Isaiah seems both to hold that God is behind violence–like the Assyrian and Babylonian attacks on Jerusalem–and that God punishes the violent nations. This raises the question of the interplay between divine sovereignty and human responsibility.
A similar problem arises from the absolute declarations that sin cannot be forgiven before death (Isaiah 22:14) and that the whole land faces annihilation (28:22) juxtaposed with calls for repentance which suggest that there is yet a chance and that human action can change God’s decree.
According to John Goldingay in The Theology of the Book of Isaiah, God’s prophetic speech informs but also performs. In other words, when the prophet speaks for God the words express God’s action. The words are more than forecasts. But they can express God’s action in more than one way. God retains divine freedom. His action is not put in bondage to his words. And people can respond so that they either become beneficiaries of God’s action or bear the brunt of it.
So variables enter into the exact outcome of God’s decrees. But human and political planning to get around God’s decree gets mocked:
You are tired out from listening to so much advice. Let them take their stand – the ones who see omens in the sky, who gaze at the stars, who make monthly predictions – let them rescue you from the disaster that is about to overtake you! (Isaiah 47:13 NET Bible)
The plans of man keep confronting the plans of God. In the short-term the plans of God may seem horrific. But on a more divine scale, the time will come when the holiness of God and the awe of the people will coincide.
Divine sovereignty is a subtler affair than it at first seems. A dialectical relationship obtains between divine decision making and human decision making. While nothing happens outside Yahweh’s control or outside parameters Yahweh lays down, and some things happen because Yahweh makes explicit decisions, many things happen in part because human beings respond to Yahweh in the way that they do. (I remind readers that I am reading in Kindle format that gives worthless location numbers instead of page numbers, precluding traditional citation.)
I have noticed this as well. Sometimes the Hebrew Bible talks as though God causes everything that happens. But sometimes it softens this and allows for human or angelic (Satan in Job) action.
When I read this I thought about economist Adam Smith’s invisible hand. He says that when people act in self-interest they often unintentionally act in the public interest as well. Cyrus, the Persian king, no doubt thought he was acting in his own interest when he allowed the exiles to return. The Book of Isaiah, however, interprets his self-interested action as an act of God. The same with the violent aggression of Assyria and Babylon–they act in accord with God’s plan, but God still judges them.
So there is a kind of double agency here. God may act through people who have bad or indifferent motives. On the other hand, people with the best intentions and motives often produce chaos or even evil. So Isaiah’s take-down of human planning says much about why good intentions often end up causing harm. I wonder if Isaiah’s theology leads to the idea that judgment is not really so much about motives and intentions, but about actual harm done.