Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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This chapter contains a vision and a prophecy of awful import. At an early period of his ministry, the Prophet sees the Lord enthroned in the temple and adored by the Seraphim, at whose voice the house is shaken, and the Prophet, smitten with a sense of his own corruption and unworthiness to speak for God or praise him, is relieved by the application of fire from the altar to his lips, and an assurance of forgiveness, after which, in answer to the voice of God inquiring for a messenger, he offers himself and is accepted, but with an assurance that his labours will tend only to aggravate the guilt and condemnation of the people, who are threatened with judicial blindness, and, as its necessary consequence, removal from the desolated country; and the prophecy closes with a promise and a threatening both in one, to wit, that the remnant which survives the threatened judgments shall experience a repetition of the stroke, but that a remnant after all shall continue to exist and to experience God's mercy.

The chapter naturally falls into two parts, the vision, vs. 1-8, and the message or prediction, vs. 9-13. The precise relation between these two parts has been a subject of dispute. The question is, whether the vision is an introduction to the message, or the message an appendage to the vision. Those who take the former view suppose that in order to prepare the Prophet for a discouraging and painful revelation, he was favoured with a new view of the divine majesty and of his own unworthiness relieved by an assurance of forgiveness, and encouraged by a special designation to the self-denying work which was before him. Those who assume the other ground proceed upon the supposition, that the chapter contains an account of the Prophet's original induction into office, and that the message at the close was added to prepare him for its disappointments, or perhaps to try his faith.

But the chapter contains nothing which would not have been appropriate at any period of that ministry, and some of its expressions seem to favour, if they do not require, the hypothesis of previous experience in the office. The idea of so solemn an inauguration is affecting and impressive, but seems hardly sufficient to outweigh the presumption arising from the order of the prophecies in favour of the other supposition, which requires no facts to be assumed without authority, and although less striking, is at least as safe.

1. In the year that king Uzziah died (B. C. 758), I saw the Lord silting on a throne high and lifted up, and his skirts (the train of his royal robe) filling the palace, or, taking the last word in its more specific sense, the temple, so called as being the palace of the great King. "No man hath seen God at any time" (John 1:18), and God himself hath said, "There shall no man see me and live" (Ex. 33:20). Yet we read not only that "the pure in heart shall see God" (Matt. 5:8), but that Jacob said, "I have seen God face to face" (Gen. 32:30). It is therefore plain that the phrase to "see God" is employed in different senses, and that although his essence is and must be invisible, he may be seen in the manifestation of his glory or in human form. It has been a general opinion in all ages of the church, that in every such manifestation it was God the Son who thus revealed himself. In John 12:41, it is said to have been Christ's glory that Isaiah saw and spoke of, while Paul cites vs. 9 and 10 (Acts 28: 25, 26) as the language of the Holy Ghost. It seems needless to inquire whether the Prophet saw this sight with his bodily eyes, or in a dream, or in an ecstasy, since the effect upon his own mind must have been the same in either case. The scene of the vision is evidently taken from the temple at Jerusalem, but not confined to its exact dimensions and arrangements. It has been disputed whether what is here recorded took place before or after the death of Uzziah. Those who regard this as the first of Isaiah's prophecies are forced to assume that it belongs to the reign of Uzziah. It is also urged in favour of this opinion, that the time after his death would have been described as the first year of Jotham. The design, however, may have been to fix, not the reign in which he saw the vision, but the nearest remarkable event. Besides, the first year of Jotham would have been ambiguous, because his reign is reckoned from two different epochs, the natural death of his father, and his civil death, when smitten with the leprosy, after which he resided in a separate house, and the government was administered by Jotham as prince-regent, who was therefore virtually king before he was such formally, and is accordingly described in the very same context as having reigned sixteen and twenty years (2 Kings 15:30, 33).

2. He sees the Lord not only enthroned but attended by his ministers. Seraphim, burning spirits, standing above it, the throne, or above him that sat upon it. Six wings, six wings, to one, i. e. to each. With two he covers his face, as a sign of reverence towards God, and with two he covers his feet, for the same purpose, or to conceal himself from mortal view, and with two he flies, to execute God's will. The Hebrew word seraphim means angels of fire, the name being descriptive either of their essence, or of their ardent love, or of God's wrath which they execute. The word occurs elsewhere only as the name of the fiery serpents of the wilderness (Num. 21:6,8: Deut. 8:15), described by Isaiah (14:29. 30:6) as flying serpents. The transfer of the name to beings so dissimilar rests on their possession of two common attributes. Both are described as winged and both as burning.Standing does not imply necessarily that they rested on the earth or any other solid surface, but that they were stationary, even in the air. This will remove all objection to the version above him, which may also be explained as describing the relative position of persons in a standing and sitting posture. There is no need therefore of the rendering above it, which is given in our Bible. The covering of the feet may, according to oriental usage, be regarded as a reverential act, equivalent in import to the hiding of the face.

3. He now describes the seraphim as praising God in an alternate or responsive doxology. And this cried to this, i.e. one to another, and said, Holy, Holy, Holy (is) Jehovah of Hosts, the fulness of the whole earth, that which fills the whole earth, is his glory!—It was commonly agreed among the Fathers, that only two seraphim are mentioned here. It cannot be proved, however, from the words this to this, which are elsewhere used in reference to a greater number. (See Ex. 14:20.) The allusion to the trinity in this is the more probable because different parts of the chapter are referred in the New Testament to the three persons of the Godhead. Holy is here understood by most interpreters as simply denoting moral purity, which is certainly the prominent idea. Most probably, however, it denotes the whole divine perfection, that which separates or distinguishes between God and his creatures. "I am God and not man, the Holy One in the midst of thee." Hos. 11:9.

4. Then stirred, or shook, the bases of the thresholds at the voice that cried, or at the voice of the one crying, and the house is filled with smoke. The effect of this doxology, and of the whole supernatural appearance, is described. The door may be particularly spoken of, because the Prophet was looking through it from the court without into the interior. The participle crying may agree with voice directly or with seraph understood. By smoke some understand a cloud or vapour showing the presence of Jehovah. Most interpreters, however, understand it in its proper sense of smoke, as the natural attendant of the fire which blazed about the throne of God, or of that which burned upon the altar, as in Lev. 16:13 the mercy-seat is said to be covered with a "cloud of incense." In either case it was intended to produce a solemn awe in the beholder.

5. And I said, when I saw and heard these things, then I said, Woe is me, woe to me, or alas for me, a phrase expressing lamentation and alarm, for I am undone, or destroyed, for a man impure of lips, as to the lips, am I, and in the midst of a people impure of lips, of impure lips, I am dwelling, and am therefore undone, for the King, Jehovah of Hosts, my eyes have seen. The allusion is not merely to the ancient and prevalent belief that no one could see God and live (Gen. 32:30. Ex. 4:10, 11. 33:20. Judg. 6:22-24. 13:22), but to the aggravation of the danger arising from the moral contrast between God and the beholder. The Prophet describes himself as filled with awe, not only by the presence of Jehovah, but also by a deep impression of his own sinfulness, especially considered as unfitting him to praise God, or to be his messenger, and therefore represented as residing in the organs of speech. The lips are mentioned as the seat of his depravity, because its particular effect, then present to his mind, was incapacity to speak for God or in his praise. That it does not refer to official unfaithfulness in his prophetic office, is apparent from the application of the same words to the people. The preterite form of the verb implies that the deed was already done and the effect already certain.

6. And there flew (or then flew) to me one of the seraphim, and in his hand a live coal (or a hot stone); with tongs he took (it) from off (or from upon) the altar. All that is necessary to the understanding of the vision is, that the scene presented was a temple and included an altar. The precise position of the altar or of the Prophet is not only unimportant, but forms no part of the picture as here set before us. He now proceeds to describe the way in which he was relieved from this distress by a symbolical assurance of forgiveness. The word translated tongs is elsewhere used to signify the snuffers of the golden candlestick, and tongs are not named among the furniture of the altar; but such an implement seems to be indispensable, and the Hebrew word may be applied to any thing in the nature of a forceps.

7. And he caused it to touch (i. e. laid it on) my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips, and thy iniquity is gone, and thy sin shall be atoned for (or forgiven). The mention of the altar and the assurance of forgiveness, or rather of atonement, makes it natural to take the application of fire as a symbol of expiation by sacrifice. The fire is applied to the lips for a twofold reason; first, to show that the particular impediment of which the Prophet had complained was done away; and secondly, to show that the gift of inspiration is included, though it does not constitute the sole or chief meaning of the symbol. The gift of prophecy could scarcely be described as having taken away sin, although it might naturally accompany the work of expiation. The preterite and future forms are here combined, perhaps to intimate, first, that the pardon was already granted, and then that it should still continue. This, at least, seems better than arbitrarily to confound the two as presents.

8. And I heard the voice of the Lord saying, Whom shall I send, and who will go for us? And I said, Here am I (literally, behold me, or, lo I am), send me. The form of expression in the first clause may imply that the speaker was now invisible, perhaps concealed by the smoke which filled the house. The assurance of forgiveness produces its usual effect of readiness to do God's will. A beautiful commentary upon this effect of pardoned sin is afforded in David's penitential prayer, Psalm 51:12-15.

9. The Prophet now receives his commission, together with a solemn declaration that his labours will be fruitless. This prediction is clothed in the form of an exhortation or command addressed to the people themselves, for the purpose of bringing it more palpably before them, and of aggravating their insanity and wickedness in ruining themselves after such a warning. And he said, Go and say to this people, Hear indeed, or hear on, but understand not, and see indeed, or continue to see, but know not. Not only is their insensibility described in the strongest terms, implying extreme folly as well as extreme guilt, but, as if to provoke them to an opposite course, they are exhorted, with a sort of solemn irony, to do the very thing which would inevitably ruin them, but with an explicit intimation of that issue in the verse ensuing. This form of speech is by no means foreign from the dialect of common life. It is as if one man should say to another in whose good resolutions and engagements he had no faith, 'Go now and do the very opposite of all that you have said.' A similar expression is employed by Christ himself when he says to the Jews (Matt. 23:32), Fill ye up then the measure of your fathers. The Septuagint version renders the imperatives as futures, and this version is twice quoted in the New Testament (Matt. 13:14. Acts 28:26), as giving correctly the essential meaning of the sentence as a prophecy, though stripped of its peculiar form as an ironical command. The idea of hearing and seeing without perceiving may have been proverbial among the Jews, as it was among the Greeks.

10. As the foregoing verse contains a prediction of the people's insensibility, but under the form of a command or exhortation to themselves, so this predicts the same event, as the result of Isaiah's labours, under the form of a command to him. Make fat, gross, callous, the heart of this people, i. e. their affections or their minds in general, and its ears make heavy, dull or hard of hearing, and its eyes smear, close or blind, lest it see with its eyes, and with its ears hear, and its heart understand, perceive or feel, and it turn, i. e. repent and be converted, and be healed, or literally, and one heal it, the indefinite construction being equivalent in meaning to a passive. The thing predicted is judicial blindness, as the natural result and righteous retribution of the national depravity. This end would be promoted by the very preaching of the truth, and therefore a command to preach was in effect a command to blind and harden them. The act required of the Prophet is here joined with its ultimate effect, while the intervening circumstances, namely, the people's sin and the withholding of God's grace, are passed by in silence. But although not expressed, they are implied in this command. The essential idea is their insensibility, considered as the fruit of their own depravity, as the execution of God's righteous judgment, and as the only visible result of Isaiah's labours. In giving Isaiah his commission, it was natural to make the last of these ideas prominent, and hence the form of exhortation or command in which the prophecy is here presented. Make them insensible, not by an immediate act of power, nor by any direct influence whatever, but by doing your duty, which their wickedness and God's righteous judgments will allow to have no other effect. In other cases, where his personal agency no longer needed to be set forth or alluded to, the verse is quoted, not as a command, but as a description of the people, or as a declaration of God's agency in making them insensible. Thus in Matt. 13:15, and in Acts 28:26, the Septuagint version is retained, in which the people's own guilt is the prominent idea: 'for this people's heart is waxed gross, and their ears are dull of hearing, and their eyes they have closed, lest' etc. In John 12:40, on the other hand, the sentence takes anew form, in order to bring out distinctly the idea of judicial blindness:' he hath blinded their eyes and hardened their heart, lest,' etc. Both these ideas are in fact included in the meaning of the passage, though its form is different, in order to suit the occasion upon which it was originally uttered.

11. And I said, How long, Lord? And he said, Until that cities are desolate for want of an inhabitant, and houses for want of men, and the land shall be desolated, a waste, or utterly desolate. The spiritual death of the people should be followed by external desolation. The common explanation is no doubt the true one, that the Prophet asks how long the blindness of the people shall continue, and is told until it ruins them and drives them from their country. As the foregoing description is repeatedly applied in the New Testament to the Jews who were contemporary with our Saviour, the threatening must be equally extensive, and equivalent to saying that the land should be completely wasted, not at one time but repeatedly.

12. This verse continues the answer to the Prophet's question in the verse preceding. And (until) Jehovah shall have put far off (removed to a distance) the men (or people of the country) and great (much or abundant) shall be that which is left (of unoccupied forsaken ground) in the midst of the land. This is little more than a repetition, in other words, of the declaration in the verse preceding. The terms of this verse may be applied to all the successive desolations of the country, not excepting that most extreme and remarkable of all which exists at the present moment.

13. The chapter closes with a repetition and extension of the threatening, but in such a form as to involve a promise of the highest import. While it is threatened that the stroke shall be repeated on the remnant that survives its first infliction, it is promised that there shall be such a remnant after every repetition to the last. And yet (even after the entire desolation which had first been mentioned) in it (the desolated land) (there shall remain) a tenth or tithe (here put indefinitely for a small proportion) and (even this tenth) shall return and be for a consuming (i. e. shall again be consumed, but still not utterly, for) like the terebinth and like the oak (the two most common forest-trees of Palestine) which in falling (in their fallen state, when felled) have substance (or vitality) in them (so) a holy seed (shall be or is) the substance (vital principle) of it (the tenth or remnant which appeared to be destroyed). However frequently the people may seem to be destroyed, there shall still be a surviving remnant, and however frequently that very remnant may appear to perish, there shall still be a remnant of the remnant left, and this indestructible residuum shall be the holy seed, the true church (Rom. 11:5). This prediction was fulfilled, not once for all, but again and again; not only in the vine-dressers and husbandmen left by Nebuchadnezzar and afterwards destroyed in Egypt; not only in the remnant that survived the destruction of the city by the Romans, and increased until again destroyed by Adrian; but in the present existence of the Jews as a peculiar people, notwithstanding the temptations to amalgamate with others, notwithstanding persecutions and apparent extirpations; a fact which can only be explained by the prediction that "all Israel shall be saved" (Rom. 11:26). As in many former instances, throughout the history of the chosen people, under both dispensations, "even so, at this present time also, there is a remnant according to the election of grace."