Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Moreover the LORD said unto me, Take thee a great roll, and write in it with a man's pen concerning Mahershalalhashbaz.VIII.
(1) Moreover the Lord said unto me . . .—The prophecy that follows was clearly separated by an interval of some kind, probably about a year, from that in Isaiah 7. In the meantime much that had happened seemed to cast discredit on the prophet’s words. The child that was the type of the greater Immanuel had been born, but there were no signs as yet of the downfall of the northern kingdom. The attack of Rezin and Pekah, though Jerusalem had not been taken, had inflicted an almost irreparable blow on the kingdom of Judah. Multitudes had been carried captive to Damascus (2Chronicles 28:5). Many thousands, but for the intercession of the prophet Oded, would have eaten the bread of exile and slavery. The Edomites were harassing the south-eastern frontier (2Chronicles 28:15-17). The commerce of the Red Sea was cut off by Rezin’s capture of Elath (2Kings 16:6). To the weak and faithless Ahaz and his counsellors, it might well seem that the prospect was darker than ever, that there was no hope but in the protection of Assyria. If such was the state of things when the word of the Lord came to Isaiah, was he to recant and confess that he had erred? Was he to shrink back into silence and obscurity? Far otherwise than that. He was to repeat all that he had said, more definitely, more demonstratively than ever.
Take thee a great roll . . .—Better, a large tablet. The noun is the same as that used for “mirrors” or “glasses” in Isaiah 3:23. The writings of the prophet were commonly written on papyrus and placed in the hands of his disciples to be read aloud. For private and less permanent messages men used small wooden tablets smeared with wax, on which they wrote with an iron stylus. (Comp. Job 19:24; Isaiah 30:8.) Here the tablet was to be large, and the writing was not to be with the sharp point of the artist or learned scribe, but with a “man’s pen,” i.e., such as the common workmen used for sign-boards, that might fix the gaze of the careless passer-by (Habakkuk 2:2), and on that tablet, as though it were the heading of a proclamation or dedication, he was to write TO MAHER-SHALAL-HASH-BAZ. That mysterious name, which we may render “Speed-plunder, haste-spoil,” was, for at least nine months, to be the enigma of Jerusalem.
And I took unto me faithful witnesses to record, Uriah the priest, and Zechariah the son of Jeberechiah.(2) And I took unto me faithful witnesses.—That the prophet’s challenge to his gainsayers might be made more emphatic, the setting-up of the tablet is to be formally attested. And the witnesses whom the prophet calls were probably men of high position, among those who had been foremost in advising the alliance with Assyria. Of Uriah or Urijah, the priest, we know that he complied with the king’s desire to introduce an altar after the pattern which he had seen at Damascus (2Kings 16:10-11). Of Zechariah we know nothing; but the name was a priestly one (2Chronicles 24:20), and it has been conjectured, from his association with Isaiah, that he may have been the writer of a section of the book that bears the name of a later Zechariah (Zechariah 9-12), which bears traces of being of a much earlier date than the rest of the book. The combination of “Zachariah, son of Jeberechiah” reminds us of Zacharias, the son of Barachias, and points to a priestly family. (See Note on Matthew 23:35.) In 2Chronicles 29:13 the name appears as belonging to the Asaph section of the Levites. A more probable view is that he was identical with the father of the queen then reigning, and was therefore the grandfather of Hezekiah (2Chronicles 29:1). Probably, looking to the prophet’s habit of tracing auguries in names, the two witnesses may have been partly chosen for the significance of those which they bore, Uriah, i.e., “Jah is my light,” Zechariah, i.e., “Jah will remember,” each of which comes in with a special appropriateness.
And I went unto the prophetess; and she conceived, and bare a son. Then said the LORD to me, Call his name Mahershalalhashbaz.(3) I . . . the prophetess . . .—The word may have been given by courtesy to a prophet’s wife as such. Elsewhere, however, as in the case of Deborah (Judges 4:4) and Huldah (2Chronicles 34:22), it implies prophetic gifts. Possibly, therefore, we may think of the prophet and his wife as having been drawn together by united thoughts and counsels, in contrast with the celibate life of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 16:2), the miseries of Hosea’s marriage (Hosea 1, 2), and the sudden bereavement of Ezekiel (Ezekiel 24:16-18). We may, perhaps, trace, on this view, the wife’s hand in the toilet inventory of Isaiah 3:16-24.
For before the child shall have knowledge to cry, My father, and my mother, the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria shall be taken away before the king of Assyria.(4) For before the child shall have knowledge to cry . . .—Here then was another sign like that of Isaiah 7:14-16. The two witnesses of Isaiah 8:2 were probably summoned to the circumcision and naming of the child, and the mysterious name at which all Jerusalem had gazed with wonder was given to the new-born infant. The prediction is even more definite than before. Before the first cries of childhood (Heb. Abi, Ami) should be uttered, i.e., within a year of its birth, the spoils of the two capitals of the kings of the confederate armies should be carried to the king of Assyria. The conclusion of the period thus defined would coincide more or less closely with the longer period assigned at an earlier date (Isaiah 7:16). Historically the trans-Jordanic region and Damascus fell before Tiglath-pilneser; Samaria, besieged by Salmaneser, before his successor Sargon (2Kings 15:29; 2Kings 16:9; 2Kings 17:6).
Forasmuch as this people refuseth the waters of Shiloah that go softly, and rejoice in Rezin and Remaliah's son;(6) Forasmuch as this people refuseth the waters of Shiloah . . .—Grammatically, the words “this people” might seem to refer to Judah, and suggest the thought that the tyranny of Ahaz had made him so unpopular that his subjects welcomed the invaders. On this view Ahaz sought the alliance with Tiglath-pilneser as against his own subjects no less than against Syria or Ephraim. He was as a Ferdinand of Naples falling back on Austria to protect him against Garibaldi and Victor Emmanuel. What line was the prophet to take? Was he to take the side of the king, or that of his rebellious subjects who were ready to sacrifice their independence? As it is, he sides with neither, and has a warning for each. Each is running blindly into destruction. The prophet could hardly have blamed the people of Syria and Israel for following their own kings; but it was for him a strange and monstrous thing that Judah should follow their example. We must remember, too, that in spite of the weakness and wickedness of Ahaz, the prophet’s hopes rested on the house of David (Isaiah 11:1), and that Hezekiah was already old enough to justify that hope. The “waters of Shiloah that go softly,” issuing from the slope between Moriah and Zion, “fast by the oracles of God” (Psalm 46:4; John 9:7), presenting so striking a contrast to the great rivers, Nile, Euphrates, Hiddekel (Tigris), on which stood the capitals of great empires, or even to the Abana and Pharpar of Syria, and the Jordan of Ephraim, were a natural symbol of the ideal polity and religion of Judah. (Comp. Ezekiel 47:1-5.) In acting as they did the people were practically apostatising as much as “that king Ahaz” of 2Chronicles 28:22.
Now therefore, behold, the Lord bringeth up upon them the waters of the river, strong and many, even the king of Assyria, and all his glory: and he shall come up over all his channels, and go over all his banks:(7) The waters of the river . . .—“The river” is, as elsewhere (Joshua 24:2; Joshua 24:14), the Euphrates; here used (1) as the symbol of the Assyrian monarchy, as Shiloah had been of that of Judah, and (2) of the Assyrian armies that were to pour down like that river in the time of its inundations. The “channels” and “banks” describe the intended course of that army as invading Syria and Israel; but it was to overflow those banks and sweep over Judah. In the former case, the kingdoms were to be utterly submerged as by the violence of the current. In Judah, it was to reach only “to the neck,” i.e., was not to work out so utter a destruction. Jeremiah (Jeremiah 47:2) reproduces the image.
And he shall pass through Judah; he shall overflow and go over, he shall reach even to the neck; and the stretching out of his wings shall fill the breadth of thy land, O Immanuel.(8) The stretching out of his wings.—The metaphor within a metaphor is quite after the manner of Isaiah. The armies of Assyria are like a river in flood; the outspread waters on either side of the main stream are like the expanded wings of a great bird sweeping down on its prey.
Shall fill the breadth of thy land, O Immanuel.—The prophet has not forgotten, however, the nomen et omen of the earthly child, now growing towards the time when he would be able to “choose the good and refuse the evil.” The land over which the flood sweeps belongs to Him who is, in very deed, “God with us.” In Psalm 46:1-4 we have the prophecy turned into a hymn, or, less probably, the hymn which was the germ of the prophecy. The parallelism, in any case, is so clear as to make it certain that the two were contemporary, and refer to the same events. The same may be said, perhaps, of all the psalms of the sons of Korah. The hope of the psalmist fastens on the thought, “the Lord of hosts is with us” (Psalm 46:7; Psalm 46:11).
Associate yourselves, O ye people, and ye shall be broken in pieces; and give ear, all ye of far countries: gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces; gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces.(9) Associate yourselves, O ye people . . .—Better, O ye peoples. The words are not limited to the confederacy of Syria and Ephraim, but are, as it were, a challenge to all the peoples of the earth, far and near. No plan against the Divine kingdom, of which the earthly kingdom of the house of David was, for the time, the representative, shall prosper. The prophet falls back once more on the abiding promise of the name Immanuel (“with us is God”).
For the LORD spake thus to me with a strong hand, and instructed me that I should not walk in the way of this people, saying,(11) For the Lord spake thus to me.—We enter on a new section, separated, probably, by a short interval of time, but dealing with the same subject. In the “strong hand” we have an anthropomorphic phrase, implying a specially high degree of the intensity of inspiration (1Kings 18:46; 2Kings 3:15; Ezekiel 1:3; Ezekiel 3:14; Ezekiel 3:22; Ezekiel 8:1; Ezekiel 37:1). Something had occurred which brought the prophet into a state like that of St. Paul in Acts 17:16; Acts 18:5. Indignation and zeal were roused to their highest point, and were able to resist all human pressure from without. The result was a lesson which was to be specially impressed on the disciples who gathered round the prophet.
Say ye not, A confederacy, to all them to whom this people shall say, A confederacy; neither fear ye their fear, nor be afraid.(12) Say ye not, A confederacy . . .—The words have been very differently interpreted. (1) The confederacy has been thought to be that between Syria or Ephraim, which had at first filled the people with terror, and then had seemed so powerful that men had been willing to join it (Isaiah 7:2; Isaiah 8:6). (2) Translating the word as conspiracy as in 2Kings 17:4—it was the word used by Athaliah when she cried, “Treason, treason!” (2Chronicles 23:13)—interpreters have seen in it the cry of the Assyrian alliance party against the prophet and his followers, whom they accused of conspiracy against their country, such as was afterwards imputed to Jeremiah (Jeremiah 37:14). (3) Others, following a conjectural amendment of the text, have read, “Ye shall not call everything a holy thing which this people calleth a holy thing,” and find in the words a protest against the idolatrous reverence for that which has no real holiness, analogous to the warning against soothsayers or diviners in Isaiah 8:19; or possibly an allusion to such an object of worship as the brazen serpent, which Hezekiah had destroyed by Isaiah’s advice (2Kings 18:4). Of these, (2) seems the most in harmony with the sequence of facts and thoughts.
Sanctify the LORD of hosts himself; and let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.(13) Sanctify the Lord of hosts himself . . .—The words contain an implicit appeal to the revelation of the Divine Name in Isaiah 6:3. Had the prophet’s disciples entered into the meaning of that “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts?” Had they learnt to sanctify Jehovah Sabaoth, to recognise the power of that infinite holiness?
And he shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel, for a gin and for a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem.(14) And he shall be for a sanctuary . . .—Literally, he shall become a hallowed thing, with the implied thought as in Ezekiel 11:16, that the sanctuary is also an asylum (1Kings 1:50; 1Kings 2:28). In that sanctuary, in the presence of Jehovah, there was a refuge from all terror, the answer to all misgivings (Psalm 73:17).
But for a stone of stumbling and for a rock of offence . . .—The words have become so familiar to us through their Christian application (Matthew 21:44; Romans 9:33; 1Peter 2:8) that we find it hard to measure their force and meaning as they came from Isaiah’s lips. Are the contrasted clauses connected by any common link of imagery? To enter into fellowship with Jehovah, is to enter into the sanctuary. He who stands on the stone which forms the threshold of that sanctuary, has gained an asylum. But to do that requires the clear vision of faith. He who walks blindly (Isaiah 6:10; John 11:10), without faith, may stumble on that very stone of the threshold, and what was safety and life for others, might for him bring pain and shame. He might be there sorely bruised (Matthew 21:44) like the wild animals taken in a trap (synonyms are heaped one upon another to increase the force of the imagery), till a helper came to release him. So, Isaiah says, was Jehovah “to both the houses of Israel” (the phrase is peculiar, and implies a hope of the restored unity of the nation’s life) in their self-chosen blindness. So St. Peter says, even the head corner-stone is to those who “stumble at the word, being disobedient” a “stone of stumbling and a rock of offence” (1Peter 2:8). It lies in the nature of the case that the fall is not necessarily final and irretrievable. Men may be braised, but not “ground to powder;” may “stumble” so that they may rise again (Matthew 21:44; Luke 2:34; Romans 11:11).
And many among them shall stumble, and fall, and be broken, and be snared, and be taken.(15) And many among them shall stumble, and fall . . .—The accumulation of words more or less synonymous has obviously, as before, the emphasis of iteration. Possibly for the prophet and his disciples, each word had a distinct ethical significance, which we can only partially recover. Looking to the figure implied in Isaiah 8:14, they seem to describe the several stages of the capture of the animal for whom the trap has been laid. It first stumbles, then falls into the pit, and breaks its limbs, then is fastened in the trap, and is powerless to escape.
Bind up the testimony, seal the law among my disciples.(16) Bind up the testimony . . .—The intensity of feeling in which the prophetic utterance of Isaiah 8:11-15 had its birth, is followed by a corresponding solemnity at its close. The words which had been so full of meaning for the prophet himself are to be impressed on the disciples of Jehovah (for it is He who speaks), i.e., on those who looked to Isaiah as their guide and counsellor. They are to be written on a parchment roll, as men wrote the sacred Book of the Law; the roll is to be sealed up, partly as a security against its being tampered with, till the time came for its disclosure (Daniel 12:4), partly as an attestation, like the seal of a king’s letter (1Kings 21:8; Esther 3:12), that it was authentic. The two terms “testimony” (Deuteronomy 8:19; Psalm 50:7; Psalm 119:2) and “law” are here taken in their wider sense as applicable to any revelation of the mind of God. The “law of the Lord” of Psalm 19:7; Psalm 119:1 was wider and higher than the Pentateuchal code.
And I will wait upon the LORD, that hideth his face from the house of Jacob, and I will look for him.(17) And I will wait upon the Lord, that hideth his face . . .—The words come in somewhat abruptly, but not to the extent that justifies the assumption of some critics that a verse has been lost. The prophet enforces precept by example. He has learnt to conquer the feverish desire to know the future, which led men to trust in soothsayers and diviners, and from which even his own disciples were not altogether exempt. He is content to “wait,” even though Jehovah “hide His face,” though predictions seem to fail (see Note on Isaiah 8:1), and all seems dark and hopeless. There is, perhaps, a contrast between the fact that Jehovah hides His face from the house of Jacob, that all is dark for the nation’s life as such, while yet the prophet, in his own individuality, can “look for Him” with the eye of faith.
Behold, I and the children whom the LORD hath given me are for signs and for wonders in Israel from the LORD of hosts, which dwelleth in mount Zion.(18) Behold, I and the children whom the Lord hath given me . . .—In the mystic significance of his own name (Isaiah—Salvation of Jehovah) and of the names of his sons: Remnant shall return. and Speed-plunder, Haste-spoil, possibly also in that of Immanuel, the prophet finds a sufficient revelation of the future. Each was a nomen et omen for those who had ears to hear. Could the disciples of Isaiah complain that they had no light thrown upon the future, when, so to say, they had those embodied prophecies? The children disappear from the scene, and we know nothing of their after-history, but all their life long, even with or without a special prophetic work, they must have been, by virtue of their names, witnesses to a later generation, of what Isaiah had predicted. In Isaiah’s own life, as including symbolic acts as well as prophetic words (Isaiah 20:2), we have a further development of the thought that he was “a sign and a wonder.” (Comp. Ezekiel 12:11.) The citation of the words, “I and the children whom thou hast given me,” in Hebrews 2:13, is noticeable here chiefly as showing how little the writer of that Epistle cared in this and other quotations for the original meaning of the words as determined by the context. It was enough for him that the Christ, like the prophet, did not stand alone, but claimed a fellowship with the children whom the Father had given him (John 17:6; John 17:12), as being alike servants and children of God, called to do His will.
And when they shall say unto you, Seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek unto their God? for the living to the dead?(19) And when they shall say unto you . . .—This then was the temptation to which the disciples of Isaiah were exposed, and to which they were all but yielding. Why should not they do as others did, and consult the soothsayers, who were in such great demand (Isaiah 2:6), as to the anxious secrets of the coming years. The words point to some of the many forms of such soothsaying (Deuteronomy 18:10). The “familiar spirit” (the English term being a happy paraphrase rather than a translation), is closely connected, as in the case of the witch of Endor (1Samuel 28:1-20), with the idea of necromancy, i.e., with the claim to have a demon or spirit of divination (Acts 16:16), on the part of the wizards (comp. Hom. Il. xxiii. 10; Virg. Ӕn., vi. 492) that “peep” (old English for “pipe,” “chirp,” “whisper”) “and mutter.” This peculiar intonation, thrilling each nerve with a sense of expectant awe, seems to have been characteristic of the soothsayers of Isaiah’s time (Isaiah 29:4).
Should not a people seek unto their God? . . .—That, the prophet says, is the only true pathway to such knowledge as is good for man. The latter part of the question is abruptly elliptical: Are men to seek on behalf of the living to the dead? What ground, he seems to ask, have we for thinking that the spirits of the dead can be recalled to earth, or, if that were possible, that they know more than the living do? May it not even be that they know less? The prophet views the state of the departed as Hezekiah views it (Isaiah 38:18), as one, not of annihilation, but of dormant or weakened powers.
To the law and to the testimony: if they speak not according to this word, it is because there is no light in them.(20) To the law and to the testimony.—The words are only remotely and by analogy an exhortation to the study of Scripture in general, or even to that of the Law of Moses in particular. “The law and the testimony” are obviously here, as in Isaiah 8:16, the “word of Jehovah,” spoken to the prophet himself, the revelation which had come to him with such an intensity of power.
If they speak not according to this word . . .—The personal pronoun refers to the people of Isaiah 8:19 who were hunting after soothsayers. The second clause should be rendered, for them there is no light of morning. The light here is that of hope rather than of knowledge. No morning dawn should shine on those who haunted the caves and darkened rooms of the diviners, the séances of the spiritualists of Jerusalem. The verse admits, however, of a different construction. As the Hebrew idiom, “If they shall . . .” stands, as in Psalm 95:11; Hebrews 4:3; Hebrews 4:5, for the strongest form of negative prediction, so “if they shall not . . .” may stand here for the strongest form of positive. So taken the verse would read, Surely they will speak according to this word. (i.e., will have recourse to the true Revelation) when there is no morning-dawn for them, when they look above and around, and see nothing but darkness.
And they shall pass through it, hardly bestead and hungry: and it shall come to pass, that when they shall be hungry, they shall fret themselves, and curse their king and their God, and look upward.(21) And they shall pass through it . . .—i.e., through the land over which hangs the sunless gloom. The abruptness with which the verse opens, the absence of any noun to which the pronoun “it” may refer, has led some critics (Cheyne) to transpose the two verses. So arranged, the thought of the people for whom there is no dawning passes naturally into the picture of their groping in that thick darkness. and then the misery of that midnight wandering is aggravated by the horrors of starvation. The words may point to the horrors of a literal famine (Isaiah 2:11); but as the darkness is clearly figurative, so probably is the hunger—not a famine of bread, but of hearing the word of the Lord. The Authorised version rightly translates the indefinite singular by the plural.
When they shall be hungry, they shall fret themselves.—The faithful who waited for the Lord might bear even that darkness and that hunger, as soldiers bear their night-march fasting before the battle. Not so with the panic-stricken and superstitious crowd. With them despair would show itself in curses. (Comp. Revelation 16:11; Revelation 16:21.) They would curse at once the king who had led them to destruction, and the God whom they had neglected. Possibly the words may mean, “the king who is also their God,” as in Amos 5:26 (Heb.) and Zephaniah 1:5; but the analogy of 1Kings 21:13 is in favour of the more literal meaning. The “upward” look is, we must remember, that of despair and defiance, not of hope. Upwards, downwards, behind, before, there is nothing for them but the darkness in which they are driven, or drifting onward. All seems utterly hopeless. Like Dante, they find themselves in a land “where silent is the sun.”