Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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This chapter admits of a well-defined division into two parts, one of which contains threatenings (vs. 1-17), and the other promises (vs. 18-25). The first part may again be subdivided.

In vs. 1-4, the Egyptians are threatened with a penal visitation from Jehovah, with the downfall of their idols, with intestine commotions, with the disappointment of their superstitious hopes, and with subjection to hard masters. In vs. 5-10 they are threatened with physical calamities, the drying up of their streams, the decay of vegetation, the loss of their fisheries, and the destruction of their manufactures In vs. 11-17, the wisdom of their wise men is converted into folly, the courage of their brave men into cowardice, industry universally suspended, and the people filled with dread of the anger of Jehovah. The second part may be also subdivided. In vs 18-21, the Egyptians are described as acknowledging the true God in consequence of what they had suffered at his hand, and the deliverance which he had granted them. In vs. 22-25, the same cause is described as leading to an intimate union between Egypt, Assyria, and Israel, in the service of Jehovah, and the enjoyment of his favor. The Prophet wishing to announce to the Jews the decline and fall of that great heathen power, in which they were so constantly disposed to trust (30:1. 31:1), describes the event under figures borrowed from the actual condition of Egypt. As a writer, who should now predict the downfall of the British empire, in a poetical and figurative style, would naturally speak of its fleets as sunk or scattered, its colonies dismembered, its factories destroyed, its railways abandoned, its universities abolished, so the Prophet vividly portrays the fall of Egypt by describing the waters of the Nile as failing, its meadows withering, its fisheries ceasing, and the peculiar manufactures of the country expiring, the proverbial wisdom of the nation changed to folly, its courage to cowardice, its strength to weakness. Whether particular parts of the description were intended to have a more specific application, is a question not affecting the truth of the hypothesis, that the first part is a metaphorical description of the downfall of the great Egyptian monarchy. So too in the second part, the introduction of the true religion, and its effect as well on the internal state as on the international relations of the different countries, is expressed by figures drawn from the civil and religious institutions of the old economy.

1. The Burden of Egypt. Behold! Jehovah riding on a light cloud, and he comes to (or into) Egypt, and the idols of Egypt move at his presence, and the heart of Egypt melts within him. This verse describes God as the author of the judgments afterwards detailed. His visible appearance on a cloud, and the personification of the idols, prepare the mind for a poetical description. The act of riding on a light cloud implies that he comes from heaven, and that he comes swiftly. On the contemptuous import of the word translated idols, see above, ch. 2:8; on the meaning of burden, ch. 13:1.

2. And I will excite Egypt against Egypt, and they shall fight, a man with his brother, and a man with his fellow, city with city, kingdom with kingdom. The first verb is by some rendered arm, by others join or engage in conflict; but the sense of stirring up or rousing is preferred both by the oldest and the latest writers. The version usually given, Egyptians against Egyptians, though substantially correct, is neither so expressive nor so true to the original as Egypt against Egypt, which involves an allusion to the internal divisions of the kingdom, or rather the existence of contemporary kingdoms, more explicitly referred to in the other clause. Some understand this verse as referring specifically to the civil wars of Egypt in the days of Sethos or Psammetichus. But while the coincidence with history adds greatly to the propriety and force of the description, there is no sufficient reason for departing from its obvious import, as a description of internal strife and anarchy in general. The expressions bear a strong resemblance to those used in the description of the state of Judah, ch. 3:5. Some regard these as the words to be uttered by Jehovah when he enters Egypt. It may, however, be a simple continuation of the prophecy, with a sudden change from the third to the first person, of which there are many other examples.

3. And the spirit of Egypt shall be emptied out (or exhausted) in the midst thereof, and the counsel (or sagacity) thereof I will swallow up (annihilate or render useless), and they will seek to the idols, and to the mutterers, and to the familiar spirits, and to the wizards. By spirit, in the first clause, we are not to understand courage but intellect. As to the ancient mode of incantation, see above, ch. 8:19.

4. And I will shut up Egypt in the hands of a hard master, and a strong king shall rule over them, saith the Lord, Jehovah of Hosts. Master, literally masters, a pluralis majestaticus, elsewhere applied to individual men (Gen 42:30. 33. 2 Kings 2:3, 5, 16). The king here mentioned is identified, according to various hypotheses, with Sethos, Psammetichus, Sennacherib, Sargon, Nebuchadnezzar, Cambyses, Ochus, and Charlemagne! The very multiplicity of these explanations shows how fanciful they are, and naturally leads us to conclude that the Prophet is describing in a general way the political vicissitudes of Egypt, one of which would be subjection to an arbitrary power, whether foreign or domestic, or to both at different periods of its history.

5. And the waters shall be dried up from the sea, and the river shall fail and be dried up. Three distinct verbs are here used in the sense of drying up, for which our language does not furnish equivalents. As the Nile has in all ages been called a sea by the Egyptians, most interpreters suppose it to be here referred to, in both clauses. According to the exegetical hypothesis laid down in the introduction to the chapter, this is a prediction of Egypt's national decline and fall, clothed in figures drawn from the characteristic features of its actual condition. As the desolation of our own western territory might be poetically represented as the drying up of the Mississippi and its branches, so a like event in the history of Egypt would be still more naturally described as a desiccation of the Nile, because that river is still more essential to the prosperity of the country which it waters. In favour of this figurative exposition is the difficulty of applying the description to particular historical events, and also the whole tenor of the context, as will be more clearly seen hereafter.

6. And the rivers shall stink (or become putrid), the streams of Egypt are emptied and dried up, reed and rush sicken (pine or wither). The streams meant are the natural and artificial branches of the Nile. The reed and rush are mentioned as a common growth in marshy situations.

7. The meadows by the river, by the mouth of the river, and all the sown ground of the river, shall wither, being driven away, and it is not (or shall be no more). The first word in Hebrew means bare or open places. i. e. meadows, as distinguished from woodland. The English and some other versions treat it as the name of the papyrus, but without authority. The word translated river is the one already mentioned as the common name in Scripture for the Nile, nor is there any need of departing from this sense in the case before us. Calvin explains mouth to mean source or fountain, which is wholly arbitrary. Others regard it as synonymous with lip, used elsewhere (Gen. 41:3. Exod. 2:3) to denote the brink or margin of the Nile. Some of the older writers give the word its geographical sense, as denoting the place where the waters of a stream are discharged into another or the sea. The place of seed or sowing, i. e. cultivated ground, is here distinguished from the meadows or uncultivated pastures.

8. And the fishermen shall mourn, and they shall lament, all the throwers of a hook into the river and the spreaders of a net upon the surface of the water languish. Having described the effect of the drought on vegetation, he now describes its effect upon those classes of the people who were otherwise dependent on the river for subsistence. The multitude of fishes in the Nile, and of people engaged in catching them, is attested both by ancient and modern writers. The use of fish in ancient Egypt was promoted by the popular superstitions with respect to other animals. The net is said to be not now used in the fisheries of Egypt. It is remarkable, however, that the implement itself appears on some of the old monuments. This verse is not to be applied to an actual distress among the fishermen at any one time, but to be viewed as a characteristic trait in the prophetic picture. When he speaks of a winegrowing country, the Prophet renders vineyards and vinedressers prominent objects. So here, when he speaks of a country abounding in fisheries and fishermen, he describes their condition as an index or symbol of the state of the country. In like manner, a general distress in our southern states might be described as a distress among the sugar, cotton, or tobacco planters.

9. And ashamed (disappointed or confounded) are the workers of combed (or hatchelled) flax, and the weavers of white (stuffs). The older writers supposed the class of persons here described to be the manufacturers of nets for fishing. The moderns understand the verse as having reference to the working of flax and manufacture of linen.

10. And her pillars (or foundations) are broken down, all labourers for hire are grieved at heart. The simplest exposition of the verse is that which regards this as a general description of distress, extending to the two great classes of society, the pillars or chief men and the labourers or commonalty.

11. Only foolish (i. e. entirely foolish) are the princes of Zoan, the sages of the counsellors of Pharaoh, (their) counsel is become brutish (or irrational). How can ye say to Pharaoh, I am the son of wise (fathers), I am the son of kings of old? The reference is not merely to perplexity in actual distress, but also to an unwise policy as one of the causes of the distress itself. Zoan, the Tanis of the Greeks, was one of the most ancient cities of Lower Egypt (Num. 13:22) and a royal residence. The name is of Egyptian origin and signifies a low situation. Pharaoh was a common title of the Egyptian kings. It is originally an Egyptian noun with the article prefixed. The statesmen and courtiers of ancient Egypt belonged to the sacerdotal caste, from which many of the kings were also taken. The wisdom of Egypt seems to have been proverbial in the ancient world (1 Kings 4:30. Acts 7:22). The last clause is addressed to the counsellors themselves. The interrogation implies the absurdity of their pretensions.

12. Where (are) they ? Where (are) thy wise men? Pray let them tell thee, and (if that is too much) let them (at least) know, what Jehovah of Hosts hath purposed against (or concerning) Egypt. It was a proof of their false pretensions that so far from being able to avert the evil, they could not even foresee it. The repetition of the interrogative where is highly emphatic.

13. Infatuated are the chiefs of Zoan, deceived are the chiefs of Noph, and they have misled Egypt, the corner (or corner-stone) of her tribes. Noph is the Memphis of the Greek geographers, called Moph, Hos. 9:6. It was one of the chief cities of ancient Egypt, the royal seat of Psammetichus After Alexandria was built it declined. Arabian writers in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries speak of its extensive and magnificent ruins, which have now almost wholly disappeared.

14. Jehovah hath mingled in the midst of her a spirit of confusion, and they have misled Egypt in all its work, like the misleading of a drunkard in his vomit. This verse describes the folly before mentioned as the effect not of natural causes or of accident but of a judicial infliction. Spirit here means a supernatural influence. By work we are to understand affairs and interests. The last verb in Hebrew is used elsewhere in reference to the unsteady motions of a drunken man (Job 12:25. Isai. 28:7).

15. And there shall not be to Egypt a work which head and tail, branch and rush, may do. Work here means anything done or to be done, including private business and public affairs. The figures of head and tail, branch and rush, are used, as in ch. 9:14, to denote all classes of society, or rather the extremes between which the others are included.

16. In that day shall Egypt be like a woman, and shall fear and tremble from before the shaking of the hand of Jehovah of Hosts, which he (is) shaking over it. The comparison in the first clause is a common one for terror and the loss of courage. The reference is not to the slaughter of Sennacherib's army, but more generally to the indications of divine displeasure.

17. And the land of Judah shall be for a terror (or become a terror) unto Egypt; every person to whom one mentions it (or every one who recalls it to his own mind) shall fear before the purpose of Jehovah of Hosts which he is purposing against it. This verse relates to the new feelings which would be entertained by the Egyptians towards the God of the Jews and the true religion. Judah, in a political and military sense, might still appear contemptible; but in another aspect, and for other reasons, it would be an object of respect and even fear to the Egyptians.

18. In that day there shall be five cities in the land of Egypt speaking the lip (i. e. language) of Canaan, and swearing to Jehovah of Hosts. The city of destruction shall be said to one (i. e. shall one be called). In that day, according to prophetic usage, is a somewhat indefinite expression, and may either mean during or after the distresses just described. Canaan is here put for the land of Canaan (as in Ex. 15:15), and the language of Canaan for the Hebrew language, not because it was the language of the old Canaanites, but because it was spoken in the land which they once occupied. Some of the later writers understand what is here said strictly as denoting an actual prevalence of the Hebrew language, while others take it as a strong expression for such intimate union, social, commercial, and political, as would seem to imply a community of language. The older writers very generally apply the terms to religious union and communion. The simplest interpretation of the phrase is, that in itself it denotes intimate intercourse and union generally, but that the idea of religious unity is here suggested by the context and especially by the following clause. Many interpreters appear to regard the phrases swearing by and swearing to as perfectly synonymous. The former act does certainly imply the recognition of the deity by whom one swears, especially if oaths he regarded (as they are in Scripture) as solemn acts of religious worship But the phrase swearing to conveys the additional idea of doing homage and acknowledging a sovereign by swearing fealty or allegiance to him. This is the only meaning that the words can bear in 2 Chr. 15:14, and in Isai. 45:23 the two phrases seem to be very clearly distinguished. The act of thus professing the true faith and submitting to the true God is ascribed in the verse before us to five towns, or cities. What appears to be meant is that five sixths, i. e. a very large proportion, shall profess the true religion, while the remaining sixth persists in unbelief. It shall be said to one, i. e. one shall be addressed as follows, or called by the following name. For one town which shall perish in its unbelief five shall profess the true faith and swear fealty to Jehovah.

19. In that day there shall be an altar to Jehovah in the midst of the land of Egypt, and a pillar at (or near) its border to Jehovah. It has been disputed whether we are here to understand an altar for sacrifice or an altar to serve as a memorial (Josh. 22: 26, 27). It has also been disputed whether the prohibition of altars and consecrated pillars (Lev. 26: 1. Deut. 12:5, 16: 22) was applicable only to the Jews or to Palestine, leaving foreign Jews or proselytes at liberty to rear these sacred structures as the Patriarchs did of old ((Jen. 28:18. 35:14). The necessity of answering these questions is removed by a just view of the passage, as predicting the prevalence of the true religion and the practice of its rites, in language borrowed from the Mosaic or rather from the patriarchal institutions. As we might now speak of a missionary pitching his tent at Hebron or at Shechem, without intending to describe the precise form of his habitation, so the Prophet represents the converts to the true faith as erecting an altar and a pillar to the Lord in Egypt, as Abraham and Jacob did of old in Canaan. A still more exact illustration is afforded by the frequent use among ourselves of the word altar to denote the practice of devotion, especially in families. There is a double propriety and beauty in the use of the word pillar, because while it instantly recalls to mind the patriarchal practice, it is at the same time finely descriptive of the obelisk, an object so characteristic of Egypt that it may be regarded as its emblem. Both the obelisk and the patriarchal pillar, being never in the human form, are to be carefully distinguished from statues or images, although the latter word is sometimes used to represent the Hebrew one in the English Version. (See 2 Kings 3:2. 10:26. Mic. 5:13.)

20. And it shall be for a sign and for a testimony to Jehovah of Hosts in the land of Egypt, that they shall cry to Jehovah from the presence of oppressors, and he will send them a deliverer and a mighty one and save them. This shall be a sign and a witness to (i. e. with respect to, in behalf of) Jehovah in the land of Egypt, viz. that when they cry, he will afford a providential testimony in behalf of his own being, presence, and supremacy, by saving those who cry to him. If, as we have seen reason to believe, the chapter is a prophecy, not of a single event but of a great progressive change to be wrought in the condition of Egypt by the introduction of the true religion, the promise of the verse before us must be that when they cried God would send them a deliverer, a promise verified not once but often, not only by Ptolemy or Alexander, but by others, and in the highest sense by Christ himself. In the language of this verse there is an obvious allusion to the frequent statement in the book of Judges, that the people cried to God and he raised them up deliverers who saved them from their oppressors (Judg. 2:16. 3:9 etc.).

21. And Jehovah shall be known to Egypt, and Egypt (or the Egyptians) shall know Jehovah in that day, and shall serve (with) sacrifice and offering, and shall vow a vow to Jehovah and perform it This is not the prediction of a new event, but a repetition in another form of the preceding promise. What is first described as the knowledge of the true God, is afterwards represented as his service, the expressions being borrowed from the ancient ritual. If the last clause be literally understood, we must either regard it as an unfounded expectation of the Prophet which was never fulfilled, or suppose that it relates to an express violation of the law of Moses, or assume that the ancient rites and forms are hereafter to be re-established. On the other hand, the figurative explanation is in perfect agreement with the usage of both testaments and with the tenor of the prophecy itself. Bloody and unbloody sacrifice is here combined with vows in order to express the totality of ritual services as a figure for those of a more spiritual nature. The express mention of the Egyptians themselves as worshipping Jehovah shows that they are also meant in the preceding verse.

22. And Jehovah shall smite Egypt (or the Egyptians), smiting and healing, and they shall return unto Jehovah, and he shall be entreated of them and shall heal them. Here again the second clause contains no advance upon the first, and the whole verse no advance upon the foregoing context, but an iteration of the same idea in another form This verse may indeed be regarded as a recapitulation of the whole preceding prophecy, consisting as it does of an extended threatening (vs 1-17) followed by an ample promise (vs. 18-21). As if he had said, thus will God smite Egypt and then heal it. That great heathen power, with respect to which the Jews so often sinned both by undue confidence and undue dread, was to be broken and reduced; but in exchange for this political decline, and partly as a consequence of it, the Egyptians should experience benefits far greater than they ever before knew. Thus would Jehovah smite and heal, or smite but so as afterwards to heal, which seems to be the force of the reduplicated verb. The meaning is not simply that the stroke should be followed by healing, nor is it simply that the stroke should itself possess a healing virtue; but both ideas seem to be included Returning to Jehovah is a common figure for repentance and conversion, even in reference to the heathen. (See Psalm 22: 27.)

23. In that day there shall be a highway from Egypt to Assyria, and Assyria shall come into Egypt and Egypt into Assyria, and Egypt (or the Egyptians) shall serve with Assyria. No translation will convey the precise form of the original, in which the ancestral names are put not only for their descendants but for the countries which they occupied. No one, it is probable, has ever yet maintained that a road was literally opened between Egypt and Assyria, or that Isaiah expected it. All classes of interpreters agree that the opening of the highway is a figure for easy, free, and intimate communication. This unanimous admission of a metaphor in this place not only shows that the same mode of interpretation is admissible in the other parts of the same prophecy, but makes it highly probable that what is said of altar and sacrifices is to be likewise-so understood.

24. In that day shall Israel be a third with respect to Egypt and Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth. The meaning obviously is that Israel should be one of three or a party to a triple union. The idea meant to be conveyed, is not merely that of equality in magnitude or power, but also that of intimate conjunction, as in the preceding verse Blessing is here used in a comprehensive sense, as denoting at the same time a source of blessing, a means of blessing, and an object to be blessed.

25. Which Jehovah of Hosts has blessed (or with which Jehovah of Hosts has blessed it) saying, Blessed be my people Egypt, and the work of my hands Assyria, and my heritage (or peculiar people) Israel. The perfect union of the three great powers in the service of God and the enjoyment of his favour is now expressed by a solemn benediction on the three, in which language commonly applied to Israel exclusively is extended to Egypt and Assyria. The force of the expressions would be much enhanced by the habitual associations of a Jewish reader. It arises very much from the surprise excited by the unexpected termination of the clauses. Instead of Blessed be my people Israel, the formula is Blessed be my people Egypt. That the work of my hands does not merely mean my creature, or a creature perfectly at my disposal, but my creature in a special and a spiritual sense, the same in which God is said to be the maker or founder of Israel (Deut. 32:6. Isai. 43:6, 7), is evident from this consideration, that the clause would otherwise say nothing peculiar or distinctive of Assyria, as those before and after it do of Egypt and Israel In order to express once more and in the most emphatic manner the admission of Egypt and Assyria to the privileges of the chosen people, he selects three titles commonly bestowed upon the latter exclusively, to wit, God's people, the work of his hands, and his inheritance, and these three he distributes to the three united powers without discrimination or invidious distinction. As to the application of the prophecy there are three distinct opinions. One is, that the Prophet here anticipates a state of peace and international communion between Egypt. Israel, and Assyria in his own times, which may or may not have been actually realized. Another is, that he predicts what actually did take place under the reign. of Alexander and the two great powers that succeeded him, viz the Graeco-Syrian and Egyptian monarchies, by which the true religion was protected and diffused and the way prepared for the preaching of the gospel. A third is, that Egypt and Assyria are here named as the two great heathen powers known to the Jews, whose country lay between them and was often the scene if not the subject of their contests, so that for ages they were commonly in league with the one against the other. To describe these two great belligerent powers as at peace with Israel and one another, was not only to foretell a most surprising revolution in the state of the world, but to intimate at least a future change in the relation of the Jews and the Gentiles. When he goes still further and describes these representatives of heathenism as received into the covenant and sharing with the church of God its most distinctive titles, we have one of the clearest and most striking predictions of the calling of the Gentiles that the word of God contains. One advantage of this exposition is that, while it thus extends and elevates the scope of the prediction, it retains unaltered whatever there may be of more specific prophecy or of coincidence with history. If Alexander is referred to, and the spread of Judaism under him and his successors. and the general pacification of the world and progress of refinement, these are so many masterly strokes added to the great prophetic picture; but they cannot be extracted from it and made to constitute a picture by themselves.