Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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The Creation Concept

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This chapter consists of two parts, parallel to one another, i. e. each containing the same series of promises and threatenings, but in different forms. The prophetic substance or material of both is that Zion should be threatened and assailed yet not destroyed, but on the contrary strengthened and enlarged. These ideas are expressed in the second part much more fully and explicitly than in the first, which must therefore be interpreted according to what follows. In the first part, the threatening is that Zion shall be assailed by enemies and brought very low, vs. 1-4. The promise is that the assailants shall be scattered like dust and chaff, vanish like a dream, and be wholly disappointed in their hostile purpose, vs. 5-8. In the second part, the Prophet brings distinctly into view, as causes of the threatened judgments, the spiritual intoxication and stupor of the people, their blindness to revealed truth, their hypocritical formality, and their presumptuous contempt of God, vs. 9-16. The judgment itself is described as a confounding of their fancied wisdom, v. 14. The added promise is that of an entire revolution, including the destruction of the wicked, and especially of wicked rulers, the restoration of spiritual sight, joy to the meek and poor in spirit, and the final recovery of Israel from a state of alienation and disgrace to the service of Jehovah and to the saving knowledge of the truth, vs. 17-24. The only key to the consistent exposition of the chapter as a whole, is furnished by the hypothesis already stated, that the two parts are parallel, not merely successive, and that the second must explain the first. That the second part describes not physical but spiritual evils, is admitted on all hands, and indeed asserted by the Prophet himself. This description is directly and repeatedly applied in the New Testament to the Jews contemporary with our Saviour. It does not follow from this, that it is a specific and exclusive prophecy respecting them; but it does follow that it must be so interpreted as to include them, which can only be effected by regarding this last part of the chapter as descriptive of the Jews, not at one time merely, but throughout the period of the old dispensation, an assumption fully confirmed by history. The judgment threatened will then be the loss of their peculiar privileges and an exchange of state with others who had been less favoured, involving an extension of the church beyond its ancient bounds, the destruction of the old abuses, and the final restoration of the Jews themselves. If this be the meaning of the second part, it seems to determine that of the first as a figurative expression of the truth, that the church should suffer but not perish, the imagery used for this purpose being borrowed from the actual sieges of Jerusalem. Thus understood, the chapter is prophetic of two great events, the seeming destruction of the ancient church, and its reproduction in a new and far more glorious form, so as not only to include the gentiles in its bounds, but also the converted remnant of God's ancient people.

1. Woe to Ariel (or alas for Ariel), Ariel, the city David encamped! Add year to year; let the feasts revolve. All interpreters agree that Ariel is here a name for Zion or Jerusalem, although they greatly differ in the explanation of the name itself. There are two explanations between which interpreters are chiefly divided. One of these makes it mean lion of God, i. e. a lionlike champion or hero (2 Sam. 23:20. Isai 33:7), here applied to Jerusalem as a city of heroes which should never be subdued. The other hypothesis explains it, from an Arabic analogy, to mean the hearth or fire-place of God, in which sense it seems to be applied to the altar by Ezekiel (43:15, 16), and the extension of the name to the whole city is the more natural because Isaiah himself says of Jehovah, that his fire is in Zion and his furnace in Jerusalem (ch. 31:9). The city David encamped is an elliptical expression not unlike the Hebrew one, in which the relative must be supplied. Here again there seems to be a twofold allusion to David's siege and conquest of Zion (2 Sam. 5:7), and to his afterwards encamping i. e. dwelling there (2 Sam. 5:9). Most interpreters explain the words add year to year, as simply meaning, let the years roll on with the accustomed routine of ceremonial services. The last phrase let the feasts revolve, corresponds exactly to the one preceding, add year to year.

2. And I will distress Ariel, and there shall be sadness and sorrow, and it shall be to me as Ariel. Let the years revolve and the usual routine continue, but the time is coming when it shall be interrupted. The words translated sadness and sorrow are collateral derivatives from one root. The last clause may be either a continuation of the threatening or an added promise. If the former, the meaning probably is, it shall be indeed a furnace or an altar, i. e. when the fire of affliction or divine wrath shall be kindled on it. If the latter, it shall still be a city of heroes, and as such withstand its enemies. Or, combining both the senses of the enigmatical name, it shall burn like a furnace, but resist like a lion.

3. And I will camp against thee round about (literally, as a ring or circle), and push against thee (or press upon thee with) a post (or body of troops), and raise against thee ramparts (or entrenchments). The siege of Ariel is now represented as the work of God himself, which, although it admits of explanation as referring merely to his providential oversight and control, seems here to be significant, as intimating that the siege described is not a literal one.

4. And thou shalt be brought down, out of the ground shalt thou speak, and thy speech shall be low out of the dust, and thy voice shall be like (the voice of) a spirit, out of the ground, and out of the dust shall thy speech mutter. The simple meaning naturally suggested by the words is, that the person here addressed, to wit, the city or its population, weakened and humbled. The last verb properly denotes any feeble inarticulate sound, and is applied in ch. 10:14 and 38:14 to the chirping or twittering of birds.

5. Then shall be like fine dust the multitude of thy strangers, and like passing chaff the multitude of the terrible ones, and it shall be in a moment suddenly. It is now very commonly agreed, that this verse describes the sudden and complete dispersion of their enemies. The absence of but at the beginning, or some other indication that the writer is about to pass from threats to promises, although it renders the connection more obscure, increases the effect of the description. The terms of this verse readily suggest the sudden fall of the Assyrian host, nor is there any reason for denying that the Prophet had a view to it in choosing his expressions. But that this is an explicit and specific prophecy of that event is much less probable, as well because the terms are in themselves appropriate to any case of sudden and complete dispersion, as because the context contains language wholly inappropriate to the slaughter of Sennacherib's army. These considerations, although negative and inconclusive in themselves, tend strongly to confirm the supposition founded on the last part of the chapter, that the first contains a strong metaphorical description of the evils which Jerusalem should suffer at the hands of enemies, but without exclusive reference to any one siege, or to sieges in the literal sense at all. That the evils which the last part of the chapter brings to light are of a spiritual nature, and not confined to any single period, is a fact which seems to warrant the conclusion, or at least to raise a strong presumption, that the Ariel of this passage is Zion or Jerusalem, considered only as the local habitation of the church.

6. From with (i. e from the presence of) Jehovah of hosts shall it be visited with thunder and earthquake and great noise, tempest and storm and flame of devouring fire. Some refer this to the singular phenomena which are said to have preceded and accompanied the taking of Jerusalem by Titus. This application may be admitted, in the same sense and on the same ground with the allusion to Sennacherib's host in the foregoing verse. But that the prophecy is not a prophecy of either catastrophe, may be inferred from the fact that neither is described in the context. Indeed, the direct application of this verse to the fall of Jerusalem is wholly inadmissible, since the preceding verse describes the assailants as dispersed, and this appears to continue the description.

7. Then shall be as a dream, a vision of the night, the multitude of all the nations fighting against Ariel, even all that fight against her and her munition and distress her. The modern writers generally understand both this verse and the next as meaning that the enemy himself should be wholly disappointed and his vain hopes vanish as a dream. But the true sense appears to be that these two verses are distinct though similar, the enemy being first compared to a dream and then to a dreamer. He who threatens your destruction shall vanish like a dream. He who threatens your destruction shall awake as from a dream, and find himself cheated of his expectations. These seem to be the two comparisons intended, both of which are perfectly appropriate, and one of which might readily suggest the other.

8. And it shall be as when the hungry dreams, and lo he eats, and he awakes. and his soul is empty; and as when the thirsty dreams, and lo he drinks, and he awakes, and lo he is faint and his soul craving: so shall be the multitude of all the nations that fight against Mount Zion. In this verse soul is twice used in the not uncommon sense of appetite, first described as empty (i. e. unsatisfied) and then as craving. A striking and affecting parallel from real life has been quoted from Mungo Park's journals. "No sooner had I shut my eyes than fancy would convey me to the streams and rivers of my native land. There, as I wandered along the verdant bank, I surveyed the clear stream with transport. and hastened to swallow the delightful draught; but alas! disappointment awakened me, and I found myself a lonely captive, perishing of thirst amid the wilds of Africa."

9. Waver and wonder! be merry and blind! They are drunk, but not with wine; thy reel, but not with strong drink. Here begins the description of the moral and spiritual evils which were the occasion of the judgments previously threatened. In the first clause, the Prophet describes the condition of the people by exhorting them ironically to continue in it; in the second, he seems to turn away from them and address the spectators. The terms of the first clause are very obscure. The second imperative may be understood as indicating the effect or consequence of that before it: refuse to believe, but you will only be the more astonished; continue to enjoy yourselves, but it will only be the means of blinding you. The express description of the drunkenness as spiritual shows that where no such explanation is added (as in ch. 28:1, 7), the terms are to be literally understood. By spiritual drunkenness we are probably to understand unsteadiness of conduct and a want of spiritual discernment.

10. For Jehovah hath poured out upon you a spirit of deep sleep and hath shut your eyes; the prophets and your heads (or even your heads) the seers hath he covered. On the agency here ascribed to God, see the exposition of ch. 6:9, 10. The two ideas expressed in the parallel clauses are those of bandaging the eyes and covering the head so as to obstruct the sight. In the latter case the Prophet makes a special application of the figure to the chiefs or religious leaders of the people, as if he had said, he hath shut your eyes, and covered your heads, viz. the prophets.

11. And the vision of all (or of the whole) is (or has become) to you like the words of the sealed writing, which they give to one knowing writing, saying Pray read this, and he says, I cannot, for it is sealed. The vision of all may either mean of all the prophets, or collectively all vision, or the vision of all things, i. e. prophecy on all subjects. The English word book does not exactly represent the Hebrew word, which originally signifies writing in general or anything written, and is here used as we might use document or the still more general term paper. In the phrase one knowing writing, the last word seems to mean writing in general, and the whole phrase one who understands it or knows how to read it. The application of the simile becomes clear in the next verse.

12. And the writing is given to one who knows not writing, saying, Pray read this, and he says, I know not writing. The common version, I am not learned, is too comprehensive and indefinite. A man might read a letter without being learned, at least in the modern sense, although the word was once the opposite of illiterate or wholly ignorant. In this case it is necessary to the full effect of the comparison, that the phrase should be distinctly understood to mean, I cannot read. The comparison itself represents the people as alike incapable of understanding the divine communications, or rather as professing incapacity to understand them, some upon the general ground of ignorance, and others on the ground of their obscurity.

13. And the Lord said, Because this people draws near with its mouth, and with its lips they honour me, and its heart it puts (or keeps) far from me, and their fearing me is (or has become) a precept of men, (a thing) taught. The conclusion follows in the next verse. The singular and plural pronouns are promiscuously used in this verse with respect to Israel considered as a nation and an individual. At the end of the verse the English Version has, taught by the precept of men; but a simpler construction is the one given above. The last clause might be simply understood to mean, that they served God merely in obedience to human authority. It would then of course imply no censure on the persons thus commanding, but only on the motives of those by whom they were obeyed. In our Saviour's application of the passage to the hypocrites of his day (Matthew 15:7-9), he explains their teachings as human corruptions of the truth, by which the commandment of God was made of none effect. The expressions of the Prophet may have been so chosen as to be applicable either to the reign of Hezekiah, when the worship of Jehovah was enforced by human authority, or to the time of Christ, when the rulers of the people had corrupted and made void the law by their additions. The apparent reference, in this description, to the Jews not at one time only but throughout their history, tends to confirm the supposition, that the subject of the prophecy is not any one specific juncture, and that the first part of the chapter is not a prediction of any one siege of Jerusalem exclusively.

14. Therefore, behold, I will add (or continue) to treat this people strangely, very strangely, and with strangeness, and the wisdom of its wise ones shall be lost (or perish), and the prudence of its prudent ones shall hide itself, i. e. for shame, or simply disappear. This is the conclusion of the sentence which begins with the preceding verse. Because they draw near etc. therefore I will add etc. The nature of the judgment here denounced seems to show that the corruption of the people was closely connected with undue reliance upon human wisdom. (Compare ch. 5:21.)

15. Woe unto those (or alas for those) going deep from Jehovah to hide counsel (i. e laying their plans deep in the hope of hiding them from God), and their works (are) in the dark, and they say, Who sees us and who knows us? This is a further description of the people or their leaders, as not only wise in their own conceit, but as impiously hoping to deceive God or elude his notice. The absurdity of such an expectation is exposed in the following verse. In the last clause of this, the interrogative form implies negation.

16. Your perversion! Is the potter to be reckoned as the clay that the thing made should say of its maker, he made me not, and the thing formed say of its former, he does not understand? The attempt to hide anything from God implies that he has not a perfect knowledge of his creatures, which is practically to reduce the maker and the thing made to a level. With this inversion or perversion of the natural relation between God and man, the Prophet charges them in one word. Most of the recent writers are agreed in construing the first word as an exclamation, oh your perverseness! i. e. how perverse you are! in which sense it had long before been paraphrased by Luther. Both the derivation of the word, however, and the context here seem to demand the sense perversion rather than perverseness. The verse seems intended not so much to rebuke their perverse disposition, as to show that by their conduct they subverted the distinction between creature and creator, or placed them in a preposterous relation to each other. Thus understood, the word may be thus paraphrased: (this is) your (own) perversion (of the truth, or of the true relation between God and man).

17. Is it not yet a very little while, and Lebanon shall turn (or be turned) to the fruitful field, and the fruitful field be reckoned to the forest (i. e. reckoned as belonging to it, or as being itself a forest)? The negative interrogation is one of the strongest forms of affirmation. The metaphors of this verse evidently signify a great revolution, a mutual change of condition, the first becoming last and the last first. If, as we have seen sufficient reason to believe, the previous context has respect to the Jews under the old dispensation, nothing can be more appropriate or natural than to understand the verse before as foretelling the excision of the unbelieving Jews and the admission of the Gentiles to the church.

18. And in that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book (or writing), and out of obscurity and darkness shall the eyes of the blind see. This is a further description of the change just predicted under other figures. As the forest was to be transformed into a fruitful field, so the blind should be made to see and the deaf to hear. There is an obvious allusion to the figure of the sealed book or writing in vs. 13, 14. The Jews could only plead obscurity or ignorance as an excuse for not understanding the revealed will of God. The Gentiles, in their utter destitution, might be rather likened to the blind who cannot read, however clear the light or plain the writing, and the deaf who cannot even hear what is read by others. But the time was coming when they, who would not break the seal or learn the letters of the written word, should be abandoned to their chosen state of ignorance, while on the other hand, the blind and deaf, whose case before seemed hopeless, should begin to see and hear the revelation once entirely inaccessible. The perfect adaptation of this figurative language to express the new relation of the Jews and Gentiles after the end of the old economy affords a new proof that the prophecy relates to that event.

19. And the humble shall add joy (i. e. shall rejoice more and more) in Jehovah, and the poor among men in the Holy One of Israel shall rejoice. As the preceding verse describes the happy effect of the promised change upon the intellectual views of those who should experience it, so this describes its influence in the promotion of their happiness. Not only should the ignorant be taught of God, but the wretched should be rendered happy in the enjoyment of his favour.

20. For the violent is at an end, and the scoffer ceaseth, and all the watchers for injustice are cut off. A main cause of the happiness foretold will be the weakening or destruction of all evil influences, here reduced to the three great classes of violent wrong-doing, impious contempt of truth and goodness, and malignant treachery or fraud, which watches for the opportunity of doing evil, with as constant vigilance as ought to be employed in watching for occasions of redressing wrong and doing justice. This is a change which, to some extent, has always attended the diffusion of the true religion.

21. Making a man a sinner for a word, and for him disputing in the gate they laid a snare, and turned aside the righteous through deceit. An amplification of the last phrase in the foregoing verse. Some understand the first clause to mean, seducing people into sin by their words. It is much more common to explain the whole phrase to mean unjustly condemning a man in his cause, which agrees well with the obvious allusion to forensic process in the remainder of the verse. The English and many other early versions explain the clause to mean accusing or condemning men for a mere error of the tongue or lips. The general sense is plain, viz. that they embrace all opportunities and use all arts to wrong the guiltless. Most of the modern writers take the word translated disputing, in the sense of arguing, pleading in the gate, i. e. the court, often held in the gates of oriental cities. The other explanation supposes the gate to be mentioned only as a place of public concourse. By the turning aside of the righteous (i. e. of the party who is in the right) we are here to understand the depriving him of that which is his due. For the meaning and usage of the figure, see the commentary on ch. 10:2. The last words have been variously understood to mean through falsehood (with particular reference to false testimony), or by means of a judgment which is null and void, or for nothing i. e. without just cause. In either case the phrase describes the perversion or abuse of justice by dishonest means, and thus agrees with the expressions used in the foregoing clauses.

22. Therefore thus saith Jehovah to the house of Jacob, he who redeemed Abraham, Not now shall Jacob be ashamed, and not now shall his face turn pale. The Hebrew phrase not now does not imply that it shall be so hereafter, but on the contrary that it shall be so no more. The phrase redeemed Abraham may be naturally understood, either as signifying deliverance from danger and the divine protection generally, or in a higher sense as signifying Abraham's conversion and salvation. Shame and fear are here combined as strong and painful emotions from which Jacob should be henceforth free. Some understand by Jacob here the patriarch himself, poetically represented as beholding and sympathizing with the fortunes of his own descendants. Most interpreters suppose the name to be employed like Israel in direct application to the race itself.

23. For in his seeing (i. e. when he sees) his children, the work of my hands, in the midst of him, they shall sanctify my name, and sanctify (or yes they shall sanctify) the Holy One of Jacob, and the God of Israel they shall fear. The verse thus translated according to its simplest and most obvious sense has much perplexed interpreters. The difficulties chiefly urged are, first, that Jacob should be said to see his children in the midst of himself; secondly, that his thus seeing them should be the occasion of their glorifying God. What follows is suggested as a possible solution of this exegetical enigma. We have seen reason, wholly independent of this verse, to believe that the immediately preceding context has respect to the excision of the Jews and the vocation of the Gentiles. Now the latter are described in the New Testament as Abraham's (and consequently Jacob's) spiritual progeny, as such distinguished from his natural descendants. May not these adventitious or adopted children of the patriarch, constituted such by the electing grace of God, be here intended by the phrase, the work of my hands? If so, the whole may thus be paraphrased: when he (the patriarch, supposed to be again alive and gazing at his offspring) shall behold his children (not by nature but) created such by me, in the midst of him (i. e. in the midst, or in the place, of his natural descendants), they (i. e. he and his descendants jointly) shall unite in glorifying God as the author of this great revolution. This explanation of the verse is the more natural, because such would no doubt be the actual feelings of the patriarch and his descendants, if he should really be raised from the dead, and permitted to behold what God has wrought, with respect both to his natural and spiritual offspring. To the passage thus explained a striking parallel is found in ch. 49:18-21, where the same situation and emotions here ascribed to the patriarch are predicated of the church personified, to whom the Prophet says, 'Lift up thine eyes round about and behold, all these gather themselves together, they come to thee. The children which thou shalt have after thou hast lost the others shall say etc. Then shalt thou say in thine heart, who hath begotten me these, seeing I have lost my children, and am desolate, a captive, and removing to and fro? And who hath brought up these I Behold, I alone was left; these, where were they?' For the use of the word sanctify in reference to God as its object, see the note on ch. 8:13. The Holy One of Jacob is of course identical in meaning with the Holy One of Israel, which last phrase is explained in the note on ch. 1:4. The emphatic mention of the Holy One of Jacob and the God of Israel, as the object to be sanctified, implies a relation still existing between all believers and their spiritual ancestry, as well as a relation of identity between the Jewish and the Christian Church.

24. Then shall the erring in spirit know wisdom, and the murmurers (or rebels) shall receive instruction. These words would be perfectly appropriate as a general description of the reclaiming and converting influence to be exerted upon men in general. But under this more vague and comprehensive sense, the context, and especially the verse immediately preceding, seems to show that there is one more specific and significant included. If the foregoing verse predicts the reception of the Gentiles into the family of Israel, and if this reception, as we learn from the New Testament, was connected with the disinheriting of most of the natural descendants, who are nevertheless to be restored hereafter, then the promise of this final restoration is a stroke still wanting to complete the fine prophetic picture now before us. That finishing stroke is given in this closing verse, which adds to the promise that the Gentiles shall become the heirs of Israel, another that the heirs of Israel according to the flesh shall themselves be restored to their long lost heritage, not by excluding their successors in their turn, but by peaceful and brotherly participation with them. This application of the last part of the chapter to the calling of the Gentiles and the restoration of the Jews has been founded, as the reader will observe, not on on any forced accommodation of particular expressions, but on various detached points, all combining to confirm this exegetical hypothesis, as the only one which furnishes a key to the consistent exposition of the chapter, as a concatenated prophecy without abrupt transitions or a mixture of incongruous materials.