Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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After describing the new condition of the Church, he again introduces the great personage by whom the change is to be brought about. His mission and its object are described by himself in vs. 1-3. Its grand result shall be the restoration of a ruined world, v. 4. The church, as a mediator between God and the revolted nations, shall enjoy their service and support, vs. 5, 6. The shame of God's people shall be changed to honour, v. 7. His righteousness is pledged to this effect v. 8. The church, once restricted to a single nation, shall be recognized and honoured among all, v. 9. He triumphs in the prospect of the universal spread of truth and righteousness, vs. 10, 11.

1. The Spirit of the Lord Jehovah (is) upon me, because Jehovah hath anointed me to bring good news to the humble, he hath sent me to bind up the broken in heart, to proclaim to captives freedom, and to the bound open opening (of the eyes or of the prison-doors). Unction in the Old Testament is not a mere sign of consecration to office, whether that of a Prophet, Priest, or King (1 Kings 19:16 Lev. 8:12. 1 Kings 1:39), but the symbol of spiritual influences, by which the recipient was both qualified and designated for his work. (See 1 Sam. 10:1,6. 16:13.) The office here described approaches nearest to the prophetic. The specific functions mentioned have all occurred and been explained before. (See above, on ch. 42:1-7. 43:16. 49:1-9. 50:4. 51:16) The proclamation of liberty has reference to the year of jubilee under the Mosaic law (Lev. 25:10, 13. 27:24. Jer. 34:8-10), which is expressly called the year of liberty or liberation by Ezekiel (46:17). For reasons which have been already given, the only natural sense which can be put upon the last words is that of spiritual blindness and illumination. (See above, on ch. 42:7. 50:10.) With this question is connected another as to the person here introduced as speaking. Many orthodox interpreters regard the question as decided by our Lord himself in the synagogue at Nazareth, when, after reading this verse and a portion of the next from the book of the Prophet Isaiah, he began to say unto them, this day is the scripture fulfilled in your ears. (Luke 4:16-22.) The brevity of this discourse, compared with the statement which immediately follows, that the people bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth, and connected with the singular expression that he began thus to say unto them, makes it probable that we have only the beginning or a summary of what the Saviour said on that occasion. That the whole is not recorded may however be regarded as a proof that his discourse contained no interpretation of the place before us which may not be gathered from the few words left on record, or from the text and context of the prophecy itself. Now it must be admitted that the words of Christ just quoted do not necessarily import that he is the direct and only subject of the prophecy; for even if the subject were Isaiah, or the Prophets as a class, or Israel, yet if at the same time the effects foretold were coming then to pass, our Lord might say, this day is this scripture fulfilled in your ears. Upon this ground some adopt the application to Isaiah, without disowning the authority of Christ as an interpreter of prophecy. But this restriction of the passage is at variance with what we have already seen to be the true sense of the parallel places (ch. 42:1-7 and ch. 49:1-9), where the form of expression is the same, and where all agree that the same speaker is brought forward. If it has been concluded on sufficient grounds that the ideal person there presented is the Messiah, the same conclusion cannot, without arbitrary violence, be avoided here, and thus the prophecy itself interprets our Lord's words instead of being interpreted by them. This in the present case is more satisfactory, because it cuts off all objection drawn from the indefinite character of his expressions. At the same time, and by parity of reasoning, a subordinate and secondary reference to Israel as a representative of the Messiah, and to the Prophets as in some sense the representatives of Israel as well as of Messiah in their prophetic character, must be admitted; and thus we are brought again to Christ as the last and the ideal Prophet, and to the ground assumed by the profound and far-seeing Calvin, for which he has been severely censured even by Calvinistic writers, and which has been called a concession to the Jews instead of a concession to candour, faith, good taste, and common sense.

2. To proclaim a year of favour for Jehovah and a day of vengeance for our God, to comfort all mourners. Clement of Alexandria inferred from the use of the word year in this verse that our Lord's public ministry was only one year in duration, a conclusion wholly irreconcilable with the gospel history. The expression is a poetical equivalent to day, suggested by the previous allusion to the year of jubilee. The same two words occur as parallels in ch. 34:8. 63:4, while in ch. 49:8 we have the general expression time of favour. For the meaning of the last words of the verse, see above, on ch. 49:13 and 57:18. They may either be descriptive of sufferers, as the persons needing consolation, or of penitents, as those who shall alone receive it.

3. To clothe Zion's mourners, to give them a crown, instead of ashes, the oil of joy for mourning; a garment of praise for a faint spirit; and it shall be called to them (or they shall be called) the oaks of righteousness, the planting of Jehovah (i. e. planted by Jehovah) to glorify himself. The construction seems to be interrupted and resumed, a practice not unfrequent with Isaiah. Of the many senses which might here be attached to the first verb, the most appropriate is that of putting on, as applied to dress, though with another particle, in Gen. 37:34. 41:42, and often elsewhere. The English version has appoint, which is justified by usage, but loss suitable in this case than the one above proposed. By the repetition of the word mourners, this verse is wrought into the foregoing context in a mode of which we have had several examples. (See above, on ch. 60:15.) Zion's mourners may be simply those who mourn in Zion, or those who mourn for her (ch. 66:10); but as these ideas are not incompatible, both may be included. (Compare ch. 57:18. 60:20.) That unguents were not used by mourners but rejoicers, may be learned from a comparison of 2 Sam. 14:2 with Ps. 23:5. The mixture not only of metaphors but also of literal and figurative language in this verse, shows clearly that it has respect to spiritual not external changes. (Compare ch. 44:4. 60:21.)

4. And they shall build up the ruins of antiquity, the desolations of the ancients they shall raise, and shall renew the cities of ruin (i. e. ruined cities), the desolations of age and age. Both the thought and language of this verse have been explained already. (See above, on ch. 49:8. 54:3. 58:12.) The verb renew is applied as in 2 Chr. 15:8. 24:4.

5. Then shall stand strangers and feed your flocks, and the children of outland (shall be) your ploughmen and your vinedressers. As to the meaning of this prophecy, interpreters are much divided. Some seem to take it in the strictest sense as a promise that the heathen should be slaves to the Jews. (See above, on ch. 14:2.) Others understand it as meaning that the Jews should confine themselves to spiritual services, and leave mere secular pursuits to the gentiles. Nearly allied to this is the explanation that the Jews and gentiles are described as sustaining the relation of priests and laymen to each other. Some qualify it still more by describing the relation to be that of the Levites to the other tribes, and even this restricted by the promise in ch. 66:21. But that verse shows conclusively that no exclusive promise of Levitical or sacerdotal rank to the Jews, as distinguished from the gentiles, can be here intended. This is confirmed by the language of Peter, who applies the promise of the next verse to the Christian church (1 Pet. 2:5). The only way in which all these seeming discrepancies can be reconciled, is by supposing, as we have done hitherto, that even in Ex. 19:6 the promise is addressed to Israel not as a nation but a church; so that when the Jewish people ceased to bear this character, they lost all claim to the fulfilment of the promise, which is still in force and still enures to the benefit of those to whom it was originally given, namely, the Israel of God, that is to say, his church or chosen people. That the holders of this office might in strict accordance with the usage of Scripture and of this book be described as shepherds, husbandmen, and vinedressers, may be seen by a comparison of ch 3:14. 5:1. 11:6 27:2. 30:23, 24. 40:11 with Acts 20:28. 1 Cor. 3:9. 9:7, and with the imagery of our Saviour's parables. It does not follow necessarily, however, that the office here assigned to strangers and foreigners is that of spiritual guides, much less that they are doomed to a degrading servitude. The simplest explanation of the verse is that which understands it as descriptive not of subjugation but of intimate conjunction, as if he had said, those who are now strangers and foreigners shall yet be sharers in your daily occupations and intrusted with your dearest interests. By strangers we ave then to understand not Gentiles as opposed to Jews, but all who have been aliens from the covenant of mercy and the church of God.

6. And ye (or more emphatically, as for you), the priests of Jehovah shall ye be called, the ministers of our God shall be said to you (or of you), the strength of nations shall ye eat, and in their glory shall ye substitute yourselves (or into their glory shall ye enter by exchange). Most of the earlier writers agree substantially in the version of the last word, which they regard as an orthographical variation of ... in Ps. 94:4, where it seems to denote talking of one's self, and, by a natural transition, glorying or boasting. But all the latest writers have gone back to the explanation of the word as denoting 'mutual exchange or substitution.' This word is important as determining the sense, not only of the whole verse, but of that before it, by requiring both to be considered as descriptive not of exaltation and subjection, but of mutual exchange, implying intimate association. Some, it is true, attempt to carry out the first idea even here, by making this last word denote an absolute exclusive substitution, i. e. the dispossession of the Gentiles by the Jews. But the context, etymology, and usage, all combine to recommend the idea of reciprocal exchange or mutual substitution. Interpreters, in seeking a factitious antithesis between the verses, have entirely overlooked the natural antithesis between the clauses of this one verse. They have supposed the contrast intended to be that between servitude and priesthood: 'they shall be your servants, and ye shall be their priests.' But we have seen already that the fifth verse cannot, in consistency with ch. 66:10, denote anything but intimate conjunction and participation The true antithesis is: 'ye shall be their priests. and they shall be your purveyors; you shall supply their spiritual wants, and they shall supply your temporal wants.' This explanation of the verse, to which we have been naturally led by philological induction and the context, coincides, in a manner too remarkable to be considered accidental, with the words of Paul in writing to the Romans of the contribution made by the churches of Macedonia and Achaia for the poor saints at Jerusalem. It hath pleased them verily, and their debtors they are (i. e. they have chosen to do it, and indeed were bound to do it); for if the gentiles have been made, partakers of their spiritual things, their duty is also to minister unto them in carnal things. (Rom. 15:27.) This may seem, however, to determine the object of address to be the Jews; but no such inference can fairly be deduced from the words of the Apostle, who is only making one specific application of the general truth taught by the Prophet. What was true of the gentile converts then, in relation to the Jewish Christians as their mother-church, is no less true of the heathen now, or even of the converted Jews, in reference to the Christians who impart the gospel to them. The essential idea in both places is, that the church, the chosen people, or the Israel of God, is charged with the duty of communicating spiritual things to those without, and entitled in return to an increase of outward strength from those who thus become incorporated with it. But it is not merely in this lower sense that the people of God are, in the law and the gospel, as well as in the prophets, represented as the ministers and priests of God. Not only as instructors and reclaimers of the unbelieving world do they enjoy this sacred dignity, but also as the only representatives of their Great High Priest, in him and through him possessing free access to the fountain of salvation and the throne of grace. (Heb. 4:14-16.) In this respect, as in every other which concerns the method of salvation and access to God, there is no distinction of Jew and Gentile, any more than of Greek and barbarian, male and female, bond and free; but all are Christ's, and Christ is God's, and all alike are priests and ministers of God.

7. Instead of your shame (ye shall have) double, and (instead of their) confusion they shall celebrate their portion; therefore in their land shall they inherit double, everlasting joy shall be to them. It is not impossible that the Prophet has in view the same two classes who are distinctly mentioned in the preceding verses. Double is used indefinitely to denote a large proportion. Compare ch. 40:2.

8. For I am Jehovah, loving justice, hating (that which is) taken away unjustly, and I will give their hire truly, and an everlasting covenant I strike for them. This verse is commonly applied to the violence practised upon Israel by the Babylonians. (Compare ch. 42:24.) It is rather an enunciation of the general truth, that the divine justice renders absolutely necessary the destruction of his obstinate enemies, and the deliverance of his people from oppression. (Compare 2 Thess. 1:6-8.)

9. Then shall be known among the nations their seed, and their issue in the midst of the peoples. All seeing them shall acknowledge them, that they are a seed Jehovah has blessed. The first clause means that they shall be known among the nations in their true character as a seed or race highly favoured of Jehovah. Issue means progeny or offspring, as in ch. 48:19. In order to apply this to the restored Jews, we must depart from the literal and obvious import of among and in the midst, and understand them as denoting merely that they shall be heard of; for how can they be said to be among and in the midst of the nations at the very time when they are gathered from them to their own land. And yet the whole connection seems to favour the first meaning, and to show that they are here described as being scattered through the nations, and there recognized by clear distinctive marks as being God's peculiar people, just as the Jews took knowledge of Peter and John that they had been with Jesus. (Acts 4:13.) The later writers liken the construction to that in Gen. 1:4, God saw the light that it was good; not simply saw that the light was good, but saw the light itself, and in so doing saw that it was good. So here the meaning is not merely that all seeing them shall acknowledge that they are a seed, etc., but that all seeing them shall recognize them, by recognizing the effects and evidences of the divine blessing. The ellipsis of the relative is the same in Hebrew and colloquial English. The true application of the verse is to the Israel of God in its diffusion among all the nations of the earth, who shall be constrained by what they see of their spirit, character, and conduct, to acknowledge that they are the seed which the Lord hath blessed. The glorious fulfilment of this promise in its original and proper sense, may be seen already in the influence exerted by the eloquent example of the missionary on the most ignorant and corrupted heathen, without waiting for the future restoration of the Jews to the land of their fathers.

10. (I will) joy, I will joy in Jehovah, let my soul exult in my God; for he hath clothed me with garments of salvation, a mantle of righteousness has he put on me, as the bridegroom adjusts his priestly crown, and as the bride arrays her jewels. These are the words of the same speaker who appears at the beginning of this chapter and the next. The reference in the last clause is no doubt to the sacerdotal mitre, which was probably regarded as a model of ornamental head-dress, and to which the Hebrew word is explicitly applied (Ex. 39:28. Ez. 44:18). Salvation and righteousness are here combined, as often elsewhere, to denote the cause and the effect, the justice of God as displayed in the salvation of his people. (See v. 8, above.) Or righteousness may be referred to the people, as denoting the practical justification afforded by their signal deliverance from suffering.

11. For as the earth puts forth its growth, and as the garden makes its plants to grow, so shall the Lord Jehovah make to grow righteousness and praise before all the nations. Compare ch. 45:8 and Ps. 85:11, 12. The exact construction of the first clause may be, like the earth (which) puts forth; or the idiom may resemble that in vulgar English which employs like as a conjunction no less than a preposition, like the earth puts forth. By praise we are to understand the manifestation of excellence in general, by righteousness that of moral excellence in particular. There is nothing either in the text or context to restrict this verse to the former restoration of the Jews from the Babylonian exile, any more than to their future restoration to the Holy Land. The glory of the promise is its universality, in which the fulfilment will no doubt be coextensive with the prophecy itself.