Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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The prediction of the overthrow of Syria and Israel is now renewed in the form of a symbolical name, to be inscribed on a tablet and attested by two witnesses, and afterwards applied to the Prophet's new-born son, whose progress as an infant is made the measure of the event, vs. 1-4. It is then foretold that the judgment denounced upon Syria and Israel should extend to Judah, as a punishment for distrust of God and reliance upon human aid, in consequence of which the kingdom should be imminently threatened with destruction, yet delivered for the sake of Immanuel, by whom the strength and wisdom of all enemies should be alike defeated, vs. 5-10. The Messiah himself is then introduced as speaking, warning the Prophet and the true believers neither to share in the apprehensions nor to fear the reproaches of the people, but to let Jehovah be an object of exclusive fear and reverence to them, as he would be an occasion of destruction to the unbelievers, from whom the true sense of this revelation was to be concealed, and restricted to his followers, who, together with the Prophet and the Son of God himself, should be for signs and wonders to the multitude, while waiting for the manifestation of his presence, and refusing to consult any other oracle except the word of God, an authority despised by none but those doomed to the darkness of despair, which is described as settling down upon them, with a sudden intimation, at the close, of a change for the better, especially in reference to that part of the country which had been most afflicted and despised, vs. 11-23.

The Hebrew and English text differ here in the division of the chapters. A better arrangement than either would have been to continue the eighth without interruption to the close of what is now the sixth (or seventh) verse of the ninth chapter, where a new division of the prophecy begins.

1. The prediction of the overthrow of Syria and Israel, contained in ch. 7:8,9, is here repeated, and as before in a symbolical form. In order to excite immediate attention, and at the same time to verify the prophecy, Isaiah is required to inscribe an enigmatical name on a large tablet in a legible character, with a view to present exhibition and to subsequent preservation. The name itself includes a prophecy of speedy spoliation. And Jehovah said to me, take thee (or for thyself) a great tablet (i e. great in proportion to the length of the inscription), and write upon it with a man's pen (or stylus, i. e. in an ordinary and familiar hand), To Maher-shalal-hash-baz (i. e. Haste-spoil-quick-prey). The name may also be read as a sentence—Hasten spoil! Prey hastens. These four words are not merely the heading or title of the writing, but the writing itself. Both the kind of writing and the size of the tablet (admitting larger characters), have reference to its being legible, so that he may run that readeth it (Hab. 2:2).

2. In order to preclude all suspicion of its having been uttered after the event, the prophecy is not only recorded, but attested by two witnesses. And I (Jehovah) will take to witness for me credible witnesses, to wit, Uriah the priest, and Zechariah, son of Jeberechiah. Uriah is probably the same who connived at the king's profanation of the temple (2 Kings 16. 10-16. The word credible does not relate to their true character or standing in the sight of God, but to their credit with the people, especially perhaps with the king, in which view, as well as on account of his official rank, Uriah was a very suitable witness. The same consideration makes it not improbable that the Zechariah mentioned here was the father-inlaw of Ahaz (2 Kings 18:2. 2 Chr. 29:1), perhaps the same that is mentioned as a Levite of the family of Asaph (2 Chr. 29:13).

3. The significant name, before inscribed upon the tablet, is now applied to the Prophet's new-born son, that the child, as well as the inscription, might remind all who saw them of the prophecy. The execution of the previous command is here, as in many other cases, tacitly included in the record of the command itself. (Vide supra, ch. 7:4.) And I approached unto the Prophetess, and she conceived and bare a son, and Jehovah said to me, Call his name Maher-shalal-hash-baz. This name, like Immanuel, may be understood as simply descriptive or symbolical, but its actual imposition is inferred by most interpreters from verse 18, where the Prophet speaks of himself and his children as signs and wonders in Israel, with reference, as they suppose, to the names Shear-jashub and Maher-shalal-hash-baz. The Prophetess is probably so called because she was a prophet's wife, as queen usually means a royal consort, not a queen suo jure. A remarkable series of prophetic names, imposed upon three children, is recorded in the first chapter of Hosea.

4. It is not merely by its name that the child is connected with the prophecy. The date of the event is determined by a reference to the infant's growth, as in the case of Immanuel. For before the child shall know (how) to cry my father and my mother, one (or they indefinitely) shall take away the wealth of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria before the king of Assyria, i. e. into his presence, to deliver it to him or simply in his presence, that is by his command and under his direction. The time fixed is that of the child's capacity not to recognize its parents, or to talk, but to utter the simple labial sounds by which in Hebrew as in many other languages father and mother are expressed. The time denoted was intended to be somewhat indefinite, equivalent perhaps to our familiar phrase a year or two, within which time we have reason to believe that the event occurred. There is no reason to doubt that Samaria was plundered by Tiglath-pileser (2 Kings 15:29) although not destroyed, which idea is in fact not conveyed by the terms of the description. The carrying away of its wealth does not necessarily imply any thing more than such a spoiling of the capital as might be expected in the course of a brief but successful invasion.

5. And Jehovah added to speak to me again (or further) saying. Here, as in ch. 7:10, an interval of time may be assumed.

6. The Assyrian invasion is now represented as a punishment of Judah for distrusting the divine protection and seeking- that of the Assyrians themselves. The immediate relief thus secured was to be followed by a worse calamity produced by those in whom they now confided. Because this people (Judah, so called in token of divine displeasure) hath forsaken (or rejected with contempt) the waters of Shiloah (or Siloam, the only perennial fountain of Jerusalem, here used as a symbol of the divine protection) that go softly (or flow gently, unaccompanied by noise or danger), and (because there is) joy with respect to Rezin and the son of Remaliah (i. e. because the Jews are exulting in the retreat of their invaders, caused by the approach of the Assyrians), therefore, etc. the apodosis of the sentence being given in the next verse.

7. Therefore (because the people had thus ceased to trust in the divine protection, and rejoiced in the success of their application to Assyria), behold (as if the event were actually present), Jehovah (is) bringing up upon them the waters of the river (i. e. the Euphrates, as an emblem of the Assyrian power), its strong and many waters (here contrasted with the gently flowing waters of Siloam), to wit, the king of Assyria and all his glory (with particular reference to military strength and display), and it (the river) shall come up over all its channels and go over all its banks, which may either mean that it shall transcend its usual limits, or that after submerging Israel, it shall overflow into Judah also. In favour of this last interpretation is the language of the next verse, and the fact that otherwise the punishment of Ephraim or the ten tribes is not expressly mentioned. The figure of an overflowing river is peculiarly appropriate, not only as affording a striking antithesis to the fountain mentioned in the sixth verse, but because it is often used absolutely to denote the Euphrates, the great river of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. The beauty of the metaphor is rendered still more striking by the frequent allusions, both in ancient and modern writers, to the actual inundations of this river. Here, as in ch. 7:17, 18, the figures are explained in literal expressions by the Prophet himself.

8. And it (the river) shall pass over (from Syria and Israel) into Judah, overflow and pass through (so as nearly to submerge it), to the neck shall it reach (but not above the head), and the spreadings of its wings shall be the filling of thy land, O Immanuel! The English version disturbs the metaphor by using the personal pronoun he so as to refer this verse directly to the king, and not to the river which represented him. The expression the neck was intended to denote nothing more than the imminency of the danger by figures borrowed from a case of drowning, the head alone being left above the water. Most writers suppose the figure of a stream to be exchanged in the last clause for that of a bird, or for the description of an army; but others understand wings to be used here, as often elsewhere, in the sense of sides or lateral extremities, and applied to the river itself.

9. He now turns to the enemies of Judah and assures them of the failure of their hostile plans. The prediction, as in ch. 6 :9, is clothed in the form of an ironical command or exhortation. Be wicked (i. e. indulge your malice, do your worst) and be broken (disappointed and confounded), and (that not only Syria and Israel, but) give ear all remote parts of the earth (whoever may attack the chosen people), gird yourselves (i. e. arm and equip yourselves for action) and be broken, gird yourselves and be broken (the repetition implying the certainty of the event). The failure or disappointment threatened is of course that of their ultimate design to overthrow the kingdom of Judah, and does not exclude the possibility of partial and temporary successes.

10. Not only their strength but their sagacity should be confounded. Devise a plan, and it shall be defeated (nullified or brought to nought), speak a word (whether a proposition or an order), and it shall not stand (or be carried into execution), for (Immanuel) God (is) with us. Even as a name Immanuel contains a proposition, and here this proposition is distinctly announced, but with a designed allusion to the person whom the name describes. As if he had said, 'the assurance of your safety is the great truth expressed by the name of your deliverer, to wit, that God is with us.' The mere retention of the Hebrew word could not convey its sense in this connection to the English reader.

11. The triumphant apostrophe in v. 10 is now justified by an appeal to the divine authority. I have reason to address our enemies in this tone, for thus said Jehovah to me in strength of hand (i. e when his hand was strong upon me, when I was under the influence of inspiration), and instructed me away from walking in the way of this people (i. e. warned me not to follow the example of the unbelieving Jews). When one is spoken of in Scripture as inspired, it is said not only that the spirit was upon him (Ezek. 11:5), but also that the hand of Jehovah was upon him (Ezek 1: 3. 3:22. 33:22. 37: 1), and in one case at least that it was strong upon him (Ezek. 3:14). Hence strength of hand may have the sense of inspiration, and the whole phrase here employed be equivalent in meaning to the New Testament expressions *** ***  (Rev. 1:10), *** *** (Acts 11:5), *** *** (1 Thess. 1:5).

12. The words of God himself are now recorded. Saying, ye shall not call conspiracy (or treason) every thing which this people calleth conspiracy (or treason), and its fear ye shall not fear nor be afraid. The correct view of the passage seems to be this. The unbelieving fears of the people led them to seek foreign aid. From this they were dissuaded by the Prophet and his followers, who regarded it as a violation of their duty to Jehovah. This opposition, like the conduct of Jeremiah during the Babylonian siege, was regarded by the king and his adherents as a treasonable combination to betray them to their enemies. But God himself commands the Prophet and the true believers not to be affected by this false reproach, not to regard the cry of treason or conspiracy. nor share in the real or pretended terrors of the unbelievers.

13. Jehovah of Hosts, him shall ye sanctify (i. e. regard and treat as a Holy God, and as the Holy One of Israel), and he shall be your fear, and he your dread, i. e. the object of these feelings. If they felt as they ought towards God, as supreme and almighty, and as their own peculiar God, with whom they were united in a national covenant, they could not so distrust him as to be alarmed at the approach of any earthly danger. The collocation of the words makes the sentence more emphatic Him shall ye fear is substantially equivalent to Him alone shall ye fear. Thus explained, the passage is at once a condemnation of the terror inspired by the approach of the two kings, and of the application, which it had occasioned, to Assyria for aid against them.

14. And he (Jehovah) shall be for (or become) a holy thing (an object to be sanctified) and for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence (i. e. a stone to strike against and stumble over) to the two houses of Israel (Ephraim and Judah),  for a gin (or trap) and for a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem God was the only proper object to be dreaded, feared, and sanctified, i. e. regarded as a holy being in the widest and the most emphatic sense. Thus explained, the Hebrew word corresponds almost exactly to the Greek ***, the term applied to Christ by the angel who announced his birth (Luke 1:35) In 1 Peter 2: 7, where this very passage is applied to Christ, *** seems to be employed as an equivalent to the word as here used. To others he is a stone of stumbling, but to you who believe he is something precious, something honoured, something looked upon as holy. The same application of the words is made by Paul in Rom. 9: 33. These quotations seem to show that the Prophet's words have an extensive import, and are not to be restricted either to his own times or the time of Christ. The doctrine of the text is, that even the most glorious exhibitions of God's holiness, i. e. of his infinite perfection, may occasion the destruction of the unbeliever. The most signal illustration of this general truth was that afforded in the advent of the Saviour. It was frequently exemplified, however, in the interval, and one of these exemplifications was afforded by the conduct of the unbelieving Jews in the reign of Ahaz, to whom the only power that could save them was converted by their own unbelief into a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence. The same idea is then expressed by another simple and familiar figure, that of a snare or trap. Both figures naturally suggest the idea of inadvertence and unforeseen ruin. The sense is not that Jehovah would be sanctified by Judah, and become a stumbling block to Israel; but that to some in either house or family these opposite events would happen. The inhabitants of Jerusalem are distinctly mentioned as the most conspicuous and influential members of the nation, just as Jerusalem itself is sometimes mentioned in connection with Judah, which really included it.

15. This verse completes the threatening by an explicit declaration that Jehovah would not only be a stumbling-block and snare to the houses of Israel, but that many should actually fall and be ensnared and broken. And many shall stumble over them (the stone and snare) or among them (the children of Israel) and fall, and be broken, and be snared, and be taken.

16. Bind up the testimony, seal the law, in my disciples. These are not the words of the Prophet speaking in his own person, but a command addressed to him by God, or as some suppose by the Messiah. It is commonly agreed, that the Prophet is commanded to tie up a roll or volume, and to seal it, thereby closing it. By law and testimony here we may either understand the prophetic inscription in v. 1, or the whole preceding context, considered as included in the general sense of revelation, as God's testimony to the truth and as a law or declaration of his will. The disciples, or those taught of God, probably mean the better portion of the people, those truly enlightened because taught of God (ch. 54:13), to whom the knowledge of this revelation, or at least of its true meaning, was to be restricted. The act described is not that of literally binding and sealing up a material record, but that of spiritually closing and depositing the revelation of God's will in the hearts of those who were able and willing to receive it, with allusion at the same time to its concealment from all others.

17. And I (the Messiah) will wait for Jehovah that hideth his face from the house of Jacob, and will expect him. Most writers make these the words of the Prophet; but since he is addressed in the verse preceding. without any intimation of a change of speaker here, and since the next verse is quoted in Heb. 2:13, as the words of the Messiah, it seems better to assume, that throughout this passage the Messiah is the speaker. The phrase to wait upon has changed its meaning since the date of the English version, the prominent idea being now that of service and attendance, not as of old that of expectation, which is the meaning of the Hebrew verb. God's hiding his face from the house of Jacob implies not only outward troubles but the withholding of divine illumination, indirectly threatened in the verse preceding. The house of Jacob is the whole race of Israel, perhaps with special reference to Judah. The thing to be expected is the fulness of time when the Messiah, no longer revealed merely to a few, should openly appear. For a time the import of God's promises shall be concealed from the majority, and during that interval Messiah shall wait patiently until the set time has arrived.

18. Behold, I and the children which Jehovah hath given me (are) for signs and for wonders in Israel from Jehovah of Hosts, the (One) dwelling in Mount Zion. Of the whole verse there are two distinct interpretations. 1. According to some Isaiah is the speaker, and the children meant are his two sons Shearjashub and Maher-shalal-hash-baz, to which some add Immanuel. As all these names, and that of the Prophet himself, are significant, it is supposed that for this reason he and his children are said to be signs and wonders, personified prophecies to Israel, from Jehovah, who had caused the names to be imposed. 2. According to many writers, these are the words of the Messiah, and the children are his spiritual seed (Isai. 53:10), whom the Father had given him (John 6:37, 39. 10:29. 17:6, 7, 9, 11, 12). The great argument in favour of this last interpretation is the application of the verse to Christ by Paul (Heb. 2:13), not as an illustration but an argument, a proof, that Christ partook of the same nature with the persons called his children and his brethren. It is true that many who regard Isaiah as the speaker suppose him to have been a type of Christ in this transaction. But a double sense ought not to be assumed where a single one is perfectly consistent with the context, and sufficient to explain all apparent contradictions, as in this case, where admitting that the Messiah is the speaker, we have no ellipsis to supply, and no occasion to resort to the hypothesis either of a type or an accommodation. It is not necessary, however, to restrict the terms, to the period of the advent, and to our Saviour's personal followers. Even before he came in the flesh, he and his disciples, i. e. all who looked for his appearing, were signs and wonders, objects of contemptuous astonishment, and at the same time pledges of the promise.

19. And when they (indefinitely any one, or definitely the unbelievers) shall say to you (the disciples and children of Messiah, who is still speaking), seek unto (i. e. consult as an oracle) the spirits (or the spirit-masters, those who have subject or familiar spirits at command) and to the wizards (wise or knowing ones), the chirpers and the mutterers (alluding to the way in which the heathen necromancers invoked their spirits, or uttered their responses) should not a people seek to (or consult) its God, for the living (i. e. in behalf of the living should it resort) to the dead? The last clause is the reply of the believing Jews to those who tempted them. 'When you, my disciples, are invited by superstitious sinners to consult pretended wizards, consider (or reply) that as the heathen seek responses from their gods, so you ought to consult Jehovah, and not be guilty of the folly of consulting senseless idols or dead men for the instruction of the living.'

20. Instead of resorting to these unprofitable and forbidden sources, the disciples of Jehovah are instructed to resort to the law and to the testimony (i. e. to divine revelation, considered as a system of belief and as a rule of duty) if they speak (i. e. if any speak) not according to this word (another name for the revealed will of God), it is he to whom there is no dawn, or morning (i. e no relief from the dark night of calamity). The first clause is elliptical. None can speak inconsistently with God's word—or, none can refuse to utter this word, viz. to the law and to the testimony—but one whom God has abandoned. "If our gospel be hid, it is hid to them that are lost." (2 Cor. 4: 3.) As night is a common figure for calamity, the dawn will naturally signify its termination, the return of better times. (See ch. 58:8. 47:11. Job 11:17.) They may be said to have no dawn, for whom there is nothing better in reserve.

21. And they (the people) shall pass through it (the land) hardly bestead (i e. distressed) and hungry; and it shall be (or come to pass) that when they are hungry they shall fret themselves, and curse their king and their God, and shall look upward. His king is Jehovah considered as the king of Israel. The last clause is really in close connection with the first of the next verse, and both together must be understood as indicating utter perplexity and absolute despair of help from God or man, from heaven or earth, from above or below.

22. And to the earth he shall look, and behold distress and darkness, dimness of anguish, and into darkness (he shall be) driven —or, the dimness of anguish and of darkness is dispelled. Heaven and earth are here opposed to one another, as sea and land are in ch. 5:30. Distress and darkness are here identified, as distress and light are there contrasted.

23. This darkness is to be dispelled; for (there shall) not (be) darkness (forever) to her who is now distressed (literally, to whom there is distress). The present calamity, or that just predicted, is not to be perpetual. The future state of things shall exhibit a strange contrast with the former. As the former time degraded the land of Zebulon and the land of Naphtali, so the latter glorifies the way of the sea, the bank of the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles. The same region is described in both clauses, namely, the northern extremity of the land of Israel. This is designated, first, by the tribes which occupied it, then, by its relative position with respect to Jordan and the sea of Tiberias. This part of the country, from being the most degraded and afflicted, should receive peculiar honour. Its debasement and distress both arose from its remote and frontier situation, proximity to the heathen, intercourse and mixture with them, and constant exposure to the first attacks of enemies, who usually entered Canaan from the north. To the former of these reasons may be traced the expressions of contempt for Galilee recorded in the books of the New Testament (John 1:46. 7:52. Matt. 26:69. Acts 1:11. 2:7). How this disgrace was to be exchanged for honour, is explained in the next verse. The sea mentioned in the last clause is not the Mediterranean but the sea of Galilee, as appears from Matt. 4:15, 16. The region spoken of was that along the Jordan (on one or both sides) near the sea of Galilee.