Isaiah 57
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
The righteous perisheth, and no man layeth it to heart: and merciful men are taken away, none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil to come.
Isaiah 57:1-2. The most alarming feature of the situation, though the least noticed, is the gradual removal of the righteous members of the community. Comp. Psalm 12:1.

merciful men] lit., men of piety (cf. ch. Isaiah 55:7, Isaiah 28:14).

none considering that the righteous is taken away from the evil to come] The idea conveyed by this rendering is that the natural death of many good men was a divine intimation, little heeded by the community, that some great calamity was impending. The translation is perfectly admissible, and the thought is in accordance with the religious sentiment of the O.T. (cf. 2 Kings 22:20); yet it is doubtful if we are entitled to read so much into the prophet’s language. There is nothing to indicate that “the evil” is future, nor is it likely that the prophet has in view a future of terror for the righteous. The clause may be equally well rendered that (or for) the righteous is swept away before the evil; and this is probably all that is meant. The “evil” is the prevailing wickedness and oppression caused by the misgovernment described in Isaiah 56:10-12. The words “none considering” are parallel to “no man layeth it to heart,” and mean that the community takes no note of the fact that its best members are disappearing from its midst.

He shall enter into peace: they shall rest in their beds, each one walking in his uprightness.
2. Render with R.V. (and marg.) He entereth into peace; they rest in their beds, each one that walked straight before him. The “peace” and “rest” spoken of are those of the grave (Job 3:13 ff.), the “bed” is the bier or coffin; cf. 2 Chronicles 16:14; Ezekiel 32:25. The same word is used of the sarcophagus in the Phœnician inscription of Eshmunazar (“the lid of this bed”).

“After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.”

The same feeling is expressed with great pathos in an eloquent passage of the book of Job (Isaiah 3:13 ff.). It is a sentiment that has appealed to the human mind in all ages; but to the O.T. believers it brought no relief from the shuddering recoil from death expressed in other passages, nowhere more forcibly than in the words of Job himself.

each one that walked, &c.] i.e. every one who led a simple, straightforward, upright life; cf. Proverbs 4:25-27. The clause is an extension of the subject of the sentence.

But draw near hither, ye sons of the sorceress, the seed of the adulterer and the whore.
3, 4. Indignant summons to the apostate community.

But draw near hither] Better, But as for you, draw near hither &c. to hear your doom (cf. Isaiah 41:1, Isaiah 45:20, Isaiah 48:16).

ye sons of a sorceress] The most galling insult to an Oriental is to revile his mother (see 1 Samuel 20:30). By the use of the phrase here the persons addressed are described as nursed in witchcraft and superstition.

seed of an adulterer and a whore] Cf. Ezekiel 16:3; Ezekiel 16:45 (“thy father an Amorite, thy mother a Hittite”). It is not improbable that the words contain a specific allusion to the mixed origin of the Samaritans (2 Kings 17:24 ff.); the “adulterer” may be the remains of the old Israelitish population (who had been untrue to the marriage bond with Jehovah), and the “harlot” the heathen element which had been imported by successive kings of Assyria.

3–13. Invective against an idolatrous party.—With regard to the reference of this obscure and difficult passage the following points have to be noticed: (1) The scenery of Isaiah 57:5-6 is unmistakeably Palestinian (wadis, clefts of the rock, terebinths). (2) Several of the rites specified bear the complexion of Canaanitish heathenism, and could not have been performed in Babylonia. (3) The opening words (“But ye”) seem to imply that the people addressed are distinct from those whose leaders are denounced in Isaiah 56:10-12. (4) Those spoken of are animated by contempt and hatred of the cause and people of Jehovah (Isaiah 57:4), while at the same time they advance pretensions to “righteousness” or correctness of religious standing (Isaiah 57:12). (5) They have persisted in their abominations down to the time of the prophecy (Isaiah 57:10-13).

On the supposition that the prophecy was written after the return from Babylon, there is much plausibility in the view that the party here addressed is the Samaritan community. This theory is at all events simpler than that advocated by the majority of critics, who have felt the force of the objections against exilic authorship, and have accordingly supposed that the passage (or its original) was written at some time previous to the Captivity and borrowed by the great prophet of the Exile as a warning against idolatrous tendencies which still manifested themselves in Babylon. (See further Introduction, pp. lvii, lix). The connexion between this section and the preceding would be explained by the fact that the Jewish aristocracy cultivated friendly relations with the Samaritans; there was a serious danger that the struggling Jewish community should by these alliances be dragged down to the level of their semi-pagan neighbours.

Against whom do ye sport yourselves? against whom make ye a wide mouth, and draw out the tongue? are ye not children of transgression, a seed of falsehood,
4. On the contemptuous attitude of the Samaritans towards the Jews, see Nehemiah 4:1-4, and comp. ch. Isaiah 66:5.

sport yourselves] Lit. “take your delight” (ch. Isaiah 55:2, Isaiah 58:14, Isaiah 66:11); only here used of malevolent satisfaction.

make a wide mouth] Psalm 35:21.

are ye not &c.] Are you not yourselves the proper objects of derision and abhorrence?

5 ff. Description of the varied idolatries to which they were devoted.

Inflaming yourselves with idols] Rather, as R.V., Ye that inflame yourselves among the oaks (or “terebinths,” the same word in ch. Isaiah 1:29, Isaiah 61:3). The A.V. follows the chief ancient Versions in taking the last word to be the plural of that for “god”; but it is never used expressly of an idol or false god (not even in Exodus 15:11 or Daniel 11:36). The reference is, if not to the actual primitive tree-worship (traces of which are still found in Palestine), at least to that modification of it in which the sacred tree became a place of sacrifice and the scene of the licentious rites indicated by the expression “inflame yourselves.” Comp. Hosea 4:13.

under every green (i.e. evergreen) tree] Cf. Deuteronomy 12:2; Jeremiah 2:20; Jeremiah 3:6; Ezekiel 6:13; 1 Kings 14:23; 2 Kings 17:10 &c.

slaying the children (Ezekiel 16:21)] i.e. sacrificing them either to Jehovah or some false deity (Baal or Molech). On the subject of human sacrifice in Israel consult the notes in Davidson’s Ezekiel (Camb. Bible for Schools, &c.), pp. 107 f., 143. Cf. Jeremiah 7:31; Jeremiah 19:5; Ezekiel 20:25; Ezekiel 23:39; 2 Kings 3:27; 2 Kings 16:3; 2 Kings 21:6; Micah 6:7; Leviticus 18:21; Deuteronomy 12:31, &c., and 2 Kings 17:31.

in the valleys (or wadis, dry watercourses) under the clifts of the rocks] Probably weird and desolate places were chosen by preference for these revolting rites, although this is the only passage where such a thing is suggested.

Enflaming yourselves with idols under every green tree, slaying the children in the valleys under the clifts of the rocks?
Among the smooth stones of the stream is thy portion; they, they are thy lot: even to them hast thou poured a drink offering, thou hast offered a meat offering. Should I receive comfort in these?
6. As commonly explained, the verse refers to the worship of stone fetishes; but this is very doubtful. It is obvious, indeed, that by the smooth (ones) of the wadi some objects of worship are denoted, but is it necessary to suppose that they were smooth stones? The expression “smooth ones” (ḥalqê) is chosen for the sake of a play of words between it and “portion” (ḥçleq). If we take it literally it is of course natural to think of stones worn smooth by the winter torrents (cf. 1 Samuel 17:40), although even then there is force in Duhm’s observation that such featureless objects were least of all likely to be chosen as fetishes. (See Tylor, Primitive Culture3, Vol. ii. p. 144 f.) But the word occurs in the metaphorical sense of “slippery,” flattering, deceitful (Ezekiel 12:24; cf. Proverbs 7:5; Proverbs 7:21; Proverbs 29:5; Psalm 5:9, &c.); and such a term might readily be applied to false gods of any kind (cf. e.g. “lies” in Amos 2:4). We may therefore render (following Duhm), “In the deceivers of the wadi is thy portion”; although the special connexion of the deities with the wadi remains obscure.

thy portion] As Jehovah is said to be the portion of His people (Deuteronomy 4:19; Jeremiah 10:16; Psalm 16:5; Psalm 142:6) so these deceitful beings are the portion of those who do homage to them in the manner described in the second half of the verse.

thou hast offered a meat-offering] or, more generally, an oblation, as R.V. (see on ch. Isaiah 1:13).

should I receive comfort in these?] Better, as R.V., shall I be appeased for these things? i.e. “leave them unpunished.” Cf. Jeremiah 5:9.

Note that from this verse onwards the female personification is employed, indicating that a definite community is addressed.

Upon a lofty and high mountain hast thou set thy bed: even thither wentest thou up to offer sacrifice.
7. As in the valleys, so on the hill-tops, the people had sacrificed to strange gods. Cf. Hosea 4:13; Jeremiah 2:20; Ezekiel 6:13.

hast thou set thy bed] The image is suggested by the frequent comparison of idolatry (in Israel) to adultery. Cf. Hosea 4:12; Jeremiah 2:20; Jeremiah 3:2; Ezekiel 16:25.

Behind the doors also and the posts hast thou set up thy remembrance: for thou hast discovered thyself to another than me, and art gone up; thou hast enlarged thy bed, and made thee a covenant with them; thou lovedst their bed where thou sawest it.
8. The first part of the verse seems to allude to some form of household idolatry. Many commentators explain the expression as a violation of the command in Deuteronomy 6:9; Deuteronomy 11:20. In these passages the Israelites are directed to write certain sentences of Scripture on the doorposts of their houses, and it is supposed that the practice here denounced is placing the texts at the back of the door so as to be out of sight! This is an utterly improbable interpretation. The thing called “remembrance” (zikkarôn, better memorial, as R.V.) must be some heathen emblem, whose exact nature cannot be determined; and from the fact that it stood at the entrance of the house, it may be presumed to have represented the patron deity of the family.

for thou hast discovered … bed] The last word appears to be the object to each of the three verbs: for away from me thou hast uncovered and ascended and enlarged thy bed. The connexion (“for”) may lie in the thought that they sought every possible opportunity of being unfaithful to Jehovah, their household cults being an expression of their irresistible inclination to idolatry.

and made thee a covenant with them &c.] The sense is uncertain: either, “and thou hast made a contract with them” &c. (?); or, substituting a verb meaning “purchase” (in Deuteronomy 2:6; Hosea 3:2), “and thou didst procure for thee (some) of those whose bed thou lovest.” For the idea, cf. Ezekiel 16:16 ff., Ezekiel 16:32 ff.

where thou sawest it] Lit. “thou hast seen a hand.” The rendering of E.V. cannot be maintained, but the real meaning of the expression is altogether obscure.

And thou wentest to the king with ointment, and didst increase thy perfumes, and didst send thy messengers far off, and didst debase thyself even unto hell.
9. Pilgrimages and deputations to the shrines of foreign deities form a fitting conclusion to the enumeration of their idolatries. Another view taken of the verse is that it refers to political embassies sent to court the favour of some great heathen power. This idea derives support from the resemblance of the passage to Ezekiel 23:16; Ezekiel 23:40, but it is out of keeping with the other allusions of the verse. Oil and ointment have nothing to do with politics; on the other hand unguents of various kinds played a great part in the cultus of the Semites. (See W. R. Smith, Religion of the Semites2, pp. 232 f., 382 f.) And the last line of the verse is most naturally explained as an allusion to infernal deities.

And thou wentest to the king, &c.] Rather, And thou hast journeyed to Melek with oil. “Melek” means king, and is here understood by many of the Great King of Assyria or Babylon. But for the reasons given above it is necessary to explain it as the name of a deity. It is, in fact, the word which has come to us in the Hebrew Bible under the form Molech, its proper vowels having been replaced in Jewish tradition by those of bôsheth, “shameful thing.” (see W. R. Smith, l.c. p. 372.) It was a title applied by the Northern Semites to many gods, and even (among the Israelites) to Jehovah, as “king.’ ” Here it seems to be used as a proper name, and the verb “journey” shows that a foreign god is meant; possibly, as Duhm thinks, Milkom, the chief god of the Ammonites, with whom the Samaritans seem to have been in close alliance (Nehemiah 2:10; Nehemiah 4:7; Nehemiah 6:1 ff.).

thy perfumes] or ointments.

and didst send thy messengers far off] Where they could not go in person they sent messengers with offerings.

and didst debase thyself even unto hell] Rather, and hast sent deep to Sheol (lit. “hast deepened [sc. thy sending] to Sheol”), i.e. they sought the favour of the deities of the underworld, by consulting their oracles etc.

Thou art wearied in the greatness of thy way; yet saidst thou not, There is no hope: thou hast found the life of thine hand; therefore thou wast not grieved.
10, 11. Although wearied by these idolatries they have persisted in them with an infatuation which has blinded them to their desperate situation, and rendered them indifferent to the fear of Jehovah.

in the greatness of thy way] i.e. “through thy much wandering,” thy multifarious religious observances.

There is no hope] Lit. “desperatum est”; cf. Jeremiah 2:25; Jeremiah 18:12 (with a somewhat different shade of meaning).

thou didst find the life of thine hand] A very obscure and variously explained phrase. R.V. a quickening (i.e. renewal) of thy strength is perhaps the most feasible interpretation, but the peculiar expression is hardly accounted for, unless it be a current proverb.

thou wast not grieved] lit. sick, weak and faint. Comp. Jeremiah 5:3, “Thou hast smitten them and they did not become sick,” i.e. did not feel weak.

And of whom hast thou been afraid or feared, that thou hast lied, and hast not remembered me, nor laid it to thy heart? have not I held my peace even of old, and thou fearest me not?
11. Most critics detect in this verse a milder tone on the part of the Divine speaker, as if He would find a partial excuse for the apostasies of the people in their undue fear of other gods, and distrust of Jehovah, who had so long time kept silence (cf. ch. Isaiah 51:12 f., Isaiah 42:14). If this impression be right, the theory that the Samaritans are the persons addressed at once falls to the ground. Another view is, however, possible. The question of whom hast thou been afraid and feared? may imply a simple negative answer,—“thou hast been absolutely fearless.” The language of the verse yields itself to either interpretation.

that thou hast lied] Or, “for thou art treacherous.”

have not I held my peace, &c.] Or “Is it not so? I have been silent” etc.: “It was because I held my peace that thou didst not fear me, but other gods.” Cf. Psalm 50:21 (“These things thou didst and I kept silence” etc).

even of old] (Isaiah 42:14). The LXX. and Vulg. evidently vocalised the word differently (מַעְלִם for מֵעֹלָם), so as to read “and covered (sc. my eyes)”; (cf. Psalm 10:1; Isaiah 1:15).

I will declare thy righteousness, and thy works; for they shall not profit thee.
12, 13. But Jehovah will no longer be silent; He will proceed to judgement (cf. again Psalm 50:21).

I will declare thy righteousness] must be spoken ironically: “I will expose thy (pretended) righteousness.” This might be said of the Samaritans, who claimed to be true worshippers of Jehovah just as ancient Israel had always done (Ezra 4:2).

and thy works, &c.] Render with R.V. and as for thy works, they shall not profit thee.

When thou criest, let thy companies deliver thee; but the wind shall carry them all away; vanity shall take them: but he that putteth his trust in me shall possess the land, and shall inherit my holy mountain;
13. When thou criest, let thy companies deliver thee] Cf. Jeremiah 2:28. The word for “companies” does not occur elsewhere; it means them which thou hast gathered (R.V.): thy rabble of idols (R.V. marg.) (see Micah 1:7).

vanity] R.V. a breath.

The second half of the verse forms a transition to the next section, which is a promise of salvation to the true Israel.

And shall say, Cast ye up, cast ye up, prepare the way, take up the stumblingblock out of the way of my people.
14. And shall say] or, And it shall be said (R.V. marg.). The speaker is Jehovah (“my people”), not one of the angelic beings of the Prologue. The expression means simply “the word shall go forth.”

The image of the highway of salvation is taken from ch. Isaiah 40:3 (see also Isaiah 62:10), but seems to be applied somewhat differently. There it meant an actual highway for the return of the exiles through the desert; here, as the context shews, it is only a figure for the removal of spiritual obstacles to the redemption of Israel (Isaiah 57:17). Such a modification of the conception, although of course no proof of post-exilic authorship, is certainly very intelligible on that hypothesis. After the return of the first band of exiles it became apparent that the inauguration of the Messianic age was not to take the form of a triumphal march of Jehovah and His people across the desert to Canaan. The prophet’s bold image of the miraculous highway necessarily lost its primary physical significance, and could be retained only as an emblem of the preparation for that larger deliverance to which the hopes of the post-exilic community were eagerly directed. It is applied, in short, in precisely the same way as at a later time to the preparatory mission of the Baptist (Mark 1:3; John 1:23).

14–21. In striking contrast to the menacing tone of Isaiah 57:3 ff. is the impressive and elevated language in which the prophet now sets forth the gracious thoughts of Jehovah towards His erring but repentant people.

For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.
15. high and lofty] An Isaianic phrase, ch. Isaiah 2:12 ff., Isaiah 6:1 (cf. Isaiah 52:13).

that inhabiteth eternity] Rather, “that sitteth (enthroned) for ever.”

I dwell in the high and holy place] The strict rendering perhaps is “on high and Holy (as a holy One) I dwell.” Cf. Isaiah 66:1.

of a contrite and humble spirit] crushed and of a lowly spirit. The expressions do not necessarily imply what we mean by contrition—the crushing effect of remorse for sin—but only the subdued, self-distrusting spirit which is produced by affliction. Comp. ch. Isaiah 66:2; Psalm 51:17.

The word “holy” (here used as a proper name, see on ch. Isaiah 40:25) and the expressions “high and lofty” seem to shew the influence of Isaiah’s vision (ch. 6). The thought of the verse is very striking. It is the paradox of religion that Jehovah’s holiness, which places Him at an infinite distance from human pride and greatness, brings Him near to the humble in spirit (comp. Psalm 113:5-6; Psalm 138:6). No contrast is indicated: Jehovah dwells on high and (not but yet) with the lowly. It would be a mistake, however, to infer that holiness means or even includes gracious condescension. The two attributes are not mutually exclusive, but still less are they identical. The holiness of God is expressed by saying that He dwells on high; His dwelling with the contrite is another fact which manifests a different aspect of His character. Through the discipline of the Exile Israel had come to know God in both characters—as infinitely exalted and infinitely condescending; it had learned that peace with God, the high and lofty One, is reached through humility, which is the recognition of His holiness and majesty.

For I will not contend for ever, neither will I be always wroth: for the spirit should fail before me, and the souls which I have made.
16. Hardly less remarkable is the motive here assigned for the Divine clemency,—Jehovah’s compassion for the frailty of His creatures (Psalm 103:9; Psalm 103:13 f., Psalm 78:39). The argument somewhat resembles that of ch. Isaiah 45:18 ff.: it cannot be Jehovah’s purpose to undo His own creation. The continuance of His anger would annihilate the souls which He Himself has made; therefore when chastisement has produced the contrite and humble spirit, He relents and shews mercy.

The word for souls is that which in Genesis 2:7 means “breath (of life),” the principle of life in virtue of which man becomes “a living person” (cf. ch. Isaiah 42:5). The parallel spirit has the same sense; it is the Divine power by which human life is sustained.

For the iniquity of his covetousness was I wroth, and smote him: I hid me, and was wroth, and he went on frowardly in the way of his heart.
17. For the iniquity of his covetousness] The mention of “covetousness” as the typical sin of the community here addressed affords some support to the theory that the post-exilic Jews are referred to. See Haggai 1:2; Haggai 1:9; Malachi 1:8; Malachi 1:13-14; Malachi 3:8; Nehemiah 5. These passages shew that a sordid, avaricious spirit was characteristic of the returned exiles, although on the other hand Jeremiah 6:13 shews that it was prevalent before the Captivity (cf. Ezekiel 33:31). The same feature is touched on in ch. Isaiah 56:11 and in ch. 58. The significant thing is that it is specified as the besetting sin of the time, and this again appears to indicate that the people spoken of are distinct from those who were guilty of the more heinous offences enumerated in Isaiah 57:5-9.

covetousness is strictly “gain”; (Genesis 37:26) then unjust gain.

I hid me, and was wroth] hiding myself in my wrath (lit. “hiding and being wroth”; see Davidson’s Syntax, § 87 R. 1).

and he went on frowardly] (cf. Jeremiah 3:14; Jeremiah 3:22; Jeremiah 31:22; Jeremiah 49:4) lit. “turning away” (R.V. marg.). The meaning can hardly be that the effect of punishment was to harden the people in sin, and that therefore Jehovah desists from it. The clause does not give the consequence of the chastisement, but continues the description of the sinful life of the people which had drawn forth the Divine anger.

I have seen his ways, and will heal him: I will lead him also, and restore comforts unto him and to his mourners.
18. I have seen his ways] Either “his sinful ways” or “the amendment of his ways.” The first view is perhaps more probable, in which case the words would be better joined to the preceding verse (so Duhm).

and will heal him] Or, “And I will heal him,”—beginning a new sentence. Cf. Hosea 6:1; Hosea 14:4; Jeremiah 3:22.

For comforts read comfort.

his mourners] ch.Isaiah 61:2, Isaiah 66:10.

I create the fruit of the lips; Peace, peace to him that is far off, and to him that is near, saith the LORD; and I will heal him.
19. I create the fruit of the lips] Better, creating fruit of the lips, continuing Isaiah 57:18. “Fruit of the lips” means praise and thanksgiving, as Hosea 14:2 (R.V. marg.); Hebrews 13:15. Jehovah will create this, cause it to spring forth spontaneously, from those who experience His lovingkindness.

Peace, peace &c.] Peace, peace to the far off and to the near! an exclamation, like Isaiah 57:21. The contrast of the “far off” and the “near” is probably that between the Jews still in exile, and those who have returned and are “near” to Jerusalem (cf. ch. Isaiah 56:8).

But the wicked are like the troubled sea, when it cannot rest, whose waters cast up mire and dirt.
20, 21. Their peace is contrasted with the eternal unrest of the wicked. For the image cf. Judges 13.

when (for) it cannot rest] as Jeremiah 49:23.

There is no peace, saith my God, to the wicked.
21. There is no peace &c.] see on ch. Isaiah 48:22.

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