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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Isaiah 28

Verse 1


(1) Woe to the crown of pride . . .—Better, the proud crown of the drunkards of Ephraim. The chapter is remarkable, as showing that the prophet’s work was not limited to Judah and Jerusalem, but extended to the northern kingdom. The warning was clearly uttered before the capture of Samaria by Salmaneser, or, more probably, by Sargon, and paints in vivid colours—reminding us in part of Amos 6:4-6, not without a side glance at the like vices in Jerusalem (Isaiah 22:13)—the license into which the capital of the northern kingdom had fallen. With a bold personification the words paint (1) the banquet with its revellers, crowned, as in the later days of Rome, with wreaths of flowers; and (2) Samaria itself as such a wreath, once beautiful, now fading, crowning the “head” of the “fat,” or luxuriant, valley (literally, valley of oils, or, fat things) in which the revellers held their feasts. Cheyne notes that the inscription of Salmaneser records that the tribute of Jehu consisted of bowls, cups, and goblets of gold, as illustrating the luxury of the palace of Samaria (Records of the Past, v. 41). The LXX. strangely renders the last clause, “drunk without wine,” as if from a reminiscence of Isaiah 29:9, and gives the “hirelings of Ephraim” instead of “drunkards.”

Verse 2

(2) The Lord hath a mighty and strong one . . .—The Hebrew may be either neuter, as in the LXX. and Targum, or masculine, as in the Authorised Version. In either case it refers to the King of Assyria as the instrument of Jehovah’s vengeance, the similitudes employed to describe his action reproducing those of Isaiah 8:7-8; Isaiah 25:4. Here the picture is that of the “destroying storm,” the pestilent or blasting tempest withering, and the flood sweeping away, the beautiful “garland” of Samaria.

Verse 4

(4) And the glorious beauty . . .—Better, And the fading flower of his glorious beauty . . . shall be us the early fig before the fruit-gathering. The “early fig,” as a special delicacy (Hosea 9:10; Micah 7:1), becomes a type of the beauty and pride of Samaria, doomed to inevitable destruction. (Comp. Nahum 3:12.) Such a fig the passer-by seizes, and eagerly devours. So, the prophet says, with a Dante-like homeliness of comparison, should the Assyrian king treat Samaria.

Verse 5

(5) In that day shall the Lord of hosts be for a crown of glory.—The words are obviously used in direct contrast with the “crown of pride “in Isaiah 28:1-3. The true glory of the people for “the remnant that should be left” of Israel, as well as Judah, should be found in the presence of Jehovah, whom they would then acknowledge. In the gathering of some of the Ten Tribes at Hezekiah’ s passover (2 Chronicles 30:11) there had already been an earnest of such a restored union.

Verse 6

(6) And for a spirit of judgment . . .—The words remind us of the list of spiritual gifts in Isaiah 11:2. The injustice of corrupt judges was the crying evil of both Samaria and Jerusalem, and their place was to be taken by those who should be just and faithful. And brave warriors, able to drive back the enemy to the gate of the city from which they had issued forth (2 Samuel 11:23)—or, perhaps, to defeat them at the gate of that which they attacked—should be the companions of the upright judges.

Verse 7

(7) But they also have erred through . . .—Better, yet these also reel . . . Isaiah acts on the method of Nathan when he said, Thou art the man.” He has painted the drunkards of Ephraim; now he turns and paints in yet darker colours the drunkards of Judah. Priests were seen reeling to their services, prophets reeling in the very act of their counterfeit inspiration. The threefold iteration of the word for “reel” emphasises the scandals of the scene. The sins of the sons of Eli, those of which Micah (Isaiah 2:11) had spoken, were reproduced in all their enormity. The most loathsome features of their drunkenness are printed in Isaiah 28:8 with a boldness which is almost photographic. The prohibition of wine during the time when the priests were on duty (Leviticus 10:1-9) adds to the guilt thus represented.

Verse 9

(9) Whom shall he teach knowledge?—The two verses that follow reproduce the language of the drunkards as they talk scornfully of the prophet. “To whom does he come with what he calls his ‘knowledge’ and his ‘doctrine?’ (better, message, as in Isaiah 28:19). Does he think that they are boys just weaned, who are to be taught the first elements of the religion of the infant school?” Then in their mockery they describe (Isaiah 28:10) his teaching, with what was to them its wearisome iteration, “Always precept upon precept, line upon line . . .”—petty rebukes and puerile harping upon the same note, semper eandem canens cantilenam. We can scarcely doubt that Isaiah was indignantly reproducing, as St. Paul does in 2 Corinthians 10:10; 2 Corinthians 11:16-17; the very words, almost the drunken accents, in which the priests and false prophets had spoken of him.

Verse 11

(11) With stammering lips and another tongue . . .—The “stammering lips” are those of the Assyrian conquerors, whose speech would seem to the men of Judah as a barbarous patois. They, with their short sharp commands, would be the next utterers of Jehovah’s will to the people who would not listen to the prophet’s teaching. The description of the “stammering tongue” re-appears in Isaiah 33:19. (Comp. Deuteronomy 28:49.) In 1 Corinthians 14:21, the words are applied to the gift of “tongues,” which, in its ecstatic utterances, was unintelligible to those who heard it, and was therefore, as the speech of the barbarian conquerors was in Isaiah’s thoughts, the antithesis of true prophetic teaching.

Verse 12

(12) To whom he said, This is the rest . . .—The prophet vindicates himself against the charge of being a repeater of wearisome messages of rebuke. Rather had he pointed the way to a time of repentance, and therefore of rest and refreshment. But to this also they closed their ears. They had but one formula of derision, whatever might be the subject of the prophet’s teaching; and the prophet, with all the scorn of irony, repeats that formula in the words that follow.

Verse 13

(13) That they might go, and fall backward . . .—The words are an echo of those in Isaiah 8:14-15. The preaching which might have led to “rest and refreshing” would become to those who scorned it a “stumbling stone” on which they would fall, a “net” in which they, who boasted of their freedom, would be entangled.

Verse 14

(14) Ye scornful men, that rule this people . . .—The last words emphasise the fact that the men who derided the prophet in their worldly wisdom were found among Hezekiah’s chief princes and counsellors, the partizans now of an Assyrian, now of an Egyptian alliance—anything rather than the policy of righteousness and repentance.

Verse 15

(15) We have made a covenant with death . . .—The phrase was a proverbial one. (Comp. Job 5:23; Hosea 2:18.) Cheyne quotes Lucan, ix. 394, Pax illis cum morte data est (They have made peace with death”). “Hell” is the Hebrew Sheol (Hades), the region of the dead. The two are joined together, as in Hosea 13:14; Revelation 20:13-14.

When the overflowing scourge . . .—The words probably implied a sneer at the imagery which the prophet had used, painting the Assyrian invasion first as a flood (Isaiah 8:7-8), and then as a scourge (Isaiah 10:24). (Comp, Isaiah 28:2.) The scorners think that their “lies” will give them a refuge from the danger under either form.

Verse 16

(16) Behold, I lay in Zion for a foundation . . .—We have first to deal with the imagery, then with the interpretation. The former connects itself with the importance which attached, in ancient as in modern architecture, to the foundation stone of a building (1 Kings 5:17). So in Zion the foundation stone was laid, as witnessed in the Arabic name of the Mosque of Omar (Kubhet-es-Sakhra),(i.e., “dome of the rock”), on the solid rock. In the stone which was made “the head of the corner” (Psalms 118:22) we have a like thought. From the prophet’s stand-point this was identical with the manifestation of Jehovah’s righteousness in and through the Temple in its higher spiritual aspect. Christian interpreters have rightly found the true fulfilment of the words in the person of the Christ (Ephesians 2:20; 1 Peter 2:6-7). The “corner stone,” the lapis angularis of the Vulg. is that upon which two walls at right angles to each other rest and are bonded together. The “tried stone” (literally, stone of proof) may be one (1) which stands every test, or (2) one which tries those who come in contact with it, becoming an asylum, or a “stone of stumbling,” according to their character. (Comp. Luke 2:34-35; Luke 20:18.)

He that believeth shall not make haste.—The LXX. and some other versions give “shall not be ashamed,” which is a paraphrase rather than a translation. The English Version, following the Vulgate, represents the meaning of the Hebrew, haste and hurry being regarded in their contrast to the calm temper of a steadfast faith. (Comp. Isaiah 5:19.)

Verse 17

(17) Judgment also will I lay to the line . . .—Rather, I make judgment for a line, and righteousness for a plummet. The architectural imagery is continued. The “elect corner stone” shall come up to the standard of perfection, laid four-square (Revelation 21:16); and, therefore, should be the true place of refuge; while? the boast of the scorners, which the prophet repeats in the words that follow, should prove a false one. They would see their place of refuge swept away by the great waters. (Comp. Matthew 7:26-27.) Their treaty with death and Hades should be treated as null and void, They should be trampled under foot by the invading armies.

Verse 19

(19) From the time that it goeth forth it shall take you.—The words that follow remind us of Deuteronomy 28:66-67. Day by day would come the dread rumours of the Assyrian march. Then the “report” would no longer be unintelligible. Instead of the “line upon line, precept upon precept,” there would be “mourning upon mourning,” “day and night,” each with its sad burden of alarming tidings. To understand those tidings would be a vexation and a terror. The word for “report” is the same as the “doctrine” of Isaiah 28:9, and stands, in each case, for the deride “message” of the prophet.

Verse 20

(20) For the bed is shorter . . .—The image represents vividly a policy that ended in failure. Hezekiah’s counsellors had “made their bed,” and would have to lie on it, in their Egyptian alliance, but it would not meet their wants. Bed and blankets would be all too scanty, and leave them in a restless disquietude.

Verse 21

(21) The Lord shall rise up as in mount Perazim . . .—The point of the reference to David’s victories at Baal Perazim (2 Samuel 5:20; 1 Chronicles 14:11), and at Gibeon (1 Chronicles 14:16) is that then Jehuah had interposed on behalf of His people against their enemies. The “new and strange” work—the very paradox of prophecy—was that He would now rise up to overthrow His own people.

Verse 22

(22) Now therefore be ye not mockers . . .—The rulers are warned that the scorn in which they indulge so freely will only make the fetters which already gall them tighter and heavier. In the words that follow the prophet reproduces his own language in Isaiah 10:23 (where see Notes), probably because they had been singled out as a special subject for derision.

Verse 23

(23) Give ye ear . . .—The words remind us of the style of the “wisdom” books of the Old Testament (Proverbs 2:1; Proverbs 4:1; Proverbs 5:1; Psalms 34:11) in which Isaiah had been trained. Isaiah is about to set before those who have ears to hear a parable which he does not interpret, and which will, therefore, task all their energies. The idea that lies at the root of the parable is like that of Matthew 16:2-4, that men fail to apply in discerning the signs of the times the wisdom which they practise or recognise in the common phenomena of nature and the tillage of the soil. As that tillage presents widely varied processes, differing with each kind of grain, so the sowing and the threshing of God’s spiritual husbandry presents a like diversity of operations. What that diversity indicates in detail the prophet proceeds to show with what may again be called a Dante-like minuteness.

Verse 24

(24) Doth the plowman plow all day . . .?—Better, every day. Ploughing represents naturally, as in Jeremiah 4:3, the preparatory discipline by which the spiritual soil is rendered fit for the sower’s work. It is a means, and not an end, and is, therefore, in its very nature but for a season. To a nation passing through this stage, Assyrian invaders scoring their long furrows visibly on the surface of the land, the parable gave the hope that this was preparing the way for the seed-time of a better harvest.

Verse 25

(25) Doth he not cast abroad the fitches. . . .?—Modern English would give vetches. Each verb is carefully chosen to describe the special process that belonged to each kind of seed. We have, as it were, an excerpt from the “Georgicsof Palestine. Identification in such cases is not always easy; but I follow Mr. Carruthers (Bible Educator, i. 38) in reading “fennel seed” for the “fitches” of the English version. This, proverbially among the smallest of seeds, so as to be a type of the microscopic unseen, was scattered broadcast; “cummin,” also proverbial for its smallness, was sown by a like process, with some technical variation, indicated by the use of the Hebrew words. Wheat and barley were “dropped in” more deliberately by the hand of the sower, and then (instead of “the rie in their place”), “vetches for the borders thereof,” these being used in the East as a kind of herbaceous hedge round the field of corn. The point of the enumeration is that the wise tiller of the soil is discriminating in his methods, and deals with each seed according to its nature. So is it, the prophet suggests through the parable which he does not interpret, with the great Husbandman, whose field is the world, and for whom the nations are as seed. For “cast in the principal wheat . . .” read set the wheat in lines and the barley in the appointed place.

Verse 26

(26) For his God doth instruct him to discretion . . .—Better, as in the margin, with a slight variation, He treateth each as is fitting, his God instructing him. The prophet looks on the skill of the tiller of the soil, which seemed the outcome of a long experience, as nothing less than a gift of God. The legends of the Gentiles embraced that thought in the myths of Osiris and Oannes, of Dionysius and Triptolemos; Isaiah states the fact without the mythos.

Verse 27

(27) For the fitches are not threshed . . .—Better, fennel seed, as before. The eye of the prophet passes from the beginning to the end of the husbandman’s work. He finds there also the varying methods of a like discrimination. A man would be thought mad who threshed his fennel seed and cummin with the same instrument that he uses for his barley and his wheat. It is enough to beat or tap them with the “rod,” or “staff,” which was, in fact, used in each case. Interpreting this parable, we may see in the fennel and the cummin the little ones of the earth, with whom God deals more gently than with the strong. “Tribulation,” as the etymology of the word (tribulum, a threshing instrument) tells us, is a threshing process. The lesson of the parable is that it comes to nations and individuals in season and in measure. The main idea is familiar enough in the language of the prophets (Micah 4:13; Habakkuk 3:12). The novelty of Isaiah’s treatment of it consists in his bringing in the minute details, and drawing this lesson from them.

Verse 28

(28) Bread corn is bruised.—Better, as a question, Is bread corn crushed to pieces? As the poor and meek of the earth were as the fennel and the cummin, so Israel, in its national greatness, was as the “bread corn” of the wheat and barley. For this a severer chastisement, a more thorough threshing, was needed; but the end of threshing is the preservation, not the destruction, of the true grain. It is for a time, not for ever. It separates the worthless from the precious. The wheels stop when they have done their work.

Verse 29

(29) This also cometh forth from the Lord of hosts.—The force of the climax lies in the use of the highest of the Divine names instead of “God” (Elohim), as in Isaiah 28:26. The wisdom of the husband man was His gift in the highest aspect of the being that had been revealed to men, and that gift was in itself a parable of the method of His own government.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Isaiah 28". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.