Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Hear ye the word which the LORD speaketh unto you, O house of Israel:X.
(1) House of Israel.—This forms the link that connects what follows with what precedes. The “house of Israel” had been told that it was “uncircumcised in heart,” on a level with the heathen; now the special sin of the heathen, which it was disposed to follow, is set forth in words of scorn and indignation.
Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them.(2) Be not dismayed at the signs of heaven.—The special reference is to the “astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators” of the Chaldæans (Isaiah 47:13), finding portents either in the conjuncture of planets and constellations, or in eclipses, comets, and other like phenomena. In singular contrast with the abject attitude of mind thus produced, the prophet shows that what has been called in scorn an anthropomorphic theology, was then the one effectual safeguard against the superstition that bows in fear before anything that is unusual and unexplained.
For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe.(3) The customs of the people.—Better, ordinances of the peoples. The prophet is speaking, not of common customs, but of religious institutions, and of these as belonging, not to “the people,” i.e., Israel, but to the nations round them. The verses that follow are so closely parallel to Isaiah 41:7; Isaiah 44:9-17; Isaiah 46:5-7 (where see Notes), that the natural conclusion is that one writer had seen the work of the other. The grandeur and fulness of Isaiah’s language, and the unlikeness of what we find here to Jeremiah’s usual style, makes it more probable that he was the copyist, and so far adds to the argument for the authorship of the chapter ascribed to Isaiah. It is, however, possible, as some critics have thought, that these verses are an interpolation, and in that case they supply no evidence either way. The fact that they are found in the LXX. as well as in the Hebrew is, however, in favour of their genuineness. It may be noted that the substance of what follows has a parallel in the Epistle ascribed to Jeremiah in the apocryphal book of Baruch.
They are upright as the palm tree, but speak not: they must needs be borne, because they cannot go. Be not afraid of them; for they cannot do evil, neither also is it in them to do good.(5) Upright as the palm tree.—Better, perhaps, A pillar in a garden of gourds are they. The Hebrew word translated “upright” has two very different, though not entirely unconnected, meanings—(1) “twisted, rounded, carved,” and in this sense it is translated commonly as “beaten work” (Exodus 25:18; Exodus 25:31; Exodus 25:36), and is here applied (if we accept this meaning) to the twisted palm-like columns of a temple, to which the stiff, formal figure of the idol, with arms pressed close to the side, and none of the action which we find in Greek statues, is compared; (2) the other meaning adopted by many commentators is that of “a garden of gourds or cucumbers,” and the word is so rendered in Isaiah 1:8. The comparison, in the so-called “Epistle of Jeremy” in the apocryphal book of Baruch (10:70), of an idol to “a scarecrow in a garden of cucumbers” shows that the latter meaning was the accepted one when that Epistle was written. The thought, on this view, is that the idol which the men of Judah were worshipping was like one of the “pillars” (so the word for “palm tree” is translated in Song of Solomon 3:6; Joel 2:30), the Hermes, or Priapus-figures which were placed by Greeks and Romans in gardens and orchards as scarecrows. Like figures appear to have been used by the Phœnicians for the same purpose, and the practice, like the kindred worship of the Asherah, would seem to have been gaining ground even in Judah.
Forasmuch as there is none like unto thee, O LORD; thou art great, and thy name is great in might.(6) Forasmuch as.—A somewhat flat addition to the Hebrew text, which opens with a vigorous abruptness, None is there like unto thee . . .
Who would not fear thee, O King of nations? for to thee doth it appertain: forasmuch as among all the wise men of the nations, and in all their kingdoms, there is none like unto thee.(7) King of nations.—Emphatically, “King of the heathen” expressing the universal sovereignty of Jehovah in contrast with the thought that He was the God of the Jews only. (Compare Romans 3:29.)
To thee doth it appertain.—Better, for it is thine, i.e., the kingdom over the heathen implied in the title just given.
The wise men.—The word “men” is better omitted. Jehovah is not compared with the sages of the heathen only, but with all to whom they looked as sources and givers of wisdom.
In all their kingdoms.—Better, in all their sovereignty.
But they are altogether brutish and foolish: the stock is a doctrine of vanities.(8) Altogether.—Literally, in one, probably in the sense in one word, in one fact, sc., that which follows in the next clause.
The stock is a doctrine of vanities.—Better, inverting the subject and predicate, the teaching of vanities (i.e., of idols) is a word, or is a log. That is all it comes to; that one word is its condemnation.
Silver spread into plates is brought from Tarshish, and gold from Uphaz, the work of the workman, and of the hands of the founder: blue and purple is their clothing: they are all the work of cunning men.(9) Tarshish.—As elsewhere in the Old Testament, Spain, the Tartessus of the Greeks (Genesis 10:4; Jonah 1:3; Ezekiel 27:12), from whence Palestine, through the Phoenicians, was chiefly supplied with silver, tin, and other metals.
Uphaz.—Possibly an error of transcription, or dialectical variation, for Ophir, giving the meaning “gold-coast.” The word is found only here and in Daniel 10:5. Some interpreters, however, connect it with the name of Hyphasis, one of the tributaries of the Indus. We cannot attain to greater certainty. (See Note on 1Kings 9:28.)
Blue and purple.—Both were colours obtained from the murex, a Mediterranean shell-fish, and were used both for the curtains of the Tabernacle (Exodus 25:4) and for the gorgeous apparel of the idols of the heathen. “Purple,” as elsewhere in the English of the Bible, must be understood of a deep crimson or scarlet. (Comp. Matthew 27:28; Mark 15:17.)
But the LORD is the true God, he is the living God, and an everlasting king: at his wrath the earth shall tremble, and the nations shall not be able to abide his indignation.(10) The Lord is the true God.—Literally, Jehovah is the God that is Truth. The thought expressed is that for which St. John, as indeed the LXX. does here, uses the word alēthinos (John 17:3; 1John 5:20), Truth in its highest and most perfect form. So “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).
An everlasting king.—Here, as in other like passages, the English Version is not wrong, but the Hebrew idiom “King of Eternity” is far grander.
Thus shall ye say unto them, The gods that have not made the heavens and the earth, even they shall perish from the earth, and from under these heavens.(11) Thus shall ye say unto them.—The verse presents an almost unique phenomenon. It is not, like the rest of the book, in Hebrew, but in Chaldee or Aramaic, the language of the enemies of Israel. Two explanations have been offered—(1) that a marginal note, added by one of the exiles in Babylon, found its way at a later period into the text; (2) a far more probable view, viz., that the prophet, whose intercourse with the Chaldeans had made him familiar with their language, put into the mouths of his own countrymen the answer they were to give when they were invited to join in the worship of their conquerors. Little as they might know of the strange language, they might learn enough to give this answer. The words have the ring of a kind of popular proverb, and in the original there is a play of sound which can only be faintly reproduced in English—The gods that have not made . . . they shall be made away with. The apocryphal Epistle of Jeremiah, already referred to, may, perhaps, be regarded as a rhetorical sermon on this text.
He hath made the earth by his power, he hath established the world by his wisdom, and hath stretched out the heavens by his discretion.(12) He hath made . . . he hath established.—The words are participial in form, making . . . establishing, and complete the list of divine attributes in Jeremiah 10:10, contrasting the creative might of Jehovah with the impotence of the gods of the heathen.
The world.—As contrasted with the material earth, the inhabited world, the world considered in its relation to man, as in Proverbs 8:31.
When he uttereth his voice, there is a multitude of waters in the heavens, and he causeth the vapours to ascend from the ends of the earth; he maketh lightnings with rain, and bringeth forth the wind out of his treasures.(13) A multitude of waters.—Better, a rush of waters, following on the thunder, which is thought of as the voice of God (comp. Psalm 29:3). The prophet finds the tokens of Almighty Power alike in the fixed order of the Cosmos and its most catastrophic perturbations. The strict construction of the Hebrew gives, At the voice of His giving the roar of waters.
He maketh lightnings.—The last half of the verse agrees verbally with Psalm 135:7 (where see Note), and one is obviously a quotation from the other, or both from some common source. We have no data, however, for saying which is the older of the two. The idea of the “treasure chambers” from which the winds are brought appears in Job 38:22.
Every man is brutish in his knowledge: every founder is confounded by the graven image: for his molten image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them.(14) Brutish in his knowledge.—Literally, from knowing, i.e., too brutish to know, or, as some take it, brutish without knowledge, overwhelmed and astounded, so that the power of knowing fails.
Every founder.—The smelter, or worker in molten metal.
They are vanity, and the work of errors: in the time of their visitation they shall perish.(15) The work of errors.—Better, a work of mockery, i.e., worthy of that and of that only, the word being apparently substituted, after Jeremiah’s manner, for the technical word, not unlike in sound, which is translated “image work” in 2Chronicles 3:10.
The portion of Jacob is not like them: for he is the former of all things; and Israel is the rod of his inheritance: The LORD of hosts is his name.(16) The portion of Jacob.—As in Psalm 16:5; Psalm 119:57, God is described as the “portion,” i.e., as the treasure and inheritance of His people. He is no powerless idol, but the former, i.e., the creator, of all things, or more literally of the all, i.e., of the universe.
The rod of his inheritance.—The phrase was familiar in the poetry of Israel (Psalm 74:2; Isaiah 63:17—Heb.), but its exact meaning is not clear. The word may be “rod” in the sense of “sceptre,” as in Genesis 49:10; Micah 7:14. Israel is that over which, or by means of which, God rules. But the other meaning in which it stands for “stem,” “division,” “tribe” (as in Isaiah 19:13; Exodus 28:21), is equally tenable.
The Lord of hosts is his name.—The time-honoured and awful name is obviously brought in as in emphatic contrast to all the names of the gods of the heathen. Among them all there was no name like “Jehovah Sabaoth,” the Lord of the armies of heaven, of the stars in their courses, of the angels in their ordered ranks, and of the armies of Israel upon earth.
Gather up thy wares out of the land, O inhabitant of the fortress.(17) Gather up thy wares.—The section from Jeremiah 10:1-16 inclusive had been as a long parenthesis, reproving Israel for the sin which placed it among the “uncircumcised in the heart” (Jeremiah 9:26). Now the prophet returns to his main theme, the devastation of the land of Israel as the penalty of that sin. He begins with a vivid touch in the picture of utter misery. The daughter of Israel (the word “inhabitant” is feminine), sitting as in a besieged fortress, is to gather up her goods and chattels into one small bundle (the English “wares” suggests the idea of trade, which is foreign to the context), and with that as the sole remnant of her possessions, to go forth into exile. Probably, indeed, the word may mean simply the travelling carpet or mantle which the exile was to take with him. The whole phrase has something of a proverbial type, like our “bag and baggage” or the collige sarcinulas et exi (“take up your packages and begone”) of Juven. Sat. vi. 146.
For thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will sling out the inhabitants of the land at this once, and will distress them, that they may find it so.(18) I will sling out.—The same bold metaphor, though not the same word, for violent expulsion, is found in the prophecy of the fate of Shebna (Isaiah 22:18).
That they may find it so.—In the Hebrew, the verb, though transitive, stands by itself, without an object. The ellipsis has been filled up either by “it,” as in the English Version, i.e., may feel it in all its bitterness; or by “me,” as in the Syriac version, i.e., may be led through their misery to seek and find Jehovah. The parallelism of Deuteronomy 4:29; Jeremiah 29:13, makes the latter meaning probable (see also Acts 17:27); but it may be suggested that the very omission of an object was intended to be suggestive in its abruptness. “They would find . . .;”what they found would depend upon themselves. A possible construction is that they (the enemy) may find them (the people besieged), but this is hardly the natural sequel of the exile of which the previous words speak.
Woe is me for my hurt! my wound is grievous: but I said, Truly this is a grief, and I must bear it.(19) Woe is me . . .—From this verse to the end of the chapter we have, with the prophet’s characteristic dramatic vividness, the lamentation of the daughter of Israel in her captivity, bewailing the transgressions that had led to it. That this follows immediately on Jeremiah 10:18 gives some support to the view above given as to the force of the words “that they may find.” Israel is represented as having “found” in both aspects of the word.
Grievous.—In the sense of all but incurable.
This is a grief . . .—Better, this is my grief or plague, that which I have brought upon myself and must therefore bear. To accept the punishment was in this, as in all cases, the first step to reformation.
My tabernacle is spoiled, and all my cords are broken: my children are gone forth of me, and they are not: there is none to stretch forth my tent any more, and to set up my curtains.(20) My tabernacle . . .—The tent which had been the home of Israel is destroyed, the cords that fastened it to the ground are broken, the children that used to help their mother in arranging the tent and its curtains “are not,” i.e. (as in Genesis 42:36; Jeremiah 31:15; Matthew 2:18), they are either dead or in exile. There is something significant in the fact that the destruction of the city is represented under the imagery of that of a tent. The daughter of Zion has, as it were, been brought back to her nomadic state.
For the pastors are become brutish, and have not sought the LORD: therefore they shall not prosper, and all their flocks shall be scattered.(21) The pastors.—The “shepherds,” used, as in Jeremiah 2:8; Jeremiah 3:15, and elsewhere, of rulers generally, rather than of priests as such.
Therefore they shall not prosper.—Better, therefore they have not done wisely. This is the primary meaning of the word (that of prosperity, as the result of prudence, the secondary), and is adopted by the LXX., Vulg., and most other versions.
All their flocks.—Literally, all their pasture, the place, or the act, of pasturing, taken practically for the sheep that fed on it.
Behold, the noise of the bruit is come, and a great commotion out of the north country, to make the cities of Judah desolate, and a den of dragons.(22) Behold, the noise of the bruit is come.—Better, A cry is heard, Behold, it cometh. The cry of terror is heard and it utters the tidings, terrible in their brevity, that the army of the invader is come, and with it the “great commotion,” the stir and rush of the army, coming from the north country of the Chaldeans. (Comp. Jeremiah 1:13.) In Matthew 25:6, “There was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh,” we have a striking parallel. The word “bruit” (here and in Nahum 3:19) may be noted as one of those which have become obsolete since the date of the Authorised Version.
A den of dragons.—i.e., jackals, as in Jeremiah 9:11.
O LORD, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.(23) O Lord, I know . . .—The confession is made not by the prophet for himself, but as by and for Israel.
The way of man.—The path which a man takes for good or evil, for failure or success. His conduct in life depends, the prophet says, on something more than his own choice :—
“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.”
Compare Proverbs 16:9; Proverbs 20:24, as expressing the same thought of the necessity of divine guidance. The two Hebrew words for “man” are used in the two clauses, the first expressing the weakness, the latter the strength of men. Even the strong man has to confess that he needs a hand other than his own to direct his steps.
O LORD, correct me, but with judgment; not in thine anger, lest thou bring me to nothing.(24) With judgment.—The rendering is accurate, but the idea is, perhaps, better expressed by the translation of the same word in Jeremiah 30:11; Jeremiah 46:28 as “in measure.” In either case the discipline that comes from God as the righteous Judge, at once retributive and reformative, is contrasted with the punishment which is simply vindictive.
Lest thou bring me to nothing.—Literally, lest thou make me small; but the English Version is an adequate expression of the meaning.
Pour out thy fury upon the heathen that know thee not, and upon the families that call not on thy name: for they have eaten up Jacob, and devoured him, and consumed him, and have made his habitation desolate.(25) Pour out thy fury.—The words are identical with those of Psalm 79:6-7, but it is more probable that the Psalmist borrowed from the Prophet. By many critics the Psalm is referred to the time of the Maccabees, and it would seem, from the language of Jeremiah 10:1-3, that it must at any rate have been after the destruction of the Temple by the Chaldeans. On the last supposition the two writers may have been contemporaries.