Ah, Assyria, the rod of my anger; the staff in their hands is my fury! Against a godless nation I send him,and against the people of my wrath I command him, to take spoil and seize plunder, and to tread them down like the mire of the streets. But he does not so intend,and his heart does not so think; but it is in his heart to destroy, and to cut off nations not a few; for he says: “Are not my commanders all kings? Is not Calno like Carchemish? Is not Hamath like Arpad? Is not Samaria like Damascus? As my hand has reached to the kingdoms of the idols, whose carved images were greater than those of Jerusalem and Samaria, shall I not do to Jerusalem and her idols as I have done to Samaria and her images?”
When the Lord has finished all his work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem, he will punish the speech of the arrogant heart of the king of Assyria and the boastful look in his eyes. For he says:
“By the strength of my hand I have done it, and by my wisdom, for I have understanding; I remove the boundaries of peoples, and plunder their treasures; like a bull I bring down those who sit on thrones. My hand has found like a nest the wealth of the peoples; and as one gathers eggs that have been forsaken, so I have gathered all the earth; and there was none that moved a wing or opened the mouth or chirped.”
Shall the axe boast over him who hews with it, or the saw magnify itself against him who wields it? As if a rod should wield him who lifts it,or as if a staff should lift him who is not wood! Therefore the Lord God of hosts will send wasting sickness among his stout warriors, and under his glory a burning will be kindled, like the burning of fire. The light of Israel will become a fire, and his Holy One a flame, and it will burn and devour his thorns and briers in one day. The glory of his forest and of his fruitful land the Lord will destroy, both soul and body, and it will be as when a sick man wastes away. The remnant of the trees of his forest will be so few that a child can write them down.
The prophetic scene moves straight onto the Assyrians; the powerful Empire that cruelly laid waste cities and entire nations in her conquest to rule the world. Isaiah here prophesies against the cruel Assyrians, who are nearing the peak of their power then as they lay waste the northern kingdom of Israel/ Emphraim and the kingdom of Syria, both weakened in their failed military campaign against Judah.
The Assyrians are God's chosen tool of judgment and his rod of anger to do His will on the earth (v. 5), and in His sovereign plan God used them and sent them against godless nations to punish them for their wickedness; to plunder them and to destroy both the material wealth and the pride and spirit of the inhabitants of the nations they conquer (v. 6) Yet this is not what the Assyrians in their wickedness have purposed to do. They desire to conquer the entire world if they are able to and to destroy them, not punish them as God intended (v. 7). The Assyrians in their arrogance boasted in their prowess even as they plot the conquest and subjugation of Israel and Judah. Likening each of their commanders to the power and status of kings (v. 8), and thus able to take over each nation by themselves, militarily and more importantly in terms of their glorious status, the Assyrians lusted after the lands of other nations, to annex them and control them such that each commander is in charge of a former kingdom as a vassal state of the great Assyrian Empire. In verse 9, the Assyrians are stated as contrasting cities that are on the verge of or are falling (Calno, Hamath, Samaria — in or near Israel) to those which have fallen (Carchemish, Arpad, Damascus — all in Syria) and stated that there is no difference between them. As she had conquered these lands and destroyed their "gods" who are supposed to be greater than those in Israel and Judah (v. 10), so she boast that she will do the same with the God in Judah, whom she contemptuously regarded as "just another god" (v. 11).
Such pride, arrogance and boastfulness of course will not go unpunished by God, who will punish the Assyrians after he has finished using them as a tool of chastisement on Judah (v. 12). Months or years even before the actual judgment against Assyria took place, the prophecy of judgment has been proclaimed against this haughty nation. The Assyrians boasted in their prowess — their strength and wisdom through which they have done all these great things against other nations (v. 13) and have plundered them severely and taken all their treasures such that all yielded to the power of the Assyrians as they are without might to resist (v. 14). Yet, they attempted to elevate themselves above God — the God who is the one who has given them all these capabilities. God called them to account as being profane and foolish, for trying to elevate themselves above the one who gave them all these things and used them for His purposes. For who stupid can it be for an axe to boast that it does the work when it is only the tool used for such purposes, and thus by itself it is nothing? Or that of a saw, a rod or a staff — all inanimate tools! (v. 15) It is utterly foolish for inanimate tools to boast that they did the work, when they are mere tools unable to do anything without someone using them. Such is the foolishness of the Assyrians who mock God who is the One who is actually giving them their successes.
The judgment of God for so doing would fall upon the Assyrians in due time (cf Is. 37:36-38). The LORD will send a wasting disease to eliminate her military might (v. 16) and God Himself will inflict destruction on her and her economy (v. 17-19), such that the land would be so barren "even a child can write down the number of trees in the forest" (v. 19). Such is the destruction which God prophesied over Assyria, which will be realized much later.
In this passage, there are a few important things to take note of. This passage first of all teaches us about the sovereignty of God, and how that functions in a compatabilistic understanding of "free will". The Assyrians are most definitely free, yet God is absolutely sovereign over them as well, turning the hearts of the king wherever He wills it to go (Prov. 21:1). In this particular passage, God is sovereign in ordaining that Assyria be His tool of judgment. Yet this is not what Assyrian actually intended, which is to destroy the nations and rule over the world. The same actions that Assyria did, God intended it for His holy purpose of judgment while Assyria intended it for her cruel ambition. And thus we can see how the will of God acts in the affairs of Man. Man plots, plans and schemes according to the desires of their heart, but God uses their actions and overrides and harness them to accomplish His purposes, all without any heed to the "free will" of Man or what Man actually desire. And when the tools intend to do something contrary to God's will, God can use other tools to stop them so that God's will is supreme over all and His sovereign will is always accomplished.
The next thing we must humbly remember that is taught here is that all successes ultimately come from God. The Assyrians think that they have earned and worked for their successes, and that is indeed true humanly speaking. Yet, God is the one who has given them both the ability and the success that comes with its practice, and when the Assyrians boast about their successes, God proclaimed judgment against her. We are therefore to thank God for all abilities and successes we have and not to boast in ourselves, for ultimately they are not our doing but Christ who gave all of them to us.
The third lesson we can learn is that God is the Ruler of the entire earth and of all peoples whether they like it or not. Assyria does not know YHWH at all, neither were they having any relation to Him unlike the northern kingdom of Israel. Yet, God is sovereign still over that cruel pagan power, and holds them all by the same rule. So who cares whether such and such acknowledge God's laws or submit to them at all? God will still be their judge and condemned them in their sins regardless of whether they have even heard of Jesus or God before. God does not say that just because such and such do not know God therefore they are exempted from obeying the laws of God. This we can see in the case of homosexuality for example. God commands that homosexuality be termed sin, and regardless of what anyone says or believes, God will still demand that of them. Unrepentant homosexuals who do not believe or even heard the Gospel are nevertheless held to God's moral standard regardless.