Isaiah 59
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 59. The Hindrances to Israel’s Salvation and their Removal through the Interposition of Jehovah

The chapter is closely connected in thought with the preceding, and may perhaps be regarded as a continuation of the same discourse. The first verse justifies the utterance of such promises as are contained in the latter part of ch. 58, and the second explains why they remain as yet unfulfilled. The range of the prophecy is wider than in the former chapter, but the central theme and the historical situation are the same, and, as in the case of chs. 56–58, the phenomena of the chapter are most naturally accounted for on the assumption of a post-exilic date. In particular the prominence given to abuses of public justice (Isaiah 59:4; Isaiah 59:14) in the catalogue of social crimes, implies a degree of independence and political responsibility which can hardly be attributed to the Jews in exile.

The chapter falls obviously into three sections:

i. Isaiah 59:1-8.—In opposition to the thought naturally arising in the mind of the people, that the obstacle to their deliverance must be impotence or indifference on the part of Jehovah (Isaiah 59:1), the prophet asserts that the true reason of His inactivity is the sin that has come between Him and them (Isaiah 59:2). He points to the flagrant breaches of the moral law of which the community as a whole is guilty (Isaiah 59:3-4): and draws an appalling picture of the hopelessly corrupt character and conduct of many of his contemporaries (Isaiah 59:5-8).

ii. Isaiah 59:9-15 a.—A pathetic description of the people’s vain longing for deliverance and peace (Isaiah 59:9-11), followed by a confession of the sins which are the cause of their misery (Isaiah 59:12-15 a). The prophet here identifies himself with the nation and speaks in its name.

iii. Isaiah 59:15 b–21.—At the middle of Isaiah 59:15 the tone of the discourse suddenly alters; the language of complaint and prayer gives place to that of prophetic anticipation. Since the people is hopelessly entangled in its own sins, and no human champion appears on the scene, Jehovah Himself, represented as a warrior arming for the conflict, undertakes the work of salvation (Isaiah 59:15 b–17). The world-wide consequences of His interposition are then described: destruction to His enemies, manifestation of His divinity to all mankind, and redemption to Zion (Isaiah 59:18-20). The chapter closes with a promise confirming the gift of the divine spirit and word to the true Israel in perpetuity (Isaiah 59:21).

Behold, the LORD'S hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear:
1. Behold the hand of Jehovah is not too short (cf. ch. Isaiah 50:2) to save,

Nor His ear too heavy (ch. Isaiah 6:10) to hear.

1, 2. These verses state briefly and forcibly the argument of which the whole chapter is the expansion: not the powerlessness or the indifference of Jehovah, but the sin of the people, is the hindrance to the promised redemption.

But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.
2. your iniquities have separated] Lit. “have been separating.” The expression is that used of the firmament in Genesis 1:6; it implies that guilt has been a permanent cause of alienation between Israel and its God.

have hid his face] i.e. caused Him to withdraw His favour (cf. ch. Isaiah 8:17). Instead of “his face,” the Hebr. has simply “face” as in Job 34:29. Various explanations are offered of this peculiar expression; perhaps the easiest is that “the Face” had come to be used absolutely of the face of God.

For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue hath muttered perverseness.
3. your hands are defiled with blood] Cf. ch. Isaiah 1:15.

hath uttered] Better muttereth (as R.V.).

None calleth for justice, nor any pleadeth for truth: they trust in vanity, and speak lies; they conceive mischief, and bring forth iniquity.
4. The first half of the verse should be rendered as R.V.

None sueth in righteousness,

And none pleadeth in truth.

The reference is to the abuse of legal procedure: lawsuits instituted and conducted with absolute disregard of righteousness and truth. Cf. ch. Isaiah 29:21.

calleth] with the sense of “summon” (in jus vocare), as in Job 9:16; Job 13:22.

pleadeth] i.e. “pleadeth a cause”, litigates; the same word as in Isaiah 43:26.

The rest of the verse probably continues the same subject, describing the sophistical and mischievous arguments employed by the litigants to make the worse appear the better reason, and subvert the ends of justice. The verbs are infinitives (as in Isaiah 59:13 and Hosea 4:2) and should be translated thus:

Trusting in emptiness (lit. “chaos” as Isaiah 40:17) and speaking vanity!

Conceiving mischief and bringing forth evil!

The last line occurs almost verbatim in Job 15:35.

They hatch cockatrice' eggs, and weave the spider's web: he that eateth of their eggs dieth, and that which is crushed breaketh out into a viper.
5. cockatrice’ eggs] or basilisks’ eggs. See on ch. Isaiah 11:8. The figure is expanded in the latter part of the verse, and the meaning seems to be that the persons spoken of brood over and bring to maturity projects of wickedness, whose effects are almost equally fatal to those who acquiesce in them and to those who oppose them.

he that eateth of their eggs] (cf. Deuteronomy 32:33) i.e. either he who enters into their schemes, or he who is their victim.

that which is crushed … viper] Should one try to stamp out one of their diabolical plots, its deadly nature will only be the more clearly manifested.

5–8. These verses differ somewhat in character from Isaiah 59:3 f., and are regarded by Duhm and Cheyne as a quotation from some Psalm or collection of proverbs. In point of fact the first part of Isaiah 59:7 appears in Proverbs 1:16, but probably as an interpolation, since the verse is wanting in the LXX. On the other hand, Isaiah 59:7-8 are partly reproduced in the LXX. recension of Psalm 14:3, as in Romans 3:10 ff. These facts do not by themselves raise any presumption against the genuineness of the passage in this discourse; and the first image of Isaiah 59:5 connects itself naturally enough with the conclusion of Isaiah 59:4. It must be admitted, however, that the description can only apply to a limited class of utter reprobates, and there is some difficulty in conceiving that it can be the continuation of Isaiah 59:3-4, which contain perfectly definite and intelligible accusations against a whole community.

Their webs shall not become garments, neither shall they cover themselves with their works: their works are works of iniquity, and the act of violence is in their hands.
6. Development of the second image of Isaiah 59:5, the point of comparison being the uselessness for any good social end of the schemes devised by the ungodly.

shall not become garments] i.e. “shall not serve for a garment.”

neither shall they cover themselves &c.] Better, neither shall men cover themselves &c. (indefinite subj.).

Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood: their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; wasting and destruction are in their paths.
7. their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity (or evil)] corresponding to their deeds, Isaiah 59:6.

wasting and destruction] as ch. Isaiah 51:19, Isaiah 60:18; an alliteration in the Hebr.

in their paths] Lit. in their highways, cf. Proverbs 16:17.

7, 8. Cf. Proverbs 1:16; Romans 3:15-17.

The way of peace they know not; and there is no judgment in their goings: they have made them crooked paths: whosoever goeth therein shall not know peace.
8. judgment here means right (R.V. marg.).

goings] tracks, a common word in the Book of Proverbs.

they have made them &c.] they have made their paths crooked. Cf. Proverbs 2:15; Proverbs 10:9; Proverbs 28:18.

whosoever goeth therein] i.e. makes common cause with them.

Therefore is judgment far from us, neither doth justice overtake us: we wait for light, but behold obscurity; for brightness, but we walk in darkness.
9. Therefore] on account of these sins and disorders, and not on account of Jehovah’s remissness (Isaiah 59:1-2).

judgment … justice (R.V. righteousness) are here again synonyms for salvation, right manifested by a judicial interposition of Jehovah, as in Isaiah 59:11 and the latter part of ch. Isaiah 56:1.

overtake us] The nation has struggled on its dreary and difficult way in the confident expectation that salvation would not tarry long behind, but hitherto this hope has been disappointed.

9–11. The sorrow and dejection of the people is depicted in striking and pathetic images. It is the better mind of the community which is here expressed,—its intense desire for the fulfilment of the divine promises, its weariness through hope deferred making the heart sick. The contrast to the buoyant enthusiasm of the second Isaiah is very great, and it is hardly credible that the state of feeling here described should have arisen in the short interval which elapsed between the announcement of deliverance and the actual release from captivity.

We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes: we stumble at noonday as in the night; we are in desolate places as dead men.
10. We grope for the wall, &c.] Rather, along the wall seeking an outlet. Comp. the very similar passage Deuteronomy 28:29.

we are in desolate places as dead men] R.V. among them that are lusty we are as dead men. The A.V. follows the Vulgate, but the rendering “desolate places” seems destitute of any etymological basis. The word, which occurs only here, comes apparently from a root denoting “fatness”; hence the translation of the R.V., which gives a more effective turn to the figure than any other that has been proposed. The soundness of the text, however, is open to suspicion.

We roar all like bears, and mourn sore like doves: we look for judgment, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far off from us.
11. We roar (better groan) all like bears] Comp. (with Gesenius) Horace, Epod. 16. 51:

“Nec vespertinus circumgemit ursus ovile.”

The comparison would no doubt gain in force if we could suppose, as Duhm hesitatingly suggests, that captive animals, pining for liberty, are meant. But this is not indicated.

On the “mourning” of the dove, cf. ch. Isaiah 38:14; Ezekiel 7:16; Nahum 2:7; and see Davidson’s Ezekiel (Cambridge Bible), p. 49.

we look for judgment, &c.] returning to the thought of Isaiah 59:9.

12–15a. Confession of the sins previously denounced, the prophet speaking in the name of the people.

For our transgressions are multiplied before thee, and our sins testify against us: for our transgressions are with us; and as for our iniquities, we know them;
12. our sins testify against us] So Jeremiah 14:7.

our transgressions are with us] present to our conscience, Job 12:3; Job 14:5 &c.; comp. also Psalm 51:3 (“my transgressions I know, and my sin is before me continually”).

In transgressing and lying against the LORD, and departing away from our God, speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving and uttering from the heart words of falsehood.
13. The sins referred to in Isaiah 59:12 are enumerated in a series of infinitives (cf. Isaiah 59:4), which should be construed as in apposition to the terms “sin,” “iniquities,” &c. employed in the general confession of Isaiah 59:12.

Rebellion and denial of Jehovah,

and turning back from after our God, etc.

It is doubtful if there is any reference here to the sin of idolatry; the charge of apostasy is perhaps rather to be understood of offences against social morality, which amounted to a renunciation of the authority of Jehovah.

The last two lines deal with sins of speech, committed against men.

revolt is literally “defection,” and appears to be used in the same general sense as Deuteronomy 19:16 of declension from truth and right.

uttering from the heart] The verb here is identical in form with that rendered “mutter” in Isaiah 59:3 and “mourn” in Isaiah 59:11. The vocalisation of both the verbs in this clause is anomalous, and should probably be changed (read hârô, hâgô).

And judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter.
14. The confession, following the same order as the indictment in Isaiah 59:3-4, proceeds from personal sins to public injustice.

judgment and justice (righteousness) are not the divine vindication of Israel’s right (as in Isaiah 59:9), but the fundamental civic virtues. These, by a bold personification, are conceived as eager to take their rightful place in the administration of justice, but as kept at a distance by the prevailing social corruption. For truth (the essential basis of righteousness) stumbleth in the broad place, and uprightness (R.V.) cannot enter. The “broad place” is probably the open space at the city gate where cases were decided by the judges (Jeremiah 5:1 &c.).

Yea, truth faileth; and he that departeth from evil maketh himself a prey: and the LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no judgment.
15. Yea, truth faileth] Lit. And truth is missing,—conspicuous by its absence.

maketh himself a prey] i.e. must submit to extortion (Psalm 76:6). Another, and possibly a better rendering is, “withdraws himself”; compare the peculiar use of the simple verb in Ruth 2:16 (= “draw out” corn from the sheaf).

15b introduces the peroration of the discourse, in which the prophet describes the manner in which salvation shall at last “overtake” the sinful and misgoverned community. The logical development of the argument seems to be arrested by the conviction that the existing situation is hopeless, and only to be terminated through the personal intervention of Jehovah. This conviction clothes itself first of all in a prophetic vision of Jehovah as He appears to judgement; which is followed by an announcement of the consequences of His interposition for the two classes within Israel and for mankind at large. Although the transition in the middle of this verse is abrupt and unexpected there is no sufficient reason to doubt the unity of the discourse.

And he saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor: therefore his arm brought salvation unto him; and his righteousness, it sustained him.
16. Comp. the closely parallel passage, ch. Isaiah 63:5.

there was no man] See on ch. Isaiah 50:2.

no intercessor] Better none to interpose, i.e. on behalf of truth and right (cf. Ezekiel 22:30). Duhm finds in these expressions an allusion to the absence of any human hero to play the rôle assigned to Cyrus in the earlier part of the book. This is perhaps to strain the prophet’s language unduly; but see on Isaiah 63:5.

therefore his arm &c.] Jehovah’s only allies in this conflict with wickedness are His own attributes.

brought salvation unto him] “wrought deliverance for Him.” Cf. Jdg 7:2.

That the whole description refers to a future event can hardly be questioned. The perfects in this verse and the next are those of prophetic certainty.

For he put on righteousness as a breastplate, and an helmet of salvation upon his head; and he put on the garments of vengeance for clothing, and was clad with zeal as a cloke.
17. The idea of Jehovah as a warrior occurs several times in this book (ch. Isaiah 42:13, Isaiah 49:24 f., Isaiah 52:10); but the fully developed image of His arming Himself with His own attributes has no exact parallel in the O.T. (cf. however, ch. Isaiah 11:5). It is reproduced and further elaborated in Wis 5:17 ff.; and in the N. T. it suggests the figure of the Christian armour (Ephesians 6:14 ff.; 1 Thessalonians 5:8).

And he put on righteousness as a coat of mail (R.V. marg.). “Righteousness,” as in Isaiah 59:16, is a divine attribute,—zeal for the right, the stedfast purpose to establish righteousness (and its correlate, salvation) on the earth.

zeal] Cf. ch. Isaiah 42:13, Isaiah 9:7.

According to their deeds, accordingly he will repay, fury to his adversaries, recompence to his enemies; to the islands he will repay recompence.
18. According to their deeds] Or deserts. The word means simply an accomplished deed, either in a good or bad sense; but it is chiefly used in expressions which imply a reference to reward or retribution. In the next line it denotes the recompence itself (cf. ch. Isaiah 35:4).

According to … accordingly] The form of the comparative sentence is hardly grammatical. The compound preposition which introduces both protasis and apodosis has in the second case no noun to govern, and it cannot be treated either as a conjunction or as an adverb. We must either (with Dillmann) omit “accordingly” as dittography, or (with Duhm) change “he will repay” into a noun; rendering, “as the deserts so the retribution.” The sentence, however, would read awkwardly without a verb.

to the islands he will repay recompence] The clause seems to identify the “adversaries” and “enemies” of Jehovah with the “islands” (cf. Isaiah 41:1), i.e. the heathen world; but that is almost certainly a misinterpretation of the sense of the passage. If there is any connexion with the earlier part of the discourse, the “adversaries” spoken of must be the apostate Jews,—those who by their sins hindered the coming of salvation. The prophet cannot mean that because Israel’s sin has separated it from Jehovah, therefore judgement will descend on the heathen. Apart from this clause, indeed, there is nothing in the context to suggest the thought of a world-judgement, although of course the conception of a judgement beginning with Israel and extending to the nations is possible (see on ch. Isaiah 3:13). The words, however, are wanting in the LXX., and the verse would be greatly simplified by their removal. Their insertion is easily accounted for through a misunderstanding of Isaiah 59:19.

18–20. The consequences of Jehovah’s interposition.

So shall they fear the name of the LORD from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun. When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the LORD shall lift up a standard against him.
19. The effect of the judgement, as a manifestation of Jehovah’s glory, will be coextensive with humanity. The verse gives no hint that the judgement itself will be universal; the nations are affected by it only in so far as it reveals the character and deity of the God of Israel. Comp. ch. Isaiah 18:3.

fear the name of the Lord] Cf. Psalm 102:15.

When the enemy shall come in, &c.] R.V. reads: for he shall come as a rushing stream (marg. a stream pent in), which the breath of the lord driveth. The rendering of A.V. is based on the Targ., Pesh., and Jewish commentators, and is followed by a few in recent times; that of R.V. has the authority of the LXX. (in part) and Vulg., and is adopted by nearly all the best modern authorities. The chief points of difference are (1) the construction of the word which A.V. translates by enemy (Heb. c̨âr). According to the Massoretic pointing and accentuation it is the subject of the sentence, and may be rendered indifferently “adversary” or “adversity.” On the other view it is an adjective qualifying “stream,” and may mean either as an act. part, “rushing,” or (less probably) “straitened,” “pent up.” (2) The verb for lift up a standard (R.V. “driveth,” Heb. nôṣçṣ). The A.V. understands it as a denominative from the common word for “standard” (see on ch. Isaiah 10:18), while the R.V. derives it from the verb for “flee” (Pil‘el = “drive forward”). The other differences need no elucidation. The second interpretation is alone suitable to the connexion, which “requires a continuous description of the theophany” (Cheyne). For the image in the last clause cf. ch. Isaiah 30:28 (“His breath is as an overflowing stream”).

And the Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, saith the LORD.
20. The consequences for Israel.

And the redeemer shall come] Rather And he shall come as a redeemer (ch. Isaiah 41:14).

and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob] LXX. has “and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob,”—a different and more expressive text. So also in the quotation, Romans 11:26, where the words are applied in a Messianic sense.

As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the LORD; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed's seed, saith the LORD, from henceforth and for ever.
21. Confirmation of the covenant to the true Israel. The verse, on account of its apparent want of connexion with what precedes, and its change of person and number, is regarded by some as an insertion.

My spirit that is upon thee] The change of pronouns (with them … upon thee) presents little difficulty here. It is caused by the transition from indirect to direct address; what follows being the substance of an oracle that was already gone forth. Comp. the similar promise in ch. Isaiah 44:3. The person addressed is the spiritual Israel, which is even now endowed with the divine spirit and word. Whether Israel is conceived as “the bearer of the idea of the Servant of Jehovah” (Dillmann) is doubtful in view of the possible post-exilic origin of the prophecy. Against the view that the prophet himself is addressed, Dillmann pertinently remarks that the O.T. knows nothing of a hereditary transmission of the prophetic gift.

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