A small, fractious, religiously dominated country was paying tribute to a rich empire with an advanced military. In a fit of hubris, the oppressed people stopped sending their wagonloads of gold, hoping that a neighboring nation would come to their aid. The empire mobilized its forces and defeated the weak intervening armies of the neighboring nation. It then turned its greedy eyes and vengeful hands on the rebels.
This is a common story, recurring in every age and on every continent. In this case, the rebellious country was Judah, the empire was Assyria, and the intervening nation was Egypt. In 722 BC, the Assyrian king Sargon II invaded Israel, the northern kingdom of the Hebrew people, conquered it, and carried its inhabitants away. He continued south, forcing the remaining Hebrew kingdom, Judah, under King Ahaz, to pay heavy tribute. Ahaz died in 715 BC and his son, Hezekiah, reigned in his stead. In 703 BC, Hezekiah stopped the tribute payments, hoping that Egypt would guarantee Judah’s safety. The new Assyrian king, Sennacherib, invaded Judah, defeated a small Egyptian force, and began reducing the fortress cities of Judah.
Isaiah prophesied in Judah at this time. He warned Hezekiah and the court leaders about the rebellion, but once they had defied Assyria, Isaiah told them the outcome. If they would trust in God, rather than trusting in Egypt, their land would be abased, but Jerusalem and ultimately the nation would be saved (Isaiah 29-31). God Himself would destroy the Assyrians. Nonetheless, faced with the terrifying political situation, and probably a chorus of false prophets promising freedom, safety, and prosperity under Egyptian protection, Hezekiah made the alliance. Isaiah rebuked the leaders, but then turned his wrath against the upper class and even the commoners in Jewish society (Isaiah 32).
Many commentators have considered Isaiah 32 to be Messianic, describing the future kingdom of God under the direct rule of Jesus Christ. While true, it also illustrates the rule of just kings, just leaders, and the actions of just men wherever they may be found. Isaiah promised good leaders to the Hebrew people, and Hezekiah himself would dramatically improve when he chose to repent and follow God.
Few today are absolute rulers, and not many are presidents, prime ministers, generals, or chief executive officers. Nonetheless this passage applies to us all, because every manager, teacher, coach, pastor, and parent can become a better leader by pondering these words.
The good leader leads with righteousness and justice. The glory and enjoyment of God is his goal, and he intentionally aligns his life to these ends. He believes in the objective existence of right and wrong, and places himself under God’s standards. The good leader then provides justice for each person under his authority.
As a result, those who place themselves under the authority of such a leader find themselves protected from the frosty winds of circumstances. They find shelter from the storms of life, which buffet them with troubles, swamp their lives with confusion and fear, and ultimately sink them into despair and death. Servants of a righteous king will prosper under just rule – intelligence and industry will be fairly rewarded and the rich will not have undue advantage over the poor. Even when hard times do occur, as is inevitable in life, wise and just leadership will scale down the suffering, acting as streams in a dry country and shade in a parched land.
Perceptive people can be blinded by suffering, injustice, or pride. Under a righteous ruler, these people will see. Those who have a special ability to listen to the cries of the poor, the threats of enemies, and voice of God can become deaf from apathy, injury, or anger. Under a righteous ruler, these people will hear. Citizens with a penetrating mind that solves mysteries, and those with a golden tongue that lightens the heart and sooths the soul, will find themselves fully able to use their gifts for the glory of God and the benefit of Man. Even more, those with weak minds will become stronger and those with stammering tongues will become fluent.
Aside from Jesus Christ, there is no perfect ruler. No man will completely fulfill all of these promises, and every man will fail at times from omission and commission. Nonetheless, Isaiah’s description of just rule is not just the goal but is the standard for every leader. To paraphrase Vince Lombardi, we pursue perfection, knowing that in the pursuit we will gain excellence.
The Hebrew words that Isaiah uses, “fool” and “rogue”, are closely related and may refer in this passage to the same person. While the ruling classes of Judah had a few good men, many were evil, giving bad counsel to the king and more concerned with their own success than with the welfare of their nation or the glory of God. They warped words, calling the fool “noble” and the rogue “generous”.
What was true in ancient Judah is no less true today. A philandering president defends himself by asking “what the definition of is is” while a major presidential candidate compromises US national security for the sake of her own political ambition. Legislators force people of different biological sexes to share bathrooms, and “tolerant” colleges cannot tolerate anyone who opposes their neo-Marxist (materialist, collectivist, atheist, and violent) agenda. Advertisers tell us that we “deserve” everything that our heart desires, and philosophers tell us that we as humans are the measure of morality and the judge of all things. Even as the serpent in the Garden, the fool thinks that he is god, and that we are too.
As a result, the fool spends his time arguing rather than working, and protesting instead of serving. He is too busy “fighting for the rights of others” that he has no time to give a piece of bread to the starving, or a moment of comfort to the dying. The fool’s attractive but vapid arguments glorify himself, and yet defraud the poor and oppressed that he claims to love.
The rogue is either the same person as the fool, or someone worse. His weapons are physical, mental, and spiritual, and he uses them for evil. Not satisfied with afflicting the underprivileged passively and by omission, the rogue preys on the unfortunate, actively and by commission. Modern rogues manipulate the stock market, traffic in sex slaves, and swindle the elderly. Then they use unscrupulous lawyers to defend their wicked ways with fine sounding arguments. In the modern USA as in ancient Israel, rogues fear neither God nor man, and will face a bitter reckoning.
The majority of Israelites in Isaiah’s day were neither kings nor rogues; they were average people living day to day, just like most of those in modern America. While Isaiah dedicated only three verses to the fool and the rogue, he dedicated six verses to rebuke these people, because in the pursuit of their interests, they had become “the complacent.” Isaiah specifically addressed his accusations to women, but in Israel some men fit this description and in the West many men do. Unlike in many other passages, the prophet predicted precisely when this judgment would begin, “within a year and a few days.”
Society as they knew it would be crippled. Crops would fail, and wine production would cease. Thorns and briars would replace grain and other food crops. Joy would flee from houses and villages. The structure of society would collapse, and the governing authorities would be taken away (“palace abandoned”). Disorder would prevail, and no one would remain to make and enforce laws, build and maintain public works, and judge between conflicting parties. Without a functional society, people would scatter, and the population centers would be vacant. Goats and donkeys would enjoy the ruins of former places built to defend a proud nation. The women of Judah, used to prosperity, beauty, and security, would mourn.
What does this mean for people in 2017? The Western world remains powerful, rich, and complacent. Ruling classes in every other continent are the same. We believe that nothing really bad will ever happen to our societies, and we will continue to pursue personal peace and affluence forever. Meanwhile, we forget the poor, oppress those unlike us, and spit on the face of God. In our self-imposed ignorance and intentional blindness, we neglect those who God supports.
In Isaiah 29-32, the Prophet Isaiah told the Hebrews how to handle the coming national catastrophe. His people did not listen. The Assyrians under Sennacherib conquered Lachish, the key Israelite fortress city, and reduced most of the rest of the country to ashes. The Egyptian expeditionary force fought an inconclusive battle against Assyria and then withdrew, leaving the Jews to their fate. The Assyrians camped in a stranglehold around Jerusalem. Only after everything else failed did Judah heed his voice. Hezekiah, his court, and the people repented and threw themselves on the mercy and protection of God. Finally, the Lord intervened to destroy Sennacherib’s army, probably by means of an infectious disease like Anthrax. The Assyrians withdrew and Jerusalem was saved.
Isaiah’s words apply to everyone in the modern world. Every society is composed of the Good, the Bad, and especially the Complacent. Every society also faces the judgment of God for oppressing the poor, the widow, and the orphan. Every individual faces the decision of who they want to be – Good, Bad, or Complacent. Those who reject the Source of Light, Love, Beauty, and everything else that is good in the universe will get their wish – living an eternity without light, love, beauty, and everything else that is good in the universe.