Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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The fault of Israel's rejection is not in the Lord but in themselves, vs. 1, 2. They are charged with sins of violence and injustice, vs. 3, 4. The ruinous effects of these corruptions are described, vs. 5, 6. Their violence and injustice are as fatal to themselves as to others, vs. 7, 8. The moral condition of the people is described as one of darkness and hopeless degradation, vs. 9-15. In this extremity Jehovah interposes to deliver the true Israel, vs. 16, 17. This can only be effected by the destruction of the carnal Israel, v. 18. The divine presence shall no longer be subjected to local restrictions, v. 19. A Redeemer shall appear in Zion to save the true Israel, v. 20. The old temporary dispensation shall give place to the dispensation of the Word and Spirit, which shall last forever, v. 21.

1. Behold, not shortened is Jehovah's hand from saving, and not benumbed is his ear from hearing, i. e. so as not to save, and not to hear, or too short to save, too dull to hear. On this use of the preposition, see above on ch. 58:13, and the references there made. The Prophet merely pauses, as it were, for a moment, to exonerate his master from all blame, before continuing his accusation of the people. The beginning of a chapter here is simply a matter of convenience, as the following context has precisely the same character with that before it. The only explanation of the passage which allows it to speak for itself, without gratuitous additions or embellishments, is that which likens it to ch. 42:18-25, 43:22-28, and 50:1, 2, as a solemn exhibition of the truth that the rejection of God's ancient people was the fruit of their own sin, and not to be imputed either to unfaithfulness on his part, or to want of strength or wisdom to protect them. For the true sense of the metaphor here used, see above, on ch. 50:2.

2. But your iniquities have been separating between you and your God, and your sins have hid (his) face from you, so as not to hear. The general idea of this verse is otherwise expressed in Jer. 5:25, while in Lam. 3:44 the same prophet reproduces both the thought and the expression, with a distinct mention of the intervening object as a cloud, which may possibly have been suggested by the language of Isaiah himself in ch. 44:22. The force of the particle before the last verb is the same as in ch. 44:18 and 49:15. It does not mean specifically that he will not, much less that he cannot hear, but that he doth not hear. It is still better, however, to retain the infinitive form of the original by rendering it, (so as) not to hear.

3. For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken falsehood, your tongue will utter wickedness. The Prophet now, according to a common usage of the Scriptures, classifies the prevalent iniquities as sins of the hands, the mouth, the feet, as if to intimate that every member of the social body was affected. On the staining of the hands with blood, see above, ch. 1:15. The preterite and future forms describe the evil as habitual, and ought to be retained in the translation, were it only for the purpose of exhibiting the characteristic form of the original. The wide meaning of the whole description is evident from Paul's combining parts of it with phrases drawn from several Psalms remarkably resembling it, in proof of the depravity of human nature. (Rom. 3:15-17.)

4. There is none calling with (or for) justice, and there is none contending with truth; they trust in vanity and speak falsehood, conceive mischief and bring forth iniquity. Some understand the first clause as meaning that none demand justice because they have no hope of obtaining it. Others make calling parallel to contending, and with justice to with truth. 'No one pleads fairly or sues honestly.'

5. Eggs of the basilisk they have hatched, and webs of the spider they will spin (or weave); the (one) eating of their eggs shall die, and the crushed (egg) shall hatch out a viper. The figure of the serpent is substantially the same as in ch. 14:29. (Compare Deut. 32:33 ) The precise varieties intended are of little exegetical importance. The figure of the spider's web is added to express the idea both of hurtfulness and futility. (See Job 8:14.)

6. Their webs shall not become (or be for) clothing, and they shall not cover themselves with their works; their works are works of mischief (or iniquity), and the doing of violence is in their hands. The first clause does not seem to form a part of what the writer meant at first to say, but is a kind of after-thought, by which he gives a new turn to the sentence, and expresses an additional idea without a change of metaphor. Having introduced the spider's web, in connection with the serpent's egg, as an emblem of malignant and treacherous designs, he here repeats the first but for another purpose, namely, to suggest the idea of futility and worthlessness. This application may have been suggested by the frequent reference to webs and weaving as conducive to the comfort and emolument of men; but spiders' webs can answer no such purpose. The idea that it is not fit or cannot be applied to this end, although not exclusively expressed, is really included in the general declaration that they shall not be so used. Works in the first clause simply means what they have made; but in the second, where the metaphor is dropped, this version would be inadmissible.

7. Their feet to evil will run, and they will hasten to shed innocent blood; their thoughts are thoughts of mischief (or iniquity); wasting and ruin are in their paths. The first clause expresses not a mere disposition, but an eager proclivity to wrong. The word translated thoughts has here and elsewhere the specific sense of purposes, contrivances, devices. Their paths are the paths in which their feet run to evil and make haste to shed innocent blood. The two nouns combined in the last clause strictly denote desolation and crushing, i. e. utter ruin. With this verse compare Prov. 1:16, and the evil way of ch. 55:7 above.

8. The way of peace they have not known, and there is no justice in their paths; their courses they have rendered crooked for them; every one walking in them knows not peace. The obvious and simple meaning is, that their lives are not pacific but contentious. The erroneous principle involved in all specific interpretations is refuted by the comprehensive sense which the apostle puts upon the words in the passage which has been already cited (Rom. 3:15-17).

9. Therefore is judgment far from us, and righteousness will not overtake us; we wait for light and behold darkness; for splendours, (and) in obscurities we walk. The future form of all the verbs in this verse intimates that they expect this state of things to continue.

10. We grope like the blind for the wall, like the eyeless we grope; we stumble at noonday as in twilight, in thick darkness like the dead. These figures are expressive not only of physical but of moral evil. Compare Deut. 28:29 and Zeph. 1:17.

11. We growl like the bears, all of us, and like the doves we moan (we) moan; we wait for justice and there is none, for salvation (and) it is far from us. The Latin poets also speak of the voice of bears and doves as a gemitus or groaning. (See above, ch. 38:14, and Ezek. 7:16.) The same effect which is produced in the first clause by the use of the phrase all of us, is produced in the other by the idiomatic repetition of the verb. Here, as in v. 9, we may understand by judgment or justice that which God does by his providential dispensations both to his people and his enemies.

12. For our transgressions are multiplied before thee, and our sins testify against us; for our transgressions are with us, and our iniquitieswe know them. The Prophet here begins a general confession in the name of God's people. For the form of expression, compare Ps. 51:5 (3).

13. To transgress and lie against Jehovah, and to turn back from behind our God, to speak oppression and departure, to conceive and utter from the heart words of falsehood. The specifications of the general charge are now expressed by an unusual succession of infinitives, because the writer wished to concentrate and condense his accusation. This rhetorical effect is materially injured by the substitution of the finite verb. Although by no means equal in conciseness to the Hebrew, our infinitive may be employed as the most exact translation. Departure means departure from the right course or the law, i. e. transgression or iniquity.

14. And judgment is thrust (or driven) back, and righteousness afar off stands; for truth has fallen in the street, and uprightness cannot enter. The description is now continued in the ordinary form by the finite verb. The word translated street properly means an open place or square, especially the space about the gate of an oriental town, where courts were held and other public business was transacted. (See Job 29:7. Neh. 8:1.) The present form which seems to be required by our idiom is much less expressive than the preterite and futures of the original. Those interpreters who commonly apply whatever is said of tyranny to the oppression of the Jews in exile are compelled in this case, where the sin is charged upon the Jews themselves, to resort to the imaginary fact of gross misgovernment among the exiles, for the purpose of avoiding the conclusion that the passage has respect to a condition of society like that described in the first chapter.

15. Then truth was missed (i. e. found wanting), and whoso departed from evil made himself a prey (or was plundered). Then Jehovah saw and it was evil in his eyes that there was no judgment (or practical justice). The passive participle is here used with the substantive verb, as the active is in v. 2, to denote anterior habitual action.

16. And he saw that there was no man, and he stood aghast that there was no one interposing; and his own arm saved for him, and his own righteousness, it upheld him. The repetition of the words and he saw connects this verse in the closest manner with the one before it. What was wanting was not merely a qualified man, but any man whatever, to maintain the cause of Israel and Jehovah. A like absolute expression is employed in 2 Kings 14:26, where it is said that Jehovah saw the affliction of Israel, that it was very bitter, and that there was no helper for Israel, not merely no sufficient one, but none at all. The desperate nature of the case is then described in terms still stronger and only applicable to Jehovah by the boldest figure. The common version (wondered), though substantially correct, is too weak to express the full force of the Hebrew word, which strictly means to be desolate, and is used in reference to persons for the purpose of expressing an extreme degree of horror and astonishment. (See Ps. 143:4, and compare the colloquial use of désolé in French.) As applied to God, the term may be considered simply anthropopathic, or as intended to imply a certain sympathetic uniou with humanity, arising from the mode in which this great intervention was to be accomplished. ... strictly denotes causing to meet or come together, bringing into contact. Hence it is applied to intercessory prayer, and this sense is expressed here by the Chaldee paraphrase. But the context, etymology, and usage, all combine to recommend the wider sense of intervention, interposition, both in word and deed. (See above, on ch. 53:12.) The full force of the last clause can be given in English only by the use of the emphatic form his men, which is implied but cannot be distinctly expressed in the original except by a periphrasis. To do anything with one's own hand or arm, is an expression frequently used elsewhere to denote entire independence of all foreign aid. (See Judges 7:2. 1 Sam. 25:26. Ps. 44:3. 98:1.) The simple and exact translation of the whole clause is, his arm saved for him, leaving the object to be gathered from the context, namely, Israel or his people. This same idea is expressed in the last words of the verse, where his righteousness sustained him means that he relied or depended upon it exclusively. By righteousness in this case we are not to understand a simple consciousness of doing right, nor the possession of a righteous cause, nor a right to do what he did, all which are modifications of the same essential meaning, nor a zealous love of justice. It is far more satisfactory to give the word its strict and proper sense as denoting an attribute of God, here joined with his power, to show that what are commonly distinguished as his moral and his natural perfections are alike pledged to this great work, and constitute his only reliance for its execution. The extraordinary character of this description, and the very violence which it seems to offer to our ordinary notions of the divine nature, unavoidably prepare the mind for something higher than the restoration of the Jews from exile, or the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans.

17. And he clothed himself with righteousness as a coat of mail, and a helmet of salvation on his head, and he clothed himself with garments of vengeance (for) clothing, and put on, as the cloak (or tunic) jealousy. The writer here carries out in detail his general declaration that Jehovah undertook the cause of Israel himself, under figures borrowed from the usages of war. The older writers have in vain perplexed themselves with efforts to determine why righteousness is called a breastplate, or salvation a helmet, and to reconcile the variations in Paul's copies of this picture (Eph. 6:14-17. 1 Thess. 5:8) with the original. That the figures in this case were intended to convey the general idea of martial equipment, may be gathered from the fact that there is no reference whatever to offensive weapons. The particular expressions of the verse need little explanation. The first piece of armour specified is not the breastplate, as the older writers generally render it, perhaps in reference to Eph. 6:14, but the habergeon or coat of mail. The first and third terms denote parts of armour properly so called, the second and fourth the dress as distinguished from the armour. The last is either the tunic or the military cloak, often mentioned in the classies as being of a purple colour. The same noun is construed with the same verb in 1 Sam. 28:14. The meaning of the whole verse is, that God equipped himself for battle, and arrayed his power, justice, and distinguishing attachment to his people, against their persecutors and oppressors.

18. According to (their) deeds, accordingly will he repay, wrath to his enemies, (their) desert to his foes, to the isles (their) desert will he repay. The essential meaning of this verse is evident and undisputed; but the form of expression in the first clause is singular, if not anomalous. The difficulty, however, is not exegetical, but purely grammatical, arising from the unexampled use of the preposition ... without an object: According to their deedsaccording towill he repay. The latest writers seem to have come back to the simple and obvious supposition of the oldest that it is a case of anomalous ellipsis, the object of the preposition being not expressed, but mentally repeated from the foregoing clause: According to their deeds, according to (them), he will repay. (Compare the Hebrew of Ps. 45.) In the mere repetition there is nothing singular, but rather something characteristic of the Prophet. (See above, ch. 52:6.) The English Version happily approaches to a perfect reproduction of the Hebrew expression by employing the cognate terms according and accordingly, which has the advantage of retaining essentially the same term, and yet varying it so as to avoid a grammatical anomaly by which it might have been rendered unintelligible. The only satisfactory solution of the last clause is the one afforded by the hypothesis that the salvation here intended is salvation in the highest sense from sin and all its consequences, and that by Israel and the Isles (or Gentiles) we are to understand the church or people of God, and the world considered as its enemies and his.

19. And they shall fear from the west the name of Jehovah, and from the rising of the sun his glory; for it shall come like a straitened stream, the spirit of Jehovah raising a banner in it. The name and glory of Jehovah are here not only parallels but synonymes, as we learn from other places where the two terms are jointly or severally used to signify the manifested excellence or glorious presence of Jehovah. (See above, ch. 30:27. 35:2. 40:5. 42:12.) There is something pleasing, if no more, in the suggestion that the usual order of the east and west (ch. 43:5. Mal. 1:11) is here reversed, as if to intimate that the diffusion of the truth shall one day take a new direction, an idea which has been applied specifically to the Christian missions of Great Britain and America, not only to new countries but to Asia, the cradle of the gospel, of the law, and of the human race. The last clause of this verse has been a famous subject of dispute among interpreters, who differ more or less in reference to every word, as well as to the general meaning of the whole. From the combination of these various senses have resulted several distinct interpretations of the whole clause, two of which deserve to be particularly mentioned, as the two between which most writers have been and are still divided. The first of these is the interpretation found, as to its essence, in several of the ancient versions, and especially the Vulgate, cum venerit quasi fluvius violentus quem Spiritus Domini cogit. This is substantially retained by Luther and by Lowth, when he shall come, like a river straitened in his course, which a strong wind driveth along. It is also given by most of the recent German writers, with trivial variations. The other principal interpretation explains the whole to mean that when the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the Lord shall lift up a standard against him. This is the version of the English and Dutch Bibles, and of many eminent interpreters. Between these two main interpretations there are others too numerous to be recited, which agree essentially with one, but in some minor points coincide with the other, or dissent from both. The common version of this vexed clause is entirely defensible. and clearly preferable to the one which has so nearly superseded it. Considering, however, the objections to which both are open, it may be possible to come still nearer to the true sense by combining what is least objectionable in the other expositions. On the whole, the meaning of the verse appears to be, that the ends of the earth shall see and fear the name and glory of Jehovah, because when he approaches as their enemy, it will be like an  overflowing stream (ch. 8:7, 8. 28:15), in which his Spirit bears aloft the banner or the signal of victory.

20. Then shall come for Zion a Redeemer, and for the converts of apostasy in Jacob, saith Jehovah. The expression converts of transgression or apostasy is perfectly intelligible, though unusual and perhaps without example; since according to analogy the phrase would seem to mean those relapsing into apostasy, the impossibility of which conspires with the context to determine as the true sense that which every reader spontaneously attaches to it.

21. And I (or as for me), this (is) my covenant with them, saith Jehovah. My Spirit which is on thee, and my words which I have placed in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed's seed, saith Jehovah, from henceforth and forever (or from now and to eternity). The absolute pronoun at the beginning is not merely emphatic, but intended to intimate a change of person, God himself re-appearing as the speaker. There may also be allusion to the similar use of the pronoun in the promise to Noah (Gen. 9:9), which was ever present to the mind of Jewish readers as the great standing type and model of God's covenants and promises. The only natural antecedent of the pronoun them is the converts of apostasy in Jacob, to whom the promise in v. 20 is limited. These are then suddenly addressed, or rather the discourse is turned to Israel himself, as the progenitor or as the ideal representative of his descendants, not considered merely as a nation but as a church, and therefore including proselytes as well as natives, Gentiles as well as Jews, nay believing Gentiles to the exclusion of the unbelieving Jews. This is not a mere incidental application of Old Testament expressions to another subject, but a protracted and repeated exposition of the mutual relations of the old and new economy and of the natural and spiritual Israel. To this great body, considered as the Israel of God, the promise now before us is addressed, a promise of continued spiritual influence exerted through the word and giving it effect. The phrase upon thee here as elsewhere implies influence from above and has respect to the figure of the Spirit's descending and abiding on the object. The particular mention of the mouth cannot be explained as having reference merely to the reception of the word, in which case the ear would have been more appropriate. The true explanation seems to be that Israel is here, as in many other parts of this great prophecy, regarded not merely as a receiver but as a dispenser of the truth, an office with which as we have seen the Body is invested in connection with the Head, and in perpetual subordination to him. Israel, as well as the Messiah, and in due dependence on him, was to be the light of the Gentiles, the reclaimer of apostate nations, and in this high mission and vocation waa to be sustained and prospered by the never-failing presence of the Holy Spirit, as the author and the finisher of all revelation. (See above, ch. 42:1-7. 44:1-3. 49:1-9. 51:16. 54:3. 56:6-8. 58:12, and compare Jer. 31:31. Joel 2:28. Ezek. 36:27. 39:29.)