth or chirped.”
15 Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it,
or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it?
As if a rod should wield him who lifts it,
or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood!
16 Therefore the Lord God of hosts
will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors,
and under his glory a burning will be kindled,
like the burning of fire.
17 The light of Israel will become a fire,
and his Holy One a flame,
and it will burn and devour
his thorns and briers in one day.
18 The glory of his forest and of his fruitful land
the Lord will destroy, both soul and body,
and it will be as when a sick man wastes away.
19 The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few
that a child can write them down. – Isaiah 10:5-19 ESV
God’s ways are not our ways. His actions are not always understandable by us. In fact, there are times when, from our vantage point, the ways of God appear unjust or unfair. We can read many of the accounts recorded in Scripture and wonder how a loving God can act so harshly, even to His own people. When confronted with stories like the flood that wiped out an entire generation of people, we can end up questioning His goodness. And, of course, His command to the people of Israel to eliminate all the nations occupying the land of Canaan is particularly difficult for us to reconcile with our belief in an all-loving and merciful God.
And, as today’s passage so clearly portrays, there were times when God used the pagan nations to punish His chosen people, then turned around and punished the very ones He used for their actions. It sounds so capricious and temperamental. God comes across more as a tyrant than a loving and gracious sovereign. But our perspective is limited by our vantage point. We see things only from our earth-bound and man-focused point of view. So, we must be careful in judging God or indicting Him based on a limited understanding of His will or His ways. As Moses so eloquently and accurately stated:
He is the Rock; his deeds are perfect. Everything he does is just and fair. He is a faithful God who does no wrong; how just and upright he is! – Deuteronomy 32:4 NLT
In today’s passage, we find God describing the nation of Assyria as “the rod of my anger” and “a club to express my anger” (Isaiah 10:5 NLT). He will use them to punish Judah, His own chosen people, whom He describes as “a godless nation.” God will utilize Assyria like a workman uses a tool to accomplish a task. He will go on to compare Assyria to an ax or a saw, a rod or a wooden cane. These instruments are lifeless and incapable of accomplishing anything of significance apart from the one who picks them up and puts them to work according to his will.
But God makes it clear that the king of Assyria “will not understand that he is my tool; his mind does not work that way” (Isaiah 10:7 NLT). His own pride and arrogance will not allow him to see himself as an unwilling instrument in the hands of a sovereign God. From his perspective, his actions will be according to his own will. He will attack Judah because he wants to, not because God has sovereignly ordained it.
His plan is simply to destroy,
to cut down nation after nation. – Isaiah 10:7 NLT
He will be doing what he wants to do, unaware that his actions are part of the sovereign will of God. In attacking Judah and Jerusalem, he will be doing what he has always done. He will be following a well-established strategy that had resulted in the defeats of other nations. He will not recognize the hand of God in this victory any more than he had in all the others. In fact, he arrogantly boasts:
So we will defeat Jerusalem and her gods,
just as we destroyed Samaria with hers. – Isaiah 10:11 NLT
Little did the king of Assyria know or understand that his coming victory over Judah would be God’s doing and not his own. His success would be God-ordained, not the result of his own strategic thinking or military might. But that will not be how he sees it.
“By my own powerful arm I have done this.
With my own shrewd wisdom I planned it.
I have broken down the defenses of nations
and carried off their treasures.
I have knocked down their kings like a bull.
I have robbed their nests of riches
and gathered up kingdoms as a farmer gathers eggs.
No one can even flap a wing against me
or utter a peep of protest.” – Isaiah 10:13-14 NLT
And yet, God makes it perfectly clear that, when the Assyrians have completed the task He has set out for them, He will turn His judgment against them. He will punish them for their role in the destruction of His people – even though He is the one who ordained it.
After the Lord has used the king of Assyria to accomplish his purposes on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, he will turn against the king of Assyria and punish him—for he is proud and arrogant. – Isaiah 10:12 NLT
Yes, God would use Assyria to punish godless Judah, but their actions would not be against their will. The king of Assyria, like the people over whom he ruled, would be acting in keeping with his nature. He was proud and arrogant. He was power hungry and convinced of his own invincibility. And God would use the king of Assyria’s pride-filled ambition like a workman wielding a sharpened ax. But unlike a lifeless, inanimate ax, the king of Assyria would boast in his accomplishments, taking full credit for the destruction of Jerusalem. But God points out the absurdity of this kind of arrogance in the face of His sovereign will.
But can the ax boast greater power than the person who uses it?
Is the saw greater than the person who saws?
Can a rod strike unless a hand moves it?
Can a wooden cane walk by itself? – Isaiah 10:15 NLT
And God goes on to describe the ramifications for Assyria’s part in the fall of Judah. God would punish them, not because they did exactly what He ordained them to do, but because they did it joyfully and with no recognition of His hand in it. They acted arrogantly and willingly in all that they did. So, He warns them that their punishment would be severe. He threatens them with a plague among their all-powerful troops. He predicts the destruction of their once-glorious army. As the Holy One and the Light of Israel, He would consume them as easily as fire destroys thorns and briers. The once great nation of Assyria would be destroyed in a single night.
The Lord will consume Assyria’s glory
like a fire consumes a forest in a fruitful land;
it will waste away like sick people in a plague.
Of all that glorious forest, only a few trees will survive—
so few that a child could count them! – Isaiah 10:18-19 NLT
This pattern is repeated all throughout the Scriptures – all the way to the book of Revelation. God will use the Antichrist to bring judgment on the world, then cast him into hell for his efforts. In the end, God will unleash demonic hordes on humanity to torment and kill them. But, after their work is done, God will cast them and Satan into hell for all eternity.
We may not understand the ways of God. We may not even like the ways of God. But as God will point out much later on in the book of Isaiah:
“My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,” says the Lord.
“And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.
For just as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so my ways are higher than your ways
and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9 NLT
His ways are always right and just. His divine will is always perfect and His actions are never in error or motivated by injustice or unrighteousness. That may be difficult for us to comprehend, but our inability to understand God’s ways does not diminish God’s character. Our limited perspective may not allow us to fully grasp the ways of our unlimited, all-powerful God, but rather than question His goodness, we should find comfort in the fact that He is in complete control of any and all things.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.