Isaiah 8:19
And when they shall say to you, Seek to them that have familiar spirits, and to wizards that peep, and that mutter: should not a people seek to their God? for the living to the dead?
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(19) And when they shall say unto you . . .—This then was the temptation to which the disciples of Isaiah were exposed, and to which they were all but yielding. Why should not they do as others did, and consult the soothsayers, who were in such great demand (Isaiah 2:6), as to the anxious secrets of the coming years. The words point to some of the many forms of such soothsaying (Deuteronomy 18:10). The “familiar spirit” (the English term being a happy paraphrase rather than a translation), is closely connected, as in the case of the witch of Endor (1Samuel 28:1-20), with the idea of necromancy, i.e., with the claim to have a demon or spirit of divination (Acts 16:16), on the part of the wizards (comp. Hom. Il. xxiii. 10; Virg. Ӕn., vi. 492) that “peep” (old English for “pipe,” “chirp,” “whisper”) “and mutter.” This peculiar intonation, thrilling each nerve with a sense of expectant awe, seems to have been characteristic of the soothsayers of Isaiah’s time (Isaiah 29:4).

Should not a people seek unto their God? . . .—That, the prophet says, is the only true pathway to such knowledge as is good for man. The latter part of the question is abruptly elliptical: Are men to seek on behalf of the living to the dead? What ground, he seems to ask, have we for thinking that the spirits of the dead can be recalled to earth, or, if that were possible, that they know more than the living do? May it not even be that they know less? The prophet views the state of the departed as Hezekiah views it (Isaiah 38:18), as one, not of annihilation, but of dormant or weakened powers.

Isaiah 8:19. And when, &c. — The prophet, having foretold the coming of the Messiah, and spoken of the disciples he should have, takes this occasion of addressing the Jews, and reminding them of their duty, as he had done, Isaiah 2:6, compared with Isaiah 8:1-2. He saw the nation much inclined to foreign superstitions, particularly to the divinations, soothsayings, and astrology of the Syrians, Egyptians, &c., but not regarding the pure doctrine of God’s word as they ought: he therefore warns them against placing any dependance on such follies, and exhorts them to disregard all merely human teaching and assistance, and to apply solely to the divine law and testimony. When they — Those Israelites, to whom I and my children are for signs and wonders, and who are fallen from God into superstition and idolatry; shall say unto you — Who are the true people of God; Seek unto them that have familiar spirits — For advice and help; and unto wizards — Of whom, and of familiar spirits, see on Leviticus 19:31; Leviticus 20:27; Deuteronomy 18:11; that peep and mutter — That speak with a low voice, as the two words here used signify, which they affected to do, speaking rather inwardly in their bellies, than audibly with their mouths. Should not a people seek unto their God? — This answer the prophet puts into their mouths; doth not every nation, in cases of difficulty, seek to their gods? Much more should we do so, that have the only true God for our God. For the living to the dead — That is, for living men to inquire of the living God, is proper and reasonable; but it is highly absurd for them to forsake him, and to seek dead idols, either to the images, or to the spirits of dead men, which are supposed to speak in them.8:17-22 The prophet foresaw that the Lord would hide his face; but he would look for his return in favour to them again. Though not miraculous signs, the children's names were memorials from God, suited to excite attention. The unbelieving Jews were prone to seek counsel in difficulties, from diviners of different descriptions, whose foolish and sinful ceremonies are alluded to. Would we know how we may seek to our God, and come to the knowledge of his mind? To the law and to the testimony; for there you will see what is good, and what the Lord requires. We must speak of the things of God in the words which the Holy Ghost teaches, and be ruled by them. To those that seek to familiar spirits, and regard not God's law and testimony, there shall be horror and misery. Those that go away from God, go out of the way of all good; for fretfulness is a sin that is its own punishment. They shall despair, and see no way of relief, when they curse God. And their fears will represent every thing as frightful. Those that shut their eyes against the light of God's word, will justly be left to darkness. All the miseries that ever were felt or witnessed on earth, are as nothing, compared with what will overwhelm those who leave the words of Christ, to follow delusions.And when they shall say - When the people, instead of putting confidence in God, shall propose to apply to necromancers. In the time of Ahaz the people were, as they were often, much inclined to idolatry; 2 Kings 16:10. In their troubles and embarrassments, instead of looking to Yahweh, they imitated the example of surrounding nations, and applied for relief to those who professed to be able to hold converse with spirits. That it was common for idolatrous people to seek direction from those who professed that they had the power of divining, is well known; see Isaiah 19:3; Isaiah 29:4. It was expressly forbidden to the Jews to have recourse to those who made such professions; Leviticus 20:6; Deuteronomy 18:10-11. Yet, notwithstanding this express command, it is evident that it was no uncommon thing for the Jews to make application for such instructions; see the case of Saul, who made application to the woman of Endor, who professed to have a familiar spirit, in 1 Samuel 28:7-25. Among pagan nations, nothing was more common than for persons to profess to have contact with spirits, and to be under the influence of their inspiration. The oracle at Delphi, of this nature, was celebrated throughout Greece, and throughout the world. Kings and princes, warriors and nations, sought of the priestess who presided there, responses in undertaking any important enterprise, and were guided by her instructions; see the Travels of Anacharsis, vol. ii.376ff.

Seek unto - Apply to for direction.

That hath familiar spirits - Hebrew, אבות 'obôth. The word 'familiar,' applied to spirit, is supposed to have been used by our translators to imply that they were attended by an invisible spirit that was subject to their call, or that would inspire them when they sought his direction. The Hebrew word is used to denote a necromancer, a conjuror; particularly one who was supposed to have power to call up the dead, to learn Of them respecting future events; see 1 Samuel 28:7-19; Deuteronomy 18:11. The word is most commonly applied to women; as it was almost entirely confined to women to profess this power; Leviticus 19:31; Leviticus 20:6; 1 Samuel 28. The idea was, that they could call up the spirits of the dead who were supposed to have seen objects invisible to the living, and who could, therefore, inform them in regard to things which mortals on earth could not see. The Vulgate renders this by 'Pythons and diviners.' A Python, among the Greeks and Romans, denoted one that had the spirit of prophesying, and was particularly applied to the priestess of Apollo at Delphi. The Septuagint renders the place thus: 'And if they say to you, Seek the "ventriloquists," ἐγγαστριμύθους engastrimuthous, and those speaking from the earth, and speaking vain things, who speak from the belly,' οἵ ἐκ τῆς κοιλίας φωνοῦσιν hoi ek tēs koilias phōnousin. From this it is evident, that the art of the ventriloquist, so well known now, was known then; and it is highly probable that the secret of the art of soothsayers consisted very much in being able to throw the voice, with various modifications, into different places, so that it would seem to come from a grave, or from an image of a dead person, that was made to appear at the proper time.

And unto wizards - The word used here - ידענים yidde‛ônı̂ym - is derived from the verb ידע yâda‛ to know; and means a wise man, a soothsayer, a magician, or one possessed with a spirit of divination. The arts of the magician, or soothsayer, were often the arts of one skilled in natural magic; acquainted somewhat with the laws of chemistry; and able, therefore, to produce appearances among an ignorant people that would surprise them; see Brewster's Natural Magic, where this art is fully explained.

That peep - This word is properly used of young birds, and means to chirp, to pip; and also to make a small noise by the gentle opening of the mouth. It is then applied to the gentle whispering which the ancients ascribed to departed spirits; the small, low, shrill voice which they were supposed to use, and which, probably, those attempted to imitate who claimed the power of raising them to the earth. It was believed among all the ancient nations, that departed spirits did not speak out openly and clearly, but with an indistinct, low, gentle, suppressed voice. Thus, in Virgil:

- Pars tollere vocem


AEneid, vi. 492.

- gemitus lachrymabilis imo

Auditur tumulo, et vox reddita ferter ad aures.

AEneid, iii.39.

Thus Horace:


19. Seek unto—Consult in your national difficulties.

them … familiar spirits—necromancers, spirit charmers. So Saul, when he had forsaken God (1Sa 28:7, &c.), consulted the witch of En-dor in his difficulties. These follow in the wake of idolatry, which prevailed under Ahaz (2Ki 16:3, 4, 10). He copied the soothsaying as he did the idolatrous "altar" of Damascus (compare Le 20:6, which forbids it, Isa 19:3).

wizards—men claiming supernatural knowledge; from the old English, "to wit," that is, know.

peep—rather "chirp faintly," as young birds do; this sound was generally ascribed to departed spirits; by ventriloquism the soothsayers caused a low sound to proceed as from a grave, or dead person. Hence the Septuagint renders the Hebrew for "necromancers" here "ventriloquists" (compare Isa 29:4).


should not, &c.—The answer which Isaiah recommends to be given to those advising to have recourse to necromancers.

for the living, &c.—"should one, for the safety of the living, seek unto (consult) the dead?" [Gesenius]. Lowth renders it, "In place of (consulting) the living, should one consult the dead?"

When they, the Israelites, to whom I and my children are signs and wonders, who are fallen from God, and his true religion and worship, into superstition and idolatry, and will endeavour to seduce you into the same impiety, shall say unto you, my children, whom the prophet here arms against the common temptation.

Seek unto them for advice and help, and seek no more to the prophets, who have hitherto deluded you with vain words. This was the counsel of the ungodly and unbelieving Jews.

Wizards; of whom see Leviticus 19:31 20:27 Deu 18:11.

That peep, and that mutter; that speak with a puling and low voice, as these two words signify; which they affected to do, speaking rather inwardly in their bellies, than outwardly and audibly with their mouths and voice, as the title of ventriloqui, commonly given to them, signifies.

Should not a people seek unto their God? this answer the prophet puts into their mouths, to the foregoing counsel. Doth not every nation, in cases of difficulty or distress, seek to their own gods for relief? Much more should we do so, that have the only true God for our God.

For the living to the dead; shall they seek (which words are easily understood out of the foregoing clause) for the living, &c? That living men should inquire of the living God is proper and reasonable; but it is highly absurd for them to forsake him, and to seek to dead idols, either to the images, or to the spirits of dead men, which are supposed to dwell and speak in them. And when they shall say unto you,.... These are the words of Christ continued, as making his appearance in Israel; and are an address to his people among them, even to his children, disciples, and followers, advising them what they should do, when those among whom they dwelt should press them to

seek unto them that have familiar spirits, and unto wizards, that peep, and that mutter; meaning the Scribes and Pharisees, the doctors among the Jews, who sat in Moses's chair, and who were very much given to sorcery, and the magic art, and used enchantments, which were performed by "muttering"; hence we read of muttering over a wound for the healing of it; and muttering over serpents and scorpions at the driving of them away (y); and of such a Rabbi muttering in the name of such an one (z); and of such and such a doctor skilled in wonders or miraculous operations: See Gill on Matthew 24:24 yea, even such as were chosen into the sanhedrim, or great council, were to be skilled in the arts of soothsayers, diviners, and wizards, and the like, that they might know how to judge them (a); now the Jews would have had the disciples of Christ to have applied to these men to direct their judgments in religious affairs, and be determined by them concerning the Messiah and other things:

should not a people seek unto their God? "to" Christ, who is the Lord God omniscient and omnipotent, who knows all things, and whose name is called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Angel of the great council; and who is able to give the best counsel and direction in matters of moment and consequence, and able to do everything for his people they stand in need of; and who being present with them, God manifest in the flesh, it would be egregious folly to apply to any other, and especially such as are here described; see John 6:68,

for the living to the dead? that is, should men seek to such who are no other than dead men, for the sake or on the account of such who are living? The disciples of Christ, the children that God had given him, were quickened and made alive by the grace of God, had principles of grace and spiritual life implanted in them, had passed from death to life, lived by faith on Christ, lived holy lives, and were heirs of eternal life; and therefore it does not become them, nor any of them, to consult persons dead in trespasses and sins, who knew no more, and were no more capable of judging of spiritual things, than dead men are. See 1 Corinthians 2:14.

(y) T. Bab. Sanhedrin, fol. 101. 1.((z) T. Hieros. Avoda Zara, fol. 40. 4. (a) Maimon. Hilchot Sanhedrin, c. 2. sect. 1.

And when they shall say to you, Seek to them that are mediums, and to wizards that peep, and that mutter: {u} should not a people seek to their God? for the {x} living to the dead?

(u) Answer the wicked thus, should not God's people seek comfort only from him?

(x) That is, will they refuse to be taught by the prophet, who is the mouth of God, and seek help from the dead, which is the illusion of Satan?

19. And when they (the infatuated, God-forsaken people) shall say unto you (believers in divine revelation).

them that have familiar spirits] Hebr. simply hâ’ôbhôth. Strictly, the ’ôbh is the “familiar spirit” itself (Leviticus 20:27, &c.), i.e. the disembodied spirit after death; the necromancer or “medium” through whom it holds communication with the living is ba‘al ’ôbh or ba‘ǎlath ’ôbh (1 Samuel 28:8)—the possessor of an ’ôbh.

wizards that peep, and that mutter] “Wizards,” lit. “knowing ones,” practitioners of an occult science. Peep (i.e. chirp) and mutter refer to the faint voice, like that of a little bird, which antiquity ascribed to the shades of the departed: “The sheeted dead did squeak and gibber in the streets of Rome.” See ch. Isaiah 29:4, where the word “peep” is again used, and comp. Aen. 6:492 f.; Il. 23:101. The LXX. (τοὺς ἐνγαστριμύθους and οἳ ἐκ τῆς κοιλίας φωνοῦσιν) suggests that the voice of the ghost was imitated by ventriloquism, which is not unlikely.

should not a people … dead?] This seems to be the answer which the prophet’s disciples are to return to the people.

for the living to the dead?] i.e. “should one enquire of the dead (ghost) on behalf of the living?”

19, 20. Religion and superstition contrasted.Verses 19-22. - ISAIAH RECOMMENDS LOOKING TO GOD AND THE REVEALED WORD RATHER THAN TO NECROMANCY. AFFLICTION WILL BRING ISRAEL TO GOD. Isaiah returns, in ver. 19, to the consideration of his disciples. In the terrible times impending, they will be recommended to have recourse to necromancy; he urges that they should look to God and the Law. He then further suggests that, in the coming affliction which he describes (vers. 21, 22), men will generally turn for relief to the same quarter (ver. 20). Verse 19. - Seek unto them that have familiar spirits. In times of great distress the Israelites seem always to have been tempted to consult those among them who pretended to magic and divination. So Saul in the Philistine war resorted to the witch of Endor (1 Samuel 28:7-20); Manasseh, threatened by Esar-haddon, "used enchantments, and dealt with familiar spirits and wizards" (2 Kings 21:6). Israel generally, oppressed by Syria and Assyria, "used divination and enchantments" (2 Kings 17:17). There was the same inclination now on the part of many Jews. The vexed question of the actual powers possessed by such persons cannot be discussed within the limits of a footnote. It has, moreover, already been treated in the present Commentary, in connection with Leviticus 19:31. Wizards that peep, and that mutter; rather, that chirp and mutter. Tricks of the ventriloquists, probably, who disguised their voices, and represented that they were the voices of ghosts (comp. Isaiah 29:4). The natural speech of some tribes has been compared to the "chirping of birds" (Herod., 4:183; Hornemann, 'Travels,' p. 119). Should not a people, etc.? Very abrupt and elliptical Isaiah means to say, "Do not attend to them; but answer, Should not a people," etc.? For the living. This may either mean "instead of the living," or "on behalf of the living seek to the dead?" or, Would not that be plainly preposterous? The object of their fear was a very different one. "Jehovah of hosts, sanctify Him; and let Him be your fear, and let Him be your terror. So will He become a sanctuary, but a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence (vexation) to both the houses of Israel, a snare and trap to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble, and shall fall; and be dashed to pieces, and be snared and taken." The logical apodosis to Isaiah 8:13 commences with v'hâhâh (so shall He be). If ye actually acknowledge Jehovah the Holy One as the Holy One (hikdı̄sh, as in Isaiah 29:23), and if it is He whom ye fear, and who fills you with dread (ma‛arı̄tz, used for the object of dread, as mōrah is for the object of fear; hence "that which terrifies" in a causative sense), He will become a mikdâsh. The word mikdâsh may indeed denote the object sanctified, and so Knobel understands it here according to Numbers 18:29; but if we adhere to the strict notion of the word, this gives an unmeaning apodosis. Mikdâsh generally means the sanctified place or sanctuary, with which the idea of an asylum would easily associate itself, since even among the Israelites the temple was regarded and respected as an asylum (1 Kings 1:50; 1 Kings 2:28). This is the explanation which most of the commentators have adopted here; and the punctuators also took it in the same sense, when they divided the two halves of Isaiah 8:14 by athnach as antithetical. And mikdâsh is really to be taken in this sense, although it cannot be exactly rendered "asylum," since this would improperly limit the meaning of the word. The temple was not only a place of shelter, but also of grace, blessing, and peace. All who sanctified the Lord of lords He surrounded like temple walls; hid them in Himself, whilst death and tribulation reigned without, and comforted, fed, and blessed them in His own gracious fellowship. This is the true explanation of v'hâyâh l'mikdâs, according to such passages as Isaiah 4:5-6; Psalm 27:5; Psalm 31:21. To the two houses of Israel, on the contrary, i.e., to the great mass of the people of both kingdoms who neither sanctified nor feared Jehovah, He would be a rock and snare. The synonyms are intentionally heaped together (cf., Isaiah 28:13), to produce the fearful impression of death occurring in many forms, but all inevitable. The first three verbs of Isaiah 8:15 refer to the "stone" ('eben) and "rock" (tzūr); the last two to the "snare" (pach), and "trap" or springe (mōkēsh).

(Note: Malbim observes quite correctly, that "the pach catches, but does not hurt; the mokesh catches and hurts (e.g., by seizing the legs or nose, Job 40:24): the former is a simple snare (or net), the latter a springe, or snare which catches by means of a spring" (Amos 3:5).)

All who did not give glory to Jehovah would be dashed to pieces upon His work as upon a stone, and caught therein as in a trap. This was the burden of the divine warning, which the prophet heard for himself and for those that believed.

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