Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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This chapter contains a song of praise and thanksgiving to be sung by Israel after his deliverance, vs. 1-19. To this is added a postscript, intimating that the time for such rejoicing was not yet at hand, vs. 20, 21.

The song opens with an acknowledgement of God's protection and an exhortation to confide therein, vs 1-4. This is founded on the exhibition of his righteousness and power in the destruction of his foes and the oppressors of his people, vs. 5-11. The church abjures the service of all other sovereigns, and vows perpetual devotion to him by whom it has been delivered and restored, vs. 12-15. Her utter incapacity to save herself is then contrasted with God's power to restore his people to new life, with a joyful anticipation of which the song concludes, vs. 16-19. The additional sentences contain a beautiful and tender intimation of the trials, which must be endured before these glorious events take place, with a solemn assurance that Jehovah is about to visit both his people and their enemies with chastisement, vs. 20, 21.

1. In that day shall this song be sung in the land of Judah: We have a strong city; salvation will he place (as) walls and breastwork. The condition and feelings of the people after their return from exile are expressed by putting an ideal song into their mouths. Though the first clause does not necessarily mean that this should actually be sung, but merely that it might be sung, that it would be appropriate to the times and to the feelings of the people, it is not at all improbable that it was actually used for this purpose, which could more readily be done as it is written in the form and manner of the Psalms, to which it exhibits many points of resemblance. The day meant is the day of deliverance which had just been promised.

2. Open ye the gates, and let the righteous nation enter, keeping truth (or faith). The supposition of responsive choirs gives a needless complexity to the structure of the passage. The speakers are the same as in the first verse, and the words are addressed to those who kept the doors.

3. The mind stayed (on thee) them, wilt preserve in peace (in) peace (i. e. in perfect peace), because in thee (it is) confident (literally confided). This is a general truth deduced from the experience of those who are supposed to be the speakers. The elliptical construction in the English Bible (him whose mind is stayed on thee) is not very natural.

4. Trust ye in Jehovah forever (literally, even to eternity), for in Jah Jehovah is a rock of ages (or an everlasting rock). To the general truth stated in v. 3, a general exhortation is now added, not addressed by one chorus to another, but by the same ideal speakers to all who hear them or are willing to receive the admonition. This is one of the few places in which the name Jehovah is retained by the common English Version. On the origin and usage of the name Jah, see above, ch. 12:2. The occurrence of the combination here confirms its genuineness there. The figurative name rock, as applied to God, includes the two ideas of a hiding place and a foundation, or the one complex idea of a permanent asylum.

5. For he hath brought down the inhabitants of the high place, the exalted city; he will lay it low, he will lay it low, to the very ground; he will bring it to the very dust. He has proved himself able to protect his people, and consequently worthy to be trusted by them, in his signal overthrow of that great power by which they were oppressed. The alternation of the tenses here is somewhat remarkable. The English Version treats them all as presents, which is often allowable where the forms are intermingled. But in this case, a reason can be given for the use of the two tenses, even if strictly understood. The Prophet looks at the events from two distinct points of observation, his own and that of the ideal speakers. With respect to the latter, the fall of Babylon was past; with respect to the former it was still future. He might therefore naturally say, even in the same sentence, he has brought it low and he shall bring it to the dust.

6. The foot shall trample on it, the feet of the afflicted, the steps of the weak. The ruins of the fallen city shall be trodden underfoot, not only by its conquerors, but by those whom it oppressed. Steps is here a poetical equivalent to feet.

7. The way for the righteous is straight (or level); thou most upright wilt level (or rectify) the path of the righteous. A man's way is a common scriptural figure for his course of life. A straight or level way is a prosperous life. It is here declared that the course of the righteous is a prosperous one, because God makes it so. The primary idea of the word here translated level, is to render even; it is therefore applied both to balances and paths; but the two applications are not to be confounded; paths may be made even, but they cannot be weighed.

8. Also in the way of thy judgments, oh Jehovah, we have waited for thee; to thy name and thy remembrance (was our) soul's desire. For this manifestation of thy righteousness and goodness we have long been waiting in the way of thy judgments, i. e. to see thee come forth as a judge, for the vindication of thy people and the destruction of their enemies. Name and remembrance or memorial denote the manifestation of God's attributes in his works.

9. (With) my soul have I desired thee in the night; yea (with) my spirit within me will I seek thee early: for when thy judgments (come) to the earth, the inhabitants of the world learn righteousness. The desire here expressed is not a general desire for the knowledge and favour of God, but a special desire that he would manifest his righteousness by appearing as a judge. This explanation is required by the connection with what goes before and with what follows in this very verse. The night is mentioned for the purpose of expressing the idea, that he feels this wish at all times, by night and by day. The question whether these are the words of the Prophet, or of each of the people, or of a choir or chorus representing them, proceeds upon the supposition of an artificial structure and a strict adherence to rhetorical propriety, which have no real existence in the writings of the Prophet. The sentiments, which it was his purpose and his duty to express, are sometimes uttered in his own person, sometimes in that of another, and these different forms of speech are interchanged, without regard to the figments of an artificial rhetoric. By judgments, here as in the foregoing context, we can only understand judicial providences. The doctrine of the verse is, that a view of God's severity is necessary to convince men of his justice.

10. Let the wicked be favoured, he does not learn righteousness: in the land of right he will do wrong, and will not see the exaltation of Jehovah. The reasoning of the preceding verse is here continued. As it was there said that God's judgments were necessary to teach men righteousness, so it is here said that continued prosperity is insufficient for that purpose. The wicked man will go on to do wickedly, even in the very place where right conduct is peculiarly incumbent. Though the verse is in the form of a general proposition, and as such admits of various applications, there is obvious reference to the Babylonians, who were not only emboldened by impunity to do wrong in the general, but to do it even in the land of right or rectitude, the holy land, Jehovah's land, where such transgressions were peculiarly offensive.

11. Jehovah, thy hand is high, they will not see; (yes) they will see (and be ashamed) thy zeal for thy people; yea, the fire of thine enemies shall devour them. The seeming contradiction instantly explains itself, as being a kind of after-thought. They will not see, (but yes) they will see. Fire denotes the wrath of God, as a sudden, rapid, irresistible, and utterly destroying agent.

12. Jehovah, than wilt give us peace, for even all our works thou hast wrought for us. This is an expression of strong confidence and hope, founded on what has already been experienced. God certainly would favour them in future, for he had done so already. Peace is, as often elsewhere, to be taken in the wide sense of prosperity or welfare. It is commonly agreed among interpreters, that our works here means not the works done by us but the works done for us, i. e. what we have experienced. The version of the last clause in the text of the English Bible (thou hast wrought all our works in us) is connected with an old interpretation of the verse, as directly teaching the doctrine of human dependence and efficacious grace. This translation, however, is equally at variance with the usage of the Hebrew preposition and with the connection here. The context, both before and after, has respect, not to spiritual exercises, but to providential dispensations.

13. Jehovah, our God, (other) lords beside thee have ruled us; (but henceforth) thee, thy name, only will we celebrate. The usual construction of the last clause is through thee i. e. through thy favour, by thy help, we are enabled now to praise thy name. But some regard the pronoun as in apposition with thy name, and the whole clause as describing only the object of their worship, not the means by which they were enabled to render it. As to the lords who are mentioned in the first clause, there are two opinions. One is, that they are the Chaldees or Babylonians, under whom the Jews had been in bondage. This is now the current explanation. The other is, that they are the false gods or idols, whom the Jews had served before the exile. Against the former and in favour of the latter supposition it may be suggested, first, that the Babylonian bondage did not hinder the Jews from mentioning Jehovah's name or praising him; secondly, that the whole verse looks like a confession of their own fault and a promise of amendment, rather than a reminiscence of their sufferings; and thirdly, that there seems to be an obvious comparison between the worship of Jehovah, as our God, with some other worship and some other deity. At the same time let it be observed, that the ideas of religious and political allegiance and apostasy, or of heathen rulers and of idol gods, were not so carefully distinguished by the ancient Jews as by ourselves, and it is therefore not impossible that both the kinds of servitude referred to may be here included, yet in such a manner that the spiritual one must be considered as the prominent idea, and the only one, if either must be fixed upon to the exclusion of the other. An additional argument, in favour of the reference of this verse to spiritual rulers, is its exact correspondence with the Singular fact in Jewish history, that since the Babylonish exile they had never been suspected of idolatry. That such a circumstance should be adverted to in this commemorative poem, is so natural that its omission would be almost unaccountable.

14. Dead, they shall not live: ghosts, they shall not rise: therefore thou hast visited and destroyed them, and made all memory to perish with respect to them. Those whom we lately served are now no more; thou hast destroyed them and consigned them to oblivion, for the very purpose of securing our freedom and devotion to thy service. It seems best to refer this verse to the strange lords of the foregoing verse, i. e. the idols themselves, but with some allusion, as in that case, to the idolatrous oppressors of the Jews. The sense is correctly given in the English Version: they are dead, they shall not live; they an deceased, they shall not rise. An attempt, however, has been made above to imitate more closely the concise and compact form of the original. For the meaning of ghosts see above, ch. 14:9. It is here a poetical equivalent to dead, and may be variously rendered, shades, shadows, spirits, or the like. The common version (deceased) leaves too entirely out of view the figurative character of the expression. Therefore may be used to introduce, not only the cause, but the design of an action. Though the words cannot mean, thou hast destroyed them because they are dead and powerless, they may naturally mean, thou hast destroyed them that they might be dead and powerless. The same two meanings are attached to the English phrase for this reason, which may either denote cause or purpose. The meaning of the verse, as connected with the one before it, is that the strange lords who had ruled them should not only cease to do so, but, so far as they were concerned, should cease to exist or be remembered.

15. Thou hast added to the nation, oh Jehovah, thou hast added to the nation; thou hast glorified thyself; thou hast put far off all the ends of the land. By this deliverance of thy people from the service both of idols and idolaters, thou hast added a great number to the remnant who were left in the Holy Land, so that larger territories will be needed for their occupation; and in doing all this, thou hast made an exhibition of thy power, justice, truth, and goodness. Thus understood, the whole verse is a grateful acknowledgement of what God had done for his suffering people. The enlargement of the boundaries may either be explained as a poetical description of the actual increase and expected growth of the nation (ch. 49:19), or literally understood as referring to the fact, that after the return from exile the Jews were no longer restricted to their own proper territory, but extended themselves more or less over the whole country. The translation of the verb as a reflexive, rather than a simple passive, greatly adds to the strength of the expression.

16. Jehovah, in distress they visited thee; they uttered a whisper; thy chastisement was on them. It was not merely after their deliverance that they turned from idols unto God. Their deliverance itself was owing to their humble prayers. Visit is here used in the unusual but natural sense of seeking God in supplication. The translation they uttered a whisper is not only admissible but beautifully expressive of submissive humble prayer, like that of Hannah when she spake in her heart and only her lips moved. but her voice was not heard, although, as she said herself, she poured out her soul before God, which is the exact sense of the word in this place. A like expression is applied to prayer in the title of Psalm 102. It is implied, though not expressed. that their prayer was humble and submissive because they felt that what they suffered was a chastisement from God.

17. As when a pregnant (woman) draws near to the birth, she writhes, she cries out in her pangs; so have we been, from thy presence, oh Jehovah! Before we thus cast ourselves upon thy mercy in submissive prayer, we tried to deliver ourselves, but only to the aggravation of our sufferings. The comparison here used is not intended simply to denote extreme pain, as it is in many other cases, but as the next verse clearly shows, the pain arising from ineffectual efforts to relieve themselves. The great majority of writers apply this verse to the condition of the exiles. The translation from thy presence is to be preferred; but whether with the accessory idea of removal, alienation, or with that of infliction, is a question not determined by the phrase itself, but either left uncertain or to be decided by the context.

18. We were in travail, we were in pain, as it were we brought forth wind. Deliverances we could not make the land, nor would the inhabitants of the world fall. The figure introduced in the preceding verse is here carried out and applied. The second clause admits of several different constructions The simplest supplies a preposition before land, in or for the land. The one now commonly adopted is, we could not make the land safety, i. e. could not make it safe or save it. The future form of the verb has respect to the period described. As the people then might have said, we shall not save the land, so the same expression is here put into their mouths retrospectively. The best equivalent in English is the potential or subjunctive form, we could not. The foregoing context, as we have seen, relates to the period of captivity itself. Those who suppose the exile itself to be the time in question, understand by world the Babylonian empire as in ch. 13:11.

19. Thy dead shall live, my corpses shall arise; (awake and sing ye that dwell in the dust!) for the dew of herbs is thy dew, and (on) the earth, (on) the dead, thou wilt cause it to fall. This verse is in the strongest contrast with the one before it. To the ineffectual efforts of the people to save themselves, he now opposes their actual deliverance by God. They shall rise because they are thy dead, i. e. thy dead people. Some supply a preposition (with my dead body), which construction is adopted in the English Version, but is now commonly abandoned as incongruous and wholly arbitrary. Neither the Prophet, nor the house of Israel, in whose name he is speaking, could refer to their own body as distinct from the bodies of Jehovah's dead ones. Awake etc. is a joyful apostrophe to the dead, after which the address to Jehovah is resumed. The reference to the dew is intended to illustrate the vivifying power of God. The obvious meaning of the words is an expression of strong confidence and hope, or rather of prophetic foresight, that God will raise the dead, that his life-giving influence will be exerted. The question now arises, what resurrection is referred to? All the answers to this question may be readily reduced to three. The first is, that the prophet means the general resurrection of the dead, or according to an old rabbinical tradition, the exclusive resurrection of the righteous, at the last day. The second is, that he refers to a resurrection of the Jews already dead, not as an actual or possible event, but as a passionate expression of desire that the depopulated land might be replenished with inhabitants. The third is, that he represents the restoration of the exiles and of the theocracy under the figure of a resurrection, as Paul says the restoration of Israel to God's favour will be life from the dead. The figurative exposition seems decidedly entitled to the preference. This national address to God could not be more suitably wound up, or in a manner more in keeping with the usage of the prophecies, than by a strong expression of belief, that God would raise his people from the dust of degradation and oppression, where they had long seemed dead though only sleeping.

20. Go, my people, enter into thy chambers, and shut thy doors after thee, hide thyself for a little moment, till the wrath be past. Having wound up the expectations of the people to a full belief of future restoration from their state of civil and religious death, the Prophet by an exquisite transition intimates, that this event is not yet immediately at hand, that this relief from the effects of God's displeasure with his people must be preceded by the experience of the displeasure itself, that it is still a time of indignation, and that till this is elapsed the promise cannot be fulfilled. This painful postponement of the promised resurrection could not be more tenderly or beautifully intimated than in this fine apostrophe. The English Version (as it were) is incorrect. The period of suffering is described as very small in comparison with what had gone before and what should follow it, as St. Paul says (Rom. 8:18) that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us.

21. For behold, Jehovah (is) coming out of his place, to visit the iniquity of the inhabitant of the earth upon him, and the earth shall disclose her blood, and shall no more cover her slain. This is a reason both for expecting ultimate deliverance and for patiently awaiting it. The reason is that God has a work of chastisement to finish, first upon his own people, and then upon their enemies. During the former process, let the faithful hide themselves until the wrath be past. When the other begins, let them lift up their heads, for their redemption draweth nigh. This large interpretation of the verse is altogether natural and more satisfactory than those which restrict it either to the judgments upon Israel or to those upon Babylon. On the latter the eye of the Prophet chiefly rests, especially at last, so that the closing words may be applied almost exclusively to the retribution which awaited the Chaldean for the slaughter of God's people. The blood, which the earth had long since drunk in, should as it were be vomited up, and the bodies of the murdered, which had long been buried, should be now disclosed to view.