Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Chap. Isaiah 14:1-23 contains (1) an Introduction connecting the ode with the preceding prophecy (Isaiah 14:1-4 a), (2) a song of triumph over the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14:4 b—21), (3) an Epilogue (Isaiah 14:22-23).
For the LORD will have mercy on Jacob, and will yet choose Israel, and set them in their own land: and the strangers shall be joined with them, and they shall cleave to the house of Jacob.1. The immediate result of the judgment on Babylon will be the emancipation of Israel from captivity.
will yet choose Israel] Rather, will again choose, as formerly in Egypt (cf. Zechariah 2:12).
the strangers] the sojourner, or protected guest; here used, as in later Hebrew, with the sense of “proselyte”: ch. Isaiah 56:3-7; Zechariah 2:11; Zechariah 8:21-23.
And the people shall take them, and bring them to their place: and the house of Israel shall possess them in the land of the LORD for servants and handmaids: and they shall take them captives, whose captives they were; and they shall rule over their oppressors.2. And the people] And peoples (ch. Isaiah 49:22 f.).
shall possess them] Lit. “serve themselves heirs to them” (Leviticus 25:46). For the idea cf. ch. Isaiah 60:10; Isaiah 60:14, Isaiah 61:5.
they shall take them captives, whose captives they were] Jdg 5:12.
And it shall come to pass in the day that the LORD shall give thee rest from thy sorrow, and from thy fear, and from the hard bondage wherein thou wast made to serve,3. thy fear] Rather thy unrest, or “trouble” (R.V.).
the hard bondage] R.V. service. From Exodus 1:14. The analogy of the Egyptian oppression is prominent in the writer’s thoughts.
That thou shalt take up this proverb against the king of Babylon, and say, How hath the oppressor ceased! the golden city ceased!4. this proverb] The Hebrew word (mâshâl) is used in a variety of senses. Originally signifying a similitude, it came naturally to denote a popular proverb or gnomic saying, and finally acquired the sense of a satire or taunt-song, as here (Habakkuk 2:6; Numbers 21:27). In ancient Israel wit seems to have passed into sarcasm as readily as in more recent times. The poem which follows might with equal propriety be described as a dirge (qînah, θρῆνος in LXX.), commencing as it does with the characteristic word ’êkh, and exhibiting the peculiarity of the elegiac measure (the line is broken by a cæsura in such a manner that the second member is shorter than the first. See on ch. Isaiah 1:21). Such ironical elegies are common in the prophets of the exile. Another striking example will meet us in ch. 47.
4. The line may be rendered:
How is the oppressor stilled,—stilled the insolent rage!
The translation golden city is an attempt to render the received text, but can hardly be justified. All the ancient versions read instead of madhçbâh, marhçbâh, a word which combines the ideas of restlessness and insolence (see ch. Isaiah 3:5).
4b—8. The first strophe is like a sigh of relief breathed by the whole of creation, when the disturber of its peace has vanished from the scene.
4b—21. The song of triumph over the king of Babylon is one of the finest specimens of Hebrew poetry which the Old Testament contains. A division into five strophes, each containing seven long lines, is distinctly recognisable, and the occasional deviations from strict symmetry of form are probably due to defects in the text.
The LORD hath broken the staff of the wicked, and the sceptre of the rulers.5. the rulers] here used in the sense of tyrants.
He who smote the people in wrath with a continual stroke, he that ruled the nations in anger, is persecuted, and none hindereth.6. He who] Better, as R.V., that; the antecedent being the staff,
is persecuted, and none hindereth] R.V. “with a persecution that none restrained.” The parallelism requires instead of “persecution” a noun cognate with the verb rendered “rule,” as in the preceding line. An easy emendation (mirdath for murdâph) supplies this; and this reading is almost universally accepted. The balance of clauses is then perfect:—
That struck the peoples in anger,—with incessant stroke;
That trod down the nations in wrath,—with unrelenting tread.
The whole earth is at rest, and is quiet: they break forth into singing.7. they break forth into singing] A favourite idea in the second part of the book: ch. Isaiah 44:23, Isaiah 49:13, Isaiah 54:1, Isaiah 55:12.
Yea, the fir trees rejoice at thee, and the cedars of Lebanon, saying, Since thou art laid down, no feller is come up against us.8. the fir trees] Some render “cypresses.”
no feller is come up] Assyrian kings frequently mention among their exploits the cutting of trees in Lebanon and Amanus. Nebuchadnezzar, whose inscriptions have been found on Lebanon, doubtless did the same thing.
Hell from beneath is moved for thee to meet thee at thy coming: it stirreth up the dead for thee, even all the chief ones of the earth; it hath raised up from their thrones all the kings of the nations.9. Hell from beneath] Rather, Sheol beneath. It is best to retain the Hebrew name of the under-world (shě’ôl) as is sometimes done by the Revisers, though not in this passage. An almost exact equivalent would be the Greek Hades, For the dead, render the shades (rěphâ’îm) as in R.V. marg.
the chief ones] lit. “the he-goats,” a figurative designation of kings (Jeremiah 1:8; Zechariah 10:3).
9–11. The second strophe forms an effective contrast to the first. He who had so long troubled the earth becomes a disturbing presence in the under-world; the earth is now at rest, Sheol is troubled.
All they shall speak and say unto thee, Art thou also become weak as we? art thou become like unto us?
Thy pomp is brought down to the grave, and the noise of thy viols: the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee.11. It is doubtful whether this verse continues the address of the shades. It certainly does not extend further.
For the grave read Sheol. the noise of thy viols] possibly indicating that the king had been cut down suddenly at a riotous feast (see Isaiah 21:5; Daniel 5).
the worm is spread under thee, and the worms cover thee] (The Heb. uses two distinct words for “worm.”) His lot is far worse than that of other potentates. No kingly throne is reserved for him in Sheol, but as one who has been denied honourable burial on earth (Isaiah 14:19) he is laid in the “recesses of the pit” (Isaiah 14:15) and makes his bed in corruption.
How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning! how art thou cut down to the ground, which didst weaken the nations!12. O Lucifer; son of the morning] In his splendour he is likened to the morning star; which was worshipped by the Babylonians under the name of Istar, and is described in Assyrian by an epithet, mustilil (shining star), which seems to correspond to the word here used (Schrader, Cuneiform Inscriptions, on this verse). The translation “Lucifer” (light-bearer) is quite correct, and is needlessly abandoned by the R.V. By some of the fathers the passage was applied to the fall of Satan (cf. Luke 10:18); hence the current use of Lucifer as a name of the devil.
For weaken, read lay prostrate.
12–15. The third strophe contains the prophet’s reflection on the sudden fall of the king of Babylon. That he should go to Sheol at all was a fate never contemplated by his soaring and self-deifying pride.
For thou hast said in thine heart, I will ascend into heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God: I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north:13. the mount of the congregation, in the sides of the north] Render: the Mount of Assembly in the uttermost north. We have here apparently an allusion to Babylonian mythology which is partly elucidated by Assyrian inscriptions. There the chief gods are spoken of as born in “the house of the mountain-summit of the lands, the mountain of Aralu” (Schrader, Cuneif. Inscr., ad loc.). The conception is very obscure, and it has not been proved that the Babylonians located their world-mountain in the north (like the Hindus and Persians). According to Jensen (Kosmologie der Babylonier, pp. 201 ff.) the idea of the “world-mountain” originated in the conception that the earth is itself a huge hollow mountain, resting on the primeval ocean. However that may be, there is little room for doubt that the “mount of assembly” in this verse is the mountain of Aralu where the great gods assemble. The opinion once prevalent that Zion is denoted was suggested by a similar phrase in Psalm 48:2; but the idea is obviously out of place in the present context.
13, 14. Not content with his exalted position the king aspired to equality of rank with the great gods. A similar impiety had already been put by Ezekiel into the mouth of the prince of Tyre (Ezekiel 28:2; Ezekiel 28:6; Ezekiel 28:9; Ezekiel 28:14).
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will be like the most High.14. I will be like the most High] Better: I will make myself like to the Most High. The sense of all the previous metaphors is gathered up in this sentence. The king arrogates to himself divine honour.
Yet thou shalt be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit.15. thou shalt be brought down to Sheol] Such is the end of the “vaulting ambition that o’erleaps itself.” The Babylonian Hades (Aralu) seems to have been conceived as situated under the mountain of the gods. The pit means Sheol, and the sides of the pit are its inmost recesses, the most dismal part of a land of darkness. These apparently are reserved for those who have not obtained honourable burial on earth (see below on Isaiah 14:18-20).
They that see thee shall narrowly look upon thee, and consider thee, saying, Is this the man that made the earth to tremble, that did shake kingdoms;16. made the earth to tremble] Better perhaps, troubled the earth.
16–19. The fourth strophe. The scene here is no longer in Hades, but on the battle-field, where the dead body of the king lies unburied, exposed to the derision of men.
That made the world as a wilderness, and destroyed the cities thereof; that opened not the house of his prisoners?17. opened not the house of his prisoners] Translate as R.V. let not loose his prisoners to their home (a so-called pregnant construction). But from this point the rhythm is defective, and the text is almost certainly in some disorder. The immediate difficulty might be surmounted by bringing the words “every one in his house” from the end of Isaiah 14:18 (where they are rhythmically superfluous) to the end of Isaiah 14:17 : thus (with a slight alteration):—
“That let not loose his prisoners,—each to his home.”
But a satisfactory reconstruction of the passage as a whole seems impossible.
All the kings of the nations, even all of them, lie in glory, every one in his own house.18. every one in his own house] This yields a perfectly good sense as it stands, the “house” being the tomb prepared by the king in his lifetime. But it forms a short half-line where a long one is required by the measure; hence the proposal to transfer the words to Isaiah 14:17 (see on that verse).
18, 19. The contrast here is that between the honourable burial accorded to other kings and the indignity to which the king of Babylon is subjected by being deprived of sepulchral rites.
But thou art cast out of thy grave like an abominable branch, and as the raiment of those that are slain, thrust through with a sword, that go down to the stones of the pit; as a carcase trodden under feet.19. cast out of thy grave] Better as in R.V., cast forth away from thy sepulchre, i.e. flung out unburied. The idea that the body had been disinterred is inconsistent with Isaiah 14:20.
like an abominable branch] A worthless scion of the family.
and as the raiment of those that are slain] Render as R.V. clothed with (i.e. “surrounded by”) the slain, on the field of battle.
that go down to the stones of the pit] A difficult expression. In its present position it is most naturally understood of the hasty and ignominious burial of a dead enemy by casting stones on the body (cf. 2 Samuel 18:17). The rhythm, however, demands a short line at this point, and this phrase is much too long. Hence some propose to transfer the words to the beginning of Isaiah 14:20, where they would open a new strophe, thus:—
“Those that are buried in graves of stone, with them shalt thou not be united in sepulture.”
On this view they must be a synonym for honourable sepulture, and the “stones of the pit” would denote stone-built tombs. This seems a less natural sense. A reference to the pit of Sheol (Isaiah 14:15) is hardly to be expected in this place.
Thou shalt not be joined with them in burial, because thou hast destroyed thy land, and slain thy people: the seed of evildoers shall never be renowned.20. Thou shalt not be joined with them] i.e. either with the kings of the nations (Isaiah 14:18) or (if the transposition mentioned be adopted) with those who lie in stone sepulchres.
thou hast destroyed thy land …] The king has acted as a tyrant not only to Israel but to his own people.
shall never be renowned] Rather, named (R.V.). Their very names shall be forgotten.
20, 21. The fifth strophe. The guilt of the king of Babylon, which descends like a curse on his children and leads to their extermination. The impression of textual confusion is confirmed by the fact that this last strophe falls short by about two lines of its proper length.
Prepare slaughter for his children for the iniquity of their fathers; that they do not rise, nor possess the land, nor fill the face of the world with cities.21. slaughter] a place of slaughter (R.V. marg.).
that they do not rise … land] R.V. that they rise not up, and possess the earth.
full the face of the world with cities] This could hardly be reckoned a crime, for it would be undoing the wrong that their father had wrought (Isaiah 14:17). Some render “enemies” or gain that sense by an emendation. Others change the word ‘ârîm (cities) into ‘iyyîm (ruined heaps). The easiest correction is simply to omit the word, the sense being complete without it.
The elegy ends here.—The passage just considered (Isaiah 14:9-20) bears a close resemblance to Ezekiel’s dirge over the fall of Pharaoh and his host (Ezekiel 32:19 ff.). Many questions of great interest and importance are suggested by both. The most important is how far such representations are to be taken as expressing the fixed belief of the writers or their age with regard to the state after death. Their affinities with Babylonian speculation on that subject, taken in connexion with the fact that such elaborate descriptions of the underworld do not occur before the Exile, may indicate that the imagination of the writers had been influenced by their contact with the religion of their conquerors. In that case it may be reasonable to suppose that they freely availed themselves of the material thus laid to their hand merely as poetic imagery, without meaning to attribute strict objective reality to all the conceptions. At the same time there was a common basis of belief underlying the Hebrew and Babylonian ideas regarding the future state, and all that is essential to the understanding of this passage was probably familiar to the minds of the Israelites before the Exile. In the conception as here presented the following points are to be noted. (1) Sheol, which is figured as a vast subterranean region, is the common gathering-place of all the dead. They exist there as shades, rěphâ’îm (Isaiah 14:9), a word which is usually explained to mean “feeble ones,”—weak, pithless adumbrations of the living form. These are represented as capable of being roused to a transient interest in human affairs by the arrival amongst them of so distinguished a personage as the king of Babylon; but their ordinary condition is one of utter inactivity, a sort of conscious death rather than life. It is true that the writer speaks only of kings and potentates, and throws little light on the state of the common man after death. Still the Old Testament as a whole knows nothing of separate spheres of existence for the righteous and for the wicked, and that idea is certainly not to be imported into the present passage. (2) We seem to find a clear trace of the antique notion that the lot of the shade in Sheol depends on the fate of the body on earth. The kings who have received due interment sit each on his throne retaining the semblance of their former greatness, while he who was “cast forth away from his sepulchre” is relegated to the “recesses of the pit.” This, however, is connected with the conviction that the fate of the body is not accidental; a dishonoured death expresses the final judgment of God on a career of exceptional wickedness. And it is this judgment of God, executed on earth, which is regarded as reflected and perpetuated in the condition of the disembodied spirit. (3) In this way the idea of retribution is extended to the other world. There is indeed an essential difference between the application of the principle here given and that to which a fuller revelation has led us. As we have seen, the retribution here spoken of is only the counterpart of a retribution already manifest on earth, whereas we have learned to look to the future life to redress the inequalities of the present, and to bring about a perfect correspondence between character and destiny, never realised in this world.
For I will rise up against them, saith the LORD of hosts, and cut off from Babylon the name, and remnant, and son, and nephew, saith the LORD.22. son, and nephew] A phrase recurring in Genesis 21:23; Job 18:19. The proper translation is progeny and offspring. In old English “nephew” means “grandson.” Comp. Spenser’s Fairy Queen, ii. 8. 29:—
But from the grandsyre to the nephewes sonne,
And all his seede, the curse doth often cleave.
(Cambridge Comp. to the Bible, p. 218.)
22, 23. The Epilogue, going back on the concluding threat of ch. 13.
I will also make it a possession for the bittern, and pools of water: and I will sweep it with the besom of destruction, saith the LORD of hosts.23. the bittern] (ch. Isaiah 34:11; Zephaniah 2:14). Usually rendered “hedgehog” (R.V. porcupine) in accordance with the LXX. and Vulg. and the analogy of Arabic. The bittern certainly suits the scene best, and it is said to have the hedgehog’s trick of rolling itself up into an unrecognisable mass. (Tristram, Natural History of the Bible, p. 243.)
pools of water] marshes, caused by the overflow of the Euphrates when the dykes and canals were no longer kept in repair.
The LORD of hosts hath sworn, saying, Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand:24. The Lord of hosts hath sworn] cf. Amos 4:2; Amos 6:8; Amos 8:7; Isaiah 45:23; Isaiah 54:9; Isaiah 62:8. The formula is nowhere else used by Isaiah.
come to pass … stand] Combined as in ch. Isaiah 7:7.
Ch. Isaiah 14:24-32. Two Isaianic Fragments
i. Isaiah 14:24-27. An announcement of Jehovah’s purpose to destroy the Assyrians on the soil of Canaan. In spite of the absence of a title these verses cannot without violence be explained as a continuation of the oracle on Babylon. They bear every evidence of being a genuine prophecy of Isaiah; and both in form and substance they shew an obvious resemblance to those of ch. Isaiah 10:5 ff. and ch. 18. Some critics, indeed, regard them as a misplaced fragment of one or other of these chapters. Without going so far as this we may at least with some confidence assign the passage to the same period of Isaiah’s ministry, probably the early years of Sennacherib’s reign.
That I will break the Assyrian in my land, and upon my mountains tread him under foot: then shall his yoke depart from off them, and his burden depart from off their shoulders.25. my mountains] i.e. the mountain land of Palestine.
then shall his yoke depart …] See ch. Isaiah 9:4, Isaiah 10:27.
This is the purpose that is purposed upon the whole earth: and this is the hand that is stretched out upon all the nations.26, 27. This plan of Jehovah embraces the destinies of all nations (see ch. Isaiah 28:22, Isaiah 10:23, Isaiah 8:9). The expression “the whole earth” is not to be restricted to the Assyrian Empire, nor on the other hand is the meaning that all other peoples shall suffer the same fate as Assyria; it is simply that the event announced is of world-wide importance, and affects the interests of humanity at large. This indeed followed from the ambitious designs of Assyria, which could not stop short of universal empire. But Isaiah no doubt looked deeper than this, and thought of its bearings on the religious future of mankind. The two verses are a striking testimony to the grandeur of Isaiah’s conception of the Divine government.
this is the hand that is stretched out] cf. Isaiah 14:26, ch. Isaiah 5:25, Isaiah 9:12, &c.
ii. Isaiah 14:28-32. An oracle on Philistia. The Philistines, who are rejoicing at the fall of some cruel oppressor, are warned that the dreaded power will soon be re-established in a more terrible form than ever (Isaiah 14:29). A contrast is then drawn between the miserable fate of the Philistines and the peace and security in store for Israel (Isaiah 14:30). In Isaiah 14:31 the warning is repeated, and it is indicated that the formidable enemy is one who comes from the north. Meanwhile ambassadors from a foreign people (no doubt the Philistines) are in Jerusalem awaiting an answer to their proposals; and the prophet gives the answer in the name of Jehovah, as he does in the case of the Ethiopian envoys in ch. 18.
The situation which best combines the various allusions of the prophecy would seem to be the death of some Assyrian monarch, which in Isaiah’s time was invariably the signal for active conspiracy among the states of Palestine (General Introd., pp. xiv f.). That the broken rod is Ahaz and the future oppressor Hezekiah, although suggested by the title, appears to be excluded by Isaiah 14:31, where the invasion is said to come from the north. It is still less natural to suppose that the rod is a Jewish dominion, and the threatened danger an Assyrian supremacy, because Isaiah 14:29 seems to imply that the new tyranny springs from the same root as the old. Assuming, then, that two successive Assyrian kings are meant, there are three occasions within the lifetime of Isaiah which satisfy the conditions required by the prophecy: the death of Tiglath-pileser III. in 727; of Shalmaneser IV. in 722; and of Sargon in 705. It is hardly possible with the data at our disposal to decide between these periods. Each of the monarchs named had ravaged the Philistine territory; the death of each was followed by an outbreak of disaffection in which the Philistines took a leading part, and at any time Isaiah would have given the advice to his countrymen which he virtually gives here. On the last occasion we might perhaps have expected a reference to the overthrow of Assyria, as in the answer to the Ethiopians about the same time (ch. 18). The first event mentioned corresponds approximately with one of the dates assigned for the death of Ahaz (727), and would therefore go far to vindicate the accuracy of the superscription.
For the LORD of hosts hath purposed, and who shall disannul it? and his hand is stretched out, and who shall turn it back?
In the year that king Ahaz died was this burden.28. The superscription. The word “burden” (massâ’) makes it improbable that the verse was written by Isaiah. It may nevertheless embody a sound tradition.
the year that king Ahaz died] Cf. ch. Isaiah 6:1. Probably 727 b.c. (but see Chronological Note, pp. lxxvi f.).
Each verse of the short oracle forms a strophe of four lines.
Rejoice not thou, whole Palestina, because the rod of him that smote thee is broken: for out of the serpent's root shall come forth a cockatrice, and his fruit shall be a fiery flying serpent.29. whole Palestina] R.V. Philistia, all of thee. On the history of the name “Palestine” see G. A. Smith, Historical Geography, p. 4. “All Philistia” is addressed because the country was broken up into a number of cantons, which might not always be united in political sentiment, as they are at this time.
the rod of him that smote thee] Or simply the rod that smote thee, as in R.V. On the reference see introductory note above.
a cockatrice] a basilisk (Heb. çepha‘). See on Isaiah 11:8.
fiery flying serpent] flying saraph. See on ch. Isaiah 6:2 and cf. Isaiah 30:6. It is probably a creation of the popular imagination, here used poetically. The sense of the metaphors is obvious: the power from which the Philistines had suffered seems at present to have received a fatal blow, but it will recover itself and assume a more deadly form than ever.
And the firstborn of the poor shall feed, and the needy shall lie down in safety: and I will kill thy root with famine, and he shall slay thy remnant.30. While Philistia is utterly destroyed, Israel enjoys perfect security under Jehovah’s protection (see Isaiah 14:32).
the firstborn of the poor] must be explained as a superlative—“the poorest of the poor.” But many commentators prefer, by slightly altering the word for “firstborn,” to read “in my meadow the poor shall feed” (cf. Isaiah 30:23).
he shall slay] In spite of the change of person, the subject is still Jehovah, not the Assyrian. Or the verb might be equivalent to a passive, as in R.V. (“shall be slain”).
Howl, O gate; cry, O city; thou, whole Palestina, art dissolved: for there shall come from the north a smoke, and none shall be alone in his appointed times.31. As in Isaiah 14:29 the prophet had rebuked the premature rejoicing of the Philistines, so here he calls them to public lamentation in view of the advancing enemy.
thou … art dissolved] Render as an imper. melt away, entire Philistia! Smoke may be either a symbol of war (Jeremiah 1:13 f.) or it may be a vivid picture of the burning villages that mark the track of the invader. The phrase from the north points almost unmistakeably to the Assyrians (see on ch. Isaiah 10:27).
none shall be … times] Most critics render: there is no straggler in his battalions (cf. ch. Isaiah 5:27). The last word closely resembles that for “appointed times,” but is differently vocalised, and does not occur elsewhere.
What shall one then answer the messengers of the nation? That the LORD hath founded Zion, and the poor of his people shall trust in it.32. The oracle ends, in a manner characteristic of Isaiah, with a piece of practical advice to the political leaders of the state. Some words have probably dropped out of the first half of the verse.
the messengers of the nation] are no doubt Philistine envoys endeavouring to negotiate an alliance with Judah. They are probably to be regarded as actually waiting in Jerusalem while the court deliberates on the expediency of joining the rebellion. The prophet’s answer is unhesitating.
that the Lord hath founded Zion] A leading principle of Isaiah’s later ministry; see on ch. Isaiah 8:18, Isaiah 28:16, and General Introduction, pp. xxxvi, lxii.
the poor of his people …] Better as R.V., in her shall the afflicted of his people take refuge.