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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary
Isaiah 30

 

 

Verses 1-33

CHAPTER XIII

POLITICS AND FAITH

ABOUT 720 B.C.

Isaiah 30:1-33

THIS prophecy of Isaiah rises out of circumstances a little more developed than those in which chapter 29 was composed. Sennacherib is still engaged with Babylon, and it seems that it will yet be long before he marches his armies upon Syria. But Isaiah’s warning has at last roused the politicians of Judah from their carelessness. We need not suppose that they believed all that Isaiah predicted about the dire siege which Jerusalem should shortly undergo and her sudden deliverance at the hand of the Lord. Without the two strong religious convictions, in the strength of which, as we have seen, he made the prediction, it was impossible to believe that this siege and deliverance must certainly happen. But the politicians were at least startled into doing something. They did not betake themselves to God, to whom it had been the purpose of Isaiah’s last oration to shut them up. They only flung themselves with more haste into their intrigues with Egypt. But in truth haste and business were all that was in their politics: these were devoid both of intelligence and faith. Where the sole motive of conduct is fear, whether uneasiness or panic, force may be displayed, but neither sagacity nor any moral quality. This was the case with Judah’s Egyptian policy, and Isaiah now spends two chapters in denouncing it. His condemnation is twofold. The negotiations with Egypt, he says, are bad politics and bad religion; but the bad religion is the root and source of the other. Yet while he vents all his scorn on the politics, he uses pity and sweet persuasiveness when he comes to speak of the eternal significance of the religion. The two chapters are also instructive, beyond most others of the Old Testament, in the light they cast on revelation-its scope and methods.

Isaiah begins with the bad politics. In order to understand how bad they were, we must turn for a little to this Egypt, with whom Judah was now seeking an alliance.

In our late campaign on the Upper Nile we heard a great deal of the Mudir of Dongola. His province covers part of the ancient kingdom of Ethiopia; and in Meirawi, the village whose name appeared in so many telegrams, we can still discover Meroe, the capital of Ethiopia. Now in Isaiah’s day the king of Ethiopia was what the Mudir of Dongola was at the time of our war, an ambitious person of no small energy; and the ruler of Egypt proper was, what the Khedive was, a person of little influence or resource. Consequently there happened what might have happened a few years ago but for the presence of the British army in Egypt. The Ethiopian came down the Nile, defeated Pharaoh and burned him alive. But he died, and his son died after him; and before their successor could also come down the Nile, the legitimate heir to Pharaoh had regained part of his power. Some years ensued of uncertainty as to who was the real ruler of Egypt.

It was in this time of unsettlement that Judah sought Egypt’s help. The ignorance of the policy was manifest to all who were not blinded by fear of Assyria or party feeling. To Isaiah the Egyptian alliance is a folly and fatality that deserve all his scorn (Isaiah 30:1-8).

"Woe to the rebellious children, saith the Lord, executing a policy, but it is not from Me; and weaving a web, but not of My spirit, that they may heap sin upon sin; who set themselves on the way to go down to Egypt, and at My mouth they have not inquired, to flee to the refuge of Pharaoh, and to hide themselves in the shadow of Egypt. But the refuge of Pharaoh shall be unto you for shame, and the hiding in the shadow of Egypt for confusion!" How can a broken Egypt help you? "When his princes are at Zoan, and his ambassadors are come to Hanes, they shall all be ashamed of a people that cannot profit them, that are not for help nor for profit, but for shame, and also for reproach."

Then Isaiah pictures the useless caravan which Judah has sent with tribute to Egypt, strings of asses and camels struggling through the desert, "land of trouble and anguish" amid lions and serpents, and all for "a people that shall not profit them" (Isaiah 30:6).

What tempted Judah to this profitless expenditure of time and money? Egypt had a great reputation, and was a mighty promiser. Her brilliant antiquity had given her a habit of generous promise, and dazzled other nations into trusting her. Indeed, so full were Egyptian politics of bluster and big language, that the Hebrews had a nickname for Egypt. They called her Rahab-Stormy-speech, Blusterer, Braggart. It was the term also for the crocodile, as being a monster, so that there was a picturesqueness as well as moral aptness in the name. Ay, says Isaiah, catching at the old name and putting to it another which describes Egyptian helplessness and inactivity, I call her Rahab Sit-still, Braggart-that-sitteth-still, Stormy-speech Stay-at-home. "Blustering and inactivity, blustering and sitting still," that is her character; "for Egypt helpeth in vain and to no purpose."

Knowing how sometimes the fate of a government is affected by a happy speech or epigram, we can understand the effect of this cry upon the politicians of Jerusalem. But that he might impress it on the popular imagination and memory as well, Isaiah wrote his epigram on a tablet, and put it in a book. We must remind ourselves here of chapter 20, and remember how it tells us that Isaiah had already some years before this endeavoured to impress the popular imagination with the folly of an Egyptian alliance, "walking unfrocked and barefoot three years for a sign and a portent upon Egypt and upon Ethiopia."

So that already Isaiah had appealed from politicians to people on this Egyptian question, just as he appealed thirty years ago from court to market-place on the question of Ephraim and Damascus. [Isaiah 8:1] It is another instance of that prophetic habit of his, on which we remarked in expounding chapter 8; and we must again emphasise the habit, for chapter 30 here swings round upon it. Whatever be the matter committed to him, Isaiah is not allowed to rest till be brings it home to the popular conscience; and however much he may be able to charge national disaster upon the folly of politicians or the obduracy of a king, it is people whom he holds ultimately responsible. To Isaiah a nation’s politics are not arbitrary; they are not dependent on the will of kings or the management of parties. They are the natural outcome of the nation’s character. What the people are, that will their politics be. If you wish to reform the politics, you must first regenerate the people; and it is no use to inveigh against a senseless policy, like this Egyptian one, unless you go farther and expose the national temper which has made it possible. A people’s own morals have greater influence on their destinies than their despots or legislators. Statesmen are what the state makes them. No Government will attempt a policy for which the nation behind it has not a conscience; and for the greater number of errors committed by their rulers, the blame must be laid on the people’s own want of character or intelligence.

This is what Isaiah now drives home. {Isaiah 30:9 ff.} He tracks the bad politics to their source in bad religion, the Egyptian policy to its roots in the prevailing tempers of the people. The Egyptian policy was doubly stamped. It was disobedience to the word of God; it was satisfaction with falsehood. The statesmen of Judah shut their ears to God’s spoken word; they allowed themselves to be duped by the Egyptian Pretence. But these, says Isaiah, are precisely the characteristics of the whole Jewish people. "For it is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the revelation of the Lord." It was these national failings-the want of virtues which are the very substance of a nation: truth and reverence or obedience-that had culminated in the senseless and suicidal alliance with Egypt. Isaiah fastens on their falsehood first: "Which say to the seers, Ye shall not see, and to the prophets, Ye shall not prophesy unto us right things; speak to us smooth things: prophesy deceits." No wonder such a character had been fascinated by "Rahab"! It was a natural nemesis, that a people who desired from their teachers fair speech rather than true vision should be betrayed by the confidence their statesmen placed in the Blusterer, "that blustered and sat still." Truth is what this people first require, and therefore the revelation of the Lord will in the first instance be the revealing of the truth. Men who will strip pretence off the reality of things; men who will call things by their right names, as Isaiah had set himself to do; honest satirists and epigrammatists-these are the bearers of God’s revelation. For it is one of the means of Divine salvation to call things by their right names, and here in God’s revelation also epigrams have their place. So much for truth.

But reverence is truth’s other self, for reverence is simply loyalty to the supremest truth. And it is against the truth that the Jews have chiefly sinned. They have shut their eyes to Egypt’s real character, but that was a small sin beside this: that they turned their backs on the greatest reality of all-God Himself. "Get you out of the way," they said to the prophets, "turn out of the oath; keep quiet in our presence about the Holy One of Israel!" Isaiah’s effort rises to its culmination when he seeks to restore the sense of this reality to his people. His spirit is kindled at the words "the Holy One of Israel," and to the end of chapter 31 leaps up in a series of brilliant and sometimes scorching descriptions of the name, the majesty, and the love of God. Isaiah is not content to have used his power of revelation to unveil the political truth about Egypt. He will make God Himself visible to this people. Passionately does he proceed to enforce upon the Jews what God thinks about their own condition (Isaiah 30:12-14), then to persuade them to rely upon Him alone, and wait for the working of His reasonable laws (Isaiah 30:15-18). Rising higher, he purges with pity their eyes to see God’s very presence, their ears to hear His voice, their wounds to feel His touch (Isaiah 30:19-26). Then he remembers the cloud of invasion on the horizon, and bids them spell, in its uncouth masses, the articulate name of the Lord (Isaiah 30:27-33). And he closes with another series of figures by which God’s wisdom, and His jealousy and His tenderness are made very bright to them (chapter 31).

These brilliant prophecies may not have been given all at the same time: each is complete in itself. They do not all mention the negotiations with Egypt, but they are all dark with the shadow of Assyria. Isaiah 30:19-26 almost seem to have been written in a time of actual siege; but Isaiah 30:27-33 represent Assyria still upon the horizon. In this, however, these passages are fitly strung together: that they equally strain to impress a blind and hardened people with the will, the majesty, and the love of God their Saviour.

I. THE BULGING WALL

(Isaiah 30:12-14)

Starting from their unwillingness to listen to the voice of the Lord in their Egyptian policy, Isaiah tells the people that if they refused to hear His word for guidance, they must now listen to it for judgment. Wherefore thus saith the Holy One of Israel: Because ye look down on this word, and trust in perverseness and crookedness, and lean thereon, therefore this iniquity shall be to you as a breach ready to fall, bulging out in a high wall, whose breaking cometh suddenly at an instant. "This iniquity," of course, is the embassy to Egypt. But that, as we have seen, is only the people’s own evil character coming to a head; and by the breaking of the wall, we are therefore to suppose that the prophet means the collapse not only of this Egyptian policy, but of the whole estate and substance of the Jewish people. It will not be your enemy that will cause a breach in the nation, but your teeming iniquity shall cause the breach-to wit, this Egyptian folly. Judah will burst her bulwarks from the inside. You may build the strongest form of government round a people, you may buttress it with foreign alliances, but these shall simply prove occasions for the internal wickedness to break forth. Your supposed buttresses will prove real breaches; and of all your social structures there will not be left as much as will make the fragments of a single home, not "a sherd" big enough "to carry fire from the hearth, or to hold water from the cistern."

II. NOT ALLIANCES, BUT RELIANCE

(Isaiah 30:15-18)

At this point, either Isaiah was stung by the demands of the politicians for an alternative to their restless Egyptian policy which he condemned, or more likely he rose, unaided by external influence, on the prophet’s native instinct to find some purely religious ground on which to base his political advice. The result is one of the grandest of all his oracles. "For thus saith the Lord Jehovah, the Holy One of Israel: In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength; and ye would not. But ye said, No, for upon horses will we flee; wherefore ye shall flee: and upon the swift will we ride; wherefore swift shall be they that pursue you! One thousand at the rebuke of one-at the rebuke of five shall ye flee: till ye be left as a bare pole on the top of a mountain, and as a standard on a hill. And therefore will the Lord wait that He may be gracious unto you, and therefore will He hold aloof that He may have mercy upon you, for a God of judgment is the Lord; blessed are all they that wait for Him." The words of this passage are their own interpretation and enforcement, all but one; and as this one is obscure in its English guise, and the passage really swings from it, we may devote a paragraph to its meaning.

"A God of judgment is the Lord" is an unfortunately ambiguous translation. We must not take judgment here in our familiar sense of the word. It is not a sudden deed of doom, but a long process of law. It means manner, method, design, order, system, the ideas, in short, which we sum up under the word "law." Just as we say of a man, "He is a man of judgment," and mean thereby not that by office he is a doomster, but that by character he is a man of discernment and prudence, so simply does Isaiah say here that "Jehovah is a God of Judgment," and mean thereby not that He is one whose habit is sudden and awful deeds of penalty or salvation, but, on the contrary, that, having laid down His lines according to righteousness and established His laws in wisdom, He remains in His dealings with men consistent with these.

Now it is a great truth that the All-mighty and All-merciful is the All-methodical too; and no religion is complete in its creed or healthy in its influence, which does not insist equally on all these. It was just the want of this third article of faith which perverted the souls of the Jews in Isaiah’s day, which (as we have seen under chapter 1) allowed them to make their worship so mechanical and material-for how could they have been satisfied with mere forms if they had but once conceived of God as having even ordinary intelligence?-and which turned their political life into such a mass of intrigue, conceit, and falsehood, for how could they have dared to suppose that they would get their own way, or have been so sure of their own cleverness, if only they had had a glimpse of the perception, that God, the Ruler of the world, had also His policy regarding them? They believed He was the Mighty, they believed He was the Merciful, but because they forgot that He was the Wise and the Worker by law, their faith in His might too often turned into superstitious terror, their faith in His mercy oscillated between the sleepy satisfaction that He was an indulgent God and the fretful impatience that He was an indifferent one. Therefore Isaiah persisted from first to last in this: that God worked by law; that He had His plan for Judah, as well as these politicians; and, as we shall shortly find him reminding them when intoxicated with their own cleverness "that He also is wise". [Isaiah 31:2] Here by the same thought he bids them be at peace, and upon the rushing tides of politics, drawing them to that or the other mad venture, to swing by this anchor: that God has His own law and time for everything. No man could bring the charge of fatalism against such a policy of quietness. For it thrilled with intelligent appreciation of the Divine method. When Isaiah said, "In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and confidence shall be your strength," he did not ask his restless countrymen to yield sullenly to an infinite force or to bow in stupidity beneath the inscrutable will of an arbitrary despot, but to bring their conduct into harmony with a reasonable and gracious plan, which might be read in the historical events of the time, and was vindicated by the loftiest religious convictions. Isaiah preached no submission to fate, but reverence for an all-wise Ruler, whose method was plain to every clear-sighted observer of the fortunes of the nations of the world, and whose purpose could only be love and peace to His own people.

III. GOD’S TABLE IN THE MIDST OF THE ENEMIES

(Isaiah 30:19-26)

This patient purpose of God Isaiah now proceeds to describe in its details. Every line of his description has its loveliness, and is to be separately appreciated. There is perhaps no fairer prospect from our prophet’s many windows. It is not argument nor a programme, but a series of rapid glimpses, struck out by language which often wants logical connection, but never fails to make us see.

To begin with, one thing is sure: the continuance of the national existence. Isaiah is true to his original vision-the survival of a remnant. "For a people in Zion-there shall be abiding in Jerusalem." So the brief essential is flashed forth. "Thou shalt surely weep no more; surely He will be gracious unto thee at the voice of thy crying; with His hearing of thee He will answer thee." Thus much of general promise had been already given. Now upon the vagueness of the Lord’s delay Isaiah paints realistic details, only, however, that he may make more vivid the real presence of the Lord. The siege shall surely come, with its sorely concrete privations, but the Lord will be there, equally distinct. "And though the Lord give you the bread of penury and the water of tribuation" (perhaps the technical name for siege rations), "yet shall not thy Teacher hide Himself any more, but thine eyes shall ever be seeing thy Teacher; and thine ears shall hear a word behind thee, saying, This is the way: walk ye in it, when ye turn to the right hand or when ye turn to the left." Real, concrete sorrows, these are they that make the heavenly Teacher real! It is linguistically possible, and more in harmony with the rest of the passage, to turn "teachers," as the English version has it, into the singular, and to render it by "Revealer." The word is an active participle, "Moreh," from the same verb as the noun "Torah," which is constantly translated "Law" in our version, but is, in the Prophets at least, more nearly equivalent to "instruction," or to our modern term "revelation" (cf. Isaiah 30:9). Looking thus to the One Revealer, and hearkening to the One Voice, "the lying and rebellious children" shall at last be restored to that capacity for truth and obedience the loss of which has been their ruin. Devoted to the Holy One of Israel, they shall scatter their idols as loathsome (Isaiah 30:22). But thereupon a wonder is to happen. As the besieged people, conscious of the One Great Presence in the midst of their encompassed city, cast their idols through the gates and over the walls, a marvellous vision of space and light and fulness of fresh food bursts upon their starved and straitened souls (Isaiah 30:23). Promise more sympathetic was never uttered to a besieged and famished city. Mark that all down the passage there is no mention of the noise or instruments of battle. The prophet has not spoken of the besiegers, who they may be, how they may come, nor of the fashion of their war, but only of the effects of the siege on those within: confinement, scant and bitter rations. And now he is almost wholly silent about the breaking up of the investing army and the trail of their slaughter. No battle breaks this siege, but a vision of openness and plenty dawns noiselessly over its famine and closeness. It is not vengeance or blood that an exhausted and penitent people thirst after. But as they have been caged in a fortress, narrow, dark, and stony, so they thirst for the sight of the sower, and the drop of the rain on the broken, brown earth, and the juicy corn, and the meadow for their cribbed cattle, and the noise of brooks and waterfalls, and above and about it all fulness of light. "And He shall give the rain of thy seed, that thou shalt sow the ground withal, and bread, even the increase of the ground, and it shall be juicy and fat; thy cattle shall feed that day in a broad meadow. And the oxen and the young asses that till the ground shall eat savoury provender, winnowed with the shovel and with the fan. And there shall be upon every lofty mountain and upon every lifted hill rivers, streams of water, in the day of the great slaughter, when the towers fall. And the light of the moon shall be as the light of the sun, and the light of the sun shall be sevenfold, as the light of seven days, in the day that the Lord bindeth up the hurt of His people and healeth the stroke of their wound." It is one of Isaiah’s fairest visions, and he is very much to be blamed who forces its beauty of nature into an allegory of spiritual things. Here literally God spreads His people a table in the midst of their enemies.

IV. THE NAME OF THE LORD

(Isaiah 30:27-33)

But Isaiah lays down "the oaten pipe" and lifts again a brazen trumpet to his lips. Between him and that sunny landscape of the future, of whose pastoral details he has so sweetly sung, roll up now the uncouth masses of the Assyrian invasion, not yet fully gathered, far less broken. We are back in the present again, and the whole horizon is clouded.

The passage does not look like one from which comfort or edification can be derived, but it is of extreme interest. The first two verses, for instance, only require a little analysis to open a most instructive glimpse into the prophet’s inner thoughts about the Assyrian progress, and show us how they work towards the expression of its full meaning. "Behold, the Name of Jehovah cometh from afar-burning His anger and awful the uplifting smoke; His lips are full of wrath, and His tongue as fire that devoureth; and His breath is as an overflowing torrent-even unto the neck it reacheth-to shake the nations in a sieve of destruction, and a bridle that leadeth astray on the jaws of the peoples."

"The Name of Jehovah" is the phrase the prophets use when they wish to tell us of the personal presence of God. When we hear a name cried out, we understand immediately that a person is there. So when the prophet calls, "Behold, the Name of Jehovah," in face of the prodigious advance of Assyria, we understand that he has caught some intuition of God’s presence in that uplifting of the nations of the north at the word of the great King and their resistless sweep southward upon Palestine. In that movement God is personally present. The Divine presence Isaiah then describes in curiously mingled metaphor, which proves how gradually it was that he struggled to a knowledge of its purpose there. First of all he describes the advance of Assyria as a thunderstorm, heavy clouds and darting, devouring fire. His imagination pictures a great face of wrath. The thick curtains of cloud as they roll over one another suggest the heavy lips, and the lightnings the fiery tongue. Then the figure passes from heaven to earth. The thunderstorm has burst, and becomes the "mountain torrent" which speedily "reaches the necks" of those who are caught in its bed. But then the prophet’s conscience suggests something more than sudden and sheer force in this invasion, and the "tossing" of the torrent naturally leads him to express this new element in the figure of "a sieve." His thought about the Assyrian flood thus passes from one of simple force and rush to one of judgment and being well kept in hand. He sees its ultimate check at Jerusalem, and so his last figure of it is the figure of "a bridle," or "lasso," such as is thrown upon the jaws of a wild animal when you wish to catch and tame him.

This gradual progress from the sense of sheer wild force, through that of personal wrath, to discipline and sparing is very interesting. Vague and chaotic that disaster rolled up the horizon upon Judah. "It cometh from afar." The politicians fled from it to their refuge behind the Egyptian Pretence. But Isaiah bids them face it. The longer they look, the more will conscience tell them that the unavoidable wrath of God is in it; no blustering Rahab will be able to hide them from the anger of the face that lowers there. But let them look longer still, and the unrelieved features of destruction will change to a hand that sifts and checks, the torrent will become a sieve, and the disaster show itself well held in by the power of their own God.

So wildly and impersonally still do the storms of sorrow and disaster roll up the horizon on men’s eyes, and we fly in vague terror from them to our Egyptian refuges. So still does conscience tell us it is futile to flee from the anger of God, and we crouch hopeless beneath the rush of imaginations of unchecked wrath, blackening the heavens and turning every path of life to a tossing torrent. May it then be granted us to have some prophet at our side to bid us face our disaster once more, and see the discipline and judgment of the Lord, the tossing only of His careful sieve, in the wild and cruel waves! We may not be poets like Isaiah nor able to put the processes of our faith into such splendid metaphors as he, but faith is given us to follow the same course as his thoughts did, and to struggle till she arrives at the consciousness of God in the most uncouth judgments that darken her horizon-the consciousness of God present not only to smite, but to sift, and in the end to spare.

Of the angel who led Israel to the land of promise, God said, "My Name is in him." Our faith is not perfect till we can, like Isaiah, feel the same of the blackest angel, the heaviest disaster, God can send us, and be able to spell it out articulately: "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, long-suffering and abundant in goodness and truth."

For delivery, says Isaiah, shall come to the people of God in the crisis, as sudden and as startling into song as the delivery from Egypt was. "Ye shall have a song as in the night when a holy feast is kept, and gladness of heart, as when one goeth with a pipe to come into the mountain of the Lord; to the Rock of Israel."

After this interval of solemn gladness, the storm and fire break out afresh, and rage again through the passage. But their direction is reversed, and whereas they had been shown rolling up the horizon as towards Judah, they are now shown rolling down the horizon in pursuit of the baffled Assyrian. The music of the verses is crashing. "And the Lord shall cause the peal of His voice to be heard, and the lighting down of His arm to be seen in the fury of anger, yea flame of devouring fire-bursting and torrent and hailstones. For from the voice of the Lord shall the Assyrian be scattered when He shall smite with the rod. And every passage of the rod of fate which the Lord bringeth down upon him shall be with tabrets and harps, and in battles of waving shall he be fought against." The meaning is obscure but palpable. Probably the verse describes the ritual of the sacrifice to Moloch, to which there is no doubt the next verse alludes. To sympathise with the prophet’s figure, we need of course an amount of information about the details of that ritual which we are very far from possessing. But Isaiah’s meaning is evidently this: The destruction of the Assyrian host will be liker a holocaust than a battle, like one of those fatal sacrifices to Moloch which are directed by the solemn waving of a staff, and accompanied by the music, not of war, but of festival. "Battles of waving" is a very obscure phrase, but the word translated "waving" is the technical term for the waving of the victim before the sacrifice to signify its dedication to the deity; "and these ‘battles of waving’ may perhaps have taken place in the fashion in which single victims were thrown from one spear to another till death ensued." At all events, it is evident that Isaiah means to suggest that the Assyrian dispersion is a religious act, a solemn holocaust rather than one of this earth’s ordinary battles, and directed by Jehovah Himself from heaven. This becomes clear enough in the next verse: "For a Topheth hath been set in order beforehand; yea, for Moloch is it arranged; He hath made it deep and broad; the pile thereof is fire and much wood; the breath of the Lord, like a torrent of brimstone, shall kindle it." So the Assyrian power was in the end to go up in flame.

We postpone remarks on Isaiah’s sense of the fierceness of the Divine righteousness till we reach his even finer expression of it in chapter 33.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 30:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/isaiah-30.html.

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