Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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Here again we meet with the most discordant and unfounded assumptions, as to the connection of this chapter with the context, and arising from the same misapprehension of the general design of the whole prophecy. The following seems to be the true analysis.

Having exemplified his general doctrine, as to God's ability and purpose to do justice both to friends and foes, by exhibiting the downfall of the Babylonian idols, he now attains the same end by predicting the downfall of Babylon itself and of the state to which it gave its name. Under the figure of a royal virgin, she is threatened with extreme degradation and exposure, vs. 1-3. Connecting the event with Israel and Israel's God, as the great themes which it was intended to illustrate, v. 4, he predicts the fall of the empire more distinctly, v. 5, and assigns as a reason the oppression of God's people, v. 6, pride and self-confidence, vs. 7-9, especially reliance upon human wisdom and upon superstitious arts, all which would prove entirely insufficient to prevent the great catastrophe, vs. 10-15.

Come down ! By a beautiful apostrophe, the mighty power to be humbled is addressed directly, and the prediction of her humiliation clothed in the form of a command to exhibit the external signs of it. Sit on the dust! This, which is the literal translation of the Hebrew phrase, may be conformed to our idiom either by substituting in for on, or by understanding the Hebrew noun to denote, as it sometimes does, the solid ground. The act of sitting on the ground is elsewhere mentioned as a customary sign of grief. (See ch. 3 : 26. Lam. 2:10. Job 2:13.) But here it is designed, chiefly if not exclusively, to suggest the idea of dethronement, which is afterwards expressed distinctly. The next phrase is commonly explained to mean virgin daughter of Babel (i. e. Babylon), which, according to some, is a collective personification of the inhabitants. "Whatever may be the primary import of the phrase, it is admitted upon all hands to be descriptive either of the city of Babylon, or of the Babylonian state and nation. Sit to the earth! i. e. close to it, or simply on it, the vague sense of the particle being determined by the verb and noun with which it stands connected. To sit as to a throne can only mean to sit upon it. There is no throne. Some connect this with what goes before, in this way: sit on the earth without a throne. But there is no need of departing from the idiomatic form of the original, in which these words are a complete proposition, which may be connected with what goes before by supplying a causal particle: ' sit on the earth for you have now no throne.' Daughter of Chasdim! This last is the common Hebrew name for the Chaldees or Chaldeans, the race introduced by the Assyrians, at an early period, into Babylonia. (See ch. 23:13. Compare also what is said above, on ch. 43:14.) If taken here in this sense, it may be understood to signify the government or the collective members of this race. Daughter of Chasdim must of course be an analogous expression to the parallel phrase daughter of Babel. For thou shalt not add (or continue) to be called, would be the natural and usual conclusion of the phrase; instead of which we have here they shall not call thee, which is common enough as an indefinite expression equivalent to a passive, and only remarkable from its combination with the preceding words, although the sense of the whole clause is quite obvious. Thou shalt not continue to be called (or they shall no longer call thee) tender and delicate, i. e. they shall no longer have occasion so to call thee, because thou shalt no longer be so. The same two epithets are found in combination Deut. 28:54, from which place it is clear that they are not so much descriptive of voluptuous and vicious habits as of a delicate and easy mode of life, such as that of a princess compared with that of a female slave. The testimonies of the ancient writers as to the prevalent iniquities of Babylon belong rather to a subsequent part of the description. All that is here meant is that the royal virgin must descend from the throne to the dust, and relinquish the luxuries and comforts of her former mode of life.

Take mill-stones and grind meal! Even among the Romans this was considered one of the most servile occupations. In the east it was especially the work of female slaves (Ex. 11:5. Matt. 24:41.) Uncover (i e. lift up or remove) thy veil! One of the Arabian poets speaks of certain ladies as appearing unveiled so that they resembled slaves, which is exactly the idea here expressed. Uncover the leg, cross streams! The only question as to this clause is whether it refers to the fording of rivers by female captives as they go into exile, or to the habitual exposure of the person, by which women of the lowest class are especially distinguished in the east. The latter explanation is entitled to the preference, not only because we read of no deportation of the Babylonians by Cyrus, but because the other terms of the description are confessedly intended to contrast two conditions of life or classes of society.

The same idea of exposure is now carried out to a revolting extreme. Let thy nakedness be uncovered, likewise let thy shame be seen. This conveys no new idea, but is simply the climax of the previous description. I will take vengeance. The metaphor is here exchanged for literal expressions by so easy a transition that it scarcely attracts notice. The destruction of Babylon is frequently set forth as a righteous retribution for the wrongs of Israel. (See Jer. 50:15, 28.) I will not (or I shall not) meet a man. The most probable sense of this obscure clause is, I shall encounter no man, i. e. no man will be able to resist me. This simple explanation is at the same time one of the most ancient. The whole clause is a laconic explanation of the figures which precede, and which are summed up in the simple but terrific notion of resistless and inexorable vengeance.

Our Redeemer (or as for our Redeemer), Jehovah of Hosts (is) his name, the Holy One of Israel. The downfall of Babylon was but a proof that the Deliverer of Israel was a sovereign and eternal being, and yet bound to his own people in the strongest and tenderest covenant relation. Thus understood, the verse does not even interrupt the sense, but makes it the clearer, by recalling to the reader's mind the great end for which the event took place and for which it is here predicted. This is a distinct link in the chain of the prophetic argument, by which the fall of Babylon is brought into connection and subordination to the proof of God's supremacy as shown in the protection and salvation of his people. That the Prophet speaks here in his own person, is but a single instance of a general usage. characteristic of the whole composition, in which God is spoken of, spoken to, or introduced as speaking, in constant alternation; yet without confusion or the slightest obscuration of the general meaning.

Sit silent (or in silence), and go into darkness (or a dark place), daughter of Chasdim! The allusion is to natural and usual expressions of sorrow and despondency. (See Lam. 2:10. 3:2, 28.) For thou shalt not continue to be called (or they shall not continue to call thee) mistress of kingdoms. This is an allusion to the Babylonian empire, as distinguished from Babylonia proper, and including many tributary states, which Xenophon enumerates. In like manner the Assyrian king is made to ask (ch. 10:8), Are not my princes altogether kings?

I was wroth against my people; I profaned my heritage, i. e. I suffered my chosen and consecrated people to be treated as something common and unclean. In the same sense God is said before (ch. 43:28) to have profaned the holy princes. Israel is called Jehovah's heritage, as being his perpetual possession, continued from one generation to another. This general import of the figure is obvious enough, although there is an essential difference between this case and that of literal inheritance, because in the latter the change and succession affect the proprietor, whereas in the former they affect the thing possessed, and the possessor is unchangeable. And I gave them into thy hand, as my instruments of chastisement. Thou didst not show them mercy, literally place (give or appoint) it to them. God's providential purpose was not even known to his instruments, and could not therefore be the rule of their conduct or the measure of their responsibility. Though unconsciously promoting his designs, their own ends and motives were entirely corrupt. In the precisely analogous case of the Assyrian, it is said (ch. 10:7), he will not think so, and his heart not so will purpose, because to destroy (is) in his heart and to cut off nations not a few. The general charge is strengthened by a specific aggravation. On the aged thou didst aggravate thy yoke (or make it heavy) exceedingly. Some understand this of the whole people, whom they suppose to be described as old, i. e. as having reached the period of national decrepitude. Others prefer the strict sense of the words, viz. that they were cruelly oppressive even to the aged captives, under which they include elders in office and in rank as well as in age. This particular form of inhumanity is charged upon the Babylonians by Jeremiah twice (Lam. 4:16. 5:12), and in both cases he connects the word with a parallel term denoting rank or office, viz. priests and princes. The essential meaning of the clause, as a description of inordinate severity to those least capable of retaliation or resistance, still remains the same in either case.

7. And thou saidst, Forever I shall be a mistress, i. e. a mistress of kingdoms, the complete phrase which occurs above in v. 5. The conjunction has its proper sense of until, as in Job 14:6. 1 Sam. 20:41; and the meaning of the clause is, that she had persisted in this evil course until at last it had its natural effect of blinding the mind and hardening the heart. Thou saidst, Forever I shall be a mistress, till (at last) thou didst not lay these (things) to thy heart. The idea of causal dependence (so that) is implied but not expressed. Laying to heart, including an exercise of intellect and feeling, occurs, with slight variations as to form, in ch. 42:25. 44:19. 46:8. Thou didst not remember the end (or latter part, or issue) of it, i. e. of the course pursued. The apparent solecism of remembering the future may be solved by observing that the thing forgotten was the knowledge of the future once possessed, just as in common parlance we use hope in reference to the past, because we hope to find it so, or hope that something questionable now will prove hereafter to be thus or thus.

8. And now, a common form of logical resumption and conclusion, very nearly corresponding to our phrases, this being so, or, such being the case. Hear this, i. e. what I have just said, or am just about to say, or both. Oh voluptuous one! The common version, thou that art given to pleasures, is substantially correct, but in form too paraphrastical. The translation delicate, which some give, is inadequate, at least upon the common supposition that this term is not intended, like the kindred ones in v. 1, to contrast the two conditions of prosperity and downfall, but to bring against the Babylonians the specific charge of gross licentiousness. This corruption of morals, as in other like cases, is supposed to have been aggravated by the wealth of Babylon, its teeming population, and the vast concourse of foreign visitors and residents. After all, however, as this charge is not repeated or insisted on, it may be doubted whether the epithet in question was intended to express more than the fact of her abundant prosperity about to be exchanged for desolation and disgrace. The (one) sitting in security. The common version, dwellest, is much too vague. Sitting seems rather to be mentioned as a posture of security and ease. The (one) saying in her heart (or to herself), I (am) and none besides, i. e. none like or equal to me. I shall not sit (as) a widow. The figure of a virgin is now exchanged for that of a wife, a strong proof that the sign was, in the writer's view, of less importance than the thing signified. The same comparison is used by Jeremiah of Jerusalem (Lam. 1:1. Compare Is. 51:18-20. 54:1, 4, 5). Many interpreters understand widowhood as a specific figure for the loss of a king; but others apply the whole clause to the loss of allies, or of all friendly intercourse with foreign nations. And I shall not know (by experience) the loss of children. This paraphrastical expression is the nearest approach that we can make in English to the pregnant Hebrew word. Bereavement and childlessness may seem at first sight more exact, but the first is not exclusively appropriate to the loss of children, and the last does not suggest the idea of loss at all.

And they shall come to thee. The form of expression seems to have some reference to the phrase I shall not know in the preceding verse. As if he had said, they shall no longer be unknown or at a distance, they shall come near to thee. These two, or both these (things) from which she thought herself secure forever. Suddenly. The Hebrew word is a noun, and originally means the twinkling of an eye and then a moment, but is often used adverbially in the sense of suddenly. That it has the derivative sense here, may be inferred from the addition of the words in one day, which would be a striking anticlimax if it strictly meant a moment or the twinkling of an eye. Loss of children and widowhood, as in the verse preceding, are explained by most interpreters as figures for the loss of king and people. In their perfection, literally, according to it, i. e. in the fullest measure possible, implying total loss and destitution. They have come upon thee. The English Version makes it future like the verb in the preceding clause ; but this is wholly arbitrary. According to the principle already stated and exemplified so often, it is best to give the word its proper meaning, and to understand it not as a mere repetition of what goes before, but as an addition to it, or at least a variation in the mode of exhibition. What he at first saw coming, he now sees actually come, and describes it accordingly. In the multitude of thy enchantments, in the abundance of thy spells (or charms). The parallel terms, though applied to the same objects, are of different origin, the first denoting primarily prayers or acts of worship, and then superstitious rites; the other specifically meaning bans or spells (from a word signifying to bind), with reference, as some suppose, to the outward act of tying magical knots, but as the older writers think, to the restraining or constraining influence supposed to be exerted on the victim or even on the gods themselves. The prevalence of these arts in ancient Babylon is explicitly affirmed by Diodorus Siculus, and assumed as a notorious fact by other ancient writers.

And (yet) thou art (or wast) secure in thy wickedness. There is no sufficient reason for departing from the wide sense of the last word as descriptive of the whole congeries of crimes with which the Babylonians were chargeable. But neither in the wide nor the restricted sense could their wickedness itself be an object of trust. It is better, therefore, to give the verb the absolute meaning which it frequently has elsewhere, and to explain the whole phrase as denoting that they went on in their wickedness without a fear of change or punishment. The idea of security in wickedness agrees precisely with what follows. Thou hast said, there is no one seeing me, a form of speech frequently ascribed to presumptuous sinners and unbelievers in the doctrine of providential retribution. (See Ps. 10:11. 94:7. Ezek. 8:12. 9:9. Job 22:14.) This. on the other hand, is not a natural expression of specific trust in any form of wickedness. He who relies upon his power or his cunning as a complete protection will be not so apt to say "None seeth me" as to feel indifferent whether he is seen or not. Thy wisdom and thy knowledge, it has seduced thee. The insertion of the pronoun it admits of a twofold explanation. It may mean, thy very wisdom, upon which thou hast so long relied for guidance, has itself misled thee. But at the same time it may serve to show that wisdom and knowledge are not here to be distinguished but considered as identical. He does not say they have, but it has, seduced thee. By wisdom and knowledge some understand astronomy and astrology, others political sagacity and diplomatic skill, for which it is inferred that the Babylonians were distinguished, from the places where their wise men are particularly mentioned. (See for example Jer. 50:35. 51:57.) But in these descriptions of the Babylonian empire, and the analogous accounts of Tyre (Ezek. 28:4) and Egypt (Is. 19:11), the reference seems not so much to anything peculiar to the state in question, as to that political wisdom which is presupposed in the very existence, much more in the prosperity, of every great empire. The remainder of the verse describes the effect of this perversion or seduction in the same terms that had been employed above in v. 8, and which occur elsewhere only in Zeph. 2:15, which appears to be an imitation of the place before us. And thou saidst (or hast said) in thy heart. The indirect construction, so that thou hast said. contains more than is expressed, but not more than is implied, in the original. I am and there is no other. I am what no one else is; there is no one like me, much less equal to me. (See above, on v. 8.) This arrogant presumption is ascribed to their wisdom and knowledge, not as its legitimate effect, but as a necessary consequence of its perversion and abuse, as well as of men's native disposition to exaggerate the force and authority of unassisted reason. (Compare oh. 5:21.)

And (so) there cometh (or has come) upon thee evil; with an evident allusion to the use of wickedness in the verse preceding, so as to suggest an antithesis between natural and moral evil, sin and suffering, evil done and evil experienced. The common version (therefore shall evil come) is not strictly accurate. Most of the modern writers make it present; but the strict sense of the preterite is perfectly consistent with the context and the usage of the Prophet, who continually depicts occurrences still future, first as coming, then as come, not in fact but in vision, both as certain to occur and as historically represented to his own mind. And there shall fall upon thee (a still stronger expression than the one before it, there shall come upon thee) ruin. According to the modern lexicographers the noun itself means fall, but in its figurative application to destruction or calamity. It occurs only here and in Ezek. 7:26. Thou shalt not be able to avert it, or resolving the detached Hebrew clauses into one English period, which thou shalt not be able to avert. The exact meaning of the last word is atone for, expiate, and in this connection, to avert by expiation, whether in the strict sense of atoning sacrifice or in the wider one of satisfaction and propitiation. If we assume a personification of the evil, the verb may mean to appease, as in Gen. 32:20. Prov. 16:14. In any case, the clause describes the threatened judgment as inexorable and inevitable. And there shall come upon thee suddenly a crash, or as it has been rendered, a crashing fall, a common metaphor for sudden ruin, (which) thou shalt not know. This may either mean, of which thou shalt have no previous experience, or of which thou shalt have no previous expectation. The former meaning is the one most readily suggested by the words. The latter may be justified by the analogy of Job 9 : 5, who removeth the mountains and they know not, which can only mean that he removes them suddenly or unawares.

12. Stand now! The word here rendered now is not a particle of time but of entreaty, very often corresponding to I pray, or if you please. In this case it indicates a kind of concession to the people, if they still choose to try the virtue of their superstitious arts which he had already denounced as worthless. Stand now in thy spells (or charms). Some suppose an allusion to the customary standing posture of astrologers, conjurers, etc. Others understand the verb to mean stand fast, be firm and courageous. But the modern writers generally understand it to mean persist or persevere, which of course requires the preposition to be taken in its usual proper sense of in. Persist now in thy spells and in the abundance of thy charms, the same nouns that are joined above in v. 9. In which thou hast laboured. From thy youth, may either mean of old, or more specifically, since the earliest period of thy national existence. The antiquity of occult arts, and above all of astrology, in Babylon, is attested by various profane writers. Diodorus Siculus indeed derives them from Egypt, and describes the Chaldees or astrologers of Babylon as Egyptian colonists. But as this last is certainly erroneous (see above on v. 1), the other assertion can have no authority. The Babylonians are reported by the same and other writers to have carried back their own antiquity, as proved by recorded scientific observations, to an extravagant and foolish length, to which some think there is allusion here in the expression from thy youth. Perhaps thou wilt be able to succeed, or help thyself, the verb commonly translated profit. (See above, ch. 44 : 10.) This faint suggestion of a possibility is more expressive than a positive denial.

13. Thou art wearied in the multitude of thy counsel, not merely weary of it, but exhausted by it, and in the very act of using it. By counsel we are to understand all the devices of the government for self-defence. Let now (or pray let) them stand and save thee. We may take stand either in the same sense which it has above in v. 12, or in that of appearing, coming forward, presenting themselves. The subject of the verbs is then defined. The dividers of the heavens, i. e. the astrologers, so called because they divided the heavens into houses with a view to their prognostications. The same class of persons is then spoken of as star-gazers, an English phrase which well expresses the peculiar force of the Hebrew word followed by the preposition. Some however give the former word its frequent sense of seers or prophets, and regard what follows as a limiting or qualifying term, the whole corresponding to the English phrase star-prophets i. e. such as prophesy by means of the stars. The next phrase does not mean making known the new moons, for these returned at stated intervals and needed no prognosticator to reveal them. The sense is either at the new moons, or by means of the new moons, i. e. the changes of the moon, of which the former is the simpler explanation. Interpreters are much divided as to the way in which the remaining words of this verse are to be connected with what goes before.

14. Behold they are like stubble, fire has burned them (the Babylonian astrologers). Behold brings their destruction into view as something present. He not only prophesies that they shall be burnt, but sees them burning. The comparison with stubble seems intended to suggest that they are worthless and combustible, whose end is to be burned. (Heb. 6: 8.) At the same time a contrast is designed between the burning of stubble and the burning of wood, the former being more complete and rapid than the latter. They cannot deliver themselves from the hand (i. e. the power) of the flame. The last clause contains a negative description of the fire mentioned in the first. Of this description there are two interpretations. Some understand it to mean that the destruction of the fuel will be so complete that nothing will be left at which a man can sit and warm himself. Others explain it to mean, (this fire) is not a coal (at which) to warm one's self, a fire to sit before, but a devouring and consuming conflagration. With either of these expositions of the whole clause may be reconciled a different interpretation of the word narib proposed by some writers, who give the word the sense which it invariably has in every other place where it occurs, viz. their bread. (See Job 30 : 4. Prov. 30 : 25. Ezek. 4: 13. 12: 19. Hos. 9:4.) The whole expression then means that it is not a common fire for baking bread, or, on the other .supposition, that there are not coals enough left for that purpose. The phrase coal of their bread presents a harsh and unusual combination, rendered less so however by the use of both words in ch. 44:19. The general sense of sudden, rapid, and complete destruction, is not affected by these minor questions of grammatical analysis.

15. Thus are they to thee, i. e. such is their fate, you see what has become of them. The words to thee suggest the additional idea that the person addressed was interested in them and a witness of their ruin. With respect to whom thou hast laboured. This may either mean with whom or for whom; or both may be included in the general idea that these had been the object and occasion of her labours. Thy dealers (or traders) from thy youth. This is commonly regarded as explanatory of the foregoing clause. Thus the English Version, they with whom thou hast laboured, even thy merchants etc. It then becomes a question whether these are called traders in the literal and ordinary sense, or at least in that of national allies and negotiators; or whether the epithet is given in contempt to the astrologers and wise men of the foregoing context, as trafficking or dealing in imposture. According to another arrangement we are not to read and so are thy dealers, or even thy dealers, but thy dealers from thy youth wander each his own way. We have then two classes introduced, and two distinct events predicted. As if he had said, thy astrologers etc. are utterly destroyed, and as for thy dealers, they wander home etc. widely different in fate, but both alike in this, that they leave thee defenceless in the hour of extremity. Thy traders may then be taken either in its strict sense as denoting foreign merchants, or in its wider sense as comprehending all, whether states or individuals, with whom she had intercourse, commercial or political. Each to his own quarter, side., direction, substantially synonymous with the expression in Ezek. 1:9, 12, and other phrases all meaning straight before him, without turning to the right hand or the left, they wander (or have wandered), a term implying not only flight but confusion. There is no one helping thee, or still more strongly, saving thee, thou hast no saviour, with particular reference to those just mentioned, who, instead of thinking upon her or bringing her assistance, would be wholly engrossed by a sense of their own danger and the effort to escape it.