Whilst the 32nd chapter of Isaiah is certainly marching to the beat of the forthcoming invasion of Judea by Sennacherib I believe that the prophet's purpose in the passage is to describe the emotional rather than political aspect of events. Taken as an isolated passage it is quite easy to agree with Clarke regarding Isa 32:9-14 "the desolation of Judea by the Chaldeans appears to be foretold." Indeed I think the statement is true. However I believe that if we look carefully at the primary thrust of the surrounding chapter then we will find a totally different emphasis. Further I believe that in that surrounding context we will find that the passage in question is almost an illustration rather than a simple link in the narration of events.
The context is initially defined by the opening verse: "Behold, a king shall reign in righteousness, and princes shall rule in judgment". This is similar to the passages in Isaiah 28. In that chapter we saw that two different periods were referred to: one under Hezekiah that eventually went wrong and then another under God Himself which is eternal. The question therefore arises: to which of those periods does this chapter relate? The answer is given in Isa 32:19 where we see that hail still comes and cities are still wasted. We see too that fools and misers will still be prevalent. That cannot refer to the millennial kingdom and thus relates back to the time under Hezekiah.
Building upon the opening verses Isa 32:3-8 then reads as if it really belongs in proverbs. We see a period when there will be clarity of vision and attentive ears. The rash will comprehend and the stammerer will speak clearly. Interestingly the subject that will become clear is not God or something heavily theological. Instead the fact that is going to be brought into focus is that nature of the fool and the miser (Isa 32:5).
Isa 32:6-7 then details the actions of these people. They speak foolishness, work iniquity, practice ungodliness and erroneously represent God. The aim of their actions (Isa 32:6) is to keep the hungry hungry and the thirsty parched. In fact we see that these people are not doing this unknowingly but are devising evil plans and that they aim to destroy the poor through lying even though the needy are being honest. This is contrasted with the generous man that plots to help people and who can and does stand by his generosity.
Isa 32:9 then appears to switch subject abruptly. Barnes follows Rosenmuller in stating this is a new prophecy. However the end of the chapter returns to themes of justice, righteousness and even generosity to animals. Keil therefore suggests that Isa 32:9-14 is parabolic. However that ignores the fact that the section contains a clear time indicator and that it appears to be written as a monologue to people present. I think the simplest interpretation is that the chapter is contiguous and that verses 9-14 could be interpreted in the vernacular as 'wake up! - yes I do mean you!'
Isa 32:9 essentially states the above: "Rise up, ye women that are at ease, and hear my voice; ye careless daughters, give ear unto my speech." This is literally a wake-up call. The women are resting easily; oblivious to the harsh political reality in which they were living. It is not true of all cultures and certainly not true of all women within any culture but many women in many cultures live in an environment which is created and defended by men. The women may work diligently and well within that environment but external threat, especially military threat, is usually not their province.
The flaw in the logic above is that it ignores the presence of God. Whilst men may attempt to adapt an environment it is ultimately God that provides it. Further God Himself will adapt that environment dependant upon the behavior of everyone within it. These particular women had become lazy, complacent and I believe foolish and miserly. Therefore God was about to adapt the environment beyond the scope of anything that the men would be able to rectify.
For me one of the most telling portions of this section is the mildness of the latter half of Isa 32:10. It was the vintage that was going to fail. The commentators observe that this gives us a timing clue; the attack would come after the grain harvest. This is true but I think it is an even stronger indicator of where these ladies priorities lay. Losing a year of wine would get their attention more than news of an impending military slaughter. In fact even today I live in a city where news of Macey's closing a branch would be considered more devastating than a hundred soldiers dieing in Iraq.
However the mildness of the introduction is but a telling contrast of the severity of Isa 32:11-13. In fact contrast is possibly the entire précis of these verses. The women that are currently loafing in self indulgent luxury would be stripped and wailing starting in less than two years. The whole environment that they presumed upon was going to be devastated. Everything from the vintage and palace to the fields and the watchtowers was going to be destroyed. I suspect that the exact items named could be analyzed with benefit but I think the scale of the whole is the primary thrust.
We are even told the conditions upon which the devastation will end. When the Spirit is poured out and justice comes. The situation is still not idyllic there will be natural and man-made disasters (Isa 32:19) but the people will be at peace. It is however Isa 32:20 that I believe summarizes the chapter:
Blessed are yet that sow beside all waters, that send forth the feet of the ox and the ass.
Clarke & Barnes see here the cultivation of rice. Keil sees cultivation free from concerns of drought. Either way I suspect that this is a scene that most people then and now would not aspire too! Agriculture in general and rice agriculture in particular is messy, back-breaking work. It is hard to imagine many of the women laid out in their robes upon their couches rejoicing in the thought of a day in the paddy fields. That was a task assigned to the poor. However in God's vision the blessing comes to those out in the fields. Note that even the beasts of burden, the ox and ass, have been allowed to roam freely.
If my interpretation is correct then this portion of prophesy is very challenging. I'm sitting in an air conditioned office and to my right is a huge window that looks over pristine lawns and manicured plant beds. Were this a Thursday then my yard and those of my neighbors would be swarming with groups of people whose name I don't know whose health I don't enquire after that come and do our work for us. The nation's security is maintained in battles I read of by people I've heard of.
Many of these things are beyond my control. My health and strength do not suit me to heavy manual labor or battlefield heroics. However verse 8 can still apply. As I go through the days ahead I can be generous. In fact I can find ways to be generous rather than simply waiting for them to find me. Let us hope that the wake up call that the ladies of Jerusalem ignored will work for us today.