Isaiah 8:21 Commentaries: They will pass through the land hard-pressed and famished, and it will turn out that when they are hungry, they will be enraged and curse their king and their God as they face upward.
Isaiah 8:21
And they shall pass through it, hardly bestead and hungry: and it shall come to pass, that when they shall be hungry, they shall fret themselves, and curse their king and their God, and look upward.
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(21) And they shall pass through it . . .i.e., through the land over which hangs the sunless gloom. The abruptness with which the verse opens, the absence of any noun to which the pronoun “it” may refer, has led some critics (Cheyne) to transpose the two verses. So arranged, the thought of the people for whom there is no dawning passes naturally into the picture of their groping in that thick darkness. and then the misery of that midnight wandering is aggravated by the horrors of starvation. The words may point to the horrors of a literal famine (Isaiah 2:11); but as the darkness is clearly figurative, so probably is the hunger—not a famine of bread, but of hearing the word of the Lord. The Authorised version rightly translates the indefinite singular by the plural.

When they shall be hungry, they shall fret themselves.—The faithful who waited for the Lord might bear even that darkness and that hunger, as soldiers bear their night-march fasting before the battle. Not so with the panic-stricken and superstitious crowd. With them despair would show itself in curses. (Comp. Revelation 16:11; Revelation 16:21.) They would curse at once the king who had led them to destruction, and the God whom they had neglected. Possibly the words may mean, “the king who is also their God,” as in Amos 5:26 (Heb.) and Zephaniah 1:5; but the analogy of 1Kings 21:13 is in favour of the more literal meaning. The “upward” look is, we must remember, that of despair and defiance, not of hope. Upwards, downwards, behind, before, there is nothing for them but the darkness in which they are driven, or drifting onward. All seems utterly hopeless. Like Dante, they find themselves in a land “where silent is the sun.”

Isaiah 8:21-22. And they — The idolatrous and apostate Israelites; shall pass through it — Namely, their own land, into captivity; or, as עבר בה may be rendered, shall pass to and fro, or wander hither and thither, in it, like distracted men, not knowing whither to go, or what to do; whereas, if they had not forsaken God, they might have had a quiet and settled abode in it. Hardly bestead and hungry — Hebrew, נקשׁה ורעב, distressed and famished, as Bishop Lowth translates the words: they shall fret themselves, &c. — Shall be impatient under their pressures, and, in the rage of their despair, curse their king — To whose ill conduct they impute a great part of their miseries; and their God — Their idol, to whom they trusted, and whom now, too late, they find to be unable to help them; and look upward — To heaven for help, as men of all nations and religions, in great calamities, are wont to do. And they shall look unto the earth — Finding no help from heaven, they turn their eyes downward, looking hither and thither for comfort; and behold trouble and darkness, &c. — Many words, expressing the same thing, are put together, to signify the variety, and extremity, and continuance of their miseries. Bishop Lowth, who connects with this verse the last clause of the twenty-first, renders the passage thus: “He shall cast his eyes upward, and look down to the earth; and lo! distress and darkness! gloom, tribulation, and accumulated darkness!” 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 they shall pass - The people who have been consulting necromancers. This represents the condition of these who have sought for counsel and direction, and who have not found it. They shall be conscious of disappointment, and shall wander perplexed and alarmed through the land.

Through it - Through the land. They shall wander in it from one place to another, seeking direction and relief.

Hardly bestead - Oppressed, borne down, agitated. The meaning is, that the people would wander about, oppressed by the calamities that were coming upon the nation, and unalleviated by all that soothsayers and necromancers could do.

And hungry - Famished; as one effect of the great calamities that would afflict the nation.

They shall fret themselves - They shall be irritated at their own folly and weakness, and shall aggravate their sufferings by self-reproaches for having trusted to false gods.

Their king and their God - The Hebrew interpreters understand this of the false gods which they bad consulted, and in which they had trusted. But their looking upward, and the connection, seem to imply that they would rather curse the true God - the 'king and the God' of the Jewish people. They would be subjected to the proofs of his displeasure, and would vent their malice by reproaches and curses.

And look upward - For relief. This denotes the condition of those in deep distress, instinctively casting their eyes to heaven for aid. Yet it is implied that they would do it with no right feeling, and that they would see there only the tokens of their Creator's displeasure.

21, 22. More detailed description of the despair, which they shall fall into, who sought necromancy instead of God; Isa 8:20 implies that too late they shall see how much better it would have been for them to have sought "to the law," &c. (De 32:31). But now they are given over to despair. Therefore, while seeing the truth of God, they only "curse their King and God"; foreshadowing the future, like conduct of those belonging to the "kingdom of the beast," when they shall be visited with divine plagues (Re 16:11; compare Jer 18:12).

through it—namely, the land.

hardly bestead—oppressed with anxiety.

hungry—a more grievous famine than the temporary one in Ahaz' time, owing to Assyria; then there was some food, but none now (Isa 7:15, 22; Le 26:3-5, 14-16, 20).

their king … God—Jehovah, King of the Jews (Ps 5:2; 68:24).

look upward … unto the earth—Whether they look up to heaven, or down towards the land of Judea, nothing but despair shall present itself.

dimness of anguish—darkness of distress (Pr 1:27).

driven to darkness—rather, "thick darkness" (Jer 23:12). Driven onward, as by a sweeping storm. The Jewish rejection of "their King and God," Messiah, was followed by all these awful calamities.

And they, the idolatrous and apostatical Israelites,

shall pass through it, or, in it, to wit, their own land, which is easily understood out of the context, and from the phrase itself; the pronoun relative being put without an antecedent, as it is in other places, which have been formerly noted. They shall either pass through it into captivity, or wander hither and thither in it, like distracted men, not knowing whither to go, nor what to do; whereas if they had not forsaken God, they might have had a quiet and settled abode in it.

Hardly bestead; sorely distressed, as this word is used, Genesis 35:16 Job 30:25; and hungry; destitute of food, and of all necessaries, which are oft signified by food. Curse their king; either because he doth not relieve them, or because by his foolish counsels and courses he brought them into these miseries.

Their God; either,

1. The true God; or rather,

2. Their idols, to whom they trusted, and whom they now find too late unable to help them.

Look upward to heaven for help, as men of all nations and religions in great calamities use to do. And they shall pass through it,.... The land, as the Targum and Kimchi supply it; that is, the land of Judea, as Aben Ezra interprets it. Here begins an account of the punishment that should be inflicted on the Jews, for their neglect of the prophecies of the Old Testament, and their rejection of the Messiah:

hardly bestead and hungry; put to the greatest difficulty to get food to eat, and famishing for want of it; which some understand of the time when Sennacherib's army was before Jerusalem, as Aben Ezra; but it seems better, with others, to refer it to the times of Zedekiah, when there was a sore famine, Jeremiah 52:6 though best of all to the besieging of Jerusalem, by the Romans, and the times preceding it, Matthew 24:7 and it may also be applied to the famine of hearing the word before that, when the Gospel, the kingdom of heaven, was taken from them, for their contempt of it:

and it shall come to pass, when they shall be hungry: either in a temporal sense, having no food for their bodies; or in a mystical sense, being hungry often and earnestly desirous of the coming of their vainly expected Messiah, as a temporal Saviour of them:

they shall fret themselves; for want of food for their bodies, to satisfy their hunger; or because their Messiah does not come to help them:

and curse their King, and their God; the true Messiah, who is the King of Israel, and God manifest in the flesh; whom the unbelieving Jews called accursed, and blasphemed:

and look upwards; to heaven, for the coming of another Messiah, but in vain; or for food to eat.

And they shall pass through it, distressed and hungry: and it shall come to {a} pass, that when they shall be hungry, they shall fret themselves, {b} and curse their king and their God, and look upward.

(a) That is, in Judah, where they would have had rest, if they had not thus grievously offended God.

(b) In whom before they put their trust.

21. they shall pass through it] Obviously, the land; but something must have fallen out before this verse, to account for the reference of the pronoun. Throughout this and the following verse, “they,” “their,” “themselves,” should be “he,” “his,” “himself.” The subject is either the whole nation or an individual Israelite. He wanders through the land, perhaps seeking an oracle (Amos 8:12).

they shall fret themselves] Better: he shall break out in anger (the form is used only here).

curse his king and his God] Not “his king and God” whether Jehovah or a false god; but the king because he cannot, and God because He will not, help. Cf. 2 Kings 6:26 f. (see also 1 Kings 21:10). This gives a much better sense than “curse by his king and his God,” although the parallel passages are in favour of the latter translation.

21, 22. Another scene, representing the utter desolation of the land, and the miseries of the survivors.Verses 21, 22 are supposed by some to be cut of place, and to belong properly to the description of the Assyrian invasion, given in vers. 7, 8. But this bold solution of a difficulty is scarcely to be commended, there being no limit to its use. An order followed in all the manuscripts should not be disturbed, if it gives any tolerable sense. Such a sense can, it is thought, be found here by regarding the two verses as exegetical of the last clause of ver. 20 - "when there is no dawn for them." Verse 21. - They shall pass through it. "It," which is feminine, must mean "the land." The Jews left in it shall wander about it (comp. Isaiah 7:21-25), seeking pasture for the remnant of their cattle. They shall fret themselves; rather, they shall be deeply angered (Cheyne). And curse their king and their God. As the causes of their sufferings. And look upward. Not in hope, but in rage and defiance. 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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