Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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While the church, with its essential institutions, is to continue unimpaired, the old distinctions, national and personal, are to be done away, and the Jewish people robbed of that preeminence of which its rulers proved themselves unworthy.

The day is coming when the righteousness of God is to be fully revealed, without the veils and shackles which had hitherto confined it, v. 1. For this great change the best preparation is fidelity to the spirit of the old economy, v. 2. No personal or national distinctions will be any longer recognized, v. 3. Connection with the church will no longer be a matter of hereditary right, vs. 4, 5. The church shall be henceforth coextensive with the world, vs. 6-8. But first, the carnal Israel must be abandoned to its enemies, v. 9. Its rulers are neither able nor worthy to deliver the people or themselves, vs. 10-12.

1. Thus saith Jehovah, Keep ye judgment (or justice) and do righteousness; for near (is) my salvation to come, and my righteousness to be revealed. The Jews refer this passage to their present dispersion, and understand it as declaring the conditions of their restoration. On the principle heretofore assumed, as the basis of our exposition, we can only regard it as a statement of the general laws which govern the divine dispensations towards the chosen people and the world at large. The reference is not merely to the ancient Israel, much less to the Jews of the captivity, still less to the Christian church distinctively considered, least of all to the Christian church of any one period. The doctrine of the passage is simply this, that they who enjoy extraordinary privileges, or expect extraordinary favours, are under corresponding obligations to do the will of God; and moreover that the nearer the manifestation of God's mercy, whether in time or in eternity, the louder the call to righteousness of life. These truths are of no restricted application, but may be applied wherever the relation of a church or chosen people can be recognized.

2. Happy the man (that) shall do this, and the son of man that shall hold it fast, keeping the sabbath from profaning it, and keeping his hand from doing all evil. The pronoun this seems to refer to what follows, as in Ps. 7:4 (3) and Deut. 32:29. Son of man is simply an equivalent expression to the man of the other clause. The last clause is remarkable, and has occasioned much dispute among interpreters, on account of its combining a positive and negative description of the character required, the last of which is very general, and the first no less specific. A great variety of reasons have been given for the special mention of the Sabbath here. It has especially perplexed those writers who regard the Sabbath as a temporary ceremonial institution. The true explanation is afforded by a reference to the primary and secondary ends of the sabbatical institution, and the belief involved in its observance. In the first place, it implied a recognition of Jehovah as the omnipotent creator of the universe (Ex. 20:11. 31:17); in the next place, as the sanctifier of his people, not in the technical or theological sense, but as denoting him by whom they had been set apart as a peculiar people (Ex. 31:13. Ez. 20:12); in the next place, as the Saviour of this chosen people from the bondage of Egypt (Deut. 5:15). Of these great truths the Sabbath was a weekly remembrancer, and its observance by the people a perpetual recognition and profession, besides the practical advantages accruing to the maintenance of a religious spirit by the weekly recurrence of a day of rest. Holding fast is a common idiomatic expression for consistent perseverance in a certain course. It occurs not unfrequently in the New Testament. (Heb. 4:4. 6:18. Rev. 2:25. 3:11.)

3. And let not the foreigner say, who has joined himself unto Jehovah, saying, Jehovah will separate me wholly from his people; and let not the eunuch say, Lo, I am a dry tree. The essential meaning of this verse is, that all external disabilities shall be abolished, whether personal or national. To express the latter he makes use of a phrase which strictly means not the son of the stranger, as the common version has it, but the son of strangeness, or of a strange country. The whole class of personal disqualifications is represented by the case of the eunuch, in reference to Deut. 23:1, and as Calvin thinks to the promise in Gen. 15:5 and 22:17, from which that whole class was excluded. I am a dry tree, a proverbial description of childlessness, said to be still current in the east. It is possible, however, that the eunuch may be mentioned, simply because he stands at the beginning of the list of prohibitions in the law. In either case, the expression is generic or representative of more particulars than it expresses.

4, 5. For thus saith Jehovah to (or, as to) the eunuchs who shall keep my sabbaths, and shall choose what I delight in, and take fast hold of my covenant, I will give to them in my house and within my walls a place and name better than sons and than daughters; an everlasting name will I give to him, which shall not be cut off. According to some, the plural sabbaths is intended to include the sabbatical year and that of jubilee. If any distinction was intended, it was probably that between the wider and narrower meaning of the term sabbaths, i. e. the Sabbath properly so called, and the other institutions of religion with which it is connected. What it is that God delights in, may be learned from ch. 66:4. Jer. 9:24. Hos. 6:6. By holding fast my covenant is meant adhering to his compact with me, which includes obedience to the precepts and faith in the promises. By my walls we are not to understand those of Jerusalem, nor, with the modern writers, those of the temple, but in a more ideal sense, the walls of God's house or dwelling, which had just been mentioned. The promise is not merely one of free access to the material sanctuary, but of a home in the household or family of God, an image of perpetual occurrence in the Psalms of David. Better than sons and daughters may either mean better than the comfort immediately derived from children (as in Ruth 4:15), or better than the perpetuation of the name by hereditary succession. Most interpreters prefer the latter sense, but both may be included. A beautiful coincidence and partial fulfilment of the promise has been pointed out in the case of the Ethiopian eunuch whose conversion is recorded in the eighth of Acts, and whose memory is far more honoured in the church than it could have been by a long line of illustrious descendants.

6, 7. And (as to) the foreigners joining themselves to Jehovah, to serve him and to love the name of Jehovah, to be to him for servants, every one keeping the Sabbath from profaning it, and holding fast my covenant, I will bring them to my mount of holiness, and make them joyful in my house of prayer; their offerings and their sacrifices (shall be) to acceptance on my altar; for my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations. The verb ... , although strictly a generic term, is specially appropriated to the official service of the priests and Levites. Some interpreters accordingly suppose it to be here said that the heathen shall partake of the sacerdotal honours elsewhere promised to the church. (See ch. 61:6. Ex. 19; 6. 1 Pet. 2:5, 9. Rev. 1:6.) To love the name of Jehovah, is to love his attributes as manifested in his word and works. (Compare ch. 60:9. 66:5.) Shall be called, as in many other cases, implies that it shall be so. Our Saviour quotes a part of the last clause, not in reference to its main sense, but to what is incidentally mentioned, viz. its being called a house of prayer. This part of the sentence was applicable to the material temple while it lasted; but the whole prediction could be verified only after its destruction, when the house of God even upon earth ceased to be a limited locality, and became co-extensive with the church in its enlargement and diffusion. The form of expression is derived, however, from the ceremonies of the old economy, and worship is described by names familiar to the writer and his original readers. (Compare Hos. 14:3. Heb. 13:13. John 4:21- 23.) The general promise is the same as that in Mal. 1:11, and is so far from being inconsistent with the principles on which the old economy was founded, that it simply carries out its original design as settled and announced from the beginning.

8. Thus saith the Lord Jehovah, the gatherer of the outcasts of Israel, Still (more) will I gather upon him (in addition) to his gathered. This may either mean, I will go on to gather still more of his outcasts, or, besides his outcasts I will gather others. There is less difference between the two interpretations than at first sight there might seem to be. In either case the words are applicable to the calling of the gentiles. On the second supposition, which is commonly adopted, even by the Jewish writers, this is the direct and proper meaning of the words. But even on the other, they amount to the same thing, if we only give to Israel its true sense, as denoting not the Jewish nation as such, but the chosen people or the church of God, to which the elect heathen as really belong as the elect Jews, and are therefore just as much entitled to be called outcasts of Israel. It is true that our Saviour uses a similar expression (lost sheep of the House of Israel) in a restricted application to the Israelites properly so called; but it is in a connection which brings the Jews and Gentiles into evident antithesis, and therefore leaves no doubt as to the sense in which the name Israel is to be understood.

9. All ye beasts of the field, come to devour, all ye beasts in the forest! The structure of this verse is somewhat unusual, consisting of two parallel members, with a third, equally related to both, interposed between them. It is an invitation to the enemies of Israel to destroy it. The people being represented, in the following verses, as a flock, their destroyers are naturally represented here as wild beasts. Some understand the invitation as ironical, or as a mere poetical description of the defenceless state in which Israel was left through the neglect of its natural protectors. It is more natural, however, to explain it as an indirect prediction of an actual event, clothed in Isaiah's favourite form of an apostrophe. All the modern writers seem to be agreed that the last clause as well as the first is a description of the object of address, and that the thing to be devoured must be supplied from the following verses. With the metaphors of this verse compare Ex. 23:29. Ez. 34: 5-8. Jer. 7:33. 12:9, 50:17. Beasts of the field and of the forest are parallel expressions.

10. His watchmen (are) blind all of them, they have not known (or do not know), all of them (are) dumb dogs, they cannot bark, dreaming, lying down, loving to slumber. The pronoun his refers to Israel, as in v. 8, and thus proves clearly that no new discourse begins either with verse 9 or with that before us. Many give do not know the absolute sense of knowing nothing, being without knowledge; but in all such cases it seems better to connect it with a definite object understood. We may here supply their duty, or the state of the flock, or the danger to which it is exposed. The difference between the past and present form is immaterial here; because both are really included, the condition described being one of ancient date, but still continued. The dogs particularly meant are shepherds' dogs (Job 30:1), whose task it was to watch the flock, and by their barking to give notice of approaching danger. But these are dumb dogs which cannot even bark, and therefore wholly useless. They are also negligent and lazy. Far from averting peril or announcing it, they do not see it. What was before expressed by the figure of a blind watchman, is here expressed by that of a shepherd's dog asleep. Some writers make the watchmen of this verse denote the prophets, as in ch. 52:6. Jer. 6:17. Ez. 3:17. 33:7. But others more correctly understand it as a figure for the rulers of the people generally, not excluding even the false prophets. The figurative title is expressive of that watchfulness so frequently described in the New Testament as an essential attribute of spiritual guides.

11. And the dogs are greedy, they know not satiety, and they, the shepherds (or the shepherds themselves), know not how to distinguish (or act wisely); all of them to their own way are turned, (every) man to his own gain from his own quarter (or without exception). A new turn is now given to the figures of the preceding verse. The dogs, though indolent, are greedy. The pronoun they is emphatic, and may either mean that these same dogs are at the same time shepherds, thus affording a transition to a different though kindred image, or it may be intended to distinguish between two kinds of rulers; as if he had said, while the dogs are thus indolent and greedy, they (the shepherds) are incompetent; or, while the shepherds' dogs are such, the shepherds themselves know not how to distinguish. The latter is probably the true construction; for although the same class of persons may be successively compared to shepherds' dogs and shepherds, it cannot even by a figure of speech be naturally said that the dogs themselves are shepherds. That voluptuous as well as avaricious indulgences are here referred to, is apparent from what follows in the next verse. The last word literally means from his end or his extremity, to which the older writers gave the sense of his quarter or direction, corresponding to his own way.

12. Come ye, I will fetch wine, and we will intoxicate ourselves with strong drink, and like to-day (shall be) to-morrow, great, abundantly, exceedingly. The description of the revellers is verified by quoting their own words, as in ch. 22:13. The language is that of one inviting others to join in a debauch; hence the alternation of the singular aud plural. The last clause professes or expresses a determination to prolong the revel till the morrow.