Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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The main subject of this chapter is the true relation of Israel to Jehovah, and its application in the way both of warning and encouragement. The doctrine taught is that their segregation from the rest of men, as a peculiar people, was an act of sovereignty, independent of all merit in themselves, and not even intended for their benefit exclusively, but for the accomplishment of God's gracious purposes respecting men in general. The inferences drawn from this fact are, that Israel would certainly escape the dangers which environed him however imminent, and on the other hand that he must suffer for his unfaithfulness to God. In illustration of these truths, the Prophet introduces several historical allusions and specific prophecies, the most striking of the former having respect to the exodus from Egypt, and of the latter to the fall of Babylon. It is important to the just interpretation of the chapter that these parts of it should be seen in their true light and proportion, as incidental illustrations, not as the main subject of the prophecy, which, as already stated, is the general relation between God and his ancient people, and his mode of dealing with them, not at one time but at all times.

Israel is the peculiar people of Jehovah, cherished and favoured at the expense of other nations, vs. 1-4. But these are one day to become partakers of the same advantages, vs. 5-9. The proofs of the divine protection are afforded by the history of Israel, vs. 10-13. One of the most remarkable, still future, is the downfall of Babylon and the liberation of the exiles, vs. 14, 15. An analogous example in more ancient times was the deliverance from Egypt, vs. 16, 17. But both these instances shall be forgotten in comparison with the great change which awaits the church hereafter, vs. 18-21. Of all these distinguishing favours none was owing to the merit of the people, but all to the sovereign grace of God, vs. 22-25. The people were not only destitute of merit, but deserving of punishment, which they had experienced and must experience again, vs. 26-28.

1. And now, thus saith Jehovah, thy creator, oh Jacob, and thy former, oh Israel, Fear not, for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name, thou art mine (literally, to me art thou). The juxtaposition of this promise with the very different language at the close of the preceding chapter has led to various false assumptions as to the connection of the passages. The simplest and most satisfactory hypothesis is that, in this whole context, the Prophet is accounting for the sufferings of Israel and his preservation from destruction on the same ground, namely, that Jehovah had chosen them and therefore would preserve them, but that they were unfaithful and must therefore suffer. The intermingling of the promises and threatenings is not to be explained by supposing a reference to different periods or different subjects; nor is it to be set down as capricious and unmeaning, but as necessary to the Prophet's purpose. The now will then have a logical rather than a temporal meaning, as introductory to an explanation of the strange fact that the bush was burned but not consumed. Creator and former have reference not merely to the natural creation, nor to the spiritual renovation of individuals, but to the creation or constitution of the church God was the maker of Israel in a peculiar sense. He existed as a nation for a special purpose. Fear not, i.e. fear not that thou canst be utterly destroyed. It is not an assurance of immunity from suffering, the experience of which is implied and indeed expressly threatened in what follows. I have redeemed thee. There is here an allusion to the redemption of the first-born under the Mosaic law, as appears from the metaphor of substitution used in vs. 3 and 4. Thus understood, the meaning of this clause is, thou art not like the other nations of the earth, for I have purchased or redeemed thee to myself as a peculiar people. To call by name includes the ideas of specific designation, public announcement, and solemn consecration to a certain work. This and the other clauses of the verse can be applied to the election and vocation of individuals only by accommodation, or so far as the case of the individual members is included in that of the whole body.

2. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be scorched, and the flame skill not burn thee. Fire and water are common figures for calamity and danger. (See Ps. 66:.12.) It is the genius of  the language to delight in short independent clauses, where we use more involved and complicated periods. 'For thou shalt pass through the waters, I will be with thee,' is the idiomatic Hebrew mode of saying, If or when thou passest, etc. The last clause might be rendered, when thou walkest in the fire, the preposition through being used even in the first clause only because the English idiom requires it after pass. The common version of the last words, shall not kindle upon thee, is of doubtful authority, and seems to introduce a needless anticlimax, as burning is much more than kindling. The application of this promise to individual believers is an accommodation, but one justified by the natural relation between the body and its several members.

3. For I, Jehovah, thy God, the Holy One of Israel, thy Saviour, have given (as) thy ransom Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba, instead of thee. This is an amplification of the phrase I have redeemed thee in v. 1. As the Israelite under the Mosaic law was obliged to redeem his first-born by the payment of a price, or by the substitution of some other object, so Jehovah secured Israel as his own by giving up the other nations, here represented by a single group, just as the forest-trees are represented in ch. 41:19 by a few well-known species. The group here selected is composed of three contiguous and kindred nations. Cush, which was placed by the older writers either wholly or partly in Arabia, is admitted by the moderns to be coincident with the Ethiopia of the Greek geographers. Seba is now commonly supposed, on the authority of Josephus, to be Meroe, a part of Ethiopia surrounded by the branches of the Nile, and celebrated by the ancient writers for its wealth and commerce. The connection of the countries was not only geographical but genealogical. According to Gen. 10:6, 7, Cush was the brother of Mizraim and the father of Seba. According to this exegetical hypothesis, the same essential meaning might have been conveyed by the mention of any other group of nations. At the same time, it may be admitted that the mention of Egypt was probably suggested by its intimate connection with the history of Israel, and by its actual sacrifice, in some sort, to the safety of the latter at the period of the exodus. Many interpreters go further and suppose that the words would have been applicable to no other nations than those specifically mentioned, and that the Prophet here alludes to the real or anticipated conquest of these countries by Cyrus, as a sort of compensation for the loss of Israel. But the necessity of this prosaic explanation is precluded by the prophetic usage of specifying individuals as representatives of classes, while the sense thus put upon ransom or atonement is extremely forced and far-fetched. That the terms although specific were designed to have a wider application, may be safely inferred from the generic expressions substituted for them in the next verse. The essential idea of ransom here is that of vicarious compensation. The insertion of the substantive verb in the first clause, so as to make it a distinct proposition (I am Jehovah), greatly weakens the whole sentence. The description of the speaker in the first clause is intended to conciliate regard to what he says in the other. It was in the character, not only of an absolute and sovereign God, but in that of Israel's God, his Holy One, his Saviour, that Jehovah had thus chosen him to the exclusion of all other nations.

4. Since thou wast precious in my eyes, thou hast been honoured, and I have loved thee, and will give man instead of thee and nations instead of thy soul (or life). There is precisely the same ambiguity in since as in the Hebrew word. Both expressions may be taken either in a temporal or causal sense. Because thou wast precious, or, from the time that thou wast precious. The former sense is really included in the latter. If Israel had been honoured ever since Jehovah called him, it is plainly implied that this vocation was the cause of his distinction. The first clause, as the whole context clearly shows does not refer to intrinsic qualities, but to an arbitrary sovereign choice. 'Since I began to treat thee as a thing of value, thou hast been distinguished among the nations.' The verse, so far from ascribing any merit to the people, refers all to God. The future (I will give) shows that the substitution mentioned in v. 3 did not relate merely to the past but to the future also. Man is here used collectively or indefinitely for other men, or the rest of men, as in Judg. 16:7. Ps. 73:5. Job 21:33. Jer. 32:20. Thy soul, life, or person, seems to be an allusion to the usage of the same Hebrew word in the Law, with respect to enumeration or redemption. (See Ex. 12:4. Lev. 27:2.) The general terms of this clause make it wholly improbable that v. 3 has specific and exclusive reference to the nations named there.

5. Fear not, for I (am) with thee; from the east will I make (or let) thy seed come, and from the west will I gather thee. The reference of this verse to the restoration of the Jews from Babylon is not only arbitrary and without foundation, but forbidden by the mention of the west as well as the east. That it refers to any restoration is the more improbable, because the Prophet does not say bring back but simply bring. The only interpretation which entirely suits the text and context, without supplying or assuming anything beyond what is expressed, is that which makes the verse a promise to the church that she should be completed, that all her scattered members should be ultimately brought together. (Compare John 11:52. Rom. 3:29. 1 John 2:2.) Thy seed has reference to Israel or Jacob as the ideal object of address.

6. I will say to the north, Give, and to the south, Withhold not; let my sons come from far, and my daughters from the end of the earth. This is a poetical amplification of the promise in the foregoing verse. As it was there declared that God would bring and gather the whole seed of Israel, so here he represents himself as calling on the north and the south to execute his purpose.

7. Every one called by my name, and for my glory I have created him; I have formed him, yea I have made him. The construction is continued from the foregoing verse. 'My sons and my daughters, even every one called by my name.' And I have created him is a common Hebrew idiom equivalent to whom I have created. For my glory is emphatic. God had not only made them what they were, but he had done it for his own sake, not for theirs. So likewise he now speaks of their being called by his name, as he did before of his calling them by their name, the latter denoting special designation, the former special authority and right.

8. He hath brought out the blind people, and there are eyes (to them); and the deaf, and (then are) ears to them. The two clauses are so constructed as to supply one another's ellipses. On the whole, the most satisfactory interpretation of the verse is that which understands it as descriptive of the change wrought or to be wrought in the condition of mankind by Jehovah, through the agency of his people, whether the latter be expressly mentioned here or not. He (i.e. God, or Israel as his messenger) hath brought out a people  (once) blind, and (now) they have eyes, and (once) deaf, and (now) they have ears, i.e. seeing eyes and hearing ears. This agrees perfectly with all that goes before and follows as to the mission and vocation of God's people.

9. All the nations are gathered together, and the peoples are to be assembled. Who among them will declare this and let us hear the first things? Let them give (or produce) their witnesses and be justified; and (if they cannot do this) let them hear (my witnesses), and say, (It is) the truth. The nations have been gathered, but the process is not yet completed. This gathering of the nations has been commonly explained as a judicial metaphor like that in ch. 41:1. In that case the verse describes the heathen as assembled at the judgment-seat to plead their cause against Jehovah. This agrees well with the forensic terms employed in the subsequent context. It is possible, however, that this first clause may have been intended to describe not the process but the subject of adjudication. The gathering of the nations will then denote their accession to the church, as predicted in vs. 5-7; and this, in the next clause, will refer to the same event. Who among them (i.e. the nations) could have foretold their own change of condition? On the other supposition, this must either be indefinite, or mean the restoration of the Jews from exile, of which, as we have seen, there is no specific mention in the foregoing context. In either case, the usual alternative is offered, viz that of pointing out some previous instance of foreknowledge and prediction. The last clause admits of two constructions. It may either be read, let them be just (or candid) and hear and say it is the truth; or, let them be justified (by the witnesses whom they produce), and (if not) let them hear (my witnesses) and say, it is the truth. The latter seems more natural.

10. Ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah, and my servant whom I have chosen, that ye may know and believe me, and may understand that I am He; before me was not formed a god, and after me there shall not be. Ye are my witnesses and (ye are) my servant whom I have chosen (for this very purpose). The combination of the plural witnesses with the singular servant, although strange in itself, is in perfect agreement with the previous representations of Israel as both a person and a body politic. That ye may know depends upon the words immediately preceding, whom I have chosen, and the clause declares the purpose not only of the testimony here adduced, but of the election and vocation of his servant. The witness to whom God appeals is Israel, his servant, constituted such for the very end that he might know and understand and believe that of which all other nations were entirely ignorant, viz. that Jehovah was He, i.e. the being in question, the only wise God, the only infallible foreteller of futurity. Various attempts have been made to explain away the singular expression, there was no god formed before me, as an inaccuracy of expression; whereas nothing else could have conveyed the writer's meaning in a form at once sarcastic, argumentative, and graphic. Instead of saying, in a bald prosaic form, all other gods are the work of men's hands, but I am uncreated and exist from all eternity, he condenses all into the pregnant declaration, there was no god manufactured before me, i. e. all other gods were made, but none of them was made before I had a being. There is not even such an incongruity of form as some suppose, a notion resting on the false assumption that before me must in this connection mean before I was formed, whereas it only means before I existed, just as the parallel phrase after me does not mean after I am formed, but after I shall cease to exist. The sarcasm is rendered still more pungent by the use of the divine name, thus bringing into the most revolting contrast the pretended divinity of idols and their impotence; as if he had said, none of these almighty gods were made before I had a being.

11. I, I Jehovah, and besides me (or apart from me) there is no Saviour. In the first clause we may simply supply am, as in the English and most other versions, or am He from the preceding verse, and in the sense there explained. The exclusive honour here claimed is not merely that of infallible foreknowledge, but of infinite power. Jehovah was able not only to foretell the salvation of his people, but to save them. These terms are not to be restricted, if applied at all directly, to the final salvation of individual believers. There is evident allusion to the deliverance of Israel as a people from external sufferings or dangers, of which one signal instance is referred to in v. 14 and another in v. 16. At the same time, the doctrine here propounded, or the character ascribed to God, affords a sure foundation for the personal trust of all who have really a place among his people.

12. I have told and have saved and have declared (or let you hear beforehand), and there is not among you (any) stranger; and ye are my witnesses, saith Jehovah, and I (am) God. Having laid claim successively to divine prescience and power, he here combines the two, and represents himself both as the foreteller and the giver of salvation. The emphatic insertion of the pronoun I at the beginning of the verse can only be expressed in English by a circumlocution, it is I that have told etc.

13. Also (or even) from the day I am He, and there is no one freeing from my hand; I will do, and who will undo it? The assonance in the last clause is not in the original, which literally means, I will act (or make), and who will cause it to return, i. e. reverse or nullify it? The interrogative form implies negation. A similar expression of the same idea is found in ch. 14:27. What is said specifically in the first clause of delivering from Jehovah's power, is extended in the last to all counteraction or reversal of his acts. From the day is understood by some as referring to a specific terminus a quo, such as the origin of Israel as a nation, the exodus, etc. Others make it indefinite, of old or long since. But the best interpreters explain it as meaning since the first day, or since time began. The words are then universal, both in the extent of power claimed, and in relation to the time of its exercise. Over every object and in every age the power of Jehovah had been clearly proved to be supreme and absolute.

14. Thus saith Jehovah, your Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel: For your sake I have sent to Babylon, and have brought down (or made to descend) fugitives all of them; and the Chaldeans, in the ships their shout (or song). This is a particular instance of the general protection vouchsafed by Jehovah to his people, and more especially of that providential substitution or redemption, of which we read above in vs. 3, 4. The inference before drawn from the general terms of v. 4, that the nations mentioned in v. 3 are only representatives or samples, is confirmed by this explicit mention of the fall of Babylon as an example of the same great truth. The titles added to Jehovah's name are not mere expletives or words of course, but intimate that he would bring this great event to pass in his distinctive character as the Redeemer and the Holy One of Israel. The event, although still future to the writer, is described as past, in reference not only to the purposes of God, but also to the perceptions of the Prophet. As presented to his view by the prophetic inspiration, the destruction of Babylon was just as truly a historical event as that of Pharaoh and his host.

15. I Jehovah, your Holy One, the Creator of Israel, your King. This verse may possibly have been intended merely to identify the subject of the one before it. I sent to Babylon etc. even I, Jehovah, your Holy One etc. It is simpler, however, and more in accordance with the usage of the language to make this a distinct proposition by supplying the verb of existence. I am Jehovah, or, I Jehovah (am) your Holy One, or, I Jehovah, your Holy One, (am) the Creator of Israel, your King. Even in this case, the event predicted in v. 14 is referred to, as the proof of his being what he here asserts.

16. Thus saith Jehovah, the (one) giving in the sea a way, and in mighty waters a path. As the participle is very commonly employed in Hebrew to denote continued and habitual action, this verse might be regarded as a general description of God's usual control of the elements and conquest of all difficulties. But the terms of the next verse, and the subsequent contrast between old and new deliverances, have led most interpreters to understand this likewise as an allusion to the passage of the Red Sea.

17. The (one) bringing out chariot and horse, force and strength (literally, strong); together they shall lie, they shall not rise; they are extinct, like tow (or like a wick) they are quenched. The construction is continued from the foregoing verse, and the first word agrees directly with Jehovah. Some understand the verse as having reference to a naval victory of Cyrus over the Chaldeans, others as relating to the destruction of Pharaoh and his host. It is no objection to the latter application that the verb is future, as it denotes not merely the act of lying down, but the state of lying still, and is therefore a poetical equivalent and parallel to shall not rise. That something long past is intended, may be gathered from the exhortation of the next verse.

18. Remember not former things, and old things consider not. As if he had said, why should I refer to ancient instances of God's almighty intervention in behalf of his people, when others equally remarkable are yet to come? Some refer this to the advent of Christ, but most to the fall of Babylon and restoration of the Jews from exile. The necessity of this specific application by no means follows from the express mention of that event in v. 14; because, as we have seen, it is there introduced as a single illustration or example of a general truth, which had before been stated, and which may possibly be here repeated. This supposition is at least sufficient to meet all the requisitions of the text and context.

19. Behold I (am) doing (something) new, it is now (or yet) to sprout (or germinate); do you not know it? Yes, I will place in the wilderness a way, in the desert streams. The now does not necessarily denote a proximate futurity, but only that the thing is yet to happen, or in other words, that it is something new, as distinguished from all former instances. As if he had said, it is still future. The figure of germination implies that as yet there was no appearance of the final issue. (See the same expression in ch. 42:9.) Do you not know it, i.e. know what it is? Or, will you not know it, i.e. are you not willing to be convinced? Or, shall you not know it, i.e. is not the event to be attested by your own experience? Not content with having made a way through the sea, he would make one through the desert. Now as this is really a less extraordinary act of power than the other, it would seem to favour the opinion, that v. 10 and the one before us do not relate indefinitely to the exhibition of Jehovah's omnipotence, but specifically to the exodus from Egypt and the restoration of the Jews from exile. Even on this hypothesis, however, the terms of this verse must be understood not as a description of the literal return, but as a figurative representation of deliverance and relief, whereas v. 16 describes a literal deliverance. On the whole, therefore, it is best to take both verses as strong metaphorical descriptions of deliverance from suffering and danger by a direct divine interposition. Even supposing an allusion to the literal journey through the desert, what is said of rivers must be figurative, which makes it probable that the whole sentence is of the same description. Thus understood, the Prophet's language means that God could change the face of nature and control the angry elements in favour of his people; that he had so done in time past, and would again do so  in time to come.

20. The living creature of the field shall honour me, jackals (or wolves) and ostriches; because I have given in the wilderness waters, and streams in the desert, to give drink to my people, my chosen. The change is further described by representing the irrational inmates of the desert as rejoicing in its irrigation. This bold conception makes it still more probable that what precedes does not relate to a literal journey through a literal desert. As the first phrase seems to be a general one, including the two species afterwards mentioned, the translation beast  is too restricted, and should give way to that which is etymologically most exact, viz. ζώον, animal, or living creature. The form is singular, the sense collective. The two species represent the whole class of animals inhabiting the wilderness. (Compare ch. 13:1, 22.) The common version of the last words of this verse is an exact one. My chosen people would be otherwise expressed. To the simple designation of my people, he adds, by a kind of afterthought, my chosen or elect.

21. The people (or this people) I have formed for myself; my praise shall they recount (or they are to recount my praise). Another declaration of the end for which Israel existed as a nation. This brings us back to the main proposition of the chapter, namely, that Jehovah had not only made them what they were, but had made them for the purpose of promoting his own glory, so that any claim of merit upon their part, and any apprehension of entire destruction, must be equally unfounded.

22. And not me hast thou called, oh Jacob; for thou hast been weary of me, oh Israel. Interpreters, almost without exception, give the first Hebrew verb the sense of called upon, invoked or worshipped. There is much, however, to be said in favour of the sense, thou hast not called me, I have called thee; as our Saviour says to his disciples, ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you (John 15: 16). Having thus far represented the vocation of Israel as a sovereign act on God's part, he now presents the converse of the same proposition. This construction is further recommended by its accounting for the unusual position of the words at the beginning of the verse, without resorting to the arbitrary supposition that it is characteristic of a later age than that of Isaiah. As if he had said, it is not I that have been called by you. According to the usual construction of the first clause, the second may be rendered either when or because thou wast weary of me. It is not easy to determine whether labour or fatigue is the primary meaning of the word translated weary. Sometimes the one idea is more prominent, sometimes the other. In this case both would naturally be suggested, as in the following paraphrase. It is not I that have been called by thee; for so far from manifesting such a preference, thou hast been wearied and disgusted with the labour which attends my service. The indirect construction (that thou shouldst be weary of me) is only admissible in case of exegetical necessity.

23. Thou hast not brought to me the sheep of thy burnt-offering, and (with) thy sacrifices thou hast not honoured me. I have not made thee serve with oblation, and I have not made thee labour (or wearied thee] with incense. The whole Mosaic ritual is here represented by an enumeration of some of the principal offerings; the olah or general expiation, the zebahim or other animal sacrifices, the minhah or meal-offering, and the lebonah or aromatic fumigation. The Hebrew word includes the goat as well as the sheep, and is therefore correctly rendered in the English Version by the phrase small cattle. Of the whole verse there are several distinct interpretations or rather applications. Some place the emphasis upon the pronouns. It is not to me that thou hast offered all this, but to idols. Another class of writers understand the passage strictly as charging the Jews with culpable neglect of the ceremonial law. A third hypothesis applies the passage to the unavoidable suspension of the ceremonial service during the captivity in Babylon, which it supposes to be here urged as a proof that the deliverance of Israel from exile was an act of mercy, not of righteous retribution for their national obedience and fidelity. It is much more obvious to give the words the general and unrestricted meaning which they naturally bear as a description of the people's conduct, not at one time or at one place, but throughout their history. The most satisfactory interpretation of the verse, and that which best agrees with the whole context, is, that it has reference not merely to the outward or material act, but to its moral value and effect. You have not so performed your ceremonial duties as to lay me under any obligation to protect you. You have not really given me your cattle, you have not truly honoured me with sacrifices. The best explanation of the last clause is, I have not succeeded in inducing you to serve me, I have not prevailed upon you to exert yourselves, much less wearied or exhausted you in ceremonial services.

24. Thou hast not bought for me sweet cane with money, and (with) the fat of thy sacrifices thou hast not drenched me; thou hast only made me serve with thy sins, and made me toil (or wearied me) with thine iniquities. Sweet cane is mentioned, like the other things with which it stands connected, as a specimen or sample of the whole congeries of ceremonial services. The antithesis between the clauses seems to show that the idea meant to be conveyed in this whole context is, that their external services were nullified by sin. So far from being satisfied or pleased with what they offered, God was only vexed with their transgressions and neglects.

25. I, I am he blotting out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and thy sins I will not remember. This is the conclusion to which all that goes before was meant to lead, to wit, that God's goodness to his people is gratuitous. If they, instead of choosing God and his service, were averse to both; if, instead of pleasing him by their attentions, they had grieved him by their sins; it follows of course that he could still show them favour only by gratuitously blotting out their sins from his remembrance, or in other words, freely forgiving them.

26. Remind me; let us plead together (or judge one another); state (thy case), that thou mayest be justified. After asserting, in the foregoing verse, the total want of merit in the people and their dependence upon God's gratuitous compassion, he now, as it were, allows them to disprove his allegation, by reminding him of some forgotten merit on their part. The badness of their case could not have been more strongly or sarcastically stated than in this ironical invitation to plead their own cause and establish their own rights if they could, with a tacit condition, not expressed but implied, that if they could not justify themselves in this way, they should submit to the righteousness of God and consent to be justified by grace.

27. Thy first father sinned, and thy interpreters rebelled against me. It may be considered as implied, that all their fathers who had since lived shared in the original depravity, and thus the same sense is obtained that would have been expressed by the collective explanation of first father, while the latter is still taken in its strict and full sense as denoting the progenitor of all mankind. Interpreters, or organs of communication, is a title given elsewhere to ambassadors (2 Chr. 32:31) and to an interceding angel (Job 33:23). It here denotes all those who, under the theocracy, acted as organs of communication between God and the people, whether prophets, priests, or rulers. The idea therefore, is the same so often expressed elsewhere, that the people, and especially their leaders, were unfaithful and rebellious.

28. And I will profane the holy chiefs, and will give up Jacob to the curse and Israel to reproaches. The character just given of the people in all ages is urged not only as a proof that God's compassion must be perfectly gratuitous, but also as a reason for the strokes which they experienced. This last phrase is descriptive of the same persons called interpreters in v. 27, namely, all the official representatives and leaders of the holy (i.e. consecrated and peculiar) people.