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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Isaiah 2

 

 

Verses 1-22

CHAPTER II

THE THREE JERUSALEMS

740-735 B.C.

Isaiah 2:1-22; Isaiah 3:1-26; Isaiah 4:1-6

AFTER the general introduction, in chapter 1, to the prophecies of Isaiah, there comes another portion of the book, of greater length, but nearly as distinct as the first. It covers four chapters, the second to the sixth, all of them dating from the same earliest period of Isaiah’s ministry, before 735 B.C. They deal with exactly the same subjects, but they differ greatly inform. One section (chapters 2-4.) consists of a number of short utterances-evidently not all spoken at the same time, for they conflict with one another-a series of consecutive prophecies, that probably represent the stages of conviction through which Isaiah passed in his prophetic apprenticeship; a second section (chapter 5) is a careful and artistic restatement, in parable and oration, of the truths he has thus attained; while a third section (chapter 6) is narrative, probably written subsequently to the first two, but describing an inspiration and official call, which must have preceded them both. The more one examines chapters 2-6., and finds that they but express the same truths in different forms, the more one is confirmed in some such view of them as this, which, it is believed, the following exposition will justify. chapters 5 and 6 are twin appendices to the long summary in 2-4: chapter 5 a public vindication and enforcement of the results of that summary, chapter 6 a private vindication to the prophet’s heart of the very same truths, by a return to the secret moment of their original inspiration. We may assign 735 B.C., just before or just after the accession of Ahaz, as the date of the latest of these prophecies. The following is their historical setting.

For more than half a century the kingdom of Judah, under two powerful and righteous monarchs, had enjoyed the greatest prosperity. Uzziah strengthened the borders, extended the supremacy and vastly increased the resources of his little State, which, it is well to remember, was in its own size not larger than three average Scottish counties. He won back for Judah the port of Elah on the Red Sea, built a navy, and restored the commerce with the far East, which Solomon began. He overcame, in battle or by the mere terror of his name, the neighbouring nations-the Philistines that dwelt in cities, and the wandering tribes of desert Arabs. The Ammonites brought him gifts. With the wealth, which the East by tribute or by commerce poured into his little principality, Uzziah fortified his borders and his capital, undertook large works of husbandry and irrigation, organised a powerful standing army, and supplied it with a siege artillery capable of slinging arrows and stones. "His name spread far abroad, for he was marvellously helped till he was strong." His son Jotham (740-735 B.C.) continued his father s policy with nearly all his father’s success. He built cities and castles, quelled a rebellion among his tributaries, and caused their riches to flow faster still into Jerusalem. But while Jotham bequeathed to his country a sure defence and great wealth, and to his people a strong spirit and prestige among the nations, he left another bequest, which robbed these of their value-the son who succeeded him. In 735 Jotham died and Ahaz became king. He was very young, and stepped to the throne from the hareem. He brought to the direction of the government the petulant will of a spoiled child, the mind of an intriguing and superstitious, woman. It was-when the national policy felt the paralysis consequent on these that Isaiah published at least the later part of the prophecies now marked off as chapters 2-4 of his book. "My people," he cries-"my people! children are their oppressors, and women rule over them. O my people, they which lead thee cause thee to err, and destroy the way of thy paths."

Isaiah had been born into the flourishing nation while Uzziah was king. The great events of that monarch’s reign were his education, the still grander hopes they prompted the passion of his virgin fancy. He must have absorbed as the very temper of his youth this national consciousness which swelled so proudly in Judah under Uzziah. But the accession of such a king as Ahaz, while it was sure to let loose the passions and follies fostered by a period of rapid increase in luxury, could not fail to afford to Judah’s enemies the long-deferred opportunity of attacking her. It was an hour both of the manifestation of sin and of the judgment of sin-an hour in which, while the majesty of Judah, sustained through two great reigns, was about to disappear in the follies of a third, the majesty of Judah’s God should become more conspicuous than ever. Of this Isaiah had been privately conscious, as we shall see, for five years. "In the year that king Uzziah died," (740), the young Jew "saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up." Startled into prophetic consciousness by the awful contrast between an earthly majesty that had so long fascinated men, but now sank into a leper’s grave, and the heavenly, which rose sovereign and everlasting above it, Isaiah had gone on to receive conviction of his people’s sin and certain punishment. With the accession of Ahaz, five years later, his own political experience was so far developed as to permit of his expressing in their exact historical effects the awful principles of which he had received foreboding when Uzziah died. What we find in chapters 2-4 is a record of the struggle of his mind towards this expression; it is the summary, as we have already said, of Isaiah’s apprenticeship.

"The word that Isaiah, the son of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem." We do not know anything of Isaiah’s family or of the details of his upbringing. He was a member of some family of Jerusalem, and in intimate relations with the Court. It has been believed that he was of royal blood, but it matters little whether this be true or not. A spirit so wise and masterful as his did not need social rank to fit it for that intimacy with princes which has doubtless suggested the legend of his royal descent. What does matter is Isaiah’s citizenship in Jerusalem, for this colours all his prophecy. More than Athens to Demosthenes, Rome to Juvenal, Florence to Dante, is Jerusalem to Isaiah. She is his immediate and ultimate regard, the centre and return of all his thoughts, the hinge of the history of his time, the one thing worth preserving amidst its disasters, the summit of those brilliant hopes with which he fills the future. He has traced for us the main features of her position and some of the lines of her construction, many of the great figures of her streets, the fashions of her women, the arrival of embassies, the effect of rumours. He has painted her aspect in triumph, in siege, in famine, and in earthquake; war filling her valleys with chariots, and again nature rolling tides of fruitfulness up to her gates; her moods of worship and panic and profligacy-till we see them all as clearly as the shadow following the sunshine, and the breeze the breeze, across the cornfields of our own summers.

If he takes wider observation of mankind, Jerusalem is his watch-tower. It is for her defence he battles through fifty years of statesmanship, and all his prophecy may be said to travail in anguish for her new birth. He was never away from her walls, but not even the psalms of the captives by the rivers of Babylon, with the desire of exile upon them, exhibit more beauty and pathos than the lamentations which Isaiah poured upon Jerusalem’s sufferings or the visions in which he described her future solemnity and peace.

It is not with surprise, therefore, that we find the first prophecies of Isaiah directed upon his mother city: "The word that Isaiah the son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem." There is little about Judah in these chapters: the country forms but a fringe to the capital.

Before we look into the subject of the prophecy, however, a short digression is necessary on the manner in which it is presented to us. It is not a reasoned composition or argument we have here; it is a vision, it is the word which Isaiah saw. The expression is vague, often abused and in need of defining. Vision is not employed here to express any magical display before the eyes of the prophet of the very words which he was to speak to the people, or any communication to his thoughts by dream or ecstasy. They are higher qualities of "vision" which these chapters unfold. There is, first of all, the power of forming an ideal, of seeing and describing a thing in the fulfilment of all the promise that is in it. But these prophecies are much more remarkable for two other powers of inward vision, to which we give the names of insight and intuition-insight into human character, intuition of Divine principles-"clear knowledge of what man is and how God will act"-a keen discrimination of the present state of affairs in Judah, and unreasoned conviction of moral truth and the Divine will. The original meaning of the Hebrew word saw, which is used in the title to this series, is to cleave, or split; then to see into, to see through, to get down beneath the surface of things and discover their real nature. And what characterises the bulk of these visions is penetrativeness, the keenness of a man who will not be deceived by an outward show that he delights to hold up to our scorn, but who has a conscience for the inner worth of things and for their future consequences. To lay stress on the moral meaning of the prophet’s vision is not to grudge, but to emphasise its inspiration by God.

Of that inspiration Isaiah was himself assured. It was God’s Spirit that enabled him to see thus keenly; for he saw things keenly, net only as men count moral keenness, but as God Himself sees them, in their value in His sight and in their attractiveness for His love and pity. In this prophecy there occurs a striking expression "the eyes of the glory of God." It was the vision of the Almighty Searcher and Judge, burning through man’s pretence, with which the prophet felt himself endowed. This then was the second element in his vision-to penetrate men’s hearts as God Himself penetrated them, and constantly, without squint or blur, to see right from wrong in their eternal difference. And the third element is the intuition of God’s will, the perception of what line of action He will take. This last, of course, forms the distinct prerogative of Hebrew prophecy, that power of vision which is its climax; the moral situation being clear, to see then how God will act upon it.

Under these three powers of vision Jerusalem, the prophet’s city, is presented to us-Jerusalem in three lights, really three Jerusalems. First, there is flashed out [Isaiah 2:2-5] a vision of the ideal city, Jerusalem idealised and glorified. Then comes [Isaiah 2:6 - Isaiah 4:1] a very realistic picture, a picture of the actual Jerusalem. And lastly at the close of the prophecy [Isaiah 4:2-6] we have a vision of Jerusalem as she shall be after God has taken her in hand-very different indeed from the ideal with which the prophet began. Here are three successive motives or phases of prophecy, which, as we have said, in all probability summarise the early ministry of Isaiah, and present him to us first, as the idealist or visionary; second, as the realist or critic; and, third, as the prophet proper or revealer of God’s actual will.

I. THE IDEALIST

[Isaiah 2:1-5]

All men who have shown our race how great things are possible have had their inspiration in dreaming of the impossible. Reformers, who at death were content to have lived for the moving forward but one inch of some of their fellow-men, began by believing themselves able to lift the whole world at once. Isaiah was no exception to this human fashion. His first vision was that of a Utopia, and his first belief that his countrymen would immediately realise it. He lifts up to us a very grand picture of a vast commonwealth centred in Jerusalem. Some think he borrowed it from an older prophet; Micah has it also; it may have been the ideal of the age. But, at any rate, if we are not to take Isaiah 2:5 in scorn, Isaiah accepted this as his own. "And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and exalted above the hills, and all nations shall flow unto it." The prophet’s own Jerusalem shall be the light of the world, the school and temple of the earth, the seat of the judgment of the Lord, when He shall reign over the nations, and all mankind shall dwell in peace beneath Him. It is a glorious destiny, and as its light shines from the far-off horizon, the latter days, in which the prophet sees it, what wonder that he is possessed and cries aloud, "O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the Lord!" It seems to the young prophet’s hopeful heart as if at once that ideal would be realised, as if by his own word he could lift his people to its fulfilment.

But that is impossible, and Isaiah perceives so as soon as he turns from the far-off horizon to the city at his feet, as soon as he leaves tomorrow alone and deals with today. The next verses of the chapter-from Isaiah 2:6 onwards-stand in strong contrast to those which have described Israel’s ideal. There Zion is full of the law and Jerusalem of the word of the Lord, the one religion flowing over from this centre upon the world. Here into the actual Jerusalem they have brought all sorts of foreign worship and heathen prophets; "they are replenished from the East, and are soothsayers like the Philistines, and strike hands with the children of strangers." There all nations come to worship at Jerusalem; here her thought and faith are scattered over the idolatries of all nations. The ideal Jerusalem is full of spiritual blessings; the actual, of the spoils of trade. There the swords are beat into ploughshares and the. spears into pruning-hooks; here are vast and novel armaments, horses and chariots. There the Lord alone is worshipped; here the city is crowded with idols. The real Jerusalem could not possibly be more different from the ideal, nor its inhabitants as they are from what the prophet had confidently called on them to be.

II. THE REALIST

[Isaiah 2:6 - Isaiah 4:1]

Therefore Isaiah’s attitude and tone suddenly change. The visionary becomes a realist, the enthusiast a cynic, the seer of the glorious city of God the prophet of God’s judgment. The recoil is absolute in style, temper, and thought, down to the very figures of speech which he uses. Before, Isaiah had seen, as it were, a lifting process at work, "Jerusalem in the top of the mountains, and exalted above the hills." Now he beholds nothing but depression. "For the day of the Lord of hosts shall be upon every one that is proud and haughty, upon all that is lifted up, and it shall be brought low, and the Lord alone shall be exalted in that day." Nothing in the great civilisation, which he had formerly glorified, is worth preserving. The high towers, fenced walls, ships of Tarshish, treasures and armour must all perish; even the hills lifted by his imagination shall be bowed down, and "the Lord alone be exalted in that day." This recoil reaches its extreme in the last verse of the chapter. The prophet, who had believed so much in man as to think possible an immediate commonwealth of nations, believes in man now so little that he does not hold him worth preserving: "Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils; for wherein is he to be accounted of?"

Attached to this general denunciation are some satiric descriptions, in the third chapter, of the anarchy to which society in Jerusalem is fast being reduced under its childish and effeminate king. The scorn of these passages is scathing; "the eyes of the glory of God" burn through every rank, fashion, and ornament in the town. King and court are not spared; the elders and princes are rigorously denounced. But by far the most striking effort of the prophet’s boldness is his prediction of the overthrow of Jerusalem itself (Isaiah 3:8). What it cost Isaiah to utter and the people to hear we can only partly measure. To his own passionate patriotism it must have felt like treason, to the blind optimism of the popular religion it doubtless appeared the rankest heresy-to aver that the holy city, inviolate and almost unthreatened since the day David brought to her the ark of the Lord, and destined by the voice of her prophets, including Isaiah himself, to be established upon the tops of the mountains, was now to fall into ruin. But Isaiah’s conscience overcomes his sense of consistency, and he who has just proclaimed the eternal glory of Jerusalem is provoked by his knowledge of her citizens’ sins to recall his words and intimate her destruction. It may have been that Isaiah was partly emboldened to so novel a threat, by his knowledge of the preparations which Syria and Israel were already making for the invasion of Judah. The prospect of Jerusalem, as the centre of a vast empire subject to Jehovah, however natural it was under a successful ruler like Uzziah, became, of course, unreal when every one of Uzziah’s and Jotham’s tributaries had risen in revolt against their successor, Ahaz. But of these outward movements Isaiah tells us nothing. He is wholly engrossed with Judah’s sin. It is his growing acquaintance with the corruption of his fellow countrymen that has turned his back on the ideal city of his opening ministry, and changed him into a prophet of Jerusalem’s ruin. "Their tongue and their doings are against the Lord, to provoke the eyes of His glory." Judge, prophet, and elder, all the upper ranks and useful guides of the people, must perish. It is a sign of the degradation to which society shall be reduced, when Isaiah with keen sarcasm pictures the despairing people choosing a certain man to be their ruler because he alone has a coat to his back! [Isaiah 3:6]

With increased scorn Isaiah turns lastly upon the women of Jerusalem, [Isaiah 3:16-26; Isaiah 4:1-2] and here perhaps the change which has passed over him since his opening prophecy is most striking. One likes to think of how the citizens of Jerusalem took this alteration in their prophet’s temper. We know how popular so optimist a prophecy as that of the mountain of the Lord’s house must have been, and can imagine how men and women loved the young face, bright with a far-off light, and the dream of an ideal that had no quarrel with the present. "But what a change is this that has come over him, who speaks not of tomorrow, but of today, who has brought his gaze from those distant horizons to our streets, who stares every man in the face, [Isaiah 3:9] and makes the women feel that no pin and trimming, no ring and bracelet, escape his notice! Our loved prophet has become an impudent scorner!" Ah, men and women of Jerusalem, beware of those eyes! "The glory of God" is burning in them; they see you through and through, and they tell us that all your armour and the "show of your countenance," and your foreign fashions are as nothing, for there are corrupt hearts below. This is your judgment, that "instead of sweet spices there shall be rottenness, and instead of a girdle a rope, and instead of well-set hair baldness, and instead of a stomacher a girding of sackcloth, and branding instead of beauty. Thy men shall fall by the sword, and thy mighty in the war. And her gates shall lament and mourn, and she shall be desolate and sit upon the ground!"

This was the climax of the prophet’s judgment. If the salt have lost its savour, wherewith shall it be salted? It is thenceforth good for nothing but to be cast out and trodden under foot. If the women are corrupt the state is moribund.

III. THE PROPHET OF THE LORD

[Isaiah 4:2-6]

IS there, then, no hope for Jerusalem? Yes, but not where the prophet sought it at first, in herself, and not in the way he offered it-by the mere presentation of an ideal. There is hope, there is more-there is certain salvation in the Lord, but it only comes after judgment. Contrast that opening picture of the new Jerusalem with this closing one, and we shall find their difference to lie in two things. There the city is more prominent than the Lord, here the Lord is more prominent than the city; there no word of judgment, here judgment sternly emphasised as the indispensable way towards the blessed future. A more vivid sense of the Person of Jehovah Himself, a deep conviction of the necessity of chastisement: these are what Isaiah has gained during his early ministry, without losing hope or heart for the future. The bliss shall come only when the Lord shall "have washed away the filth of the daughters of Zion, and shall have purged the blood of Jerusalem from the midst thereof by the spirit of judgment and the spirit of burning." It is a corollary of all this that the participants of that future shall be many fewer than in the first vision of the prophet. The process of judgment must weed men out, and in place of all nations coming to Jerusalem, to share its peace and glory, the prophet can speak now only of Israel-and only of a remnant of Israel. "The escaped of Israel, the left in Zion, and he that remaineth in Jerusalem." This is a great change in Isaiah’s ideal, from the supremacy of Israel over all nations to the bare survival of a remnant of his people.

Is there not in this threefold vision a parallel and example for our own civilisation and our thoughts about it? All work and wisdom begin in dreams. We must see our Utopias before we start to build our stone and lime cities.

"It takes a soul

To move a body; it takes a high-souled man

To move the masses even to a cleaner stye;

It takes the ideal to blow an inch inside

The dust of the actual."

But the light of our ideals dawns upon us only to show how poor by nature are the mortals who are called to accomplish them. The ideal rises still as to Isaiah only to exhibit the poverty of the real. When we lift our eyes from the hills of vision, and rest them on our fellow-men, hope and enthusiasm die out of us. Isaiah’s disappointment is that of every one who brings down his gaze from the clouds to the streets. Be our ideal ever so desirable, be we ever so persuaded of its facility, the moment we attempt to apply it we shall be undeceived. Society cannot be regenerated all at once. There is an expression which Isaiah emphasises in his moment of cynicism: "The show of their countenance doth witness against them." It tells us that when he called his countrymen to turn to the light he lifted upon them he saw nothing but the exhibition of their sin made plain. When we bring light to a cavern whose inhabitants have lost their eyes by the darkness, the light does not make them see; we have to give them eyes again. Even so no vision or theory of a perfect state-the mistake which all young reformers make- can regenerate society. It will only reveal social corruption, and sicken the heart of the reformer himself. For the possession of a great ideal does not mean, as so many fondly imagine, work accomplished; it means work revealed-work revealed so vast, often so impossible, that faith and hope die down, and the enthusiast of yesterday becomes the cynic of tomorrow. "Cease ye from man, whose breath is in his nostrils, for wherein is he to be accounted?" In this despair, through which every worker for God and man must pass, many a warm heart has grown cold, many an intellect become paralysed. There is but one way of escape, and that is Isaiah’s. It is to believe in God Himself; it is to believe that He is at work, that His purposes to man are saving purposes, and that with Him there is an inexhaustible source of mercy and virtue. So from the blackest pessimism shall arise new hope and faith, as from beneath Isaiah’s darkest verses that glorious passage suddenly bursts like uncontrollable spring from the very feet of winter. "For that day shall the spring of the Lord be beautiful and glorious, and the fruit of the land shall be excellent and comely for them that are escaped of Israel." This is all it is possible to say. There must be a future for man, because God loves him, and God reigns. That future can be reached only through judgment, because God is righteous.

To put it another way: All of us who live to work for our fellow-men or who hope to lift them higher by our word begin with our own visions of a great future. These visions, though our youth lends to them an original generosity and enthusiasm, are, like Isaiah’s, largely borrowed. The progressive instincts of the age into which we are born and the mellow skies of prosperity combine with our own ardour to make our ideal one of splendour. Persuaded of its facility, we turn to real life to apply it. A few years pass. We not only find mankind too stubborn to be forced into our moulds, but we gradually become aware of Another Moulder at work upon our subject, and we stand aside in awe to watch His operations. Human desires and national ideals are not always fulfilled; philosophic theories are discredited by the evolution of fact. Uzziah does not reign for ever; the sceptre falls to Ahaz: progress is checked, and the summer of prosperity draws to an end. Under duller skies ungilded judgment comes to view, cruel and inexorable, crushing even the peaks on which we built our future, yet purifying men and giving earnest of a better future, too. And so life, that mocked the control of our puny fingers, bends groaning to the weight of an Almighty Hand. God also, we perceive as we face facts honestly, has His ideal for men; and though He works so slowly towards His end that our restless eyes are too impatient to follow His order, He yet reveals all that shall be to the humbled heart and the soul emptied of its own visions. Awed and chastened, we look back from His Presence to our old ideals. We are still able to recognise their grandeur and generous hope for men. But we see now how utterly unconnected they are with the present-castles in the air, with no ladders to them from the earth. And even if they were accessible, still to our eyes, purged by gazing on God’s own ways, they would no more appear desirable. Look back on Isaiah’s early ideal from the light of his second vision of the future. For all its grandeur, that picture of Jerusalem is not wholly attractive. Is there not much national arrogance in it? Is it not just the imperfectly idealised reflection of an age of material prosperity such as that of Uzziah’s was? Pride is in it, a false optimism, the highest good to be reached without moral conflict. But here is the language of pity, rescue with difficulty, rest only after sore struggle and stripping, salvation by the bare arm of God. So do our imaginations for our own future or for that of the race always contrast with what He Himself has in store for us, promised freely out of His great grace to our unworthy hearts, yet granted in the end only to those who pass towards it through discipline, tribulation, and fire.

This, then, was Isaiah’s apprenticeship, and its net result was to leave him with the remnant for his ideal: the remnant and Jerusalem secured as its rallying-point.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 2:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/isaiah-2.html.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, November 12th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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