Criswell Theological Review 6.2 (1993) 237-253

[Copyright © 1993 by Criswell College, cited with permission;

digitally prepared for use at Gordon and Criswell Colleges and elsewhere]










Dallas Theological Seminary

Dallas, TX 75204



Isaiah 24-27 often referred to as Isaiah's "Apocalypse,"1 brings to cul-

mination the judgment oracles against the nations recorded in chaps.

13-23. In this Apocalypse the prophet describes God's devastating

universal judgment which reverses creation and reduces the world to

chaos. Ironically, he associates this judgment with the subduing of

chaos and the establishment of God's kingdom on Mount Zion.

Isaiah 24 describes this coming judgment in particularly vivid de-

tail. According to v 5, the earth's inhabitants have "disobeyed the laws,

violated the statutes, and broken the everlasting covenant.”2 This "re-

bellion" (v 20) prompts God to implement against them the covenantal

"curse" (v 6), which in typical fashion brings with it widespread infer-

tility and sorrow (vv 4, 7-11).3 The judgment, which is accompanied by

a torrential downpour reminiscent of the Noahic flood and by an

earthquake which rocks the earth to its very core (vv 18b-19), brings


1 Scholars have debated the precise genre of these chapters, an issue which is be-

yond the scope of this study. For discussions of this subject, see, among others, W. R

Millar, Isaiah 24-27 and the Origin of Apocalyptic (HSM 11; Missoula: Scholars, 1976)

1-9,114-15; J. N. Oswalt, "Recent Studies in Old Testament Eschatology and Apocalyp-

tic," JETS 24 (1981) 294-98; and R Youngblood, "A Holistic Typology of Prophecy and

Apocalyptic," Israel's Apostasy and Restoration (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988) 216-18.

2 Unless otherwise indicated, all biblical quotations are from the New Interna-

tional Version.

3 Agricultural infertility appears in biblical covenantal curse lists (cf. Lev 26:20;

Deut 28:17-18, 22-23, 38-42) and in ancient Near Eastern treaty curses. Examples of the

latter include paragraph 64 of the vassal treaties of Esarhaddon and stele IA of the Ara-

maic Sefire treaty. See. J. Pritchard, ed., Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old

Testament (3d ed.; Princeton, NJ: Princeton University, 1969) 539, 660, respectively.



total (vv 1-3), inescapable (vv 17-18a), and final (v 20b) destruction. In

conjunction with this judgment the prophet anticipates the downfall

of an unidentified city (vv 10-12), which is contrasted with restored

Zion (v 23). In short, this divine judgment at least partially reverses

creation by reducing the earth to a marred (vv 1, 19) and virtually un-

inhabited (v 6) state approximating the unformed and unfilled condi-

tion which prevailed prior to God's creative work (cf. Gen 1:2).4

Two difficult questions face the interpreter of Isaiah 24: (1) What is

the referent of "the everlasting covenant" mentioned in v 5? (2) What is

the identity of the "city of chaos" (v 10, NASB) referred to as the object

of God's judgment? This second question is complicated by the context.

Each of the following chapters (cf. 25:2; 26:5-6;27:10) also mentions a city

which is brought to ruin by divine judgment. Is the same city in view

throughout these chapters, or is more than one referent to be understood?

Scholars have offered a variety of answers to these questions. Re-

alizing that this lack of unanimity might be a signal that the text is

hopelessly opaque to the modern interpreter, I will nevertheless at-

tempt to offer a solution for each of these problems. In the process I

will suggest that recognizing the text's very ambiguity is the key to its

proper interpretation and that Isaiah has utilized the literary devices

of intentional ambiguity and irony for rhetorical purposes.


Proposed Answers to the Questions


The "Everlasting Covenant"

In response to the first question, many interpreters, pointing to

the text's cosmic flavor, identify the "everlasting covenant" as the uni-

versal covenant supposedly made between God and humankind at

creation,5 or as the Noahic covenant of Genesis 9.6 Emphasizing ele-


4 In this regard, it is noteworthy that the city is called UhTo-tyar;qi [qiryat tohu]

(24:10), a phrase which may echo the description of the primeval state of the earth (cf.

Gen 1:2 where the earth is said to be Uhbova Uhto [tohu wabohu], "unformed and unfilled").

Since Isaiah uses UhT rather frequently of things (such as idols) which are empty and

worthless (cf. BDB 1062), the word might characterize the city as rebellious. However, it

is more likely in this context (which focuses on the results of God's intervention, cf.

vv 7-13) that it refers to the devastated condition which overtakes the city following

God's judgment (cf. the use of the word in Isa 34:11).

5 See, for example, E. J. Young, The Book of Isaiah (3 vols.; Grand Rapids: Eerd-

mans, 1965-72) 2.158; W J. Dumbrell, Covenant and Creation (Nashville: Thomas Nel-

son, 1984) 74; and J. N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 1-39 (NICOT; Grand

Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986) 446. While acknowledging that the Noahic covenant may be

the specific referent here, Oswalt notes that the "broader reference is to the implicit

covenant between Creator and creature, in which the Creator promises abundant life in

return for the creature's living according to the norms laid down at Creation.”

6 See, for example, G. B. Gray, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Book

of Isaiah (ICC; Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1912) 411; O. Kaiser, Isaiah 13-39 (Philadelphia:

Robert B. Chisholm, Jr.: THE "EVERLASTING COVENANT”   239


ments in the text which seem to point in direction of Israel, others

see the Sinaitic covenant between God and Israel as the referent.7

Each of these proposals, while attractive in some ways, faces seri-

ous difficulties. Though one might naturally think of a universal cove-

nant between God and humankind as originating at the time of

creation, there is no biblical record of such a covenant.8 On the sur-

face, the Noahic covenant is an attractive option because it is uni-

versal in scope and is actually called a MlAOf tyriB; (beritolam),

everlasting covenant (Gen 9:16).9 However, a structural analysis of

Genesis 9 reveals that the covenant mentioned there is a seemingly

unconditional divine promise which does not appear to be linked

formally to the mandate issued at the beginning of the chapter


Westminster, 1974) 183; J. Vermeylin, Du prophete Isaie a l'apocalyptique (2 vols.; Paris:

J. Cabalda, 1977) 1.353;J. D. W Watts, Isaiah 1-33 (Waco, TX: Word, 1985) 318; W Vogels,

God's Universal Covenant (2d ed; Ottawa: University of Ottawa, 1986) 32; and J. H.

Hayes and S. A Irvine, Isaiah (Nashville: Abingdon, 1987) 300-301.

7 See, for example, W E. March, "A Study of Two Prophetic Compositions in

Isaiah 24:1-27:1" (ThD. dissertation, Union Theological Seminary, NY, 1966) 29-32;

D. Gowan, Eschatology in the Old Testament (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1986) 77; and

D. C. Johnson, From Chaos to Restoration: An Integrative Reading of Isaiah 24-27

(JSOTSupp 61; Sheffield: JSOT, 1988) 27-29.

8 Note that Oswalt refers to this covenant as "implicit" (Isaiah, 446). Dumbrell

(Covenant and Creation, 11- 46, see especially 20-39) proposes that the first biblical ref-

erence to a covenant (Gen 6:18) presupposes an already existing covenant between God

and humankind which originated at creation. Some have seen an allusion to this cove-

nant in Hos 6:7 (cf. NIY; "Like Adam, they have broken the covenant"), but MdAxA [‘adam]

can just as easily be taken as a generic reference to humankind or, better yet, be under-

stood (with a slight emendation of the preposition prefixed to the form in the Hebrew

text) as a place name (note Mw [sam], "there,” in the parallel line). See E. W. Nicholson,

God and His People: Covenant and Theology in the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon,

1986) 180-81. Note also the reservations expressed by Dumbrell, 45-46.

9 The phrase MlAOf tyriB; has several referents in the OT, including: (1) God's prom-

ise to Noah that the earth would never again be destroyed by a flood (Gen 9:16); (2) God's

promise to Abraham of numerous descendants and of the land of Canaan as an eternal

possession (Gen 17:7, 19; cf. l Chr 16:16-17 and Ps 105:9-10); (3) circumcision as a perpet-

ual obligation placed upon Abraham and his descendants to remind them of their rela-

tionship with God (Gen 17:13); (4) Sabbath observance as a perpetual obligation placed

upon Israel (Exod 31:16); (5) the bread of the presence which Israel was perpetually ob-

ligated to place before the Lord on the Sabbath (Lev 24:8); (6) the priests' share of Is-

rael's offerings (Num 18:19); (7) God's promise to Phinehas of a priestly dynasty (Num

25:13); (8) God's promise to David (2 Sam 23:5); and (9) God's eschatological covenant

with Israel (Isa 55:3; 61:8; Jer 32:40; 50:5; Ezek 16:60; 37:26). As this survey demonstrates,

the phrase can refer to a promise or an obligation. This lexical range is consistent with

the conclusion of E. Kutsch, who proposes that tyriB;, rather than meaning "agreement"

("Bund"), refers to an obligation ("Verpflichtung") or obligations, whether taken upon

oneself (as in a pledge or oath), imposed on another, bilaterally accepted, or imposed by

a third party. See Verheissurlg und Gesetz (BZAW 131; Berlin: de Gruyter, 1973) 1-27,

and the helpful summary provided by Nicholson, God and His People, 89-93.



(Gen 9:1-7).10 Furthermore, Isa 54:9 refers to this promise as a uni-

lateral divine oath which God will not violate. Thus the Noahic cove-

nant appears to be different in nature from the "everlasting covenant"

of Isaiah 24, which is clearly an arrangement that can be broken by

humankind and has a curse attached. Finally, the language of v 5 (cf.

troOt [torot], "laws," and qHo [hoq], "statute") might suggest the Sinaitic

covenant is in view here.11 However, this covenant is never specifi-

cally referred to as a MlAOf tyriB;.12 Furthermore, a reference to this

covenant, which was an arrangement strictly between God and Israel,

fits awkwardly in chap. 24, with its cosmic tone and language.13 Even


10 Gen 9:1-17 can be divided into two units. In vv 1-7, which are marked off by an

inclusio (cf. the verbal similarities between vv 1 and 7), God delivers a mandate to Noah

and his sons (and indirectly to their descendants) to reproduce themselves and populate

the earth. He prohibits murder because it runs counter to the mandate to be fruitful and

multiply and, worse yet, is a violation of the divine image present in all men. In vv 8-17

the Lord makes a perpetual covenant with Noah and his descendants. This "covenant"

takes the form of a promise that God will never again destroy the earth by a flood. God

establishes the rainbow as a sign, or guarantee, of the promise.

11 See Johnson, From Chaos to Restoration, 27. The plural troOT almost always re-

fers to the stipulations of the Mosaic Law (cf. Exod 16:28; 18:16, 20; Lev 26:46; Ps 105:45;

Ezek 43:11; 44:5, 24; Dan 9:10). One apparent exception is Gen 26:5, where the Lord

states: "Abraham obeyed me and kept my requirements, my commands, my decrees and

my laws.” In the context of the Abrahamic narrative, the Lord's laws would be the various

commands and obligations which he gave to the patriarch (cf. Gen 12:1; 17:1, 9-14; 22:2).

Rhetorically speaking, it seems as if the author is trying to portray Abraham as a model

for Israel, a lawkeeper par excellence, as it were. The singular qHo (hoq), though some-

times referring to the Mosaic Law (see, for example, Ezra 7:10), has a much broader

range of usage, being used of various human and divine decrees (see, for example, Gen

47:22,26; Exod 15:25; 1 Sam 30:25; Ps 2:7).

12 In response to this objection Johnson (ibid.). points to four texts (Judg 2:1; Ps 111:5,

9; Exod 31:16) where, in his opinion, MlAOf is associated with the Mosaic covenant. How-

ever, it is not certain if Judg 2:1 and Psalm 111 are referring to the Mosaic covenant or

to the Abrahamic promise of the land. In Judg 2:1, just prior to the statement "I will never

break my covenant with you," the Lord recalls that he led his people into the land

promised to the patriarchs. While the reference to the Lord's "precepts" in Ps 111:7

would seem to point in the direction of the Mosaic covenant, v 6, with its mention of the

gift of the land, suggests that vv 5 and 9 may be alluding to the Abrahamic promise.

Exod 31:16 specifically refers to the Sabbath as a perpetually binding "covenant" (or "ob-

ligation") which, as Johnson notes, seems to be a sign of God's relationship with Israel

via the Mosaic covenant Cf. also F. J. Helfmeyer, "tOx," TDOT 1:181-83.

13 Though Cr,x, [‘eres] can sometimes refer to the land of Israel, it has in chap. 24 its

more cosmic and universal sense of "earth" or "world; as the parallelism of vv 4 (where

Cr,x, is parallel to lbeTe [tebel]), 13 (// Mym.ifa [‘ammim], "peoples, nations"), and 18 (//MOrmA,

"heaven") indicates. The word pair Cr,x,/lbeTe clearly designates the earth/world in several

texts (cf. 1 Sam 2:8; 1 Chr 16:30; Job 37:12; Pss 19:4; 24:1; 33:8; 89:11; 90:2; 96:13; 98:9;

Prov 8:26, 31; Isa 14:16-17; 34:1; Jer 10:12; 51:15; Lam 4:12). While the context is not as

obviously universal in the other passages where this word pair appears, such an interpre-

tation still makes adequate, if not excellent, sense in all these texts (cf. Job 18:17-18; 34:13;

Pss 77:18; 97:4; Isa 14:21; 18:3; 26:9, 18; Nah 1:5). Apart from its use with Cr,x,, lbeTe also

Robert B. Chisholm, Jr.: THE "EVERLASTING COVENANT" 241


though Israel's sin can serve as a catalyst or occasion for universal

judgment (cf. Micah 1), the nations are not related to God through the

Sinaitic covenant and cannot be judged on its basis.


The "City of Chaos"

Many scholars prefer to see the "city of chaos" in v 10 as symbolic,

typical, or representative of world power, human society, or ancient

city-state culture.14 Others attempt to identify it with an historical

city,15 such as Jerusalem,16 Babylon, or an unidentified Moabite city.

A Typical or Symbolic City. Several factors favor identifying the

"city of chaos" as a type or symbol of all proud cities which oppose

God's authority and become objects of his judgment. This unnamed city

is described in general, even stereotypical, fashion (24:11-12). It con-

tains houses, streets, and a gate and is characterized by revelry.17 The

city's downfall is closely associated with the universal judgment that re-

verses the creative order (cf. 24:4-13). In fact, the world's inhabitants

seem to be the city's residents. In vv 10-12 the bicolon "all joy turns to

gloom" // "all gaiety is banished from the earth" (v 11bc) appears be-

tween references to the city's demise (cf. vv 10-11a, 12). After the de-

scription of the city's fall, v 13 observes: "So it will be on the earth and

among the nations:" Finally, following the oracles of chaps. 13-23,

which anticipate the downfall of various specific cities, a reference to a

typical or representative city would be appropriate here.

A Specific Foreign City. Despite this rather vague and general

description of the city, certain features of chap. 24 and the following


refers to the world (Pss 9:8; 18:15; 50:12; 93:1; 96:10; 98:7; Isa 13:11; 27:6). According to

L. Stadelmann, lbeTe, though used synonymously with Cr,x,, more particularly designates

"the habitable part of the world.” See The Hebrew Conception of the World (AnBib 39;

Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1970) 130.

14 See, for example, Young, Isaiah, 2:163-64; Kaiser, Isaiah 13-39, 181, 197; R. E.

Clements, Isaiah 1-39 (NCBC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) 202; Watts, Isaiah 1-33,

319; Oswalt, Isaiah, 448; and M. G. Kline, "Death, Leviathan, and the Martyrs: Isaiah

24:1-27:1" (FS G. L Archer; Chicago: Moody, 1986) 240.

15 For surveys of the various views see Millar, Isaiah 24-27, 15-21; and Vermeylin,

Isaie, 351. As Millar observes, three of the proposals involving an historical city (a Mo-

abite city, Babylon, and Jerusalem) merit special attention and will be discussed in the

study which follows.

16 In addition to the sources listed by Millar, see also W. H. Elder, “A Theological-

Historical Study of Isaiah 24-27” (Ph.D. dissertation, Baylor University, 1974) 107-21;

and Johnson (From Chaos to Restoration, 29-35, 59-61, 89-91, 98-99), who identifies the

ruined city of 24:10-12 as Jerusalem, the hostile city of 25:2 and 26:5-6 as Babylon, and

the desolate city of 27:10 as Israel/Samaria and Judah/Jerusalem. Recently Hayes and Ir-

vine (Isaiah, 296) have proposed that the “city" is actually the Assyrian citadel in Jeru-

salem where Assyrian troops were garrisoned.

17 In similar fashion the city is described somewhat generally and stereotypically

in chaps. 25-27. It is fortified (25:2; 27:10) and lofty (26:5) and is characterized by oppres-

sion (26:6).



context suggest that a foreign power or city, such as Moab or Babylon,

is in view.

Primarily on the basis of 25:10-12, some have suggested that Mo-

abite pride and power are the reality behind the imagery. Employing

terminology used elsewhere in chaps. 25-26 of the devastated city, v 12

speaks of Moab's "high fortified walls" (cf. bGaw;mi rcab;mi) [mibsar misgab;

25:12] with hrAUcb; [besura; 25:2] and hbAGW;ni [nisgaba; 26:5]) being

brought down to the dust of the ground (cf. rpAfA-dfa Cr,xAlA cyaG;hi lyPiw;hi Hwahe

[hesah hispil higgiala’ares ‘ad-‘ad-‘apar; 25:12] with hn.Al,yPiw;ya ... HwaHe

rpAfA-dfa hn.Af,yGiya Cr,x,-dfa h.lAyPiw;ya [hesah. . . yaspilenna yaspila ‘ad-‘eres

yaggi’enna ‘ad-‘apar; 26:5]). There are also numerous verbal and the-

matic parallels between 24:7-12 and the earlier Moabite oracle (cf.

16:8-10), both of which describe the cessation of agricultural fertility

and joy.

Others see the "city of chaos" as an allusion to Babylon. The

wider Isaianic context, which emphasizes the fall of Babylon in con-

junction with worldwide divine judgment, suggests Babylon may be

in the background.18 In fact, this section of the prophecy begins with

an oracle against Babylon (cf. 13:1, 19) that includes a description of

universal judgment (13:9-13).

This proposal finds further support if one identifies the "city of

chaos" with the hostile city described in chaps. 25-26 (called in 25:2

"the foreigners' stronghold" (MyrizA NOmr;xa  [‘armon zarim]. Johnson

points out that the hostile city of 25:1-5 is "bitterly hated by the

prophet," embodies "all the anti-godly powers which must be de-

stroyed before the new age could dawn; and has worldwide influ-

ence. He concludes: "From Jewish perspective there was only one city

which would fit this description: Babylon.”19

Finally, chap. 24 may contain echoes of the Babel tradition,20

which would point one in the direction of Babylon as well. Verse 1

warns that God will "scatter" (Cypihe [hepis]) the earth's inhabitants, just

as he did the residents of Babel (cf. Gen 11:4, 8-9). In Isa 24:1, 4 several

verbs describing the earth's downfall contain "b" and "l" sounds in se-

quence (cf. h.qAlObU [uboleqah] "devastate" [v 1], hlAb;xA [‘abela] "dries up"

[v 4], and hlAb;nA [nabela] "withers" [twice in v 4]), echoing the judgment

of Babel (cf. hlAb;nA [nabela] "confuse" [Gen 11:7], lb,BA [babel] "Babel"

[Gen 11:9], and llaBA [balal] "confused" [Gen 11:9]). The reference in

Isa 24:21 to a coalition between heavenly powers and earthly kings


18 See B. Otzen, "Traditions and Structures of Isaiah XXIV-XXVII," VT 24 (1974)


19 From Chaos to Restoration, 59. On Johnson's view of the city in these chapters,

see n. 16 above.

20 See Vermeylin, Isaie, 355.

Robert B. Chisholm, Jr.: THE "EVERLASTING COVENANT"    243


may also reflect the Babel tradition, which records how men arrogantly

tried to build a tower reaching into the heavens (Gen 11:4). For the

third time in Genesis 1-11, God was forced to thwart an unauthorized

attempt to link earth and heaven.21 If the "everlasting covenant" refers

to the Noahic mandate (as will be argued below), this would also favor

seeing the Babel tradition in the background, for the Babel incident

epitomized humankind's attempt to disobey the mandate. God instruc-

ted humankind to multiply and fill the earth as his vice-regents. Instead

they built a city and attempted to construct a tower reaching into the

heavens so that they "might make a name" for themselves "and not be

scattered over the face of the earth" (Gen 11:4).22

Jerusalem and/or Samaria. Despite the evidence indicating that

the city is typical and/or foreign, other elements in the text seem to

point toward an Israelite city, such as Samaria or Jerusalem. Johnson

argues that the city of 24:10-12, rather than being the hostile city of

chaps. 25-26, is Jerusalem. In support of his position he offers several

arguments.23 According to Johnson, the lament form of 24:7-12 makes

better sense if the destruction of Jerusalem, rather than a foreign city,

is in view. In chaps. 25-26 the downfall of the hostile city elicits praise,

not lamentation, from the prophet and the covenant community (cf.

25:1-5; 26:1-6). Likewise, the prophet's statement in 24:16b, which in-

dicates that the immediately preceding song of praise (cf. vv 14-16a)

is inappropriate, is best understood if the surrounding context de-

scribes the fall of Jerusalem. Johnson also points to verbal and the-

matic elements which appear to favor his position. There are several

verbal parallels between 24:8-9, which describes the cessation of the

earth's revelry, and 5:11-14, which denounces the carousing of Judah's

wealthy class. Several terms used in chap. 24 are typically or exclu-

sively used in Isaiah 1-39 or prophetic literature of Israel/Judah, in-

cluding lbx, llmx, lbn, Hnx, hmw, and Mvrm. Johnson also suggests that

the phrases Cr,xAhA WOWm; [mesos ha’ares], "gaiety of the earth" (24:11,

NASB), and Cr,xAhA br,q,B; [beqereb ha’ares], "in the midst of the earth"

(24:13, NASB), are examples of double entendre. In the parallel struc-

ture of v 11 (cf. hHAm;Wi [simha], "joy," in the parallel line), WOWm; hlAGA

Cr,xAhA [gala mesos ha’ares], "The gaiety of the earth is banished"

(NASB), appears to refer to the cessation of the earth's joy, but Johnson


21 In Gen 3:5-6 the woman eats the forbidden fruit in an effort to become "like

God,” while Gen 6:1-3 tells how the "sons of God” takes wives from the "daughters of


22 This is the second time in Genesis 1-11 where the building of a city runs

counter to a divine decree. Gen 4:17 tells how Cain built a city in an effort to thwart the

Lord's decree that he would be a restless wanderer (cf. v 12).

23 From Chaos to Restoration, 29-35.



points out that the phrase Cr,xAhA lKA (l) WOWm; [mesos(l) kol-ha’ares], "the

joy of the whole earth," is used elsewhere as an epithet for Jerusalem

(cf. Lam 2:15; Ps 48:3). The phrase Cr,xAhA br,q,B; in parallelism with

Mym.fahA j`OtB; [betok ha’ammim], "among the nations," may simply lo-

cate the sphere of judgment as being "on the earth" (cf. NIV). However,

as Johnson points out, the phrase may refer to Jerusalem as the "mid-

point of the peoples of the world" and the focal point of the judgment

(cf. Ezek 5:5).

Many scholars also propose that an Israelite city is in view in Isa

27:10. This verse, which refers to a "fortified city" that has been re-

duced to ruins, is part of a short song (vv 7-11). As Redditt points out,

the opening verses of the song "deal with Israel and Exile," v 9 "gives

the conditions for God's full pardon of his people," and the following

verses (12-13) "speak of the Diaspora." Redditt concludes: "It is most

natural to assume then that vv 10-11 deal with Israel too.”24 While it

is possible that the text refers to the fortified cities of Israel/Judah in

general,25 many see here an allusion to Samaria or Jerusalem.26 Both

Samaria and Jerusalem are described as fortified cities in the preced-

ing judgment oracles (cf. 17:3 and 22:5, 8-11, respectively), and the lan-

guage of 27:9 parallels that of 17:8 (cf. also 24:13 with 17:6).27


Intentional Ambiguity and Irony in Isaiah 24


As one can see from this survey of viewpoints on both questions,

the text contains universal elements, as well as language which seems

more restrictive and particularly applicable to Israel. Interpreters in-

variably move in one direction or the other in seeking a resolution to

the problems. For example, Wildberger, observing that the Mosaic

and Noahic covenants seem to be intertwined in the prophet's think-

ing, suggests that the prophet reapplied distinctly Israelite traditions

to the nations.28 Johnson, on the other hand, finds the Israelite ele-

ments to be determinative. He concludes that "any universalistic re-

interpretation which is imposed on this material only destroys its

intended particularity.” He adds, "The signposts for Judah and Jerusa-


24 See P: L. Redditt, “Once Again, the City in Isaiah 24-27,” HAR 10 (1986) 332. For

a dissenting opinion, see Oswalt, Isaiah, 497 (though he admits that “the possibility that

Jerusalem is intended cannot be ruled out").

25 A possibility mentioned by Redditt, ibid.; and Clements, Isaiah 1-39, 222.

26 For a survey of these two views and their proponents, see Oswalt, Isaiah 496-

97; and Johnson, From Chaos to Restoration, 88.

27 For a thorough discussion of the lexical support for the respective views, see

Johnson (ibid., 88-91).

28 See H. Wildberger, Jesaja 13-27 (BKAT 10:2; Neukirchen-Vluyn: Neukirchener

Verlag, 1978) 920-22, and Johnson's helpful summary and critique in From Chaos to

Restoration, 43-44.

Robert B. Chisholm, Jr.: THE "EVERLASTING COVENANT"    245


lem may not be forced to point to the entire cosmos.”29 While rec-

ognizing the presence of universal elements, he seems to reduce the

cosmic language to the level of mere hyperbolic flavoring and mythi-

cal imagery.30

Is it possible to move beyond this impasse and satisfactorily har-

monize the universal and particular elements present in the text? In

approaching this problem, one must keep in mind Johnson's warning:

"To be sure, this juxtaposition of the universal and the particular cre-

ates a tension that is not easily resolved. But the text resists resolution

of the tension by the simple elimination of one of the two polarities,31

While recognizing that reinterpretation is a common phenomenon in

the OT32 and that prophetic poetry is at times characterized by a hy-

perbolic and cosmic quality,33 I prefer to give both the text's particular

and universal elements their proper due. Could it be that the text is in-

tentionally ambiguous in places so that one is supposed to see in its

language, including the references to the violation of the everlasting

covenant and to the demise of the city of chaos, the guilt and downfall

of both the nations and God's covenant people? Though some will ac-

cuse me of wanting both to have and eat "my cake," I will attempt to

show that recognizing the text's intentional ambiguity allows one to do

justice to the data of the text and to accommodate more than one theory

as to the identity of the everlasting covenant and the city of chaos.


The “Everlasting Covenant"

The Noahic Mandate. As noted above, the language of chap. 24

definitely suggests that the people of the world (not just Israel) have

violated a covenant.34 This universal indictment is consistent with and

actually rounds out the preceding context (chaps. 13-23), which, after an

introduction threatening universal destruction (13:1-13), announces

judgment on several specific nations.

The covenant in view is patterned after the Mosaic Law and the

ancient Near Eastern suzerain-vassal treaty. According to v 5, the

people "have disobeyed the laws (troOt Urb;fA) [aberu torot]), violated

the statutes (qHo Upl;HA) [halepu hoq]) and broken the everlasting cove-

nant (MlAOf tyriB; Urpehe) [heperu beritolam]).”35 Because of their guilt

(cf. Umw;x;y.,va [wayye’semu], v 6), a "curse" (hlAxA, [‘ala], v 6) has come


29 Ibid., 44.

30 Ibid., 26, 44-47.

31 Ibid., 44.

32 See M Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Oxford University,


33 See R Alter, The Art of Biblical Poetry (New York: Basic Books, 1985) 137-62.

34 See n. 13 above.

35 The precise phrase "break an everlasting covenant" never appears elsewhere

and some regard such a concept as nonsensical. Cf. Wildberger, Jesaja 13-27; 921-22; and



down upon them. The entire earth breaks apart under the weight of

its people's "rebellion" (cf. h.fAw;Pi, [pis’ah] v 20).

The rather general and stereotypical accusatory language fails to

specify the world's crimes, but a parallel passage provides a clue as to

the precise nature of the nations' rebellion. Isa 26:21, which concludes

the preceding salvation oracle (vv 19-20) given in response to Israel's

lament (vv 7-18), indicates that this worldwide judgment is due in part

to the murderous, bloody deeds of the nations.36 By correlating this

passage with chap. 24, one sees that the earth's inhabitants are guilty

of violating a perpetually binding, divinely imposed obligation by un-

justly and violently shedding the blood of other human beings (the

context of Isa 26:21 suggests violations against God's covenant people

may be specifically in mind or at least primary in the author's think-

ing).37 This interpretation also brings into sharper focus the reference

to the earth being "defiled" (hpAn;HA [hanepa]) by its people (cf. 24:5).

While this verb sometimes refers to the defilement caused by idolatry

(viewed as spiritual adultery, Jer 3:2, 9), at other times it describes a

land's being polluted by bloodshed (Num 35:33-34; Ps 106:38 [in this

case, in conjunction with idolatrous worship]).

The only possible biblical referent for this universal, perpetu-

ally binding prohibition against bloodshed is the Noahic mandate


Johnson, From Chaos to Restoration, 28. However, if one understands “covenant" in the

sense of “obligation" (cf. n. 9 above) the problem can be resolved, for an obligation can

be perpetually binding and yet violated at the same time. Gen 17:13 refers to the cove-

nantal sign of circumcision as an ueverlasting covenant" (i.e., perpetually binding obli-

gation), while v 14 warns that those who fail to observe the rite have “broken" God's

covenant (ie., violated this divinely imposed obligation).

36 Note especially hAym,DA-tx, Cr,xAhA htAl.;giv; (wegilleta ha’ares ‘et-dameyha), “the

earth will disclose the blood shed upon her" (26:21), which seems to explain what the

sin (NOfE [‘awon]) mentioned in the previous line entails.

37 Johnson objects to correlating 26:21 with 24:5 (From Chaos to Restoration, 82-

83). He argues that 26:21 is part of a new section which begins at 24:21, points out that

the phrase Cr,xAhA-bweyo (yoseb-ha’ares), “people of the earth" (26:21), need not have the

same referent as the group of people referred to in chap. 24 (his illustration of this point

is the use of lbete ybew;yo [yoseb tebel] in 26:9, 18), and contends that the bloodshed men-

tioned in 26:21 (which refers to the slaughter of Israelites by the nations) does not re-

late to the violation of the covenant referred to in 24:5. However, even when one makes

allowances for the text's structure and acknowledges that words and phrases can indeed

have different referents (whether this is the case with lbete ybew;yo  in 26:9, 18 is highly un-

certain), Johnson's arguments are unconvincing. As noted previously (cf. n. 13 above), the

parallelism between Cr,x, and lbeTe in 24:4 gives the former a universalistic nuance, as in

26:21. Furthermore the verbal and thematic parallels between 26:21 and 24:1-6 are

striking: (1) cf. Cr,xAhA bweyo (26:21) with hAyb,w;yo (ha’ares... yosebeyha; 24:1),

hAyb,w;yo... Cr,xAhA (24:5), ybew;yo ... Cr,x, (24:6), and Cr,x, ybew;yo (24:6), (2) cf. Nvf (26:21) with

24:5.  Finally, even if 26:21 does refer to the slaughter of Israelites, this hardly means that it

cannot relate to the crimes referred to in 24:5. One of the ways in which the nations

violated the prohibition against bloodshed was in their mistreatment of Israel.

Robert B. Chisholm, Jr.: THE "EVERLASTING COVENANT"    247


recorded in Gen 9:1-7. This mandate contains two main elements.

First, God commands Noah and his sons to be fruitful and fill the

earth in the role of vice-regents over his creation (vv 1-3, 7; cf.

Gen 1:26-30). Second, because each human being is in God's image

and rules on his behalf, God prohibits the shedding of human blood

and warns that violations of this principle must be punished by

death (vv 5-6). Murder runs counter to the mandate to fill the earth

and constitutes an attack against the sovereign authority of the

divine owner of the earth. According to Isaiah 24 (and 26:21), the

entire world was guilty of violating this mandate and must be


However, if the Noahic mandate is in view in Isaiah 24, why is

it called the "everlasting covenant"? As noted earlier, Gen 9:16 ap-

plies this phrase to the divine promise appended to, but not formally

linked with, the mandate of Gen 9:1- 7. It is here that Isaiah's pen-

chant for irony must be recognized. It would seem that the prophet

transfers the phrase from the promise to the mandate in order to

emphasize that the promise, no matter how unconditional, does not

exempt humankind from fulfilling the mandate or provide immu-

nity from divine judgment if those obligations are neglected or per-

verted. In other words, the obligation inherent in the mandate is just

as perpetually binding on humankind as the promise is on God. Fur-

thermore, the prophet may also be suggesting that humankind, by

violating the mandate, has, for all intents and purposes, made the

promise ineffectual. Even though the promise guarantees that God

will never again devastate the world to the degree that he did in

Noah's day, God is not beyond severely judging his rebellious world

in a way that resembles the Flood. In short, by giving the phrase

"the everlasting covenant" a new twist, Isaiah is saying that the man-

date is every bit as important as the promise and that violation of

the mandate emasculates the promise of its practical value for


Within this interpretive framework, the statement in Isa 24:18b

(UHTAp;ni MOrm.Ami tOBruxE [‘arubbot mimmarom niptahu], "The floodgates of

the heavens are opened") takes on special significance. As many com-

mentators have observed, the language reflects the Noahic flood tra-

dition, especially Gen 7:11 (cf. UHTAp;ni Myimaw.Aha tBoruxEva [wa’arubbot

hassamayim niptahu], "and the floodgates of the heavens were


38 A brief note on the use of troOT and qHo (cf. 24:5) is in order. The latter's range of

use is so varied that it can easily be applied to the Noahic mandate. troOT, while cer-

tainly reminding one of the Mosaic Law (cf. n. 11 above), refers here to the individual

commands and directives included in the Noahic mandate, just as Gen 26:5 alludes to

the specific divine commands revealed to Abraham.



opened"). The prophet anticipates a judgment which will, to a degree

at least, rival the Flood in its devastating effects.39

The Mosaic Law as an Extension of the Noahic Mandate. Ac-

cording to chaps. 13-23, God's judgment would fall on Israel (cf. 17:3-11)

and Judah/Jerusalem (cf. 22:1-14), as well as the surrounding nations.

Consequently one expects Israel/Judah to be included within the scope

of the accusations and culminating universal judgment of chap. 24. As

noted earlier, one can see the references to laws, statutes, and the

everlasting covenant as pointing to the Mosaic Law. Though never

specifically called an "everlasting covenant,” the Mosaic covenant was

viewed as a perpetually binding set of obligations, and the terms qHo

and especially troOT refer to it elsewhere.40 Therefore, in Israel's/

Judah's case, the language of v 5 seems to point more specifically to the

Mosaic Law rather than the universal Noahic mandate.

Of course, one must not overemphasize the distinctions between

the Mosaic Law and the Noahic mandate. While the Law contained a

variety of regulations pertaining to covenantal life, it also included pro-

hibitions against murder and bloodshed (Exod 20:13; Num 35:6-34).

For Israel, then, this specific legislation was an extension of the earlier

universal mandate.

Isa 24:5, rather than denouncing general disobedience to the Mo-

saic Law, probably refers more specifically to Israel's/Judah's viola-

tions of these Mosaic prohibitions against murder (cf. Exod 20:13;

Num 35:6-34). At least two factors favor this more restricted referent.

First, as noted earlier, a comparison of 24:5 (note especially the use of

JnH [hnp], "defile") with 26:21 suggests that bloodshed was the primary

way in which the nations violated the Noahic mandate. In this regard,

it is noteworthy that the Mosaic Law (Num 35:33-34), like Isa 24:5/

26:21, views bloodshed as defiling the land. Second, the early chapters

of Isaiah denounce the murderous deeds of God's covenant people.41

In 1:15 the Lord refuses to accept the prayers of his hypocritical

people because their hands "are full of blood" (MymiDA [damim], a refer-

ence to their unjust and oppressive deeds, cf. vv 16-17). In 1:21 the

prophet laments that Jerusalem, once a center for justice, is now filled

with "murderers" (MyHic.;ram; [merassehim]). In 4:4 the Lord announces

that he will "cleanse the bloodstains from Jerusalem (MilawAUry; ymeD; [deme

yerusalayim]) by a spirit of judgment and a spirit of fire.”


39 In similar fashion Zephaniah describes the judgment of the Lord's day in terms

reminiscent of the Noahic flood (cf. Zeph 1:2-3 with Gen 6:7; 7:4, 23).

40 See nn. 11-12 above.

41 M. A Sweeney has established that there are several verbal/thematic parallels

between the early chapters of the book and the Apocalypse. See "Textual Citations in

Isaiah 24-27: Toward an Understanding of the Redactional Functions of Chapters 24-27

in the Book of Isaiah," JBL 107 (1988) 42-43, 45-50.

Robert B. Chisholm, Jr.: THE "EVERLASTING COVENANT"    249


Summary. The language of Isa 24:5, including the reference to

the "everlasting covenant," is intentionally ambiguous and flexible

enough to accommodate a dual referent. In the universal context of

chaps. 13-24, the language refers to the nations' violation of the Noa-

hic mandate, which is ironically called the "everlasting covenant" (the

label applied in Gen 9:16 to the Noahic promise appended to the man-

date) in order to emphasize its perpetually binding status and the se-

vere consequences of disobeying it. At the same time, the universal

judgment portrayed in these chapters includes Israel and Judah. For

Isaiah's Israelite/Judahite audience the language of 24:5 points more

specifically to the covenant community's violations of Mosaic prohibi-

tions against bloodshed, legislation which can be viewed as an exten-

sion of the Noahic mandate.42


The "City of Chaos"

Our earlier survey of evidence and views (cf. pp. 241-44 above)

would seem to preclude a consistent identification of the city in Isaiah

24-27. While the description of the seemingly representative world

city in 24:10-12 is stereotypical and general, certain features of the

chapter remind one of Babylon (or at least Babel) and Jerusalem. The

hostile city of 25:2 and 26:5-6 is clearly foreign (being specifically

associated with Moab and reminding one of Babylon in many ways),

while the fortified city of 27:10 appears to represent Israelite/Juda-

hite cities in general or a specific city such as Samaria or Jerusalem.

The most satisfactory way to harmonize this seemingly confused

picture is to recognize once again Isaiah's use of intentional ambiguity.

Isaiah has purposefully described the "city of chaos" in chap. 24 in gen-

eral, stereotypical terms so that it might function in a representative or

symbolic sense and, at the same time, encompass its various specific

manifestations (cf. chaps. 13-23). For reasons stated above (cf. p. 241),

the city of 24:10-12 must be recognized as typical or representative of

all world cities that oppose God. Since Babel was the first such rebel-

lious city in biblical history, the echoes of the Babel tradition in chap.

24 (cf. pp. 242-43 above) come as no surprise. In the wider context of

the book of Isaiah, the allusions to Babel naturally make one think of


42 Isaiah's use of ambiguous covenantal terminology in 24:5 is similar to Amos's

use of the term fwp) [ps], “rebellious deed,” in his oracles against the nations (chaps. 1-

2). Amos uses the term to describe each nation's covenantal violations, even though

different covenants are in view. The six foreign nations broke an unspecified universal

covenant, while Judah and Israel violated the Mosaic Law. (An analysis of the foreign

nations' crimes suggests that the Noahic mandate is the broken covenant. The nations'

sins, which include murder, slave trade, and desecration of a royal tomb, all violate the

mandate, literally or in principle, by showing disrespect for human life and for God's

image in other human beings.)



the Babylonian empire, the demise of which is prophesied in this sec-

tion of the book (cf. chaps. 13-14, 21) and in chaps. 40ff. Certain fea-

tures 9f the text also suggest Jerusalem may be in the background (cf.

pp. 243-44 above). Ironically Zion, the dwelling place of God, had

become one of the rebellious cities of the world and would be sub-

jected, like ancient Babel and its contemporary counterpart (Babylon),

to divine judgment.

The portrayal of the city in chaps. 25-27, rather than confusing

the issue, is an outgrowth of the way it is depicted in chap. 24. In 25:2

and 26:5-6 specific foreign manifestations of the typically rebellious

city (viz. Moab and probably Babylon as well, cf. pp. 242-43 above)

come to the forefront, while specific Israelite/Judahite manifestations

of the city come into focus in 27:10 (cf. pp. 243-44 above).

To summarize, Isaiah utilizes intentional ambiguity in his de-

scription of the "city of chaos.” The universal, generalized language

draws attention to the common character of the destiny of the rebel-

lious cities/powers of the world, while at the same time making it

possible to see behind the imagery any number of specific cities that

epitomize such rebellion. The description of the city is accompanied

in chap. 24 by allusions to specific cities and is more directly associ-

ated in chaps. 25-27 with tangible historical manifestations of this

city. Recognizing Isaiah's use of ambiguity allows one to harmonize

the various passages referring to a city while preserving differences

in emphasis and focus.

Because Johnson builds such an impressive, well-reasoned case

for Jerusalem being the exclusive referent of the "city of chaos" in

24:10-12 (cf. pp. 243-44 above), a critique of his arguments is in or-

der. In my opinion Johnson has demonstrated that Jerusalem is al-

luded to in chap. 24 and stands behind the prophet's imagery. (This

should come as no surprise, given the prophet's denunciation of the

city in the earlier chapters of the book and his love of irony.) How-

ever, the evidence does not demand that it be the sole referent.

The lament form of 24:7-13 does not necessarily mean the de-

struction of Jerusalem is in view, for in chaps. 15-16 Isaiah dramati-

cally laments the fall of Moab. In 15:5 he declares, “My heart cries out

over Moab," while in 16:9a, 11 the prophet, identifying with God

(cf. v 10), states: "So I weep, as Jazer weeps, for the vines of Sibmah.

O Heshbon, O Elealeh, I drench you with tears! . . . My heart laments

for Moab like a harp, my inmost being for Kir Hareseth.”43 The

change in the prophet's attitude exhibited in 25:1-5, rather than re-


43 Similarly in 21:3-4 the vision of Babylon's fall has a severe emotional and

physical effect on the prophet.

Robert B. Chisholm, Jr.: THE "EVERLASTING COVENANT"    251


flecting a change in the referent of the city (from Jerusalem to Baby-

lon), is better explained in light of 24:23, which tells how the

terrifying universal judgment lamented in 24:1-22 gives way to God's

rule from Mount Zion. Once the ultimate purpose of divine punish-

ment is realized and the smoke of judgment has cleared, the prophet

can cease lamenting and declare God's praise.

The sequence in 24:14-16 can be explained along similar lines.

In response to the news of divine judgment (24:1-13), an unspecified

group sings out in praise of God (24:14-16a). However, the prophet

does not yet share their enthusiasm and positive outlook, for he knows

that conditions on the earth necessitate a reversal of creation and re-

turn to chaos (24:16b-20).44

The antecedent of the pronoun hm.Ahe (hemma [24:14]) is unclear.

Perhaps the speakers are mere dramatis personae, whose function is

to serve as a foil to the prophet and thereby highlight the severity of

the judgment.45 A time will come for the world to celebrate the com-

ing of God's kingdom (cf. 25:6-9), but before that time arrives and the

devastating judgment is concluded, such celebration is inappropriate

and premature. More specifically, the referent could be the remnant

of the nations which survives the first wave of judgment (24:13b com-

pares this remnant to the grapes left on the vine after the harvest). In

this case the prophet makes the point that such celebration is prema-

ture because almost total destruction is still to come and no one is yet

"out of the woods." If Israelites are included within this group, then

the prophet's response, in combination with the allusions to Jerusa-

lem in the chapter, is a reminder to the covenant community that they

should not rejoice over the fall of the nations for they too will experi-

ence divine judgment.

The linguistic evidence cited by Johnson does not limit the refer-

ent to Jerusalem, though it certainly hints it is in the background.

While the six terms listed by Johnson are characteristically used of Is-

rael/Judah, three of them do appear in the preceding oracles against

the nations (cf. llAm;xu [‘umlal] in 16:8; lbx [‘bl] in 19:8 and hm..Awa

[samma] in 13:9). The cluster of verbal parallels between 5:11-14 and

24:8-9 is striking, but the cessation of revelry theme also appears in

the preceding Moab (cf. 16:8-10, which uses llAm;xu [cf. 24:7], Np,g, [gepen;

cf. 24:7], hHAm;Wi [simha; cf.24:11], Nyiya [yayin; cf.24:9, 11], and tbawA [sabat;

cf. 24:8]) and Tyre (cf. hzAyl.ifa [‘alliza], "revelry," in 23:7 with Myziyl.ifa

[allizim], "revelers," in 24:8) oracles. Furthermore, if one extends the

lexical survey to include the surrounding verses, numerous verbal/


44 See Oswalt, Isaiah, 450, 452.

45 For a similar view, see ibid., 450.



thematic parallels between 24:7-12 and the preceding foreign oracles

are apparent (in addition to the parallels with 16:8-10 and 23:7 cited

above, cf. tOcuH [husot], "streets," in 24:11 and 15:3; hm.Awa, "ruins," in

24:12 and 13:9; and rfawA [sa’ar], "gate: in 24:12 and 14:31).

Finally, Johnson's recognition of double entendre in certain

phrases is consistent with the thesis of this article (that Isaiah's use of

intentional ambiguity makes it possible for one to accommodate vari-

ous interpretive options and do justice to both the text's universal tone

and particularity).




Two major questions face the interpreter of Isaiah 24: (1) What is

the referent of the "everlasting covenant" (24:5)? (2) What is the iden-

tity of the "city of chaos" (24:10)? Scholars have proposed a variety of

answers to both questions with no consensus emerging in either case.

Some emphasize the text's universal setting and language, while oth-

ers point to features of the text which seem to reflect a more particu-

lar Israelite context. The former tend to see the covenant as being

universal in scope (the supposed creation covenant or the Noahic

covenant) and the city as typical or foreign. The latter tend to see the

Mosaic covenant and the city of Jerusalem as the referents of the enig-

matic expressions.

Recognizing the text's very ambiguity (reflected in the variety of

interpretive alternatives that have emerged) is the key to its proper in-

terpretation and the only way to do justice to its diversity. Isaiah inten-

tionally employed ambiguous terminology in order to accommodate

both the text's universal and particular emphases. That chap. 24

should include both the nations and Israel within its frame of refer-

ence is to be expected, given its canonical location and function. The

preceding chapters (13-23) contain oracles against foreign nations and


From the perspective of the nations, the "everlasting covenant" is

the Noahic mandate recorded in Gen 9:1-7. Through their bloody

deeds the nations had violated this mandate which promotes popu-

lation growth and prohibits murder. Ironically Isaiah transfers the

phrase from the unconditional promise of Gen 9:16 to the mandate,

thereby stressing the enduring importance of the mandate and the se-

vere consequences of its being violated. For Israel, which was also

guilty of bloodshed, the "everlasting covenant" would refer primarily

to the Mosaic Law and, more specifically, its legislation prohibiting

murder, which was an extension of the Noahic mandate.

In the universal context of chap. 24, the "city of chaos" represents

all the nations and cities of the world which, like Babel of old and the

Robert B. Chisholm, Jr.: THE "EVERLASTING COVENANT'"   253


powers/cities mentioned in chaps. 13-23, rebel against God's author-

ity. Behind the generalized and stereotypical language and imagery,

one can see specific manifestations of, this symbolic city, including

Babylon, Moab, and Jerusalem, all of which are alluded to or referred

to in chaps. 24-27.





This material is cited with gracious permission from:

            The Criswell College

            4010 Gaston Ave.

            Dallas, TX 75246

Please report any errors to Ted Hildebrandt at: