Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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The two great powers of western Asia, in the days of Isaiah, were Assyria and Egypt or Ethiopia, the last two being wholly or partially united under Tirhakah, whose name and exploits are recorded in Egyptian monuments still extant, and who is expressly said in Scripture (2 Kings 19:9) to have come out against Sennacherib. With one or the other of these great contending powers, Judah was commonly confederate, and of course at war with the other. Hezekiah is explicitly reproached by Rabshakeh (Is. 36:9) with relying upon Egypt, i. e. the Ethiopico-Egyptian empire. These historical facts, together with the mention of Cush in v. 1, and the appropriateness of the figures in vs. 4, 5, to the destruction of Sennacherib's army, give great probability to the hypothesis now commonly adopted, that the Prophet here announces that event to Ethiopia, as about to be effected by a direct interposition of Jehovah, and without human aid. On this supposition, although not without its difficulties, the chapter before us is much clearer in itself and in its connection with the one before it, than if we assume with some interpreters, both Jews and Christians, that it relates to the restoration of the Jews, or to the overthrow of the Egyptians or Ethiopians themselves as the enemies of Israel. At the same time, some of the expressions here employed admit of so many interpretations, that it is best to give the whole as wide an application as the language will admit, on the ground before suggested, that it constitutes a part of a generic prophecy or picture of God's dealings with the foes of his people, including illustrations drawn from particular events, such as the downfall of Syria and Israel, and the slaughter of Sennacherib's army.

The Prophet first invites the attention of the Ethiopians and of the whole world to a great catastrophe as near at hand, vs. 1-3. He then describes the catastrophe itself, by the beautiful figure of a vine or vineyard suffered to blossom and bear fruit, and then, when almost ready to be gathered, suddenly destroyed, vs. 4-6. In consequence of this event, the same people, who had been invoked in the beginning of the chapter, are described as bringing presents to Jehovah at Jerusalem, v. 7.

1. Ho! land of rustling wings, which art beyond the rivers of Cush (or Ethiopia)! Instead of rustling some read shadowy wings. But as the Hebrew word in every other case has reference to sound, some suppose an allusion to the noise made by locusts, some to the rushing sound of rivers, others to the clash of arms or other noises made by armies on the march, here called wings by a common figure. The rivers of Cush are supposed by some to be the Nile and its branches; by others, the Astaboras, Astapus, and Astasobas, mentioned by Strabo as the rivers of Meroe.

2. Sending by sea ambassadors, and in vessels of papyrus on the face of the waters. Go ye light (or swift) messengers, to a nation drawn and shorn, to a people terrible since it existed and onwards, a nation of double strength, and trampling, whose land the streams divide. Nearly every word and phrase of this difficult verse has been the subject of discordant explanations. The word sea is variously explained to mean the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, and the Nile (Is. 19:5. Nah. 3:8). The use of vessels made of the papyrus plant upon the Nile, is expressly mentioned by Theophrastus, Pliny, Lucan, and Plutarch. The second clause of the verse is regarded by some writers as the language of the people who had just been addressed, as if he had said, 'sending ambassadors (and saying to them) go etc.' More probably, however, the Prophet is still speaking in the name of God. The following epithets are applied by some to the Jews, and supposed to be descriptive of their degraded and oppressed condition, by others as descriptive of their warlike qualities. Shorn or shaven, is applied by some to the Egyptian and Ethiopian practice of shaving the head and beard, while others understand it as a figure for robbery and spoliation. By rivers, in the last clause, some suppose nations to be meant, or the Assyrians in particular; but most writers understand it literally as a description of the country.

3. All ye inhabitants of the world and dwellers on the earth shall see as it were the raising of a standard on the mountains, and shall hear as it if were the blowing of a trumpet. Another construction, more generally adopted, makes the verbs imperative. So the English Version: see ye when he lifteth up an ensign on the mountains, and when he bloweth a trumpet hear ye. There seems, however, to be no sufficient reason for departing from the strict translation of the verbs as future. In either case, the verse invites the attention of the world to some great event.

4. For thus said (or saith) Jehovah to me, I will rest (remain quiet), and will look on (as a mere spectator) in my dwelling place, like a serene heat upon herbs, like a cloud of dew (or dewy cloud), in the heat of harvest (i. e. the heat preceding harvest, or the heat by which the crop is ripened). This verse assigns a reason for the preceding invitation to attend. The obvious meaning of the figure is, that God would let the enemy proceed in the execution of his purposes until they were nearly accomplished.

5. For before the harvest, as the bloom is finished, and the flower becomes a ripening grape, he cuts down the branches with the pruning knives, and the tendrils he removes, he cuts away. The obvious meaning of the figures is, that although God would suffer the designs of the enemy to approach completion, he would nevertheless interfere at the last moment and destroy both him and them As if he had said, let all the world await the great catastrophe—for I will let the enemy almost attain his end—but let them still attend—for before it is attained, I will destroy him. The verbs in the last clause may either be referred directly to Jehovah as their subject, or construed indefinitely, one shall cut them down.

6. They shall be left together to the wild bird of the mountains and to the wild beasts of the earth (or land), and the wild bird shall summer thereon, and every wild beast of the earth (or land) thereon shall winter. It is commonly supposed that there is here a transition from the figure of a vineyard to that of a dead body, the branches cut off and thrown away being suddenly transformed into carcasses devoured by beasts and birds. For a like combination, see above, ch. 14:19. But this interpretation, though perhaps the most natural, is not absolutely necessary. As the act of devouring is not expressly mentioned, the reference may be, not to the carnivorous habits of the animals, but to their wild and solitary life. In that case the sense would be that the amputated branches, and the desolated vineyard itself, shall furnish lairs and nests for beasts and birds which commonly frequent the wildest solitudes, implying abandonment and utter desolation. The only reason for preferring this interpretation is that it precludes the necessity of assuming a mixed metaphor, or an abrupt exchange of one for another, both which, however, are too common in Isaiah to excite surprise. On either supposition, the general meaning of the verse is obvious. The form of the last clause is idiomatic, the birds being said to spend the summer and the beasts the winter, not with reference to any real difference in their habits, but for the purpose of expressing the idea, that beasts and birds shall occupy the spot throughout the year. According to the common explanation of the verse as referring to dead bodies, it is a hyperbolical description of their multitude, as furnishing repast for a whole year to the beasts and birds of prey.

7. At that time shall be brought a gift to Jehovah of Hosts, a people drawn out and shorn, and from a people terrible since it has been and onward (or still more terrible and still further off), a nation of double power and trampling; whose land streams divide, to the place of the name of Jehovah of Hosts, Mount Zion. Here, as in v. 2, the sense of some particular expressions is so doubtful, that it seems better to retain, as far as possible, the form of the original, with all its ambiguity, than to attempt an explanatory paraphrase. All are agreed that we have here the prediction of an act of homage to Jehovah, occasioned by the great event described in the preceding verses. The Jews, who understand the second verse as a description of the sufferings endured by Israel, explain this as a prophecy of their return from exile and dispersion, aided and as it were presented as an offering to Jehovah by the heathen. (see below, ch. 66:20.) The older Christian writers understand it as predicting the conversion of the Egyptians or Ethiopians to the true religion. The most natural construction of the words would seem to be that the gift to Jehovah should consist of one people offered by another. The place of God's name is not merely the place called by his name, but the place where his name, i. e. the manifestation of his attributes resides.