Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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This chapter naturally falls into two parts. The first describes the conduct of the people of Jerusalem during a siege, vs. 1-14. The second predicts the removal of Shebna from his post as treasurer or steward of the royal household, vs. 15-25. The whole may be described as a prophecy against the people of Jerusalem in general, and against Shebna in particular, considered as their leader and example.

It has been disputed whether the description in the first part of this chapter was intended to apply to the siege of Jerusalem by Sennacherib, or by Esarhaddon in the reign of Manasseh, or by Nebuchadnezzar, or by Titus. If the whole must be applied to one specific point of time, it is probably the taking of Jerusalem by the king of Assyria in the days of Manasseh, (2 Chron. 33:11), when the latter was himself carried captive with his chief men, and Shebna possibly among the rest. The choice seems to lie between this hypothesis and that of a generic prediction, a prophetic picture of the conduct of the Jews in a certain conjuncture of affairs which happened more than once, particular strokes of the description being drawn from different memorable sieges, and especially from those of Sennacherib and Nebuchadnezzar.

1. The burden of the Valley of Vision. What (is) to thee (what hast thou? or what aileth thee?) that thou art wholly (literally the whole of thee) gone up on the house-tops? By the valley of vision we are to understand Jerusalem, as being surrounded by hills with valleys between them. There is allusion to Jerusalem as the seat of revelation, the abode of the prophets, and the place where God's presence was manifested. The oriental roofs are flat and used for various purposes. The ascent here mentioned is probably used as a lively description of an oriental city in commotion, without any intention to intimate as yet the cause or the occasion, just as we might say that the streets of our own cities were full of people, whether the concourse were occasioned by grief, joy, fear, or any other cause. Some suppose the Prophet to inquire as a stranger what is the matter; but he seems rather to express disapprobation of the stir which he describes.

2. Full of stirs, a noisy town, a joyous city, thy slain are not slain with the sword nor dead in battle. The first clause is commonly explained by the older writers as descriptive of the commotion and alarm occasioned by the enemy's approach. The latest writers are agreed in making it descriptive of the opposite condition of joyous excitement, frivolous gayety, and reckless indifference, described in v. 13. The expression thy slain are not slain with the sword cannot mean that none were slain, but necessarily implies mortality of another kind. The allusion is supposed by some to be to pestilence, by others to famine, such as prevailed in the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and also by the Romans. As neither is specified, the words may be more generally understood as describing all kinds of mortality incident to sieges, excepting that of actual warfare.

3. All thy chiefs fled together—from the bowthey were bound all that were found of thee were bound together-from afar they fled. This verse describes the people as flying from the enemy, and being nevertheless taken. We may either read, they are bound (i. e made prisoners) by the bow (i. e. the archers, as light-armed troops), or without the bow (i. e. not in battle, as the slain were not slain with the sword); or it may mean without resistance, without drawing a bow. Some understand it to mean, they are restrained (by fear) from (using) the bow. All that were found of thee may be in antithesis to thy chiefs, as if he had said, not only thy chiefs but all the rest. Some understand this as describing the voluntary confinement of the people in Jerusalem during a siege; others apply it to their vain endeavours to escape from its privations and dangers. It is best to give the verse its largest meaning as descriptive of the hardships and concomitant evils, not of one siege merely but of sieges in general.

4. Therefore I said (or say), Look away from me; let me be bitter in weeping (or weep bitterly); try not to comfort me for the desolation of the daughter of my people. These are not the words of Jerusalem in answer to the question in v. 1, but those of the Prophet expressing his sympathy with the sufferings which he foresees and foretells, as in ch. 16:11. The daughter of my people means the people itself, poetically represented as a woman, and affectionately spoken of as a daughter.

5. For there is a day of confusion and trampling and perplexity to the Lord Jehovah of Hosts in the valley of visionbreaking the wall and crying to the mountain. He has a day i. e. he has it appointed, or has it in reserve. (See above, ch. 2:12.) Trampling does not refer to the treading down of the fields and gardens, but of men in battle, or at least in a general commotion and confusion. To the mountain are not the words of the cry, but its direction. The mountain is not Jerusalem or Zion as the residence of God, but the mountains round about Jerusalem (Ps. 125:1.) The meaning is not that the people are heard crying on their way to the mountain, but rather that their cries are reverberated from it. The whole verse is a vivid poetical description of the confusion of a siege.

6. And Elam bare a quiver, with chariots, men (i. e. infantry), horsemen, and Kir uncovered the shield. Elam was a province of Persia, often put for the whole country. Its people were celebrated archers. The simplest and most natural construction seems to be that which supposes three kinds of troops to be here enumerated; cavalry, infantry, and men in chariots. Kir is now agreed to be identical with ***, the name of a river rising in the Caucasus and emptying into the Caspian sea, from which Georgia (Girgistan) is supposed to derive its name. Kir was subject to Assyria in the time of Isaiah, as appears from the fact thas it was one of the regions to which the exiles of the ten tribes were transported. It may here be put for Media, as Elam is for Persia. The uncovering of the shield has reference to the leathern cases used to protect the shield or keep it bright. The removal of these denotes preparation for battle. The ancient versions and some modern writers translate the clause, the shield leaves the wall bare by being taken down from the place where it hung, or the enemy deprives the wall of its shield i. e. its defenders. Some even suppose an allusion to the testudo or covered way of shields, under which the Roman soldiers used to advance to the walls of a besieged town. The verbs are in the past tense, which proves nothing however as to the date of the events described.

7. And it came to pass (that) the choice of thy valleys (thy choicest valleys) were full of chariots, and the horsemen drew up (or took up a position) towards the gate. The Prophet sees something which he did not see before. He had seen the chariots and horsemen coming; but now he sees the valleys around full of them. The future form adopted by some versions is entirely unauthorized. Whatever be the real date of the events described, the Prophet evidently meant to speak of them as past or present, and we have neither right nor reason to depart from his chosen form of expression. The address is to Jerusalem. The valleys are mentioned as the only places where the cavalry or chariots could be useful or could act at all. As the only level approach to Jerusalem is on the north, that quarter may be specially intended, and the gate may be a gate on that side of the city.

8. And he removed the covering of Judah, and thou didst look in that day to the armour of the house of the forest. The first verb, which some connect with the enemy and others with Jehovah understood, is really indefinite and may be resolved into an English passive, the covering was removed. This expression has been variously explained. The analogous expression of taking away the veil from the heart (2 Cor. 3:15, 16), and the immediate mention of the measures used for the defence of the city, are perhaps decisive in favour of explaining the words to mean that the Jews' own eyes were opened. It is best to understand here an abrupt apostrophe to Judah, a figure of perpetual occurrence in Isaiah. House of the forest is the designation of a house built by Solomon, and elsewhere called the house of the forest of Lebanon, because erected on that mountain, as some writers think, but according to the common opinion, because built of cedar-wood from Lebanon. This house is commonly supposed to have been either intended for an arsenal by Solomon himself, or converted into one by some of his successors, and to be spoken of in Neh. 3:19. Looking to this arsenal implies dependence on its stores as the best means of defence against the enemy, unless we understand the words to signify inspection, which agrees well with what follows, but is not sufficiently sustained by the usage of the verb and preposition. In that day seems to mean at length, i. e. when made aware of their danger.

9. And the breaches of the city of David ye saw, that they were many, and ye gathered the waters of the lower pool. The breaches meant are not those made by the enemy in the siege here described, but those caused by previous neglect and decay. The city of David may be either taken as a poetical name for Jerusalem at large, or in its strict sense as denoting the upper town upon Mount Zion, which was surrounded by a wall of its own, and called the city of David because he took it from the Jebusites and afterwards resided there. Ye saw may either mean, ye saw them for the first time, at length became aware of them, or, ye looked at them, examined them, with a view to their repair. The last is more probably implied than expressed. The last clause describes a measure of defence peculiarly important at Jerusalem where there are very few perennial springs. This precaution (as well as the one previously hinted at) was actually taken by Hezekiah in the prospect of Sennacherib's approach (2 Chr. 32:4), and has perhaps been repeated in every siege of any length which Jerusalem has since experienced. The lower pool is probably the tank or reservoir still in existence in the valley of Hinnom opposite the western side of Mount Zion. This name, which occurs only here, has reference to the upper pool higher up in the same valley near the Jaffa gate. (See above, ch. 7:3. Compare Robinson's Palestine, I. 483-487.)

10. And the houses of Jerusalem ye numbered, and ye putted down the houses to repair (rebuild or fortify) the wall. The numbering of the houses probably has reference, not to the levying of men or of a tax, but to the measure mentioned in the last clause, for the purpose of determining what houses could be spared, and perhaps of estimating the expense. The houses are destroyed, not merely to make room for new erections, but to furnish materials. Ancient Jerusalem, like that of our day, was built of stone.

11. And a reservoir ye made between the two watts (or the double wall) for the waters of the old pool, and ye did not look to the maker of it. and the former of it ye did not see. The reference is probably to a wall built out from that of the city and returning to it, so as to enclose the tank or reservoir here mentioned. As this was a temporary measure, perhaps often repeated, there is no need of tracing it in other parts of history or in the present condition of Jerusalem. It is altogether probable, however, that the old pool here mentioned is the same with the upper pool of ch. 7:3. Some have identified it with the lower pool of the ninth verse, but this would hardly have been introduced so soon by another name. The last clause shows that the fault, with which the people of Jerusalem were chargeable, was not that of guarding themselves against attack, but that of relying upon human defences, without regard to God. The verbs look and see are evidently used in allusion to the last clause of v. 8 and the first of v. 9. They looked to the arsenal but not to God. This seems to put the clause before us in antithesis to the whole foregoing context from v. 8. Maker and former are not distinctive terms referring to God's purpose or decree on one hand, and the execution of it on the other, but poetical equivalents both denoting the efficient cause.

12. And the Lord Jehovah of Hosts called in that day to weeping and to mourning and to baldness and to girding sackcloth. The meaning is not that he called or summoned grief to come, but that he called on men to mourn, not only by his providence, but by his word through the prophets. By baldness we may either understand the tearing of the hair, or the shaving of the head, or both, as customary signs of grief. The last phrase, rendered in the English Bible girding with sackcloth, does not mean girding up the other garments with a sackcloth girdle, but girding the body with a sackcloth dress, or girding on i. e. wearing sackcloth. The providential call to mourning here referred to must be the siege before described.

13. And behold mirth and jollity, slaying of oxen and killing of sheep, eating of flesh and drinking of wine; eat and drink, for tomorrow we die. This verse presents the contrast of their actual behaviour with that to which God called them by his providence. The common version, let us eat and drink, is perfectly correct as to sense, but needlessly departs from the peculiar and expressive form of the original. I have substituted eat and drink, not as imperatives, but as the simplest forms of the English verbs. (See above, ch. 21:5.) To eat and to drink might be considered more exact, but would not exhibit the compression and breviloquence of the original. It has been disputed whether these last words are expressive of contemptuous incredulity or of a desperate determination to spend the residue of life in pleasure. It is by no means clear that these two feelings are exclusive of  each other, since the same man might express his disbelief of the threatening, and his resolution, if it should prove true, to die in the enjoyment of his favourite indulgences. At all events, there can be no need of restricting the full import of the language, as adapted to express both states of mind, in different persons, if not in the same.

14. And Jehovah of Hosts revealed himself in my ears (i. e. made a revelation to me, saying) If this iniquity shall be forgiven you (i. e. it certainly shall not be forgiven you) until you die. The conditional form of expression, so far from expressing doubt or contingency, adds to the following declaration the solemnity of an oath. What is said is also sworn, so that by two immutable things in which it is impossible for God to lie, the truth of the threatening may be confirmed. On the elliptical formula of swearing, see above ch. 5:9. This iniquity of course means the presumptuous contempt of God's messages and providential warnings, with which the people had been charged in the preceding verse. This offence is here treated as the sin against the Holy Ghost is in the New Testament, and is indeed very much of the same nature. The word translated shall be forgiven strictly means shall be atoned for or expiated. Until you die is equivalent to ever, the impossibility of expiation afterwards being assumed. This use of until is common in all languages. 'As long as you live you shall not be forgiven' is equivalent to saying ' you shall never be forgiven.'

15. Thus said the Lord Jehovah of Hosts, Go, go in to this treasurer (or steward, or chamberlain), to Shebna who (is) over the house. From the people in general the threatening now passes to an individual, perhaps because he was particularly guilty of the crime alleged, and by his influence the means of leading others astray likewise. Some of the ancient versions give to house here the sense of temple or the house of God, and infer that Shebna, if not High Priest or a Priest at all, was at least the treasurer of the temple. But the phrase here used is nowhere else employed in reference to the temple, whereas it repeatedly occurs as the description of an officer of state or of the royal household, a major-domo, chamberlain, or steward. As the modern distinction between state and household officers is not an ancient or an oriental one, it is not unlikely that the functionary thus described, like the medieval maires du palais, was in fact prime minister. This would account for the influence tacitly ascribed to Shebna in this chapter, as well as for his being made the subject of a prophecy. The phrase this treasurer may either be expressive of disapprobation or contempt, or simply designate the man as well known to the Prophet and his readers. These familiar allusions to things and persons now forgotten, while they add to the obscurity of the passage, furnish an incidental proof of its antiquity and genuineness. Go in, i. e. into Shebna's house, or into the sepulchre which he was preparing, and in which some suppose him to have been accosted by the Prophet.

16. What hast thou here, and whom hast thou here, that thou hast hewn thee here a sepulchre? Hewing on high his sepulchre, graving in the rock a habitation for himself! The negation implied in the interrogation is not that he had none to protect and aid him, or that none of his kindred should be buried there because they should be banished with him, but rather that he had none buried there before him; it was not his birth-place or the home of his fathers. What interest, what part or lot, what personal or hereditary claim, hast thou in Judah? Here then refers not to the sepulchre, but to Jerusalem. The foreign form of the name Shebna, which occurs only in the history of Hezekiah, and for which no satisfactory Hebrew etymology has been proposed, seems to confirm this explanation of the first clause as representing him to be a foreigner, perhaps a heathen. Another confirmation is afforded by the otherwise unimportant circumstance. that the name of Shebna's father is nowhere added to his own, as in the case of Eliakim and Joah (v. 20. ch. 36:3). These seem to be sufficient reasons for concluding that the Prophet is directed to upbraid him, not with seeking to be buried in the royal sepulchres although of mean extraction, but with making provision for himself and his posterity in a land to which he was an alien, and from which he was so soon to be expelled. The Prophet, after putting to him the prescribed question, was to express his own contemptuous surprise at what he saw, or to let his eyes pass from the man to the sepulchre which he was hewing. It is not necessarily implied however in this explanation that the conversation was to take place at the sepulchre. The labour and expense bestowed on ancient sepulchres (of far later date however than Isaiah's time), is still attest d by the tombs remaining at Jerusalem, Petra, and Persepolis, where some are excavated near the tops of lofty rocks in order to be less accessible, to which practice there may be allusion in the verse before us, and also in the words of 2 Chr. 32: 33, as explained by most interpreters, viz. that Hezekiah was buried in the highest of the tombs of the sons of David. (See Robinson's Palestine, I. 516-539. II. 525.) The word habitation is supposed by some to have allusion to the oriental practice of making tombs in shape (and frequently in size) like houses, by others more poetically to the idea of the grave, as a long home (Ecc. 12:5). In this case, as in many others, the ideal and material allusion may have both been present to the writer's mind. What (is) to thee and who is to thee are the usual unavoidable periphrases for what and whom hast thou, the verb to have being wholly wanting in this family of languages.

17. Behold, Jehovah is casting thee a cast, oh man ! and covering thee a covering. The idea is that he is certainly about to cast and cover thee, or to do it completely and with violence.

18. Rolling he will roll thee in a roll, like a ball (thrown) in a spacious groundthere shalt thou dieand there the chariots of thy gloryshame of thy master's house. The ejection of Shebna from the country is compared to the rolling of a ball into an open space where there is nothing to obstruct its progress. The ideas suggested are those of violence, rapidity, and distance. All the interpreters appear to apply this directly to Shebna, and are thence led to raise the question, what land is meant! It seems to me that the phrase in question has relation not to Shebna as a man but to the ball with which he is compared, and that land should be taken in the sense of ground. There are several different constructions of the last clause, of which this is one: thither shalt thou die (i. e. thither shalt thou go to die) and thither shall thy splendid chariots (convey thee). The allusion will then be simply to Shebna's return to his own country (whether Syria, Phoenicia, Mesopotamia, or Assyria), and not to captivity in war or to suffering in exile, of which there is no intimation in the text. All that the Prophet clearly threatens Shebna with, is the loss of rank and influence in Judah and a return to his own country. An analogous incident in modern history (so far as these circumstances are concerned) is Necker's retreat from France to Switzerland at the beginning of the French Revolution.

19. And it shall come to pass in that day that I will call for my servant, for Eliakim the son of Hilkiah, i. e. will personally designate him. Eliakim appears again in ch. 36:3, and there as here in connection with Shebna The epithet my servant seems to be intended to describe him as a faithful follower of Jehovah, and as such to contrast him with Shebna, who may have been a heathen. The employment of such a man by such a king as Hezekiah is explained by some upon the supposition that he had been promoted by Ahaz and then suffered to remain by his successor. It is just as easy to suppose however that he had raised himself by his abilities for public business.

20. And I will thrust thee from thy post, and from thy station shall he pull thee down. The verb in the last clause is indefinite and really equivalent to a passive (thou shalt be pulled down).

21. And I will clothe him with thy dress, and with thy girdle will I strengthen him, and thy power will I give into his hand, and he shall be for a father (or become a father) to the dweller in Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. We may either suppose a reference to an official dress, or a metaphor analogous to that of filling another's shoes in colloquial English. Father is not a mere oriental synonyme of ruler, but an emphatic designation of a wise and benevolent ruler. It seems therefore to imply that Shebna's administration was of an opposite character. The inhabitants of Jerusalem and the family of Judah comprehended the whole nation.

22. And I will put the key of the house of David on his shoulder; he shall open and there shall be no one shutting, he shall shut and there shall be no one opening. In other words, he shall have unlimited control over the royal house and household, which according to oriental usages implies a high political authority. Some suppose a reference to the actual bearing of the key by the royal steward or chamberlain, and explain its being carried on the shoulder by the fact that large wooden locks and keys of corresponding size are still used in some countries, the latter being sometimes curved like a sickle so as to be hung around the neck. Against this explanation it may be objected, that the phrase house of David seems to imply a metaphorical rather than a literal palace, and that the word translated shoulder includes the upper part of the back, as the place for bearing burdens. (See above, ch. 9:4. 10:27.) The best interpreters appear to be agreed that the government or administration is here represented by the figure of a burden, not merely in the general as in ch. 9:6, but the specific burden of a key, chosen in order to express the idea of control over the royal house, which was the title of the office in question. The application of the same terms to Peter (Matt. 16:19) and to Christ himself (Rev. 3:7) does not prove that they here refer to either, or that Eliakim was a type of Christ, but merely that the same words admit of different applications.

23. And I will fasten him a nail in a sure place, and he shall be for a throne of glory to his father's house. The figure in the first clause naturally conveys the idea of security and permanence. The reference is not to the stakes or centre post of a tent, but to the large pegs, pins or nails often built into the walls of oriental houses for the purpose of suspending clothes or vessels. The last clause is obscure. The most natural interpretation of the words, and that most commonly adopted, is that the figure of a nail is here exchanged for that of a seat, this being common to the two, that they alike suggest the idea of support though in different ways. Those whom Eliakim was the means of promoting might be said, with a change of figure but without a change of meaning, both to sit and Lang upon him. He was to be not only a seat but a seat of honour, which is nearer to the meaning of the Hebrew phrase than throne of glory.

24. And they shall hang upon him all the honour of his father's housethe offspring and the issueall vessels of small quantityfrom vessels of cups even to all vessels of flagons. Here the figure of a nail is resumed. The dependents of Eliakim are represented as suspended on him as their sole support. The words translated offspring and issue, are expressions borrowed from the vegetable world. It is commonly assumed by interpreters that the two words are in antithesis, denoting either different sexes (sons and daughters), or different generations (sous and grandsons), or different ranks, which last is the usual explanation. The next phrase is designed to show that even the least are not to be excepted. The two expressions in the last clause may be taken either as equivalent or as contrasting the gold and silver vessels of the altar (Ex. 24:6) with common earthen utensils (Jer. 48:12. Lam. 4:2).

25. In that day, saith Jehovah of Hosts, shall the nail fastened in a sure place be removed, and be cut down, and fall, and the burden which was on it shall be cut off, for Jehovah speaks. The most natural and obvious application of these words is to Eliakim, who had just been represented as a nail in a sure place. But as this would predict his fall, without the slightest intimation of the reason, and in seeming contradiction to the previous context, most interpreters reject this exposition as untenable. Most writers seem to be agreed, that the twentyfifth verse relates to Shebna, and that the Prophet, after likening Eliakim to a nail fastened in a sure place, tacitly applies the same comparison to Shebna, and declares that the nail which now seems to be securely fastened shall soon yield to make way for the other. Those who refer the verse to Eliakim suppose his fall to have been occasioned by his nepotism or excessive patronage of his relations, a conjectural inference from v. 24. The partial fulfilment of this prophecy is commonly supposed to be recorded in ch. 36:3, where Eliakim actually fills the place here promised to him, and Shebna appears in the inferior character of a scribe or secretary. Some indeed suppose two persons of the name of Shebna, which is not only arbitrary in itself, but rendered more improbable by this consideration, that Shebna is probably a foreign name, and certainly occurs only in these and the parallel places, whereas Hilkiah is of frequent occurrence, and yet is admitted upon all hands to denote the same person. It seems improbable no doubt that Shebna, after such a threatening, should be transferred to another office. But the threatening may not have been public, and the transfer may have been merely the beginning of his degradation. But even supposing that the Shebna of ch. 36:3 is a different person, and that the execution of this judgment is nowhere explicitly recorded, there is no need of concluding that it was revoked or that it was meant to be conditional, much less that it was falsified by the event. It is a common usage of the Scriptures, and of this book in particular, to record a divine command and not its execution, leaving the latter to be inferred from the former as a matter of course. Of this we have had repeated examples, such as ch. 7:4 and 8:1. Nay in this very case, we are merely told what Isaiah was commanded to say to Shebna, without being told that he obeyed the order. If the execution of this order may be taken for granted, so may the fulfilment of the prophecy. If it had failed, it would not have been recorded or preserved among the prophecies.