Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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This chapter contains no entirely new element, but a fresh view of several which have already been repeatedly exhibited. The first of these is the great truth, that the sufferings of God's people are the necessary fruit of their own sins, vs. 1. The second is the power of Jehovah to accomplish their deliverance, vs. 2, 3. The third is the Servant of Jehovah, his mission, his qualifications for it, his endurance of reproach and opposition on account of it, vs. 4-9. The fourth is the way of salvation and the certain doom of those who neglect it, vs. 10, 11.

This perpetual recurrence of the same great themes in various combinations makes the mere division of the chapters a comparatively unimportant matter, although some writers seem to attach great importance to the separation of the first three verses from what follows, and their intimate connection with what goes before. It should be ever borne in mind that these divisions are conventional and modern, and that in this part of Isaiah more especially they might have been omitted altogether without any serious inconvenience to the reader or interpreter. A much greater evil than the want of these divisions is the habit of ascribing to them undue authority and suffering the exposition to be governed by them, as if each were a separate prediction or discourse, instead of being arbitrary though convenient breaks in a continued composition, not materially differing from the paragraphs now used in every modern book. The re-arrangement of the chapters in the present case would answer no good purpose, since the first three verses are not more closely connected with the end of the preceding chapter than what follows is with its beginning. The true course is to make use of the common divisions as convenient pauses, but to read and expound the text as one continuous discourse.

1. Thus saith Jehovah. This prefatory formula has no doubt had some influence on the division of the chapters. It does not, however, always indicate the introduction of a new subject, as may be seen by a comparison of ch. 48:17 with ch. 49:1. Where is or what is? The bill of divorcement, literally, writing of excision or repudiation, translated in the Septuagint ... , which form is retained in the New Testament (Matt. 19:7. Mark 10:4) though sometimes abridged (Matt. 5:31). The Hebrew phrase denotes the legal instrument by which the Mosaic law allowed a husband to repudiate his wife (Deut. 24:1-8). Of your mother. The persons addressed are the individual members of the church or nation; their mother is the church or nation itself. These are of course distinguished from each other only by a poetical figure. Whom I have sent (or put) away. These words admit of a twofold construction. According to the common Hebrew idiom, the relative pronoun, when the object of a verb, is followed by the personal pronoun which it represents. According to this idiom, whom I have sent her, means nothing more that whom I have sent, except that it more distinctly indicates the gender of the object. This construction is recommended here, not only by its strict conformity to general usage, but by its recurrence in the very next clause, where the Hebrew words are agreed on all hands to mean to whom I sold you. But as the verb to send governs two accusatives in Hebrew, the relative may take the place of one of them, denoting the end for which or the means by which, as it actually does in ch. 55:11. 2 Sam. 11:22. 1 Kings 14:6, and in the case before us, according to the judgment of most modern writers, who explain the words to mean wherewith I have sent her away. The use of the disjunctive or in Hebrew is comparatively rare, and consequently more significant when it does occur, as in this case, where it seems designed to intimate that the two figures of the clause are to be taken separately, not together, that is to say, that the punishment of the people is not compared to the repudiation of a wife and the sale of her children in the same ideal case, but represented by the two distinct emblems of a wife divorced and children sold. Or which of my creditors (is it) to whom I have sold you? We have here an allusion to another provision of the Mosaic law, which allows debtors to be sold in payment of their debts (Matt. 18:25), and even children by their parents (Exod. 21:7). The answer follows in the other clause. Behold, for your iniquities ye have been sold. The reflexive meaning, ye have sold yourselves, is frequently expressed by this form of the verb, but not invariably nor even commonly; it is not, therefore, necessary here, nor even favoured by the parallelism, as the corresponding term is a simple passive of a different form, and one which cannot, from the nature of the case, denote a reflexive or reciprocal action. And for your transgressions, your mother has been sent (or put) away. The repetition of your, where her transgressions might have been expected, only serves to show more clearly the real identity of those who are formally distinguished as the mother and the children. The interrogation in the first clause of this verse has been variously understood. The simplest and most obvious interpretation of the first clause is the one suggested by the second, which evidently stands related to it as an answer to the question which occasions it. In the present case, the answer is wholly unambiguous, viz that they were sold for their sins, and that she was put away for their transgressions. The question naturally corresponding to this answer is the question, why the mother was divorced, and why the sons were sold. Supposing this to be the substance of the first clause, its form is very easily accounted for. Where is your mother's bill of divorcement? produce it that we may see the cause of her repudiation. Where is the creditor to whom I sold you? let him appear and tell us what was the occasion of your being sold. The general idea of rejection is twice clothed in a figurative dress, first by emblems borrowed from the law and custom of divorce, and then by emblems borrowed from the law and custom of imprisonment for debt. The restriction of this passage to the Babylonish exile is entirely arbitrary. If it admits of any special application, it is rather to the repudiation of the Jewish people at the Advent.

2. Why did I come, and there was no man? (why) did I call, and there was no one answering? The idiom of occidental languages would here admit, if not require, a more involved and hypothetical construction. 'Why, when I came, was there no one (to receive me), and, when I called, no one to answer me? (See above, ch. 5:4.) In themselves, the words imply nothing more than that God had come near to the people, by his word and providence, but without any suitable response on their part. The clause is explanatory of their being sold and put away, as represented in the foregoing verse. The general truth which it teaches is, that God has never and will never put away his people even for a time without preceding disobedience and alienation upon their part. Particular examples of this general truth are furnished by the Babylonish exile and by every season of distress and persecution. The other clause precludes the vindication of their unbelief and disobedience on the ground that they had not sufficient reason to obey his commands and rely upon his promises. Such doubts are rendered impious and foolish by the proofs of his almighty power. This power is first asserted indirectly by a question implying the strongest negation: Is my hand shortened, shortened, from redemption? and is there with me no power (i. e. have I no power) to deliver? Shortness of hand or arm is a common oriental figure for defect of power, especially in reference to some particular effect, which is thus represented as beyond the reach. (See ch. 59:1. Num. 11:23. ch. 37:17.) According to Gesenius, Artaxerxes Longimanus was so called, not in reference to any corporeal peculiarity, but as being possessed of extraordinary power. The emphatic repetition of the Hebrew verb may, as usual, be variously expressed in translation by the introduction of intensive phrases, such as altogether or at all, or by a simple repetition of the verb in English. From redemption, i. e. so as not to redeem or deliver from distress. (See above, on ch. 49:15.) Behold, by my rebuke (a term often used to express God's control over the elements) I will dry up the sea. I can make a complete change in the face of nature. Most of the modern writers use the present form, I dry up the sea. But this, as expressing an habitual fact, fails to give the sense of the original, which is not a description of what he usually does, but a declaration of what he can do and what he will do in the present instance if it should be necessary. Hence the best translation of the verb is the exact one which adheres to the strict sense of the future. As in many other cases, this general expression may involve a particular allusion, namely, to the crossing of the Red Sea at the exodus from Egypt. But to make this the direct and main sense of the words, is equally at variance with good taste and the context. The remaining words of this verse are intended merely to complete the picture, by subjoining to the cause its natural effect Let their fish stink for want of water and die of thirst. It seems that the writer here passes from the tone of prediction or general description to that of actual command. It may however be a poetical variation of the ordinary future form, in which case the sense will be, their fish shall die etc.; or it may indicate an indirect or oblique construction, so that their fish shall stink etc., which last explanation is the one preferred by the latest writers. The pronoun their refers to sea and rivers, or to the last alone.

3. The description of Jehovah's power, as displayed in his control of the elements, is still continued. I will clothe the heavens in blackness. The Hebrew noun, according to its etymology, denotes not merely a black colour, but such a colour used as a sign of mourning. Thus understood, it corresponds exactly to the following words, where the customary mourning dress of ancient times is mentioned. And sackcloth I will place (or make) their covering. The reference of this verse to the plague of darkness in the land of Egypt is admissible only in the sense explained above with respect to the passage of the Bed Sea, namely, as a particular allusion comprehended in a general description. Some writers understand it as referring to the usual phenomena of storms, or even to the obscuration of the sky by clouds; but it is inconceivable that such an every-day occurrence should be coupled with the drying up of seas and rivers, as a proof of God's power over nature and the elements. The sense required by the connection is that of an extraordinary darkness (such as that of an eclipse), or even an extinction of the heavenly bodies, as in ch. 13:10.

4. The Lord Jehovah hath given to me. As Jehovah is the speaker in the foregoing verse, many regard this clause as a proof that these are the words of the Messiah, who, in virtue of his twofold nature, might speak in the person of Jehovah, and yet say, Jehovah hath given to me. The true hypothesis is still the same which we have found ourselves constrained to assume in all like cases throughout the foregoing chapters, namely, that the servant of Jehovah, as he calls himself in v. 10 below, is the Messiah and his People as a complex person, or the Church in indissoluble union with its Head, asserting his divine commission and authority to act as the great teacher and enlightener of the world. For this end God had given him a ready tongue or speech. Most interpreters adopt a different version of ... in the first and last clause, giving it at first the sense of learned, and afterwards that of learners. These two ideas, it is true, are near akin, and may be blended in the Hebrew word as they are in the English scholar, which is used both for a learner and a learned person. It is best, however, for that very reason, to retain the same word in translation. As applied to Christ, this passage is descriptive of that power of conviction and persuasion which is frequently ascribed in the New Testament to his oral teaching. As his representative and instrument, the Church has always had a measure of the same gift enabling her to execute her high vocation. To know (that I might know) to help or succour the weary (with) a word. He will waken, in the morning, in the morning, he will waken for me the ear, i. e. he will waken my ear, rouse my attention, and open my mind to the reception of the truth. (See ch. 48:8. 1 Sam. 9:15. 20:2. Ps. 41:7.) The present tense (he wakeneth) asserts a claim to constant inspiration; the future expresses a confident belief that God will assist and inspire him. The accents require in the morning in the morning to be read together, as in ch. 28:19, where it is an intensive repetition meaning every morning. It might otherwise be thought more natural to read the sentence thus, he will waken in the morning, in the morning he will waken, a twofold expression of the same idea, viz. that he will do so early. In either case the object of both verbs is the same; the introduction of the pronoun me after the first in the English Version being needless and hurtful to the sentence. The last words of the verse declare the end or purpose of this wakening, to hear (i. e. that I may hear) like the disciples or the taught, i. e. that I may give attention as a learner listens to his teacher.

5. The Lord Jehovah opened for me the ear, and I resisted not. The common version, I was not rebellious, seems to convert the description of an act into that of a habit. I did not draw back, or refuse the office, on account of the hardships by which I foresaw that it would be accompanied. There may be an allusion to the conduct of Moses (4:13) in declining the dangerous but honourable work to which the Lord had called him. (Compare Jer. 1:6. 17:16.)

6. My back I gave to (those) smiting. We may understand by gave either yielded unresistingly or offered voluntarily. (Compare Matt. 5:39.) The punishment of scourging was a common one, and is particularly mentioned in the history of our Lord's maltreatment. And my cheeks to (those) plucking (the beard or hair). The context here requires something more than the playful or even the contemptuous pulling of the beard, the vellere barbam of Horace and Persius, to which some writers have referred. A better parallel is Neh. 13:25, where the Tirshatha is said to have contended with the Jews, and cursed them, and smote them, and plucked off their hair. (Compare Ezra 9: 3.) This particular species of abuse is not recorded in the history of our Saviour's sufferings, but some suppose it to be comprehended in the general term buffeting. My face I did not hide from shame and spitting. In the phrase I did not hide my face there may be an allusion to the common figure of confusion covering the face (Jer. 51:51), in reference no doubt to the natural expression of this feeling by a blush, or in extreme cases by a livid paleness overspreading the features. Some have imagined that by spitting nothing more is meant than spitting on the ground in one's presence, which, according to the oriental usages and feelings, is a strong expression of abhorrence and contempt. But if spitting in a person's presence was such an indignity, how much more spitting in his face; and the whole connection shows that the reference is not to any mitigated form of insult but to its extreme. That this part of the description was fulfilled in the experience of our Saviour, is expressly recorded, Matt. 26:67. 27:30. From the impossibility of proving any literal coincidence between the prophetic description and the personal experience of the Prophet himself, when taken in connection with the palpable coincidences which have been already pointed out in the experience of Jesus Christ, many interpreters infer that it was meant to be a literal prediction of his sufferings. But it has been observed that if it were so, its fulfilment, or the record of it, would be imperfect, since the points of agreement are not fully commensurate with those of the description. (See for example what has been already said with respect to the plucking of the beard or hair.) The most satisfactory solution of the difficulty is the one which regards the prophecy as metaphorical, and as denoting cruel and contemptuous treatment in general, and supposes the literal coincidences, as in many other cases, to have been providentially secured, not merely to convict the Jews, but also to identify to others the great subject of the prophecy. But if the prophecy itself be metaphorical, it may apply to other subjects, less completely and remarkably but no less really; not to Isaiah, it is true, from whom its terms, even figuratively understood, are foreign, but to the church or people of God, the body of Christ, which like its head has ever been an object of contempt with those who did not understand its character or recognize its claims. What is literally true of the Head is metaphorically true of the Body. 'I gave my back to the smiters and my cheeks to the pluckers, my face I did not hide from shame and spitting.'

7. And the Lord Jehovah will help me, or afford help to me. Therefore I am not confounded by the persecution and contempt described in the foregoing verses. The common version, I shall not be confounded, is not only arbitrary but injurious to the sense, which is not that God's protection will save him from future shame, but that the hope of it saves him even now. The words strictly mean I have not been confounded, which implies of course that he is not so now. Therefore I have set my face as a flint. This is a common description of firmness and determination, as expressed in the countenance. It is equally applicable to a wicked impudence (Jer. 5:3. Zech. 7:12) and a holy resolution (Ezek. 3:8, 9). The same thing is expressed by Jeremiah under different but kindred figures (Jer. 1:17, 18. 15:20.) It is probable that Luke alludes to these passages, when he says that our Lord steadfastly set his face (... ...) to go to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51.) And I know that I shall not be ashamed.

8. Near (is) my justifier (or the one justifying me). This is strictly a forensic term meaning to acquit or pronounce innocent, in case of accusation, and to right or do justice to, in case of civil controversy. The use of this word and of several correlative expressions, may be clearly learned from Deut. 25:1. The justifier is of course Jehovah. His being near is not intended to denote the proximity of an event still future, but to describe his intervention as constantly within reach and available. It is not the justification which is said to be near to the time of speaking, but the justifier who is said to be near the speaker himself. The justification of his servant is the full vindication of his claims to divine authority and inspiration. At the same time there is a designed coincidence between the terms of the prediction and the issue of our Saviour's trial; but the prophecy is not to be restricted to this object. The general meaning of the words is, all this reproach is undeserved, as will be seen hereafter. Since God himself has undertaken his defence, the accuser's case is hopeless. He therefore asks triumphantly, Who will contend with me? The Hebrew verb denotes specifically litigation or forensic strife. Rom. 8:33, 34, is an obvious imitation of this passage as to form. But even the warmest advocates for letting the New Testament explain the Old, are forced to acknowledge that in this case Paul merely borrows his expressions from the Prophet, and applies them to a different object. In any other case this class of writers would no doubt have insisted that the justifier must be Christ and the justified his people; but from this they are precluded by their own assumption, that the Messiah is the speaker. Both hypotheses, so far as they have any just foundation, may be reconciled by the supposition that the ideal speaker is the Body and the Head in union. In the sense here intended, Christ is justified by the Father, and at the same time justifies his people. We will stand (or let us stand) together, at the bar, before the judgment-seat, a frequent application of the Hebrew verb. (See Num 27:2. Deut. 19:17. 1 Kings 3:16.) This is an indirect defiance or ironical challenge; as if he had said, If any will still venture to accuse me, let us stand up together. The same thing is then expressed in other words, the form of interrogation and proposal being still retained. Who is my adversary? This is more literally rendered in the margin of the English Bible, who is the master of my cause? But even this fails to convey the precise sense of the original, and may be even said to reverse it, for the master of my cause seems to imply ascendency or better right, and is not therefore applicable to a vanquished adversary whose case was just before described as hopeless. The truth is that the pronoun my belongs not to the last word merely but to the whole complex phrase, and ... simply means 'possessor,' i. e. one to whom a given thing belongs. Thus a cause-master means one who has a cause or lawsuit, a party litigant; and my cause-master means one who has a controversy with me, my opponent or adversary; so that the common version really conveys the meaning better than what seems to be the more exact translation of the margin. In sense, the question is precisely parallel and tantamount to the one before it, who will contend with me? Let him draw near to me, confront me, or engage in conflict with me. The forensic figures of this verse, and some of its expressions, have repeatedly occurred in the course of the preceding chapters. (See ch. 41:1, 21. 43:9,26. 45:20. 48: 14, 16.)

9. Behold, the Lord Jehovah will help me; who (is) he (that) will condemn me? The help specifically meant is that afforded by an advocate or judge to an injured party. The potential meaning (can condemn) is included in the future (will condemn), though not directly much less exclusively expressed by it. The last clause adds to the assurance of his own safety that of the destruction of his enemies. All they (or all of them, his adversaries, not expressly mentioned but referred to in the questions which precede) like the garment shall grow old (or be worn out), i. e. like the garment which is worn out or decays. The moth shall devour them. By a perfectly natural and common transition, the writer passes from comparison to metaphor, and having first transformed them into garments, says directly that the moth shall devour them, not as men, in which light he no longer views them, but as old clothes. This is a favourite comparison in Scripture to express a gradual but sure decay. (Compare ch. 51:8 and Hos. 5:12.) In Job 13:28. Ps. 39:12, it seems to denote the effect of pining sickness.

10. Who among you is a fearer of Jehovah, hearkening to the voice of his servant, who walketh in darkness and there is no light to him? Let him trust in the name of Jehovah, and lean upon his God. The same sense may be attained by closing the interrogation at his servant, and reading the remainder of the sentence thus: whoso walketh in darkness and hath no light, let him trust etc. Obedience to the word is implied in hearing it, but not expressed. Darkness is here used as a natural and common figure for distress. (See above, ch. 8:20. 9:1.) Trusting in the name of Jehovah is not simply trusting in himself, or in the independent self existence which that name implies, but in his manifested attributes, attested by experience, which seems to be the full sense of the word name, as applied to God in the Old Testament. Two exegetical questions, in relation to this verse, have much divided and perplexed interpreters. The first has respect to the person speaking and the objects of address; the other to the Servant of Jehovah. These questions, from their close connection and their mutual dependence, may be most conveniently discussed together. There would be no absurdity, nor even inconsistency, in supposing that his servant means the prophet or the prophets indefinitely, as the organs of the divine communications. This may be granted even by those who give the title a very different meaning elsewhere, as it cannot reasonably be supposed that so indefinite a name, and one of such perpetual occurrence, is invariably used in its most pregnant and emphatic sense. It is certain, on the contrary, that it is frequently applied to the prophets and to other public functionaries of the old economy. There is therefore no absurdity in Calvin's explanation of the phrase as here descriptive of God's ministers or messengers in general, to whom those who fear him are required to submit. The verse may then be connected immediately with what precedes, as the words of the same speaker. But while all this is unquestionably true, it cannot be denied that the frequency and prominence with which the Servant of Jehovah is exhibited in these Later Prophecies, as one distinguished from the ordinary ministry, makes it more natural to make that application of the words in this case, if it be admissible. The only difficulty lies in the mention of the Servant of Jehovah in the third person, while the preceding context is to be considered as his own words. (See above, on ch. 49:1.) This objection may be easily removed, if we assume that the words of the Servant of Jehovah are concluded in the preceding verse, and that in the one before us the Prophet goes on to speak in his own person. This assumption, although not demonstrably correct, agrees well with the dramatic form of the context, both before and after, and the frequent changes of person without any explicit intimation, which even the most rigorous interpreters are under the necessity of granting. On this hypothesis, which seems to be approved by the latest as well as the older writers, the Servant of Jehovah here referred to is the same ideal person who appears at the beginning of the forty-ninth and forty-second chapters, namely, the Messiah and his People as his type and representative, to whose instructions in the name of God the world most hearken if it would be saved. The question, which part of the complex person here predominates, must be determined by observing what is said of him. If the exhortation of the verse were naturally applicable to the world at large, as distinguished from the chosen people, then the latter might be readily supposed to be included under the description of the Servant of Jehovah. But as the terms employed appear to be descriptive of the people of Jehovah, or of some considerable class among them, the most probable conclusion seems to be, that by the Servant of Jehovah we are here to understand the Head as distinguished from the Body, with a secondary reference, perhaps, to his official representatives, so far as he employs them in communicating even with the Body itself.

11. Lo, all of you kindling fire, girding sparks (or fiery darts), go in the light of your fire, and in the sparks ye have kindled. From my hand is this to you; in pain (or at the place of torment) shall ye lie down. The construction of the first clause is ambiguous, as kindling and girding, with their adjuncts, may be either the predicates or subjects of the proposition. The great majority of writers explain the participles as the subject of the sentence, or a description of the object of address, all of you kindling, i. e. all of you who kindle. Thus understood, the clause implies that the speaker is here turning from one class of hearers to another, from the Gentiles to the Jews, or from the unbelieving portion of the latter to the pious, or still more generally from the corresponding classes of mankind at large, without either national or local limitation. The wider sense agrees best with the comprehensive terms of the passage, whatever specific applications may be virtually comprehended in it or legitimately deducible from it. There is also a difference of opinion with respect to the import of the figures. The rabbinical interpreters suppose the fire to denote the wrath of God, in proof of which they are able to allege, not only the general usage of the emblem in that sense, but the specific combination of this very noun and verb in Deut. 32:22. Jer. 15:14. 17:4. In all these cases the meaning of the figure is determined by the addition of the words in my anger. (See above, on ch. 48:9.) Common to all the explanations is the radical idea of a fire kindled by themselves to their own eventual destruction. This result is predicted, as in many other cases, under the form of a command or exhortation to persist in the course which must finally destroy them. Go (i. e. go on) in the light of your fire. From my hand is this to you, i. e. my power has decreed and will accomplish what is now about to be declared, viz. that you shall lie down in sorrow, or a place of sorrow, if we give the noun the local sense usual in words of this formation. The expression is a general one, denoting final ruin, and of course includes, although it may not specifically signify, a future state of misery.