(1) I am sought of them . . .—Is this the answer to the previous prayer? Most commentators say “Yes;” but there is, at least, an apparent absence of continuous sequence. A more probable view is that it was written after an interval more or less considerable, and that the prophet utters what had been revealed to him as explaining why the plaintive appeal of Isaiah 64:12 did not meet at once with the answer that might have been looked for.
A further question meets us, which has received different answers. Do the opening words speak, as St. Paul implies they do, of the calling of the Gentiles, contrasting their faith with the unbelief of Israel (Romans 10:20)? Taking the text as it stands, the most natural interpretation (there being no reference afterwards to the Gentiles) seems to be that Jehovah speaks to the same people in Isaiah 65:1-2, and that both alike speak of indifference and hardness. On this view the words may be translated, I was ready to answer those who did not enquire, was nigh at hand to be discovered by those who did not seek. . . . Such words were a true description of the state of Israel, as they have been of Christian Churches since, and are in close agreement with what follows. On this view St. Paul’s free use of the LXX. rendering must be looked on as analogous to the like application of Hosea 1:10; Hosea 2:1, by him (Romans 9:25-26) and by St. Peter (1 Peter 2:10), though in these instances it is beyond question that the words primarily referred to the Jews, and not to the Gentiles.
A nation that was not called by my name.—Better, with the LXX., as in Isaiah 43:22; Isaiah 64:7, that has not called on my name. The meaning, on either rendering, is that Israel has sunk to the level of the heathen.
(2) I have spread out my hands . . .—Here, of course, the words were meant for Israel, as St. Paul applies them. It may not be without interest to note the fact that the words stand over the portal of the Church of Santa Maria, which stands at the entrance of the Ghetto at Rome. Of how many churches at Rome and elsewhere might it not be said, “Thou art the man,” “The beam is in thine own eye”?
(3) That sacriflceth in gardens.—It is not without significance, as bearing on the date of the chapter, that the practice was common in Judah under Ahaz. (Comp. Isaiah 1:29, Mi. 5; Ezekiel 20:28.)
Burneth incense upon altars of brick.—Literally, on the bricks, and possibly, therefore, on the roofs of houses, as was common in the idolatrous practices of Judah (2 Kings 23:12; Jeremiah 19:13). By some interpreters the words are referred, though with less probability, to the brick altars which the exiles are supposed to have used at Babylon, and were forbidden by the Law (Exodus 20:24-25).
(4) Which remain among the graves.—Probably the rock graves of Palestine, which, although they were ceremonially unclean, were not unfrequently used as dwellings (Matthew 8:28; Mark 5:3). The charge may be one merely of neglecting the precepts of the Law, but possibly also may imply that the graves were frequented, as in Isaiah 8:19; Isaiah 29:4, for necromantic purposes.
Lodge in the monuments . . .—Here, again, the words probably point to practices more or less idolatrous, and common among the heathen of the time. Jerome (in loc.) notes the fact that men went to sleep in the crypts of the Temple of Æsculapius, in the hope of gaining visions of the future, and translates in delubris idolorum.
Which eat swine’s flesh.—The flesh of swine was apparently forbidden, not on sanitary grounds only or chiefly, but because that animal was sacrificed in the festivals of Thammuz (Ezekiel 8:14), or Adonis. (Comp. Isaiah 66:17.) It may be noted, as against the view that the verse points to the practices of the Babylonian exiles, that no reference to swine has been found in any cuneiform inscriptions. In Egypt, as in Palestine, it was looked upon as unclean (Herod. ii. 47, 48). On the worship of Thammuz, see an article by the Rev. A. H. Sayce, in the Contemporary Review for September, 1883.
Broth of abominable things.—The words indicate, as before, a sacrificial feast of unclean meats, and therefore connected with a violation of the Mosaic law, possibly with some form of heathen mysteries or divination from the viscera of slaughtered animals. The word occurs here and in Isaiah 66:3, once in Deuteronomy (Isaiah 29:17), and frequently in Leviticus (Leviticus 11:11; Leviticus 11:13; Leviticus 18:26; Leviticus 18:30).
(5) Which say, Stand by thyself . . .—The picture, in its main outlines, reminds us of the proud exclusiveness of the later Pharisees, and the root-evil is, of course, identical. Here, however, the ground of the exclusiveness is not the consciousness of the peculiar privileges of Israel, but rests on what was an actual apostasy. Those of whom Isaiah speaks boasted of their initiation into heathen mysteries (Baal, Thammuz, or the like) as giving them a kind of consecrated character, and separating them from the profanum vulgus of the Israelites, who were faithful to the God of their fathers.
I am holier than thou.—Literally, I am holy to thee: i.e., one whom thou mayest not approach. (Comp. Leviticus 21:8.) By some commentators the verb is taken as transitive, I make thee holy: i.e., have power to impart holiness; but this is less satisfactory, both grammatically and as to meaning.
These are a smoke in my nose . . .—The point of the clause is that the punishment is represented as not future. The self-exalting idolaters are already as those who are being consumed in the fire of the Divine wrath, and their smoke is “a savour of death” in the nostrils of Jehovah.
(6) It is written before me . . .—The thought is that of the great register, the book of God’s remembrance, in which men’s deeds, good and evil, are ever being recorded. (Comp. Jeremiah 17:1; Psalms 56:8; Daniel 12:1; Malachi 3:16.)
But will recompense . . .—Literally, without recompensing, or, except I recompense. Men took the long-suffering of God as if it indicated forgetfulness (Romans 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). They are told that He will at last requite the impenitent “into their very bosom,” their inmost self, for all the evil they have done.
(7) Which have burned incense upon the mountains . . .—The old inveterate sin of the worship of high places (comp. Isaiah 57:7; Hosea 4:13; Ezekiel 6:13; 2 Kings 15:4; 2 Kings 15:35). The worship paid there to other gods, or nominally to Jehovah in a way which He had forbidden, was practically a “blasphemy” or “reproach” against Him.
Their former work.—Better, I will measure their work first into their bosoms. That was, as it were, the primary duty of the Supreme Ruler.
(8) As the new wine . . .—Literally, the must, or unfermented juice of the grape. The transition from the denunciations of the preceding verse is abrupt, and suggests the thought of an interval of time and absence of direct continuity. Possibly, however, a link may be found in the “first” of the amended translation, which prepares the way for something that is to follow. God chastens, but does not destroy.
Destroy it not . . .—The thought is that as even one fruitful cluster of grapes will lead the vine-dresser to spare an otherwise fruitless vine in the hope of a fuller blessing in the future, so Jehovah will spare a sinful nation for the twenty or the ten righteous (Genesis 18:23-33). The words “destroy it not” are those which stand at the head of Psalms 57-59, as indicating the tune to which they were to be sung; and it is a natural inference that it may have been a popular vintage song, and therefore doubly apt for the prophet’s purpose. May we compare our own song of “Wood-man, spare that tree?” applied, as it has been, to the trees of ancient institutions.
(9) I will bring forth a seed out of Jacob . . .—Jacob (i.e., Israel) and Judah are used to represent respectively the remnants of the two kingdoms that had been carried into captivity.
My mountains.—One of Isaiah’s characteristic phrases (comp. Isaiah 14:25; Isaiah 29:11; Ezekiel 6:2-3. Not Zion only, but every hill in Canaan was a sharer in a derived sanctity.
(10) Sharon.—As elsewhere, the name appears in the Hebrew with the article—the Sharon, the rich plain stretching along the coast from Joppa to the foot of Carmel. The LXX., Josephus, and Strabo render it by the plain, or the woodland. (Comp. Isaiah 33:9; Isaiah 35:2.)
The valley of Achor.—The name, traditionally connected with the sin of Achan (Joshua 7:24-26), belonged to a valley running into the plain of Jericho, and is here taken as the Eastern limit of the region bounded by the Sharon on the west. The whole district was to be as a “garden of the Lord” for the restored remnant. (Comp. the striking parallelism of Hosea 2:15.)
(11) That forget my holy mountain . . .—The words imply, like Isaiah 65:3-5, the abandonment of the worship of the Temple for a heathen ritual, but those that follow point, it will be seen, to Canaanite rather than Babylonian idolatry, and, so far, are in favour of the earlier date of the chapter. The same phrase occurs, however, as connected with the exiles in Psalms 137:5.
That prepare a table for that troop.—Hebrew, “for the Gad,” probably the planet Jupiter, worshipped as the “greater fortune,” the giver of good luck. The LXX. renders “for the demon” or “Genius.” The name of Baal-Gad (Joshua 11:17; Joshua 12:17) indicates the early prevalence of the worship in Syria. Phœnician inscriptions have been found with the names Gad-Ashtoreth and Gad-Moloch. The “table” points to the lectisternium (or “feast”), which was a prominent feature in Assyrian and other forms of polytheism.
Unto that number.- Here, again, we have in the proper name of a Syrian deity, probably of the planet Venus as the “lesser fortune.” Some scholars have found a name Manu in Babylonian inscriptions; and Manât, one of the three deities invoked by the Arabs in the time of Mahomet, is probably connected with Mëni the it (Cheyne). See Sayce, as in Note on Isaiah 65:4.
(13) My servants shall eat . . .—The form of the punishment is apparently determined by that of the sin. That had been the orgy of an idol’s feast; the penalty would be hunger and thirst, while joy and gladness would be the portion of those who had abstained from it. The words present a striking parallelism to Luke 6:20-26.
(15) Ye shall leave your name for a curse . . .—The phrase has parallels in Numbers 5:21; Zechariah 8:13; Jeremiah 29:22, the thought in each case being that the person named is under so heavy a penalty from the wrath of Jehovah that he becomes a representative instance of what that wrath can accomplish, and because the old name, say of Jacob or of Judah, has been thus identified with evil. He will call His chosen ones, the true Israel, as by another name, which shall be for blessing, and not for cursing. (Comp. Isaiah 62:2, Revelation 2:17; Revelation 3:12.)
(16) Shall bless himself in the God of truth . . .—Literally, the God of the Amen. In Revelation 3:14 we have an echo of the Hebrew; in John 17:3 we have as distinct an echo of the LXX. rendering, τὸν θεὸν τὸν ἀληθινόν. The words seem to imply that the prophet had entered into the inner meaning of what was to most men only a liturgical formula.
Because the former troubles . . .—The addition of the clause emphasises the thought that it is the truth or faithfulness of God, who keepeth His promise for over, that will lead men to use that new Name as a formula of benediction.
(17) Behold, I create new heavens . . .—The thought reappears in many forms in the New Testament—verbally in 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1, substantially in the “restitution of all things” (Acts 3:21), in the “manifestation of the sons of God” (Romans 8:19). The “former things,” the sin and sorrow of the past, shall then fade away from the memory of God’s people, absorbed in the abounding and everlasting joy.
(18) I create Jerusalem . . .—From the prophet’s stand-point, as elsewhere, both in 1 and 2 Isaiah, the earthly city, transformed and transfigured, occupies the central place in the new creation. In the New Testament we note the transfer of the promise to the unseen eternal city, the Jerusalem which is above (Galatians 4:26; Revelation 21:10).
(20) There shall be no more thence . . .—The prophet sees in the restored city not so much an eternal and a deathless life as the return of the traditional longevity of the prediluvian and patriarchal age (Genesis 5, 11), Life will not be prematurely cut off, as it had been, by pestilence and war. (Comp. Zechariah 8:4.) He who dies at the age of a hundred will be thought of as dying young; even the sinner, dying before his time as the penalty of his guilt, shall live out the measure of a century. The noticeable fact is that sin is thought of as not altogether extinct—as still appearing, though under altered conditions, even in the restored Jerusalem.
(21) They shall build houses . . .—The proverbial type of national security and peace, as the opposite was of national misfortune (Leviticus 26:16; Deuteronomy 28:30).
(22) As the days of a tree . . .—We may think of the cedars of Lebanon or the oaks of Bashan as furnishing the prophet with the ideal standard of longevity. Commonly, as by Homer and other poets, the lives of men have been compared to that of the leaves of deciduous trees; here they are compared to the life of the tree itself. The prophet is still speaking, not of national, but of individual life.
(23) Their offspring with them . . .—The picture presented is that of a patriarchal family, including many generations, fathers no longer outliving their children and mourning for their death, as Jacob did (Genesis 37:35; Genesis 42:38), and as men had often done in the times of war, famine, and pestilence, through which Isaiah had lived.
(24) Before they call . . .—In man’s experience of men, often, as things are now, in his relations with God, there is an interval between prayer and the answer. In the new Jerusalem the two would be simultaneous, or the answer would anticipate the prayer.
(25) The wolf and the lamb . . .—The words point to what have been called the discords in the harmony of Nature, the pain and death involved, of necessity, in the relation of one whole class of animals to another. In St. Paul’s language, the “whole creation groaneth and travaileth together” (Romans 8:22). In the new heaven and the new earth of the prophet’s vision there would be no such discords. The flesh-eating beasts should change their nature; even the serpent, named, probably, with special reference to Genesis 3, as the starting-point of the discords, shall find food in the dust in which he crawls, and shall be no longer a destroyer. The condition of the ideal Paradise should be restored. The picture finds a parallel, perhaps a replica, in Virgil, Eel. 4. Do the poet and the prophet stand on the same footing? or may we look for a literal fulfilment of the words of the one, though not of the other? The answer must be given in words that are “wary and few.” We dare not, on the one hand, fix times and seasons, or press the letter of prophetic visions as demanding a fulfilment. On the other, the permanence of Israel as a people suggests the possibility of a restored Jerusalem, and modern theories of evolution point to the gradual elimination of the fiercer animals as part of the conquests of humanity.
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Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Isaiah 65". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany