Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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These chapters constitute the second prophecy, the two grand themes of which are the reign of the Messiah and intervening judgments on the Jews for their iniquities. The first and greatest of these subjects occupies the smallest space, but stands both at the opening and the close of the whole prophecy. Considered in relation to its subject, it may therefore be conveniently divided into three unequal parts. In the first, the

Prophet foretells the future exultation of the church and the accession of the gentiles, ch. 2:1-4. In the second, he sets forth the actual condition of the church and its inevitable consequences, ch. 2:5-4:1. In the third, he reverts to its pure, safe, and glorious condition under the Messiah, ch. 4:2-6. The division of the chapters is peculiarly unfortunate, the last verse of the second and the first of the fourth being both dissevered from their proper context. As the state of things which this chapter describes could scarcely have existed in the prosperous reigns of Uzziah and Jotham or in the pious reign of Hezekiah, it is referred with much probability to the reign of Ahaz, when Judah was dependent on a foreign power and corrupted by its intercourse with heathenism. The particular grounds of this conclusion will appear in the course of the interpretation.

Chapter II

This chapter contains an introductory prediction of the reign of the Messiah, and the first part of a threatening against Judah.

After a title similar to that in ch. 1:1, the Prophet sees the church, at some distant period, exulted and conspicuous, and the nations resorting to it for instruction in the true religion, as a consequence of which he sees war cease and universal peace prevail, vs. 2-4.

These verses are found, with very little variation, in the fourth chapter of Micah (vs. 1-3), to explain which some suppose, that a motto or quotation has been accidentally transferred from the margin to the text of Isaiah; others, that both Prophets quote from Joel; others, that both quote from an older writer now unknown; others, that Micah quotes from Isaiah; others, that Isaiah quotes from Micah. This diversity of judgment may at least suffice to show how vain conjecture is in such a case. The close connection of the passage with the context, as it stands in Micah, somewhat favors the conclusion that Isaiah took the text or theme of his prediction from the younger though contemporary Prophet. The verbal variations may be best explained, however, by supposing that they both adopted a traditional prediction current among the people in their day, or that both received the words directly from the Holy Spirit. So long as we have reason to regard both places as authentic and inspired, it matters little what is the literary history of either.

At the close of this prediction, whether borrowed or original, the Prophet suddenly reverts to the condition of the church in his own times, so different from that which had been just foretold, and begins a description of the present guilt and future punishment of Judah, which extends not only through this chapter but the next, including the first verse of the fourth. The part contained in the remainder of this chapter may be subdivided into two unequal portions, one containing a description of the sin, the other a prediction of the punishment.

The first begins with an exhortation to the Jews themselves to walk in that light which the gentiles were so eagerly to seek hereafter, v. 5. The Prophet then explains this exhortation by describing three great evils which the foreign alliances of Judah had engendered, namely, superstitious practices and occult arts; unbelieving dependence upon foreign wealth and power; and idolatry itself, vs. 6-8.

The rest of the chapter has respect to the punishment of these great sins. This is first described generally as humiliation, such as they deserved who humbled themselves to idols, and such as tended to the exclusive exaltation of Jehovah, both by contrast and by the display of his natural and moral attributes vs. 9-11. This general threatening is then amplified in a detailed enumeration of exalted objects which should be brought low, ending again with a prediction of Jehovah’s exaltation in the same words as before, so as to form a kind of choral or strophical arrangement, vs. 12-17. The destruction or rather the rejection of idols, as contemptible and useless, is then explicitly foretold, as an accompanying circumstance of men‘s flight from the avenging presence of Jehovah, vs. 18-21. Here again the strophical arrangement reappears in the precisely similar conclusions of the nineteenth and twenty-first verses, so that the twenty-second is as clearly unconnected with this chapter in form, as it is closely connected with the next in sense.

1. This is the title of the second prophecy, ch. 2-4. The word, revelation or divine communication, which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw, perceived, received by inspiration, concerning Judah and Jerusalem. Word is here a synonyme of vision in ch. 1:1. For the technical use of word and vision in the sense of prophecy, see 1 Sam. 3:1. Jer. 18:18.

2. The prophecy begins with an abrupt prediction of the exaltation of the church, the confluence of nations to it, and a general pacification as the consequence, vs. 2-4. In this verse the Prophet sees the church permanently placed in a conspicuous position, so as to be a source of attraction to surrounding nations. To express this idea, he makes use of terms which are strictly applicable only to the local habitation of the church under the old economy. Instead of saying, in modern phraseology, that the church, as a society, shall become conspicuous and attract all nations, he represents the mountain upon which the temple stood as being raised and fixed above the other mountains, so as to be visible in all directions. And it shall be (happen, come to pass, a prefatory formula of constant use in prophecy) in the end (or latter part) cf the days (i. e. hereafter) the mountain of Jehovah’s house (i. e. mount Zion, in the widest sense, including mount Moriah where the temple stood) shall be established (permanently fixed) in the head of the mountains (i. e. above them), and exalted from (away from and by implication more than or higher than) the hills (a poetical equivalent to mountains), and the nations shall flow unto it. It was not to be established on the top of the mountains, but either at the head or simply high among the mountains, which idea is expressed by other words in the parallel clause, and by the same words in 1 Kings 21:10, 12. The verb in the last clause is always used to signify a confluence of nations.

3. This confluence of nations is described more fully, and its motive stated in their own words, namely, a desire to be instructed in the true religion, of which Jerusalem or Zion, under the old dispensation, was the sole depository. And many nations shall go (set out, put themselves in motion) and shall say (to one another), Go ye (as a formula of exhortation, where the English idiom requires come), and we will ascend (or let us ascend, for which the Hebrew has no other form) to the mountain of Jehovah (where his house is, where he dwells), to the house of the God of Jacob, and he will teach us of his ways (the ways in which he requires us to walk), and we will go in his paths (a synonymous expression). For out of Zion shall go forth law (the true religion, as a rule of duty), and the word of Jehovah (the true religion as a revelation) from Jerusalem. These last words may be either the words of the gentiles, telling why they looked to Zion as a source of saving knowledge, or the words of the Prophet, telling why the truth must be thus diffused, namely, because it had been given to the church for this very purpose. The common version many people conveys to a modern ear the wrong sense many persons, and was only used for want of such a plural form as peoples, which, though employed by Lowth and others, has never become current, and was certainly not so when the Bible was translated, as appears from the circumlocution used instead of it in Gen. 25:23. The plural form is here essential to the meaning. Go is not here used as the opposite of came, but as denoting active motion. The word ascend is not used in reference to an alleged Jewish notion that the Holy Land was physically higher than all other countries, nor simply to the natural site of Jerusalem, nor even to its moral elevation as the seat of the true religion, but to the new elevation and conspicuous position just ascribed to it. The subjunctive construction that he may teach is rather paraphrastical and exegetical than simply expressive of the sense of the original, which implies hope as well as purpose.

4. He who appeared in the preceding verses as the lawgiver and teacher of the nations, is now represented as an arbiter or umpire, ending their disputes by a pacific intervention, as a necessary consequence of which war ceases, the very knowledge of the art is lost, and its implements applied to other uses. This prediction was not fulfilled in the general peace under Augustus, which was only temporary; nor is it now fulfilled. The event is suspended on a previous condition, viz. the confluence of the nations to the church, which has not yet taken place; a strong inducement to diffuse the gospel, which, in the meantime, is peaceful in its spirit, tendency, and actual effect, wherever and so far as it exerts its influence without obstruction. And he shall judge (or arbitrate) between the nations. and decide for (or respecting) many peoples. And they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks. Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. The whole idea meant to be expressed is the conversion of martial weapons into implements of husbandry. Hook, in old English, is a crooked knife, such as a sickle, which is not however here meant, but a knife for pruning vines. Not learning war is something more than not continuing to practise it, and signifies their ceasing to know how to practise it.

To judge is here not to rule which is too vague, nor to punish which is too specific, but to arbitrate or act as umpire, as appears from the effect described, and also from the use of the preposition, meaning not merely among, with reference to the sphere of jurisdiction, but between, with reference to contending parties.

5. From this distant prospect of the calling of the gentiles, the Prophet now reverts to his own times and countrymen, and calls upon them not to be behind the nations in the use of their distinguishing advantages. If even the heathen were one day to be enlightened, surely they who were already in possession of the light ought to make use of it. O house of Jacob (family of Israel the church or chosen people) come ye (literally go ye, as in v. 3) and we will go (or let us walk, including himself in the exhortation) in the light of Jehovah (in the path of truth and duty upon which the light of revelation shines). The light is mentioned as a common designation of the Scriptures and of Christ himself. (Prov. 6:23. Ps. 119:105. Isai. 51:4. Acts 26:23. 2 Cor. 4:4.)

6. The exhortation in v. 5 implied that the Jews were not actually walking in God's light, but were alienated from him, a fact which is now explicitly asserted and the reason of it given, viz. illicit intercourse with foreign nations, as evinced by the adoption of their superstitious practices, reliance on their martial and pecuniary aid, and last but worst of all, the worship of their idols. In this verse, the first of these effects is ascribed to intercourse with those eastern countries, which are always represented by the ancients as the cradle of the occult arts and sciences. As if he had said, I thus exhort, O Lord, thy chosen people, because thou hast forsaken thy people, because they are replenished from the East and (full of) soothsayers like the Philistines, and with the children of strangers they abound. From the east denotes not mere influence or imitation, but an actual influx of diviners from that quarter. The Philistines are here mentioned rather by way of comparison than as an actual source of the corruption. That the Jews were familiar with their superstitions may be learned from 1 Sam. 6:2. 2 Kings 1:2 — The last verb does not mean they please themselves, but they abound. By children of strangers we are not to understand the fruits, i. e. doctrines and practices of strangers. It rather means strangers themselves, not strange gods or their children, i. e. worshippers, but foreigners considered as descendants of a strange stock, and therefore as aliens from the commonwealth of Israel.

7. The second proof of undue intercourse with heathen nations, which the Prophet mentions, is the influx of foreign money and of foreign troops, with which he represents the land as filled. And his land (referring to the singular noun people in v. 6) is filled with silver and gold, and there is no end to his treasures; and his land is filled with horses, and there is no end to his chariots.—The common interpretation makes this verse descriptive of domestic wealth and luxury. But these would hardly have been placed between the superstitions and the idols, with which Judah had been flooded from abroad. Besides, this interpretation fails to account for gold and silver being here combined with horses and chariots. Some suppose the latter to be mentioned only as articles of luxury; but as such they are never mentioned elsewhere, not even in the case of Absalom and Naaman, both of whom were military chiefs as well as nobles. Even the chariots of the peaceful Solomon were probably designed for martial show. The horses and chariots of the Old Testament are horses and chariots of war. The common riding animals were mules and asses, the latter of which, as contrasted with the horse, are emblematic of peace (Zech. 9:9. Matt. 21:7). But on the supposition that the verse has reference to undue dependence upon foreign powers, the money and the armies of the latter would be naturally named together. Thus understood, this verse affords no proof that the prophecy belongs to the prosperous reign of Uzziah or Jotham, since it merely represents the land as flooded with foreign gold and foreign troops, a description rather applicable to the reign of Ahaz. The form of expression, too, suggests the idea of a recent acquisition, as the strict sense of the verb is not it is full, nor even it is filled, but it was or has been filled.

8. The third and greatest evil flowing from this intercourse with foreign nations was idolatry itself, which was usually introduced under the cloak of mere political alliances (see e. g. 2 Kings 16:10). Here as elsewhere the terms used to describe it are contemptuous in a high degree. And his land is filled with idols (properly nonentities, 'gods which yet are no gods,' Jer. 2:11; 'for we know that an idol is nothing in the world,' 1 Cor. 8:4), to the work of their hands they bow down, to that which their fingers have made, one of the great absurdities charged by the Prophets on idolaters, "as if that could be a god to them which was not only a creature but their own creature" (Matthew Henry).

9. Here the Prophet passes from the sin to its punishment, or rather simultaneously alludes to both, the verbs in the first clause being naturally applicable as well to voluntary humiliation in sin as to compulsory humiliation in punishment, while the verb in the last clause would suggest of course to a Jewish reader the twofold idea of pardoning and lifting up. They who bowed themselves to idols should be bowed down by the mighty hand of God, instead of being raised up from their wilful self abasement by the pardon of their sins. The relative futures denote not only succession in time but the relation of cause and effect. And so (by this means, for this reason) the mean man (not in the modern but the old sense of inferior, low in rank) is bowed down, and the great man is brought low, and do not thou (O Lord) forgive them. This player, for such it is, may be understood as expressing, not so much the Prophet's own desire, as the certainty of the event, arising from the righteousness of God.

10. Instead of simply predicting that their sinful course should be interrupted by a terrible manifestation of God's presence, the Prophet views him as already come or near at hand, and addressing the people as an individual, or singling out one of their number, exhorts him to take refuge under ground or in the rocks, an advice peculiarly significant in Palestine, a country full of caves, often used, if not originally made, for this very purpose (1 Sam. 13:6. 14:11. Judg. 6:2). Go into the rock and hide thee in the dust, from before the terror of Jehovah and from the glory of his majesty. The nouns in the last clause differ, according to their derivation, very much as sublimity and beauty do in English, and express in combination the idea of sublime beauty or beautiful sublimity. The tone of this address is not sarcastic but terrific. By the terror of Jehovah seems to be intended not the feeling of fear which he inspires but some terrible manifestation of his presence. The preposition, therefore, should not be taken in the vague sense of for, on account of, but in its proper local sense of from, before, or from before.

11. As the Prophet, in the preceding verse, views the terror of Jehovah as approaching, so here he views it as already past, and describes the effect which it has wrought. The eyes of the loftiness of man (i. e. his haughty looks) are cast down, and the height (or pride) of men is brought low, and Jehovah alone is exalted in that day, not only in fact, but in the estimation of his creatures, as the passive form here used may intimate.

12. The general threatening of humiliation is now applied specifically to a variety of lofty objects in which the people might be supposed. to delight and trust, vs. 12-16. This enumeration is connected with what goes before, by an explanation of the phrase used at the close of the eleventh verse. I say that day, for there is a day to Jehovah of Hosts (i. e. an appointed time for the manifestation of his power) upon (or against) every thing high and lofty, and upon every thing exalted, and it comes (or shall come) down. There is a day to Jehovah, i. e. he has a day, has it appointed, has it in reserve. The version every one, restricts the phrase too much to persons, which is only a part of the idea conveyed by the expression every thing.

13. To convey the idea of lofty and imposing objects, the Prophet makes use, not of symbols but of specimens selected from among the things of this class most familiar to his readers, beginning with the two noblest species of forest-trees. And on all the cedars of Lebanon (or the White Mountain. the chain dividing Palestine from Syria), and on all the oaks of Bashan (now called El Bethenyeh, a mountainous district, east of Jordan, famous of old for its pastures and oak-forests). Cedars and oaks are supposed by some to be here named, as emblems of great men in general, or of the great men of Syria and Israel distinctively; but this is not in keeping with the subsequent context, in which some things are mentioned, which cannot be understood as emblems, but only as samples of their several classes. On the trees and places mentioned in this verse, see Robinson's Palestine, vol. iii. p. 440, and Appendix, p. 158.

14. The mention of Lebanon and Bashan in v. 13 now leads to that of mountains in general, as lofty objects in themselves, and therefore helping to complete the general conception of high things, which the Prophet threatens with humiliation. And upon all the high mountains and upon all the elevated hills.

This must be explained as an additional specification of the general statement in v. 12, that every high thing should be humbled.

15. To trees and hills he now adds walls and towers, as a third class of objects with which the ideas of loftiness and strength are commonly associated. And upon every high tower and upon every fenced wall, literally, cut off, i. e. rendered inaccessible by being fortified.

16. The Prophet now concludes his catalogue of lofty and conspicuous objects by adding, first, as a specific item, maritime vessels of the largest class, and then a general expression, summing up the whole in one descriptive phrase, as things attractive and imposing to the eye. And upon all ships of Tarshish (such as were built to navigate the whole length of the Mediterranean sea) and upon all images (i. e. visible objects) of desire, or rather admiration and delight. It is a very old opinion that Tarshish means the sea, and ships of Tarshish sea-faring vessels, as distinguished from mere coast or river craft. From the earliest times, however, it has also been explained as the name of a place, either Tarsus in Cilicia or Cilicia itself, or Carthage, or a port in Ethiopia, or Africa in general, or a port in India, or, which is now the common opinion, Tartessus, a Phenician settlement in the south-west of Spain, between the mouths of the Baetis or Guadalquivir, sometimes put for the extreme west (Ps. 72:10). As the principal maritime trade, with which the Hebrews were acquainted, was to this region, ships of Tarshish would suggest the idea of the largest class of vessels, justly included in this catalogue of lofty and imposing objects: To suppose a direct allusion either to commercial wealth or naval strength, is inconsistent with the context, although these ideas would of course be suggested by association. Most writers understand the last clause, like the first, as a specific addition to the foregoing catalogue, denoting some particular object or class of objects, such as pictures, statues, lofty images or obelisks, palaces, tapestry, and ships. But this indefinite diversity of explanation, as well as the general form of the expression, makes it probable that this clause, notwithstanding the parallelism, was intended as a general expression for such lofty and imposing objects as had just been enumerated,—'cedars, oaks, mountains, hills, towers, walls, ships, and in short, all attractive and majestic objects.'

17. This verse, by repeating the terms of v. 11, brings us back from details to the general proposition which they were designed to illustrate and enforce, and at the same time has the effect of a strophical arrangement, in which the same burden or chorus recurs at stated intervals. And (thus, by this means, or in this way) shall the loftiness of man be cast down, and the pride of men be brought low, and Jehovah alone be exalted in that day. Or retaining the form of the first two verbs, which are not passive but neuter, and exchanging the future for the present, the sentence may be thus translated. So sinks the loftiness of man and bows the pride of men, and Jehovah alone is exalted in that day.

18. To the humiliation of all lofty things the Prophet now adds the entire disappearance of their idols. And the idols (as for the idols) the whole shall pass away. The brevity of this verse, consisting of a single clause, has been commonly regarded as highly emphatic and, as some think, sarcastic.

19. This verse differs from the tenth only by substituting a direct prediction for a warning or exhortation, and by adding the design of God's terrible appearance. And they (the idolaters, or men indefinitely) shall enter into the caves of the rocks, and into the holes of the earth, from before the terror of Jehovah and (he glory of his majesty in his arising (i. e. when he arises) to terrify the earth. The first word rendered earth is the same that was translated dust in v. 10, but even there it signifies the solid surface rather than the crumbling particles which we call dust. The most exact translation would perhaps be ground. God is said to arise when he addresses himself to any thing, especially after a season of apparent inaction.

20. This is an amplification of v. 18, explaining how the idols were to disappear, viz. by being thrown away in haste, terror, shame, and desperate contempt, by those who had worshipped them and trusted in them, as a means of facilitating their escape from the avenging presence of Jehovah. In that day shall man cast his idols of silver and his idols of gold (here named as the most splendid and expensive, in order to make the act of throwing them away still more significant) which they have made (an indefinite construction, equivalent in meaning to which have been made) for him to worship, to the moles and to the bats (a proverbial expression for contemptuous rejection.) The idols made for them to worship they shall cast to the moles and bats, not to idolaters still blinder than themselves, but to literal moles and bats, or the spots which they frequent, i. e. dark and filthy places. Moles and bats are put together on account of their defect of sight.

21. Continuing the sentence, he declares the end for which they should throw away their idols, namely, to save themselves, casting them off as worthless incumbrances in order the more quickly to take refuge in the rocks. To go into the clefts of the rocks, and into the fissures of the cliffs (or crags) from before the terror of Jehovah, and from the glory of his majesty in his arising to terrify the earth, or as Lowth more poetically renders it, to strike the earth with terror.—The final recurrence of the same refrain which closed the eleventh and seventeenth verses, marks the conclusion of the choral or strophical arrangement at this verse, the next beginning a new context.

22. Haying predicted that the people would soon lose their confidence in idols, be now shows the folly of transferring that confidence to human patrons, by a general statement of man's weakness and mortality, explained and amplified in the following chapter. Cease ye from man (i. e. cease to trust him or depend upon him) whose breath is in his nostrils (i. e. whose life is transient and precarious, with obvious allusion to Gen. 2:7) for wherein is he to be accounted of (or at what rate is he to be valued)? The interrogation forcibly implies that man's protection cannot be relied upon.—In the Septuagint this verse is wholly wanting, and some suppose the translators to have left it out, as being an unwelcome truth to kings and princes; but such a motive must have led to much more extensive expurgation of unpalatable scriptures. It is found in the other ancient versions and its genuineness has not been disputed.—To cease from is to let alone; in what specific sense must be determined by the context (compare 2 Chron. 35:21 with Prov. 23:4).