From Isaiah 28 through to Isaiah 33, we have a group of chapters all united by a series of woe judgments. They outline the impending Assyrian invasion of Samaria first, followed by Judah second, and highlight God’s determination to save a remnant through faith whilst punishing those who seek to save themselves through their own ingenuity and strength.

The prophet commences with an indictment against Samaria and then turns to address the faithless rulers in Jerusalem. They scoffed at the words of God through the prophet. They characterised it as stammering and incoherent; the ditties of children; the chorus of drunkards (28:11). But God was not to be mocked. Since they refused to learn from a prophet who appealed to them in their own language, He would teach them using invaders whose language they would not understand. Through that affliction they would learn to appreciate the ways of God.

In their arrogance the leaders of Judah (most likely during the time of Ahaz) believed that they were safe from the Assyrian. In so doing, they were constructing a refuge of lies, one which was destined to be swept away as the enemy flooded the land. This is why Yahweh was laying an altogether different foundation in their midst: “a tried stone, a precious corner stone, a sure foundation: and he that believeth shall not make haste” (28:16). This sanctuary was built on a rock and could only be found when one entered God’s care by faith and trust in His strength.

This vivid rebuke introduces a little-known parable which we have entitled, ‘The parable of the grains’ (28:23-29). The rulers of Judah had accused God of speaking to them like children, so now God provides a parable which could only be understood by those who were mature and were prepared to search out the words of God.

“Give ye ear” says Isaiah, “and hear my voice; hearken, and hear my speech.” We cannot miss the emphasis on the need to hear. The same command was issued in verse 14: “Wherefore hear the word of the Lord, ye scornful men, that rule this people which is in Jerusalem”. Listening carefully to what God has to say and taking that message to heart is how faith is generated (Rom 10:17). What follows is an agricultural scene in which God was going to demonstrate that He does not act in a capricious manner. Instead, He works by wise counsel and with deliberate intent.

The question would have arisen as to why God would punish Samaria, destroy its kingdom and remove its inhabitants into captivity, but allow Judah’s commonwealth to continue. The prophet had already indicated that Judah’s rulers would be punished but the parable that follows answers the question about why God should treat each kingdom differently. In addition to this, God had indicated to the scoffers that a full end (AV “consumption”) had been decisively decreed and being irrevocable they needed to understand the purpose behind it all (v22).

The inspired record describes a ploughman, firstly breaking open the soil, then sowing different kinds of seeds and later returning to harvest the crop using a number of different threshing methods. To introduce the scene, the nation is asked a leading question: “Doth the plowman plow all day to sow? doth he [continually] open and break the clods of his ground?” (28:24). The obvious answer is “No!” If you want a harvest you have to do much more. Ploughing is only the start of a process.

The harrowing of the ground is described here as first levelling the ground and then opening up the earth. Prior to this activity the earth was uneven and closed to the influence of the rain and the seed could not be sown. Levelling the earth is an action that removes pride (40:3-5) and opening up the earth is a symbol of repentance, of change, of being receptive to the things of God. Hence the language of Jeremiah 4:3: “thus saith the Lord to the men of Judah and Jerusalem, Break up your fallow ground, and sow not among thorns”. In the days of Isaiah the main barrier preventing sowing was the barren wasteland of idolatry. If they could remove these evils, “then shall he give the rain of thy seed, that thou shalt sow the ground withal; and bread of the increase of the earth, and it shall be fat and plenteous” (30:22-23).

But the time to repent is limited. Just as the ploughman is not going to endlessly plough the field, so God has appointed a limited time for His people to turn to Him. As the Apostle Paul expressed it: “knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep: for now is our salvation nearer than when we believed” (Rom 13:11). He has appointed a day in which He will judge the earth and hence has commanded all men everywhere to repent (Acts 17:30-31).

Unlike the parable of the sower given by the Master (where the seed represents the Word of God), this seed here is diverse. It is styled in Isaiah 6:13 as “the holy seed” and it was comprised of varying types of people. Some were strong in faith; others were distressed and doubtful. Collectively they were the remnant of faith which God desired would “take root downward, and bear fruit upward” (37:31).

Hence, in the parable, the distinctive seeds were to be planted in different ways. The ESV helps make the distinction: “When he has levelled its surface, does he not scatter dill, sow cumin, and put in wheat in rows and barley in its proper place, and emmer as the border?” (28:25). Dill seeds are scattered randomly. Cumin seeds are sprinkled sparingly. Wheat is carefully sown in rows, not like the other two seeds, lest when the stalks spring up, they choke one another. Barley is sown in a piece of the field specially marked off for it, or specially furnished with signs; whilst the spelt is confined to the borders of the wheat field where it was best suited to promote growth and protect the wheat crop.

Each type of seed is handled differently; “For his God doth instruct him to discretion, and doth teach him” (v26). When God created man, He instructed him in these various farming techniques. It was from imparted knowledge, not accidental instinct that these methods were employed. So it is with the way God handles different people. It is His good judgment and His sound understanding of the nature and circumstances of the people being corrected that directs His work with them.

When the time arrives to harvest and reap the crop, the farmer employs different methods of threshing to extract the grain: “Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge, nor is a cart wheel rolled over cumin, but dill is beaten out with a stick, and cumin with a rod” (v27 ESV). He does not use the heavy machinery for the more tender and finer kinds of grain. To do so would entirely destroy the crop. Instead, he uses the staff or flail to knock out the grains. On the other hand, the denser grains like “bread corn” can withstand the pressure of cartwheels and animal hooves (v28). And mercifully, God does not thresh forever, states the prophet in the same verse.

“This also cometh forth from Yahweh of hosts, which is wonderful in counsel, and excellent in working” (v29)—God has imparted the same intelligent behaviour to man so that he knows how to get the best results from the harvest. Imbedded in this verse, however, is a suggestion of a higher purpose behind all these illustrations. If man has the wisdom to do this, how much more so does the Teacher who first imparted this insight to man.

Isaiah declares that Yahweh is “wonderful in counsel”. The Hebrew carries the idea of possessing a prudent purpose, which is distinguished from all else; a plan that is extraordinary and surpassing all other strategies. Furthermore, God is described as “excellent in working”; not a particularly good translation because the Hebrew means, “He magnifies wisdom”. Hence Young’s Literal Translation renders the verse: “He hath made counsel wonderful, He hath made wisdom great!”

God’s chastening hand is not exercised in an arbitrary way and His judgments are not chaotic. Everything is done with distinctive intent, employing wisdom that is so extensive that it dwarfs anything man can imagine. It is a wisdom that carries the whole matter through. There is an end purpose to it all, and for this we can be truly thankful. In the days of Isaiah, if the enemy was summoned by God at the first, surely it will be under His control at the last.

The people of God are described in the New Testament as God’s farm (1 Cor 3:9). Their lives are like the ground which needs preparing to receive the rain from heaven. “Break up your fallow ground” commanded Hosea, “for it is time to seek the Lord, till he come and rain righteousness upon you” (Hos 10:12). We are often in need of that same reminder. Ploughing and sowing is seasonal work. We are constantly in need of opening the heart to receive the rain of God’s Word. As the farmer constantly turns over the soil, so we need to break apart the clods of pride, remove the clay of sin that so readily besets us and enrich our lives with the vitality of God’s Truth (cp the parable of Luke 13:6-9).

God’s purpose with us is to produce “the precious fruit of the earth” styled “the fruit of righteousness” and “the fruit of the spirit” in the inspired record (James 5:7; 3:18, Gal 5:22; Eph 5:9; Heb 12:11). He will utilise varying methods to accomplish this. He might sift us, but He will not destroy us. He may knock us with the staff of affliction or bring the weightier implements to bear, but He will never crush us or forsake us. As the Apostle Paul put it in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9: “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed”.

Our loving Father does not always pursue the same course with every believer. He chastens us just enough to secure, in the best manner and to the fullest extent, our obedience. Just as the husbandman judicially bruises his sheaves enough to separate all the grain from the chaff so our God brings upon us the right trials to forward His purpose with every one of us. He will use different methods of discipline ensuring that it is properly shaped to the nature, character, and disposition of His people.

In the days of Hezekiah, the Assyrian was the instrument of God’s punishment, the rod of His anger (10:5). It was the threshing method God employed to remove the wicked husks and bring to light the bountiful harvest of righteousness, faith and peace—a time when “judgment shall dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness remain in the fruitful field” (32:16). “Therefore thus saith the Lord God of hosts, O my people that dwellest in Zion, be not afraid of the Assyrian: he shall smite thee with a rod, and shall lift up his staff against thee, after the manner of Egypt. For yet a very little while, and the indignation shall cease, and mine anger in their destruction” (10:24-25): they were being asked to trust in this promise of salvation even though it seemed humanly impossible. No other nation in the world had successfully withstood the Assyrian and survived and Yahweh was asking Judah against hope to believe in hope. The same fruit is expected of us.

With this in mind we should, therefore, bear afflictions and chastisements with patience. God deals with us in mercy. The design of all His dispensations toward us is to produce the richest and most abundant fruits of righteousness within each of us to the glory of His Name.