Criswell Theological Review 6.2 (1993) 237-253
[Copyright © 1993 by
digitally prepared for use at
THE "EVERLASTING COVENANT"
AND THE "CITY OF
AND IRONY IN ISAIAH 24
ROBERT B. CHISHOLM, JR.
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
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
2 Unless otherwise indicated, all biblical quotations are from the New Interna-
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.;
238 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
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.;
mans, 1965-72) 2.158; W J. Dumbrell,
Covenant and Creation (
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 (
Robert B. Chisholm, Jr.: THE "EVERLASTING COVENANT” 239
ments in the text which seem
to point in direction of
see the Sinaitic covenant
between God and
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; (berit ‘olam),
everlasting covenant (Gen ).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
Cabalda, 1977) 1.353;J. D. W
Watts, Isaiah 1-33 (Waco, TX: Word,
God's Universal Covenant (2d ed;
Hayes and S. A
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
C. Johnson, From Chaos to Restoration: An
(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 ) 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 (
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 ); (2) God's
promise to Abraham of numerous descendants and
possession (Gen 17:7, 19; cf. l Chr -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 ); (4) Sabbath observance as a perpetual obligation placed
ligated to place before the Lord on the Sabbath (Lev 24:8); (6) the priests' share of Is-
rael's offerings (Num ); (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
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.
240 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
(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
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 ; , 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
times referring to the Mosaic Law (see, for example, Ezra ), 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
via the Mosaic covenant Cf. also F. J. Helfmeyer, "tOx," TDOT 1:181-83.
13 Though Cr,x, [‘eres] can sometimes refer to the
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 ; 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 ). 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; 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
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
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
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; ; 50:12; 93:1; 96:10; 98:7; Isa ; 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;
14 See, for example, Young, Isaiah, 2:163-64; Kaiser, Isaiah 13-39, 181, 197; R. E.
Isaiah 1-39 (NCBC; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1980) 202;
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
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
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-
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-
242 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
context suggest that a foreign power or city,
is in view.
Primarily on the basis of 25:10-12, some have
abite pride and power are the reality behind the imagery. Employing
terminology used elsewhere in chaps. 25-26 of the devastated city, v 12
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 higgia’ la’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
Others see the "city of chaos" as an
wider Isaianic context,
which emphasizes the fall of
junction with worldwide divine judgment, suggests
in the background.18 In fact, this section of the prophecy begins with
an oracle against
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:
Finally, chap. 24 may contain echoes of the
which would point one in the direction of
warns that God will "scatter" (Cypihe [hepis]) the earth's inhabitants, just
as he did the residents of
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
[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
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
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
the city is typical and/or foreign, other elements in the text seem to
point toward an Israelite city, such as
argues that the city of 24:10-12, rather than being the hostile city of
chaps. 25-26, is
arguments.23 According to Johnson, the lament form of 24:7-12 makes
better sense if the destruction of
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
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
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 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.
244 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
(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
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
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
is possible that the text refers to the fortified cities of Israel/Judah in
general,25 many see here an
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
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
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
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-
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
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 berit ‘olam]).”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
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
246 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
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 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
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 (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.
248 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
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 ; Num 35:6-34).
For Israel, then, this specific legislation was an extension of the earlier
Isa 24:5, rather than
denouncing general disobedience to the
saic Law, probably refers
more specifically to
tions of these Mosaic prohibitions against murder (cf. Exod ;
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
with "murderers" (MyHic.;ram; [merassehim]). In 4:4 the Lord announces
that he will "cleanse the bloodstains from
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
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
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
hostile city of 25:2 and 26:5-6 is clearly foreign (being specifically
while the fortified city of 27:10 appears to represent Israelite/Juda-
hite cities in general or a
specific city such as
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
24 (cf. pp. 242-43 above) come as no surprise. In the wider context of
the book of Isaiah, the allusions to
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
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.)
250 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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
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
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
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
24:10-12 (cf. pp. 243-44 above), a critique of his arguments is in or-
der. In my opinion Johnson
has demonstrated that
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-
cally laments the fall of
(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
change in the prophet's attitude exhibited in 25:1-5, rather than re-
43 Similarly in 21:3-4 the vision of
physical effect on the prophet.
Robert B. Chisholm, Jr.: THE "EVERLASTING COVENANT" 251
flecting a change in the
referent of the city (from
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
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-
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 -14 and
24:8-9 is striking, but the cessation of revelry theme also appears in
cf. 24:7], hHAm;Wi [simha; cf.24:11], Nyiya [yayin; cf.24:9, 11], and tbawA [sabat;
[‘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.
252 CRISWELL THEOLOGICAL REVIEW
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 ).
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
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
covenant and the city of
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
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
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
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
to in chaps. 24-27.
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