Isaiah Translated and Explained

by Joseph Addison Alexander

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The Creation Concept

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This chapter, like the one before it, from which it is in fact inseparable, has respect to the critical or turning point between the old and new dispensations, and presents it just as it might naturally have appeared to the believing Jews, i. e. the first Christian converts, at that juncture. The strongest confidence is expressed in the divine power, founded upon former experience, vs. 1-3. The two great facts of Israel's rejection as a nation, and the continued existence of the church, are brought together in v. 4. The unworthiness of Israel is acknowledged still more fully, vs. 5, 6. The sovereign authority of God is humbly recognized, v. 7. His favour is earnestly implored. v. 8. The external prerogatives of Israel are lost. v. 9. But will God for that cause cast off the true Israel, his own church or people? v. 10.

1. (2. ) As fire kindles brush, fire boils waterto make known thy name to thine enemies, from before thee nations shall tremble. The last clause coheres directly with the preceding verse, while the first is a parenthetical comparison; for which cause some of the latest writers throw the last words of ch. 63 into this sentence. Either of two constructions may be here adopted—as a fire of brushwood burns, or, as fire kindles brush—the last of which is preferred by most interpreters. as simpler in itself, and because fire is the subject of the verb in the next clause also. The point of comparison in both these clauses is the rapidity and ease with which the effect is produced. The literal effect is described in the next words, to make known thy name, i. e. to manifest thy being and thine attributes to thine enemies. In both parts of the sentence the construction passes as it were insensibly from the infinitive to the future, a transition not unfrequent in Hebrew syntax.

2. (3.) In thy doing fearful things (which) we expect not, (oh that) thou wouldst descend, (that) the mountains from before thee might flow down. There are two very different constructions of this verse. The English Version makes it a direct historical statement of a past event: When thou didst terrible things which we looked not for, thou camest down, the mountains flowed down at thy presence. This seems to be the simplest possible construction; but it is attended by a serious grammatical difficulty, viz. the necessity of referring the future to past time, without anything in the connection to facilitate or justify the version. On the other hand, this word appears to be decisive of the future bearing of the whole verse, and in favour of the syntax which supposes the influence of the optative particle to be still continued through this verse, as well as that before it: (Oh that) in doing terrible things, such as we expect not, thou wouldst come down, etc.

3. (4.) And from eternity they have not heard, they have not perceived by the ear, the eye hath not seen, a God beside thee (who) will do for (one) waiting for him. This verse assigns a reason why such fearful things should be expected from Jehovah, namely, because he alone had proved himself able to perform them. The verbs are indefinite, and mean that men in general have not heard, or, as we should say, that no one has heard, or in a passive form, it has not been heard. Do may be either taken absolutely, or as governing them, i. e. the fearful things mentioned in v. 2. Waiting for God implies faith, hope, and patient acquiescence. (See above, on ch. 40:31.) The construction here given is the one now commonly adopted, and is also given in the margin of the English Bible, while the text of that version makes God a vocative, and ascribes to him not only the doing but the knowledge of the fearful things in question. This construction agrees better with Paul's quotation (1 Cor. 2:9) of the words as descriptive of the gospel as a mystery or something hidden till revealed by the Spirit. (Compare Rom. 16:26, and Matt. 13:17.) But in this, as in many other cases, the apostle, by deliberately varying the form of the expression, shows that it was not his purpose to interpret the original passage, but simply to make use of its terms in expressing his own thoughts on a kindred subject.

4. (5.) Thou hast met with one rejoicing and executing righteousness; in thy ways shall they remember thee; behold, thou hast been wroth, and we hare sinned; in them is perpetuity, and we shall be saved. There is perhaps no sentence in Isaiah, or indeed in the Old Testament, which has more divided and perplexed interpreters, or on which the ingenuity and learning of the modern writers have thrown less light. To enumerate the various interpretations, would be endless and of no avail. Nothing more will here be attempted than to give the reader some idea of the various senses which have been attached to the particular expressions, as a means of showing that we have at best but a choice of difficulties, and of procuring for our own exposition a more favourable hearing than it might be thought entitled to in other circumstances. The first verb has been variously taken in the sense of meeting as an enemy and meeting as a friend, making a covenant, removing out of life, interceding, and accepting intercession. It has been construed as a simple affirmation, both in the past and present form; as a conditional expression and as the expression of a wish. The next verb has been also treated both as a direct and as a relative expression, they will remember thee, and those who remember thee. Thy ways has been explained to mean the ways of God's commandments and of his providential dispensations. In them has been referred to ways, to sins, to sufferings, to the older race of Israelites. ... has been treated as a noun and as an adverb; as meaning perpetuity, eternity, a long time, and forever. The last verb has been construed interrogatively (shall or could we be saved?), optatively (may we be saved), and indicatively, present, past, and future (we have been, are, or shall be saved). Of the various combinations of these elements on record, the most important in relation to the first clause are the following: Thou hast taken away those who rejoiced to do righteousness and remembered thee in thy ways. Thou didst accept the intercession of those who rejoiced etc. Thou didst encounter or resist as if they had been enemies those who rejoiced etc. Thou meetest as a friend him rejoicing etc. If thou meet with or light upon one rejoicing etc. they will remember thee in thy ways. Oh that thou mightest meet with one rejoicing etc. Of the second clause, the following constructions may be noted: In them (i. e. our sins) we have been always, and yet we shall be saved. We have sinned against them (i. e. thy ways) always, and yet have been delivered. In them (i. e. thy ways of mercy) there is continuance, and we are saved. Thou wast angry after we had sinned against them (i. e. our fathers), and yet we are safe. We have sinned in them (thy ways) of old, and can we be saved? In them (our miseries) there is long continuance; oh may we be saved! In them (the ways of duty) let us ever go, and we shall be saved. Had we been always in them (thy ways), we should have been saved. The general meaning of the sentence may be thus expressed in paraphrase: 'Although thou hast cast off Israel as a nation, thou hast nevertheless met or favourably answered every one rejoicing to do righteousness, and in thy ways or future dispensations such shall still remember and acknowledge thee; thou hast been angry, and with cause, for we have sinned; but in them, thy purposed dispensations, there is perpetuity, and we shall be saved.' The abrogation of the old economy, though fatal to the national pre-eminence of Israel, was so far from destroying the true church or the hopes of true believers, that it revealed the way of life more clearly than ever, and substituted for an insufficient, temporary system, a complete and everlasting one. In this construction of the sentence, the verbs and nouns are taken in their usual sense, and the pronoun refers to its natural antecedent.

5. (6.) And we were like the unclean, all of us, and like a filthy garment all our righteousnesses (virtues or good works), and we faded like the (fading) leaf all of us, and our iniquities like the wind will take us up (or carry us away). Having shown what they are or hope to be through the mercy of God and the righteousness of Christ, they state more fully what they are in themselves, and what they must expect to be if left to themselves. This twofold reference to their past experience and their future destiny accounts for the transition from the preterite to the future, without arbitrarily confounding them together. Some understand the comparison with withered leaves as a part of the description of their sin, while others apply it to their punishment. The first hypothesis is favoured by the difference of the tenses, which has been already noticed; the last by the parallelism of the clauses. It is probable, however, that here as in ch. 1:4, the two things ran together in the writer's mind, and that no refined distinction as to this point was intended. (With the figures of the last clause compare ch. 57:13. Ps. 1:4. Job 27:2).) Some apply the last expression to the actual deportation of the Jews to Babylon. It is remarkable, however, that in this, as in other cases heretofore considered, there is no expression which admits of this application exclusively, and none which admit of it at all but for their generality and vagueness.

6. (7.) And there is no one calling on thy name, rousing himself to lay hold on thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast melted us because of (or by means of) our iniquities. Although there is evident allusion to the past implied in the very form of the expression, the description reaches to the present also, and describes not only what the speakers were, but what they are when considered in themselves, as well as the effects of their own weakness and corruption, which they have already experienced. Calling on the name of God is here used in its proper sense of praying to him and invoking his assistance and protection; which idea is expressed still more strongly by the next phrase, rousing himself (which implies a just view of the evil and a strenuous exertion to correct it) to lay hold upon thee, a strong figure for attachment to a person and reliance on him. In the hand may either mean by means of, in the midst of, or because of; or we may suppose that the phrase strictly means, thou dost melt us into the hand of our iniquities, i. e. subject us to them, make us unable to resist them, and passively submissive to their power.

7. (8.) And now, Jehovah, our father (art) thou, we the clay and thou our potter, and the work of thy hands (are) we all. Instead of relying upon any supposed merits of their own, they appeal to their very dependence upon God, as a reason why he should have mercy on them. The Prophet here resumes the thought of ch. 63:16, where, as here, the paternity ascribed to God is not that of natural creation in the case of individuals, but the creation of the church or chosen people, and of Israel as a spiritual and ideal person. The figure of the potter and the clay, implying absolute authority and power, is used twice before (ch. 29:6. 45:9), and is one of the connecting links between these later prophecies and the undisputed portion of Isaiah. There is more dignity in the original expression than in the English phrase our potter, as the Hebrew word properly denotes one forming or imparting shape to anything, though specially applied in usage to a workman in clay, when that material is mentioned. The same plea, derived from the relation of the creature to the maker, is used in Ps. 138:8, forsake not the work of thy hands. (Compare Ps. 70:1. 79:1.) In either case there is a tacit appeal to the covenant and promise in Gen. 17:7. Lev. 26:42-45. Deut. 7:6. 26:17, 18.

8. (9.) Be not angry, oh Jehovah, to extremity, and do not to eternity remember guilt; lo, look, we pray thee, thy people (are) we all. This is the application of the argument presented in the foregoing verse, the actual prayer founded on the fact there stated. The common version (very sore) fails to reproduce the form of the original expression, as consisting of a preposition and a noun.

9. (10.) Thy holy cities are a desert, Zion is a desert, Jerusalem a waste. By holy cities, some understand the towns of Judah; others Jerusalem alone, considered as consisting of two towns, the upper and the lower, here called Zion and Jerusalem, though each of these names sometimes comprehends the whole, and the latter is dual in its very form. If the writer had intended to employ the terms in the former sense, he would hardly have confined his specifications in the other clause to Zion and Jerusalem. In any case, these must be regarded as the chief if not the only subjects of his proposition. On the whole, the true sense of the verse, expressed or implied, appears to be that Zion has long been a desolation and Jerusalem a waste.

10. Our house of holiness and beauty, (in) which our fathers praised thee, has been burned up with fire, and all our delights (or desirable places) have become a desolation. The elliptical use of the relative in reference to place is the same as in Gen. 39:20. Burned up, literally, become a burning of fire, as in ch. 9:6. The reference in this verse is of course to the destruction of the temple, but to which destruction is disputed. Some refer it to the Babylonian conquest, when the temple, as we are expressly told, was burnt (Jer. 52: 13); some to its profanation by Antiochus Epiphanes, at which time, however, it was not consumed by fire; many later writers, with the Jews themselves, to its destruction by the Romans, since which the city and the land have lain desolate. To the first and last of these events the words are equally appropriate. Either hypothesis being once assumed, the particular expressions admit of being easily adapted to it. With our own hypothesis the passage may be reconciled in several different ways. There is nothing, however, in the terms themselves, or in the analogy of prophetic language, to forbid our understanding this as a description of the desolations of the church itself, expressed by figures borrowed from the old economy and from the ancient history of Israel. If literally understood, the destruction of the temple and the holy city may be here lamented as a loss not merely to the Jewish nation, but to the church of God to which they rightfully belong and by which they ought yet to be recovered, a sense of which obligation blended with some superstitious errors gave occasion to the fanatical attempt of the crusades. (See above, on ch. 63:18.)

12. Wilt thou for these (things) restrain thyself, oh Jehovah, wilt thou keep silence and afflict us to extremity? This is simply another application of the argument by way of an importunate appeal to the divine compassions. Self-restraint and silence, as applied to God, are common figures for inaction and apparent indifference to the interests and especially the sufferings of his people. (See above, on ch. 42:14 and 63:15.) The question is not whether God will remain silent in spite of what his people suffered, but whether the loss of their external advantages will induce him to forsake them. The question as in many other cases implies a negation of the strongest kind. The destruction of the old theocracy was God's own act and was designed to bring the church under a new and far more glorious dispensation. How the loss of a national organization and preeminence was to be made good is fully stated in the following chapter.