Isaiah 9
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Chap. Isaiah 8:19 to Isaiah 9:7. Esoteric prophecies of the future addressed to Isaiah’s disciples

The prophet, having now discontinued and “sealed up” his public “testimony,” appears to address himself in what follows to his own immediate followers. The passage presents, in vivid contrast, two pictures; one of the darkness and despair that are settling down on the incorrigible nation, the other of the light and joy that are to break upon it with the advent of the Messianic salvation. “The morning cometh and also the night” (ch. Isaiah 21:12).

i. Isaiah 9:19-21. The night of despair and affliction. The whole of this section is unusually obscure, but two features can be clearly recognised, corresponding to the double prophecy in ch. Isaiah 6:9-12.

(1) Spiritual darkness, the people resorting to necromancy, &c., in default of a true revelation (19, 20). This we may regard as a symptom of the last stage of the hardening of heart foretold in Isaiah 6:9 f.

(2) Outward distress: men roaming through a dreary land, maddened by hunger, and seeking relief in vain (21, 22). The fulfilment of Isaiah 6:11 f.

Ch. Isaiah 9:1 (in the Hebr. 8:23) is a transition verse.

ii. Ch. Isaiah 9:2-7. The dawn of the Messianic age.

(1) The light and joy of the great deliverance (2, 3).

(2) The manner of the deliverance: the overthrow of the Assyrian tyrant (4, 5).

(3) The advent of the Messianic King (6, 7).

Nevertheless the dimness shall not be such as was in her vexation, when at the first he lightly afflicted the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward did more grievously afflict her by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, in Galilee of the nations.
Isaiah 9:1. Nevertheless … vexation] Lit. For (there is) no gloom to her that (is) in straitness. The sentence is an enigma. Duhm translates it as a question and regards it as the gloss of a reader who with difficulty had made up his mind that the “gloom” is metaphorical and justified his conclusion thus: “For is there not gloom to (a land) that is in straits?” It is a nice question whether the ancient scholiast or the modern commentator displays the greater subtlety here. If the words are retained in the text we must supply a different tense in the two members, as R.V. “But (for) there shall be no gloom to her that was in anguish.”

when at the first … more grievously afflict her] Begin a new sentence and render as R.V. In the former time he brought into contempt … but in the latter time hath he made it glorious, &c., or (since the words for “land” have the acc. termination), “brought contempt on the land … brought honour to it.” The subject is Jehovah.

the land of Zebulun … Naphtali] Lower and Upper Galilee.

the way of the sea] either “in the direction of the (Mediterranean) Sea,” or “the region along the West side of the Sea of Gennesareth.” In the time of the Crusades Via Maris was the name of the road leading from Acre to Damascus.

beyond Jordan] the land of Gilead (2 Kings 15:29).

in Galilee of the nations] (omit “in”) the circuit of the nations. Although the Hebrew word (Gâlîl) is the origin of the later “Galilee,” the district to which it was applied in the O.T. was only the northernmost corner of what was afterwards Upper Galilee (see 1 Kings 9:11; Joshua 20:7; Joshua 21:32; 2 Kings 15:29).

These remote provinces are singled out for special mention because they were the first to be depopulated by Tiglath-pileser (2 Kings 15:29), those parts of the land, therefore, on which the reproach of foreign dominion will have lain longest when the Deliverance comes. The prophecy acquired a new and surprising significance when the “good news of the Kingdom” began to be proclaimed by our Lord first in Galilee (Matthew 4:13 ff.). But the following verses (Isaiah 9:2-7) refer of course to the whole nation.

The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.
2. have seen] the perfects throughout are those of prophetic certainty; the writer is transported into the future.

the shadow of death] Heb. çal-mâveth, usually held by scholars to be a corruption of çalmûth (= “shadow” simply). But the traditional etymology is forcibly defended by Nöldeke in Zeitschr. f. A.T. Wiss., 1897, pp. 183 f.

2, 3. The sudden change of style is remarkable; all at once the prophecy breaks into a strain of rapturous and animated poetry, which is sustained to the close. In the Hebr. ch. 9 begins here.

Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy: they joy before thee according to the joy in harvest, and as men rejoice when they divide the spoil.
3. and not increased the joy] Lit., “unto it thou hast increased the joy.” Lô’, “not” and , “to it,” being pronounced alike, are sometimes confused in the text of the O.T. There is no reason for assuming such a confusion here, and R.V. (“thou hast increased their joy”) rightly adheres to the Massoretic text. But it is still better to adopt a very simple emendation, approved by many expositors (הנילה for הנוילא) and translate: Thou hast multiplied the exultation; thou hast increased the joy.

before thee] as at the festivals in the sanctuary, a phrase often used in Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 12:7, Isaiah 14:26, &c.).

the joy in harvest] Psalm 4:8; Psalm 126:5-6.

as men rejoice when they divide the spoil] cf. ch. Isaiah 33:23; Jdg 5:30; Psalm 119:162. For “rejoice” read exult.

For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden, and the staff of his shoulder, the rod of his oppressor, as in the day of Midian.
4. Change the order as in R.V. For the yoke of his burden, &c.… thou hast broken.

the staff of his shoulder] (better back) means the staff with which his back was beaten; the pronouns refer to Israel.

rod of his oppressor] task-master, as in Exodus 5:6.

in the day of Midian] when the dominion of the Midianites was for ever broken (Judges 7; cf. Isaiah 10:26). “Day” here means “day of battle,” as often in Arabic. The Arabs speak of the hero of many fights as dhu-l’ ayyâmîn, “master of days.”

4, 5. The destruction of the oppressor.

For every battle of the warrior is with confused noise, and garments rolled in blood; but this shall be with burning and fuel of fire.
5. The verse reads: For every boot of him that tramped noisily, and (every) garment rolled in blood, shall be for burning, as fuel for the fire. The word ṣě’ôn is Aramaic and signifies a military boot; that rendered “tramped” (ṣô’çn) is a denominative formed from it. The idea of the verse is that after Jehovah’s great victory every vestige of war shall be burned up in preparation for the kingdom of universal peace. Comp. the burning of the weapons of Gog’s host in Ezekiel 39:9 f.

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counseller, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace.
6. unto us] the survivors of the judgment. Cf. “Immanuel,” “God with us.”

the government] This word is found only here and in Isaiah 9:7, and is of uncertain interpretation, perhaps “princedom.”

his name shall be called] The name of the Messiah consists of a series of honorific titles, pertaining to Him in His kingly capacity and expressing mainly the qualities displayed in His government. We may compare, with Guthe and others, the high-sounding titles assumed by Egyptian and Babylonian monarchs in their inscriptions, such as, “Giver of Life in perpetuity,” “Ever Living,” “Lord of Life,” “Lord of Eternity and Infinity” &c.

Wonderful, Counseller] Since each of the other names is compounded of two words, these expressions are also to be taken together as forming a single designation—Wonder-Counseller. The construction is either construct followed by genitive—“a wonder of a Counseller” (cf. Genesis 16:12), or acc. governed by participle—“one who counsels wonderful things.” Cf. “wonderful in counsel” (of Jehovah) in ch. Isaiah 28:29. On counsel as the function of a king, see Micah 4:9.

The mighty God] (’êl Gibbôr) either “God-like Hero” or Hero-God. The second is to be preferred, because the title is applied to Jehovah in ch. Isaiah 10:21 (cf. Deuteronomy 10:17; Jeremiah 32:18). These two titles ascribe to the Messiah the two fundamental virtues of a ruler, wisdom and strength (cf. ch. Isaiah 11:2), both in superhuman measure. The predicate of divinity (like that of eternity in the next name) is not to be understood in the absolute metaphysical sense; it means that the divine energy works through him and is displayed in his rule (cf. Isaiah 11:2 ff.; Mi. Isaiah 5:4; Zechariah 12:8). In the fulfilment the words receive a larger sense.

The remaining two titles describe the character of the Messiah’s government, as (a) paternal, and (b) peaceful.

The everlasting Father] lit. Father of Eternity. The translation “Father of booty” is grammatically unimpeachable (see ch. Isaiah 33:23; Genesis 49:27), but the ideas of fatherhood and booty form an unnatural association. “Father of Eternity” describes the king, not as “possessor of the attribute of eternity” but as one who continually acts as a father to his people.

Prince of Peace] Cf. ch. Isaiah 2:2-4, Isaiah 11:4 ff.; Micah 5:5; Zechariah 9:10.

6, 7. The last and greatest cause of joy is the birth of the Messiah and his wonderful character and government. When Isaiah expected the event to take place, cannot be gathered from this prophecy. There is no reason for supposing that the reference is to a child already born; the perfect tense is used, as throughout the passage, from the ideal standpoint of the writer, which is within the Messianic age. The birth of the child is most naturally conceived as taking place in the age of miracle which succeeds the overthrow of the Assyrian; hence no part is assigned to him in effecting the national emancipation.

Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.
7. The extension and consolidation of the Messiah’s rule.

Of the increase … end] Rather, For the increase of authority and for peace without end, &c. The final M (ם) in the original points to some uncertainty of text, which can also be traced in the translation of the LXX. It is thought by some to have arisen through dittography of the last two letters of Isaiah 9:6; Isaiah 9:7 would then begin “increased is authority.” But the Qěrê gives the better sense.

upon the throne … kingdom] On the throne and kingdom of David. The Messiah succeeds to David’s throne and is doubtless conceived as his lineal descendant.

to order it] Better, to confirm it. The throne is established (Proverbs 20:28; Isaiah 16:5) not by force and conquest but by the moral qualities of judgment and righteousness (see ch. Isaiah 1:21) in the government.

the zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this] exactly as ch. Isaiah 37:32. The word “zeal” or “jealousy” is used of passion in a variety of senses, but chiefly with the implied idea of resentment. When applied to Jehovah it appears always to express the reaction of His holiness called forth by some injury to His honour. Perhaps the closest parallel to the idea here is Zechariah 1:14; Zechariah 8:2 “I am jealous for Zion with a great jealousy.”

The Lord sent a word into Jacob, and it hath lighted upon Israel.
8. Translate: A word hath the Lord sent into Jacob and it shall light upon Israel. “The Word is in nature and history the messenger of the Lord” (Del.) cf. Psalm 107:20; Psalm 147:15; Psalm 147:18; Isaiah 55:11. The “word” here is the following oracle, which has already been “sent,” and will “light” (cf. Daniel 4:31) on Israel, bringing about its own fulfilment.

Jacob … Israel] here denote the Northern Kingdom, as is plain from the next verse.

8–12. The first strophe (Isaiah 9:8-10 being an introduction to the whole prophecy).

Chap. Isaiah 9:8 to Isaiah 10:4 (+ Isaiah 5:25-30)

Jehovah’s hand stretched out in wrath over His people. An oracle against North Israel

The key-note of the prophecy is given in the recurrent refrain—Isaiah 9:12; Isaiah 9:17; Isaiah 9:21, Isaiah 10:4, Isaiah 5:25. (On the reasons for including ch. Isaiah 5:25-30 see on that passage.) It is the most artistically arranged of all Isaiah’s writings, being divided into regular strophes as follows:—

(i) Ch. Isaiah 9:8-12. The introduction (Isaiah 9:8-10) explains that the oracle concerns the inhabitants of Samaria, and points to the buoyant assurance and self-confidence which was the habitual temper of the Northern Kingdom. The prophet then enters on a review of the various calamities by which Jehovah had sought to bring the nation to repentance, the first of these being the aggressions of its powerful neighbours on the East and the West (Isaiah 9:11-12). This was the first stroke of Jehovah’s hand.

(ii) Isaiah 9:13-17. A second blow descends on the impenitent nation in some sudden disaster by which the state is bereft of its leaders, great and small (13–16); the condition of the people is then seen to be utterly corrupt, so that Jehovah withdraws His compassion even from the helpless widows and orphans (17).

(iii) Isaiah 9:18-21. The third visitation is a state of anarchy and internecine strife, which is described mainly in a succession of powerful and telling images. The nation is rent by the conflict of rival factions, the only bond of unity being a common hatred of Judah.

(iv) Ch. Isaiah 10:1-4. The fourth strophe opens with a “Woe” on the maladministration of the judges, which was always to Isaiah’s mind the chief symptom of a rotten republic (Isaiah 9:1-2). This is followed by an allusion to a day of slaughter in which the magnates shall vainly seek safety beneath the slain (3, 4).

[It is possible that another strophe originally stood here, the closing words of which are preserved in Isaiah 5:25.]

(v) Ch. Isaiah 5:26-30. The prediction of the Assyrian invasion forms, as has been already explained, the dénouement of this great drama of judgment. (For the exegesis, see on the passage above, pp. 40–42.) The refrain is of course dropped; Jehovah’s wrath is stayed, His hand is no longer stretched forth.

It is assumed in the foregoing analysis that the passage is in the main (down at least to the end of ch. 9) a retrospect of historical judgments; and this is the view naturally suggested by the tenses of the original, which are with few exceptions perfects, or the equivalents of perfects. A majority of commentators, however, taking the perfects as those of prophetic certainty, interpret the oracle as an ideal delineation of the stages of a judgment yet to come. And it is no doubt conceivable that the prophet might assume an ideal standpoint on the eve of the Assyrian invasion, regarding the preliminary chastisements as past, although they were in reality still future at the time of writing. But such a lavish and continuous use of the prophetic perfect would be unparalleled; and the change to the impf. at Isaiah 5:26 seems too significant to be explained on this hypothesis. It is, therefore, on the whole safer to assume that in Isaiah 9:8-21 the references are to past events, although it may not be possible in every case to specify the exact circumstances that are meant. A shorter oracle arranged on the principle here supposed is found in Amos 4:6-12.

The date of the prophecy is not easily determined. The most probable view is that it was composed just before the outbreak of the Syro-Ephraimitish war. A later date (though not perhaps impossible) is difficult to reconcile with the fact that the issues of that expedition, so disastrous to the Northern Kingdom, are not mentioned. The Assyrians, moreover, are described in terms so vaguely poetic as to suggest that they were as yet unknown to the Israelites at close quarters. Syria also is mentioned as the enemy of Israel, without any hint of an alliance between them; while it is thought by some that Isaiah 9:21 alludes to the incipient antagonism towards Judah which afterwards found vent in the invasion. None of these indications are very decisive, but there are none to neutralise them (see, however, on Isaiah 9:10-11 below); and the passage may at least be regarded provisionally as a product of the earliest period of Isaiah’s ministry.

And all the people shall know, even Ephraim and the inhabitant of Samaria, that say in the pride and stoutness of heart,
9. shall know] i.e. by its effects; Hosea 9:7.

that say] lit. “saying,” i.e. “as follows.” A verb seems to have dropped out; [for they boast] in pride and stoutness of heart saying.

The bricks are fallen down, but we will build with hewn stones: the sycomores are cut down, but we will change them into cedars.
10. It has been conjectured that these words are a fragment of a drinking song actually sung in Ephraim. They express the spirit of bravado which prevailed in the northern capital, cf. Amos 6:13; Hosea 7:9-10. It is, therefore, not necessary to refer them to any particular recent reverses, such as the inroads of Assyria which punished the ill-timed attack on Judah. From the time of the Syrian wars there had been abundant “occasion to use this proverb in Israel.”

hewn stones] Cf. Amos 5:11.

sycomores] The wood of the mulberry-fig, spongy but exceedingly durable, is still the cheapest and commonest building material in Palestine, cf. 1 Kings 10:27.

Therefore the LORD shall set up the adversaries of Rezin against him, and join his enemies together;
11. Therefore the Lord shall set up] Transl. And (so) Jehovah exalted. The adversaries of Rezin must, if the text be correct, denote the Assyrians. But this is not a natural designation (especially if the prophecy was written before the Syro-Ephraimitish coalition); and it is inconsistent with Isaiah 9:12, unless, indeed, we suppose that there Syrians are referred to as auxiliaries in the Assyrian army, which is extremely improbable. Several codd. read “princes of Rezin”; but this is hardly less objectionable. It seems necessary to delete “Rezin” as a gloss and read simply his (Israel’s) adversaries.

and join … together] Rather, and stirred up his enemies (frequentative impf.) cf. ch. Isaiah 19:2.

11, 12. The first blow of Jehovah’s hand—loss of territory.

The Syrians before, and the Philistines behind; and they shall devour Israel with open mouth. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.
12. The Syrians … behind] Or, Syria on the East and the Philistines on the West (R.V. marg.).

and they shall devour] and they devoured.

There is no historic record of Philistine aggression on the kingdom of Ephraim (at least since 1 Kings 15:27); nor is there any mention of a Syrian attack about the time when this passage was written. It is probable that the prophet is looking further back, to the protracted Syrian wars, from Ahab to Jeroboam II., which formed a distinct and memorable episode in the history of N. Israel.

For all this … stretched out still] “One of the most effective refrain-verses that have ever been composed.” (Duhm.) The figure of Jehovah, with His arm stretched out in wrath, is kept before the mind of the reader, as the prophecy advances to its conclusion.

For the people turneth not unto him that smiteth them, neither do they seek the LORD of hosts.
13. For the people turneth not] But the people turned not. him that smiteth them] him that smote them. do they seek] did they seek.

13–17. Second strophe. It describes a “day” of terror (which may be either a battle or a revolution) in which the leaders of the people suddenly perished. What incident is referred to cannot be determined; royal assassinations were frequent after the death of Jeroboam II. (see 2 Kings 15:10; 2 Kings 15:14; 2 Kings 15:25), and these would naturally be accompanied by such a massacre of the King’s supporters as is here spoken of (cf. ch. Isaiah 3:1-4). See also the graphic, though obscure, description of a conspiracy in Hosea 7:3-7.

Therefore the LORD will cut off from Israel head and tail, branch and rush, in one day.
14. Render: And (so) Jehovah cut off from Israel head and tail, palm-branch and rush, in one day. head and tail] i.e. leader and follower, a proverbial expression, like the next phrase.

15 is almost universally regarded as an erroneous explanation of Isaiah 9:14 and therefore a gloss; but this is not quite certain. False prophets were frequently guilty of following where they pretended to lead (1 Kings 22:6; Ezekiel 13:10) and might be very appropriately described as the “tail.” The verse may be objected to on account of its somewhat prosaic character, but the strophe is not complete without it.

The ancient and honourable] see on Isaiah 3:2-3.

The ancient and honourable, he is the head; and the prophet that teacheth lies, he is the tail.
For the leaders of this people cause them to err; and they that are led of them are destroyed.
16. Render: And the leaders of this people have become misleaders, and they of it that are led are swallowed up (or perhaps as Isaiah 3:12 confused).

Therefore the Lord shall have no joy in their young men, neither shall have mercy on their fatherless and widows: for every one is an hypocrite and an evildoer, and every mouth speaketh folly. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.
17. A sentence of utter rejection. The unwonted severity of the threat against the widows and orphans is justified by the universal corruptness of the nation.

a hypocrite] Rather, profane (R.V.), “impious.” Cf. ch. Isaiah 10:6, Isaiah 32:6, Isaiah 33:14; Job 8:13; Psalm 35:16.

every mouth speaketh folly] ch. Isaiah 32:6 (“villany” A.V.). In the O.T. folly and wickedness are practically synonymous.

For wickedness burneth as the fire: it shall devour the briers and thorns, and shall kindle in the thickets of the forest, and they shall mount up like the lifting up of smoke.
18. The smouldering embers of wickedness burst out in a raging fire: see Hosea’s image of the oven, Isaiah 7:4; Isaiah 7:6.

For wickedness … thickets] Render, For wickedness burned like a fire that consumes thorns and thistles, and it set fire to the thickets, &c., cf. Isaiah 10:17-18. Both wickedness and the punishment of it are likened to an unquenchable fire; Job 31:12; Deuteronomy 32:22. First the thorns and thistles are kindled, then the fire catches the trees.

they shall mount … smoke] and they roll upward in a pillar of smoke; lit. “a lifting up of smoke.” The word for “roll upward” does not occur again; it contains an alliteration with that for “thickets.”

18–21. Third strophe. As in ch. Isaiah 3:1-7, the removal of the pillars of the state is followed by wild confusion and civil war. The state of things alluded to can be partly realised from passages in the book of Hosea, e.g. Isaiah 4:2, Isaiah 5:11 f., Isaiah 6:8 f., Isaiah 7:7, Isaiah 10:3; Isaiah 10:13; and cf. 2 Kings 15:23-25.

Through the wrath of the LORD of hosts is the land darkened, and the people shall be as the fuel of the fire: no man shall spare his brother.
19. darkened] Another translation is “made to glow”; the word is not found elsewhere.

no man sparing his brother. The clause shews that the fire is an emblem of ungovernable party strife. The sense would be still clearer if we could adopt Duhm’s hazardous emendation in the preceding clause so as to make it read “and the people became like man-eaters (cannibals).”

And he shall snatch on the right hand, and be hungry; and he shall eat on the left hand, and they shall not be satisfied: they shall eat every man the flesh of his own arm:
20. And one snatched on the right hand and was hungry (still) and devoured on the left hand and they were not satisfied, &c.

every man the flesh of his own arm] The image would be that of men maddened with hunger and gnawing their own flesh. The words are reproduced exactly, with the omission of a single letter, in Jeremiah 19:9, which gives the sense “every man the flesh of his neighbour.” It might be better to assimilate the text here to that reading, since it is the “cruelty of rival factions” that seems to be described.

Manasseh, Ephraim; and Ephraim, Manasseh: and they together shall be against Judah. For all this his anger is not turned away, but his hand is stretched out still.
21. Manasseh, Ephraim … Manasseh] Ancient tribal jealousies would naturally be revived in a period of anarchy and civil war. Something of this kind seems to be implied in the account of the accession of the usurper Pekah, who murdered Pekahiah, at the head of a band of fifty Gileadites (2 Kings 15:25). The tribal names, however, need not be taken quite literally; indeed it is hardly probable that the tribes had preserved their separate identity to so late a time.

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