Lectionary Calendar
Friday, June 21st, 2024
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 59

Barnes' Notes on the Whole BibleBarnes' Notes


This chapter is closely connected in sense with the preceding, and is designed to illustrate the same general sentiment; that the reason why the religious services of the nation were not accepted, and the nation delivered from calamity, was their hypocrisy and their other sins. The previous chapter contained a bold and energetic reproof of their expectation of the divine favor, when they were observing only external rites without repentance, and even when they continued to practice oppression and cruelty. This beautiful chapter states more in detail their sins, and the consequences of their transgressions. The following arrangement of the parts of the chapter, will show its design and scope at a single view.

I. It was not because Yahweh was unable to save them that they were exposed to such judgments, and visited with such calamities Isaiah 59:1. They were, therefore, not to blame him. This general principle is stated, in order to prevent what commonly occurs when people suffer much - a disposition to throw the blame on God.

II. It was for their sins that they were exposed to these judgments Isaiah 59:2-8. The prophet proceeds to specify those sins in detail, with a view to bring them to conviction and to repentance.

1. The general principle is stated, that it was their sins alone which had separated between them and God Isaiah 59:2.

2. Their hands were defiled with blood (Isaiah 59:3, part first).

3. Their lips had spoken falsehood (Isaiah 59:3, last part).

4. There was no justice among them (Isaiah 59:4, part first).

5. Their plans were mischievous (Isaiah 59:4, second part).

6. Their actions were like the egg of the cockatrice, hateful and destructive as that egg when hatched Isaiah 59:5.

7. Their works were like the web of a spider, which could never be a covering of righteousness Isaiah 59:6.

8. Their feet run to evil (Isaiah 59:7, part first).

9. Their thoughts were evil (Isaiah 59:7, second part).

10. They were strangers to the way of peace Isaiah 59:8.

III. After this statement of the prevalent sins of the nation, the prophet introduces the people as making confession, that it was for these and similar sins that they were exposed to the divine displeasure. Identifying himself with the people, he enumerates the calamities to which they were exposed, as a consequence of the sins which prevailed Isaiah 59:9-14. They were in darkness; they waited in vain for light; they stumbled at noon-day; they vented their sorrows like the roaring of bears, or the plaintive cry of the dove, but all in vain.

IV. Yahweh is represented as seeing this state of deep guilt; a state where there was deep conviction of that guilt, and a readiness to make confession; and as wondering that there was no intercessor, and as himself interposing to bring deliverance and salvation Isaiah 59:15-18. The characteristics of him who should come to accomplish these purposes, were righteousness, salvation, vengeance, and zeal Isaiah 59:17, he would come to take recompence on his foes, and to reward the wicked according to their deeds Isaiah 59:18.

V. The effect of this would be that the name of Yahweh would be feared from the rising to the setting sun. Yahweh would erect a barrier against the enemy when he should come in like a flood; and the Redeemer would come to Zion to effect deliverance for those who should truly repent Isaiah 59:19-20.

VI. A covenant would be established between God and those who would turn away from transgressions Isaiah 59:21. The nature of that covenant was, that its blessings would be perpetual. The spirit which God would give, and the words which he would put into their mouths, would abide with them and their posterity forever.

‘As this chapter,’ says Lowth, ‘is remarkable for the beauty, strength, and variety of the images with which it abounds; so it is especially distinguished by the eloquence of the composition, and the exact construction of the sentences. From the first verse to the two last, it falls regularly into stanzas of four lines.’ This poetical form of the chapter must be apparent to the slightest observation of the reader; and there is perhaps no instance of more regular construction of the various members and parts of a composition in the writings of the Hebrews.

The chapter has evidently a primary reference to the character of the nation in the times of Isaiah. The deep depravity which is described, is such as existed in the times of Manasseh; and one object of the prophet was manifestly to bring them to conviction for their sins; and to show them why they were suffering, or about to suffer, from the expressions of the divine displeasure. But the chapter evidently also looks forward to future times, and the close of it refers so manifestly to the times of the Messiah, that it is impossible not to apply it to him.

Verse 1

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not shortened - On the meaning of this phrase, see the notes at Isaiah 50:2.

Neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear - On the meaning of this phrase, see the notes at Isaiah 6:10.

Verse 2

But your iniquities - That is, the sins which the prophet had specified in the previous chapter, and which he proceeds further to specify in this.

Have separated - The word used here (בדל bâdal) conveys the idea of division, usually by a curtain or a wall Exodus 26:33; Ezekiel 42:20. Thus the ‘firmament’ (רקיע râqı̂ya‛, “expanse”) is said to have “divided” or “separated” (מבדיל mabedı̂yl) the waters from the waters Genesis 1:6. The idea here is, that their sins were like a partition between them and God, so that there was no contact between them and him.

And your sins have hid his face from you - Margin, ‘Made him hide.’ The Hebrew word here is in Hiphil, meaning ‘to cause to hide.’ Kimchi and Aben Ezra understand it as causing him to hide his face; Vitringa as hiding, his face. The metaphor, says Vitringa, is not taken from a man who turns away his face from one because he does not choose to attend to what is said, but from something which comes between two persons, like a dense cloud, which hides one from the other. And, according to this, the idea is, that their sins had risen up like a thick, dark cloud between them and God, so that they had no clear view of him, and no contact with him - as a cloud hides the face of the sun from us. A similar idea occurs in Lamentations 3:44 :

Thou hast covered thyself with a cloud,

That our prayers should not pass through.

But it seems to me more probable that the Hiphil signification of the verb is here to be retained, and that the idea is, that their sins had caused Yahweh to hide or turn away his face from their prayers from an unwillingness to hear them when they were so deeply immersed in sin. Thus the Septuagint, ‘On account of your sins he has turned away his face (ἀπέστρεψε τὸ πρόωπον apestrepse to prosōpon) from you, so that he will not have mercy’ (τοῦ μὴ ἐλεῆσαι tou mē eleēsai). It is universally true that indulgence in sin causes God to turn away his face, and to witchold mercy and compassion. He cannot pardon those who indulge in transgression, and who are unwilling to abandon the ways of sin (compare the notes at Isaiah 1:15).

Verse 3

For your hands are defiled with blood - The prophet proceeds here more particularly to specify the sins of which they were guilty; and in order to show the extent and depth of their depravity, he specifies the various members of the body - the hands, the fingers, the lips, the tongue, the feet as the agents by which people commit iniquity. See a similar argument on the subject of depravity in Romans 3:13-15, where a part of the description which the prophet here gives is quoted by Paul, and applied to the Jews in his own time. The phrase ‘your hands are defiled with blood,’ means with the blood of the innocent; that is, they were guilty of murder, oppression, and cruelty. See a similar statement in Isaiah 1:15, where the phrase ‘your hands are full of blood’ occurs. The word rendered here ‘defiled’ (גאל gā'al) means commonly to redeem, to ransom; then to avenge, or to demand and inflict punishment for bloodshed. In the sense of defiling it occurs only in the later Hebrew writers - perhaps used in this sense because those who were avengers became covered, that is, defiled with blood.

And your fingers with iniquity - The fingers in the Scriptures are represented as the agents by which any purpose is executed Isaiah 2:8, ‘Which their own fingers have made’ (compare Isaiah 17:8). Some have supposed that the phrase used here means the same as the preceding, that they were guilty of murder and cruelty. But it seems more probable that the idea suggested by Grotius is the true sense, that it means that they were guilty of rapine and theft. The fingers are the instruments by which theft - especially the lighter and more delicate kinds of theft - is executed. Thus we use the word ‘light-fingered’ to denote anyone who is dexterous in taking and conveying away anything, or anyone who is addicted to petty thefts.

Your lips have spoken lies - The nation is false, and no confidence can be reposed in the declarations which are made.

Your tongue hath muttered - On the word rendered ‘muttered’ (הגה hâgâh), see the notes at Isaiah 8:19. Probably there is included in the word here, the idea that they not only spoke evil, but that they did it with a complaining, discontented, or malicious spirit. It may also mean that they calumniated the government of God, and complained of his laws; or it may mean, as Grotius supposes, that they calumniated others - that is, that slander abounded among them.

Perverseness - Hebrew, עולה avlâh - ‘Evil ‘ - the word from which our word evil is derived.

Verse 4

None calleth for justice - Or rather, there is no one who brings a suit with justice; no one who goes into court for the purpose of obtaining justice. There is a love of litigation; a desire to take all the advantage which the law can give; a desire to appeal to the law, not for the sake of having strict justice done, but for the sake of doing injury to others, and to take some undue advantage.

Nor any pleadeth for truth - Or, no one pleadeth with truth. He does not state the cause as it is. He makes use of cunning and falsehood to gain his cause.

They trust in vanity - They confide in quirks and evasions rather than in the justice of their cause.

They conceive mischief - They form plans of evil, and they execute them when they are fully ripe. Compare Job 15:35, where the same phrase occurs. The sense is, that they form plans to injure others, and that they expect to execute them by fraud and deceit.

Verse 5

They hatch cockatrice’ eggs - Margin, ‘Adders’.’ On the meaning of the word rendered here ‘cockatrice,’ see the notes at Isaiah 11:8. Some poisonous serpent is intended, probably the adder, or the serpent known among the Greeks as the basilisk, or cerastes. This figurative expression is designed to show the evil nature and tendency of their works. They were as if they should carefully nourish the eggs of a venomous serpent. Instead of crushing them with the foot and destroying them, they took pains to hatch them, and produce a venomous race of reptiles. Nothing can more forcibly describe the wicked character and plans of sinners than the language used here - plans that are as pernicious, loathsome, and hateful as the poisonous serpents that spread death and ruin and alarm everywhere.

And weave the spider’s web - This phrase, in itself, may denote, as some have understood it, that they formed plans designed to seize upon and destroy others, as spiders weave their web for the purpose of catching and destroying insects. But the following verse shows that the language is used rather with reference to the tenuity and gossamer character of the web, than with any such designs. Their works were like the web of the spider. They bore the same relation to true piety which the web of the spider did to substantial and comfortable raiment. They were vain and useless. The word rendered here ‘web’ properly denotes the cross-threads in weaving, the woof or filling; and is probably derived from a word signify ing a cross-beam (see Rosenmuller in loc; also Bochart, Hieroz. ii. 4. 23).

He that eateth of their eggs dieth - That is, he who partakes of their counsels, or of the plans which they form, shall perish. Calvin says that the meaning is, that ‘whosoever had anything to do with them would find them destructive and pestiferous.’ Similar phrases, comparing the plans of the wicked with the eggs and the brood of the serpent, are common in the East. ‘It is said,’ says Roberts, speaking of India, ‘of the plans of a decidedly wicked and talented man, “That wretch! he hatches serpents’ eggs.” “Beware of the fellow, his eggs are nearly hatched.” “Ah, my friend, touch not that affair, meddle not with that matter; there is a serpent in the shell.”’

And that which is crushed breaketh out into a viper - On the meaning of the word rendered here ‘viper,’ see the notes at Isaiah 30:6. Margin, ‘Sprinkled, is as if there brake out a viper. Jerome renders it, ‘Which if pierced, breaks out into a basilisk.’ The Septuagint renders it, ‘And he who was about to eat of their eggs having broken one that was putrid (συντρίψας οὔριον suntripsas ourion), found in it a basilisk (βασόλισκον basiliskon). ‘The difference of translation in the text and the margin of the common version has arisen from the fact that the translators supposed that the word used here (זוּרה zûrâh) might be derived from זרה zârâh, to sprinkle, or to scatter. But it is formed from the word זור zûr, to squeeze, to press, to crush; and in Job 39:15, is applied to the fact that the ostrich might crush her eggs with her foot. The sense here is, that when their plans were developed, they would be found to be evil and pernacious - as when an egg should be broken open, a venomous setpent would come forth. The viper, it is true, brings forth its young alive, or is a viviparous animal. But Bochart has remarked, that though it produces its young in this manner, yet that during the period of gestation the young are included in eggs which are broken at the birth. This is a very impressive illustration of the character and plans of the wicked. The serpents here referred to are among the most venomous and destructive that are known. And the comparison here includes two points -

1. That their plans resembled the egg of the serpent. The nature of the egg cannot be easily known by an inspection. It may have a strong resemblance to those which would produce some inoffensive and even useful animals. It is only when it is hatched that its true nature is fully developed. So it is with the plans of the wicked. When forming, their true nature may not be certainly known, and it may not be easy to determine their real character.

2. Their plans, when developed, are like the poisonous and destructive production of the serpent’s egg. The true nature is then seen; and it is ruinous, pernicious, and evil.

Verse 6

Their webs shall not become garments - The spider’s web is unfit for clothing; and the idea here is, that their works are as unfit to secure salvation as the attenuated web of a spider is for raiment. The sense is, says Vitringa, that their artificial sophisms avail nothing in producing true wisdom, piety, virtue, and religion, or the true righteousness and salvation of people, but are airy speculations. The works of the self-righteous and the wicked; their vain formality, their false opinions, their subtle reasonings, and their traditions, are like the web of the spider. They bide nothing, they answer none of the purposes of a garment of salvation. The doctrine is, that people must have some better righteousness than the thin and gossamer covering which their own empty forms and ceremonies produce (compare Isaiah 64:6).

Verse 7

Their feet run to evil - In accordance with the design of the prophet to show the entireness of their depravity, he states that all their members were employed in doing evil. In Isaiah 59:3-6. he had remarked that depravity had extended to their hands, their fingers, their lips, and their tongue; he here states that their feet also were employed in doing evil. Instead of treading the paths of righteousness, and hastening to execute purposes of mercy and justice, they were employed in journeyings to execute plans of iniquity. The words ‘run,’ and ‘make haste,’ are designed to intimate the intensity of their purpose to do wrong. They did not walk slowly; they did not even take time to deliberate; but such was their desire of wrong-doing, that they hastened to execute their plans of evil. People usually walk slowly and with a great deal of deliberation when any good is to be done; they walk rapidly, or they run with haste and alacrity when evil is to be accomplished. This passage is quoted by the apostle Paul Romans 3:15, and is applied to the Jews of his own time as proof of the depraved character of the entire nation.

They make haste to shed innocent blood - No one can doubt that this was the character of the nation in the time of Manasseh (see the Introduction, Section 3). It is not improbable that the prophet refers to the bloody and cruel reign of this prince. That it was also the character of the nation when Isaiah began to prophesy is apparent from Isaiah 1:15-21.

Their thoughts - That is, their plans and purposes are evil. It is not merely that evil is done, but they intended that it should be done. They had no plan for doing good; and they were constantly laying plans for evil.

Wasting - That is, violence, oppression, destruction. It means that the government was oppressive and tyrannical; and that it was the general character of the nation that they were regardless of the interests of truth and righteousness.

And destruction - Margin, ‘Breaking.’ The word commonly means breaking or breach; then a breaking down, or destruction, as of a kingdom Lamentations 2:11; Lamentations 3:47; or of individuals Isaiah 1:28. Here it means that they broke down or trampled on the rights of others.

Are in their paths - Instead of marking their ways by deeds of benevolence and justice, they could be tracked by cruelty and blood. The path of the wicked through the earth can be seen usually by the desolations which they make. The path of conquerors can be traced by desolated fields, and smouldering ruins, and forsaken dwelling-places, and flowing blood; and the course of all the wicked can be traced by the desolations which they make in their way.

Verse 8

The way of peace they know not - The phrase ‘way of peace’ may denote either peace of conscience, peace with God, peace among themselves, or peace with their fellow-men. Possibly it may refer to all these; and the sense will be, that in their whole lives they were strangers to true contentment and happiness. From no quarter had they peace, but whether in relation to God, to their own consciences, to each other, or to their fellow-men, they were involved in continual strife and agitation (see the notes at Isaiah 57:20-21).

And there is no judgment in their goings - Margin, ‘Right.’ The sense is, that there was no justice in their dealings. there was no disposition to do right. They were full of selfishness, falsehood, oppression, and cruelty.

They have made them crooked paths - A crooked path is an emblem of dishonesty, fraud, deceit. A straight path is an emblem of sincerity, truth, honesty, and uprightness (see Psalms 125:5; Proverbs 2:15; and the notes at Isaiah 40:4). The idea is, that their counsels and plans were perverse and evil. We have a similar expression now when we say of a man that he is ‘straightforward,’ meaning that he is an honest man.

Verse 9

Therefore is judgment far from us - This is the confession of the people that they were suffering not unjustly on account of their crimes. The word ‘judgment’ here is evidently to be taken in the sense of vengeance or vindication. The idea is this, ‘we are subjected to calamities and to oppressions by our enemies. In our distresses we cry unto God, but on account of our sins he does not hear us, nor does he come to vindicate our cause.’

Neither doth justice overtake us - That is, God does not interpose to save us from our calamities, and to deliver us from the hand of our enemies. The word justice here is not to be regarded as used in the sense that they had a claim on God, or that they were now suffering unjustly, but it is used to denote the attribute of justice in God; and the idea is, that the just God, the avenger of wrongs, did not come forth to vindicate their cause, and to save them from the power of their foes.

We wait for light - The idea here is, that they anxiously waited for returning prosperity.

But behold obscurity - Darkness. Our calamities continue, and relief is not afforded us.

For brightness - That is, for brightness or splendor like the shining of the sun an emblem of happiness and prosperity.

Verse 10

We grope for the wall like the blind - A blind man, not being able to see his way, feels along by a wall, a fence, or any other object that will guide him. They were like the blind. They had no distinct views of truth, and they were endeavoring to feel their way along as well as they could. Probably the prophet here alludes to the threatening made by Moses in Deuteronomy 28:28-29, ‘And the Lord shall smite thee with madness, and blindness, and astonishment of heart; and thou shalt grope at noon-day as the blind gropeth in darkness, and thou shalt not prosper in thy ways.’

We stumble at noon-day as in the night - The idea here is, that they were in a state of utter disorder and confusion. Obstacles were in their way on all hands, and they could no more walk than people could who at noon-day found their path filled with obstructions. There was no remission, no relaxation of their evils. They were continued at all times, and they had no intervals of day. Travelers, though at night they wander and fall, may look for approaching day, and be relieved by the returning light. But not so with them. It was all night. There were no returning intervals of light, repose and peace. It was as if the sun was blotted out, and all was one long, uninterrupted, and gloomy night.

We are in desolate places - There has been great variety in the interpretation of this phrase. Noyes, after Gesenius. translates it, ‘In the midst of fertile fields we are like the dead.’ One principal reason which Gesenius gives for this translation (Commentary in loc.) is, that this best agrees with the sense of the passage, and answers better to the previous member of the sentence, thus more perfectly preserving the parallelism:

At noon-day we stumble as in the night;

In fertile fields we are like the dead.

Thus, the idea would be, that even when all seemed like noon-day they were as in the night; and that though they were in places that seemed luxuriant, they were like the wandering spirits of the dead. Jerome renders it, Caliginosis quasi mortui. The Septuagint, ‘They fall at mid-day as at midnight: they groan as the dying’ (ὡς ἀποθνῄσκοντες στενάξουσιν hōs apothnēskontes stenachousin). The Syriac follows this. ‘We groan as those who are near to death.’ The Chaldee renders it, ‘It (the way) is closed before us as the sepulchre is closed upon the dead;’ that is, we are enclosed on every side by calamity and trial, as the dead are in their graves. The derivation of the Hebrew word אשׁמנים 'ashemanı̂ym is uncertain, and this uncertainty has given rise to the variety of interpretation. Some regard it as derived from שׁמם shâmam, to be laid waste, to be desolate; and others from שׁמן shâman, to be, or become fat.

The word שׁמנים shemannı̂ym, in the sense of fatness, that is, fat and fertile fields, occurs in Genesis 27:28, Genesis 27:39; and this is probably the sense here. According to this, the idea is, we are in fertile fields like the dead. Though surrounded by lands that are adapted to produce abundance, yet we are cut off from the enjoyment of them like the dead. Such is the disturbed state of public affairs; and such the weight of the divine judgments, that we have no participation in these blessings and comforts. The idea which. I suppose, the prophet means to present is, that the land was suited to produce abundance, but that such was the pressure of the public calamity, that all this now availed them nothing, and they were like the dead who are separated from all enjoyments. The original reference here was to the Jew suffering for their sins, whether regarded as in Palestine under their heavy judgments, or as in Babylon, where all was night and gloom. But the language here is strikingly descriptive of the condition of the world at large. Sinners at noon-day grope and stumble as in the night. In a world that is full of the light of divine truth as it beams from the works and the word of God, they are in deep darkness. They feel their way as blind people do along a wall, and not a ray of light penetrates the darkness of their minds. And in a world full of fertility, rich and abundant and overflowing in its bounties, they are still like ‘the dead.’ True comfort and peace they have not; and they seem to wander as in the darkness of night, far from peace, from comfort, and from God.

Verse 11

We roar all like bears - This is designed still further to describe the heavy judgments which had come upon them for their sins. The word rendered here ‘roar’ (from המה hâmâh, like English, to hum, German, hummen, spoken of bees), is applied to any murmuring, or confused noise or sound. It sometimes means to snarl, as a dog Psalms 59:7, Psalms 59:15; to coo, as a dove Ezekiel 7:16; it is also applied to waves that roar Psalms 46:4; Isaiah 51:15; to a crowd or tumultuous assemblage Psalms 46:7; and to music Isaiah 16:11; Jeremiah 48:36. Here it is applied to the low growl or groan of a bear. Bochart (Hieroz. i. 3. 9), says, that a bear produces a melancholy sound; and Horace (Epod. xvi. 51), speaks of its low groan:

Nee vespertinus circumgemit ursus ovile.

Here it is emblematic of mourning, and is designed to denote that they were suffering under heavy and long-continued calamity. Or, according to Gesenius (Commentary in loc.), it refers to a bear which is hungry, and which growls, impatient for food, and refers here to the complaining, dissatisfaction, and murmuring of the people, because God did not come to vindicate and relieve them.

And mourn sore like doves - The cooing of the dove, a plaintive sound, is often used to denote grief (see Ezekiel 7:16; compare the notes at Isaiah 38:14).

We look for judgment ... - (See the notes at Isaiah 59:9.)

Verse 12

Our sins testify against us - Hebrew, ‘Answer against us.’ The idea is, that their past lives had been so depraved that they became witnesses against them (compare the notes at Isaiah 3:9).

We know them - We recognize them as our sins, and we cannot conceal from ourselves the fact that we are transgressors.

Verse 13

In transgressing - That is, we have been guilty of this as a continuous act.

And lying against the Lord - We have proved false to Yahweh. Though we have been professedly his people, yet we have been secretly attached to idols, and have in our hearts been devoted to the service of false gods.

And departing away from our God - By the worship of idols, and by the violation of his law.

Speaking oppression and revolt - Forming plans to see how we might best take advantage of the poor and the defenseless, and to mature our plans of revolt against God.

Conceiving and uttering from the heart - (See the notes at Isaiah 59:4). The idea is, that they had formed in their hearts schemes of deception, and that in their conversation and their lives they had given utterance to them. All this is the language of genuine contrition, where there is a consciousness of deep guilt in the sight of God. There is an overpowering sense of the evil of sin. and a willingness to make the most full and ample acknowledgment, however mortifying it may be, of the errors and follies of the life.

Verse 14

And judgment is turned away backward - The word ‘judgment’ is not used, as in Isaiah 59:9, to denote the divine interposition to avenge and deliver them, but it is used in the sense of justice, or lust decisions between man and man. The verse contains a further confession of the evil of their course of life; and, among other things, they acknowledged that they had been unjust in their legal decisions. They had been influenced by partiality and by bribes; they had condemned the innocent, they had acquitted the guilty. Judgment had thus been lumped back by their sins when it seemed to be approaching and entering the city.

And justice standeth afar off - This is a beautiful figure. justice is represented as standing at a distance from the city. Deterred by their sins, it would not enter. They prevented its approach, and it was unknown among them.

For truth is fallen in the street - Or rather, perhaps, in the gate - the place where justice was administered. The language here is all taken from courts of justice, and the idea is, that there was no justice in their decisions, but that their courts were unprincipled and corrupt.

And equity cannot enter - It stood at a distance, and the impenetrable mass of guilt effectually prevented its approach to the capital.

Verse 15

Yea, truth faileth - That is, it is not to be found, it is missing. The word used here (from עדר âdar) means “to be left, to remain” 2 Samuel 17:22; then “to be missing or lacking” 1 Samuel 30:19; Isaiah 40:26. Here it means that truth had no existence there.

And he that departeth from evil maketh himself a prey - Margin, ‘Is accounted mad.’ Noyes renders this, ‘And he that departeth from evil is plundered.’ Grotius renders it, ‘The innocent man lies open to injury from all.’ The Septuagint, ‘They took away the mind from understanding;’ or, ‘They substituted opinion in the place of knowledge.’ (Thompson’s Translation.) The phrase, ‘He that departeth from evil,’ means evidently a man who did not, and would not, fall in with the prevailing iniquitous practices, but who maintained a life of honesty and piety. It was one of the evils of the times that such a man would be harassed, plundered, ill-treated. The word rendered ‘maketh himself a prey’ (משׁתולל mishetôlēl from שׁלל shâlal), is a word usually signifying to strip off, to plunder, to spoil. Some have supposed that the word means to make foolish, or to account mad, in Job 12:17, Job 12:19. Thus, in the passage before us, the Septuagint understood the word, and this sense of the word our translators have placed in the margin. But there is no reason for departing here from the usual signification of the word as denoting to plunder, to spoil; and the idea is, that the people of honesty and piety were subject to the rapacity of the avaricious, and the oppression of the mighty. They regarded them as lawful prey, and took every advantage in stripping them of their property, and reducing them to want. This completes the statement of the crimes of the nation, and the existence of such deeds of violence and iniquity constituted the basis on which God was led to interpose and effect deliverance. Such a state of crime and consequent suffering demanded the divine interposition; and when Yahweh saw it, he was led to provide a way for deliverance and reform.

The passage before us had a primary reference to the prevalence of iniquity in the Jewish nation. But it is language also that will quite as appropriately describe the moral condition of the world as laying the foundation for the necessity of the divine interposition by the Messiah. Indeed, the following verses undoubtedly refer to him. No one, it is believed, can attentively read the passage, and doubt this. The mind of the prophet is fixed upon the depravity of the Jewish nation. The hands, the tongue, the eyes, the feet, the fingers, were all polluted. The whole nation was sunk in moral corruption; and this was but a partial description of what was occurring everywhere on the earth. In such a state of things in the Jewish nation, and in the whole world, the question could not but arise, whether no deliverer could be found. Was there no way of pardon; no way by which deserved and impending wrath could be diverted? From this melancholy view, therefore, the prophet turns to him who was to be the Great Deliverer, and the remainder of the chapter is occupied with a most beautiful description of the Redeemer, and of the effect of his coming. The sentiment of the whole passage is, “that the deep and extended depravity of man was the foundation of the necessity of the divine interposition in securing salvation, and that in view of the guilt of people, God provided one who was a Glorious Deliverer, and who was to come to Zion as the Redeemer.”

And the Lord saw it - He saw there was no righteousness; no light; no love; no truth. All was violence and oppression: all was darkness and gloom.

And it displeased him - Margin, ‘Was evil in his eyes.’ So Jerome, ‘It appeared evil in his eyes.’ Septuagint, Καὶ οὐκ ἤρεσεν αὐτῷ Kai ouk ēresen autō - ‘And it did not please him.’ The Hebrew, וירע vayēra‛ means, literally, ‘It was evil in his eyes.’ That is, it was painful or displeasing to him. The existence of so much sin and darkness was contrary to the benevolent feelings of his heart.

That there was no judgment - No righteousness; no equity; and that iniquity and oppression abounded.

Verse 16

And he saw that there was no man - That is, no wise and prudent man qualified to govern the affairs of the people. Or, that there was no man qualified to interpose and put an end to these evils; no one qualified to effect a reformation, and to save the nation from the calamities which their sins deserved. The reason why God provided a Redeemer was, that such was the extent and nature of human depravity, that no one on earth could arrest it, and save the world. A similar expression occurs in Isaiah 41:28.

And wondered - This is language adapted to the mode of speaking among men. It cannot be taken literally, as if God was amazed by suddenly coming to the knowledge of this fact. It is designed to express, with great emphasis, the truth, that there was no one to intercede, and that the wicked world was lying in a helpless condition.

That there was no intercessor - On the meaning of the word here rendered ‘intercessor,’ see the notes at Isaiah 53:6. The Chaldee renders it, ‘There was no man who could stand and pray for them.’ In Isaiah 63:5, Isaiah expresses the idea in the following language: I looked, and there was none to help; and I wondered that there was none to uphold.’

Therefore his arm - On the meaning of this phrase, see the notes at Isaiah 40:10 (compare Isaiah 51:5; Isaiah 63:5). The idea is, that salvation was to be traced to God alone. It did not originate with man, and it was not accomplished by his agency or help.

And his righteousness, it sustained him - Sustained by the consciousness that he was doing right, he went forward against all opposition, and executed his plan. This is language derived from the mode of speaking among people, and it means that as a man who is engaged in a righteous cause is sustained amidst much opposition by the consciousness of integrity, so it is with God. The cause of redemption is the great cause of righteousness on earth. In this cause the Redeemer was sustained by the consciousness that he was engaged in that which was designed to vindicate the interests of truth and justice, and to promote righteousness throughout the universe.

Verse 17

For he put on righteousness - That is, God the Redeemer. The prophet here introduces him as going forth to vindicate his people clad like an ancient warrior. In the declaration that he ‘put on righteousness,’ the essential idea is, that he was pure and holy. The same image is used by the prophet in another figure in Isaiah 11:5 (see the note at that place).

As a breastplate - The breastplate was a well-known piece of ancient armor, designed to defend the breast from the darts and the sword of an enemy. The design here is, to represent the Redeemer as a hero; and accordingly allusion is made to the various parts of the armor of a warrior. Yet he was not to be literally armed for battle. Instead of being an earthly conqueror, clad in steel, and defended with brass, his weapons were moral weapons, and his conquests were spiritual. The various parts of his weapons were ‘righteousness.’ ‘salvation,’ and ‘zeal.’ This statement should have been, in itself, sufficient to keep the Jews front anticipating a Messiah who would be a bloody warrior and distinguished for deeds of conquest and blood. This figure of speech is not uncommon. Paul (in Ephesians 6:14-17; compare 2 Corinthians 6:7) has carried it out to greater length, and introduced more particulars in the description of the spiritual armor of the Christian.

And an helmet of salvation - The helmet was a piece of defensive armor for the head. It was made of iron or brass, and usually surmounted by a crest of hair. It was designed to guard the head from the stroke of a sword. No particular stress should be laid on the fact, that it is said that ‘salvation’ would be the helmet. The design is to represent the Redeemer by the figure of a hero clad in armor, yet there seems to be no particular reason why salvation should be referred to as the helmet, or righteousness as the cuirass or breastplate. Nothing is gained by a fanciful attempt to spiritualize or explain them.

And he put on the garments of vengeance for clothing - By ‘garments,’ here, Vitringa supposes that there is reference to the interior garments which were worn by the Orientals corresponding to the tunic of the Romans. But it is more probable that the allusion is to the other parts of the dress or armor in general of the ancient warrior. The statement that he was clad in the garments of vengeance means, that he would go forth to vindicate his people, and to take vengeance on his foes. It would not be for mere defense that he would be thus armed for battle; but he would go forth for aggressive movements, in subduing his enemies and delivering his people (compare Isaiah 63:1-6).

And was clad with zeal as a cloak - The cloak worn by men in military as well as in civil life, was a loose flowing robe or mantle that was thrown over the body, usually fastened on the right shoulder by a hook or clasp, and suffered to flow in graceful folds down to the feet. In battle, it would be laid aside, or secured by a girdle about the loins. Vitringa remarks, that, as it was usually of purple color, it was adapted to represent the zeal which would burn for vengeance on an enemy. But the whole figure here is that drawn from a warrior or a conqueror: a hero prepared alike for defense and offence. The idea is, that he would be able to defend and vindicate his people, and to carry on aggressive warfare against his enemies. But it was not to be a warfare literally of blood and carnage. It was to be such as would be accomplished by righteousness, and zeal, and a desire to secure salvation. The triumph of righteousness was the great object still; the conquests of the Redeemer were to be those of truth.

Verse 18

According to their deeds - The general sentiment of this verse is plain, though there is not a little difficulty in the construction of the Hebrew. Lowth pronounces the former part of the verse, as it stands in the Hebrew text, to be ‘absolutely unintelligible. By a slight change in the Hebrew as it now stands (reading בעל ba‛al, “lord,” instead of כעל ke‛al “as according to”), Lowth supposes that he has obtained the true sense, and accordingly translates it:

He is mighty to recompense;

He that is mighty to recompense shall requite.

This translation is substantially according to the Chaldee, but there is no authority from manuscripts to change the text in this place. Nor is it necessary. The particle כעל ke‛al occurs as a preposition in Isaiah 63:7, in the sense of ‘as according to,’ or ‘according to,’ and is similar in its form to the word מעל mē‛al, which often occurs in the sense of from above, or from upon Genesis 24:64; Genesis 40:19; Isaiah 34:16; Jeremiah 36:11; Amos 7:11. The sense of the verse before us is, that God would inflict just punishment on his enemies. It is a general sentiment, applicable alike to the deliverance from Babylon and the redemption of his church and people at all times. In order to effect the deliverance of his people it was necessary to take vengeance on those who had oppressed and enslaved them. So in order to redeem his church, it is often necessary to inflict punishment on the nations that oppose it, or to remove by death the adversaries that stand in his way. This punishment is inflicted strictly according to their deeds. The principal thought here is, undoubtedly, that as they had opposed and oppressed the people of God, so he would take vengeance on them. He would remove his enemies, and prepare the way in this manner for the coming of his kingdom.

To the islands - On the use of the word ‘islands’ in Isaiah, see the notes at Isaiah 41:1. The idea here is, that he would ‘repay recompence’ or take vengeance on the foreign nations which had oppressed them.

Verse 19

So shall they fear - That is, the result of the divine interposition to punish his enemies, shall be to secure the acknowledgment of the existence and perfections of Yahweh in every part of the world. See especially the notes at Isaiah 45:6.

When the enemy shall come in - There has been great variety in the interpretation of this passage, and it is remarkable that our translators have departed from all the ancient versions, and that the present translation differs from nearly all the modern expositions of the place. Lowth renders it:

When he shall come like a river straitened in his course,

Which a strong wind driveth along.

Jerome (the Vulgate) renders it, ‘When he shall come as a violent river which the Spirit of the Lord (spiritus Domini, or the wind of the Lord, that is, a strong wind) drives along. The Septuagint, ‘For the wrath of the Lord will come like an impetuous stream; it will come with fury.’ The Chaldee, ‘When they shall come who oppress, like an overflowing of the river Euphrates.’ The Syriac, ‘Because when the oppressor shall come as a river, the Spirit of the Lord shall humble him.’ The reason of this variety of interpretation is the ambiguity of the Hebrew words which occur in the verse. The word which in our common version is rendered ‘the enemy’ (צר tsâr, from צרר tsârar, to press, compress, bind up together; intrans. to be straitened, or compressed), may mean either:

1. “An adversary, enemy, persecutor,” synonymous with אויב 'ôyēb, as in Numbers 10:9; Deuteronomy 32:27; Job 16:9; or,

2. “Straits, affliction” Psalms 4:2; Psalms 18:7; Psalms 44:11; or,

3. “Strait, narrow” Numbers 22:26; Job 41:7.

‘It may be, therefore, here either a noun meaning an enemy; or it maybe an adjective qualifying the word river, and then will denote a river that is closely confined within its banks, and that is urged forward by a mass of accumulating waters, or by a mighty wind. According to this, it will mean that Yahweh will come to take vengeance with the impetuosity of a river that swells and foams and is borne forward with violence in its course. The comparison of a warrior or hero with such a mighty and impetuous torrent, is exceedingly forcible and beautiful, and is not uncommon (see the notes at Isaiah 8:7). The phrase rendered ‘the Spirit of the Lord’ (יהוה רוח rûach yehovâh), may denote ‘the wind of Yahweh,’ or a strong, violent, mighty wind. The appropriate signification of the word רוח rûach, is wind, or breath; and it is well known that the name of God is often in the Scriptures used to denote that which is mighty or vast, as in the phrase, mountains of God, cedars of God, etc.

There is no reason why it should be here regarded as denoting ‘the Spirit of God,’ - the great agent of enlightening and reforming the world. It may be understood, as Lowth and others have applied it, to denote a strong and violent wind - a wind urging on a mass of waters through a compressed and straitened place, and thus increasing their impetuosity and violence. The phrase ‘Spirit of God’ (אלהים רוח rûach 'ĕlohı̂ym), is used to denote a strong wind, in 1 Kings 18:12; 2 Kings 2:16; Isaiah 40:7; Ezekiel 12:14; Ezekiel 13:13. The word rendered in our version, ‘shall lift up a standard’ (נססה nosesâh), rendered in the margin, ‘put him’ to flight,’ if derived from נסס nāsas, and if written with the points נססה nāsesâh, would denote to lift up, to elevate, as a standard or banner, or anything to oppose and retard a foe. But the word is probably derived from נוּס nûs, to flee, in the Piel נוסס nôsēs, “to impel, to cause to flee.”

Here it means, then, that the mighty wind impels or drives on the compressed waters of the stream, and the whole passage means that Yahweh would come to deliver his people, and to prostrate his foes with the impetuosity of a violent river compressed between narrow banks, and driven on by a mighty wind. True, therefore, as it is, that when a violent enemy assails the church; when he comes in with error, with violence, and with allies, like a flood, Yahweh will rear a standard against him, and the influences of the Spirit of God may be expected to interpose to arrest the evil; yet this passage does not teach that doctrine, nor should it be so applied. It does teach that Yahweh will go forth with energy and power to defend his people and to prostrate his foes.

Verse 20

And the Redeemer shall come - On the meaning of the word rendered here ‘Redeemer,’ see the notes at Isaiah 43:1. This passage is applied by the apostle Paul to the Messiah Romans 11:26; and Aben Ezra and Kimchi, among the Jews, and Christians generally, suppose that it refers to him.

To Zion - On the word ‘Zion,’ see the notes at Isaiah 1:8. The Septuagint renders this, Ἔνεκεν Σιὼν Heneken Siōn - ‘On account of Zion.’ The apostle Paul Romans 11:26, renders this, ‘There shall come out of Zion (ἐκ Σιὼν ek Siōn) the Deliverer,’ meaning that he would arise among that people, or would not be a foreigner. The idea in Isaiah, though substantially the same, is rather that he would come as a deliverer from abroad; that is, he would come from heaven, or be commissioned by God. When it is said that he would come to Zion, it is not meant that he would come exclusively to the Jews, but that his mission would be primarily to them.

And unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob - There is much variety in the interpretation of this passage. Paul Romans 11:26 quotes it thus, ‘and shall turn away ungodliness from Jacob;’ and in this he has literally followed the Septuagint. The Vulgate renders it as in our translation. The Chaldee, ‘And shall turn transgressors of the house of Jacob to the law.’ The Syriac, ‘To those who turn iniquity from Jacob.’ Lowth has adopted the rendering of the Septuagint, and supposes that an error has crept into the Hebrew text. But there is no good authority for this supposition. The Septuagint and the apostle Paul have retained substantially, as Vitringa has remarked, the sense of the text. The main idea of the prophet is, that the effect of the coming of the Messiah would be to turn people from their sins. He would enter into covenant only with those who forsook their transgressions, and the only benefit to be derived from his coming would be that many would be thus turned from their iniquities.

Verse 21

As for me - In the previous part of the chapter, the prophet has spoken. Here Yahweh is introduced as speaking himself, and as declaring the nature of the covenant which he would establish. In the verse previous, it had been stated that the qualifications on the part of people for their partaking of the benefits of the Redeemer’s work, were, that they should turn from transgression. In this verse, Yahweh states what he would do in regard to the covenant which was to be established with his people. ‘So far as I am concerned, I will enter into a covenant with them and with their children.’

This is my covenant with them - (Compare the notes at Isaiah 42:6; Isaiah 49:8; Isaiah 54:10). The covenant here referred to, is that made with people under the Messiah. In important respects it differed from that made with the Jewish people under Moses. The word, ‘covenant’ here is evidently equivalent, as it is commonly, when applied to a transaction between God and human beings, to a most solemn promise on his part; and the expression is a most solemn declaration that, under the Messiah, God would impart his Spirit to those who should turn from transgression, and would abundantly bless them and their offspring with the knowledge of his truth. When it is said, ‘this is my covenant,’ the import evidently is, ‘this is the nature or the tenure of my covenant, or of my solemn promises to my people under the Messiah. It shall certainly occur that my Spirit will be continually imparted to thy seed, and that my words will abide with thee and them forever.’

My Spirit that is upon thee - The word ‘thee’ here does not refer, as Jerome and others suppose, to the prophet, but to the pious Hebrew people. The covenant under the Messiah, was not made especially with the prophet or his posterity, but is a promise made to the church, and here evidently refers to the true people of God: and the idea is, that the Spirit of God would be continually imparted to his people, and to their descendants forever. It is a covenant made with true believers and with their children.

And my words - The Chaldee understands this of prophecy. But it seems rather to refer to the truth of God in general which he had revealed for the guidance and instruction of his church.

Shall not depart out of thy mouth - This phrase probably means, that the truth of God would be the subject of perpetual meditation and conversation. The covenant would be deemed so precious that it would constantly dwell on the tongues of those who were interested in it.

Thy seed’s seed - Thy descendants; thy posterity.

From henceforth and for ever - This is in accordance with the promises which everywhere occur in the Scriptures, that God would bless the posterity of his people, and that the children of the pious should partake of his favor. See Exodus 20:6 : ‘Showing mercy unto thousands (that is, thousands of generations) of them that love me and keep my commandments.’ Compare Deuteronomy 4:37; Deuteronomy 5:29; Deuteronomy 7:9; Psalms 89:24, Psalms 89:36; Jeremiah 32:39-40. There is no promise of the Bible that is more full of consolation to the pious, or that has been more strikingly fulfilled than this. And though it is true that not all the children of holy parents become truly pious; though there are instances where they are signally wicked and abandoned, yet it is also true that rich spiritual blessings are imparted to the posterity of those who serve God and who keep his commandments. The following facts are well known to all who have ever made any observation on this subject:

1. The great majority of those who become religious are the descendants of those who were themselves the friends of God. Those who now compose the Christian churches, are not those generally who have been taken from the ways of open vice and profligacy; from the ranks of infidelity; or from the immediate descendants of scoffers, drunkards, and blasphemers. Such people usually tread, for a few generations at least, in the footsteps of their fathers. The church is composed mainly of the descendants of those who have been true Christians, and who trained their children to walk in the ways of pure religion.

2. It is a fact that comparatively a large proportion of the descendants of the pious themselves for many generations become true Christians. I know that it is often thought to be otherwise, and especially that it is often said that the children of clergymen are less virtuous and religious than others. But it should be remembered that such cases are more prominent than others, and especially that the profane and the wicked have a malicious pleasure in making them the subject of remark. The son of a drunkard will be intemperate without attracting notice - for such a result is expected; the son of an infidel will be an infidel; the son of a scoffer will be a scoffer; of a thief a thief; of a licentious man licentious, without being the subject of special observation. But when the son of an eminent Christian treads the path of open profligacy, it at once excites remark, because such is not the usual course, and is not usually expected; and because a wicked world has pleasure in marking the case, and calumniating religion through such a prominent instance of imperfection and sin.

But such is not the common result of religious training. Some of the most devotedly pious people of this land are the descendants of the Huguenots who were expelled from France. A very large proportion of all the piety in this country has been derived from the ‘Pilgrims,’ who landed on the rock of Plymouth, and God has blessed their descendants in New England and elsewhere with numerous revivals of religion. I am acquainted with the descendants of John Rogers, the first martyr in Queen Mary’s reign, of the tenth and eleventh generations. With a single exception, the oldest son in the family has been a clergymen - some of them eminently distinguished for learning and piety; and there are few families now in this land a greater proportion of whom are pious than of that. The following statistical account made of a limited section of the country, not more favored or more distinguished for piety than many others, accords undoubtedly with similar facts which are constantly occurring in the families of those who are the friends of religion. The Secretary of the Massachusetts Sabbath School Society made a limited investigation, in the year 1838, for the purpose of ascertaining the facts about the religious character of the families of ministers and deacons with reference to the charge so often urged that the ‘sons and daughters of ministers and deacons were worse than common children.’ The following is the result.

In 268 families which he canvassed, he found 1290 children over fifteen years of age. Of these children 884, almost three-fourths, are hopefully pious; 794 have united with the churches; sixty-one entered the ministry; only seventeen are dissipated, and about half only of these became so while with their parents. In eleven of these families there are 123 children, and all but seven pious. In fifty-six of these families there are 249 children over fifteen, and all hopefully pious. When and where can any such result be found in the families of infidels, of the vicious, or of irreligious people? Indeed, it is the great law by which religion and virtue are perpetuated in the world. that God is faithful to this covenant, and that he blesses the efforts of his friends to train up generations for his service.

3. All pious parents should repose on this promise of a faithful God. They may and should believe that it is his design to perpetuate religion in the families of those who truly serve and obey him. They should be faithful in imparting religious truth; faithful in prayer, and in a meek, holy, pure, and benevolent example; they should so live that their children may safely tread in their footsteps; they should look to God for his blessing on their efforts, and their efforts will not be in vain. They shall see their children walk in the ways of virtue; and when they die, they may leave the world with unwavering confidence that God will not suffer his faithfulness to fail; that he will not break his covenant, nor alter the thing that is gone out of his lips Psalms 89:33-34.

Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Isaiah 59". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bnb/isaiah-59.html. 1870.
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