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General Introduction to Isaiah 40–66
It is admitted, on all hands, that the second part of Isaiah, comprising the prophecies which commence at the fortieth chapter, and which continue to the end of the book, is to be regarded as the most sublime, and to us the most important part of the Old Testament. In the previous portions of his prophecies there was much that was local and temporary. Indeed all, or nearly all, that occurs from Isaiah 1:0 to Isaiah 39:1-8 had direct and immediate reference to the times in which the prophet lived, or was suggested by the events which occurred in those times. Not unfrequently, indeed, there were prophecies respecting the Messiah’s coming Isaiah 2:0; Isaiah 4:1-6; Isaiah 7:0; Isaiah 9:0; Isaiah 11:0; Isaiah 35:1-10, but the primary reference was to events that were then occurring, or which were soon to occur, and which were local in their character. And though the mind of the prophet is carried forward by the laws of prophetic suggestion (see the Introduction, Section 7, III. (3), and he describes the times of the Messiah, yet the immediate and primary reference of those prophecies is to Judea, or to the kingdoms and countries in the vicinity of Judea, with which the Jews were in various ways connected.
In this portion of the prophecy, however, there is little that is local and temporary. It is occupied with a prophetic statement of events which were to occur long after the time of the prophet; and which would be of interest not only to the Jewish nation, but to the whole human family. It is a beautiful and glowing description of occurrences, in which people of the present and of all subsequent times will have as deep an interest as they who have lived at any former period. Indeed it is not improbable that as the world advances in age, the interest in this portion of Isaiah will increase; and that as the gospel is carried around the globe, the beauty and accuracy of these descriptions will be more clearly seen and highly appreciated; and that nations will yet derive their highest consolations, and see the clearest proof of the inspiration of the Sacred Volume, from the entire correspondence between this portion of Isaiah and the events which are yet to gladden the world. There is no portion of the Old Testament where there is so graphic and clear a description of the times of the Messiah. None of the other prophets linger so long, and with such apparent delight, on the promised coming of the Prince of Peace; or his character and work; on the nature of his instructions, and the manner of his reception; on the trials of his life, and the painful circumstances of his death; on the dignity of his nature, and on his lowly and humble character; on the prevalence of his religion, and on its transforming and happy effects; on the consolations which he would furnish, and on the fact that his religion would bear light and joy around the world.
Lowth supposes that this prophecy was uttered in the latter part of the reign of Hezekiah. A more probable supposition is that of Hengstenberg, that it was uttered in the time of Manasseh. I have endeavored to show (Introduction, Section 2) that Isaiah lived some time during the reign of Manasseh. According to this supposition, there was probably an interval of some twelve or fourteen years between the close of the predictions in the first part, and those which occupy this portion of the book. Manasseh was a cruel prince; and his reign was cruel (see the Introduction, Section 3). It was a time of the prevalence of idolatry and sin. In this state of things, it is probable that Isaiah, who was then of great age, withdrew almost entirely from the public functions of the prophetic work, and sought personal consolation, and endeavored to furnish comfort for the pious portion of the nation, in the contemplation of the future.
In this period, I suppose, this portion of the prophecy was conceived and penned. Isaiah, in the close of the previous part of the prophecies Isaiah 39:7, had distinctly announced that the nation would be carried to Babylon. He saw that the crimes of the monarch and of the nation were such as would certainly hasten this result. He had retired from the public functions of the prophetic office, and given himself up to the contemplation of happier and purer times. He, therefore, devoted himself to the task of furnishing consolation for the pious portion of the nation, and especially of recording prophetic descriptions which would comfort the Jews when they should be held in long captivity in Babylon. We have seen (the notes at Isaiah 13:0; Isaiah 14:0) that Isaiah had before this laid the foundations for these consolations by the assurance that Babylon and its mighty power would be entirely destroyed, and, of course, that the Jewish people could not be held always in bondage there.
In this part of the prophecy Isa. 40–66 his object is to give more full and specific consolations. He therefore places himself, in vision (see the Introduction, Section 7, I. (4), in the midst of the future scenes which he describes, and stares distinctly and fully the grounds of consolation. These topics of consolation would arise from two sources - both of which he presents at great length and with great beauty. The first is, that the nation would be delivered from its long and painful captivity. This was the primary thing to be done, and this was needful in order to furnish to them consolation. He places himself in that future time. He sees his own nation borne to a distant land, according to his own predictions; sees them sighing in their hard bondage; and sees the city and the temple where they once worshipped the God of their fathers laid in ruins, and all their pleasant things laid waste Isaiah 64:11, and the people dispirited and sad in their long and painful captivity.
He predicts the close of that captivity, and speaks of it as present to his view. He consoles the people by the assurance that it was coming to an end; names the monarch - Cyrus - by whom their oppressors were to be punished, and by whom they were to be restored to their own land; and describes, in the most beautiful and glowing imagery, their certain return. The second source of consolation is that which relates to the coming of a far more important deliverer than Cyrus, and to a far more important redemption than that from the captivity at Babylon. By the laws of prophetic suggestion, and in accordance with the usual manner of Isaiah, his mind is carried forward to much more momentous events. The descriptions of the prophet insensibly change from the immediate subject under contemplation to the far more important events connected with the coming and work of the Messiah. This was the common rule by which the mind of Isaiah acted; and it is no wonder, therefore, that an event so strikingly resembling the deliverance of man from the bondage of sin by the Messiah as was the deliverance from the captivity of Babylon, should have been suggested by that, and that his thoughts should pass rapidly from one to the other, and the one be forgotten in the other.
The eye of the prophet, therefore, glances rapidly from the object more immediately in view in the future, to the object more remote; and he regards the return from the Babylonian captivity as introductory to a far more important deliverance. In the contemplation of that more distant event, therefore, he becomes wholly absorbed; and from this he derives his main topics of consolation. He sees the author of redemption in various scenes - now as a sufferer, humble, poor, and persecuted; and now the more distant glories of the Messiah’s kingdom rise to view. He sees him raised up from the dead; his empire extend and spread among the Gentiles; kings and princes from all lands coming to lay their offerings at his feet; the distant tribes of men come bending before him, and his religion of peace and joy diffusing its blessings around the world. In the contemplation of these future glories, he desires to furnish consolation for his afflicted countrymen in Babylon, and at the same time a demonstration of the truth of the oracles of God, and of the certain prevalence of the true religion, which should impart happiness and peace in all future times.
The character of the period when this portion of the prophecy was delivered, and the circumstances under which it was uttered, as well as the object which the prophet had in view, may account for some remarkable features in it which cannot fail to strike the attentive reader -
1. The name of the prophet does not occur. It may have been designed that the consolation should be furnished rather by the nature of the truth, than by the name or authority of the man. When addressing monarchs, and when denouncing the vices and crimes of the age, his name is mentioned (compare Isaiah 7:0 and Isaiah 38:0); the authority under which he acted is stated; and he utters his warnings in the name of Yahweh. Here he presents simple truth, in a case where it is to be presumed that his propbetic authority and character were already sufficiently established.
2. There is less of fire and impetuosity, less of severity and abruptness of manner, in this than in the former prophecies. Isaiah was now an old man, and his style, and manner of thinking and of utterance would be naturally mellowed by age. His object, also, was not reproof so much as consolation; it was not, as formerly, to denounce judgment, but to speak of comfort. It was not to rebuke kings and nobles for their crimes, and to rouse the nation to a sense of its danger; it was to mitigate the woes of those in bondage, and to furnish topics of support to those who were groaning in captivity far from the temple of their God, and from the sepulchres of their fathers. The language of the second part is more gentle and flowing; more tender and mild. There is exquisite beauty and finish, and occasionally there are bursts of the highest sublimity; but there is not the compression of thought, and the struggling as it were for utterance, which there often is in the former part. There, the prophetic impulse is like waters pent up between projecting rocks and hills, it struggles and bursts forth impetuously and irresistibly; in this portion of the prophecy, it is like the placid stream - the full-flowing, majestic river - calm, pure, deep, and sublime. There are, indeed, characteristics of the same style, and of the same author, but it is in different circumstances, and with a different object in view. Homer in the Odyssey has been compared to the sun when setting with full orb, but with diminished brightness; in the Iliad to the sun in his meridian. Isaiah, in this part of his prophecies, resembles the sun shining with steady and pure effulgence without a cloud; in the former part, he resembles the sun when it bursts through clouds in the darkened heavens - the light struggling through the openings in the sky, and amidst the thunders that roll and echo along the hills and vales.
3. The portion which follows Isa. 40–66 is a single prophecy, apparently uttered at one time, and having one great dcsign. The former part consists of a number of independent and separate predictions, some of them very brief, and having no immediate connection with each other. Here, all is connected, and the same design is kept steadily and constantly in view: His beautiful descriptions roll on, to use one of his own images, ‘like a river,’ or the ‘waves of the sea.’
4. Almost everything which occurs in the prophecy relates to that which was to be fulfilled long after the time of Isaiah. Occasionally there is a slight allusion to the prevalence of idolatry in his own time, but there is no express mention of the events which were then occurring. He does not mention his own circumstances; he does not allude to the name of the monarch who lived when he wrote. He seems to have forgotten the present, and to live and act in the scenes of the distant future. He, therefore, speaks as if he were among the exiled Jews in Babylon when their long captivity was about to come to an end; he exhorts, rebukes, administers, comforts, as if they were present, and as if he were directly addressing them. He speaks of the life, sufferings, and death of the Messiah also, as events which he saw, and seeks personal consolation and support amidst the prevailing crimes and calamities of his own times, in the contemplation of future scenes.
It will be seen, from what has been said, and from the examination of the prophecy itself, that it possesses a decidedly evangelical character. Indeed, this is so clear and apparent, that many have maintained that the primary reference is to the Messiah, and that it had no relation to the return from the captivity at Babylon. Such was the opinion of the learned Vitringa. Even Grotius, of whom it has been said, that while Cocceius found ‘Christ everywhere, he found him nowhere,’ admits that the prophecy has an obvious reference to the Messiah. His words are, ‘Cum antem omnia Dei beneficia umbram in se contineant eorum quae Christus praestitit, turn praecipue ista omnia quae deinceps ab Esaia praenunciabuntur, verbis saepissime a Deo sic directis, ut simplicius limpidiusque in res Christi, quam in illas, quas primo significare Esaias volnit, convenirent.’ Indeed, it is impossible to read this portion of the prophecy without believing that it had reference to the Messiah, and that it was designed to furnish consolation from the contemplation of his glorious reign. That there was a primary reference to the return from the captivity at Babylon, I shall endeavor to show as we advance in the interpretation of the prophecy. But it will also be seen that though the prophet begins with that, he ends usually with a contemplation of the Redeemer; that these events seem to have lain so near each other in the beautiful field of prophetic vision, that the one naturally suggested the other; and that the description passes from the former object to the latter, so that the contemplation of the person and work of the Messiah, and of the triumphs of his gospel, become the absorbing theme of his glowing language (see the Introduction, Section 7).
Analysis of Chapter 40
I. The subject of the whole prophecy Isa. 40–66 is introduced in Isaiah 40:1-2. The general design is, to comfort the afflicted and oppressed people of God. They are contemplated as in Babylon, and as near the close of the exile. Jerusalem is regarded as in ruins (compare Isaiah 44:26-28; Isaiah 51:3; Isaiah 52:9; Isaiah 58:12); the land is waste and desolate Isaiah 63:18; the city and the temple are destroyed Isaiah 64:10-11. Their captivity is about to end, and the people about to be restored to their own land Isaiah 44:28; Isaiah 58:12; Isaiah 9:10; Isaiah 65:9. In this situation, the prophet is directed to address words of consolation to the oppressed and long-captive Jews, and to assure them that their calamities are about to close. Jerusalem - now in ruins - was to be assured that the end of her desolation was near, for that an ample punishment had been taken for all her sins.
II. The prophet next represents the deliverance under an image taken from the march of earthly kings Isaiah 40:3-8. The voice of a herald is heard in the wilderness making proclamation, that every obstacle should be removed, that Yahweh might return to Zion conducting his people. As he had conducted them from the land of Egypt, so he was about to conduct them from Babylon, and to appear again in Jerusalem and in the temple. Between Babylon and Jerusalem there was an immense tract of country which was a pathless desert. Through this land the people would naturally be conducted; and the voice of the herald is heard demanding that a highway should be made - in the manner of a herald who preceded an army, and who required valleys to he filled, and roads to be constructed, over which the monarch and his army might pass with ease and safety. It is to be observed that the main thing here is not that the people should return, and a way be made for them, but that Yahweh was about to return to Jerusalem, and that the pathway should he made for him. He was to be their leader and guide, and this was the principal source of comfort in their return. In this, the Holy Spirit, who directed and inspired the prophet, purposely suggests language that would be applicable to a far more important even, when the herald of the Messiah should announce his coming. The main thing which the voice was to cry is represented in Isaiah 40:6-8. That was, that Yahweh was faithful to his promises, and that his predictions would be certainly fulfilled. Everything else would fade away - the grass would wither, the flower would fail, and the people would die - but the word of Yahweh would be unfailing, and this would be manifest alike in the release of the people from Babylon, and in the coming of the Messiah.
III. The messenger that brought these glad tidings to Jerusalem, is exhorted to announce the happy news to the remaining cities of Judah - to go to an eminence - to lift up the voice - and to proclaim that their God had come Isaiah 40:9.
IV. In Isaiah 40:10-11, the assurance is given that he would come ‘with a strong hand’ - almighty and able to save; he would come as a tender and gentle shepherd, regarding especially the weak and feeble of his people - language alike applicable to God, who should conduct the people from exile to their own land, and to the Messiah; though more strikingly and completely fulfilled in the latter.
V. The mention of the omnipotence of Yahweh, who was about to conduct his people to their own land, leads the prophet into a most sublime description of his power, majesty, and glory, the object of which seems to be to induce them to put entire confidence in him Isaiah 40:12-17. God measures the waters in the hollow of his hand; he metes out the heavens with a span; he measures the dust of the earth, and weighs the mountains Isaiah 40:12. None has counseled, or can counsel him; his understanding is superior to that of all creatures Isaiah 40:13-14. The nations before him are as a drop of a bucket, and as the small dust of the balance, and as nothing Isaiah 40:15, Isaiah 40:17. All the vast forests of Lebanon, and all the beasts that roam there, would not be sufficient to constitute a burnt-offering that should be a proper expression of his majesty and glory Isaiah 40:10.
VI. From this statement of the majesty and glory of God, the prophet shows the absurdity of attempting to form an image or likeness of God, and the certainty that all who trusted in idols should be destroyed, as the stubble is swept away by the whirlwind Isaiah 40:18-25.
VII. It follows also, if God is so great and glorious, that the people should put confidence in him. They should believe that he was able to save them; they should wait on him who alone could renew their strength Isaiah 40:26-31. The entire scope and design of the chapter, therefore, is, to induce them to put their reliance in God, who was about to come to vindicate his people, and who would assuredly accomplish all his predictions and promises. The argument is a most beautiful one; and the language is unsurpassed in sublimity.
Comfort ye, comfort ye my people - This is the exordium, or the general subject of this and the following chapters. The commencement is abrupt, as often happens in Isaiah and the other prophets. The scene where this vision is laid is in Babylon; the time near the close of the captivity. The topic, or main subject of the consolation, is stated in the following verse - that that captivity was about to end, and that brighter and happier days were to succeed their calamities and their exile. The exhortation to ‘comfort’ the people is to be understood as a command of God to those in Babylon whose office or duty it would be to address them - that is, to the ministers of religion, or to the prophets. The Targum of Jonathan thus renders it: ‘Ye prophets, prophesy consolations concerning my people.’ The Septuagint renders it, ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith God. O priests, speak to the heart of Jerusalem; comfort her.’ The design of Isaiah is doubtless to furnish that which should be to them a source of consolation when amidst the deep distress of their long captivity; to furnish an assurance that the captivity was about to end, and that brighter and happier times were to ensue.
The exhortation or command is repeated, to give intensity or emphasis to it, in the usual manner in Hebrew, where emphasis is denoted by the repetition of a word. The word rendered ‘comfort’ (from נחם nâcham) means properly to draw the breath forcibly, to sigh, pant, groan; then to lament, or grieve Psalms 90:13; Jeremiah 15:6; then to comfort or console one’s-self Genesis 38:12. then to take vengeance (compare the note at Isaiah 1:24). All the forms of the word, and all the significations, indicate deep emotion, and the obtaining of relief either by repenting, or by taking vengeance, or by administering the proper topics of consolation. Here the topic of consolation is, that their calamities were about to come to an end, in accordance with the unchanging promises of a faithful God Isaiah 40:8, and is thus in accordance with what is said in Hebrews 6:17-18.
My people - The people of God. He regarded those in Babylon as his people; and he designed also to adduce such topics of consolation as would be adapted to comfort all his people in all ages.
Saith your God - The God of those whom he addressed - the God of the prophets or ministers of religion whose office was to comfort the people. We may remark here, that it is an important part of the ministerial office to administer consolation to the people of God in affiction; to exhibit to them his promises; to urge the topics of religion which are adapted to sustain them; and especially to uphold and cheer them with the assurance that their trials will soon come to an end, and will all terminate in complete deliverance from sorrow and calamity in heaven.
Speak ye comfortably - Hebrew, על־לב ‛al-lēb as in the margin, ‘To the heart.’ The heart is the seat of the affections. It is there that sorrow and joy are felt. We are oppressed there with grief, and we speak familiarly of being pained at the heart and of being of a glad or merry heart. To speak ‘to the heart,’ is to speak in such a way as to remove the troubles of the heart; to furnish consolation, and joy. It means that they were not merely to urge such topics as should convince the understanding, but such also as should be adopted to minister consolation to the heart. So the word is used in Genesis 34:3 : ‘And his soul clave unto Dinah - and he loved the damsel, and spake kindly (Hebrew, to the heart) of the damsel;’ Genesis 50:21 : ‘And he comforted them, and spoke kindly unto them’ (Hebrew, to their hearts); see also 2 Chronicles 32:6.
To Jerusalem - The direction is not merely to speak to the people in Babylon, but also to comfort Jerusalem itself lying in ruins. The general direction is, therefore, that the entire series of topics of consolation should be adduced - the people were to return from their bondage, and Jerusalem was to be rebuilt, and the worship of God to be restored.
And cry unto her - In the manner of a crier; or one making public and loud proclamation (compare Isaiah 40:3, Isaiah 40:9). Jerusalem is here personified. She is addressed as in ruins, and as about to be rebuilt, and as capable of consolation from this promise.
That her warfare is accomplished - Septuagint, ‘That her humiliation (ταπείνωσις tapeinōsis) is accomplished.’ The Hebrew word (צבא tsâbâ', ‘warfare’) properly means an army or host (compare the note at Isaiah 1:9), and is usually applied to an army going forth to war, or marshalled for battle 2Sa 8:16; 2 Samuel 10:7. It is then used to denote an appointed time of service; the discharge of a duty similar to an enlistment, and is applied to the services of the Levites in the tabernacle Numbers 4:28 : ‘All that enter in to perform the service (Hebrew, to war the warfare), to do the work in the tabernacle of the congregation.’ Compare Numbers 8:24-25. Hence, it is applied to human life contemplated as a warfare, or enlistment, involving hard service and calamity; an enlistment from which there is to be a discharge by death.
Is there not a set time (Hebrew, a warfare) to man upon earth?
Are not his days as the days of an hireling?
But if a man die - shall he indeed live again?
All the days of my appointed time (Hebrew, my warfare) will I wait,
Till my change come.
Compare Daniel 10:1. The word then means hard service, such as soldiers endure; an appointed time which they are to serve; an enlistment involving hardships, toil, privation, danger, calamity. In this sense it is applied hero to Jerusalem - to the trials, calamities, desolations to which she was subjected for her sins, and which were to endure a definite and fixed time - like the enlistment of an army. That time was now coming to an end, and to be succeeded by a release, or discharge. Vitringa, who supposes that this refers primarily and solely to the times of the Messiah, regards this as meaning that the definite time of the legal economy, a time of toil, and of vexatious and troublesome ceremonies, was about to end by the coming of the Messiah. But the more correct interpretation is, probably, that which supposes that there was a primary reference to the long and painful captivity of the Jews, in Babylon.
That her iniquity - The iniquity or sin here referred to, is that long series of acts of rebellion, corruption, and idolatry, with which the Jewish people had been chargeable, and which had rendered their captivity necessary. As a nation, that sin was now expiated, or removed by their protracted punishment in Babylon. It was a sufficient expression of the divine displeasure at the national offences, and God was satisfied (נרצה nı̂retsâh) with it, and could consistently restore them to their land, and to their former privileges. The whole language here has respect to national, and not to individual offences.
Is pardoned - Vulgate, Dimissa est iniquitas illius. Septuagint, Λέλυται αὐτῆς ἡ ἁμαρτία Lelutai autēs hē hamartia - ‘Her sin is loosed,’ dissolved, remitted. The word ‘pardon’ does not quite express the meaning of the word in the original (נרצה nı̂retsâh). The word רצה râtsâh properly means to delight in any person or thing; to take pleasure in; then to receive graciously or favorably; to delight in sacrifices and offerings Job 33:26; Psalms 51:18; Ezekiel 20:40; and, in the Hiphil conjugation, satisfy, or pay to off, that is, to cause to be satisfied, or pleased; and then in Hophal, to be satisfied, to be paid off, to be pleased or satisfied with an expiation, or with an atonement for sins, so as to delight in the person who makes it. Here it means not strictly to pardon, but it means that they had endured the national punishment which God saw to be necessary; they had served out the long and painful enlistment which he had appointed, and now he was satisfied, and took delight in restoring them to their own land. It does not refer to the pardon of people in consequence of the atonement made by the Lord Jesus; but it may be used as an illustration of that, when God is satisfied with that atonement; and when he has pleasure or delight in setting the soul free from the bondage of sin, and admitting the sinner to his favor - as he had delight here in restoring his people to their own land.
For she hath received - Jerusalem had now been desolate for almost seventy years, on the supposition that this relates to the period near the close of the exile, and that was regarded as an ample or full expression of what she ought to suffer for her national offences.
Of the Lord’s hand - From the hand, or by the agency of Yahweh. Whoever were the instruments, her sufferings were to be regarded as his appointment.
Double for all her sins - The word rendered ‘double’ (כפלים kipelayim) is the dual form from כפל kepel, ‘a doubling,’ and occurs in Job 41:13 :
Who will rip up the covering of his armor?
Against the doubling of his nostrils who will advance?
And in Job 11:6 :
And that he would unfold to them the secrets of wisdom.
That they are double to that which is;
That is, there are double-folds to God’s wisdom, or the wisdom of of God is complicated, inexplicabIe (Gesenius). The word in Job means ‘conduplications, folds, complications, mazes, intricacies’ (Good). Here the word has doubtless its usual and proper meaning, and denotes double, twice as much; and the expression may denote that God had inflicted on them double that which had been usually inflicted on rebellious nations, or on the nation, before for its sins. Or the word may be used to denote abundance, and the prophet may design to teach that they had been amply, or abundantly punished for their crimes. ‘That is,’ says Grotius, ‘as much as God judged to be sufficient.’ ‘Double, here,’ says Calvin, ‘is to be received for large and abundant.’ Some have supposed (see Rosenmuller, who approves of this interpretation) that the word ‘sins here means the punishment of sins, and that the word ‘double’ refers to the mercies or favors which they were about to receive, or which God had purposed to confer on them. So Lowth understands it; and renders the word לקחה lâqechâh ‘shall receive’ (in the future):
That she shall receive at the hand of Yahweh
(Blessings) double to the punishment of all her sins.
But though it was true that their favors on their return, in the hope of the Messiah, and in their renovated privileges, would be far more numerous than their sufferings had been, yet this does not so well suit the connection, where the prophet is giving a reason why they should be released from their bondage, and restored to the privileges of their own land. That reason manifestly is, that they had suffered what was regarded by Yahweh as an ample expression of his displeasure for their national offences. It does not refer to individual sinners; nor to any power which they have to make atonement for their sins; nor does it refer to the atonement made by the Messiah. But it may be remarked, by the way, that in the sufferings of the Redeemer there has been ample satisfaction for the sins of his people. The Chaldee interpreter understands this as Rosenmuller does, that the word ‘double’ refers to, the mercies which they had received: ‘Because she has received a cup of consolation from the presence of the Lord, as if (כאלוּ ke'ilû) she had been smitten twofold for all her sins.’
The voice of him that crieth - Lowth and Noyes render this, ‘A voice crieth,’ and annex the phrase ‘in the wilderness’ to the latter part of the sentence:
A voice crieth, ‘In the wilderness prepare ye the way of Yahweh.’
The Hebrew (קורא קול qôl qôrē') will bear this construction, though the Vulgate and the Septuagint render it as in our common version. The sense is not essentially different, though the parallelism seems to require the translation proposed by Lowth. The design is to state the source of consolation referred to in the previous verses. The time of the exile at Babylon was about to be completed. Yahweh was about to conduct his people again to their own country through the pathless wilderness, as he had formerly conducted them from Egypt to the land of promise. The prophet, therefore, represents himself as hearing the voice of a herald, or a forerunner in the pathless waste, giving direction that a way should be made for the return of the people. The whole scene is represented as a march, or return of Yahweh at the head of his people to the land of Judea. The idea is taken from the practice of Eastern monarchs, who whenever they entered on a journey or an expedition, especially through a barren and unfrequented or inhospitable country, sent harbingers or heralds before them to prepare the way.
To do this, it was necessary for them to provide supplies, and make bridges, or find fording places over the streams; to level hills, and construct causeways over valleys, or fill them up; and to make a way through the forest which might lie in their intended line of march. This was necessary, because these contemplated expeditions often involved the necessity of marching through countries where there were no public highways that would afford facilities for the passage of an army. Thus Arrian (Hist. liv. 30) says of Alexander, ‘He now proceeded to the River Indus, the army’ that is, ἡ στρατιά hē stratia, a part of the army, or an army sufficient for the purpose, ‘going before, which made a way for him, for otherwise there would have been no mode of passing through that region.’ ‘When a great prince in the East,’ says Paxton, ‘sets out on a journey, it is usual to send a party of men before him to clear the way.
The state of those countries in every age, where roads are almost unknown, and, from want of cultivation, in many places overgrown with brambles and other thorny plants, which renders traveling, especially with a large retinue, incommodious, requires this precaution. The Emperor of Hindoostan, in his progress through his dominions, as described in the narrative of Sir Thomas Roe’s embassy to the court of Delhi, was preceded by a very great company, sent before him to cut up the trees and bushes, to level and snmoth the road, and prepare their place of encampment. We shall be able, perhaps, to form a more clear and precise idea from the account which Diodorus gives of the marches of Semiramis, the celebrated Queen of Babylon, into Media and, Persia. “In her march to Ecbatana,” says the historian, “she came to the Zarcean mountain, which, extending many furlongs, and being full of craggy precipices and deep hollows, could not be passed without taking a great compass. Being therefore desirous of leaving an everlasting memorial of herself, as well as of shortening the way, she ordered the precipices to be digged down, and the hollows to be filled up; and at a great expense she made a shorter and more expeditious road; which to this day is called from her the road of Semiramis. Afterward she went into Persia, and all the other countries of Asia subjected to her dominion, and wherever she went, she ordered the mountains and precipices to be leveled, raised causeways in the plain country, and, at a great expense, made the ways passable.”
The writer of the apocryphal Book of Baruch, refers to the same subject by the same images: ‘For God hath appointed that every high hill, and banks of long continuance, should be cast down, and valleys filled up, to make even the ground, that Israel may go safely in the glory of God’ Isaiah 5:7. It is evident that the primary reference of this passage was to the exiles in Babylon, and to their return from their long captivity, to the land of their father. The imagery, the circumstances, the design of the prophecy, all seem to demand such an interpretation. At the same time it is as clear, I apprehend, that the prophet was inspired to use language, of design, which should appropriately express a more important event, the coming of the forerunner of the Messiah, and the work which he should perform as preparatory to his advent. There was such a striking similarity in the two events, that they could be grouped together in the same part of the prophetic vision or picture the mind would naturally, by the laws of prophetic suggestion (Introduction, Section 7, III. (3), glance from one to the other, and the same language would appropriately and accurately express both. Both could be described as the coming of Yahweh to bless and save his people; both occurred after a long state of desolation and bondage - the one a bondage in Babylon, the other in sin and national declension. The pathless desert was literally to be passed through in the one instance; in the other, the condition of the Jews was that which was not unaptly likened to a desert - a condition in regard to real piety not unlike the state of a vast desert in comparison with fruitful fields. ‘It was,’ says Lowth, ‘in this desert country, destitute at that time of all religious cultivation, in true piety and works unfruitful, that John was sent to prepare the way of the Lord by preaching repentance.
That this passage has a reference to John as the forerunner of the Messiah, is evident from Matthew 3:3, where it is applied to him, and introduced by this remark: ‘For this is he that was spoken of by the prophet Esaias, saying, The voice,’ etc. (see also John 1:23) The events were so similar, in their main features, that the same language would describe both. John was nurtured in the desert, and passed his early life there, until he entered on his public work Luke 1:80. He began to preach in a mountainous country, lying east of Jerusalem, and sparsely inhabited, and which was usually spoken of as a desert or wilderness Matthew 3:1; and it was here that his voice was heard announcing the coming of the Messiah, and that he pointed him to his own followers John 1:28-29.
In the wilderness - Babylon was separated from Judea by an immense tract of country, which was one continued desert. A large part of Arabia, called Arabia Deserts, was situated in this region. To pass in a direct line, therefore, from Babylon to Jerusalem, it was necessary to go through this desolate country. It was here that the prophet speaks of hearing a voice commanding the hills to be leveled, and the valleys filled up, that there might be a convenient highway for the people to return (compare the notes at Isaiah 35:8-10).
Prepare ye the way - This was in the form of the usual proclamation of a monarch commanding the people to make a way for him to pass. Applied to the return of the exile Jews, it means that the command of God had gone forth that all obstacles should be removed. Applied to John, it means that the people were to prepare for the reception of the Messiah; that they were to remove all in their opinions and conduct which would tend to hinder his cordial reception, or which would prevent his success among them.
Of the Lord - Of Yahweh. Yahweh was the leader of his people, and was about to conduct them to their own land. The march therefore, was regarded as that of Yahweh, as a monarch or king, at the head of his people, conducting them to their own country; and to prepare the way of Yahweh was, therefore, to prepare for his march at the head of his people. Applied to the Messiah, it means that God was about to come to his people to redeem them. This language naturally and obviously implies, that he whose way was thus to be prepared was Yahweh, the true God. So it was undoubtedly in regard to him who was to be the leader of the exile Jews to their own land, since none but Yahweh could thus conduct them. And if it be admitted that the language has also a reference to the Messiah, then it demonstrates that he was appropriately called Yahweh. That John the Immerser had such a view of him, is apparent from what is said of him.
Thus, John 1:15, he says of him that, ‘he was before’ him which was not true unless he had an existence previous to his birth; he calls him, John 1:18, ‘the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father;’ and in John 1:34, he calls him ‘the Son of God’ (compare John 10:30, John 10:33, John 10:36). In John 3:31, he says of him, ‘he that cometh from above is above all; he that cometh from heaven is above all.’ Though this is not one of the most direct and certain proof texts of the divinity of the Messiah, yet it is one which may be applied to him when that divinity is demonstrated from other places. It is not one that can be used with absolute certainty in an argument on the subject, to convince those who deny that divinity - since, even on the supposition that it refers to the Messiah, it may be said plausibly, and with some force, that it may mean that Yahweh was about to manifest himself by means of the Messiah; yet it is a passage which those who are convinced of the divinity of Christ from other source, will apply without hesitation to him as descriptive of his rank, and confirmatory of his divinity.
Make straight - Make a straight or direct road; one that should conduct at once to their land. The Chaldee renders this verse, ‘Prepare a way before the people of Yahweh; make in the plain ways before the congregation of our God.’
A highway - (See the note at Isaiah 35:8).
Every valley shall be exalted - That is, every valley, or low piece of ground, shall be filled up so as to make a level highway, as was done in order to facilitate the march of armies. This verse is evidently designed to explain what is intended in Isaiah 40:3, by preparing the way for Yahweh. Applied to the return of the Jews from Babylon, it means simply that the impassable valleys were to be filled up so as to make a level road for their journey. If applied to the work of John, the forerunner of the Messiah, it means that the nation was to be called on to put itself in a state of preparation for his coming, and for the success of his labors among them. Vitringa, and others, have endeavored to specify what particular moral qualities in the nation are meant by the ‘valley,’ by the ‘mountain and hill,’ and by the ‘crooked’ and ‘rough places.’ But the illustrations are such as cannot be demonstrated to be referred to by the prophet. The general sense is plain. The language, as we have seen, is taken from the march of a monarch at the head of his army. The general idea is, that all obstructions were to be removed, so that the march would be without embarrassment. As applicable to the work of John also, the language means in general, that whatever there was in the opinions, habits, conduct, in the pride, self-confidence, and irreligion of the nation that would prevent his cordial reception, was to be removed.
Every mountain and hill - They shall be dug down so as to make the journey easy. All obstructions were to be removed.
And the crooked - The word used here, (עקב ‛âqob) is usually rendered ‘crooked;’ but perhaps not by any good authority. The verb עקב ‛âqab usually denotes to be behind; to come from behind; or, as Gesenius supposes, to be elevated like a mound, arched like a hill or tumulus, and is hence applied to the heel from the figure (see Genesis 25:26; Hosea 12:4). According to this, the word would denote properly a hill, mound, or acclivity, which would put back those who attempted to ascend.
Shall be made straight - Margin, ‘A straight place.’ The Hebrew word (מישׁור mı̂yshôr) denotes properly “evenness,” a level region, a plain. The hilly places would be reduced to a level.
And the rough places - Those which are hard, bound up, stony, difficult to pass. Such as abounded with rocks and precipices, and which presented obstructions to a journey. Such places abounded in the region lying between Palestine and Babylon.
Plain - Margin, ‘A plain place.’ A smooth, level plain.
And the glory of the Lord - The phrase here means evidently the majesty, power, or honor of Yahweh. He would display his power, and show himself to be a covenant-keeping God, by delivering his people from their bondage, and reconducting them to their own land. This glory and faithfulness would be shown in his delivering them from their captivity in Babylon; and it would be still more illustriously shown in his sending the Messiah to accomplish the deliverance of his people in later days.
And all flesh - All human beings. The word ‘flesh’ is often used to denote human nature, or mankind in general Genesis 6:12; Psalms 65:3; Psalms 145:21. The idea is, that the deliverance of his people would be such a display of the divine interposition, so that all nations would discern the evidences of his power and glory. But there is a fullness and a richness in the language which allows that it is not to be confined to that event. It is more strikingly applicable to the advent of the Messiah - and to the fact that through him the glory of Yahweh would be manifest to all nations. Rosenmuller supposes that this should be translated,
And all flesh shall see together
That the mouth of Yahweh hath spoken it.
The Hebrew will bear this construction, but there is no necessity for departing from the translation in the common version. The Septuagint adds here the words ‘salvation of God’ so as to read it, ‘and all flesh shall see the salvation of God,’ and this reading has been adopted in Luke 3:6; or it may be more probable that Luke Luke 3:4-6 has quoted from different parts of Isaiah, and that he intended to quote that part, not from the version of the Septuagint, but from Isaiah 52:10. Lowth, on the authority of the Septuagint, proposes to restore these words to the Hebrew text. But the authority is insufficient. The Vulgate, the Chaldee, the Syriac, and the Hebrew manuscripts concur in the reading of the present Hebrew text, and the authority of the Septuagint is altogether insufficient to justify a change.
For the mouth of the Lord - The strongest possible confirmation that it would be fulfilled (see the note at Isaiah 34:16). The idea is, that God had certainly promised their deliverance from bondage; and that his interposition, in a manner which should attract the attention of all nations, was certainly purposed by him. Few events have ever more impressively manifested the glory of God than the redemption of his people from Babylon; none has occurred, or will ever occur, that will more impressively demonstrate his glory, wisdom, and faithfulness, than the redemption of the world by the Messiah.
The voice said - Or rather ‘a voice.’ Isaiah represents himself here again as hearing a voice. The word ‘the’ introduced in our translation, mars the sense, inasmuch as it leads to the supposition that it was the voice of the same person or crier referred to in Isaiah 40:3. But it is different. That was the voice of a crier or herald, proclaiming that a way was to be open in the desert. This is introduced for a different purpose. It is to proclaim distinctly that while everything else was fading and transitory, the promise of God was firm and secure. Isaiah therefore, represents himself as hearing a voice requiring the prophets (so the Chaldee) to make a proclamation. An inquiry was at once made, What should be the nature of the proclamation? The answer was, that all flesh was grass, etc. He had Isaiah 40:3-5 introduced a herald announcing that the way was to be prepared for their return. He now introduces another voice with a distinct message to the people, that God was faithful, and that his promises would not fail. A voice, a command is heard, requiring those whose duty it was, to make proclamation. The voice of God; the Spirit speaking to the prophets, commanded them to cry.
And he said - Lowth and Noyes read this, ‘And I said.’ The Septuagint and the Vulgate read it also in this manner, in the first person. Two manuscripts examined by Kennicott also read it in the first person. Houbigant, Hensler, and Doderlin adopt this reading. But the authority is not sufficient to justify a change in the Hebrew text. The Syriac and Chaldee read it as it is in the present Hebrew text, in the third person. The sense is, that the person, or prophet to whom the command came to make proclamation, made answer, ‘What shall be the nature of my proclamation?’ It is equivalent to saying, ‘It was answered;’ or if Isaiah is the person to whom the voice is represented as coming, it means that he answered; and is, therefore, equivalent to the reading in the Septuagint and Vulgate, and adopted by Lowth. This is the probable supposition, that Isaiah represents himself as hearing the voice, and as expressing a willingness to make proclamation, but as waiting to know what he was to proclaim.
All flesh - This is the answer; or this is what he was to proclaim. The general design or scope of the answer was, that he was to proclaim that the promise of Yahweh was secure and firm Isaiah 40:8, and that therefore God would certainly come to deliver them. To make this more impressive by way of contrast, he states that all people are weak and feeble like the grass that is soon withered. The expression does not refer particularly to the Jews in Babylon, or to any single nation or class of people, but to all people, in all places, and at all times. All princes, nobles, and monarchs; all armies and magistrates are like grass, and will soon pass away. On the one hand, they would be unable to accomplish what was needful to be done in the deliverance of the people; and on the other, their oppressors had no power to continue their bondage, since they were like grass, and must soon pass away. But Yahweh was ever-enduring, and was able to fulfill all his purposes.
Is grass - It is as feeble, weak, and as easily consumed as the grass of the field. A similar sentiment is found in Psalms 103:15-16 :
As for man, his days are as grass;
As a flower of the field so he flourisheth;
For the wind passeth over it, and it is gone,
And the place thereof shall know it no more.
See also James 1:10-11. The passage in Isaiah is evidently quoted by Peter, 1 Peter 1:24-25 : ‘All flesh is as grass, and all the glory of man as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower thereof falleth away: but the word of the Lord endureth forever; and this is the word which by the gospel is preached unto you’ - a passage which proves that Isaiah had reference to the times of the Messiah in the place before us.
And all the goodliness thereof - The word rendered ‘goodliness’ (חסד chesed) denotes properly, kindness, love, goodwill, mercy, favor. Here it is evidently used in the sense of elegance, comeliness, beauty. The Septuagint renders it: δόξα doxa, and so does Peter 1 Peter 1:24. Applied to grass, or to herbs, it denotes the flower, the beauty, the comeliness. Applied to man, it means that which makes him comely and vigorous - health, energy, beauty, talent, wisdom. His vigor is soon gone; his beauty fades; his wisdom ceases; and he falls, like the flower, to the dust. The idea is, that the plans of man must be temporary; that all that appears great in him must be like the flower of the field; but that Yahweh endures, and his plans reach from age to age, and will certainly be accomplished. This important truth was to be proclaimed, that the people might be induced not to trust in man, but put their confidence in the arm of God.
The grass withereth - Soon withers. Its beauty is soon gone.
The flower fadeth - Soon fades; or fades when the wind of Yahweh passes over it. So is also with man. He loses his vigor, and dies at once when Yahweh takes away his strength and beauty.
Because the spirit of the Lord bloweth upon it - This should be rendered, undoubtedly, ‘When the wind of Yahweh bloweth upon it.’ The word ‘spirit’ here does not suit the connection, and does not express the idea of the prophet. The word רוח rûach means, properly, “breath” - a breathing, or blowing; and is often used indeed to denote spirit, soul, life. But it often means a breath of wind; a breeze; air in motion Job 41:8; Jeremiah 2:24; Jeremiah 14:6. It is applied to the cool breeze which springs up in the evening (Genesis 3:8; compare Song of Solomon 2:17; Song of Solomon 4:6). It sometimes means a strong and violent wind Genesis 8:1; Isaiah 7:2; Isaiah 41:16; and also a tempest, or hurricane Job 1:19; Job 30:15; Isaiah 27:8. The ‘wind of Yahweh’ means that which Yahweh sends, or causes; and the expression here refers, doubtless, to the hot or poisonous east winds which blow in Oriental countries, and which wither and dry up everything before them (compare Jonah 4:8).
Surely the people is grass - Lowth reads this, ‘this people;’ referring to the Jewish nation. So the Syriac. Perhaps it refers to the people of Babylon (so Rosenmuller), and means that mighty people would fade away like grass. But the more probable interpretation is that which regards it as referring to all people, and of course including the Jews and the Babylonians. The sense, according to this view, is, ‘all nations shall fade away. All human power shall cease. But the promise of Yahweh shall survive. It shall be unchanging amidst all revolutions; it shall survive all the fluctuations which shall take place among people. It may, therefore, be trusted with unwavering reliance.’ To produce that reliance was the object of the proclamation. On this passage, descriptive of the state of man, the reader will at once be reminded of the beautiful language of Shakespeare:
This is the state of man! Today he puts forth
The tender leaves of hope: to-morrow blossoms,
And bears his blushing honors thick upon him;
The third day comes a frost, a killing frost,
And when he thinks, good easy man, full surely
His greatness is a-ripening, nips his root,
And then he falls -
- Never to hope again.
Hen. VIII, Act. ii. Sc. 2.
In the following passage from Tasso, the same image is adopted:
The gentle budding rose (quoth he) behold,
That first scant peeping forth with virgin beams,
Half ope, half shut, her beauties doth up-fold
In their dear leaves, and less seen fairer seems,
And after spreads them forth more broad and bold,
Then languishes and dies in last extremes.
So in the passing of a day doth pass
The bud and blossom of the life of man,
Nor e’er doth flourish more, but, like the grass
Cut down, becometh withered, pale, and wan.
Fairfax, Edit. Windsor, 1817.
The grass withereth ... - This is repeated from the former verse for the sake of emphasis, or strong confirmation.
But the word of our God - The phrase ‘word of our God,’ refers either to his promise to be the protector and deliverer of his people in their captivity, or, in general, means that all his promises shall be firm and unchanging.
Shall stand for ever - Amidst all revolutions among men, his promise shall be firm. It shall not only live amidst the changes of dynasties, and the revolutions of empires, but it shall continue forever and ever. This is designed for support to an afflicted and oppressed people; and it must have been to them, in their bondage, the source of high consolation. But it is equally so now. Amidst all the changes on earth; the revolutions of empires; the vanishing of kingdoms, God is the same, and his promises are unfailing. We see the grass wither at the return of autumn, or in the drought: we see the flower of the field lose its beauty, and decay; we see man rejoicing in his vigor and his health, cut down in an instant; we see cities fall, and kingdoms lose their power and vanish from among nations, but God changes not. He presides in all these revolutions, and sits calm and unmoved amidst all these changes. Not one of his promises shall fail; and at the end of all the changes which human things shall undergo, Yahweh, the God of his people, will be the same.
O Zion, that bringest good tidings - This is evidently the continuance of what the ‘voice’ said, or of the annunciation which was to give joy to an afflicted and oppressed people. There has been, however, much diversity of opinion in regard to the meaning of the passage. The margin renders it, ‘Thou that tellest good tidings to Zion,’ making Zion the receiver, and not the publisher of the message that was to convey joy. The Vulgate, in a similar way, renders it, ‘Ascend a high mountain, thou who bringest good tidings to Zion’ (qui evangelizas Zion). So the Chaldee, understanding this as an address to the prophet, as in Isaiah 40:1, ‘Ascend a high mountain, ye prophets, who bring glad tidings to Zion.’ So Lowth, Noyes, Gesenius. Grotius, and others. The word מבשׂרת mebas'eret, from בשׂר bâs'ar, means cheering with good tidings; announcing good news; bearing joyful intelligence.
It is a participle in the feminine gender; and is appropriately applicable to some one that bears good tidings to Zion, and not to Zion as appointed to bear glad titlings. Lowth supposes that it is applicable to some female whose office it was to announce glad tidings, and says that it was the common practice for females to engage in the office of proclaiming good news. On an occasion of a public victory or rejoicing, it was customary, says he, for females to assemble together, and to celebrate it with songs, and dances, and rejoicings; and he appeals to the instance of Miriam and the chorus of women Exodus 15:20-21, and to the instance where, after the victory of David over Goliath, ‘all the women came out of the cities of Israel singing and dancing to meet Saul’ 1 Samuel 18:7. But there are objections to this interpretation; first, if this was the sense, the word would bare been in the plural number, since there is no instance in which a female is employed alone in this service; and, secondly, it was not, according to this, the office of the female to announce good tidings, or to communicate a joyful message, but to celebrate some occasion of triumph or victory.
Grotius supposes that the word is ‘feminine in its sound, but common in its signification;’ and thus denotes any whose office it was to communicate glad tidings. Gesenius (Commentary in loc.) says, that the feminine form here is used in a collective sense for מבשׂרים mebas'eriym in the plural; and supposes that it thus refers to the prophets, or others who were to announce the glad tidings to Zion. Vitringa coincides with our translation, and supposes that the sense is, that Zion was to make proclamation to the other cities of Judah of the deliverance; that the news was first to be communicated to Jerusalem, and that Jerusalem was entrusted with the office of announcing this to the other cities of the land; and that the meaning is, that the gospel was to be preached first at Jerusalem, and then from Jerusalem as a center to the ether cities of the land, agreeably to Luke 24:49. In this view, also, Hengstenberg coincides (Christol. vol. i. p. 424). But that the former interpretation, which regards Zion as the receiver, and not the promulgator, of the intelligence, is the true one, is apparent, I think, from the following considerations:
1. It is that which is the obvious and most correct construction of the Hebrew.
2. It is that which is found in the ancient versions.
3. It accords with the design of the passage.
The main scope of the passage is not to call upon Jerusalem to make known the glad tidings, but it is to convey the good news to Jerusalem; to announce to her, lying desolate and waste, that her hard service was at an end, and that she was to be blessed with the return of happier and better times (see Isaiah 40:2). It would be a departure from this, to suppose that the subject was diverted in order to give Jerusalem a command to make the proclamation to the other cities of the land to say nothing of the impropriety of calling on a city to go up into a high mountain, and to lift up its voice. On the meaning of the word ‘Zion,’ see the note at Isaiah 1:8.
Get thee up into a high mountain - You who make this proclamation to Zion. It was not uncommon in ancient times, when a multitude were to be addressed, or a proclamation to be made, for the crier to go into a mountain, where he could be seen and heard. Thus Jotham, addressing the men of Shechem, is said to have gone and ‘stood on the top of mount Gerizim, and lifted up his voice’ (Judges 9:7; compare Matthew 5:1). The sense is, that the messengers of the joyful news to Zion were to make themselves distinctly heard by all the inhabitants of the city, and of the land.
Lift up thy voice - As with a glad and important message. Do not deliver the message as if you were afraid that it should be heard. It is one of joy; and it should be delivered in a clear, decided, animated manner, as if it were important that it should be heard.
With strength - Aloud; with effort; with power (compare Isaiah 35:3-4).
Lift it up - Lift up the voice. The command is repeated, to denote emphasis. The mind is full of the subject, and the prophet repeats the command, as a man often does when his mind is full of an idea. The command to deliver the message of God with animation, earnestness, and zeal is one that is not unusual in Isaiah. It should be delivered as if it were true, and as if it were believed to be true. This will not justify, however, boisterous preaching, or a loud and unnatural tone of voice - alike offensive to good taste, injurious to the health, and destructive of the life of the preacher. It is to be remarked, also, that this command to lift up the voice, pertains to the glad tidings of the gospel, and not to the terrors of wrath; to the proclamation of mercy, and not to the denunciation of woe. The glad tidings of salvation should be delivered in an animated and ardent manner; the future punishment of the wicked in a tone serious, solemn, subdued.
Say unto the cities of Judah - Not to Jerusalem only, but to all the cities of the land. They were alike to be blessed on the return from the captivity - Mike in the preaching of the gospel.
Behold your God! - Lo! your God returns to the city, the temple, and the land! Lo! he comes (note, Isaiah 40:3), conducting his people as a king to their land! Lo! he will come - under the Messiah in future times - to redeem and save! What a glad announcement was this to the desolate and forsaken cities of Judah! What a glad announcement to the wide world, ‘Lo! God has come to redeem and save; and the desolate world shall be visited with his salvation and smile, in his mercy through the Messiah!’
Behold, the Lord God will come - (See the note at Isaiah 40:3) Applied to the condition of the Jews in exile, this means that God would come to deliver them. Applied to the times of the Messiah, it means that God would manifest himself in a powerful manner as mighty to save.
With strong hand - (בחזק bechâzâq). Margin, ‘Against the strong.’ So Vitringa and others understand it; and regard it as referring to the mighty enemies of the people of God, or, as Vitringa particularly supposes, to the great foe of God and his people - the prince of darkness - the devil. Lowth also translates it in this manner, ‘Against the strong one.’ The Septuagint renders it, Μετά ἰσχύος Meta ischuos - ‘With strength.’ This is the more probable meaning - that the Lord would come with the manifestation of strength and power, able to subdue and vanquish all the enemies of his people, and to effect their complete and final salvation.
And his arm - The arm is a symbol of strength, because it is by that that we accomplish our purposes; by that a conqueror slays his enemies in battle, etc. Thus, ‘Break thou the arm of the wicked;’ that is, diminish or destroy his power Psalms 10:15. ‘I have broken the arm of Pharaoh king of Egypt’ (Ezekiel 30:21; compare Jeremiah 48:25). Thus it is said of God, ‘Thou hast a mighty arm’ Psalms 89:13, and, ‘His holy arm hath gotten him the victory’ (Psalms 98:1; compare Exodus 6:6). The metaphor is taken from the act of stretching out the arm to fight in battle, where the arm is the effective instrument in subduing an enemy.
Shall rule for him - Lowth renders the phrase, לו lō, ‘for him,’ ‘over him:’ - ‘And his arm shall prevail over him;’ that is, over the strong and mighty foe. The Septuagint renders it, Μετά κυρίας Meta kurias - ‘With dominion.’ But the meaning seems to be, ‘God is mighty by himself; his power resides in his own arm; he is not dependent on others; he will accomplish the deliverance in such a manner that it shall be seen that he did it alone; and he shall rule for himself, without any aid, and so that it shall be manifest that he is the sovereign.’ In the deliverance of his people from their captivity, he so directed it, that it was manifest that he was their deliverer and sovereign; and in the redemption of man, the same thing is apparent, that the arm of God effects the deliverance, and that it is his own power that establishes the dominion.
Behold, his reward is with him - He will be ready to confer the appropriate reward on his own people. The idea seems to be taken from the custom of a conqueror, who distributes rewards among his followers and soldiers after a signal victory. This was always done in ancient wars, apparently because it seemed to be an act of justice that those who had gained the victory should share also in the result, and this participation of the booty was a stimulus to future effort, as well as a compensation for their valor. The rewards distributed consisted generally of that which was taken from the conquered; gold, and silver, and raiment, as well as captives or slaves (see Genesis 49:7; Exo 15:9; 1 Samuel 30:26; and particularly Judges 5:30):
Have they not sped?
Have they not divided the prey;
To every man a damsel or two’;
To Sisera a prey of divers colors,
A prey of divers colors of needle-work,
Of divers colors of needle-work on both sides,
Meet for the necks of them that take the spoil.
The idea here is -
1. That Yahweh would bestow appropriate rewards on his people.
2. That they would be conferred on his coming, and not be delayed.
3. That it should be done by the hand of God himself.
This language was applicable to the interposition of God to save his people from their long exile, and the ‘reward’ would be ample in the restoration to their own land, and the re-establishment of his worship. It is applicable in a higher sense to the coming of the Messiah to bless the world. His reward was with him. He blessed his faithful followers on earth; he will bless them more abundantly in heaven. It will be assuredly applicable to him when he shall come to gather his people to himself in the great and last day, and the language before us is used with reference to that: ‘And behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to give every man according as his work shall be’ Revelation 22:12.
And his work - Margin, ‘Recompense for his work.’ The margin here is the correct rendering. The Hebrew word strictly indeed denotes work, labor, business; but it also denotes the wages for work Leviticus 19:13; Psalms 109:20.
He shall feed his flock - In the previous verse, the fact had been asserted that God would come to subdue his foes, and to reward his people. In this verse, the mild and gentle character of his government over his people is predicted. It would not be that of a conqueror over vanquished subjects; but it would be mild and tender, like that of a shepherd who carries the lambs, which are unable to walk, in his own arms, and gently leads along the feeble and the delicate. The verb translated “to feed’ (ירעה yire‛eh), denotes more than our word feed at present. It refers to all the care of a shepherd over his flock; and means to tend, to guard, to govern, to provide pasture, to defend from danger, as a shepherd does his flock. It is often applied in the Scriptures to God represented as the tender shepherd, and especially to the Redeemer Psalms 23:1; Ezekiel 34:23; John 10:14; Hebrews 13:20; 1Pe 2:25; 1 Peter 5:4. It is often applied to a leader or a ruler of a people 2 Samuel 5:2; 2 Samuel 7:7; Jeremiah 32:2. Thus Homer often uses the phrase, ποιμήν λαῶν poimēn laōn - ‘shepherds of the people,’ to denote a ruler, or monarch. Here it denotes that God would evince toward his people the same tender care, guardianship and protection, which a shepherd shows for his flock.
He shall gather the lambs with his arm - This is a most beautiful expression, denoting the care of God the Saviour for the feeblest and weakest of his people, and for the young and feeble in years and piety. A similar thing is often done by a shepherd. The tender lamb, unable to keep up with the flock, becomes weary and exhausted; and the shepherd naturally takes it in his arms and carries it. Such a shepherd as this Virgil beautifully describes:
En, ipse capellas
Protenus aeger argo; hancetiam vix, Tityre, duco;
Hic inter densas corylos modo namque gemellos,
Spem gregis, Ah! silice in nuda connixa reliquet.
Eclog. i. 12.
Lo! I my goats urge fainting o’er the mead;
This, feebler than the rest, with pains I lead.
Yean’d mid yon herds upon the flinty plain,
Her dying twins, my flock’s late hope, remain.
And shall gently lead ... - Margin, ‘Give suck.’ This is the more correct translation. It denotes the dams of the flock that would be easily exhausted by being overdriven, and of which there was, therefore, special care necessary. Thus Jacob says to his brother Esau, Genesis 33:13 : ‘The flocks and the herds giving suck to their young are with me, and if they should be overdriven all the flock will die.’ Of the necessity of such care and attention there is abundant evidence, and indeed it is manifest at a glance. Dr. Shaw, speaking of the exposure of the flocks in Syria, says: ‘The greatest skill and vigilance, and even tender care, are required in the management of such immense flocks as wander on the Syrian plains. Their prodigious numbers compel the keepers to remove them too frequently in search of fresh pastures, which proves very destructive to the young that have not strength to follow.’ The following extract from Anderson’s Tour through Greece will also serve to illustrate this passage: ‘One of the great delights in traveling through a pastoral country, is to see and feel the force of the beautiful imagery in the Scriptures, borrowed from pastoral life.
All day long the shepherd attends his flock, leading them into “green pastures,” near fountains of water, and chooses a convenient place for them to “rest at noon.” At night he drives them near his tent; and, if there is danger, encloses them in the fold. They know his voice, and follow him. When traveling, he tenderly watches over them, and carries such as are exhausted in his arms. Such a shepherd is the Lord Jesus Christ.’ No description could more beautifully describe the character of the Redeemer. In the New Testament, he is often described as a kind and tender shepherd, and regarding the welfare of all his flock, and as ready to give his life for them John 10:7, John 10:9-11, John 10:14-15; Hebrews 13:20; 1Pe 2:25; 1 Peter 5:4. We are here also strikingly reminded of the solemn command which he gave to Peter, evincing his tender regard for his flock, ‘Feed my lambs:’ ‘Feed my sheep’ John 16:15-17. It proves in regard to the Redeemer:
1. That his nature is mild, and gentle, and tender.
2. That he has a kind regard for all his flock, and will consult the real interest of all, as a shepherd does of his flock.
3. That he has a special solicitude for the feeble and infirm, and that they will be the objects of his tender care.
4. That he feels a particular solicitude for the young. He knows their feebleness; he is acquainted with their temptations; he sees the importance of their being trained up with care; and he looks with deep interest, therefore, on all the efforts made to guard them from the ways of sin, and to train them up for his service (compare the note at Isaiah 42:3).
Who hath measured - The object in this and the following verses to Isaiah 40:26, is to show the greatness, power, and majesty of God, by strong contrast with his creatures, and more especially with idols. Perhaps the prophet designed to meet and answer an implied objection: that the work of deliverance was so great that it could not be accomplished. The answer was, that God had made all things; that he was infinitely great; that he had entire control over all the nations; and that he could, therefore, remove all obstacles out of the way, and accomplish his great and gracious purposes. By man it could not be done; nor had idol-gods any power to do it; but the Creator and upholder of all could effect this purpose with infinite case. At the same time that the argument here is one that is entirely conclusive, the passage, regarded as a description of the power and majesty of God, is one of vast sublimity and grandeur; nor is there any portion of the Sacred Volume that is more suited to impress the mind with a sense of the majesty and glory of Yahweh. The question, ‘who hath measured,’ is designed to imply that the thing referred to here was that which had never been done, and could never be done by man; and the argument is, that although that which the prophet predicted was a work which surpassed human power, yet it could be done by that God who had measured the waters in the hollow of his hand. The word ‘waters’ here refers evidently to the vast collection of waters in the deep - the mighty ocean, together with all the waters in the running streams, and in the clouds. See Genesis 1:6, where the firmament is said to have been made to divide the waters from the waters. A reference to the waters above the heavens occurs in Psalms 148:4 :
Praise him, ye heavens of heavens,
And ye waters that be above the heavens.
And in Proverbs 30:4, a Similar description of the power and majesty of God occurs:
Who hath gathered the wind in his fists?
Who hath bound the waters in a garment?
Who hath established all the ends of the earth?
And in Job 26:8 :
He bindeth up the waters in his thick clouds;
And the cloud is not rent under them.
The word ‘waters’ here, therefore, may include all the water on the earth, and in the sky. The words, ‘the hollow of his hand,’ mean properly the hand as it is closed, forming a hollow or a cavity by which water can be taken up. The idea is, that God can take up the vast oceans, and all the waters in the lakes, streams, and clouds, in the palm of his hand, as we take up the smallest quantity in ours.
And meted out heaven - The word rendered ‘meted,’ that is, measured (כון kûn), means properly to stand erect, to set up, or make erect; to found, fit, adjust, dispose, form, create. It usually has the idea of fitting or disposing. The word ‘span’ (זרת zeret) denotes the space from the end of the thumb to the end of the middle finger, when extended - usually about nine inches. The idea is, that Yahweh was able to compass or grasp the heavens, though so vast, as one can compass or measure a small object with the span. What an illustration of the vastness and illimitable nature of God!
And comprehended - And measured (כל kôl from כוּל kûl, to hold or contain); ‘Lo, the heavens, and the heaven of heavens cannot contain thee’ 1 Kings 8:27.
The dust of the earth - All the earth; all the dust that composes the globe.
In a measure - (בשׁלשׁ bâshâlı̂sh) Properly three; and then the third part of anything. Jerome supposes that it means the three fngers, and that the sense is, that God takes up all the dust of the earth in the first three fingers of the hand. But the more probable signification is, that the word denotes that which was the third part of some other measure, as of an ephah, or bath. In Psalms 80:5, the word is used to denote a large measure:
Thou feedest them with the bread of tears,
And givest them tears to drink in great measure ( שׁלישׁ shâlı̂ysh).
The idea is, that God is so great that he can measure all the dust of the earth as easily as we can measure a small quantity of grain with a measure.
And weighed the mountains in scales - The idea here is substantially the same. It is, that God is so mighty that he can weigh the lofty mountains, as we weigh a light object in scales, or in a balance; and perhaps, also, that he has disposed them on the earth as if he had weighed them out, and adapted them to their proper places and situations Throughout this entire passage, there is not only the idea of majesty and power in God, but there is also the idea that he has suited or adjusted everything by his wisdom and power, and adapted it to the condition and needs of his creatures.
Who hath directed - This passage is quoted by Paul in Romans 11:34, and referred to by him in 1 Corinthians 2:16. The word rendered ‘directed’ here (תכן tikēn) is the same which is used in the previous verse, ‘and meted out heaven.’ The idea here is, ‘Who has fitted, or disposed the mind or spirit of Yahweh? What superior being has ordered, instructed, or disposed his understanding? Who has qualified him for the exercise of his wisdom, or for the formation and execution of his plans?’ The sense is, God is supreme. No one has instructed or guided him, but his plans are his own, and have all been formed by himself alone. And as those plans are infinitely wise, and as he is not dependent on anyone for their formation or execution, his people may have confidence in him, and believe that he will be able to execute his purposes.
The Spirit - The word ‘spirit’ is used in the Bible in a greater variety of senses than almost any other word (see the note at Isaiah 40:7). It seems here to be used in the sense of mind, and to refer to God himself. There is no evidence that it refers to the Holy Spirit particularly. ‘The word spirit, he uses,’ says Calvin, ‘for reason, judgment. He borrows the similitude from the nature of mankind, in order that he may more accommodate himself to them; nor, as it seems to me, does he here speak of the essential Spirit of God’ (Commentary in loc). The design of the prophet is not to refer to the distinction in the divine nature, or to illustrate the special characteristics of the different persons of the Godhead; but it is to set forth the wisdom of Yahweh himself, the one infinite God, as contradistinguished from idols, and as qualified to guide, govern, and deliver his people. The passage should not be used, therefore, as a proof-text in regard to the existence and wisdom of the Holy Spirit, but is suited to demonstrate only that God is untaught; and that he is independent and infinite in his wisdom.
Or being his counselor - Margin, as in Hebrew, ‘Man of his counsel.’ He is not dependent for counsel on men or angels. He is supreme, independent, and infinite. None is qualified to instruct him; and all, therefore, should confide in his wisdom and knowledge.
With whom took he counsel - The sentiment of the former verse is repeated here, in order, probably, to make it more emphatic.
In the path of judgment - The way of judging correctly and wisely; or the way of administering justice. It denotes here his boundless wisdom as it is seen in the various arrangements of his creation and providence, by which all things keep their places, and accomplish his vast designs.
Behold, the nations - All the nations of the earth. This is designed to show the greatness of God, in comparison with that which strikes man as great - a mighty nation; and the main object seems to be, to show that God could accomplish his purposes without their aid, and that they could not resist him in the execution of his plans. If they were as nothing in comparison with him, how easily could he execute his purposes! If they were as nothing, how little could they resist the execution of his plans!
Are as a drop of a bucket - In comparison with him; or are so esteemed by him. The drop that falls from the bucket in drawing water is a trifle. It has no power, and compared with the waters of the ocean it is as nothing. So small is the power of the nations in comparison with God. “And are counted.” Are thought of, regarded, esteemed by him, or in comparison with him.
As the small dust of the balance - The small, fine dust which collects on the best finished and most accurate balance or scales, and which has no effect in making the scales uneven, or making either side preponderate. Nothing can be a more striking representation of the fact that the nations are regarded as nothing in comparison with God.
Behold, he taketh up the isles - Or he is able to do it; he could remove the isles as the fine dust is driven before the whirlwind. A more literal translation of this passage would be, ‘Lo, the isles are as the dust which is taken up,’ or which one takes up; that is, which is taken up, and carried away by the wind. There is something unusual in the expression that God takes up the isles, and the idea is rather that the isles in his sight are regarded as the fine dust which the wind sweeps away. So the Chaldee renders it, ‘Lo, the isles are like ashes which the wind drives away.’ The word ‘isles,’ Vitringa and Jerome regard as denoting not the small portions of land in the sea that are surrounded by water, but lands which are encompassed and enclosed Mesopotamia. But there is no reason why it should not be taken here in its usual signification, as denoting the islands of the sea. They would serve well to be used in connection with mountains and hills in setting forth the vast power of God.
As a very little thing - (כדק keddaq). The word דק daq means theft which is beaten small, or fine; and then fine dust, chaff, or any light thing which the wind easily sweeps away.
And Lebanon - The expression here refers to the trees or the cedars of Lebanon. Thus it is rendered by the Chaldee: ‘And the trees of Lebanon.’ For a description of Lebanon, see the note at Isaiah 10:34. It is probable that the word Lebanon here is not used in the limited sense in which it is sometimes employed, to denote a single mountain, or a single range of mountains, but includes the entire ranges lying north of Palestine, and which were comprehended under the general name of Libanus. The idea here is, that all these ranges of mountains, abounding in magnificent trees and forests, would not furnish fuel sufficient to burn the sacrifices which would be an appropriate offering to the majesty and glory of God.
To burn - To burn for the purpose of consuming the sacrifice.
Nor the beasts thereof for a burnt-offering - As the mountains of Lebanon were extensive forests, they would abound with wild animals. The idea is, that all those animals, if offered in sacrifice, would not be an appropriate expression of what was due to God. It may be remarked here, if all the vast forests of Lebanon on fire, and all its animals consumed as an offering to God, were not sufficient to show forth his glory, how little can our praises express the proper sense of his majesty and honor! How profound should be our reverence for God! With what awful veneration should we come before him! The image employed here by Isaiah is one of great poetic beauty; and nothing, perhaps, could give a deeper impression of the majesty and honor of the great Yahweh.
Are as nothing - This expresses literally what had been expressed by the beautiful and striking imagery above.
Less than nothing - A strong hyperbolic expression denoting the utter insignificance of the nations as compared with God. Such expressions are common in the Scriptures.
And vanity - Hebrew, תהו tôhû - ‘Emptiness;’ the word which in Genesis 1:2 is rendered ‘without form.’
To whom then will ye liken God? - Since he is so great, what can resemble him? What form can be made like him? The main idea here intended to be conveyed by the prophet evidently is, that God is great and glorious, and worthy of the confidence of his people. This idea he illustrates by a reference to the attempts which had been made to make a representation of him, and by showing how vain those efforts were. He therefore states the mode in which the images of idols were usually formed, and shows how absurd it was to suppose that they could be any real representation of the true God. It is possible that this was composed in the time of Manasseh, when idolatry prevailed to a great extent in Judah, and that the prophet intended in this manner incidentally to show the folly and absurdity of it.
The workman - The Hebrew word denotes an artificer of any kind, and is applied to one who engraved on wood or stone Exodus 28:2; to a workman in iron, brass, stone, wood Exodus 35:35; Deuteronomy 27:15; or an artisan, or artificer in general. It here refers manifestly to a man who worked in the metals of which idols were commonly made. Those idols were sometimes made of wood, sometimes of clay, but more frequently, as they are at present in India, of metal. It became, undoubtedly, a regular trade or business thus to make idol-gods.
Melteth - Casts or founds.
A graven image - (פסל pesel). This word commonly denotes an image carved or graven from wood Exodus 20:4; Judges 17:3; Isaiah 44:15, Isaiah 44:17; but it is also frequently applied to a molten image, or one that is cast from metals Jeremiah 10:14; Jeremiah 51:17. It is used in this sense here; as there is an incongruity in the idea of casting, or melting a graven image.
And the goldsmith spreadeth it over with gold - Idols were frequently overlaid with gold or silver. Those which were in the temples of the gods were probably commonly made in this way, and probably those also which were made for private use, as far as it could be afforded. The word here rendered ‘goldsmith,’ however, does not of necessity man a worker in gold, but a smith in general, or a worker in any kind of metals.
And casteth silver chains - For the idol. These were not to fasten it, but for the purpose of ornament. The general principle seems to have been to decorate their idols with that which was regarded as the highest ornament among the people; and as chains were used in abundance as a part of their personal ornaments among the Orientals (see the notes at Isaiah 3:23), so they made use of the same kind of ornaments for their idols. The idols of the Hindoos now are lavishly decorated in this manner.
He that is so impoverished - So poor. So it is generally supposed that the word used here is to be understood, though interpreters have not been entirely agreed in regard to its signification. The Septuagint renders the phrase, ‘The carpenter chooseth a sound piece of wood.’ The Chaldee. ‘He cuts down an ash, a tree which will not rot.’ Vulgate, ‘Perhaps he chooses a tree which is incorruptible.’ Jarchi renders it, ‘He who is accustomed to examine, and to judge between the wood which is durable, and other wood.’ But the signification of the word (from סכן sâkan, “to dwell, to be familiar with anyone”) given to it by our translators, is probably the correct one, that of being too poor to make a costly oblation. This notion of poverty, Gesenius supposes, is derived from the notion of being seated; and thence of sinking down from languor or debility; and hence, from poverty or want.
That he hath no oblation - No offering; no sacrifice; no rich gift. He is too poor to make such an offering to his god as would be implied in an idol of brass or other metal, richly overlaid with plates of gold, and decorated with silver chains. In Isaiah 40:19, the design seems to have been to describe the more rich and costly idols that were made; in this, to describe those that were made by the poor who were unable to offer such as were made of brass and gold. The word ‘oblation,’ therefore, that is, offering, in this place, does not denote an offering made to the true God, but an offering made to an idol, such as an image was regarded to be. He could not afford a rich offering, and was constrained to make one of wood.
Chooseth a tree that will not rot - Wood that will be durable and permanent. Perhaps the idea is, that as he could not afford one of metal, he would choose that which would be the most valuable which he could make - a piece of wood that was durable, and that would thus show his regard for the god that he worshipped. Or possibly the sense may be, that he designed it should not be moved; that he expressed a fixed and settled determination to adhere to the worship of the idol; and that as he had no idea of changing his religion, the permanency and durability of the wood would be regarded as a somewhat more acceptable expression of his worship.
A cunning workman - Hebrew, ‘A wise artificer;’ a man skilled in the art of carving, and of making images.
A graven image - An image engraved or cut from wood, in contradistinction from one that is molten or made from metals.
That shall not be moved - That shall stand long, as the expression of his devotion to the service of the idol. The wood that was commonly employed for this purpose as being most durable, as we learn from Isaiah 44:14, was the cedar, the cypress, or the oak (see the note in that place). The phrase, ‘shall not be moved,’ does not refer so much to its being fixed in one place, as to its durability and permanency.
Have ye not known? - This is evidently an address to the worshippers of idols, and either designed to be addressed to the Jews themselves in the times of Manasseh, when idolatry abounded, or to all idolaters. The prophet had in the previous verses shown the manner in which the idols were made, and the folly of regarding them as objects of worship. He now turns and addresses the worshippers of these idols, as being without excuse. They might have known that these were not the true God. They had had abundant opportunity of learning his existence and of becoming acquainted with his majesty and glory. Tradition had informed them of this, and the creation of the earth demonstrated his greatness and power. The prophet, therefore, asks them whether they had not known this? Whether their conduct was the result of ignorance? And the question implies emphatically that they had known, or had abundant opportunity to know of the existence and majesty of God. This was emphatically true of the Jews, and yet they were constantly falling into idolatrous worship.
From the beginning - Hebrew, ‘From the head,’ that is, from the very commencement of the world. Has it not been communicated by tradition, from age to age, that there is one God, and that he is the Creator and upholder of all things? This was particularly the case with the Jews, who had had this knowledge from the very commencement of their history, and they were, therefore, entirely without excuse in their tendencies to idolatry.
From the foundations of the earth - Have you not learned the existence and greatness of God from the fact that the world has been made, and that it demonstrates the existence and perfection of God? The sacred writers often speak of the earth as resting on a foundation, as upheld, etc.:
For he hath founded it upon the seas,
And established it upon the floods.
(Psalms 24:2; see also Proverbs 8:29) Perhaps here, however, the word ‘foundation’ refers rather to the time than to the manner in which the earth is made, and corresponds to the phrase ‘from the beginning;’ and the sense may be, ‘Has it not been understood ever since the earth was founded? Has not the tradition of the existence and perfections of God been unbroken and constant?’ The argument is, that the existence and greatness of God were fully known by tradition and by his works; and that it was absurd to attempt to form an image of that God who had laid the foundations of the world.
It is he that sitteth - Margin, ‘Him that sitteth,’ that is, have you not known him? The Hebrew literally means ‘the sitter, or he sitting on the circle of the each;’ and it may be connected either with Isaiah 40:21, ‘Have ye not known him sitting on the circle of the earth?’ or with Isaiah 40:18, ‘What likeness will ye compare to him that sitteth on the circle of the earth?’ In either case the phrase is designed to show the majesty and glory of God. The word ‘sitteth’ refers to God as a sovereign or monarch, making the circle of the earth his throne.
The circle of the earth - Or rather, “above” (על ‛al) the circle of the earth. The word rendered ‘circle’ (חוּג chûg) denotes “a circle, sphere, or arch”; and is applied to the arch or vault of the heavens, in Proverbs 8:27; Job 22:14. The phrase ‘circle,’ or ‘circuit of the earth,’ here seems to be used in the same sense as the phrase orbis terrarum by the Latins; not as denoting a sphere, or not as implying that the earth was a globe, but that it was an extended plain surrounded by oceans and mighty waters. The globular form of the earth was then unknown; and the idea is, that God sat above this extended circuit, or circle; and that the vast earth was beneath his feet.
And the inhabitants thereof are like grasshoppers - Or rather, like locusts, for so the Hebrew word properly means. This is designed to show that the inhabitants of the earth, numerous and mighty as they are, are as nothing compared with God. The idea is that God is so exalted, that, as he looks down from that elevated station, all the inhabitants of the world appear to him as locusts - a busy, agirated, moving, impatient multitude, spread over the vast circle of the earth beneath him - as locusts spread in almost interminable bands over the plains in the East. What a striking illustration of the insignificance of man as he is viewed from the heavens! What an impressive description of the nothingness of his mighty plans, and of the vanity of his mightiest works!
That stretcheth out the heavens - Referring to the firmament above, as that which seems to be stretched out, or expanded over our heads. The heavens above are often thus compared to an expanse - either solid Genesis 1:7, or to a curtain, or tent (compare the note at Isaiah 34:4).
As a curtain - The word used here (דק doq) denotes properly fineness, thinness; and then a fine or thin cloth, or curtain. Here it means a thin canopy that is stretched over us. The same expression occurs in Psalms 104:2 (compare Job 9:8; Isaiah 44:24). Probably the reference here is to the veil, curtain, or awning which the Orientals are accustomed to draw over the court in their houses. Their houses are constructed with an open court in the center, with the rooms ranged round it. In that court or open square there are usually fountains, if the situation is so that they can be constructed; and they are cool and refreshing places for the family to sit in the heat of the summer. In hot or rainy weather, a curtain or awning is drawn over this area. According to the imago of the prophet here, the heavens are spread out over our heads as such an awning.
And spreadeth them out as a tent - As a tent that is made for a habitation. Perhaps the idea is, that the heavens are extended like a tent in order to furnish a dwelling-place for God. Thus the Chaldee renders it. If so, it proves that the universe, so vast, was suited up to be the dwelling-place of the High and Holy One, and is a most impressive representation of his immensity.
That bringeth the princes to nothing - That is, all princes and kings. No matter how great their power, their wealth, and their dignity, they are, by his hand, reduced to nothing before him. The design of this passage is to contrast the majesty of God with that of princes and nobles, and to show how far he excels them all. The general truth is therefore stated, that all monarchs are by him removed from their thrones, and consigned to nothing. The same idea is expressed in Job 12:21 :
He poureth contempt upon princes,
And weakeneth the strength of the mighty.
And in Psalms 107:40 :
He poureth contempt upon princes,
And causeth them to wander in the wilderness where there is no way.
The particular idea here, as appears from the next verse, is, that the princes and rulers who are opposed to God constitute no real resistance to the execution of his purposes. He can strip off their honors and glory, and obliterate even their names.
He maketh the judges of the earth - Kings and princes often executed judgment personally, and hence, the words judges and kings seem to be synonymous as they are used here, and in Psalms 2:10 :
Be wise now, therefore, O ye kings;
Be instructed, ye judges of the earth.
Yea, they shall not be planted - The kings and rulers - especially they who oppose God in the execution of his purposes. The idea in this verse is, that their name and family should become extinct in the same way as a tree does from which no shoot starts up. Although they were great and mighty, like the tree that sends out far-spreading branches, and strikes its roots deep, yet God would so utterly destroy them that they should have no posterity, and their family become extinct. Princes and kings are often compared to lofty and majestic trees of the forest (compare Psalms 37:35; Daniel 4:7 ff) Vitringa supposes that wicked rulers are particularly intended here, and that the idea is, that the wicked princes that persecuted his people should be entirely extinct on the earth. He refers particularly to Pharaoh, Antiochus Epiphanes, Nero, Domitian, Decius, Gallus, Galerius, Maxenus, Maximus, and some others, as instances of this kind, whose families soon became extinct. It may be remarked, in general, that the families of monarchs and princes become extinct usually much sooner than others. The fact may be owing in part to the usual luxury and vice in the families of the great, and in part to the direct arrangements of God, by which he designs that power shall not be forever perpetuated in one family, or line. The general idea in the passage is, that earthly princes and rulers are as nothing When compared with God, and that he can easily destroy their families and their name. But there is no improbability in the supposition of Vitringa, that the prophet refers particularly to the enemies of God and his cause, and that he intends specifically to affirm that none of these enemies could prevent or embarrass the execution of his purposes - since with infinite ease he could entirely destroy their name.
They shall not be sown - The same idea under another figure. The former referred to princes under the image of a tree; this refers to them under the image of grain that is sown. The idea is, that their family and name should be annihilated, and should not spring up in a future generation. The same image occurs in Nahum 1:14, in respect to the king of Assyria: ‘The Lord hath given commandment concerning thee, that no more of thy name be sown;’ that is, that thy name and family should become entirely extinct.
Yea, their stock - Their stem - referring to the stump or stock of a tree. When a tree is cut down, the roots often still live, and send up shoots, or suckers, that grow into trees. Posterity is often, in the Scriptures, compared to such suckers or shoots from old and decayed trees (see the notes at Isaiah 11:1). The meaning here is, that as when a tree falls and dies without sending up any shoots, so princes should die. They should have no descendants; no one of their family should sit on their thrones.
Shall blow upon them - As God sends a tempest upon the forest and uproots the loftiest trees, so he will sweep away the families of princes. Or rather, perhaps, the idea here is, that God sends a strong and burning east wind, and withers up everything before it (see this wind described in the notes at Isaiah 37:26).
And they shall wither - Trees, and shrubs, and plants are dried up before that poisonous and fiery wind - the simoom - and so it would be with the princes before the blast of Yahweh.
And the whirlwind shall take them away as stubble - This, in its literal signification, means that the whirlwind bears away the trees of the forest, and with the same ease God would sweep away the families of the kings and princes that opposed him and oppressed his people. It may illustrate this to observe, that the effects of whirlwinds in the East are often much more violent than they are with us, and that they often bear away to a great distance the branches of trees, and even the trees themselves. The following description of a whirlwind observed by Mr. Bruce, may serve to illustrate this passage, as well as the passage in Psalms 83:13 :
O my God, make them like a wheel;
As the stubble before the wind,
referring to the rotary action of the whirlwind, which often impels straw like a wheel set in rapid motion. ‘Mr. Bruce, in his journey through the desert of Senaar, had the singular felicity to contemplate this wonderful phenomenon in all its terrific majesty, without injury, although with considerable danger and alarm. In that vast expanse of desert, from west and to northwest of him, he saw a number of prodigious pillars of sand at different distances, moving, at times, with great celerity, at others, stalking on with majestic slowness; at intervals he thought they were coming, in a very few minutes, to overwhelm him and his companion. Again, they would retreat so as to be almost out of sight, their tops reaching to the very clouds. There, the tops often separated from the bodies; and these, once disjoined, dispersed in the air, and appeared no more. Sometimes they were broken near the middle, as if struck with a large cannon-shot.
About noon, they began to advance with considerable swiftness upon them, the wind being very strong at north. Eleven of these awful visitors ranged alongside of them, about the distance of three miles. The greatest diameter of the largest appeared to him, at that distance, as if it would measure ten feet. They retired from them with a wind at southeast, leaving an impression upon the mind of our intrepid traveler, to which he could give no name, though he candidly admits that one ingredient in it was fear, with a considerable deal of wonder and astonishment. He declares it was in vain to think of flying; the swiftest horse, or fastest sailing ship, could be of no use to carry them out of this danger; and the full persuasion of this riveted him to the spot where he stood. Next day, they were gratified with a similar display of moving pillars, in form and disposition like those already described, only they seemed to be more in number and less in size.
They came, several times, in a direction close upon them; that is, according to Mr. Bruce’s computation, within less than two miles. They became, immediately after sunrise, like a thick wood, and almost darkened the sun; his rays shining through them for near an hour, gave them an appearance of pillars of fire. At another time, they were terrified by an army (as it seemed) of these sand pillars, whose march was constantly south, a number of which seemed once to be coming directly upon them; and though they were little nearer than two miles, a considerable quantity of sand fell around them. On the 21st of November, about eight in the morning, he had a view of the desert to the westward, as before, and the sands had already begun to rise in immense twisted pillars, which darkened the heavens, and moved over the desert with more magnificence than ever. The sun, shining through the pillars, which were thicker, and contained more sand, apparently, than on any of the preceding days, seemed to give those nearest them an appearance as if spotted with stars of gold.’ (Paxton)
To whom then will ye liken me? - (See Isaiah 40:18) The prophet having thus set forth the majesty and glory of God, asks now with great emphasis, what could be an adequate and proper representation of such a God. And if God was such a Being, how great was the folly of idolatry, and how vain all their confidence in the gods which their own hands had made.
Lift up your eyes on high - Direct your eyes toward heaven, and in the contemplation of the wonders of the starry world, and of God’s power there, learn the evidence of his ability to destroy his foes and to save his friends. Lowth connects this verse with the former, and renders it:
‘Saith the Holy One,
Lift up your eyes on high.’
The words ‘on high’ here are evidently synonymous with heaven, and refer to the starry worlds. The design of the passage is to convince them of the folly of idolatry, and of the power and majesty, of the true God. It is proof of man’s elevated nature that he can thus look upward, and trace the evidences of the power and wisdom of God in the heavens; that he can raise his eyes and thoughts above the earth, and fix his attention on the works of God in distant worlds; and in the number, the order, the greatness, and the harmony of the heavenly bodies, trace the proofs of the infinite greatness and the wisdom of God. This thought was most beautifully expressed by one of the ancient poets.
Pronaque cum spectent animalia caetera terram;
Os homini sublime dedit: ccelumque tueri,
Jussit et erectos ad sidera tollere vultus.
Ovid, Met. i. 84-86.
In the Scriptures, God not unfrequently appeals to the starry heavens in proof of his existence and perfections, and as the most sublime exhibition of his greatness and power (see Psalms 19:1-6). And it may be remarked, that this argument is one that increases in strength, in the view of people, from age to age, just in proportion to the advances which are made in the science of astronomy. It is now far more striking than it was in the times of Isaiah; and, indeed, the discoveries in astronomical science in modern times have given a beauty and power to this argument which could have been but imperfectly understood in the times of the prophets. The argument is one that accumulates with every new discovery in astronomy; but is one - such is the vastness and beauty of the system of the universe - which can be contemplated in its fall power only amidst the more sublime contemplations of eternity. Those who are disposed to contemplate this argument more fully, may find it presented with great eloquence and beauty in Dr. Chalmers’ Astronomical Discourses, and in Dick’s Christian Philosopher.
Who hath created these things - These heavens. This is the first evidence of the power of God in the contemplation of the heavens, that God is their Creator. The other demonstrations referred to are the fact, that he brings out their armies as if they were a marshalled host, and understands and calls all their names.
That bringeth out their hosts - Their armies, for so the word ‘hosts’ means (see the note at Isaiah 1:9). The word here alludes to the fact that the heavenly bodies seem to be marshalled, or regularly arrayed as an array; that they keep their place, preserve their order, and are apparently led on from the east to the west, like a vast army under a mighty leader:
Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season?
Or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?
By number - As if he had numbered, or named them; as a military commander would call forth his armies in their proper order, and have them so numbered and enrolled in the various divisions, that he can command them with ease.
He calleth them all by names - This idea is also taken from a military leader, who would know the names of the individuals that composed his army. In smaller divisions of an army, this could of course be done; but the idea is, that God is intimately acquainted with all the hosts of stars; that though their numbers appear to us so great, yet he is acquainted with each one individually, and has that knowledge of it which we have of a person or object which we recognize by a name. It is said of Cyrus, that he was acquainted by name with every individual that composed his vast army. The practice of giving names to the stars of heaven was early, and is known to have been originated by the Chaldeans. Intimations of this custom we have not unfrequently in the Scriptures, as far back as the time of Job:
Which maketh Arcturus, and Orion, and Pleiades,
And the chambers of the south.
Canst thou bind the sweet influences of Pleiades?
Or loose the bands of Orion?
Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season?
Or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?
This power of giving names to all the stars, is beautifully ascribed to God in Psalms 147:4 :
He telleth the number of the stars,
He calleth them all by their names.
This view of the greatness of God is more striking now than it was in the times of David or Isaiah. Little then, comparatively, was known of the number of the stars. But since the invention of the telescope the view of the heavenly world has been enlarged almost to immensity; arid though the expression ‘he calleth them all by their names,’ had great sublimity as used in the time of Isaiah, yet it raises in us far higher conceptions of the power and greatness of God when applied to what we know now of the heavens. Yet doubtless our view of the heavens is much further beneath the sublime reality than were the prevalent views in the time of the prophet beneath those which we now have. As an illustration of this we may remark, that the milky way which stretches across the heavens, is now ascertained to receive its white appearance from the mingling together of the light of an innumerable number of stars, too remote to be seen by the naked eye. Dr. Herschell examined a portion of the milky way about fifteen degrees long, and two broad, and found that it contained no fewer than fifty thousand stars, large enough to be distinctly counted, and he suspected that that portion contained twice as manymore, which, for the want of sufficient light in his telescope, he saw only now and then. It is to be remembered, also, that the galaxy, or milky way, which we see with the naked eye, is only one of a large number of nebulae of similar construction which are arranged apparently in strata, and which extend to great length in the heavens. According to this, and on every correct supposition in regard to the heavens, the number of the stars surpasses all our powers of computation. Yet God is said to lead them all forth as marshalled armies - how beautiful a description when applied to the nebuloe! - and to call all their names.
By the greatness of his might - It is his single and unassisted arm that conducts them; his own hand alone that sustains them.
Not one faileth - Not one is missing; not one of the immense host is out of its place, or unnoticed. All are arranged in infinite wisdom; all observe the proper order, and the proper times. How strikingly true is this, on the slightest inspection of the heavens. How im pressive and grand is it in the higher developments of the discoveries of astronomy!
Why sayest thou? - This verse is designed to reprove the people for their want of confidence in God. The idea is, ‘If God is so great; if be arranges the hosts of heaven with such unerring skill, causing all the stars to observe their proper place and their exact times, the interests of his people are safe in his hands.’ Piety may always find security in the assurance that He who preserves the unbroken order of the heavens will not fail to keep and save his people. The language in this verse is to be understood as addressed to the Jews sighing for deliverance in their long and painful captivity in Babylon. Their city and temple had laid waste for many years; their captivity had been long and wearisome, and doubtless many would be ready to say, that it would never end. To furnish an argument to meet this state of despondency, the prophet sets before them this sublime description of the faithfulness and the power of God.
O Jacob - A name often given to the Jews as the descendants of Jacob.
O Israel - Denoting the same. The name Israel was given to Jacob because he had power to prevail as a prince with God Genesis 32:28; and it became the common name by which his descendants were known.
My way is hid from the Lord - That is, is not seen, or noticed. The word ‘way’ here denotes evidently the state or condition; the manner of life, or the calamities which they experienced. The term is often thus employed to denote the lot, condition, or manner in which one lives or acts Psalms 37:5; Isaiah 10:24; Jeremiah 12:1. The phrase, ‘is hid,’ means that God is ignorant of it, or that he does not attend to it; and the complaint here is, that God had not regarded them in their calamities, and would not interpose to save them.
And my judgment - My cause. The word here refers to their condition among the people where they were captive, and by whom they were oppressed. They are represented as being deprived of their liberty; and they here complain that God disregarded their cause, and that he did not come forth to deliver them from their oppressions and their trials.
Hast thou not known? - This is the language of the prophet reproving them for complaining of being forsaken and assuring them that God was faithful to his promises. This argument of the prophet, which continues to the close of the chapter, comprises the main scope of the chapter, which is to induce them to put confidence in God, and to believe that he was able and willing to deliver them. The phrase, ‘Hast thou not known? refers to the fact that the Jewish people had had an abundant opportunity of learning, in their history, and from their fathers, the true character of God, and his entire ability to save them. No people had had so much light on this subject, and now that they were in trial, they ought to recall their former knowledge of his character, and remember his dealings of faithfulness with them and their fathers. It is well for the people of God in times of calamity and trial to recall to their recollection his former dealings with his church. That history will furnish abundant sources of consolation, and abundant assurances that their interests are safe in his hands.
Hast thou not heard? - From the traditions of the fathers; the instruction which you have received from ancient times. A large part of the knowledge of the Jews was traditionary; and these attributes of God, as a faithful God, had, no doubt, constituted an important part of the knowledge which had thus been communicated to them.
The everlasting God - The God who has existed from eternity, unlike the idols of the pagan. If he was from eternity, he would be unchangeable, and his purposes could not fail.
The Creator of the ends of the earth - The phrase, ‘the ends of the earth,’ means the same as the earth itself. The earth is sometimes spoken of as a vast plain having limits or boundaries (see Isaiah 40:22). It is probable that this was the prevailing idea among the ancients (compare Deuteronomy 33:17; 1 Samuel 2:10; Psalms 19:6; Psalms 22:27; Psalms 48:10; Psalms 65:5; Psalms 67:7; Psalms 98:3; Isaiah 43:6; Isaiah 45:22; Isaiah 52:10). The argument here is, that he who has formed the earth could not be exhausted or weary in so small a work as that of protecting his people.
Fainteth not - Is not fatigued or exhausted. That God, who has formed and sustained all things, is not exhausted in his powers, but is able still to defend and guard his people.
There is no searching of his understanding - The God who made all things must be infinitely wise. There is proof of boundless skill in the works of his hands, and it is impossible for finite mind fully and adequately to search out all the proofs of his wisdom and skill. Man can see only a part - a small part, while the vast ocean, the boundless deep of his wisdom, lies still unexplored. This thought is beautifully expressed by Zophar in Job 11:7-9 :
Canst thou by searching find out God?
Canst thou find out the Almighty unto perfection?
It is as high as heaven;
What canst thou do?
Deeper than hell;
What canst thou know:
The measure thereof is longer than the earth,
And broader than the sea.
The argument here is, that that God who has made all things, must be intimately acquainted with the needs of his people. They had, therefore, no reason to complain that their way was hidden from the Lord, and their cause passed over by him. Perhaps, also, it is implied, that as his understanding was vast, they ought not to expect to be able to comprehend the reason of all his doings; but should expect that there would be much that was mysterious and unsearchable. The reasons of his doings are often hid from his people; and their consolation is to be found in the assurance that he is infinitely wise, and that he who rules over the universe must know what is best, and cannot err.
He giveth power to the faint - To his weak and feeble people. This is one of his attributes; and his people, therefore, should put their trust in him, and look to him for aid (compare 2 Corinthians 12:9). The design of this verse is to give consolation to the afflicted and down-trodden people in Babylon, by recalling to their minds the truth that it was one of the characteristics of God that he ministered strength to those who were conscious of their own feebleness, and who looked to him for support. It is a truth, however, as applicable to us as to theresa truth inestimably precious to those who feel that they are weak and feeble, and who look to God for aid.
Even the youths shall faint - The most vigorous young men, those in whom we expect manly strength, and who are best suited to endure hardy toil. They become weary by labor. Their powers are soon exhausted. The design here is, to contrast the most vigorous of the human race with God, and to show that while all their powers fail, the power of God is unexhausted and inexhaustible.
And the young men - The word used here denotes properly “those who are chosen or selected” (בחוּרים bachûriym, Greek ἐκλεκτοὶ eklektoi), and may be applied to those who were selected or chosen for any hazardous enterprise, or dangerous achievement in war; those who would be selected for vigor or activity. The meaning is, that the most chosen or select of the human family - the most vigorous and manly, must be worn down by fatigue, or paralyzed by sickness or death; but that the powers of God never grow weary, and that those who trust in him should never become faint.
But they that wait upon the Lord - The word rendered ‘wait upon’ here (from קוה qâvâh), denotes properly to wait, in the sense of expecting. The phrase, ‘to wait on Yahweh,’ means to wait for his help; that is, to trust in him, to put our hope or confidence in him. It is applicable to those who are in circumstances of danger or want, and who look to him for his merciful interposition. Here it properly refers to those who were suffering a long and grievous captivity in Babylon, and who had no prospect of deliverance but in him. The phrase is applicable also to all who feel that they are weak, feeble, guilty, and helpless, and who, in view of this, put their trust in Yahweh. The promise or assurance here is general in its nature, and is as applicable to his people now as it was in the times of the captivity in Babylon. Religion is often expressed in the Scriptures by ‘waiting on Yahweh,’ that is, by looking to him for help, expecting deliverance through his aid, putting trust in him (see Psalms 25:3, Psalms 25:5, Psalms 25:21; Psalms 27:14; Psalms 37:7, Psalms 37:9, Psalms 37:34; Psalms 69:3; compare Isaiah 8:17, note; Isaiah 30:18, note).
It does not imply inactivity, or want of personal exertion; it implies merely that our hope of aid and salvation is in him - a feeling that is as consistent with the most strenuous endeavors to secure the object, as it is with a state of inactivity and indolence. Indeed, no man can wait on God in a proper manner who does not use the means which he has appointed for conveying to us his blessing. To wait on him without using any means to obtain his aid, is to tempt him; to expect miraculous interposition is unauthorized, and must meet with disappointment. And they only wait on him in a proper manner who expect his blessing in the common modes in which he imparts it to men - in the use of those means and efforts which he has appointed, and which he is accustomed to bless. The farmer who should wait for God to plow and sow his fields, would not only be disappointed, but would be guilty of provoking Him. And so the man who waits for God to do what he ought to do; to save him without using any of the means of grace, will not only be disappointed, but will provoke his displeasure.
Shall renew their strength - Margin, ‘Change.’ The Hebrew word commonly means to change, to alter; and then to revive, to renew, to cause to flourish again, as, e. g., a tree that has decayed and fallen down (see the note at Isaiah 9:10; compare Job 14:7). Here it is evidently used in the sense of renewing, or causing to revive; to increase, and to restore that which is decayed. It means that the people of God who trust in him shall become strong in faith; able to contend with their spiritual foes, to gain the victory over their sins, and to discharge aright the duties, and to meet aright the trials of life. God gives them strength, if they seek him in the way of his appointment - a promise which has been verified in the experience of his people in every age.
They shall mount up with wings as eagles - Lowth translates this ‘They shall put forth fresh feathers like the moulting eagle;’ and in his note on the passage remarks, that ‘it has been a common and popular opinion that the eagle lives and retains his vigor to a great age; and that, beyond the common lot of other birds, he moults in his old age, and renews his feathers, and with them his youth.’ He supposes that the passage in Psalms 103:5, ‘So that thy youth is renewed like the eagles,’ refers to this fact. That this was a common and popular opinion among the ancients, is clearly proved by Bochart (Hieroz. ii. 2. 1. pp. 165-169). The opinion was, that at stated times the eagle plunged itself in the sea and cast off its old feathers, and that new feathers started forth, and that thus it lived often to the hundredth year, and then threw itself in the sea and died. In accordance with this opinion, the Septuagint renders this passage, ‘They shall put forth fresh feathers (πτεροφυήσουσιν pterophuēsousin) like eagles.’ Vulgate, Assument pennas sicut aquiloe.
The Chaldee renders it, ‘They who trust in the Lord shall be gathered from the captivity, and shall increase their strength, and renew their youth as a germ which grows up; upon wings of eagles shall they run and not be fatigued.’ But whatever may be the truth in regard to the eagle, there is no reason to believe that Isaiah here had any reference to the fact that it moults in its old age. The translation of Lowth was derived from file Septuagint, and not from the Hebrew text. The meaning of the Hebrew is simply, ‘they shall ascend on wings as eagles,’ or ‘they shall lift up the wings as eagles;’ and the image is derived from the fact that the eagle rises on the most vigorous wing of any bird, and ascends apparently further toward the sun. The figure, therefore, denotes strength and vigor of purpose; strong and manly piety; an elevation above the world; communion with God, and a nearness to his throne - as the eagle ascends toward the sun.
They shall run and not be weary - This passage, also, is but another mode of expressing the same idea - that they who trust in God would be vigorous, elevated, unwearied; that he would sustain and uphold them; and that in his service they would never faint. This was at first designed to be applied to the Jews in captivity in Babylon to induce them to put their trust in God. But it is as true now as it was at that time. It has been found in the experience of thousands and tens of thousands, that by waiting on the Lord the heart has been invigorated; the faith has been confirmed; and the affections have been raised above the world. Strength has been given to bear trial without complaining, to engage in arduous duty without fainting, to pursue the perilous and toilsome journey of life without exhaustion, and to rise above the world in hope and peace on the bed of death.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Isaiah 40". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13