Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Woe to Ariel, to Ariel, the city where David dwelt! add ye year to year; let them kill sacrifices.XXIX.
(1) Woe to Ariel, to Ariel.—The name belongs to the same group of poetic synonyms as Rahab (Psalm 87:4; Psalm 89:10) and the Valley of Vision (Psalm 22:1). It may have been coined by Isaiah himself. It may have been part of the secret language of the prophetic schools, as Sheshach stood for Babel (Jer ), Rahab for Egypt (Isaiah 51:9), and in the language of later Rabbis, Edom, and in that of the Apocalypse, Babel, for Rome (Revelation 17:5). Modern language has, it will be remembered, like names of praise and scorn for England and France, though these (John Bull, the British Lion, Crapaud, and the Gallic Cock) scarcely rise to the level of poetry. “Ariel” has been variously interpreted as “the lion of God,” or “the hearth of God.” The first meaning has in its favour the use of the same word for men of special heroism in 2Samuel 23:20 (“ lion-like men,” as in the margin, “lions of God”), and perhaps in Isaiah 33:7 (see Note). The “lion” was, it may be noted, the traditional symbol of Judah (Revelation 5:5). In the words that follow, “the city where David dwelt,” the prophet interprets the mystic name for the benefit of his readers. The verb for “dwelt” conveys the sense of “encamping.” David had dwelt securely in the rock-fortress of Zion.
Add ye year to year.—The word implies the solemn keeping of the New Year festival. The people might keep that festival and offer many sacrifices, but this would not avail to ward off the tribulation which they deserved, and at which the prophet had hinted in the last verse of the preceding chapter.
Yet I will distress Ariel, and there shall be heaviness and sorrow: and it shall be unto me as Ariel.(2) And it shall be unto me as Ariel.—Better, But she (the city) shall be unto me as Ariel. That name would not falsify itself. In the midst of all her “heaviness and sorrow,” Jerusalem should still be as “the lion of God,” or, taking the other meaning, as the “altar-hearth” of God. (Comp. Ezekiel 43:15.)
And I will camp against thee round about, and will lay siege against thee with a mount, and I will raise forts against thee.(3) I will encamp against thee . . .—The words describe the strategy of an Eastern siege, as we see it in the Assyrian sculptures—the mound raised against the walls of the city, the battering-ram placed upon the mound, and brought to bear upon the walls. (See Jeremiah 33:4; Ezekiel 4:2.)
And thou shalt be brought down, and shalt speak out of the ground, and thy speech shall be low out of the dust, and thy voice shall be, as of one that hath a familiar spirit, out of the ground, and thy speech shall whisper out of the dust.(4) Shalt speak out of the ground.—The words paint the panic of the besieged, the words pointing probably to Sennacherib’s invasion. They spoke in whispers, like the voice of the spectres which men heard in the secret chambers of the soothsayers. The war-cry of the brave was changed into the feeble tones of those that “peep and mutter.” (See Note on Isaiah 8:19.)
Moreover the multitude of thy strangers shall be like small dust, and the multitude of the terrible ones shall be as chaff that passeth away: yea, it shall be at an instant suddenly.(5) Moreover the multitude . . .—Better, But. The words interpret those of Isaiah 30:28. The tribulation should be great, but it should last but for a while. As in Isaiah 25:5, the “strangers”—i.e., the “enemies,” and the “terrible ones”—should be brought low. A sudden catastrophe, pointing, probably, to the destruction of Sennacherib’s army, should bring them low. They, too, should pass under the “threshing instrument” of God’s judgments, and be as chaff before the wind.
Thou shalt be visited of the LORD of hosts with thunder, and with earthquake, and great noise, with storm and tempest, and the flame of devouring fire.(6) Thou shalt be visited . . .—Better, She (i.e., Jerusalem). The words may be figurative, but they may also be literal. Some terrific storm, acting as an “angel of the Lord” (Isaiah 37:36; Psalm 104:4), should burst at once upon Jerusalem and the hosts that were encamped against her, bringing to her safety, but to them destruction. As in the next verse, the “multitude of all nations” of the great host of Assyria should be as “a dream, a vision of the night.”
And the multitude of all the nations that fight against Ariel, even all that fight against her and her munition, and that distress her, shall be as a dream of a night vision.(7) Against her and her munition.—The word is a rare one, but probably stands here for the new fortifications by which Uzziah and Hezekiah had defended Jerusalem.
It shall even be as when an hungry man dreameth, and, behold, he eateth; but he awaketh, and his soul is empty: or as when a thirsty man dreameth, and, behold, he drinketh; but he awaketh, and, behold, he is faint, and his soul hath appetite: so shall the multitude of all the nations be, that fight against mount Zion.(8) It shall even be as when an hungry man . . . eateth.—The foes of Jerusalem were greedy of their prey, eager to devour; they thought it was already theirs. The rude awakening found them still empty. The lion of Judah was not to be devoured even by the strong bull of Assyria.
Stay yourselves, and wonder; cry ye out, and cry: they are drunken, but not with wine; they stagger, but not with strong drink.(9) Stay yourselves . . .—Better, Astonish yourselves. We can perhaps best understand the words by picturing to ourselves the prophet as preaching or reciting the previous prediction to his disciples and to the people. They are staggered, startled, incredulous, and he bursts into words of vehement reproof. The form of the verb implies that their astonished unbelief was self-caused. The change from the second person to the third implies that the prophet paused for a moment in his address to describe their state as an observer. Outwardly, they were as men too drunk to understand, but their drunkenness was not that of the “wine” or the “strong drink” of the fermented palm-juice, in which, as in Isaiah 28:7, the prophet implies that they habitually indulged. Now their drunkenness was of another type.
For the LORD hath poured out upon you the spirit of deep sleep, and hath closed your eyes: the prophets and your rulers, the seers hath he covered.(10) The Lord hath poured out upon you . . .—The prophet sees in the stupor and panic of the chief of the people what we call a judicial blindness, the retribution of those who had wilfully closed their eyes against the light. (Comp. Romans 11:8.)
Your rulers.—Literally, your heads, the word being in apposition with the seers. The word is emphasised with a keen irony, precisely because they did not see. They were as those who sleep, and are “covered,” their mantle wrapped round their head, as when men settle themselves to sleep.
And the vision of all is become unto you as the words of a book that is sealed, which men deliver to one that is learned, saying, Read this, I pray thee: and he saith, I cannot; for it is sealed:(11) The vision of all . . .—Better, the whole vision, i.e., the entire substance of Isaiah’s teaching. The words perhaps imply that this had been committed to writing, but that to the unbelievers they were as “the roll of a sealed book.” The same imagery meets us in Revelation 5:2. The wise of this world treated its dark sayings as seals, which forbade their making any attempt to study it. The poorer unlearned class could plead a more genuine and less guilty ignorance, but the effect was the same with both.
Wherefore the Lord said, Forasmuch as this people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men:(13) Wherefore the Lord said . . .—We pass from the effect to the cause. The blind stupor was the outcome of a long hypocrisy. Lip-homage and an estranged heart had been the notes of the religious life of Israel, and they could bear no other fruit.
Their fear toward me . . .—The words point to what we may call an anticipated Pharisaism. Side by side with the great commandments of the Law and with the incisive teaching of the prophets there was growing up even then a traditional system of ethics and religion, based upon wrong principles, ending in a dishonest casuistry and a formal devotion. Commentaries even then were darkening counsel by words without knowledge, as they did in the Mishna and the Gemara of the later days of Judaism (Matthew 15:3; Mark 7:6).
Therefore, behold, I will proceed to do a marvellous work among this people, even a marvellous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall be hid.(14) I will proceed to do a marvellous work . . .—The sure doom of hypocrisy would come upon the hypocrites: not loving the light, they would lose the light they had, and be left to their self-chosen blindness. Here, again, history was to repeat itself, and the words of Isaiah were to be fulfilled in an age and in a manner that lay beyond the horizon of his thoughts.
Woe unto them that seek deep to hide their counsel from the LORD, and their works are in the dark, and they say, Who seeth us? and who knoweth us?(15) Woe unto them . . .—The words sound like an echo of Isaiah 5:8; Isaiah 5:11; Isaiah 5:18, and show that Isaiah had not lost the power of adding to that catalogue of woes. The sins of which he speaks here may have been either the dark sensualities which lay beneath the surface of religion, or, more probably, their clandestine intrigues with this or that foreign power—Egypt, Ethiopia, Babylon—against the Assyrian invader, instead of trusting in the Lord of hosts.
Surely your turning of things upside down shall be esteemed as the potter's clay: for shall the work say of him that made it, He made me not? or shall the thing framed say of him that framed it, He had no understanding?(16) Surely your turning of things upside down.—The words are better taken as exclamatory, O your perversity! Isaiah was indignant at that habit of always taking things at their wrong end, and looking on them from the wrong side.
Shall be esteemed as the potter’s clay . . .—Better, Shall the potter be counted as the clay? The Authorised version is scarcely intelligible. Taken as a question, the words bring out the character of the perversity, the upside-downness, of which the prophet speaks. The men whom he condemns were inverting the relations of the Creator and the creature, the potter and the clay, acting practically as atheists, denying that there was a Divine order of which they formed a part.
Is it not yet a very little while, and Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be esteemed as a forest?(17) Is it not yet a very little while . . .?—The image of the potter does not suggest to Isaiah the thought of an arbitrary sovereignty, but of a love which will in the long run fulfil itself. He paints as not far off the restoration at once of the face of nature and of the life of man. Lebanon, that had been stripped of its cedars by the Assyrian invader (Isaiah 10:34), so as to be as the wilderness of Isaiah 22:15, should regain its glory, and once more be as Carmel, or “the fruitful field,” while the fields that had rejoiced in the rich growth of herbage and shrubs should attain the greatness of the forests of Lebanon as they had been. (See Isaiah 32:15, where “the wilderness” answers to the “Lebanon” of this verse.) The thought and the language would seem to have been among Isaiah’s favourite utterances.
And in that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book, and the eyes of the blind shall see out of obscurity, and out of darkness.(18) In that day shall the deaf hear the words of the book.—The open vision of the future is contrasted with the self-chosen ignorance of Isaiah 29:11. The “book” (the Hebrew has, however, no definite article) is, perhaps, the prophet’s own message, or the book of the law of the Lord, which will then be understood in all its spiritual fulness. The doom of the “closed eyes” of Isaiah 6:10 shall then be in force no more.
The meek also shall increase their joy in the LORD, and the poor among men shall rejoice in the Holy One of Israel.(19) The meek also shall increase their joy in the Lord.—A new element enters into the ideal restoration of the future. Men had been weary of the name of the Holy One of Israel (Isaiah 30:11). In that better time it should be the source of joy and peace for the poor and the lowly, on whom Isaiah looked with all the yearnings of a prophet’s sympathy.
For the terrible one is brought to nought, and the scorner is consumed, and all that watch for iniquity are cut off:(20) The terrible one.—The word stands, as in Isaiah 29:5, for the Assyrian invader; the “scorner,” for the prophet’s enemies who derided his message, and sought, “watching for iniquity,” to find an accusation against him.
That make a man an offender for a word, and lay a snare for him that reproveth in the gate, and turn aside the just for a thing of nought.(21) That make a man an offender for a word . . .—The words indicate that Isaiah had been accused, as Jeremiah was afterwards (Jeremiah 37:13), of being unpatriotic, because he had rebuked the sins of Israel and its rulers. Another interpretation gives, “that make men sinners in word,” i.e., suborn false witnesses against him. The former seems preferable, but the general drift of the passage is the same. The “snare” was laid for the “righteous man,” precisely because he “reproved in the gate:” i.e., preached in the open air in the places of public concourse, even in the presence of the rulers and judges as they sat there.
A thing of nought.—The Hebrew word is once more the tohu (“without form”) of Genesis 1:1. The accusations brought against the prophet were, as we say, incoherent, absolutely chaotic in their falsehood.
Therefore thus saith the LORD, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob, Jacob shall not now be ashamed, neither shall his face now wax pale.(22) Thus saith the Lord, who redeemed Abraham.—The words gain in vividness if we think of them as referring to the Jewish tradition that Abraham had been accused by his kinsmen before Nimrod for not worshipping the host of heaven. That history was for the prophet the assurance that Jehovah would not abandon him to his accusers.
Jacob shall not now be ashamed . . .—The patriarch appears, as Rachel does in Jeremiah 31:15, as if watching over the fortunes of his descendants with varying emotions. Those emotions had been of shame and terror; now there was the dawning of a brighter day.
But when he seeth his children, the work of mine hands, in the midst of him, they shall sanctify my name, and sanctify the Holy One of Jacob, and shall fear the God of Israel.(23) The work of mine hands.—Possibly the direct object of the verb “seeth,” the word “his children” being an interpretative insertion, to explain the change from the singular to the plural. The joy of the patriarch as he watched his people centred in the fact that they repented, and once more worshipped God as the Holy and the Dread, entering at last into that true fear of the Lord which is the beginning of wisdom (Proverbs 1:7; Job 28:28).
They also that erred in spirit shall come to understanding, and they that murmured shall learn doctrine.(24) They that murmured shall learn doctrine.—Better, instruction. The word is prominent in the sapiential books of Israel, and is therefore adapted to describe the process of growth and education that followed on conversion. The word, too, “murmured” is noticeable, as occurring only in Deuteronomy 1:27; Psalm 106:25, of which its use here may be an echo.