Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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Having repeatedly and fully shown that the national preeminence of Israel was not to be perpetual, that the loss of it was the natural consequence and righteous retribution of iniquity, and that this loss did not involve the destruction of the true church or spiritual Israel, the Prophet now proceeds to show that to the latter the approaching change would be a glorious and blessed one. He accordingly describes it as a new and divine light rising upon Zion, v. 1. He contrasts it with the darkness of surrounding nations, v. 2. Yet these are not excluded from participation in the light, v. 3. The elect in every nation are the children of the church, and shall be gathered to her, vs. 4, 5. On one side, he sees the oriental caravans and flocks approaching, vs. 6, 7. On the other, the commercial fleets of western nations, vs. 8, 9. What seemed to be rejection is in fact the highest favour, v. 10. The glory of the true church is her freedom from local and national restrictions, v. 11. None are excluded from her pale but those who exclude themselves and thereby perish, v. 12. External nature shall contribute to her splendour, v. 13. Her very enemies shall do her homage, v. 14. Instead of being cast off, she is glorified forever, v. 15. Instead of being identified with one nation, she shall derive support from all, v. 16. All that is changed in her condition shall be changed for the better, v. 17. The evils of her former state are done away, v. 18. Even some of its advantages are now superfluous, v. 19. What remains shall no longer be precarious, v. 20. The splendour of this new dispensation is a moral and a spiritual splendour, but attended by external safety and protection, vs. 21, 22. All this shall certainly and promptly come to pass at the appointed time, v. 22.

Here as elsewhere the new dispensation is contrasted as a whole with that before it. We are not therefore to seek the fulfilment of the prophecy in any one period of history exclusively, nor to consider actual corruptions and afflictions as inconsistent with the splendid vision of the New Jerusalem presented to the Prophet, not in its successive stages, but in one grand panoramic view.

1. Arise, be light; for thy light is come, and the glory of Jehovah has risen upon thee. These are the words of Isaiah, speaking in the name of God to Zion or Jerusalem, not merely as a city, nor even as a capital, but as the centre, representative, and symbol of the church or chosen people. A precisely analogous example is afforded by the use of the name Rome in modern religious controversy, not to denote the city or the civil government as such, but the Roman Catholic Church, with all its parts, dependencies, and interests. The one usage is as natural and intelligible as the other; and if no one hesitates to say that Newman has apostatized to Rome, or that his influence has added greatly to the strength of Rome in England, no one can justly treat it as a wresting of the Prophet's language to explain it in precisely the same manner. The object of address is here so plain that several of the ancient versions actually introduce the name Jerusalem. The common version shine is defective only in not showing the affinity between the verb and noun which is so marked in the original. The English risen is also less expressive, because more ambiguous and vague, than the Hebrew verb, which means not to rise in general, but to rise above the horizon, to appear. The glory of Jehovah is his manifested presence, with allusion to the cloudy pillar and the Shechinah. Upon thee represents Jerusalem as exposed and subjected to the full blaze of this rising light. Light, and especially the light imparted by the divine presence, is a common figure for prosperity, both temporal and spiritual. This is a direct continuation of the foregoing context, and what follows is distinguished from what goes before only by the increasing prominence with which the normal and ideal perfection of the church is set forth, as the prophecy draws near to a conclusion.

2. For behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and a gloom the nations, and upon thee shall Jehovah rise, and his glory upon thee shall be seen. The general description in the first verse is now amplified and carried out into detail. Of this specification the verse before us contains only the beginning. To regard it as the whole would be to make the Prophet say the very opposite of what he does say. The perfection of the glory promised to the church is not to arise from its contrast with the darkness of the world around it, but from the diffusion of its light until that darkness disappears. The Prophet here reverts for a moment to the previous condition of the world, in order to describe with more effect the glorious change to be produced. He is not therefore to be understood as saying that Zion shall be glorious because while the nations are in darkness she is to enjoy exclusive light, but because the light imparted to her first shall draw the nations to her. Jehovah and his glory, which are jointly said to rise in the preceding verse, are here divided between two parallel members, and the rising predicated of the first alone.

3. And nations shall walk in thy light, and kings in the brightness of thy rising, i. e. thy rising brightness, or the bright light which shall rise upon thee. The common version, to thy light, may seem at first sight more exact than the one here given, but is really less so. The Hebrew preposition here used does not correspond to our to as a particle of motion or direction, but expresses relation in the widest and most general manner. It is often therefore interchanged with other particles, and to among the rest, but is not to be so translated here or in any other case without necessity. In this case it seems to mean that they shall walk with reference to the light in question, which in English may be best expressed by in, but not as a literal translation. The sense thus yielded is in some respects better than the other, as suggesting the idea not of mere attraction but of general diffusion. By light we are then to understand the radiation from the luminous centre and not merely the centre itself. This explanation of the verse is given by the best of the modern interpreters. Some of these, however, arbitrarily apply it to the restoration of the Jews from exile, who were to be accompanied by heathen kings as their guides and protectors. As a prophecy this never was fulfilled. As a visionary anticipation it could never have been entertained by a contemporary writer, such as these interpreters suppose the author of the book to be.

4. Lift up thine eyes round about (i. e. in all directions) and see; all of them are gathered, they come to thee, thy sons from afar shall come, and thy daughters at the side shall be borne. See ch. 43:5-7 and 49:18-23. Those who confine these prophecies to the Babylonish exile, understand this as describing the agency of heathen states and sovereigns in the restoration. But in this, as in the parallel passages, there is, by a strange coincidence, no word or phrase implying restoration or return, but the image is evidently that of enlargement and accession; the children thus brought to Zion being not those whom she had lost, but such as she had never before known, as is evident from ch. 49: 21.

5. Then shalt thou see (or fear) and brighten up (or overflow), and thy heart shall throb and swell; because (or when) the abundance of the sea shall be turned upon thee, the strength of nations shall come unto thee. This translation exhibits the points of agreement as well as of difference among interpreters in reference to this verse. All agree that it describes a great and joyful change to be produced by the accession of the gentiles to the church or chosen people, and the effect of this enlargement on the latter. The form of the first verb is ambiguous. If rendered fear, it may denote the painful sensation which often attends sudden joy, and which is certainly described in the next clause. A fine parallel is quoted from Lucretius:

His tibi me rebus quaedam divina voluptas
Percipit aique horror.

The other meaning is sanctioned by all the ancient versions, and preferred by many of the best interpreters. Upon can hardly be a simple substitute for to, but is rather intended to suggest the same idea as when we speak of gifts or favours being showered or lavished on a person. This force of the particle is well expressed in Lowth's translation, when the riches of the sea shall be poured in upon thee, but with too little regard to the proper meaning of the Hebrew verb. The next clause is a repetition of the same thought, but without a figure. The most natural interpretation of the verse is that which makes it a promise of indefinite enlargement, comprehending both the persons and the riches of the nations. Even literally understood, the promise is intelligible and most welcome to the philanthropic Christian, as affording means for the diffusion of the truth and the conversion of the world.

6. A flood of camels shall cover thee, young camels (or dromedaries) of Midian and Ephah, all of them from Sheba shall come, gold and incense shall they bear, and the praises of Jehovah as good news. This last form of expression is adopted in order to convey the full force of the Hebrew verb, which does not mean simply to announce or even to announce with joy, but to announce glad tidings (See above, on ch 40:9.) Retaining this sense here, the word would seem to signify not the direct praise of God, but the announcement of the fact that others praised him, and the messengers would be described as bringing to Jerusalem the news of the conversion of their people. The literal translation of the first word throws light upon the phrase shall cover thee, a term elsewhere applied to water (e. g. ch. 11:9), and suggesting here the poetical idea of a city not merely thronged but flooded with Arabian caravans. The camel has been always so peculiarly associated with the Arabs that they are described by Strabo as .... They are here, according to Isaiah's practice, represented by a group of ancestral names. Ephah was the eldest son of Midian, who was himself the son of Abraham by Keturah and the brother of Jokshan the father of Sheba. (Gen. 25:1-4.) The first two represent northern and central Arabia, the third Arabia Felix, so called by the old geographers because of the rich products which it furnished to the northern traders, either from its own resources or as an entrepot of Indian commerce. The queen of this country, by whom Solomon was visited, brought with her gold, gems, and spices in abundance (1 Kings 10:2), and we read elsewhere of its frankincense (Jer. 6:20), its Phenician commerce (Ezek. 27:29), and its caravans (Job 6: 19), while those of Midian are mentioned even in the patriarchal history (Gen. 37:28). It is a common opinion of interpreters that this verse represents the east as joining in the acts of homage and of tribute which the one before it had ascribed to the west; but it may well be doubted whether this distinctive meaning can be put upon the terms sea and nations there employed, and the antithesis would hardly be in keeping with another which appears to be designed between these two verses and the eighth, as will be explained below.

7. All the flocks of Kedar shall be gathered for thee, the rams of Nebaioth shall minister to thee, they shall ascend with good-will (or acceptably) my altar, and my house of beauty I will beautify. To the traders of Arabia with their caravans and precious wares he now adds her shepherds with their countless flocks. Kedar, the second son of Ishmael (Gen. 25:13), who represents Arabia in ch. 21:16 and 42:11, is here joined for the same purpose with his elder brother Nebaioth, obviously identical with the Nabataei, the name given to the people of Arabia Petraea by Strabo and Diodorus Siculus, who represent them as possessed of no wealth except flocks and herds, in which they were extremely rich. Ezekiel also speaks of Tyre as trading with Arabia and all the chiefs of Kedar in lambs and rams and goats (Ezek. 27:21.) These are here described as gathered in one vast flock to Jerusalem, or rather for her, i. e. for her use or service, which agrees best with what follows, and with the usage of the Hebrew preposition. They are then, by a bold and striking figure, represented as offering themselves, which is first expressed by the general term serve or minister, and then more unequivocally by declaring that they shall themselves ascend the altar.

8. Who are these that fly as a cloud and as doves to their windows? The ships expressly mentioned in the next verse are here described in their first appearance at a distance, resembling with their outspread sails and rapid course a fleecy cloud driven by the wind, and a flight of doves returning to their young. Both comparisons are elsewhere used as here to indicate rapidity of motion. (Job 30:15. Ps. 55:6. Hos. 11:11. Jer. 4:13.) The last word in Hebrew denotes lattices or latticed windows.

9. Because for me the isles are waiting (or must wait), and the ships of Tarshish in the first place, to bring thy sons from far, their silver and their gold with them, for the name of Jehovah thy God, and for the Holy One of Israel, because he has glorified thee. This verse contains a virtual though not a formal answer to the question in the one before it. As if he had said, Wonder not that these are seen approaching, for the whole world is only awaiting my command to bring thy sons, etc. For the true sense of isles see above on ch. 42:4, and for ships of Tarshish. It is an interesting question, what we are to understand in this connection by the ships of Tarshish, to which such extraordinary prominence is given in the work of restoration. Here, as in many former instances, the writer does not even accidentally use any term explicitly denoting restoration or return, but only such as are appropriate to mere accession and increase ab extra. It cannot therefore be absurd, even if it is erroneous, to apply what is here said to the growth of the true Israel or chosen people by the calling of the gentiles,  with particular allusion to the wealth of the commercial nations, from among whom the elect of God, the sons of Zion, when they come to the embraces of their unknown mother, shall come bringing their silver and gold with them.

10. And strangers shall build thy walls, and their kings shall serve thee; for in my wrath I smote thee, and in my favour I have had mercy on thee. For the true sense of the phrase translated strangers, see above, on ch. 56:3; and with the last clause compare ch. 54:7, 8. The for relates to the whole of that clause taken together, not to the first member by itself. It was not because God had been angry, but because he had been angry and relented, that they were to be thus favoured. (See above, on ch. 12:1.) The Prophet here foretells the agency of strangers or new converts in promoting the safety and prosperity of Israel, under figures borrowed from the old economy, and implying a vicissitude or alternation of distress and joy, such as Isaiah frequently exhibits. The building of the walls here mentioned is the same as that in Ps. 51:20, (18,) and 147:2, where it is no more to be literally understood than the captivity of Zion in Ps. 14:7, or that of Job in ch. 42:10.

11. And thy gates shall open (or be open) continually, day and night they shall not be shut, to bring into thee the strength of nations and their kings led (captive or in triumph). According to some writers, there is here a resumption of the figures in v. 6, and the gates are represented as kept open day and night by the perpetual influx of Arabian caravans. But without going back to the peculiar imagery of that verse, we may understand the one before us as relating to the influx of strangers and new converts generally. The two ideas expressed are those of unobstructed access and undisturbed tranquillity. Upon this verse, perhaps combined with Zech. 14:7, is founded that beautiful and grand description, the gates of it shall not be shut at all by day, for there shall be no night there (Rev. 21:25). Strength has the same ambiguity or latitude of meaning as in v. 5. The sense of wealth or treasure is preferred by most of the late writers, but some understand it to mean military force. Better than either, because comprehending both, is the Latin version copia, to which we have no exact equivalent in English. The meaning of the last clause is that earthly sovereigns must unite in this adhesion to the true religion either willingly or by compulsion.

12. For the nation and the kingdom which will not serve thee shall perish, and the nations shall be desolated, desolated. Similar threatenings are found in Zechariah 12:2, 3, and 14:17, in the last of which places there is a specific threat of drought, as the appointed punishment. This has led some writers to explain the last verb here as meaning to be utterly dried up or parched. But in ch. 37:18, above, it is applied to nations in the general sense of desolation. The for at the beginning of the verse is commonly explained as introducing a reason for the confluence of strangers just before predicted, namely, the desire of escaping this destruction; but it may as well be understood to give a reason for the promise of increase in general. The gates of Zion shall be crowded, because all shall enter into them but those who are to perish. The nations in the last clause may mean the nations just described, or, as the common version expresses it, those nations. But it may also mean, perhaps more naturally, those who still continue to be gentiles, heathen, by refusing to unite themselves with Israel. The threatening in this verse is a very serious one, however understood; but it is also very strange and unaccountable if understood as meaning that all nations shall be utterly destroyed which will not serve the Jews when restored to their own country. Even if we give to serve the mitigated sense of showing favour and assisting, there is still something almost revolting in the penalty annexed to the omission; how much more if we understand it as denoting actual subjection and hard bondage. The whole is rendered clear by the assumption that the threatening was intended to apply, in its most obvious and strongest sense, to all those nations which refuse to be connected with the Church or Israel of God.

13. The glory of Lebanon to thee shall come, cypress, plane, and box together, to adorn the place of my sanctuary, and the place of my feet I will honour. The glory of Lebanon is its cedars. For the other trees here mentioned, see above, on ch. 41:19, where, as here, they are merely representatives of ornamental forest-trees in general. The place of my sanctuary has been generally understood to mean the sanctuary itself; but several of the latest writers understand by it Jerusalem, as being the place where the temple was erected. The same sense is put by some writers on the place of my feet, that is, the place where I habitually stand or walk. (Ezek. 43:7.) The older writers generally understand by it the ark of the covenant, considered as the footstool of Jehovah (1 Chron. 28:2. Ps. 99:5. 132:7) when enthroned upon or between the cherubim (ch. 37:16. Ps. 80:1). In favour of the wider sense is the analogy of ch. 66:1, where the same description is applied to the whole earth, but in reference to heaven as the throne of God. Another topic upon which interpreters have been divided, is the question whether the adorning mentioned here is that of cultivated grounds by living trees, or that of buildings by the use of the choicest kinds of timber. The latter opinion has most commonly prevailed, but the other is far more pleasing in itself and more in keeping with the poetical tone of the whole context. In either case the meaning of the figure is that the earthly residence of God shall be invested with the most attractive forms of beauty.

14. Then shall come to thee bending the sons of thy oppressors, then shall bow down to the soles of thy feet all thy despisers, and shall call thee the City of Jehovah, Zion the holy (place) of Israel (or the Zion of the Holy One of Israel). For the same ideas and expressions, see above, ch. 45:14 and 49:23. The act described is the oriental prostration as a sign of the profoundest reverence. The sons are mentioned either for the purpose of contrasting the successive generations more emphatically, or as a mere oriental idiom without distinctive meaning. In favour of the latter supposition is the circumstance that it is wanting in the other clause, where the despisers are themselves represented as doing the same thing with the sons of the oppressors. These humbled enemies are represented as acknowledging the claim of Zion to be recognized as the holy place and dwelling of Jehovah. On the supposition hitherto assumed as the basis of the exposition, this verse simply means that the enemies of the Church shall recognize her in her true relation to her divine Head.

15. Instead of thy being forsaken and hated and with none passing (through thee), I will place thee for a boast of perpetuity, a joy of age and age (i. e. forever). The first word may express either simply a change of condition (whereas), or the reason of the change (because), or the further idea of equitable compensation. The and at the beginning of the second clause in Hebrew is commonly regarded as the sign of the apodosis, and as such cannot be expressed in English.

16. And thou shalt suck the milk of nations, and the breast of kings shalt thou suck, and thou shaft know that I, Jehovah, am thy saviour, and (that) thy redeemer (is) the Mighty One of Jacob. All interpreters agree in applying this verse to the influx of wealth and power and whatever else the kings and nations of the earth can contribute to the progress of the true religion. The figure is derived from Deut. 33:19, they shall suck the abundance of the seas. The catachresis in the second clause is not a mere rhetorical blunder, but an example of the sense overmastering the style, a license the occasional use of which is characteristic of a bold and energetic writer. It also serves the useful purpose of showing how purely tropical the language is. Each member of the last clause contains a subject and a predicate, and therefore a complete proposition. The sense is not merely that Jehovah is the Mighty One of Jacob, but that the Mighty God of Jacob is Israel's redeemer, and the self-existent everlasting God his saviour.

17. Instead of brass (or copper) I will bring gold, and instead of iron I will bring silver, and instead of wood brass, and instead of stones iron, and I will place (or make) thy government peace and thy rulers righteousness. The thought which is naturally suggested by the words is that all things shall be changed for the better. The change described is not a change in kind, i. e. from bad to good, but in degree, i. e. from good to better; because the same tilings which appear to be rejected in the first clause are expressly promised in the second. See a similar gradation in ch. 30:26. Zech. 14:20. 1 Cor. 3:12. 15:41. The last clause resolves the figure into literal expressions, and thus shows that the promise has respect not to money but to moral advantages. .... properly means office, magistracy, government, here put for those who exercise it, like nobility, ministry, and other terms in English. (Compare the Hebrew of Ezek. 9:1. 2 Kings 11:18.) .... , which has commonly a bad sense, is here used for magistrates or rulers in general, for the purpose of suggesting, that instead of tyrants or exactors the people should now be under equitable government.

18. There shall no more be heard violence in thy land, desolation and ruin in thy borders (or within thy bounds); and thou shalt call salvation thy walls, and thy gates praise. The most natural explanation of the last clause is that which makes it mean that the walls shall afford safety (ch. 26:1) and the gates occasion of praise. Some understand by praise the praise of God for her continued safety; others the praise or fame of her defences, considered either as arising from victorious resistance to assault, or as preventing it. Thou shalt call, as in many other cases, means, thou shalt have a right and reason so to call them. With this verse compare ch. 65:19-25.

19. No more shall be to thee the sun for a light by day, and for brightness the moon shall not shine to thee, and Jehovah shall become thy everlasting light, and thy God thy glory. Some regard this merely as a figurative promise of prosperity, of which light is a natural and common emblem. Others understand it as a promise of God's residence among his people, clothed in such transcendent brightness as to make the light of the sun and the moon useless. The true sense of the figures seems to be, that all natural sources of illumination shall be swallowed up in the clear manifestation of the presence, power, and will of God. With this verse compare Rev. 21:23. 22:5.

20. Thy sun shall set no more, and thy moon shall not be withdrawn; for Jehovah shall be unto thee for an eternal light, and completed the days of thy mourning. There is no need of supposing any want of consistency between this verse and that before it, nor even that the Prophet gives a new turn to his metaphor. Thy sun shall set no more is evidently tantamount to saying, thou shalt no more have a sun that sets or a moon that withdraws herself, because etc. The active verb .... is used in the same way by Joel, where he says that the stars withdraw their brightness, i. e. cease to shine. The expression is generic, and may comprehend all failure or decrease of light, whether by setting, waning, or eclipse, or by the temporary intervention of a cloud. The last words of this verse furnish a key to the whole description, by identifying joy with light, and grief with darkness. Compare with this verse ch. 25:8. Zech. 14:7. Rev. 7:16. 21:4; and with the phrase, days of mourning, Gen. 27:41.

21. And thy people, all of them righteous, forever shall inherit the earth, the branch (or shoot) of my planting, the work of my hands, to glorify myself (or to be glorified). Compare ch. 4:2. 33:24. 35:8. 52:1. Rev. 21:7,27. The first clause may also be read as two distinct propositions, thy people all of them are (or shall be) righteous, forever they shall inherit the earth. According to the literal interpretation, so called, this is a promise that the Jews shall possess the Holy Land forever. But even granting land to be a more literal and exact translation, which it is not, still the usage of the Scriptures has attached to this prophetic formula a much higher meaning, the possession of the land being just such a type or symbol of the highest future blessings as the exodus from Egypt is of ultimate deliverance, or the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah of sudden, condign, irretrievable destruction. But in favour of the wider version, earth, is the analogy of ch. 49:8, where Israel is represented as occupying and restoring the desolate heritages of the whole earth. The dependence of God's people on himself for the origin and sustentation of their spiritual life is forcibly expressed by the figure of a plant which he has planted (Ps. 92:13. Matt. 15:13. John 15:1, 2), and by that of a work which he has wrought (ch. 29:23. 43:7), in reference to the last of which the Apostle says (Eph. 2:10), we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them; and in reference to the first, our Lord himself says (John 15:8), herein is my Father glorified that ye bear much fruit, so shall ye be my disciples; and again, with an entire change of figure (Matt. 5:16), let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven. The same ultimate design is set forth in the words of the verse before us, which predicts the elevation of the church to its normal or ideal state, a change of which we may already see the rudiments, however far we may be yet from its final consummation.

22. The little one shall become a thousand, and the small one a strong nation; I, Jehovah, in its time will hasten it. This verse is simply a description of increase, like that in ch. 26:15. 49:19, 20. etc. The pronouns in the last clause refer to the whole preceding series of prophecies. (Compare ch. 43:13. 46:11.) The his in the common version is equivalent to its in modern English, a possessive form apparently unknown to the translators of the Bible. I will hasten it has reference to the time ordained for the event, or may denote the suddenness of its occurrence, without regard to its remoteness or the length of the intervening period. (See above, on ch. 13:22.) The Jerusalem or Zion of this passage is not the primitive or apostolic church, to which the description is in many points inapplicable; whereas it is perfectly appropriate to the New Jerusalem, the Christian Church, not as it was, or is, or will be at any period of its history exclusively, but viewed in reference to the whole course of that history, and in contrast with the many disadvantages and hardships of the old economy.