Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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However low the natural Israel may sink, the true Church shall become more glorious than ever, being freed from the impurities connected with her former state, v. 1. This is described as a captivity, from which she is exhorted to escape. v. 2. Her emancipation is the fruit of God's gratuitous compassion, v. 3. As a nation she has suffered long enough, vs. 4, 5. The day is coming when the Israel of God shall know in whom they have believed, v. 6. The herald of the new dispensation is described as already visible upon the mountains, v. 7. The watchmen of Zion hail their coming Lord, v. 8. The very ruins of Jerusalem are summoned to rejoice, v. 9. The glorious change is witnessed by the whole world, v. 10. The true Church or Israel of God is exhorted to come out of Jewry, v. 11. This exodus is likened to the one from Egypt, but described as even more auspicious, v. 12. Its great leader, the Messiah. as the Servant of Jehovah, must be and is to be exalted, v. 13. And this exaltation shall bear due proportion to the humiliation which preceded it, vs. 14, 15.

1. Awake, awake, put on thy strength, oh Zion! Put on thy garments of beauty, oh Jerusalem the Holy City! For no more shall there add (or continue) to come into thee an uncircumcised and unclean (person). The encouraging assurances of the foregoing context are now followed by a summons similar to that in ch. 51:17, but in form approaching nearer to the apostrophe in ch. 51:9. To put on strength is a perfectly intelligible figure for resuming strength or taking courage, and is therefore entirely appropriate in this connection. That the city is here addressed only as a symbol of the nation, is certain from the next verse. Beautiful garments is by most interpreters regarded as a general expression meaning fine clothes or holiday dresses; but some suppose a special contrast with widow's weeds (2 Sam. 14:2) or prison-garments (2 Kings 25: 29). Perhaps the Prophet here resumes the metaphor of ch. 49:18, where Zion's children are compared to bridal ornaments. The Holy City, literally, city of holiness, an epithet before applied to Zion (ch. 48:2), and denoting her peculiar consecration, and that of her people, to the service of Jehovah. (Compare Dan. 8:24.) Henceforth the name is to be more appropriate than ever, for the reason given in the last clause. Uncircumcised is an expression borrowed from the ritual law and signifying unclean. That it is not here used in its strict sense, is intimated by the addition of the general term. The restriction of these epithets to the Babylonians is purely arbitrary, and intended to meet the objection that Jerusalem was not free from heathen intrusion after the exile. The words contain a general promise of exemption from the contaminating presence of the impure and unworthy, as a part of the blessedness and glory promised to God's people, as the end and solace of their various trials.

2. Shake thyself from the dust, arise, sit, oh Jerusalem! loose the bands of thy neck, oh captive daughter Zion (or of Zion)! The dust, from which she is to free herself by shaking it off, is either that in which she had been sitting as a mourner (ch. 3:26. 47:1. Job 2:13), or that which, in token of her grief, she had sprinkled on her head (Job 2: 12). The common English version, sit down, until explained, suggests an idea directly opposite to that intended. Some make it mean sit up, in opposition to a previous recumbent posture. To this it may be objected, that the verb is elsewhere absolutely used in the sense of sitting down, especially in reference to sitting on the ground as a sign of grief; and also, that the other verb does not merely qualify this, but expresses a distinct idea, not merely that of rising but that of standing up, which is inconsistent with an exhortation to sit up, immediately ensuing. As a whole, the verse is a poetical description of the liberation of a female captive from degrading servitude, designed to represent the complete emancipation of the Church from tyranny and persecution.

3. For thus saith Jehovah, Ye were sold for nought, and not for money shall ye be redeemed. These words are apparently designed to remove two difficulties in the way of Israel's deliverance, a physical and a moral one. The essential meaning is, that it might be effected rightly and easily. As Jehovah had received no price for them, he was under no obligations to renounce his right to them; and as nothing had been gained by their rejection, so nothing would be lost by their recovery. The only obscurity arises from the singular nature of the figure under which the truth is here presented, by the transfer of expressions borrowed from the commercial intercourse of men to the free action of the divine sovereignty. The verse, as thus explained, agrees exactly with the terms of Ps. 44:12. The reflexive meaning given in the English Version (ye have sold yourselves) is not sustained by usage nor required by the context.

4. For thus saith the Lord Jehovah, Into Egypt went down my people at the first to sojourn there, and Assyria oppressed them for nothing. The interpretation of this verse and the next has been not a little influenced by the assumption of one or more strongly marked antitheses. Thus some writers take it for granted that the Prophet here intended to contrast the Egyptian and Assyrian bondage. They accordingly explain the verse as meaning that the first introduction of Israel into Egypt was without any evil design upon the part of the Egyptians, who did not begin to oppress them until there arose a king who knew not Joseph (Ex. 1:8), whereas the Assyrian deportation of Israel was from the beginning a high-handed act of tyranny. One commentator appears to exclude the supposition of a contrast altogether, and to understand the passage as a chronological enumeration of events, designed to show how much had been endured already as a reason why they should endure no more. (Compare ch. 40:2.) In ancient times they were oppressed by the Egyptians, at a later period by Assyria, and later still by Babylonia, whose oppressions are supposed to be described in v. 5, either as already suffered, or as an object of prophetic foresight. This is the simplest and most natural interpretation, and is very strongly recommended by the difficulty of defining the antithesis intended on the other supposition. Most writers understand the last words as meaning for nothing or without cause, i. e. unjustly. The explanation of Assyria as meaning or including Babylonia, though not without authority from usage, is as unnecessary here as in various other places where it has been proposed.

5. And now, what is there to me here (what have I here), saith Jehovah, that my people is taken away for nothing; its rulers howl, saith Jehovah, and continually, all the day, my name is blasphemed? Some understand now strictly as meaning at the present time, in opposition to the ancient times when Israel suffered at the hands of Egypt and Assyria. The same antithesis may be obtained by giving now a modified sense so as to mean in the present case, as distinguished from the two already mentioned. It would even be admissible to give the now its logical sense as substantially meaning since these things are so, although such a departure from the proper import of the word is by no means necessary. The other adverb, here, admits of no less various explanations. Some older writers understand it to mean heaven as the customary residence of God. (1 Kings 8:30.) Some suppose it to mean Babylon, while others, with a bolder departure from the strict sense, understand it as equivalent to in the present case, viz. that of the Babylonian exile; which, however, even if correct in substance, is rather a paraphrase than a translation. With the meaning put upon this adverb varies the interpretation of the whole phrase, what have I here? If here means in Babylon, the sense would seem to be, what else have I to do here but to free my people? If it mean in heaven, then the question is, what is there to detain me here from going to the rescue of my people? If it mean in the present case, whether this be referred to the Babylonish exile or more generally understood, the best explanation of the question is, what have I gained in this case, any more than in the others, since my people are still taken from me without any compensation? The conclusion implied, though not expressed, is that in this as in the other instances referred to, a regard to his own honour, metaphorically represented as his interest, requires that he should interpose for the deliverance of his people. The next clause likewise has been very variously explained. Among the vast majority of writers who retain the common meaning of the word translated rulers, the question chiefly in dispute is whether it denotes the native rulers of the Jews themselves, as in ch. 28: 14, or their foreign oppressors, as in ch. 49:7. Most interpreters, however, seem disposed to understand it as meaning his foreign oppressors. The form of expression in the last clause is copied by Ezekiel (36: 20, 23), but applied to a different subject; and from that place, rather than the one before us, the Apostle quotes in Rom. 2:24.

6. Therefore (because my name is thus blasphemed) my people shall know my name ; therefore in that day (shall they know) that I am he that said, Behold me! The exact sense of the last words according to this construction is, 'I am he that spake (or promised) a Behold me?' To know the name of God, is to know his nature so far as it has been revealed; and in this case more specifically, it is to know that the name blasphemed among the wicked was deserving of the highest honour. The second therefore is to be regarded pregnant and emphatic.

7. How timely on the mountains are the feet of one bringing glad tidings, publishing peace, bringing glad tidings of good, publishing salvation, saying to Zion, Thy God reigneth. The verb ... means to be suitable, becoming, opportune, and though not applied to time in either of the two cases where it occurs elsewhere, evidently admits of such an application, especially when there is no general usage to forbid it. It is here recommended by the context, which is much more coherent if we understand this verse as intimating that the help appears at the very juncture when it is most needed, than if we take it as a mere expression of delight. It is also favoured by the analogy of Nah. 1: 15, where a similar connection is expressed by the word .... It is favoured lastly by the use of the Greek word ... in Paul's translation of the verse (Rom 10:15), of which ... in our copies of the Septuagint is probably a corruption. This Greek word, both from etymology and usage, most explicitly means timely or seasonable, although sometimes employed in the secondary sense of beautiful (Matt. 23:27. Acts 3:2), like the Hebrew ... (Cant. 1:10), decorus in Latin, and becoming in English. The mountains meant may be the mountains round Jerusalem, or the word may be more indefinitely understood as adding a trait to the prophetic picture. The word ... has no equivalent in English, and must therefore be expressed by a periphrasis, in order to include the two ideas of annunciation and the joyful character of that which is announced. The sense is perfectly expressed by the Greek ... , but our derivatives, evangelizing and evangelist, would not convey the meaning to an English reader. The joyous nature of the tidings brought is still more definitely intimated in the next clause by the addition of the word good, which is not explanatory but intensive. The explanation of ...  as a collective referring to the prophets, or the messengers from Babylonia to Jerusalem, is perfectly gratuitous. The primary application of the term is to the Messiah, but in itself it is indefinite; and Paul is therefore chargeable with no misapplication of the words when he applies them to the preachers of the gospel. The contents of the message are the manifestation of the reign of God, the very news which Christ and his forerunner published when they cried saying, The kingdom of God is at hand.

8. The voice of thy watchmen! They raise the voice, together will they shout; for eye to eye shall they see in Jehovah's returning (i e. when he returns) to Zion. The first clause is obviously a poetical apostrophe or exclamation. The second clause seems to intimate that they should have still further cause to shout hereafter; they have already raised the voice, and ere long they shall all shout together. Because the prophets are elsewhere represented as watchmen on the walls of Zion (ch. 56:10. Jer. 6:17. Ez. 3:17. 33:2, 7), most interpreters attach that meaning to the figure here; but the restriction is unnecessary, since the application of a metaphor to one object does not preclude its application to another, and objectionable, as it mars the unity and beauty of the scene presented, which is simply that of a messenger of good news drawing near to a walled town, whose watchmen take up and repeat his tidings to the people within. The phrase eye to eye, or in eye, occurs only here and in Num. 14:14. It is properly descriptive of two persons so near as to look into each other's eyes. The phrases face to face (Ex. 33:11) and mouth to mouth (Num. 12:8) are kindred and analogous, but not identical with that before us. They (i. e. the people of Jerusalem or men in general) shall see. The transitive meaning (restore or bring back) ascribed to ... in this and many other places is doubtful and disputed. In this case the proper sense is not only appropriate but required by the context and the analogy of other places in which the reconciliation between God and his people is represented as a return after a long absence. (See above, on ch. 40:11.)

9. Burst forth, shout together, ruins of Jerusalem! For Jehovah hath comforted his people, hath redeemed Jerusalem. The phrase to burst forth into shouting, is a favourite expression with Isaiah (see above, ch. 14:7. 44:23. 49:13, and below, ch. 54:1. 55:12); but in this case the qualifying noun is exchanged for its verbal root, a combination which occurs elsewhere only in Ps. 98:4. As this word is never used in any other connection, and therefore denotes only this one kind of bursting, it may be considered as involving the idea of the whole phrase, and is so translated in the English Version (break forth into joy.) Together may either mean all of you, or at the same time with the watchmen mentioned in v. 8. Such appeals to inanimate objects are of frequent occurrence in Isaiah. (See above, ch. 44:23. 49:13, and below, ch. 55:12.) The translation of the verbs in the last clause as presents is unnecessary and enfeebling, as it takes away the strong assurance always conveyed by the praeteritum propheticum. See above, on ch. 49:13.

10. Jehovah hath bared his holy arm to the eyes of all the nations, and all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God. The allusion in the first clause is to the ancient military practice of going into battle with the right arm and shoulder bare. The same Hebrew verb is used in the same application by Ezekiel (4:7). The baring of the arm may be mentioned as a preparation for the conflict, or the act of stretching it forth may be included. The bare arm is here in contrast either with the long sleeves of the female dress, or with the indolent insertion of the hand into the bosom. (Ps. 74:11.) The exertion of God's power is elsewhere expressed by the kindred figure of a great hand (Ex. 14:30), a strong hand (Ez. 20:34), or a hand stretched out (Is. 9:11). The act here described is t!ie same that is described in ch 51:9. The comparison of Jehovah to a warrior occurs above in ch. 42:13. Jehovah's arm is here described as holy, in its widest sense, as denoting the divine perfection, or whatever distinguishes between God and man, perhaps with special reference to his power, as that by which his deity is most frequently and clearly manifested to his creatures. Compare this clause with ch. 18:3. 33:13, and Ps. 98:3, where it is repeated word for word. Another coincidence between this passage of Isaiah and that Psalm has been already pointed out in expounding the foregoing verse.

11. Away! away! go out from thence! the unclean touch not! come out from the midst of her! be clean (or cleanse yourselves) ye armour-bearers of Jehovah! The first word in Hebrew is a verb, and literally means depart; but there is something peculiarly expressive in the translation of it by an adverb. The analogy of ch. 48:20 seems to show that the Prophet had the departure from Babylon in view; but the omission of the name here, and of any allusion to that subject in the context, forbids the restriction of the words any further than the writer has himself restricted them. The whole analogy of language and especially of poetical composition shows that Babylon is no more the exclusive object of the writer's contemplation than the local Zion and the literal Jerusalem in many of the places where those names are mentioned. Like other great historical events, particularly such as may be looked upon as critical conjunctures, the deliverance becomes a type, not only to the prophet, but to the poet and historian, not by any arbitrary process, but by a spontaneous association of ideas. As some names, even in our own day, have acquired a generic meaning and become descriptive of a whole class of events, so in the earliest authentic history, the Flood, the Fall of Sodom and Gomorrah, the Exodus, the Babylonish Exile, are continually used as symbols of divine interposition both in wrath and mercy. There is no inconsistency whatever, therefore, in admitting that the Prophet has the exodus from Babylon in view, and yet maintaining that his language has a far more extensive scope. The sense of armour-bearers is not only in the highest degree suitable to the idea of a solemn march, but strongly recommended by the fact that the same Hebrew phrase in historical prose is the appropriated title of an armour-bearer. (See 1 Sam. 14:1, 6, 7. 16:21.) At the same time the mention of the sacred vessels would scarcely be omitted in the description of this new exodus. Both explanations may be blended without any violation of usage, and with great advantage to the beauty of the passage, by supposing an allusion to the mixture of the martial and the sacerdotal in the whole organization of the host of Israel during the journey through the wilderness. Not even in the crusades were the priest and soldier brought so near together, and so mingled, not to say identified, as in the long march of the chosen people from the Red Sea to the Jordan. By applying this key to the case before us, we obtain the grand though blended image of a march and a procession, an army and a church, a "sacramental host" bearing the sacred vessels not as Priests and Levites merely, but as the armour-bearers of Jehovah, the weapons of whose warfare, though not carnal, are mighty to the pulling down of strong holds. (2 Cor. 10:4.) With this comprehensive exposition of the clause agrees the clear and settled usage of the word in the wide sense of implements, including weapons on the one hand and vessels on the other. The application of the terms of this verse by John to the spiritual Babylon (Rev. 18:4), so far from standing in the way of the enlarged interpretation above given, really confirms it by showing that the language of the prophecy is suited to express far more than the literal exodus of Israel from Babylon.

12. For not in haste shall ye go out, and in fight ye shall not depart; for going before you (is) Jehovah, and bringing up your rear the God of Israel. This verse is crowded with allusions to the earlier history of Israel, some of which consist in the adaptation of expressions with which the Hebrew reader was familiar, but which must of course be lost in a translation. Thus the hasty departure out of Egypt is not only recorded as a fact in the Mosaic history (Ex. 11:1. 12:33, 39), but designated by the very term here used (Ex. 12:11. Deut. 16:3), meaning terrified and sudden flight. There is likewise an obvious allusion to the cloudy pillar going sometimes before and sometimes behind the host (Ex. 14:19, 20), and possibly to Moses' poetical description of Jehovah as encompassing Israel with his protection (Deut. 32:10). These minute resemblances are rendered still more striking by the distinction which the Prophet makes between the two events. The former exodus was hurried and disorderly; the one here promised shall be solemn and deliberate. The connection of the verse with that before it may be easily explained. The for, as in many other cases, has relation to an intermediate thought which may be easily supplied though not expressed. Or rather, it has reference to the promise, implied in the preceding exhortation, of protection and security. From this verse, taken in connection with the one before it, we may derive a confirmation of our previous conclusions; first, that the image there presented is a military no less than a priestly one; and secondly, that this whole passage has a wider scope and higher theme than the deliverance from Babylon, because the latter is no more vividly exhibited to view than the deliverance from Egypt; and if this is a mere emblem, so may that be, nay it must be, when we add to the consideration just presented, the result of the inductive process hitherto pursued in the interpretation of these prophecies, viz. that the deliverance of Israel from exile does not constitute the theme of the predictions, but is simply one remarkable historico-prophetical example which the Prophet cites in illustration of his general teachings as to the principle and mode of the Divine administration, and his special predictions of a great and glorious change to be connected with the abrogation of the old economy.

13. Behold, my servant shall do wisely, (and as a necessary consequence) shall rise and be exalted and high exceedingly. The parenthesis introduced to show the true relation of the clauses serves at the same time to preclude the necessity of giving the Hebrew verb the doubtful and secondary sense of prospering. The parallel expressions are not synonymous but simply correlative, the mutual relation being that of cause and effect. He shall be exalted because he shall act wisely, in the highest sense, i.e. shall use the best means for the attainment of the highest end, not merely as a possible result, but as a necessary consequence. We have no right, however, to substitute the one for the other, or to merge the primary idea in its derivative. The version of the Septuagint (...) and the Vulgate (intelliget) is only defective because it makes the verb denote the possession of intelligence, and not its active exercise, which is required by the Hiphil form and by the connection, as well here as in the parallel passage, Jer. 23:5. (Compare 1 Kings 2:3.) Connected with this verse there are two exegetical questions which are famous as the subject of dispute among interpreters. The first and least important has respect to the division and arrangement of the text, viz. whether this verse is to be connected with what goes before, or separated from it and regarded as the introduction of a new subject. The former method is adopted in the older versions and in the masoretic Hebrew text. The latter was pursued in the ancient distribution of the book, with which the Fathers were familiar, and has been adopted in our own day by most writers on Isaiah. The only satisfactory method, as we have already seen, is to regard the whole as a continuous composition, and to recognize the usual division into chapters, simply because it is familiar and on the whole convenient, although sometimes very injudicious and erroneous. According to this view of the matter, the precise distribution of the chapters is of no more importance than that of the paragraphs in any modern book, which may sometimes facilitate and sometimes hinder its convenient perusal, but can never be regarded as authoritative in determining the sense. In the case immediately before us, it is proper to resist the violent division of the chapter; because when read in its natural connection, it shows how easy the transition was from the foregoing promise of deliverance to the description of the Servant of Jehovah as the leader of the grand march just described, and confirms our previous conclusions as to the exalted meaning of the promises in question, and against a forced restriction of them to the Babylonish exile. At the same time it is equally important that the intimate connection of these verses with the following chapter should he fully recognized, in order that the Servant of the Lord, whose humiliation and exaltation are here mentioned, may be identified with that mysterious person whose expiatory sufferings and spiritual triumphs form the great theme of the subsequent context. It follows, therefore, that the meaning of the whole passage, to the end of the fifty-third chapter, turns upon the question, Who is meant by my servant in the verse before us? An individual or a collective body? If the latter, is it Israel as a whole, or its better portion, or the Prophets, or the Priesthood? If the former, is it Moses, Abraham, Uzziah, Josiah, Jeremiah, Cyrus, an anonymous prophet, the author himself, or the Messiah? This is the other exegetical question which has been referred to, as connected with this verse and materially affecting the interpretation of the whole passage. The answer to this question, which at once suggests itself as the result of all our previous inquiries, is that the Servant of Jehovah here, as in ch. 42:1-6 and ch. 49:1-9, is the Messiah, but presented rather in his own personality than in conjunction with his people. According to the rule already stated, the idea of the Body here recedes, and that of the Head becomes exclusively conspicuous; because, as we shall see below, the Servant of Jehovah is exhibited, not merely as a teacher or a ruler. but as an expiatory sacrifice. This application of the verse and the whole passage to the Messiah was held by the oldest school of Jewish interpreters. In its favour may be urged, besides the tradition of the synagogue and church, the analogy of the other places where the Servant of Jehovah is mentioned, the wonderful agreement of the terms of the prediction with the character and history of Jesus Christ, and the express application of the passage to him by himself and his inspired apostles, who appear to have assumed it as the basis of their doctrine with respect to the atonement, and to have quoted it comparatively seldom only because they had it constantly in view. as appears from their numerous allusions to it, and the perfect agreement of their teachings with it. The detailed proofs of the Messianic exposition will be given in the course of the interpretation. In the verse immediately before us all that need be added is, that the extraordinary exaltation promised in the last clause is such as could never have been looked for by the Prophet, for himself or for his order, especially upon the modern supposition, that he lived in the time of the exile, when the grounds for such an expectation were far less than at any former period. The objection, that the title servant is not applied elsewhere to Messiah, would have little force if true, because the title in itself is a general one and may be applied to any chosen instrument It is not true, however, as the single case of Zech. 3:8 will suffice to show, without appealing to the fact that the same application of the title, either partial or exclusive, has been found admissible above in ch. 42:1. 49:3, and 50:10.

14, 15. As many were shocked at thee—so marred from man his look, and his form from the sons of manso shall he sprinkle many nations; concerning him shall kings stop their mouth, because what was not recounted to them they have seen, and what they had not heard they have perceived. His exaltation shall bear due proportion to his humiliation; the contempt of men shall be exchanged for wonder and respect. According to the common agreement of interpreters, v. 14 is the protasis and v. 15 the apodosis of the same sentence, the correlative clauses being introduced, as usual in cases of comparison, by as and so. The construction is somewhat embarrassed by the intervening so at the beginning of the last clause of v. 14, which most interpreters however treat as a parenthesis explanatory of the first clause: 'as many were shocked at thee—because bis countenance was so marred, etc. so shall he sprinkle many nations,' etc. A simpler construction, though it does not yield so clear a sense, would be to assume a double apodosis: 'as many were shocked at thee, so was his countenance marred, etc., so also shall he sprinkle,' etc. As thus explained the sense would be, their abhorrence of him was not without reason and it shall not be without requital. The first verb expresses a mixture of surprise, contempt, and aversion; it is frequently applied to extraordinary instances of suffering when viewed as divine judgments. (Lev. 26:32. Ezek. 27:35. Jer. 18:16. 19:8.) Many does not mean all, nor is nations to be anticipated from the other clause; there seems to be rather an antithesis between many individuals and many nations. As a single people had despised him, so the whole world should admire him. By look and form we are neither to understand a mean condition nor the personal appearance, but as an intermediate idea, the visible effects of suffering. The idiomatic phrase from man, may be taken simply as expressive of comparison (more than other men], or more emphatically of negation (so as not to be human), which are only different gradations of the same essential meaning. ... is a technical term of the Mosaic law for sprinkling water, oil, or blood, as a purifying rite. This is a description, at the very outset, of the Servant of Jehovah as an expiatory purifier, one who must be innocent himself in order to cleanse others, an office and a character alike inapplicable either to the prophets as a class, or to Israel as a nation, or even to the better class of Jews, much more to any single individual except the One who claimed to be the Purifier of the guilty, and to whom many nations do at this day ascribe whatever purity of heart or life they either have or hope for. The next clause is understood by some to mean that they shall be reverently silent before him, by others that they shall be dumb with wonder on account of him, by others that they shall be silent respecting him, i. e. no longer utter expressions of aversion or contempt. The reason of this voluntary humiliation is expressed in the last clause. viz. because they see things of which they had never had experience or even knowledge by report. This expression shows that many nations must be taken in its natural and proper sense, as denoting the gentiles. It is accordingly applied by Paul (Rom. 15:21) to the preaching of the gospel among those who had never before heard it. Interpreters have needlessly refined in interpreting the verb see as signifying mental no less than bodily perception. The truth is that the language is not scientific but poetical; the writer does not put sight for experience, but on the contrary describes experience as simple vision. For the stopping of the mouth, as an expression of astonishment or reverence, see Job 29:9. 40:4. Ps. 107:42. Ezek. 16:63. Mic. 7:16.