Isaiah 49:16
Behold, I have graven you on the palms of my hands; your walls are continually before me.
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(16) Behold, I have graven thee . . .—The words point to the almost universal practice of tattooing. A man thus “engraved” the name of his god, or the outlines of his home, or the face of her he loved, upon his hands or arms. So, by a boldly anthropomorphic figure, Jehovah had “graven” Jerusalem on His hands. He could not open them, i.e., could not act, without being reminded of her. The “walls” may be either those of the earthly city lying in ruins, or those of the heavenly Jerusalem.



Isaiah 49:16

In the preceding context we have the infinitely tender and beautiful words: ‘Zion hath said, The Lord hath forsaken me. Can a woman forget her sucking child? . . . yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee.’ There is more than a mother’s love in the Father’s heart. But wonderful in their revelation of God, and mighty to strengthen, calm, and comfort, as these transcendent words are, those of my text, which follow them, do not fall beneath their loftiness. They are a singularly bold metaphor, drawn from the strange and half-savage custom, which lingers still among sailors and others, of having beloved names or other tokens of affection and remembrance indelibly inscribed on parts of the body. Sometimes worshippers had the marks of the god thus set on their flesh; here God writes on His hands the name of the city of His worshippers. And it is not its name only, but its very likeness that He stamps there, that He may ever look on it, as those who love bear with them a picture of one dear face. The prophecy goes on: ‘Thy walls are continually before Me,’ but in the prophet’s time the walls were in ruins, and yet they are present to the divine mind.

I. Now, the first thought suggested by these great words is that here we have set forth for our strength and peace a divine remembrance, tender as-yea, more tender than-a mother’s.

When Israel came out of Egypt, the Passover was instituted as ‘a memorial unto all generations,’ or, as the same idea is otherwise expressed, ‘it shall be for a sign unto thee upon thine hand.’ Here God represents Himself as doing for Israel what He had bid Israel do for Him. They were, as it were, to write the supreme act of deliverance in the Exodus upon their hands, that it might never be forgotten. He writes Zion on His hands for the same purpose.

Now, of course, the text does not primarily refer to individuals, but to the community, whether Zion is understood, as the prophet understood the name, to be ancient Israel, or as the Christian Church. But the recognition of that fact should not be allowed to rob us of the preciousness of this text in its bearing on the individual. For God remembers the community, not as an abstraction or a generalised expression, but as the aggregate of all the individuals composing it. We lose sight of the particulars when we generalise. We cannot see the trees for the wood. We think of ‘the Church,’ and do not think of the thousands of men and women who make it up. We cannot discern the separate stars in the galaxy. But God’s eye resolves what to us is a nebula, and to Him every single glittering point of light hangs rounded and separate in the heaven. Therefore this assurance of our text is to be taken by every single soul that loves God, and trusts Him through Jesus Christ, as belonging to it, as though there were not another creature on earth but itself.

‘The sun whose beams most glorious are,

Disdaineth no beholder.’

Its light floods the world, yet seems to go straight into the eyeball of every man that looks at it. And such is the divine love and remembrance. There is no jostling nor confusion in the wide space of the heart of God. They that go before shall not hinder them that come after. The hungry crowd sat down in companies on the green grass, and the first fifty, no doubt, were envied by the last of the hundred fifties that made up the five thousand, and wondered whether the five loaves and the two small fishes could go round, but the last fed full as did the first. The great promise of our text belongs to me and thee, and therefore belongs to us all.

That remembrance which each man may take for himself-and we are poor Christians if we do not live in its light-is infinitely tender. The echo of the music of the previous words still haunts the verse, and the remembrance promised in it is touched with more than a mother’s love. ‘I am poor and needy,’ says the Psalmist, ‘yet the Lord thinketh upon me.’ He might have said, ‘I am poor and needy, therefore the Lord thinketh upon me.’ That remembrance is in full activity when things are darkest with us. Israel said, ‘My Lord hath forgotten me,’ because at the point of view taken in the second half of Isaiah, it was captive in a far-off land. You and I sometimes are brought into circumstances in which we are ready to think ‘God has, somehow or other, left me, has forgotten me.’ Never! never! However mirk the night, however apparently solitary the way, however mysterious and insoluble the difficulties of our position, let us fall back on this, that the captive Israel was remembered by God, and let us be sure that no circumstances of our lives are so dark or mysterious as to warrant the faintest shadow of suspicion creeping over the brightness of our confidence in this great promise. His divine remembrance of each of His servants is certain.

But do not let us forget that it was a very sinful Zion that God thus remembered. It was because the nation had transgressed that they were captives, but their very captivity was a proof that they were not forgotten. The loving divine remembrance had to smite in order to prove that it was active. Let us neither be puzzled by our sorrows nor made less confident when we think of our sins. For there is no sin that is strong enough to chill the divine love, or to erase us from the divine remembrance. ‘Captive Israel! captive because sinful, I have graven thee on the palms of My hands.’

II. A second thought here is that the divine remembrance guides the divine action.

The palm of the hand is the seat of strength, the instrument of work; and so, if Zion’s name is written there, that means not only remembrance, but remembrance which is at the helm, as it were, which is moulding and directing all the work that is done by the hand that bears the name inscribed upon it. The thought is identical with the one which is suggested by part of the High Priest’s official dress, although there the thought has a different application. He bore the names of the twelve tribes graven upon his shoulder, the seat of power, and upon his breastplate that lay above the heart, the home of love. God holds out the mighty Hand which works all things, and says to His children: ‘Look, you are graven there’-at the very fountain-head, as it were, of the divine activity. Which, being turned into plain English, is just this, that for His Church as a whole, He does move amidst the affairs of nations. You remember the grand words of one of the Psalms,-’He reproved kings for their sakes, saying, Touch not Mine anointed, and do My prophets no harm.’ It is no fanatical reading of the history of earthly politics and kingdoms, if we recognise that one of the most prominent reasons for the divine activities in moulding the kingdoms, setting up and casting down, is the advancement of the kingdom of heaven and the building of the City of God. ‘I have graven thee on the palms of My hands’-and when the hands go to work, it is for the Zion whose likeness they bear.

But the same truth applies to us individually. ‘All things work together’; they would not do so, unless there was one dominant Will which turned the chaos into a cosmos. ‘All things work,’ that is very plain. The tremendous activities round us both in Nature and in history are clear to us all. But if all things and events are co-operant, working into each other, and for one end, like the wheels of a well-constructed engine, then there must be an Engineer, and they work together because He is directing them. Thus, because my name is graven on the palms of the mighty Hand that doeth all things, therefore ‘all things work together for my good.’ If we could but carry that quiet conviction into all the mysteries, as they sometimes seem to be, of our daily lives, and interpret everything in the light of that great thought, how different all our days would be! How far above the petty anxieties and cares and troubles that gnaw away so much of our strength and joy; how serene, peaceful, lofty, submissive, would be our lives, and how in the darkest darkness there would be a great light, not only of hope for a distant future, but of confident assurance for the present. ‘I have graven thee on the palms of My hands ‘-do Thou, then, as Thou wilt with me.

III. A last thought here is that the divine remembrance works all things, to realise a great ideal end, as yet unreached.

‘Thy walls are continually before Me.’ When this prophecy was uttered the Israelites were in captivity, and the city was a wilderness, ‘the holy and beautiful House’-as this very book says-’where the fathers praised Thee was burned with fire,’ the walls were broken down, rubbish and solitude were there. Yet on the palms of God’s hands were inscribed the walls which were nowhere else! They were ‘before Him,’ though Jerusalem was a ruin. What does that mean? It means that that divine remembrance sees ‘things that are not, as though they were.’ In the midst of the imperfect reality of the present condition of the Church as a whole, and of us, its actual components, it sees the ideal, the perfect vision of the perfect future, and ‘all the wonder that shall be.’ Zion may be desolate, but ‘before Him’ stands what will one day stand on the earth before all men, ‘the new Jerusalem, coming down from heaven,’ having walls great and high, and its foundations garnished with all manner of precious stones. ‘Thy walls are before Me,’ though the ruins are there before men.

So, brethren, the most radiant optimism is the only fitting attitude for Christian people in looking into the future, either of the Church as a whole, or of themselves as individual members of it. God’s hand is working for Zion and for me. It is guided by love that does not lose the individual in the mass, nor ever forgets any of its children, and it works towards the attainment of unattained perfection. ‘This Man’ does not ‘begin to build and’ prove ‘not able to finish.’

So let us be sure that, if only we keep ourselves in the love, and continue in the grace of God, He will not slack nor stay His hand on which Zion is graven, until it has ‘perfected that which concerneth us,’ and fulfilled to each of us that ‘which He has spoken to us of.’

I said at the beginning of these remarks that God did what He bids us do. God bids us do what He does. His name should be on our hands; that is to say, memory of Him, love of Him, regard to Him, confidence in Him should mould and guide all our activity, and the aim that we shall be builded up for a habitation of God through the Spirit should be the conscious aim of our lives, as it is the aim which He has in view in all His dealings with us. Our names on His hand; His name on our hands; so shall we be blessed.49:13-17 Let there be universal joy, for God will have mercy upon the afflicted, because of his compassion; upon his afflicted, because of his covenant. We have no more reason to question his promise and grace, than we have to question his providence and justice. Be assured that God has a tender affection for his church and people; he would not have them to be discouraged. Some mothers do neglect their children; but God's compassions to his people, infinitely exceed those of the tenderest parents toward their children. His setting them as a mark on his hand, or a seal upon his arm, denotes his being ever mindful of them. As far as we have scriptural evidence that we belong to his ransomed flock, we may be sure that he will never forsake us. Let us then give diligence to make our calling and election sure, and rejoice in the hope and glory of God.Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands - This is another argument in answer to the complaint of Zion in Isaiah 49:14. There have been various interpretations of this passage. Grotius supposes that it refers to a custom of placing some mark or sign on the hand, or on one of the fingers when they wished to remember anything, and appeals to Exodus 13:9. Lowth supposes that it is an allusion to some practice common among the Jews at that time, of making marks on their hands or arms by means of punctures in the skin with some sign or representation of the city or temple, to show their zeal and affection for it. In illustration of this, he refers to the fact that the pilgrims to the Holy Sepulchre are accustomed to get themselves marked in this manner with what are called the signs of Jerusalem. Vitringa supposes that it alludes to the custom of architects, in which they delineate the size, form, and proportions of an edifice on parchment, before they commence building it - such as we mean by the draft or model of the building; and that the sense here is, that God, in like manner, had delineated or drawn Jerusalem on his hands long before it was founded, and had it constantly before his eyes. According to this, the idea is, that God had laid out the plan of Jerusalem long before it was built, and that it was so dear to him that he had even engraven it on his hands. Others have supposed that it refers to a device on a signet, or on a ring worn on the finger or the wrist, and that the plan of Jerusalem was drawn and engraven there. To me, it seems that the view of Lowth is most accordant with probability, and is best, sustained by the Oriental customs. The essential idea is, that Zion was dear to his heart; and that he had sketched or delineated it as an object in which he felt a deep interest - so deep as even to delineate its outlines on the palms of his bands, where it would be constantly before him.

Thy walls - The meaning is, that he constantly looked upon them; that he never forgot them. He had a constant and sacred regard for his people, and amidst all their disasters and trials, still remembered them.

16. Alluding to the Jews' custom (perhaps drawn from Ex 13:9) of puncturing on their hands a representation of their city and temple, in token of zeal for them [Lowth], (So 8:6). I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; mine eye and heart is constantly upon thee. He alludes to the common practice of men, who use to put signs and memorials upon their hands or fingers of such things as they dearly affect, and would remember. See Exodus 13:9 Deu 6:8 Proverbs 6:21 Song of Solomon 8:6 Jeremiah 22:24.

Thy walls are continually before me; my thoughts run continually upon the walls of Jerusalem, which are now broken down, that I may repair them as soon as ever the set time cometh, and then proceed to do far greater things for thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands,.... Not upon his thick clouds, the clouds of heaven under him, always in view, as R. Saadiah Gaon, mentioned by Jarchi, Aben Ezra, and Kimchi: much better the Targum,

"lo, as upon the hands thou art engraven before me;''

signifying that his people were always in his sight, his eyes were ever upon them, and never withdrawn from them; as anything held in the hand, or tied to or wore upon it, as a signet or ring that has the name of a person on it, to which the allusion may be; which shows how near and dear they are to him, what affection he has for them, and care of them; see Sol 8:6. Some think respect is had to the wounds in the hands of Christ, which, being on their account, are looked upon and remembered by him; or, however, to their being in his hands, out of which none can pluck them, John 10:28,

thy walls are continually before me; not the walls of Jerusalem to rebuild, though there may be an allusion to them; but either the walls of their houses where they dwell; his delights being in the habitable parts of his earth, where his saints are; or rather the walls of the church of God, for the erecting and establishing of which he is concerned. The metaphor seems to be taken from an architect that has the plan of a building, a house, or a city and its walls, in his hand, or lying before him. The phrase denotes the constant care and concern of Jehovah for the protection and safety of his church and people; who places angels about them, salvation for walls and bulwarks to them, yea, he himself is a wall of fire about them, Isaiah 26:1.

Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my {u} hands; thy {x} walls are continually before me.

(u) Because I would not forget you.

(x) Meaning, the good order of policy and discipline.

16. I have graven thee] Not the name merely but the picture of the city, as the next clause shews. Thy walls may refer to the ruined walls with their mute appeal to Jehovah’s compassion, or to the plan of the new walls, which reminds Him of His purpose to rebuild them. The latter is more likely.

upon the palms of my hands] upon both hands.Verse 16. - Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands. The prophet has passed here from the living Zion, Isabel, to their material home, Jerusalem. The metaphor which he uses is no doubt drawn from the practice, common both in ancient and in modern days, of burning or puncturing figures and other mementos upon the hand, the arm, or some other part of the body, and then rendering the figures indelible by rubbing in henna, indigo, gunpowder, or some other coloured substance. Pilgrims in the East have almost always such marks put upon them when they have accomplished their pilgrimage. English sailors are fond of them, and few are without some such mark on their breast or limbs. The meaning here is that God has the thought of Zion as constantly present with him as if her image were indelibly marked on the palms of his hands. (On the anthropomorphic representation of God as having "arms" and "hands," see the comment on Isaiah 40:10.) Thy walls. It is the city, Zion, the emblem of the people, that can alone be "graven" or "portrayed." This city has, of course, walls. God bears them in mind perpetually, since he is about to cause them to be built up (Nehemiah 3, 4.). The next two vv. describe (though only with reference to Israel, the immediate circle) what is the glory of the vocation to which Jehovah, in accordance with His promise, exalts His chosen One. "Thus saith Jehovah, In a time of favour have I heard thee, and in the day of salvation have I helped thee: and I form thee, and set thee for a covenant of the people, to raise up the land, to apportion again desolate inheritances, saying to prisoners, Go ye out: to those who are in darkness, Come ye to the light." Jehovah heard His servant, and came to his help when he prayed to Him out of the condition of bondage to the world, which he shared with his people. He did it at the time for the active display of His good pleasure, and for the realizing of salvation, which had been foreseen by Him, and had now arrived. The futures which follow are to be taken as such. The fact that Jehovah makes His servant "a covenant of the people," i.e., the personal bond which unites Israel and its God in a new fellowship (see Isaiah 42:6), is the fruit of his being heard and helped. The infinitives with Lamed affirm in what way the new covenant relation will be made manifest. The land that has fallen into decay rises into prosperity again, and the desolate possessions return to their former owners. This manifestation of the covenant grace, that has been restored to the nation again, is effected through the medium of the servant of Jehovah. The rendering of the lxx is quite correct: τοῦ καταστῆσαι τὴν γῆν καὶ κληρονομῆσαι κληρονομίας ἐρήμους λέγοντα לאמר is a dicendo governed by both infinitives. The prisoners in the darkness of the prison and of affliction are the exiles (Isaiah 42:22). The mighty word of the servant of Jehovah brings to them the light of liberty, in connection with which (as has been already more than once observed) the fact should be noticed, that the redemption is viewed in connection with the termination of the captivity, and, in accordance with the peculiar character of the Old Testament, is regarded as possessing a national character, and therefore is purely external.

The person of the servant of Jehovah now falls into the background again, and the prophecy proceeds with a description of the return of the redeemed. "They shall feed by the ways, and there is pasture for them upon all field-hills. They shall not hunger nor thirst, and the mirage and sun shall not blind them: for He that hath mercy on them shall lead them, and guide them by bubbling water-springs. And I make all my mountains ways, and my roads are exalted. Behold these, they come from afar; and, behold, these from the north and from the sea; and these from the land of the Sinese." The people returning home are represented as a flock. By the roads that they take to their homes, they are able to obtain sufficient pasture, without being obliged to go a long way round in order to find a sufficient supply; and even upon bare sandy hills (Isaiah 41:18) there is pasture found for them. Nothing is wanting; even the shârâb (see Isaiah 35:7) and the sun do not hurt them, the former by deceiving and leading astray, the latter by wearying them with its oppressive heat: for He whose compassion has been excited by their long pining misery (Isaiah 41:17-20) is leading them, and bringing them along in comfort by bubbling springs of real and refreshing water (ינחל, as Petrarch once says of shepherds, Move la schira sua soavemente). Jehovah also makes all the mountains into roads for those who are returning home, and the paths of the desert are lifted up, as it were, into well-made roads (yerumūn, Ges. 47, Anm. 4). They are called my mountains and my highways (differently from Isaiah 14:25), because they are His creation; and therefore He is also able to change them, and now really does change them for the good of His people, who are returning to the land of their forefathers out of every quarter of the globe. Although in Psalm 107:3 yâm (the sea) appears to stand for the south, as referring to the southern part of the Mediterranean, which washes the coast of Egypt, there is no ground at all in the present instance for regarding it as employed in any other than its usual sense, namely the west; mērâchōq (from far) is therefore either the south (cf., Isaiah 43:6) or the east, according to the interpretation that we give to 'erets Sı̄nı̄m, as signifying a land to the east or to the south.

The Phoenician Sinim (Ges. Isaiah 10:17), the inhabitants of a fortified town in the neighbourhood of Area, which has now disappeared, but which was seen not only by Jerome, but also by Mariono Sanuto (de castro Arachas ad dimidiam leucam est oppidum Sin), cannot be thought of, for the simple reason that this Sin was too near, and was situated to the west of Babylon and to the north of Jerusalem; whilst Sin ( equals Pelusium) in Egypt, to which Ewald refers, did not give its name to either a tribe or a land. Arias Montanus was among the first to suggest that the Sinim are the Sinese (Chinese); and since the question has been so thoroughly discussed by Gesenius (in his Commentary and Thesaursu), most of the commentators, and also such Orientalists as Langles (in his Recherches asiatiques), Movers (in his Phoenicians), Lassen (in his Indische Alterthumskunde, i.-856-7), have decided in favour of this opinion. The objection brought against the supposition, that the name of the Chinese was known to the nations of the west at so early a period as this, viz., that this could not have been the case till after the reign of the emperor Shi-hoang-ti, of the dynasty of Thsin, who restored the empire that had been broken up into seven smaller kingdoms (in the year 247 b.c.), and through whose celebrated reign the name of his dynasty came to be employed in the western nations as the name of China generally, is met by Lassen with the simple fact that the name occurs at a much earlier period than this, and in many different forms, as the name of smaller states into which the empire was broken up after the reign of Wu-wang (1122-1115 b.c.). "The name Θῖναι (Strabo), Σῖναι (Ptol.), Τζίνιτζα (Kosmas), says the Sinologist Neumann, did not obtain currency for the first time from the founder of the great dynasty of Tsin; but long before this, Tsin was the name of a feudal kingdom of some importance in Shen-si, one of the western provinces of the Sinese land, and Fei-tse, the first feudal king of Tsin, began to reign as early as 897 b.c." It is quite possible, therefore, that the prophet, whether he were Isaiah or any other, may have heard of the land of the Sinese in the far east, and this is all that we need assume; not that Sinese merchants visited the market of the world on the Euphrates (Movers and Lassen), but only that information concerning the strange people who were so wealthy in rare productions, had reached the remote parts of the East through the medium of commerce, possibly from Ophir, and through the Phoenicians. But Egli replies: "The seer on the streams of Babel certainly could not have described any exiles as returning home from China, if he had not known that some of his countrymen were pining there in misery, and I most positively affirm that this was not the case." What is here assumed - namely, that there must have been a Chinese diaspora in the prophet's own time - is overthrown by what has been already observed in Isaiah 11:11; and we may also see that it is to purely by accident that the land of the Sinese is given as the farthest point to the east, from my communications concerning the Jews of China in the History of the Post-biblical Poetry of the Jews (1836, pp. 58-62, cf., p. 21). I have not yet seen Sionnet's work, which has appeared since, viz., Essai sur les Juifs de la Chine et sur l'influence, qu'ils ont eue sur la litrature de ce vaste empire, avant l're chrtienne; but I have read the Mission of Enquiry to the Jews in China in the Jewish Intelligence, May 1851, where a facsimile of their thorah is given. The immigration took place from Persia (cf., ‛Elâm, Isaiah 11:11), at the latest, under the Han dynasty (205 b.c.-220 a.d.), and certainly before the Christian era.

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