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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Isaiah 27

Verses 1-13




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.

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 27". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".