Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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CHAPTER XIV.

The destruction of Babylon is again foretold, and more explicitly connected with the deliverance of Israel from bondage. After a general assurance of God's favour to his people, and of an exchange of conditions between them and their oppressors, they are represented as joining in a song of triumph over their fallen enemy. In this song, which is universally admitted to possess the highest literary merit, they describe the earth as again reposing from its agitation and affliction, and then breaking forth into a shout of exultation, in which the very trees of the forest join, vs. 1-8. By a still bolder figure, the unseen world is represented as perturbed at the approach of the fallen tyrant, who is met, as he enters, by the kings already there, amazed to find him sunk as low as themselves and from a still greater height of actual elevation and of impious pretensions, which are strongly contrasted with his present condition, as deprived not only of regal honours but of decent burial, vs. 9-20. The threatening is then extended to the whole race, and the prophecy closes as before with a prediction of the total desolation of Babylon, vs. 21-23.

Vs. 24-27 are regarded by the latest writers as a distinct prophecy, unconnected with what goes before, and misplaced in the arrangement of the book. The reasons for believing that it is rather an appendix or conclusion, added by the Prophet himself, will be stated in the exposition.

Vs. 28-32 are regarded by a still greater number of writers as a distinct prophecy against Philistia. The traditional arrangement of the text, however, creates a strong presumption that this passage stands in some close connection with what goes before. The true state of the case may be, that the Prophet, having reverted from the downfall of Babylon to that of Assyria, now closes with a warning apostrophe to the Philistines who had also suffered from the latter power, and were disposed to exult unduly in its overthrow. If the later application of the name Philistia (Palestine), to the whole land of Canaan could be justified by Scriptural usage, these verses might be understood as a warning to the Jews themselves not to exult too much in their escape from Assyrian oppression, since they were yet to be subjected to the heavier yoke of Babylonian bondage. Either of these suppositions is more reasonable than that this passage is an independent prophecy subjoined to the foregoing one by caprice or accident.

1. This verse declares God's purpose in destroying the Babylonian power. For Jehovah will pity (or have mercy upon) Jacob, and will again (or still) choose Israel and cause them to rest on their (own) land, and the stranger shall be joined to them, and they (the strangers) shall be attached to the house of Jacob. Jacob and Israel are here used for the whole race. The plural pronoun them does not refer to Jacob and Israel as the names of different persons, but to each of them as a collective. By God's still choosing Israel we are to understand his continuing to treat them as his chosen people. Or we may render it again, in which case the idea will be, that having for a time or in appearance cast them off and given them up to other lords, he would now take them to himself again. This is not a mere promise of temporal deliverance and increase to Israel as a nation, but an assurance that the preservation of the chosen people was a necessary means for the fulfilment of God's purposes of mercy to mankind in general. The literal fulfilment of the last clause in its primary sense is clear from such statements as the one in Esther 8:17.

2. And nations shall take them and bring them to their place, and the house of Israel shall take possession of them on Jehovah's land for male and female servants, and (thus) thy (the Israelites) shall be the captors of their captors, and rule over their oppressors. The first clause is rendered somewhat obscure by the reference of the pronoun them to different subjects, first the Jews and then the gentiles. Most interpreters are agreed that it relates to the part taken by the gentiles in the restoration of the Jews. To a Hebrew reader the word would convey the idea, not of bare possession merely, but of permanent possession, rendered perpetual by hereditary succession. The word is used in this sense. and with special reference to slaves or servants, in Lev. 25:46. The simple meaning of this promise seems to be that the church or chosen people and the other nations should change places, the oppressed becoming the oppressor, and the slave the master. This of course admits both an external and internal fulfilment. In a lower sense and on a smaller scale it was accomplished in the restoration of the Jews from exile; but its full accomplishment is yet to come.

3. And it shall be (or come to pass) in the day of Jehovah's causing thee to rest from thy toil (or suffering), and from thy commotion (or disquietude), and from the hard service which was wrought by then (or imposed upon thee). In this verse and the following context, the Prophet, in order to reduce the general promise of the foregoing verse to a more graphic and impressive form, recurs to the downfall of Babylon, as the beginning of the series of deliverances which he had predicted, and describes the effect upon those most concerned, by putting into the mouth of Israel a song of triumph over their oppressor. This is universally admitted to be one of the finest specimens of Hebrew and indeed of ancient composition.

4. Then thou shalt raise this song over the king of Babylon and say. How hath the oppressor ceased, the golden (city) ceased! The meaning of the first clause is of course that Israel would have occasion to express such feelings. The king here introduced is an ideal personage, whose downfall represents that of the Babylonian monarchy.

5. This verse contains the answer to the question in the one before it. Jehovah hath broken the staff of the wicked, the rod of the rulers. The rod and staff are common figures for dominion, and their being broken for its destruction.

6. Smiting nations in anger by a stroke without cessation, ruling nations in wrath by a rule without restraint, literally, which he (or one indefinitely) did not restrain. The participles may agree grammatically either with the rod or with the king who wields it. The English Version applies the last clause only to the punishment. But the great majority both of the oldest and the latest writers make the whole descriptive of the Babylonian tyranny.

7. At rest, quiet, is the whole earth. They burst forth into singing (or a shout of joy). There is no inconsistency between the clauses, as the first is not descriptive of silence, but of tranquillity and rest. The land had rest is a phrase employed in the book of Judges (e. g. ch. 5:31) to describe the condition of the country after a great national deliverance. The verb to burst is peculiarly descriptive of an ebullition of joy long suppressed or suddenly succeeding grief.

8. Not only the earth and its inhabitants take part in this triumphant song or shout, but the trees of the forest. Also (or even) the cypresses rejoice with respect to thee, the cedars of Lebanon (saying) now that thou art fallen (literally lain down), the feller (or woodman, literally the cutter) shall not come up against us. Now that we are safe from thee, we fear no other enemy. As to the meaning of the figures in this verse, there are various opinions; but the only one that seems consistent with a pure taste, is that which supposes this to be merely a part of one great picture, representing universal nature as rejoicing. Both here and elsewhere in the sacred books, inanimate nature is personified, and speaks herself instead of being merely spoken of.

Ipsi laetitia voces ad eidera jactant
Intonsi montes; ipsae jam carmina rupes,
Ipsa sonant arbusta.

9. The bold personification is now extended from the earth and its forests to the invisible or lower world, the inhabitants of which are represented as aroused at the approach of the new victim and as coming forth to meet him. Hell from beneath is moved (or in commotion) for thee (i. e. on account of thee) to meet thee (at) thy coming; it rouses for thee the giants (the gigantic shades or spectres), all the chief ones (literally he-goats) of the earth; it raises from their thrones all the kings of the nations. The word translated Hell has already been explained (see above, ch. 5:14) as meaning first a grave or individual sepulchre, and then the grave as a general receptacle, indiscriminately occupied by all the dead without respect to character, as when we say, the rich and the poor, the evil and the good, lie together in the grave, not in a single tomb, which would be false, but under ground and in a common state of death and burial. The English word Hell, though now appropriated to the condition or the place of future torments, corresponds, in etymology and early usage, to the Hebrew word in question. The passage comprehends two elements and only two, religious verities or certain facts, and poetical embellishments. It may not be easy to distinguish clearly between these; but it is only between these that we are able or have any occasion to distinguish. The admission of a third in the shape of superstitious fables, is as false in rhetoric as in theology. The shades or spectres of the dead might naturally be conceived as actually larger than the living man, since that which is shadowy and indistinct is commonly exaggerated by the fancy. Or there may be an allusion to the Canaanitish giants who were exterminated by divine command, and might well be chosen to represent the whole class of departed sinners. Or in this particular case, we may suppose the kings and great ones of the earth to be distinguished from the vulgar dead as giants or gigantic forms.

10. All of them shall answer and say to thee: thou also art made weak as we, to us art likened! This is a natural expression of surprise that one so far superior to themselves should now be a partaker of their weakness and disgrace. The interrogative form given to the last clause by all the English versions is entirely arbitrary. and much less expressive than the simple assertion or exclamation preferred by the oldest and latest writers.

11. Down to the grave is brought thy pride (or pomp) the music of thy harps; under thee is spread the worm; thy covering is vermin. The word harp is evidently put for musical instruments or music in general, and this for mirth and revelry. (See above, ch. 5:12.) Some suppose an allusion to the practice of embalming; but the words seem naturally only to suggest the common end of all mankind, even the greatest not excepted. The imagery of the clause is vividly exhibited in Gill's homely paraphrase—'nothing but worms over him and worms under him, worms his bed and worms his bed-clothes.'

12. How art thou fallen from heaven, Lucifer, son of the morningfelled to the ground, thou that didst lord it over the nations. In the two other places where the word translated Lucifer occurs, it is an imperative signifying howl. This sense is also put upon it hereby the Peshito, but all the other ancient versions and all the leading Rabbins make the word a noun denoting bright one, or more specifically, bright star, or according to the ancients more specifically still, the morning star or harbinger of daylight, called in Greek ***; and in Latin lucifer. The same derivation and interpretation is adopted by the latest writers. Some of the Fathers, regarding Luke 10:18 as an explanation of this verse, apply it to the fall of Satan, from which has arisen the popular perversion of the beautiful name Lucifer to signify the Devil. In the last clause the figure of a fallen star is exchanged for that of a prostrate tree. The last clause is a description of the Babylonian tyranny.

13. His fall is aggravated by the impious extravagance of his pretensions. And (yet) thou hadst said in thy heart (or to thyself), the heavens will I mount (or scale), above the stars of God will I raise my throne, and I will sit in the mount of meeting (or assembly), in the sides of the north. He is here described as aiming at equality with God himself. There are two distinct interpretations of the last clause, one held by the early writers, the other by the moderns. According to the first, it relates to the mountain where God agreed to meet the people, to commune with them, and to make himself known to them (Ex. 25:22. 29:42, 43). According to this view of the passage, it describes the king of Babylon as insulting God by threatening to erect his throne upon those consecrated hills, or even affecting to be God, like Antichrist, of whom Paul says, with obvious allusion to this passage, that he opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped, so that he, as God, sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God (2 Thess 2:4). Whether the weight of argument preponderates in favour of the old interpretation or against it, that of authority is now altogether on the side of the new one. This makes the Babylonian speak the language of a heathen, and with reference to the old and wide-spread oriental notion of a very high mountain in the extreme north, where the gods were believed to reside, as in the Greek Olympus. This is the Meru of the Hindoo mythology, and the Elborz or Elborj of the old Zend books. The meaning of the clause, as thus explained, is, 'I will take my seat among or above the gods upon their holy mountain.' This interpretation is supposed to be obscurely hinted in the Septuagint version. As the mythological allusion is in this case put into the mouth of a heathen, there is not the same objection to it as in other cases, where it seems to be recognized and sanctioned by the writer. The general meaning of the verse is of course the same on either hypothesis. The expression stars of God does not merely describe them as his creatures, but as being near him, in the upper world or heaven.

14. I will mount above the cloud-heights; I will make myself like the Most High. This is commonly regarded as a simple expression of unbounded arrogance; but there may be an allusion to the oriental custom of calling their kings gods, or to the fact that Syrian and Phoenician kings did actually so describe themselves (Ezek. 28:2. 6. 9. 2 Macc. 9:12). According to some writers, the singular noun cloud is here used to designate the cloud of the divine presence in the tabernacle and temple. This would agree well with the old interpretation of v. 13; but according to the other, cloud is a collective, meaning clouds in general.

15. But instead of being exalted to heaven, thou shalt only be brought down to hell, to the depths of the pit. Against the strict application of the last clause to the grave is the subsequent description of the royal body as unburied. But the imagery is unquestionably borrowed from the grave. Some understand by sides the horizontal excavations in the oriental sepulchres or catacombs. But according to its probable etymology the Hebrew word does not mean sides in the ordinary sense, but rather hinder parts and then remote parts or extremities, as it is explained by the Targum here and in v. 13. The specific reference may be either to extreme height, extreme distance, or extreme depth, according to the context. Here the last sense is required by the mention of the pit, and the word is accordingly translated in the Vulgate profundum.

16. Those seeing thee shall gaze (or stare) at thee, they shall look at thee attentively, (and say) is this the man that made the earth shake, that made kingdoms tremble? The scene in the other world is closed, and the Prophet, or triumphant Israel, is now describing what shall take place above ground. The gazing mentioned in the first clause is not merely the effect of curiosity but of incredulous surprise.

17. Made a (fruitful or habitable) world like the desert, destroyed its cities, and its captives did not set free homewards. These are still the words of the astonished spectators as they behold the body of the slain king. The construction of the last clause is somewhat difficult; but the general meaning evidently is that he did not release his prisoners.

18. All kings of nations, all of them, lie in state (or glory), each in his house. There is here a special reference to the peculiar oriental feeling with respect to burial. The Egyptians paid far more attention to the dwellings of the dead than of the living. Some of the greatest national works have been intended for this purpose, such as the pyramids, the temple of Belus, and the cemetery at Persepolis. The environs of Jerusalem are full of ancient sepulchres. The want of burial is spoken of in Scripture as disgraceful even to a private person (1 Kings 13:22), much more to a sovereign (2 Chr. 21:20). The ancient oriental practice of burying above ground and in solid structures, often reared by those who were to occupy them (see below, ch. 22:16) will account for the use of house here in the sense of sepulchre, without supposing any reference to the burial of kings within their palaces. To lie in state may seem inappropriate to burial, but is in fact happily descriptive of the oriental method of sepulture.

19. With the customary burial of kings he now contrasts the treatment of the Babylonian's body. And thou art cast out from thy grave, like a despised branch, the raiment of the slain, pierced with the sword, going down to the stones of the pit, (even) like a trampled carcass (as thou art). That the terms of the prediction were literally fulfilled in the last king of Babylon, is highly probable, from the hatred with which this impious king (as Xenophon calls him) was regarded by the people. Such a supposition is not precluded by the same historian's statement that Cyrus gave a general permission to bury the dead; for his silence in relation to the king rather favours the conclusion that he was made an exception, either by the people or the conqueror. There is no need however of seeking historical details in this passage, which is rather a prediction of the downfall of the empire than of the fate of any individual monarch.

20. Thou shalt not be joined with them (the other kings of the nations) in burial, because thy land thou hast destroyed, thy people thou hast slain. Let the seed of evil-doers be named no more forever. The only natural interpretation of these words is that which applies them to the Babylonian tyranny as generally exercised. The charge here brought against the king implies that his power was given him for a very different purpose. The older writers read the last clause as a simple prediction. Thus the English version is, the seed of evil-doers shall never be renowned. But the later writers seem to make it more emphatic by giving the future the force of an imperative or optative. Some of the older writers understand the clause to mean that the names of the wicked shall not be perpetuated by transmission in the line of their descendants. Others explain the verb as meaning to be called, i. e. proclaimed or celebrated. It is now pretty generally understood to mean, or to express a wish, that the posterity of such should not be spoken of at all, implying both extinction and oblivion.

21. That the downfall of the Babylonian power shall be perpetual, is now expressed by a command to slaughter the children of the king. Prepare for his sons a slaughter, for the iniquity of their fathers. Let them not arise and possess the earth, and fill the face of the world with cities. The dramatic form of the prediction is repeatedly shifted, so that the words of the triumphant Jews, of the Dead, of the Prophet, and of God himself, succeed each other as it were insensibly, and without any attempt to make the points of the transition prominent. The command in the first clause is not addressed specifically to the Medes and Persians, but more indefinitely to the executioners of God's decree against Babylon. The Hebrew construction is, they shall not arise (or let them not arise), and the negative may either be confined to the first two verbs or extended to the third. The last, however, is more natural on account of the exact resemblance in the form of the two members. The best sense, on the whole, is afforded by the old interpretation which understands the clause to mean, lest they overspread and colonize the earth.

22. This verse contains an intimation that the destruction just predicted is to be the work not of man merely but of God, and is to comprehend not only the royal family but the whole population. And I (myself) will rise up against them (or upon them), saith Jehovah of Hosts, and will cut off from Babylon (literally, as to Babylon) name and remnant and progeny and offspring. The last four nouns are put together to express posterity in the most general and universal manner. The threatening is applied to the king of Babylon, not as a collective appellation merely, but as an ideal person representing the whole line of kings. The agreement of the prophecy with history is argued from the facts, that none of the ancient royal family of Babylon ever regained a throne, and that no Babylonian empire ever rose after the destruction of the first, Alexander the Great's project of restoring it having been defeated by his death.

23. And I will render it (literally, place it for) a possession (or inheritance) of the porcupine, and pools of water, and will sweep it with the broom (or besom) of destruction. The porcupine is here mentioned only as a solitary animal frequenting marshy grounds. The construction is not, I will make the pools of water a possession, etc. by drying them up—nor, I will make it a possession for pools of water—but, I will make it a possession for the porcupine and (will convert it into) pools of water. The exposure of the level plains of Babylonia to continual inundation without great preventive care, and the actual promotion of its desolation by this very cause, are facts distinctly stated by the ancient writers. Some suppose this evil to have had its origin in the diversion of the waters of the Euphrates by Cyrus.

24. From the distant view of the destruction of Babylon, the Prophet suddenly reverts to that of the Assyrian host, either for the purpose of making one of these events accredit the prediction of the other, or for the purpose of assuring true believers, that while God had decreed the deliverance of his people from remoter dangers, he would also protect them from those near at hand. Jehovah of Hosts hath sworn, saying, Surely (literally, if not) as I have planned (or imagined) it has come to pass, and as I have devised, it shall stand (or be established). On the elliptical formula of swearing, see above, ch. 5:9. The true force of the preterite and future forms, as here employed, is that according to God's purpose, it has come to pass and will come to pass hereafter. This view of the matter makes the mention of Assyria in this connection altogether natural, as if he had said, of the truth of these predictions against Babylon a proof has been afforded in the execution of the threatenings against Assyria. Another method of expounding the verse is to apply both verbs to the same events, but in a somewhat different sense. As I intended it has come to pass. and as I purposed it shall continue. The Assyrian power is already broken and shall never be restored. This interpretation of the preterite does not necessarily imply that the prophecy was actually uttered after the destruction of Sennacherib's army. Such would indeed be the natural inference from this verse alone, but for reasons which will be explained below, it is more probable that the Prophet merely takes his stand in vision at a point of time between the two events of which he speaks, so that both verbs are really prophetic, the one of a remote the other of a proximate futurity. We have here a signal instance of prophetic foresight exercised at least two centuries before the event.

25. He now declares what the purpose is, which is so certainly to be accomplished, namely, God's determination to break Assyria (or the Assyrian) in my land, and on my mountains I will trample him; and his yoke shall depart from off them, and his burden from off his back (or shoulder) shall depart. My mountains some have understood to be Mount Zion, others more generally the mountains of Jerusalem; but it seems to be rather a description of the whole land of Israel, or at least of Judah, as a mountainous region. (See Ezek. 38:21. 39:2, 4.)

26. The Prophet now explains his previous conjunction of events so remote as the Assyrian overthrow and the fall of Babylon, by declaring both to be partial executions of one general decree against all hostile and opposing powers. This is the purpose that is purposed upon all the earth, and this the hand that is stretched out over all the nations. The outstretched hand is a gesture of threatening.

27. As the preceding verse declares the extent of God's avenging purpose, so this affirms the certainty of its execution, as a necessary consequence; of his almighty power. For Jehovah of Hosts hath purposed (this), and who shall annul (his purpose)? And his hand (is) the (one) stretched out, and who shall turn it back? The meaning of the last clause is not simply that his hand is stretched out, but that the hand stretched out is his.

28. In the year of the death of king Ahaz, was this burden, or threatening prophecy, against Philistia. This is a title forming part of the text as far as we can trace it back. There is an erroneous division of the text in some editions of the English Bible, by prefixing the paragraph mark to v. 29, so as to apply the date here given to what goes before, whereas dates are always placed at the beginning.

29. Rejoice not, O Philistia, all of thee (or all Philistia), because the rod that smote thee is broken, for out of the root of the serpent shall come forth a basilisk, and its root a flying fiery serpent. The name Philistia is applied in Hebrew to the southwestern part of Canaan on the Mediterranean coast, nominally belonging to the tribe of Judah, but for ages occupied by the Philistines, a race of Egyptian origin who came to Canaan from Caphtor, i. e. according to the ancients Cappadocia, but according to the moderns either Cyprus or Crete, most probably the latter. The name is now traced to an Ethiopic root meaning to wander, and probably denotes wanderers or emigrants Hence it is commonly rendered in the Septuagint ***. The Philistines are spoken of above in ch. 9:11. 11:14, and throughout the historical books of the Old Testament, as the hereditary enemies of Israel. They were subdued by David (2 Sam. 5:17-25. 21:15), and still paid tribute in the reign of Jehoshaphat (2 Chron. 17:11), but rebelled against Jehoram (2 Chr. 21:16, 17), were again subdued by Uzziah (2 Chr. 26:6), and again shook off the yoke in the reign of Ahaz (2 Chr. 28:18). The Greek modification of the Hebrew name is applied by Josephus and other ancient writers to the whole land of Israel, from which comes our Palestine, employed in the same manner. The expression all (or the whole) of thee, may have reference to Philistia as a union of several principalities. All interpreters agree that the Philistines are here spoken of as having recently escaped from the ascendency of some superior power, but at the same time threatened with a more complete subjection. The first of these ideas is expressed by the figure of a broken rod or staff, for the meaning of which see above, ad v. 5 The other is expressed by the very different figure of an ordinary serpent producing or succeeded by other varieties more venomous and deadly. Whatever be the particular species intended, the essential idea is the same, and has never been disputed. Some indeed suppose a gradation or climax in the third term also, the fiery flying serpent being assumed to be more deadly than the basilisk, as this is more so than the ordinary serpent. But most writers regard the other two names as correlative or parallel. The transition in the last clause from the figure of an animal to that of a plant may serve the double purpose of reminding us that what we read is figurative, and of showing how unsafe it is to tamper with the text on the ground of mere rhetorical punctilios. As to the application of the figures, there are different opinions, but their essential meaning is obvious enough.

30. And the first-born of the poor shall feed, and the needy in security lie dawn, and I will kill thy root with famine, and thy remnant it shall slay. The future condition of the Jews is here contrasted with that of the Philistines. The figures in the first clause are borrowed from a flock, in the second from a tree. but with obvious allusion to a human subject. The first-born of the poor is a superlative expression for the poorest and most wretched. An allusion to the next generation leaves the promise too remote and the expression first-born unexplained. The figurative part of the last clause is borrowed from a tree, here divided into two parts, the root and the rest or remainder. What is first mentioned as an instrument in God's hand, reappears in the last member of the sentence as an agent.

31. Howl, oh gate! cry, oh city! dissolved, oh Philistia, is the whole of thee; for out of the north a smoke comes, and there is no straggler in his forces. The Philistines are not only forbidden to rejoice, but exhorted to lament. The object of address is a single city representing all the rest. Gate is not here put for the judges or nobles who were wont to sit there, nor is it even mentioned as the chief place of concourse, but rather with allusion to the defences of the city, as a parallel expression to city itself. According to some writers, the smoke here meant is that of conflagrations kindled by the enemy. Some of the older writers understood it simply as an emblem for wrath or trouble. Lowth cites Virgil's fumantes pulvere campos, and supposes an allusion to the clouds of dust raised by an army on the march. Others refer it to the practice of literally carrying fire in front of caravans to mark the course. It may be doubted, notwithstanding the allusion in the last clause, whether it was intended to refer to an army at all. If not, we may suppose with Calvin that smoke is mentioned merely as a sign of distant and approaching fire, a natural and common metaphor for any powerful destroying agent. The diversity of judgments as to the particular enemy here meant, and the slightness of the grounds on which they severally rest, may suffice to show that the prophecy is really generic, not specific, and includes all the agencies and means by which the Philistines were punished for their constant and inveterate enmity to the chosen people, as well as for idolatry and other crimes.

32. And what shall one answer (what answer shall be given to) the ambassadors of a nation? That Jehovah has founded Zion, and in it the afflicted of his people shall seek refuge. The meaning of the last clause is too clear to be disputed, viz. that God is the protector of his people. This is evidently stated as the result and sum of the whole prophecy, and as such is sufficiently intelligible. It is also given, however, as an answer to ambassadors or messengers. and this has given rise to a great diversity of explanations, which seems to show that the expression is indefinite, as the very absence of the article implies, and that the whole sense meant to be conveyed is this, that such may be the answer given to the inquiries made from any quarter. Of all the specific applications, the most probable is that which supposes an allusion to Rabshakeh's argument with Hezekiah against trusting in Jehovah. But this seems precluded by the want of any natural connection with Philistia, which is the subject of the previous context.