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The Isaiah Project: Chapter 10, or, The Sceptre of Assyria

More epic drama from the 8th century BC this week. Translation and essay below, with recordings.

The Vision Isaiah Saw: Chapter 10

The king of Assyria is advancing against the Jewish nation with unstoppable armies. But though he looks omnipotent, he is really just an instrument in God's master plan.

1. Oh, declaimers of worthless decrees, writers of burdensome writing, oh,

2. (Which turn the needy away from arbitration and strip justice away from the poor among my people — so widows are their plunder, and they rob orphans blind),

3. What will you do to meet the day of reckoning and the devastation coming from far away? To whom will you run for help, and where will you leave all that abundance of yours?

4. Nothing left for you but humiliation among the subjugated, and downfall among the slaughtered. In all this his anger doesn’t turn back, and his hand still reaches out.

5. Oh, Assyria, oh, sceptre of my fury — in their hand is the club of my rage.

6. It’s a profane nation I’m sending him against: against the people of my wrath I give him his orders — to plunder for plunder and prey upon prey. To squash them underfoot like mud on the roadside.

7. But he's not picturing it that way; and that’s not how his heart plans it: it’s demolition that’s on his heart, to mow down more than a few nations.

8. Yes, he's saying, ‘aren’t my commanders all kings?

9. Isn’t Calno just like Carchemish? And Hamath like Arpad? Samaria like Damascus?

10. Just as my hand found its way to the kingdoms of the empty gods — there were more statues of them there than in all Jerusalem and Samaria

11. Just as I did to Samaria and their empty gods, won’t I do the same to Jerusalem and her icons?’

12. And it happens as my Master brings an end to everything he’s doing on Mount Zion, and in Jerusalem: ‘now I bring a reckoning upon Assyria’s king for the over-swollen fruit that his arrogant heart bears, and for the high and haughty look in his eyes.

13. Because he said: ‘in the might of my hand I do it, and in my wisdom, because I understand — I remove the boundaries between nations, looting their treasuries, subduing the people living there, like a mighty bull.

14. My hand finds its way to the wealth of vigorous nations as to a bird’s nest: like arms sweeping up eggs left defenseless, so am I, sweeping up the whole earth in my arms, and there’s not so much as a wing fluttering; not a peep from one opened mouth.

15. Does an axe exalt itself over the one who wields it? Does a saw lift itself up above the one who brandishes it? Like a sceptre brandishing the one who picks it up, or a club lifting someone made of more than wood.

16. And so the Master, God of Legions, will send emaciation on his fatcats, and instead of his abundant majesty he’ll kindle kindling like a kindled flame.

17. And it happens: the light of Israel becomes fire; her Sacred One becomes a flame, and it devours. It eats up its thorns and choke-weed in one day.

18. It will engulf, too, the whole abundant thickness of its forests and cornfields from inside out, from soul to skin: like a disease that devours the diseased.

19. Then there’ll be a countable number of trees still left in the forest — a schoolboy could tally them up.

20. It happens On That Day: those stragglers still left in Israel and the refugees of Jacob's house won’t lean on the one who beats them anymore: they’ll lean on God, Israel’s Sacred One, secure in truth.

21. A few stragglers will come back. Jacob’s stragglers will come back to their own god, their Hero God.

22. Yes. Even if your people, Israel, are like sand by the ocean, only a few will still be left to come back there. This obliteration is set in stone — a righteous deluge.

23. It’s all settled and set in stone: my Master, God of Legions, will do it in the core of the whole Earth.

24. Therefore so says my Master, God of Legions: ‘Don’t be afraid of Assyria — people of mine, living on Zion: when he beats you with a club and brandishes his sceptre over you, the way Egypt did,

25. Then just a little moment longer and the indignation against you will be all spent. Then my fury will turn to demolishing them.

26. Then God of Legions rears up against them with a whip, as in the beating he gave Midian on Oreb’s rock. And his sceptre will be over the sea: he’ll lift it up the way Egypt did.

27. It happens On That Day: his burden will be removed from off your shoulder, and his yoke from off your neck: the yoke is torn apart by the strain of your girth.

28. He comes to Aiath; he passes through Migron; in Michmas he stores away his packs.

29. They pass across the pass: ‘there’s lodging for us at Geba.’ Ramah quakes with fear and Gibeath of Shaul scurries away.

30. Call out and holler, daughter of Gallim. Laish — listen! Alas for Anathoth.

31. Madmenah’s men are made nomads, and everyone living in Gebim is on the run.

32. While it’s still day he’ll take his stand in Nob, shake his fist at the mountain, Zion’s daughter, Jerusalem’s hillside.

33. Look: see the Master, God of Legions, hacking splendid foliage off the treetops with a savage strength. See the ones that stand tall hewn down. See their proud height brought low.

34. Then he slices through the forest thickets with an axe. At a champion’s hands, Lebanon will fall.

Isaiah 10 is about the vast machinery of God’s history and the human beings who set its gears in motion. The prophet sees Assyria’s armies sweeping across the Middle East and dominating its territory. Because the kings of Israel have planned out their own grand strategies rather than trusting in God’s, Jerusalem will now be obliterated by the titanic Assyrian empire.

The king of Assyria (perhaps Sargon II at this point)* looks omnipotent. ‘In the might of my hand I do it,’ he boasts, ‘and in my wisdom, because I understand’ (verse 13). This tyrant has subdued town after town (verse 9); he’s forced the rival kings around him to serve as commanders in his army (verse 8); and his legions are marching on towards Jerusalem (verses 28-32).

‘He doth bestride the narrow world / Like a Colossus’ – so wrote William Shakespeare, describing the Roman dictator Julius Caesar (Julius Caesar I.2.142-3). Israel’s leaders could have said the same thing about the kings of Assyria: they seemed like giants with the universe pinned beneath their heels.

But Isaiah declares a very different vision to the Jewish people. For now, he tells them, Assyria’s king seems to be ‘beating you with a club and brandishing his sceptre over you’ (verse 24). But in reality the king is the club, and God’s the one doing the brandishing. Assyria is merely an instrument, the ‘sceptre of God’s fury’ (verse 5). Therefore, Isaiah tells the Jews, hold fast and wait.

‘Because the club in the hands that were beating him down — you shattered them, like back in Midian’ (Isaiah 9:4). Isaiah has already promised that God will send a saviour to debilitate the Jews’ oppressors. Now, in Chapter 10, that promise is reiterated: ‘his burden will be removed from off your shoulder’ (verses 24-27). The king of Assyria thinks that he holds in his hands the weapons of global domination. But in fact he is himself a weapon in the hands of a God who will ultimately liberate his people.

We talk a lot these days about who, if anyone, is playing twelve-dimensional chess — which of our world leaders has international dynamics so in hand that he can plan five moves ahead at all times. In Chapter 10 Isaiah gives a definitive answer to that question: no one. No one is playing twelve-dimensional chess except God, who in his complete understanding of our fragile hearts has minutely orchestrated our interrelations – from the seemingly chance encounters of each day right up to the tectonic shifts of geopolitics.

No one else knows the future, and if they claim to they are mistaken. Win or lose, the kings of Israel and Assyria all made exactly the same mistake: they thought they were operating from a God’s-eye-view. They tried to stand on top of the world, observe the many forces at play, and engineer their own success.

Personally, I find it almost impossible not to do the same. This kind of pride is so engrained into my heart as to be nearly unnoticeable, instinctive – the arrogance of thinking I can name the right outcomes and bring them about. Even in my relatively admirable ambitions, I still find myself plotting the books I’ll write and the places I’ll go ten, twenty years down the line. Telling God what his plan for my life should be.

The alternative which Isaiah offers is harder and easier at once: ‘don’t be afraid’ (verse 24; cf. 7:4). Stand fast, accept your unknowing, and do the next right thing. Our actions are chosen from a ground-level perspective, on the basis of what we can discern here and now through reason, intuition, and prayer.

The bigger job – the job of predicting how our choices and their consequences will ripple outward through the interlocking web of causation which governs history – is not ours. Infuriatingly, mercifully, we are neither asked nor enabled to save the world. We are asked to act courageously in this moment, trusting that God will feed our decisions into his larger calculus.

‘I know the plans I plan for you: plans of good and not of evil’ (Jeremiah 29:11; cf. Isaiah 55:9-11). In our honest efforts to meet the crises before us, as well as in our frequent failure to do so, we are compassed around by the foreknowledge of an all-benevolent God. This God is in control even and especially when it feels impossible: in the might of Assyria, in the downfall of Jerusalem, in the disasters of which it seems no good can come, our ‘champion,’ our peerless God, is bringing his great work of salvation to pass (Isaiah 10:34). Your frailty, my missteps, our blindness, have been factored into that work since before time. God’s success is beyond our power to frustrate and will be better for us than anything our petty intellects could have conceived. Do not be afraid: his will, and not yours, will be done.

Rejoice evermore,


*The historical identity of the king described in this chapter is a matter of difficult scholarly debate; the argument for Sargon II is supported with reference to Assyrian inscriptions, but Sennacherib is a plausible candidate as well. See further M.A. Sweeney, 'Sargon's Threat against Jerusalem in Isaiah 10,27-32' in Biblica 75 (1994), 457-70.