Isaiah 1 Expositor's Bible Commentary
Isaiah 1
Expositor's Bible Commentary
The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz, which he saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem in the days of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah.
CHAPTER I

THE ARGUMENT OF THE LORD AND ITS CONCLUSION


Isaiah 1:1-31 -His General Preface

THE first chapter of the Book of Isaiah owes its position not to its date, but to its character. It was published late in the prophet’s life. The seventh verse describes the land as overrun by foreign soldiery, and such a calamity befell Judah only in the last two of the four reigns over which the first verse extends Isaiah’s prophesying. In the reign of Ahaz, Judah was invaded by Syria and Northern Israel, and some have dated chapter 1 from the year of that invasion, 734 B.C. In the reign again of Hezekiah some have imagined, in order to account for the chapter, a swarming of neighbouring tribes upon Judah; and Mr. Cheyne, to whom regarding the history of Isaiah’s time we ought to listen with the greatest deference, has supposed an Assyrian invasion in 711, under Sargon. But hardly of this, and certainly not of that, have we adequate evidence, and the only other invasion of Judah in Isaiah’s lifetime took place under Sennacherib, in 701. For many reasons this Assyrian invasion is to be preferred to that by Syria and Ephraim in 734 as the occasion of this prophecy. But there is really no need to be determined on the point. The prophecy has been lifted out of its original circumstance and placed in the front of the book, perhaps by Isaiah himself, as a general introduction to his collected pieces. It owes its position, as we have said, to its character. It is a clear, complete statement of the points which were at issue between the Lord and His own all the time Isaiah was the Lord’s prophet. It is the most representative of Isaiah’s prophecies; a summary is found, perhaps better than any other single chapter of the Old Testament, of the substance of prophetic doctrine, and a very vivid illustration of the prophetic spirit and method. We propose to treat it here as introductory to the main subject and lines of Isaiah’s teaching, leaving its historical references till we arrive in due course at the probable year of its origin, 701 B.C.

Isaiah’s preface is in the form of a Trial or Assize. Ewald calls it "The Great Arraignment." There are all the actors in a judicial process. It is a Crown case, and God is at once Plaintiff and Judge. He delivers both the Complaint in the beginning (Isaiah 1:2-3) and the Sentence in the end. The Assessors are Heaven and Earth, whom the Lord’s herald invokes to hear the Lord’s plea (Isaiah 1:2). The people of Judah are the Defendants. The charge against them is one of brutish, ingrate stupidity, breaking out into rebellion. The Witness is the prophet himself, whose evidence on the guilt of his people consists in recounting the misery that has overtaken their land (Isaiah 1:4-9), along with their civic injustice and social cruelty-sins of the upper and ruling classes (Isaiah 1:10, Isaiah 1:17, Isaiah 1:21-23). The people’s Plea-in-defence, laborious worship and multiplied sacrifice, is repelled and exposed (Isaiah 1:10-17). And the Trial is concluded-"Come now, let us bring our reasoning to a close, saith the Lord"-by God’s offer of pardon to a people thoroughly convicted (Isaiah 1:18). On which follow the Conditions of the Future: happiness is sternly made dependent on repentance and righteousness (Isaiah 1:19-20). And a supplementary oracle is given (Isaiah 1:24-31), announcing a time of affliction, through which the nation shall pass as through a furnace; rebels and sinners shall be consumed, but God will redeem Zion, and with her a remnant of the people.

That is the plan of the chapter-a Trial at Law. Though it disappears under the exceeding weight of thought the prophet builds upon it, do not let us pass hurriedly from it, as if it were only a scaffolding.

That God should argue at all is the magnificent truth on which our attention must fasten, before we inquire what the argument is about. God reasons with man-that is the first article of religion according to Isaiah. Revelation is not magical, but rational and moral. Religion is reasonable intercourse between one intelligent Being and another. God works upon man first through conscience.

Over against the prophetic view of religion sprawls and reeks in this same chapter the popular-religion as smoky sacrifice, assiduous worship, and ritual. The people to whom the chapter was addressed were not idolaters. Hezekiah’s reformation was over. Judah worshipped her own God, whom the prophet introduces not as for the first time, but by Judah’s own familiar names for Him-Jehovah, Jehovah of Hosts, the Holy One of Israel, the Mighty One, or Hero, of Israel. In this hour of extreme danger the people are waiting on Jehovah with great pains and cost of sacrifice. They pray, they sacrifice, they solemnise to perfection. But they do not know, they do not consider; this is the burden of their offence. To use a better word, they do not think. They are God’s grown-up children (Isaiah 1:2) - children, that is to say, like the son of the parable, with native instincts for their God; and grown-up- that is to say, with reason and conscience developed. But they use neither, stupider than very beasts. "Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider." In all their worship conscience is asleep, and they are drenched in wickedness. Isaiah puts their life is an epigram-Wickedness and worship: "I cannot away," saith the Lord, "with wickedness and worship" (Isaiah 1:13).

But the pressure and stimulus of the prophecy lie in this, that although the people have silenced conscience and are steeped in a stupidity worse than ox or ass, God will not leave them alone. He forces Himself upon them. He compels them to think. In the order and calmness of nature (Isaiah 1:2), apart from catastrophe nor seeking to influence by any miracle, God speaks to men by the reasonable words of His prophet. Before He will publish salvation or intimate disaster He must rouse and startle conscience. His controversy precedes alike His peace and His judgments. An awakened conscience is His prophet’s first demand. Before religion can be prayer, or sacrifice, or any acceptable worship, it must be a reasoning together with God.

That is what mean the arrival of the Lord, and the opening of the assize, and the call to know and consider. It is the terrible necessity which comes back upon men, however engrossed or drugged they may be, to pass their lives in moral judgment before themselves; a debate to which there is never any closure, in which forgotten things shall not be forgotten, but a man "is compelled to repeat to himself things he desires to be silent about, and to listen to what he does not wish to hear, yielding to that mysterious power which says to him, Think. One can no more prevent the mind from returning to an idea than the sea from returning to a shore. With the sailor this is called the tide; with the guilty it is called remorse. God upheaves the soul as well as the ocean." Upon that ever-returning and resistless tide Hebrew prophecy, with its Divine freight of truth and comfort, rises into the lives of men. This first chapter of Isaiah is just the parable of the awful compulsion to think which men call conscience. The stupidest of generations, formal and fat-hearted, are forced to consider and to reason. The Lord’s court and controversy are opened, and men are whipped into them from His Temple and His Altar.

For even religion and religiousness, the common man’s commonest refuge from conscience-not only in Isaiah’s time-cannot exempt from this writ. Would we be judged by our moments of worship, by our temple-treading, which is Hebrew for church-going, by the wealth of our sacrifice, by our ecclesiastical position? This chapter drags us out before the austerity and incorruptibleness of Nature. The assessors of the Lord are not the Temple nor the Law, but Heaven and Earth-not ecclesiastical conventions, but the grand moral fundamentals of the universe, purity, order, and obedience to God. Religiousness, however, is not the only refuge from which we shall find Isaiah startling men with the trumpet of the Lord’s assize. He is equally intolerant of the indulgent silence and compromises of the world, that give men courage to say, We are no worse than others. Men’s lives, it is a constant truth of his, have to be argued out not with the world, but with God. If a man will be silent upon shameful and uncomfortable things, he cannot. His thoughts are not his own; God will think them for him as God thinks them here for unthinking Israel. Nor are the practical and intellectual distractions of a busy life any refuge from conscience. When the politicians of Judah seek escape from judgment by plunging into deeper intrigue and a more bustling policy, Isaiah is fond of pointing out to them that they are only forcing judgment nearer. They do but sharpen on other objects the thoughts whose edge must some day turn upon themselves.

What is this questioning nothing holds away, nothing stills, and nothing wears out? It is the voice of God Himself, and its insistence is therefore as irresistible as its effect is universal. That is not mere rhetoric which opens the Lord’s controversy: "Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth, for the Lord hath spoken." All the world changes to the man in whom conscience lifts up her voice, and to the guilty Nature seems attentive and aware. Conscience compels heaven and earth to act as her assessors, because she is the voice, and they the creatures, of God. This leads us to emphasise another feature of the prophecy.

We have called this chapter a trial-at-law; but it is far more a personal than a legal controversy; of the formally forensic there is very little about it. Some theologies and many preachers have attempted the conviction of the human conscience by the technicalities of a system of law, or by appealing to this or that historical covenant, or by the obligations of an intricate and burdensome morality. This is not Isaiah’s way. His generation is here judged by no system of law or ancient covenants, but by a living Person and by His treatment of them-a Person who is a Friend and a Father. It is not Judah and the law that are confronted; it is Judah and Jehovah. There is no contrast between the life of this generation and some glorious estate from which they or their forefathers have fallen; but they are made to hear the voice of a living and present God: "I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against Me." Isaiah begins where Saul of Tarsus began, who, though he afterwards elaborated with wealth of detail the awful indictment of the abstract law against man, had never been able to do so but for that first confronting with the Personal Deity, "Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me?" Isaiah’s ministry started from the vision of the Lord; and it was no covenant or theory, but the Lord Himself, who remained the prophet’s conscience to the end.

But though the living God is Isaiah’s one explanation of conscience, it is God in two aspects, the moral effects of which are opposite, yet complementary. In conscience men are defective by forgetting either the sublime or the practical, but Isaiah’s strength is to do justice to both. With him God is first the infinitely High, and then equally the infinitely Near. "The Lord is exalted in righteousness!" yes, and sublimely above the people’s vulgar identifications of His will with their own safety and success, but likewise concerned with every detail of their politics and social behaviour; not to be relegated to the Temple, where they were wont to confine Him, but by His prophet descending to their markets and councils, with His own opinion of their policies, interfering in their intrigues, meeting Ahaz at the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller’s field, and fastening eyes of glory on every pin and point of the dress of the daughters of Zion. He is no merely transcendent God. Though He be the High and Holy One, He will discuss each habit of the people, and argue upon its merits every one of their policies. His constant cry to them is "Come and let us reason together," and to hear it is to have a conscience. Indeed, Isaiah lays more stress on this intellectual side of the moral sense than on the other, and the frequency with which in this chapter he employs the expressions know, and consider, and reason, is characteristic of all his prophesying. Even the most superficial reader must notice how much this prophet’s doctrine of conscience and repentance harmonises with the metanoia of New Testament preaching.

This doctrine, that God has an interest in every detail of practical life and will argue it out with men, led Isaiah to a revelation of God quite peculiar to himself. For the Psalmist it is enough that his soul come to God, the living God. It is enough for other prophets to awe the hearts of their generations by revealing the Holy One; but Isaiah, with his intensely practical genius, and sorely tried by the stupid inconsistency of his people, bends himself to make them understand that God is at least a reasonable Being. Do not, his constant cry is, and he puts it sometimes in almost as many words-do not act as if there were a fool on the throne of the universe, which you virtually do when you take these meaningless forms of worship as your only intercourse with Him, and beside them practise your rank iniquities, as if He did not see nor care. We need not here do more than mention the passages in which, sometimes by a word, Isaiah stings and startles self-conscious politicians and sinners beetle-blind in sin, with the sense that God Himself takes an interest in their deeds and has His own working plans for their life. On the land question in Judah: {Isaiah 5:9} "In mine ears, saith the Lord of Hosts." When the people were paralysed by calamity, as if it had no meaning or term: {Isaiah 28:29} "This also cometh forth from the Lord of Hosts, which is wonderful in counsel and excellent in effectual working." Again, when they were panic-stricken, and madly sought by foolish ways their own salvation: {Isaiah 30:18} "For the Lord is a God of judgment"-i.e., of principle, method, law, with His own way and time for doing things-"blessed are all they that wait for Him." And again, when politicians were carried away by the cleverness and success of their own schemes: {Isaiah 31:2} "Yet He also is wise," or clever. It was only a personal application of this Divine attribute when Isaiah heard the word of the Lord give him the minutest directions for his own practice-as, for instance, at what exact point he was to meet Ahaz; {Isaiah 7:3} or that he was to take a board and write upon it in the vulgar character; {Isaiah 8:1} or that he was to strip frock and sandals, and walk without them for three years (chapter 20). Where common men feel conscience only as something vague and inarticulate, a flavour, a sting, a foreboding, the obligation of work; the constraint of affection, Isaiah heard the word of the Lord, clear and decisive on matters of policy, and definite even to the details of method and style.

Isaiah’s conscience, then, was perfect, because it was two-fold: God is holy; God is practical. If there be the glory, the purity as of fire, of His Presence to overawe, there is His unceasing inspection of us, there is His interest in the smallest details of our life, there are His fixed laws, from regard for all of which no amount of religious sensibility may relieve us. Neither of these halves of conscience can endure by itself. If we forget the first we may be prudent and for a time clever, but will also grow self-righteous, and in time self-righteousness means stupidity too. If we forget the second we may be very devotional, but cannot escape becoming blindly and inconsistently immoral. Hypocrisy is the result either way, whether we forget how high God is or whether we forget how near.

To these two great articles of conscience, however-God is high and God is near-the Bible adds a greater third, God is Love. This is the uniqueness and glory of the Bible’s interpretation of conscience. Other writings may equal it in enforcing the sovereignty and detailing the minutely practical bearings of conscience: the Bible alone tells man how much of conscience is nothing but God’s love. It is a doctrine as plainly laid down as the doctrine about chastisement, though not half so much recognised-"Whom the Lord loveth He chasteneth." What is true of the material pains and penalties of life is equally true of the inward convictions, frets, threats, and fears, which will not leave stupid man alone. To men with their obscure sense of shame, and restlessness, and servitude to sin the Bible plainly says, "You are able to sin because you have turned your back to the love of God; you are unhappy because yon do not take that love to your heart; the bitterness of your remorse is that it is love against which you are ungrateful." Conscience is not the Lord’s persecution, but His jealous pleading, and not the fierceness of His anger, but the reproach of His love. This is the Bible’s doctrine throughout, and it is not absent from the chapter we are considering. Love gets the first word even in the indictment of this austere assize: "I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against Me." Conscience is already a Father’s voice: the recollection, as it is in the parable of the prodigal, of a Father’s mercy; the reproach, as it is with Christ’s lamentation over Jerusalem, of outraged love. We shall find not a few passages in Isaiah, which prove that he was in harmony with all revelation upon this point, that conscience is the reproach of the love of God.

But when that understanding of conscience breaks out in a sinner’s heart forgiveness cannot be far away. Certainly penitence is at hand. And therefore, because of all books the Bible is the only one which interprets conscience as the love of God, so is it the only one that can combine His pardon with His reproach, and as Isaiah now does in a single verse, proclaim His free forgiveness as the conclusion of His bitter quarrel. "Come, let us bring our reasoning to a close, saith the Lord. Though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool." Our version, "Come, and let us reason together," gives no meaning here. So plain an offer of pardon is not reasoning together; it is bringing reasoning to an end; it is the settlement of a dispute that has been in progress. Therefore we translate, with Mr. Cheyne, "Let us bring our reasoning to an end." And how pardon can be the end and logical conclusion of conscience is clear to us, who have seen how much of conscience is love, and that the Lord’s controversy is the reproach of His Father’s heart, and His jealousy to make His own consider all His way of mercy towards them.

But the prophet does not leave conscience alone with its personal and inward results. He rouses it to its social applications. The sins with which the Jews are charged in this charge of the Lord are public sins. The whole people is indicted, but it is the judges, the princes, and counsellors who are denounced. Judah’s disasters, which she seeks to meet by worship, are due to civic faults, bribery, corruption of justice, indifference to the rights of the poor and the friendless. Conscience with Isaiah is not what it is with so much of the religion of today, a cul de sac, into which the Lord chases a man and shuts him up to Himself, but it is a thoroughfare by which the Lord drives the man out upon the world and its manifold need of him. There is little dissection and less study of individual character with Isaiah. He has no time for it. Life is too much about him, and his God too much interested in life. What may be called the more personal sins-drunkenness, vanity of dress, thoughtlessness, want of faith in God and patience to wait for Him-are to Isaiah more social than individual symptoms, and it is for their public and political effects that he mentions them. Forgiveness is no end in itself, but the opportunity of social service; not a sanctuary in which Isaiah leaves men to sing its praises or form doctrines of it, but a gateway through which he leads God’s people upon the world with the cry that rises from him here: "Seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow."

Before we pass from this form in which Isaiah figures religion we must deal with a suggestion it raises. No modern mind can come into this ancient court of the Lord’s controversy without taking advantage of its open forms to put a question regarding the rights of man there. That God should descend to argue with men, what license does this give to men? If religion be reasonable controversy of this kind, what is the place of doubt in it? Is not doubt man’s side of the argument? Has he not also questions to put-the Almighty from his side to arraign? For God has Himself here put man on a level with Him, saying, "Come, and let us reason together."

A temper of this kind, though not strange to the Old Testament, lies beyond the horizon of Isaiah. The only challenge of the Almighty which in any of his prophecies he reports as rising from his own countrymen is the bravado of certain drunkards (chapters 5 and 28). Here and elsewhere it is the very opposite temper from honest doubt which he indicts-the temper that does not know, that does not consider. Ritualism and sensualism are to Isaiah equally false, because equally unthinking. The formalist and the fleshly he classes together, because of their stupidity. What does it matter whether a man’s conscience and intellect be stifled in his own fat or under the clothes with which he dresses himself? They are stifled, and that is the main thing. To the formalist Isaiah says, "Israel doth not know, my people doth not consider"; to the fleshly (chapter 5), "My people are gone into captivity for want of knowledge." But knowing and considering are just that of which doubt, in its modern sense, is the abundance, and not the defect. The mobility of mind, the curiosity, the moral sensitiveness, the hunger that is not satisfied with the chaff of formal and unreal answers, the spirit to find out truth for one’s self, wrestling with God-this is the very temper Isaiah, would have welcomed in a people whose sluggishness of reason was as justly blamed by him as the grossness of their moral sense. And if revelation be of the form in which Isaiah so prominently sets it, and the whole Bible bears him out in this-if revelation be this argumentative and reasonable process, then human doubt has its part in revelation. It is, indeed, man’s side of the argument, and, as history shows, has often helped to the elucidation of the points at issue.

Merely intellectual scepticism, however, is not within Isaiah’s horizon. He would never have employed (nor would any other prophet) our modern habits of doubt, except as he employs these intellectual terms, to know and to consider-viz., as instruments of moral search and conviction. Had he lived now he would have been found among those few great prophets who use the resources of the human intellect to expose the moral state of humanity; who, like Shakespeare and Hugo, turn man’s detective and reflective processes upon his own conduct; who make himself stand at the bar of his conscience. And truly to have doubt of everything in heaven-and earth, and never to doubt one’s self, is to be guilty of as stiff and stupid a piece of self-righteousness as the religious formalists whom Isaiah exposes. But the moral of the chapter is plainly what we have shown it to be, that a man cannot stifle doubt and debate about his own heart or treatment of God; whatever else he thinks about and judges, he cannot help judging himself.

NOTE ON THE PLACE OF NATURE IN THE ARGUMENT OF THE LORD

The office which the Bible assigns to Nature in the controversy of God with man is fourfold-Assessor, Witness, Man’s Fellow-Convict, and Doomster or Executioner. Taking these backward:-

1. Scripture frequently exhibits Nature as the domster of the Lord. Nature has a terrible power of flashing back from her vaster surfaces the guilty impressions of man’s heart; at the last day her thunders shall peal the doom of the wicked, and her fire devour them. In those prophecies of the book of Isaiah which relate to his own time this use is not made of Nature, unless it be in his very earliest prophecy in chapter 2 and in his references to the earthquake. {Isaiah 5:25} To Isaiah the sentences and scourges of God are political and historical, the threats and arms of Assyria. He employs the violences of Nature only as metaphors for Assyrian rage and force. But he often promises fertility as the effect of the Lord’s pardon, and when the prophets are writing about Nature, it is difficult to say whether they are to be understood literally or poetically. But, at any rate, there is much larger use made of physical catastrophes and convulsions in those other prophecies which do not relate to Isaiah’s own time, and are now generally thought not to be his. Compare chapters 13 and 14.

2. The representation of the earth as the fellow-convict of guilty man, sharing his curse, is very vivid in Isaiah 24:1-23; Isaiah 25:1-12; Isaiah 26:1-21; Isaiah 27:1-13. In the prophecies relating to his own time Isaiah, of course, identifies the troubles that afflict the land with the sin of the people, of Judah. But these are due to political causes-viz., the Assyrian invasion.

3. In the Lord’s court of judgment the prophets sometimes employ Nature as a witness against man, as, for instance, the prophet Micah. {Micah 6:10, ff} Nature is full of associations; the enduring mountains have memories from old, they have been constant witnesses of the dealing of God with His people.

4. Or lastly, Nature may be used as the great assessor of the conscience, sitting to expound the principles on which God governs life. This is Isaiah’s favourite use of Nature. He employs her to corroborate his statement of the Divine law and illustrate the ways of God to men, as in the end of chapter 28 and no doubt in the opening verse of this chapter.

Thy silver is become dross, thy wine mixed with water:
CHAPTER XIX

AT THE LOWEST EBB


Isaiah 1:1; Isaiah 22:1-25IN the drama of Isaiah’s life we have now arrived at the final act-a short and sharp one of a few months. The time is 701 B.C., the fortieth year of Isaiah’s ministry, and about the twenty-sixth of Hezekiah’s reign. The background is the invasion of Palestine by Sennacherib. The stage itself is the city of Jerusalem. In the clear atmosphere before the bursting of the storm Isaiah has looked round the whole world-his world-uttering oracles on the nations from Tyre to Egypt and from Ethiopia to Babylon. But now the Assyrian storm has burst, and all except the immediate neighbourhood of the prophet is obscured. From Jerusalem Isaiah will not again lift his eyes.

The stage is thus narrow and the time short, but the action one of the most critical in the history of Israel, taking rank with the Exodus from Egypt and the Return from Babylon. To Isaiah himself it marks the summit of his career. For half a century Zion has been preparing for, forgetting and again preparing for, her first and final struggle with the Assyrian. Now she is to meet her foe, face to face across her own walls. For forty years Isaiah has predicted for the Assyrian an uninterrupted path of conquest to the very gates of Jerusalem, but certain check and confusion there. Sennacherib has overrun the world, and leaps upon Zion. The Jewish nation await their fate, Isaiah his vindication, and the credit of Israel’s religion, one of the most extraordinary tests to which a spiritual faith was ever subjected.

In the end, by the mysterious disappearance of the Assyrian, Jerusalem was saved, the prophet was left with his remnant and the future still open for Israel. But at the beginning of the end such an issue was by no means probable. Jewish panic and profligacy almost prevented the Divine purpose, and Isaiah went near to breaking his heart over the city, for whose redemption he had travailed for a lifetime. He was as sure as ever that this redemption must come, but a collapse of the people’s faith and patriotism at the eleventh hour made its coming seem worthless. Jerusalem appeared bent on forestalling her deliverance by moral suicide. Despair, not of God but of the city, settled on Isaiah’s heart; and in such a mood he wrote chapter 22. We may entitle it therefore, though written at a time when the tide should have been running to the full, "At the Lowest Ebb."

We have thus stated at the outset the motive of this chapter, because it is one of the most unexpected and startling of all Isaiah’s prophecies. In it "we can discern precipices." Beneath our eyes, long lifted by the prophet to behold a future "stretching very far forth," this chapter suddenly yawns, a pit of blackness. For utterness of despair and the absolute sentence which it passes on the citizens of Zion we have had nothing like it from Isaiah since the evil days of Ahaz. The historical portions of the Bible which cover this period are not cleft by such a crevasse, and of course the official Assyrian annals, full as they are of the details of Sennacherib’s campaign in Palestine, know nothing of the moral condition of Jerusalem. Yet if we put the Hebrew and Assyrian narratives together, and compare them with chapters 1 and 22 of Isaiah, we may be sure that the following was something like the course of events which led down to this woeful depth in Judah’s experience.

In a Syrian campaign Sennacherib’s path was plain-to begin with the Phoenician cities, march quickly south by the level coastland, subduing the petty chieftains upon it, meet Egypt at its southern end, and then, when he had rid himself of his only formidable foe, turn to the more delicate task of warfare among the hills of Judah-a campaign which he could scarcely undertake with a hostile force like Egypt on his flank. This course, he tells us, he followed. "In my third campaign, to the island of Syria I went. Luliah (Elulaeus), King of Sidon-for the fearful splendour of my majesty overwhelmed him-fled to a distant spot in the midst of the sea. His land I entered." City after city fell to the invader. The princes of Aradus, Byblus and Ashdod, by the coast, and even Moab and Edom, far inland, sent him their submission. He attacked Ascalon, and captured its king. He went on, and took the Philistine cities of Beth-dagon, Joppa, Barka, and Azor, all of them within forty miles of Jerusalem, and some even visible from her neighbourhood. South of this group, and a little over twenty-five miles from Jerusalem, lay Ekron; and here Sennacherib had so good reason for anger, that the inhabitants, expecting no mercy at his hands, prepared a stubborn defence.

Ten years before this Sargon had set Padi, a vassal of his own, as king over Ekron; but the Ekronites had risen against Padi, put him in chains, and sent him to their ally Hezekiah, who now held him in Jerusalem. "These men," says Sennacherib, "were now terrified in their hearts; the shadows of death overwhelmed them." Before Ekron was reduced, however, the Egyptian army arrived in Philistia, and Sennacherib had to abandon the siege for these arch-enemies. He defeated them in the neighbourhood, at Eltekeh, returned to Ekron, and completed its siege. Then, while he himself advanced southwards in pursuit of the Egyptians, he detached a corps, which, marching eastwards through the mountain passes, overran all Judah and threatened Jerusalem. "And Hezekiah, King of Judah, who had not bowed down at my feet, forty-six of his strong cities, his castles and the smaller towns in their neighbourhood beyond number, by casting down. ramparts and by open attack, by battle - zuk, of the feet; nisi, hewing to pieces and casting down (?)- I besieged, I captured . . . He himself, like a bird in a cage, inside Jerusalem, his royal city, I shut him up; siege-towers against him I constructed, for he had given commands to renew the bulwarks of the great gate of his city." But Sennacherib does not say that he took Jerusalem, and simply closes the narrative of his campaign with the account of large tribute which Hezekiah sent after him to Nineveh.

Here, then, we have material for a graphic picture of Jerusalem and her populace, when chapters 1 and 22 were uttered by Isaiah.

At Jerusalem we are within a day’s journey of any part of the territory of Judah. We feel the kingdom throb to its centre at Assyria’s first footfall on the border. The nation’s life is shuddering in upon its capital, couriers dashing up with the first news; fugitives hard upon them; palace, arsenal, market, and temple thrown into commotion; the politicians busy; the engineers hard at work completing the fortifications, leading the suburban wells to a reservoir within the walls, levelling every house and tree outside which could give shelter to the besiegers, and heaping up the material on the ramparts, till there lies nothing but a great, bare, waterless circle round a high-banked fortress. Across this bareness the lines of fugitives streaming to the gates; provincial officials and their retinues; soldiers whom Hezekiah had sent out to meet the foe, returning without even the dignity of defeat upon them; husbandmen, with cattle and remnants of grain in disorder; women and children; the knaves, cowards, and helpless of the whole kingdom pouring their fear, dissoluteness, and disease into the already-unsettled populace of Jerusalem. Inside the walls opposing political factions and a weak king; idle crowds, swaying to every rumour and intrigue; the ordinary restraints and regularities of life suspended, even patriotism gone with counsel and courage, but in their place fear and shame and greed of life. Such was the state in which Jerusalem faced the hour of her visitation.

Gradually the Visitant came near over the thirty miles which lay between the capital and the border. Signs of the Assyrian advance were given in the sky, and night after night the watchers on Mount Zion, seeing the glare in the west, must have speculated which of the cities of Judah was being burned. Clouds of smoke across the heavens from prairie and forest fires told how war, even if it passed, would leave a trail of famine; and men thought with breaking hearts of the villages and fields, heritage of the tribes of old, that were now bare to the foot and the fire of the foreigner. "Your country is desolate; your cities are burned with fire; your land, strangers devour it in your presence, and it is desolate as the overthrow of strangers. And the daughter of Zion is left as a booth in a vineyard, as a lodge in a garden of cucumbers. Except Jehovah of hosts had left unto us a very small remnant, we should have been as Sodom, we should have been like unto Gomorrah." {Isaiah 1:7-9} Then came touch of the enemy, the appearance of armed bands, vistas down Jerusalem’s favourite valleys of chariots, squadrons of horsemen emerging upon the plateaus to north and west of the city, heavy siege-towers and swarms of men innumerable. "And Elam bare the quiver, with troops of men and horsemen; and Kir uncovered the shield." At last they saw their fears of fifty years face to face! Far-away names were standing by their gates, actual bowmen and flashing shields! As Jerusalem gazed upon the terrible Assyrian armaments, how many of her inhabitants remembered Isaiah’s words delivered a generation before!-"Behold, they shall come with speed swiftly; none shall be weary or stumble among them; neither shall the string of their loins be lax nor the latchet of their shoes be broken; whose arrows are sharp, and all their bows bent; their horses’ hoofs shall be counted like flint, and their wheels like a whirlwind; their roaring shall be like a lion: they shall roar like young lions. For all this His anger is not turned away, but His hand is stretched out still."

There were, however, two supports on which that distracted populace within the walls still steadied themselves. The one was the Temple-worship, the other the Egyptian alliance.

History has many remarkable instances of peoples betaking themselves in the hour of calamity to the energetic discharge of the public rites of religion. But such a resort is seldom, if ever, a real moral conversion. It is merely physical nervousness, apprehension for life, clutching at the one thing within reach that feels solid, which it abandons as soon as panic has passed. When the crowds in Jerusalem betook themselves to the Temple, with unwonted wealth of sacrifice, Isaiah denounced this as hypocrisy and futility. "To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto Me? saith Jehovah…I am weary to bear them. And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide Mine eyes from you; yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear Isaiah 1:11-15."

Isaiah might have spared his scornful orders to the people to desist from worship. Soon afterwards they abandoned it of their own will, but from motives very different from those urged by him. The second support to which Jerusalem clung was the Egyptian alliance-the pet project of the party then in power. They had carried it to a successful issue, taunting Isaiah with their success. He had continued to denounce it, and now the hour was approaching when their cleverness and confidence were to be put to the test. It was known in Jerusalem that an Egyptian army was advancing to meet Sennacherib, and politicians and people awaited the encounter with anxiety.

We are aware what happened. Egypt was beaten at Eltekeh; the alliance was stamped a failure; Jerusalem’s last worldly hope was taken from her. When the news reached the city, something took place, of which our moral judgment tells us more than any actual record of facts. The Government of Hezekiah gave way; the rulers, whose courage and patriotism had been identified with the Egyptian alliance, lost all hope for their country, and fled, as Isaiah puts it, en masse. {Isaiah 22:3} There was no battle, no defeat at arms (Isaiah 22:2-3); but the Jewish State collapsed.

Then, when the last material hope of Judah fell, fell her religion too. The Egyptian disappointment, while it drove the rulers out of their false policies, drove the people out of their unreal worship. What had been a city of devotees became in a moment a city of revellers. Formerly all had been sacrifices and worship, but now feasting and blasphemy. "Behold, joy and gladness, slaying oxen and killing sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine: Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (id. Isaiah 22:13. The reference of Isaiah 22:12 is probably to chapter 1).

Now all Isaiah’s ministry had been directed just against these two things: the Egyptian alliance and the purely formal observance of religion trust in the world and trust in religiousness. And together both of these had given way, and the Assyrian was at the gates. Truly it was the hour of Isaiah’s vindication. Yet-and this is the tragedy-it had come too late. The prophet could not use it. The two things he said would collapse had collapsed, but for the people there seemed now no help to be justified from the thing which he said would remain. What was the use of the city’s deliverance, when the people themselves had failed! The feelings of triumph, which the prophet might have expressed, were swallowed up in unselfish grief over the fate of his wayward and abandoned Jerusalem.

"What aileth thee now"-and in these words we can hear the old man addressing his fickle child, whose changefulness by this time he knew so well-"what aileth thee now that thou art wholly gone up to the housetops"-we see him standing at his door watching this ghastly holiday-"O thou that art full of shoutings, a tumultuous city, a joyous town?" What are you rejoicing at in such an hour as this, when you have not even the bravery of your soldiers to celebrate, when you are without that pride which has brought songs from the lips of defeated people as they learned that their sons had fallen with their faces to the foe, and has made even the wounds of the dead borne through the gate lips of triumph, calling to festival! "For thy slain are not slain with the sword, neither are they dead in battle."

"All thy chiefs fled in heaps;

Without bow they were taken:

All thine that were found were taken ill heaps;

From far had they run.

Wherefore I say,

Look away from me;

Let me make bitterness bitterer by weeping.

Press not to comfort me

For the ruin of the daughter of my people."

Urge not your mad holiday upon me! "For a day of discomfiture and of breaking and of perplexity hath the Lord, Jehovah of hosts, in the valley of vision, a breaking down of the wall and a crying to the mountain." These few words of prose, which follow the pathetic elegy, have a finer pathos still. The cumulative force of the successive clauses is very impressive: disappointment at the eleventh hour; the sense of a being trampled and overborne by sheer brute force; the counsels, courage, hope, and faith of fifty years crushed to blank perplexity, and all this from Himself-"the Lord, Jehovah of hosts"-in the very "valley of vision," the home of prophecy; as if He had meant of purpose to destroy these long confidences of the past on the floor where they had been wrestled for and asserted, and not by the force of the foe, but by the folly of His own people, to make them ashamed. The last clause crashes out the effect of it all; every spiritual rampart and refuge torn down, there is nothing left but an appeal to the hills to fall and cover us-"a breaking down of the wall and a crying to the mountain."

On the brink of the precipice, Isaiah draws back for a moment, to describe with some of his old fire the appearance of the besiegers (Isaiah 22:6-8 a). And this suggests what kind of preparation Jerusalem had made for her foe-every kind, says Isaiah, but the supreme one. The arsenal, Solomon’s "forest-house," with its cedar pillars, had been looked to (Isaiah 22:8), the fortifications inspected and increased, and the suburban waters brought within them (Isaiah 22:9-11 a). "But ye looked not unto Him that had done this," who had brought this providence upon you; "neither had ye respect unto Him that fashioned it long ago," whose own plan it had been. To your alliances and fortifications you fled in the hour of calamity, but not to Him in whose guidance the course of calamity lay. And therefore, when your engineering and diplomacy failed you, your religion vanished with them. "In that day did the Lord, Jehovah of hosts, call to weeping, and to mourning, and to baldness, and to girding with sackcloth; but, behold, joy and gladness, slaying oxen and killing sheep, eating flesh and drinking wine: Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we shall die." It was the dropping of the mask. For half a century this people had worshipped God, but they had never trusted Him beyond the limits of their treaties and their bulwarks. And so when their allies were defeated, and their walls began to tremble, their religion, bound up with these things, collapsed also; they ceased even to be men, crying like beasts, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die." For such a state of mind Isaiah will hold out no promise; it is the sin against the Holy Ghost, and for it there is no forgiveness. "And Jehovah of hosts revealed Himself in mine ears. Surely this iniquity shall not be purged from you till ye die, saith the Lord, Jehovah of hosts."

Back forty years the word had been, "Go and tell this people, Hear ye indeed, but understand not; and see ye indeed, but perceive not. Make the heart of this people fat, and make their ears heavy, and shut their eyes, lest they see with their eyes, and hear with their ears, and understand with their heart, and turn again and be healed." What happened now was only what was foretold then: "And if there be yet a tenth in it, it shall again be for consumption." That radical revision of judgment was now being literally fulfilled, when Isaiah, sure at last of his remnant within the walls of Jerusalem, was forced for their sin to condemn even them to death.

Nevertheless, Isaiah had still respect to the ultimate survival of a remnant. How firmly he believed in it could not be more clearly illustrated than by the fact that when he had so absolutely devoted his fellow-citizens to destruction he also took the most practical means for securing a better political future. If there is any reason, it can only be this, for putting the second section of chapter 22, which advocates a change of ministry in the city (Isaiah 22:15-22), so close to the first, which sees ahead nothing but destruction for the State (Isaiah 22:1-14).

The mayor of the palace at this time was one Shebna, also called minister or deputy (lit. friend of the king). That his father is not named implies perhaps that Shebna was a foreigner; his own name betrays a Syrian origin; and he has been justly supposed to be the leader of the party then in power, whose policy was the Egyptian alliance, and whom in these latter years Isaiah had so frequently denounced as the root of Judah’s bitterness. To this unfamilied intruder, who had sought to establish himself in Jerusalem, after the manner of those days, by hewing himself a great sepulchre, Isaiah brought sentence of violent banishment: "Behold, Jehovah will be hurling, hurling thee away, thou big man, and crumpling, crumpling thee together. He will roll, roll thee on, thou rolling-stone, like a ball" (thrown out) "on broad level ground; there shalt thou die, and there shall be the chariots of thy glory, thou shame of the house of thy lord. And I thrust thee from thy post, and from thy station do they pull thee down." This vagabond was not to die in his bed, nor to be gathered in his big tomb to the people on whom he had foisted himself. He should continue a rolling-stone. For him, like Cain, there was a land of Nod; and upon it he was to find a vagabond’s death.

To fill this upstart’s place, Isaiah solemnly designated a man with a father: Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah. The formulas he uses are perhaps the official ones customary upon induction to an office. But it may be also, that Isaiah has woven into these some expressions of even greater promise than usual. For this change of office-bearers was critical, and the overthrow of the "party of action" meant to Isaiah the beginning of the blessed future. "And it shall come to pass that in that day I will call My servant Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah; and I will clothe him with thy robe, and with thy girdle will I strengthen him, and thine administration will I give into his hand, and he shall be for a father to the inhabitant of Jerusalem and to the house of Judah. And I will set the key of the house of David upon his shoulder; and he shall open, and none shut: and he shall shut, and none open. And I will hammer him in, a nail in a firm place, and he shall be for a throne of glory to his father’s house." Thus to the last Isaiah will not allow Shebna to forget that he is without root among the people of God, that he has neither father nor family.

But a family is a temptation, and the weight of it may drag even the man of the Lord’s own hammering out of his place. This very year we find Eliakim in Shebna’s post, {Isaiah 36:3} and Shebna reduced to be secretary; but Eliakim’s family seem to have taken advantage of their relative’s position, and either at the time he was designated, or more probably later, Isaiah wrote two sentences of warning upon the dangers of nepotism. Catching at the figure, with which his designation of Eliakim closed, that Eliakim would be a peg in a solid wall, a throne on which the glory of his father’s house might settle, Isaiah reminds the much-encumbered statesman that the firmest peg will give way if you hang too much on it, the strongest man be pulled down by his dependent and indolent family. "They shall hang upon him all the weight of his father’s house, the scions and the offspring" (terms contrasted as degrees of worth), "all the little vessels, from the vessels of cups to all the vessels of flagons. In that day, saith Jehovah of hosts, shall the peg that was knocked into a firm place give way, and it shall be knocked out and fall, and down shall be cut the burden that was upon it, for Jehovah hath spoken."

So we have not one, but a couple of tragedies. Eliakim, the son of Hilkiah, follows Shebna, the son of Nobody. The fate of the overburdened nail is as grievous as that of the rolling-stone. It is easy to pass this prophecy over as a trivial incident; but when we have carefully analysed each verse, restored to the words their exact shade of signification, and set them in their proper contrasts, we perceive the outlines of two social dramas, which it requires very little imagination to invest with engrossing moral interest.

The Expositor's Bible

Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

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