Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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The Creation Concept

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 Vol II Introduction 40 41 42 43 44 45 46 47 48 49 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58 59 60 61 62 63 64 65 66 Alexander's Works


The rejection of Israel as a nation is the just reward of their unfaithfulness, v. 1. Their religious services are hypocritical, v. 2. Their mortifications and austerities are nullified by accompanying wickedness, vs. 3-5. They should have been connected with the opposite virtues, vs. 6—7. In that case they would have continued to enjoy the divine favour, vs. 8, 9. They are still invited to make trial of this course, with an ample promise of prosperity and blessing to encourage them, vs. 10-14.

1. Cry with the throat, spare not, like the trumpet raise thy voice, and tell to my people their transgression and to the house of Jacob their sins. Although this may be conveniently assigned as the beginning of the third part, according to the theory propounded in the Introduction, it is really a direct continuation of the previous discourse. The object of address is the Prophet himself. Crying with the throat or from the lungs is here opposed to a simple motion of the lips and tongue. (See 1 Sam. 1:13.) The common version (cry aloud) is therefore substantially correct, though somewhat vague. The positive command is enforced by the negative one, spare not, as in ch. 54:2. The comparison with a trumpet is of frequent occurrence in the Book of Revelation. (See e. g. ch. 1:10. 4:1.) The loudness of the call is intended to suggest the importance of the subject, and perhaps the insensibility of those to be convinced. The Prophet here seems to turn away from avowed apostates to hypocritical professors of the truth. The restriction of the verse to Isaiah's contemporaries, or to the Jews of the Babylonish exile, is as perfectly gratuitous as its restriction to the Pharisees of Christ's time, or to the Protestant churches at the decline of the Reformation. The points of similarity with all or any of these periods arise from its being a description of what has often occurred and will occur again. It was important that a phrase of human history so real and important should form a part of this prophetic picture, and accordingly it has not been forgotten.

2. And me day (by) day they will seek, and the knowledge of my ways they will delight in (or desire), like a nation which has done right and the judgment of its God has not forsaken; they will ask of me righteous judgments, the approach to God (or of God) they will delight in (or desire). The older writers understand this as a description of hypocrisy, as practised in a formal seeking (i. e. worshipping) of God and a professed desire to know his ways (i. e. the doctrines and duties of the true religion), the external appearance of a just and godly people, who delight in nothing more than in drawing near to God (i. e. in worship and communion with him). But all the later German writers put a very different sense upon the passage. They apply it not to hypocritical formality, but to a discontented and incredulous impatience of delay in the fulfilment of God's promises. According to this view of the matter, seeking God daily means importunate solicitation; delight in the knowledge of his ways is eager curiosity to know his providential plans and purposes; the judgments of righteousness which they demand are either saving judgments for themselves or destroying judgments for their enemies; the approach which they desire is not their own approach to God but his approach to them for their deliverance; and the words like a nation etc. are descriptive not of a simulated piety, but of a self-righteous belief that by their outward services they had acquired a meritorious claim to the divine interposition in their favour. It is somewhat remarkable that a sentence of such length should without violence admit of two interpretations so entirely different, and the wonder is enhanced by the fact that both the senses may be reconciled with the ensuing context. The only arguments which seem to be decisive in favour of the first, are its superior simplicity and the greater readiness with which it is suggested to most readers by the language of the text itself, together with the fact that it precludes the necessity of limiting the words to the Babylonish exile, for which limitation there is no ground either in the text or context.

3. Why have we fasted and thou hast not seen (it), afflicted our soul (or ourselves) and thou wilt not know (it)? Behold, in the day of your fast ye will find pleasure, and all your labours ye will exact. The two interpretations which have been propounded of the foregoing verse agree in making this a particular exemplification of the people's self-righteous confidence in the meritorious efficacy of their outward services. The first clause contains their complaint, and the last the prophet's answer. The structure of the first clause is like that in ch. 5:4. 50:2. In our idiom the idea would be naturally thus expressed, Why dost thou not see when we fast, or recognize our merit when we mortify ourselves before thee? The word soul here may either mean the appetite, or the soul as distinguished from the body, or it may supply the place of the reflexive pronoun self, which last is entitled to the preference, because the context shows that their mortifications were not of a spiritual but of a corporeal nature. The combination of the preterite (hast not seen) and the future (wilt not know) includes all time. The clause describes Jehovah as indifferent and inattentive to their laboured austerities. The reason given is analogous to that for the rejection of their sacrifices in ch. 1:11-13, viz. the combination of their formal service with unhallowed practice. The meaning of the next clause is that they made their pretended self-denial a means or an occasion of sinful gratification. The remaining member of the sentence has been variously explained. According to the Septuagint and Vulgate, it charges them with specially oppressing their dependants at such times. Luther supposes a particular allusion to the treatment of debtors. Some prefer the specific sense of labourers or workmen forced to toil on fast-days as at other times. Ye exact all your labours, i. e. all the labour due to you from your dependants.

4. Behold, for strife and contention ye will fast, and to smite with the fist of wickedness; ye shall not (or ye will not) fast to-day (so as) to make your voice heard on high. Some understand this as a further reason why their fasts were not acceptable to God; others suppose the same to be continued, and refer what is here said to the maltreatment of the labourers or debtors mentioned in the verse preceding. To smite with the fist of wickedness is a periphrasis for fighting, no doubt borrowed from the provision of the law in Ex. 21:18. Some early writers understand the last clause as a prohibition of noisy quarrels, to make the voice heard on high being taken as equivalent to letting it be heard in the street (ch. 42:2). The later writers give it a meaning altogether different, by taking ... in the sense of heaven (ch. 57:15), and the whole clause as a declaration that such fasting would not have the desired effect of gaining audience and acceptance for their prayers.

5. Shall it be like this, the fast that I will choose, the day of man's humbling himself? Is it to hang his head like a bulrush and make sackcloth and ashes his bed? Wilt thou call this a fast, and a day of acceptance (an acceptable day) to Jehovah? The general meaning of this verse is clear, although its structure and particular expressions are marked with a strong idiomatic peculiarity which makes exact translation very difficult. The interrogative form, as in many other cases, implies strong negation mingled with surprise. Nothing is gained but something lost by dropping the future forms of the first clause. The second member of the first clause is not part of the contemptuous description of a mere external fast, but belongs to the definition of a true one, as a time for men to practise self-humiliation. He does not ask whether the fast which he chooses is a day for a man to afflict himself, implying that it is not, which would be destructive of the very essence of a fast; but he asks whether the fast which he has chosen as a time for men to humble and afflict themselves is such as this. i e. a mere external self-abasement. The effect of fasting as an outward means and token of sincere humiliation, may be learned from the case of Ahab (1 Kings 21:27-29) and the Ninevites (Jonah 3:5-9). The use of sackcloth and ashes in connection with fasting is recorded in Esther 9:3.

6. Is not this the fast that I will choose, to loosen bands of wickedness, to undo the fastenings of the yoke, and to send away the crushed (or broken) free, and every yoke ye shall break? Most interpreters suppose a particular allusion to the detention of Hebrew servants after the seventh year, contrary to the express provisions of the law (Ex. 21: 2. Lev. 25. 39, 41. Deut. 15: 12). It is evident, however, that the terms were so selected as to be descriptive of oppression universally; to make which still more evident, the Prophet adds a general command or exhortation, Ye shall break every yoke. The change of construction in the last clause from the infinitive to the future, is so common as to be entitled to consideration, not as a solecism but a Hebrew idiom. There is no need therefore of adopting the indirect and foreign construction, that ye break every yoke. Some understand this passage as expressly condemning and prohibiting all fasts, but most writers still maintain the old opinion, that it merely shows the spirit which is necessary to a true fast.

7. Is it not to break unto the hungry thy bread? and the afflicted, the homeless, thou shalt bring home; for thou shalt see one naked and shalt clothe him, and from thine own flesh shah not hide thyself. The change of construction to the future in the first clause is precisely the same as in the preceding verse. The construction of the second clause is similar to that in v. 2. It is best to retain the form of the original, not only upon general grounds, but because thou shalt see the naked seems to be a substantive command corresponding to thou shalt not hide thyself. For the use of flesh to signify near kindred, see Gen. 29:14. 37:27. 2 Sam. 5:1. With the general precepts of the verse compare ch. 32:6. Job 31:16-22. Ez. 18:7. Prov. 22:9. Ps. 112:9. Matt. 25:36. Rom. 12:13. Heb. 13:2, 3. James 2: 15, 16; and with the last clause, Matt. 15:5, 6.

8. Then shall break forth as the dawn thy light, and thy healing speedily shall spring up; then shall go before thee thy righteousness, and the glory of Jehovah shall be thy rereward (or bring up thy rear). It is evident that the writer has here lost sight of the particular example upon which he had been dwelling so minutely. and is now entirely occupied with the effects which would arise from a conformity to God's will, not in reference to fasting merely, but to every other part of duty. Then, i. e. when this cordial compliance shall have taken place. The verb to break forth (literally, to be cleft), elsewhere applied to the hatching of eggs (ch. 59:5) and the gushing of water (ch. 35:6), is here used in reference to the dawn or break of day, a common figure for relief succeeding deep affliction. (See ch. 8:20. 9:2. 60:1.) By a mixture of metaphors, which does not in the least obscure the sense, this healing is here said to sprout or germinate, a figure employed elsewhere to denote the sudden, rapid, and spontaneous growth or rise of anything. (See above, on ch. 42:9 and 43:19.) In the last clause a third distinct figure is employed to express the same idea, viz. that of a march like the journey through the wilderness, with the pillar of cloud, as the symbol of God's presence, going before and after. (See above, on ch. 52:12; and compare Ex. 13:21. 14:19.) Jehovah here assumes the conduct of his people, as their righteousness or justifier. (See Jer. 23:6. 33:16; and compare Isaiah 54:17.) The parallel term glory may then be understood as denoting the manifested glory of Jehovah, or Jehovah himself in glorious epiphany; just as his presence with his people in the wilderness was manifested by the pillar of cloud and of fire, which sometimes went before them and at other times brought up their rear. (See above, on ch. 52:12.)

9. Then shalt thou call and Jehovah will answer, thou shalt cry and he will say, Behold me (here I am), if thou wilt put away from the midst of thee the yoke, the pointing of the finger, and the speaking of vanity. The then may either be connected with what goes before or correspond to if in the other clause, like then, when, in English. The conditional form of the promise implies that it was not so with them now, of which indeed they are themselves represented as complaining in v. 3. The idea of this verse might be expressed in the occidental idiom by saying, when thou callest, Jehovah will answer; when thou criest, he will say, Behold me. (See above, on ch. 50:2.) The yoke is again mentioned as the symbol of oppression. (See v. 6.) The pointing of the finger is a gesture of derision. The Arabs have a verb derived from finger and denoting scornful ridicule. The object of contempt in this case may be the pious or the unfortunate. Words of vanity in Zech. 10:2 means falsehood, which is here retained by some, while others give it the specific sense of slander, secret and malignant machination, censorious and unnecessary fault-finding, strife and bickerings. All these may be included in the general sense of evil speech or wicked words.

10. And (if) thou wilt let out thy soul to the hungry, and the afflicted soul wilt satisfy, then shall thy light arise in the darkness, and thy gloom as the (double light or) noon. The figure in the last clause is a common one for happiness succeeding sorrow. (See Judg. 5:31. Ps. 112:4. Job 11:17.)

11. And Jehovah will guide thee ever, and satisfy thy soul in drought, and thy bones will he invigorate, and thou shalt be like a watered garden, and like a spring of water whose waters shall not fail. The promise of guidance had already been given in ch. 57:18. (Compare Ps. 73:24. 78:14.) The common version of the next clause (and make fat thy bones) is sanctioned by the Septuagint, but the version strengthen is adopted by most modern writers. Similar allusions to the bones as the seat of strength occur in Ps. 51: 10 (8) and Job 21: 24. The figure in the last clause is the converse of that in ch. 1:30. There is here a climax. Not content with the image of a well-watered garden, he substitutes that of the stream, or rather of the spring itself. The general idea is a favourite with Isaiah. (See above, ch. 30:25. 33:21. 35:6, 7. 41:17. 43:20. 44: 4. 48:21. 49:10.) The exodus from Egypt had already made these images familiar and appropriate to any great deliverance.

12. And they shall build from thee the ruins of antiquity (or perpetuity). foundations of age and age (i. e. of ages) shalt thou raise up; and it shall be called to thee (or thou shalt be called) Repairer of the breach, Restorer of paths for dwelling. From thee denotes something more than mere connection or descent, and, unless forbidden by something in the context, must be taken to signify a going forth from Israel into other lands. Thus understood, the clause agrees exactly with the work assigned to Israel in these prophecies, viz. that of reclaiming the apostate nations, and building the wastes of a desolated world. As ... obviously refers to past time, this is the only natural interpretation of the corresponding phrase, generation and generation. Foundations which have lain bare, or buildings whose foundations have lain bare for ages. For this metaphor, compare Am. 9:11; for that of a highway, ch. 19:23. 35:8; and for that of the breach, Ez. 13:5. 22:30. For dwelling, i. e. that the land may be inhabited.

13. If thou wilt turn away thy foot from the Sabbath to do thy pleasure on my holy day, and wilt call the Sabbath a delight, (and) the holy (day) of Jehovah honourable, and wilt honour it by not doing thy own ways, by not finding thy pleasure and talking talk. The version of which some give, turn away thy foot on the Sabbath, is inconsistent with the form of the original, as well as with the figure, which is that of something trodden down and trampled, or at least encroached upon. The mere outward observance was of no avail, unless the institution were regarded with reverence, as of God; nay more, with complacency, as in itself delightful. To call it a delight is to acknowledge it to be such. As the construction of this Hebrew verb is foreign from our idiom, it may be best explained by a paraphrase. 'If thou wilt give to the Sabbath the name of a delight, and to the holy day or ordinance of Jehovah that of honourable.' But mere acknowledgement is not enough; it must not only be admitted to deserve honour, but in fact receive it. Hence he adds, and if thou wilt honour it thyself, by not doing, literally, away from doing, so as not to do. (See ch. 5:6. 49:15.) Doing thy own ways, although not a usual combination, is rendered intelligible by the constant use of way in Hebrew to denote a course of conduct. Speaking speech or talking talk is by some regarded as equivalent to speaking vanity, in v. 9. The modern writers, for the most part, are in favour of the explanation, speaking mere words, idle talk. (Compare Matt. 12:36.) As to the importance here attached to the Sabbath, see above, on ch. 56:2.

14. Then shalt thou be happy in Jehovah, and I will make thee ride upon the heights of the earth, and I will make thee eat the heritage of Jacob thy father, for Jehovah's mouth hath spoken it. The first verb is combined with the divine name elsewhere to express both a duty and a privilege. (Compare Psalm 37:4 with Job 22:26. 27:10.) The next phrase is descriptive of conquest and triumphant possession, as in Deut. 32:13, from which the expression is derived by all the later writers who employ it. To eat the heritage is to enjoy it and derive subsistence from it. It is called the heritage of Jacob, as distinct from that of Ishmael and Esau, although equally descended from the Father of the Faithful. The last clause is added to ensure the certainty of the event as resting not on human but divine authority. See above, on ch. 1:2.