Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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Volume I


The design of this chapter is to show the connection between the sins and sufferings of God's people, and the necessity of further judgments, as means of purification and deliverance.

The popular corruption is first exhibited as the effect of alienation from God, and as the cause of national calamities, vs. 2-9. It is then exhibited as coexisting with punctilious exactness in religious duties, and as rendering them worthless, vs. 10-20. It is finally exhibited in twofold contrast, first with a former state of things, and then with one still future, to be brought about by the destruction of the wicked, and especially of wicked rulers, vs. 21-31.

The first part of the chapter describes the sin and then the suffering of the people. The former is characterized as filial ingratitude, stupid inconsideration, habitual transgression, contempt of God, and alienation from him. vs 2-4. The suffering is first represented by the figure of disease and wounds, and then in literal terms as the effect of an invasion, by which the nation was left desolate, and only saved by God's regard for his elect from the total destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, vs. 5-9. The second part is connected with the first by the double allusion to Sodom and Gomorrah, with which one closes and the other opens. In this part the Prophet shows the utter inefficacy of religious rites to counteract the natural effect of their iniquities, and then exhorts them to the use of the true remedy. Under the former head, addressing them as similar in character to Sodom and Gomorrah, he describes their sacrifices as abundant and exact, but not acceptable; their attendance at the temple as punctual, and yet insulting; their bloodless offerings as abhorrent, and their holy days as wearisome and hateful on account of their iniquities; their very prayers as useless, because their hands were stained with blood, vs. 10-15. As a necessary means of restoration to God's favor, he exhorts them to forsake their evil courses and to exercise benevolence and justice, assuring them that God was willing to forgive them and restore the advantages which they had forfeited by sin, but at the same time resolved to punish the impenitent transgressor, vs. 16-20.

The transition from the second to the third part is abrupt, and introduced by a pathetic exclamation. In this part the Prophet compares Israel as it is with what it has been and with what it shall be. In the former comparison, he employs two metaphors, each followed by a literal explanation of its meaning; that of a faithful wife become a harlot, and that of adulterated wine and silver, both expressive of a moral deterioration, with special reference to magistrates and rulers, vs. 21-23. In the other comparison, the coming judgments are presented in the twofold aspect of purification and deliverance to the church, and of destruction to its wicked members. The Prophet sees the leading men of Israel destroyed, first as oppressors, to make room for righteous rulers and thus save the state, then as idolaters consumed by that in which they trusted for protection, vs. 24-31.

It is probable, that this prophecy belongs to the class already mentioned (in the Introduction) as exhibiting a sequence of events, or providential scheme, which might be realized in more than one emergency; not so much a prediction as a prophetic lesson with respect to the effects which certain causes must infallibly produce. Such a discourse would be peculiarly appropriate as an introduction to the prophecies which follow; and its seeming inconsistencies are all accounted for, by simply supposing that it was written for this purpose about the time of Sennacherib's invasion in the fourteenth year of Hezekiah's reign, and that in it the Prophet takes a general survey of tho changes which the church had undergone since the beginning of his public ministry.

1. This is a general title of the whole book or one of its larger divisions, (ch. i.-xxxix. or i.-xii.) defining its character, author, subject, and date. The Vision (supernatural perception, inspiration, revelation, prophecy, here put collectively for Prophecies) of Isaiah the son of Amos, which he saw (perceived, received by inspiration) concerning Judah (the kingdom of the two tribes which adhered to the theocracy after the revolt of Jeroboam) and Jerusalem (its capital, the chosen seat of the true religion), in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, Hezekiah, kings of Judah. The prophecies relating to the ten tribes and to foreign powers owe their place in this collection to their bearing, more or less direct, upon the interests of Judah. With respect to the names Isaiah and Amoz, and the chronology of this verse, see the Introduction.

2. The Prophet first describes the moral state of Judah, vs. 2-4, and then the miseries arising from it, vs. 5-9. To the former he invites attention by summoning the universe to hear the Lord's complaint against his people, who are first charged with filial ingratitude. Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, as witnesses and judges, and as being less insensible yourselves than men, for Jehovah speaks, not man. Sons I have reared and brought up, literally made great and made high, and they, with emphasis on the pronoun which is otherwise superfluous, even they have revolted from me, or rebelled against me, not merely in a general sense by sinning, but in a special sense by violating that peculiar covenant which bound God to his people. It is in reference to this bond and to the conjugal relation which the Scriptures represent God as sustaining to his church or people, that its constituent members are here called his children. The English Bible and many other versions read Jehovah has spoken, which seems to refer to a previous revelation, or to indicate a mere repetition of his words. whereas he is himself introduced as speaking. The preterite may be here used to express the present for the purpose of suggesting that he did not thus speak for the first time. Compare Heb. 1:1.

3. Having tacitly compared the insensible Jews with the inanimate creation, he now explicitly compares them with the brutes, selecting for that purpose two which were especially familiar as domesticated animals, subjected to man's power and dependent on him for subsistence, and at the same time as proverbially stupid, inferiority to which must therefore be peculiarly disgraceful. The ox knoweth his owner and the ass his master's crib or feeding place. Israel, the chosen people, as a whole, without regard to those who had seceded from it, doth not know, my people doth not consider, pay attention or take notice. Like the ox and the ass, Israel had a master, upon whom he was dependent, and to whom he owed obedience; but, unlike them, he did not recognize and would not serve his rightful sovereign and the author of his mercies.

4. As the foregoing verses render prominent the false position of Israel with respect to God, considered first as a father and then as a master (comp. Mal. 1:6), so this brings into view their moral state in general, resulting from that alienation, and still represented as inseparable from it. The Prophet speaks again in his own person, and expresses wonder, pity, and indignation at the state to which his people had reduced themselves. Ah, sinful nation, literally nation sinning, i. e. habitually, which is the force here of the active participle, people heavy with iniquity, weighed down by guilt as an oppressive burden, a seed of evildoers, i. e. the offspring of wicked parents, sons corrupting themselves, i. e. doing worse than their fathers, in which sense the same verb is used, Judges 2:19. The evil-doers are of course not the Patriarchs or Fathers of the nation, but the intervening wicked generations. As the first clause tells us what they were, so the second tells us what they did, by what acts they had merited the character just given. They have forsaken Jehovah, a phrase descriptive of iniquity in general, but peculiarly expressive of the breach of covenant obligations. They have treated with contempt the Holy One of Israel, a title almost peculiar to Isaiah, and expressing a twofold aggravation of their sin; first that he was infinitely excellent; and then, that he was theirs, their own peculiar God. They are alienated back again. The verb denotes estrangement from God, the adverb retrocession or backsliding into a former state.

5. To the description of their moral state, beginning and ending with apostasy from God, the Prophet now adds a description of the consequences, vs. 5-9. This he introduces by an expostulation on their mad perseverance in transgression, notwithstanding the extremities to which it had reduced them. Whereupon, i. e. on what part of the body, can ye be stricken, smitten, punished, any more, that ye add revolt, departure or apostasy from God, i. e. revolt more and more? Already the whole head is sick and the whole heart faint.—The same sense is attained, but in a less striking form, by reading why, to what purpose, will ye be smitten any more? why continue to revolt? If their object was to make themselves miserable, it was already accomplished.—Calvin, followed by the English version and others, gives a different turn to the interrogation: Why should ye be smitten any more? of what use is it? ye will revolt more and more. But the reason thus assigned for their ceasing to bo smitten is wholly different from that given in the last clause and amplified in the following verse, viz. that they were already faint and covered with wounds. The head and heart are mentioned as well-known and important parts of the body, to which the church or nation had been likened.

6. The idea suggested at the beginning of v. 5, that there was no more room for further strokes, is now carried out with great particularity. From the sole of the foot and (i. e. even) to the head (a common scriptural expression for the body in its whole extent) there is not in it (the people, or in him, i. e. Judah, considered as a body) a sound place; (it is) wound and bruise (vibex, the tumor produced by stripes) and fresh stroke. The wounds are then described as not only grievous but neglected. They have not been pressed, and they have not been bound or bandaged, and it has not been mollified with ointment, all familiar processes of ancient surgery.

7. Thus far the sufferings of the people have been represented by strong figures, giving no intimation of their actual form, or of the outward causes which produced them. But now the Prophet brings distinctly into view foreign invasion as the instrument of vengeance, and describes the country as already desolated by it. The absence of verbs in the first clause gives great rapidity and life to the description. Your land (including town and country, which are afterwards distinctly mentioned) a waste! Your towns (including cities and villages of every size) burnt with fire! Your ground (including its produce), i. e. as to your ground, before you (in your presence, but beyond your reach) strangers (are) devouring it, and a waste (it is a waste) like the overthrow of strangers, i. e. as foreign foes are wont to waste a country, in which they have no interest, and for which they have no pity.

8. The extent of the desolation is expressed by comparing the church or nation to a watch-shed in a field or vineyard, far from other habitations, and forsaken after the ingathering. And the daughter of Zion, i. e. the people of Zion or Jerusalem, considered as the capital of Judah, and therefore representing the whole nation, is left, not forsaken, but left over or behind as a survivor, like a booth, a temporary covert of leaves and branches, in a vineyard, like a lodge in a melon-field, like a watched city, i. e. watched by friends and foes, besieged and garrisoned, and therefore insulated. cut off from all communication with the country. That Jerusalem is not called the daughter of Zion from its local situation on that mountain, is clear from the analogous phrases daughter of Tyre, daughter of Babylon, where no such explanation is admissible.

9. The idea of a desolation almost total is expressed in other words, and with an intimation that the narrow escape was owing to God's favor for the remnant according to the election of grace, who still existed in the Jewish church. Except Jehovah of Hosts had left unto us (or caused to remain over, to survive, for us) a very small remnant, we should have been like Sodom, we should have resembled Gomorrah, i. e. we should have been totally and justly destroyed. That the verse has reference to quality as well as quantity, is evident from Rom. 9:29, where Paul makes use of it, not as an illustration, but as an argument to show that mere connection with the church could not save men from the wrath of God. The citation would have been irrelevant if this phrase denoted merely a small number of survivors, and not a minority of true believers in the midst of the prevailing unbelief. Jehovah of Hosts means the Sovereign Ruler of "heaven and earth and all the hosts of them," i. e. all their inhabitants (Gen. 2:1).

10. Having assigned the corruption of the people as the cause of their calamities, the Prophet now guards against the error of supposing that the sin thus visited was that of neglecting the external duties of religion, which were in fact punctiliously performed, but unavailing because joined with the practice of iniquity, vs. 10-15. This part of the chapter is connected with what goes before by repeating the allusion to Sodom and Gomorrah. Having just said that God's sparing mercy had alone prevented their resembling Sodom and Gomorrah in condition, he now reminds them that they do resemble Sodom and Gomorrah in iniquity. The reference is not to particular vices, but to general character, as Jerusalem, when reproached for her iniquities, 'is spiritually called Sodom' (Rev. 11 : 8). The comparison is here made by the form of address. Hear the word of Jehovah, ye. judges (or rulers) of Sodom, give ear to the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. Word and law both denote the revelation of God's will as a rule of faith and duty. The particular exhibition of it meant, is that which follows, and to which this verse invites attention like that frequent exhortation of our Saviour, He that hath ears to hear, let him hear.

11. Resuming the form of interrogation and expostulation, he teaches them that God had no need of sacrifices on his own account, and that even those sacrifices which he had required might become offensive to him. For what (for what purpose, to what end, of what use) is the multitude of your sacrifices to me? (i. e. offered to me, or of what use to me) saith Jehovah. I am full (i. e. sated, I have had enough, I desire no more) of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts (fattened for the altar), and the blood of bullocks and lambs and he-goats I desire not (or delight not in). Male animals are mentioned, as the only ones admitted in the burnt-offering; the fat and blood, as the parts in which the sacrifice essentially consisted, the one being always burnt upon the altar, and the other sprinkled or poured out around it.

12. What had just been said of the offerings themselves, is now said of attendance at the temple to present them. When you come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand to tread my courts, not merely to frequent them, but to trample on them, as a gesture of contempt? The courts here meant are the enclosures around Solomon's temple, for the priests, worshippers, and victims. The interrogative form implies negation. Such appearance, such attendance, God had not required, although it was their duty to frequent his courts. The word tread appears to be applied to the worshippers themselves in a twofold sense, which cannot be expressed by any single word in English. They were bound to tread his courts, but not to trample them.

13. What he said before of animal sacrifices and of attendance at the temple to present them, is now extended to bloodless offerings, such as incense and the meal-offering, as well as to the observance of sacred times, and followed by a brief intimation of the sense in which they were all unacceptable to God, viz. when combined with the practice of iniquity. The interrogative form is here exchanged for that of direct prohibition. Ye shall not add (i. e. continue) to bring a vain offering (that is, a useless one, because hypocritical and impious). Incense is an abomination to me: (so are) new moon and sabbath, the calling of the convocation (at those times, or at the annual feasts, which are then distinctly mentioned with the weekly and monthly ones): I cannot bear iniquity and holy day (abstinence from labor, religious observance), meaning of course, I cannot bear them together. This last clause is a key to the preceding verses. It was not religious observance in itself, but its combination with iniquity, that God abhorred.

14. The very rights ordained by God himself, and once acceptable to him, had, through the sin of those who used them, become irksome and disgusting. Your new moons (an emphatic repetition, as if he had said, Yes, your new moons) and your convocations (sabbaths and yearly feasts) my soul hateth (not a mere periphrasis for I hate, but an emphatic phrase denoting cordial hatred, they have become a burden on me (implying that they were not so at first). I am weary of bearing (or have wearied myself bearing them). The common version of the second clause (they are a trouble unto me) is too vague. The noun should have its specific sense of burden, load, and the preposition its proper local sense of on.

15. Not only ceremonial observances but even prayer was rendered useless by the sins of those who offered it. And in. your spreading (when you spread) your hands (or stretch them out towards heaven as a gesture of entreaty) I will hide mine eyes from you (avert my face, refuse to see or hear, not only in ordinary but) also when ye multiply prayer (by fervent importunity in time of danger) I am not hearing (or about to hear, the participle bringing the act nearer to the present than the future would do). Your hands are full of blood (literally bloods, the form commonly used when the reference is to bloodshed or the guilt of murder). Thus the Prophet comes back to the point from which he set out, the iniquity of Israel as the cause of his calamities, but with this difference, that at first he viewed sin in its higher aspect, as committed against God, whereas in this place its injurious effects on men are rendered prominent. It is a strange opinion mentioned by Fabricius that the blood here meant is the blood of the victims hypocritically offered.

16. Having shown the insufficiency of ceremonial rites and even of more spiritual duties to avert or cure the evils which the people had brought upon themselves by their iniquities, he exhorts them to abandon these and urges reformation. Wash you (the word translated wash you is appropriated to ablution of the body, as distinguished from all other washings), purify yourselves (in a moral or figurative sense, as appears from what follows). Remove the evil of your doings from before mine eyes (out of my sight, which could only be done by putting an end to them, an idea literally expressed in the last clause), cease to do evil.

17. The negative exhortation is now followed by a positive one. Ceasing to do evil was not enough, or rather was not possible, without beginning to do good. Learn to do good, implying that they never yet had known what it was. This general expression is explained by several specifications, showing how they were to do good. Seek judgment, i. e. justice; not in the abstract, but in act; not for yourselves, but for others; be not content with abstinence from wrong, but seek opportunities of doing justice, especially to those who cannot right themselves. Redress wrong, judge the fatherless, i. e. act as a judge for his benefit, or more specifically, do him justice; befriend the widow, take her part, espouse her cause. Orphans and widows are continually spoken of in Scripture as special objects of divine compassion, and as representing the whole class of helpless innocents.

18. Having shown that the cause of their ill success in seeking God was in themselves, and pointed out the only means by which the evil could be remedied, he now invites them to determine by experiment on which side the fault of their destruction lay, promising pardon and deliverance to the penitent and threatening total ruin to the disobedient, vs. 18-20.—This verse contains an invitation to discuss the question whether God was willing or unwilling to show mercy, implying that reason as well as justice was on his side, and asserting his power and his willingness to pardon the most aggravated sins. Come now (a common formula of exhortation) and let us reason (argue or discuss the case) together (the form of the verb denoting a reciprocal action), saith Jehovah. Though your sins be as scarlet they shall be white as snow, though they be red as crimson they shall be as wool, i. e. clean white wool. Guilt being regarded as a stain, its removal denotes restoration to purity. The implied conclusion of the reasoning is that God's willingness to pardon threw the blame of their destruction on themselves.— The words translated crimson and scarlet are commonly combined to denote one color, and are here separated only as poetical equivalents.

19. The unconditional promise is now qualified and yet enlarged. If obedient, they should not only escape punishment but be highly favored. If ye consent to my terms, and hear my commands, implying obedience, the good of the land, its choicest products, ye shall eat, instead of seeing them devoured by strangers.

20. This is the converse of the nineteenth verse, a threat corresponding to the promise. And if ye refuse to comply with my conditions, and rebel, continue to resist my authority, by the sword of the enemy shall ye be eaten. This is no human menace but a sure prediction, for the mouth of Jehovah speaks, not man's.

21. Here the Prophet seems to pause for a reply, and on receiving no response to the promises and invitations of the foregoing context, bursts forth into a sudden exclamation at the change which Israel has undergone, which he then describes both in figurative and literal expressions, vs. 21-23. In the verse before us he contrasts her former state. as the chaste bride of Jehovah, with her present pollution, the ancient homo of justice with the present haunt of cruelty and violence. How has she become an harlot (faithless to her covenant with Jehovah), the faithful city (including the ideas of a city and a state, urbs et civitas, the body politic, the church of which Jerusalem was the centre and metropolis), full of justice (i. e. once full), righteousness lodged (i. e. habitually, bad its home, resided) in it, and now murderers, as the worst class of violent wrong-doers, whose name suggests though it does not properly include all others. The particle at the beginning of the verse is properly interrogative, but like the English how is also used to express surprise. 'How has she become?' i. e. how could she possibly become? how strange that she should become!

22. The change, which had just been represented under the figure of adultery, is now expressed by that of adulteration, first of silver, then of wine. Thy silver (addressing the unfaithful church or city) is become dross (alloy, base metal), thy wine weakened (literally cut, mutilated) with water. The essential idea seems to be that of impairing strength. The Septuagint applies this text in a literal sense to dishonest arts in the sale of wines and the exchange of money. But this interpretation, besides its unworthiness and incongruity, is set aside by the Prophet's own explanation of his figures, in the next verse.

23. The same idea is now expressed in literal terms, and with special application to magistrates and rulers. They who were bound officially to suppress disorder and protect the helpless, were themselves greedy of gain, rebellious against God, and tyrannical towards man. Thy rulers are rebels and fellows of thieves (not merely like them or belonging to the same class, but accomplices, partakers of their sin), every one of them loving a bribe (the participle denoting present and habitual action) and pursuing rewards. The fatherless (as being unable to reward them, or as an object of cupidity to others) they judge not, and the cause of the widow cometh not unto them, or before them; they will not hear it; they will not act as judges for their benefit. They are not simply unjust judges, they are no judges at all, they will not act as such, except when they can profit by it.

24. To this description of the general corruption the Prophet now adds a promise of purgation, which is at the same time a threatening of sorer judgments, as the appointed means by which the church was to be restored to her original condition. vs. 24-31.—In this verse the destruction of God's enemies is represented as a necessary satisfaction to his justice. Therefore, because the very fountains of justice have thus become corrupt, saith. the Lord, the word properly so rendered, Jehovah of Hosts, the eternal Sovereign, the mighty one of Israel, the almighty God who is the God of Israel, Ah, an interjection expressing both displeasure and concern, I will comfort myself, ease or relieve myself, of my adversaries, literally, from them, i. e. by ridding myself of them, and I will avenge myself of mine enemies, not foreign foes, of whom there is no mention in the context, but the enemies of God among the Jews themselves.

25. The mingled promise and threatening is repeated under one of the figures used in v. 22. The adulterated silver must be purified by the separation of its impure particles. And I will turn my hand upon thee, i. e. take thee in hand, address myself to thy case, and will purge out thy dross like purity itself, i. e. most purely, thoroughly, and will take away all thine alloy, tin, lead, or other base metal found in combination with the precious ores. Although to turn the hand has elsewhere an unfavourable sense (Ps. 81:14. Amos 1:8), it does not of itself express it, but simply means to take in hand, address one's self to any thing, make it the object of attention.

26. Here again the figurative promise is succeeded by a literal one of restoration to a former state of purity, to be effected not by the conversion of the wicked rulers but by filling their places with bettor men. And I will restore, bring back, cause to return, thy judges, rulers, as at first, in the earliest and best days of the commonwealth, and thy counsellors, ministers of state, as in the beginning, after which it shall be called to thee, a Hebrew idiom for thou shalt be called. i. e. deservedly, with truth, City of Righteousness, a Faithful State. They is here a twofold allusion to v. 21. She who from being a faithful wife had become an adulteress or harlot, should again be what she was; and justice which once dwelt in her should return to its old home.

27. Thus far the promise to God's faithful people and the threatening to his enemies among them had been intermingled, or so expressed as to involve each other. Thus the promise of purification to the silver involved a threatening of destruction to the dross. But now the two elements of the prediction are exhibited distinctly, and first the promise to the church. Zion, the chosen people, as a whole, here considered as consisting of believers only, shall be redeemed, delivered from destruction, in judgment, i.e. in the exercise of justice upon God's part, and her converts, those of her who return to God by true repentance, in righteousness, here used as an equivalent to justice. The verse means that the very same events, by which the divine justice was to manifest itself in the destruction of the wicked, should be the occasion and the means of deliverance to Zion or the true people of God.

28. The other element is now brought out, viz. the destruction of the wicked, which was to be simultaneous and coincident with the deliverance promised to God's people in the verse preceding. And the breaking, crushing, utter ruin, of apostates, revolters, deserters from Jehovah, and sinners, is or shall be together, i. e. at the same time with Zion's redemption, and the forsakers of Jehovah. an equivalent expression to apostates in the first clause, shall cease, come to an end, be totally destroyed. The terms of this verse are appropriate to all kinds of sin, but seem to be peculiarly descriptive of idolatry, as defection or desertion from the true God to idols, and thus prepare the way for the remainder of the chapter, in which that class of transgressors are made prominent. The same judgments which destroyed the wicked should redeem the righteous, or in other words, that the purification of the church could be effected only by the excision of her wicked members.

29. From the final destruction of idolaters the Prophet now reverts to their present security and confidence in idols, which he tells them shall be put to shame and disappointment. For they shall be ashamed of the oaks or terebinths which ye have desired, and ye shall be confounded for the gardens which ye have chosen as places of idolatrous worship. As these are terms constantly employed to express the frustration of religious trust, and as groves and gardens are continually spoken of as chosen scenes of idol-worship (see, for example, ch 65:3. 66:17. Ezek. 6:13. Hos. 4:3), there can be little doubt that both this verse and the one preceding have particular allusion to idolatry.

30. The mention of trees and gardens, as places of idolatrous worship, suggests a beautiful comparison, under which the destruction of the idolaters is again set forth. They who choose trees and gardens, in preference to God's appointed place of worship, shall themselves be like trees and gardens, but in the most alarming sense. For, in answer to the tacit question why they should be ashamed and confounded for their oaks and gardens, ye yourselves shall be like an oak or terebinth, fading, decaying, in its leaf or as to its leaf, and like a garden which has no water, a lively emblem, to an oriental reader, of entire desolation.—Some writers understand the Prophet to allude to the terebinth when dead, on the ground that it never sheds its leaves when living; but according to Robinson and Smith (Bib. Res. vol. iii. p. 15), the terebinth or "butm is not an evergreen, as is often represented; its small, feathered, lancet-shaped leaves fall in the autumn and are renewed in the spring."

31. This verse contains a closing threat of sudden, total, instantaneous destruction to the Jewish idolaters, to be occasioned by the very things which they preferred to God, and in which they confided. And the strong, the mighty man, alluding no doubt to the unjust rulers of the previous context, shall become tow, an exceedingly inflammable substance, and his work, his idols, often spoken of in Scripture as the work of men's hands, shall become a spark, the means and occasion of destruction to their worshippers, and they shall burn both of them together, and there shall shall be no one quenching or to quench them. The frequent mention of idols as the work of men's hands, and the prominence given to idolatry in the immediately preceding context, seem to justify us in understanding the whole verse as a prediction that the very gods, in whom the strong men of Jerusalem now trusted, should involve their worshippers and makers with themselves in total, instantaneous, irrecoverable ruin.