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Bible Commentaries

Albert Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible

Isaiah 64


For an analysis of this chapter, see the Analysis prefixed to Isaiah 63:0. This chapter is closely connected with that in its design, and should not have been separated from it. This is one of the many instances where the division seems to have been made without any intelligent view of the scope of the sacred writer.

Verse 1

Oh that thou wouldest rend the heavens - That is, in view of the considerations urged in the previous chapter. In view of the fact that the temple is burned up Isaiah 64:11; that the city is desolate; that the land lies waste, and that thine own people are carried captive to a distant land. The phrase ‘rend the heavens,’ implies a sudden and sublime descent of Yahweh to execute vengeance on his foes, as if his heart was full of vengeance, and the firmament were violently rent asunder at his sudden appearance. It is language properly expressive of a purpose to execute wrath on his foes, rather than to confer blessings on his people. The latter is more appropriately expressed by the heavens being gently opened to make way for the descending blessings. The word rendered here ‘rend’ (קרע qâra‛), means properly to tear asunder, as, e. g., the garments in grief Gen 37:29; 2 Samuel 13:31; or as a wild beast does the breast of anyone Hosea 13:8. The Septuagint, however, render it by a milder word - ἀνοίξης anoixēs - ‘If thou wouldst open the heavens,’ etc. So the Syriac renders it by ‘O that thou wouldst open,’ using a word that is usually applied to the opening of a door. God is often represented as coming down from heaven in a sublime manner amidst tempests, fire, and storms, to take vengeance on his foes. Thus Psalms 18:9 :

He bowed the heavens also and came down;

And darkness was under his feet.

Compare Habakkuk 3:5-6. It should be remembered that the main idea in the passage before us is that of Yahweh coming down to destroy his foes. His people entreat him to descend with the proofs of his indignation, so that every obstacle shall be destroyed before him, Thus he is described in Psalms 144:5-6 :

Bow thy heavens, O Lord, and come down;

Touch the mountains, and they shall smoke;

Cast forth lightning, and scatter them,

Shoot out thine arrows, and destroy them.

That the mountains might flow down at thy presence - The idea here is, that the presence of Yahweh would be like an intense burning heat, so that the mountains would melt and flow away. It is a most sublime description of his majesty, and is one that is several times employed in the Bible. Thus in relation to his appearance on Mount Sinai, in the song of Deborah Judges 5:4-5 :

The earth trembled and the heavens dropped,

The clouds also dropped water.

The mountains melted from before Yahweh,

Even Sinai from before Yahweh, the God of Israel.

So Psalms 97:5 :

The hills melted like wax at the presence of Yahweh,

At the presence of Yahweh (the God) of the whole earth.

So also in Micah 1:3-4 :

Lo, Yahweh cometh forth out of his place,

And will come down and tread upon the high places of the earth

And the mountains shall be molten under him.

And the valleys shall be cleft,

As wax before the fire,

And as the waters pour down a precipice.

Verse 2

As when the melting fire burneth - Margin, ‘The fire of meltings.’ Lowth renders it, ‘As when the fire kindleth the dry fuel.’ So Noyes, ‘As fire kindleth the dry stubble.’ The Septuagint render it: Ὡς κηρὸς ἀπὸ προσώπου πυρὸς τήκεται Hōs kēros apo prosōpou puros tēketai - ‘As wax is melted before the fire.’ So the Syriac renders it. The Hebrew word rendered here in the margin ‘meltings’ (המסים hămâsı̂ym), properly means, according to Gesenius, brushwood, twigs. So Saddias renders it. And the true idea here is, that the presence of Yahweh would cause the mountains to melt, as a fire consumes light and dry brushwood or stubble. Dr. Jubb supposes that the meaning is, ‘As the fire of things smelted burneth’ - an idea which would furnish a striking comparison, but there is much doubt whether the Hebrew will bear that construction.

The comparison is a very vivid and sublime one, as it is in the view given above - that the presence of Yahweh would set on fire the mountains, and cause them to flow down as under the operation of an intense heat. I do not know that there is reason to suppose that the prophet had any reference to a volcanic eruption, or that he was acquainted with such a phenomenon - though Syria and Palestine abounded in volcanic appearances, and the country around the Dead Sea is evidently volcanic (see Lyell’s Geology, i. 299); but the following description may furnish an illustration of what would be exhibited by the flowing down of the mountains at the presence of Yahweh, and may serve to show the force of the language which the prophet employs in these verses. It is a description of an eruption of Vesuvius in 1779, by Sir William Hamilton. ‘Jets of liquid lava,’ says he, ‘mixed with stones and scoriae, were thrown up to the height of at least 10,000 feet, having the appearance of a column of fire.

The falling matter being nearly as vividly inflamed as that which was continually issuing forth from the crater, formed with it one complete body of fire, which could not be less than two miles and a half in breadth, and of the extraordinary height above mentioned, casting a heat to the distance of at least six miles around it.’ Speaking of the lava which flowed from the mountain, he says, ‘At the point where it issued from an arched chasm in the side of the mountain, the vivid torrent rushed with the velocity of a flood. It was in perfect fusion, unattended with any scoriae on its surface, or any gross material not in a state of complete solution. It flowed with the translucency of honey, in regular channels, cut finer than art can imitate, and glowing with all the splendor of the sun’ (Lyell’s Geology, i. 316). Perhaps there can be conceived no more sublime representation of what was in the mind of the prophet than such an overflowing volcano. It should be observed, however, that Gesenius supposes that the word which is rendered Isaiah 64:1-3, ‘flow down’ (נזלוּ nāzolû), is derived, not from נזל nāzal, to flow, to run as liquids do; but from זלל zâlal, to shake, to tremble, to quake as mountains do in an earthquake. But it seems to me that the connection rather demands the former signification, as the principal elements in the figure is fire - and the office of fire is not to cause to tremble, but to burn or melt. The effect here described as illustrative of the presence of God, was that produced by intense burning heat.

The fire causeth the waters to boil - Such an effect was anticipated at the presence of Yahweh. The idea is still that of an intense heat, that should cause all obstacles to be consumed before the presence of the Lord. To illustrate this, the prophet speaks of that which is known to be most intense, that which causes water to boil; and the prayer is, that Yahweh would descend in the manner of such intense and glowing fire, in order that a the foes of the people might be destroyed, and all the obstacles to the restoration of his people removed. The exact point of the comparison, as I conceive, is the intensity of the heat, as emblematic of the majesty of Yahweh, and of the certain destruction of his foes.

To make thy name known - By the exhibition of thy majesty and glory.

Verse 3

When thou didst terrible things - In delivering the people from Egypt, and in conducting them to the promised land.

Which we looked not for - Which we had never before witnessed, and which we had no right to expect.

Thou camest down - As on Mount Sinai.

The mountains flowed down - (See the notes above). The reference is to the manifestations of smoke and fire when Yahweh descended on Mount Sinai (see Exodus 19:18).

Verse 4

For since the beginning of the world - This verse is quoted, though not literally, by the apostle Paul, as illustrating the effects of the gospel in producing happiness and salvation (see the notes at 1 Corinthians 2:9). The meaning here is, that nowhere else among people had there been such blessings imparted, and such happiness enjoyed; or so many proofs of love and protection, as among those who were the people of God, and who feared him.

Men have not heard - In no nation in all past time have deeds been heard of such as thou hast performed.

Nor perceived by the ear - Paul 1 Corinthians 2:9 renders this ‘neither have entered into the heart of man,’ ‘which,’ says Lowth, ‘is a phrase purely Hebrew, and which should seem to belong to the prophet.’ The phrase, ‘Nor perceived by the ear,’ he says, is repeated without force or propriety, and he seems to suppose that this place has been either willfully corrupted by the Jews, or that Paul made his quotation from some Apocryphal book - either the ascension of Esaiah, or the Apocalypse of Elias, in both of which the passage is found as quoted by Paul. The phrase is wholly omitted by the Septuagint and the Arabic, but is found in the Vulgate and Syriac. There is no authority from the Hebrew manuscripts to omit it.

Neither hath the eye seen - The margin here undoubtedly expresses the true sense. So Lowth renders it, ‘Nor hath the eye seen a God beside thee, which doeth such things for those that trust in him.’ In a similar manner, the Septuagint translates it, ‘Neither have our eyes seen a God beside thee (οὐδὲ οἱ ὀφθαλμοὶ ἡμῶν εἶδον θεὸν πλήν σου oude hoi ophthalmoi hēmōn eidon theon plēn sou), and thy works which thou hast done for those who wait for mercy.’ The sense is, no eye had ever seen such a God as Yahweh; one who so richly rewarded those who put their trust in him. In the Hebrew, the word rendered ‘O God,’ may be either in the accusative or vocative case, and the sense is, that Yahweh was a more glorious rewarder and protector than any of the gods which had ever been worshipped by the nations.

What he hath prepared - Hebrew, יעשׂה ya‛ăs'eh - ‘He doeth,’ or will do. So the Septuagint, Ἅ ποιήσεις Ha poiēseis - ‘What thou wilt do.’ The sense given by our translators - ‘What he hath prepared,’ has been evidently adopted to accommodate the passage to the sense given by Paul 1 Corinthians 2:9, ἅἠτοίμασεν, κ.τ.λ. ha ētoimasen, etc. ‘What God has prepared.’ But the idea is, in the Hebrew, not what God has prepared or laid up in the sense of preserving it for the future; but what he bad already done in the past. No god had done what he had; no human being had ever witnessed such manifestations from any other god.

For him that waiteth for him - Lowth and Noyes, ‘For him who trusteth in him.’ Paul renders this, ‘For them that love him,’ and it is evident that he did not intend to quote this literally, but meant to give the general sense. The idea in the Hebrew is, ‘For him who waits (למחכה limchakēh) for Yahweh,’ that is, who feels his helplessness, and relies on him to interpose and save him. Piety is often represented as an attitude of waiting on God Psalms 25:3, Psalms 25:5, Psalms 25:21; Psalms 27:14; Psalms 37:9; Psalms 130:5. The sense of the whole verse is, that God in his past dealings had given manifestations of his existence, power, and goodness, to those who were his friends, which had been furnished nowhere else. To those interpositions the suppliants appeal, as a reason why he should again interpose, and why he should save them in their heavy calamities.

Verse 5

Thou meetest him - Perhaps there are few verses in the Bible that have given more perplexity to interpreters than this; and after all that has been done, the general impression seems to be, that it is wholly inexplicable, or without meaning - as it certainly is in our translation. Noyes says of his own translation of the last member of the verse, ‘I am not satisfied with this or any other translation of the line which I have seen.’ Lowth says, ‘I am fully persuaded that these words as they stand at present in the Hebrew text are utterly unintelligible. There is no doubt of the meaning of each word separately, but put together they make no sense at all. I conclude, therefore, that the copy has suffered by transcribers in this place.’ And after proposing an important change in the text, without any authority, he says, ‘perhaps these may not be the very words of the prophet, but, however, it is better than to impose upon him what makes no sense at all, as they generally do who pretend to render such corrupted passages.’ Arch. Secker also proposed an important change in the Hebrew text, but there is no good authority in the manuscripts, it is believed, for any change.

Without repeating what has been said by expositors on the text, I shall endeavor to state what seems to me to be its probable signification. Its general purpose, I think, is clear. It is to urge, as an argument for God’s interposition, the fact that he was accustomed to regard with pleasure those who did well; yet to admit that he was now justly angry on account of their sins, and that they had continued so long in them that they had no hope of being saved but in his mercy. An examination of the words and phrases which occur, will prepare us to present at a single view the probable meaning. The word rendered ‘thou meetest,’ (פגעת pâga‛ethâ) means probably to strike upon, to impinge; then to fall upon in a hostile manner, to urge in any way as with petitions and prayers; and then to strike a peace or league with anyone. See the word explained in the notes at Isaiah 47:3. Here it means, as I suppose, to meet for purposes of peace, friendship, protection; that is, it was a characteristic of God that he met such persons as are described for purposes of kindness and favor; and it expresses the belief of the petitioners that whatever they were suffering, still they had no doubt that it was the character of God to bless the righteous.

That rejoiceth - This translation evidently does not express the sense of the Hebrew, unless it be understood as meaning that God meets with favor those who rejoice in doing righteousness. So Gesenius translates it, ‘Thou makest peace with him who rejoices to do justice; that is, with the just and upright man thou art in league, thou delightest in him.’ So Noyes renders it, ‘Thou art the friend of those who joyfully do righteousness.’ Lowth ‘Thou meetest with joy those who work righteousness.’ Jerome, ‘Thou meetest him who rejoices and does right.’ The phrase used (את־שׂשׂ 'eth-s'ās') seems to me to mean, ‘With joy,’ and to denote the general habit of God. It was a characteristic of him to meet the just ‘with joy,’ that is, joyfully.

And worketh righteousness - Hebrew, ‘And him that doeth righteousness;’ that is, ‘thou art accustomed to meet the just with joy, and him that does right.’ It was a pleasure for God to do it, and to impart to them his favors.

Those that remember thee in thy ways - On the word ‘remember,’ used in this connection, see the notes at Isaiah 62:6. The idea is, that such persons remembered God in the modes which he had appointed; that is, by prayer, sacrifices, and praise. With such persons he delighted to meet, and such he was ever ready to succor.

Behold, thou art wroth - This is language of deep feeling on the part of the suppliants. Notwithstanding the mercy of God, and his readiness to meet and bless the just, they could not be ignorant of the fact that he was now angry with them. They were suffering under the tokens of his displeasure; but they were not now disposed to blame him. They felt the utmost assurance that he was just, whatever they might have endured. It is to be borne in mind, that this is language supposed to be used by the exiles in Babylon, near the close of the captivity; and the evidences that God was angry were to be seen in their heavy sorrows there, in their desolate land, and in the ruins of their prostrate city and temple (see the notes at Isaiah 64:10-11).

In those is continuance - Lowth has correctly remarked that this conveys no idea. To what does the word ‘those’ refer? No antecedent is mentioned, and expositors have been greatly perplexed with the passage. Lowth, in accordance with his too usual custom, seems to suppose that the text is corrupted, but is not satisfied with any proposed mode of amending it. He renders it, ‘because of our deeds, for we have been rebellious;’ changing entirely the text - though following substantially the sense of the Septuagint. Noyes renders it, ‘Long doth the punishment endure, until we be delivered;’ but expresses, as has been already remarked, dissatisfaction even with this translation, and with all others which he has seen. Jerome renders it, In ipsis fuimus semper - ‘We have always been in them,’ that is, in our sins. The Septuagint, Διὰ τοῦτο ἐπλανήθημεν Dia touto eplanēthēmen, etc. ‘Because of this we wandered, and became all of us as unclean, and all our righteousness as a filthy rag.’ It seems to me that the phrase בחם bâhem, ‘in them,’ or ‘in those,’ refers to sins understood; and that the word rendered ‘continuance’ (עולם ôlâm) is equivalent to a long former period; meaning that their sins had been of long continuance, or as we would express it, ‘we have been always sinners.’ It is the language of humble confession, denoting that this had been the characteristic of the nation, and that this was the reason why God was angry at them.

And we shall be saved - Lowth renders this, or rather substitutes a phrase for it, thus, ‘For we have been rebellious’ - amending it wholly by conjecture. But it seems to me that Castellio has given an intelligible and obvious interpretation by regarding it as a question: ‘Jamdiu peccavimus, et serv-abimur?’ ‘Long time have we sinned, and shall we be saved?’ That is, we have sinned so long, our offences have been so aggravated, how can we hope to be saved? Is salvation possible for such sinners? It indicates a deep consciousness of guilt, and is language such as is used by all who feel their deep depravity before God. Nothing is more common in conviction for sin, or when suffering under great calamities as a consequence of sin, than to ask the question whether it is possible for such sinners to be saved. I have thus given, perhaps at tedious length, my view of this verse, which has so much perplexed commentators. And though the view must be submitted with great diffidence after such a man as Lowth has declared it to be without sense as the Hebrew text now stands, and though no important doctrine of religion is involved by the exposition, yet some service is rendered if a plausible and probable interpretation is given to a much disputed passage of the sacred Scriptures, and if we are saved from the necessity of supposing a corruption in the Hebrew text.

Verse 6

But we are all as an unclean thing - We are all polluted and defiled. The word used here (טמא ṭâmē'), means properly that which is polluted and defiled in a Levitical sense; that is, which was regarded as polluted and abominable by the law of Moses Leviticus 5:2; Deuteronomy 14:19, and may refer to animals, people, or things; also in a moral sense Job 14:4. The sense is, that they regarded themselves as wholly polluted and depraved.

And all our righteousnesses - The plural form is used to denote the deeds which they had performed - meaning that pollution extended to every individual thing of the numerous acts which they had done. The sense is, that all their prayers, sacrifices, alms, praises, were mingled with pollution, and were worthy only of deep detestation and abhorrence.

As filthy rags - ‘Like a garment of stated times’ (עדים iddiym) - from the obsolete root עדד âdad, “to number, to reckon, to determine,” e. g., time. No language could convey deeper abhorrenee of their deeds of righteousness than this reference - as it is undoubtedly - to the vestis menstruis polluta. ‘Non est ambigendum,’ says Vitringa, ‘quin vestis עדים iddiym notet linteum aut pannum immundum ex immunditie legali, eundemque foedum aspectu; cu-jusmodi fuerit imprimis vestis, pannus, aut linteum feminae menstruo profluvio laborantis; verisimile est, id potissimum hae phrasi designari. Sic accepit earr Alexandrinus, vertens, ὡς ῥάκος ἀποκαθη μένης hōs rakos apokathē menēs - ut pannus sedentis; proprie: ut pannus mulieris languidae et desidentis ex menstruo παθήματι pathēmati ‘ (Leviticus 15:33; compare Leviticus 20:18; Lamentations 1:17).

And we all do fade as a leaf - We are all withered away like the leaf of autumn. Our beauty is gone; our strength is fled (compare the notes at Isaiah 40:6-7; Isa 50:1-11 :30). What a beautiful description this is of the state of man! Strength, vigor, comeliness, and beauty thus fade away, and, like the ‘sere and yellow leaf’ of autumn, fall to the earth. The earth is thus strewed with that which was once comely like the leaves of spring, now falling and decaying like the faded verdure of the forest.

And our iniquities like the wind - As a tempest sweeps away the leaves of the forest, so have we been swept away by our sins.

Verse 7

And there is none that calleth upon thy name - The nation is corrupt and degenerate. None worship God in sincerity.

That stirreth up himself - The word used here (מתעורר mite‛ôrēr) refers to the effort which is requisite to rouse oneself when oppressed by a spirit of heavy slumber; and the idea here is, that the nation was sunk in spiritual torpor, and that the same effort was needful to excite it which was requisite to rouse one who had sunk down to deep sleep. How aptly this describes the state of a sinful world! How much disposed is that world to give itself to spiritual slumber! How indisposed to rouse itself to call upon God! No man rises to God without effort; and unless men make an effort for this, they fall into the stupidity of sin, just as certainly as a drowsy man sinks back into deep sleep.

To take hold of thee - The Hebrew word (חזק châzaq) means properly to bind fast, to gird tight, and then to make firm or strong, to strengthen; and the idea of strengthening oneself is implied in the use of the word here. It means, that with the consciousness of feebleness we should seek strength in God. This the people referred to by the prophet were indisposed to do. This the world at large is indisposed to do.

For thou hast hid thy face - Thou bast withdrawn thy favor from us, as a people, on account of our sins. This is an acknowledgment that one effect of his withdrawing his favor, and one evidence of it was, that no one was disposed to call upon his name. All had sunk into the deep lethargy of sin.

And hast consumed us - Margin, ‘Melted.’ The Hebrew word (מוג mûg) means “to melt, to flow down”; and hence, in Piel, to cause to melt or flow down. It is used to denote the fact that an army or host of people seem to melt away, or become dissolved by fear and terror Exodus 15:15; Joshua 2:9-24; Job 30:22. ‘Thou dissolvest (תמגגני thı̂mogegēniy) my substance;’ that is, thou causest me to dissolve before thy indignation. This is described as one of the effects of the wrath of God, that his enemies vanish away, or are dissolved before him.

Because of our iniquities - Margin, as Hebrew, ‘By the hand;’ that is, our iniquities have been the hand, the agent or instrument by which this has been done.

Verse 8

But now, O Lord, thou art our Father - (See the notes at Isaiah 63:16).

We are the clay - The idea seems to be, that their condition then had been produced by him as clay is moulded by the potter, and that they were to be returned and restored entirely by him - as they had no more power to do it than the clay had to shape itself. The sense is, that they were wholly in his hand and at his disposal (see the notes at Isaiah 29:16; Isaiah 45:9).

And thou our potter - Thou hast power to mould us as the potter does the clay.

And we all are the work of thy hand - That is, as the vessel made by the potter is his work. We have been formed by thee, and we are dependent on thee to make us what thou wilt have us to be. This whole verse is an acknowledgment of the sovereignty of God. It expresses the feeling which all have when under conviction of sin; and when they are sensible that they are exposed to the divine displeasure for their transgressions. Then they feel that if they are to be saved, it must be by the mere sovereignty of God; and then they implore his interposition to ‘mould and guide them at his will.’

Verse 10

Thy holy cities are a wilderness - It is to be remembered that this is supposed to be spoken near the close of the exile in Babylon. In accordance with the usual custom in this book, Isaiah throws himself forward by prophetic anticipation into that future period, and describes the scene as if it were passing before his eyes (see the Introduction, Section 7). He uses language such as the exiles would use; he puts arguments into their mouths which it would be proper for them to use; he describes the feelings which they would then have. The phrase, ‘thy holy cities,’ may either mean the cities of the holy land - which belonged to God, and were ‘holy,’ as they pertained to his people; or it may mean, as many critics have supposed, the different parts of Jerusalem. A part of Jerusalem was built on Mount Zion, and was called the ‘upper city,’ in contradistinction from that built on Mount Acra, which was called the ‘lower city.’ But I think it more probable that the prophet refers to the cities throughout the land that were laid waste.

Are a wilderness - They were uninhabited, and were lying in ruins.

Zion is a wilderness - On the name ‘Zion,’ see the notes at Isaiah 1:8. The idea here is, that Jerusalem was laid waste. Its temple was burned; its palaces destroyed; its houses uninhabited. This is to be regarded as being uttered at the close of the exile, after Jerusalem had been lying in ruins for seventy years - a time during which any forsaken city would be in a condition which might not improperly be called a desert. When Nebuchadnezzar conquered Jerusalem, he burned the temple, broke down the wall, and consumed all the palaces with fire (2 Chronicles 36:19). We have only to conceive what must have been the state of the city seventy years after this, to see the force of the description here.

Verse 11

Our holy and our beautiful house - The temple. It was called ‘holy,’ because it was dedicated to the service of God; and ‘beautiful,’ on account of its extraordinary magnificence. The original word more properly means glorious.

Where our fathers praised thee - Few attachments become stronger than that which is formed for a place of worship where our ancestors have long been engaged in the service of God. It was now a great aggravation of their sufferings, that that beautiful place, consecrated by the fact that their forefathers had long there offered praise to God, was lying in ruins.

Is burned up with fire - (See 2 Chronicles 36:19).

And all our pleasant things - All that is precious to us (Hebrew); all the objects of our desire. The reference is to their temples, their homes, their city - to all that was dear to them in their native land. It would be difficult to find a passage anywhere in the Bible - or out of it - that equals this for tenderness and true pathos. They were an exiled people; long suffering in a distant land with the reflection that their homes were in ruins; their splendid temple long since fired and lying in desolation; the rank grass growing in their streets, and their whole country overrun with wild beasts, and with a rank and unsubdued vegetation. To that land they longed to return, and here with the deepest emotion they plead with God in behalf of their desolate country. The sentiment here is, that we should go to God with deep emotion when his church is prostrate, and that then is the time when we should use the most tender pleadings, and when our hearts should be melted within us.

Verse 12

Wilt thou refrain thyself - Wilt thou refuse to come to our aid? Wilt thou decline to visit us, and save us from our calamities?

Wilt thou hold thy peace - Wilt thou not speak for our rescue, and command us to be delivered? Thus closes this chapter of great tenderness and beauty. It is a model of affectionate and earnest entreaty for the divine interposition in the day of calamity. With such tender and affectionate earnestness may we learn to plead with God! Thus may all his people learn to approach him as a Father: thus feel that they have the inestimable privilege, in times of trial, of making known their needs to the High and Holy One. Thus, when calamity presses on us; when as individuals or as families we are afflicted; or when our country or the church is suffering under long trials, may we go to God and humbly confess our sins, and urge his promises, and take hold of his strength, and plead with him to interpose. Thus pleading, be will hear us; thus presenting our cause, he will interpose to save.

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Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Isaiah 64". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". 1870.