Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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This chapter is chiefly occupied with a prophecy of desolation to the kingdoms of Syria and Ephraim, vs. 1-11. It closes with a more general threatening against the enemies of Judah, vs. 12-14. The most satisfactory view of the whole passage is that it was meant to be a prophetic picture of the doom which awaited the enemies of Judah, and that while many of its expressions admit of a general application, some traits in the description are derived from particular invasions and attacks. Thus Syria and Ephraim are expressly mentioned in the first part, while the terms of the last three verses are more appropriate to the slaughter of the Assyrian host; but as this is not explicitly referred to, there is no need of regarding it as the exclusive subject even of that passage. The eighteenth chapter may then be treated as a part of the same context. In the first part of ch. 17, the Prophet represents the kingdoms of Syria and Ephraim as sharing the same fate, both being brought to desolation, vs. 1-3. He then describes the desolation of Ephraim especially, by the figures of a harvest and a gathering of olives, in which little is left to be afterwards gleaned, vs 4-6. As the effect of these judgments, he describes the people as renouncing their idols and returning to Jehovah, vs. 7, 8. He then resumes his description of the threatened desolation, and ascribes it to the general oblivion of God, and cultivation of strange doctrines and practices, vs. 9-11. In the close of the chapter, the Prophet first describes a gathering of nations, and then their dispersion by divine rebuke, which he declares to be the doom of all who attack or oppress God's people, vs 12-14.

1. The Burden of Damascus. Behold, Damascus is removed from (being) a city, and is a heap, a ruin. For the meaning of burden, see above, on ch. 13:1. The title is equivalent to saying, 'I have a threatening to announce against Damascus.' The idiomatic phrase removed from a city means removed from (the state or condition of) a city, or, from (being) a city. Compare ch. 7:8, and 1 Sam. 15:26 Some regard this and the next two verses as a description of the past, and infer that the prophecy is subsequent in date to the conquest of Damascus and Syria. But as the form of expression leaves this undetermined, it is better to regard the whole as a prediction. Damascus is still the most flourishing city in Western Asia. It is also one of the most ancient. It is here mentioned as the capital of a kingdom, called Syria of Damascus to distinguish it from other Syrian principalities, and founded in the reign of David by Rezon (1 Kings 11:23, 24). It was commonly at war with Israel, particularly during the reign of Benhadad and Hazael, so that a three years' peace is recorded as a long one (1 Kings 22:1). Under Rezin, its last king, Syria joined with Ephraim against Judah. during which confederacy, i. e. in the first years of the reign of Ahaz, this prophecy was probably uttered. Damascus appears to have experienced more vicissitudes than any other ancient city except Jerusalem. After the desolation here predicted it was again rebuilt, and again destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar, notwithstanding which it reappears in the New Testament as a flourishing city and a seat of government. In the verse before us, the reference may be chiefly to its downfall as a royal residence.

2. Forsaken (are) the cities of Aroer; for flocks shall they be, and they shall lie down, and there shall be no making (them) afraid. There are three Aroers distinctly mentioned in the Bible; one in the territory of Judah (1 Sam. 30:28), one at the southern extremity of the land of Israel east of Jordan (Jos. 12:2. 13:16), and a third further north near to Rabbah (Jos. 13:25. Num. 32:34). It is now commonly agreed that the place meant is the northern Aroer east of Jordan, and that its cities are the towns around it and perhaps dependent on it. An analogous expression is the cities of Heshbon (Jos. 3:17). At all times, it is probable, the boundaries between these adjacent states were fluctuating and uncertain. This accounts for the fact that the same place is spoken of at different times as belonging to Israel, to Moab, to Ammon, and to Syria. Forsaken probably means emptied of their people and left desolate. There is then a specific reference to deportation and exile.

3. Then shall cease defence from Ephraim and royalty from Damascus and the rest of Syria. Like the glory of the children of Israel shall they be, saith Jehovah of Hosts. The defence may be either Damascus (as a protection of the ten tribes) or Samaria (Mic. 1:5). The rest of Syria may either mean the whole of Syria besides Damascus, or the remnant left by the Assyrian invaders. The latter agrees best with the terms of the comparison. What was left of Syria should resemble what was left of the glory of Israel. The glory of Israel includes all that constitutes the greatness of a people. (See above, ch. 5:14)

4. And it shall be (or come to pass) in that day, the glory of Jacob shall be brought low (or made weak), and the fatness of his flesh shall be made lean. This is an explanation of the comparison in the verse preceding. The remnant of Ephraim was to be like the glory of Israel; but how was that? This verse contains the answer. Glory, as before, includes all that constitutes the strength of a people, and is here contrasted with a state of weakness. The same idea is expressed in the last clause by the figure of emaciation.

5. And it shall be like the gathering of (or as one gathers) the harvest, the standing corn, and his arm reaps the ears. And it shall be like one collecting ears in the valley of Rephaim. The first verb is not to be rendered he shall be (i. e. Israel, or the king of Assyria), but to be construed impersonally, it shall be or come to pass. The valley of Rephaim or the Giants extends from Jerusalem to the south-west in the direction of Bethlehem. It is here mentioned as a spot near to Jerusalem and well known to the people, for the purpose of giving a specific character to the general description or allusion of the first clause. There is no proof that it was remarkable either for fertility or barrenness. Some of the commentators represent it as now waste; but Robinson speaks of it, en passant, as "the cultivated valley or plain of Rephaim." (Palestine I. 323.)

6. And gleanings shall be left therein like the beating (or shaking) of an olive tree, two (or) three berries in the top of a high bough, four (or) five in the branches of the fruit-tree, saith Jehovah God of Israel. There is here an allusion to the custom of beating the unripe olives from the tree for the purpose of making oil. Those described as left may either be the few left to ripen for eating, or the few overlooked by the gatherer or beyond his reach. The common version (gleaning grapes) is too restricted, and presents the incongruity of grapes upon an olive-tree. The transition from the figure of a harvest to that of an olive-gathering may be intended simply to vary and multiply the images, or, as some suppose, to complete the illustration which would otherwise have been defective, because the reaper is followed by the gleaner who completes the ingathering at once, whereas the olive-gatherer leaves some of course. Two, three, four, and five, are used, as in other languages, for an indefinite small number or a few. This verse is regarded by most interpreters as describing the extent to which the threatened judgment would be carried. The gleanings, then, are not the pious remnant, but the ignoble refuse who survived the deportation of the ten tribes by the Assyrians.

7. In that day man shall turn to his Maker, and his eyes to the Holy One of Israel shall look. Maker is here used in a pregnant sense to describe God, not merely as the natural creator of mankind, but as the maker of Israel, the author of their privileges, and their covenant God. (Compare Deut. 32:6.) The same idea is expressed by the parallel phrase, Holy One of Israel, for the import of which see above, ch 1:4. It is matter of history, that after the Assyrian conquest and the general deportation of the people, many accepted Hezekiah's invitation and returned to the worship of Jehovah at Jerusalem (2 Chron. 30:11); and this reformation is alluded to as still continued in the times of Josiah (2 Chron. 34:9). At the same time the words may be intended to suggest that a similar effect might be expected to result from similar causes in later times.

8. And he shall not turn (or look) to the altars, the work of his own lands, and that which his own fingers have made shall he not regard, and the groves (or images of Ashtoreth) and the pillars (or images) of the sun. The positive declaration of the preceding verse is negatively expressed in this, with a particular mention of the objects which had usurped the place of God. Idolaltars are described as the work of men's hands, because erected by their sole authority, whereas the altar at Jerusalem was, in the highest sense, the work of God himself. The old translation groves, i. e. such as were used for idol-worship, has been shown to be in some places inadmissible, as when the grove is said to have stood upon an altar, or under a tree, or to have been brought out of a temple (1 Kings 14:23. 2 Chron. 34:4). The modern writers, therefore, understand it as denoting the goddess of fortune or happiness, otherwise called Ashtoreth, the Phoenician Venus, extensively worshipped in conjunction with Baal.

9. In that day shall his fortified cities be like what is left in the thicket and the lofty branch (namely the cities), which they leave (as they retire) from before the children of Israel, and (the land) shall be a waste. It is universally agreed that the desolation of the ten tribes is here described by a comparison, but as to the precise form and meaning of the sentence there is great diversity of judgment. Some suppose the strongest towns to be here represented as no better defended than an open forest. Others on the contrary understand the strong towns alone to be left, the others being utterly destroyed. These are the principal interpretations of the whole verse, or at least of the comparison which it contains. The first supposes the forsaken cities of Ephraim to be here compared with those which the Canaanites forsook when they fled before the Israelites under Joshua, or with the forests which the Israelites left unoccupied after the conquest of the country. The other interpretation supposes no historical allusion, but a comparison of the approaching desolation with the neglected branches of a tree or forest that is felled, or a resumption of the figure of the olive tree in v. 6. This last is strongly recommended by its great simplicity by its superseding all gratuitous assumptions beyond what is expressed.

10. Because them, hast forgotten the God of thy salvation, and the Rock of thy strength hast not remembered, therefore thou wilt plant plants of pleasantness (or pleasant plantations) and with a strange slip set it. The planting here described is the sin of the people, not their punishment. Those who think a literal planting to be meant, understand strange to signify exotic, foreign, and by implication valuable, costly; but upon the supposition that a moral or spiritual planting is intended, it has its frequent emphatic sense of alien from God, i. e. wicked, or more specifically idolatrous. The foreign growth introduced is understood by some to be idolatry, by others foreign alliance; but these two things, as we have seen before, were inseparably blended in the history and policy of Israel. (See above, ch. 2:6-8)

11. In the day of thy planting thou wilt hedge it in, and in the morning thou wilt make thy seed to blossom, (but) away flies the crop in a day of grief and desperate sorrow. In the morning is an idiomatic phrase for early, which some refer to the rapidity of growth, and others to the assiduity of the cultivator, neither of which senses is exclusive of the other.

12. Hark! the noise of many nations! Like the noise of the sea they make a noise. And the rush of peoples! Like the rush of mighty waters they are rushing. The diversity of judgments, as to the connection of these verses (12-14) with the context, has been already stated in the introduction. On the whole, the safest ground to assume is that already stated in the introduction, viz. that the two chapters form a single prophecy or prophetic picture of the doom awaiting all the enemies of Judah, with particular allusion to particular enemies in certain parts. To the poetical images of this verse a beautiful parallel is found in Ovid's Metamorphoses:

    Qualia fluctus
Aequorei faciunt, si quis procul audiat ipsos,
Tale sonat populus.

13. Nations, like the rush of many waters, rush; and he rebukes it, and it flees from afar, and is chased like the chaff of hills before a wind, and like a rolling thing before a whirlwind. While there seems to be an obvious allusion to the flight of Sennacherib and the remnant of his host (ch. 37:36, 37), the terms are so selected as to admit of a wider application to all Jehovah's enemies, and thus prepare the way for the general declaration in the following verse.

14. At evening-tide, and behold terror; before morning he is not. This is (or be) the portion of our plunderers, and the lot of our spoilers. The Prophet is the speaker, and he uses the plural pronouns only to identify himself with the people.