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(1) For the Lord will have mercy on Jacob . . .—The words imply a prevision of the return of the Israelites from exile, and therefore of the exile itself. The downfall of Babylon was certain, because without it the mercy of the Lord to Israel could not be manifested. The whole section is an anticipation of the great argument of Isaiah 40-66, and the question of its authorship stands or falls on the same grounds.
The strangers shall be joined with them . . .—The thought is one specially characteristic of the later prophecies of Isaiah (Isaiah 44:5; Isaiah 55:5; Isaiah 56:3-6), but is prominent in the earlier also (Isaiah 2:2). In later Hebrew the same words came to be applied to the proselytes who are conspicuous in the apostolic age (Acts 2:10; Acts 6:5), and in them, as before in the adhesion and support of the Persian kings and satraps, and as afterwards in the admission of the Gentiles into the kingdom of the Christ, we may trace successive fulfilments of the prophet’s words.
(2) The people shall take them . . .—Literally, the peoples. In Ezra 1:1-4; Ezra 6:7-8, we have what answered, in a measure, to the picture thus drawn; but here, as elsewhere, the words paint an ideal to which there has been as yet no historical reality fully corresponding. No period of later Jewish history has beheld the people ruling over a conquered race; and if we claim a real fulfilment of the last clause of the verse, it is only in the sense in which the Latin poet said that Grœcia capta ferum victorem cepit (Horat. Ep. II. i. 156). The triumph of Israel has, so far, been found in that of its leading ideas, and in the victory of the faith of Christ. In Isaiah 56:3 the proselyte appears as admitted on terms of equality, here on those of subjugation.
(3) It shall come to pass . . .—The condition of the exiles in Babylon is painted in nearly the same terms as in Habakkuk 2:13. A monarch bent on building towers and walls and palaces, who had carried off all the skilled labour of Jerusalem, was likely enough to vex their souls with “fear” and “hard bondage.” So Assurbanipal boasts that he made his Arabian prisoners carry heavy burdens and build brick-work (Records of the Past, i. 104).
(4) That thou shalt take up this proverb against the king of Babylon.—The prophet appears once more (comp. Isaiah 5:1; Isaiah 12:1) in his character as a psalmist. In the mashal or taunting-song that follows, the generic meaning of “proverb” is specialised (as in Micah 2:4; Habakkuk 2:6; Deuteronomy 28:37, 1 Kings 9:7, and elsewhere) for a derisive utterance in poetic or figurative speech. The LXX., singularly enough, renders the word here by “lamentation.”
How hath the oppressor ceased.—If we take “the golden city” of the English version as the correct rendering, it finds a parallel in the epithet of “gold abounding” applied to Babylon by Æschylus (Pers. 53). The word so translated is, however, not found elsewhere, and the general consensus of recent critics, following in the wake of the Targum and the LXX., is in favour of the rendering, the task-master, or the place of torture. The Vulgate, how has the tribute ceased, expresses substantially the same thought. The marginal reading, exactress of gold, seems like an attempt to combine two different etymologies.
(5) The Lord hath broken the staff of the wicked . . .—The “staff” and the “sceptre” are alike symbols of power, the former being that on which a man supports himself, the other that which he wields in his arm to smite those who oppose him.
(6) He who smote . . .—Better, which smote, the whole verse being of the nature of a relative clause, with the “sceptre” for antecedent.
A continual stroke.—Literally, a stroke without ceasing.
Is persecuted, and none hindereth.—Better, completing the parallelism, with a trampling that is not stayed.
(7) They break forth into singing . . .—The phrase is noticeable as characteristic of Isaiah (Isaiah 44:23; Isaiah 49:13; Isaiah 52:9; Isaiah 54:1; Isaiah 55:12), and is not found elsewhere. The emancipated nations are represented as exulting in the unfamiliar peace that follows on the downfall of their oppressor.
(8) Yea, the fir trees rejoice at thee.—The tree has been identified (Carruthers, in Bible Educator, 4, 359) with the Aleppo pine (Pinus halepensis), which grows abundantly on the Lebanon range above the zone of the evergreen oaks. The LXX. often translates it by “cypress,” the Vulgate and Authorised version commonly by “fir tree.” Its wood was largely used in house and ship-building, but was less precious than the cedar (1 Kings 5:10; 1 Kings 6:15; 1 Kings 6:34; Isaiah 41:19; Ezekiel 27:5).
No feller is come up against us—The literal and figurative senses melt into each other, the former perhaps being the more prominent. It was the boast of Assurbanipal and other Assyrian kings that wherever they conquered they cut down forests and left the land bare. (Comp. Isaiah 37:24 : Records of the Past, i. 86.) As the fir tree, the cedar, and the oak were the natural symbols of kingly rule (Jeremiah 22:7; Ezekiel 17:3; Ezekiel 31:3), this devastation represented the triumph of the Chaldæan king over other princes. On his downfall, the trees on the mountain, the kings and chieftains in their palaces, would alike rejoice.
(9) Hell from beneath is moved for thee . . .—“Hell,” or Sheol, is, as elsewhere, the shadow-world, the region of the dead. Into that world the king of Babylon descends. The “dead” and the Rephaim are there, the giant-spectres, now faint and feeble (Deuteronomy 2:11; Deuteronomy 3:11), of departed forms of greatness. The verb (“it stirreth up”), which is masculine, while the noun is feminine, seems to personify Sheol, as Hades is personified in Revelation 20:14. The “chief ones” are, literally, the he-goats, or “bell-wethers” of the flock (Isaiah 34:6; Zechariah 10:3), of which Hades is the shepherd (Psalms 49:14). Even in Sheol the kings of the earth retain their former majesty, and sit on thrones apart from the vulgar dead. In Ezekiel 32:17-32 we have a reproduction of the same imagery, and the kings appear, each with his “weapons of war.” The whole passage finds a striking parallel in the Assyrian legend of the Descent of Ishtar (Records of the Past, i. p. 144), where Hades is described.
“The abode of darkness and famine.
* * * * * *
Night is not seen—in darkness they dwell.
Ghosts, like birds, flutter their wings there.
On the door and gate-posts the dust lies undisturbed.
* * * * * * *
To be the ruler of a palace shall be thy rank;
A throne of state shall be thy seat.”
(10) Art thou also become weak as we?—The question implies, of course, an affirmative answer. The king of Babylon, the report of whose coming had roused awe and wonder, is found to be as weak as any of the other Rephaim, the eidôla, or shadowy forms, of Homer (Il, xxiii., 72). With these words the vision of the spectral world ends, and the next verse takes up the taunting song of the liberated Israelites, the language of which is, however, influenced by the imagery of the vision.
(11) Thy pomp is brought down to the grave. Literally, to Sheol, as in Isaiah 14:9. The “pomp” is the same as the “beauty” of Isaiah 13:19.
The noise of thy viols.—Perhaps harps, or cymbals, representing one of the prominent features of Babylonian culture (Daniel 3:5). The singers see, as it were, all this kingly state mouldering in the grave, maggots and worms (the two words are different in the Hebrew) taking the place of the costly shawls and carpets on which the great king had been wont to rest.
(12) How art thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!—The word for Lucifer is, literally, the shining one, the planet Venus, the morning star, the son of the dawn, as the symbol of the Babylonian power, which was so closely identified with astrolatry. “Lucifer” etymologically gives the same meaning, and is used by Latin poets (Tibull. i., 10, 62) for Venus, as an equivalent for the phôsphoros of the Greeks. The use of the word, however, in mediæval Latin as a name of Satan, whose fall was supposed to be shadowed forth in this and the following verse, makes its selection here singularly unfortunate. Few English readers realise the fact that it is the king of Babylon, and not the devil, who is addressed as Lucifer. While this has been the history of the Latin word, its Greek and English equivalents have risen to a higher place, and the “morning star” has become a name of the Christ (Revelation 22:16).
(13) I will ascend into heaven.—The boast of the Chaldæan king is represented as nothing less than an apotheosis, which they themselves claimed. So Shalmaneser describes himself as “a sun-god” (Records of the Past, iii. 83), Assurbanipal as “lord of all kings” (ib., iii. 78). In contrast with the Sheol into which the Chaldæan king had sunk, the prophet paints the heaven to which he sought to rise. He, the brightest star, would raise his throne above all the stars of God.
I will sit also upon the mount of the congregation . . .—The words have often been interpreted of Jerusalem or the Temple, as the “mountain of assembly” (as the tabernacle was “the tent of the congregation,” or “of meeting”), and “the sides (better, recesses) of the north” have been connected, like the same phrase in Psalms 48:2, with the portion of the Temple which the king of Babylon is supposed to threaten. Most modern scholars are, however, agreed that this interpretation is untenable. What is brought before us is the heaven, the “mountain of assembly,” where the great gods in whom the king of Babylon believed sat in council. So Assyrian hymns speak of “the feasts of the silver mountains, the heavenly courts” (as the Greeks spoke of Olympus), where the gods dwell eternally (Records of the Past, iii. 133). And this ideal mountain was for them, like the Meru of Indian legend, in the farthest north. So in the legendary geography of Greece, the Hyperborei, or “people beyond the north wind,” were a holy and blessed race, the chosen servants of Apollo (Herod., ii. 32-36). In Ezekiel 28:14 the prophet recognises an ideal “mountain of God” of like nature, and the vision of the future glory of a transfigured Zion, in chap 2:1-3, implies, as we have seen, an idea of the same kind. Possibly the same thought appears in Ezekiel’s vision, “out of the north” (Isaiah 1:4).
(14) I will be like the most High.—The Chaldaean king is rightly represented as using a Divine name (Elîôn), which was not essentially Israelite, but common to the Phœnicians and other kindred nations. (See Genesis 14:18; Daniel 4:24; Luke 8:28; Acts 16:17.) The Persians carried their adulation still further, and applied the title “god” to their kings (Æsch. Pers. 623), as the Syrians afterwards did in the case of Antiochus Theos. The Assyrian and Babylonian inscriptions, for the most part, fall short of this, and describe the king as the “servant,” or “priest,” of Assur, or Bel, or Nebo, “the viceroy, or vicar, of the gods.”
(15) Yet thou shalt be brought . . .—We note in the use of the same words (“ the sides, or recesses,” of the pit), as in the previous verse, the contrast of an indignant sarcasm. Yes, the prophet seems to say, the proud king has found his way to those “recesses;” but they are not in heaven, but in Hades.
(16) They that see thee . . .—The context shows that the picture before the prophet’s eye is no longer the shadow-world of Hades, but the field of battle, Men look at the corpse of the mighty conqueror as it lies dishonoured, bloody, and unburied.
(17) That opened not the house of his prisoners.—Better, as in the margin, he loosed not his prisoners to their homes. This was, we may note, a characteristic feature of the cruelty of the Assyrian kings. So Sennacherib and Assurbanipal boast of having carried off captive kings in “chains of iron” (Records of the Past, i. pp. 43, 62, 72), and kept them chained like dogs in the court of their palace (ib., pp. 93, 97). So Jehoiachin was kept in prison for thirty-seven years (Jeremiah 52:31).
(18) All the kings of the nations . . .—The “house” in which the monarchs lie is, of course, their sepulchre. Such sepulchres, as in the case of the pyramid graves of the Egyptian kings, the “eternal home” as they themselves called it (comp. Ecclesiastes 12:5), were often almost literally the “house,” or palace, of the dead.
(19) Like an abominable branch.—The noun is the same as in Isaiah 11:1; Isaiah 60:21. The idea seems to be that of a scion or shoot which is mildewed and blasted, and which men fling away as loathsome.
As the raiment of those that are slain . . .—The image reminds us of the “garments rolled in blood “of Isaiah 9:5, gathered after the battle, and “cast forth” to be burnt. In such raiment, not in stately robes nor kingly grave-clothes, would the great ruler be found. To lie thus unburied, “a prey to dogs and vultures” (Homer, Iliad, i. 4), was, as with the Homeric heroes, the shame of all shames.
That go down to the stones of the pit.—By some critics these words are joined with the following verse: Those that go down . . . with them thou shalt not be joined in burial, i.e., shalt have no proper sepulchre. As the passage stands, “the stones of the pit” represent the burial-place into which the carcases of the slain were indiscriminately thrown.
(20) Thou shalt not be joined with them in burial . . .—The curse of the dishonoured death is connected with its cause. The conqueror had inflicted that shame even on his own people, and was punished in like kind himself. Comp. Jeremiah’s prediction as to Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 22:19), and parallel instances in 2 Chronicles 21:20; 2 Chronicles 24:25; Ezekiel 29:5.
The seed of evildoers shall never be renowned.—Literally, shall not be named for ever. Here we have a parallel in the sentence on Coniah (Jeremiah 22:30). In the inscription of Eshmunazzar, king of Sidon (quoted by Cheyne), we have both elements of the imprecation: “Let him (the man who violates the sacredness of the king’s tomb) not have a couch with the shade, and let him not be buried in the grave, and let him not have son or seed in his stead.” In the inscriptions of Tiglath-pileser (Records of the Past, v. 26) and Merôdach-baladan III. (ib., ix. 36) we find like curses. Historically, as the Behistun inscription shows, the dynasty of Nabopolassar disappeared from history. and Darius boasts of having subdued an impostor, a second Nebuchadnezzar, who claimed to represent it (Records of the Past, i. 114).
(21) Prepare slaughter for his children.—Literally, as in Jeremiah 51:40, a slaughter house. The command may be addressed to the Medes of Isaiah 13:17, or to any minister of the Divine vengeance. In the judgment of God, as seen in history, that judgment falls necessarily on the last members of an evil and cruel dynasty. In this sense the sins of the fathers are visited on the children, while, in the eternal judgment which lies behind the veil, each single soul stands, as in Ezekiel 18:4, on its own personal responsibility, and may win pardon for itself. Penitent or impenitent (and the latter seems here implied), the children of the evil-doers should cease to be conquerors and rulers.
Nor fill the face of the world with cities.—The words describe the boast of the great monarchs, who, like Nimrod, built cities to perpetuate their fame. (Comp. Genesis 10:10-12; Daniel 4:30.) The Babylonian and Assyrian kings record their destructive and constructive work with equal exultation (Records of the Past, v., pp. 80, 119, 123). Various readings have been suggested, giving ruined heaps, or terrible ones, or enemies, or conflicts; but there seems no need for any change.
(22) Son, and nephew . . .—The latter word, as throughout the Bible, is used in its true sense as “grandson,” or “descendant.” (Comp. 1 Timothy 5:4.) Every word that could express descent is brought together to express the utter extirpation of the Babylonian dynasty. The Hebrew adds the emphasis of alliteration, as in our “bag and baggage,” and other like phrases.
(23) I will also make it a possession for the bittern . . .—Naturalists are not agreed as to the meaning of the noun. In the LXX. and Vulgate it appears as “hedgehog,” or “porcupine,” and the “tortoise,” “beaver,” “otter,” and “owl” have all been suggested by scholars. Its conjunction with “pelican in Isaiah 34:11 and Zephaniah 2:14, and with” pools of water “here, is in favour of some kind of water-fowl. The “hedgehog” frequents dry places, and not marshes, and does not roost, as in Zephaniah 2:14, on the capitals of ruined columns. On the whole, therefore, “bittern” (Botaurus stellaris) may as well stand.
Pools of water.—These were the natural result of the breaking up of the canals, sluices, reservoirs, which had kept the overflow of the Euphrates within bounds (Diod. Sic., ii. 7).
I will sweep it with the besom of destruction . . .—The phrase has its parallel in the “sieve of vanity,” in Isaiah 30:28. (Comp. Isaiah 34:11) The force of the image must not be lost sight of Babylon is to be swept away as men sweep away some foul rubbish from their house. The world is cleaner for its destruction. The solemn doom closes the “burden” of Babylon.
(24) The Lord of hosts hath sworn . . .—The long “oracle” of Babylon is followed by a fragmentary prophecy against Assyria (Isaiah 14:24-27), possibly misplaced, possibly, as opening with a solemn asseveration, like that of the preceding verse, added by way of proof, that the word of the Lord of Hosts would be fulfilled on Babylon, as it had been on Assyria, with which, indeed, Babylon was closely connected—almost, perhaps, identified—in his thoughts.
(25) That I will break the Assyrian in my land . . .—The words found their fulfilment in the destruction of Sennacherib’s army. The “mountains” are the hills round Jerusalem on which the army of the Assyrians was encamped. They were sacred, as the phrase, “my mountains,” shows, to Jehovah (comp. Isaiah 49:11; Isaiah 65:9; Zechariah 14:5), and He, therefore, would put forth His power to rescue them from the proud invader.
(26) This is the hand that is stretched out . . .—The words point, as it were, to the idea of a universal history. The fall of the Assyrian power and of Babylon does not stand alone, but forms part of a scheme embracing all nations and all ages (Isaiah 9:12).
(27) His hand is stretched out.—Literally, and more emphatically, His is the outstretched hand.
(28) In the year that king Ahaz died was this burden.—The prophecies against Babylon and Assyria are naturally followed by a series of like predictions, dealing with other nations which played their part in the great drama of the time. The date of that which comes next in order is obviously specified, either by Isaiah himself or by the compiler of his prophecies, that it might be seen that it was not a prophecy after the event. The death-year of Ahaz was B.C. 727. It was natural that the prophet’s thoughts should be much exercised then, as in the year of Uzziah’s death (Isaiah 6:1), on the uncertainties of the coming future, and the “burden” was the answer to his searchings of heart. It was probably delivered before the king’s death. (See Note on Isaiah 6:1.)
(29) Rejoice not thou, whole Palestina.—Better, Rejoice not thou, Philistia, all of thee; i.e., give not thyself wholly to rejoicing. Here, as in Exodus 15:14, “Palestina” is used, not in the wider meaning with which we are familiar, but specifically as the country of the Philistines. The historical circumstances connected with the “oracle” before us are found in 2 Chronicles 18:18. The Philistines had invaded the low country (Shetphçlah), and the district known as the Negeb, or “south” of Judah, in the reign of Ahaz. He had called in the help of Tiglath-pileser, the Assyrian king, to assist him as against Rezin and Pekah (Isaiah 7:0), so probably against these new invaders. Sargon (who succeeded Tiglath-pileser, B.C. 723) invaded Ashdod in B.C. 710 (Isaiah 20:1; Records of the Past, vii. 40). Sennacherib records a like attack on Ashkelon and (according to Rawlinson’s interpretation) Ekron (Records of the Past, vii. 61). With these data we are able to enter on the interpretation of Isaiah’s prediction.
Because the rod of him that smote thee is broken.—The “rod,” as in Isaiah 10:24, is the power of Tiglath-pileser. The Philistines were exulting in his death, or in that of Ahaz as his ally, as though their peril was past. They are told that their exultation was premature.
Out of the serpent’s root.—The three forms of serpent life (we need not be careful about their identification from the zoologist’s point of view) may represent the three Assyrian kings named above, from whose invasions the Philistines were to suffer. Each form was more terrible than the preceding. The fiery flying serpent (Isaiah 30:6; Numbers 21:6), which represented Sennacherib, was the most formidable of the three. So in Isaiah 27:1, the “piercing serpent,” the “crooked serpent,” and the “dragon” are symbols of the Assyrian power. Some critics, however, led chiefly by the first words of the next verse, find in the three serpents—(1) Ahaz, (2) Hezekiah, (3) the ideal king of Isaiah 11:1-9.
(30) And the firstborn of the poor shall feed.—As the “children of the needy” in Psalms 72:4 are simply the poor as a class, so the “firstborn” are those who, as it were, inherit the double portion, not of riches, but of poverty. (Comp. “the firstborn of death” in Job 18:13.) The people spoken of are those of Judah, which in the days of Ahaz had been “brought very low” (2 Chronicles 28:19). For these the prophet foretells a time of plenty; not so for Philistia. Either through the sieges of their towns or the devastation of their fields, they would be reduced to the last extremities of famine. With them there should be no “remnant” to return.
(31) Howl, O gate . . .—The “gate,” as elsewhere, is the symbol of the city’s strength. The “city” stands probably for Ashdod, as the most conspicuous of the Philistine cities.
From the north.—Here of the Assyrian invaders, as in Jeremiah 1:14; Jeremiah 10:22; Jeremiah 46:20 of the Chaldean. The “smoke” may be either that of the cities which the Assyrians burnt, or, more probably, the torch-signals, or beacons, which they used in their night marches or encampments (Jeremiah 6:1; Jeremiah 1:2). (See Note on Isaiah 4:5.)
None shall be alone in his appointed times.—Better, there is no straggler at the appointed places: i.e., all the troops shall meet at the rendezvous which was indicated by the column of fiery smoke as a signal.
(32) What shall one then answer . . .?—The words obviously imply that the prophet either had received, or expected to receive, a message of inquiry from the Philistines, and that this is his answer. It seems not improbable, indeed, that the series of prophecies that follow were delivered in answer to such inquiries. The fame of the prophet had spread beyond the confines of Israel, and men of different nations came to Jerusalem to consult him. So Jeremiah’s oracles are delivered to the ambassadors who came to propose an alliance against Nebuchadnezzar in the time of Zedekiah (Jeremiah 27:3). Commonly, however, the words are referred to the embassies of congratulation, which came with plans of new alliances after the destruction of Sennacherib’s army (2 Chronicles 32:23).
That the Lord hath founded Zion.—This is the answer to all such inquiries. Zion stands firm and safe in the protection of Jehovah. The “poor” (obviously those of Isaiah 14:30) shall trust (better, shall find refuge) in it. (Comp. Isaiah 28:16.) They need no foreign alliances, no arm of flesh.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Isaiah 14". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13