Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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This chapter contains an exposure of the sin and folly of ancient Israel in seeking foreign aid against their enemies, to the neglect of God, their rightful sovereign and protector. The costume of the prophecy is borrowed from the circumstances and events of Isaiah's own times. Thus Egypt is mentioned in the first part of the chapter as the chosen ally of the people. and Assyria in the last part as the dreaded enemy. There is no need however of restricting what is said to that period exclusively. The presumption, as in all such cases, is that the description was designed to he more general, although it may contain allusions to particular emergencies. Reliance upon human aid, involving a distrust of the divine promises, was a crying sin of the ancient church, not at one time only, but throughout her history. To denounce such sins, and threaten them with condign punishment, was no small part of the prophetic office. The chronological hypotheses assumed by different writers with respect to this chapter are erroneous only because too specific and exclusive. It was clearly intended to reprove the sin of seeking foreign aid without divine permission; but there is nothing in the terms of the reproof confining it to any single case of the offence. The chapter may be divided into three parts. In the first, the Prophet shows the sin and folly of relying upon Egypt, no doubt for protection against Assyria, as these were the two great powers between which Israel was continually oscillating, almost constantly at war with one and in alliance with the other, vs. 1-7. In the last part, he describes the Assyrian power as broken by an immediate divine interposition, precluding the necessity of any human aid, vs. 27-33. In the larger intervening part, he shows the connection of this distrust of God and reliance on the creature with the general character and spiritual state of the people, as unwilling to receive instruction, as dishonest and oppressive, making severe judgments necessary as a prelude to the glorious change which God would eventually bring to pass, vs. 8-26.

1. Woe to the disobedient children, saith Jehovah, (so disobedient as) to form (or execute) a plan and not from me, and to weave a web, but not (of) my Spirit, for the sake of adding sin to sin. Here, as in ch. 1:2, Israel's filial relation to Jehovah is particularly mentioned as an aggravation of his ingratitude and disobedience. The infinitives express the respect in which, or the result with which, they had rebelled against Jehovah. The relative construction of the English Version does not materially change the sense. The simple meaning seems to be that of multiplying or accumulating guilt.

2. Those walking to go down to Egypt, and my mouth they have not consulted (literally asked), to take refuge in the strength of Pharaoh, and to trust in the shadow of Egypt. Motion towards Egypt is commonly spoken of in Scripture as downward. To ask the mouth, or at the mouth, of the Lord is a phrase used elsewhere in the sense of seeking a divine decision or response.

3. 4. And the strength of Egypt shall be to you, for shame and the trust in the shadow of Egypt for confusion. For his chiefs are in Zoan, and his ambassadors arrive at Hanes. As to the site and political importance of Zoan or Tains, see the note on ch. 19:11.

5. All are ashamed of a people who cannot profit them, (a people) not for help and not for profit, bid for shame, and also for disgrace. The Hebrew construction is, they are not a profit or a help, for (on the contrary) they are a disgrace and a reproach.

6. The burden of the beasts of the south, in a land of suffering and distress, whence (are) the adder and the fiery flying serpent; they are carrying (or about to carry) on the shoulder of young asses their wealth, and on the hump of camels their treasures, to a people (or for the sake of a people) who cannot profit. The Prophet sees the ambassadors of Israel carrying costly presents through the waste howling wilderness, for the purpose of securing the Egyptian alliance. Some apply the description to the emigration of the Jews into Egypt in the days of Jeremiah. This may be alluded to, but cannot be the exclusive subject of the passage. The most natural construction of the first clause is to take it as an exclamation (oh the burden of the beasts! what a burden to the beasts!) or as an absolute nominative (as to the burden of the beasts). The beasts meant are the asses and the camels of the following clause, called beasts of the south because travelling in that direction. The land meant is the interjacent desert described by Moses in similar terms (Deut. 1:19. 8: 15). Land of suffering denotes a land of danger and privation, such as the great Arabian desert is to travellers. The lions and vipers of this verse belong to the poetical description of the desert.

7. And Egypt (or the Egyptians)in vain and to no purpose shall they help. Therefore I cry concerning this, their strength is to sit still. Most of the modern writers understand the last clause as contrasting the pretensions of Egypt with its actual performances, the opposite ideas being those of arrogance or insolence and quiescence or in action. The general meaning may be considered as determined by the other clause.

8. And now go, write it with them on a tablet and inscribe it in a book, and let it be for a future day, forever, to eternity. This, like the similar precaution in ch. 8:1, was intended to verify the fact of the prediction after the event. Most interpreters suppose two distinct inscriptions to be here required, one on a solid tablet for public exhibition, and the other on parchment or the like for preservation. But it is more natural to understand the words as equivalents, a common opinion with the older writers, that this clause alludes to Isaiah's frequent repetition of the name Holy One of Israel, and contains a request that they might hear it no more. But the modern interpreters appear to be agreed that the allusion is not to the name but the person.

9. For a people of rebellion (a rebellious people) is it, lying (or denying) children, children (who) are not willing to learn the law of Jehovah. The English Version makes this verse state the substance of the inscription, that this is a rebellious people etc.

10. Who say to the seers, Ye shall not see, and to the viewers, ye shall not view for us right things; speak unto us smooth things, view deceits. There is great difficulty in translating this verse literally, as the two Hebrew verbs, meaning to see, have no equivalents in English, which of themselves suggest the idea of prophetic revelation. The common version (see not, prophesy not), although it conveys the true sense substantially, leaves out of view the near relation of the two verbs to each other in the original. In the translation above given, view is introduced merely as a synonyme of see, both being here used to express supernatural or prophetic vision. With this use of the verbal noun (seer) we are all familiar through the English Bible. This is of course not given as the actual language of the people, but as the tendency and spirit of their acts. Smooth things or words is a common figurative term for flatteries. Luther's expressive version is, preach soft to us.

11. Depart from the way, swerve from the path, cause to cease from before us the Holy One of Israel. The request is not that they would go out of the people's way, so as no longer to prevent their going on in sin, but that they would get out of their own way, i. e. wander from it or forsake it. Cause to cease from before us, i. e. remove from our sight. It was a common opinion with the older writers, that this clause alludes to Isaiah's frequent repetition of the name Holy One of Israel, and contains a request that they might hear it no more. Bit the modern interpreters appear to be agreed that the allusion is not to the name but the person.

12. Therefore thus saith the Holy One of Israel, Because of your rejecting (or despising) this word, and (because) ye have trusted in oppression and perverseness, and have relied thereon. The word here mentioned is no doubt the law of v. 9, both being common epithets of revelation generally, and of particular divine communications. (See the note on ch. 2:3.)

13. Therefore shall this iniquity be to you like a breach falling (or ready to fall) swelling out in a high wall, whose breaking may come suddenly, at (any) instant. The image is that of a wall which is rent or cracked and bulges out. This interpretation conveys the idea of a gradual yet sudden catastrophe, which is admirably suited to the context. It is also true that the idea of a downfall springing from internal causes is more appropriate in this connection than that of mere external violence however overwhelming.

14. And it (the wall) is broken like the breaking of a potter's vessel, broken unsparingly (or without mercy), so that there is not found in its fracture (or among its fragments) a sherd to take up fire from a hearth, and to skim (or dip up) water from a pool. A potter's vessel, literally, vessel of the potters. Sherd is an old English word, now seldom used, meaning a broken piece of pottery or earthenware, and found more frequently in the compound form of potsherd.

15. For thus saith the Lord Jehovah, the Holy One of Israel, in returning (or conversion) and rest shall ye be saved, in remaining quiet and in confidence shall be your strength; and ye would not (or were not willing). This overwhelming judgment would be strictly just because they had been fully admonished of the way of safety. For the spiritual usage of the verb returning, see the note on ch. 1:27.

16. And ye said, No, for we will flee upon horses; therefore shall ye flee; and upon the swift will we ride; therefore shall your pursuers be swift. The hope here ascribed to the people is not simply that of going swiftly, but of escaping from the dangers threatened.

17. One thousand from before the rebuke (or menace) of one, from before the rebuke of five shall ye flee, until ye are left like a mast (or pole) on the top of the mountain, and like the signal on the hill. The allusion may be simply to the similar appearance of a lofty and solitary tree, or the common idea may be that of a flag-staff, which might be found in either situation.

18. And therefore will Jehovah wait to have mercy upon you, and therefore will he rise up (or be exalted to pity you, for a God of judgment is Jehovah; blessed are all that wait for him. The apparent incongruity of this promise with the threatening which immediately precedes, has led to various constructions of the first clause. The simplest and most probable conclusion seems to be that therefore refers, as in many other cases, to a remoter antecedent than the words immediately before it. As if the Prophet paused at this point and reviewing his denunciations said, Since this is so, since you must perish if now dealt with strictly, God will allow you space for repentance, he will wait to be gracious, he will exalt himself by showing mercy. Another difficulty of the same kind has arisen from the next clause, where the justice of God seems to be given as a reason for showing mercy. That the clause does not relate to righteousness or justice in the strict sense, appears plain from the added benediction of those who trust Jehovah. One point is universally admitted, namely, that somewhere in this verse is the transition from the tone of threatening to that of promise. The question where it shall be fixed, though interesting, does not affect the general connection or the import of the passage as a whole.

19. For the people in Zion shall dwell in Jerusalem; thou shalt weep no more; he will be very gracious unto thee at the voice of thy cry; as he hears it he will answer thee. The position of the first verb in this English sentence leaves it doubtful whether it is to be construed with what follows or what goes before. Precisely the same ambiguity exists in the original, which may either mean that the people who are now in Zion shall dwell in Jerusalem, or that the people shall dwell in Zion, in Jerusalem. This last is the most natural construction. It is adopted in the English version, but with a needless variation of the particle, in Zion at Jerusalem. In the translation above given the Hebrew order is restored.

20. And the Lord will give you bread of affliction and water of oppression, and no more shall thy teachers hide themselves, and thine eyes shall see thy teachers. God would afflict them outwardly, but would not deprive them of their spiritual privileges; or, there should be a famine of bread, but not of the word of the Lord (Amos 8: 11). The word teachers is probably a designation or description of the prophets, with particular reference, as some suppose, to their reappearance after a period of severe persecution or oppression. (See Ezek. 33:22.)

21. And thine ears shall hear a word from behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right and when ye turn to the left. Word is an idiomatic expression used where we should say one speaking. The direction of the voice from behind is commonly explained by saying, that the image is borrowed from the practice of shepherds going behind their flocks, or nurses behind children, to observe their motions. A much more natural solution is that their guides were to be before them, but that when they declined from the right way their backs would be turned to them, and consequently the warning voice would be heard behind them. The meaning of the call is, this is the way which you have left, come back to it. As if he had said, this warning will be necessary, for you will certainly depart at times from the path of safety. This idea may, however, be considered as included or implied in the usual translation when.

22. And ye shall defile (i. e. treat as unclean) the covering of thy idols of silver and the case of thy image of gold; thou shalt scatter them (or abhor them) as an abominable thing. Away! shalt thou say to it. The remarkable alternation of the singular and plural, both in the nouns and verbs of this sentence, is retained in the translation. The gold and silver, both in Hebrew and English, may qualify either the image or the covering. The latter is more probable, because the covering would scarcely have been mentioned, if it had not been commonly of greater value than the body of the idol. The words translated idol and image strictly denote graven and molten images respectively, but are constantly employed as poetical equivalents.

23. And he shall give the rain of thy seed (i e. the rain necessary to its growth), with which thou shalt sow the ground, and bread, the produce of the ground, and it shall be fat and rich; thy cattle shall feed that day in an enlarged pasture. This is a promise of increased prosperity after a season of privation, and was often verified.

24. And the oxen and the asses working (he ground shall eat salted provender which has been winnowed (literally, which one winnows) with the sieve and fan. The meaning is that the domesticated animals shall fare as well as men in other times. The word ear, used in the English Version, is an obsolete derivative of the Latin aro to plough. The word translated provender is commonly supposed to denote here a mixture of different kinds of grain, and the one joined with it a seasoning of salt or acid herbs, peculiarly grateful to the stomachs of cattle.

25. And there shall be, on every high mountain, and on every elevated hill, channels, streams of water, in the day of great slaughter, in the falling of towers (or when towers fall). The meaning seems to be, that water shall flow where it never flowed before, a common figure in the Prophets for a great change, and especially a change for the better. The same sense is no doubt to be attached to the previous descriptions of abundance and fertility. There are no sufficient data in the text itself for any specific and exclusive application. All that can certainly be gathered from the words is, that a period of war and carnage should be followed by one of abundance and prosperity.

26. And the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days, in the day of Jehovah's binding up the breach of his people, and the stroke of his wound he will heal. Instead of the usual words for sun and moon, we have here two poetical expressions, one denoting heat and the other white. The Prophet's language is designed, not merely to express great joy, but to describe a change in the face of nature. as an emblem of some great revolution in the state of society. (Compare ch. 13:10, 13.) It is therefore another item added to the catalogue of previous similes or comparisons, all denoting the same thing, yet showing by their very diversity that they denote it only in a tropical or figurative manner.

27. Behold, the name of Jehovah cometh from afar, burning his anger and heavy the ascent (of smoke): his lips are full of wrath and his tongue as a devouring fire. By the name of Jehovah we are not simply to understand Jehovah himself, but Jehovah as revealed in word or act, and therefore glorious.

28. And his breath (or spirit), like an overflowing stream, shall divide as far as the neck, to sift the nations in the sieve of falsehood, and a misleading bridle on the jaws of the people. There are here three metaphors employed to express the same general idea, those of a flood, a sieve, and a bridle. The whole verse is a threatening against Jehovah's enemies. The verb translated divide is here explained by the English Version in the sense of reaching to the midst; but most interpreters adopt the explanation that the water rising to the neck divides the body into two unequal parts. The metaphor itself, as in ch. 8:8, denotes extreme danger. The phrase sieve of falsehood, is ambiguous. It may either mean wickedness in general, i. e. the instrument by which the wicked and especially the false are to be punished; or the sieve of ruin, pointing out the issue of the process, as the other version does the object upon which it acts. Gill's paraphrase is, "they were to be sifted, not with a good and profitable sieve, which retains the corn and shakes out the chaff, or so as to have some taken out and spared, but with a sieve that lets all through, and so be brought to nothing." The last clause may be understood in the sense of leading astray or in the wrong direction.

29. The song (or singing) shall be to you (i. e. your song shall be) like the night of the consecration of a feast, and joy of heart (i. e. your joy shall be) like (that of) one marching with the pipe (or flute) to go into the mountain of Jehovah, to the Rock of Israel. The night may be particularly mentioned in the first clause, either because all the Mosaic festivals began in the evening, or with special allusion to the Passover, which is described in the law (Ex. 12:42) as a night to be much observed unto the Lord, as that night of the Lord to be observed of all the children of Israel in their generations. This verse gives an interesting glimpse of ancient usage as to the visitation of the temple at the greater yearly festivals. The Rock of Israel is not Mount Zion or Moriah, but Jehovah himself, to whose presence they resorted, as appears from 2 Samuel 23:3.

30, 31. And Jehovah shall cause to be heard the majesty of his voice, and the descent of his arm shall he cause to be seen, with indignation of anger and a flame of devouring fire, scattering and rain and hailstones (literally stone of hail). For at the voice of Jehovah shall Assyria (or the Assyrian) be broken, with the rod shall he smite. The word translated broken is commonly applied, in a figurative sense, to the breaking of the spirit or the courage by alarm. Here some translate it beaten down, as in the English Version. There are two constructions of the last clause, one continuing Assyria as the subject of the verb, the other referring it to Jehovah. The past form given to the verb in the English Version (smote) seems entirely unauthorized by usage or the context. Even if Assyria be the subject of the clause, it is clear that the Prophet speaks of her oppression as being, in whole or in part, still future to his own perceptions. The express mention of Assyria in this verse, though it does not prove it to have been from the beginning the specific subject of the prophecy, does show that it was a conspicuous object in Isaiah's view, as an example both of danger and deliverance, and that at this point he concentrates his prophetic vision on this object as a signal illustration of the general truths which he has been announcing.

32. And every passage of the rod of doom, which Jehovah will lay (or cause to rest) upon him, shall be with tabrets and harps, and with fights of shaking it is fought therein. There is the same diversity of judgment here as in the foregoing verse, with respect to the question whether the rod mentioned in the first clause is the rod which the Assyrian wielded, or the rod which smote himself. On the former supposition, the sense would seem to be, that in every place through which the rod of the oppressor had before passed there should now be heard the sound of joyful music. The reference to Jehovah's judgments on Assyria is recommended by the reasons above given for applying the last words of v. 31 to the same catastrophe. Assuming therefore that the clause before us was likewise intended to be so applied, the sense would seem to be that every passage of Jehovah's rod (i. e. every stroke which passes from it to the object) will be hailed, by those whom the Assyrian had oppressed, with joy and exultation. The common version, grounded staff, is almost unintelligible.

33. For arranged since yesterday is Tophet; even it for the king is prepared; he has deepened, he has widened (it); its pile fire and wood in plenty; the breath of Jehovah, like a stream of brimstone, kindles it. It is universally agreed that the destruction of the Assyrian king is here described as a burning of his body at a stake or on a funeral-pile. But whether the king mentioned be an individual king or an ideal representative of all, and whether this be a mere figurative representation of his temporal destruction or a premonition of his doom hereafter, are disputed questions. Tophet is well known to have been the name of a place in the valley of Hinnom where children were sacrificed to Moloch, and on that account afterwards defiled by the deposit of the filth of the city, to consume which constant fires were maintained. Hence, by a natural association, Tophet, as well as the more general name, Valley of Hinnom, was applied by the later Jews to the place of future torment. The question whether it is here used to describe the place of future torments or as a mere poetical description of the temporal destruction of the king of Assyria, is the less important, as the language most in either case be figurative, and can teach us nothing therefore as to the real circumstances either of the first or second death. Considering however the appalling grandeur of the images presented. and our Saviour's use of similar expressions to describe the place of everlasting punishment, and also the certainty deducible from other scriptures, that a wicked king destroyed in the act of fighting against God must be punished in the other world as well as this, we need not hesitate to understand the passage as at least including a denunciation of eternal misery, although the general idea which the figures were intended to express is that of sudden terrible destruction.