Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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About the time of the Assyrian attack on Ashdod, the Prophet is directed to walk naked and barefoot as a sign of the defeat and captivity of the Egyptians and Ethiopians who were at war with Assyria. The first verse fixes the date of this symbolical transaction; the second contains the divine command and the record of its execution; the third and fourth explain the meaning of the symbol; the fifth and sixth predict its effect, or rather that of the event which it prefigured. The questions which have been raised, as to the date of the composition and the fulfilment of the prophecy, will be most conveniently considered in the course of the detailed interpretation.

1. In the year of Tartan's coming to Ashdod, in Sargon king of Assyria's sending him (i. e. when Sargon king of Assyria sent him), and he fought with Ashdod (i e. besieged it) and took it. Ashdod was one of the five cities of the Philistines (Josh. 11:22. 15:46. 1 Sam 5:1), considered on account of its strong fortifications (from which its name is supposed to be derived) the key of Egypt, and therefore frequently attacked in the wars between Egypt and Assyria. According to Herodotus, Psammetichus besieged it twenty-nine years. This, if not an exaggeration, is the longest siege in history, and probably took place after what is here recorded, to recover Ashdod from Assyria. Its site is marked by a village still called Esdtud (Robinson's Palestine II. 368). The name of Sargon nowhere else occurs. Tartan appears again as a general under Sennacherib (2 Kings 18:17). From this some infer that Sargon and Sennacherib are one and the same person. Others identify Sargon with Esarhaddon, or with Shalmaneser. All these suppositions are less probable than the obvious one, that Sargon was a king of Assyria mentioned only here, because his reign was very short, and this was the only occurrence that brought him into contact with the Jews. That he was not the immediate successor of Sennacherib, is clear from ch. 37:38, and from the fact which seems to be implied in 2 Chr. 32:21, that Tartan perished in the great catastrophe. The most plausible hypothesis, and that now commonly adopted, is that he reigned three or four years between Shalmaneser and Sennacherib. It is disputed whether in the year of Tartan's coming means before or after that occurrence. The truth is, it means neither, but leaves that question undetermined, or at most to be determined by the context.

2. At that time spake Jehovah by the hand of Isaiah the son of Amos, saying, Go, and thou shalt open (i. e. loose) the sackcloth from upon thy loins, and thy shoe thou shalt pull off from upon thy foot. And he did so, going naked and barefoot. The word naked is used to express partial denudation in all languages. As biblical examples, may be cited 1 Sam. 19:24. 2 Sam. 6:20. Amos 2:16. John 21:7. In the case before us, we may either suppose that the sackcloth was an upper garment which he threw entirely off, or an inner garment which he opened by ungirding it, or a girdle itself which he loosened and perhaps removed. Sackcloth was a common mourning dress, and some suppose that Isaiah was now wearing it in token of his grief for the exile of the ten tribes. Others understand it as an official or ascetic dress worn by the Prophets (Zech. 13:4), as for instance by Elijah (2 Kings 1:8) and by John the Baptist (Matt. 3:4). Others again suppose that it is mentioned as a cheap coarse dress worn by the Prophet in common with the humbler class of people. By the hand denotes ministerial agency or intervention, and is often used in reference to communications made to the people through the prophets. (Ex. 4:13. 1 Sam. 16:20. Jer. 37:2.) So in this case, the divine communication was really addressed to the people, though the words immediately ensuing are addressed to the Prophet himself. It is not necessary to suppose that the phrase has exclusive reference to the symbolical action. What was said to the Prophet was obviously said through him to the people.

3. And Jehovah said, As my servant Isaiah hath gone naked and barefoot three years a sign and symbol concerning Egypt and concerning Ethiopia. Here begins the divine explanation of the symbolical act before commanded. The design of this transaction was to draw attention by exciting surprise. In the prophecies belonging to the reign of Hezekiah, Egypt and Ethiopia are frequently combined, either because they were in close alliance, or because an Ethiopian dynasty then reigned in Upper Egypt. The Prophet probably exposed himself but once in the way described, after which he continued to be a sign and wonder for three years, i. e. till the fulfilment of the prophecy. The three years have been variously understood, as the duration of the siege of Ashdod, as the duration of the exile threatened in the next verse, and as the interval which should elapse between the prophecy and its fulfilment. Of these three hypotheses the second is the least probable, while the first and third may be combined.

4. So shall the king of Assyria lead the captivity (i. e. the captives) of Egypt and the exiles of Ethiopia, young and old, naked and barefoot, with their buttocks uncovered, the nakedness (or disgrace) of Egypt. This verse completes the comparison begun in that before it. It is also clear from a comparison of the type and antitype, that the nakedness of v. 2 was a partial one, since captives were not commonly reduced to a state of absolute nudity. This is confirmed by the addition of the word barefoot in both cases, which would be superfluous if naked had its strictest sense. Connected as Egypt and Ethiopia were in fact and in the foregoing context, either name includes the other. The King of Assyria here meant is either Sennacherib or Sargon himself. Some suppose this prediction to have been fulfilled in the conquest of No-Ammon (i. e. Diospolis or Thebes) mentioned in Nah. 3:8 as a recent event. How long beforehand the prediction was uttered, is a question of small moment and one which cannot be decided. There is no ground, however, for the supposition that the interval was so short as to convert the prophecy into a mere conjecture or an act of sagacious forecast.

5. And they shall be afraid and ashamed of Ethiopia their expectation and of Egypt their boast. This is the effect to be produced by the catastrophe just threatened. The full sense of the first verb is that they shall be confounded, filled with consternation, at the fate of those in whom they trusted for deliverance. The meaning of the verse is, that they who had relied on Egypt and its ally Ethiopia for aid against Assyria, whether Jews or Philistines or both, should be confounded at beholding Egypt and Ethiopia themselves subdued.

6. And the inhabitant of this isle (or coast) shall say in that day, Behold, thus (or such) is our expectation, whither we fled for help, to be delivered from the presence of the king of Assyria. And how shall we (ourselves) escape? The disappointment described in the foregoing verse is now expressed by those who felt it. The argument is one a fortiori. If the protectors were subdued, what must become of the protected? The pronoun in the last clause is emphatic, as it usually is when not essential to the sense. The Hebrew word for island has no exact equivalent in English. Three distinct shades or gradations of meaning seem to be clearly marked in usage. The first is that of land as opposed to water; the second that of coast as opposed to inland; the third that of island as opposed to mainland. The last, although commonly expressed in most translations, is perhaps the least frequent of the three. The word here denotes the south-eastern shore of the Mediterranean, called this coast, in order to distinguish it from that coast, viz. Ethiopia and Egypt, which had just before been mentioned. As to the extent of country meant to be included, nothing of course can be determined from the word itself. which is designedly indefinite. Thus or such is our expectation, i. e. this is the end of it, you see what has become of it, you see the fate of that to which we looked for help; how then can we ourselves be delivered or escape? See a similar expression 2 Kings 10:4.