Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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Interpreters are strangely divided in opinion as to the connection of this chapter with the context. The arbitrary and precarious nature of their judgments may be gathered from the fact, that some separate the first two verses from the body of the chapter and connect them with the one before it, while others commence a new "cycle" with the first verse of this chapter, and one represents it as an isolated composition, unconnected either with what goes before or follows. Even the older writers, who maintain the continuity of the discourse, appear to look upon the order of its parts as being not so much an organic articulation as a mere mechanical juxtaposition. They are therefore obliged to assume abrupt transitions, which, instead of explaining any thing else, need to be explained themselves. All this confusion is the fruit of the erroneous exegetical hypothesis, that the main subject and occasion of these later prophecies is the Babylonish exile and the liberation from it, and that with these the other topics must be violently brought into connection by assuming a sufficiency of types and double senses, or by charging the whole discourse with incoherence. Equally false, but far less extensive in its influence, is the assumption that the whole relates to Christ and to the new dispensation, so that even what is said of Babylon and Cyrus must be metaphorically understood. Common to both hypotheses is the arbitrary and exclusive application of the most comprehensive language to a part of what it really expresses, and a distorted view of the Prophet's themes considered in their mutual relations and connections. The whole becomes perspicuous, continuous, and orderly, as soon as we admit that the great theme of these prophecies is God's designs and dealings with the church and with the world, and that the specific predictions which are introduced are introduced as parts or as illustrations of this one great argument. By thus reversing the preposterous relation of the principal elements of the discourse, and restoring each to its legitimate position, the connection becomes clear and the arrangement easy.

In confirmation of the general threats and promises with which ch. XLV. is wound up, the Prophet now exhibits the particular case of the Babylonian idols, as a single instance chosen from the whole range of past and future history. They are described as fallen and gone into captivity, wholly unable to protect their worshippers or save themselves, vs. 1, 2. With these he then contrasts Jehovah's constant care of Israel in time past and in time to come, vs. 3, 4. The contrast is carried out by another description of the origin and impotence of idols, vs. 5-7, and another assertion of Jehovah's sole divinity, as proved by his knowledge and control of the future, and by the raising up of Cyrus in particular, vs. 8-11. This brings him back to the same solemn warning of approaching judgments, and the same alternative of life or death, with which the foregoing chapter closes, vs. 12, 13.

1. Bel is bowed down, Nebo stooping; their images are (consigned) to the beasts and to the cattle. Your burdens are packed up (as) a load to the weary (beast.) The connection with what goes before may be indicated thus: see for example the fate of the Babylonian idols. Of these two are mentioned, either as arbitrary samples, or as chief divinities. The dignity of these two imaginary deities among the Babylonians may be learned from the extent to which these names enter into the composition of the names of men, both in sacred and profane history. Such are Belshazzar, Belteshazzar, Belesys, Nebuchadnezzar, Nebuzaradan, Nabopolassar, Nebonned, etc. Beyond this nothing more is needed for the right interpretation of the passage, where the names are simply used to represent the Babylonian gods collectively. Although not essential to the general meaning, it is best to give the past tense and the participle their distinctive sense, as meaning strictly that the one has fallen and the other is now falling, in strict accordance with Isaiah's practice, in descriptive passages, of hurrying the reader in medias res, of which we have already had repeated instances. The pronoun in their images might be supposed to refer to the Babylonians, though not expressly mentioned; but as these are immediately addressed in the second person, it is best to understand the pronoun as referring to Bel and Nebo, who, as heavenly bodies or imaginary deities, are then distinguished from the images which represented them in the vulgar worship. The word translated burdens is properly a passive participle used as a noun and meaning your carried things (in old English, carriages), the things which you have been accustomed to carry in processions or from place to place, but which are now to be carried in a very different manner, on the backs of animals, as spoil or captives. The last verb properly means lifted up in order to be carried, but may here be rendered packed or loaded, though this last word is ambiguous. Load does not necessarily denote a heavy load, but simply something to be carried.

2. They stoop, they bow together; they cannot save the load; themselves are gone into captivity. The first clause may mean that they are now both fallen; or together may have reference to the other gods of Babylon, so as to mean that not only Bel and Nebo but all the rest are fallen. The last member of the first clause has been variously explained. The most satisfactory interpretation is the one which gives the word load the same sense as in v. 1, and applies it to the images with which the beasts were charged or laden. These are then to be considered as distinguished by the writer from the gods which they represented. Bel and Nebo are unable to rescue their own images. This agrees well with the remainder of the sentence, themselves are gone (or literally their self is gone) into captivity. This is the only way in which the reflexive pronoun could be made emphatic here without an awkward circumlocution. The antithesis is really between the material images of Bel and Nebo and themselves, so far as they had any real existence. The whole god, soul and body, all that there was of him, was gone into captivity. The idea of the conquest and captivity of tutelary gods was common in the ancient east, and is alluded to, besides this place, in Jer. 48:7. 49:3. Hos. 10:5, 6. Dan. 11:8, to which may be added 1 Sam. 5:1. Whether the Prophet here refers to an actual event or an ideal one, and how the former supposition may be reconciled with the statement of Herodotus and Diodorus, that the great image of Bel at Babylon was not destroyed until the time of Xerxes, are questions growing out of the erroneous supposition that the passage has exclusive reference to the conquest by Cyrus; whereas it may include the whole series of events which resulted in the final downfall of the Babylonian idol worship.

3. Hearken unto me, oh house of Jacob, and all the remnant of the house of Israel, those borne from the belly, those carried from the womb. This repetition, analogous to that in ch. 42:2, 3, is intended to suggest a contrast between the failure of the idols to protect their worshippers and God's incessant care of his own people. The gods of the heathen had to be borne by them; but Jehovah was himself the bearer of his followers. And this was no new thing, but coeval with their national existence. The specific reference to Egypt or the Exodus is no more necessary here than in ch. 44:2, 24. 48:8. The carrying meant is that of children by the nurse or parent. The same comparison is frequent elsewhere. (See Num. 11:12. Deut. 1:31. Ex. 19:4. Is. 63:9, and compare Deut. 32:11, 12. Hos. 11:3. Is. 40:11.)

4. The figure of an infant and its nurse was not sufficient to express the whole extent of God's fidelity and tenderness to Israel. The first of these relations is necessarily restricted to the earliest period of life, but God's protection is continued without limit. And to old age l am He (i. e. the same), and to gray hair I will bear (you); I have done it and I will carry and I will bear and save (you). As I have done in time past, so I will do hereafter. The general analogy between the life of individuals and that of nations is sufficiently obvious.

5. To whom. will ye liken me and equal and compare me, that we may be (literally, and we shall be) like? This is an indirect conclusion from the contrast in the foregoing context. If such be the power of idols, and such that of Jehovah, to whom will ye compare him? The form of expression is like that in ch. 40:18, 25.

6. The prodigals (or lavish ones) will weigh gold from the bag, and silver with the rod; they will hire a gilder, and he will make it a god; they will bow down, yea they will fall prostrate. From the bag may be explained either as meaning taken out of the purse, or in reference to the bag of weights. in which sense it is used in Deut. 25:13. Mic. 6:11. The word translated rod is properly a reed, then any rod or bar, such as the shaft of a candlestick (Ex. 25:31), and here the beam of a balance or the graduated rod of a steelyard. The verse has reference to the wealthier class of idol-worshippers.

7. They will lift him on the shoulder, they will carry him, they will set him in his place, and he will stand (there), from his place he will not move; yes, one will cry to him, and he will not answer; from his distress he will (or can) not save him. The idol is not only the work of man's hands, but entirely dependent on him for the slightest motion. No wonder therefore that he cannot hear the prayers of his worshippers, much less grant them the deliverance and protection which they need.

8. Remember this and show yourselves men; bring it home, ye apostates, to (your) mind (or heart). By this some understand what follows; but it rather means what goes before, viz. the proof just given of the impotence of idols, the worshippers of which, whether Jews or gentiles, are addressed in this verse as apostates or rebels against God.

9, 10. Remember former things of old (or from eternity), for l am the Mighty and there is no other, God and there is none like me, declaring from the first the last, and from ancient time the things which are not (yet) done (or made), saying, My counsel shall stand and all my pleasure I will do. He calls upon them to consider the proofs of his exclusive deity, afforded not only by the nullity of all conflicting claims, but by the fact of his infallible foreknowledge, as attested by the actual prediction of events long before their occurrence. Instead of for some read that, on the ground that the thing to be believed was his divinity; the former things being cited merely as the proofs of it. Declaring the last from the first, or the end from the beginning, means declaring the whole series of events included between these extremes. My counsel shall stand, i. e. my purpose shall be executed. (See ch. 7:7. 8:10. 14:24. 44: 26.) All the expressions of the ninth verse have occurred before in different combinations. (See ch. 42:14. 43:18. 45:21 etc.)

11. Calling from the east a bird of prey, from a land of distance the man of his counsel; I have both said and will also bring it to pass, I have formed (the plan) and will also do it. From the general assertion of his providence and power, he now passes to that specific proof of it which has so frequently been urged before, viz. the raising up of Cyrus; but without the mention of his name in this case, and with an indefiniteness of expression which is perfectly well suited to the general analogy of prophecy, as well as to the views already taken in the exposition of ch. 44:28. Calling includes prediction and efficiency, not only announcing but calling into being. The point of comparison is not mere swiftness or rapidity of conquest (Hos. 8:1. Hab. 1:8. Jer. 48:40), but rapacity and fierceness. Man of his counsel does not mean his counsellor, as it does in ch. 40:13, but either the executor of his purpose, or the agent himself purposed i. e. foreordained by God. It is as if he had said, l am he that calls the man of his counsel, after which the construction is continued regularly in the first person. The antithesis expressed is that between design and execution.

12. Hearken to me, ye stout of heart, those far from righteousness. By an easy and natural association, he subjoins to these proofs of his own divinity, both past and future, a warning to those who were unwilling to receive them. Strength of heart implies, though it does not directly signify, stubbornness or obstinacy and a settled opposition to the will of God. The same persons are described as far from righteousness, which some understand as meaning far from rectitude or truth, i. e. deceitful, insincere. But the only natural interpretation is the one which gives the words their obvious and usual sense, as signifying those who are not righteous before God, in other words the wicked, the words far from expressing the degree of their depravity.

13. I have brought near my righteousness, it shall not be far off; and my salvation, it shall not tarry; and I will give (or place) in Zion my salvation, to Israel my glory. Because righteousness and salvation frequently occur as parallel expressions, most of the modern German writers treat them as synonymous, whereas one denotes the cause and the other the effect, one relates to God and the other to man. The sense in which salvation can be referred to the righteousness of God is clear from ch. 1:27. The exhibition of God's righteousness consists in the salvation of his people and the simultaneous destruction of his enemies. To these two classes it was therefore at the same time an object of desire and dread. The stout-hearted mentioned in v. 12 were not prepared for it, and, unless they were changed, must perish when God's righteousness came near. The last words admit of two constructions, one of which repeats the verb and makes it govern the last noun (I will give my glory unto Israel); the other makes the clause a supplement to what precedes, I will give salvation in Zion unto Israel (who is) my glory. In illustration of the latter, see ch. 44:23. 62:3. Jer. 33:9. The other construction has more of the parallel or balanced form which is commonly considered characteristic of Hebrew composition. In sense they ultimately coincide, since Israel could become Jehovah's glory only by Jehovah's glory being bestowed upon him.