Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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As three of the verses of this chapter begin with the word burden (vs. 1, 11, 13), it is now commonly supposed to consist of three distinct prophecies. Taking the language in its obvious meaning and excluding all gratuitous assumptions, we shall be constrained to look upon the first of these divisions (vs. 1-10) as one of the most striking instances of strict agreement between prophecy and history. As to the remainder of the chapter, while it cannot be denied that the connection of the parts, and the meaning of each in itself, are exceedingly obscure, it may be doubted whether there is sufficient ground for their entire separation as distinct and independent prophecies. The extreme brevity, especially of the second part (vs. 11, 12), makes this very dubious, and the doubt is strengthened by the recurrence of the figure of a watchman in v. 11. In the case before us, as in ch. 14:28, it is safer to assume the unity of the composition than rashly to dismember it. However difficult it may be to determine the connection of these parts, they may safely be regarded as composing one obscure but continuous prediction. This is the less improbable because they can all be brought into connection, if not unity, by simply supposing that the tribes or races, to which vs. 11-17 relate, were sharers with the Jews in the Babylonian tyranny, and therefore interested in its downfall. This hypothesis, it is true, is not susceptible of demonstration; but it is strongly recommended by the very fact that it explains the juxtaposition of these prophecies, or rather entitles them to be considered one. The first part of the prophecy opens with an emphatic intimation of its alarming character, vs. 1-4. We have then a graphic representation of the march of the Medes and Persians upon Babylon, vs. 5-9. This is followed by a hint of the effect which this event would have upon the people of Jehovah, v. 10. The remainder of the chapter represents the neighboring nations as involved in the same sufferings with the Jews, but without any consolatory promise of deliverance, vs. 11-17.

1. The burden of the desert of the sea. Like whirlwinds in the south, as to rushing (or driving), from the wilderness it comes, from a terrible land. Most interpreters are agreed that the phrase desert of the sea is an enigmatical description of Babylonia as a great plain (Gen. 11:1. Isai. 23:13), watered by a great river which, like the Nile (ch. 19:5), is sometimes called a sea (ch. 27:1). This designation was the more appropriate because the plain of Babylon, according to Herodotus, was often overflowed before Semiramis took measures to prevent it, and an ancient writer says expressly that it then had the appearance of a sea. The threatened danger is compared to the approach of a tempest from the south, i. e. from the great Arabian desert, in which quarter the most violent winds are elsewhere represented as prevailing.

2. A hard visionit is revealed to methe deceiver deceiving and the spoiler spoilinggo up, oh Elambesiege, oh Mediaall sighing (or all its sighing) I have made to cease. The first phrase means a vision of severe and awful judgments. If the next clause be applied to Cyrus, one of the terms may describe the stratagems of war, as the other does its violence This is the more natural as Babylon was actually taken by stratagem. Go up, i. e. against Babylon, either in reference to its lofty defences (ch. 26:5), or according to a more general military usage of the phrase. (See above. ch. 7:1.) The Medes and Persians were united under Cyrus, but the latter are here named first, as some think, because they were now in the ascendant.

3. Therefore my loins are filled with pain; pangs have seized me like the pangs of a travailing (woman); I writhe (or am convulsed) from hearing; I am shocked (or agitated) from seeing. Some regard these as the words of a captive Jew, or of a Babylonian; but there is no objection to explaining them as expressive of the Prophet's own emotions, a very common method of enhancing the description even of deserved and righteous judgments.

4. My heart wanders (reels, or is bewildered); horror appals me; the twilight (night or evening) of my pleasure (or desire) he has put for (or converted into) fear (or trembling) for me. There are two interpretations of the last clause. One supposes it to mean that the night desired as a time of rest is changed into a time of terror; the other, that a night of festivity is changed into a time of terror. That the court was revelling when Cyrus took the city, is stated in the general by Herodotus and Xenophon, and in full detail by Daniel. That the two first, however, did not derive their information from the Prophet, may be inferred from their not mentioning the writing on the wall, which would have seemed incredible to neither of them.

5. Set the table, spread the cloth, eat, drink, arise ye chiefs, anoint the shield! The Hebrew verbs are not imperatives but infinitives, here used in the first clause for the historical tense in order to give brevity, rapidity, and life to the description. For the same purpose the English imperative may be employed, as the simplest form of the verb and unencumbered with the personal pronouns. The sense, however, is that while the table is set etc. the alarm is given. The anointing of the shield is supposed by some to be a means of preserving it or of repelling missiles from its surface, by others simply a means of cleansing and perhaps adorning it. Both agree that it is here poetically used to express the idea of arming or preparing for battle. There are two interpretations of the last clause. One wakes it an address by Jehovah or the Prophet to the Medes and Persians, as in the last clause of v. 2; the other a sudden alarm to the Babylonians at their feast. Both explanations, but especially the last, seem to present a further allusion to the surprise of the king and court by Cyrus.

6. For thus saith the Lord to me: Go set (or cause to stand) the watchman (or sentinel); that which he sees let him tell. Instead of simply predicting or describing the approach of the enemy, the Prophet introduces an ideal watchman, as announcing what he actually sees.

7. And should he see cavalrya pair (or pairs of horsemen) ass-riderscamel-ridersthen shall he hearken with hearkening a great hearkening (i. e. listen attentively). This construction of the sentence supposes the divine instructions to be still continued. This verse contains the order and the ninth its execution, while the eighth, as a preface to the latter, is exactly in its proper place. It is a slight but obvious coincidence of prophecy and history that Xenophon represents the Persians advancing two by two.

8. And he criesa lionon the watch-tower, Lord. I am standing always by day, and on my ward (or place of observation) 1 am stationed all the nights (i. e. all night, or every night, or both). That the setting of the watch is an ideal process. seems to be intimated by the word Lord, one of the divine names (not my lord or sir), and also by the unremitted vigilance to which he here lays claim. According to the usual interpretation, these are the words of the delegated watchman, announcing that he is at his post and will remain there and announce whatever he may see. The word lion forms no part of the sentinel's report, but is rather a description of the way in which he makes it. The true sense of the words is given in a paraphrase in Rev. 10:3. he cried with a loud voice as when a lion roareth. As to the syntax, we may either supply as before a lion, of which ellipsis there are some examples, or still more simply read the lion cries, thus converting the simile into a metaphor. The first construction agrees best however with the masoretic accents.

9. And behold, this comes (or this is what is coming), mounted men, pairs of horsemen. And he answers (i. e speaks again) and says, Fallen, fallen, is Babylon, and all the images of her gods he has broken (or crushed) to the earth. The last verb is indefinitely construed, but obviously refers to the enemy as the instrument of Babylon's destruction, rather than to God as the efficient cause. The description given in v. 7 is abbreviated here, because Bo much was to be added. Still the correspondence is sufficiently exact. The structure of the passage is highly dramatic. In the sixth verse, the prophet is commanded to set a watch. In the seventh, the sentinel is ordered to look out for an army of men, mounted on horses, camels, and asses. In the eighth, he reports himself as being at his post. In the ninth, he sees the very army which had been described approaching. Answer is used, both in Greek and Hebrew, for the resumption of discourse by the same speaker, especially after an interval. It is here equivalent to spoke again. During the interval implied, the city is supposed to have been taken, so that when the watchman speaks again, it is to say that Babylon is fallen. The omission of all the intermediate details, for the purpose of bringing the extremes together, is a masterly stroke of poetical description, which would never have occurred to an inferior writer. The allusion to idols in the last clause is not intended merely to remind us that the conquest was a triumph of the true God over false ones, but to bring into view the well-known aversion of the Persians to all images. Herodotus says they not only thought it unlawful to use images, but imputed folly to those who did it. Here is another incidental but remarkable coincidence of prophecy even with profane history.

10. Oh my threshing and the son of my threshing-floor! What I have heard from Jehovah of hosts, the God of Israel, I have told you. This part of the prophecy closes with an apostrophe, showing at once by whose power and for whose sake the downfall of Babylon was to be brought about. Threshing here means that which is threshed, and is synonymous with the following phrase, son of the threshing-floor, i. e. (according to the oriental idiom which uses son to signify almost any relation) threshed grain. The comparison of severe oppression or affliction to threshing is a common one, and though the terms here used are scarcely intelligible when literally rendered into English, it is clear that they mean, oh my oppressed and afflicted people, and must therefore be addressed not to the Babylonians but the Jews, to whom the fall of Babylon would bring deliverance, and for whose consolation this prediction was originally uttered. The last clause assures them that their own God had sent this message to them.

11. The burden of Dumah. To me (one is) calling from Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night? It has been already stated that most interpreters regard this and the next verse as an independent prophecy, but that the use of the word burden is an insufficient reason, while the extreme brevity of the passage, and the recurrence of the figure of a sentinel or watchman, seem to indicate that it is a continuation of what goes before, although a new subject is here introduced. Of Dumah there are two interpretations. Some understand it as the name of an Arabian tribe descended from Ishmael (Gen. 25:14. 1 Chr. 1: 30), or of a place belonging to that tribe, perhaps the same now called Dumah Eljandil on the confines of Arabia and Syria In that case. Seir, which lay between Judah and the desert of Arabia, is mentioned merely to denote the quarter whence the sound proceeded. But as Seir was itself the residence of the Edomites or children of Esau, others explain Dumah as a variation of the name Edom, intended at the same time to suggest the idea of silence, solitude, and desolation. In favour of the first interpretation is the mention of Arabia and of certain Arabian tribes in the following verses. But even Edom might be said to form part of Arabia. The greater importance of Edom and the frequency with which it is mentioned in the prophets, especially as an object of divine displeasure, also recommend this exegetical hypothesis. The Edomites were long subject to Israel, and might therefore naturally take part in its sufferings from Babylonian tyranny. The English Version seems to mean, what have you to say of the night? Interpreters are commonly agreed, however, that the question is, what part of the night is it, equivalent to our question, what o'clock? This may have been a customary method of interrogating watchmen. Night is a common metaphor to represent calamity, as daybreak does relief from it. Some regard this as a taunting inquiry addressed to Judah by his heathen neighbours. It is much more natural, however, to explain it as an expression of anxiety arising from a personal concern in the result.

12. The watchman says, Morning comes and also night; if ye will inquire, inquire; return, come. Most writers understand this as relating to different subjects, morning comes (to one) and night (to another); which would seem to mean that while the Jewish night was about to be dispelled, that of Edom or Arabia should still continue. But connected as the words are with the foregoing prophecy, it is far more natural to understand them as referring to the Babylonian conquest of Judea and the neighbouring countries. The last clause intimates that the event was still uncertain. If you wish to know you must inquire again; you are come too soon; the time of your deliverance is not at hand; return or come again. On any hypothesis, however, these two verses still remain enigmatical and doubtful in their meaning.

13. The burden of Arabia. In the forest in Arabia shall ye lodge, oh ye caravans of Dedanim. The Prophet here passes from Edom to Arabia, or from one Arabian tribe or district to another. The answer in v. 12 is here explained. The country was to be in such a state that the caravans which usually travelled undisturbed would be obliged to leave the public road and pass the night among the bushes or thickets. Forests properly so called do not exist in the Arabian desert. The Dedanim are mentioned elsewhere in connection with Edom and Teman (Jer. 49:8. Ez. 25:13), to whom they were probably contiguous. Their precise situation is the less important as they are not the subjects of the prophecy, but spoken of as strangers passing through, the interruption of whose journey is mentioned as a proof of the condition of the country.

14. To meet the thirsty they bring water, the inhabitants of the land of Tema; with his bread they prevent (i. e. meet or anticipate) the fugitive. The men of Tema, another Arabian tribe, also engaged in trade (Jer. 25:23. Job 6:19), are described as bringing food and drink, not to the Dedanim mentioned in v. 13, but to the people of the wasted country. His bread is rendered in the English Version as a collective (their bread), referring to the men of Tema; but the pronoun relates rather to the fugitive himself, and the whole phrase means his portion of food, the food necessary for him, his daily bread.

15. Because (or when) from the presence of swords they fled, from the presence of a drawn sword and from the presence of a bended bow, and from the presence of a weight of war. This verse describes them as not only plundered but pursued by a bloodthirsty enemy.

16. For thus saith the Lord to me, In yet a year (or in a year longer) like the years of a hireling (i. e. strictly computed) shall fail (or cease) all the glory of Kedar. This verse seems to fix a time for the fulfilment of the foregoing prophecy. Here, as in chap. 17:3, glory comprehends all that constitutes the dignity or strength of a people On the meaning of the phrase, years of a hireling, see above, ch. 16:14. Kedar was the second son of Ishmael (Gen. 25:13). The name is here put either for an Arab tribe or for Arabia in general (Isai. 42:11. 60:7. Ez. 27:21). The Rabbins call the Arabic the language of Kedar. The chronological specification in this verse makes it necessary either to assume a. later writer than Isaiah, as some do in ch. 16:14; or a terminus a quo posterior to his time, as if he had said, within a year after something else before predicted; or an abrupt recurrence from the days of Nebuchadnezzar or Cyrus to those of Hezekiah. The last would be wholly in accordance with the usage of the prophets; but the best solution seems to be afforded by the second hypothesis. The sense will then be that the Arabians who suffered with the Jews, so far from sharing their deliverance, should within a year after that event be entirely destroyed. At the same time, due allowance should be made for diversity of judgment in a case so doubtful.

17. And the remnant of the number of bows (or archers), the mighty men (or heroes) of the children of Kedar, shall lie few (or become few), for Jehovah God of Israel hath spoken it. We read elsewhere of the archery of Ishmael (Gen. 21:20) and Kedar (Ps. 120:4). The last clause intimates that God, as the God of Israel, has a quarrel with Kedar, and at the same time that his power and omniscience will secure the fulfilment of the threatening. It is not impossible that future discoveries may yet throw light upon these brief and obscure prophecies.