Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Woe to the rebellious children, saith the LORD, that take counsel, but not of me; and that cover with a covering, but not of my spirit, that they may add sin to sin:XXX.
(1) Woe to the rebellious children . . .—The interjection perhaps expresses sorrow rather than indignation, Alas, for . . .! as in Isaiah 1:4. The prophet hears that the intrigues of the palace have at last issued in favour of an alliance with Egypt, and that an embassy has been already sent.
That cover with a covering.—Better, that weave a web. The word was fitly chosen then, as now, to describe the subtle intricacies of a double-dealing diplomacy. Some, however, render “form a molten image,” not as referring to actual idolatry, but to the trust in human plans which the prophet condemns.
That walk to go down into Egypt, and have not asked at my mouth; to strengthen themselves in the strength of Pharaoh, and to trust in the shadow of Egypt!(2) To strengthen themselves in the strength of Pharaoh.—Literally, the fortress of Pharaoh, used as the symbol of his kingdom: This, then, was the course into which even Hezekiah had been led or driven, and it had been done without consulting Isaiah as the recognised prophet of Jehovah. For the “shadow of Egypt” see Note on Isaiah 18:1.
For his princes were at Zoan, and his ambassadors came to Hanes.(4) His princes were at Zoan . . .—Better, are, in the vivid use of the historic present of prophecy. Zoan, the Tanis of the Greeks, was one of the oldest of Egyptian cities. Hanes, identified with the Greek Heracleopolis, as lying in the delta of the Nile, would be among the first Egyptian cities which the embassy would reach.
They were all ashamed of a people that could not profit them, nor be an help nor profit, but a shame, and also a reproach.(5) They were all ashamed . . .—Better, are: historic present, as before. The prophet paints the dreary disappointment of the embassy. They found Egypt at once weak and false, without the will or power to help them. So Rabshakeh compares that power to a “broken reed,” which does but pierce the hand of him who leans on it. So Sargon (Smith, Assyrian Canon, p. 133, quoted by Cheyne), describing the resistance of his foes, says that they “carried presents, seeking his alliance, to Pharaoh, king of Egypt, a monarch who could not help them.”
The burden of the beasts of the south: into the land of trouble and anguish, from whence come the young and old lion, the viper and fiery flying serpent, they will carry their riches upon the shoulders of young asses, and their treasures upon the bunches of camels, to a people that shall not profit them.(6) The burden of the beasts of the south.—It has been conjectured that this, which reads like the heading of a new section, was first placed in the margin by a transcriber, as suggested by the mention of the lions, the vipers, the camels, and the asses, and then found its way into the text (Cheyne). There seems no reason, however, why the prophet should not have prefixed it as with the sarcasm of an indignant irony. “You ask for an oracle,” he seems to say, and you shall have one; but its very heading will imply condemnation and derision; “and then he continues his picture of the journey of the embassy. They pass through the Negeb, the south country, arid and waste, haunted only by lions, and vipers, and fiery (i.e., venomous) serpents, and they had their asses and camels with them, laden with the treasures with which they hoped to purchase the Egyptian alliance.
For the Egyptians shall help in vain, and to no purpose: therefore have I cried concerning this, Their strength is to sit still.(7) Concerning this.—Better, it, or her—i.e., Egypt.
Their strength is to sit still.—The Authorised version fairly gives the meaning: “Their boasted strength will be found absolute inaction.” but the words, as Isaiah wrote or spoke them, had a more epigrammatic point—“Rahab, they are sitting still.” He uses the poetical name for Egypt which we find in Isaiah 51:9; Job 26:12; Psalm 87:4; Psalm 89:10, and which conveyed the idea of haughty and inflated arrogance. “Rahab sitting still” was one of those mots which stamp themselves upon a nation’s memory, just as in modern times the Bourbons have been characterised as “learning nothing, forgetting nothing,” or Bismarck’s policy as one of “blood and iron.” It was, so to speak, almost a political caricature.
Now go, write it before them in a table, and note it in a book, that it may be for the time to come for ever and ever:(8) Now go, write it before them in a table.—We have before seen this in one of Isaiah’s methods for giving special emphasis to his teaching (Isaiah 8:1). The word, we may believe, passed into the act in the presence of his astonished hearers. In some way or other he feels sure that what he is about to utter goes beyond the immediate occasion, and has a lesson for all time which the world would not willingly let die. Others, following the Vulg., take the verb as an imperative: “They are boasters; cease from them.” (Superbia tantum est; quiesce.)
That this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the LORD:(9) That this is a rebellious people.—The words that follow were those which were thus written on the tablet. The people did not know the law of the Lord, the eternal law of right, themselves. They wished the seers, like Isaiah, to be as blind as themselves, and would fain have made the prophets tune their voice according to the time.
Get you out of the way, turn aside out of the path, cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us.(11) Cause the Holy One of Israel to cease from before us.—It would seem as if the iterated utterance of this Divine name by Isaiah caused a bitterness of irritation which was not roused by the more familiar “Lord,” or even by “Jehovah.” It made men feel that they stood face to face with an infinite holiness, and this they could not bear.
Wherefore thus saith the Holy One of Israel, Because ye despise this word, and trust in oppression and perverseness, and stay thereon:(12) Because ye despise this word—i.e., the message which Isaiah had delivered against the alliance with Egypt. We note how the prophet enforces it, as coming from that very Holy One of Israel of whom they were tired of hearing.
Therefore this iniquity shall be to you as a breach ready to fall, swelling out in a high wall, whose breaking cometh suddenly at an instant.(13) As a breach ready to fall.—The ill-built, half-decayed houses of Jerusalem may have furnished the outward imagery of the parable. First comes the threatening bulge, then the crack, and then the crash. That was to be the outcome of the plans they were building up on the unsound foundation of corrupt intrigue. In Ezekiel 13:10 we have the additional feature of the “untempered mortar” with which such a wall is built.
And he shall break it as the breaking of the potters' vessel that is broken in pieces; he shall not spare: so that there shall not be found in the bursting of it a sherd to take fire from the hearth, or to take water withal out of the pit.(14) As the breaking of the potters’ vessel . . . Psalm 2:9 had given currency to the figure. In Jeremiah 18:4; Jeremiah 19:10, it passes into a parable of action. The schemes of the intriguers were to be not crushed only but pulverised.
For thus saith the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel; In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength: and ye would not.(15) In returning and rest . . .—The words describe a process of conversion, but the nature of that conversion is determined by the context. In this case it was the turning from the trust in man, with all its restless excitement, to a trust in God, full of calmness and of peace.
But ye said, No; for we will flee upon horses; therefore shall ye flee: and, We will ride upon the swift; therefore shall they that pursue you be swift.(16) We will flee upon horses.—These were expected as the Egyptian contingent of the forces of Judah. With them and the prestige attaching to their fame, the generals and statesmen reckoned on being able to resist Assyria. Isaiah, with his keen insight into the present temper of Egypt, tells them that the only use of the horses will be for a more rapid retreat, not for the charge of battle.
One thousand shall flee at the rebuke of one; at the rebuke of five shall ye flee: till ye be left as a beacon upon the top of a mountain, and as an ensign on an hill.(17) One thousand shall flee at the rebuke of one.—The hyperbole is natural and common enough (Deuteronomy 32:30; Joshua 23:10; Leviticus 26:8); but the fact that the inscription of King Piankhi Mer. Amon., translated in Records of the Past, ii. 84, gives it in the self-same words (“many shall turn their backs on a few; and one shall rout a thousand”) as his boast of the strength of Egypt, may have given a special touch of sarcasm to Isaiah’s words.
As a beacon upon the top of a mountain.—Literally, as a pine. As with a poet’s eye, the prophet paints two of the most striking emblems of solitariness: the tall pine standing by itself on the mountain height, the flag-staff seen alone far off against the sky. (Comp. the lowlier imagery of Isaiah 1:8.)
And therefore will the LORD wait, that he may be gracious unto you, and therefore will he be exalted, that he may have mercy upon you: for the LORD is a God of judgment: blessed are all they that wait for him.(18) And therefore . . .—The words seem to embody the thought that “man’s extremity is God’s opportunity.” Precisely because of this isolated misery Jehovah was “waiting,” i.e., longing, with an eager expectation, to come to the rescue.
And therefore will he be exalted.—A very slight alteration gives a meaning more in harmony with the context, will wait in stillness (Cheyne). If we adhere to the existing text, we must take the meaning will withdraw himself on high, will seem to wait, that He may at last interpose effectually.
A God of judgment.—Better, of righteousness.
All they that wait for him.—This waiting is, as in the first clause, that of wistful longing.
For the people shall dwell in Zion at Jerusalem: thou shalt weep no more: he will be very gracious unto thee at the voice of thy cry; when he shall hear it, he will answer thee.(19) Shall dwell in Zion at Jerusalem.—The two words are, of course, practically synonymous; but the prophet dwells with a patriot’s affection on both the names which were dear to him. The words admit of being taken as a vocative, “Yea, O people that dwellest.”
And though the Lord give you the bread of adversity, and the water of affliction, yet shall not thy teachers be removed into a corner any more, but thine eyes shall see thy teachers:(20) The bread of adversity.—Better, bread in small quantity, and water in scant measure. The words seem to imply an allusion to the scant rations of a siege such as Jerusalem was to endure from the Assyrian armies. For this there should be the compensation that the true “teachers” of the people, Isaiah and his fellow-workers, should at least be recognised—no longer thrust into a corner, as they had been in the days of Ahaz. The clearer vision of the truth was to be the outcome of the sharp teaching of chastisement. A various reading gives “thy teacher,” i.e., Jehovah Himself; but the plural seems more in harmony with the context. In the mission of Isaiah 37:2 we have a virtual fulfilment of the prediction.
And thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way, walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand, and when ye turn to the left.(21) Thine ears shall hear a word behind thee.—The voice of the human teacher on whom the people looked as they listened would find an echo in that inner voice telling them which was the true way, when they were tempted to turn to the right hand or the left.
Ye shall defile also the covering of thy graven images of silver, and the ornament of thy molten images of gold: thou shalt cast them away as a menstruous cloth; thou shalt say unto it, Get thee hence.(22) Ye shall defile also . . .—The first effect of the turning of the people was to be the putting away of what had been their besetting sin. The “graven” image possibly refers to the “carved” wooden figure which was afterwards overlaid with silver and gold. (Comp. Isaiah 40:19.) These, which had been worshipped, were now to be cast aside, like that which was the very type of loathsomeness.
Then shall he give the rain of thy seed, that thou shalt sow the ground withal; and bread of the increase of the earth, and it shall be fat and plenteous: in that day shall thy cattle feed in large pastures.(23) Then shall he give the rain . . .—Following in the steps of Joel (Joel 2:21-26), the prophet draws a picture of the outward plenty that should follow on the renewal of the nation’s inner life.
The oxen likewise and the young asses that ear the ground shall eat clean provender, which hath been winnowed with the shovel and with the fan.(24) The oxen likewise and the young asses . . .—It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to remind the reader that the verb “ear” means “plough.”
Clean provender.—Literally, salted. The epithet describes what in modern phrase would be the favourite “mash” of the highest class of cattle-feeding, corn mixed with salt or alkaline herbs; and this was to be made, not, as commonly, of inferior barley and chopped straw, but of the finest winnowed grain. That this should be given not to oxen and horses only, but to the lowlier asses, made up the ne plus ultra of plenty.
And there shall be upon every high mountain, and upon every high hill, rivers and streams of waters in the day of the great slaughter, when the towers fall.(25) There shall be upon every high mountain . . .—The picture of a golden age is continued. The mountains and hills, often so dry and barren, should flow down with rivers of waters, and irrigate the valleys. And this should coincide with the day of a “great slaughter,” perhaps of the enemies of Israel, perhaps also of the people themselves (judgment coming before the blessing), and of the fall of the “towers” in which they had put their trust. (Comp. Isaiah 40:4.) As before, man’s extremity was to be God’s opportunity. Possibly, however, the “towers” are those of the besiegers of the city.
Moreover the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days, in the day that the LORD bindeth up the breach of his people, and healeth the stroke of their wound.(26) The light of the moon shall be . . .—The vision of the future expands, ascending from the new earth to the new heaven. With the passionate joy in light which sees in it, in proportion to its intensity, the symbol of the Divine glory, Isaiah beholds a world in which sun and moon shall shine with a brightness that would now be intolerable, but which shall then be an element of delight.
In the day that the Lord bindeth up.—The day of blessing follows on the day of judgment. Even that had, for God’s true servants, been the beginning of blessings, but this was but the earnest of a more glorious future. Isaiah reasons as St. Paul does. If one is the “reconciling of the world,” what shall the other be but “life from the dead “? (Romans 11:15). (Comp. also Deuteronomy 32:39.)
Behold, the name of the LORD cometh from far, burning with his anger, and the burden thereof is heavy: his lips are full of indignation, and his tongue as a devouring fire:(27) Behold, the name of the Lord cometh from far . . .—The use of “the Name of Jehovah” for Jehovah Himself is noticeable as an anticipation of the later use of the memra (sc., “word”) in the Targumim (or paraphrases) of the sacred writings, and of the logos of St. John, a distinct, though not defined, conception of a duality in the Divine essence. In other respects the vision of the Theophany has its parallels in Judges 5:4-5; Exodus 24:17.
And the burden thereof is heavy.—Better, in thick uplifting of smoke.
And his breath, as an overflowing stream, shall reach to the midst of the neck, to sift the nations with the sieve of vanity: and there shall be a bridle in the jaws of the people, causing them to err.(28) His breath, as an overflowing stream.—Water supplies its symbolism, as well as fire. The wrath of the judge sweeps onward like an autumn torrent, threatening to engulf all that stand in its way.
To sift the nations with the sieve of vanity.—Better, the winnowing fan of nothingness. Sifting is, as elsewhere, the symbol of judgment (so Osiris appears in Egyptian monuments armed with a flail, as the judge of the dead; Cheyne), and the “fan” in this case is one which threatens to annihilate the guilty.
A bridle in the jaws of the people.—The words find a parallel in Isaiah 37:29. The enemies of Jehovah should find themselves under a constraining power, leading them on against their will to their own destruction. Quem Deus vult perdere, prius dementat.
Ye shall have a song, as in the night when a holy solemnity is kept; and gladness of heart, as when one goeth with a pipe to come into the mountain of the LORD, to the mighty One of Israel.(29) Ye shall have a song . . .—The “holy solemnity,” or feast, was probably the Feast of Tabernacles, the feast of in-gathering, of all the festivals of the Jewish year the most abounding in its joy. In later times, and probably, therefore, in earlier, it had a night-ritual of special solemnity, the court of the Temple being illuminated with a great candelabrum. It was known as being pre-eminently “the feast” (1Kings 8:2; 1Kings 8:65; 1Kings 12:32; Ezekiel 45:25; 2Chronicles 7:8-9). The second clause of the verse completes the picture, by introducing the day-ritual of the procession of pilgrims from the country, bringing their firstfruits and playing on their flutes. (Comp. 1Samuel 10:5.)
And the LORD shall cause his glorious voice to be heard, and shall shew the lighting down of his arm, with the indignation of his anger, and with the flame of a devouring fire, with scattering, and tempest, and hailstones.(30) And the Lord shall cause his glorious voice . . .—The peace and joy at home are contrasted with the judgments that fall on the enemies of Israel. They are exposed to the full thunderstorm of the wrath of Jehovah. “Hailstones and coals of fire” were the natural symbols of His anger.
For through the voice of the LORD shall the Assyrian be beaten down, which smote with a rod.(31) Shall the Assyrian be beaten down, which smote with a rod.—Better, and He (Jehovah) shall smite with the rod. Asshur appears as the foremost and most dreaded enemy of Judah. The prediction points to the destruction of the armies of Sennacherib.
And in every place where the grounded staff shall pass, which the LORD shall lay upon him, it shall be with tabrets and harps: and in battles of shaking will he fight with it.(32) And in every place where the grounded staff . . .—It is not clear what meaning the English was intended to convey. Better, Wherever shall pass the destined rod (literally, the rod of foundation) which the Lord causes to fall upon him.
It shall be with tabrets and harps . . .—i.e., at every stroke of God’s judgments upon Asshur Israel should raise its song of triumph with the timbrels and harps (or, perhaps, lutes), which were used by the people in their exultation after victory. So after Jephthah’s and David’s victories we have like processions (Judges 11:34; 1Samuel 18:6). Israel was to sing, as it were, its Te Deum over the fall of Assyria. So the long walls that connected Athens and the Piraeus were pulled down by the Spartans to the sound of music.
In battles of shaking will he fight with it.—Literally, battles of swinging, as marking the action of the warrior, who swings his sword rapidly to and fro, smiting his enemies at every stroke. The Hebrew pronoun for “it” is feminine, and has been referred by some critics to Jerusalem.
For Tophet is ordained of old; yea, for the king it is prepared; he hath made it deep and large: the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of the LORD, like a stream of brimstone, doth kindle it.(33) Tophet is ordained of old.—Literally, the Tophet, or place of burning, with perhaps the secondary sense of “a place of loathing.” Tophet was the name given to the Valley of Hinnom, outside Jerusalem, where, within the memory of living men, Ahaz had made his son to pass through the fire to Moloch (2Kings 16:3), and where like sacrifices had taken place up to the time of Hezekiah’s accession. “The king” is, of course, the king of Assyria; but the Hebrew, “for the melek,” suggests a sarcastic reference to the god there worshipped, as if it were “for Moloch.” There was to be a great sacrifice of the Melek to the Moloch, who was as a mighty king (the name of the Ammonite god being a dialectic form of the Hebrew Melek) exulting in his victims. (Comp. for the idea Isaiah 31:9.)
The pile thereof is fire and much wood.—The word seems partly literal, and partly figurative. The king of Assyria, though he did not die at Jerusalem, is represented as burnt with stately ceremonial in Tophet. Probably, as a matter of fact, it was the burial place of the corpses that were lying round the city after the pestilence had destroyed the Assyrian army, and they were literally burnt there. For such a Moloch funeral, making the valley of Hinnom then, as it afterwards became, a fit type of Gehenna, a trench deep and wide and a mighty pyre were needed. Comp. Jeremiah 19:12, where like words are spoken of Jerusalem.