(1) Woe to thee that spoilest . . .—No chapter in the prophet’s writings presents so little traceable connection. A thought is expressed in one, or it may be two, verses, and then another follows without anything to link it on. This may be, perhaps, explained either by the strong emotion which filled the prophet’s mind as he looked on the coming perils of his country, or, as I think, more probably, on the assumption that we have a series of rough notes, memoranda for a long discourse, which was afterwards delivered in a more continuous form. They would, perhaps, be more intelligible if they were printed separately, as we print Pascal’s Pensées, the verse arrangement giving a fictitious semblance of continuity. The opening words are addressed to Sennacherib when he entered on his second campaign against Judah, as it seemed to Isaiah, without the slightest provocation. Hezekiah had submitted, and had paid an enormous indemnity for the costs of the war (2 Kings 18:13-16) at the close of the first campaign, and had, in the meantime, taken no aggressive action. The invasion was one of undisguised spoliation and rapacity. (For “treacherously,” read rapaciously.) Upon such aggressiveness there was sure to come a righteous retribution, and in that thought the prophet finds comfort.
(2) O Lord, be gracious . . .—Faith transforms itself into prayer. The prophet will still “wait” upon God. In the change of person, “their arm,” “our salvation,” we hear the very words of the prayer as it was spoken, the first referring to the soldiers who were to fight the battles of their country, the second to the non-combatants who were assembled with Isaiah in supplication.
(3) At the noise of the tumult . . .—The “people” are the mingled nations of the Assyrian armies; the “tumult” is that of the rush and crash, as of a mighty tempest, when Jehovah should at last up lift Himself for the deliverance of His chosen ones.
(4) Your spoil . . .—The words are addressed to the invader. He who came to spoil should find himself spoiled. As caterpillars and locusts devour the green herbage, so should he (or they, the indefinite pronoun standing for the people of Jerusalem) strip his camp of all its treasures.
(5) The Lord is exalted . . .—The vision of the seer takes in the ideal city of God, Jehovah dwelling on high in His holy Temple, the city at last filled with “judgment and righteousness.”
(6) Wisdom and knowledge . . .—The words are used in the higher sense, as in Proverbs 1:1-4, in contrast with the craft and devices of men, just as the “fear of the Lord” is the true treasure, in contrast with the silver and gold in which Hezekiah had been led to place his trust.
(7) Behold, their valiant ones.—Literally, their lions of God. Heb., Arielam, probably with a reference to the “Ariel” of Isaiah 29:1, the lion-like heroes of the lion-like city. (Comp. 2 Samuel 23:20; 1 Chronicles 11:22.) The whole passage paints the panic caused by the approach of Sennacherib.
The ambassadors of peace.—The envoys sent by Hezekiah to Sennacherib at Lachish. They “weep bitterly” at the hard conditions imposed on them, which may be either those of 2 Kings 18:14, or some yet harder terms, demanding the surrender of the city.
(8) The highways lie waste . . .—Another feature in the picture of terror. No traveller dared to show himself in the main road. (Comp. Judges 5:6.)
He hath broken.—Sennacherib is denounced as having broken the treaty of 2 Kings 18:14. Hezekiah had complied with his conditions, and yet there was no suspension of hostilities.
(9) The earth mourneth . . .—Lebanon, with its cedars, the Sharon (as we say, the Campagna), Bashan, with its oaks (Isaiah 2:13), Carmel, with its copse-wood, are the types of beauty and fertility, now languishing and decaying. Possibly the embassy referred to was sent in the autumn, so that the prophet saw in the natural features of that season the symbols of failure and decay.
(10) Now will I rise . . .—We note the emphatic iteration of the adverb of time. Man’s necessity was, as ever, to be God’s opportunity. He had been, as it were, waiting for this crisis, and would at once arise in His might.
(11) Ye shall conceive chaff . . .—Primarily the words are addressed to the Assyrian invaders, but not without a side glance at all who had been weaving their own webs of policy instead of trusting in Jehovah. Scheme and result, conception and parturition, would be alike worthless.
Your breath, as fire . . .—“Breath,” the hot panting of rage; this, instead of working the destruction of Judah, should prove suicidal.
(12) And the people shall be . . .—The two images of destruction are singularly vivid. The limekiln and the oven which was fed with thorns were alike in this. The outcome of their work was seen in a residuum of ashes.
(13) Hear, ye that are far off . . .—The fate of Assyria is proclaimed as a warning to other nations, and to Israel itself. For the “sinners in Zion” also there is the furnace of fire of the wrath of God. “Who,” they ask, “can dwell with that consuming fire, those everlasting (œonian?) burnings,” which are one aspect of the righteousness of God?
(15, 16) He that walketh righteously . . .—The answer to the question shows that the words point not to endless punishments, but to the infinite holiness of God. The man who is true and just in all his dealings can dwell in closest fellowship with that holiness which is to others as a consuming fire. To him it is a protection and defence, a “rock fortress,” in which he can dwell securely, where he will find all that he needs for the sustenance of soul and body, the bread and the water of life. The picture of the righteous man is in part an echo, probably a conscious echo, of Psalms 15, 24
(17) Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty . . .—Torn from their context, the words have been not unfitly used to describe the beatific vision of the saints of God in the far-off land of heaven. So the Targum gives “Thine eyes shall see the Shekinah of the King of Ages.” Their primary meaning is, however, obviously historical. The “king” is Hezekiah, who shall be seen no longer in sackcloth and ashes, and with downcast eyes (Isaiah 37:1), but in all the “beauty” of triumph and of majesty, of a youth and health renewed like the eagle; and the “land that is very far off” is the whole land of Israel, all prosperous and peaceful, as contrasted with the narrow range of view which the people had had during the siege, pent up within the walls of Jerusalem. (Comp. Genesis 13:14-15.) Comp. as to form, Isaiah 29:18; Isaiah 30:20.
(18) Thine heart shall meditate terror—i.e., shall recall the memory of the past evil days, as a dream that had passed away, leaving behind it the thankful joy which rises out of such recollections.
Where is the scribe?—Then, in those times of panic, each Assyrian official was an object of dread. There was the “scribe,” who fixed the amount of tribute to be paid by each village or landowner; the “receiver” (literally, weigher), who weighed the gold and silver as it was brought in for payment; the “counter of towers,” who formed his plans for the operation of the “siege.” In Psalms 48:13 the same phrase is used of those who defend the city.
(19) Thou shalt not see a fierce people . . .—Better, The fierce people thou shalt not see . . . The words answer the question just asked. The whole Assyrian army, with their barbarous, unintelligible speech (Isaiah 28:11), shall have passed away.
(20) Look upon Zion . . .—The words sound like an echo of Psalms 46, 48, which were probably written by the sons of Korah on the destruction of Sennacherib’s army. Men had seen Zion desecrated by Ahaz, besieged by Sennacherib; now they should see it once again as it had been at the beginning of Hezekiah’s reign, emphatically a “city of solemnities,” a tent that shall not be removed, the latter words probably referring to Sennacherib’s threat of deportation (Isaiah 36:17).
(21) A place of broad rivers and streams . . .—Better, rivers and canals. The bold imagery has its starting-point in what the prophet had heard of the great cities of the Tigris and Euphrates. What those rivers were to Nineveh and Babylon, that the presence of Jehovah would be to Jerusalem, that could boast only of the softly going waters of Shiloah (Isaiah 8:6). Here, again, we have an echo of Psalms 46 : “There is a river, the streams whereof shall make glad the city of God.” The words help us to understand the symbolism of Ezekiel’s vision of the “river that could not be passed over,” flowing out of the Temple (Ezekiel 47:1-5). And the spiritual river of the Divine Presence would have this advantage over those of which the great cities boasted, that no hostile fleet, no pirate ships, could use it for their attacks. So in Psalms 48:7 the “ships of Tarshish” are probably to be taken ‘figuratively rather than literally’ for the Assyrian forces.
(22) The Lord is our judge . . .—The verb is better omitted, and the threefold iteration of the name of Jehovah, in each case with a special characteristic, taken as the subject of the final verb: “The Lord, our judge, the Lord, our lawgiver . . . He will save us.”
(23) Thy tacklings are loosed . . .—The words have been taken as applicable either to Assyria, as one of the “ships of Tarshish” that had been wrecked, or to Zion, as a vessel that had been driven by the wind and tossed, but had escaped shipwreck. On the whole, the first view seems most in harmony with the context. The terms have been taken by some critics for the cords, poles, and canvas of a tent, but the rendering of the Authorised version seems preferable.
The lame take the prey.—The wrecked Assyrian ship is represented as being plundered by those whom it came to plunder. “The lame” were commonly excluded, as incapable of active service, from sharing in the spoils. Here they also were to have their portion.
(24) The inhabitant shall not say, I am sick . . .—The words seem to have had their starting- point in the pestilence which attacked the Assyrian army, and which had probably been felt, during the siege, in Jerusalem itself. The prophet, seeing in such a pestilence the punishment of iniquity, couples together the two blessings of health and pardon. Healthy, because holy, was his report as to the restored Jerusalem. (Comp. Matthew 9:2.)
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Isaiah 33". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany