Environmental stewardship and end times in Isaiah 24

Burning waste dump in Peru. Wikimedia Commons

Genesis tells of God creating the earth. Revelation tells us of the tribulation that ends in its replacement with a new earth. In between are many Bible verses about environmental stewardship. Isaiah 24 gives a key reason for the plagues described in Revelation.

Here is the portion most closely related to environmental stewardship (NIV):

See, the Lord is going to lay waste the earth
    and devastate it;
he will ruin its face
    and scatter its inhabitants—
it will be the same
    for priest as for people,
    for the master as for his servant,
    for the mistress as for her servant,
    for seller as for buyer,
    for borrower as for lender,
    for debtor as for creditor.
The earth will be completely laid waste
    and totally plundered.
The Lord has spoken this word.

The earth dries up and withers,
    the world languishes and withers,
    the heavens languish with the earth.
The earth is defiled by its people;
    they have disobeyed the laws,
violated the statutes
    and broken the everlasting covenant.
Therefore a curse consumes the earth;
    its people must bear their guilt.
Therefore earth’s inhabitants are burned up,
    and very few are left.

To what time does this chapter refer?

Poluted stream. Isaiah 24
Polluted stream. Colin Smith via Geograph

The previous eleven chapters of Isaiah make very specific pronouncements about lands well known to Isaiah’s readers. They tell how small nations suffer at the hands of Assyria. And how Assyria and two other major powers, Babylon and Tyre, will likewise fall.

But Isaiah 24 begins a long passage that extends the destruction and suffering worldwide. It has no geographic, historical, or temporal references. 

No time since the flood has seen worldwide destruction. At no time until very recently has it even been possible for anyone to know what is happening everywhere else in the world. 

Now, we know of environmental catastrophes worldwide. Much of the time, human activity either causes them or makes them worse. Isaiah’s warning doesn’t just apply to ancient kingdoms. It applies even more to us.

Some modern environmental threats

Look at just three examples that may not make the daily news cycle:

First, we are cutting down too many trees. Wildfires burn even more. Some people are working very hard to plant millions of new ones. But much of the deforestation comes from wanton criminal activity, including arson. 

If the people who don’t care about the environment destroy trees faster than reforestation efforts can succeed, what happens to the world after the last tree has been cut down?

Burning dump. environmental stewardship
Deforestation by criminals. Daniel Bellinson via Flickr

Second, we are harvesting seafood faster than it can replenish itself. The bycatch––whatever commercial fishing boats get that they don’t intend––also dies. Pollution also kills sea life. What happens to the world after the last fish has been eaten?

Third, insects are disappearing. In particular, honeybees, butterflies, and other pollinators are threatened. What happens to crops after the last honeybee has visited them? 

We hear more about the threat of climate change and nuclear holocaust. Too many people, unfortunately, greet them with irrational hysteria. Do these doomsday threats sound farfetched? Maybe so, but at no other time in history have any of them even been conceivable. Can we take them seriously without panic?

A detailed look at Isaiah 24:1-6

Isaiah says that God himself will lay waste to the earth and devastate it. Verse 1 asserts it in active voice, verse 3 in passive. No one can escape this catastrophe. That’s because everyone caused it. All man-made social distinctions collapse in its wake.

Shrimp bycatch. Isaiah 24
Shrimp bycatch. Wikimedia Commons

We find the first of the distinctions soon after the flood. Genesis 11:1-9 describes how the people who settled Shinar determined to build a city with a tower, “so that we may make a name for ourselves and not be scattered over the fact of the whole earth.”

Shinar first appears in the previous chapter (10:8-12). Nimrod set himself up as a king and invented the city, including Shinar. He must have persuaded people to trust him and not God for protection.

Much of Bible history recount God’s plan to reverse the sinful choices of humans. So in Isaiah 24:1-3, God finishes what he started with the Tower of Babel and scatters people.

Ruining the face of the earth (verse 1) hints at earthquakes––one of the signs of the end Jesus spoke of in Matthew 24:7.

Isaiah 24:4, however, pictures drought. Why such devastation? As verse 5 says, the people of the earth defiled it (or in many translations, polluted it). They––we––disobeyed God. In part, that means we humans have failed to exercise dominion over the earth under  God’s leadership. Instead, we have turned to a selfish domination of the earth’s resources, with serious environmental consequences. 

In Genesis 3:17, God cursed the ground for Adam’s sake. As with all acts of God, it had a redemptive purpose. It was not mere punishment. But as Isaiah 24:6 describes, the curse grows to consume the whole earth.

God promised Noah that he would never again destroy the earth with a flood. But he has other means. He need only let us suffer the consequences of our sinful choices. Isaiah 24 merely sets the stage for the end of the world described in the plagues of Revelation.

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Isaiah: Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries

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