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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Isaiah 1

 

 

Verse 1

(1) The vision of Isaiah the son of Amoz . . .—The term “vision,” as descriptive of a prophet’s work (1 Samuel 3:1), is the correlative of the old term “seer,” as applied to the prophet himself (1 Samuel 9:9). The latter fell into disuse, probably because the pretenders to the clairvoyance which it implied brought it into discredit. The prophet, however, did not cease to be a “seer;” and to see visions was still one of the highest forms of the gift of the spirit of Jehovah (Joel 2:28). It describes the state, more or less ecstatic, in which the prophet sees what others do not see, the things that are yet to come, the unseen working of the eternal laws of God. As compared with “the word of the Lord,” it indicates a higher intensity of the ecstatic state; but the two terms were closely associated, and, as in Isaiah 2:1, a man was said to see “the word of the Lord.” Judah and Jerusalem are named as the centre, though not the limit, of the prophet’s work.


Verse 2

(2) Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth.—The prophet opens the great indictment by calling the universe to listen to it. The words remind us of Deuteronomy 30:19; Deuteronomy 32:1, but the thought was the common inheritance of Hebrew poets (Psalms 50:4; Jeremiah 6:19; Jeremiah 22:29), and we can draw no inference from the parallelism as to the date of either book.

I have nourished and brought up children. The last word has in the Hebrew the emphasis of position: Sons I have reared and brought up. From those who had thus grown up under a father’s care filial duty might have been expected; but it was not so. The sons had rebelled against their father’s control. It is significant that the prophet starts from the thought of the fatherhood of God in His relation to Israel. The people might be unworthy of their election, but He had chosen them (Exodus 4:22; Deuteronomy 14:1; Hosea 11:1).


Verse 3

(3) The ox knoweth his owner . . .—As in Exodus 20:17; 1 Samuel 12:3, the ox and the ass rather than, as with us, the horse and the dog, are the representative instances of the relation of domesticated animals to man. These know that relation, and act according to it; but Israel did not, or rather would not, know. So Jeremiah dwells, turning to a different region of animal life, on the instinct which leads the stork, the swallow, and the crane to fulfil the law of their being (Jeremiah 8:7), while Israel “knew not”—i.e., did not acknowledge—the law of Jehovah.


Verse 4

(4) Ah, sinful nation . . .—The Hebrew interjection is, like our English “Ha!” the expression of indignation rather than of pity.

A seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters.—The first phrase in the Hebrew idiom does not mean “the progeny of evil-doers,” but those who, as a seed or brood, are made up of such. (Comp. Isaiah 14:20; Isaiah 65:23.) The word “children” (better, as in Isaiah 1:2, sons) once more emphasises the guilt of those who ought to have been obedient.

They have forsaken the Lord . . .—The three verbs paint the several stages of the growth in evil. Men first forsake, then spurn, then openly apostatise. (Comp. Luke 16:13). In the “Holy One of Israel” we have the Divine name on which Isaiah most delights to dwell, and which had been impressed on his mind by the Trisagion, which accompanied his first call to the office of a prophet (Isaiah 6:3). The thought expressed by the name is that all ideas of consecration, purity, and holiness are gathered up in God. The term occurs fourteen times in the first part of Isaiah, and sixteen times in the second. A corrupt people needed to be reminded ever more and more of the truth which the name asserted.


Verse 5

(5) Why should ye be stricken any more? ye will revolt more and more.—Better, by revolting more and more. The prophet does not predict persistency in rebellion, but pleads against it. (Comp. “Why will ye die?” in Ezekiel 18:31.)

The whole head is sick. . . .—Better, every head. . . . every heart. The sin of the people is painted as a deadly epidemic, spreading everywhere, affecting the noblest organs of the body (see Note on Jeremiah 17:9), and defying all the resources of the healing art. The description that follows is one of the natural parables of ethics, and reminds us of Plato’s description of the souls of tyrants as being full of ulcerous sores (Gorg., c. 80). The description may have connected itself with the prophet’s personal experience or training in the medicine and surgery of his time, or with the diseases which came as judgments on Jehoram (2 Chronicles 21:18) and Uzziah (2 Chronicles 26:20). We find him in Isaiah 38:21 prescribing for Hezekiah’s boil. It would seem, indeed, from 2 Chronicles 16:12, that the prophets, as an order, practised the art of healing, and so were rivals of the “physicians,” who depended chiefly on idolatrous charms and incantations. The picture of the disease reminds us of the language of Deuteronomy 28:22-35; Job 2:7, and of the descriptions of like pestilences in the history of Florence, and of England. Every part of the body is tainted by the poison. “We note a certain technical precision in the three terms used: “wounds” (literally, cuts, as inflicted by a sword or knife); “bruises,” or weals, marks of the scourge or rod; “putrifying sores,” wounds that have festered into ulcers. As the diagnosis is technical, so also are the therapeutic agencies. To “close” or “press” the festering wound was the process tried at first to get rid of the purulent discharge; then, as in Hezekiah’s case (Isaiah 38:21), it was “bound up,” with a poultice, then some stimulating oil or unguent, probably, as in Luke 10:34, oil and wine were used, to cleanse the ulcer. No such remedies, the prophet says, had been applied to the spiritual disease of Israel.


Verse 7

(7) Your country is desolate . . .—It is natural to take the words as describing the actual state of things when the prophet wrote. There had been such invasions in the days of Ahaz, in which Israel and Syria (Isaiah 7:1), Edom and the Philistines, had been conspicuous (2 Chronicles 28:17-18); and the reign of Hezekiah already had witnessed that of Sargon (Isaiah 20:1).

The Hebrew has no copulative verb, but joins subject and predicate together with the emphasis of abruptness: Your land—a desolation, and so on. The repetition of the word “strangers” is characteristic of Isaiah’s style.

As overthrown by strangers.—Conjectural readings give (1) “as the overthrow of Sodom;” (2) “as the overthrow of (i.e., wrought by) a rain-storm.” The word rendered “overthrown” is elsewhere applied only to the destruction of the cities of the plain (Deuteronomy 29:23; Amos 4:11; Jeremiah 49:18). So taken, the clause prepares the way for the fuller comparison of Isaiah 1:9-10.


Verse 8

(8) The daughter of Zion.—The phrase stands, as everywhere (Psalms 45:12; Lamentations 2:8; Micah 4:10), for the ideal city personified.

Is left as a cottage in a vineyard . . .—The “hut,” or “booth,” in which the keeper of the vineyards dwelt, apart from other habitations, was an almost proverbial type of isolation, yet to such a state was Zion all but reduced. The second similitude is of the same character. Cucumbers and other plants of the gourd type (Jonah 4:6) were largely cultivated in Judæa, and here, too, each field or garden, like the olive groves and vineyards of Italy, had its solitary hut.

As a besieged city.—The comparison of the besieged city to itself is at first startling. Rhetorically, however, it forms a climax. The city was not at this time actually besieged, but it was so hemmed in with perils, so isolated from all help, that this was what its condition practically came to. It was neither more nor less than “as a besieged city,” or ‘within a measurable distance’ of becoming so.


Verse 9

(9) Except the Lord of hosts . . .—This name also had been stamped on the prophet’s mind at the time of his call (Isaiah 6:3). The God of the hosts (or armies) of heaven (sun, moon and stars, angels and archangels) and of earth had not been unmindful of the people. The idea of the “remnant” left when the rest of the people perished is closely connected with the leading thought of Isaiah 6:12-13. It had, perhaps, been impressed on the prophet’s mind by the “remnant” of Israel that had escaped from Tiglath-pileser or Sargon (2 Chronicles 30:6; comp. Micah 5:7).

We should have been as Sodom . . .—Here the prophet, continuing perhaps the thought of Isaiah 1:7, speaks of the destruction, in the next verse of the guilt, of the cities of the plain. Both had passed into a proverb. So Ezekiel (Ezekiel 16:46-56) works out the parallelism; so our Lord speaks of the guilt of Sodom as being lighter than that of Capernaum (Matthew 11:23); so the tradition has condensed itself in the Arabic proverb, quoted by Cheyne, “More unjust than a kadi of Sodom.” (Comp. Isaiah 3:9; Deuteronomy 32:32.)


Verse 10

(10) Hear the word of the Lord, ye rulers of Sodom.—The Hebrew text, by leaving a space between the two verses, indicates the beginning of a new section. It is noticeable that the prophet does not address the king. It may be that he trusted him, but not his ministers. We have to remember that the rulers (better, judges; same word as kadi) thus addressed were probably those who were outwardly active in Hezekiah’s work of reformation, or had taken part in the older routine worship under Uzziah. For princes and people alike that reformation was but superficial. The priestly writer of the Book of Chronicles might dwell only on the apparent good in either reign (2 Chronicles 27:2; 2 Chronicles 29-31); but the eye of Isaiah saw below the surface. In “the word of the Lord,” and “the law of our God,” we have two different aspects of the revelation of the Divine will, the first being the prophetic message of the prophet, the second pointing primarily, perhaps, to the law given by Moses, but including also, as in Psalms 19:7; Psalms 119:1; Isaiah 42:4; Isaiah 42:24; Isaiah 51:7, all forms of direct ethical teaching, especially, perhaps, such as were actually based upon the law or Torah as a text.


Verse 11

(11) To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices? . . .—Isaiah carries on the great catena of prophetic utterances as to the conditions of acceptable worship (1 Samuel 15:22; Psalms 40:6; Psalms 50:7-14; Psalms 51:16-17). In Hosea 6:6; Amos 5:21-24; Micah 6:6-8 we have the utterances of contemporary prophets, who may have exercised a direct influence on his teaching. The description points primarily, perhaps, to the reign of Uzziah, but may include that of Hezekiah. The account of the sacrifices agrees with 2 Chronicles 29:21-29.

Saith the Lord . . .—Here, as in Isaiah 1:18; Isaiah 33:10; Isaiah 41:21; Isaiah 66:9, the prophet uses the future instead of the familiar past tense. This is what Jehovah will say, once and for ever.


Verse 12

(12) When ye come to appear before me.—Literally, before my face. This is the meaning given by the present Hebrew text, and it is, of course, adequate. The Syriac version and some modern scholars (e.g., Cheyne) adopt a reading which gives to see my face. In either case the implied thought is that the worshippers believed they came into the more immediate presence of Jehovah when, they entered the Temple courts. To “appear before God” was the normal phrase for visiting the Temple at the three great Feasts and other solemn occasions (Exodus 34:23; Psalms 42:3; Psalms 84:7).


Verse 13

(13) Bring no more vain oblations.—These were of the minchah class, the “meat-offerings,” or, more properly, meal-offerings of Leviticus 7:9-12. This, with its symbolic accompaniment of incense (Isaiah 66:3), was the characteristic feature of the thank-offerings and peace-offerings.

Incense is an abomination.—The Hebrew word is not that usually translated “incense,” and is found in Psalms 66:15 (“incense,” or sweet smoke, “of rams”), in connection with animal sacrifice. There does not appear, however, any adequate reason why we should take the minchah in any but its usual sense of meal-offering. The prophet brings together all the chief ritual phrases without an elaborate attention to the details connected with them.

The new moons and sabbaths . . .—The classification agrees with that of 2 Chronicles 8:13 : sabbaths, new moons, and solemn feasts.” (Comp. Hosea 2:11). The term “convocation,” or “assembly,” was specially applied to the Passover, the Feast of Weeks, and the Feast of Tabernacles (Leviticus 23:7; Leviticus 23:21; Leviticus 23:27). The religious revival under Hezekiah brought all these into a fresh prominence (2 Chronicles 31:3). In Colossians 2:16 they appear together as belonging to the Judaising Essene Christians of the apostolic age.

It is iniquity, even the solemn meeting.—The Hebrew construction has the abruptness of indignation: “The new moon and sabbaths, and calling of assemblies . . . iniquity with a solemn assembly I cannot bear. This was what made the crowded courts of the Temple hateful to the messenger of Jehovah. “Iniquity” was there. The character of a ruling caste is not changed in a day, and the lives of rulers and judges were under Hezekiah as they had been in the days of Ahaz, or at least in those of Uzziah.


Verse 14

(14) Your new moons and your appointed feasts.—The latter word included the sabbaths (Leviticus 23:3). The words add nothing to what had been said before, but they come with all the emphasis of iteration.

My soul.—The words are in one sense anthropomorphic. With man the “soul” expresses the full intensity of life and consciousness, and so, in the language of the prophets, it does with God.


Verse 15

(15) When ye spread forth your hands.—The words point to the attitude of one who prays, as was the manner of Jews, Greeks, and Romans (“tenditque ad sidera palmas,” Virg., Æn., xii. 196), standing, and with hands stretched out toward heaven. (Comp. Luke 18:11-13.)

When ye make many prayers.—The Pentateuch contains no directions for the use of forms of prayer beyond the benediction of Numbers 6:23-26, and two forms connected with the Passover in Deuteronomy 26:5-10; Deuteronomy 26:13-15. The “eighteen prayers” for daily use belong to the later Rabbinic stage of Judaism. It lies in the nature of the case, however, that first a real, and then an ostentatious devotion would show itself in the use of such forms, possibly, as in Psalms 119:164, “seven times a day.” In Proverbs 27:14; Proverbs 28:9, which belong to the reign of Hezekiah, and may, therefore, indirectly represent Isaiah’s teaching, we have the warnings of the wise as to the right use of such forms.

Your hands are full of blood.—Literally, bloods, as implying many murderous acts. The words point to the guilt of judges and princes, such as that described in Hosea 4:2. Life was sacrificed to greed of gain, or lust, or vindictiveness. To the prophet’s eye those hands, stretched upwards in the Temple by some, at least, of the king’s ministers and judges, were red with the blood of the slain. (Comp. Isaiah 59:3.)


Verse 16

(16) Wash you, make you clean . . .—The words were probably as an echo of Psalms 51:7. Both psalmist and prophet had entered into the inner meaning of the outward ablutions of ritual.

Cease to do evil; (17) learn to do well.—Such words the prophet might have heard in his youth from Amos (Amos 5:14-15). What had then been spoken to the princes of the northern kingdom was now repeated to those of Judah.


Verse 17

(17) Relieve the oppressed.—More accurately, correct the oppressor. The prophet calls on the rulers not merely to acts of benevolence, but to the courageous exercise of their authority to restrain the wrong-doing of the men of their own order. We are reminded of what Shakespeare says of Time, that it is his work—

“To wrong the wronger till he render right.”

(Rape of Lucrece.)

Judge the fatherless.—The words are still primarily addressed to men in office. They are told that they must be true to their calling, and that the “fatherless” and the “widow,” as the typical instances of the defenceless, ought to find an advocate in the judge.


Verse 18

(18) Come now, and let us reason together.—The Authorised Version suggests the thought of a discussion between equals. The Hebrew implies rather the tone of one who gives an authoritative ultimatum, as from a judge to the accused, who had no defence, or only a sham defence, to offer (Micah 6:2-3). “Let us sum up the pleadings—that ultimatum is one of grace and mercy—‘Repent, and be forgiven.’”

Though your sins be as scarlet.—The two colours probably corresponded to those now designated by the English words. Both words point to the dyes of Tyre, and the words probably received a fresh emphasis from the fact that robes of these colours were worn by the princes to whom Isaiah preached (2 Samuel 1:24). To the prophet’s eye that dark crimson was as the stain of blood. What Jehovah promises is that the guilt of the past, deep-dyed in grain as it might be, should be discharged, and leave the character with a restored purity. Men might dye their souls of this or that hue, but to bleach them was the work of God. He alone could transfigure them that they should be “white as snow” (Mark 9:3). Comp. the reproduction of the thought, with the added paradox that it was the crimson “blood of the lamb” that was to bleach and cleanse, in Revelation 3:4-5; Revelation 7:14.


Verse 19

(19) If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land.—The promise of temporal blessings as the reward of a true repentance, instead of the spiritual peace and joy of Psalms 51:8-12, fills us at first with a sense of disappointment. It has to be remembered, however, that the prophet spoke to those who were unjust and selfish, and who were as yet far from the broken and contrite heart of the true penitent. He was content to wake up in them the dormant sense of righteousness, and to lead them to recognise the moral government of God. In the long run they would not be losers by a change of conduct. The choice of eating or “being eaten” (the “devoured” of Isaiah 1:20), enjoying a blameless prosperity, or falling by the sword, was placed before those to whom the higher aspirations of the soul were little known. Such is, at all times, one at least of the methods of God’s education of mankind.


Verse 21

(21) How is the faithful city become an harlot! . . .—The opening word, as in Lamentations 1:1, is the key-note of an elegiac wail, which opens a new section. The idea of prostitution as representing apostasy from Jehovah was involved in the thought that Israel was the bride whom He had wooed and won (Hosea 1-3; Jeremiah 2:2). The imagery was made more impressive by the fact that actual prostitution entered so largely into the ritual of many of the forms of idolatry to which the Israelites were tempted (Numbers 25:1-2). So Ezekiel (Ezekiel 16:1-14) develops the symbolism with an almost terrible fulness. So our Lord spoke of the Pharisees as an “adulterous generation” (Matthew 12:39). The fact that Hosea, an earlier contemporary, had been led to tell how he had been taught the truth thus set forth by a living personal experience, is not without significance in its bearing on the genesis of Isaiah’s thoughts.

Righteousness lodged in it; but now murderers.—Better, assassins. The word implies not casual homicide, but something like the choice of murder and robbery as a profession. Hosea (Hosea 6:9) had painted a like picture as true of Samaria. The traveller who sojourned in Jerusalem, the poor who lived there, were exposed to outrage and murder; and all this was passing before men’s eyes at the very time when they were boasting, as it were, of their “glorious reformation.”


Verse 22

(22) Thy silver is become dross . . .—The two images describe the degeneracy of the rulers to whose neglect this disorder was due. (See Notes on Jeremiah 6:28-30.) Hypocrisy and adulteration were the order of the day. The coinage of judgment and justice was debased; the wine of spiritual life (Proverbs 9:5), of enthusiasm and zeal for good, was diluted till it had lost all power to strengthen and refresh. In “the salt that has lost its savour” of Matthew 5:13 we have a like symbolism.


Verse 23

(23) Thy princes are rebellious.—The Hebrew words present an alliterative paronomasia (sârim, sôrerîm), which may be represented by “Thy rulers are rebels.” Here, as before, we note the “influence of Hosea (Hosea 9:15), from whom the words are cited.

Companions of thieves.—We seem almost to be reading a report of the state of police in a provincial city under the government of Turkey as it is, or of Naples or Sicily as they were. The kadi himself is in secret partnership with the brigands who infest the highways. Nothing can be done without baksheesh, and the robbers who have the plunder can bribe more heavily than the man whom they have robbed. (Comp. Micah 7:3.) To the complaints of the widow and the orphan the judges turned a deaf ear, and put off the hearing of their cause with indefinite procrastination. There is, perhaps, a touch of irony in the word for “bribes” (shalmônîm, as if “peace gifts”), which were sought after, instead of shalôm, the true peace itself.


Verse 24

(24) Therefore saith the Lord.—The word for “saith” (literally, whisper) is that which always indicates the solemn utterance of an oracle. The solemnity is emphasised by the exceptional accumulation of Divine names. He who speaks is the Eternal, the Lord of the armies of earth and heaven, the Hero, the Mighty One, of Israel. The latter name is found also in Isaiah 49:26; Isaiah 60:16; Genesis 49:24; Psalms 132:2; Psalms 132:5, and not elsewhere.

Ah, I will ease me of mine adversaries.—In bold, anthropomorphic language, which reminds us of Psalms 78:65, Jehovah is represented as waking out of slumber, and rising up to judgment. The words “ease” and “avenge” in the Hebrew have nearly the same sound (nicham and niqqam), and come from the same root, the primary thought being that of the deep breath which a man draws in the act of throwing off a burden. The weariness and impatience of Isaiah 1:14, the long-suffering that waited, had come to an end at last (comp. Isaiah 5:11; Isaiah 5:13), and the day of vengeance had come. The punishment was, however, to be reformatory, and not merely penal.


Verse 25

(25) I will turn my hand upon thee.—The phrase, like the English “visit,” presents both a severe and a gracious aspect. Of the former we have instances in Psalms 81:14, Amos 1:8; of the latter in Zechariah 13:7. The context here inclines to the latter meaning. Jehovah punishes that He may save, and smites that He may heal.

Purely purge away thy dross.—Better, will smelt away thy dross with lye, or potash, which was used in the smelting process. The imagery of Isaiah 1:22 is resumed. The great Refiner can purify the debased metal. In Malachi 3:2-3, we have the same image expanded. The process involved, of course, the rejection of the dross—i.e., in the interpretation of the parable, of the lead that would not let itself be turned to silver.

Tin.—Better, perhaps, lead. In either case Isaiah’s knowledge of metallurgy was probably due to intercourse with the Phœnicians, who brought both lead and tin from Tarshish (i.e., Spain).


Verse 26

(26) I will restore thy judges as at the first.—The prophet looks back to the good old days, the time probably of David, or the early years of Solomon (1 Kings 10:9)—as Englishmen look back to those of Elizabeth—when judges were faithful, and princes upright, and the people happy—to such an ideal polity as that of Psalms 15, 24.

The city of righteousness, the faithful city.—The two nouns are not the same, and the second has rather the meaning of “citadel,” the acropolis of Jerusalem. There is possibly an allusive reference to the idea embodied in the names of Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18; Hebrews 7:2) and Adonizedec (Joshua 10:3), as connected with Jerusalem. So in Jeremiah 33:16 the ideal city, no less than the ideal king, is to be called Jehovah Tsidkenu (“the Lord our righteousness”).


Verse 27

(27) Zion shall be redeemed with judgment . . .—Better, through justice. The condition of the redemption which primarily proceeds from the compassion of Jehovah is found in the renewed righteousness of man to man described in the preceding verse. Without that no redemption was possible, for that was of its very essence.

Her converts.—Literally, those that turn. The conversion implied is obviously not that of Gentiles to the faith of Israel, but of Israelites who had gone astray. The word is the same as that which meets us in the name of Shear-jashub (the remnant shall return), and is prominent in the teaching of Jeremiah, “Turn ye, and live” (Isaiah 3:12; Isaiah 3:14; Isaiah 4:1, et al.).


Verse 28

(28) Of the transgressors and of the sinners.—The first of the two words presents evil in its aspect of apostasy, the second in that of the open sin which may accompany the apostasy or exist without it.


Verse 29

(29) They shall be ashamed of the oaks . . .—Better, terebinths. The words point to the groves that were so closely connected with the idolatry of Canaan, especially with the worship of the asherah, and which the people had chosen in preference to the sanctuary of Jehovah (Isaiah 17:8; Isaiah 57:5; Isaiah 66:17; Deuteronomy 16:21; 2 Kings 16:4; Jeremiah 3:6). Greek worship presents the parallels of the groves of Daphne at Antioch, and those of Dodona and of the Eumenides at Colônos. The “gardens” were the precinct planted round the central tree or grove.


Verse 30

(30) Ye shall be . . .—Men were to think of the pleasant places that had tempted them, not as they had seen them, fresh and green, but as burnt up and withered, and then were to see in that desolation a parable of their own future. The word for “strong” occurs only in Amos 2:9, where we find “strong as the oaks.”


Verse 31

(31) The maker of it as a spark.—Better, his work as a spark. The sin itself becomes the instrument of destruction. The mighty and the proud, who were foremost in the work of idolatry, and who did not repent, should perish with their work—i.e., with the idol which their hands had made. The tow and the spark are chosen as representing the most rapid form of combustion.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Isaiah 1:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/isaiah-1.html. 1905.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, September 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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