Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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This chapter opens, like the fortieth and forty-third, with cheering promises to Israel, followed by reasons for confiding in them, drawn from the wisdom, power, and goodness of Jehovah. The specific promise, which constitutes the theme or basis of the prophecy, is that of abundant spiritual influences and their fruits, not only internal prosperity, but large accessions from without, vs. 1-5. The pledge for the fulfilment of this promise is afforded by the proofs of God's omniscience, as contrasted with all other gods, vs. 6-9. The folly of image-worship is then established by two arguments. The first is that idols are themselves the creatures of mere men, vs. 10-14. The other is that they are not only made, and made by man, but made of the very same materials that are constantly applied to the most trivial domestic uses, vs. 15-20. From this demonstration of the power of Jehovah to perform his promise we are now brought back to the promise itself, vs. 21-24. This is again confirmed by an appeal to God's creative power, and illustrated by the raising up of Cyrus as a deliverer to Israel, vs. 25-28.

Here again it is important to the just interpretation of the passage that we keep in view the true relation which the main theme (the safety and prosperity of Israel) bears to the arguments and illustrations drawn from God's foreknowledge as established by prediction, from the impotence of idols, and the raising up of Cyrus. Through all these varied forms of promise and of reasoning there runs a thread uniting them, and this thread is the doctrine of the Church, its origin, its design, and its relation to its Head and to the world around it.

1. And now hear, Jacob my servant, and Israel I have chosen him (i. e. whom I have chosen). The transition here is the same as at the opening of the foregoing chapter, and the now, as there, has rather a logical than a temporal meaning. For reasons which have been already given, there is no need of supposing that a different Israel is here addressed, viz. the penitent believing Jews in exile; or a different period referred to, namely, that succeeding the calamities before described. It is simply a resumption and continuation of the Prophet's argument, intended to exhibit the true relation between God and his people. The election here affirmed is probably the choice and separation of the church, or God's peculiar people, from the rest of men.

2. Thus saith Jehovah thy maker and thy former from the womb will help thee; fear not, my servant Jacob, and Jeshurun whom I have chosen. The simplest construction is to make the words of Jehovah begin with thy maker, the transition from the third to the first person being altogether natural and one of perpetual occurrence in Isaiah. Thy maker will help thee is equivalent to I, who am thy maker, will help thee. But even on the common supposition, that the words of God begin with the second clause, it is better to take he will help thee as a short independent clause, parenthetically thrown in to complete the description or to connect it with what follows. Thus saith thy maker and thy former from the wombhe will help theeFear not etc. The use of these expressions in addressing Israel only shows that the conception present to the writer's mind is that of an individual man. Jeshurun occurs only here and in Deut. 32:15. 33:5, 26.

3. For I will pour waters on the thirsty, and flawing (waters) on the dry (land); I will pour my spirit on thy seed. and my blessing on thine offspring. This is the grand reason why God's people should not despair. The two clauses explain each other, the water of the first being clearly identical with the spirit of the second. This is a common figure for influence from above. (See ch. 32:15. Ez. 34:26. Mal 3:10.) This promise includes all the influences of the Holy Spirit. The ideal object of address is Jacob as the national progenitor, and the Jews themselves are here described as his descendants. Even this, however, does not necessarily exclude the spiritual offspring of the patriarch, who are explicitly referred to in the context.

4. And they shall spring up in the midst of the grass, like willows on (or by) the water-courses. This verse describes the effect of the irrigation and effusion promised in the one before it. The subject of the verb is the offspring or descendants of Israel, by whom the blessing was to be experienced. The grass and the willows are separated only by the rhythmical arrangement of the sentence. The simple meaning of the whole verse is, that they shall grow as willows grow among the grass, i. e. in a moist or marshy spot.

5. This shall say, To Jehovah I (belong); and this shall call on (or by) the name of Jacob; and this shall inscribe his hand (or with his hand), To Jehovah, and with the name of Israel shall entitle. It is commonly agreed that this verse predicts the accession of the gentiles, whom it represents as publicly professing their allegiance to Jehovah and attachment to his people. The act of calling one by name, and that of calling on his name (invoking him), are intimately blended in the Hebrew usage. Most interpreters understand it here as meaning to praise or celebrate. Some understand the last verb to mean he shall surname himself (or be surnamed), others he shall name the name of Jacob in a flattering or respectful manner. Of the intermediate clause there are two ancient explanations, one of which makes it mean he shall write (with) his hand, in allusion to the signing of contracts (Jer. 32:10. Neh. 9:38); the other, he shall write upon (inscribe) his hand, in allusion to the ancient custom of marking soldiers, slaves, and other dependents, with the name of their superior, to which there seems to be a reference in Ex. 13:9 and Rev. 13:16.

6. Thus saith Jehovah, king of Israel, and his redeemer, Jehovah of Hosts: I (am) first, and I (am) last, and without me there is no God. This is a description of the God whom the nations, in the preceding verse, are represented as acknowledging. The attributes ascribed to him afford, at the same time, a sufficient reason for confiding in his promises. The terms here used are appropriated to the Lord Jesus Christ in Rev. 1:18. 2:8. 22:13. There is no need of giving to the preposition in the last clause the restricted sense besides, which is really included in the usual and strict sense of without, i. e. without my knowledge and permission, or without subjection to my sovereign authority. The meaning is not simply, that there is no other true God in existence, but that even the λεγόμενοι θεοὶ (1 Cor. 8:5) exist only by his sufferance, and cannot therefore be his equals or competitors.

7. And who, like me, will call, and tell it, and state it to me, since I placed the ancient people; and coming things and things which are to come mill tell to them (or for themselves)? There is no reason why the interrogation should not be considered as extending through the verse, the rather as a different construction splits the sentence into several, and arbitrarily explains some of the futures as imperatives. The usual construction of the next words is, let him tell it etc.; but this imperative meaning is sufficiently implied in the strict translation of the words as interrogative futures, who will tell it etc. ... is to call aloud or publicly announce. It differs from the next verb, if at all, by denoting an authoritative call, and suggesting the idea not only of prediction but of creation. ... is a forensic term meaning to state a case. The words since I placed etc. are to be connected with ... sins, who can call, as I have done, ever since I placed etc. To place is here to constitute, create, or give existence. Instead of ancient people some would read eternal people, but refer it simply to the divine purpose or decree of election. Others give it the sense of everlasting people, i. e. a people who shall last forever. In all these senses the description is appropriate to Israel, not simply as a nation but a church, the existence and prerogatives of which are still continued in the body of Christ. It may be doubted, however, whether anything more was here intended than a reference to the origin of the human race. (See above, on ch. 42:5, 6.)

8. Quake not and fear not; have I not since then let thee hear and told (thee), and are ye not my witnesses? Is there a God without me? And then is no rock, I know not (any). The alternation of the singular and plural form in reference to Israel, is peculiarly appropriate to an ideal or collective person, and in strict agreement with the usage of the Pentateuch, especially with that of Deuteronomy, in which the same apparent confusion of numbers is not a mere occasional phenomenon, but one of perpetual occurrence. Since then may refer to the event mentioned in the preceding verse, viz. the constitution of the "ancient people." And ye are my witnesses is usually construed as an independent clause; but a possible construction is to include it in the question as above. Here, as in many other cases, God is called a Rock, as being the refuge of his people, and the firm foundation of their hopes.

9. The image-carvers all of them are vanity, and their desired (or Moved) ones are worthless; and their witnesses themselves will not see and will not know, that they may be ashamed. Having fortified his promise by a solemn affirmation of his own supremacy, in contrast with the ignorance and impotence of idols, he now carries out this contrast in detail. The literal meaning of the first phrase, is the formers of a graven image, here put for idols in general. Vanity is here to be taken as a negative expression of the strongest kind. denoting the absence of all life, intelligence, and power, and corresponding to the parallel expression they cannot profit, i. e. they are worthless. The desired or favourite things of the idolaters are the idols themselves, upon which they lavished time, expense, and misplaced confidence. The next phrase is commonly explained to mean, their witnesses are themselves, i. e. they are their own witnesses, which may either represent the idols as witnessing against their worshippers, or the worshippers against the idols, or either of these classes against itself. Others connect these words with the following verbs. The meaning then is, that the idolaters who bear witness to the divinity of their idols are themselves blind and ignorant.

10. Who formed the god and cast the image to no use (or profit)? Most interpreters regard this as an exclamation of contemptuous surprise, implying that no one in his senses would do so. But it is best to understand what follows as the answer to this question. Having affirmed the worthlessness of idols in general, he now proceeds to prove it from their origin. So far from being makers, they are made themselves, and who made them? This is the precise force of the verse before us. Here as elsewhere there is pungent sarcasm in the application of the name El (Mighty God) to idols.

11. Lo, all his fellows shall be ashamed, and the workmen themselves are of men; they shall assemble all of them, they shall stand, they shall tremble, they shall be ashamed together. The pronoun his refers to the idol itself, and by his fellows we are to understand all who have anything to do with it, either as manufacturers or worshippers. (Compare Num. 25:3. Deut. 11:22. 30:20. Is. 56:3, 6. Hos. 4:17. 1 Cor. 10:20.) Of men, i. e. members of the human family or race. The makers of the idol are themselves mere men, and cannot therefore produce anything divine. The senseless idol and its human makers shall be witnesses against each other, and shall all be involved in the same condemnation and confusion.

12. He has carved iron (with) a graver, and has wrought (it) in the coals, and. with the hammers he will shape it, and then work it with his arm of strength. Besides (or moreover), he is hungry and has no strength, he has not drunk water and is faint. The meaning and construction of several of the words here used have been disputed, but the most probable meaning of the whole verse is the one just expressed in the translation. The common version, strength of his arms, is a needless and enfeebling transposition. The true sense of the words is his arm of strength. The description in the last clause seems intended to convey these several ideas: that the man who undertakes to make a god is himself a mortal, subject to ordinary human infirmities; that his god is utterly unable to relieve him or supply his wants; and that neither these considerations nor the toil which he must undergo in order to attain his end are sufficient to deter him from his self-tormenting efforts.

13. He has carved wood, he has stretched a line, he will mark it with the awl (or graver), he will form it with the chisels, and with the compass (or circle) he will mark it, and then make it (or now he has made it) like the structure (i. e. after the model) of a man, like the beauty of mankind, to dwell in a house. In this verse, as in that before it, the alternation of the preterite and future introduces us into the very midst of the process, and describes it as already begun but not yet finished. This distinctive feature of the passage is destroyed by making all the verbs indiscriminately present. The future at the opening of the second clause may either denote simply that the act described is subsequent to that just mentioned, or it may represent what was just now future as already done, thereby rendering the view of a progressive operation still more vivid. The two markings or delineations mentioned are commonly supposed to have respect to the general dimensions of the figure and then to its precise form and proportions. The meaning of the last words of the verse seems to be that the idol, being like a man in form, is, like a man, to dwell in a house.

14. To hew him down cedars; and (now) he has taken cypress and an oak, and has strengthened (i. e. raised it) for himself among the trees of the forest; he has planted a pine, and the rain shall increase (it, i. e make it grow). To show more clearly the absurdity of ascribing deity to material images, he here goes back, not only to their human origin and their base material, but to the very generation of the trees by which the wood is furnished. The particulars are stated in an inverse order. He begins with the felling of the trees, but interrupts himself in order to go still further back to their very cultivation. The essential idea is that man, instead of being the creature, is in some sort the creator of the wood he worships, since it does or may owe its existence to his agency. One of the Hebrew words strictly denotes a species of oak, but the common version cypress may be retained, as it yields an appropriate sense, and as botanical precision is in this case of no exegetical importance, since the meaning of the verse would be the same whatever species had been mentioned. The strict sense of making strong corresponds exactly to that of making great expressed by the last words, both meaning here to cause to grow. Thus understood, the word helps to bring out with more strength and clearness the main idea of the verse, viz. that the idolater not only chooses suitable trees, but plants and raises them for the purpose. It is not necessary to suppose that this is a description of a usual or frequent custom. It is rather an ideal exhibition of the idol-manufacture carried out to its extreme. The last clause is added to complete the picture of the natural origin and growth of that which the idolater adores as superhuman and divine. At the same time it implies the patient perseverance of the devotee, who first does his part and then waits for natural causes to do theirs, and all for the production of an idol!

15. And it shall be to men for burning (i. e. for fuel), and he has taken of them and warmed himself; yes, he will kindle and bake bread; yes, he will form a god and fall prostrate; he, has made it a graven image and bowed down to them. The future meaning of the first verb is determined by its intimate connection with the last word of the foregoing verse. The Prophet seems designedly to interchange the singular and plural forms, in order to identify with more effect the idol worshipped and the sticks consumed. He takes of them (the sticks), kindles a fire, warms himself, bakes bread, then makes a god, and worships, yes, bows down before them (the sticks of wood). The argument of this and the succeeding verses is intended to exhibit the absurdity of worshipping the same material that is constantly applied to the most trivial domestic uses.

16. Half of it he hath burned in the fire, on half of it he will eat flesh, he will roast roast and be filled; yea, he will warm himself and say, Aha, I am warm, I have seen fire. The indefinite translation part, given in the English version, is intended to avoid the incongruity of making two halves and a remainder. But this incongruity has no existence in the original; because the first and second half of v. 16 are one and the same half, and the other is not introduced until the next verse. The phrase, on half of it he eats flesh, may be explained as a pregnant or concise expression of the idea, that over or by means of the fire made with half of it he cooks flesh for his eating. The obscurity of this clause is immediately removed by the addition of the unambiguous words, he roasts a roast and satisfies himself. The force of yea, both here and in the foregoing verse, appears to be equivalent to that of our expression nay more, not only this but also, or moreover. The Hebrew verb in the last clause not only may but must have here its proper meaning, I have seen; because the noun which follows does not denote the heat of fire but its light, and there could not be a more natural expression of the feeling meant to be conveyed than by referring to the cheerful blaze of a large wood fire. To the indiscriminate translation of the verbs, both in this verse and the next, as descriptive presents, the same objections may be made as in the foregoing context.

17. And the rest of it (i. e. the other half) he has made into a god, into his graven image; he will bow down to it, and will worship, and will pray to it, and say, Deliver me, for thou (art) my god. The consecution of the tenses is the same as in the preceding verse, and has the same effect of fixing the point of observation in the midst of the process. He has kindled his fire, and will use it to prepare his food. He has made his idol, and will fall down and pray to it. The pronoun at the end may be regarded as emphatic and as meaning thou and thou alone.

18. They have not known, and they will not understand, for he hath smeared their eyes from seeing, their hearts from doing wisely. The combination of the preterite and future makes the description more complete and comprehensive. As the smearing of the eyes is merely a figure for spiritual blindness, it is here extended to the heart, of which it is not literally predicable.

19. And he will not bring it home to himself (or to his heart), and (there is) not knowledge, and (there is) not understanding to say, Half of it I have burned in the fire, and have also baked bread on its coals, I will roast flesh and eat, and the rest of it I will make to (be) an abomination, to a log of wood (or the trunk of a tree) I will cast myself down. The essential meaning is, that they have not sense enough to describe their conduct to themselves in its true colours; if they did, they would stand amazed at its impiety and folly. In the form of expression the writer passes from the plural to the singular, i. e. from idolaters in general to the individual idolater. The first phrase does not correspond exactly to the English lay to heart, but comprehends reflection and emotion. The construction of the last clause as an explanation or an interrogation has arisen from a wish to avoid the incongruity of making the man call himself a fool or express his resolution to perform a foolish act. But this very incongruity is absolutely necessary to the writer's purpose. which is simply to tell what the infatuated devotee would say of his own conduct if he saw it in its true light. Instead of saying, I will worship my god, he would then say, I will worship a stick of wood, a part of the very log which I have just burned, upon which I have just baked my bread, and on which I am just about to cook my dinner. The more revolting and absurd this language, the more completely does it suit and carry out the writer's purpose. Hence too the use of the term abomination, i. e. object of abhorrence, not in the worshipper's actual belief, but as it would be if his eyes were opened.

20. Feeding on ashes, (his) heart is deceived, it has led him astray, and he cannot deliver himself (or his soul), and he will not say, Is there not a lie in my right hand? Another statement of the reason why he cannot see his conduct in its just light or describe it in correct terms, viz. because his very mind or heart is deceived, and this because it feeds on ashes. Feeding on ashes is a figure for the love and prosecution of unsatisfying objects, analogous to feeding on wind, Hos. 12:1. The word denotes something more than simply to take pleasure in an object, and suggests the idea of choosing it and resting in it as a portion. The features of the last clause have. in part if not exclusively, a potential meaning. It is best perhaps to combine the ideas of unwillingness and inability. The concluding question is equivalent in import to the long speech put into the mouth of the idolater in v. 19. By a lie we are to understand that which professes to be what it is not, and thereby deceives the hopes of those who trust in it. (See Jer. 10:14. Ps. 33:17.) This description some apply to the idol itself, as if he had said, Is not this, which I carry in my right hand, a deception? But as this makes a part of the interrogation literal and a part metaphorical, most writers give it uniformity by understanding all the terms as figurative: Is not this, about which I am busied, and upon which I am spending strength and labour, a deception? To any one rational enough to ask the question, the reply would be affirmative of course.

21. Remember these (things), Jacob and Israel, for thou art my servant; I have formed thee, a servant unto me art thou; Israel, thou shalt not be forgotten by me. Having completed his detailed exposure of the folly of idolatry, or rather of the impotence of idols, as contrasted with the power of God, he now resumes the tone of promise and encouragement with which the chapter opens, and assures the chosen people, here personified as Israel or Jacob, that having been constituted such by Jehovah for a special purpose, they could not cease to be the objects of his watchful care. These things may possibly refer to the immediately succeeding statements, which may then be rendered that thou art my servant etc. To most interpreters, however, it has seemed more natural to understand by these things the whole foregoing series of arguments against the divinity of idols and in favour of Jehovah's sole supremacy.

22. I have blotted out, like a cloud, thy transgressions, and, like a vapour, thy sins; return to me, for I have redeemed thee. As the previous assurances were suited to dispel any doubt or hesitation as to the power of Jehovah, so the one in this verse meets another difficulty, namely, that arising from a sense of guilt. The assurance given is that of entire and gratuitous forgiveness. The analogy of Exodus 32:32, 33, would seem to favour an allusion to the blotting out of an inscription or an entry in a book of accounts. The cloud may then be a distinct figure to denote what is transient or evanescent. (See Hos. 6:4. 13:3. Job 7:9. 30:15.) Most interpreters suppose the blotting and the cloud to be parts of one and the same metaphor, although they differ in their method of connecting them. The great majority of writers are agreed that the cloud itself is here described as being blotted out, but some suppose an allusion to the height and distance of the clouds as being far beyond man's reach, implying that forgiveness is a divine prerogative. A more usual and natural supposition is that the clouds in general are here considered as intervening between heaven and earth, as sin is expressly said, in ch. 59:2, to separate between God and his people. This explanation of the metaphor, however, does not exclude the supposition of a reference to the fleeting nature of cloudy vapour, and the ease and suddenness with which it is dispelled by sun or wind. Cloud and vapour are poetical equivalents. So far as they can be distinguished, either in etymology or usage, the correct distinction is the one expressed in the English Version (thick cloud and cloud). Return unto me is a phrase descriptive of all the restorations of God's people from their spiritual wanderings and estrangements. The restriction of this phrase and the one which follows it to the restoration of the Jews from exile, is as forced and arbitrary as the future form given to the verb in many versions.

23. Sing, oh heavens, for Jehovah hath done (it); shout, ye lower parts of the earth; break forth, ye mountains, into song, the forest and every tree in it: for Jehovah hath redeemed Jacob, and in Israel he will glorify himself. The prediction of glorious and joyful changes, as in many other cases, is clothed in the form of an exhortation to all nature to rejoice. The thing done is what is mentioned in the last clause, i. e. the redemption of Israel, including the deliverance from exile in Babylon, but not confined to it. The arbitrary version of the two verbs in the last clause as a preterite and present or a present and a future is in no respect to be preferred to the exact translation as a preterite and a future, expressive of what God had done and would yet do for the chosen people.

24. Thus saith Jehovah thy redeemer, and thy former from the womb, I Jehovah, making all, stretching the heavens alone, spreading the earth by myself (or who was with me?). Some refer thus saith to the preceding promises, and take all that follows till the end of the chapter as a description of the being who uttered them. Others refer thus saith to what follows, supply the verb am before Jehovah, and regard the last clause of the verse as the divine declaration. A third conceivable construction would restrict it to the closing question, who (is) with me? i. e. who can claim equality or likeness with me? Who (is or was) with me? implying strong negation and equivalent in meaning to the affirmation, there was no one with me.

25. Breaking the signs of babblers, and diviners he will madden; turning sages back, and their knowledge he will stultify. The whole verse is descriptive of Jehovah as convicting all prophets, except his own, of folly and imposture, by falsifying their prognostications. The second noun is commonly translated either lies or liars; but it is rather an expression of contempt, denoting praters, vain or idle talkers, and by implication utterers of falsehood. Signs are properly the pledges and accompaniments of predictions, but may here be regarded as equivalent to prophecy itself. These are said to be broken in the same sense that breaking may be predicated of a promise or a covenant. The effect of course would be to make such prophets seem like fools or madmen. (See 2 Sam. 15:31. Hos. 9:7.) The restriction of these terms to the false prophets of the Babylonish exile is not only arbitrary, but at variance with the context, which repeatedly contrasts the omnipotence and omniscience of Jehovah with the impotence of idols and the ignorance of heathen prophets. The alternation of the future and participle seems to have a rhythmical design. The distinction may however be, that while the latter signifies habitual or customary action, the former expresses certain futurity and fixed determination.

26. Confirming the word of his servant, and the counsel of his messengers he will fulfil; the (one) saying to (or as to) Jerusalem, She shall be inhabited, and to (or as to) the cities of Judah, They shall be built, and her ruins I will raise. With the frustration of the heathen prophecies is here contrasted the fulfilment of Jehovah's, who is himself represented as securing their accomplishment. The word translated confirming has here the same sense as in Jer. 29:10. 33:14, viz. that of bringing a promise or prophecy to pass. His servant may refer primarily and directly to the writer himself, but considered as one of a class, who are then distinctly mentioned in the other member as his messengers. The specific application of the title of God's servant to the prophets is apparent from 2 Kings 24:2. Jer. 29:19. 35:15. 44:4. Most writers make counsel a description of prophecy, considered as involving or suggesting counsel and advice with respect to the future. (Compare the similar application of the verb in ch. 41:28.) The last clause, beginning with the words the one saying might be considered as a more specific designation or description of his servant, viz. the (servant) saying etc. But this interpretation is precluded by the double repetition of the words in the two succeeding verses and in evident application to Jehovah himself. To raise up the ruins of a city is of course to rebuild it.

27. The (one) saying to the deep, Be dry, and I will dry up thy floods (or streams). This may be understood as a description of God's power over nature and the elements, with or without an allusion to the passage of the Red Sea at the exodus. This exposition is strongly recommended by the analogy of ch. 42:15. 43:16. 50:2. 51:10. That of Jer. 50:33. 51:36 does not prove that Isaiah's description was designed to have exclusive reference to the conquest of Babylon by Cyrus, but only that this was included in it as a signal instance of God's power to overcome all obstacles, and that the later prophet made a specific application of the words accordingly.

28. The (one) saying to (or as to) Cyrus, My shepherd, and all my pleasure he will fulfil, and saying to Jerusalem. Thou shalt be built, and (to) the temple, Thou shalt be founded. It is now universally admitted that this verse has reference to Cyrus the Elder or the Great, the son of Cambyses king of Persia and the grandson of Astyages the Mede, the hero of the Cyropædia and of the first book of Herodotus, the same who appears in sacred history (2 Chr. 36:23. Ezra 1:1) as the actual restorer of the Jews from exile. He is here called Jehovah's shepherd, which may either be the usual poetical designation of a king, so common in the oldest classics, or a special description of his mission and vocation to gather the lost sheep of the house of Israel. All my pleasure, i. e. with respect to the deliverance of the Jews from exile. The construction of the word translated saying is obscure and difficult. Some refer it to Cyrus, and understand it as explaining how he was to fulfil Jehovah's pleasure, namely, by saying etc. This, on the whole, is the most natural construction, although, like the others, it leaves unexplained the introduction of the copulative particle before the verb, which must either be rendered as in the English Version (even saying), or disregarded as an idiomatic pleonasm. The same ambiguity respecting the person of the verb exists in the last clause of this verse as in v. 26.