Most commentators agree that the opening six verses of Isaiah 27 are metaphoric; however there is almost universal disagreement as to what the metaphors in question actually represent. In fact not everyone is even agreed as to the number of metaphors that are present. The aim of this paper is to look at these figures of speech in the context of the chapter, the book of Isaiah and of the Bible in general.
The picture presented is contained within Isaiah 27:1-2 here copied from the NET translation:
Isa 27:1 At that time the LORD will punish with his destructive, great, and powerful sword Leviathan the fast-moving serpent, Leviathan the squirming serpent; he will kill the sea monster. When that time comes, sing about a delightful vineyard!
The first contention surrounds the number of beasts referred to in the first verse. Some take it that it refers to one Leviathan that is a fast-moving, squirming sea monster. In fact the KJV and NASB translations push you in that direction by inserting an 'even' before the second occurrence of the word Leviathan. JFB support this approach and suggest that this is literally a crocodile, pictorial any opposition to Israel and ultimately Satan. Henry uses Leviathan as a picture of any power that opposes the church and also spiritualizes it to any trial that a believer faces. Barnes gives a detailed treatment of the options available states that Leviathan is literally a crocodile but then settles upon it as being a picture of the King of Babylon in this instance. Gill denies any literal meaning to the passage but uses Leviathan of any power that persecutes the church but particularly of Rome.
Keil and Delitzsch are the most detailed defenders of the idea that this is three animals and not one. They point out that in the case of the sword there is no repeated preposition; thus we have three adjectives (destructive, great and powerful) referring to one noun (the sword). For the animal the preposition is repeated showing, they claim, that three objects are referred to. I am not qualified to comment upon the Hebrew but reading the verse in any literal translation that doesn't have the word 'even' suggests to me that three beasts are in view.
I suspect one of the key weaknesses of the 'three animal' interpretation for many is the sheer variety available. Culling from a number of older commentators the options include Babylon, Egypt, Persia, Rome, Turkey, India, Gog, Magog, Greece, The Saracens and Media. However I believe that careful examination of the verse in context allows all three animals to be readily identified.
The easiest of the three animals to identify is the third: the sea monster. Ezekiel identifies him for us in two places Eze 29:3 and Eze 32:2 as Pharoah king of Egypt. Here is the former; again from the NET Bible:
'Look, I am against you, Pharaoh king of Egypt, the great monster lying in the midst of its waterways, who has said, "My Nile is my own, I made it for myself."
The description as the monster in the waterways is astonishingly close to the description of the animal in Isaiah 27:1 Examining the remainder of the chapter also shows that identification with Egypt fits entirely. In Isaiah 27:12 we see that the area that the Lord beats ends with Egypt and that the place from which he collects the outcasts also includes Egypt.
The potential link of the animals of the first verse with the area of desolation and collection of Is 27:12-13 also gives us strong candidates for the remaining two animals; especially in more modern translations. Is 27:12 in the KJV tells us that the threshing will take place from 'the river'. Most modern translations add the detail that 'the River' is an identification of the Euphrates. This then points to Babylon. Is 27:13 tells us of captives being returned from Assyria which potentially completes our triplet of beasts.
Keil and Delitzsch suggest that the description of the two leviathans also corroborates these assignments. The first, the fast moving serpent, they equate to Assyria which lies upon the Tigris which is a straight and violently rapid river. The second is the squirming serpent which they consider to reflect the slow and highly meandering Euphrates. They also note that the use of Leviathan to describe both may suggest that the two also share certain core elements.
If this is the correct key to the metaphor then the language of the last two verses of the twenty-seventh chapter is very apposite. The destruction of verse twelve runs from the Euphrates to Egypt; this actually does not include Assyria which had already been destroyed by the time of the forthcoming shaking by the Babylonians. The collection of the individuals of the final verse then does include the Assyrian captives that were not gathered as part of the Babylonian invasion.
Having tackled the metaphor of the animals then the metaphor of the vine is to me extremely simple although many reformed commentators disagree. The vineyard is Israel. Isaiah has already used a vineyard to picture Israel twice by this point. By Isa 27:6 the chapter is referring to Jacob taking root and Israel blossoming, producing branches and filling the world with produce. Just in case anyone doubted whether Isaiah meant the present Israel or a future one he proceeds to discuss the past behavior of Israel in Isa 27:7-8. Given this evidence the insistence of some commentators that this refers to the church is nothing other than special pleading.
In conclusion I would have to say that whilst I am convinced as to number and identity of the animals in Isaiah 27:1 there is little that can be stated dogmatically. The equation of the sea monster with Egypt is consistent with the rest of scripture and with the immediate context of the chapter. The identification of Assyria and Babylon is reasonable and certainly fits the immediate context although does not, as far as I know, have any explicit support within scripture. To me the identification of the vine with Israel is simple and blatant to anyone that accepts a literal interpretation of passage before them.