Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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The Creation Concept

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Interpreters are much divided with respect to the particular period which constitutes the subject of this prophecy. The modern Jews regard it as a promise of deliverance from their present exile and dispersion by the Messiah whom they still expect. The Christian Fathers refer it to the time of the first advent. Modern writers are divided between this hypothesis and that which confines it to the Babylonish exile. The truth appears to be, that this chapter is a direct continuation of the preceding declarations with respect to the vocation of the Church and the divine administration towards her. The possibility of her increase, as previously promised, is evinced by the example of Abraham, from whom all Israel descended, vs. 1-3. In like manner many shall be added from the gentiles, vs. 4-6. Their enemies shall not only fail to destroy them, but shall be themselves destroyed, vs. 7, 8. This is confirmed by another historical example, that of Egypt, vs. 9, 10. The same assurances are then repeated, with a clearer promise of the new dispensation, vs. 11-16. The chapter closes with a direct address to Zion, who, though helpless in herself and destitute of human aid, is sure of God's protection and of the destruction of her enemies and his, vs. 17-23.

1. Hearken unto me! A common formula, when the writer or speaker turns away from one object of address to another. It is here used because he is about to address himself to the faithful servants of Jehovah, the true Israel, who are described as seeking after righteousness, i. e. making it the end of all their efforts to be righteous, or conformed to the will of God. The original application of the phrase here used is by Moses (Deut. 16:20), from whom it is copied twice by Solomon (Prov. 15:9. 21:21), and twice by Paul (1 Tim. 6:11.2 Tim. 2:22.) The same apostle uses, in the same sense, the more general expression, follow after good (1 Thess. 5:15), which is also used by David (Ps. 38:21, comp. Ps. 34:15). The same class of persons is then described as seeking (or seekers of) Jehovah, i. e. seeking his presence, praying to him, worshipping him, consulting him. The first description is more abstract, the second expresses a personal relation to Jehovah; both together are descriptive of the righteous as distinguished from the wicked. Now as these have ever been comparatively few, not only in relation to the heathen world, but in relation to the spurious members of the church itself, a promise of vast increase (like that in ch. 49:18-21) might well appear incredible. In order to remove this doubt, the Prophet here appeals, not, as in many other cases, to the mere omnipotence of God, but to a historical example of precisely the same kind, viz. that of Abraham, from whom the race of Israel had already sprung, in strict fulfilment of a divine promise. Look unto the rock (from which) ye  have been hewn, and to the hole of the pit (from which) ye have been digged.

2. Look unto Abraham your father and unto Sarah (that] bare you. That Sarah is mentioned chiefly for rhythmical effect, may be inferred from the writer's now confining what he says to Abraham alone. Instead of speaking further of both parents, he now says, For I have called him one; which does not mean, I have declared him to be such or so described him, but I have called (i. e. chosen, designated) him, when he was only one, i. e. a solitary individual, although the destined father of a great nation (Gen. 12:2). This sense of the word one is clear from Ezek. 33:24, where, with obvious allusion to this verse, it is put in opposition to many. Abraham was one, and he inherited the land; and we are many, (much more then) is the land given to us for an inheritance. The same antithesis is far more obvious and appropriate in this place, than that between Abraham, as sole heir of the promise, and the rest of men, who were excluded from it. The design of the Prophet is not so much to magnify the honour put upon Abraham by choosing him out of the whole race to be the father of the faithful, as it is to show the power and faithfulness of God in making this one man a nation like the stars of heaven for multitude, according to the promise (Gen. 15:5). Interpreters, with almost perfect unanimity, explain the two verbs at the end of this verse as expressing past time (and I blessed him and caused him to increase), although the preterite translation is entirely gratuitous and therefore un-grammatical. The masoretic pointing, it is true, is not of absolute authority, but it is of the highest value as the record of an ancient critical tradition; and the very fact that it departs in this case from the sense which all interpreters have felt to be most obvious and natural, creates a strong presumption that it rests upon some high authority or some profound view of the Prophet's meaning. And we find accordingly that by adhering to the strict sense of the future, we not only act in accordance with a most important general principle of exegesis, but obtain a sense which, though less obvious than the common one, is really better in itself and better suited to the context. According to the usual interpretation, this verse simply asserts the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham, leaving the reader to connect it with what follows as he can. But by a strict translation of the futures, they are made to furnish an easy and natural transition from the one case to the other, from the great historical example cited to the subject which it was intended to illustrate. The concise phrase, one I called him, really includes a citation of the promise made to Abraham, and suggests the fact of its fulfilment, so far as this had yet taken place. The Prophet, speaking in Jehovah's name, then adds a declaration that the promise should be still more gloriously verified. As if he had said, I promised to bless him and increase him, and I did so, and I will bless him and increase him (still). But how? By showing mercy to his seed, as I have determined and begun to do. This last idea is expressed in the first clause of the next verse, which is then no longer incoherent or abrupt, but in the closest and most natural connection with what goes before. This consideration might have less force if the illustration had been drawn from the experience of another race, for instance from the history of Egypt or Assyria, or even from the increase of the sons of Lot or Ishmael. But when the promise which he wished to render credible is really a repetition or continuation of the one which he cites as an illustrative example, the intimate connection thus established or revealed between them is a strong proof that the explanation which involves it is the true one.

3. For Jehovah hath comforted Zion. As soon as the strict sense of the futures in v. 2 has been reinstated, the connection becomes obvious. 'I have blessed and increased him, and I bless and increase him; for Jehovah has begun to comfort Zion.' The comparison of ch. 40:1 shows what we are here to understand by Zion, viz. Jehovah's people, of which it was the capital, the sanctuary, and the symbol. What is there commanded is here, in a certain sort, performed, or its performance more distinctly and positively pronounced. He hath comforted all her wastes (or ruins), i. e. restored cheerfulness to what was wholly desolate. This phrase proves nothing as to the Prophet's viewing Zion merely as a ruinous city, since in any case this is the substratum of his metaphor. The question is not whether he has reference to Zion or Jerusalem as a town, but whether this town is considered merely as a town, and mentioned for its own sake, or in the sense before explained, as the established representative and emblem of the church or chosen people. (See above, on ch. 49:21.) And hath placed (or made) her wilderness like Eden, and her desert like the garden of the Lord. This beautiful comparison is the strongest possible expression of a joyful change from total barrenness and desolation to the highest pitch of fertility and beauty. It is closely copied in Ezekiel 31:9; but the same comparison, in more concise terms, is employed by Moses (Gen. 13:10). Even there, notwithstanding what is added about Egypt, but still more unequivocally here, the reference is not to a garden or to pleasure-grounds in general, as Luther and several of the later Germans have assumed, with no small damage to the force and beauty of their versions, but to Eden as a proper name, the garden of Jehovah, the Paradise, as the Septuagint renders it, both here and in Gen. 2:8, the grand historical and yet ideal designation of the most consummate terrene excellence, analogous, if not still more nearly related, to the Grecian pictures of Arcadia and of Tempe. Joy and gladness shall be found in her, i. e. in Zion, thus transformed into a paradise. Shall be found does not simply mean shall be, but also that they shall be there accessible, not only present in their abstract essence, as it were, but in the actual experience of those who dwell there. Thanksgiving and the voice of melody. The music of the common version of this last clause is at once too familiar and too sacred to be superseded, simply for the purpose of expressing more distinctly the exact sense of the last word, which originally signifies the sound of an instrument or instrumental music, but is afterwards used to denote song in general, or rather as a vehicle of praise to God.

4. Attend (or hearken) unto me, my people; and my nation, unto me give ear. This may seem to be a violation of the usage which has been already stated as employing this form of speech to indicate a change in the object of address. But such a change, although a slight one, takes place even here; for he seems no longer to address those seeking righteousness exclusively, but the whole body of the people as such. The next clause explains what it is that they are thus called upon to hear, viz. that law from me shall go forth, i. e. revelation or the true religion, as an expression of God's will, and consequently man's rule of duty. In like manner Paul describes the gospel as the law of faith (Rom. 3:27), not binding upon one race or nation merely, but by the commandment of the everlasting God made known to all nations for the obedience of faith (Rom. 16:26). The meaning of the clause is that the nations can expect illumination only from one quarter. The same thing is then said in another form. And my judgment for the light of the nations (as in ch. 42:6. 49:6) will I cause to rest, i. e. fix, establish.

5. Near (is) my righteousness, i. e. the exhibition of it in the changes previously promised and threatened. Near, as often elsewhere in the prophecies, is an indefinite expression which describes it simply as approaching, and as actually near to the perceptions of the Prophet or to any one who occupies the same point of vision. Gone forth is my salvation. Not only is the purpose formed, and the decree gone forth, but the event itself, in the sense just explained, may be described as past or actually passing. And my arms shall judge the nations. As the foregoing clause contains a promise, some interpreters suppose it to be necessary to give judge the favourable sense of vindicating, righting (as in ch. 1:17, 23), or at least the generic one of ruling (as in 1 Sam. 8:5). But nothing can be more in keeping with the usage of the Scriptures, and of this book in particular, than the simultaneous exhibition of God's justice in his treatment both of friends and foes. (Compare ch. 1:27.) For me shall the islands wait, i. e. for me they must wait; until I reveal myself they must remain in darkness. (See above, on ch. 42:4.) The usual sense of islands is entirely appropriate here, as a poetical or representative expression for countries in general, with more particular reference to those across the sea. And in my arm they shall hope, i. e. in the exercise of my almighty power. As in ch. 42:6, the sense is not so much that they shall exercise a feeling of trust, but that this will be their only hope or dependence. To be enlightened, they must wait for my revelation; to be saved, for the exertion of my power. It is not descriptive, therefore, of the feelings of the nations after the way of salvation is made known to them, but of their desperate and helpless condition until they hear it.

6. Raise to the heavens your eyes, and look unto the earth beneath. A similar form of address occurs above, in ch. 40: 26. (Compare Gen. 15:5.) Heaven and earth are here put, as in many other places, for the whole frame of nature. The next clause explains why they are called upon to look. For the heavens like smoke are dissolved or driven away. Most writers give this verb a future sense (or a present one as an evasive substitute), because the real future follows; but for this very reason it may be presumed that the writer used distinct forms to express distinct ideas, and that he first gives a vivid description of the dissolution as already past, and then foretells its consummation as still future. And the earth like the garment (which grows old) shall grow old (or wear out). The same comparison occurs above in ch. 50:9, and serves to identify the passages as parts of one continued composition. And their inhabitants shall die. The translation recommended by analogy and usage as well as by the testimony of the ancient versions is, they shall likewise perish, to which there may possibly be an allusion in our Saviour's words recorded in Luke 13:3, 5. The contrast to this general destruction is contained in the last clause. And my salvation to eternity shall be, and my righteousness shall not be broken, i. e. shall not cease from being what it is, in which sense the same verb is evidently used by Isaiah elsewhere (ch. 7:8). In this as in many other cases, salvation and righteousness are not synonymous but merely correlative as cause and effect. (See above, on ch. 42:6.) The only question as to this clause is whether it is a hypothetical or absolute proposition. If the former, then the sense is that until (or even if) the frame of nature be dissolved, the justice and salvation of Jehovah shall remain unshaken. The other interpretation understands the first clause as a positive and independent declaration that the heavens and earth shall be dissolved. All these hypotheses are reconcilable by making the first clause mean, as similar expressions do mean elsewhere, that the most extraordinary changes shall be witnessed, moral and physical; but that amidst them all this one thing shall remain unchangeable, the righteousness of God as displayed in the salvation of his people. (See ch. 40:8. 65:17. Matt. 5:18. 1 John 2:17.)

7. Hearken unto me, ye that know righteousness, people (with) my law in their heart; fear not the reproach of men, and by their scoffs be not broken (in spirit, i. e. terrified). The distinction here implied is still that between the righteous and the wicked as the two great classes of mankind. Those who are described in v. 1 as seeking after righteousness are here said to know it, i. e. know it by experience. The presence of the law in the heart denotes not mere affection for it but a correct apprehension of it, as the heart in Hebrew is put for the whole mind or soul; it is therefore a just parallel to knowing in the other member of the clause. The opposite class, or those who know not what is right, and who have not God's law in their heart, are comprehended under the generic title man, with particular reference to the derivation of the Hebrew word from a root meaning to be weak or sickly, so that its application here suggests the idea of their frailty and mortality, as a sufficient reason why God's people should not be afraid of them.

8. For like the (moth-eaten) garment shall the moth devour them, and like the (worm-eaten) wool shall the worm devour them; and my righteousness to eternity shall be, and my salvation to an age of ages. The same contrast between God's immutability and the brief duration of his enemies, is presented in ch. 50:9, and in v. 6 above.

9. Awake, awake, put on strength, arm of Jehovah, awake, as (in the) days of old, the ages of eternities; art not thou the same that hewed Rahab in pieces, that wounded the serpent (or dragon?) The only probable hypothesis is that which puts the words into the mouth of the people or of the Prophet as their representative. The verse is then a highly figurative but by no means an obscure appeal to the former exertion of that power, as a reason for its renewed exertion in the present case. The particular example cited seems to be the overthrow of Egypt, here described by the enigmatical name Rahab, for the origin and sense of which see above, on ch. 30:7. The same thing is probably intended by the parallel term dragon, whether this be understood to mean an aquatic monster in the general, or more specifically the crocodile, the natural and immemorial emblem of Egypt.

10. Art not thou the same that dried the sea, the waters of the great deep, that placed the depths of the sea (as) a way for the passage of redeemed ones? The allusion to the overthrow of Egypt is carried out and completed by a distinct mention of the miraculous passage of the Red Sea. The interrogative form of the sentence is equivalent to a direct affirmation that it is the same arm, or in other words, that the same power which destroyed the Egyptians for the sake of Israel still exists, and may again be exerted for a similar purpose. The confidence that this will be done is expressed somewhat abruptly in the next verse.

11. And the ransomed of Jehovah shall return and come to Zion with shouting, and everlasting joy upon their heads; gladness and joy shall overtake (them), sorrow and sighing have fled away. The same words occur in ch. 35:10.

12. I, I, am he that comforteth you; who art thou, that thou shouldest be afraid of man (who) is to die, and of the son of man who (as) grass is to be given? The important truth is here reiterated, that Jehovah is not only the deliverer but the sole deliverer of his people, and as the necessary consequence, that they have not only no need but no right to be afraid, which seems to be the force of the interrogation, Who art thou that thou, shouldest be afraid, or still more literally, who art thou and thou hast been afraid? i. e. consider who is thy protector and then recollect that thou hast been afraid. The last verb is commonly explained as if simply equivalent to shall be or shall become, which is hardly consistent with its usage elsewhere. Some adhere more closely to the strict sense by supposing it to mean he shall be given up, abandoned to destruction.

13. And hast forgotten Jehovah thy Maker, spreading the heavens and founding the earth, and hast trembled continually all the day, from before the wrath of the oppressor, as he made ready to destroy? And where is (now) the wrath of the oppressor? The form of expression in the first clause makes it still more clear that the statement in v. 12 is not merely hypothetical but historical, implying that they had actually feared man and forgotten God. The epithets added to God's name are not merely ornamental, much less superfluous, but strictly appropriate. because suggestive of almighty power, which ensured the performance of his promise and the effectual protection of his people. Continually all the day is an emphatic pleonasm, such as are occasionally used in every language. From before is a common Hebrew idiom for because of, on account of, but may here be taken in its strict sense as expressive of alarm and flight before an enemy. (See ch. 2:19.) Some render ... as if, to which there are two objections: first, the want of any satisfactory authority from usage; and secondly, the fact that the words then imply that no such attempt has really been made. As if he could destroy would be appropriate enough, because it is merely an indirect denial of his power to do so; but it cannot be intended to deny that he had aimed at it. The word translated make ready, is particularly used in reference to the preparation of the bow for shooting by the adjustment of the arrow on the string; some suppose that it specifically signifies the act of taking aim. (Compare Ps. 7:13. 11:2. 21:13.) The question at the close implies that the wrath is at an end, and the oppressor himself vanished. We have no authority for limiting this reference to any particular historical event. It is as if he had said, How often have you trembled when your oppressors threatened to destroy you; and where are they now?

14. He hastens bowing to be loosed, and he shall not die in the pit, and his bread shall not fail. The essential idea is that of liberation, but with some obscurity in the expression. The modern lexicographers appear to be agreed that the radical meaning of the verb here translated bowing is that of bending, either backward (as in ch. 63:1) or downward (as in Jer. 48:12). The latest versions accordingly explain it as a poetical description of the prisoner bowed down under chains. With still more exactness it may be translated as a participle qualifying the indefinite subject of the verb at the beginning. There is however no objection to the usual Construction of the word as a noun; the sense remains the same in either case. The next clause is sometimes taken as an indirect subjunctive proposition, that he may not die; but it is best to make it a direct affirmation that he shall not. The general sense is still that the captive shall not perish in captivity. This general promise is then rendered more specific by the assurance that he shall not starve to death, which seems to be the only sense that can be put upon the last clause.

15. And I (am) Jehovah thy God, rousing the sea and then its waves roar; Jehovah of Hosts (is) his name. Another appeal to the power of God as a pledge for the performance of his promise ... has been understood in two directly opposite senses, that of stilling and that of agitating. The first is strongly recommended by the not unfrequent use of the derivative conjugations in the sense of quieting or being quiet.

16. And I have put my words in thy mouth, and in the shadow of my hand I have hid thee, to plant the heavens, and to found the earth, and to say to Zion, Thou art my people. That these words are not addressed to Zion or the Church is evident; because in the last clause she is spoken of in the third person, and addressed in the next verse with a sudden change to the feminine form from the masculine which is here used. That it is not the Prophet may be readily inferred from the nature of the work described in the second clause. The only remaining supposition is that the Messiah is the object of address, and that his work or mission is here described, viz. to plant the heavens, i. e. to establish them, perhaps with allusion to the erection of a tent by the insertion of its stakes in the ground. The new creation thus announced can only mean the reproduction of the church in a new form, by what we usually call the change of dispensations. The outward economy should all be new, and yet the identity of the chosen people should remain unbroken. For he whom God had called to plant new heavens and to found a new earth was likewise commissioned to say to Zion, Thou art still my people.

17. This may be considered a continuation of the address begun at the end of the preceding verse. The same voice which there said, Thou art my people, may be here supposed to say, Rouse thyself! rouse thyself! Arise Jerusalem! (thou) who hast drunk at the hand of Jehovah the cup of his wrath; the bowl of the cup of reeling thou hast drunk, thou hast wrung (or sucked) out, i. e. drunk its very dregs. The cup is of course put for its contents, a natural figure for anything administered or proffered by a higher power. (Compare Jer. 25:15, 16. 49:12. 51:7. Lam. 4:21. Ob. 16. Ezek. 23: 34. Rev. 14:10.)

18. There is no guide to her (or no one leading her) of all the sons the has brought forth, and no one grasping her hand of all the sons she has brought up. From addressing Zion in the second person, he now proceeds to speak of her in the third. This verse is not so much descriptive of unnatural abandonment as it is of weakness. The sense is not that no one will, but that no one can protect or guide her. Some interpreters suppose the figure of a drunken person to he still continued. The mother and the sons, i. e. the people collectively and individually, are distinguished only by a figure of speech.

19. Both those things are befalling (or about to befall) thee; who will mourn for thee? Wasting and ruin, famine and sword; who (but) I will comfort thee? A difficulty here is the mention of two things in the first clause, followed by an enumeration of four in the second. Some suppose the two things to refer to what precedes, others to wasting and ruin only. Others think that wasting and famine, ruin and sword, are to be combined as synonymes. The modern writers understand the second phrase as an explanation or specification of the first. As if he had said, wasting and ruin (such as are produced by) famine and the sword. The general meaning of the verse evidently is that her grief was beyond the reach of any human comforter.

20. Thy sons were faint (or helpless). This explains why they did not come to her assistance. They lie at the head of all the streets. A conspicuous place is evidently meant, but whether the corners or the higher part of an uneven street, is a question of small moment. Like a wild bull in a net, i. e. utterly unable to exert their strength. The true cause of their lying thus is given in the last clause. Filled with the wrath of Jehovah, the rebuke of thy God. The expression thy God is emphatic, and suggests that her sufferings proceeded from the alienation of her own divine protector. This verse is a figurative representation of the helplessness of Zion or the Church when partially forsaken for a time by her offended Head.

21. Therefore pray hear this, thou suffering one and drunken but not with wine. The antithesis in the last clause is to be completed from the context. Not with wine, but with the wrath of God, which had already been described as a cup of reeling or intoxication. The same negative expression is employed in ch. 29:9.

22. Thus saith thy Lord, Jehovah, and thy Godhe will defend (or avenge) his peopleBehold, I have taken from thy hand the cup of reeling (or intoxication), the bowl of the cup of my fury; thou shalt not add (continue or repeat) to drink it any more (or again). All are compelled to admit that the writer has reference less to the place than to the people of Jerusalem, and even to this only as the representative of the entire nation; a concession which goes far to confirm the explanation of the "Zion" of these prophecies which has been already given. It is usual to explain ... as a relative clause (who pleads the cause of his people); but it is simpler, and at the same time more in accordance with the genius of the language, to regard it as a brief but complete parenthetical proposition. The same character is often ascribed elsewhere to Jehovah. (See ch. 49:25. and compare 34: 8. 41:11.) As the cup was the cup of God's wrath, not of man's, so God himself is represented as withdrawing it from the sufferer's lips, when its purpose is accomplished.

23. And put it into the hand of those that afflicted thee, that said to thy soul, Bow down and we will (or that we may) pass over ; and thou didst lay thy back as the ground and as the street for the passengers. To thy soul always implies a strong and commonly a painful affection of the mind in the object of address. Who said to thy soul is then equivalent to saying, who distressed thy soul by saying. The last clause is commonly explained as a proverbial or at least a metaphorical description of extreme humiliation, although history affords instances of literal humiliation in this form. Such is the treatment of Valerian by Sapor, as described by Lactantius and Aurelius Victor; with which may be compared the conduct of Sesostris to his royal captives, as described by Diodorus, and that of Pope Alexander III to the Emperor Frederic, as recorded by the Italian historians. For scriptural parallels see Josh. 10:24 and Judg. 1:7. If we had any right or reason to restrict this prediction to a single period or event, the most obvious would be the humiliation of the Chaldees, who are threatened with the cup of God's wrath in Jer. 25:26.