Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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CHAPTER LV

By the removal of the old restrictions, the church is, for the first time, open to the whole world, as a source or medium of the richest spiritual blessings, v. 1. It is only here that real nourishment can be obtained, v. 2. Life is made sure by an oath and covenant, v. 3. The Messiah is a witness of the truth and a commander of the nations, v. 4. As such he will be recognized by many nations who before knew nothing of the true religion, v 5. These are now addressed directly, and exhorted to embrace the offered opportunity, v. 6. To this there is every encouragement afforded in the divine mercy, v. 7. The infinite disparity between God and man should have the same effect, instead of hindering it, vs. 8, 9. The commands and promises of God must be fulfilled, vs. 10, 11. Nothing therefore can prevent a glorious change in the condition of the world under the dispensation of the Spirit, v. 12. This blessed renovation, being directly promotive of God's glory, shall endure forever, v. 13.

1. Ho every thirsty one, come ye to the waters; and he to whom there is no money, come, ye, buy (food) and eat; and came, buy, without money and without price, wine and milk. The promises contained in the preceding chapters to the church, are now followed by a general invitation to partake of the blessings thus secured. Water, milk, and wine, are here combined to express the ideas of refreshment, nourishment, and exhilaration. Under these figures are included all things essential to the spiritual life. The benefits here offered must of course bear some proportion to the means by which they were secured, viz. the atoning death of the Messiah and the influences of his Spirit. The reference to the water of baptism, which some of the Fathers found in this verse, is excluded by the fact that the water here meant is not water for washing but water to be drunk. And he, after the universal expression every one, does not add a new idea, but explains the one expressed already, and is therefore equivalent to even he in English. The same remark applies to the and before the second come, which is not incorrectly rendered yea come in the common version. To whom there is not money is the only equivalent in Hebrew to our phrase who has no money. This apparent contradiction was intended by the writer to express in the strongest manner the gratuitous nature of the purchase. Wine and milk are combined, either as necessities or luxuries, by Jacob in Gen 49:12. The images of this verse are essentially the same with those in ch. 12:3. 25:6. 62:8, 9. 65:13. John 4:14. 7:37. Rev. 22:17.

2. Why will ye weigh money for (that which is) not bread, and your labour for (that which is) not to satisfy? Hearken, hearken unto me, and eat (that which is) good, and your soul shall enjoy itself in fatness. The gratuitous blessings offered by Messiah are contrasted with the costly and unprofitable labours of mankind to gain the same end in another way. It was not that they refused food, nor even that they were unwilling to buy it; but they mistook for it that which was not nourishing. In the first clause there is reference to the primitive custom of weighing instead of counting money, from which have arisen several of the most familiar denominations, such as the Hebrew shekel, the Greek talent, the French livre, and the English pound. The essential idea here is that of paying. Bread, as the staff of life, is here and in many other cases put for food in general. Labour, as in ch. 45:14, means the product or result of labour. The emphatic repetition of the verb to hear may be variously expressed in English as denoting to hear diligently, attentively, by all means, or to purpose; but the best translation, because it may be considered as including all the rest, is that which copies most exactly the peculiar form of the original. The soul is probably mentioned for the purpose of showing that the hunger and the food referred to are not bodily but spiritual. Good is emphatic, meaning that which is truly good, in opposition to the no-bread of the first clause, a peculiar compound phrase like those in ch. 10:15. 31:3. Fat, by a figure common in all languages, is put for richness both of food and soil. (See ch. 5:1. Ps. 36: 8. 63:6. Job 36:16.)

3. Incline your ear and come unto me, hear and your soul shall live (or let it live), and I will make with you an everlasting covenant, the sure mercies of David. This is obviously a repetition of the same offer in another form; which shows that the two preceding verses cannot have respect to literal food or bodily subsistence. Here again the use of the word soul necessarily suggests the thought of spiritual life. Of the phrase mercies of David, which is also used by Solomon (2 Chr. 6:42), there are three interpretations. The first understands it to mean favours, like those which were enjoyed by David. The second regards David as a name of the Messiah, as in Ezek. 34:23, 24. The third explanation, and the one most commonly adopted, is, that the mercies of David means the mercies promised to him, with particular reference to 2 Sam. 7:8-16. (Compare 1 Chr. 17:11, 12 and Psalm 89:3, 4.) As the main theme of this promise was a perpetual succession on the throne of David, it was fulfilled in Christ, to whom it is applied in Acts 13:34. (Compare Is. 9:7 and Luke 1:32, 33.) That the promise to David was distinct from that respecting Solomon (1 Chr. 22:8-13), and had not reference to any immediate descendant, seems clear from 1 Chr. 17:12-14. Thus understood, the text contains a solemn assurance that the promise made to David should be faithfully performed in its original import and intent. Hence the mercies of David are called sure, i e. sure to be accomplished; or it might be rendered faithful, credible, or trusted, without any material effect upon the meaning.

4. Lo, (as) a witness of nations I have given him, a chief and commander of nations. The emphasis appears to be on nations, which is therefore repeated without change of form. The essential meaning is the same as that of ch. 49:6, viz. that the Messiah was sent to be the Saviour not of the Jews only but also of the Gentiles. His relation to the latter is expressed by three terms. First, he is a witness, i. e. a witness to the truth (John 18:37) and a witness against sinners (Mal. 3:5). The same office is ascribed to Christ in Rev. 1:5. 3:14 (Compare 1 Tim. 6:13.) The application of this verse to the Messiah, therefore, is entirely natural. The second term strictly means the one in front, the foremost, and is therefore naturally used to signify a chief or leader. This title is expressly applied to the Messiah by Daniel (9:25), and the corresponding titles ... and ... to Christ in the New Testament (Acts 3:15. Heb. 2:10. Rev. 1:5), considered both as an example and a leader. The third name, being properly the participle of a verb which means to command, might be considered as equivalent either to preceptor or commander, both derivatives from verbs of the same meaning. The idea of commander must predominate in any case, and is entitled to the preference, if either must be chosen to the entire exclusion of the other.

5. Lo, a nation (that) thou knowest not thou shalt call, and a nation (that) have not known thee shall run unto thee, for the sake of Jehovah thy God, and for the Holy One of Israel, for he hath glorified thee. The question which has chiefly divided interpreters, in reference to this verse, is, whether the object of address is the Messiah or the Church. The masculine forms prove nothing either way; because the Church is sometimes presented in the person of Israel, and sometimes personified as a woman. The most natural supposition is, that after speaking of the Messiah, he now turns to him and addresses him directly. If this be so, the verse affords an argument against the application of v. 4 to David, who could not be the subject of such a promise ages after his decease. At the same time, the facility with which the words can be applied to either subject, may be considered as confirming the hypothesis, that although the Messiah is the main subject of the verse, the Church is not entirely excluded. Their running indicates the eagerness with which they shall attach themselves to him and engage in his service. For he hath glorified thee. This expression is repeatedly used in the New Testament with reference to Christ. (See John 17:1, 5. Acts 3:13.) The form of expression in a part of this verse seems to be borrowed from 2 Sam. 22:44; but the resemblance neither proves that the Messiah is the subject of that passage nor that David is the subject of this.

6. Seek ye Jehovah while he may be found; call ye upon him while he is near. The literal translation would be, in his being found, in his being near. By a sudden apostrophe he turns from the Messiah to those whom he had come to save, and exhorts them to embrace this great salvation, to be reconciled with God. A similar exhortation, implying like the present that the day of grace is limited, occurs in Zeph. 2:2, 3. The Jew had great cause to beware lest the Gentile should outstrip him, and the Gentile might be reasonably urged to partake of those advantages which hitherto had been restricted to the Jew; but both are called to the same duty, namely, that of seeking and calling upon God, expressions elsewhere used both severally and together to express the whole work of repentance, faith, and new obedience.

7. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the man of iniquity his thoughts, and let him return unto Jehovah, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon (literally, multiply to pardon). This is a continuation of the foregoing call, and at the same time an explantion of the way in which it was to be obeyed. We are here taught that the seeking of Jehovah and the calling upon him, just enjoined, involve an abandonment of sin and a return to righteousness of life. The imperative version of the future is warranted, if not required, by the form of the original. Even the future form, however, would convey the same essential meaning both in Hebrew and in English. The wicked shall forsake is in fact the strongest form of a command. Way is a common figure for the course of life. What is here meant is the way of the wicked, as Jeremiah calls it (12:1,) i. e. a habitually sinful course. The common version of the next phrase (the unrighteous man) gives the sense but not the whole force of the original construction. It mattered little to the writer's purpose whether he seemed to be himself the speaker or a mere reporter of the words of God, to whom in either ease they must be finally ascribed. Hence the constant alternation of the first, second, and third persons, in a style which sets all rules of unity and rigid laws of composition at defiance. The word translated thoughts is commonly employed not to denote opinions but designs or purposes, in which sense it is joined with way, in order to express the whole drift of the character and life. To return to God in both these respects is a complete description of repentance, implying an entire change of heart as well as life. The encouragement to seek God is not merely that he may, but that he will have mercy. Lowth's translation (will receive him with compassion) is enfeebling as well as inexact; because the act of receiving is implied not expressed, and the verb denotes not mere compassion but gratuitous and sovereign mercy. There is further encouragement contained in the expression our God. To the Jew it would suggest motives drawn from the covenant relation of Jehovah to his people, while the Gentile would regard it as an indirect assurance that even he was not excluded from God's mercy.

8. For my thoughts (are) not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways, saith Jehovah. Clear and simple as these words are in themselves, they have occasioned much dispute among interpreters, in reference to their nexus with what goes before. The earliest commentators, Jews and Christians, seem to have understood them as intended to meet an objection to the promise arising from its vastness and its freeness, by assuring us that such forgiveness, however foreign from the feelings and the practices of men, is not beyond the reach of the divine compassion. As if he had said, 'to you such forgiveness may appear impossible; but my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither your ways my ways.' Thus understood, the text may be compared with Matt. 19:26. Another explanation rests upon the false assumption that the words have reference to the Jews, and were intended to correct their prejudice against the calling of the Gentiles as at variance with the promises of God to themselves. As if he had said, 'you may think the extension of my grace to them a departure from my settled ways and purposes; but my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor your ways my ways.' Others explain them as denoting the irrevocable nature of God's purposes and promises. In this sense, it may be considered parallel to Num. 23:19, and 1 Sam. 15:29. Is. 31:2. 45:23. But this is neither the natural meaning of the words, nor one which stands in any obvious relation to what goes before. It is indeed hard to see any coherence in this sequence of ideas, 'let the wicked man repent, for my promise is irrevocable.' This objection does not lie against another very ancient explanation of the passage, founded on the obvious correspondence of the terms employed in this verse and in that before it, and especially the parallel expressions ways and thoughts, there applied to man and here to God. According to this last interpretation, we have here a reason given why the sinner must forsake his ways and thoughts, viz. because they are incurably at variance with those of God himself: 'Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts; for my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither your ways my ways.' This interpretation has so greatly the advantage of the others, in facility and beauty of connection with what goes before, that it must be considered as at least affording the formal basis of the true interpretation, but without excluding wholly the ideas which according to the other theories these words express. They may all be reconciled indeed by making the disparity asserted have respect not merely to moral purity, but also to constancy, benevolence, and wisdom. As if he had said, 'you must forsake your evil ways and thoughts, and by so doing, you infallibly secure my favour; for as high as the heavens are above the earth, so far am I superior to you in mercy, not only in the rigour and extent of my requirements, but also in compassion for the guilty, in benevolent consideration even for the gentiles, and in the constancy and firmness of my purposes when formed.'

9. For (as) the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts. This is an illustration by comparison of the negative assertion in the verse preceding The as in the first member of the comparison is left out, as in Hos. 11:2. Ps. 48:6 (5.) Job 7:9. Jer. 3:20. The full expression maybe seen in ch. 10:11. The Hebrew preposition might here be taken in its proper sense of from, away from, as the reference is in fact to an interval of space; but our idiom would hardly bear the strict translation, and comparison is certainly implied, if not expressed. The same comparison and in a similar application occurs Ps. 103:11.

10, 11. For as the rain cometh down, and the snow from heaven, and thither returneth not, but when it has watered the earth and made it bear and put forth and has given seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be which goeth out of my mouth; it shall not return unto me void (or without effect), but when it has done that which I desired, and successfully done that for which I sent it. This is a new comparison, suggested by the mention of the heavens and the earth in the preceding verse. The tenth and eleventh form a single sentence of unusual length in Hebrew composition. The one contains the comparison properly so-called, the other makes the application. The word of v. 11 is not merely prophecy or promise, but everything that God utters either in the way of prediction or command. The English version refers has given to the earth; but this construction is precluded in Hebrew by the difference of gender. The effect is metaphorically represented as produced directly by the rain and snow. The general design of these two verses is to generate and foster confidence in what Jehovah has engaged to do.

12. For with joy shall ye go forth, and in peace shall ye be led; the mountains and the hills shall break out before you into a shout, and all the trees of the field shall clap the hand. Here as in many other places the idea of joyful change is expressed by representing all nature as rejoicing. The expression go forth is eagerly seized upon by some interpreters as justifying the restriction of the passage to the restoration from the Babylonish exile. But the real allusion in such cases is to the deliverance from Egypt, which is constantly referred to as a type of deliverance in general, so that every signal restoration or deliverance is represented as another exodus.

13. Instead of the thorn shall come up the cypress, and instead of the nettle the myrtle, and it shall be to Jehovah for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off. The same change which had just been represented by the shouting of the hills and the applause of the forests is now described as the substitution of the noblest trees for the most unprofitable and offensive plants. (Compare ch. 41:19.) An analogous but different figure for the same thing is the opening of rivers in the desert. (See above, ch. 35:6, 7. 43:19, 20.) Dropping the metaphor, the Prophet then says, in direct terms, that the change predicted shall redound to the glory of its author. It shall be for a name, i. e. it shall serve as a memorial, which is then described in other words as a sign of perpetuity or everlasting token. This memorial is called perpetual because it shall not be cut off, pass away, or be abolished.