Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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Here begins a series of prophecies (chap. xiii-xxiii) against certain foreign powers, from the enmity of which Israel had been more or less a sufferer. The first in the series is a memorable prophecy of the fall of the Babylonian empire and the destruction of Babylon itself (chap xiii, xiv). The Medes are expressly named as the instruments of its subjection, and the prophecy contains several other remarkable coincidences with history both sacred and profane. Hence it was justly regarded by the older writers, both Jews and Christians, as an extraordinary instance of prophetic foresight. The great majority of Christian writers understand these chapters as a specific prophecy of the downfall of the Babylonian empire occasioned by the conquests of the Medes and Persians. To this event there are repeated unequivocal allusions. There are some points, however, in which the coincidence of prophecy and history, on this hypothesis, is not so clear. This is especially the case with respect to the total destruction and annihilation of the city itself, which was brought about by a gradual process through a course of ages. The true solution of this difficulty is that the prediction is generic, not specific; that it is not a detailed account of one event exclusively, but a prophetic picture of the fall of Babylon considered as a whole, some of the traits being taken from the first and some from the last stage of the fatal process, while others are indefinite or common to all. The same idea may be otherwise expressed by saying, that the king of Babylon, whose fall is here predicted, is neither Nebuchadnezzar nor Belshazzar, but the kings of Babylon collectively, or rather an ideal king of Babylon, in whom the character and fate of the whole empire are concentrated. Some of the terms applied to him may therefore be literally true of one king, some of another, some individually of none, although descriptive of the whole. This hypothesis, while it removes all discrepancies, still retains the wonderful coincidences of the prophecy with history, and makes them more remarkable by scattering them through so vast a field. It is universally admitted that the thirteenth chapter, and the greater part if not the whole of the fourteenth, constitute a single prophecy. The division of the chapters is, however, not a wrong one. Both parts relate to the destruction of Babylon, setting out from God's decree and winding up with the threatening of total desolation. Ch. xiv is therefore not a mere continuation of ch. xiii, but a repetition of the same matter in another form. The difference of form is chiefly this, that while ch. xiii is more historical in its arrangement, ch. xiv is dramatic or at least poetical. Another point of difference is that in ch. xiii the downfall of Babylon is represented rather as an act of divine vengeance, in ch. xiv as a means of deliverance to Israel, the denunciations of divine wrath being there clothed in the form of a triumphant song to be sung by Israel when Babylon is fallen. The downfall of Babylon, as a great antitheocratic power, an opponent and persecutor of the ancient church, affords a type or emblem of the destiny of all opposing powers under the New Testament; and in consequence of this analogy, the Apocalyptic prophecies apply the name Babylon to the Antichristian power. But these Apocalyptic prophecies are new ones, not interpretations of the one before us.


After a title, the prophecy opens with a summons to the chosen instruments of God's righteous judgments upon Babylon, who are described as mustered by the Lord himself, and then appearing, to the terror and amazement of the Babylonians, who are unable to resist their doom, vs 1-9. The great catastrophe is then described in a series of beautiful figures, as an extinction of the heavenly bodies, and a general commotion in the frame of nature, explained by the prophet himself to mean a fearful visitation of Jehovah, making men more rare than gold, dispersing the strangers resident at Babylon, and subjecting the inhabitants to the worst inflictions at the hands of the Medes, who are expressly mentioned as the instruments of the divine vengeance, and described as indifferent to gain and relentless in their cruelty, vs. 1-18. From this beginning of the process of destruction, we are then hurried on to its final consummation, the completeness of which is expressed by a comparison with the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah, and by a prediction that the site of Babylon shall not be frequented even by the wandering Arab, or by shepherds and their flocks, but only by solitary animals whose presence is itself a sign of utter desolation, vs. 19-22.

1. The Burden of Babylon (or threatening prophecy respecting it), which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw (received by revelation). There are two interpretations of the word translated burden, both very ancient. The one makes it simply mean a declaration, or more specifically a divine declaration, a prophecy, oracle, or vision. The other explanation gives the word the sense of a minatory prophecy. Because in other connections it always means a burden, it is best to retain the common explanation. This word occurs in the titles of all the distinct prophecies of this second part.

2. The attack of the Medes and Persians upon Babylon is now foretold, not in the proper form of a prediction, nor even in that of a description, which is often substituted for it, but in that of an order from Jehovah to his ministers to summon the invaders, first by an elevated signal, and then as they draw nearer by gestures and the voice. Upon a bare hill (i. e. one with a clear summit, not concealed by trees) set up a signal, raise the voice (shout or cry aloud) to them (the Medes and Persians), and let them enter the gates of the (Babylonian) nobles. Some suppose the angels to be here addressed; others, the captive Jews; but it is best to understand the words indefinitely as addressed to those whose proper work it was to do the thing commanded. Jehovah being here represented as a military leader, the order is of course to be conceived as given to his heralds or other officers. They are not commanded to display a banner as a sign of victory, but to erect a signal for the purpose of collecting troops. The nobles are those of Babylon.

3. The enemies thus summoned are described as chosen, designated instruments of the divine vengeance, and as already exulting in the certainty of their success. I (myself) have given command (or a commission) to my consecrated (chosen and appointed instruments). Yes (literally, also), I have called (forth) my mighty ones (or heroes) for (the execution of) my wrath, my proud exulters. Consecrated is here used in its primary and proper sense of separating, setting apart, or consecrating to a special use or service. To call out is here explained by some as denoting specially a call to military service. It may, however, have the general sense of summoning or calling upon by name The last words of the verse, may be understood as a description of the confidence with which they anticipated victory; but most interpreters suppose an allusion to the natural character of the Persians as described by Croesus in Herodotus, by Herodotus himself and others.

4. The Prophet, in his own person, now describes the enemies of Babylon who had just been summoned, as actually on their way. He hears a confused noise, which he soon finds to be that of confederated nations forming the army of Jehovah against Babylon. The voice (or sound) of a multitude in the mountains! the likeness of much people! the sound of a tumult of kingdoms of nations gathered (or gathering themselves)! Jehovah of Hosts mustering (i. e. inspecting and numbering) a host of battle (i. e a military host)! The absence of verbs adds greatly to the vividness of the description. The sentence really consists of a series of exclamations, describing the impressions made successively upon the senses of an eye and ear-witness. By the mountains some suppose Media to be meant, to which others add Armenia and the other hilly countries from which Cyrus drew his forces. This supposes the movement here described to be that of the levy or conscription. But it seems more natural to understand it, as most writers do, of the actual advance of the invaders. The mountains then will be those dividing Babylonia from Media or Persia. The expression likeness of much people some refer to the indistinct view of a great multitude approaching from a distance. The reference to sound before and afterwards, makes the reference of this clause to the sense of sight improbable. It is commonly agreed that there is here a direct reference to the mixture of nations in the army of Cyrus. Besides the Persians and the Medes, Xenophon speaks of the Armenians, and Jeremiah adds the names of other nations (Jer. 50:9. 51:27). Most interpreters suppose the event here predicted to be subsequent in date to the overthrow of Croesus, while some refer it to the first attack of Cyrus upon Babylonia, recorded in the third book of the Cyropedia. But these distinctions seem to rest upon a false view of the passage as a description of particular marches, battles, etc., rather than a generic picture of the whole series of events which ended in the downfall of Babylon. For a just view of the principles on which such prophecies should be explained, with particular reference to that before us, see Stuart on the Apocalypse, vol 2, p. 143. The title Jehovah of Hosts, may here seem to be used unequivocally, in the sense of God of Battles, on account of the obvious allusion to the word host following. But as this explanation of the title is not justified by scriptural usage (see above, ch. 1:9), it is better to understand the words as meaning that the Lord of the Hosts of Heaven is now mustering a host on earth. He who controls the hosts of heaven is now engaged in mustering a host of war, i. e. an army. The substitution of the present for the participle in the English Version (mustereth) and most others, greatly impairs the force and uniformity of the expression by converting a lively exclamation into a dispassionate assertion.

5. Coming from a distant land (literally, a land of distance), from the (visible or apparent) end of the heavensJehovah and the instruments (or weapons) of his wrathto lay waste (or destroy) the whole land (of Babylonia). The end of heaven is a strong but natural hyperbole. The best explanation is that the Prophet refers to the horizon or bounding line of vision. He is not deliberately stating from what region they set out, but from what point he sees them actually coming, viz. from the remotest point in sight. This view of the expression, not as a geographical description, but as a vivid representation of appearances, removes the necessity of explaining how Media or Persia could be called a distant land or the extremity of heaven. The host which Jehovah was before said to be mustering is now represented as consisting of himself and the weapons of his wrath. This intimation of his presence, his co-operation, and even his incorporation, with the invading host, adds greatly to the force of the threatening. The Hebrew word translated implements includes instruments and vessels. It has here the active sense of weapons, while in Rom 9:22, Paul employs a corresponding Greek phrase in the passive sense of vessels. Weapons of wrath are the weapons which execute it, vessels of wrath the vessels which contain it.

6. Howl (ye Babylonians, with distress and fear), for the day of Jehovah (his appointed time of judgment) is near. Like might (i. e. a mighty stroke or desolation) from the Almighty it shall come. A destruction as complete and overwhelming as if it were an act of reckless violence. This day is said to be near, not absolutely with respect to the date of the prediction, but relatively, either with respect to the perceptions of the Prophet, or with respect to what had gone before. For ages Babylon might be secure; but after the premonitory signs just mentioned should be seen, there would be no delay. The words of the verse are supposed to be uttered in the midst of the tumult and alarm of the invasion.

7. Therefore (because of this sudden and irresistible attack) all hands shall sink (fall down, be slackened or relaxed), and every heart of man shall melt. Both the clauses, in their strict sense, are descriptive of bodily effects, and both indicative of mental states. Each of the figures is repeatedly used elsewhere. (See Jos. 7:5. Ps. 22:14. Jer. 50:43. Job 4:3.)

8. And they (the Babylonians) shall be confounded, pangs and throes shall seize (them), like the travailing (woman) they shall writhe, each at his neighbour, they shall wonder, faces of flames (shall be) their faces. The expression wonder at each other occurs once in historical prose (Gen. 43:33). It seems here to denote not simply consternation and dismay, but stupefaction at each other's aspect and condition, q. d. each man at his friend shall stand aghast. The last clause is a continued description of the terror and distress of the Chaldeans. In the expression faces of flame, the point of comparison according to some is redness, here referred to as a natural symptom of confusion and shame. But as this seems inappropriate in the case before us, others understand the aspect indicated to be one of paleness, as produced by fear. Others understand the glow or flush produced by anguish and despair to be intended.

9. All this must happen and at a set time, for behold the day of Jehovah cometh, terrible, and wrath and heat of anger, to place (or make) the land a waste, and its sinners he (or it, the day) will destroy from it (or out of it). The moral causes of the ruin threatened are significantly intimated by the Prophet's calling the people of the earth or land its sinners.

10. The day of Jehovah is now described as one of preternatural and awful darkness, in which the very sources of light shall be obscured. This natural and striking figure for sudden and disastrous change is of frequent occurrence in Scripture (see Isai. 24:23. 34:4. Ezek. 32:7, 8. Joel 2:10. 3:15. Amos 8:9. Matth. 24:29). Well may it be called a day of wrath and terror, for the stars of the heavens and their signs (or constellations) shall not shed their light, the sun is darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause its light to shine. Some understand the image here presented to be that of a terrific storm, veiling the heavens, and concealing its luminaries. But grand as this conception is, it falls short of the Prophet's vivid description, which is not that of transient obscuration but of sudden and total extinction. The abrupt change from the future to the preterite and back again, has been retained in the translation, although most modern versions render all the verbs as present. From simply foretelling the extinction of the stars, the Prophet suddenly describes that of the sun as if he saw it, and then adds that of the moon as a necessary consequence.

11. The Prophet according to his custom (see above, ch. 1:22. 5:7. 11:9), now resolves his figures into literal expressions, showing that the natural convulsions just predicted are to be understood as metaphorical descriptions of the divine judgments. And I will visit upon the world (its) wickedness (i. e. manifest my presence for the purpose of punishing it), and upon the wicked their iniquity, and I will cause to cease the arrogance of presumptuous sinners, and the pride of tyrants (or oppressors) I will humble. World is here applied to the Babylonian empire, as embracing most of the known world.

12. To the general description in the foregoing verse he now adds a more specific threatening of extensive slaughter, and a consequent diminution of the population, expressed by a strong comparison. I will make men more scarce (or rare) than pure gold, and a human being than the ore of Ophir. The disputed question as to the locality of Ophir, although not without historical and archaeological importance, can have no effect upon the meaning of this passage. Whether the place meant be Ceylon, or some part of continental India, or of Arabia, or of Africa, it is here named simply as an Eldorado, as a place where gold abounded, either as a native product or an article of commerce, from which it was brought, and with which it was associated in the mind of every Hebrew reader.

13. The figurative form of speech is here resumed, and what was before expressed by the obscuration of the heavenly bodies is now denoted by a general commotion of the frame of nature. Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth shall shake (or be shaken) out of its place in the wrath of Jehovah of Hosts and in the day of the heat (or fierceness) of his anger. Therefore may either mean because of the wickedness mentioned in v. 11, or for the purpose of producing the effect described in v. 12.

14. And it shall be (or come to pass, that) like a roe (or antelope) chased (or driven by the hunters) and like sheep with none to gather them (literally, like sheep and there is no one guttering), each to his people, they shall turn, and each to his country, they shall flee. The points of comparison to antelopes are their timidity and fleetness. The figure of scattered sheep, without a gatherer or shepherd, is a common one in Scripture.

15. The flight of the strangers from Babylon is not without reason, for every one found (there) shall be stabbed (or thrust through), and every one joined (or joining himself to the Babylonians) shall fall by the sword. All interpreters agree that a genera] massacre is here described, although they differ as to the precise sense and connection of the clauses.

16. The horrors of the conquest shall extend not only to the men, but to their wives and children. And their children shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes, their houses shall be plundered and their wives ravished. The same thing is threatened against Babylon in Ps. 137:9, in retaliation for the barbarities practised in Jerusalem (2 Chr. 36: 17. Lara. 5:11). The horror of the threatening is enhanced by the addition of before their eyes. (Compare ch. 1:7 and Deut. 28:31, 32.)

17. The Prophet now, for the first time, names the chosen instruments of Babylon's destruction. Behold I (am) stirring up against them Madai (Media or the Medes), who will not regard silver, and (as for) gold, they will not take pleasure in it (or desire it). Here, as in Jer. 51:11, 28, the Medes alone are mentioned, as the more numerous and hitherto more powerful nation, to which the Persians had long been subject, and were still auxiliary. Or the name may be understood as comprehending both, which has been clearly shown to be the usage of the classical historians. Indeed, all the names of the great oriental powers are used, with more or less latitude and license, by the ancient writers, sacred and profane. As the Medes did not become an independent monarchy till after the date of this prediction, it affords a striking instance of prophetic foresight. At the date of this prediction they formed a part of the Assyrian empire, but revolted at the time of the Assyrian invasion of Syria and Israel. Their first king Dejoces was elected about 700 years before the birth of Christ. His son Phraortes conquered Persia, and the united Medes and Persians, with the aid of the Babylonians, subdued Assyria under the conduct of Cyaxares I. The conquest of Babylon was effected in the reign of Cyaxares II by the Median army, with an auxiliary force of thirty thousand Persians, under the command of Cyrus, the king's nephew. The thirst of blood would supersede the thirst of gold in the conquerors of Babylon, so that no one would be able to secure his life by ransom.

18. And bows shall dash boys in pieces, and the fruit of the womb they shall not pity, on children their eye shall not have mercy. The strong term dash in pieces is employed instead of one more strictly appropriate, with evident allusion to its use in v. 16. The cruelty of the Medes seems to have been proverbial in the ancient world.

19. From the very height of greatness and renown, Babylon shall be reduced not only to subjection but to annihilation. And Babylon, the beauty (or glory) of kingdoms, the ornament, the pride, of the Chaldees, shall be like God's overthrowing Sodom and Gomorrah, i. e. shall be totally destroyed in execution of a special divine judgment. The beauty of kingdoms is by most writers understood comparatively as denoting the most beautiful of kingdoms, either in the proper sense or in that of royal cities (see 1 Sam 27:5). But some understand the words more strictly as denoting the ornament of an empire which in eluded various tributary kingdoms This agrees well with the next clause, which describes the city as the ornament and pride of the Chaldees. The origin of this name, and of the people whom it designates, is doubtful and disputed. But whether the Chaldees were of Semitic origin or not, and whether they were the indigenous inhabitants of Babylonia or a foreign race imported from Armenia and the neighbouring countries, it is plain that the word here denotes the nation of which Babylon was the capital. The exact sense of the last clause is that already given, like God's overthrowing Sodom and Gomorrah. This is a common formula in Scripture for complete destruction, viewed as a special punishment of sin (See above, ch. 1:7, 9.) It is certain that the destruction of Babylon was gradual, successively promoted by the conquests of Cyrus, Darius Hystaspes, Alexander the Great, Antigonus, Demetrius, the Parthians, and the founding of the cities of Seleucia and Ctesiphon. From this apparent disagreement of the prophecy with history, some seem disposed to infer that it relates not to the literal but spiritual Babylon. The true conclusion is that the prophecy does not relate to any one invasion or attack exclusively, but to the whole process of subjection and decay, so completely carried out through a course of ages, that the very site of ancient Babylon is now disputed. This hypothesis accounts for many traits in the description which appear inconsistent only in consequence of being all applied to one point of time and one catastrophe exclusively.

20. It shall not be inhabited forever (i. e. it shall never again or no more be inhabited) and it shall not be dwelt in from generation to generation (literally, to generation and generation), neither shall the Arab pitch tent there, neither shall shepherds cause (their flocks) to lie there. The conversion of a populous and fertile district into a vast pasture-ground, however rich and well frequented, implies extensive ruin, but not such ruin as is here denounced. Babylon was not even to be visited by shepherds, nor to serve as the encamping ground of wandering Arabs. The completeness of the threatened desolation will be seen by comparing these expressions with ch. 5:5, 17. 7:21. 17:2, where it is predicted that the place in question should be for flocks to lie down with none to make them afraid. So fully has this prophecy been verified that the Bedouins, according to the latest travellers, are even superstitiously afraid of passing a single night upon the site of Babylon. The simplest version of the first clause would be, she shall not dwell forever, she shall not abide etc. And this construction is actually given by some. But the great majority of writers follow the Septuagint and Vulgate in ascribing to the active verbs a passive or intransitive sense.

21. Having excluded men and the domesticated animals from Babylon, the Prophet now tells how it shall be occupied, viz. by creatures which are only found in deserts, and the presence of which therefore is a sign of desolation. In the first clause these solitary creatures are referred to in the general; the other clause specifies two kinds out of the many which are elsewhere spoken of as dwelling in the wilderness. But there (instead of flocks) shall lie down desert creatures, and their houses, (those of the Babylonians) shall be filled with howls or yells, and there shall dwell the daughters of the ostrich, and shaggy beasts (or wild goats) shall gambol there. The contrast is heightened by the obvious allusion to v. 20. As if he had said, flocks shall not lie down there, but wild beasts shall; man shall not dwell there, but the ostrich shall. The meaning evidently is that the populous and splendid city should become the home of animals found only in the wildest solitudes. To express this idea, other species might have been selected with the same effect. The endless discussions therefore as to the identity of those here named, however laudable as tending to promote exact lexicography and natural history, have little or no bearing on the interpretation of the passage. Nothing more will be here attempted than to settle one or two points of comparative importance. Many interpreters regard the whole verse as an enumeration of particular animals. This has arisen from the assumption of a perfect parallelism in the clauses. It is altogether natural, however, to suppose that the writer would first make use of general expressions and afterwards descend to particulars. The daughter of the ostrich is an oriental idiom for ostriches in general, or for the female ostrich in particular. The old translation owls seems to be now universally abandoned The most interesting point in the interpretation of this Terse has reference to the word translated satyrs in the English Version; its original and proper sense is hairy, and its usual specific sense he-goats. In two places (Lev. 17:7. 2 Chron. 11:15), it is used to denote objects of idolatrous worship, probably images of goats, which according to Herodotus were worshipped in Egypt. In Chronicles especially this supposition is the natural one, because the word is joined with calves. Both there and in Leviticus, the Septuagint renders it *** vain things, i. e. false gods, idols. It is elsewhere explained to mean demons, and the same interpretation is given in the case before us by several of the ancient versions. From this traditional interpretation of the word here and in ch. 34:14, appears to have arisen, at an early period, a popular belief among the Jews, that demons or evil spirits were accustomed to haunt desert places in the shape of goats or other animals. And this belief is said to be actually cherished by the natives near the site of Babylon at the present day. To some, the combination of the two meanings, goats and demons, seems to have suggested the Pans, Fauns, and Satyrs of the classical mythology, imaginary beings represented as a mixture of the human form with that of goats, and supposed to frequent forests and other lonely places. Others explain the passage as relating to actual appearances of Satan under such disguises. Others understand the language as a mere concession or allusion to the popular belief, equivalent to saying, the solitude of Babylon shall be as awful as if occupied by Fauns and Satyrs, there, if anywhere, such beings may be looked for. But the great majority of modern writers adhere to the original meaning of the Hebrew word, wild goats. And even on the supposition of a reference to evil spirits, there is no need of assuming any concession or accommodation to the current superstitions. If the word denotes demons, this text is a proof, not of a popular belief, but of a fact, of a real apparition of such spirits under certain forms. The Jewish tradition warrants the application of the Hebrew term to demons, but not to the fauns or satyrs of the Greek and Roman fabulists. The popular belief of the Jews and other orientals may be traced to the traditional interpretation of this passage, and this to the Septuagint version. The mention of demons in a list of beasts and birds is at variance not only with the parallelism, but with the natural and ordinary usages of language. Such a combination and arrangement as the one supposed—ostriches, demons, wolves, jackals—would of itself be a reason for suspecting that the second term must really denote some kind of animal, even if no such usage existed. But the usage of the Hebrew word, as the name of an animal, is perfectly well defined and certain. Even in Lev. 17:7 and 2 Chron. 11:15, this, as we have seen, is the only natural interpretation. The result appears to be that if the question is determined by tradition and authority, it denotes demons; if by the context and the usage of the word, it signifies wild goats, or more generically hairy, shaggy animals. According to the principles of modern exegesis, the latter is clearly entitled to the preference; but even if the former be adopted, the language of the text should be regarded as the prediction of a real fact, which, though it should not be assumed without necessity, is altogether possible, and therefore, if alleged in Scripture, altogether credible.

22. And wolves shall howl in his (the king of Babylon's) palaces, and jackals in the temples of pleasure. And near to come is her (Babylon's) time, and her days shall not be prolonged. The latest writers seem to be agreed that these are different appellations of the jackal, but in order to retain the original variety of expression, substitute another animal in one of the clauses, such as wolves, wild-cats, etc. Whatever be the species here intended, the essential idea is the same as in the foregoing verse, viz. that Babylon should one day be inhabited exclusively by animals peculiar to the wilderness, implying that it should become a wilderness itself. The contrast is heightened here by the particular mention of palaces and abodes of pleasure, as about to be converted into dens and haunts of solitary animals. This fine poetical conception is adopted by Milton in his sublime description of the flood:

    And in their palaces,
Where luxury late reigned, sea-monsters whelped
And stabled.

The meaning of the word translated palaces, in every other case where it occurs, is widows, in which sense some rabbinical and other writers understand it here. It is possible that the two forms were designedly confounded by the writer, in order to suggest both ideas, that of palaces and that of widowhood or desolation. This explanation is adopted in the English Version, which has palaces in the margin, but in the text desolate houses. The last clause of the verse may be strictly understood, but in application to the Jewish captives in the Babylonian exile, for whose consolation the prophecy was partly intended. Or we may understand it as denoting proximity in reference to the events which had been passing in the Prophet's view. He sees the signals erected, he hears a noise in the mountains, and regarding these as actually present, he exclaims, her time is near to come! It may, however, mean, as similar expressions do in other cases, that when the appointed time should come, the event would certainly take place, there could be no postponement or delay.