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Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible Commentary

Isaiah 29

Verses 1-24



ABOUT 703 B.C.

Isaiah 29:1-24

IN 705 Sargon, King of Assyria, was murdered, and Sennacherib, his second son, succeeded him. Before the new ruler mounted the throne, the vast empire, which his father had consolidated, broke into rebellion, and down to the borders of Egypt cities and tribes declared themselves again independent. Sennacherib attacked his problem with Assyrian promptitude. There were two forces, to subdue which at the beginning made the reduction of the rest certain: Assyria’s vassal kingdom and future rival for the supremacy of the world, Babylon; and her present rival, Egypt. Sennacherib marched on Babylon first.

While he did so the smaller States prepared to resist him. Too small to rely on their own resources, they looked to Egypt, and among others who sought help in that quarter was Judah. There had always been, as we have seen, an Egyptian party among the politicians of Jerusalem; and Assyria’s difficulties now naturally increased its influence. Most of the prophecies in chapters 29-32 are forward to condemn the alliance with Egypt and the irreligious politics of which it was the fruit.

At the beginning, however, other facts claim Isaiah’s attention. After the first excitement, consequent on the threats of Sennacherib, the politicians do not seem to have been specially active. Sennacherib found the reduction of Babylon a harder task than he expected, and in the end it turned out to be three years before he was free to march upon Syria. As one winter after another left the work of the Assyrian army in Mesopotamia still unfinished, the political tension in Judah must have relaxed. The Government-for King Hezekiah seems at last to have been brought round to believe in Egypt-pursued their negotiations no longer with that decision and real patriotism, which the sense of near danger rouses in even the most selfish and mistaken of politicians, but rather with the heedlessness of principle, the desire to show their own cleverness, and the passion for intrigue which run riot among statesmen, when danger is near enough to give an excuse for doing something, but too far away to oblige anything to be done in earnest. Into this false ease, and the meaningless, faithless politics, which swarmed in it, Isaiah hurled his strong prophecy of chapter 29. Before he exposes in chapters 30 and 31 the folly of trusting to Egypt in the hour of danger, he has here the prior task of proving that hour to be near and very terrible. It is but one instance of the ignorance and fickleness of the people, that their prophet has first to rouse them to a sense of their peril, and then to restrain their excitement under it from rushing headlong for help to Egypt.

Chapter 29 is an obscure oracle, but its obscurity is designed. Isaiah was dealing with a people in whom political security and religious formalism had stifled both reason and conscience. He sought to rouse them by a startling message in a mysterious form. He addressed the city by an enigma:-

"Ho! Ari-El, Ari-El! City David beleaguered! Add year to a year, let the feasts run their round, then will I bring straitness upon Ari-El, and there shall be moaning and bemoaning, and yet she shall be unto Me as art Ari-El"

The general bearing of this enigma became plain enough after the sore siege and sudden deliverance of Jerusalem in 701. But we are unable to make out one or two of its points. "Ari-El" may mean either "The Lion" of 2 Samuel 23:20, or "The Hearth of God". {Ezekiel 43:15-16} If the same sense is to be given to the four utterances of the name, then "God’s-Lion" suits better the description of Isaiah 29:4: but "God’s-Hearth" seems suggested by the feminine pronoun in Isaiah 29:1, and is a conception to which Isaiah returns in this same group of prophecies. {Isaiah 31:9} It is possible that this ambiguity was part of the prophet’s design: but if he uses the name in both senses, some of the force of his enigma is lost to us. In any case, however, we get a picturesque form for a plain meaning. In a year after the present year is out, says Isaiah, God Himself will straiten the city, whose inhabitants are now so careless, and she shall be full of mourning and lamentation. Nevertheless in the end she shall be a true Ari-El: be it a true "God’s-Lion," victor and hero; or a true "God’s-Hearth," His own inviolable shrine and sanctuary.

The next few verses (Isaiah 29:3-8) expand this warning. In plain words, Jerusalem is to undergo a siege. God Himself shall "encamp against thee-round about" reads our English version, but more probably, as with the change of a letter, the Septuagint reads it-"like David." If we take this second reading, the reference to David in the enigma itself (Isaiah 29:1) becomes clear. The prophet has a very startling message to deliver: that God will besiege His own city, the city of David! Before God can make her in truth His own, make her verify her name, He will have to beleaguer and reduce her. For so novel and startling an intimation the prophet pleads a precedent: "‘City which David’ himself ‘beleaguered!’ Once before in thy history, ere the first time thou wast made God’s own hearth, thou hadst to be besieged. As then, so now. Be-before thou canst again be a true Ari-El I must ‘beleaguer thee like David.’" This reading and interpretation gives to the enigma a reason and a force which it does not otherwise possess.

Jerusalem, then, shall be reduced to the very dust, and whine and whimper in it (like a sick lion, if this be the figure the prophet is pursuing), when suddenly it is "the surge of" her foes-literally "thy strangers"-whom the prophet sees as "small dust, and as passing chaff shall the surge of tyrants be; yea, it shall be in the twinkling of an eye, suddenly. From Jehovah of hosts shall she be visited with thunder and with earthquake and a great, noise, -storm-wind, and tempest and the flame of fire devouring. And it shall be as a dream, a vision of the night, the surge of all the nations that war against Ariel, yea all that war against her and her stronghold, and they that press in upon her. And it shall be as if the hungry had been dreaming, and lo! he was eating; but he hath awaked, and his soul is empty; and as if the thirsty had been dreaming, and lo! he was drinking; but he hath awaked, and lo! he is faint, and his soul is ravenous: thus shall be the surge of all the nations that war against Mount Zion." Now that is a very definite prediction, and in its essentials was fulfilled. In the end Jerusalem was invested by Sennacherib, and reduced to sore straits, when very suddenly-it would appear from other records, in a single night-the beleaguering force disappeared. This actually happened; and although the main business of a prophet, as we now clearly understand, was not to predict definite events, yet, since the result here predicted was one on which Isaiah staked his prophetic reputation and pledged the honour of Jehovah and the continuance of the true religion among men, it will be profitable for us to look at it for a little.

Isaiah foretells a great event and some details. The event is a double one: the reduction of Jerusalem to the direst straits by siege and her deliverance by the sudden disappearance of the besieging army. The details are that the siege will take place after a year (though the prophet’s statement of time is perhaps too vague to be treated as a prediction), and that the deliverance will come as a great natural convulsion-thunder, earthquake, and fire-which it certainly did not do. The double event, however, stripped of these details, did essentially happen.

Now it is plain that any one with a considerable knowledge of the world at that day must easily have been able to assert the probability of a siege of Jerusalem by the mixed nations who composed Sennacherib’s armies. Isaiah’s orations are full of proofs of his close acquaintance with the peoples of the world, and Assyria, who was above them. Moreover, his political advice, given at certain crises of Judah’s history, was conspicuous not only for its religiousness, but for what eve should call its "worldly wisdom": it was vindicated by events. Isaiah, however, would not have understood the distinction we have just made. To him political prudence was part of religion. "The Lord of hosts is for a spirit of judgment to him that sitteth in judgment, and for strength to them that turn back the battle to the gate." Knowledge of men, experience of nations, the mental strength which never forgets history, and is quick to mark new movements as they rise, Isaiah would have called the direct inspiration of God. And it was certainly these qualities in this Hebrew, which provided him with the materials for his prediction of the siege of Jerusalem.

But it has not been found that such talents by themselves enable statesmen calmly to face the future, or clearly to predict it. Such knowledge of the past, such vigilance for the present, by themselves only embarrass, and often deceive. They are the materials for prediction, but a ruling principle is required to arrange them. A general may have a strong and well-drilled force under him, and a miserably weak foe in front; but if the sun is not going to rise tomorrow, if the laws of nature are not going to hold, his familiarity with his soldiers and expertness in handling them will not give him confidence to offer battle. He takes certain principles for granted, and on these his soldiers become of use to him, and he makes his venture Even so Isaiah handled his mass of information by the grasp which he had of certain principles, and his facts fell clear into order before his confident eyes. He believed in the real government of God. "I also saw the Lord sitting, high and; lifted up." He felt that God had even this Assyria in His hands. He knew that all God’s ends were righteousness, and’ he was still of the conviction that Judah for her wickedness required punishment at the Lord’s hands. Grant these convictions to him in the superhuman strength in which he tells us he was conscious of receiving them from God, and it is easy to see how Isaiah could not help predicting a speedy siege of Jerusalem, how he already beheld the valleys around her bristling with barbarian spears.

The prediction of the sudden raising of this siege was the equally natural corollary to another religious conviction, which held the prophet with as much intensity as that which possessed him with the need of Judah’s punishment. Isaiah never slacked his hold on the truth that in the end God would save Zion, and keep her for Himself. Through whatever destruction, a root and remnant of the Jewish people must survive. Zion is impregnable because God is in her, and because her inviolateness is necessary for the continuance of true religion in the world. Therefore as confident as his prediction of the siege of Jerusalem is Isaiah’s prediction of her delivery. And while the prophet wraps the fact in vague circumstance, while he masks, as it were, his ignorance of how in detail it will actually take place by calling up a great natural convulsion; yet he makes it abundantly clear - as, with his religious convictions and his knowledge of the Assyrian power, he cannot help doing-that the deliverance will be unexpected and unexplainable by the natural circumstances of the Jews themselves, that it will be evident as the immediate deed of God.

It is well for us to understand this. We shall get rid of the mechanical idea of prophecy, according to which prophets made exact predictions of fact by some particular and purely official endowment. We shall feel that prediction of this kind was due to the most unmistakable inspiration, the influence upon the prophet’s knowledge of affairs of two powerful religious convictions, for which he himself was strongly sure that he had the warrant of the Spirit of God.

Into the easy, selfish politics of Jerusalem, then, Isaiah sent this thunderbolt, this definite prediction: that in a year or more Jerusalem would be besieged and reduced to the direst straits. He tells us that it simply dazed the people. They were like men suddenly startled from sleep, who are too stupid to read a message pushed into their hands (Isaiah 29:9-12).

Then Isaiah gives God’s own explanation of this stupidity. The cause of it is simply religious formalism. "This people draw nigh unto Me with their mouth, and with their lips do they honour Me, but their heart is far from Me, and their fear of Me is a mere commandment of men, a thing learned by rote." This was what Israel called religion-bare ritual and doctrine, a round of sacrifices and prayers in adherence to the tradition of the fathers. But in life they never thought of God. It did not occur to these citizens of Jerusalem that He cared about their politics, their conduct of justice, or their discussions and bargains with one another. Of these they said, taking their own way, "Who seeth us, and who knoweth us?" Only in the Temple did they feel God’s fear, and there merely in imitation of one another. None had an original vision of God in real life; they learned other men’s thoughts about Him, and took other men’s words upon their lips, while their heart was far away. In fact, speaking words and listening to words had wearied the spirit and stifled the conscience of them.

For such a disposition Isaiah says there is only one cure. It is a new edition of his old gospel, that God speaks to us in facts, not forms. Worship and a lifeless doctrine have demoralised this people. God shall make Himself so felt in real life that even their dull senses shall not be able to mistake Him. "Therefore, behold, I am proceeding to work marvellously upon this people, a marvellous work and a wonder! and the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the cleverness of their clever ones shall be obscured." This is not the promise of what we call a miracle. It is a historical event on the same theatre as the politicians are showing their cleverness, but it shall put them all to shame, and by its force make the dullest feel that God’s own hand is in it. What the people had ceased to attribute to Jehovah was ordinary intelligence; they had virtually said, "He hath no understanding." The "marvellous work," therefore, which He threatens shall be a work of wisdom, not some convulsion of nature to cow their spirits, but a wonderful political result, that shall shame their conceit of cleverness, and teach them reverence for the will and skill of God. Are the politicians trying to change the surface of the world, thinking that they "are turning things upside down," and supposing that they can keep God out of account: "Who seeth us, and who knoweth us?" God Himself is the real Arranger and Politician. He will turn things upside down! Compared with their attempt, how vast His results shall be! As if the whole surface of the earth were altered, "Lebanon changed into garden-land, and garden-land counted as forest!" But this, of course, is metaphor. The intent of the miracle is to show that God hath understanding; therefore it must be a work, the prudence and intellectual force of which politicians can appreciate, and it shall take place in their politics. But not for mere astonishment’s sake is the "wonder" to be done. For blessing and morality shall it be: to cure the deaf and blind; to give to the meek and the poor a new joy; to confound the tyrant and the scorner; to make Israel worthy of God and her own great fathers. "Therefore thus saith Jehovah to the house of Jacob, He that redeemed Abraham: Not now ashamed shall Jacob be, and not now shall his countenance blanch." So unworthy hitherto have this stupid people been of so great ancestors! "But now when his (Jacob’s) children behold the work of My hand in the midst of him, they shall hallow My name, yea, they shall hallow the Holy One of Jacob, and the God of Israel shall they make their fear. They also that err in spirit shall know understanding, and they that are unsettled shall learn to accept doctrine." Such is the meaning of this strong chapter.

It is instructive in two ways.

First, it very clearly declares Isaiah’s view of the method of God’s revelation. Isaiah says nothing of the Temple, the Shechinah, the Altar, or the Scripture; but he points out how much the exclusive confinement of religion to forms and texts has deadened the hearts of his countrymen towards God. In your real life, he says to them, you are to seek, and you shall find, Him. There He is evident in miracles, -not physical interruptions and convulsions, but social mercies and moral providences. The quickening of conscience, the dispersion of ignorance, poor men awakening to the fact that God is with them, the overthrow of the social tyrant, history’s plain refutation of the atheist, the growth of civic justice and charity-In these, said the Hebrew prophet to the Old Testament believer, Behold your God!

Wherefore, secondly, we also are to look for God in events and deeds. We are to know that nothing can compensate us for the loss of the open vision of God’s working in history and in life about us, -not ecstasy of worship nor orthodoxy of doctrine. To confine our religion to these latter things is to become dull towards God even in them, and to forget Him everywhere else. And this is a fault of our day, just as it was of Isaiah’s. So much of our fear of God is conventional, orthodox, and not original, a trick caught from men’s words or fashions, not a part of ourselves, nor won, like all that is real in us, from contact with real life. In our politics, in our conduct with men, in the struggle of our own hearts for knowledge and for temperance, and in service-there we are to learn to fear God. But there, and wherever else we are busy, self comes too much in the way; we are fascinated with our own cleverness; we ignore God, saying, "Who seeth us? Who knoweth us?" We get to expect Him only in the Temple and on the Sabbath, and then only to influence our emotions. But it is in deeds, and where we feel life most real, that we are to look for Him. He makes Himself evident to us by wonderful works.

For these He has given us three theatres-the Bible, our country’s history, and for each man his own life.

We have to take the Bible, and especially the life of Christ, and to tell ourselves that these wonderful events did really take place. In Christ God did dwell; by Christ He spoke to man; man was converted, redeemed, sanctified, beyond all doubt. These were real events. To be convinced of their reality were worth a hundred prayers.

Then let us follow the example of the Hebrew prophets, and search the history of our own people for the realities of God. Carlyle says in a note to Cromwell’s fourth speech to Parliament, that "the Bible of every nation is its own history." This note is drawn from Carlyle by Cromwell’s frequent insistence, that we must ever be turning from forms and rituals to study God’s will and ways in history. And that speech of Cromwell is perhaps the best sermon ever delivered on the subject of this chapter. For he said: "What are all our histories but God manifesting Himself, that He hath shaken, and tumbled down and trampled upon everything that He hath not planted!" And again, speaking of our own history, he said to the House of Commons: "We are a people with the stamp of God upon us…whose appearances and providences among us were not to be outmatched by any story." Truly this is national religion:-the reverential acknowledgment of God’s hand in history; the admiration and effort of moral progress; the stirring of conscience when we see wrong; the expectation, when evil abounds, that God will bring justice and purity to us if we labour with Him for them.

But for each man there is the final duty of turning to himself.

"My soul repairs its fault

When, sharpening sense’s hebetude,

She turns on my own life! So viewed,

No mere mote’s breadth but teems immense

With witnessings of providence:

And woe to me if when I look

Upon that record, the sole book

Unsealed to me, I take no heed

Of any warning that I read!"

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Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 29". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".