Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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CHAPTER XXVII.

This chapter is an amplification of the last verse of the one preceding, and contains a fuller statement both of Israel's chastisements and of Jehovah's judgments on his enemies. The destruction of the latter is foretold as the slaughter of a huge sea-monster, and contrasted with God's care of his own people even when afflicting them, vs. 1-5. Hereafter Israel shall flourish, and even in the mean time his sufferings are far less than those of his oppressors, vs. 6, 7. The former is visited in moderation, for a time, and with the happiest effect, vs. 8, 9. The latter is finally and totally destroyed, vs. 10, 11. This shall be followed by the restoration of the scattered Jews, vs. 12, 13.

1. In that day shall Jehovah visit, with his sword, the hard, the great, the strong (sword), upon Leviathan the swift (or flying) serpent, and upon Leviathan the coiled (or crooked) serpent, and shall slay the dragon which (is) in the sea. The leviathan and dragon of this verse are probably descriptive of a great oppressive power, with particular allusion to the Babylonian empire. Assuming this to be the general meaning of the verse, that of its mere details becomes either easy or comparatively unimportant. The word leviathan, which from its etymology appears to mean contorted, coiled, is sometimes used to denote particular species (e. g. the crocodile), and sometimes as a generic term for huge aquatic animals, or the larger kinds of serpents, in which sense the corresponding term serpent is also used. They both appear to be employed in this case to express the indefinite idea of a formidable monster, which is in fact the sense now commonly attached to the word dragon. The second epithet means tortuous, either with respect to the motion of the serpent, or to its appearance when at rest. The only explanation of the other epithet which is fully justified by Hebrew usage is that of fugitive or fleeing, which may either be a poetical equivalent to fleet, or descriptive of the monster as a flying serpent. For the meaning of the phrase to visit upon, see above, ch. 13:11. The sword is a common emblem for the instruments of the divine vengeance.

2. On the explanation of this verse depends that of a large part of the chapter. The two points upon which all turns, are the meaning of the Hebrew word translated sing, and the reference of the pronoun her. The only supposition which will meet the difficulties of the case, is the one adopted by most of the old writers, to wit, that the pronoun refers to Jerusalem or the daughter of Zion, i. e. to the church or people of God considered as his spouse (ch. 1:21). This reference to a subject not expressly mentioned might be looked upon as arbitrary, but for the fact that the assumption of it is attended with fewer difficulties than the construction which it supersedes. As to the other word, tradition and authority are almost unanimous in giving it the sense of sing and regarding what follows as a song: To this exposition there are several objections. In the first place, no one has been able to determine with precision where the song concludes, some choosing one place for its termination, some another. This would of course prove nothing in a clear case, but in a case like this it raises a presumption that a song, of which the end cannot be found, has no beginning. But in the next place, it is easy to see why the end cannot be easily defined, to wit, because there is nothing in the next three, four, or five verses to distinguish them as being any more a song than what precedes and follows, whether with respect to imagery, rhythm, or diction. In the third place, the presumption thus created and confirmed is corroborated further by the obvious incongruity of making the song, which the people are supposed to sing, begin with I Jehovah keep it etc. Out of fifty-six cases in which the Hebrew word occurs, there are only three in which the sense of singing is conceivable, and of these three one (Ps 88:1) is the enigmatical title of a Psalm; another (Ex. 32:18) is so dubious that the one sense is almost as appropriate as the other, and the third is that before us. On such grounds the assumption of the meaning sing could hardly be justified, even if it were far more appropriate to the context than the common one. But in the last place, while the supposition of a song, as we have seen, embarrasses the exposition, the usual meaning of the verb is perfectly appropriate. This meaning is to afflict, and especially to afflict in an humbling and degrading manner. This may seem to be utterly at variance with the context as it is commonly explained; but the common explanation rests on the supposititious meaning of the verb, and cannot therefore be alleged in favour of that meaning. On the usual hypothesis, the verse exhorts the people to sing to the vineyard or the church; on the one now proposed, it challenges her enemies to do their worst, declaring that God still protects her. This explanation of the verse agrees well with the distinct allusions to the punishment of Israel in vs. 4, 7, 8, 9, which would be comparatively out of place in a song of triumph or gratulation. Against this explanation of the verse lies the undivided weight of tradition and authority, so far as I can trace the exposition of the passage. So unanimous a judgment might be looked upon as perfectly decisive of the question but for two considerations; first, that the proposed interpretation removes a variety of difficulties, not by forsaking usage but by returning to it; and secondly, that none of the interpreters consulted seem to have adverted to the facts already stated, with respect to the usage of the Hebrew word. As the result of this investigation, we may now translate the verse as follows. In that day, as a vineyard of wine, afflict her, or, in that day afflict for her the vineyard of wine. It is then a defiance or permission of the enemies of the church to afflict her, with an intimation that in carrying out this idea, the expressions will be borrowed from the figure of a vineyard, as in ch. 5:1-6.

3. I Jehovah (am) keeping her; every moment I will water her; lest any hurt her, night and day will I keep her. That is, in spite of the afflictions which befall her I will still preserve her from destruction The antecedent of the pronouns is the same as in v. 2, viz. the church or nation considered as a vineyard. To visit upon has here its common meaning of inflicting evil upon, but without any special reference to crime or punishment. As the expression is a relative one, it must here be understood according to the context, as denoting fatal or at least excessive injury.

4. Fury is not in me: who would set the briers and thorns against me in battle? I would go through them, I would burn them together. Of all the senses put upon this difficult verse, there are only two which can be looked upon as natural or probable. The first may be paraphrased as follows; it is not because I am cruel or revengeful that I thus afflict my people, but because she is a vineyard overrun with thorns or briers, on account of which I must pass through her and consume her (i e. burn them out of her). The other is this: I am no longer angry with my people; oh that their enemies (as thorns and briers) would array themselves against me, that I might rush upon them and consume them. This last is preferred by most of the later writers. The objection that no longer has to be supplied is of little weight.

5. Or let him lay hold of my strength and make peace with me; peace let him make with me. The verbs are properly indefinite (let one take hold etc.) but referring to the enemy described in the preceding verse as thorns and briers. The word translated strength commonly denotes a strong place or fortress, and is here understood by most interpreters to signify a refuge or asylum, with allusion to the practice of laying hold upon the altar. The alternative presented to the enemy is that of destruction or submission. If the thorns and briers of v. 4 be referred to the internal condition of the church, this may be understood as having reference to the church itself, which is then called upon to make its peace with God as the only means of escaping further punishment.

6. (In) coming (days) shall Jacob take root, Israel shall bud and blossom, and they shall fill the face of the earth with fruit. The construction of the first clause in the English Bible (them that come of Jacob shall he cause to take root) is forbidden by the collocation of the words, and by the usage of the verb, which always means to take root.

7. Like the smiting of his smiter did he smite him, or like the slaying of his slain was he slain? Having declared in the preceding verse that Israel should hereafter flourish, he now adds that even in the meantime he should suffer vastly less than his oppressors. Negation, as in many other cases, is expressed by interrogation. Did the Lord smite Israel as he smote his smiters, or slay him as his murderers were slain ?

8. In measure, by sending her away, thou dost contend with her. He removes her by his hard wind in the day of the east wind. The negation implied in the preceding verse is here expressed more distinctly. The Prophet now proceeds to show that Israel was not dealt with like his enemies, by first describing what the former suffered, then what the latter. Israel was punished moderately, and for a time, by being removed out of his place, as if by a transient storm or blast of wind. The east wind is mentioned as the most tempestuous in Palestine. The day of the east wind is supposed by some to denote the season of the year when it prevails; but it is rather used to intimate the temporary nature of the chastisement, as if he had said, one day when the east wind chanced to blow.

9. Therefore (because his chastisement was temporary and remedial in design) by this (affliction) shall Jacob's iniquity be expiated (i. e. purged away), and this is all (its) fruit (or intended effect), to take away his sin, (as will appear) in his placing all the stones of the (idolatrous) ahar like limestones dashed in pieces, (so that) groves and solar images (or images of Ashtoreth and Baal) shall arise no more The contrast between Israel and Babylon is still continued. Having said that the affliction of the former was but moderate and temporary, he now adds that it was meant to produce a most beneficent effect, to wit, the purgation of the people from the foul stain of idolatry. The sense required by the connection is, not that the breaking of the altars, as a spontaneous act, atoned for Israel's previous idolatry, but that the exile cured them of that vice, and thereby led to the breaking of the altars

10. For a fenced (or fortified) city shall be desolate, a dwelling broken up and forsaken like the wilderness. There shall the calf feed, and there shall it lie and consume her branches. Here begins the other part of the comparison. While Israel is chastised in measure and with the happiest effect, his oppressors are given up to final desolation. This explanation of the verse, as referring to Babylon, is strongly recommended by the fact, that the comparison otherwise remains unfinished, only one side of it having been presented. Apart from this consideration, there are certainly strong reasons for supposing the city meant to be Jerusalem itself. One of these reasons is, that the figure of a vineyard seems to be still present to the writer's mind, at the close of this verse and throughout the text, although the terms used admit of a natural application to the figure of a tree. Another reason is, that the desolation here described is not so total as that threatened against Babylon in ch. 13:19-22, where instead of saying it shall be a pasture, it is said expressly that it shall not even be frequented by flocks or herds. But these two places may have reference to different degrees of desolation. In favour of the reference to Babylon may be alleged the natural consecution of the twelfth verse upon that hypothesis. On the whole, the question may be looked upon as doubtful, but as not materially affecting the interpretation of the chapter, since either of the two events supposed to be foretold would be appropriate in this connection.

11. In the withering of its boughs (or when its boughs are withered) they shall be broken off, women coming and burning them; because it is not a people of understanding, therefore its creator shall not pity it, and its maker shall not have mercy on it. The destruction of Babylon is still described, but under the figure of a tree, whose branches are withered and cast into the fire. Women are mentioned, not in allusion to the weakness of the instruments by which Babylon was to be destroyed, but because the gathering of firewood in the east is the work of women and children. According to the usage of the Scriptures, not wise here means foolish in the strongest sense, and God's not pitying and having mercy is equivalent to his being very wroth and taking vengeance.

12. And it shall be in that day, that Jehovah shall beat off (or gather in his fruit), from the channel of the river to the stream of Egypt, and ye shall be gathered one by one (or one to another), oh ye children of Israel. To the downfall of Babylon he now adds, as in ch. 11:1, its most important consequence, the restoration of the Jews. The idea meant to be conveyed is that of a careful and complete ingathering. Stream of Egypt is now commonly agreed to signify the Wady Elarish, anciently called Rhinocorura, which name is given to it here by the Septuagint. The river is as usual the Euphrates. The simple meaning of the whole expression is, from Assyria to Egypt, both which are expressly mentioned in the next verse. The precise sense of the Hebrew phrase in the latter part of the verse is not well expressed by the English one by one, which seems to represent the process as a gradual one. It rather denotes one to one, i.e. in our idiom, one to another, all together, or without exception. From what has been already said it will be seen, that the boundaries named are not intended to define the territory which should be occupied by those returning, but the regions whence they should return, which explanation is confirmed moreover by the explicit terms of the next verse.

13. And it shall be (or come to pass) in that day, (that) a great trumpet shall be blown, and they shall come that were lost (or wandering) in the land of Assyria, and those cast out (or exiled) in the land of Egypt, and shall bow down to Jehovah, in the holy mountain, in Jerusalem. The same event is here described as in the verse preceding, but with a change of figure. What is there represented as a gathering of olives by beating the tree, is now represented as a gathering of men by the blast of a trumpet, which here takes the place of a signal-pole or flag in ch. 11: 12. This variety of forms, in which the same idea is expressed, clearly shows the whole description to be figurative. Assyria and Egypt may be either put for foreign countries generally, or with particular allusion to the actual emigration and dispersion of the Jews in these two regions. Assyria may here be used as a comprehensive term, in order to include both the Assyrian and Babylonian deportations. For although the ten tribes never were restored, individual members of them found their way back with the Jews from Babylon. On the whole, however, it is probable that Egypt and Assyria are here named, just as Babylonia and the islands of the sea might have been named instead of them, and just as all these names and others are connected elsewhere, to denote the various lands where Jews were scattered. The emigration of the people, especially after Nebuchadnezzar's conquests, was of course not confined to their actual deportation by the enemy, nor was the restoration merely that of such as had been thus carried captive, but of all who, in consequence of that catastrophe or any other, had been transferred to foreign parts by exile, flight, or voluntary expatriation. The application of this verse to a future restoration of the Jews can neither be established nor disproved. If such a restoration can be otherwise shown to be a subject of prophecy, this passage may be naturally understood at least as comprehending it. But in itself considered, it appears to contain nothing which may not be naturally applied to events long past, or which has not found in those events an adequate fulfilment.