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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 9

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

Verse 1


(1) Nevertheless the dimness . . .—It is obvious, even in the English version, that the chapters are wrongly divided, and that what follows forms part of the same prophetic utterance as Isaiah 8:0. That version is, however, so obscure as to be almost unintelligible, and requires an entire remodelling:—Surely there is no gloom to her that was afflicted. In the former time he brought shame on the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali; but in the latter he bringeth honour on the way by the sea, beyond Jordan, the circuit of the Gentiles.

The prophet had seen in the closing verses of Isaiah 8:0 the extreme point of misery. That picture, as it were, dissolves, and another takes its place. She that was afflicted, the whole land of Israel, should have no more affliction. The future should be in striking contrast with the past. The lands of Zebulun and Naphtali, the region afterwards known as the Upper and Lower Galilee, had been laid waste and spoiled by Tiglath-pilneser (2 Kings 15:29). That same region, described by the prophet in different terms (the former representing the tribal divisions, the latter the geographical) is hereafter to be the scene of a glory greater than Israel had ever known before.

The way of the sea . . .—The context shows that the “sea” is that which appears in Bible history under the names of the sea of Chinnereth (Numbers 34:11; Deuteronomy 3:17), the Sea of Galilee, the Sea of Tiberias (John 6:1), Gennesaret (Mark 6:53). The high road thence to Damascus was known as Via Maris in the time of the Crusaders (Renan, quoted by Cheyne).

Beyond Jordan.—This, the Peræa of later geography, included the regions of Gilead and Bashan, the old kingdoms of Moab and Ammon, the tribes of Reuben, Gad, and half the tribe of Manasseh. These also had suffered from the ravages of the Assyrian armies under Pul (1 Chronicles 5:26).

Galilee of the nations.—The word Galilee, derived from the same root as Gilgal (Joshua 5:9), means strictly “a circle,” or “circuit.” It was applied to the border-lands of the Phœnician frontier of the northern kingdom, inhabited by a mixed population, and therefore known as “Galilee of the Gentiles” (Matthew 4:15-16) what in mediaeval German would have been called the Heidenmark.

Verse 2

(2) The people that walked in darkness . . .—The words throw us back upon Isaiah 8:21-22. The prophet sees in his vision a light shining on the forlorn and weary wanderers. They had been wandering in the “valley of the shadow of death” (the phrase comes from Psalms 23:4; Job 3:5), almost as in the gloom of Sheol itself. Now there breaks in the dawn of a glorious day. Historically the return of some of the inhabitants of that region to their allegiance to Jehovah and the house of David (2 Chronicles 30:11; 2 Chronicles 30:13) may have been the starting point of the prophet’s hopes. The words have to the Christian student a special interest, as having been quoted by St. Matthew (Matthew 4:15-16) in connection with our Lord’s ministry in Galilee, perhaps with His being “of Nazareth,” which was in the tribe of Zebulun. We cannot positively say that such a fulfilment as that was in the prophet’s thoughts. The context shows in that he was thinking of Assyrian invasions, and the defeat of Assyrian armies, of a nation growing strong in numbers and prosperity. In this, as in other cases, the Evangelist adapts the words of prophecy to a further meaning than that which apparently was in the mind of the writer, and interprets them by his own experience. When he compared the state of Galilee, yet more, perhaps, that of his own soul, before and after the Son of man had appeared as the light of the world, Isaiah’s words seemed the only adequate expression of the change.

Verse 3

(3) Thou hast multiplied the nation, and not increased the joy . . .—Better, following the marginal reading of the Hebrew: Thou hast increased its joy. The picture is one of unmingled brightness; the return as of a golden age, the population growing to an extent never attained before (comp. Isaiah 26:15; Jeremiah 31:27; Ezekiel 36:11), and scarcely admits of the dark shadow introduced by the reading of the text, unless, with some critics (Kay), we see in the words a contrast between the outward prosperity of the days of Solomon and Uzziah, in which there was no permanent joy, and the abundancy of joyfulness under the ideal king.

They joy before thee according to the joy in harvest . . .—The words “before thee” are significant. The gladness of the people is that of worshippers at a sacrificial feast (Isaiah 25:6; Deuteronomy 12:7; Deuteronomy 12:12; Deuteronomy 12:18), who find the secret spring of blessing in their consciousness of the presence of Jehovah. So the New Testament writers speak of “rejoicing in the Lord” (Philippians 3:1), of “joy in the Holy Ghost” (Romans 14:17). This “joy of harvest” represents the peaceful side of that gladness, thought of as the gift of God (Acts 14:17). But it had another aspect. It was the rejoicing after a conflict, historically with foes like the Assyrians, spiritually with all powers hostile to the true kingdom of God (Matthew 12:29). The joy of the conquerors on the battle-field, like that of harvest, had become proverbial (Psalms 119:162).

Verse 4

(4) For thou hast broken the yoke of his burden . . .—The text comes in the Hebrew with all the emphasis of position. The yoke of his burden . . . thou hast broken. The phrase suggests a bondage like that of Egypt, where the “task-masters” (the same word as that here rendered “oppressors”) drove the people to their labours with their rods.

As in the day of Midian.—The historical allusion was probably suggested by the division of spoil that had been in the prophet’s thoughts. Of all victories in the history of Israel, that of Gideon over the Midianites had been most conspicuous for this feature (Judges 8:24-27). In Psalms 83:9-11 (which the mention of Assur shows to have been nearly contemporary with Isaiah) we find a reference to the same battle. Men remembered “the day of Midian” centuries after its date, as we remember Poitiers and Agincourt.

Verse 5

(5) For every battle of the warrior . . .—Here again the whole verse requires re-translating: “Every boot of the warrior that tramps noisily, and the cloak rolled in blood, are (i.e., shall be) for burning, (as) fuel for fire. The picture of the conquerors collecting the spoil is continued from Isaiah 9:3. The victory is decisive, and the reign of peace begins, and the weapons of war, the garments red with blood (Isaiah 63:1-3), the heavy boot that makes the earth ring with the warrior’s tread, these shall all be burnt up. Like pictures of a time of peace are found in Zechariah 9:10; Ezek. xxxix, 9; Psalms 46:9; Psalms 76:3.

Verse 6

(6) For unto us a child is born.—The picture of a kingdom of peace could not be complete without the manifestation of a king. In the description of that king Isaiah is led to use words which cannot find a complete fulfilment in any child of man. The loftiness of thought, rising here as to its highest point, is obviously connected with the words which told that Jehovah had spoken to the prophet “with a strong hand.” His condition was one more ecstatic and therefore more apocalyptic than before, and there flashes on him, as it were, the thought that the future deliverer of Israel must bear a name that should be above every name that men had before honoured. And yet here also there was a law of continuity, and the form of the prediction was developed from the materials supplied by earlier prophets. In Psalms 110:0 he had found the thought of the king-priest after the order of Melchizedek, whom Jehovah addressed as Adonai. In Psalms 2:0, though it did not foretell an actual incarnation, the anointed King was addressed by Jehovah as His Son. The throne of that righteous king was as a throne of God (Psalms 45:6). Nor had the prophet’s personal experience been less fruitfully suggestive. He had given his own children mysterious names. That of the earthly Immanuel, as the prophet brooded over it, might well lead on to the thought of One who should, in a yet higher sense than as being the pledge of Divine protection, be as “God with us.” Even the earthly surroundings of the prophet’s life may not have been without their share of suggestiveness. The kings of Egypt and Assyria with whom his nation had been brought into contact delighted in long lists of epithetic names (e.g., “the great king, the king unrivalled, the protector of the just, the noble warrior.” Inscription of, Sennacherib in Records of the Past, i. p. 25), describing their greatness and their glory. It was natural that the prophet should see in the king of whom he thought as the future conqueror of all the world-powers that were founded on might and not on right, One who should bear a name formed, it might be, after that fashion, but full of a greater majesty and glory.

His name shall be called Wonderful.—It is noticeable that that which follows is given not as many names, but one. Consisting as it does of eight words, of which the last six obviously fall into three couplets, it is probable that the first two should also be taken together, and that we have four elements of the compound name: (1) Wonderful-Counsellor, (2) God-the-Mighty-One, (3) Father of Eternity, (4) Prince of Peace. Each element of the Name has its special significance. (1) The first embodies the thought of the wisdom of the future Messiah. Men should not simply praise it as they praise their fellows, but should adore and wonder at it as they wonder at the wisdom of God (Judges 13:18, where the Hebrew for the “secret” of the Authorised version is the same as that for “wonderful;” Exodus 15:11; Psalms 77:11; Psalms 78:11; Isaiah 28:29; Isaiah 29:14). The name contains the germ afterwards developed in the picture of the wisdom of the true king in Isaiah 11:2-4. The LXX. renders the Hebrew as “the angel of great counsel,” and in the Vatican text the description ends there. (2) It is significant that the word for “God” is not Elohim, which may be used in a lower sense for those who are representatives of God, as in Exodus 7:1; Exodus 22:28, 1 Samuel 28:13, but El, which is never used by Isaiah, or any other Old Testament writer, in any lower sense than that of absolute Deity, and which, we may note, had been specially brought before the prophet’s thoughts in the name Immanuel. The name appears again as applied directly to Jehovah in Isaiah 10:21; Deuteronomy 10:17; Jeremiah 32:18; Nehemiah 9:32; Psalms 24:8; and the adjective in Isaiah 42:13. (3) In “Father of Eternity,” (LXX. Alex. and Vulg., “Father of the age to come “) we have a name which seems at first to clash with the formalised developments of Christian theology, which teach us, lest we should “confound the persons,” not to deal with the names of the Father and the Son as interchangeable. Those developments, however, were obviously not within Isaiah’s ken, and he uses the name of “Father” because none other expressed so well the true idea of loving and protecting government (Job 29:16, Isaiah 22:21). And if the kingdom was to be “for ever and ever,” then in some very real sense he would be, in that attribute of Fatherly government, a sharer in the eternity of Jehovah. Another rendering of the name, adopted by some critics, “Father (i.e., Giver) of booty,” has little to recommend it, and is entirely out of harmony with the majesty of the context. (4) “Prince of Peace.” The prophet clings, as all prophets before him had done, to the thought that peace, and not war, belonged to the ideal Kingdom of the Messiah. That hope had been embodied by David in the name of Absalom (“ father of peace “) and Solomon. It had been uttered in the prayer of Psalms 72:3, and by Isaiah’s contemporary, Micah (Micah 5:5). Earth-powers, like Assyria and Egypt, might rest in war and conquest as an end, but the true king, though warfare might be needed to subdue his foes (Psalms 45:5), was to be a “Prince of Peace” (Zechariah 9:9-10). It must be noted as remarkable, looking to the grandeur of the prophecy, and its apparently direct testimony to the true nature of the Christ, that it is nowhere cited in the New Testament as fulfilled in Him; and this, though Isaiah 9:1 is, as we have seen, quoted by St. Matthew and Isaiah 9:7, finds at least an allusive reference in Luke 1:32-33.

Verse 7

(7) Of the increase . . .—Better, “For the increase of the government, and for peace with no end . . . The “throne of David,” though in harmony with the whole body of prophetic tradition as to the Messiah, may be noted as the first appearance of that tradition in Isaiah.

Henceforth even for ever.—The words admit, as in the parallels of Psalms 21:4; Psalms 61:6-7; 2 Samuel 7:12-16, of being interpreted of the perpetuity of the dynasty of which the anointed king is to be the founder; but the “Everlasting Father “of the context, and the parallels of Psalms 45:6; Psalms 110:4, are in favour of its referring to a personal immortality of sovereignty.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform . . .—As in Greek so in Hebrew, we have the same root-word and root-idea for “zeal” and “jealousy,” and here, perhaps, the latter thought is dominant. It is because Jehovah loves the daughter of Zion with an absorbing love that He purposes such great things for her future, and that what He purposes will be assuredly performed. (Comp. Ezekiel 5:13.)

Verse 8

(8).The Lord sent a word into Jacob . . .—For “hath lighted” read it lighteth. A new section, though still closely connected with the historical occasion of Isaiah 7:0, begins. The vision of the glory of the far-off king comes to an end, and the prophet returns to the more immediate surroundings of his time. The “word” which Jehovah sends is the prophetic message that follows. It is a question whether the terms “Jacob” and “Israel” stand in the parallelism of identity or contrast, but the use of the former term in Isaiah 2:3; Isaiah 2:5-6, makes the former use more probable. In this case both names stand practically for the kingdom of Judah as the true representative of Israel, the apostate kingdom of the Ten Tribes being no longer worthy of the name, and therefore described here, as in Isaiah 7:5; Isaiah 7:8; Isaiah 7:17, simply as Ephraim. The occasion of the prophecy is given in Isaiah 9:9. Pekah, the king of Ephraim, was still confident in his strength, and in spite of his partial failure, and the defeat of his ally (2 Kings 16:9), derided the prophet’s prediction.

Verse 10

(10) The bricks are fallen down . . .—Sun-dried bricks and the cheap timber of the sycamore (1 Kings 10:27) were the common materials used for the dwellings of the poor, hewn stones and cedar for the palaces of the rich. Whatever injury Samaria had sustained (the words are too proverbially figurative to make literal interpretation probable), through the intervention of Tiglath-pileser, was, its rulers thought, but as the prelude to a great and more lasting victory even than that of 2 Chronicles 28:6.

Verse 11

(11) Therefore the Lord shall set up the adversaries . . .—The Hebrew tenses are in the past (has set up), but probably as representing the prophet’s visions of an accomplished future. The “adversaries” of the text can hardly be any other than the Assyrians; yet the context that follows clearly points to an attack on Ephraim in which the armies of Rezin were to be conspicuous. The natural explanation is that Syria, after the conquest by the Assyrian king (2 Kings 16:9), was compelled to take part in a campaign against Samaria. The reading of the text may be retained with this explanation, and the sentence paraphrased thus, “Jehovah will stir up the adversaries of Rezin (the Assyrians who have conquered Syria) against him (Ephraim and the inhabitant of Samaria), and shall join his enemies against him, and those enemies shall include the very nations on whose support he had counted, the Syrians and the Philistines” (Psalms 83:7-8). The latter people were, it is true, enemies to Judah (2 Chronicles 28:18), but their hostilities extended to the northern kingdom also.

Verse 12

(12) For all this his anger is not turned away . . .—The formula which in Isaiah 5:25 had been applied to Judah is here and in Isaiah 9:17; Isaiah 9:21 used of Israel at large, and specially of Ephraim. It embodied the law which governed God’s dealing with both.

Verse 13

(13) For the people turneth not . . .—What follows was the word that was meant for all Israel. They had not “turned” to the Lord, there were no proofs of that conversion which true prophets and preachers have at all times sought after.

Verse 14

(14) Head and tail, branch and rush . . .—The “branch” is strictly that of the palm-tree, which in its stately height answered to the nobles of the land, while the “rush,” the emblem of a real or affected lowliness (Isaiah 58:5) represented the “mean man” of Isaiah 2:9. The same proverbial formula meets us in Isaiah 19:15.

Verse 15

(15) The ancient and honourable . . .—Comp. Isaiah 3:2-3, for the meaning of the words. These, the prophet seems to say, were the true leaders of the people. The ideal work of the prophet was, indeed, that of a teacher who was to lead even them, but corruptio optimi pessima; and to Isaiah, as to Jeremiah, there was no class so contemptible and base as that of spiritual guides whose policy was that of a time-serving selfishness. The verse is rejected by some critics as a marginal note that has found its way into the text; but the prophet may well have given his own interpretation of this formula. (Comp. Isaiah 28:7; Isaiah 29:10; Jeremiah 14:14; Jeremiah 23:9-40.)

Verse 17

(17) Therefore the Lord shall have no joy . . .—The Hebrew tenses are in the past, The Lord had no joy. The severity of the coming judgment is represented as not sparing even the flower of the nation’s youth, the widows and orphans who were the special objects of compassion both to God and man. The corruption of the time was universal, and the prophet’s formula, For all this his anger is not turned away . . .” tolls again like the knell of doom.

Folly.—Better, blasphemy or villainy.

Verse 18

(18) It shall devour the briers and thorns . . .—The words are obviously figurative for men who were base and vile, as in 2 Samuel 23:6; but the figure may have been suggested by Isaiah 7:23-24. The outward desolation, with its rank growth of underwood, was to the prophet’s eye a type of the moral condition of his people. And for such a people sin becomes the punishment of sin, and burns like a fire in a forest thicket, leaving the land clear for fresh culture and a better growth. (Comp. Isaiah 33:11-12; James 3:5; Hebrews 6:8.)

Verses 19-20

(19, 20) Through the wrath of the Lord of hosts is the land darkened . . .—The vision of darkness and famine which had come before the prophet’s eyes in Isaiah 8:21 appears once again, and here, as there, it is a question whether the words are to be understood literally or figuratively. The definiteness of the language of Isaiah 9:20 suggests the thoughts of the horrors of a famine like that of Samaria (2 Kings 6:28-29), or of Deuteronomy 28:53-57; Zechariah 11:9. But even that scene of horror might be only typical of a state of chaos and confusion pervading the whole order of society, fierce passions, jealousies, rivalries working out the destruction of the nation’s life; such as Thucydides (iii. 82-84) has painted as the result of the Peloponnesian war. The mention of Ephraim and Manasseh as conspicuous in the self-destructive work confirms the figurative interpretation. They were devouring “the flesh of their own arm” when they allowed their old tribal jealousies (Judges 8:1; Judges 12:1-4; 2 Samuel 19:43) to break up the unity of the nation.

And they together shall be against Judah.—This formed the climax of the whole. The only power of union that showed itself in the northern kingdom was to perpetuate the great schism in which it had its origin. The idea that Israel as such was a nation was forgotten. Ephraim and Manasseh could join in a common expedition against Judah when they could join in nothing else. Of this the alliance of Pekah with Rezin was the most striking instance (2 Chronicles 28:6-15). Traces of internal division are found in the conspiracy of the Gileadites of the trans-Jordanic district of Manasseh, against Pekah’s predecessor in Samaria (2 Kings 15:25).

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Isaiah 9". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/isaiah-9.html. 1905.
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