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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers

Isaiah 3

Verse 1


(1) For, behold, the Lord, the Lord of hosts, doth take away from Jerusalem . . .—From the general picture of the state of Judah as a whole, of the storm of Divine wrath bursting over the whole land, Isaiah turns to the Holy City itself, and draws the picture of what he saw there of evil, of that which would be seen before long as the punishment of the evil.

The stay and the staff . . .—In the existing Hebrew text the words receive an immediate interpretation, as meaning the two chief supports of life—bread and water. So we have the “staff of bread” in Leviticus 26:26; Psalms 105:16; Ezekiel 4:16; Ezekiel 5:16. Possibly, however, the interpretation is of the nature of a marginal gloss, which has found its way into the text, and “the stay and staff” (in the Hebrew the latter word is the feminine form of the former) are really identified with the “pillars of the state,” the great women as well as the great men who are named afterwards. On the other hand, Isaiah 3:7 implies the pressure of famine, and the prophet may have intended to paint the complete failure of all resources, both material and political.

Verse 2

(2) The mighty man, and the man of war.—The first word points to the aristocracy of landed proprietors, the latter to those who, whether of that class or not, had been prominent as leaders in the king’s armies.

The judge, and the prophet.—Each is named as the representative of a class. The latter was that to which Isaiah himself belonged, but in which he found, as Jeremiah did afterwards, his chief opponents.

The prudent, and the ancient.—The former word has the more definite meaning of “diviners,” those who had a real gift of wisdom, but who by their abuse of that gift had become as degenerate prophets. In the “ancient” we have the “elders” who were prominent in the municipal politics of the East, and formed at least the nucleus of the king’s council (Ruth 4:4; 2 Samuel 19:11; 1 Kings 20:7; 1 Kings 21:8; and elsewhere).

Verse 3

(3) The captain of fifty, and the honourable man.—The first title implies a division like that of Exodus 18:21, of which “fifty” was all but the minimum unit. So we have the three “captains of fifty” in 2 Kings 1:9-15. The “honourable man” (literally, eminent in countenance) would seem to occupy a position in the civil service of the State analogous to that of the “captain of fifty” in the military.

The counsellor, and the cunning artificer.—From the modern stand-point the two classes seem at opposite extremes of the social order. The latter, however (literally, masters in arts), would seem to have occupied a higher position in the East, like that of military or civil engineers or artists with us. So in 2 Kings 24:14, Jeremiah 24:1, the “craftsmen and the smiths” are grouped with the “men of might” who were carried to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, and contrasted with the poor who were left behind. The military works of Uzziah had doubtless given a prominence to the “cunning men” who were employed on them (2 Chronicles 26:15). By some critics, however, the word is taken as equal to “magician.”

The eloquent orator.—Literally, skilled in speech. The Authorised Version suggests the idea of the power of such skill in controlling the debates of popular assemblies. Here, however, the thought is rather that of one who says the right words at the right time; or possibly the enchanter who has his formulæ (the word implies the whisper of incantations, as in Isaiah 8:19) ready at command for all occasions.

Verse 4

(4) I will give children to be their princes.—Better, youths. The words may point obliquely to Ahaz, who had ascended the throne at the age of twenty (2 Chronicles 28:1). Manasseh was but twelve when he became king; Josiah but eight (2 Chronicles 33:1; 2 Chronicles 34:1). In an Eastern monarchy the rule of a young king, rash and without experience, guided by counsellors like himself, was naturally regarded as the greatest of evils, and the history of Rehoboam had impressed this truth on the mind of every Israelite. (Comp. Ecclesiastes 10:16.)

Verse 5

(5) The people shall be oppressed . . .—The words paint the worst form of the decadence of an Eastern kingdom. All is chaotic and anarchic; a fierce struggle for existence; the established order of society subverted; the experience of age derided by the petulance of youth. The picture of the corruption of a monarchy is as vivid and complete in its way as that which Thucydides (3:82-84) draws of the corruption of a democracy. It might seem to have been drawn from the Turkey or the Egypt of our own time.

Verses 6-7

(6, 7) When a man shall take hold of his brother . . .—Disorder was followed by destitution. The elder brother, the impoverished owner of the ruined dwelling, the head of a family or village, turns in his rags to the younger, whose decent garments seem to indicate comparative wealth, and would fain transfer to him the responsibilities of the first-born, though he has but a ruined tenement to give him. And instead of accepting what most men would have coveted (Genesis 25:31-33), the younger brother rejects it. He has enough bread and clothing (same word as in Exodus 22:27) for himself, and no more. It is not for him to bind up the wounds of others, or to try to introduce law where all is lawlessness. The supreme selfishness of a sauve qui peut asserts itself in his answer. In Isaiah 4:1 we have another feature of the same social state.

Verse 8

(8) For Jerusalem is ruined . . .—The outward evils of the kingdom are traced to their true source. Men have provoked, in the prophet’s bold anthropomorphic language, “the eyes of His glory,” the manifestation of His being as All-knowing, Almighty, All-holy.

Verse 9

(9) They declare their sin as Sodom.—The comparison is, it should be remembered, of probably an earlier date than that in Isaiah 1:10. In the reign of Ahaz (perhaps the prophet, editing in his old age, thought also of that of Manasseh) there was not even the homage which vice pays to virtue by feigning a virtue which it has not. Men fell into an utter shamelessness, like that of the cities of the plain (Genesis 19:5), generally in the luxury and profligacy of their lives (Ezekiel 16:49), perhaps also with a more definite and horrible resemblance (1 Kings 14:24; 1 Kings 15:12; 2 Kings 23:7).

Woe unto their soul!—In the midst of the confusions of the times the prophet is bidden to proclaim that the law of a righteous retribution would be seen working even there.

Verse 12

(12) Children are their oppressors . . .—This points, as before (Isaiah 3:4), to the youth and yet more the character of Ahaz. The influence of the queen-mother or of the seraglio was dominant in his counsels. Cowardly (Isaiah 7:2), idolatrous, delighting in foreign worships and foreign forms of art (2 Kings 16:10), such was the king who then sat on the throne of Judah. And the evil worked downwards from the throne. Those who should have been the leaders of the people were quick only to mislead. Princes, priests, judges were all drifting with the current of debasement.

Verse 13

(13) The Lord standeth up to plead . . .—The people may think that the prophet is their censor. He bids them know that Jehovah is their true accuser and their judge. “Ye, he says, with all the emphasis of a sudden change of person, as if turning, as he spoke, to the nobles and elders, “ye have devoured the vineyard, ye have spoiled the poor.” (Comp. Isaiah 5:1-8; Proverbs 30:12-14.)

Verse 16

(16) Because the daughters of Zion . . .—From the princes that worked evil, Isaiah turns to their wives, sisters, concubines, who were showing themselves degenerate daughters of Sarah and Rebecca. A like denunciation meets us in Isaiah 32:9-12, but this is without a parallel in the minuteness of its detail. It is as though the prophet had gone into the boudoir of one of the leaders of the fashions of Jerusalem, and taken an inventory of what he found there. Possibly we may trace the influence of the prophetess-wife of Isaiah (Isaiah 8:3), seeking to recall those of her own sex to a higher life. We note, on a smaller scale, a like teaching in the married apostle (1 Peter 3:3-4). Twenty-one distinct articles are mentioned. Their names for the most part appear to have a foreign stamp on them. Then, as at other times, luxury imported its novelties, and the women of Judah took up the fashions of those of Tyre or Damascus or Philistia. It is not without interest to compare the protests of Juvenal (Sat. vi.), Dante (Purgat. xxiii. 106-111), Chrysostom, and Savonarola against like evils.

With stretched forth necks . . .—The corruption which the prophet paints showed itself then, as it has done in later times, in the adoption by the decent classes of society of the gait and glances of the harlots of alien birth (comp. Proverbs 7:9-21), with, perhaps, the difference of a certain affectation of coyness.

Making a tinkling with their feet.—Small silver bells were fastened on the ankles, and so the beauties of Jerusalem carried, as it were, their music with them. The custom still exists in Syria and Arabia, though forbidden by the Koran. English nursery rhymes seem to recall a time when it was not unknown in Western Europe.

Verse 17

(17) The Lord will smite with a scab . . .—The words point partly to diseases, such as leprosy, causing baldness, engendered by misery and captivity, partly to the brutal outrage of the Assyrian invaders, stripping off the costly garments and leaving the wearers to their nakedness. (Comp. Ezekiel 16:37; Nahum 3:5.)

Verse 18

(18) Tinkling ornaments.—These were anklets, i.e., rings of metal, with or without bells, which produced the tinkling of Isaiah 3:16. The “cauls” were probably wreaths, or plaits of gold or silver net-work, worn over the forehead from ear to ear, but have been taken by some scholars as sun-like balls worn like a necklace.

Round tires like the moon.—The crescent ornaments which were hung on the necks of the camels of the Midianites in the time of Gideon (Judges 8:21), and are still worn by Arabian women. It is not improbable that they were connected with the worship of Ashtaroth. Among modern Arabian women they are regarded as a charm against the evil eye. (See Note on Jeremiah 44:17-19.)

Verse 19

(19) The chains.—Better, as in Judges 8:26, where they are also ornaments of Midianite kings, earrings. These and the “bracelets “were probably of gold. The “mufflers” were the long flowing veil, or mantilla, worn so as to cover the head, as now in Spain, or Egypt, or Turkey.

Verse 20

(20) The bonnets . . .—The English word is perhaps, too modern in its associations, and should be replaced by “diadems” (Exodus 39:28; Isaiah 61:10).

The ornaments of the legs.—These were chains connecting the anklets of Isaiah 3:18, and so regulating the “mincing” or “tripping” motion of the wearer.

The headbands.—Better, girdles, always the most highly ornamented part of an Eastern dress, such as were worn by brides (Jeremiah 2:32; Isaiah 49:18).

The tablets.—Literally, houses of the souli.e., of the spirit or essence of a perfume. These seem to have been of the nature of scent-bottles, or the modern vinaigrettes.

The earrings.—The noun is connected with the idea of enchantments. Better, amulets or charms, such as are worn in the East as safeguards against the evil eye.

Verse 21

(21) The rings, and nose jewels.—The first word points to the signet ring, worn both by men and women of wealth (Exodus 35:22; Numbers 31:50; Esther 3:12; Esther 8:8; Jeremiah 22:24); the latter to the ornaments worn pendent from the nostrils as by modern Arabian women (Genesis 24:22).

Verse 22

(22) The changeable suits of apparel.—Better, state, or festal, dresses. The word is used in Zechariah 3:4, of the high priest’s garments, “gold and blue, and purple, and fine linen” (Exodus 28:6).

The mantles.—Better, tunics. The uppermost of the two garments, commonly richly embroidered.

Wimples.—The obsolete English word describes accurately enough the large shawl, like a Scotch plaid, worn over the tunic, as in the “vail” worn by Ruth (Ruth 4:15).

The crisping pins.—Better, purses (2 Kings 5:23), the small embroidered bags, or reticules, attached to the girdles. The girdle itself was used as a purse by men. This was a refinement of female luxury.

Verse 23

(23) The glassesi.e., the polished metal mirrors (as in Exodus 38:3; Job 37:18; 1 Corinthians 13:12; James 1:23), which the Eastern lady carried in her hand, that she might adjust her toilet. The LXX. rendering, “Laconian [Spartan] garments,” i.e., indecently transparent, is curious enough to deserve notice, as throwing light on the social life of Alexandria, if not of Israel.

The fine lineni.e., the chemise worn under the tunic next the skin. The Heb. sedîn, like the Greek σίνδων (Mark 14:51), seems to imply a commerce with India; so our muslin (mosul) and calico (calicut) bear record of their origin. In Sanscrit, sindhu is the term for fine linen.

The hoodsi.e., the turbans which completed the attire, and over which was thrown the “vail,” or gauze mantle. Jewish women, however, did not veil their faces after the manner of those of Turkey and Arabia. The prophet seems to have carried his eye upward from the feet to the head, as he catalogued with indignant scorn the long list of superfluities. We may compare the warnings of 1 Timothy 2:9; 1 Peter 3:3. It is noticeable that stockings and handkerchiefs do not seem to have been used by the women of Judah.

Verse 24

(24) And it shall come to pass.—Now comes the terrible contrast of the day of destruction that is coming on all this refined luxury. Instead of the balmy perfume of the scent-bottles, there shall be the stench of squalor and pestilence; instead of the embroidered girdle (Isaiah 11:5), not a “rent,” but the rope by which they would be dragged in the march of their conquerors; instead of the plaited hair (1 Peter 3:3; 1 Timothy 2:9), natural or artificial, the baldness of those who were cropped as slaves were cropped (comp. 1 Corinthians 11:5-6); instead of the “stomacher” (better, cloak, or mantle), the scanty tunic of the coarsest sackcloth; instead of the elaborate beauty in which they had exulted, the burning, or brand, stamped on their flesh, often in the barbarism of the East on the forehead, to mark them as the slaves of their captors.

Verses 25-26

(25-26) Thy men . . .(26) her gates . . .—The feminine pronoun in both verses points to the daughter of Zion as representing her many daughters. As in Lamentations 1:1, and as in the JUDÆA CAPTA medals that commemorated the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus, she is represented as sitting on the ground desolate and afflicted.

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Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Isaiah 3". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". 1905.