Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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Samaria, the crown of Ephraim, shall be cast down by a sudden and impetuous invasion, as a just judgment upon sensual and impious Israel, vs. 1-4. To the remnant of Israel, Jehovah will himself be a crown and a protection, a source of wisdom and of strength, vs. 5, 6. Yet even these imitate the example of apostate Israel, and in their self-indulgence cast off the authority of God and refuse the instructions of his prophet, to their own undoing, vs. 7-13. But their impious contempt of God and self-reliance shall but hasten their destruction. All who do not build upon the sure foundation laid in Zion, must inevitably perish as the enemies of Israel were destroyed of old, vs. 14-22. The delay of judgment no more proves that it will never come, than the patience of the husbandman, and his preparatory labours, prove that he expects no harvest; and the difference of God's dealings with different men is no more inconsistent with his general purposes of wrath or mercy, than the husbandman's treatment of the different grains is inconsistent with his general purpose of securing and enjoying them, vs. 23-29.

1. Woe to the high crown of the drunkards of Ephraim, and the fading flower, his ornament of beauty, which (is) on the head of the fat valley of the wine-smitten. Here, as in ch. 9:9, 21. 11:13, we are to understand by Ephraim the kingdom of the ten tribes, by the drunkards of Ephraim its vicious population, and by the lofty crown the city of Samaria, so called as the chief town and the royal residence, but also with allusion to its local situation on an insulated hill over looking a rich plain or valley. "It would be difficult to find, in all Palestine, a situation of equal strength, fertility, and beauty combined." (Robinson's Palestine, III. 146.) Most interpreters assume a further allusion to the practice of wearing wreaths or garlands at feasts. The reference to literal intoxication appears plain from a comparison of Amos 4:1,6: 1, 6. Drunkenness is mentioned, not as the only prevalent iniquity, but as a crying one, and one contributing to many others. The moral and spiritual consequences of this vice must be taken into view; but the exclusive reference of the words to spiritual drunkenness, whether delusion or stupidity or both, seems entirely untenable. This verse contains three examples of the Hebrew idiom, which, instead of an adjective, uses one substantive to qualify another; crown of elevation for lofty crown, beauty of glory for glorious beauty, and valley of fatnesses for fat valley. The latter member of the first clause is by some construed thus, and the flower whose glorious beauty fades; by others, for example the English Version, (Ephraim) whose glorious beauty is a fading flower. The analogy of v. 4 seems to show, however, that this member of the sentence is in apposition with the one before it, which construction is moreover the most obvious and simple. The English Version also mars the beauty of the first clause, by making drunkards of Ephraim not a genitive but a dative. The fading flower implies that the glory of Samaria was transient, with particular allusion to its approaching overthrow by Shalmaneser. Wine-smitten or wine-stricken is a strong description of the intellectual and moral effects of drunkenness. Gill's lively paraphrase is, "smitten, beaten, knocked down with it as with a hammer, and laid prostrate on the ground, where they lie fixed to it, not able to get up."

2. Behold, there is to the Lord (i. e. the Lord has) a strong and mighty one, like a storm of hail, a destroying tempest, like a storm of mighty rushing waters, he has brought (it) to the ground with the hand. The meaning to the earth or to the ground is clear from ch. 63:6, and other cases. The crown of Ephraim is described as torn from his head and thrown upon the ground by the hand of a victorious enemy. To this explanation no objection can be drawn from the previous mention of the hail and rain; for these are mere comparisons, descriptive of the violence with which the enemy should make his attack. It is as if he had said, a strong and mighty enemy, rushing upon you like a hail-storm or a driving rain, shall cast your crown upon the earth with his hand.

3. With the feet shall be trodden the lofty crown of the drunkards of Ephraim. It is cast down by the hand and trampled under foot.

4. And the fading flower of his glorious beauty, which is on the head of the fat valley, shall be like a first-ripe fig, which he that sees it sees, and while it is yet in his hand swallows it. This comparison expresses the avidity with which the enemy would seize upon Samaria, and perhaps the completeness of its desolations. The fruit referred to is the early fig of Palestine which ripens in June, while the regular season of ingathering is from August to November, so that the former is regarded as a rarity and eaten with the greater relish. The figure is not here intended to express either ease or rapidity of conquest, for the siege of Samaria lasted three years (2 Kings 17:5). The immediate eating of the fruit is only mentioned as a sign of eagerness or greediness. The last clause, though singularly worded, evidently means that as soon as one sees it and lays hold of it he swallows it without delay, or as Gill expresses it in homespun English, "as soon as he has got it into his hand, he can't keep it there to look at, or forbear eating it, but greedily devours it and swallows it down at once."

5. In that day shall Jehovah of Hosts be for (or become) a crown of beauty and a diadem of glory to the remnant of his people. The true sense appears to be that after Samaria, the pride of the apostate tribes, had fallen, they who still remained as members of the church or chosen people should glory and delight in the presence of Jehovah as their choicest privilege and highest honour. The expressions are borrowed from the first verse but presented in a new combination.

6. And for a spirit of judgment to him that sitteth in judgment, and for strength to them that turn the battle to the gate. This, which is the common English Version, coincides with that of the latest and best writers. In judgment, i. e. for the purpose of judging. The last words of the verse are applied by all the later writers to those who drive the war back to the enemy's own gates, or as it were carry it into his own country. The two great requisites of civil government are here described as coming from Jehovah. The Spirit of this verse is not a mere influence, but God himself.

7. And (yet) these also (or even these) through wine have erred, and through strong drink have gone astray. Priest and Prophet have erred through strong drink, have been swallowed up of wine, have been led astray by strong drink, have erred in vision, have wavered in judgment. Having predicted in the foregoing verse, that when Ephraim fell Judah should continue to enjoy the protection of Jehovah, the Prophet now describes even this favoured remnant as addicted to the same sins which had hastened the destruction of the ten tribes, viz. sensual indulgence and the spiritual evils which it generates The meaning then is that the Jews, although distinguished from the ten tribes by God's sparing mercy, should nevertheless imitate them in their sins. There is great probability in the suggestion, that the prophecy refers to the national deterioration in the reign of Manasseh. The Priest and Prophet are named as the leaders of the people, and as those who were peculiarly bound to set a better example. The reference to judgment in the last clause may be explained, either on the ground that the Priest and Prophet represent the rulers of the people in general, or because the Priests themselves exercised judicial functions in certain prescribed cases (Deut. 17:9. 19:17). The use of strong drinks was expressly forbidden to the priests in the discharge of their official functions (Lev. 10:9. Ezek. 44:21).

8. For all tables are full of vomit, of filth, without a place (i. e. a clean place). The only natural interpretation is that which supposes tables to denote the places where men eat and drink, and the other terms the natural though revolting consequences of excess. Whether the intoxication thus described is wholly spiritual, depends of course upon the meaning given to the preceding verse. The sense of the last clause is correctly though diffusely given in the English Version (so that there is no place clean).

9. Whom will he teach knowledge? And whom will he make to understand doctrine? Those weaned from the milk and removed from the breasts. The older Christian writers understand this as descriptive of the persons whom Jehovah, or the Prophet acting in his name, would choose as proper subjects of instruction, viz. simple and childlike disciples, who as new-born babes desire the sincere milk of the word (1 Pet. 2:2). But the children here described are weanlings not sucklings, and on this hypothesis the weaning, which is so particularly mentioned, would have no significancy. Besides, this explanation of the words would not suit the context, either before or after. It is therefore commonly agreed, that the last clause must be taken in a contemptuous or unfavourable sense, as denoting children not in malice merely but in understanding (1 Cor. 14:20). The verse has been explained by some, as the language not of the Prophet but of the wicked men before described, expressing their indignation and contempt at the Prophet's undertaking to instruct them as if they were mere children. Whom does he undertake to teach? and whom would he make to understand his doctrine? Children weaned from the milk and removed from the breast? This interpretation has in substance been adopted by all later writers, as affording a good sense and one admirably suited both to the foregoing and the following context. It seems to be liable to only two objections; first, that it gratuitously gives the passage a dramatic form by supposing a new speaker to be introduced without any intimation in the text; and then, that it arbitrarily continues the interrogation through the sentence. The last objection may be obviated by adopting the construction, which supposes them to ask not whom he would but whom he ought to teach, and then to answer, little children just weaned from the breast, not men of mature age and equal to himself. The other objection, being wholly negative, must yield of course to the positive arguments in favour of an exposition which is otherwise coherent, satisfactory, and suited to the context.

10. For (it is) rule upon rule, rule upon rule, line upon line, line upon line, a little here, a little there. The interpretation of this verse varies of course with that of the one before it As all the latest writers make v. 9 the language of the Jews themselves, complaining of the Prophet's perpetual reproofs and teachings, they are equally agreed in making v. 10 a direct continuation of the same complaint. The construction in the English Version (precept upon precept) is good, except that the word precept is too long to represent the chosen monosyllables of the original. Here a little, there a little, is expressive of minuteness and perpetual repetition.

11. For with stammering lips and with another tongue will he speak unto this people. As the words translated stammering lips may denote either foreign or scoffing speech (the former being usually described in the Old Testament as stammering), some suppose a double allusion here, to wit, that as they had mocked at the divine instructions by their stammering speech, so he would speak to them in turn by the stammering lips of foreigners in another language than their own. This, though by no means an obvious construction in itself, is preferred by the latest writers and countenanced by several analogous expressions in the subsequent context.

12. Who said to them, this is rest, give rest to the weary, and this is quiet, but they would not hear. The judgments threatened in the foregoing verse were the more evidently just because he who threatened them had warned the people and pointed out to them the only way to happiness. The sense is not, that the true way to rest is to give rest to the weary; the latter expression is a kind of parenthesis, as if he had said, this is the true rest, let the weary enjoy it. By this we are therefore to understand, not compassion and kindness to the suffering, but obedience to the will of God in general. This is the true rest which I alone can give, and the way to which I have clearly marked out. To give rest to the weary means simply to reduce to practice the lesson which God had taught them. This is the way to peace, let those who wish it walk therein. In the last clause, would is not a mere auxiliary, but an independent and emphatic verb, they were not willing.

13. And the word of Jehovah was to then rule upon rule, line upon line, a little here, a little there, that they might go, and fall backwards, and be broken, and be snared, and be taken. The law was given that sin might abound. The only effect of the minute instructions, which they found so irksome, was to aggravate their guilt and condemnation. The terms of the first clause are repeated from v. 10, and have of course the same meaning in both places.

14. Therefore (because your advantages have only made you more rebellious) hear the word of Jehovah, ye scornful men (literally men of scorn, i. e. despisers of the truth), the rulers of this people which is in Jerusalem (or ye rulers of this people who are in Jerusalem). This people, here as elsewhere, may be an expression of displeasure and contempt. Jerusalem is mentioned as the seat of government and source of influence. The whole verse invites attention to the solemn warning which follows.

15. Because ye have said (in thought or deed if not in word), we have made a covenant with death, and with hell (the grave, or the unseen world) have formed a league; the overflowing scourge, when it passes through, shall not come upon us, for we have made falsehood our refuge, and in fraud we have hid ourselves. The meaning evidently is, that if their actions were translated into words, this would be their import. The mixed metaphor of an overflowing scourge combines two natural and common figures for severe calamity. The falsehood mentioned in the last clause is unfaithfulness to God, i. e wickedness in general, perhaps with an allusion to the falsity or treacherous nature of the hopes built upon it. The translation under falsehood, which is given in the English Bible and in some other versions, is neither justified by usage nor required by the connection.

16. Therefore thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Behold I lay in Zion a stone, a stone of proof, a corner stone of value of a firm foundation; the believer will not be in haste. To the words of the scoffers are now opposed the words of God himself. Because you say thus and thus, therefore the Lord says in reply what follows. You trust for safety in your own delusions; on the contrary I lay a sure foundation, and no other can be laid. This foundation is the Messiah, to whom it is repeatedly and explicitly applied in the New Testament (Rom. 9: 33. 10:11. 1 Peter 2: 6). The phrase literally rendered stone of proof admits of two interpretations. Some understand by it a stone which was to be the test or standard of comparison for others: but the common explanation is more natural, which makes it mean a stone that, has itself been proved or tried and found sufficient. Will not be in haste, i. e. will not be impatient, but will trust the promise, even though its execution be delayed. The force of the figures in this verse is much enhanced by the statements of modern travellers in relation to the immense stones still remaining at the foundation of ancient walls. (See particularly Robinson's Palestine, I. 343, 351, 422.)

17. And I will place judgment for a line and justice for a plummet, and hail shall sweep away the refuge of falsehood, and the hiding-place waters shall overflow. The meaning of the first clause is, that God would deal with them in strict justice; he would make justice the rule of his proceedings, as the builder regulates his work by the line and plummet. The English Version seems to make judgment or justice not the measure but the thing to be measured. Hail and rain are here used, as in v. 2 above, to denote the divine visitations. The refuge and the hiding-place are those of which the scornful men had boasted in v. 15. To their confident assurance of safety God opposes, first, the only sure foundation which himself had laid, and then the utter destruction which was coming on their own chosen objects of reliance.

18. And your covenant with death shall be annulled, and your league with hell shall not stand, and the overflowing scourge-for it shall pass through, and ye shall be for it to trample on. In the last clause, the construction seems to be interrupted. Supposing it to be complete, it may be explained as in the English Version, which makes both the words in question particles of time meaning when and then. There can be no doubt that the idea of a human invader was before the Prophet's mind; but the mere rhetorical incongruity is not at all at variance with the Prophet's manner. The attempt to reconcile the language with the artificial rules of composition is in this case rendered hopeless by the combination of expressions which cannot be strictly applied to the same subject. An army might trample, but it could not literally overflow; a stream might overflow, but it could not literally trample down. The time perhaps is coming when, even as a matter of taste, the strength and vividness of such mixed metaphors will be considered as outweighing their inaccuracy in relation to an arbitrary standard of correctness or propriety.

19. As soon (or as often) as it passes through, it shall take you. (or carry you away); for in the morning, in the morning (i. e. every morning), it shall pass through, in the day and in the night, and only vexation (or distress) shall be the understanding of the thing heard. The meaning may be that the threatened visitation shall come soon and be frequently repeated. There are three interpretations of the last clause, one of which supposes it to mean, that the mere report of the approaching scourge should fill them with distress; another, that the effect of the report should be unmixed distress; a third, that nothing but a painful experience would enable them to understand the lesson which the Prophet was commissioned to teach them. The last words may of course denote either rumour or revelation. The latter seems to be the meaning in v. 9, where the noun stands connected with the same verb as here. Whether this verb ever means simply to perceive or hear, may be considered doubtful; if not, the preference is due to the third interpretation above given, viz. that nothing but distress or suffering could make them understand or even attend to the message from Jehovah.

20. For the bed is too short to stretch one's self, and the covering too narrow to wrap one's self. This is probably a proverbial description of a perplexed and comfortless condition. The connection with the foregoing verse is this:you cannot fully understand the lessons which I teach you now until your bed becomes too short, etc.

21. For like Mount Perazim shall Jehovah rise up, like the valley in Gibeon shall he rage, to do his work, his strange work, and to perform his task, his strange task. Into such a condition as that just described they shall be brought, for some of the most fearful scenes of ancient history are yet to be repeated. Interpreters are not agreed as to the precise events referred to in the first clause. The common opinion is, that it alludes to the slaughter of the Philistines described in 2 Sam. 5:18-25 and 1 Chron. 14:9-16, in the latter of which places Gibeon is substituted for Geba. The valley meant will then be the valley of Rephaim. That these were foreigners and heathen, only adds to the force of the threatening, by making it to mean that as God had dealt with these in former times, he was now about to deal with the unbelieving and unfaithful sons of Israel. It is indeed not only implied but expressed, that he intended to depart from his usual mode of treating them, in which sense the judgments here denounced are called a strange work, i. e. foreign from the ordinary course of divine providence. The idea that punishment is God's strange work because at variance with his goodness, is not only less appropriate in this connection, but inconsistent with the tenor of Scripture, which describes his vindicatory justice as an essential attribute of his nature.

22. And now scoff not lest your bands be strong; for a consumption and decree (or even a decreed consumption) I have heard from the Lord Jehovah of Hosts, against (or upon) the whole earth.

Bands, i. e. bonds or chains, is a common figure for afflictions and especially for penal sufferings. To strengthen these bands is to aggravate the suffering. The last clause represents the threatened judgments as inevitable, because determined and revealed by God himself. The form of expression is partly borrowed from ch. 10:23.

23. Give ear and hear my voice; hearken and hear my speech. This formula invites attention to what follows as a new view of the subject. The remainder of the chapter contains an extended illustration drawn from the processes of agriculture. Interpreters, although agreed as to the import of the figures, are divided with respect to their design and application. Some regard the passage as intended to illustrate, in a general way, the wisdom of the divine dispensations. Others refer it more specifically to the delay of judgment on the sinner, and conceive the doctrine of the passage to be this, that although God is not always punishing, any more than the husbandman is always ploughing or always threshing, he will punish at last. A third interpretation makes the prominent idea to be this. that although God chastises his own people, his ultimate design is not to destroy but to purify and save them. The preference is on the whole due to the second, which supposes the Prophet to explain by this comparison the long forbearance of Jehovah, and to show that this forbearance was no reason for believing that his threatenings would never be fulfilled. As the husbandman ploughs and harrows, sows and plants, before he reaps and threshes, and in threshing employs different modes and different implements, according to the nature of the grain, so God allows the actual infliction of his wrath to be preceded by what seems to be a period of inaction but is really one of preparation, and conforms the strokes themselves to the capacity and guilt of the transgressor.

24. Does the ploughman plough every day to sow? Does he open and level his ground? The common version, all day, though it seems to be a literal translation, does not convey the sense of the original expression, which is used both here and elsewhere to mean all the time or always. He may plough a whole day together when he is at it, but he does not plough every day in the year; he has other work to do besides ploughing. (Gill.) The interrogation may be confined to the first clause, and the second construed as an exhortation: (no) let him open and level his ground. But as there is a difficulty then in explaining what is meant by opening the ground, as distinct from opening the furrows with the plough, most interpreters suppose the interrogation to extend through the verse, and make the second clause a repetition of the first, with an additional reference to harrowing. As if he had said, is the ploughman always ploughing; is he always ploughing and harrowing?

25. Does he not, when he has levelled (he surface of it, cast abroad dill, and scatter cummin, and set wheat in rows, and barley (in the place) marked out, and spelt in his border? That is to say, he attends to all these processes of husbandry successively, with due regard to time and place, and to the various crops to be produced. The words do not denote an indiscriminate sowing, but a careful planting, which is said to be still practised in the oriental culture of wheat, and is thought by many to have been one of the causes of the wonderful fertility of Palestine in ancient times.

26. So teaches him aright his God instructs him. This is the form of the Hebrew sentence, in which his God is the grammatical subject of both the verbs between which it stands. The English idiom requires the noun to be prefixed, as in the common version. The verse refers even agricultural skill to divine instruction.

27. For not with the sledge must dill be threshed, or the cart-wheel turned upon cummin; for with the stick must dill be beaten, and cummin with the rod. Having drawn an illustration from the husbandman's regard to times and seasons, he now derives another from his different modes of threshing out the different kinds of grain. The semina infirmiora are not to be separated by the use of the ponderous sledge or wagon, both of which are common in the east, but by that of the flail or switch, as better suited to their nature. The minute description of the oriental threshing-machines belongs more properly to books of archaeology, especially as nothing more is necessary here to the correct understanding of the verse than a just view of the contrast intended between heavy and light threshing.

28. Bread-corn must be crushed, for he will not be always threshing it; so he drives the wheel of his cart (upon it), but with his horsemen (or horses) he does not crush it. The sense of this verse is obscured by an apparent inconsistency between the opening and the closing words. The translation above given supposes a climax beginning in v. 27 and completed here. Dill and cummin must be threshed out with the flail; wheat and barley may be more severely dealt with; they will bear the wheel, but not the hoofs of horses. The first words and the last are then in strict agreement; bread-corn must be bruised, but not with horses' hoofs. This is merely suggested as an additional attempt to elucidate a passage in detail, the general sense of which is clear enough.

29. Even this (or this also) from Jehovah of Hosts comes forth; he is wonderful in counsel, great in wisdom. The literal translation of the last clause is, he makes counsel wonderful, he makes wisdom great. As to the meaning of the whole verse, some suppose that the preceding illustration is here applied to the divine dispensations; others, that this is the conclusion of the illustration itself. On the latter hypothesis, the meaning of the verse is, that the husbandman's treatment of the crop, no less than his preparation of the soil, is a dictate of experience under divine teaching. In the other case, the sense is that the same mode of proceeding, which had just been described as that of a wise husbandman, is also practised by the Most High in the execution of his purposes. Against this, and in favour of the other explanation, it may be suggested, first, that coming forth from God is a phrase not so naturally suited to express his own way of acting as the influence which he exerts on others; secondly, that this verse seems to correspond, in form and sense, to v. 27, and to bear the same relation to the different modes of threshing that v. 27 does to the preparation of the ground and the sowing of the seed. Having there said of the latter, that the husbandman is taught of God, he now says of the former, that it also comes forth from the same celestial source. According to the view which has now been taken of v. 29, the general application of the parable to God's dispensations is not formally expressed, but left to the reflection of the reader.