Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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The change for the better, which was promised at the close of the eighth chapter, is described in the ninth as consisting in the rise of a great light upon the darkness, in the increase of the nation and their joy, excited by deliverance from bondage and the universal prevalence of peace, arising from the advent of a divine successor to David, who should restore, establish, and enlarge his kingdom without any limitation, vs. 1-6.

From the times of the Messiah, the Prophet suddenly reverts to his own, and again predicts the punishment of Ephraim by repeated strokes. The people had been warned both by messages from God and by experience, but had continued to indulge their proud self-confidence, in consequence of which God allowed the Assyrians, after overthrowing Rezin, to attack them also, while at the same time they were harassed by perpetual assaults from their hostile neighbours, vs. 7-11.

Still they did not repent and return to God, who therefore cut off suddenly many of all classes, but especially the rulers of the nation and the false prophets, the flattering seducers of the wretched people, from whom he must now withhold even the ordinary proofs of his compassion, vs. 12-16.

All this was the natural effect of sin, like a fire in a thicket, which at last consumes the forest, and involves the land in smoke and flame. Yet amidst these strokes of the divine displeasure, they were still indulging mutual animosities and jealousies, insomuch that Israel was like a famished man devouring his own flesh. Manasseh thus devoured Ephraim and Ephraim Manasseh, while the two together tried to devour Judah, vs. 17-20.

It has been observed already that the division of the chapters is in this part of the book peculiarly unfortunate; the first part of the ninth (vs. 1-6) containing the conclusion of the eighth, and the first part of the tenth (vs. 1-4) the conclusion of the ninth.

The numbers of the verses in this chapter differ in the Hebrew and English Bibles; what is the last verse of the eighth in the former is the first of the ninth in the latter. The references in the commentary are all to the divisions of the Hebrew text.

1. The people (just described, i. e. the people of Galilee), those walking in the dark (expressive both of spiritual blindness and extreme distress), have seen a great light (the change being presented to the Prophet's view as already past): the dwellers in the land of the shadow of death (i. e. of intense darkness), light has beamed upon them. These words, in a general sense, may be descriptive of any great and sudden change in the condition of the people, especially of one from ignorance and misery to illumination and enjoyment. They are still more appropriate to Christ as the light of the world (John 8:12), a light to the nations (Isai. 42:6. 49:6), and the sun of righteousness (Mal. 4:2), which rose upon the world when he manifested forth his glory by his teachings and his miracles in Galilee (John 2:11). It was in this benighted and degraded region that he first appeared as a messenger from God; and in that appearance we are expressly taught that this prediction was fulfilled (Matt. 4:12-17).

2. The Prophet now, by a sudden apostrophe, addresses God himself, who, by bestowing on the Galileans this great light, would not only honour them, but afford occasion of great joy to all the true Israel, including those who should be gathered from the gentiles. Thou hast enlarged the nation (i. e. Israel in general), thou hast increased its joy (literally, to it thou hast increased the joy); they rejoice before thee like the joy in harvest, as men rejoice when they divide the spoil. The increase of the nation  means the increase of the people in their own land, not a mere growth of population, but an increase of the true Israel by the calling of the gentiles. To the promise here given there is probably allusion in the language of the angel who announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds (Luke 2:10): Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all the people, i. e. to the whole nation, all the Israel of God.

3. This verse assigns the reason or occasion of the promised joy. They shall rejoice before thee, that (or because) the yoke of his burden (his burdensome yoke), and the rod of his shoulder (or back) and the staff of the one driving him (his task-master, slave-driver) thou hast broken, like the day (as in the day) of Midian, as Gideon routed Midian, i. e. suddenly, totally, and by special aid from heaven. This promise was fulfilled in the glorious deliverance of the Galileans (the first converts to Christianity), and of all who with them made up the true Israel, from the heavy burden of the covenant of works, the galling yoke of the Mosaic law, the service of the devil, and the bondage of corruption. Outward deliverance is only promised, so far as it accompanied the spiritual change or was included in it. The day of any one in Hebrew often means the day in which something memorable happens to him, or is done by him (vide supra, ch 2: 12) and in Arabic is absolutely used for a day of battle. The rout of the Midianites, recorded in the seventh chapter of Judges, is here referred to, because it was a wonderful display of divine power, without the use of any adequate human means—and also, because it took place in the same part of the country which this prophecy refers to Jezreel, where the battle was fought (Judg. 6: 33), was in the territory of Manasseh, to which tribe Gideon himself belonged (Judg. 6:15); but he was aided by the neighbouring tribes of Asher, Zebulon, and Naphtali (Judg. 6:35).

4. The destruction of the oppressing power shall be followed by profound and universal peace. To express this idea, the Prophet describes the equipments of the soldier as consumed with fire. For all the armour of the armed man (or the man-at-arms, who mingles) in the tumult (of battle), and the garment rolled in blood, shall be for burning (and for) food (or fuel) of fire. In other words, the usual accompaniments of battle shall be utterly destroyed, and by implication, war itself shall cease. It is not the weapons of the enemy alone, but all weapons of war, that are to be consumed; not merely because they have been used for a bad purpose, but because they are hereafter to be useless It is not so much a prophecy of conquest as of peace; a peace however which is not to be expected till the enemies of God are overcome; and therefore the prediction may be said to include both events, the final overthrow of all opposing powers and the subsequent prevalence of universal peace. This last is uniformly spoken of in Scripture as characteristic of Messiah's reign, both internal and external, in society at large and in the hearts of his people. With respect to the latter, the prediction has been verified with more or less distinctness, in every case of true conversion. With respect to the former, its fulfilment is inchoate, but will one day be complete, when the lion and the lamb shall lie down together, and He who is the Prince of Peace shall have dominion from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth. An allusion to this promise and its final consummation may be found in the words of the heavenly host who celebrated the Saviour's birth (Luke 2: 14), Glory to God in the highest, and on earth Peace, good will to men. Fire is mentioned simply as a powerful consuming agent, to express the abolition of the implements of war, and, as a necessary consequence, of war itself.

5. This verse gives a further reason for the joy of the people, by bringing into view the person who was to effect the great deliverance. For a child is born to us (or for us, i. e. for our benefit), a son is given to us (i. e. by Jehovah, an expression frequently applied in the New Testament to Christ's incarnation), and the government is upon his shoulder (as a burden or a robe of office), and his name is called Wonderful (literally Wonder), Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. When it is said that his name should be so called, it does not mean that he should actually bear these names in real life, but merely that he should deserve them, and that they would be descriptive of his character. These words are strikingly appropriate to Jesus Christ, as the promised child, emphatically born for us and given to us, as the Son of God and the Son of Man, as being wonderful in his person, works and sufferings; a counsellor, prophet, authoritative teacher of the truth, a wise administrator of the church, and confidential adviser of the individual believer—a real man, and yet the Mighty God; eternal in his own existence, and the giver of eternal life to others; the great peace-maker between God and man, between Jew and gentile, the umpire between nations, the abolisher of war, and the giver of internal peace to all who being justified by faith have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 5:1).

6. The reign of this king shall be progressive and perpetual, because founded in justice and secured by the distinguishing favour of Jehovah. To the increase of the government (or power) and to the peace (or prosperity of this reign) there shall be no end, upon the throne of David and upon his kingdom, to establish it and to confirm it, injustice and in righteousness, from henceforth and forever, the zeal of Jehovah of Hosts shall do this. A striking parallel is furnished by the prophecy in Micah 5:2-4. There, as here, a king is promised who should be the son of David, and should reign over all the earth in peace and righteousness forever. It is there expressed, and here implied, that this king should re-unite the divided house of Israel, although this is but a small part of the increase promised, which includes the calling of the gentiles also. Peace here denotes not only peace as opposed to war, intestine strife, or turbulence, but welfare and prosperity in general as opposed to want and sorrow. The reign here predicted was to be not only peaceful but in every respect prosperous. And this prosperity, like the reign of which it is predicted, is to have no limit either temporal or local. It is to be both universal and eternal. There is nothing to preclude the very widest explanation of the terms employed. The endless increase of power and prosperity on the throne of David means of course that the Prince, whose reign was to be thus powerful and prosperous, would be a descendant of David. This is indeed a repetition and explanation of a promise given to David (2 Sam. 7:11-16. 1 Kings 8:25) and repeatedly referred to by him (2 Sam. 23:1-5. Ps. 2, 45, 72, 89, 132). Hence the Messiah is not only called the Branch or Son of David (2 Sam. 7:12, 13. Jer. 23:5. 33:15), but David himself (Jer. 30:9. Ezek. 34:23, 24. 37:24. Hos. 3:5). The two reigns are identified, not merely on account of an external resemblance or a typical relation, but because the one was really a restoration or continuation of the other. Both kings were heads of the same body, the one a temporal head, the other spiritual, the one temporary, the other eternal. The Jewish nation, as a spiritual body, is really continued in the Christian church. The subject of the prophecy is the reign of the Messiah; the effect predicted, its stability and increase; the means to be employed, judgment and justice; the efficient cause, the zeal of Jehovah. The justice spoken of is that of the Messiah and his subjects. All the acts of his administration will be righteous, and the effect of this upon his people will be righteousness on their part, and this prevalence of righteousness will naturally generate the increase and stability here promised. The word translated zeal expresses the complex idea of strong affection comprehending or attended by a jealous preference of one above another. It is used in the Old Testament to signify not only God's intense love for his people but his jealousy in their behalf, that is to say, his disposition to protect and favour them at the expense of others. Sometimes, moreover, it includes the idea of a jealous care of his own honour, or a readiness to take offence at any thing opposed to it, and a determination to avenge it when insulted. The expressions are derived from the dialect of human passion, but describe something absolutely right on God's part for the very reasons which demonstrate its absurdity and wickedness on man's. These two ideas of God's jealous partiality for his own people, and his jealous sensibility respecting his own honour, are promiscuously blended in the usage of the word, and are perhaps both included in the case before us. Both for his own sake and his people's, he would bring these events to pass. Or rather the two motives are identical, that is to say, the one includes the other. The welfare of the church is only to be sought so far as it promotes God's glory, and a zeal which makes the glory of the church an object to be aimed at for its own sake, cannot be a zeal for God, or is at best a zeal for God but not according to knowledge. The mention of God's jealousy or zeal as the procuring cause of this result affords a sure foundation for the hopes of all believers. His zeal is not a passion but a principle of powerful and certain operation. The astonishing effect produced by feeble means in the promotion, preservation, and extension of Christ's kingdom, can only be explained upon the principle that the zeal of the Lord of Hosts effected it. The expressions of the verse before us were applied to Christ, before his birth, by Gabriel, when he said to Mary (Luke 1:32-34), He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest, and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David, and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there shall be no end.

7. Having repeatedly interchanged the three great subjects of this prophecy, the deliverance of Judah from the power of Syria and Israel, its subsequent punishment by means of the Assyrians, and the reign of the Messiah, for whose sake the kingdom was to be preserved, the Prophet passes here abruptly from the last to the first, and again predicts the punishment of Ephraim. He reverts to this event, which had already been repeatedly foretold, for the purpose of declaring that the blows would be repeated as often and as long as might be needed for the absolute fulfilment of God's threatenings. He begins by showing that Israel had already been sufficiently forewarned. The Lord sent a word into Jacob, and it came down into Israel. The two names of the patriarch are here used as equivalents, denoting his descendants, and especially the larger part, the kingdom of the ten tribes, to which the national name Israel is wont to be distinctively applied.

8. The word which God had sent had reached the people; they had heard and understood it, but continued to indulge their pride and self-security. And they know (the divine threatening), the people, all of them (literally all of it, the noun being singular but used collectively), Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria (a limitation of the general terms preceding, so as to prevent their application to Judah), in pride and in greatness of heart (an equivalent expression), saying (the words recorded in the next verse).

9. The very words of the self confident Ephraimites are now recorded. Instead of being warned and instructed by what they had already suffered, they presumptuously look for greater prosperity than ever. Bricks are fallen, and hewn stone will we build; sycamores are felled, and cedars will we substitute. The oriental bricks are unburnt, so that most of their brick structures are as little durable as mud walls The sycamore is durable, but too light and spongy to be used in solid building. The latter is accordingly contrasted with the cedar, and the former with hewn stone, the two most highly valued building materials. This verse is a metaphorical description of a change from worse to better, by a substitution of the precious for the vile. Bricks and sycamores are proverbial expressions for that which is inferior, and cedars and hewn stone for that which is superior. An illustrative parallel is found in ch. 60:17, where the same general idea is expressed by the exchange of stones for iron, iron for silver, wood for brass, brass for gold, of course without allusion to a literal exchange or mutual substitution.

10. Here begins a second stage in the progress of God's judgments. He had sent a warning prophecy before (v. 7), and they had been taught its meaning by experience (v. 8), but without effect upon their proud self-confidence. And (now) Jehovah raises up above him (i. e. Ephraim) the (victorious) enemies of Rezin (his late ally), and (besides these) he will instigate his own (accustomed) enemies (to wit, those mentioned in the next verse). They who were to conquer Israel are called the enemies of Rezin, to remind the Israelites of their alliance with him, and to intimate that they who had so lately conquered Syria were soon to conquer Israel.

11. This verse contains a more particular description of Ephraim's own enemies who were to be stirred up against him, with a declaration that this was not to be the end of the infliction. Aram (or Syria in the widest sense) before, and Philistia (or the Philistines) behind, and they devour Israel with open mouth (i. e. ravenously). For all this (or notwithstanding all this) his wrath does not torn back (from the pursuit or the attack), and still his hand is stretched out On the meaning of this last clause, see above, ch. 5:25. The Syrians and Philistines are supposed by some to be referred to, as forming part of the Assyrian army. The reference may however be to separate attacks from these two powers. Before and behind may simply mean on opposite sides, or more specifically to the east and west, which are often thus described in Hebrew.

12. These continued and repeated strokes are still without effect in bringing the people to repentance. And the people has not turned to him that smote them, and Jehovah of Hosts they have not sought. Sin is described in Scripture as departure from God. Repentance, therefore, is returning to him. To seek God, in the idiom of Scripture, is to pray to him (Isai 55:6), to consult him (Isai. 8:19), to resort to him for help (Isai. 31:1), to hold communion with him (Amos 5:4, 5). Hence it is sometimes descriptive of a godly life in general (Psalm 14:2). So here it includes repentance, conversion, and new obedience. This verse does not assign the reason of the fact recorded in the one preceding, but continues the description. God went on punishing, and the people went on sinning.

13. The next stroke mentioned is a sudden destruction among all ranks of the people, the extremes being designated by two figures drawn from the animal and vegetable world. And Jehovah has cut of from Israel head and tail, branch and rush, in one day The allusion here is to a branch of the palm tree or the tree itself. This tree, though now rare in the Holy Land, abounded there of old, especially in the southern part, where several places were named after it (Deut 34:3. 2 Chron. 20:2). Hence it appears on Roman coins as the symbol of Judea. It is highly esteemed in the east, both for beauty and utility. Its branches grow near the top of its lofty trunk and bend towards the ground, as its leaves do also, with a gentle curvature, resembling that of a hand partly closed, from which peculiarity the Hebrew name and the Latin palma seem to be derived. Palm and rush denote that which is superior and inferior, including every class in the community.

14. To the descriptive figures of the preceding verse, the Prophet now adds a specific application of the first. Jehovah had cut off from Israel, not only in a general sense the upper and lower classes of society, but in a more restricted sense the wicked rulers, who were the corrupt head of the body politic, and the false prophets who, as their abject adherents, and on account of their hypocrisy and false pretensions to divine authority, must be regarded as its tail, because contemptible and odious, even in comparison with other wicked men, who laid no claim to a religious character. The elder and the favourite (or honourable person), he (is) the head, and the prophet teaching falsehood, he (is) the tail. The teaching of falsehood means teaching in the name of God what he has not revealed. The false prophets are called the tail, because the false prophets were morally the basest of the people, and because they were the servile adherents and supporters of the wicked rulers. With respect both to the head which they followed, and the body of which they were the vilest part, they might be justly called the tail.

15. This verse gives a reason, not why all classes were to be destroyed, but why the rulers and false prophets had been specially mentioned. It arises, therefore, naturally out of the fourteenth, and thus incidentally proves it to be genuine. The truth expressed and implied is, that the leaders of the people had destroyed them and should perish with them. The leaders of this people have been seducers, and those led by them (are) swallowed up (or ruined).

16. Therefore (because the people are thus incorrigibly impenitent) the Lord will not rejoice over their young men (literally chosen ones, i. e. for military service, the word being used in the general sense of youths, but seldom without reference to war), and on their orphans and their widows (elsewhere represented as peculiarly the objects of God's care) he will not have mercy (expressing in the strongest form the extent and severity of the threatened judgments); for every one of them (literally of it, referring to the singular noun people) is profane (or impious) and an evil doer, and every mouth (is) speaking folly (in the strong Hebrew sense of wickedness). For all this his wrath is not turned back, and still is his hand outstretched.

17. This verse assigns a reason why God's hand is still stretched out for the destruction of his people, by describing that destruction as the natural effect of their own wickedness, here likened to a fire beginning near the ground among the thorns and briers, then extending to the undergrowth or brushwood of the forest, which, as it consumes away, ascends in a volume of smoke. For wickedness burneth as the fire, thorns and briers it consumes, then kindles in the thickets of the forest, and they roll themselves upwards, a column (literally, an ascent) of smoke. Thorns and briers are often used as emblems of the wicked (Mic. 7:4. Nah. 1:10. 2 Sam. 23:6), and their burning as a figure for the punishment of sinners (Isai. 33:12. Ps. 118:12. 2 Sam. 23:7), especially by means of foreign enemies (Isai. 10:17. 32:13).

18. The figure of a general conflagration is continued in this verse, and then exchanged for a literal description of the miseries produced by civil war. In the wrath of Jehovah of Hosts, the land is darkened (with the smoke, or heated by the flame) and the people is like food (or fuel) of fire; one another (literally, man his brother) they do not spare.

19. The horrors of civil war are now presented under the fearful image of insatiable hunger, leading men to devour their own flesh. And he tears on the right hand and is hungry (still), and devours on the left and (still) they are not satisfied; each the flesh of his (own) arm, they devour. The words right and left simply denote that the devouring should be mutual and extend in all directions. The special mention of the arm may imply that the mutual destroyers ought to have been mutual protectors.

20. The application of the figures in v. 19 is now made plain by the Prophet himself, who has been drawing no imaginary scene. It is Israel, the chosen race, that feeds on its own flesh. They devour each the flesh of his own armManasseh (devours) Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh—and together they (are) against Judah. For all this his wrath is not turned back and still his hand (is) stretched out. The tribes here specified are chosen for two reasons: first, because Judah and Joseph were the most important branches of the stock of Israel, as well before as after the disruption; and secondly, because the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh were more nearly related to each other than to any of the rest, and therefore their hostility afforded the most striking illustration of the mutual rancour which the Prophet had described as prevalent. Together implies unity of time, place, and action. Not only is it common for intestine wars to give occasion and give place to foreign ones, but this clause really continues the description and adds greatly to its force, by suggesting the idea that the mutual enmity of these two kindred tribes could only be exceeded by their common hatred to their common relative, the tribe of Judah. The allusions of the verse are not to one exclusive period, but to a protracted series of events. The intestine strifes of Ephraim and Manasseh, although not recorded in detail, may be inferred from various incidental statements. Of their ancient rivalry we have examples in the history of Gideon (Judges 8:1-3) and Jephtha (Judges 12:1-6); and as to later times, it has been observed that of all who succeeded Jeroboam the Second on the throne of Israel, Pekahiah alone appears to have attained it without treachery or bloodshed. That Manasseh and Ephraim were both against Judah, may refer either to their constant enmity or to particular attacks. No sooner did one party gain the upper hand in the kingdom of the ten tribes, than it seems to have addressed itself to the favourite work of harassing or conquering Judah, as in the case of Pekah, who invaded it almost as soon as he had waded to the throne through the blood of Pekahiah. The repetition in the last clause intimates that even these extreme evils should be followed by still worse; that these were but the beginning of sorrows; that the end was not yet.