Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 25. Songs and Prophecies of Redemption
The chapter is made up of three distinct sections:—
(1) Isaiah 25:1-5. A psalm of thanksgiving celebrating the downfall of some heathen city, and a signal deliverance extended to Israel.
(2) Isaiah 25:6-8. A prophecy of the Messianic dispensation, under the figure of a feast spread for all nations in Mount Zion. These verses are obviously the direct continuation of ch. 24.
(3) Isaiah 25:9-12. Another hymn of praise, composed in prospect of the extinction of Moab.
The occurrence of lyrical outbursts such as (1) and (3) constitutes one of the critical problems presented by this difficult prophecy. Two views are possible. (a) These passages (and others of a similar character) may belong to the original plan of the work, and may have been introduced by the author himself to mark the various stages in the great drama which unfolds itself before his prophetic vision. In this case we must suppose that he assumes an ideal stand-point in the future, from which he expresses the emotions of those who shall look back on the fulfilment of his predictions. Or, (b) they may be independent compositions which have been inserted in the text by an editor or scribe. (See the Concluding Note, p. 203.)
Concluding Note on Ch. 24–27
The above exposition has left some general questions in suspense; and for the most part they are such as cannot be adequately discussed in this commentary. There are two, however, on which a few additional observations are necessary, viz., (1) the unity and (2) the date, of the prophecy.
(1) The question of unity, as raised by the recent criticisms of Duhm and Cheyne, relates principally to the lyrical passages already marked off in the notes (Isaiah 25:1-5; Isaiah 25:9-12, Isaiah 26:1-19, Isaiah 27:2-6), although it is acknowledged that the section Isaiah 27:7-11 presents difficulties almost as great. As has been hinted above, the commonly accepted view has been that the lyrics represent flights of the author’s imagination, depicting the feelings of the redeemed community after the great judgment is past. The chief considerations urged against this view are as follows. (a) If we read consecutively 24, Isaiah 25:6-8, Isaiah 26:20 to Isaiah 27:1; Isaiah 27:7-13, we have a series of conceptions which readily fit into a consistent picture of the future, and (at least up to Isaiah 27:1) a very natural sequence of thought. (b) the songs are distinguished from the main prophecy in poetic structure and rhythm, as well as in the point of view they represent. (c) They do not occur at places where their insertion would be natural if due to the literary plan of the composition, while one of them (Isaiah 25:1-5) appears to interrupt a close connexion of thought. (d) The most important of all (Isaiah 26:1-19) is written in a vein of mingled exultation and despondency inappropriate to the supposed situation. Although the reader is naturally averse to entertaining the idea of interpolation if it can possibly be avoided, it can hardly be denied that these arguments have a considerable cumulative force. (b) counts for little or nothing by itself, while the others may involve merely subjective differences of critical judgment. The crucial case is probably (d), where the ‘ideal standpoint’ theory could only be maintained by assuming that the writer’s imagination lacks the strength of wing needful to bear him triumphantly away from the discouraging outlook of his actual present. It must be pointed out, however, that the demarcation of the lyrics given in the notes is adopted from Duhm and Cheyne, and to discuss the question of unity on this basis necessarily does some injustice to the views of other critics, who might prefer a different division.
(2) The question of the date of the prophecy is of course influenced by the view held as to its unity, although to a less extent than might be imagined, since both the critics named agree in regarding the whole series of compositions as belonging to the literature of a single general period. Duhm assigns them to the reign of John Hyrcanus, and finds allusions to the Parthian campaign of Antiochus Sidetes (b.c. 129) and the destruction of Samaria (c. 107). But there is really nothing to warrant these precise determinations, and the theory is negatived by well-established conclusions as to the close of the O.T. Canon. Cheyne’s view is free from this objection and is in itself very attractive. The historical background of the prophecy is found in the events which preceded the dissolution of the Persian Empire (say 350–330). The gloomy survey of ch. 24 is explained by the “desolating and protracted wars” of the period, in which the Jews are known to have suffered severely and during which Jerusalem was not improbably laid waste by Persian armies. The premature songs of triumph referred to in ch. Isaiah 24:16 are supposed to have been called forth by rumours of the expedition of Alexander the Great, whilst the interspersed lyrical passages celebrate the Jewish deliverance achieved by the Macedonian victories. Perhaps the least convincing part of the hypothesis is the identification of the conquered city of Isaiah 25:2, Isaiah 26:5, with Tyre or Gaza, destroyed by Alexander; but in spite of that Cheyne’s view is probably the one which best harmonises the varied indications of the prophecy (see his Introduction, pp. 155 ff., and the refs. there).
Of rival theories there is perhaps but one that deserves careful examination, that, viz., which seeks the occasion of the prophecy in the age immediately succeeding the Exile, particularly the Babylonian troubles under Darius Hystaspis. There is, indeed, a surprising number of coincidences between the phenomena of this prophecy and the circumstances of that time or the contemporary literature. The expectation of a great overturning of existing political conditions occurs in the writings of Haggai (Isaiah 2:6-7; Isaiah 2:21-22) and Zechariah (Isaiah 1:11 ff.); the idea of a world-judgment in Isaiah 13:6 ff.; the universalism of Isaiah 25:6-8 finds nowhere a more sympathetic response than in Isaiah 40-55; and even the ‘songs of the righteous’ (Isaiah 24:16) have a certain resemblance to Isaiah 45:10. The allusion to recent idolatry in Isaiah 27:9 is amply accounted for; and the “city” (although too much has been made of this point) of Isaiah 24:10 ff., Isaiah 27:10 f., Isaiah 25:2, Isaiah 26:5 might be Babylon, the “world-city,” now humbled and soon to be utterly destroyed.
The ultimate decision probably turns on certain general features of the prophecy, which are thought to point to a very late age. These are (a) its apocalyptic colouring and imagery (see, however, the caveat on p. 179 above), (b) the advanced form in which it presents the doctrines of immortality (Isaiah 25:8) and the resurrection (Isaiah 26:19); and (possibly) (c) the belief in tutelary genii of the nations. With regard to these phenomena many will agree with Cheyne that they “become the more intelligible the later we place this composition in the Persian period.”
O LORD, thou art my God; I will exalt thee, I will praise thy name; for thou hast done wonderful things; thy counsels of old are faithfulness and truth.1. The first half of the verse recalls in every phrase the language of the Psalter. Cf. Psalm 63:1; Psalm 145:1; Psalm 138:2; Psalm 54:6; Psalm 118:28.
thou hast done wonderful things] as Exodus 15:11; Psalm 77:14; Psalm 78:12. These “wonders” are the execution (in the recent experience of the nation) of counsels of old; i.e. purposes long since conceived and revealed. The last clause is perhaps to be translated: (even) counsels from afar in faithfulness and fidelity.
1–5. The writer of the psalm, speaking in the name of the believing community, praises God for His wonderful providence (Isaiah 25:1) manifested in the overthrow of Israel’s enemies (2, 3) and in the mercy vouchsafed to the nation in a time of trouble (4, 5).
For thou hast made of a city an heap; of a defenced city a ruin: a palace of strangers to be no city; it shall never be built.2. The fall of a hostile city. The word “city” can hardly in this case be understood collectively, although the terms of the description are too vague to shew what historic city is intended. All that appears is that it is a city which, in the age of the prophet, symbolised the hostility of the world to the kingdom of God; its identification will depend on the date assigned to the prophecy. If for instance the author lived during or shortly after the Exile, the “defenced city” would be most naturally identified with Babylon (see however on the next verse).
a palace of strangers] Better, of aliens (as in ch. Isaiah 1:7).
Therefore shall the strong people glorify thee, the city of the terrible nations shall fear thee.3. The effect of this judgment on the heathen world. The probable rendering is, Therefore (many) a strong people shall glorify Thee, (many) a city of terrible nations shall fear Thee. If a single city were meant we should have a second representative centre of heathenism, alongside of the “city” of Isaiah 25:2, and the view that Babylon is there referred to could no longer be maintained. It is easier, however, on account of the following plurals (in the Heb. “fear” is pl.), to understand the word here in a collective sense.
For thou hast been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall.4, 5. Its happy consequences nor Israel. The “for” may refer back to Isaiah 25:1 or to Isaiah 25:3; in either case the judgment on the oppressive city is regarded as a signal proof of Jehovah’s protecting care over His people.
For strength render stronghold, as in R.V.
when the blast … wall] Lit., “for the blast of the terrible ones is as rain of a wall.” The construction is too condensed to be natural. A better rendering would be “as rain of winter” (reading qôr for qîr). But the whole clause is justly suspected by some critics of being a gloss, on account of its prosaic character, and its doubtful appropriateness in the context.
Thou shalt bring down the noise of strangers, as the heat in a dry place; even the heat with the shadow of a cloud: the branch of the terrible ones shall be brought low.5. Render: As heat in a dry place (cf. Isaiah 32:2) Thou humblest the pride of aliens; (as) heat by the shadow of a cloud the song of the tyrants is brought low. The meaning is that as natural heat, however intense, is abated by an intervening cloud, so Jehovah has means of bringing to an end the fiercest oppression to which His people can be exposed.
And in this mountain shall the LORD of hosts make unto all people a feast of fat things, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of wines on the lees well refined.6. in this mountain] Mount Zion (cf. Isaiah 24:23), shewing that the author lived in Jerusalem.
a feast (lit. “banquet”) of fat things … full of marrow] The fat parts of the animal, which in ordinary sacrifice were reserved for the deity, were regarded in the East as the choicest delicacy. The same image is used in Psalm 36:8; Psalm 63:5 of the highest spiritual enjoyment in fellowship with God.
wines on the lees well refined] i.e. wine that has been left to stand long on its sediment, in order that its strength, flavour, bouquet, &c., might be enhanced by repeated fermentation (cf. Jeremiah 48:11; Zephaniah 1:12). Such old wines had to be strained before being used; hence the expression “well-refined” in E.V. The choice of terms in the Hebr. is partly dictated by the assonances: fat things corresponding to wines on the lees, and full of marrow to well refined. For the image of the feast as an emblem of the blessings of the kingdom of God cf. ch. Isaiah 55:1-2; Psalm 23:5; Matthew 8:11; Matthew 22:2 ff.; Luke 14:15 ff.; Revelation 19:9.
6–8. This section attaches itself directly to the concluding thought of ch. 24. The feast of Isaiah 25:6 may be regarded as a coronation-festival, inaugurating the reign of Jehovah on Mount Zion (Isaiah 24:23), although of course the state of things which is thus symbolised is not transitory but eternal. What is signified is the admission of all nations to communion with the one true God, and, as a consequence of this, the cessation of all the evils of human life. The whole passage, standing out as it does from a gloomy background of judgment and terror, is one of the most remarkable and fascinating in the Old Testament.
And he will destroy in this mountain the face of the covering cast over all people, and the vail that is spread over all nations.7. the face of the covering … nations] More literally: the surface of the veil that veils all the peoples, and the covering that is woven over all the nations. The phrase “surface of the veil” is peculiar, but a similar expression is found in Job 41:13. It is probably to be explained as gen. of apposition—“the veil-surface.” The veil is not, as might be supposed, a symbol of spiritual blindness (2 Corinthians 3:14 ff.), but of sorrow; the figure being taken from the practice of covering the head in token of mourning (see 2 Samuel 15:30; 2 Samuel 19:4; Jeremiah 14:3-4; Esther 6:12). The prophet has already spoken of the profound wretchedness in which the world is plunged (ch. Isaiah 24:7-12).
He will swallow up death in victory; and the Lord GOD will wipe away tears from off all faces; and the rebuke of his people shall he take away from off all the earth: for the LORD hath spoken it.8. He will swallow up … victory] Rather: He hath abolished death for ever. Cf. 2 Timothy 1:10. The A.V. follows the rendering of St Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:54 (κατεπόθη ὁ θάνατος εἰς νῖκος), but “swallow up” is needlessly literal, and “in victory” comes from the apostle’s familiarity with Aramaic. The sense, of course, is correctly given. The words contain the clearest expression of the hope of immortality to be found in the prophetic writings. The special contribution of prophecy to that doctrine is reached through the conception of the abolition of death as a hindrance to the perfect blessedness of the Messianic age. Although the prophets rarely touch on this theme, we can see that it was only by degrees and at a late period that the idea of immortal life became an element in their conception of the kingdom of God. The first step towards it was the anticipation of a great extension of human life, as in Zechariah 8:4; Isaiah 65:20; Isaiah 65:22. From this to the belief in an absolute annihilation of death is no doubt a great advance, but the advance is made in the passage before us. It might be questioned if the resurrection of those who had fallen asleep before the advent of the Messianic kingdom is here contemplated; but since that doctrine is clearly taught in the next chapter (Isaiah 26:19), the question has little importance.
and the Lord God will wipe away tears …]—the traces of past sorrow. “When Jehovah removes the veil he sees the tears and wipes them away” (Duhm). Perhaps no words that ever were uttered have sunk deeper into the aching heart of humanity than this exquisite image of the Divine tenderness; cf. Revelation 21:4.
the rebuke (render, reproach) of his people … earth] a reversal of the doom pronounced in Deuteronomy 28:37. The later Jews keenly felt their accumulated national misfortunes as a religious disgrace, a reflection on the power of their God; Joel 2:17; Psalm 44:14 ff; Psalm 79:10, &c. Comp. with this passage, Zephaniah 3:18 ff.
And it shall be said in that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, and he will save us: this is the LORD; we have waited for him, we will be glad and rejoice in his salvation.9. Lo, this is our God … save us] Or, Behold our God on whom we have hoped that he should save us. So in the next clause: on whom we have hoped.
9–12. The humiliation of Moab. The heading in Isaiah 25:9 marks this as a distinct section. It might indeed be supposed, from the phrase “in this mountain” in Isaiah 25:10, and the use of future tenses in 10–12, that the song of praise ends with Isaiah 25:9 and that 10–12 are the continuation of Isaiah 25:8. But this is unlikely. The express naming of Moab is not in the manner of the main apocalyptic prophecy, while to take Moab as a symbolic name for the enemies of God in general is hazardous, as being opposed to Old Testament usage. The violent contrast between the spirit of Isaiah 25:6-8 and that of Isaiah 25:10-12 rather favours the supposition that the latter was a separate composition. In any event, we must assume that so passionate an outburst of indignation against Moab was called forth by some special circumstance, although it is not possible to connect it with any known historic occasion.
For in this mountain shall the hand of the LORD rest, and Moab shall be trodden down under him, even as straw is trodden down for the dunghill.10. The fate of Moab is contrasted with that of Israel. It is as if one hand of Jehovah rested lightly and protectingly on Zion while the other crushes and extinguishes Moab.
under him] means “under himself,” i.e. in the place where he (Moab) stands.
for the dunghill] R.V. in the water of the dunghill rightly follows the consonantal text in opposition to the Massoretic tradition. But it should have at the same time substituted “dung-pit” for “dunghill.” This word (madmçnâh) is perhaps a play on the name Madmen (Jeremiah 48:2); it also resembles the word for “straw” (mathbçn).
And he shall spread forth his hands in the midst of them, as he that swimmeth spreadeth forth his hands to swim: and he shall bring down their pride together with the spoils of their hands.11. The figure of Moab trying to swim in the dung-pit is sufficiently graphic, if somewhat repulsive.
in the midst of them] should be (as in R.V.) in the midst thereof, i.e. of the dung-pit, although there is an enallage generis.
and he (Jehovah) shall bring down his pride] See on ch. Isaiah 16:6.
together with the spoils of their hands] Perhaps: in spite of the wiles of his hands. The expression is strange.
And the fortress of the high fort of thy walls shall he bring down, lay low, and bring to the ground, even to the dust.12. the fortress … walls] Better perhaps, the towering fortification of thy walls. This verse has suggested the identification of the city of Isaiah 25:2, Isaiah 26:5 f. with a city of Moab. The expressions of the verse are certainly remarkably parallel to those of Isaiah 26:5, to which Duhm thinks that it was a marginal variant. Other commentators also have surmised that it is misplaced.
shall he bring down, &c.] R.V. more literally, hath he brought down, &c. The perfects, however, may be those of certainty.