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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Isaiah 26

Verse 1




In the first thirty-nine chapters of the Book of Isaiah-the half which refers to the prophet’s own career and the politics contemporary with that - we find four or five prophecies containing no reference to Isaiah himself nor to any Jewish king under whom he laboured, and painting both Israel and the foreign world in quite a different state from that in which they lay during his lifetime. These prophecies are chapter 13, an Oracle announcing the Fall of Babylon, with its appendix, Isaiah 14:1-23, the Promise of Israel’s Deliverance and an Ode upon the Fall of the Babylonian Tyrant; chapters 24-27, a series of Visions of the breaking up of the universe, of restoration from exile, and even of resurrection from the dead; chapter 34, the Vengeance of the Lord upon Edom; and chapter 35, a Song of Return from Exile.

In these prophecies Assyria is no longer the dominant world-force, nor Jerusalem the inviolate fortress of God and His people. If Assyria or Egypt is mentioned, it is but as one of the three classical enemies of Israel; and Babylon is represented as the head and front of the hostile world. The Jews are no longer in political freedom and possession of their own land; they are either in exile or just returned from it to a depopulated country. With these altered circumstances come another temper and new doctrine. The horizon is different, and the hopes that flush in dawn upon it are not quite the same as those which we have contemplated with Isaiah in his immediate future. It is no longer the repulse of the heathen invader; the inviolateness of the sacred city; the recovery of the people from the shock of attack, and of the land from the trampling of armies. But it is the people in exile, the overthrow of the tyrant in his own home, the opening of prison doors, the laying down of a highway through the wilderness, the triumph of return, and the resumption of worship. There is, besides, a promise of the resurrection, which we have not found in the prophecies we have considered.

With such differences, it is not wonderful that many have denied the authorship of these few prophecies to Isaiah. This is a question that can be looked at calmly. It touches no dogma of the Christian faith. Especially it does not involve the other question, so often-and, we venture to say, so unjustly-started on this point, Could not the Spirit of God have inspired Isaiah to foresee all that the prophecies in question foretell, even though he lived more than a century before the people were in circumstances to understand them? Certainly, God is almighty. The question is not, Could He have done this? but one somewhat different: Did He do it? and to this an answer can be had only from the prophecies themselves. If these mark the Babylonian hostility or captivity as already upon Israel, this is a testimony of Scripture itself, which we cannot overlook, and beside which even unquestionable traces of similarity to Isaiah’s style or the fact that these oracles are bound up with Isaiah’s own undoubted prophecies have little weight. "Facts" of style will be regarded with suspicion by any one who knows how they are employed by both sides in such a question as this; while the certainty that the Book of Isaiah was put into its present form subsequently to his life will permit of, -and the evident purpose of Scripture to secure moral impressiveness rather than historical consecutiveness will account for, -later oracles being bound up with unquestioned utterances of Isaiah.

Only one of the prophecies in question confirms the tradition that it is by Isaiah, viz., chapter 13, which bears the title "Oracle of Babylon which Isaiah, son of Amoz, did see"; but titles are themselves so much the report of tradition, being of a later date than the rest of the text, that it is best to argue the question apart from them.

On the other hand, Isaiah’s authorship of these prophecies, or at least the possibility of his having written them, is usually defended by appealing to his promise of return from exile in chapter 11 and his threat of a Babylonish captivity in chapter 39. This is an argument that has not been fairly met by those who deny the Isaianic authorship of chapters 13-14, 23, 24-28, and 35. It is a strong argument, for while, as we have seen, there are good grounds for believing Isaiah to have been likely to make such a prediction of a Babylonish captivity as is attributed to him in Isaiah 39:6, almost all the critics agree in leaving chapter 11 to him. But if chapter 11 is Isaiah’s, then he undoubtedly spoke of an exile much more extensive than had taken place by his own day. Nevertheless, even this ability in 11 to foretell an exile so vast does not account for passages in 13-14:23, 24-27, which represent the Exile either as present or as actually over. No one who reads these chapters without prejudice can fail to feel the force of such passages in leading him to decide for an exilic or post-exilic authorship.

Another argument against attributing these prophecies to Isaiah is that their visions of the last things, representing as they do a judgment on the whole world, and even the destruction of the whole material universe, are incompatible with Isaiah’s loftiest and final hope of an inviolate Zion at last relieved and secure, of a land freed from invasion and wondrously fertile, with all the converted world, Assyria and Egypt, gathered round it as a centre. This question, however, is seriously complicated by the fact that in his youth Isaiah did undoubtedly prophesy a shaking of the whole world and the destruction of its inhabitants, and by the probability that his old age survived into a period whose abounding sin would again make natural such wholesale predictions of judgment as we find in chapter 24.

Still, let the question of the eschatology be as obscure as we have shown, there remains this clear issue. In some chapters of the Book of Isaiah, which, from our knowledge of the circumstances of his times, we know must have been published while he was alive, we learn that the Jewish people has never left its land, nor lost its independence under Jehovah’s anointed, and that the inviolateness of Zion and the retreat of the Assyrian invaders of Judah, without effecting the captivity of the Jews, are absolutely essential to the endurance of God’s kingdom on earth. In other chapters we find that the Jews have left their land, have been long in exile (or from other passages have just returned), and that the religious essential is no more the independence of the Jewish State under a theocratic king, but only the resumption of the Temple worship. Is it possible for one man to have written both these sets of chapters? Is it possible for one age to. have produced them? That is the whole question.

Verses 1-21




Isaiah 25:1-12; Isaiah 26:1-21; Isaiah 27:1-13

WE have seen that no more than the faintest gleam of historical reflection brightens the obscurity of chapter 24, and that the disaster which lowers there is upon too world-wide a scale to be forced within the conditions of any single period in the fortunes of Israel. In chapters 25-27, which may naturally be held to be a continuation of chapter 24, the historical allusions are more numerous. Indeed, it might be said they are too numerous, for they contradict one another to the perplexity of the most acute critics. They imply historical circumstances for the prophecy both before and after the exile. On the one hand, the blame of idolatry in Judah, {Isaiah 27:9} the mention of Assyria and Egypt, {Isaiah 27:12-13} and the absence of the name of Babylon are indicative of a pre-exilic date. Arguments from style are always precarious: but it is striking that some critics, who deny that chapters 24-27 can have come as a whole from Isaiah’s time, profess to see his hand in certain passages. Then, secondly, through these verses which point to a pre-exilic date there are woven, almost inextricably, phrases of actual exile: expressions of the sense of living on a level and in contact with the heathen; {Isaiah 26:9-10} a request to God’s people to withdraw from the midst of a heathen public to the privacy of their chambers (chapters 20, 21); prayers and promises of deliverance from the oppressor (passim); hopes of the establishment of Zion, and of the repopulation of the Holy Land. And, thirdly, some verses imply that the speaker has already returned to Zion itself: he says more than once, "in this mountain"; there are hymns celebrating a deliverance actually achieved, as God "has done a marvel. For Thou hast made a citadel into a heap, a fortified city into a ruin, a castle of strangers to be no city, not to be built again." Such phrases do not read as if the prophet were creating for the lips of his people a psalm of triumph against a far future deliverance; they have in them the ring of what has already happened.

This bare statement of the allusions of the prophecy will give the ordinary reader some idea of the difficulties of Biblical criticism. What is to be made of a prophecy uttering the catchwords and breathing the experience of three distinct periods? One solution of the difficulty may be that we have here the composition of a Jew already returned from exile to a desecrated sanctuary and depopulated land, who has woven through his original utterances of complaint and hope the experience of earlier oppressions and deliverances, using even the names of earlier tyrants. In his immediate past a great city that oppressed the Jews has fallen, though, if this is Babylon, it is strange that he nowhere names it. But his intention is rather religious than historical; he seeks to give a general representation of the attitude of the world to the people of God, and of the judgment which God brings on the world. This view of the composition is supported by either of two possible interpretations of that difficult verse, Isaiah 27:10: "In that day Jehovah with His sword, the hard and the great and the strong, shall perform visitation upon Leviathan, Serpent Elusive, and upon Leviathan, Serpent Tortuous; and He shall slay the Dragon that is in the sea." Cheyne treats these monsters as mythic personifications of the clouds, the darkness, and the powers of the air, so that the verse means that, just as Jehovah is supreme in the physical world, He shall be in the moral. But it is more probable that the two Leviathans mean Assyria and Babylon-the "Elusive" one, Assyria on the swift-shooting Tigris: the "Tortuous" one, Babylon on the winding Euphrates-while "the Dragon that is in the sea" or "the west" is Egypt. But if the prophet speaks of a victory over Israel’s three great enemies all at once, that means that he is talking universally or ideally: and this impression is further heightened by the mythic names he gives them. Such arguments, along with the undoubted post-exilic fragments in the prophecy, point to a late date, so that even a very conservative critic, who is satisfied that Isaiah is the author, admits that "the possibility of exilic authorship does not allow itself to be denied."

If this character which we attribute to the prophecy be correct-viz., that it is a summary or ideal account of the attitude of the alien world to Israel, and of the judgment God has ready for the world-then, though itself be exilic, its place in the Book of Isaiah is intelligible. Chapters 24-27 fitly crown the long list of Isaiah’s oracles upon the foreign nations: they finally formulate the purposes of God towards the nations and towards Israel, whom the nations have oppressed. Our opinions must not be final or dogmatic about this matter of authorship; the obscurities are not nearly cleared up. But if it be ultimately found certain that this prophecy, which lies in the heart of the Book of Isaiah, is not by Isaiah himself, that need neither startle nor unsettle us. No doctrinal question is stirred by such a discovery, not even that of the accuracy of the Scriptures. For that a book is entitled by Isaiah’s name does not necessarily mean that it is all by Isaiah: and we shall feel still less compelled to believe that these chapters are his when we find other chapters called by his name while these are not said to be by him. In truth there is a difficulty here, only because it is supposed that a book entitled by Isaiah’s name must necessarily contain nothing but what is Isaiah’s own. Tradition may have come to say so; but the Scripture itself, bearing as it does unmistakable marks of another age than Isaiah’s, tells us that tradition is wrong: and the testimony of Scripture is surely to be preferred, especially when it betrays, as we have seen, sufficient reasons why a prophecy, though not Isaiah’s, was attached to his genuine and undoubted oracles. In any case, however, as even the conservative critic whom we have quoted admits, "for the religious value" of the prophecy "the question" of the authorship "is thoroughly irrelevant."

We shall perceive this at once as we now turn to see what is the religious value of our prophecy. Chapters 25-27 stand in the front rank of evangelical prophecy. In their experience of religion, their characterizations of God’s people, their expressions of faith, their missionary hopes and hopes of immortality, they are very rich and edifying. Perhaps their most signal feature is their designation of the people of God. In this collection of prayers and hymns the people of God are not regarded as a political body. They are only once called the nation and spoken of in connection with a territory. Only twice are they named with the national names of Israel and Jacob. {Isaiah 27:6; Isaiah 27:9; Isaiah 27:12} We miss Isaiah’s promised king, his pictures of righteous government, his emphasis upon social justice and purity, his interest in the foreign politics of his State, his hopes of national grandeur and agricultural felicity. In these chapters God’s people are described by adjectives signifying spiritual qualities. Their nationality is no more pleaded, only their suffering estate and their hunger and thirst after God. The ideals that are presented for the future are neither political nor social, but ecclesiastical. We saw how closely Isaiah’s prophesying was connected with the history of his time. The people of this prophecy seem to have done with history, and to be interested only in worship. And along with the assurance of the continued establishment of Zion as the centre for a secure and holy people, filling a secure and fertile land, -with which, as we have seen, the undoubted visions of Isaiah content themselves, while silent as to the fate of the individuals who drop from this future through death, -we have the most abrupt and thrilling hopes expressed for the resurrection of these latter to share in the glory of the redeemed and restored community.

Among the names applied to God’s people there are three which were destined to play an enormous part in the history of religion. In the English version these appear as two "poor and needy"; but in the original they are three. In Isaiah 25:4: "Thou hast been a stronghold to the poor and a stronghold to the needy," poor renders a Hebrew word, "dal," literally wavering, tottering, infirm, then slender or lean, then poor in fortune and estate; needy literally renders the Hebrew "‘ebhyon," Latin egenus. In Isaiah 26:6: "the foot of the poor and the steps of the needy," needy, renders "dal," while poor renders "ani," a passive form - forced, afflicted, oppressed, then wretched, whether under persecution, poverty, loneliness, or exile, and so tamed, mild, meek. These three words, in their root ideas of infirmity, need, and positive affliction, cover among them every aspect of physical poverty and distress. Let us see how they came also to be the expression of the highest moral and evangelical virtues.

If there is one thing which distinguishes the people of the revelation from other historical nations, it is the evidence afforded by their dictionaries of the power to transmute the most afflicting experiences of life into virtuous disposition and effectual desire for God. We see this most clearly if we contrast the Hebrews’ use of their words for poor with that of the first language which was employed to translate these words-the Greek in the Septuagint version of the Old Testament. In the Greek temper there was a noble pity for the unfortunate; the earliest Greeks regarded beggars as the peculiar proteges of Heaven. Greek philosophy developed a capacity for enriching the soul in misfortune; Stoicism gave imperishable proof of how bravely a man could hold poverty and pain to be things indifferent, and how much gain from such indifference he could bring to his soul. But in the vulgar opinion of Greece penury and sickness were always disgraceful; and Greek dictionaries mark the degradation of terms, which at first merely noted physical disadvantage, into epithets of contempt or hopelessness. It is very striking that it was not till they were employed to translate the Old Testament ideas of poverty that the Greek. words for "poor" and "lowly" came to bear an honourable significance. And in the case of the Stoic, who endured poverty or pain with such indifference, was it not just this indifference that prevented him from discovering in his tribulations the rich evangelical experience which, as we shall see, fell to the quick conscience and sensitive nerves of the Hebrew?

Let us see how this conscience was developed. In the East poverty scarcely ever means physical disadvantage alone: in its train there follow higher disabilities. A poor Eastern cannot be certain of fair play in the courts of the land. He is very often a wronged man, with a fire of righteous anger burning in his breast. Again, and more important, misfortune is to the quick religious instinct of the Oriental a sign of God’s estrangement. With us misfortune is so often only the cruelty, sometimes real, sometimes imagined, of the rich; the unemployed vents his wrath at the capitalist, the tramp shakes his fist after the carriage on the highway. In the East they do not forget to curse the rich, but they remember as well to humble themselves beneath the hand of God. With an unfortunate Oriental the conviction is supreme, God is angry with me; I have lost His favour. His soul eagerly longs for God.

A poor man in the East has, therefore, not only a hunger for food: he has the hotter hunger for justice, the deeper hunger for God. Poverty in itself, without extraneous teaching, develops nobler appetites. The physical, becomes the moral, pauper; poor in substance, he grows poor in spirit. It was by developing, with the aid of God’s Spirit, this quick conscience and this deep desire for God, which in the East are the very soul of physical poverty, that the Jews advanced to that sense of evangelical poverty of heart, blessed by Jesus in the first of His Beatitudes as the possession of the kingdom of heaven.

Till the Exile, however, the poor were only a portion of the people. In the Exile the whole nation became poor, and henceforth "God’s poor might become synonymous with God’s people." This was the time when the words received their spiritual baptism. Israel felt the physical curse of poverty to its extreme of famine. The pains, privations, and terrors, which the glib tongues of our comfortable middle classes, as they sing the psalms of Israel, roll off so easily for symbols of their own spiritual experience, were felt by the captive Hebrews in all their concrete physical effects. The noble and the saintly, the gentle and the cultured, priest, soldier and citizen, woman, youth and child, were torn from home and estate, were deprived of civil standing, were imprisoned, fettered, flogged, and starved to death. We learn something of what it must have been from the words which Jeremiah addressed to Baruch, a youth of good family and fine culture: "Seekest thou great things for thyself? Seek them not, for, behold, I will bring evil upon all flesh, saith the Lord; only thy life will I give unto thee for a prey in all places whither thou goest." Imagine a whole nation plunged into poverty of this degree-not born into it having known no better things, nor stunted into it with sensibility and the power of expression sapped out of them, but plunged into it, with the unimpaired culture, conscience, and memories of the flower of the people. When God’s own hand sent fresh from Himself a poet’s soul into "the clay biggin"’ of an Ayrshire ploughman, what a revelation we received of the distress, the discipline, and the graces of poverty! But in the Jewish nation as it passed into exile there were a score of hearts with as unimpaired an appetite for life as Robert Burns; and, worse than he, they went to feel its pangs away from home. Genius, conscience, and pride drank to the dregs in a foreign land the bitter cup of the poor. The Psalms and Lamentations show us how they bore their poison. A Greek Stoic might sneer at the complaint and sobbing, the self-abasement so strangely mixed with fierce cries for vengeance. But the Jew had within him the conscience that will not allow a man to be a Stoic. He never forgot that it was for his sin he suffered, and therefore to him suffering could not be a thing indifferent. With this, his native hunger for justice reached in captivity a famine pitch; his sense, of guilt was equalled by as sincere an indignation at the tyrant who held him in his brutal grasp. The feeling of estrangement from God increased to a degree that only the exile of a Jew could excite: the longing for God’s house and the worship lawful only there; the longing for the relief which only the sacrifices of the Temple could bestow; the longing for God’s own presence and the light of His face. "My soul thirsteth for Thee, my flesh longeth after Thee, in a dry and thirsty land, where no water is, as I have looked upon Thee in the sanctuary, to see Thy power and Thy glory. For Thy lovingkindness is better than life!"

"Thy lovingkindness is better than life!"-is the secret of it all. There is that which excites a deeper hunger in the soul than the hunger for life, and for the food and money that give life. This spiritual poverty is most richly bred in physical penury, it is strong enough to displace what feeds it. The physical poverty of Israel which had awakened these other hungers of the soul-hunger for forgiveness, hunger for justice, hunger for God-was absorbed by them; and when Israel came out of exile, "to be poor" meant, not so much to be indigent in this world’s substance as to feel the need of pardon, the absence of righteousness, the want of God.

It is at this time, as we have seen, that Isaiah 24:1-23; Isaiah 25:1-12; Isaiah 26:1-21; Isaiah 27:1-13 was written; and it is in the temper of this time that the three Hebrew words for "poor" and "needy" are used in chapters 25 and 26. The returned exiles were still politically dependent and abjectly poor. Their discipline therefore continued, and did not allow them to forget their new lessons. In fact, they developed the results of these further, till in this prophecy we find no fewer than five different aspects of spiritual poverty.

1. We have already seen how strong the sense of sin is in chapter 24. This poverty of peace is not so fully expressed in the following chapters, and indeed seems crowded out by the sense of the "iniquity of the inhabitants of the earth" and the desire for their judgment. {Isaiah 26:21}

2. The feeling of the poverty of justice is very strong in this prophecy. But it is to be satisfied; in part it has been satisfied. {Isaiah 25:1-4} "A strong city," probably Babylon, has fallen. "Moab shall be trodden down in his place, even as straw is trodden down in the water of the dunghill." The complete judgment is to come when the Lord shall destroy the two "Leviathans" and the great "Dragon of the west". {Isaiah 27:1} It is followed by the restoration of Israel to the state in which Isaiah {Isaiah 5:1} sang so sweetly of her. "‘A pleasant vineyard, sing ye of her. I, Jehovah, her Keeper, moment by moment do I water her; lest any make a raid upon her, night and day will I keep her." The Hebrew text then reads. "Fury is not in Me"; but probably the Septuagint version has preserved the original meaning: "I have no walls." If this be correct, then Jehovah is describing the present state of Jerusalem, the fulfilment of Isaiah’s threat, Isaiah 5:6: "Walls I have not; let there but be briers and thorns before me! With war will I stride against them; I will burn them together." But then there breaks the softer alternative of the reconciliation of Judah’s enemies: "Or else let him seize hold of My strength; let him make peace with Me-peace let him make with Me." In such a peace Israel shall spread, and his fulness become the riches of the Gentiles. "In that by-and-bye Jacob shall take root, Israel blossom and bud, and fill the face of the world with fruit."

Perhaps the wildest cries that rose from Israel’s famine of justice were those which found expression in chapter 34. This chapter is so largely a repetition of feelings we have already met with elsewhere in the Book of Isaiah, that it is necessary now only to mention its original features. The subject is, as in chapter 13, the Lord’s judgment upon all the nations; and as chapter 13 singled out Babylon for special doom, so chapter 34, singles out Edom. The reason of this distinction will be very plain to the reader of the Old Testament. From the day the twins struggled in their mother Rebekah’s womb, Israel and Edom were at either open war or burned towards each other with a hate which was the more intense for wanting opportunities of gratification. It is an Eastern edition of the worst chapters in the history of England and Ireland. No bloodier massacres stained Jewish hands than those which attended their invasions of Edom, and Jewish psalms of vengeance are never more flagrant than when they touch the name of the children of Esau. The only gentle utterance of the Old Testament upon Israel’s hereditary foe is a comfortless enigma. Isaiah’s "Oracle for Dumah," {Isaiah 22:11 f.} shows that even that large-hearted prophet, in face of his people’s age-long resentment at Edom’s total want of appreciation of Israel’s spiritual superiority, could offer Edom, though for the moment submissive and inquiring, nothing but a sad, ambiguous answer. Edom and Israel, each after his fashion, exulted in the other’s misfortunes: Israel by bitter satire when Edom’s impregnable mountain-range was treacherously seized and overrun by his allies; {Obadiah 1:4-9} Edom, with the harassing, pillaging habits of a highland tribe, hanging on to the skirts of Judah’s great enemies, and cutting off Jewish fugitives, or selling them into slavery, or malignantly completing the ruin of Jerusalem’s walls after her overthrow by the Chaldeans. {Obadiah 1:10-14; Ezekiel 35:10-15} In "the quarrel of Zion" with the nations of the world Edom had taken the wrong side, -his profane, earthy nature incapable of understanding his brother’s spiritual claims, and therefore envious of him, with the brutal malice of ignorance, and spitefully glad to assist in disappointing such claims. This is what we must remember when we read the indignant verses of chapter 34. Israel, conscious of his spiritual calling in the world, felt bitter resentment that his own brother should be so vulgarly hostile to his attempts to carry it out. It is not our wish to defend the temper of Israel towards Edom. The silence of Christ before the Edomite Herod and his men of war has taught the spiritual servants of God what is their proper attitude towards the malignant and obscene treatment of their claims by vulgar men. But at least let us remember that chapter 34, for all its fierceness, is inspired by Israel’s conviction of a spiritual destiny and service for God, and by the natural resentment that his own kith and kin should be doing their best to render these futile. That a famine of bread makes its victims delirious does not tempt us to doubt the genuineness of their need and suffering. As little ought we to doubt or to ignore the reality or the purity of those spiritual convictions, the prolonged starvation of which bred in Israel such feverish hate against his twin-brother Esau. Chapter 34, with all its proud prophecy of judgment, is. therefore, also a symptom of that aspect of Israel’s poverty of heart, which we have called a hunger for the Divine justice.

3. POVERTY OF THE EXILE. But as fair flowers bloom upon rough stalks, so from Israel’s stern challenges of justice there break sweet prayers for home. Chapter 34, the effusion of vengeance on Edom, is followed by chapter 35, the going forth of hope to the return from exile and the establishment of the ransomed of the Lord in Zion. Chapter 35 opens with a prospect beyond the return, but after the first two verses addresses itself to the people still in a foreign captivity, speaking of their salvation (Isaiah 35:3-4), of the miracles that will take place in themselves (Isaiah 35:5-6) and in the desert between them and their home (Isaiah 35:6-7), of the highway which God shall build, evident and secure (Isaiah 35:8-9), and of the final arrival in Zion (Isaiah 35:10). In that march the usual disappointments and illusions of desert life shall disappear. The "mirage shall become a pool"; and the clump of vegetation which afar off the hasty traveller bails for a sign of water, but which on his approach he discovers to be the withered grass of a jackal’s lair, shall indeed be reeds and rushes, standing green in fresh water. Out of this exuberant fertility there emerges in the prophet’s thoughts a great highway, on which the poetry of the chapter gathers and reaches its climax. Have we of this nineteenth century, with our more rapid means of passage, not forgotten the poetry of the road? Are we able to appreciate either the intrinsic usefulness or the gracious symbolism of the king’s highway? How can we know it as the Bible-writers or our forefathers knew it when they made the road the main line of their allegories and parables of life? Let us listen to these verses as they strike the three great notes in the music of the road: "And a highway shall be there, and a way; yea, the Way of Holiness shall it be called, for the unclean shall not pass over it": that is what is to distinguish this road from all other roads. But here is what it is as being a road. First, it shall be unmistakably plain: "The wayfaring man, yea fools, shall not err therein." Second, it shall be perfectly secure. "No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast go up thereon; they shall not be met with there." Third, it shall bring to a safe arrival and ensure a complete overtaking: "And the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come with singing unto Zion, and everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall overtake gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away."

4. So Israel was to come home. But to Israel home meant the Temple, and the Temple meant God. The poverty of the exile was, in the essence of it, poverty of God, poverty of love. The prayers which express this are very beautiful, -that trail like wounded animals to the feet of their master, and look up in His face with large eyes of pain. "And they shall say in that day, Lo, this is our God: we have waited for Him, that He should save us; this is the Lord: we have waited for Him; we will rejoice and be glad in His salvation . . . . Yea, in the way of Thy ordinances, O Lord, have we waited for Thee; to Thy name and to Thy Memorial was the desire of our soul. With my soul have I desired Thee in the night; yea, by my spirit within me do I seek Thee with dawn". {Isaiah 25:9; Isaiah 26:8}

An Arctic explorer was once asked, whether during eight months of slow starvation which he and his comrades endured they suffered much from the pangs of hunger. No, he answered, we lost them in the sense of abandonment in the feeling that our countrymen had forgotten us and were not coming to the rescue. It was not till we were rescued and looked in human faces that we felt how hungry we were. So is it ever with God’s poor. They forget all other need, as Israel did, in their need of God. Their outward poverty is only the weeds of their heart’s widowhood. "But Jehovah of hosts shall make to all the peoples in this mountain a banquet of fat things, a banquet of wines on the lees, fat things bemarrowed, wines on the lees refined." We need only note here-for it will come up for detailed treatment in connection with the second half of Isaiah-that the centre of Israel’s restored life is to be the Temple, not, as in Isaiah’s day, the king; that her dispersed are to gather from all parts of the world at the sound of the Temple trumpet: and that her national life is to consist in worship. {cf. Isaiah 27:13}

These then were four aspects of Israel’s poverty of heart: a hunger for pardon, a hunger for justice, a hunger for home, and a hunger for God. For the returning Jews these wants were satisfied only to reveal a deeper poverty still, the complaint and comfort of which we must reserve to another chapter.

Verses 14-19



Isaiah 26:14-19; Isaiah 25:6-9

GRANTED the pardon, the justice, the Temple and the God, which the returning exiles now enjoyed, the possession of these only makes more painful the shortness of life itself. This life is too shallow and too frail a vessel to hold peace and righteousness and worship and the love of God. St. Paul has said, "If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men most miserable." What avails it to have been pardoned, to have regained the Holy Land and the face of God, if the dear dead are left behind in graves of exile, and all the living must soon pass into that captivity, from which there is no return?

It must have been thoughts like these, which led to the expression of one of the most abrupt and powerful of the few hopes of the resurrection which the Old Testament contains. This hope, which lightens Isaiah 25:7-8, bursts through again-without logical connection with the context-in Isaiah 26:14-19.

The English version makes Isaiah 26:14 to continue the reference to the "lords," whom in Isaiah 26:13 Israel confesses to have served instead of Jehovah. "They are dead; they shall not live: they are deceased; they shall not rise." Our translators have thus intruded into their version the verb "they are," of which the original is without a trace. In the original, "dead" and "deceased" (literally "shades") are themselves the subject of the sentence-a new subject and without logical connection with what has gone before. The literal translation of Isaiah 26:14 therefore runs: "Dead men do not live; shades do not rise: wherefore Thou visitest them and destroyest them, and perisheth all memory of them." The prophet states a fact and draws an inference. The fact is, that no one has ever returned from the dead; the inference, that it is God’s own visitation or sentence which has gone forth upon them, and they have really ceased to exist. But how intolerable a thought is this in presence of the other fact that God has here on earth above gloriously enlarged and established His people (Isaiah 26:15). "Thou hast increased the nation, Jehovah; Thou hast increased the nation. Thou hast covered Thyself with glory; Thou hast expanded all the boundaries of the land." To this follows a verse (Isaiah 26:16), the sense of which is obscure, but palpable. It "feels" to mean that the contrast which the prophet has just painted between the absolute perishing of the dead and the glory of the Church above ground is the cause of great despair and groaning: "O Jehovah, in The Trouble they supplicate Thee; they pour out incantations when Thy discipline is upon them." In face of The Trouble and The Discipline par excellence of God, what else can man do but betake himself to God? God sent death; in death He is the only resource. Israel’s feelings in presence of The Trouble are now expressed in Isaiah 26:17: "Like as a woman with child that draweth near the time of her delivery writheth and crieth out in her pangs, so have we been before Thee, O Jehovah." Thy Church on earth is pregnant with a life, which death does not allow to come to the birth. "We have been with child; we have been in the pangs, as it were; we have brought forth wind; we make not the earth," in spite of all we have really accomplished upon it in our return, our restoration and our enjoyment of Thy presence-"we make not the earth salvation, neither are the inhabitants of the world born."

The figures are bold. Israel achieves, through God’s grace, everything but the recovery of her dead; this, which alone is worth calling salvation, remains wanting to her great record of deliverances. The living Israel is restored, but how meagre a proportion of the people it is! The graves of home and of exile do not give up their dead. These are not born again to be inhabitants of the upper world.

The figures are bold, but bolder is the hope that breaks from them. Like as when the Trumpet shall sound, Isaiah 26:19 peals forth the promise of the resurrection-peals the promise forth, in spite of all experience, unsupported by any argument, and upon the strength of its own inherent music. "Thy dead shall live! my dead bodies shall arise!" The change of the personal pronoun is singularly dramatic. Returned Israel is the speaker, first speaking to herself: "thy dead," as if upon the depopulated land, in face of all its homes in ruin, and only the sepulchres of ages standing grim and steadfast, she addressed some despairing double of herself; and secondly speaking of herself: "my dead bodies," as if all the inhabitants of these tombs, though dead, were still her own, still part of her, the living Israel, and able to arise and bless with their numbers their bereaved mother. These she now addresses: "Awake and sing, ye dwellers in the dust, for a dew of lights is Thy dew, and the land bringeth forth the dead."

If one has seen a place of graves in the East, he will appreciate the elements of this figure, which takes "dust" for death and "dew" for life. With our damp graveyards "mould" has become the traditional trappings of death; but where under the hot Eastern sun things do not rot into lower forms of life, but crumble into sapless powder, that will not keep a worm in life, "dust" is the natural symbol of death. When they die, men go not to feed fat the mould, but "down into the dust"; and there the foot of the living falls silent, and his voice is choked, and the light is thickened and in retreat, as if it were creeping away to die. The only creatures the visitor starts are timid, unclean bats, that flutter and whisper about him like the ghosts of the dead. There are no flowers in an Eastern cemetery; and the withered branches and other ornaments are thickly powdered with the same dust that chokes, and silences, and darkens all.

Hence the Semitic conception of the underworld was dominated by dust. It was not water nor fire nor frost nor altogether darkness, which made the infernal prison horrible, but that upon its floor and rafters, hewn from the roots and ribs of the primeval mountains, dust lay deep and choking. Amid all the horrors he imagined for the dead, Dante did not include one more awful than the horror of dust. The picture which the northern Semites had before them when they turned their faces to the wall was of this kind.

The house of darkness

The house men enter, but cannot depart from,

The road men go, but cannot return.

The house from whose dwellers the light is withdrawn,

The place where dust is their food, their nourishment clay.

The light they behold not; in darkness they dwell.

They are clothed like birds, all fluttering wings.

On the door and the gateposts, the dust lieth deep.

Either, then, an Eastern sepulchre, or this its infernal double, was gaping before the prophet’s eyes. What more final and hopeless than the dust and the dark of it?

But for dust there is dew, and even to graveyards the morning comes that brings dew and light together. The wonder of dew is that it is given from a clear heaven, and that it comes to sight with the dawn. If the Oriental looks up when dew is falling, he sees nothing to thank for it between him and the stars. If he sees dew in the morning, it is equal liquid and lustre; it seems to distil from the beams of the sun-"the sun, which riseth with healing under his wings." The dew is thus doubly "dew of light." But our prophet ascribes the dew of God, that is to raise the dead, neither to stars nor dawn, but, because of its Divine power, to that higher supernal glory which the Hebrews conceived to have existed before the sun, and which they styled, as they styled their God, by the plural of majesty: "A dew of lights is Thy dew." {Cf. James 1:17} As, when the dawn comes, the drooping flowers of yesterday are seen erect and lustrous with the dew, every spike a crown of glory, so also shall be the resurrection of the dead. There is no shadow of a reason for limiting this promise to that to which some other passages of resurrection in the Old Testament have been limited: a corporate restoration of the holy State or Church. This is the resurrection of its individual members to a community which is already restored, the recovery by Israel of her dead men and women from their separate graves, each with his own freshness and beauty, in that glorious morning when the Sun of righteousness shall arise, with healing under His wings-"Thy dew, O Jehovah!"

Attempts are so often made to trace the hopes of resurrection, which break the prevailing silence of the Old Testament on a future life, to foreign influences experienced in the Exile, that it is well to emphasise the origin and occasion of the hopes that utter themselves so abruptly in this passage. Surely nothing could be more inextricably woven with the national fortunes of Israel, as nothing could be more native and original to Israel’s temper, than the verses just expounded. We need not deny that their residence among a people, accustomed as the Babylonians were to belief in the resurrection, may have thawed in the Jews that reserve which the Old Testament clearly shows that they exhibited towards a future life. The Babylonians themselves had received most of their suggestions of the next world from a non-Semitic race; and therefore it would not be to imagine anything alien to the ascertained methods of Providence if we were to suppose that the Hebrews, who showed what we have already called the Semitic want of interest in a future life, were intellectually tempered by their foreign associations to a readiness to receive any suggestions of immortality, which the Spirit of God might offer them through their own religious experience. That it was this last, which was the effective cause of Israel’s hopes for the resurrection of her dead, our passage puts beyond doubt. Chapter 26 shows us that the occasion of these hopes was what is not often noticed: the returned exile’s disappointment with the meagre repopulation of the holy territory. A restoration of the State or community was not enough: the heart of Israel wanted back in their numbers her dead sons and daughters.

If the occasion of these hopes was thus an event in Israel’s own national history, and if the impulse to them was given by so natural an instinct of her own heart, Israel was equally indebted to herself for the convictions that the instinct was not in vain. Nothing is more clear in our passage than that Israel’s first ground of hope in a future life was her simple, untaught reflection upon the power of her God. Death was His chastening. Death came from Him, and remained in His power. Surely He would deliver from it. This was a very old belief in Israel. "The Lord killeth and maketh alive; He bringeth down to Sheol and bringeth up." Such words, of course, might be only an extreme figure for recovery from disease, and the silence of so great a saint as Hezekiah about any other issue into life than by convalescence from mortal sickness staggers us into doubt whether an Israelite ever did think of a resurrection. But still there was Jehovah’s almightiness; a man could rest his future on that, even if he had not light to think out what sort of a future it would be. So mark in our passage, how confidence is chiefly derived from the simple utterance of the name of Jehovah, and how He is hailed as "our God." It seems enough to the prophet to connect life with Him and to say merely, "Thy dew." As death is God’s own discipline, so life, "Thy dew," is with Him also.

Thus in its foundation the Old Testament doctrine of the resurrection is but the conviction of the sufficiency of God Himself, a conviction which Christ turned upon Himself when He said, "I am the Resurrection and the Life. Because I live, ye shall live also."

If any object that in this picture of a resurrection we have no real persuasion of immortality, but simply the natural, though impossible, wish of a bereaved people that their dead should today rise from their graves to share today’s return and glory-a revival as special and extraordinary as that appearing of the dead in the streets of Jerusalem when the Atonement was accomplished, but by no means that general resurrection at the last day which is an article of the Christian faith-if any one should bring this objection, then let him be referred to the previous promise of immortality in chapter 25. The universal and final character of the promise made there is as evident as of that for which Paul borrowed its terms in order to utter the absolute consequences of the resurrection of the Son of God: "Death is swallowed up in victory." For the prophet, having in Isaiah 25:6 described the restoration of the people, whom exile had starved with a famine of ordinances, to "a feast in Zion of fat things and wines on the lees well refined," intimates that as certainly as exile has been abolished, with its dearth of spiritual intercourse, so certainly shall God Himself destroy death: "And He shall swallow up in this mountain" (perhaps it is imagined, as the sun devours the morning mist on the hills) "the mask of the veil, the veil that is upon all the peoples, and the film spun upon all the nations. He hath swallowed up death for ever, and the Lord Jehovah shall wipe away tears from off all faces, and the reproach of His people shall He remove from off all the earth, for Jehovah hath spoken it. And they shall say in that day, Behold, this is our God: we have waited for Him, and He shall save us; this is Jehovah: we have waited for Him; we will rejoice and be glad in His salvation." Thus over all doubts, and in spite of universal human experience, the prophet depends for immortality on God Himself. In Isaiah 26:3 our version beautifully renders, "Thou wilt keep him imperfect peace whose mind is stayed on Thee, because he trusteth in Thee." This is a confidence valid for the next life as well as for this. "Therefore trust ye in the Lord forever." Amen.

Almighty God, we praise Thee that, in the weakness of all our love and the darkness of all our knowledge before death, Thou hast placed assurance of eternal life in simple faith upon Thyself. Let this faith be richly ours. By Thine omnipotence, by Thy righteousness, by the love Thou hast vouchsafed, we lift ourselves and rest upon Thy word, "Because I live, ye shall live also." Oh, keep us steadfast in union with Thyself, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 26". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".