provides a good illustration of the way in which interest in the literary structure of the whole has replaced some of the
older historical questions. It concludes (v. 31
) with a reference to the burning of those who trust in their own strength, in a fire which cannot be ‘quenched’ (Heb. root:
k-b-h). This relatively rare word is also found in the last verse of the whole book (
: ‘their fire shall not be quenched’), linking together beginning and ending of the book. But it is also used of the servant
, of whom it is said, by contrast, that ‘a dimly burning wick he will not quench’. Again, the fire devouring Edom will be
), and those who oppose the LORD's path are ‘quenched like a wick’ (
). It is obviously possible that these uses are coincidental, but even if that were true the reader is surely invited to see
and reflect upon this linkage. It will be noted, of course, that the five examples which have been given take in all three
of the parts into which Isaiah has customarily been divided.
Other links between ch. 1
and the last part of the book have been noted. Clements (1980a
: 28) expressed this as ‘a selection of the prophet's sayings in order to provide a general preface and guide to his teaching’,
but it may be more appropriate to envisage this ‘selection’ in terms of an introduction to some of the main themes of the
whole book. The issues of sin, judgement, and hoped-for restoration are those with which the community of Israel as a whole
and the prophetic writings were deeply concerned, and they form the overarching structure of the book of Isaiah.
The introductory verse is closely comparable to the opening of the books of Jeremiah, Hosea, Amos, Micah, and Zephaniah. It
is sometimes supposed that all ancient Israelites were necessarily expert in knowing which king reigned when, in the way in
which children of an earlier generation were required to learn lists of the kings of Judah and Israel. Much more probably
this is a literary device at one stage in the editorial process of the Isaiah collection, linking it with the account of the
people's history given in the books of Kings. Since those books are usually described as part of the Deuteronomistic History
this verse is then regarded as evidence for one of the redactions of Isaiah's words being Deuteronomistic. (Kaiser 1983
: 1–2 suggests that this implies a fifth-century date, but there is little unambiguous evidence for dating.) It is not even
possible to offer exact dates for the kings listed, but they all ruled in the second half of the eighth century BCE. What follows is described as ‘a vision which (Isaiah) saw’. Part of the reference here must surely be to the great vision
in ch. 6
, but we should also bear in mind that vision (what we might describe as ‘second sight’ or ‘insight’) was an important element
in the prophetic role. Another way of describing prophets was as ‘seers’, and the two terms seem in practice to have been
synonymous. Indeed, from the visions of Amos onwards the prophetic collections emphasize the importance of visions, and the
books of Obadiah, Habakkuk, and Nahum, like that of Isaiah, are described in their opening verse as ‘visions’. The distinction
between words and visions, which to us may appear fundamental, may not have seemed so basic to the compilers of these oracles.
Perhaps this is a pointer, one of many we shall notice, that much of what follows is poetry, and is not to be treated in the precise manner in which we approach
The form used here appears to be that of a lawsuit, with witnesses being summoned. We have no means of knowing how closely
the book's language is based on actual legal practice; some may feel that poetry and legal usage are at opposite ends of the
spectrum. Indeed no legal system could tolerate the duplication of roles here envisaged, for YHWH speaks both as prosecuting
counsel, here summoning his witnesses, and as judge, whose verdict, though implicit, is inevitable (Nielsen 1978: 27–9, though her reading of a covenant context underlying the lawsuit seems doubtful—the idea of ‘covenant’ is not prominent in
the early chapters of Isaiah). It seems clear that ‘heavens’ and ‘earth’ are envisaged as a totality; the whole created order
is summoned to witness the verdict that God is about to announce. ‘I reared children’: this is the first example of what will
become a frequent and increasingly explicit feature of Isaiah, the picture of God as parent (both father and mother) of wayward
children. The language may be that of adoption rather than of direct parentage (Melnyk 1993: 252), but we know too little of adoption procedures in ancient Israel to be certain of this.
This verse has played an important part in Christian tradition. Much of Isaiah came to be regarded as pointing forward to
the time of Christ, and the reference here to the ox and the ass recognizing God's presence came to be interpreted in connection
with the stories of the birth of Jesus. The animals in the Christmas crib are not a biblical tradition, but are first mentioned
in the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, thought to date from the eighth or ninth century CE, where it is said that Mary ‘put her child in a manger, and an ox and an ass worshipped him. Then was fulfilled that which
was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: “The ox knows his owner and the ass his master's crib” ’ (Hennecke 1963: 410). It is interesting that the Hebrew word translated ‘master’ is ba῾al, the same word as is used elsewhere of a god regarded as a rival to YHWH. There is no suggestion of a rival deity here, or
any feeling that the use of this word posed problems.
The same theme, of animals recognizing what is hidden from God's own people, is found again in Jer 8:7
, but the ‘stork, turtledove, swallow and [?]crane’ of that verse might not seem so appropriate to a Christmas crib. The remainder
of the verse introduces themes basic to Isaiah. The people are described as ‘Israel’. But Israel in the time of the prophet
Isaiah meant the northern kingdom, which was absorbed into the Assyrian Empire around 722 BCE. It is likely that the use of the term in a religious sense, to describe the worshippers of YHWH, only became predominant
at a later period. The expression ‘my people’ is also used, here in a strongly condemnatory sense. There is a clear cross-reference
here with the usage in
, with its cry to ‘comfort my people’. In this opening chapter the people's sins are described in detail and the inevitability
of punishment spelt out; in ch. 40
it is made clear that the punishment, though thoroughly deserved, had now been completed and that the people might now contemplate
The section from v. 2
onwards is rightly set out in most modern translations as poetry, and one of the characteristics of Hebrew poetry is parallelism:
the repetition in slightly different words in the second line of what has already been said in the first. Often such parallelism
is described as ‘synonymous’, with the implication that there is no additional nuance of meaning to be discerned in the second
line. But this conflicts with a deeply held traditional Jewish belief, shared also by some Christians, that every word of
Scripture must have its own in-built significance. This verse provides a good example of the tension. Are ‘children’ and ‘deal
corruptly’ simply synonyms of ‘offspring’ and ‘do evil’, or do they add details which might otherwise be overlooked? The usual
view in modern scholarship has been that they are no more than synonyms, but the other view has been vigorously upheld by
some scholars (Kugel 1981: 289–92). Similarly with the words gôy and ῾am, translated ‘nation’ and ‘people’. These can certainly be understood as synonyms; but it is also possible to suppose that
the wickedness of YHWH's own ῾am is somehow more culpable than that associated with a gôy, a term used of any nation.
The verse begins with the characteristic Isaianic word hôy, translated ‘Ah’, but in reality somewhat stronger than that implies: ‘Alas!’ It is followed by a characteristic reproach,
a form in which the reasons for God's condemnation of the people are set out. The third-person usage in the second half of
the verse is somewhat unexpected, and has led some commentators (Kaiser 1983
) to regard it as a later clarification; without it the whole section to v. 7
can be taken as a direct address of condemnation. The point is of some importance for our understanding of Isaianic usage,
because this part of the verse contains the first instance of the designation of God as ‘the Holy One of Israel’, an expression
found 28 times in all parts of the book of Isaiah, but rare elsewhere, only 5 occurrences in the rest of the HB (van Selms 1982
). ‘Israel’, as we have already seen, came to be used as an overall term for the worshippers of YHWH, but it is disputed whether
the term was already in use in that sense in pre-exilic times (when it also designated the northern kingdom) or, as is perhaps
more probable, only developed at a later time. If the latter view is correct, the term ‘Holy One of Israel’ may be seen as
a characteristic marker of a fairly late stage in the redaction of the Isaiah material. Holiness, which at an earlier stage
meant that which is separate, set apart, has now come to be an appropriate designation of God.
These verses illustrate well the perils inherent in trying to interpret poetry in a precise historical fashion. In vv. 5–6
it is clear that a vivid metaphor is being used, with the people's condition set out in terms of a desperately sick body.
The language here used of the community will be picked up again in the description of the suffering of the servant in ch. 53
; the rather rare word ḥăbûrâ (bruise) is found in Isaiah only here and at
. In v. 7
the metaphor changes, to that of a land lying desolate, and many interpreters have attempted to discover some precise historical
‘reality’ underlying this description. There has been discussion about whether the devastation of Sennacherib and the Assyrians
in 701 BCE is the setting, or whether only the even greater devastation of the Babylonian armies in the early sixth century was in mind.
We may be wiser to take this description, like that of the sick body in the preceding verses, as a vivid way of describing
the general punishment inflicted on a people who are perceived to have abandoned the right way.
The phrase bat ṣîyyôn has traditionally been translated ‘daughter of Zion’, but NRSV is surely right in its rendering ‘daughter Zion’. It is Zion
itself whose fate is here being described, not its daughter (however that expression may be understood). In the social world
of ancient Israel daughters were pictured as their father's possession, and so to describe the city as a ‘daughter’ implies
that it was God's possession. Sometimes in the ancient Near East cities were pictured as being married to their gods, but
that particular mode of expression is not often found of Jerusalem and YHWH (though cf. 54:5 and 62:1–5
) (Pfisterer Darr 1994
The verse also brings out another characteristic theme of Isaiah: that of the remnant. There is an inherent ambiguity in this
theme: it may be a means of expressing vividly the magnitude of a disaster. Only a remnant is left. Indeed, sometimes the
scale of a disaster can only be grasped by the fact that there are a few survivors, as is recognized nowadays by the media
when they heighten their account of an earthquake, an aeroplane crash, or a fire, by letting the few survivors tell their
story. But a remnant can also be a hopeful sign; there are those who have lived to tell the tale, and on them a better future can be built. Both usages of the theme are found in Isaiah,
sometimes in close relation to one another (see 10:20–3
and commentary), but here there is no doubt that the underlying notion is of disaster. There has been much discussion as
to which of the two ideas inherent in the theme of remnant is primary, a commonly held view being that ‘remnant as threat’
goes back to Isaiah himself, while ‘remnant as promise’ is secondary. It may be more appropriate to understand the whole motif
as a theodicy: the community in the Second Temple period were very aware of themselves as a remnant, those who had survived
great disasters. But those disasters had been part of God's purpose for his people, who might, as a purified remnant, look
forward to a more confident future under his guidance.
The word mĕlûnâ, here translated ‘shelter’, occurs in only one other place in the HB: Isa 24:20
(NRSV: ‘hut’). The idea is very much that of a temporary and insecure place of refuge. Less certain is the meaning of neṣûrâ. NRSV's ‘besieged’ is doubtful as a rendering of the word and is in any case scarcely appropriate for the context. Kaiser (1983
) deletes the reference to a ‘city’, to obtain the meaning ‘like a refuge in the sheepfold’, but this seems purely speculative.
REB's ‘beleaguered’ may bring out the sense, but it seems doubtful whether we should follow the example of many commentators
(most recently Stacey 1993
) in claiming that the language here ‘changes abruptly from image to harsh reality’.
The community's self-recognition as a remnant is now brought out. The use of ‘we’ suggests the existence of a group with which
the prophetic tradition could identify which regarded itself as the surviving remnant. The image of Sodom and Gomorrah is
based on Gen 19
, with special emphasis on the totality of destruction; in the next verse the same image will be used in a rather different
The theme of Sodom and Gomorrah is now used to emphasize the wickedness of the community as a whole, and of its leaders in
particular. They have become totally alienated from ‘the word of the LORD’, and from his ‘teaching’. This represents Hebrew tôrâ, the term which came ultimately to be used for the gathered collection of Scripture. It scarcely has that formal sense here,
but already we can see that a body of teaching is envisaged which the community could be expected to recognize and adhere
to. The roots of tôrâ may be in the wisdom tradition (Jensen 1973
), but its usage in the final form of the book goes significantly beyond that base.
There follows a fierce denunciation of wrong ritual practice, comparable to other such attacks in the prophetic books (Am 5:18–24; Hos 6:6; Mic 6:6–8
). Some modern writers have claimed that this indicates a complete ‘rejection of the sacrificial cult, a momentous break with
the past’ on the part of the prophet (Heaton 1994: 96). There are difficulties with this view. First, it imposes a very modern, Western approach on an ancient text. Secondly,
it ignores the fact that in the sweeping denunciations used here the actual terminology of the sacrificial cult seems not
to be employed, as we should expect if the practices laid down in e.g. Leviticus were here being condemned. More probably
we should discern a twofold purpose underlying these words. On the one hand the community needed to be warned against complacency;
even the glories of the Jerusalem cult-tradition, amply illustrated in Isaiah, cannot be taken as a guarantee of worship acceptable
to God. On the other hand there were dangers inherent in a false understanding of what worship could achieve. To set these
out offers the beginning of an explanation of the humiliations which the community had experienced.
In what way should we understand these condemnations? Some have simply taken them at face value, and supposed that the whole
cultic structure had become decadent. But we need to remember that there is no polemic as bitter and violent as religious
polemic, and it may well be that this passage illustrates rivalries within the Jerusalem community, of which there is a good
deal of evidence scattered through Isaiah, illustrated in particular in chs. 56–66
One way in which this condemnation is more all-embracing than the comparable passages in the other prophetic collections is
that all forms of religious activity are here condemned; even prayer (v. 15
). There is no sense here of private religious observance being acceptable and the condemnation being limited to public worship.
The development within the passage is also striking. From v. 11
it would appear that it is sacrificial worship of any kind which is rejected, but in the following verses the words ‘you’
and ‘your’ become increasingly prominent, so that the climax in v. 15
is a clear condemnation of the offerers rather than of their practice in itself: ‘Your hands are full of blood’.
This in turn raises important interpretative questions. Those being condemned are apparently those in positions of authority;
they are the ‘rulers of Sodom’. At one level, therefore, Isaiah is condemning the community's leaders. At another level, however,
the book claims authority for itself; ‘the vision’ mentioned in
is clearly a vision of God, empowering the prophetic group. This tension, whereby Isaiah both condemns the rulers and claims
authority for itself, runs all through the book and is especially prominent in chs. 56–66
. It is a tension still characteristic of modern religious leaders, who both exercise positions of authority and feel free to condemn those in authority.
It is important to recognize that what has preceded leads directly into these verses. Until the commands set out here are
observed there can be no true worship. The commands here may be understood as a tôrâ, the term understood now in a slightly different sense. Here it implies a set of commands, comparable to the Ten Commandments
(though those here are all positive) or the briefer statement in Mic 6:8
. The material itself is part of the common stock of ancient Near-Eastern texts. It is sometimes supposed that concern for
the oppressed, the orphan, and the widow was peculiar to Israel, but exhortations of this kind were widespread. Thus in the
Aqhat epic from Ugarit, the achievement of Dan'el as ruler was that ‘he judged the cause of the widow and tried the case of
the orphan’ (Gibson 1978: 107). This Canaanite evidence should remind us that it was not Israel alone in the ancient world that had an awareness of justice.
We return now to the language of the lawsuit. The people are summoned; their offences are set out; and the alternative possibilities
laid down (‘If you are willing…’; ‘if you refuse…’). Clearly repentance is envisaged as a possibility. Repentance is not a
prominent theme in the eighth-century prophets such as Amos, but it later came to be of major importance, e.g. in Jeremiah.
This may be an indication that this passage is a relatively late element in the complete collection.
This passage is usually characterized as a lament. The metre, at least at the beginning of the poem, has three stresses in
the first part of the line and two in the second, as is usual in such laments. Some scholars wish to delete ‘but now murderers’
to preserve the form throughout the verse, but we do not know enough of the details of Hebrew poetry to be confident in doing
so. The opening word ᾽êkâ (how) is also typical of the lament (cf. 2 Sam 1:19, 25
, for one of the most famous laments, that of David over Saul and Jonathan). Jerusalem is not named in the Hebrew text, but
it is clearly the subject here, as is made explicit by the Greek translation, and this concern with Jerusalem, both its great
potential and its wickedness in practice, will run throughout the whole book. Mišpāṭ (justice) and ṣedeq (righteousness) should have characterized the city and especially its rulers, but they are nowhere to be seen. The passage
ends with further reference to the orphan and the widow (cf. v. 17
), as those in whose interest justice and righteousness should in particular be exercised. The theme of the corruption of
justice is one which runs through the whole prophetic tradition, but is specially characteristic of Isaiah, and is one of
the elements which hold the whole book together.
These verses comprise one unit with what has preceded; they are introduced by the characteristic ‘therefore’ of judgement.
The wrongs which have been outlined in the previous verses here have their inevitable consequences spelt out, and metaphors
based on metallurgy provide a link between vv. 22 and 25
. God is here described as ‘the Mighty One of Israel’, a term distinct from but closely related to the more usual Isaianic
term, ‘the Holy One of Israel’; the present phrase is not found elsewhere but the almost identical ‘mighty One of Jacob’ occurs
. The piling up of divine titles here is in general more characteristic of the second part of the book.
But the picture is not all of gloom; the punishment is to be followed by restoration. The phrase ‘faithful city’ provides
an inclusio (that is, the repetition of an opening word or phrase at the end of a section) with v. 21
, where that status had been lost, and the use of ṣedeq not only offers a link with v. 21
, but also gives a reminder of the importance of this ṣ-d-q root in Jerusalem's tradition. Perhaps originally concealing a divine name, it reminds us of Melchizedek in Gen 14
and of Zadok the priest in the story of David, and of the frequent use of the root in the Psalms.
We are here introduced to a theme which has caused much discussion: that of the ‘inviolability of Zion’. It has been widely
held that there was an ancient tradition, traces of which can be found for example in Ps 2
, that Zion was impregnable and could not be captured by its enemies. On the other hand Clements (1980b
) has argued strongly that the tradition found its origin in the interpretation in Isaiah and elsewhere of the Assyrian king
Sennacherib's failure to capture the city in 701 BCE. However that may be, it proved to be a powerful theme, being retained often in the teeth of historical evidence to the contrary.
Religious polemic is clearly again at work here. Those of whom the writer approved are offered sweeping promises; there are
others whose behaviour leads them to be condemned as forsaking the Lord. This is very reminiscent of the divisions highlighted
in chs. 56–66
. Various attempts have been made (notably by Hanson 1979
) more precisely to identify different groups within the Second Temple community, but they founder for lack of sufficiently
Reasons for the rejection of one group are now offered, and they are to be found in some form of idolatrous practice the details
of which are not clear to us. The closest links are again with chs. 56–66
. In addition to the link between v. 31 and 66:24
already noticed, we may see in particular the reference to the ‘oaks’ in
and to the ‘gardens’ in
. What is here condemned seems to be some form of pagan worship; it is apparently quite different from the misuse of the temple
referred to earlier in the chapter. The variety of condemnations and of hopes expressed in this first chapter have led a number
of scholars to see in it a summary of the message of the book as a whole (Fohrer 1967
). One must not push this idea too far—there are important elements in the book which are not reflected here—but in general
terms it is a valuable concept, particularly if it is divorced from largely sterile debate about how much of its contents
can plausibly be said to go back to Isaiah himself.
The majority of commentators have seen these chapters as consisting of a variety of short and largely unrelated oracles but
the attempt has been made to discern in them ‘a coherent and functional literary unit’ (Wiklander 1984, p. ix) a theory based on an elaborate text-linguistic foundation. On this reading the basic theme is the ‘restoration of the covenant
by means of a lawsuit involving Yhwh, Judah and the nations’ (ibid. 114). It is an interesting theory which anticipates some
more recent literary readings, but suffers from the serious weakness that the word covenant does not occur in these chapters! Nevertheless the theory that a unifying structure can be discerned in this material, beginning (
) and ending (
) with a vision of a glorious future for Jerusalem, is a valuable one.
Somewhat unexpectedly a new superscription is introduced here. Various suggestions have been made to account for this unique
feature. It might wish to stress that the following oracle, found also in Micah, is genuinely Isaian; if ch. 1
is seen as a later summary of the book as a whole this could be seen as the original introduction to the oracles of Isaiah
himself; it may be intended as an introduction to chs. 2–12
(NB the comparable introduction to the ‘foreign nations’ section at
), or to chs. 2–4
on the view outlined above.
The most remarkable feature of these verses is that they are also found in Mic 4:1–3
, with very minor internal differences and a different conclusion. It is obviously possible that one prophet, or the collector
of his oracles, borrowed from the other; if this is so, there are no certain criteria for deciding on which side the dependence
lay. But it may also be that there has been a tendency to lay too much stress on the supposed ‘originality’ of prophets. As
we work through the whole Isaiah collection we shall come across a number of places where there are very close similarities
with material found in other prophetic books. The present example is a well-known one and has therefore attracted much attention;
the others are mostly in the foreign nations oracles which have been the subject of less attention. The use and reuse of existing
prophetic oracles may be a subject which deserves more attention than has customarily been devoted to it. Whatever its origin,
the striking feature of this oracle is the glorious future held out for Jerusalem, in stark contrast to what has preceded
in ch. 1
. The vision is to be fulfilled ‘in days to come’. Later in this chapter we shall find frequent references to the day of the
Lord, pictured as a day of disaster. This oracle, in common with much else in Isaiah, seems to be saying that beyond the disaster
there will be a genuine hope of restoration and new prosperity. ‘The highest of the mountains’: the theme of the ‘cosmic mountain’
is a widespread one in the ancient Near East and in the Hebrew Bible in particular (Clifford 1972
offers a useful survey of the main relevant texts). The theme is frequent in the Psalms (cf. e.g. Ps 48:1–3; 68:15–16
), and both in this passage and in the Psalms the claim is made that Mount Zion, in fact not at all a spectacular mountain,
will be established as ‘the highest of the mountains’. The mythical features of this picture show us that this is theological
geography. It is also noteworthy that, despite the importance for much of Israel's tradition of Mount Sinai and the Torah
given there, in the Isaiah tradition the ‘holy mountain’ is consistently Mount Zion.
Remarkable also in view of later developments within the book is the place here given to ‘the nations’. Elsewhere, especially
in chs. 13–23
, they are presented as the recipients of the judgement of YHWH. Here, a much more positive future is held out for them. It
is in the light of this passage, the first dealing with foreign nations, that later judgements will naturally be read. (Davies 1989
makes an interesting comparison between this passage near the beginning of the whole book and
, which rounds it off.)
A particular concern of the Second Temple community was the position of the worshippers of YHWH vis-à-vis those who worshipped other gods (cf. Zech 8:20–3; 14:16
). That concern is very prominent in Isaiah, and a variety of attitudes can be found, ranging from the extraordinary openness
to the bitterness of some of the foreign nations material and the opposition to Edom in ch. 34
and elsewhere. Here a measure of openness can be seen, but it is clear that Israel is envisaged as playing a superior role
as the nation from which others might profitably learn.
It is striking that here tôrâ (law) and ‘word of the LORD’ are treated as synonymous. The word of the Lord is characteristically that which was uttered through prophetic mouthpieces;
tôrâ, as we have seen, had a variety of meanings, but here it may be comparable to the kind of summary of divine guidance found
Ancient Israel lived in a world where war was a fact of life. The vision of the cessation of war in this verse is a remarkable
one, and it is perhaps not surprising that it proved too remarkable for a later prophetic voice. In Joel 3:10
we find the vision being reversed; there ploughshares and pruning hooks are to become swords and spears, in recognition of
the need for continued conflict.
This brief appeal has no equivalent in Micah. It is an exhortation of the kind more commonly found in Deuteronomy, inviting
the community to amendment. It is couched in the first person plural (cf. 1:9
), suggesting the identity of a group to whom Isaiah is making special appeal.
An extended passage, the precise meaning of whose details is not always clear owing to textual uncertainties, is devoted to
the ‘day of the LORD’ theme. The Hebrew word kî, with which it begins, can indeed mean ‘for’ as in the NRSV translation, but it is more likely here to be asseverative, that
is making an assertion rather than spelling out a condition, and should be translated ‘surely’. It is a new start, not a direct
continuation of v. 5
, to which it is linked only by the phrase ‘house of Jacob’. Already there is a difficulty in the condemnation here: the word
translated ‘of diviners’ is missing in the Hebrew text, and is supplied from a later tradition, which presumably already felt
that the gap needed to be filled. In any case the idea seems to be another condemnation of false worship comparable to that
. There is no other evidence that the Philistines were especially gifted as ‘soothsayers’. The point of the address to YHWH
is that intercession is useless; doom is inevitable. The condemnation is largely formulaic, with two refrain-like phrases
giving a structural unity to the whole. One is found in vv. 9, 11
, and speaks of humanity being humbled; the other in vv. 10, 19
pictures those who are left hiding among the rocks in the hope that they might thereby escape God's anger. As can readily
be seen the two sets of passages are not identical, as a modern refrain would be; this may imply that the poem is not a unity
but has been developed over an extended period (Vermeylen 1977–8
), but it may also be a characteristic of Hebrew poetry to tolerate greater variation than would be acceptable in most modern
Western traditions. The passage as a whole brings together two basic Isaianic themes: the vanity of human self-confidence
and the folly of worshipping false gods.
The poem reaches a climax with the assertion of God's sole power ‘in that day’. Here the way in which the ‘day’ is spoken
of differs sharply from the picture of the latter ‘days’ in v. 2
. There it was a time of the vindication of Zion and its worshippers, here it is an occasion of unmitigated disaster.
The idea of a ‘day of YHWH’ when his enemies would experience his power seems to have been a common one. Am 5:18
presents the idea of the ‘day of YHWH’ as one to which the people looked forward in eager anticipation. In this Isaiah passage
the idea that YHWH will indeed have a day of punishment of his enemies is again set out, but with the disturbing difference
that the enemies are now pictured as those who claimed to be his worshippers. In particular, as frequently in Isaiah, the
most severe condemnations are reserved for those who trust in their own strength. The imagery used is not always clear, but
an important place is found for the storm-wind, a recurring image of divine power in the HB, from the description of Mount
Sinai down to the apocalyptic writings.
This last verse is missing from the Greek translation (LXX). Its presence illustrates the way in which the tradition developed.
It functions as a kind of brief sermon to the readers of the final form of the book, warning them of the dire consequences
of the kind of behaviour outlined above.
the word kî, translated ‘for’ in NRSV and elsewhere, is really asseverative: ‘Surely’. What is sure is the complete break-up of the established
structure of society. Among the prophets it is Jeremiah who is often pictured as endangering the very basis of the society
in which he lived, but this charge is less often brought against Isaiah. Here, however, it is clear that the whole established
order is at risk. The words translated ‘support and staff’ in NRSV function in two different ways within the announcement
of judgement. They refer to the structure of the society without which there would be chaos. But they also refer to the need
for sustenance: bread and water. (NEB/REB omit the reference to bread and water as a later gloss, but this kind of double
allusion seems well suited to the basic Isaiah tradition.) The list of leaders of society undergoes an interesting development.
At first it appears as purely neutral description (‘warrior’, ‘soldier’, and so forth); but as it develops it becomes steadily
more derogatory (‘skilful magician’, ‘expert enchanter’). It is an entirely male-dominated structure, and age is also regarded
as an important prerequisite for ability to rule. Notice particularly in this respect v. 5
, where the parallelism suggests that ‘youth’ is equivalent to ‘base’ and ‘elder’ to ‘honourable’.
NRSV makes the section end at v. 8
, but it may be better to take the first part of v. 9
(down to ‘do not hide it’) with what precedes. This brings out more clearly the link, already familiar to us from ch. 1
, of Jerusalem with Sodom, regarded as a gloss by BHS and Vermeylen (1977–8
), but quite understandable in the larger context of the book.
These rather generalizing verses have often been regarded as additions to the original context, but if we pay less attention
to which words may be original to the prophet Isaiah himself, we can see that this section fits well as an overall verdict
on different kinds of behaviour, and the rewards that each brings. The word ‘verdict’ is deliberately chosen, for the legal
context is clear to see.
The whole section ends with a statement of a society in confusion, expressed in a way which shows all too clearly the values
of ancient Israelite society. It is regarded as a sign of disaster that children or women, bracketed together in the parallelism,
should be in positions of authority. It will be for the reader to decide whether he or she can accept the prophet's assessment
in such a matter.
In these verses we return to the lawsuit language already found in ch. 1
, and the problem already expressed there returns even more clearly. Here YHWH is both the prosecuting counsel (v. 13
) and the judge (v. 14
). Whatever we may think about the legal proprieties of such a situation the prophet's intention is clear; he continues his
attack upon the leaders of the community, regarding them as the real perverters of justice through the oppression of the weaker
members of society. The section ends with the messenger formula (‘says the Lord GOD of hosts’) showing the prophet's claim to divine authorization.
There follows an extraordinary male chauvinist attack upon the women of Jerusalem. There were women prophets in ancient Israel
(e.g. Huldah, 2 Kings 22
), but those prophets whose words have been handed down in written form seem for the most part strongly misogynistic (Hos 1 and 3; Am 4
, as well as this passage and Isa 32:9–11
). Whether this tells us more about the women of the time or about the prophets to whom such words are attributed must be
left open. The form of 16–17 is a reproach, describing female behaviour from a male point of view; it leads into a prose expansion,
, which reads like a catalogue from some ancient fashion store. Several of the terms are found only here, and not all of them
can be identified; the larger commentaries must be consulted for fuller details (Wildberger 1972: 135–45).
In one sense this is a reversion to the reproach of
, but there is a shift of emphasis. Instead of the attack upon the women of Jerusalem the stress shifts so that the reference
is to Jerusalem itself, pictured, as cities often were, in feminine terms. The ‘sitting on the ground’ as a symbol of mourning
undergone here by Jerusalem will be used in the same way of Babylon in
. But the passage reverts at its close to the picture of individual women, eagerly seeking the respectability which being
called by a man's name promises.
The degradation and desolation of Jerusalem might appear to be complete, yet it is now contradicted by the great hope expressed
in these verses. In historical-critical terms it is certainly a late addition, and has been disparagingly described as a ‘mosaic
of clichés from different sources’ (Bentzen 1957: ii. 108); in the context of the book as a whole, however, it functions as showing that the ordeal suffered by Jerusalem at the hands
of its enemies was not the whole story. There was a glorious future to look forward to. Remarkable, too, is the transformation
of the ‘on that day’ theme, so negative in ch. 2
, such a powerful symbol of hope here. The use of ṣemaḥ, ‘branch’, here introduces a term which elsewhere (Jer 23:5; Zech 3:8; 6:12
) is associated with a hoped-for figure in terms that can be called messianic. (In Isa 11:1
the word rendered ‘branch’ in NRSV is a different Heb. word.) Another theme, rare in these early chapters of the book, introduced
here is that of the Exodus and the wilderness journey, evoked in v. 5
by the ‘cloud by day and smoke and the shining of a flaming fire by night’ (Sweeney 1988a
: 18–19). This forms an important link with the later part of the book. We also note in this passage a positive use of the theme
of the remnant: those who are left are to be ‘recorded for life’.
Though the literary form is very different the thrust of this passage is essentially that of the kind of lawsuit of which
we have already seen examples: the evidence, in the form of God's kindness to his people, is set out in vv. 1–4
; the verdict—guilty—is assumed and punishment follows in vv. 5–6
. Then v. 7
supplies a kind of key to the dramatis personae of the story, offering the opportunity for a characteristic play on words.
In form it may be regarded as a parable, a rare literary form in the prophetic writings, though some prophetic actions can
certainly be regarded as parabolic: Isa 8:1–4
offers an example (Westermann 1967: 201–2). The parable may itself be based on a vintage-song, though we know too little of these to be confident. It would be unwise
to interpret the details of the action described in an allegorical fashion, with specific meanings being given to watchtower,
wine vat, and so on, though this kind of literary reading, so much despised by historical critics, has had something of a
renaissance in recent years. v. 1
is one of the places where NRSV has modified the RSV translation, rendering ‘my’ rather than ‘a’ love-song. If this is correct,
could be seen as providing the setting, with the song actually starting in v. 3
(Petersen and Richards 1992: 82–3). The more usual view is that the song is found in vv. 1b–2, with 3–6
providing the reflections of the owner of the vineyard (Emerton 1992, who also suggests rendering v. 1
‘a song about my friend’). v. 2
, ‘wild grapes’. Literally ‘stinkers’! v. 4
at first looks like the defence to the lawsuit. It takes the form of two questions. The first simply invites a sympathetic
answer; the second expresses bewilderment at the unforeseen and unwanted harvest. But then we realize that it is not really
a defence at all, for the ‘I’ of this verse continues to speak in v. 5
, now passing judgement. In v. 7
‘house of Israel’ and ‘people of Judah’ are treated as synonymous. This may be a pointer to a late date for the final form
of this parable, when Israel referred to the whole religious community, not simply the northern kingdom. The passage closes
with the kind of wordplay that defies acceptable rendering in English. God looked for mišpāṭ (justice) but found miśpāḥ (bloodshed), for ṣĕdāqâ (righteousness) but found ṣǎ ῾āqâ (a cry). The parable, having begun with the prophet himself as speaker, ends with proclamation from YHWH.
A new section begins here; this is not made very clear in many editions of NRSV. We have a series of woes, introduced by the
word hôy (cf. 1:4
). For a reason which is not clear NRSV here translates this word with the very neutral ‘Ah’, whereas in a similar series
in Amos ‘Alas’ is used. Whether the origin be in a mourning-cry or in some form of cultic usage its impact is powerful. Sometimes
the punishment is implicit in the woe itself, sometimes a threat is added, introduced by the word ‘therefore’. There is a
link between the series of woes here and that which follows in
, best illustrated by the common refrain found in
and several times in the later passage. This initial verse illustrates a common characteristic of this section; it is complete
in itself, but has probably been elaborated in the course of transmission to emphasize the point being made. In itself the
point of v. 8
seems to be that land is to be held in trust, and encroachment by enlarging it infringes that principle. The story of Naboth
in 1 Kings 21
may illustrate the same point.
The image here is of the prophet being admitted to the heavenly council (cf. Jer 23:18, 22
) to hear the divine verdict on unacceptable behaviour. An ephah is one-tenth of a homer (de Vaux 1961: 199–200), and so the point of the decision seems to be that in future those condemned will harvest only a tenth of what they sow—a
less severe threat than one might have anticipated.
, the condemnation of excessive drinking, with the picture of the accompanying merriment, is reminiscent of Am 8
. Were the prophets somewhat Puritan in their approach, or was the excess of some people's behaviour an open scandal? v. 13
, ‘therefore’ is a characteristic word of threat, binding this spelling out of the consequences to the woe which has preceded.
The tense of the verb ‘go into exile’ would normally be rendered by an English past, and this makes good sense in the final
form of the book: its compilers knew what their community's history had been, and interpreted it as divine punishment. The
reason for the exile is striking: NRSV ‘without knowledge’ might imply mere ignorance, but the Hebrew really means ‘for lack
of knowledge’—a failure to grasp what God really wanted of his people. v. 14
, the threat is elaborated with another ‘therefore’. Sheol, the place of the dead from which there was no return, eagerly
awaited the offenders—the rulers of Jerusalem, so frequently condemned in these opening chapters. v. 15
is almost identical with
and functions in a way similarly dismissive of human aspirations. v. 16
is a key text for the appreciation of much of Isaiah. It brings together three key terms: the holiness of God, which will
play an important part in the vision of ch. 6
; and the qualities of mišpāṭ (justice) and ṣĕdāqâ (righteousness), which are claimed as characteristic of divine action and are required of God's worshippers also. One of
the most important features of the teaching of the Israelite prophets is this claim that divine characteristics and human
behaviour should in some way reflect one another. Where justice and righteousness are lacking the whole of society, from the
leaders down, is at risk.
The series of woes continues, rounded off with a threat. The basic charge is that those condemned are imposing their own standards
of right and wrong (v. 20
), corrupting the legal structure (v. 23
), and confident that God is either ignorant of or uninterested in their behaviour (v. 19
). In the light of these sweeping condemnations the charge of drunkenness (v. 22
) seems a relatively trifling matter. It is disputed whether the references to wisdom in v. 21
imply any specific link with a wisdom movement in Israel, as proposed by McKane (1965: 65–7). Speculation about Isaiah himself having once been a member of such a wisdom movement is probably best avoided (Whybray 1974
); to be ‘wise in one's own eyes’ means that one is conceited or a fool, and has nothing to do with membership of a wisdom
group. All we can say with fair confidence is that these passages are aimed against the policy-makers who were convinced,
as is not unknown with politicians, that they were the special recipients of wisdom. By contrast, as the threat in v. 24
makes clear, the Isaiah tradition regards them as having rejected the tôrâ
(instruction) of the Lord. This whole section brings out very clearly the tension between those who rely upon human political
skills and those who seek a superior religious authority.
provides a second threat, and here we are confronted with a methodological problem. Those who have attempted to trace the
redactional process underlying the book have noted the identity of the last part of this verse (‘For all this his anger…’)
with the conclusion of each section of
, and have concluded that some displacement, deliberate or accidental, has led to this arrangement (NEB placed
but REB reverts to the order of MT). Some scholars (Clements 1980a
: 66) have regarded the displacement as intentional, whereas older commentators supposed an accidental dislocation. But as we
saw in the introduction there is a strong case for the view that it is the book of Isaiah as it has been handed down to us
that is the subject of attention, and that we should not attempt rearrangement to conform with an original authorial or redactional
intention which is no longer accessible to us. As it stands, therefore, this warning of God's continuing anger forms an important
frame to the passages dealing with the hope of a glorious royal figure who features in chs. 7–9
. The destruction envisaged here is cosmic in scope.
The approach of an oppressing army is vividly portrayed, but perhaps the most important point comes at the outset: this oppressor
has been summoned by God himself, in terms of signalling to the nations, a metaphor which will be used again in
11:12 and 49:22
. (The Heb. here has ‘nations’, though NRSV has changed it to the singular ‘nation’, without note, in view of the context.)
Here it connotes threat; in the later passages the signal will herald deliverance. What follows is a conventional description
of an army on the march, and it would be unwise to limit its applicability to the Assyrians or any other enemy force. Its
universal reference is shown most clearly at v. 30
, where the devastation is directly linked back to the ‘on that day’ language of ch. 2
With this chapter, one of the best-known in the whole book, acute differences of interpretation arise. Clements summarized
a widely held view of the whole of the following section when he wrote, ‘Undoubtedly we have in
a memoir written by the prophet himself’ (Clements 1980a
: 70). On this view ch. 6
is autobiographical: the prophet's own account of his calling, precisely dated and vividly set out in the context of the
worship of the Jerusalem temple. More recently, however, a number of scholars have been much more cautious. They note the
increasing tendency within the prophetic tradition to personalize the experience of individuals by attributing first-person
accounts to them, and see this as idealizing by a later generation rather than a reliable guide to personal experience. (Such
an approach is characteristic of the work of R. P. Carroll on Jeremiah; it has not yet been applied in so systematic a way
to Isaiah, but the principles laid down are very similar, and were indeed outlined by Carroll himself in an earlier work.
See Carroll (1979
) for basic discussion.) It may be appropriate to see in this chapter part of the ‘presentation of a prophet’ (Ackroyd 1987
) rather than an item from an autobiography. In particular the disasters that the community had experienced since the time
of Isaiah himself are shown in this chapter to have been inevitable, having already been spelt out in his very call. The point
is clearly put by Kaiser (1983: 115): ‘The first-person account serves to transpose the narrative fictitiously into the time of Isaiah, using his ministry to
reflect the fact that Yahweh was also present beforehand in the history of disaster…and therefore to make clear and credible
his abiding power over the future of this people.’
The other question often asked concerning this vision, whether or not it should be regarded as inaugurating Isaiah's ministry,
loses much of its force if the whole passage is seen as a literary device. It is nevertheless worth bearing in mind that this
account does bear striking similarities in its overall shape with those in Jer 1 and Ezek 1
. In each case a specific date is given. There follows an account of the divine presence with the prophet, a theophany. This
leads the prophet to acknowledge his unworthiness, from which he is purified and then given a commission. The accounts end
with an indication of the content of the message that the prophet is to deliver. There are minor differences of order and
of degree of elaboration, but the similarities are so great as to raise the possibility that the accounts are based on some
known form of commissioning.
‘In the year that king Uzziah died’. The year of death of Uzziah (known also as Azariah) is unknown, but a date around 740
BCE is likely. More striking is the manner of describing the year. Why is the accession of the new king not mentioned? It is
possible that this is a way of dismissing Ahaz, who for the Isaiah tradition, as for the Chronicler, embodies all that could
go wrong with the Davidic dynasty. In any case, as the following words make clear, it is the Lord himself who is the real
king. He wears a šûl, a robe elsewhere associated with the priestly garments (Ex 28:33–4
There have been many conjectures concerning the seraphim, who are here pictured as messengers in the divine council. The root
ś-r-p might make it appropriate to think of them as ‘burning ones’. Alternatively they have been likened to snakes; but when one
notes that they had wings and genitalia (here euphemistically ‘feet’), could call out, and could carry things the similarities
diminish. There are no real biblical parallels; the same root is used in Isaiah at
14:29 and 30:6
, but these links do not seem to shed much light on this passage. With visionary language of this kind, attempts at precise
description, or at finding a specific cultic context, are likely to be misguided.
This is the only direct example in the HB of the Trisagion, the threefold cry of ‘Holy’. It has, of course, been taken up
in almost all Christian eucharistic liturgies as the Sanctus. One of the nearest parallels to it in the HB is Ps 99:3, 5
with its cry of ‘Holy is he!’ There (v. 1
) cherubim rather than seraphim were the divine attendants. We are not sure of the difference. God is here described as ‘the
LORD of Hosts’; it can be taken in this context simply as a divine title, whether its origin is to be sought among the hosts of
heaven or in some kind of military usage. It is striking as the only context in which the divine name is used in a genitival
(‘YHWH of…’) relation with another noun; the HB was very dismissive of the Baals of this place and that.
‘The whole earth is full of his glory’: is this a claim to universalism, or would ‘land’ be a better translation than ‘earth’? Whatever the original intention, the larger claim soon came to be established. Kābôd (glory) is also a significant word, being closely associated with the Jerusalem temple and its worship: ‘in his temple all
say “Glory” ’ (Ps 29:9; cf. 72:19
, the language here is very characteristic of the theophany, the manifestation of the divine presence to humanity: the shaking,
the smoke. v. 5
, appropriate to the theophany, too, is the human response, expressing fear and inadequacy in the divine presence: cf. Moses
in Ex 3:33
, Samson's parents in Judg 13
. Both points are brought out in ‘my eyes have seen the king’: human limitations in the presence of the divine, but also fear,
since to be brought into the presence of any king might be a situation of danger. The literary input becomes clear with the
reference to ‘a people of unclean lips’. The prophet himself will have his uncleanness purged, but in this vision at least
there is no such reprieve for the people. It needs the whole book, and the promise of the end of punishment in ch. 40
in particular, to bring about any such remission. vv. 6–7
, there follows the rite of purification. Though the details of the language and actions described are quite different, there
are similarities here with the accounts of the call of Jeremiah and of Ezekiel. No particular theory of atonement for sin
is here implied; it is the fact of such cleansing that is all-important.
Here we see a difference from Jeremiah and Ezekiel; they express reluctance, whereas here the prophet is pictured as actively
volunteering. There is an obvious link with another passage describing the divine council, 1 Kings 22
with its volunteering spirit, and this similarity extends to the content of the message. In the 1 Kings passage the recipients
are misled because the spirit is lying; here again the messenger is to prevent the people from receiving the true import of
the message. If this passage were autobiographical we should have to suppose that the prophet was speaking with heavy irony; much more likely these are the
reflections of a later editor, seeking to find a possible explanation for an otherwise incomprehensible series of events leading
to the exile and accompanying disasters. So v. 10
emphasizes that every possible way by which ‘this people’ (here, as often, used in a dismissive way) could have grasped the
message has been blocked. There was then no way in which disaster could be avoided. But that is, of course, not the end of
the story; in
and elsewhere in the latter part of the book we shall hear of a glorious future for this people who are so blind and deaf.
To use a further question is a frequent stylistic device (cf. Moses in Ex 3
), here used less as a request for information than as a way of stressing the totality of the inevitable disaster. The form
of the question, ‘how long’, reminds us of the lament Psalms (e.g. Ps 79:5
), as the community begins to realize the full impact of the disaster. The reference to exile, implicit in what has preceded,
becomes explicit with v. 12
. As in 2 Chr 36
the exile is here pictured as total, with ‘emptiness in the midst of the land’. This is a poetic way of expressing the seriousness
of what occurred rather than a precise statement of prosaic fact.
This verse presents a major textual problem which cannot be dealt with in detail here (see Emerton 1982
for a 34-page study of this one verse which apologizes for its superficiality). The problem is not just a modern one, for
the last part of the verse is omitted by the ancient Greek translation, the Septuagint, and interpreters through the ages,
including modern translations, have differed sharply in their understanding. (NEB bracketed part of the verse and omitted
the last phrase entirely.) In the first part of the verse it seems as if the disaster outlined in the preceding verses is
intensified: even if a tenth survived they would be subject to further destruction. The last phrase introduces a note of hope
for the ‘holy seed’. Though no doubt a later addition this chimes in well with the hopefulness of the final form of the book
as a whole.
The difference between commentators, already noted at the beginning of ch. 6
, continues here. Whereas this narrative account has traditionally been seen as part of the Isaiah Denkschrift, or memorial, deriving substantially from the prophet himself, others have seen here a late narrative, dependent on 2 Kings
for its outline, and part of an Isaiah ‘legend’ found also in chs. 20; 36–9
. Its particular concern is to show Ahaz as an unworthy member of the Davidic line in sharp contrast to his much more worthy
son and successor Hezekiah.
, the reference to the attack by foreign kings on Jerusalem is based on 2 Kings 16:5
; the episode is often referred to as the ‘Syro-Ephraimite war’. It is often supposed that the objective of the two kings
was to draw Judah into a coalition which might resist the Assyrian threat, but this remains speculative—there is little direct
evidence in support of this interpretation (Tomes 1993
). In the last phrase the Hebrew actually says ‘he [i.e. presumably Ahaz] could not fight for it’, which might imply that
Jerusalem had been captured, but the Dead Sea scrolls Isaiah and most of the versions read ‘they could not fight against it’,
bringing out the idea that Jerusalem was inviolable. v. 2
, there are difficulties in translation also with this verse. ‘Allied itself with’ is not at all the normal meaning of Hebrew
nāḥâ (guide), and most translations have been shaped by their general sense of the overall context. There is actually no reference
to Ahaz in this verse; it is the ‘house of David’ whose heart shook. v. 3
, ‘Shear-jashub’ means ‘a remnant shall return’, an expression found also in
. The name is significant as showing that there will be those who survive the inevitable disaster. It is striking that the
encounter with Ahaz takes place at exactly the same spot as that with Hezekiah in
. While it is obviously possible that this was a recognized place for diplomatic business to be carried out, it seems much
more likely that the link was a literary one, aimed at bringing out the contrast in subsequent behaviour between Ahaz and
, the message ‘be quiet, do not fear’ in many ways encapsulates the Isaianic message; cf. 30:15
, where the same word for ‘quietness’ is used. It is making religious claims, as against the ‘evil plotting’ of the community's
enemies. Pekah is referred to dismissively as ‘the son of Remaliah’ and not given his own name: perhaps a sign of southern
hostility to northern pretensions. We know nothing for certain of ‘the son of Tabeel’, but it is at least possible that he
was a member of the Tobiad family, referred to in various post-exilic texts (cf. Neh 2:10
) and known as rivals of the Jerusalem establishment (Mazar 1957
). The original form of this pretender's name is uncertain (perhaps Tab-el, ‘God is good’), but it is—surely deliberately?—misspelt in the MT to mean ‘son of a no-good’.
, the poetic oracle in v. 7
is so generally worded as to be applicable to a variety of situations, and the particular point of the passages naming the
‘head’ of the different countries is not clear, though it is surely derogatory. Inserted in the middle is what is usually
taken to be a prose gloss, alluding to an event which took place 65 years after the Syro-Ephraimite war. Possibly the reference
is to the campaigns in Palestine of Esar-haddon of Assyria c.669 BCE (cf. Ezra 4:2
). An alternative understanding of this and other passages that specify a period of time for their fulfilment (e.g.
) is to note their similarity with the Mesopotamian divinatory texts known as adannus. These laid down a period of time during which the ‘prophecy’ could be regarded as valid (Cryer 1994: 293).
The obscurities of the first part of these verses suddenly clear away with the categorical statement in v. 9
. The Hebrew is even more dramatic than an English translation can be, with a wordplay which NRSV does hint at. The verb (the
same in each clause) translated ‘stand firm’ and ‘stand at all’ is that from which the word ‘Amen’ derives: ‘If you will not
be firm, you will not be confirmed.’ The sentence is taken up by the Chronicler and made the basis for a sermon (2 Chr 20:20
Here we have a new section in which Isaiah is not mentioned by name at all. NRSV refers to him at v. 13
, but as the margin makes clear he is not named in the Hebrew text; the ‘he’ of that verse is YHWH. The whole of this section,
together with vv. 18–25
, is a reflection on a common theme rather than a continuous narrative. v. 11
, if a link with vv. 1–9
is intended the sign envisaged will have been something to show the discomfiture of the two kings. The biblical use of ‘signs’
is a complex one: they are sometimes regarded as an important way of showing the divine intention, whereas at other times
(not least in the NT) they are regarded with suspicion (Mt 12:39
!). Zechariah asks for a sign (Lk 1
) and is struck dumb for it. v. 12
, Ahaz's answer here appears to be wholly admirable; one might expect that Hezekiah would be condemned for asking for a sign
) yet his action is apparently commendable. Quasi-psychological explanations claiming that Ahaz had the wrong mental attitude
are not based on anything in the text. The whole episode is extremely artificial in historical terms. It is, as it were, pre-determined
that Ahaz's attitude will be wrong.
, the strongly negative wording in this section prepares us for as strongly threatening a sign: the condemnation of the ‘house
of David’ (cf. v. 2
); the ‘wearying’ of God, with the implication that the divine patience will soon run out; the ‘therefore’, often used to
introduce a threat. All these features suggest that a negative outcome will follow. v. 14b
, in line with what has just been said some scholars have attempted to construe the original meaning of the sign in negative
terms. The name Immanuel could be translated ‘May God be with us’, a prayer for deliverance; and the food (‘curds and honey’)
be taken to imply all that was available in a devastated land. Overwhelmingly, however, the interpretative tradition has taken
this sign as one of promise and hope for the future, and it is that tradition that will be followed here. (Werlitz 1992: 241, lists 29 different issues which have divided critical scholars in their interpretation of this verse, and that is quite
apart from the division between conservative and critical scholars which is here very deep-seated.)
If the passage is seen as a contemporary memoir, then it would most naturally refer to a young woman who was pregnant at the
time it was uttered, and this in effect means the wife of either the prophet (so Clements 1980a
) or the king, with the possibility that Hezekiah, as the child to be born, is being alluded to. If, as is suggested here,
the passage originates from a later period, then precise reference to a particular young woman is not required, and it may
be better to translate ‘a young woman’ with the sense of ‘any young woman’. The word ῾almâ may well have reference to the social status of the woman referred to, but it does not imply virginity. The Greek translation
of Isaiah, for reasons which are still unknown, here used the word parthenos, which does mean ‘a virgin’, and it was that tradition which was followed by Mt 1:23
, and has been of enormous importance in the Christian interpretative tradition; its use in countless Christmas services still
attests its evocative power. If historical-critical criteria are to be paramount this should be regarded as a mis-interpretation; if a reader-response approach is accepted it is presumably a perfectly proper way to read the text.
, ‘curds and honey’ could imply a desperate search for food in a devastated land, but they could be royal food (as is perhaps
better implied by the ‘butter and honey’ of AV) (Ringgren 1956: 27 for the idea of this as food of the gods in Babylonian texts). v. 16
is difficult, and it looks as if in part at least an addition has been made to provide an explicit link with the Syro-Ephraimite
conflict. There is no obvious sense in which the two kings could be said to have ‘a’ land. In v. 17
, too, there has been elaboration, particularly in the abrupt reference to the king of Assyria. We can see in these verses
a tension between a historicizing approach, wishing to give the section a specific rooting in the events of the eighth century,
and a thematic understanding more concerned with the hope for the future of the community.
These four short oracles bring back the ‘in that day’ theme, but our approach to it is inevitably affected by the context.
The ‘day’ is no longer simply the unpredictable ‘day of the LORD’ of ch. 2
. Now the understanding is shaped by, on the one hand, the threat posed by Assyria and other foreign enemies, and on the other
by the hopes expressed through the birth of the child. But the predominant note is one of threat. v. 18
envisages threats from both Assyria and Egypt—the latter, often a hoped-for ally, is unexpected in the context. The verse
should be read in the light of the much more optimistic picture in
. It has been suggested (Matthews and Benjamin 1993: 104) that the reference to shaving the ‘hair of the feet’ (i.e. genitalia) (v. 20
) is a euphemism for castration. There is irony in the suggestion that Assyria, traditionally hired as Ahaz's protector (2 Kings 16:7
) should treat its dependant thus. vv. 21–2
offer the possibility of reading either a threat or a promise; ‘curds and honey’ reflects back to the similar ambiguity of
, and the remnant theme could be either hopeful or threatening. But there is no ambiguity in vv. 23–5
: general dereliction is inevitable. We are reminded of the ‘briers and thorns’ of
, and recognize that the passage offers its fullest sense in the context of the devastation of the exile.
We revert here to the first-person material, found in ch. 6
but not in 7. The general sense of the requirement here is clear, though the detail is obscure. The expression translated
‘in common characters’ is literally ‘with the pen of a man’ (thus AV, RV). It may imply ordinary human writing, or a very
slight emendation would give ‘unerasable writing’ (DCH 344). Of the two cited as witnesses Uriah is mentioned also in 2 Kings 16:10
, Zechariah is more confusing. The same parentage is attributed to the prophet Zechariah (
) and to the Zechariah referred to in the NT as an innocent martyr (Mt 23:35
). The present passage may be the historical original, or itself part of the literary development. vv. 3–4
show striking similarities with
, so much so that it has been argued that this is a variant version of the same story. But the heavily symbolic name given
to the unsuspecting child has markedly different overtones: ‘the spoil speeds, the prey hastens’.
What follows is printed in prose in NRSV but as poetry in REB and some other translations. This has two implications. We are
reminded of the uncertainty of our criteria for determining poetry. Perhaps more important, our approach may be different;
we expect factual information from prose, whereas poetry is recognized as allusive and opaque. This passage starts with the
idea of rejection, though it is not made clear in what sense the people have rejected Shiloah, the local Jerusalem stream.
But ‘melt in fear’ depends on an emendation of the Hebrew text, which has ‘rejoice in’ (so RSV; NRSV rather disingenuously
has ‘Meaning of Hebrew uncertain’). Perhaps the condemnation is of those in Jerusalem (dismissively ‘this people’) who believe
that political solutions of their problems are feasible. But with v. 7
we find the contrast between the gentle stream and God's judgement pictured as a mighty river, destroying all before it.
The metaphor becomes a mixed one as the river turns into a bird with wings, and the section ends with a puzzling reference
to Immanuel. Whatever its original force the term here has connotations of judgement.
(poetry in NRSV as well as in other versions) scarcely fit the context; they are an oracle of judgement warning all those
who conspire against the community that the presence of Immanuel (‘God is with us’) will overthrow their plans. vv. 11–15
, the theme of conspiracy is taken further, but this time it is addressed against the community itself (or at least some element
within it). Though there are details in the passage which are obscure, the general thrust is clear. Political solutions to
the community's problems are no solutions; they are to trust in YHWH. ‘Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread.’
These verses have played an important part in shaping theories about the composition of Isaiah; indeed they have been required
to bear more weight than they can legitimately stand. They have been read as requiring the ‘sealing’ of the prophet's words
among his disciples, with the implication that they were to guard them and in due course publish them. Isaiah himself, it
is argued, withdrew from public ministry, committing his testimony to his followers. Even where so sweeping a conclusion as
this has been avoided, it has still been customary to see here the end of the supposed autobiographical Denkschrift which extended from
. Such interpretations seem to read too much into the material. In the context of claims to political solutions to the community's
problems the Isaiah tradition is maintaining that the prophetic testimony and teaching (tôrâ) will in God's good time be seen as offering the true solution to problems, even if it is necessary to wait for and hope
in the Lord, whose presence seems to be hidden. This theme of the hiddenness of God as compatible with saving power will be
taken further at
, but remains a problem for the faithful community throughout the book (
). Meanwhile, both the prophet himself and the children who have been referred to (Shear-jashub; Maher-shalal-hash-baz; perhaps
also Immanuel) are clear signs that God's presence remains in Jerusalem. This fairly standard religious message may be less
exciting than the elaborate compositional theories, but seems better to express what is actually said. It also fits the context
of the following verses better; there is no need to take
as a major closure.
This passage serves as a kind of appendix to the main unit just completed, expressing in new language the familiar Isaianic
theme of the right resources to use to ensure God's favour. Ruled out here is any kind of necromancy, magical practices which
claimed that the dead could somehow give them solutions to the uncertainties of life. The last part of v. 19
can be seen as a continuing search by the people for answers by turning to false gods, or it may be part of the answer, in
which case we should read ‘God’ for ‘gods’. However that may be it is clear that the answer is found in v. 21
: it is in the tôrâ and the instruction of the prophetic tradition (cf. v. 16
) that God's will can be found. An awkward transition leads into a warning: nowhere else can deliverance be found. The climax
of the threat, in v. 22b
, is very similar to that already expressed in
in the Hebrew; the natural division comes within this verse. Its first part (down to ‘anguish’) relates to the threat that
has preceded. But the difficulty with this verse is in what follows. Some contrast is clearly implied between ‘former’ and
‘latter’ time. One understanding that has been very influential (Alt 1953
) is that this was an introduction to the poetry that follows. Where once Zebulun and Naphtali, in the north of Israel, had
been oppressed, soon there would be a glorious deliverance. Whether so precise a historical reconstruction is feasible must
remain doubtful (Kaiser 1983
). Part of the problem arises from the fact that the two verbs (‘brought into contempt’, ‘will make glorious’) could be understood
quite differently, because the basic meaning of the second verb (k-b-d) is to ‘make heavy’, and so it would be possible to read this verse as saying that the burden already imposed on the far
north will become even heavier as it spreads south, into the ‘way of the Sea’, Transjordan, and Galilee. These names may be
those of Assyrian provincial districts. If that reading is right the transformation from threat to glorious promise does not
begin until v. 2
How much of this Psalm-like poem refers to earlier passages must remain doubtful. Are the ‘people who walked in darkness’
those described in
? Does the child bear any relation to the one mentioned in
? What is certain is that this is a psalm of thanksgiving, closely comparable to such a poem as Ps 2
. v. 2
, ‘deep darkness’; the Hebrew word(s) ṣal māwet are the same as are found in Ps 23
and traditionally translated ‘shadow of death’. ‘Death’ should probably not be taken literally; the expression is a kind of superlative, meaning ‘deepest shadow’. v. 3
, this is one of the most famous ‘mistranslations’ of the older versions, which introduced a misleading negative: ‘and not
increased the joy’. This nonsensical reading can still commonly be heard in Christmas services, though all later translations,
such as NRSV, have followed the alternative form of Hebrew which is literally ‘increased joy to it’. A successful harvest
and the time of dividing the spoil after a battle had been won were the traditional times of rejoicing.
are printed as poetry but may rather be a prosaic addition, linking the scenes of joy in the poem with comparable occasions
from the people's history. ‘The day of Midian’ is most probably a reference to the story of Gideon in Judg 6–8
, a rare example for Isaiah of such a cross-reference. Though the joy has been compared to the gaining of booty, this verse
somewhat illogically looks for an end to any such fighting in the future.
, here is the climax of the Psalm. If, as is quite likely, God is the speaker, then what seems like an announcement of a birth
may more properly be understood as a coronation or enthronement of an earthly king (cf. Ps 2:7
), where the king is proclaimed as God's son. What follows is a series of titles, possibly comparable to the titles given
to Egyptian pharaohs (von Rad 1966a
). Four throne-names are given to the newly crowned ruler: ‘Wonderful Counsellor’ speaks of the potential achievements of
the king: the word translated ‘wonderful’ comes from the same root as that regularly used of God's mighty deliverance at the
Exodus. ‘Mighty God’ may imply divine kingship, for which there is some evidence in ancient Israel (cf. Ps 45:6
), or ‘God’ here may be a kind of superlative: ‘Divine Warrior’. ‘Everlasting Father’ brings out the theme of the king as
protector, ‘father’, of his people; and ‘Prince of Peace’ implies both freedom from war and the prosperity implicit in šālôm. In traditional Judaism, these oracles were applied to Hezekiah, around whom an elaborate series of legends developed. In
Christianity, the belief of the early followers of Jesus concerning his status made it natural for these words to be applied
to him also, though NT allusions are only implicit (Jacob 1987: 141).
, the Egyptian titles comparable to this were usually fivefold, and the unusual form of the Hebrew words at the beginning
of this verse has led some scholars to suppose that there are traces of a fifth title here, which has been lost either accidentally
or through deliberate rearrangement. In any case the Davidic link, hitherto implicit, is now brought out clearly. There are
close links with 2 Sam 7
, emphasizing the permanence of the covenant with David's house and with Ps 72:1
, where justice and righteousness are stressed as royal qualities. The last phrase in the verse is found again at
, surely a deliberate cross-reference emphasizing the certainty of God's protection of his chosen ones against enemy assault.
The tone changes dramatically as we return to a passage of threat similar to those found in ch. 5
; indeed, it has often been held that
is to be seen as an insertion into a series of threats. The refrain at v. 12
has already occurred at
. This section seems to use the fate of the northern kingdom of Israel as an awful warning to the south. It looks as if the
basic poetry of the oracle, which could apply to a variety of situations, has been made more explicit by a number of specific
additions, referring to the north (‘Ephraim and the inhabitants of Samaria’) as the victims and the Arameans and Philistines
as the attackers. At a later stage a redactor has linked this with the preceding passage by referring to the enemies of Rezin
of Damascus, but NRSV dismisses this part of the text to the margin.
Another oracle, closely related to what has preceded, sets out one view of the reasons for disaster. The people did not ‘turn’
(the same root šûb, as is used of the child Shear-jashub,
) and therefore the whole structure of society was at risk. A particular concern was the danger from prophets; with conflicting
messages, all claiming prophetic inspiration, whom was one to believe? The hostile way in which prophets are referred to here
(and cf. 28:7
) must make it questionable whether the individual Isaiah was himself a prophet. Would he have spoken so slightingly of a
group to which he himself belonged? Perhaps it was only later, possibly Deuteronomistic, shaping which brought all the great
figures together under the heading ‘prophets’ (Carroll 1992: 90–1).
The briers and thorns, so frequent as an Isaianic image of desolation, are recalled here, though this time they are themselves
consumed rather than symbolizing the destruction of others. v. 21
might refer to some specific historical event in the former northern kingdom, but seems more likely to be a general picture
of the kind of anarchy portrayed throughout this section.
This section functions as a bridge between the series of passages ending with the same refrain (here in v. 4
), and the attack on Assyria, with which it shares an introduction (NRSV, rather blandly, ‘Ah’). As so often in these early
chapters of the book, it is the deprivation of justice and of mišpāṭ (here ‘right’) that is the main gravamen of the prophetic condemnation.
A new section, which stretches throughout the chapter, is here introduced. All the major prophetic books are concerned not
only with Israel but also with the surrounding nations, and Isaiah is no exception. The book is anxious to establish the point
that the downfall of Israel and Judah does not thereby validate Assyrian or Babylonian claims. They are no more than the rod
used by YHWH in his anger. Whereas other prophets, such as Amos, referred in general terms to the inevitability of destruction,
Isaiah is quite specific in its reference to Assyria. vv. 5–7
bring out the double point that Israel fully deserved her punishment as a godless nation, and that this was inflicted by
Assyria as God's own instrument. The ‘spoil’ and ‘plunder’ of v. 6
remind us of the child Maher-shalal-hash-baz in
, where the same words are used. But from v. 8
the fairly standard form of invective takes a new direction. This is not just another attack on YHWH's own people; instead
it is the Assyrian who is to be condemned out of his own mouth. vv. 8–11
picture the Assyrian plans to ‘cut off nations not a few’, and a list is provided climaxing in Samaria and Jerusalem, yet
with the Assyrians themselves imagining that the nations they have already conquered (Calno, Carchemish, and the rest, all
cities in northern Syria) are more significant than Samaria and Jerusalem. This type of comparison is an important theme in
the Isaiah tradition, with its great esteem for Jerusalem; it will recur again in another ‘Assyrian’ speech at
. In effect a double charge is aimed against the Assyrians. Their boasting is what the Greeks would call hubris, a falsely based pride in one's own capacity. To it is added blasphemy, the supposition that Jerusalem
has nothing more than idols. (Unless, of course, this is to be seen as an Isaianic dig against false worship in Jerusalem.)
The two speeches by the Assyrian are linked by v. 12
, which serves to remind the reader that there is a deeper purpose underlying the devastation which Jerusalem has undergone.
The claim in vv. 13–14
is close to the claims actually made in Assyrian victory-inscriptions; it is turned upside-down by the saying in v. 15
, a close parallel to which, in both form and substance, is found in a widespread collection of wisdom-sayings known as the
sayings of Ahiqar, warning against the danger involved in human pride (ANET 429a). Though the Assyrian reference is not lost, the next section develops it in different ways. A continuation of the present
theme is found in
In its present context this threat, introduced by the characteristic ‘therefore’, has to be understood as directed against
Assyria. But there is little specific to Assyria in it, and it may have have originated as another of Isaiah's many threats
against Judah, and been transformed at a later stage (Eissfeldt 1965: 312). Alternatively, the sheer scope of destruction here gives the passage an eschatological dimension which some will see as
a late development within the tradition. There is clearly little room for hope in the picture of a remnant with which the
But as we have already seen the notion of a remnant can be interpreted in more than one way, and this passage provides the
classic example of such a double reading. In
there is clearly a note of hope, and the passage is linked in a way that is not immediately obvious from the English translation
to the hopes expressed in the Immanuel section. ‘A remnant will return’ is Shear-jashub, as in
; ‘the mighty God’ is El Gibbor, one of the titles given to the newly crowned king in
. Historical-critical interpreters have been very aware of the tension between the two parts of this passage, the hope of
being directly followed by the dire threat of
, and have felt it necessary to dismiss one part (usually the first) as a late, secondary addition. But a reading of the book
as a whole may not be so disconcerted by this tension. A remnant could imply both destruction and a hope beyond that destruction;
this was an important message for the Second Temple community.
This prose passage links back both to the Assyrian theme of
, with its reference to Midian and the throwing off of the yoke (cf. 9:4
). The introductory ‘therefore’ on this occasion does not herald a threat; rather the people are told not to be afraid. The
Hebrew phrase is identical with that used to Ahaz in
(who rejected the opportunity) and to Hezekiah in
(who will be more responsive). We find a reminder of the deliverance at the Exodus (a rare allusion in the early chapters
of Isaiah) as a paradigm for what the community can expect when present, temporary afflictions are past.
is very difficult to follow in the Hebrew, and the division proposed by NRSV offers as likely a solution as any. It takes
the first part as the conclusion of the preceding prose, the last phrase as an introduction to the following poem, though
the reference to Rimmon is entirely conjectural. The poem is a vivid account of the supposed progress of an army attacking
Judah from the north; how the foe ‘from the north’ of Jer 4
and elsewhere might actually manifest itself. It would be unwise to base military strategy on such a list of names, some
of which are chosen for their sound and opportunities for word-play rather than their strategic significance. For this reason
the discussions in some commentaries as to whose campaign is here described should be treated with scepticism. The shaking
of the aggressor's fist (v. 32
) is, perhaps deliberately, ambiguous. It is certainly a threat, but may also be understood as a gesture of frustration because
of inability to capture the holy city.
Many passages in Isaiah depend for their understanding upon the context in which they are found, and this is one such. Placed
elsewhere it could readily have been understood as a condemnation of the community's own leaders with their arrogant pretensions
, where this same comparison with trees is made, the word there translated ‘lofty’ being here rendered ‘tallest’). Following
the account of an enemy army it is much more natural to read it as a warning to that enemy, that its failure was determined.
It will be disturbing for ecologists to find this destruction of trees attributed to God's own action.
A third passage, following
7:14 and 9:2–7
, which has been interpreted messianically, and which certainly speaks of aspirations for the future of the Davidic line.
We know little of such aspirations in the Second Temple period, but this passage seems to come from that time, with its reference
to the cut-down stump of Jesse most likely implying the end of the monarchy in 587 BCE. In any case the poem as a whole draws out the ideal characteristics to be envisaged in a royal figure. vv. 1–3a
, as indicated the most natural reading of the ‘shoot from the stump’ is that the Davidic line had been cut down, presumably
at the exile, but that some among the community were convinced that that was not the end of the story. The child to be born
would be imbued with God's spirit, as was David himself in 1 Sam 16:13
. The Christian tradition has spoken of ‘sevenfold gifts of the Spirit’ and used vv. 2–3a
as a basis, but only six gifts are in fact mentioned here. They are the characteristic charismatic qualities of the king,
and of all those pictured as being especially close to YHWH (e.g. Moses and the elders, Num 11:25–30
; Elijah and Elisha, 2 Kings 2:15
). There are also close links with the wisdom tradition, shown not only by the use of the word ‘wisdom’ itself but also by
‘understanding’, ‘counsel’, and ‘fear of the LORD’—all terms particularly associated with, for example, Proverbs. But here they are God's direct gift, not dependent on the
skills of human counsellors. vv. 3b–5
, what is meant by being endowed with the divine spirit is then spelt out. As often in Isaiah there are close links with the
royal Psalms. The stress on just judgement, with particular concern for the poor and meek, and the display of ṣedeq (righteousness) and ĕmûnâ (faithfulness) are characteristic both of the Isaiah tradition and of such a Psalm as
. In v. 4
a very minor emendation, adopted by REB but not NRSV, would give ‘smite the ruthless (῾ārîṣ)’ for ‘strike the earth (᾽ereṣ)’, and this would both improve the parallelism (with ‘kill the wicked’) and give better general sense. vv. 6–9
, but the just rule of YHWH goes further than the establishment of true Davidic rule in Jerusalem. There follows an eschatological picture, looking forward to a restoration
of paradise conditions in which the primeval way of life would be restored. There are important links here with
, showing how these aspirations draw the whole book together. The ancient Israelites come down to us in their writings as
pretty hard-headed people, but such passages as this show that they had the capacity to dream of a better world, and this
capacity is particularly illustrated by the prophets. In addition to various passages in Isaiah, Hos 2:18 and Am 9:13
breathe something of the same spirit. Murray (1992: 103–14) offers a sensitive spelling out of the implications of this passage, both in its larger biblical context and in terms of
human duties towards animals. He notes the link with the creation stories of Genesis provided by the vegetarian habits of
the lion (v. 7
), and the way in which the passage brings out both peace from the threat of wild animals and the prospect of living at peace with animals.
‘On that day’ language is again used, but now in a hopeful sense. The ‘root of Jesse’ figure, thought of in vv. 1–9
as imminent, will be part of the manifestation of the great day of YHWH.
This passage displays close links with chs. 40–55
, with the raising of a signal to the nations (cf. 49:22
) and the more general theme of the gathering of dispersed exiles (Williamson 1994
). The reference to the ‘coastlands’ and the expression ‘outcasts of Israel’ are also reminiscent of the later chapters of
the book. Here exile is no longer a threat but a reality, and it can be seen as a prelude to future promise of restoration.
As in Ezek 37
, part of the promise for the future is the removal of hostility between north (Ephraim) and south (Judah). The theme of a
highway linking the lands where the people had been scattered is an important one throughout Isaiah (cf. 19:23; 49:11
), and is a valuable illustration, not only of the unity of the whole book, but also of the way in which what had once been
a threat—a means of deportation—can be transformed into a promise of peace between formerly rival nations. The word here used
for a ‘highway’, mĕṣillâ, is especially used of religious, processional ways.
This brief chapter consists of one, or possibly two, short psalms which round off the first part of the book. Much of the
language used is that typical of the Psalms, with their emphasis on giving thanks to and praising God. But v. 2
deserves special attention for its similarity to Ex 15:2
, the Song of the Sea. Just as that poem rounded off the account of God's salvation of his people at the Exodus, so here the
first part of the story is rounded off. And the word ‘salvation’ (yĕšû῾â) is striking, because of its close similarity to the name Isaiah (yĕša῾yāhû). The words of Isaiah are potentially words of salvation. (Ackroyd 1987: 94–7, rightly characterizes this as part of the ‘portrait of a prophet’.) In addition some have seen links with the royal material
earlier in these chapters by claiming this section as part of an enthronement ceremony. However that may be, the links between
prophetism and the cult, once thought of as bitterly opposed, are clearly brought out.
The theme of YHWH's dealings with his own people, in terms both of punishment and of salvation, is now set aside, and a fresh
section dealing with other nations begins with the formal introduction in
. Each of the major prophetic collections in the HB has a group of ‘Oracles against Foreign Nations’, traditionally the most
neglected part of those collections. To some extent this neglect is understandable—not everyone will want to explore the history
of Moab in the eighth century BCE—but it has unfortunate consequences. It overlooks what must have been perceived as an important element in the prophetic
vocation, most clearly expressed in Jeremiah when he was appointed a ‘prophet to the nations’ (Jer 1:5
), and it also fails to recognize that these oracles contain major themes (not always very palatable ones) in the understanding
of God and his relation not only to Israel, but to the world beyond the nation's boundaries. The origin of such passages may
lie in ritual curses against enemies in times of war, but that context has been largely overlaid, and the oracles against
the nations now fulfil a predominantly literary function. (Davies 1989
offers a useful discussion of these oracles, considering their place within Isaiah and their larger significance.)
This formal introduction, though it might refer only to chs. 13–14
, is almost certainly intended to relate to the whole section to ch. 23
. It is described as an oracle (maśśā᾽), a term used several times in these chapters to introduce passages relating to the different nations (e.g.
). It is striking that this first and much the longest passage relates to Babylon. Some have maintained that material originally
relating to Assyria has been reapplied to Babylon, for in the eighth century Babylon was a potential ally rather than a threat,
and it was only later that it became the great enemy. But if literary rather than historical considerations are introduced
the significance of this title within the book as a whole becomes apparent; in chs. 40–55
, the climax of the book, Babylon was indeed the great enemy, and here we are being introduced to that point in the very beginning
of the material dealing with foreign nations. It is striking also that Babylon seems already to have been taking on symbolic
significance as the representative enemy, in a way that Nineveh, the Assyrian capital, did not, except in Jonah.
There seems to be nothing specific to Babylon in the opening section, vv. 2–5
, or indeed through much of this chapter. There are numerous similarities between this section and Jer 50–1
, and it has been suggested that each of these sections functions as a general expression of divine judgement alongside the
more specific accompanying oracles against particular nations (Vermeylen 1989: 31–2). This might help to explain the relation between this general passage and the more specific oracle concerning Babylon in
. The point is stressed that war is inevitable, and that God himself is involved. The picture of universal destruction is
that associated with the apocalypses, and many have therefore argued that this is a very late passage, from the time when
apocalyptic language was becoming widespread. Certainly this passage is not concerned with any empirical Babylon; it has become
the symbol of human pride and imperialism (Gosse 1988: 167). The passage reaches its climax with the destruction of ‘the whole earth’. vv. 6–16
, the nature of the destruction is now spelt out in greater detail. First, it is associated with the ‘day of the LORD’, a theme already often found in chs. 2–11
. The form of words seems to have been widely used, for the same expression is found at Joel 1:15
and (partially) at Ezek 30:3 and Zeph 1:7
. A rich variety of expressions is then used to describe the destruction regarded as inevitable; it would be rash indeed to
try to tie them to any specific historical circumstances. At the end of this section we come across a ghastly image familiar
from another part of the Bible: the ‘dashing in pieces’ of the infants (v. 16
) is reminiscent of Ps 137:9
: different verb, same appalling sentiments.
, this last part of the chapter contains expressions making the reference to Babylon more specific. The Medes played an important
part in the overthrow of the Assyrian Empire in the late seventh century BCE and were a powerful force in warfare and politics until the rise of Cyrus c.550 BCE. At some point in the Isaiah tradition it was envisaged that the Medes would be more important in the overthrow of Babylon
than in fact proved to be the case. The legend of ‘Darius the Mede’ as victorious over Babylon in Dan 5:31
may owe its origin to this passage. It is possible that the references in the later part of the book of Isaiah to things
prophesied in ‘former times’ and ‘long ago’ are to passages of this kind (North 1964: 161, makes this suggestion with regard to Isa 45:21
). The dramatic tension of the book is increased by the likening of Babylon's fate to that of Sodom and Gomorrah. Previously
) it was Jerusalem that had been compared with Sodom and Gomorrah; now that fate, symbolic of total destruction, is transferred
to Babylon, as the implications of God's ‘day’ are more widely realized. Babylon did eventually become desolate, but not until
much later than any possible dating for Isaiah. During much of the Second Temple period it remained an important, though no
longer a capital, city. The imagery of vv. 20–2
should be recognized as such, without any attempt to relate it to historical developments.
A prose passage takes the opportunity to give encouragement to Israel by contrasting its fate with that just described as
awaiting Babylon. This is a passage comparable to the more nationalistic sections of chs. 40–55
), which gloat over the expected doom of the oppressors.
Still in prose, this section invites Israel to take up a māšāl (taunt) against Babylon, and more specifically its king. A māŝāl is a poem setting out ‘some form of retribution which will make the person concerned an object-lesson in the abuse of power’
(A. R. Johnson 1955: 166). It is basically a prophetic form, warning of the inevitability of disaster; only by concentrating on the effect rather
than the purpose can it legitimately be described as a taunt. The basic theme in the poem which follows is a common one, both
in the HB and in the ancient world more generally: the attempt of a human being, often as here an enemy king, to make himself
like God, and the inevitable fate which attends such presumption. Ezek 28 and 31
are variants on the same theme, found also in prose form in the story of Nebuchadnezzar's madness in Dan 4
. It has sometimes been suggested that a similar theme underlies the Garden of Eden story in Gen 3
The word ‘insolence’ provides a good example of the way in which the Dead Sea scrolls have helped in the interpretation of
Isaiah. The Hebrew text gives no clear meaning, and older English versions had ‘golden city’ here. But a slight change, already
suggested by some scholars and supported by the Dead Sea scrolls, offers an excellent parallel. In the following description
of the fate which awaits the fallen ruler it would be unwise to try to offer any link with particular individuals; this is
what is in store for all who make such arrogant claims. Sheol (v. 9
) is the place of the dead. It is not in itself a place of punishment, though it is striking that in the HB it is most commonly
those who are disapproved of who are described as coming to Sheol (Barr 1992: 29). Here all earthly distinctions are ironed out. Part of the taunt is that the rĕpa῾îm, the ‘shades’, can treat the king of Babylon as on a level with themselves. The inhabitants of Sheol are clearly not extinct;
they are fully conscious of what is happening and are able to taunt the fallen king.
has played an important part in the history of interpretation, being understood as an illustration of the theme of Lucifer,
the fallen angel. (The theme actually owes more to the influence of Milton's Paradise Lost than to any direct biblical references.) The whole passage, vv. 12–21
, has a widespread mythological background, reflecting stories about Venus, the ‘day-star’, visible just before dawn, and
driven away by the power of the rising sun. The ‘heights of Zaphon’ is the holy mountain mentioned also in the Ugaritic texts
as the assembling-place of the gods. In Ps 48:2
the same words are used to identify Mount Zion as the true divine dwelling-place. The ‘Most High’ of v. 14
is ῾elyôn, a divine title also claimed by the HB as appropriate for YHWH (Gen 14:18; Ps 91:1
). These pretensions are then contrasted with the certain fate of Babylon, which will not even be granted proper burial-rites
), a matter of very deep concern in the ancient world.
This brief prose note is usually taken with what precedes, underlining the point that the poem has been addressed to Babylon.
It is possible, however, that it is placed here as a deliberate link between the known fate of Assyria, the subject of the
following verses, and the still future threat against Babylon (Clements 1989
Assyria is now mentioned, though the bulk of this extended section has related to Babylon. Assyrian power will be broken:
has a clear allusion to the breaking of the yoke from the shoulders as in
9:4 and 10:27
. But ‘all the nations’ (v. 26
) are under threat. The picture is of the prophet ‘overhearing’ what YHWH has decreed. This is one of a number of passages
which have been described as ‘summary-appraisals’ (Childs 1967
), offering an outline, in didactic fashion, of YHWH's intended purpose (‘This is the plan…’).
The reference to the death of Ahaz (which should be retained in the text, despite the proposals of many scholars to emend
it) is reminiscent of that to the death of Uzziah in
. The date of Ahaz's death is unknown, but it may be significant that he was succeeded by Hezekiah, in whom such great hopes
were placed. It is not easy to see any link between the maśśā᾽ (oracle) announced here and the passage which follows.
The Philistines were ancient enemies of Israel from the time of Saul and David, but little is known of their later history.
Here an unknown occasion of rejoicing is said to be only transitory; worse troubles will come, and Judah should avoid becoming
entangled with the Philistines. v. 32
looks like a later addition, stressing in psalm-like fashion the inviolability of Zion as a sure refuge (cf. Ps 132:13–15
These two chapters are directed against Moab, Judah's neighbour east of the Dead Sea, and they pose problems for the interpreter
of Isaiah because much of the material in them is found again, with minor variations, in the comparable oracles against foreign
nations in Jeremiah: specifically Jer 48
. It raises the question of whether much material of this kind was used as required in the Jerusalem cult and could be taken
up into different prophetic collections as ‘independent adaptation of traditional material’ (Jenkins 1989
). Much of it reads like a gazetteer of contemporary Moab, but many of the place-names are chosen to bring out specific wordplays.
Many of the places referred to are of uncertain location; those seeking more precise details must refer to the larger commentaries
(Wildberger 1978: 604 ff.). In comparison with the gloating over the anticipated fate of Babylon in
here a note of sympathy can be found (
), alongside a recognition that even worse disasters may be anticipated (
). The most striking section in the passage is one which has no parallel in Jeremiah: another messianic passage (
) looking forward to a time when devastation will have ceased and a ruler concerned with mišpāṭ (justice) and ṣedeq (right), those two key Isaianic terms, will rule ‘in the tent of David’, an expression without exact parallel elsewhere in
Isaiah. Moab's worship is condemned (
), but less harshly than the false worship of Israel itself (
This postscript to the Moab oracles illustrates the development of the tradition. Earlier material was indeed valid, but in
a later situation a further devastation of Moab could be anticipated. We have no means of precise dating: we do not know to
what the ‘three years’ refers, though this could be an adannu of the kind we noted as a possibility for
. The same phrase, referring to ‘the years of a hired worker’ is found in a similar context at
The introductory maśśā᾽ refers only to Damascus, but the following threat takes in the area of northern Israel also; we are back in the hostilities
typified by the Syro- Ephraimite conflict of ch. 7
. Indeed if the Hebrew is followed there is a link also with Moab, but ‘Aroer’ in v. 2
, a place in Moab, is usually emended, as by NRSV. It is not clear why some of Israel's neighbours are referred to by the
country's name (e.g. Moab), whereas for others the capital is seen as personifying the country (as here, Damascus, the capital
of the Aramean kingdom). Damascus fell to the Assyrians in 732 BCE, and many commentators see in this oracle a genuine survival from the eighth century. But Kaiser (1974
) points out that it was equally applicable to the condition of Damascus in the fourth century; possibly an earlier nucleus
has been reapplied and expanded. The difficult phrase in v. 3
may be intended ironically; the Arameans will be reduced to a remnant (and here surely the theme implies a threat) comparable
to the once glorious northern kingdom of Israel.
There is no further reference to Damascus; instead, the theme of ‘that day’ is reintroduced, linked with what precedes by
the reference to ‘glory’. There will be a rich harvest, but the people are at risk of not benefiting from it. The ‘Valley
of Rephaim’ is known from 2 Sam 5:18
as a place near Jerusalem, but the name may be deliberately chosen here: rĕpaim is the word translated ‘shades’ in
, and it may be implied that the people will be no better off than the shades. Deut 24:19–20
paints a beautifully generous picture of harvest and gleaning, with the alien, the orphan, and the widow allowed to join
in; one may doubt whether such idealism normally prevailed. A further ‘in that day’ passage, this time in prose, brings out
the theme of idolatry, with the hope that in due course the attractions of rival worship will be set aside. The terms used
are all part of the standard vocabulary for attacks upon false worship. The ‘sacred poles’, Heb. ăšērîm, will have been wooden representations of the goddess Asherah. In v. 9
the Hebrew text is very uncertain, as can be seen by comparing the text of NRSV with the footnote. NRSV follows the Greek,
which may itself have been trying to make sense of a difficult form. However that may be, the section ends by recalling once
again the twin themes of a harvest which cannot be shared and of idolatrous worship.
A fresh oracle on a new theme. The repetition of the last part of 12 at the beginning of 13 may be for emphasis, but is more
likely to be an erroneous repetition, and some translations (e.g. REB) omit it. This is a vision of an eschatological battle,
comparable to that fought against Gog of Magog in Ezek 38–9
, with emphasis on the inviolability of Zion. The passage ends with another summary-appraisal of the type already noted in
. It rounds off the section dealing with Israel's neighbours with an assurance that God would protect his people against those
who had plundered them.
This chapter lacks the usual introduction, but its application soon becomes clear. Ethiopian dynasties ruled in Egypt from
time to time, and this passage concerns them. It is highly artificial: the messengers are apparently from the Ethiopians themselves,
but it is odd to describe a people to their own messengers, and no indication is given of the contents of the message or of
how it might be answered. Ethiopia was a symbol of distance and strangeness (Am 9:7
), and that may well be part of the point here. The passage quickly becomes an oracle of judgement, threatening destruction
on a scale usually reserved for the Babylonians and Assyrians. But the chapter ends with a prose addition, picturing the distant
Ethiopians acknowledging the supremacy of YHWH on Zion. This theme is found several times in the prophets; we may compare
, and the more specific application to Egypt in Zeph 3:10 and Zech 14:18, and also Ps 68:31
. The bringing of gifts from afar is also reminiscent of Isa 60:5–7
. During the Second Temple period we know of links between the Jerusalem community and the Jewish colony at Elephantine on
the Nile—such links may underlie passages such as this and the others noted.
contains some of the most remarkable and neglected material in the whole book of Isaiah. It well illustrates the development
of the tradition, from the essentially negative picture found in the opening verses to a remarkably positive assertion concerning
both Egypt and Assyria in the conclusion.
There is no hint of any positive development in this opening oracle. Egypt's idolatrous practice is condemned in terms very
similar to those used against Israel (
). The Egyptians were famous for their skill in wisdom and counsel; here by contrast they are reduced to internal division
and desperate measures to find out what action to take. The ‘hard master’ and ‘fierce king’ of v. 4
may well be a reference to the protracted claims to rule over Egypt by the Persian rulers. A striking omission throughout
this section is of any reference to the Exodus tradition. As we have seen (e.g.
) this was not totally ignored in the first part of Isaiah, but it is not as prominent as it becomes in the latter part of
the book, and here, where allusions might have been expected, there appears to be nothing of the kind.
are much more specific than other passages depicting future desolation. Here the applicability of the threats to the civilization
which was so heavily dependent upon the Nile for many aspects of its life is abundantly clear. The Nile would dry up, and
daily life would be thrown into chaos. The implication is certainly that YHWH was regarded as the effective ruler of Egypt;
the Egyptian gods themselves were envisaged as powerless to maintain the life of their own country. vv. 11–15
, again a very specific application to Egyptian tradition is found. The ‘princes’ referred to here are pictured as a kind
of cabinet of expert counsellors who could provide the Pharaoh with the appropriate answers to all the problems which confronted
him. Despite their hereditary background and their training in wisdom techniques they are reduced to being no more than fools.
Egyptian wisdom was famous and elsewhere in the HB is treated in a neutral way; here it is mocked as quite incapable of guiding
those who trusted in it. In v. 15
the reference to head and tail, palm- branch and reed is a—surely deliberate—allusion to
, where the same expressions are used in describing the downfall of Israel.
Five short prose passages are appended, each headed ‘On that day’ but differing markedly from one another in content and tone.
We have not attempted in this commentary to offer precise dates for most of the passages discussed, but it is striking that
many commentators have seen here some of the latest material to be added to the whole book, perhaps reflecting the political
situation of the Ptolemies and Seleucids of the third century BCE, after the conquests of Alexander the Great.
, the theme here is fear. Whereas Israel is often encouraged not to fear, the warning is given that Egypt will have real cause
for fear—even of Judah itself, by comparison apparently so insignificant.
presumably refers to the phenomenon of the diaspora, the development whereby increasing numbers of Jews came to be settled
in Egypt and other parts of the Mediterranean world. Hebrew is here called ‘the language of Canaan’, an important corrective
to the picture found in Deuteronomy and elsewhere which pictures Israel and Canaan as bitterly opposed entities. Hebrew is
a Semitic language, very close to what is known of different Canaanite dialects. There are interesting variants in the name
of the city: NRSV ‘City of the Sun’ is the well-known Egyptian city of Heliopolis. But the Greek translation (LXX), which
originated in Egypt, has ‘city of righteousness’, the name given to Jerusalem (
), and many Hebrew MSS have ‘city of destruction’! We are warned that the notion of a fixed, unchanging biblical text can
, again a different stress from that characteristic of Deuteronomy is found here. Instead of the single place of sacrificial
worship, understood to be the Jerusalem temple, required by the Deuteronomistic tradition, here an altar and a maṣṣēbâ (pillar) in Egypt are treated as positive signs. There was in fact a temple of YHWH at Leontopolis in Egypt in the second
century BCE; whether an allusion to that is here intended cannot be certain. Just as in Gen 31:48, 52
(Jacob and Laban), the maṣṣēbǎ is a ‘witness’ between two neighbouring and potentially rival communities. Even more remarkable is the promise that a messianic
figure, a ‘saviour’, will be sent, whose mission extends beyond the holy land itself. There are important anticipations of
some of the later chapters of the book here. The ‘striking’ of the Egyptians is a theme already found in the earlier passages;
here, however, it is the prelude to ‘healing’, and we have the picture, hinted at in ch. 18
, but now expressed more specifically, of Egyptians turning to the worship of YHWH and being welcomed.
. These last two passages take that openness even further. In the first, Israel will live at peace with the great powers of
the day: Assyria is probably here, as in Jonah, symbolic of the current Mesopotamian great power, or may stand for Syria,
if the passage be dated in the Seleucid period (3rd cent.). In the second passage Israel is not only at peace with Egypt and
Assyria but is regarded as their equal, and it is stressed that all are part of YHWH's favoured creation. It would be instructive
to hear a contemporary exposition of this passage, but at least in the Christian tradition it is curiously neglected by most
This short prose section differs markedly from what has preceded. The link which presumably accounts for its inclusion at
this point is the reference to Egypt and Assyria, but they are mentioned in a spirit very different from that of ch. 19
. Commentators concerned with the historical setting of the passage differ sharply in their judgement. For some it is a primary
piece of eighth-century material, reflecting a time of rebellion against Assyria when it seemed to be in difficulties elsewhere.
The rebellion was brought to an abrupt end when Sargon's tartān (NRSV: ‘commander-in-chief’) captured Ashdod and so ended any hopes of a successful stand against Assyria by an Egyptian-led
coalition. Others note that this historical reference is confined to v. 1
and that the main thrust of the episode is what can be described as the development of an Isaiah legend, the story of the
prophet specially attuned to the divine will and able to interpret the signs of the times. It is noteworthy that there is
no first-person material here; like ch. 7
it is a story about Isaiah rather than one directly attributed to him. As we saw in the introduction there are many fewer
stories about Isaiah than about Jeremiah.
The ‘sackcloth’ of v. 2
appears to be characteristic prophetic clothing; this is the nearest we come to a portrait of Isaiah as a professional prophet.
We need not suppose that he was literally naked; the removal of his outer garments, symbolic of his office, was sufficiently
shameful for the ‘sign and portent’ to make their point (cf. Mic 1:8
, though there in a poetic context it is difficult to know how literally the words are to be understood). The action is best
seen in the context of the other symbolic actions in Isaiah, such as the naming of children. It is certainly not to be understood
simply as a kind of ‘teaching aid’; the sign is set out as an effective prefiguring of action which is determined by God.
It is noteworthy, in view of the importance of ‘servant’ language in the latter part of the book, that Isaiah is here described as ‘my servant’. ‘Three
years’ is curious, not least in the way that this period is only mentioned in the subsequent explanation (Stacey 1990: 123–4). There may be a cross-reference here to the ‘three years’ of
. It is striking, and very unusual, that the passage ends with a question; we are presumably meant to look for at least part
of the answer in what follows.
The reference in the body of this oracle is clearly to Babylon, but that is not indicated by the heading. Once again there
are links with Jer 49
, suggesting the common use of cultic material. Indeed the problems in making sense of this chapter have led one scholar to
describe it as a ‘palimpsest’, in which ‘the text has been reworked in order to make it relevant to a later situation’ (Macintosh 1980: 75). Such a theory is difficult either to prove or to disprove; we may simply note that we seem once again to be in the world
of ‘theological geography’. Like the ‘valley of vision’ of
, ‘the wilderness of the sea’ does not appear on any map. The passage is, as v. 2
makes clear, a vision of utter destruction. The prophet speaks in the first person, spelling out the anguish which his vision
causes him, in a way without close parallel elsewhere in the book; little attention is normally paid in Isaiah to the psychology
of the messenger, though in both Jeremiah and Ezekiel this feature is more prominent. But he has no alternative but to carry
out his mission of summoning the nation to their task of destruction. Only in v. 9
is the object of this destruction made clear: Babylon. The proclamation of the fall of Babylon is found also in Jer 51:8
, and is picked up in the NT by the seer of Revelation (Rev 14:8; 18:2
is one of several passages in the prophetic books which picture the prophet as a watchman (cf. Ezek 3:17; Hab 2:1
), an important office in the ancient world, where the safety of cities might well depend upon the vigilance of their watchmen.
The likening of a prophet to a watchman is a revealing one; each had to be able to make sense of and interpret correctly obscure
and mysterious signs. NRSV's correction of the Hebrew ‘a lion’ to ‘the watcher’ is based on the Qumran scrolls. It is probably
correct—the same letters are used but in a different order—though it entails losing a possible cross-reference to
is linked to what precedes by the watchman theme. Dumah is elsewhere linked with the Ishmaelites (Gen 25:14
), but here an otherwise unknown association with Edom is supposed—‘Seir’ is frequently found in poetry for Edom. The message
given is extremely cryptic: it looks as if the prophet has no certain answer to give to those who question him; they are to
return for further guidance.
Again it seems doubtful whether ‘the desert plain’ is an identifiable spot; this is one of the passages which is closely linked
with Jeremiah (cf. Jer 49:8
). The picture is of the need to give some succour to refugees from disaster, but whether this was a specific historical situation,
or a more general plea, we have no means of knowing. The geographical area involved is usually thought to be Arabia, but this
may be because of the symbolism involved in its remoteness and the threat implicit in the desert.
Though included in the series introduced by the word ‘oracle’ which has mainly been concerned with foreign nations, the ‘valley
of vision’ here must surely be Jerusalem itself. The whole theme of the book relates to the ultimate deliverance of God's
people, but that deliverance must not be falsely anticipated by premature rejoicing. There must be destruction before there
can be legitimate hope for restoration. (This assumes that NRSV is correct in its reference to the ‘exultant town’; other
translations, notably the REB, do not find such reference here.) A characteristic Isaian theme is the uselessness of the normal
human agencies of self-reliance; the ‘rulers’ in whom trust might be put had fled ignominiously. There is ambiguity, perhaps
deliberate, in the use of personal pronouns here: the ‘you’/‘your’ clearly refers to Jerusalem and its inhabitants, but the
‘I’ of v. 4
can be understood either of Isaiah or of God himself.
Two themes characteristic of Isaiah are brought together here. The ‘day of the LORD’ may be future, but it can be prefigured by events that have already taken place. Secondly, YHWH is pictured as using foreign
armies as the instruments by which he punishes his own people; so it is with two enemies from the East here, ‘Elam’ and ‘Kir’.
As elsewhere in these chapters there is evidence that material found also in Jeremiah is used here; cf. Jer 49:34
This prose passage comes somewhat unexpectedly in the middle of the series of poems, and has been much used as a basis for
historical information concerning Hezekiah's attempts to render Jerusalem impregnable. The Assyrian king Sennacherib in his
Annals referred to Hezekiah strengthening his city, and both 2 Chr 32:2–8 and Sir 48:17
have approving references to such work by Hezekiah. But recent archaeological and literary study has cast doubt on the extent
of this work which actually goes back to Hezekiah's time—much may more properly be dated to the Hasmonean period—and these
later passages may more probably be seen as part of the development of a Hezekiah legend. There is in any case no reference
to Hezekiah in our passage, and the tone is sharply condemnatory as against the praise of Hezekiah in the other passages.
Here by contrast we have the familiar Isaian theme of legitimate planning being a divine prerogative; whatever was done by
its inhabitants to protect Jerusalem ‘on that day’ could have no success against God's decisions.
If there was doubt whether vv. 1–4
referred to the rejoicing of the inhabitants of Jerusalem which the authors of the prophetic book regarded as inappropriate,
there can be no such doubts here. v. 13b
is quoted in the NT (1 Cor 15:32
) and has survived into modern times as a popular proverb; its origin is unknown. It may have been coined by the redactors
of Isaiah, or—more probably—already have been in widespread use.
This passage is unique in Isaiah as a judgement aimed at an individual; Ahaz is treated in a somewhat similar way, but nowhere
else is someone not a member of the royal family so addressed. It is also one of the most difficult passages to explain for
the view taken in this commentary that in the form we have it Isaiah is essentially a poetic collection from the Second Temple
period concerned with God's dealings with king and community. However, we may note first that, though NRSV prints the whole
passage as prose many (e.g. REB) regard vv. 15–19
as poetry, and others (e.g. BHS) extend the poetic section to the end of v. 23
, leaving only
as a prose addition. Further, Kaiser has shown that its composition is a good deal more complex than a first glance might
lead one to suppose (Kaiser 1974: 149–59); he concludes that we may well see here a trace of the final editor, ‘holding up the mirror to a hated contemporary’.
There is no obvious reason offered in vv. 15–19
why Shebna should be so fiercely condemned. To prepare a tomb does not seem to be a particularly heinous offence, and Abraham
is praised for such foresight in Gen 23
. No doubt the virulent attack is to be seen as part of a larger condemnation of human officials whose pretensions went beyond
what the prophetic community regarded as acceptable. The imagery employed, of ‘hurling’ the victim into another land, is found
also in Jer 22:26
, where it is applied to the unfortunate king Jehoiachin (Coniah). It is noteworthy that Shebna is not named in the body of
this passage (vv. 16–18
), and it may be that that should be taken as a more general condemnation of human presumption, as in vv. 11–14
, which has been made specific to Shebna for reasons beyond our present knowledge. Shebna is also referred to in
, still in royal service. In the 1950s there was much speculation whether a tomb inscription dating from about the eighth
century BCE might have referred to Shebna, but the name was not fully preserved, and this link must remain speculative. It is also possible,
though again only a matter for speculation, that important offices in the community were handed down in particular families,
and that descendants of Shebna (and perhaps of Eliakim also) were still in positions of power in the Second Temple period.
Certainly the nepotism condemned in v. 24
would support such a view. We may compare the Tobiads, whom we met in ch. 7
In v. 19
YHWH is pictured as speaking in the first person, and this continues in vv. 20–3
, concerned with another figure mentioned also in
: Eliakim, who apparently succeeded Shebna as ‘master of the household’. It is striking that he is referred to as ‘my servant’,
as if we are being given various inadequate models of the servant of YHWH before the true one is described in chs. 52–3
. For inadequate Eliakim is shown to be. The picture in vv. 21–4
is reminiscent of a royal accession, with the theme of the ‘key of David’ that was picked up by the author of Revelation
in the NT (Rev 3:7
). But Eliakim is shown to be unable to sustain the burden (v. 25
). The limitations of human aspirations are once again set out.
The composite nature of the material in this chapter is well illustrated by the fact that it refers sometimes to Tyre (vv. 1, 5, 8
), sometimes to Sidon (vv. 2, 4, 12
). But even those commentators most concerned with detailed historical analysis have recognized the difficulty of teasing
out an ‘original’ nucleus from the present poem which is skilfully constructed and in no sense a mere patchwork. Tyre and
Sidon, in the modern Lebanon, were trading ports on the Mediterranean, and here, as in Ezek 26–8
, that is the main theme of the prophecy of lament, much of it in the distinctive form of 3 + 2 stresses often found in prophetic
‘Ships of Tarshish’ are frequently referred to as sea-going vessels; it remains disputed whether the reference is to a kind
of ship, or to Tarshish as their characteristic destination. The place-name seems the more natural explanation, but there
is a difficulty in that sometimes such ships seem to have reached it in the Mediterranean, as here (and cf. 1 Kings 10:22
), sometimes from the Red Sea (e.g. 1 Kings 22:48
). In any case the main point here is the widespread nature of the trade engaged in by Tyre and Sidon and the confidence it
engendered. Once again it is the ‘plan’ of YHWH (vv. 8, 9
) that will be decisive against all human aspirations.
This interesting prose note, comparable to the addition at
, gives a glimpse of the way in which the redaction of the Isaiah material developed. Assyria had never conquered Tyre; at
a later period a member of the tradition was convinced that the destruction implicit in vv. 1–12
would indeed come about, but at the hand of the Chaldeans (Babylonians). In fact, as far as our knowledge goes, the Babylonian
siege of Tyre was unsuccessful, and it was not until the campaigns of Alexander the Great that Tyre was captured.
is repeated, either as an accidental gloss, or—more likely in the context of a reading of the book in its final form—as an
indication of the completion of that poem.
The section is rounded off by further elaborations, mostly in prose, on the theme of ‘seventy years’, symbolic here as elsewhere
in the Bible of a whole lifetime. Some older scholars tried to identify the 70-year period with some specific episodes in
history, but that seems to be a false exegetical move: the arrival of a new generation seems to be the point of the usage.
When that new generation arrives it will be involved in the service of YHWH, but only in a subsidiary role. The openness of
is scarcely present here.
These chapters, taken as a unit and often called ‘the Isaiah apocalypse’, have attracted much attention. They are not introduced
by a separate heading, so in the present form of the book they can be taken to continue chs. 13–23
, which have themselves not been devoid of features more usually associated with the apocalypses. The earlier chapters were
for the most part addressed to specific nations; here their message of doom is universalized. But these chapters have enough
distinctive features for it to have been widely supposed that they form a distinct block. Stress has been laid upon their
eschatological concerns, their envisaging of the possibility of a future life beyond death, and their extensive use of mythological
themes, to claim that the closest links of these chapters are with Daniel (dated in the 2nd cent. BCE) and with the even later apocalypses. Dates ranging from the exile (Millar 1976; D. G. Johnson 1988
) down to the second century (Ludwig 1961
) have been proposed, with the consensus, in so far as there is one, settling on the fourth or third centuries. Though it
may indeed be appropriate to see a certain unity holding these chapters together, we should also note that they contain a
variety of forms, which have usually been broken down into two main categories: lyrical, Psalm-like passages primarily addressed
to God, and oracles of a prophetic or apocalyptic type concerned with the fate of the community. Another characteristic feature,
present to some extent in chs. 13–23
but now carried much further, is the frequency of allusions to and sometimes direct quotations of, other biblical material,
both elsewhere in the book of Isaiah and in other books. Sweeney (1988b
) lists seven passages which display links with other parts of Isaiah, often being given a different sense from that in their
other context, with the emphasis here more universal or even cosmic, while Day (1980
) draws attention to strong thematic links between
and a passage in Hosea (
), which again illustrates the phenomenon of Scripture interpreting itself. Our attempt to discern overarching structures
running through the whole book of Isaiah will gain important insights from these chapters, where several themes touched upon
elsewhere are developed more fully.
The theme of inevitable destruction comes to the fore at once. In chs. 1–12
the basic concern had been with the fate of Judah; in chs. 13–23
with that of Assyria, Babylon, and the other foreign nations. Now the destruction becomes universal, raising interesting
questions about the psychology of those who were so convinced that such devastation could only be understood as an inevitable
part of God's dealings with his creation (v. 3
). The list of the different constituent elements of society in v. 2
is in general reminiscent of wisdom literature, with its penchant for lists, but the closest parallel is in another prophetic
text, Hos 4:9
, and these chapters in fact contain a number of apparent allusions to Hosea (cf. 24:4
with Hos 4:3
). There is no mention here of a king, which might well be a pointer to a period when the priesthood was the leading social
group. v. 5
contains a reference to ‘the everlasting covenant’. ‘Covenant’ is not a common theme in the early chapters of Isaiah, but
we may perhaps see reference here to the ‘cosmic covenant’ which holds together the whole order of creation and is put at
risk by human behaviour (Murray 1992: 16–22; he suggests that the word in v. 5
translated ‘inhabitants’ by NRSV may refer to kings). The lament of vv. 4–6
is in many ways reminiscent of the communal laments in the Psalms. Devastation has struck the community in a way that has
induced total bewilderment.
is also found with slight modification in Joel 1:10, 12
. This provides an example of that reuse of biblical material in a new context which characterizes these chapters. Unfortunately
since the dates both of Joel and of the final form of Isaiah are unclear it is not certain which text made use of the other.
The theme of lack of wine is then linked with one of the recurring motifs of chs. 24–7
: that of a city, usually in terms of its destruction. Historical critics have assumed that the actual ravaging of a specific
city underlay these references, and have devoted much energy to identifying it: Jerusalem, destroyed in 587, or Babylon, captured
by Cyrus in 539, or the overthrow of some other city to which allusion is made in our sources of ancient history? That some
actual historical event has played its part in shaping the poetry need not be denied; it is much more doubtful whether it
is useful to read this as a description of an actual historical event. Rather, much of the language may legitimately be taken
as future (the proper rendering of Hebrew ‘tenses’ is a notorious difficulty), and as a reflection upon the nature of God's
manifestation of power (D. G. Johnson 1988: 11–14). What had already happened had provided the stimulus to continuing reflection on God's ways, symbolized by his destructive
power (Henry 1967
). With those provisos it seems right to assume that the ‘typical’ city whose fate is here envisaged is, as so often in the
book of Isaiah, Jerusalem. These chapters will offer differing perceptions of that city: here (v. 10
) a ‘city of chaos’; in
a ‘strong city’ wherein God ‘sets up victory’. The passage ends with imagery already used in
, an example of that reuse of the same motifs which we have found to characterize the Isaiah tradition.
This section begins as another of those universalist passages of which we have already found examples scattered through the
book of Isaiah. The group with which the prophet is associated (the ‘we’ of v. 16
) hear the universal praise of God, but are far from satisfied; instead ‘I pine away’ because of treachery. This verse is
closely linked in language to
, and will be further developed in ch. 33
(Wildberger 1978: 937). As we saw there the cause of the desolation is not clear, but this passage suggests the opposition of different groups
within the community, as we shall see more fully in the climax of the book, chs. 56–66
We have noticed several links with the ‘foreign nations’ oracles of Jer 46–51
. This is one of the closest, since vv. 17–18
appear to be almost a direct quotation of Jer 49:43–4
. There is an important difference; what was in Jeremiah applied specifically to Moab is now universalized into destruction
for the inhabitants of the whole earth. This is expressed in particularly vivid language: paḥad wāpaḥat wāpāḥ sounds even more threatening than ‘terror and the pit and the snare’. Another example of universalizing earlier material
may be found at v. 20
Zion was reduced to a mere ‘shelter’; now the same word, here translated ‘hut’ is applied to the whole earth. Similarly Am 5:2
spoke of Israel as fallen, no more to rise; here that warning is applied to the whole earth.
The ‘on that day’ language links this closely to the many other passages in Isaiah that begin thus. YHWH is proclaimed as
king in Zion, as in many Psalms; all rival claims, whether of earthly kings or of sun and moon, will be put down. This is
language which would be developed in the later apocalypses; in the HB, Dan 10
, with its picture of the ‘guardian angels’ of different nations being overthrown, provides the closest parallel.
The divisions suggested by NRSV are here followed, though many other proposals have been made. On this reading these verses
form another hymnic section, a psalm- like thanksgiving. The theme is the destruction of a city. If this were prose we should
be required to try to identify the city, but in a poetic passage such as this it seems legitimate to maintain that the poet
sees as part of the divine purpose both the destruction of Jerusalem at the time of the exile, with the sweeping away of the
corruption that had set in, and also the destruction of Babylon, symbolized as the oppressor, when it too had fallen to the
Persians. Each destruction could be hymned as evidence of God's overarching power, since they presaged greater things to come.
After that the picture of Zion as a refuge and a shelter, already used in
, becomes appropriate.
Something of the extent of the divine victory is now spelt out. First, it will be celebrated by a banquet, a theme which may
embarrass the well-fed West, but which in a subsistence economy is surely a legitimate aspiration. The theme of the banquet
is often associated with judgement and victory over enemies (as in ch. 24
), including death (so v. 7
here), and often (though not in this passage) features the presence of an individual who can be identified as the messiah.
(See ‘Messianic Banquet’ in ABD iv. 787–91.) It becomes prominent in the later biblical material and in the extra-biblical apocalypses. The Feeding of the Five Thousand is a characteristic NT
example (Mk 6:30–44
), though with a less exotic menu than the present one.
It would be hazardous to base a specific belief in individual resurrection on the phrase ‘he will swallow up death forever’.
As in ancient Canaanite mythology, death (môt; here māwet) was an enemy whose overcoming was a sign of the triumph of proper order. Here the ‘shroud’ and ‘sheet’ are mourning garments,
for which there will be no more need in the joy that is envisaged. The passage as a whole may properly be compared with
, with its great anticipation for the holy mountain, and with the expectation of salvation in ch. 12
This conclusion is unexpected, since it goes against the usual universalizing tendency of these chapters. Some commentators
have seen it as a gloss, others as the historical key to the whole section. It is printed as poetry in NRSV, but it may be
wiser to see it as basically prose, possibly with some poetic phrases based on the threats found in
. It is linked thematically to chs. 15–16
, but there are no obvious links of vocabulary or of geography with that passage. It may well be that some otherwise unknown
episode from the time when this material reached its final form provoked this outburst against Moab, which is reminiscent
of the hostility displayed in Deut 23:3
, excluding Moabites from ever participating in the worship of YHWH. The book of Ruth shows that this attitude toward Moabites
was not universally shared.
Another Psalm-like poem follows, with the city now a matter of pride. Here there can be no doubt that a purified Jerusalem
is in mind, with v. 2
reminding us of the ‘entrance liturgies’ found in some Psalms, where only those who are righteous are allowed through the
gates to the holy place beyond (cf. Ps 15; 24
). The entry may be that of the ark, symbolic of the divine presence, and it is possible to envisage this as an example of
the ‘divine warrior hymn’ held by some to have accompanied such a procession (Millar 1976: 82–90, summarizes the issues involved). More widely it is possible to see in this one of the Songs of Zion referred to in Ps 137:3
, and exemplified by Ps 48; 76
. Links with the Psalms are also provided by the themes of faith and trust, šālôm (peace), and confidence in the overthrow of enemies.
Again the extent of the next passage is not very clear, but it is probably artificial to attempt any division within this
section, characterized as a ‘community lament’ (D. G. Johnson 1988
). A feature of such laments is the entreaty of YHWH's favour at a time of distress (e.g. Ps 74; 79
) and that is certainly appropriate for the climax of the passage in vv. 16–18
. The picture is of the faithful community under alien rule, but still expressing its confidence that deliverance will come.
If we are strict in applying logical criteria, then further subdivision within the section will be necessary, for some verses
are expressed in first person singular, some in first person plural forms. We may notice, however, that this alternation occurs
elsewhere in Isaiah (e.g.
—‘I will recount…all that the Lord has done for us’). vv. 14–15
clearly express the conviction that though individuals die the whole community survives to glorify God. The anguish of childbirth,
used as a threat against enemies in
, here too symbolizes human inadequacies, but this time inadequacies which will be gloriously transformed. In the light of
this poetic imagery it is probably wise not to regard the much-discussed v. 19
as a straight assertion of belief in a blessed future life, as has often been done when the verse has been taken out of context.
It expresses hope in a continuing national restoration. However when the book of Isaiah had reached its final form ‘this is
a reference to the resurrection of the dead which no-one but a Sadducee, ancient or modern, could possibly misconstrue’ (Sawyer 1973: 234). When it had achieved the status of Holy Scripture, liable to be ransacked for guidance in later problems, then its use
as an affirmation of belief in resurrection was scarcely surprising—though less use was made of this particular verse than
might have been expected; it is, for example, not quoted in the NT.
This brief section functions as a link between the preceding lament and the more mythological material in ch. 27
. Use is made of the images either of the universal flood of Genesis, or of the Exodus tradition, or both, to symbolize the
totality of destruction. The shutting of the doors here may call to mind Gen 7:16
and the hiding of the Israelites behind closed doors when the angel of God passed by in Egypt (Ex 12:22–3
provides the clearest example of links with the ancient mythological traditions best known to us in the Ugaritic texts from
Ras Shamra. Leviathan was the chaos-monster, described already at Ugarit as ‘the wriggling serpent’ (Gibson, 1978: 50). Creation in Genesis is pictured as a matter of no more than the divine word bringing about what is commanded, but elsewhere
the theme of creation as struggle is found. Ps 74:14
provides a particularly vivid parallel to this verse; cf. also Ps 104:26
. The importance of the serpent in creation accounts, familiar to us from Gen 3
, also emerges here. It is an anticipation that ‘on that day’ there will be a new creation when the forces of chaos will be
Here a very different image of what is anticipated ‘on that day’ is offered. It is perhaps the clearest example from these
chapters of the reuse of material found elsewhere in Isaiah—in this case the ‘song of the vineyard’ in
. The theme of the vineyard (kerem) is the same; in each case briers and thorns pose a threat to the vineyard; YHWH is the protector of the vineyard, which
is identified as his own people. But it is by no means a repetition of the earlier passage. Now YHWH acts as the guard who
ensures that the vineyard comes to no harm, and by clinging to YHWH for protection Jacob/Israel (the juxtaposition of these
two words is reminiscent of the usage in chs. 40–55
) will be given a universal reward. Now, in an almost deterministic way, the possibility of the people falling away is removed.
They will be protected from the briers and thorns by YHWH himself. The strongly-rooted future of the people is reminiscent
, the story of the deliverance from the Assyrian threat.
This difficult passage has been very variously interpreted by different commentators (D. G. Johnson 1988: 88 summarizes the difficulties, some of which, such as the awkward shifts in tense and gender, are obscured in English translations).
Many have supposed that a city other than Jerusalem (Samaria?) is referred to in v. 10
, but it seems better to take the passage, with all its obscurities, as a warning that, despite the promise of better things
to come for the faithful community, there are also those who can expect no mercy. God's ‘fierce blast’ (v. 8
) implies that he will not have compassion on them or show them favour (v. 11
). Our ignorance of the divisions within the community precludes us from being more precise about who is thus excluded.
This section of the book ends with another eschatological passage looking forward to ‘that day’. Here the imagery is of a
harvest being gathered, those exiled in the diaspora being gathered to their own land. The symbol used is that of a trumpet-blast,
which would become a favoured symbol in later apocalyptic writings (cf. the trumpets of Rev 8–11
), but there may be a closer link here with the trumpet blast for the Day of Atonement prescribed in Lev 25:9
. In the Second Temple period this day took on increasing significance in the life of the community.
In this section we turn from the obscurities and allusions of chs. 24–7
to a much more straightforward series of oracles, mainly of woe against a series of offenders. As noted earlier NRSV ‘Ah’
and elsewhere is too bland a translation for the force of the Hebrew hôy. (REB has ‘Alas’ at
and ‘Woe’ in later occurrences of the same word.) For historical critics this section has been the one part of the book where
a significant body of material is held to go back to Isaiah himself in the eighth century BCE, though these chapters make no direct reference to him.
There are, however, some structural problems. The difference from what precedes has to be inferred from the different content;
there is no heading to indicate a fresh start. Nor is it clear how far the passage extends. Certainly chs. 28–31
belong together, but whether the section should be extended further is not clear; chs. 32, 32–3, and 32–5
have all been proposed as integral elements of this section. Nor is there any obvious reason why these chapters should be
placed at just this point in the book as a whole. Both in assumed dating and in content they are close to much of the material
in chs. 2–12
One helpful way of looking at the organization of this material has been suggested by Williamson (1994: 184–7). He notes that there is no separate heading for this section, which invites us to read it as a continuation of what has
preceded, and suggests that the best analogy may be, not the self-contained bodies of ‘Oracles against Foreign Nations’ found
in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, but the collection in Am 1–2
, which uses condemnation of foreign nations to lead up to even sharper condemnation of Judah and Israel. Here that final
order is reversed: Israel (the northern kingdom) is condemned in
, then follows material directed against Judah and Jerusalem.
The form of this oracle is clear, with its statement of wrongdoing followed by an announcement of judgement introduced by
hinnēh (‘behold’ in the older Eng. versions; NRSV ‘see’). Less clear is the meaning of ‘the proud garland of the drunkards of Ephraim’.
If it is simply an accusation of drunkenness the punishment seems remarkably severe! In fact it is the garland rather than
the fact of drunkenness which seems to be condemned, and there is surely some symbolism here, which largely escapes us. Kaiser (1974
) suggested that the wearing of garlands was a Hellenistic custom and that we are introduced here to the tension between traditional
Judaism and the spread of Hellenistic culture.
Characteristic of these chapters is the interspersing of the predominant note of threat with short passages of a much more
hopeful tenor. Historical critics have for the most part taken the hopeful interludes as later insertions; those concerned
with the final form of the book will see this as a literary device, maintaining the tension between threat and promise so
characteristic of the book of Isaiah. Here the key words from the earlier passage (‘garland’, ‘glory’, ‘beauty’) are picked
up and applied to the faithful remnant—here clearly a hopeful symbol. The stress on ‘judgement’ and ‘justice’ (the same word,
mišpāṭ, in the original) recalls a frequent theme of the Isaianic tradition.
We return now to the announcement of judgement using language closely comparable to vv. 1–4
; some commentators have seen this passage as a continuation of those verses, but they were complete in themselves. The earlier
theme of drunkenness is taken up again and made the basis of a divine judgement speech condemning the nation through its leaders.
Priests and prophets are condemned together. This should warn us against setting the two groups over against one another as
natural opponents; as noted earlier it may suggest that at some stage in the tradition Isaiah was regarded as opposed to,
rather than an integral part of, the prophetic movement. At v. 9
NRSV provides quotation-marks. This is speculative, for there is no equivalent in Hebrew, but it seems to make best sense
of the passage to understand what follows as the imagined response of the priests and prophets, the ‘he’ being Isaiah. If
this is so it is natural to see here, as often in chs. 56–66
, dispute between rival claims to access to the divine will, a dispute carried on in strongly polemical terms. The ‘priests
and prophets’ sarcastically ask whether the Isaianic group has any sure basis for imparting the wisdom of the tradition. NRSV
then rightly says of v. 10
that its meaning is uncertain. It is very doubtful whether the words ṣaw and qaw, translated ‘precept’ and ‘line’ are intended to have any formal meaning. They may be a suggestion of drunken muttering,
with the implication that Isaiah is no better than they are; or of prophetic glossolalia; or of teaching children their equivalent
of the ABC, as may be implied in v. 9
. If this is right, then ṣaw and qaw would simply be forms of successive letters of the Hebrew alphabet. If what has preceded is the challenge, v. 11
provides the Isaianic response to it. The right language has been one of the basic concerns of Judaism through history, and
here an ominous challenge to that concern is set out. God's will is to be achieved through those of an ‘alien tongue’. If
we wish to envisage an ‘original’ setting for this threat, then the Assyrian invaders of the eighth century would fill the
bill. But this was a threat which continued to exercise the community as it lived first in the Persian and then in the Hellenistic
world (cf. Neh 13:23–5
). YHWH's control of the nations might have the unpalatable consequence that the community might have to learn God's will
by very strange means. But in the first instance that control has threatening implications. True rest lay in confidence and
trust in YHWH, which the community had refused—hence the inevitability of desolation, spelt out in v. 13
by a repetition of the terms in v. 10
. This idea of rest given by God to his people is a basic theological theme of much of the HB (von Rad 1966b
offers a very clear example of the way in which a basic message of threat has a hopeful element interwoven with it. v. 16
in that sense differs from the surrounding material, but as the passage stands it provides an important indication of a basic
theme of hope beyond disaster. v. 14
, the application to Jerusalem and its rulers is now made explicit. Even the word ‘scoffers’ is very similar to the name ‘Zion’
and is probably intended as a wordplay. The expression ‘this’ (rather than ‘my’) alerts us that a threat is imminent. v. 15
, we have noted that specific covenant language is rare in the early chapters of Isaiah, and this verse may provide part of
the reason. The only covenant that the leaders understand is actually one made with death (māwet). There was a Canaanite divinity called Mot, but such worship is probably not in mind here. Isaiah's opponents' words are
certainly not accurately reported on this occasion, but the underlying theme seems to be of false trust; they are held to
suppose that the power of death can be set to one side—Isaiah is confident that the hollowness of such claims will soon be
, into this threat has been incorporated an oracle of salvation promising YHWH's lasting protection of Jerusalem. There is
dispute whether the ‘stone’ is the foundation-stone or the headstone, but perhaps we need not suppose Isaiah to have been
concerned with architectural niceties. The phrase ‘One who trusts will not panic’ is placed in quotation-marks by NRSV, and
we may follow its implication that this will have been an inscription on the stone. Here as elsewhere in Isaiah we are very
close to the language of the Zion Psalms (e.g. 46; 48). Those who put their trust in YHWH could be confident that Zion was
a place of true safety. There is also a close link with
, the words addressed to Ahaz, with the same demand for trust. The connection is closer in Hebrew than appears from NRSV,
which translates the same Hebrew verb (the one from which the word ‘Amen’ is derived) as ‘stand firm’ at
, but ‘trust’ here. The idea of the ‘inviolability of Zion’, if not explicit here, is clearly not far removed from the thought
of the passage, which ends with a reiteration of the characteristic Isaianic themes of mišpāṭ and ṣĕdāqâ. A link with the previous oracle is provided by the word qaw (line). As against the false trust mockingly set out there the basis of true trust is now shown.
, the remainder of the oracle of threat spells out its implications, in the first part by making much use of the same phrases
as have already been used—another characteristic Isaianic technique. The last two verses introduce new points of comparison.
Two episodes from the Former Prophets are alluded to: David's victory over the Philistines at 2 Sam 5:20
, and Joshua's defeat of the Amorites in Josh 10
. Now, however, the holy war which YHWH had earlier waged on his people's behalf will become a war against Jerusalem itself—a
‘strange’ and ‘alien’ work. This theme of YHWH as the divine warrior, normally expected to fight on Israel's behalf against
its enemies, but quite capable of turning against his own people, plays a prominent part in the Isaiah tradition. There is
clearly an acute tension between that understanding and the theme of the inviolability of Zion which we found in vv. 16–17a
What follows in these verses has no close formal parallel elsewhere in the book of Isaiah. It is a kind of parable, using
farming techniques as a model for bringing out the significance of God's work in creation. There is no suggestion that it
is a divine oracle; the ‘my’ of v. 23
refers to the human author. It has a markedly didactic character, which may remind us of wisdom literature rather than of
the prophetic writings. While in general terms it is not difficult to see the various operations described as symbolizing
God's dealings with his people, it is less certain that each of the particular tasks is intended to relate to the varying
fortunes of Israel as it experienced now success and now humiliation. Several of the agricultural terms are of uncertain meaning;
what is clear is that the poem is claiming a meaningful rhythm in God's dealings with his created world.
Another of the summary-appraisals (Childs's term; see above on
) scattered through the book, offers a kind of reassurance that all that is being revealed is indeed in accordance with God's
One of the most basic themes running through the whole book of Isaiah is the fate of Jerusalem, the place of greatest promise
and of greatest hope. Whereas
envisaged Zion as inviolable, here we have a threat of utter destruction. ‘Ariel’ seems to stand for Jerusalem; the word
means ‘altar-hearth’ (cf. Ezek 43:15
), but, divided into two words, Ari El, it would mean ‘lion of God’, and there may well be a deliberate wordplay here, with
God's destructive power in mind. That is still further strengthened by the imagery of a siege. Jerusalem was under siege at
the very beginning of the book (
); here it is made clear that it is YHWH himself who is besieging the city. The reference to David in v. 3
is not in the Hebrew text (cf. NRSV marg.), and REB ‘I shall encircle you with my army’ makes it more explicit that YHWH
himself is the besieger. In v. 1
the allusion is to David's capture of Jerusalem described in 2 Sam 6
; now in v. 3
it is YHWH himself who is the city's enemy, reducing its inhabitants to ghostly status.
As so often in these chapters the picture is miraculously reversed. Even in these verses the theme of threat is not wholly
lacking, for the theophany described in v. 6
would normally imply God's displeasure with his people, as if he were waging war against them. But in its present context
that potential threat has been overridden; it is not Jerusalem but its enemies who will be scattered like dust. As elsewhere
), the passage ends with the expression of frustration by Jerusalem's opponents. Dreams in the HB are often thought to have
religious significance; v. 8
reminds us that, as in the modern world, they can be simply an illustration of frustration.
It is not clear whether this passage is to be taken as self-standing, or as a continuation of the words of threat in vv. 1–4
. In any case the threat is now once again directed to the community itself. The references to ‘prophets’ and ‘seers’ may
well be a later addition, making the general threat of incomprehension even more specific. In any case we see once again the
hostility of much of the Isaianic tradition to these religious groups.
A brief prose section interrupts the sequence of poetic oracles. The breakdown of the established structures of the community
is reminiscent of
4:1 and 8:16–20
. Those who shaped the book of Isaiah continued to proclaim their faith in God's continuing power, but there were those in the community
who either could not or would not read the signs of the times.
, the placing of the prose section is surely deliberate to bring out the ironic contrast with this poetic oracle. There the
problem was ignorance; here it is assumed wisdom. The people claim to have access to the mind of God, with their pattern of
festivals and the alleged wisdom and discernment of their ‘experts’. It will all be shown to be a false claim. vv. 15–16
, this theme of false claims to wisdom is carried further. Excessive self-belief has led the wise among the people, falsely
so-called according to Isaiah, into turning the truth upside-down. The theme of the thing made disowning its maker occurs
, and this verse may well underlie Paul's argument in Rom 9:19–21
In this rather fragmentary section we find another oracle of promise, very different from what has preceded. Now the picture
is of a complete transformation of earthly conditions into a restoration of paradise. Not just Jerusalem, but the whole created
order is here transfigured. Lebanon had previously (
) been regarded as the first victim of the impending ‘day of YHWH’; now it will become a fruitful field. Similarly the deaf
and the blind of v. 18
remind us of the deaf and blind people of
. There is a hope beyond that threat. In vv. 20–1
we cannot be certain whether those condemned reflect a general aspiration towards justice, or whether particular groups in
a divided society are targeted.
In the Judaism of the Second Temple period the patriarchs, who played little or no part in earlier traditions, come to increasing
prominence. To be children of Abraham and of Jacob was an important theological claim as is amply illustrated in the New Testament.
In these verses we find a more generous hope than in the previous oracle. Even those who err and grumble may now, it is hoped,
come to a true understanding.
We return to another passage of threat, on a theme which may have been relevant in the eighth century BCE, and thus go back to the earliest traditions embodied in Isaiah, but which continued to raise important issues at different
times in the people's history. In the face of threats from elsewhere was Egypt to be a valued resource, or was trust in Egypt
no more than an illusion? vv. 1–2
are an accusation put in the mouth of YHWH himself. The plans of those who rely on Egyptian support are rebellion, a human
plan which it is claimed is a vain attempt to thwart the larger divine plan. NRSV ‘against my will’ in v. 1
gives the sense, but obscures the fact that a more literal translation would be ‘not of my spirit’ (so RSV) with the sense
that conformity with the spirit of YHWH is far more important than human counsel. To ‘go down into Egypt’ was an exact reversal
of the divine action in bringing the people up out of Egypt in the Exodus. This accusation leads by way of a characteristic
‘therefore’ into an announcement of judgement showing that the very forces which the people hope will offer them protection
will lead to their greater discomfiture. In v. 4
‘Zoan’ may stand for Egypt (cf. 19:11, 13
), but ‘Hanes’ is otherwise unknown.
This passage looks to have been misplaced. Its formal structure, introduced by the word maśśā᾽ (oracle) is reminiscent of the oracles against foreign nations in chs. 13–23
. The Negeb is probably not the specific area south of Judah, but rather evokes any distant and little-known southern land.
The passage has presumably been placed here because of its thematic links with the preceding verses, stressing that supposed
help from Egypt is useless. It brings out a theme which will be taken up again at
. Egypt is identified with the chaos-monster Rahab. The exact force of the comparison is not clear, but Clements (1980a
) proposes a minor emendation to the Hebrew to achieve the translation ‘Rahab that is stilled’, the implication being that
the powers of chaos have been rendered powerless by YHWH's creative act. Ps 87:4
suggests that the identification of Egypt as Rahab was a well-known one.
The next unit extends to v. 17
, but is readily divisible into three smaller sections, of which this is the first. Taken as a whole it may well be one of
the most important basic elements in the book. Historical-critical scholars have been almost unanimous in seeing material
here which goes back to the eighth century BCE. In v. 8
there is little point in speculating what may have been inscribed on the tablet; more fruitful is a comparison with
, which shares with this passage the concern that the words of God through his messenger should be inscribed and handed down
to future generations. The theme of YHWH as ‘father’ of Israel, touched on in v. 1
, is then further developed in a way strikingly similar to Deut 21:18–21
, where a ‘stubborn and rebellious (sōrēr ûmōreh: both terms used to describe Israel in this chapter) son’ may receive the punishment of death (Pfisterer Darr 1994: 61). We are reminded that the situation described in
shows as yet no signs of improvement. The tôrâ (instruction) of YHWH, here as so often the touchstone of obedience, is still being ignored. As we have noted seers and particularly
prophets are often condemned in Isaiah. Here the blame for their inadequacies is placed on the community as a whole.
Two announcements of judgement follow, each introduced by the characteristic ‘therefore’. In the first the recurring theme
of trust, true and false, reappears. In the second two vivid similes are used to picture the inevitable break-up of the community:
first an insecurely built wall whose weakness causes it to collapse; secondly, a pot smashed into fragments.
A further accusation and announcement of judgement follows, with an important statement of a basic Isaianic theme. God had
laid down how they might be saved from their troubles, and they had refused. There are two Hebrew verbs some forms of which
are very similar: šûb, to turn or return; yāšab, to sit or dwell. Most translations take the verb here as the first (thus NRSV ‘in returning’), but various Jewish scholars
have put forward a case for supposing that it might be the second, which would involve only minor changes and give a better
parallel: ‘in stillness’ (Uffenheimer 1994: 179). In the light of the community's failure to offer such trust the remnant theme reappears in v. 17
as an undisguised threat.
is printed in NRSV as a poetic conclusion to what has preceded, but it can also be taken as introducing the very varied material
which follows. It points forward to the latter part of the book in its emphasis on God's saving justice (mišpāṭ), while the last phrase provides a link back to
. These links are important warnings against dividing the book into small isolated fragments.
These verses are held together by the common element of promise, but their detailed content is very varied. Vermeylen (1977–8:418) proposes that they are intended as a ‘relecture’ of the preceding material in this chapter offering a much more hopeful
future. Thus instead of blinding their seers (v. 10
) the people will see for themselves (v. 20
). The deafness of v. 9
will give way to the ability to hear the message in v. 21
; instead of straying from the way (v. 11
), they will walk securely in it (v. 21
). The condemnation of idolatry is less prominent in these chapters than attacks on the false worship of YHWH, but here (v. 22
) the community are assured that idols will be a thing of the past: a sharp contrast with
on a similar theme. The last verses of the section introduce once more the vision of ‘that day’, now expressed in eschatological
terms as a restoration of paradise, when the anxieties of an agricultural community living a marginal existence will be totally
dispelled. These pictures of an ideal future constantly recur throughout the book of Isaiah.
There are a number of textual problems in these verses, which account for the variety within modern translations. vv. 27–8
seem to be a powerful description of a theophany, but whereas in other such passages God's anger is directed against his
own people, here ‘the nations’ and ‘the peoples’ are the victims of his anger. This is the language of YHWH as divine warrior.
The prose passage that follows this warning first offers reassurance to the people of God that Zion (the ‘mountain of the
LORD’) will remain inviolable, and then identifies the enemy to be overthrown as the Assyrians. It is doubtful whether we should
take this as a historical reference with a specific eighth-century setting, when the Assyrians were attacking Israel and Judah;
rather it should be grouped with other passages (Jon; Ezra 6:22
) which see Assyria as the typical oppressive force—a role which came to be taken over by Babylon. The chapter ends with a
highly unattractive, but no doubt understandable, picture of the community gloating over the ruin and degradation of a hated
enemy. The picture of a triumphant cultic occasion here should dispel any notion, based on such passages as
, that the book of Isaiah is opposed to cultic worship. v. 33
seems to embody a pun; the Assyrian king (melek) will meet his end in the Topheth, or burial place where human sacrifice was alleged to have been carried out in honour of
the god môlēk (Molech).
The theme of the futility of turning to Egypt for help, found already in
, is resumed. The reference to ‘chariots and horsemen’ is evocative of the accounts in Exodus, where ‘Pharaoh's chariots and
his army were cast into the sea’ (Ex.
). v. 2
interrupts the condemnation for a brief hymnic fragment in praise of God. ‘He too is wise’ has been interpreted by some as
a claim that wisdom, previously primarily understood as human shrewdness, was a characteristic that was also to be attributed
to God. However that may be, the claim is clearly being made that purely human skills were not enough to see the whole truth
of any situation. An idea is developed in v. 3
which was to have momentous consequences in the history of theology: the contrast between ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’, apparently
in parallelism with ‘human’ and ‘God’ in the previous line. What is stated here as simply a warning about human inadequacies
came, in the New Testament and elsewhere, to be formative of a complete anthropology that is a doctrine of human nature.
The thrust of this passage is difficult to determine. As translated in NRSV it is a promise, with YHWH coming down ‘to fight
upon Mount Zion’, that is, on behalf of his people. But this then offers a curious set of images: YHWH is pictured as a lion
fighting for his people against their shepherds. While this is not impossible—leaders as unworthy shepherds is a common idea
in the HB—it is unusual, and the more natural sense of the preposition translated ‘upon’ would be adversative: ‘against’.
Perhaps this passage originated as a threat, with YHWH pictured as a lion intent upon attacking his own people for their faithlessness.
Only in later tradition has it been transformed to allow an element of promise, which becomes explicit in v. 5
A prose passage follows. It begins with something unexpectedly rare in the book of Isaiah: a call to repentance (‘turn back’,
using the characteristic verb šûb). Then it looks forward to the destruction of all idols, as in
; this is a point which will be elaborated in greater detail in the ‘Babylonian chapters’, especially
. It leads into a renewed threat against the Assyrians (cf. 30:31
), making clear that it is the Divine Warrior and not any human agency that overthrows alien powers.
These verses return to a theme last found in ch. 11
—the hope of an ideal king. Though less widely used as a messianic prophecy than the passages in chs. 7, 9, and 11
, this section puts the hope of an ideal ruler in the context of other Isaianic themes. The plural ‘princes’ in v. 1
indicates that the hope is not of a specific ruler but rather an idealized picture of the true nature of monarchical rule.
It embodies ṣedeq (righteousness) and mišpāṭ (justice), two recurrent Isaianic concerns. When these are present, the ruler will provide true protection for his people
). As in
, the blindness and deafness imposed upon the people for their stubbornness in ch. 6
and elsewhere will now be removed; a well-ordered and properly structured society will be inaugurated. There are links with
the wisdom literature in the condemnation of the fool (vv. 5, 6
) and the stress on proper planning (the verb ya῾aṣ (plan) in v. 8
Unexpectedly there follows another attack upon women. The presentation of women in those usually counted as the ‘eighth-century
prophets’ (Amos, Hosea, and Isaiah) is by and large not an attractive one. In these verses the condemnation is in juridical
style, inviting witnesses to come forward (cf. 1:2
). But what begins as a taunt, apparently aimed against the women, gradually changes character, and the women come to be seen
as examples of those who will be forced to mourn the imminent disaster. Instead of a vintage festival, rites of mourning will
be the order of the day. The image of ‘thorns and briers’ (v. 13
) is reminiscent of the two songs of the vineyard in
5:1–7 and 27:2–6
, though the word here translated ‘thorns’ is different from that used in the other passages. As the following verses will
show this is one more example of the recurrent Isaianic pattern of inevitable and imminent disaster to be followed by restoration.
As so often in Isaiah words of warning suddenly give way to a promise which radically transforms the thrust of the whole passage.
Conventional historical criticism has taken most of these hopeful sections to be later additions. This may be true, though
we have no sure means of knowing. In any case to dismiss some material as ‘secondary’ in this way is to weaken the thrust
of the message in the form in which we now have it. Here the expectation of justice and righteousness is taken up once more,
as a means of transforming the desolation described in the preceding verses. Now righteousness will lead to šālôm, peace or wholeness, and a picture of paradise is offered, analogous to that found in
. The whole passage ends with a ‘beatitude’, comparable in form with those found in the New Testament, in the Sermon on the
Mount (Mt 5
is one of the most disputed chapters in Isaiah. It fits into no obviously recognizable category, and has been interpreted
in a variety of ways. Some have seen it as reflecting a particular historical crisis; others, following an influential article
of 1924 by Gunkel, have characterized it as ‘liturgical’, though that description has itself led to further dispute as to
what the term should mean. A coherent analysis on the basis of form is almost impossible. The chapter contains an initial
‘woe’, a lament by the community addressed to God in vv. 2–9
, interrupted by a prophetic oracle addressed to the community in vv. 3–6
. Further oracular material is in its turn interrupted by a question-and-answer passage in vv. 14–16
enquiring who may properly live in God's presence, and offering an answer closely analogous to Ps 24:3–6
. (Childs (1967
) offered an analysis of the chapter in terms of a possible historical development; Murray (1982
) notes previous discussions and makes his own proposals.) As elsewhere in Isaiah there are important-links with the Psalms
in language and theme.
The introductory ‘woe’ in v. 1
is aimed at a ‘destroyer’ and a ‘treacherous one’. The two roots are each used four times in one verse: NRSV brings this
out but at the expense of a very ponderous rendering (42 words in Eng. as against 16 in Heb.). The repetition may be intended
as a curse-formula (Murray 1982
); it is certainly powerfully allusive, though many of the allusions now escape us. We seem to be in the presence here of
more than human enemies. vv. 2–6
, however powerful the enemies the confidence is expressed that YHWH's power is greater. In ‘the morning’, so often the time
of hoped-for salvation from the powers of darkness, God will offer protection. The passage which follows in vv. 3–6
offers reassurance in the by-now familiar terms of justice and righteousness; these will be the basis of lasting stability.
There are close similarities in vv. 7–9
(Murray 1992: 16–25). In each passage the ‘covenant’ is ‘broken’ (NRSV obscures this rare reference to bĕrît by translating ‘treaty’ here in v. 8
); in each the inhabited land ‘mourns and languishes’; in each normal human activity has ceased (NRSV at
‘left’ for the verb translated ‘ceased’ in
). Whether or not we follow Murray's view of the breakdown of a cosmic covenant it seems clear that the disorder here described
is more than the usual damage imposed by human enemies. There are links with the Song of Deborah (Judg 5:6
), a passage which celebrates the victory over Sisera but expresses in cosmic terms the threat which he posed. Here again
we are confronted with a real dread of the whole inhabited order breaking down, returning to its original chaos. vv. 10–12
, as in the Song of Deborah, the threatened breakdown into chaos is the preliminary to a reassertion of the exalted status
of YHWH (cf. v. 5
). The language used to assert the fate of all enemies seems shocking, but it may be appropriate if those condemned to destruction
are envisaged as supernatural beings threatening order.
The cosmological threat of the preceding verses is now applied to a more domestic situation. The community is summoned to
acknowledge the effective power of YHWH. As so often in Isaiah it appears that the Jerusalem community is divided; some (‘the
godless’) express their anxiety as to their fate. But the terms of admission to the true fellowship are spelt out in ways
reminiscent of such Psalms as
15 and 24
. Those who satisfy such terms can look forward to security and the assurance of food and drink.
Another passage put in the mouth of the prophet offers reassurance to Jerusalem. The ‘king in his beauty’ might be a reference
to YHWH as king, but it is also possible that there is a linkage with the ideal ruler depicted in
. In any case the basic theme is of deliverance from oppression, symbolized by the use of an alien, barely understood language
(v. 19; cf. 28:11
, where the same rare root l-῾-g, translated ‘stammering’, is found; it will appear again in
, there translated ‘scorns’). The passage reaches a climax with the promise of the restoration of the proper liturgical round
and the assurance of continuing divine protection.
had used the image of a ship, and this brief appendix takes that image further, though in a very obscure way. The spacing
in NRSV suggests a link with the following chapter, and this is possible, but it may be that the passage is misplaced (so Clements 1980a
; cf. REB, which places 23a in square brackets). If this is so of 23a, the remainder of the passage may be read as a continuation of the picture of restoration set out in the preceding verses.
The ‘spoil’ and ‘plundering’ remind us of the child Maher-shalal-hash-baz of
, for the same words šālāl and baz are here used.
Most scholars argue that these two chapters originated as a pairing (though for a contrary view see Steck 1985
). Certainly they develop a theme found several times elsewhere in the HB. The glorification of Mount Zion corresponds with
the punishment of Edom. This point is made in summary form in Am 9:11–12, Ob 21, and Mal 1:2–5
; it is developed more fully both in our present chapters and in Ezek 35:1–36:15
. No doubt the course of historical events contributed to this theme, but it goes beyond the historical, so that Edom becomes
symbolic of the enemies of God. We shall see a further development of this theme in ch. 63
. In ch. 35
in particular we shall also see close links with later chapters in the book.
The horrifying picture of vv. 1–4
offers no suggestion that Edom is to become the focus of attention. After an introductory summons which recalls Ps 49:1
, a picture of cosmic disaster is set out in a way that has led to this chapter being described as an apocalypse. Not just
the enemy nations but also the very ‘host of heaven’ and the skies themselves are to be brought to an end. In vv. 5–7
the judgement is made specific to Edom, in terms which show the bitter hatred which developed between the two communities who, according to the tradition of
, should have seen one another as brothers. Instead of the kind of banquet envisaged by God for his own people in
, we have the horrors of a community described as the potential sacrificial victims. No polemic is as bitter as religious
The preceding theme is now elaborated in terms of ‘day of the LORD’ language, used so often with reference to the Jerusalem community, but now gloatingly reapplied, while Zion itself is triumphantly
vindicated. The Septuagint Greek translation (LXX) introduces here the idea of a ‘day of judgement’, an expression not found
in the HB but characteristic of later Jewish literature, including the NT. ‘Zion's cause’ (rîb) has the same legal term which is often used against YHWH's disloyal followers. At v. 9
the NRSV footnote should be borne in mind; there is no specific mention of Edom in the Hebrew text, and there is a sense
in which the reference to Edom in vv. 5–7
is only a more specific application of the general theme of radical destruction of all alien forces. The word ‘alien’ is
deliberately chosen; we are in a world comparable to that of modern science fiction, with hostile forces barely kept at bay.
Thus in v. 11
‘confusion’ and ‘chaos’ are tōhû wābōhû, the ‘formless void’ of Gen 1:2
. In the same verse the animals are part of a bestiary rather than those familiar from daily encounters. There are links here
where several of the same creatures were invoked in the description of the destruction of Babylon. Indeed Vermeylen (1977: 440) went further and, drawing attention to similarities of structure, suggested that this chapter is modelled on the eschatological
destruction of Babylon portrayed in ch. 13
. (Williamson (1994: 216–17) adds further details of linguistic similarities.) v. 14
reminds us that below the surface of belief in one God there lurked fears of demons. ‘Lilith’ seems to have been an aggressive
female demon known also from Mesopotamian incantations; she was not a ‘night hag’ (so RSV, a rendering based on false etymology).
She has been brought to life again in recent years in some radical feminist work.
These verses are very different in tone from what has preceded, and the linkage with the rest of the chapter is widely regarded
as minimal. The reference to ‘the book of the LORD’, more properly a ‘scroll’, suggests a period when the gathering of particularly valued texts had begun, a process which
would lead to the formation of ‘Scripture’. The chapter ends with a word of reassurance for those for whom the divine lot
had fallen favourably.
This chapter poses a major problem for the view of a threefold division of Isaiah outlined in the introduction. Though part
of Isa 1–39
it displays very close links with chs. 40–55
. Some have supposed that it must have originated with those chapters, became detached and ‘by some roundabout way reached
the collection of First Isaiah independently’ (McKenzie 1968: 12). Others regard it as a much later development: ‘a later development, probably separated from (Deutero-Isaiah) by centuries’
(Kaiser 1974: 362). The greater concern with Isaiah as a book that we have tried to develop in this commentary means that these historical
issues will be less important though they cannot be ignored. We must certainly be aware that themes and actual expressions
used in this chapter will come to greater prominence in what follows. But there are important links also with earlier chapters;
Lebanon is restored, the deaf hear, the blind see—the central motifs of vv. 2–5
Lebanon, Carmel, and Sharon had faced destruction, in vv. 1–2
they are typified as those who will see the glory of YHWH. It is important to recognize this literary link between two chapters
which historical critics usually treat as quite separate. The threat posed in the preceding chapters is now to be reversed.
Occasionally in the HB the wilderness is pictured as a place where Israel enjoyed a kind of honeymoon period (Hos 2:14
), but the usual theme is of the wilderness as a place of threat. To transform that into fertility was a sure sign of restoration.
shares this motif, and the universal revealing of God's glory is found also at
. vv. 3–4
, another theme found very frequently in chs. 40–55
is that of restoration of health and strength, though the promise of salvation is accompanied by the warning of vengeance
A riot of imagery runs through these verses. The basic concern is for restoration of wholeness, whether (
) to those human beings who were deprived of the fullness of their humanity—the blind, the deaf, the lame, the speechless—or
) to those parts of the natural world which seemed comparably to be deprived. This ‘good news’ was seen by the Gospel writers
as an obvious pointer to the good news which they wished to proclaim, and so it is no surprise to find that this chapter as
a whole and these verses in particular are alluded to in the NT (e.g. Mt 11:5
). In the Isaiah context we remember that the blind and the deaf are the community themselves (
), so that this section plays an important part in proclaiming the restoration of that community to full humanity.
40:3 and 62:10
a highway through the desert is promised. Chs. 40–55
are sometimes spoken of as ‘universalist’, but they display a strong concern for ritual purity (e.g.
), and that is also expressed here. Indeed the very title ‘the Holy Way’ implies separateness from that which is unclean;
it is specifically for those who are ‘redeemed’. The final verse is virtually identical with
; the two uses may be seen as a kind of refrain, in each case bringing a hymn of triumph to a joyful conclusion in the restoration
of Zion and its community.
These chapters have often been somewhat neglected in commentaries on Isaiah. They are substantially identical with 2 Kings 18–20
, with one significant addition (
) and two omissions (2 Kings 18:14–16 and 20:6b–8
), and the usual assumption has been that the redactors of the book of Isaiah utilized this material from 2 Kings, in which
Isaiah himself is named, as an important element in the tradition about ‘their’ prophet. Only very conservative scholars,
anxious to hold Isaiah himself responsible for the whole of chs. 1–66
, have rejected this approach. Detailed commentary, and an exploration of the considerable historical problems here raised,
has therefore usually been undertaken in the context of 2 Kings.
In recent years, however, this situation has changed, and a number of scholars have argued that these chapters were first
composed within the Isaiah tradition and then taken into 2 Kings. Williamson (1994: 189–211) offers a ‘lengthy discussion’. Whatever the circumstances of composition it is clear that these chapters play a very important
part in the structure of the book of Isaiah as a whole. The community was under threat. That arose first of all from the Assyrians.
God in his graciousness had destroyed that threat. But that did not mean that the people were henceforth out of danger. God
might raise up another and greater threat—the Babylonians. These chapters tell of the overthrow of the Assyrians and warn
of the greater danger lying ahead. Chs. 38–9
can therefore legitimately be seen as, in the title of Ackroyd's essay, ‘An Interpretation of the Babylonian Exile’ (Ackroyd 1987: 152–71).
In what follows attention will primarily be directed to that material in these chapters which seems to have played a significant
role in the shaping of the Isaiah tradition. For more general considerations, see the commentary on these chapters in 2 Kings.
We know of Sennacherib's exploits from his own records, e.g. the ‘Taylor Prism’ in the British Museum (DOTT: 67); the campaign here referred to took place in 701 BCE. 2 Kings 18:14–16
describes Hezekiah's admission of defeat and payment of substantial reparations. The absence of those verses here gives a
radically different picture, both of Hezekiah himself and of the fate of the community. Hezekiah, unmentioned by name since
but perhaps hinted at in the oracles looking to an ideal Davidic ruler, will be portrayed in idealistic terms contrasting
markedly with the description of Ahaz his father (Ackroyd 1987: esp. 175–6). The ‘fortified cities of Judah’ may fall and Jerusalem be confronted ‘with a great army’, but YHWH has yet to reveal his
will for his own city. The confrontation takes place at the same place as that between Isaiah and Ahaz in
. We are being prepared for the great contrast between the renegade behaviour of Ahaz and the appropriate response from Hezekiah.
With a nice irony the Assyrian king's envoy, the Rabshakeh, is pictured as echoing Isaiah's words (cf. chs. 30–1
): to rely on Egypt is to put one's trust in a broken reed. There has been no reference in Isaiah to the removal of ‘high
places and altars’, but it is entirely consonant both with Isaiah's stress on Jerusalem and with the idealization of Hezekiah.
Again there is irony in the words put into the Rabshakeh's mouth, ‘The LORD said to me, Go up against this land’, for we know that Assyria is nothing more than a rod in God's hand sent against a godless
We have seen already that the issue of proper language is a concern of the book of Isaiah (
). Aramaic and Hebrew are closely related languages, and some parts of the ‘Hebrew’ Bible, particularly of Daniel and Ezra,
are written in Aramaic. If the words here quoted had actually been spoken by Eliakim it would suggest that he and his colleagues
were extraordinarily poor diplomats, revealing in this way the weakness of their position. Much more likely we have here a
concern that the sacred language should not be heard in the mouth of the hated Assyrians.
As in ch. 10
the Assyrians do not know the real truth of the situation. Their words are a blasphemous parody of the real situation. Hezekiah
will be able to deliver the city through his trust in YHWH's deliverance. The promises of the Assyrians are a mockery of the truth.
Of course the gods of the nations had not delivered their lands from the Assyrians, for they were no-gods, powerless to achieve
anything. In the catalogue in vv. 18–19
the inclusion of Samaria may be a thrust against the alleged apostasy of the northern kingdom of Israel. The only appropriate
response to such arrogance is silence (v. 21
) (Ackroyd 1987: 112).
Hezekiah's response is a model of correctness. He acknowledges his human weakness, he enters God's temple, he turns to the
prophet of YHWH, Isaiah, asking for his prayers. The description of Isaiah as a ‘prophet’ here is the first of its kind; the
few previous references in the book to prophets have been of a very disparaging nature. It may well be that Isaiah was ‘enlisted’
as a prophet only in much later tradition, when prophetic words were perceived as the way in which God guided the people.
the word of YHWH to the king conveyed through Isaiah is ‘Do not be afraid’ (
has ‘do not fear’ for the same Heb. expression). Ahaz had failed to stand firm; Hezekiah is pictured as putting his trust
in divine protection. (Conrad 1991: 36–40 draws out the parallels between the two narratives.) We need to remember, here as elsewhere, that this is the verdict of
a particular religious tradition. It would not be difficult in political and historical terms to praise Ahaz for coming to
a successful modus vivendi with the Assyrians and to condemn the foolhardiness of Hezekiah which led to an extended period of vassalage.
The promise in v. 7
is not taken up again until vv. 36–8
, and it is often held that a second account of the same events is inserted between the promise and the account of its fulfilment.
If this is correct the break comes after ‘fight against you’ in v. 9a
. Childs (1967: 69–103) discusses the historical and literary problems; Clements (1980b
) offers a theological appraisal of the two narratives. For discussion of the historical problems, in particular those relating
to Tirhakah, see the commentary on 2 Kings. Many of the themes of the first narrative recur again in vv. 9b–20
, with stronger theological emphasis. In particular Hezekiah's prayerful response is brought out (vv. 14–20
). Though it is prose it has many of the characteristics of a psalm of lament. The uniqueness and the creative power of YHWH
are stressed, along with the impotence of other so-called gods, in a way that clearly anticipates chs. 40–8
Hezekiah's prayer is followed by words put into the mouth of Isaiah, but they are scarcely an ‘answer’. Instead, they are
addressed to the king of Assyria. They bear comparison with the divine response to Assyrian boasting in
, and also (NB v. 26
in particular) with the recurrent motif in chs. 40–55
that contemporary events are the fruition of what has been the plan of YHWH for long generations.
Like Ahaz (
), Hezekiah is offered a ‘sign’. Ahaz had refused it; that possibility is not even envisaged for Hezekiah. The land is to
undergo a kind of Sabbath year (cf. Lev 25:5
). Then in language closely reflecting earlier passages in the book (cf. esp.
and the earlier usage of ‘remnant’ language) the survival of the city is promised. The certainty that this will happen is
underlined in the same way as the enthronement oracle in
9:2–7; v. 32b
is identical with
The ideal picture of Jerusalem's security in vv. 33–5
seems somewhat to outrun historical fact. It is by no means clear that Jerusalem was as immune from attack as is suggested
here. YHWH is pictured as asserting that this is to be done ‘for my own sake’, a phrase characteristic of the later chapters
of Isaiah (e.g.
For the historical issues arising from these verses, see the commentary on 2 Kings. In their context in Isaiah they fulfil
the warnings against the proud boastings of the Assyrians in
and elsewhere. One threat against the community has been removed, but it is not yet the time for unthinking rejoicing. Another
threat is looming.
The introductory ‘in those days’ is very imprecise; we need not suppose that the events described in this chapter occurred
later than the Assyrian attack just described. More important is the picture of Hezekiah that is conveyed. Modern ideas of
modesty and self-control admired in some parts of the West should be set to one side; Hezekiah can announce his own virtues
and can also weep. He asserts his own ‘faithfulness’, a word from the same root as the warning to Ahaz to ‘stand firm’ in
, and in the response is recognized as a true son of David. The tradition asserts that Hezekiah reigned for 29 years (2 Kings 18:2
), so that the promised addition of 15 years to his life and the promise of freedom from the Assyrian threat invite us to
consider this event in close association with the deliverance already described. The relatively rare verb gānan, to defend, links v. 6
(NRSV ‘protect’) and
. (At this point there are significant differences between Isaiah and 2 Kings, both in what is contained and in the order
of the material; Sweeney (1988a
: 14–15) and Williamson (1994: 202–8) offer comments on these divergences.)
Whereas God's own words were reported in the preceding verses, now Isaiah speaks. Once again a sign is given to Hezekiah.
In 2 Kings he bargains with God for a more convincing form of the sign; here that form is directly offered. Presumably what
is described was regarded as in some way remarkable or even miraculous, but problems of translation (cf. NRSV fn.) make this
uncertain. The mention of Ahaz makes us wonder whether some comparison is again intended, but it seems likely that ‘the dial
of Ahaz’ was a recognized feature of the palace–temple complex.
This ‘Psalm of Hezekiah’ has no parallel in the 2 Kings account. It is of a form readily recognizable in the Psalms: the Individual
Thanksgiving. v. 9
provides the context of recovery from illness, and this may well have been one of those settings for which Psalms of Thanksgiving
were provided. vv. 10–15
are in the form of a lament, spelling out with a variety of imagery the ill fate which has befallen the psalmist. Up to that
point there are close similarities with Ps 88
, but that psalm has no happy ending, whereas here the plea for deliverance in v. 16
is followed by the confident cry of those who have recovered from their troubles. The assumption in v. 18
is that death cuts one off from the opportunity to praise God; Sheol and the Pit are isolated from the presence of God. This
is a different picture from that which we found in chs. 25 and 26
, but, like the closely related Ps 115:16–18
, it makes important theological assertions about the value of this life. But this is more than a purely individual thanksgiving.
The restoration can be seen as that of the whole community, able to worship once more at its holy place after the disaster
of exile. ‘The illness of Hezekiah and the death sentence upon him become a type of judgment and exile’ (Ackroyd 1987: 165). The ‘stringed instruments’ of v. 20
are unexpected; such a reference is more usually found in the heading of Psalms (e.g. Ps 4:1
) and may serve the same purpose here.
In the 2 Kings parallel these verses, in substantially identical form, appear earlier, and REB has placed them after Isa 38:6
(cf. also BHS, which makes the same proposal). NRSV resolves the tension by translating the verbs as pluperfects (‘had said’). But, awkward
though it may be for translators, it is likely that the present order is intentional. Hezekiah had been shown to be faithful
even before the sign of healing had taken place. The motif is similar to that expressed in the words of Jesus to Thomas (Jn 20:29
). Again, Hezekiah's request for a sign that he ‘may go up to the house of the LORD’ relates now not to the sundial (as in 2 Kings 20
) but to the hope for restoration of its true place of worship to the whole community. The king may legitimately be seen as
representative of the larger community.
A Babylonian theme is now introduced. Merodach-baladan (Marduk-apla-iddina) is known to have been a long-standing threat to
Assyria's assured control of Babylon, but he functions here in effect as a symbolic figure. His envoys come ‘from a far country,
from Babylon’, which is surely symbolic of the threat of exile. Similarly the emphasis on their seeing all that is in the
storehouses—a quite unnecessary detail in historical terms—is a clear hint of the despoliation of palace and temple by the
The forewarning of the exile becomes even more explicit. Hezekiah's response has often been taken as a deplorably complacent
reaction, washing his hands of any responsibility for such a disaster, but it seems most unlikely that that is how we should
read v. 8
. It begins with the obedient king acknowledging that all that will happen is within God's providence. Then he asserts his
confidence in God's šālôm (peace). It is likely that a deliberate contrast is being made here between the šālôm of Hezekiah with the repeated assertion in the following chapters (
) that ‘there is no peace for the wicked’ (Williamson 1994: 210).
Traditionally, historical-critical studies of Isaiah have made a sharp division at this point, with commentaries often assigned
to two different authors working independently. On any showing it seems an unusual place for a division, with ch. 39
ending as it does with a look forward to the threat of the Babylonian exile in the context of the book as a whole which sees
hope beyond that threat.
In critical orthodoxy these chapters are regularly referred to as Deutero-Isaiah, with the underlying assumption that there
was a prophet who could be referred to in that way who was active among a group of exiles from Judah in Babylon in the 540s
BCE. Attempts have been made to reconstruct some of the obscure details of Babylonian history on the basis of these chapters
(see esp. Smith 1944
). In German scholarship in particular one comes across references to the ‘book of Deutero-Isaiah’; thus Kratz (1991
), and, regrettably, Albertz (1990
) in an otherwise very perceptive article concerned with the whole book of Isaiah. Kratz is also one of several scholars who
have attempted to discern different redactional levels within these chapters, so that the picture of this material as one coherent block is no longer part of
the scholarly consensus. In particular, attention is paid to differences between chs. 40–8 and 49–55 (Merendino (1981
); see also the notes in this commentary at the end of ch. 48
There is certainly no book of Deutero-Isaiah, only some anonymous chapters within the larger collection which we are studying.
Attempts to structure history on the basis of poetry are notoriously difficult. But does the substantive point remain? Was
there really a poet-prophet among a community of Jews in Babylon in the last years before its overthrow by Cyrus? It may be
so. But we should recognize that the evidence is much less secure than is often supposed. In the first place the existence
of a substantial community of Jewish exiles, living and presumably worshipping together, is assumed. But it is surely a very
unlikely assumption. All that we know of ancient imperial practice in such matters suggests that they would have been dispersed,
particularly if they were regarded as posing any kind of threat to good order. The idea of the massive deportation of a community
which was able to remain together and in due course to return together owes more to ideology than to the known facts of history.
Secondly, there are very few historical allusions in these chapters which allow us to place them with confidence. In effect
they amount to the two specific references to Cyrus (
), and several less certain but likely allusions to him. Cyrus is a known figure of history whose career reached its climax
with the seizure of Babylon in 539 BCE. This only establishes that these chapters (if they are taken as a unity) cannot have been written before that date; they
could perfectly well be later. In fact so much attention has been given to the task of showing that these chapters cannot
be earlier than the sixth century that little attention has been paid to the possibility that they could be later. (Two scholars
who have explored this possibility are Torrey (1928) and Simon (1953
); their views have won little support among more recent studies.) This is not the context to explore in detail an alternative
reading; we should at least be open to the possibility that, in the context of the whole book of Isaiah, Cyrus is mentioned
in the same way as Sennacherib, as a figure from the distant past who was perceived as having played a significant role as
God's will for his community took shape. Cyrus is given favourable attention in 2 Chr 36:22–3
and in Ezra 1–6
; those references, or the source on which they were based, may provide the origin of the similarly favourable attention to
Cyrus here. There is no independent historical evidence to support the view that Cyrus knew anything of YHWH and his worshippers,
or that he singled out a Judahite group for favourable treatment. In this context it may also be worth noting that specific
references to Babylon in these chapters are very few; indeed, Duhm, who did so much to establish modern study of ‘Deutero-Isaiah’,
gave these chapters a Phoenician rather than a Babylonian setting (Schramm 1995: 22).
We shall look at these chapters as poetry which continues to explore the mystery of God's dealings with his worshippers. There
are important links and parallels with what has preceded, but also some characteristic new developments, both in style and
in theological viewpoint, which must not be neglected. While the historical arguments for isolating these chapters as a separate unit dating from the 540s may be less strong than has sometimes been
supposed, the distinctive features which led to the postulating of a ‘Deutero-Isaiah’ remain and should not be ignored.
The end of ch. 39
has supplied the geographical context: Babylon. The next few chapters will retain their concern for Jerusalem, as v. 2
makes clear, but the immediate setting is Jerusalem in exile. By the time that these poems were brought together it had become
clear that the punishment brought about by the Babylonians, including the deportation of many of Jerusalem's leading citizens,
had not been the end of the story; some at least of their descendants had been able to return. And since that return had taken
place during the period of Persian rule, the Persians here as elsewhere in the HB are looked upon with favour. Presumably
they were still ruling the community when this material reached its final form.
The message of comfort in these verses and the clear intimation that the time of punishment is over suggests a comparison
between this chapter and ch. 6
. There the prophet had been summoned to make clear the extent of forthcoming judgement; here the equivalent announcement
is that the time of punishment is past. ‘Double for all her sins’ sounds unjust, and has often been taken as no more than
a deliberate exaggeration; Phillips (1982
) suggests that the ‘doubling’ may refer to an innocent generation of those who had undergone exile. In this way the idea
of suffering on behalf of others, which plays a prominent part in these chapters, is already introduced. There are uncertainties
in these first verses as to who is speaking. What begins as a divine word (v. 1
) refers to YHWH in the third person in v. 2
, and this uncertainty persists through much of ch. 40
, beginning with the unidentified ‘voice’ of v. 3
Each of the first three Gospels saw in this passage a prefiguration of John the Baptist, and applied it accordingly, though
at the expense of the parallelism, for they have the voice ‘crying in the wilderness’ (Mt 3:3; Mk 1:3; Lk 3:3
). But there are also important links within Isaiah: the expression qôl qōrē (NRSV ‘a voice cries out’) is virtually identical with
(‘the voices of those who called’). Just as in
‘the whole earth is full of his glory’, so here the glory of YHWH is to be revealed so that ‘all people shall see it together’.
As elsewhere in these chapters there is an ambiguity in the interpretation of such a phrase. It can be construed universalistically,
with the God of Israel being known by all the world, and much Christian theology has favoured this understanding. But it can
also be interpreted in terms of YHWH as the triumphant warrior, putting all his enemies to rout.
The transformation of the wilderness also played an important part in ch. 35
. Underlying these allusions is the tradition of the Exodus and wilderness wandering, when God had led the people to the promised
land. The deliverance from Babylon will frequently be pictured in these chapters as a new and greater Exodus.
A further reference to a voice suggests that the setting of this whole section may be the divine council, and this would provide
another link with ch. 6
, a link which is still further strengthened when we note that the phrase qôl ᾽ōmēr (‘a voice says’) is found in
. Only here and in ch. 6
in the whole Bible are the two expressions, ‘a voice cries out’ and ‘a voice says’ juxtaposed (Williamson 1994: 38). In the light of these similarities it is natural to interpret ‘the word of our God’ (v. 8
) as referring to the book of Isaiah itself. ‘I said’ might seem to contradict what has been said of the anonymity of these
chapters, but (though unacknowledged by NRSV) this is an—admittedly very widely followed—emendation of the Hebrew text, which
has ‘and he said’ (Albertz 1990: 247).
The basic theme of these verses is human transitoriness. In the Near East the summer heat quickly withers the grass, and that
is the image used here. But there may also be a literary cross- reference. At
the people were described as a ‘fading flower’; here an almost identical expression is used (‘the flower fades’) to remind
the people of their parlous state before the divine rescue had been undertaken. The word translated ‘constancy’ is Hebrew
ḥesed, usually ‘steadfast love’ or the like. There is much dispute whether that meaning is acceptable here, or whether an emendation
should be made (cf. RSV ‘beauty’).
Jerusalem is now directly addressed, a warning against giving too specifically ‘Babylonian’ a setting to this section. As
frequently in Isaiah (and, of course, in the Psalms), Jerusalem is the place of the divine self-revelation. Though different
imagery is used, this passage is strongly reminiscent of the promise to Zion in
and of the return of the dispersed in
. Here it is clear that God is pictured as a conquering king; the image of the king as shepherd of his people is a common
one (cf. Ps 23; 78:70–2
A series of questions follows, a form characteristic of these chapters, especially the early ones. They are legal in character,
based on the questions in a trial as to the truth of a disputed issue. Each set of questions is followed by an answer. For
the poet the answers are not really uncertain; the answer is of course that YHWH is responsible for the whole order of creation.
This will become a fundamental claim in the chapters that follow, and provide the basis for the often-made claim that these
chapters are legitimately described as ‘monotheistic’. This is an issue to which we shall need to return.
In vv. 12–14
the answer to all the questions is clearly ‘Nobody’. YHWH himself is responsible for the ordering of creation, seen as a
supreme example of skilful planning. This concern for creation, though not absent in the earlier chapters of the book, is
one of the distinctive features of this section, especially chs. 40–5
. Underlying the questions may be the idea of a divine council, with the implication that YHWH, who achieves all by his own
power, is superior to the Babylonian gods who needed the advice of others (Whybray 1971
); as we have seen, however, the idea of a divine council in attendance upon YHWH is also found in this chapter.
The questions are rhetorical and are not directly answered, but vv. 15–17
balance them by making statements which assert that all the nations are as nothing by comparison with the power of YHWH.
Lebanon may be chosen as a specific example because of its fertility and the richness of its forests, but we should also remember
the reference to Lebanon when a similar but false claim was put into the mouth of the Assyrians (
The questions continue, addressed now to a ‘you’ who will be identified in v. 27
as ‘Jacob’ and ‘Israel’. They take up a theme which was already raised in the Hezekiah narrative (
) and will recur several times. Whenever these poems were composed, they have as part of their background a community tempted
by the worship of human-made representations of the divine. Such ‘idols’ are fiercely condemned as no more than human workmanship.
There is no recognition that they might stand for something greater than themselves. Given the prominence of artistic representation
in the Christian tradition it is surprising that these chapters, with their harsh denigration of such representation, have
been esteemed as highly as they have. vv. 19–20
have been widely held to be an interpolation (Whybray 1975: 55), but there is no textual evidence to support their omission.
The address to Jacob/Israel becomes more specific, with a note of accusation. The community should have recognized the creative
power and achievement of YHWH. Another motif already touched upon in
is reapplied: the mysterious and apparently meaningless development of history is in God's control. More specifically, and
relevant to the overall thrust of the book, those ‘princes’ and ‘rulers of the earth’ who imagine that they control the world's
destinies are ‘as nothing’. v. 24
sees a reuse of the imagery already employed in v. 7
By a kind of inclusio the questions here are closely similar to those in v. 18
, strongly implying that God's creative power is beyond any comparison. The use of the characteristic Isaianic phrase ‘the
Holy One’ binds this section into the larger structure of the book. We notice also the use of the verb bārā᾽, ‘created’, a word virtually confined in its usage to the divine as creator and rare outside the Priestly account of creation
in Gen 1
. It is used 19 times in Isa 40–66
; its one usage in
) seems not to offer any special link.
The series of questions reaches a climax, being now directly addressed to the community. The overarching power of God in no
way implies that he has no concern for his own worshippers, and this is shown by the way in which the same form of question,
already put to the Assyrian ruler (
), is used both at v. 21
and here, v. 28
. The complaint of Jacob/Israel that they are neglected or ignored by God is answered with the twofold assertion, of the universal
creative power of God, and of his continuing concern for the faint and powerless.
These verses take up a literary form which we have seen to be characteristic of Isaiah from
onwards: the trial scene. But whereas in that first poem it was the people of YHWH who were themselves accused, now it is
rival gods whose claims are under scrutiny. The trial begins with the summons to universal silence, and the invitation to
the witnesses to come forward for judgement (mišpāṭ, a typically Isaianic word, as we have frequently seen). Then with v. 2
the first main speech, setting out YHWH's claim, begins (Schoors 1973
). It has been widely supposed that there must be a specific reference to an individual in the ‘victor from the east’, and
opinion has been divided between the traditional interpretation, which from the Targum onwards has understood this of Abraham,
and the usual modern scholarly view, which sees here an implicit reference to Cyrus, who will later be mentioned by name (Jones 1971
sets out some of the strengths and weaknesses of each approach). But there is an underlying issue which has been less often addressed: how far
is it proper to see specific reference to particular individuals and events in poetry of this kind? In the most general terms
it is from the east (as in this verse) and the north (so v. 25
) that the threats to Israel's safety emerged. What underlies this poem is the conviction that those areas of greatest danger
were also those of great promise: YHWH's power was at work.
NRSV ‘who has roused a victor’ is rather free, and misses the point that the word translated ‘victor’ is actually ṣedeq, a frequent Isaianic word which is usually better understood as ‘righteousness’ or the like. Though ‘victory’ (so RSV) is
a possible translation, the connotations are not exclusively military. v. 4
emphasizes that YHWH has been active since the very beginning, a clear allusion to his creative role. The following phrase
can be literally translated ‘and with the last I am he’. ‘I am he’ is a designation of YHWH, which may play on the form of
his name and is found several times in these chapters. We are reminded that this is poetry rather than a transcript of an
actual trial by the fact that the coastlands, summoned as witnesses in v. 1
, are now referred to in the third person. vv. 5–7
describe one—ineffectual—human alternative to the claims made by YHWH. They suppose wrongly that diligence in the making
of idols may bring them a reward.
These verses serve as a contrast to what has preceded, but they also introduce a new theme which will be of great importance.
The idea of a ‘servant’ played a small part in the earlier chapters, being used as a designation of the unworthy Eliakim in
and of the figure of David in
, but it now comes to the fore as a description of major significance, the noun being used more than 20 times in chs. 40–55
. Its first usage is obviously important in establishing the sense in which we are to understand it, and here it is clear
that the community of Israel/Jacob is so described. We shall need to consider later, especially when the suffering of the
servant is described, whether all the occurrences of the term can be so understood, but in Jewish tradition this interpretation
has been the dominant one. In the present context the people are reminded that, just as YHWH has control over enemy forces
from the east and north, so in the past he has brought them from distant lands.
They are bidden not to fear. This is the same expression as was used to Ahaz (
) and Hezekiah (
); it is as if the community is here addressed in the same way as kings had been, offering them assurance, setting out the
reasons why their confidence is warranted, and giving them orders for their future behaviour (Conrad 1985: 104–5). Just as YHWH has called other kings from earth's farthest corners, so he has summoned his own worshippers as if they too
should enjoy royal status. ‘Victorious’ again conceals a reference to ṣedeq, as in v. 2
—an important reminder that victory must be accomplished by the proper ordering of the conquered world. The reference to those
who ‘contend with’ and ‘war against’ the people is a further warning against interpreting the beginning of this chapter too
specifically of Cyrus, who came to be perceived as a support for Israel.
Another ‘do not fear’ oracle follows, but with an important difference in the way that it describes the community. By contrast
with the exalted relation to God set out in vv. 8–9
, Jacob/Israel (there seems to be no significance in the inversion in order of the two terms) has become a ‘worm’ and an ‘insect’.
The latter description is based on an emendation (cf. RSV ‘men of Israel’) but is likely to be original—it may well have been
too offensive for later copiers, because the Akkadian word on which the emendation is based means ‘a louse’. God is again
described as ‘the Holy One of Israel’, but a new description is also applied: Redeemer, gō᾽ēl. In modern usage this word has a predominantly religious sense, but in ancient Israel it was used of a kinsman who owed duty
to relatives who through bereavement or other circumstances needed help. This is a strong metaphor to use of God, and bears
comparison with the picture of God as mother which we also find in these chapters. The rather confused figurative language
of vv. 15–16
stresses that Israel has itself an important part to play in the carrying out of God's purposes. The analogy with ‘chaff’
(môṣ) reminds us of
But whatever part Israel had to play, the decisive acts of deliverance were those of YHWH himself. As in the story of the
wandering through the wilderness in Exodus and Numbers it is YHWH himself who will supply water and make the land fruitful.
The oracle is a further elaboration of the journey on which YHWH was to lead his people (
), and the consequence would be that an even wider audience (‘all’, v. 20
) would see YHWH's mighty acts.
We return to the legal language which has pervaded this chapter. The challenge is now put to other gods and their adherents
in a way which will be of considerable importance for the understanding of these chapters and of the book of Isaiah as a whole.
The gods are challenged to produce evidence of their capacity to predict the future or explain the past, indeed to do anything
at all. It soon becomes clear that this is not a real trial; no opportunity is given for the other side to offer a defence.
The poem ends with a dismissive condemnation, not only of the gods themselves but even more basically of those who trust in
Now the contrasting position is set out: the claim made by YHWH of the effectiveness of his action. He has the capacity to
summon conquerors from both north and east (‘from the rising of the sun’). ‘He was summoned by name’ (NRSV) follows the Dead
Sea scroll text, where RSV, following MT, had ‘he shall call on my name’. NRSV is to be preferred; the idea of YHWH personally
summoning those whom he wishes to do his will is characteristic of Isaiah. By contrast with the so-called gods, YHWH has made
his purpose clear ‘from the beginning’ and ‘beforehand’. In their present context it seems natural to read these words as
referring to the earlier part of Isaiah, which has spread out YHWH's purpose in one great panorama. The theme of the ‘herald
of good tidings’, already hinted at in
, will be developed more explicitly in
. The section ends with further polemic against the uselessness of other gods. This is expressed so frequently and with such
vehemence in these chapters that the threat they presented must have seemed to be a real one.
These verses have attracted much attention since their isolation by Duhm, more than a century ago, as one of four distinct
poems known as Servant Songs. (The others are
49:1–6; 50:4–9; 52:13–53:12
.) Duhm held that these poems make specific reference to a suffering individual and originate from an author different from the Deutero-Isaiah of chs. 40–55
. His theory has generated a vast literature; North (1948) and Rowley (1952
) offer surveys of interpretation up to the mid-century, and the spate has shown little sign of abating since. (Whybray (1983: 68–78 and bibliog.), offers a briefer outline of later views.) Several recent scholars (e.g. Mettinger 1983 and Barstad 1994
) have, however, questioned the notion of a distinct collection of Servant Songs. The approach we have tried to follow here
renders the notion of a distinct body of Servant Songs problematic on two accounts. First, it has not seemed possible to be
specific about authorship of individual sections within the whole poetic library which we call the book of Isaiah. Secondly,
the idea of particular poetic sections referring to specific individuals, in principle identifiable, has seemed a very doubtful
one. Better, surely, to try to understand this poem, like the others, in the context in which we find it. If that be accepted,
we shall immediately think of the servant as the community (cf. 41:8
), an assumption that goes back at least as far as LXX which has ‘my servant Jacob…my chosen one Israel’. A further link with
the earlier passage is provided by the use of the verb tāmak, ‘uphold’, both in
The community is here described in royal terms. The ‘servant of YHWH’ is an appropriate description for the king himself (e.g.
). As with the hoped-for king in ch. 11
the spirit of God is upon the servant; as in both chs. 9 and 11
the servant's task is to ‘bring forth justice to the nations’. This conviction that the king would exercise world-wide justice
is found also in the Psalms (e.g. 72); it would be unwise to argue from this, as is sometimes done, to a new understanding
of universalism in these chapters. The importance of justice is underlined by the threefold repetition of mišpāṭ in the four verses. Not only is it an important part of the royal role, it also is significant in the light of the ‘trial’
speeches which have preceded this poem. Less obvious is the meaning of vv. 2 and 4
; some form of ritual humiliation undergone by the king has been suggested, but there is no independent support that such
a ritual was ever practised. It has been linked with the theme of suffering and this has led to the servant of these poems
being described as ‘the suffering servant’, but such an association is at best only very indirect.
The next oracle is introduced by what is often described as the ‘messenger formula’, ‘Thus says God, the LORD’. In some prophetic collections this leads directly into a—usually very harsh—message. Here by contrast the whole of v. 5
is given over to identifying the source of the message, and when the message itself does emerge it is largely in the form
of divine self-praise. It is a literary device of which we shall see many examples in these chapters. God is the universal
creator, and the breath and spirit with which the servant-community was endowed come from him. vv. 6–7
address the servant once more, first as God's people, then ‘as a covenant to the people’ (NRSV translation, which is accompanied
by the footnote, ‘Meaning of Hebrew uncertain’). The words are familiar enough; the uncertainty arises as to their precise
force. One possible solution lies in the fact that the Hebrew word bĕrît does not always have the bilateral force associated with ‘covenant’. It may sometimes denote an obligation laid upon an individual
or a community. It may therefore be right to see the sense here as a reminder of the obligation laid upon Israel as God's
servant-community (so Whybray 1975: 74–5).
The phrase ‘a light to the nations’ has powerful resonances in the Christian tradition, not least from its liturgical use
in the Nunc Dimittis, the evening canticle based on Lk 2:32
. But it is unlikely that any ‘missionary’ requirement is here being laid upon the servant. Rather, the confident expectation
is that the nations at large will come to see the work that YHWH has wrought on behalf of his own people, and realize thereby
the contrast between their own ineffective gods and the capacity of YHWH. Whereas in
the now impotent earthly ruler had tried to prevent his prisoners from gaining their freedom, here prisoners will be released
from captivity. That contrast may be implicit in the ‘former things’/‘new things’ comparison in v. 9
What follows is a psalm, bearing striking similarities to the Psalms in praise of YHWH as king found in Ps 93; 96–9
. We are reminded once again of the close links between the poetry of this collection and what is known of the liturgical
tradition of Jerusalem expressed in the Psalms. After an opening identical with Ps 96:1 and 98:1
, NRSV follows a very widely favoured emendation to ‘let the sea roar’, a phrase again found in those Psalms, rather than
the Hebrew ‘those who go down to the sea’, which, though found in Ps 107:23
, does not give good sense here. The naming of geographical areas which follows has no precise Psalm parallel, though the
theme of universal praise is a common one there. The poem ends with the assertion, again common in the Psalms, of the warlike
character of YHWH. The poets of the Hebrew Bible found no difficulty in expressing their belief in this aggressive manner.
The imagery of a woman about to give birth is frequent in the HB, but it usually signifies mortal fear. It is used here uniquely
to describe the feelings of YHWH, and its association with the saving acts described in the following verses is a vivid simile.
(Pfisterer Darr 1994: 104 argues that vv. 10–17
should be taken as one unit, which would juxtapose the themes of YHWH as warrior and as travailing mother even more powerfully.)
Here again a figure of speech previously used in the oracle against Babylon is now reused and reapplied in a remarkable way.
The poem goes on to spell out God's saving acts in a way that at first seems negative (‘lay waste’, ‘dry up’) but is rapidly
transformed into a powerful picture of transformation in language filled with imagery from the description of the Exodus.
All this is to be done for YHWH's own people; the poem ends with a renewed warning against those who continue to put their
trust in useless human-made images.
The inherent ambiguity of the servant's status is brought out here. We know from
and later allusions that those who are deaf and blind are the community themselves, imprisoned in their own obstinacy by
divine decree. The servant is to be the means of deliverance from these afflictions (cf. v. 7
), yet the servant is also the community itself—stricken with blindness and deafness. (In v. 19
the threefold repetition of ‘blind’ is unexpected, and the word translated ‘my dedicated one’ is of uncertain meaning—Westermann
1969: 108 leaves it untranslated—but the general sense is clear.)
The latter part of the poem addresses these inconsistencies. The unhappy fate to which the community had been reduced is spelt
out, and it is made clear that this was all part of the divine purpose—a theme which runs right through Isaiah, and indeed
through much of the HB. God's anger had been vented against his people, but they had failed to grasp the true meaning of their
plight. The shift from first to third person is in places confusing, and it is not always immediately clear to whom each repetition
of ‘him’ refers, but what has been said above seems to reflect the main thrust of the passage.
An oracle of salvation follows, with the elaborate structure characteristic of these chapters. (The repetition of ‘Do not
fear’ in vv. 1 and 5
has led some to suppose that two originally separate oracles have been joined here, but we may properly take it as one passage,
with the repetition designed to emphasize the message.) The message is a very straightforward one of reassurance. There is
no mention of the wrongdoing of the community, or of divine punishment. Instead YHWH is completely in charge. He had created
them; he had made them part of his family (the root g-᾽-l, as we have already seen (
) has strong family implications); in both past experience and future hope he was active in delivering them from every kind
of danger. There have been a few comparable passages earlier in the book (
is one such, Williamson 1994: 126–8), but the unconditional confidence of this passage is striking. The references to Egypt, Ethiopia, and Seba in v. 3
have been understood as allusions to the expected conquest of those lands by the Persians, but it seems more likely that
they function to express distant, alien territory. Together with the four compass- points in vv. 5–6
they show the totality of YHWH's expected triumph.
We return to the language of a trial with the demand for witnesses. As in
Israel itself is blind and deaf, yet it retains the capacity to bear witness to YHWH's acts on its behalf. Indeed, all the
nations can offer no different witness. This concern for reliable witnesses reminds us of
, and points to the internal consistency of the very diverse elements which make up Isaiah (Clements 1985: 107). Thus in these verses the three themes of the blind and deaf, the community as servant, and the need for witnesses are all
interwoven, with the purpose of bringing out yet another assertion of the incomparability of YHWH. Again we may feel that
the perceived need for so constantly reiterating this theme may suggest that there were many who questioned it. In particular,
the reference to ‘no strange god’ in v. 12
may suggest that there were or had been those within the community itself who upheld the claims of gods other than YHWH.
The reference of chs. 40–55
to a group exiled to Babylon has been very widely assumed, but this is the first explicit reference to Babylon in these chapters.
In fact Babylon was last mentioned at ch. 39
, and this passage may be taken as an indication that the triumph of the Babylonians there implied will not be a lasting one.
The reference to ‘lamentation’ in NRSV is a speculative emendation of the text, said in the footnote to be uncertain. The
Hebrew text and older translations have a reference to ships (‘in ships is their rejoicing’, RV); it may be the inappropriateness
of this to Babylon that has led to the emendation. Perhaps it is not too fanciful here to see a link with the condemnation
of false trust in ships found earlier (
). It certainly offers a more natural connection to the following passage stressing the control of YHWH over the sea and the
mighty waters. The command not to remember the former things is unexpected, since elsewhere that is precisely what the hearers
of these oracles are commanded to do. One can only assume that the point is that former things—whether perceived as the earlier
oracles in Isaiah or past deeds of history—will pale into insignificance before ‘the new thing’ that can be expected in the
future. That is expressed once again, as in
, in terms of ‘a way in the wilderness’. In all these references there may be an allusion back to the wilderness wandering
described in Exodus and Numbers, but they go beyond that; the wilderness is chaos, uncreation, all that is basically most
resistant to YHWH's saving power.
An unexpected development follows. There have been many passages in which the community was described as blind and deaf, and
ultimately that was due to their failure (
). But for many chapters there have been no charges against the community for their limitations. Even more surprising is the
nature of the accusation now made. Whereas earlier in Isaiah (
) misplaced enthusiasm for worship had been condemned in terms similar to that of the other prophetic collections (Am 5:18–24; Hos 6:6; Mic 6:6–8
), here it is failure to participate in worship that is condemned. One explanation (Whybray 1975
) is to stress the word ‘me’ (repeated 8 times in 3 verses) and to suppose that the passage is concerned with the worship
of other gods. In any case this passage should serve as a warning against the supposition that chs. 40–55
have a purely Babylonian setting; presumably there would have been no opportunity there for worship of the kind whose absence
is here deplored.
These verses make it clear that the unexpected condemnation of Israel is to be seen in the context of the trial, no doubt
in order to stress that the community must not regard itself as free from blame. Now an assurance is given that past sins
will not be held against the people, despite their constant proclivity to sin. The ‘first ancestor’ may be Jacob, also called
‘Israel’ and thus in a real sense the founder of the people. If, as some have supposed, this is a reference to Adam in the
Garden of Eden it would be a rare example of such an allusion in the Hebrew Bible. But it is not clear who are the recipients
of the condemnation here; NRSV ‘interpreters’ might refer to those responsible for the tôrâ (cf. 8:20
), or if RSV ‘mediators’ is preferred the reference might be to prophets who had failed to pass on YHWH's words with integrity.
Again something more than ordinary priests seems to be implied by ‘princes of the sanctuary’, but the detailed nuances escape
Though we have expressed doubts about the adequacy of the evidence to identify a prophet active among the exiled Jews of sixth-century
Babylon (‘Deutero-Isaiah’) it seems very likely that the same poet was responsible for most of the material at least in chs. 40–5
. The same themes are repeated, the same literary style used. Yet again in these verses, after an introductory summons to
the servant Jacob to ‘Hear’, we find the assertion of the creative power of YHWH and another oracle of salvation characterized
by ‘Do not fear’. Again the theme which illustrates this care of YHWH for his people is the transformation of the wilderness. The metaphor is then modified, so that the people themselves are likened to
a wilderness which may look forward to renewed prosperity. Jeshurun is a rare synonym for Israel, found elsewhere in the HB
only in Deut 32 and 33
. Unusually, v. 5
appears to envisage those not of Israelite origin claiming to join the community of Israel, and this is likely to be what
underlies the reference to writing on the hand. Though it would give a misleading impression to describe these chapters or
any other part of the HB as missionary-minded, there are occasional references to foreigners being so impressed by YHWH's
work for his own people that they wish to join them (cf. Zech 8:20–3; 14:16–19
It is possible that this is part of a larger oracle, with its completion in vv. 21–2
, the intervening prose section being regarded as an insertion. However there is no textual support for this view, and it
seems best to treat the material in the form in which it has been handed down. These verses repeat forms and themes already
familiar: the messenger-formula; the use of ‘redeemer’ language; the assertion by YHWH of his own incomparability; the demand
for evidence in support of rival claims; the salvation formula ‘Do not fear’ (though in this case it is a different verb which
is so rendered). YHWH is here (and again at
) described as ‘the first and the last’ and Williamson (1994: 69–70) has drawn attention to the links with
. The same words are there found (NRSV ‘the former time’/‘the latter time’), and it may be right to read this passage in the
light of the claims there made for YHWH's saving power.
This extended section is printed as prose by NRSV and most versions, and this is probably right, though part of it is regarded
as poetry by BHS. As we have noted previously the distinction between prose and poetry in biblical Hebrew is not always a clear-cut one. However
that may be, the theme is a clear and familiar one: the mockery of those engaged in the manufacture and worship of idols.
The point is made in general terms in vv. 9–11
, after which there follows a description of idol-making and its absurd consequences in vv. 12–17
, and a conclusion poking fun at those who are so deluded as to engage in such practices in vv. 18–20
. The reference to their blindness in v. 18
reminds us of previous such descriptions of the Israelite community, and suggests that that may be the intended application
here. The reference to ‘witnesses’ in v. 9
provides a link with what has preceded. Whereas YHWH's own community were true witnesses (v. 8
), these witnesses are ignorant and will be put to shame. ‘The artisans are merely human’ (v. 11
) is a possible rendering of the Hebrew but seems odd in context: who would have supposed that workmen were anything other
than human? An emendation is possible which would read ‘incantations’ for ‘artisans’, aptly bringing out the point that all
the claims associated with idols are of merely human creation. This would then lead naturally into the—perhaps rather laboured—account
of the actual making of the idol. How far it is possible to read these verses as a reasonably accurate description of manufacturing
processes in the ancient world is disputed; vivid effect rather than precise description seems to have been the concern of
the writer. In any case the point is that what is worshipped as a god is actually no more than a left-over piece of wood.
If one were to say the same of a crucifix venerated by Christians great offence would be caused, but these verses seem to
have been accepted without question in both the Jewish and the Christian tradition. The last three verses (
) sum up the points already made, emphasizing the folly of those who suppose that objects made by human hands can have saving
Poetic forms are resumed, with this passage, as we have seen, being possibly the original completion of vv. 6–8
. The emphasis is on remembrance, not a mere calling to mind of past deeds, but their application as present reality. Servant
language is used, and the overall message is close to that of
. Past wrongdoing was real enough, but its impact has now been put completely out of sight.
A psalmlike passage comparable to
follows. As in that earlier passage the whole created order is summoned as witness to God's past (‘has redeemed’) and expected
future (‘will be glorifed’) work.
The messenger-formula at the beginning leads us to expect a prophetic oracle, but there is no message in the usual sense.
‘I am YHWH’ in the opening verse is followed by no fewer than 14 participial clauses (in NRSV relative clauses introduced
by ‘who’) characterizing the mighty acts of the Lord. They begin with further assertions of his creative power. More specific
claims follow, with v. 25
reminding us of earlier rejection of earthly wisdom (cf. 29:14
). The reference to ‘his servant’ in parallelism with ‘his messengers’ in v. 26
is unexpected, and it may be that we should follow Greek and other versions which have ‘servants’, a general reference to
the prophetic succession. But it is also possible either to interpret ‘the word of his servant’ in terms of the commissioning
set out in
, or, following a suggestion of Clements (1985: 108), to see here a reference back to
which had warned of the laying waste of cities. That had taken place in accordance with the word of God's servant who had
proclaimed that threat; now restoration could confidently be anticipated. v. 27
retains the cosmic note, but it is surrounded by images of restoration. Both before and after it we have a renewed promise
for the future of Jerusalem; this should not be taken as implying a specific date for this passage, since we know that as
late as the mid-fifth century Nehemiah still had the task of rebuilding the city's walls. Here also we find specific reference
to Cyrus, king of Persia 550–529 BCE. He extended Persian rule into much of Asia Minor and the surrender of Babylon in 539 was the climax of his reign. Whether
Persian rule was also effective in Palestine during his lifetime remains unknown, but there was a strong tradition that he
gave permission to the Jerusalem community to restore its temple (Ezra 6:3–5
), and that seems to be the picture which dominates this poem. Though never a worshipper of YHWH (despite the impression given
by 2 Chr 36:23; Ezra 1:2
) he became something of an idealized figure in the tradition of Israel, even to the extent of supposing that he authorized
a mass return of exiles. (See Kuhrt 1983
for an account of Cyrus's policy which notes the extent of this idealization and attempts a more balanced picture of his
policy.) It seems appropriate therefore to take the treatment of Cyrus here as a reflection from a later period and as the
mirror-image of the account of Sennacherib in chs. 36–7
. Each was equally under the control of YHWH, Sennacherib as a warning to the community of the threats involved in their sinfulness, Cyrus as the beneficent instrument through whom God's goodness to the community could be shown.
The role of Cyrus as YHWH's instrument in furthering the good of the community is now developed in greater detail. His work
is described in such positive terms that we might be tempted to identify him as YHWH's servant, if we did not already know
that Israel was that servant, a point reiterated in v. 4
. Meanwhile, just as the Assyrians had been enabled by YHWH to carry out their destructive work (ch. 10
), so Cyrus is given power to restore wholeness. He is first described as the anointed one, the ‘messiah’ (māšîaḥ). The evocative power of this title was tragically illustrated as recently as 1993, when the leader of the Branch Davidian
sect who was killed at Waco, Texas, took the name David Koresh (Koresh is the Heb. form of Cyrus) as part of his claim to
divine endorsement. To those who first heard Cyrus thus described it must have seemed as astonishing a claim as that which
described Nebuchadrezzar of Babylon as ‘the servant of YHWH’ in Jer 27:6
. Yet all the military victories which tradition credited to him were simply ‘for the sake of my servant Jacob’. The tradition
embodied here recognizes that Cyrus knew nothing of YHWH; he was an unwitting instrument of the divine purpose, which, in
a way left unspecified, would be recognized in Cyrus's achievements. The poem ends with a strong assertion of YHWH's uniqueness
as creator. The poet evidently saw no problem in describing YHWH as the creator of woe; indeed it is implicit in the way that
divine agency has been put forward as the reason for the people's misfortunes.
Christian liturgical use of this verse, especially in the season of Advent, has given it an eschatological dimension. In its
Isaianic context, however, it is a brief interjected hymn of praise. Righteousness (ṣedeq) and salvation (yeša῾), those key words through so much of Isaiah, are envisaged as flowing out from God's created order.
The theme of the prose section,
, is now taken up from a different angle. There it was taken for granted that a piece of wood was available for the ironsmith
and carpenter to use as they wished. Here, using a different but very popular metaphor, that of the potter, the absurd situation
is envisaged of the pot arguing with its maker. NRSV obscures the link with
and other earlier passages by translating the same word as ‘Ah’ there and ‘Woe’ here. There are very close links also with
(and there the same introductory word in v. 15
is translated ‘Ha!’!). Then in v. 10
for the first time in these chapters YHWH is directly referred to as ‘father’. This way of referring to God has become so
basic in later Jewish and especially Christian tradition that we are apt to forget that it is a comparative rarity in the
HB itself. Nearly all the texts that use the term are late ones; perhaps by the later period the danger of using obvious sexual
imagery in the description of God seemed less acute. Then, even more strikingly, YHWH is referred to as a mother bearing a
child. In vv. 11–13
the rather general reference of the ‘woe’ passages becomes specific: the community is still tempted to question YHWH's purpose
and his capacity to carry out that purpose. There is no specific reference to Cyrus in v. 13
(MT has ‘him’), but it is natural in this context to suppose the reference to be to Cyrus, without forgetting the larger
capacity of YHWH to use any instrument deemed appropriate to carry out his will. vv. 14–17
can be seen as part of the one larger unit, but they also have their own internal coherence. The theme hinted at in
, of other nations being so impressed by what YHWH has achieved for Israel that they wish to share in the benefits, is now
made more specific. Both the idea expressed and the geographical allusions show links with Ps 72:8–10
, and these lands have already been mentioned in
. The Egyptians, the oppressors of Israel up to the Exodus, will now come as a subject people. The Sabeans were probably also
an African people; in Ps 72:10
they are distinguished from ‘Sheba’ (whose queen was Solomon's famous visitor), but one wonders whether the difference went
beyond different spellings of the same far-off and largely unknown land. In v. 15
a theme first set out in
is picked up again. There God's hiddenness was a cause of bewilderment and uncertainty, alleviated only by the ‘signs’ of
his continuing presence. Here the ‘God who hides himself’ is also the Saviour. The link with vv. 16–17
is not an obvious one—these last verses return to the theme of the folly of idol-worship. It may be that in the poet's mind
these foreigners were associated with such false worship.
The section extending to the end of the chapter has been understood as another of the trial-scenes found in these chapters
(Schoors 1973: 233–8). As so often the messenger-formula is used, but there is no real message. Instead we have words put into the mouth of YHWH
asserting once again his incomparable status as creator, carrying out creative acts with a deliberate purpose of overthrowing
chaos and establishing a properly inhabited land. In a characteristically Isaianic way this is specified as ṣedeq (NRSV ‘the truth’).
Witnesses are now invited to challenge this claim, but before they can do so they are dismissed as ignorant worshippers of
false idols. Once again we are reminded that this is religious polemic, not an attempt to arrive at some impartial, balanced
judgement. ‘Who told this long ago?’ may well here, as in other comparable rhetorical questions in this part of the book,
represent a claim that the warnings made in the earlier part of Isaiah had been vindicated. This leads to the assertion of
YHWH's uniqueness; he alone is ṣaddîq (‘righteous’).
The trial is in effect over; what hope is there for the nations who have been found guilty of worshipping false gods? The
answer given in v. 22
has been interpreted in very different ways. Many Christian commentators have seen this as a message of universal salvation
offered to all people and have built elaborate doctrinal structures on such a basis, but there seems little justification
for this in the main thrust of the book of Isaiah. Others have seen here an invitation to the dispersed Jews, exiled to distant
parts of the world, to return to the true centre of the worship of YHWH. This is not impossible, but such a meaning owes much
to imaginative reconstruction. More probably ‘all the ends of the earth’ is to be understood cosmically; the whole created
order will recognize YHWH as having vindicated his people (Whybray 1975: 112). The same phrase is found at
, where this cosmic understanding comes over more clearly. ‘Vindicated’ is a less theologically charged translation than ‘saved’;
‘the English versions have been produced under strong universalist influence’ (Snaith 1967: 160). The passage is quoted in Rom 14:11
and alluded to in Phil 2:10
, in senses that seem far removed from their understanding in their present context.
The final and predictable verdict of the trial is now announced. Once again ‘righteousness’ (this time in the curious plural
form ṣĕdāqôt, possibly suggesting the translation ‘victory/ies’), is to be ascribed to YHWH.
We shall divide this chapter according to the paragraphs of NRSV, but there is a real sense in which it forms a unity. The
condemnations of idols, previously very generalized, now become more specific. Bel, the Akkadian equivalent of Baal, was another
title regularly applied to Marduk the chief Babylonian god. Nebo was another Babylonian god, particularly honoured in the
sixth century, whose name can be seen as an integral part of the imperial names Nebu-chadrezzar and Nabo-nidus. The processions
in their honour are here mocked. Those who associate these chapters with a specific prophet active among the exiles in Babylon
(Deutero-Isaiah) have to suppose that this part of the prophecy was an underground satire (ABD i. 653); a more natural view is that this poem originates from a later period, when the veneration of these gods was a thing
of the past. Cyrus attributed his victories to Marduk, but among his successors Zoroastrianism took hold, and against that
religious belief there is no satire in the HB. As elsewhere (cf. 40:19
) it is simply assumed that the idols are the gods. There is no victory for them; instead of bearing their worshippers' burden, they themselves become that burden.
The use of remnant language, rare in these later chapters, offers a direct link back to the beginning of the book. The element
of threat in the idea of remnant found in some passages (e.g.
) is now completely overlaid by the notion of the vindicated remnant. Where Bel and Nebo were totally incapable of bearing
any burden, YHWH will do this throughout their lives. The word ‘bear’ here is from the same root as ‘burden’ in v. 2
The comparison thus made leads into a rehearsal of some familiar themes: the incomparability of YHWH, and the folly of trusting
in human-made idols. There are close similarities both of theme and of language between v. 5 and 40:18
and between vv. 6–7
and parts of
. The poet(s) of these chapters certainly believed that the message needed to be hammered home.
is suspect textually, as the verb translated ‘and consider’ is of uncertain meaning, and it is not clear who the ‘transgressors’
are who are addressed at its end (though cf. v. 12
). The remainder of the passage has similarities with
, beginning with the summons to ‘remember’, then spelling out the incomparability of YHWH, and concluding with a reference
to the summoning of those who will carry out the divine purpose. In ch. 44
that was specifically identified with Cyrus; here no specific reference is made, though ‘bird of prey’ is a regular metaphor
for military conquerors, and there is no difficulty in identifying ‘the man for my purpose from a far country’ with Cyrus.
It is all to be understood as part of God's purpose.
So far the community has been addressed as those who needed persuasion of YHWH's ability; here (and possibly in v. 8
above) their attitude seems more negative. They are ‘stubborn of heart’, refusing to believe that YHWH's deliverance (or
‘victory’; once again the word is ṣĕdāqâ) could be imminent. It is obviously possible that this refers to the release of Babylonian exiles, but the reference to ‘salvation
in Zion’ makes it more natural to think of a community established in Jerusalem but still uncertain of the carrying out of
YHWH's promises spelt out in the whole book of Isaiah.
There has already been one taunt directed against Babylon, in chs. 13–14
. The mockery there was mainly of the king of Babylon; here the city itself is the victim. As Begg (1989: 124) notes, chs. 14 and 47
reflect the same gloating over the fate of Babylon, a fact which is the more remarkable in that in some other parts of the
HB the presentation of Babylon is neutral or even positive. Here, just as daughter Zion had once been apparently abandoned
to its fate (
), so now daughter Babylon will be put to shame. Daughter Zion was restored (
); no such hope can be entertained by Babylon. Demeaning labour and sexual humiliation is to be its fate. Though the exact
meaning of ‘I will spare no one’ is uncertain, the overall picture is clear, of gloating revenge against oppressors, for which
the credit is to be given to the ‘Holy One of Israel’. The title is another link with the earlier chapters of the book.
The following sections elaborate further on the miserable fate awaiting Babylon. Just as YHWH delivered his own people from
), so Babylon would be cast into darkness. It had not recognized that its success had been due to YHWH's own decree; its cruelty
and pride would now reap their own reward.
The image of the city as a ‘daughter’ is now taken further by picturing the greatest losses which could come upon a woman:
widowhood, and the loss of children. It was an inevitable fate, for Babylon had made claims which were proper only to YHWH
(cf. the ‘I am’ saying here with
). This picture is linked in a somewhat arbitrary way with renewed condemnation of false religious practice. Though in line
with the condemnations of idolatry in earlier chapters, there has been no specific reference previously to ‘sorceries and…enchantments’.
Confidence in human wisdom is once more condemned, and associated with the same blasphemous claim as was found in v. 8
. Babylonian expertise in magical arts is useless; they have failed to foresee the inevitable disaster.
The tone turns to mockery, analogous to the way in which Elijah mocked the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18:27
). But the ‘perhaps’ is heavily ironical; there is no doubt at all in the poet's mind—all the supposed expertise of the Babylonians
will in fact be useless. The point has been reiterated that gods other than YHWH cannot tell what will happen, and so attempts
to predict the future by means of heavenly observations will achieve nothing. (The expertise of the Babylonians in astronomy
was in fact considerable, but that is another story which cannot be pursued here.)
With a reference back to the (mis)use of wood in ch. 44
, and the implication that Babylon might be destroyed by burning, the mockery reaches its climax. This marks the end of an important element in Isaiah: the words directed against foreign nations. They have played a prominent part from
onwards. There will be virtually no further concern for nations other than Israel in the latter part of the book. (An apparent
exception to this, the references to Edom in ch. 63
, is not a true exception, as we shall hope to show when we reach that point in the commentary.) One obstacle in the way of
the community has been removed; the remaining difficulties in its becoming the true people of God are internal.
The next development is an unexpected one, so much so that many commentators in the historical-critical tradition have doubted
whether the whole of this chapter can originate from ‘Deutero-Isaiah’. From ch. 40
on the tone in address to the community has been one of comfort. There have been several trial scenes in these chapters;
perhaps the poet was anxious to avoid giving the impression that Israel was never more than an innocent victim and witness.
Here, in a way reminiscent of the earlier part of the book, the community is itself accused of falsity in their commitment
to YHWH. False trust, a theme often mentioned in the earlier chapters, appears to be the cause of complaint here.
A familiar mode of address, stressing YHWH's control of ‘former things’ is here put to new use: as an attack on the community
itself. They themselves are guilty of the kind of idolatry which has been so harshly condemned in other nations. It is scarcely
possible to engage in detailed sociological analysis in a commentary of this nature, but it may well be that we have one of
those pointers to divisions within the community which called itself Israel, signs of which become more marked in chs. 56–66
Themes characteristic of the preceding chapters are again used here but with very different emphases. At one level it would
be possible to take the openings of vv. 6 and 8
as flatly contradicting one another and to decide that one must be a later insertion. But that only raises the question of
why a later inserter should have produced this contradiction. Better to see here a poetic technique analogous to that used
in ch. 6
, where the people's initial failure to hear had led to their consequent inability to do so. We should also remember that
the servant-community was described as deaf and blind in
, yet that did not exclude its use as God's instrument.
The stress in this section is on what is done ‘for my name's sake’. ‘Name’ may simply stand for nature or character, as it
appears to do in Ezekiel, where this imagery is frequently found. But it is also possible that there is reference to the use
and abuse of the divine name YHWH, again with different groups claiming to be his true worshippers. One could envisage, though
there is no proof, that this was the kind of situation which led in the later biblical period to the abandonment of use of
the name itself.
A fresh summons to attention, again using the language of the lawcourt, reminds the hearers of YHWH's incomparability and
his creative power.
This reads like a reminder of some of the themes in the preceding chapters. It is natural to read the ‘him’ of vv. 14–15
as referring to Cyrus; Babylon's overthrow is reasserted; and the whole series of events is claimed to be in accordance with
the divine plan.
A different strand of thought is introduced. YHWH is here pictured as bewailing the people's stubbornness, in a form of words
(‘O that…’) more usually put into human mouths as a prayer imploring YHWH himself to take action (cf. 64:1
). Whereas in vv. 9–11
the imperishable name of YHWH himself had been at the centre of concern, now it is that of the people. Their folly had led
to the real possibility that they would no longer be remembered.
We return to more characteristic modes of expression, with the hope for a return from exile in Babylon comparable with the
Exodus from Egypt. It is dangerous to mistake these prophetic longings for a statement of historical fact; there is no independent
evidence, and little inherent likelihood, that such a return ever did take place. In poetic form, however, this section forms
an inclusio with
, the redemption of God's servant pictured in terms of the wasteland being made fertile and prosperous.
This verse may be regarded as a kind of editorial comment. It serves at least two purposes. First, it warns against any complacency
that the promises spelt out in the preceding chapters might have induced. Secondly, it has an important structural function.
It is repeated in almost identical words at
, and, as we noted at
, has an important link with Hezekiah's confident expectation of šālôm. This has the result of inviting us to see chs. 40–8 and 49–57
as blocks of material with their own integrity, even though important cross-references to other parts of the book are by
no means to be excluded.
As we have just noted, there are indications within the book itself that the next section to be considered should be chs. 49–57
. Historical-critical scholarship, however, has often regarded
as the next unit. It is usually regarded as part of Deutero-Isaiah, even though there are important differences from
: for example, no more references to Cyrus or the supposed historical situation of the exiles, and much less use of ‘new Exodus’
language. The speeches of judgement against the gods play no significant further part, and there are also some noteworthy
stylistic differences (Merendino 1981: 2–9). From now on Jerusalem rather than Babylon becomes the centre of attention.
The first six verses of this chapter were identified by Duhm and those who have followed him as the second of the Servant
Songs. We look first at vv. 1–4
, not only because of the NRSV paragraphing, but also because there is an inherent tension between v. 3 and v. 5
in the matter of the relation of Israel to the servant. The servant has previously been described in the third person; here
words are put into his mouth, a literary device which has certainly strengthened the impression that an individual is being
spoken about. The first two verses certainly lend support; the claim that the call of YHWH went back to the time before birth
is strongly reminiscent of accounts of a prophetic call; NB particularly Jer 1:5
. This impression is strengthened by the reference to ‘my mouth’ in v. 2
, for the prophet was essentially a speaker. Yet in v. 3
we find the unambiguous identification of the servant with Israel. Textual criticism is normally thought of as a strictly
objective exercise, but it has been employed here in a very dubious fashion to get rid of the word Israel, either by claiming
that it is superfluous to the metre (a notoriously uncertain guide) or by following a single manuscript, otherwise of no special
importance, which omits the word. On all normal criteria, ‘Israel’ must be accepted as a defining part of the text in the
account of the servant. (For a contrary view, persuasively set out though in my judgement not finally convincing, see Whybray (1983: 71–2).) It is by means of what God has accomplished in and through Israel that he will be glorified. We have seen various occasions
(e.g. in ch. 48
) when God's dissatisfaction with Israel was expressed; here, correspondingly, the servant's own dissatisfaction is put into
words. All the loyal service which Israel claims to have offered to its God seems to have been in vain, nothing better than
chaos (tōhû; NRSV ‘for nothing’). But the passage ends with the expression of confidence that despite outward appearances the servant's
mišpāṭ (NRSV ‘cause’; notice the use once again of legal language) is in God's care.
An additional reason for dividing these verses from what precedes is that they are presented as a divine answer to the servant's
plea. Here, by contrast to v. 3
, a distinction seems clearly to be made between the servant and Israel, since the servant apparently has a mission to Israel.
This may well be a further pointer, in addition to those already noted, towards divisions within the community. The author(s)
of these poems saw it as part of the servant's role to restore all Israel to what was perceived to be the true service of
YHWH. As in
what God has achieved through his victory (which may give the sense better than NRSV ‘salvation’) will be seen as a light
by distant nations, even to what was poetically described as ‘the end of the earth’.
The theme of the previous verse is here developed. Westermann (1969
) and other commentators have proposed elaborate rearrangements of this and the following verses to provide an overall structure
which may indeed seem more logical to us, but does not necessarily reflect the less tidy literary views of the original author(s).
This verse starts from the ‘despised’ and ‘abhorred’ state to which Israel had been reduced. Its ‘servant’ status meant simply
doing the bidding of other rulers. NRSV stresses this by translating ῾ebed here as ‘slave’, but it is the same word as that regularly rendered ‘servant’ and it is better with RSV to retain that translation
here. By contrast to that status the saving acts of YHWH will lead to the rulers of the nations acknowledging Israel as their
There are striking similarities between this poem and
, and links also with those other passages which have envisaged the transformation of the wilderness (cf. 40:3; 41:18
). The most striking new development occurs in v. 12
, where we find references to the gathering together of those of the community who had been dispersed to distant lands. MT
sînîm was taken in traditional interpretation as a reference to China (Skinner 1910: 93), but the Dead Sea scroll has given added weight to an old hypothesis that we should read here sĕwēnîm, that is ‘Syene’, modern Aswan in Egypt—a less romantic but much more plausible identification. There is evidence of Jewish
groups in Egypt from the sixth century onwards.
The technique, already employed at
42:10 and 44:23
, of interjecting a brief psalm-like passage into the series of oracles, is here used again. In terms very close to
heavens and earth are called upon to witness God's concern for his people.
A different literary form is now employed: the lament of Zion is quoted with the divine response following. Closely analogous
forms will be found in vv. 21 and 24
. Laments in the Psalms and in Lamentations frequently call upon God to ‘remember’ (Ps 74:2; Lam 5:1
); here is expressed the obvious corollary, that in the past he has forgotten (cf. Ps 42:9; Lam 5:20
). Ancient Israelites were more prepared to make direct accusations against God than are most modern believers, especially
in the Christian tradition. The charge of forgetfulness is indignantly denied in words which many will recall from their use
in Cowper's hymn ‘Hark, my soul, it is the Lord’. The metaphor of Zion as inscribed on the palms of God's hands has no obvious
parallel elsewhere in Isaiah, but we should probably see a link with
, and both passages may be linked with the idea that a God might be ‘crowned’ by the walls of his own favoured city (Pfisterer Darr 1994: 200–2). In v. 17
NRSV has ‘builders’ (bōnayik) for the ‘sons’ (bānayik) of the Hebrew text; this gives a better contrast with ‘destroyers’, but the idea of the children of the city, already referred
to in v. 15
, being under the divine protection is also appropriate. Perhaps we have here a deliberate wordplay. The command to ‘lift
up your eyes and see’ is found again at
. As we near the end of the book greater emphasis comes to be placed upon the unfolding of God's work to human vision.
The transformation theme, found frequently in these chapters, is developed further. The land was reduced to desolation, Israel
itself bereaved and separated from its homeland, yet now the very first command of the Bible, to ‘Be fruitful and multiply’
) has been fulfilled in an unbelievable way. It would probably be a misreading of a poetic passage to see behind the ‘too
crowded’ language of these verses disputes about land rights between those who had been in exile and those whose forebears
had never left Israel and Judah. More natural is to see in these verses the reversal of the threat in
. There the emptiness was ‘vast’ and the inhabitants of the land were sent ‘far away’. Now the land is crowded and it is the
destroyers who are sent ‘far away’ (Williamson 1994: 53–4, who also draws attention to links with
Again it is natural to read this passage as a deliberate reversal of a threat found earlier in the book. At
God had raised a signal to a distant nation, calling it to carry off Israel like prey. The promise of a reversal of that
threat, already implicit at
, is now carried a stage further—instead of acting as oppressors, foreign rulers are now to grovel before Israel. There is
no universalism here; the once enemy nations are to be reduced to impotence. Such a vision has never been achieved historically;
we are moving into the kind of visionary language which can be called eschatological.
This vision is taken a stage further. The theme of prey, already used at
(though with a different Heb. word; cf. Davies 1989: 115), is reused to show the magnitude of YHWH's achievement. Most translations, including NRSV, follow the Dead Sea scroll Isaiah and many ancient versions in reading ‘tyrant’ for the ‘righteous one’ of the Hebrew text.
This makes a natural balance with v. 25
, where ‘tyrant’ is found in all forms of the text, but MT is also possible, with YHWH himself being regarded as the mighty
and righteous one whose captives cannot be taken away. The chapter ends with a revolting picture of cannibalism, a desperate
way of declaring the saving and redeeming power of YHWH.
Though this reads like a new start it can also be seen as a continuation of what has preceded. YHWH speaks as if to answer
a legal challenge against him. The ‘children’ of Zion are addressed; they, not he, have been responsible for the ‘divorce’
of their mother. Their own sinful behaviour had led to the parting, but the power of YHWH brings about restoration, pictured
once again in language appropriate to a new Exodus deliverance.
The passage extending usually to v. 9
, sometimes to v. 11
, has regularly been characterized as another Servant Song. The word ‘servant’ is not used, but there are obvious similarities
in presentation with
, so that for those who maintain the theory of a distinct collection of songs, it is a natural inference to include this passage
within it. But it is also perfectly possible to continue to take Israel, or some constituent part of Israel, as the servant
(the links with ch. 49
are valid, and justify us in seeing implicit reference to the ‘servant’ here) and to see these verses as setting out the
community's understanding of its situation before God. There is tension in much of the Hebrew Bible between the sense that
the people were themselves responsible for their own unhappy history because of their sins (thus the Deuteronomistic History,
Joshua–2 Kings), and the feeling that they had been unjustly used through no fault of their own (thus many Psalms and the
book of Lamentations). Each side of that tension is represented in Isaiah; the preceding verses have stressed ‘sins’ and ‘transgressions’;
here innocence is affirmed. The servant has been punished as a means of increasing his awareness of God's redemptive activity.
Whether or not NRSV is right in correcting the first ‘those who are taught’ to ‘a teacher’, the phrase occurs again at the
end of the verse, and provides a link back with
. We saw then (see
) the hope that in God's good time solutions to the anxieties facing the community would be revealed; now that conclusion
has come a significant stage nearer. Again, in
the complaint was that God had hidden his face; here the servant avows that he has not hidden his face, even though the exposure
subjected him to ‘shame and spitting’. Language of this kind may well reflect the experience of an individual who had been
the subject of insulting treatment; that does not preclude its applicability to a larger group. This may be strengthened by
the contrast drawn between the ‘rebellious people’ of
and the claim here that the servant was not rebellious. There is much repetition in these verses, and it is difficult to
know to what extent that is intended as a deliberate poetic device, and how far errors have crept into the text.
But the servant's obedience in the face of insult is not to be understood apart from the aid provided by YHWH. These verses
are clear assertions of the confidence that such aid will be forthcoming; they are less clear in specifying how it will take
place. Perhaps that is not surprising in view of the rich imagery used in the surrounding chapters to describe the saving
work of YHWH. We may note only that the series of rhetorical questions and the use of such words as ‘adversaries’ suggest
that the context is still the lawsuit.
Reference to the servant, implicit in vv. 4–9
, now becomes explicit. Here, more clearly than previously, divisions within the community are indicated. The difficulty in
interpretation rests largely in knowing who is addressed as ‘you’. Two groups seem to be envisaged. One is the god-fearers,
identifiable as the servant community, trusting in God despite the lack of present light. The other is condemned in general
terms in v. 11
. They have lit a fire which will in fact destroy themselves. Whether some specific point of dispute underlies this metaphor,
or whether it is better understood in more general terms as rival views of the community's standing, cannot be established
on such slender evidence. We have a pointer forward to the last chapters of the book where this rivalry between different
groups will become still more acute.
There is dispute here as to the extent of the units. Kuntz (1982
) has made a persuasive case for seeing vv. 1–16
as a complete unit, but that involves calling vv. 9–11
an ‘interlude’. There is also a sense in which the natural unit is vv. 1–8
, a structured poem with three parallel introductions in vv. 1, 4
, though what follows is certainly closely linked. We shall follow the NRSV divisions.
This is not regarded as a Servant Song but the introductions are strikingly similar to
, which is so reckoned. Within this larger framework we may look at each element separately. Summons to recall the past are
common in the prophets; much rarer are specific references to individuals as here in v. 2
. The recall of Abraham features prominently in the NT; much less so in the HB outside Genesis. Perhaps the Abraham stories
did not reach their normative form until the Second Temple period. Divine blessing and the hope of progeny were the basis
of the Abraham story (Gen 12:1–3
) and so they can be the basis for restoration as envisaged here (Van Seters (1975: 275–6), though he makes nothing of the remarkable fact that Sarah is also specifically mentioned here). The ‘making many’ of Abraham
was obviously an important element in the tradition concerning him; it is also picked up, negatively, in Ezek 33:24
. The use of Genesis themes goes further with the reference to Eden; there is an increasing sense, strengthened by the references
to the Exodus, of a body of sacred traditions to which the poet could allude.
‘Listen’ in v. 4
is a different word (NRSV translates it ‘pay attention’ in
), but the form is the same. Here once again is the theme of YHWH's deliverance being recognized by ‘the peoples’ (cf. 42:4, 6
), but it is placed in an eschatological context. The existing order may come to an end, but God's salvation has no end.
This brief strophe aptly rounds off what has preceded, with a number of phrases and themes repeated from the earlier verses.
The one different element is the metaphor of the moth and the worm, but the first has already been used in
. The word sās, translated ‘worm’, is of uncertain meaning and occurs in the HB only here.
The passage begins with a double imperative; this stylistic feature is characteristic of this part of the book (cf.
). Once more we have the recall of God's saving activity as the clue to the confident expectation of his continuing power
to save. We last met Rahab in
, where Egypt was mocked for its incapacity. That reference is now taken up into a much larger context. The overthrow of Egypt
is linked not only with the Exodus but with the whole act of creation. It is quite impossible to decide whether the ‘waters
of the great deep’ refer to primordial chaos or to the waters of the sea in which the Egyptians were drowned; both pictures
are present. We have seen that these later chapters of Isaiah stress YHWH's activity as creator; here that is pictured, as
in some Psalms (e.g.
, where the same word tannîn, ‘dragon’, is used) as a victorious struggle against evil monsters. The theme is the same as that of Gen 1
; the way in which it is expressed differs greatly. All this is translated in NRSV with past tenses, and that may be inevitable
in English. But it is noteworthy that the verbs are participles, as if YHWH is envisaged as continuing to carry out these
saving acts. In any case they are seen as a foretaste of the anticipated act of salvation: the pilgrimage to Zion of those
who have been ransomed by God. This theme which has run right through the book from
onwards here reaches its climax.
God is now pictured as speaking to his people, but in terms different from those we have experienced so far. He offers encouragement
in their anxieties with words of ‘comfort’ (cf. 40:1
). The people's enemies, the ‘oppressor bent on destruction’ are no more than mere mortals, just as was the Assyrian in ch. 10
. The creative power of YHWH is not something abstract; it is integrally bound up with his commitment to his own people.
Another double imperative introduces the next divine word, addressed directly to Jerusalem, but in significantly different
terms from what has preceded. What was briefly expressed in ch. 12
, of comfort following divine anger, is now elaborated more fully. God's anger is often regarded as the result of human sin,
but that element is not prominent here; it is regarded as an unpredictable burden which human beings, Israel not excepted,
may have to bear. The image used is that of the ‘cup of wrath’, a theme found elsewhere (e.g. Zech 12:2
) as a warning against Jerusalem itself, but here applied to its enemies.
Divine anger does not disappear, but it may be transferred. In the legal case which is again alluded to here God and Israel
are on the same side; God's anger will therefore be transferred from his own people to those who have been their tormentors.
They will have to experience the punishment they have inflicted upon Israel.
Yet another double imperative, a feminine form of the same verb ῾ûr, to awake or be roused, as was used in
, is addressed to Zion. The exclusion of the uncircumcised and the unclean warns us that we should not stress too greatly
the supposed universalism of this part of Isaiah. The Judaism of the Second Temple period laid much stress on the need for
circumcision as a distinctive feature of the holy people; and the exclusion of the unclean is strongly reminiscent of Leviticus.
If in v. 2
the Hebrew is followed (see NRSV fn.) it will consist of an invitation to Jerusalem to be enthroned.
This brief prose passage, with its fourfold use of ‘says the LORD’ (in two slightly different Heb. forms), is unusual in this overwhelmingly poetic block of material. Whereas previously Zion
was addressed in the feminine, here ‘you’ is masculine. The passage links Egypt and Assyria in a manner found in
but rarely elsewhere. Assyrian oppression is a frequent theme in the earlier part of the book (e.g. ch. 10
), though there it was made clear that there was indeed ‘cause’ for the Assyrian invasion: the sin of the people. That is
now treated as a matter of the past. The reference to the rulers howling has not been satisfactorily explained. REB understands
it as illustrating the misery of those carried into exile; others have supposed that it is the Babylonian rulers who are here
This hymnic passage is strongly reminiscent of Nahum 1:15
), where its cultic context emerges even more markedly. As in the parallels with Micah in ch. 2
and those with Jeremiah in ch. 15
and elsewhere, so this passage reminds us that there must have existed bodies of traditional material which could be taken
up and used as appropriate in different prophetic collections. The messenger announces YHWH's entry into his holy place, thus
symbolizing the downfall of Assyria. The cry of triumph, ‘Your God reigns’ also reminds us of those Psalms (93; 96–9)
which proclaim the kingship of YHWH; the word mālak, here translated ‘reigns’, is found in the Psalms as ‘is king’. The whole passage is a song proclaiming the victory achieved
by YHWH. Read in the context of the book as a whole, it asserts that the redemption of Jerusalem, adumbrated as early as
, is now being achieved.
Yet another repeated imperative pictures God as the protector of the purified community in its ‘going out’. If these chapters
are regarded specifically as composed by an exiled Deutero-Isaiah it will be natural to see them as envisaging return from
Babylon. In a larger Second Temple setting the whole theme of a diaspora one day being able to join together in Jerusalem
will commend itself.
No passage in Isaiah, or indeed the whole HB, has attracted more attention than this the fourth and last of Duhm's Servant
Songs. It is disputed to what extent it was the subject of speculation and interpretation within Judaism before the Common
Era. Certainly the portrayal of the servant here was applied to Jesus within the NT, most notably in Acts (cf. 8:32–5
) and in 1 Peter (e.g.
), and probably in many other places as well; in view of what we have said in the introduction about the importance of the
reader, it would be quite wrong to dismiss such understandings as illegitimate. This is what the Christian reader may well
discern in these verses. Characteristically Jewish tradition has given a corporate interpretation to this poem, seeing it
as prefiguring the persecution undergone by the Jewish community. Until the last century Christians in general followed the
NT in applying it to Jesus. The rise of critical scholarship has led to an enormous variety of suggested ‘identifications’
of the servant (North 1948 and Rowley 1952
offer surveys of scholarship). More recently the tendency has been to suggest that ‘historical-critical scholarship is bound
to mistreat a cryptic poetic text when it regards it as a puzzle to be solved’ (Clines 1976: 25). In its place different literary readings have been proposed. As we shall see these have particular value in recognizing the ambiguity of much of the language: questions such as ‘Who is
the servant? Did he die?’ and still more such loaded theological issues as ‘Should the suffering be seen as atoning for the
sins of others?’ may not be as readily susceptible of an unambiguous answer as interpreters have often supposed. In particular
we need to consider the placing of this poem within the book as a whole. Unless Isaiah is seen as a completely random anthology
there will be significance in its present placing within the book. But here more than anywhere else in Isaiah one must acknowledge
that space limitations exclude many considerations one would like to pursue. A century ago a great scholar, S. R. Driver,
abandoned his commentary on Isaiah, not just for space reasons but ‘because this part of his subject overwhelmed him’ (North 1948: 1). The problems in writing on these verses have not diminished since then.
Some scholars (e.g. Whybray 1975
) have regarded
as distinct from the ‘song of thanksgiving’ which follows, but the majority view has been to see a larger unity. The specific
reference to the ‘servant’ at
seems to be balanced by the only other such reference, at the climax of the poem, in
. At the outset the established identity of the servant with Israel poses no problems; the theme of the restoration of Israel
following humiliation is a familiar one in these chapters. v. 15
makes it clear that recognition of what is being achieved by and through the servant extends well beyond the community (‘many
nations’, ‘kings’), but this theme has been implicit in much of Isaiah and explicit in references such as those to Cyrus.
The verb translated ‘startle’ in NRSV has been rendered in many different ways: the traditional ‘sprinkle’ (so KJV) seems
unlikely and the most probable meaning is that conveyed by LXX: ‘many nations shall be astonished at him’.
The following verses take further the theme of the servant and the unpromising circumstances of his rearing. The language
used is vividly personal, but does not prevent its application to the community. We need to remember that this is poetry,
and that precise reference is not to be expected. In one sense
does clearly differ from what has preceded; there is now reference to a ‘we’, a group reflecting on the significance of the
experiences of the servant. They have been very variously identified: the disciples of the prophet; a group of faithful Israelites;
and so on. But perhaps the traditional interpretation should not be neglected—the nations and kings who were so amazed by
what was referred to in
are now given voice. The language used is that of the Psalms, in particular the ‘individual Psalm of Thanksgiving’ (Whybray 1978: 109 ff.), in which a description of suffering and rejection is followed by a cry of thanksgiving for God's restorative power. As
in the Psalms it is difficult to decide how far the description of sickness and rejection is to be taken literally, and how
far it is figurative language, regularly employed in this particular literary genre.
Here there arises the question of vicarious suffering. These verses have played a prominent part in Christian expositions
of doctrine, applying the sufferings of the servant to Jesus, and understanding his sufferings as effective for the whole
range of human sin. For many who may not themselves be committed Christians the use of vv. 3–6
in Handel's Messiah will still have familiarized them with such an interpretation. In its original context, however, mundane as this may seem,
a less exalted interpretation may be appropriate. As Whybray (1978: 58) has noted, the words translated ‘infirmities’ and ‘diseases’ are ‘eminently suitable to express the broken state of the
nation after the destruction of Jerusalem in 587 BC’. Indeed, as he points out, the word ḥŏlî, here ‘infirmities’, was already found in
in the description of the ravaged state of the community: ‘the whole head is sick (ḥŏlî)’. The servant at one level was the suffering community; at another level the figure was used of that part of the community which was being restored through
God's saving power. The poet goes well beyond literal attention to detail in his fancy that Gentile observers would picture
themselves as sheep going astray, but here, just as in the references to the supposedly God-fearing Cyrus, we are reminded
of the power of poetry to stretch the imagination in ways it had never previously considered.
The picture in these verses is clearly of the death of the servant, and the appropriateness of the NT application to Jesus
is clear enough, given the presuppositions of its writers. Less impressive have been the efforts of historical-critical scholars
in their arguments as to whether or not someone's literal death is here implied. Too often they have tried to ignore the poetic
context and to make the lines refer to some, in principle, identifiable individual. In any case as Whybray (1978: esp. 92–106) has shown, much of the language here used is that found in Psalms of Thanksgiving as a means of expressing the desperate
plight of the sufferer before God's saving action became apparent. Indeed such expressions as ‘they made his grave with the
wicked’ tell us more about the expectations of the servant's enemies in plotting his death than about the ‘actual’ fate of
Finally we reach the point of the thanksgiving: God's wonderful deliverance of the faithful servant. Comparison is appropriate
with another individual Psalm of Thanksgiving embodied in Isaiah: the Psalm of Hezekiah in
. That was expressed in the first person, being placed in the mouth of Hezekiah, against the third-person usage here. But
the sentiments, of the wonderful providence of YHWH in delivering his servant from the power of death, are basically similar.
In this passage, however, the language used is wider-ranging. The servant is likened to an ᾽āšām (offering for sin), a term most frequently found in Leviticus, though it should be noted that the text here has often been
thought to be corrupt (Whybray 1978: 63–6; cf. BHS and NRSV marg., noting the uncertainty of the meaning). If it is accepted as it stands the poetic fancy of the writer envisages
the suffering of the servant as comparable to that of a blameless animal victim, like the lamb of v. 7
There are again textual uncertainties in v. 11
, but the striking point here is in the use of the root ṣ-d-q, ‘righteous’. In the first part of the book this theme was overwhelmingly used as a requirement of human behaviour, whereas
from ch. 40
onwards it has been descriptive of God's action (Rendtorff 1994: 162–4). Here the two are combined: God's righteousness is now to be a characteristic of the whole community. This whole section
needs to be seen as a dramatic reversal of the state of affairs described in
. There the people were ‘laden with iniquity’ (῾āwôn); now the servant will ‘bear their iniquities’ (῾ăwōnōtām). There are other correspondences with earlier material which repay detailed study, such as the ‘division of the spoil’ motif
found in v. 12
and in the Davidic oracle of
. Whatever the historical origin of this poem, at a literary level it fulfils a very important function in the development
of the book of Isaiah as a whole. One might indeed suppose that such a note of triumph would make an appropriate point at
which to complete the book (the four Gospels would provide an obvious parallel to such a structure), but the remaining chapters
make it clear that warnings must continue to be intermingled with the note of confidence.
This is the beginning of a poem, perhaps extending to v. 10
, with a feminine subject corresponding to the masculine servant. (Sawyer 1989
offers some reflections upon this juxtaposition as well as a more detailed discussion of this poem.) Barrenness was a cause
of shame in ancient Israel, and so many stories, in Genesis and elsewhere, focus on this theme; indeed the word ῾ăqārâ, ‘barren one’ is never found elsewhere in the Prophets, but is used to describe Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Manoah's wife (Judg 13
), and Hannah (Pfisterer Darr 1994: 179). Here the poem offers hope for the barren one, just as the suffering of the servant had not been the end of his story. As
elsewhere in these chapters the community is to look forward to a time when the alien nations will be part of their own possession—again
a warning against too readily seeing an undifferentiated universalism here.
Here some remarkable claims are made. For YHWH of hosts to be called the people's ‘maker’ and ‘redeemer’ is not unexpected;
more striking is his description as ‘husband’. It is probably right to see an implied reference to Zion or to the community
at large, but in the first instance, as in the servant poems, the language is individual, and here clearly refers to a woman.
Still more astonishing is the assertion that the troubles which have befallen her are the result of YHWH casting her off,
abandoning her, hiding his face from her. Frequently in the Psalms the claim is made that YHWH has neglected his people's
plight; here such an acknowledgement is both expressed in more personal terms and put into the mouth of God himself.
The poem ends with another of the allusions to earlier traditions, now probably regarded as what would later be called Scripture,
which are characteristic of this part of the book (cf. 51:2
). Here the comparison is with the great flood and more specifically with Noah, but it is made in a way which significantly
changes the emphasis from that found in Genesis. The focus here is on the postscript to the Genesis story, the promise that
there would never again be such a flood. Admittedly this impression is strengthened by an unacknowledged emendation in the
NRSV text, which reads ‘days of Noah’ where the Hebrew twice has ‘waters of Noah’. The flood itself is regarded as no more
than the occasion for God to promise the continuance of his steadfast love (ḥesed) and of peace (šālôm).
Whereas in the previous poem the reference to Zion was allusive, here the address is more directly to the city. So far the
city is ‘not comforted’, but that will now be put right. The theme of glorious restoration, touched on in
, is now elaborated; the ‘righteousness’ which had once lodged in her (
), will be restored once more. Links with the servant poems are provided by the description of the city as ‘afflicted’ (v. 11; cf. 53:4
), and by the theme of those who are taught (v. 13; cf. 50:4
). Another familiar theme is picked up in vv. 16–17
: that of YHWH as the ultimate creator, whose power lies behind all human creating. Whereas earlier the stress had been on
the creation of idols, here it is weapons that are fashioned by human hands. They will be of no use against God's community.
The chapter ends with a summary reminiscent of those we have noted in
and elsewhere. Unusually here the reference is to the plural ‘servants of the Lord’. ṣ-d-q language is again used, but is somewhat obscured in NRSV by the translation ‘vindication’ for the word rendered ‘righteousness’
in v. 14
This section of the book concludes with a poem which is formally unique in Isaiah. It has been compared with the cry of the
water-seller, or perhaps more plausibly with the invitation of Woman Wisdom in Prov 9:1–6
(Whybray 1975: 190). At first it would seem as if the invitation is to all and sundry, but as the poem proceeds it becomes clearer that it is
specifically addressed to the Israelite community. A characteristic theme in the prophetic literature of the exilic and Second
Temple periods was the assurance of a new or renewed covenant (Jer 31:31–4; Ezek 34:23–31
). In literary terms it is noteworthy that these promises occur at very similar points in the overall structure of the prophetic
book. They are united also by the fact that in each case there is a strong Davidic link. (In Jeremiah this is found in the
fuller development of the covenant theme in ch. 33
.) Here the point had already been mentioned in
; now it is taken further. NRSV, like most modern translations, makes the Hebrew expression ḥasdê Dāwīd refer to God's love for David, but it could equally mean (and the Hebrew usage would be more natural) the mercies of David.
In any case it appears as if the covenant with David, described for example in Ps 89
, will now be extended to the whole community (Eissfeldt 1962
). This ‘democratization’ (Williamson 1994: 112) is a characteristic theme of Isaiah, with its concern for the community, but it does not necessarily exclude hopes centred
in the Davidic line as well. If we are to read the book as a whole we shall need to see this in the light of
. In the present context, however, the main stress is the summons to the community to fulfil a role comparable with that which
God had allotted to David.
The basic notion of ‘seeking’ and ‘calling upon’ YHWH implied engaging in the appropriate cultic worship. Some, emphasizing
the links between Isaiah and the Jerusalem cult, would suppose that is the underlying meaning of v. 6
; others would see a more generalized sense. In this unit it is still assumed that the wicked and the unrighteous, perceived
as such by the prophetic author, may change their pattern of belief and behaviour. In the last chapters of the book that hope
seems to fade away, and those from whom the prophet differed are more harshly rejected.
The theological reflection begun in vv. 8–9
is here continued, with special emphasis on the word of YHWH. An obvious way to understand this is to take it as a claim
by the prophetic author to be the recipient of God's word. However that may be, we have here the beginnings of what seems
to have been a new understanding of God's word, which would assume major importance in later writings such as the prologue to
the Gospel of John. The theme of these verses is closely comparable to
, and in so far as chs. 40–55
form a distinct unit within the whole book, these two sections form an inclusio, the end matching the beginning.
A recurring theme running throughout the book of Isaiah is that of paradise regained (Whybray 1975: 195). In
it was animal life that was transformed; here we are reminded of the ‘briers and thorns’ of the early chapters (
and elsewhere), though the actual words used here are different. In the present vision such threats to agriculture will be
replaced by cypress and myrtle, symbols of God's transformation of the wilderness (
). Then, in a way which contributed to the vision of St Francis, the trees can join mountains and hills in praise of God.
Not all apocalyptic visions are as attractive as this.
Though conventionally regarded as the beginning of ‘Trito-Isaiah’ there are few signs of a new start here. The summons to
maintain justice (mišpāṭ) and do right (ṣĕdāqâ) are reminiscent of the early chapters of the book, where the lack of these qualities had led to the city's degradation (
). But there is an important linkage here which is very difficult to bring out in translation. The word translated ‘my deliverance’
in NRSV is ṣidqātî—the same word but now used, as for example in
, in the sense of YHWH's saving power. Such a wordplay is surely not accidental. Here, more clearly than anywhere else in
the book ṣĕdāqâ as a human requirement, parallel with mišpāṭ (justice), and as a divine blessing, parallel with yĕšû῾â (salvation), are brought together (Rendtorff 1994: 185–9).
After the theological heights of the first verse this may seem to be something of a let-down. The only specific example offered
of the ideal behaviour demanded is to keep the sabbath. Very clearly the sabbath was an important identifying mark for Second
Temple Judaism, and the solemnity of Jeremiah's ‘Confessions’ is similarly broken with a bitter attack on those who fail to
keep the sabbath (Jer 17:19–27
In fact, of course, for members of a specific religious grouping within which the Isaiah tradition was handed down, the issue
of who were legitimate members of that community was a sensitive one. Sabbath-keeping was one marker; now the issue arises
of the status of eunuchs and foreigners. First mentioned is ‘the foreigner joined to the LORD’, presumably forerunners of the Godfearers of later times, but reflection on the status of foreigners comes in the next stanza.
Here the concern is with eunuchs. According to Deut 23:1
they were to be excluded from the covenant community, but here they are envisaged as being able to keep the covenant, pictured
once again primarily in terms of sabbath observance. The reference to ‘house’ and ‘walls’ may imply the existence of the Second
Temple, but as we have seen throughout Isaiah it is dangerous to base dating on allusions in poetry. Clearer perhaps is the
link between v. 5 and 55:13
; the hope for the eunuchs is comparable to the paradise picture set out in the earlier passage.
Attention now turns to the status of foreigners. Down to the exile Israel and Judah had been nation-states among other like
states, but in the later period their descendants were essentially a religious community, bound by the laws of membership
of that community. What was to be the attitude to those from outside? The literature of Second Temple Judaism offers the whole
spectrum of answers to that question; here is one of the most open and affirmative responses. It is possible for foreigners
to be the ‘servants’ of YHWH, an important acknowledgement in view of the status of the servant set out in earlier chapters.
They must of course keep the sabbath, but they are thereby rendered able to maintain the covenant. In these circumstances
they can bring offerings for sacrifice in the same way as native-born Israelites. The passage reaches a climax with the promise
of the availability of the temple to those from any nation. Quotation of this passage is of course attributed to Jesus in
his dispute with the temple authorities of his time (Mk 11:17
). The bringing in of foreigners is pictured as being on a par with the restoration of exiled Israelites.
This passage comes as something of a shock after the edifying sentiments which have preceded it. This bitter condemnation
of the inadequacies of the community's leaders reminds us of the attack on the rulers in ch. 1
, and some scholars have thought it likely that this oracle originated in pre-exilic days (see the discussion in Emmerson (1992: esp. 16, 21)). The leaders are likened to watchmen (‘sentinels’), a term most commonly used of prophets, who were expected to warn the
people of imminent dangers, and to shepherds, applied to political leaders in Ezek 34
and elsewhere. The point seems to be that the hope for deliverance and salvation must not obscure the need for proper leadership.
NRSV here departs from its usual practice and prints an extended section as a single paragraph. In fact vv. 1–2
are extremely difficult, with awkward shifts between singular and plural, largely masked by the NRSV translation. It seems
that a contrast is being drawn between a group of whom the prophetic tradition approves and others who are strongly condemned.
The word ṣaddîq, righteous, comes from the same ṣ-d-q root as we have been considering; at a later stage it was used of particular strictly observant religious groups; whether
that is the case here cannot certainly be established. But this group is in any case mentioned only briefly; as is usual with
religious polemic, those being attacked receive far more detailed attention, and their evil practices are now spelt out at
length and in unattractive terms. Their parentage is attacked (v. 3
); then they are accused of apparently childish behaviour (v. 4
); finally unspecified sexual offences and even child-sacrifice are attributed to them (v. 5
). Not surprisingly Hanson (1979: 186) headlines his discussion of this passage ‘The Conflict grows acrimonious’! It seems unlikely that we can gain any objective
picture of those being attacked; these are the standard terms of religious abuse. It looks as if the following verses may
yield more sense, but this hope proves unwarranted when we discover that the ‘you’ of NRSV is sometimes masculine plural and
sometimes feminine singular. All we can say is that various practices were regarded as idolatrous by those from whom these
oracles originate, and that in the structure of the book as a whole we are reminded that the prostitution of the city described
is a continuing danger. The promise of divine deliverance so vividly set out in the preceding chapters is not unconditional.
These verses seem to continue the preceding condemnation. v. 12
must surely be ironic, a point rather obscured by NRSV ‘concede’ for RSV ‘tell of’. ‘Concede’ suggests a genuine lawsuit,
but the poet can scarcely have seriously accepted the ṣĕdāqâ (righteousness) of those who have just been condemned so bitterly. The poem ends with a mockery of idols reminiscent of chs. 44 and 45
, and an assertion of the impregnable position of those who take refuge in YHWH. The ‘holy mountain’ reminds us not only of
, with its aspirations for the temple, but also of
, with its picture of paradise restored.
The double imperative reminds us of the series of such usages found in chs. 49–55
, and this stylistic indication of a new start is borne out by the consoling contents of this passage, a strong contrast with
what has preceded. The ‘high and lofty one…whose name is Holy’ offers an obvious link with
, and there follows an assurance of God's continuing presence with the contrite and humble. This positive approach to the
humble is somewhat unexpected; the root involved, š-p-l, has been used several times in Isaiah but always previously in the negative sense of being humbled (e.g.
). The theme will recur again (cf. 66:2
); some scholars would see in it a pointer to the socially excluded status of those responsible for this part of the book
(Hanson 1979: 78–9). The most natural reading of the following verses is to suppose that those now being praised had turned from unacceptable
ways, rather than that a different group is spoken of in v. 17
. But in vv. 19–20
a clear contrast is made between those accepted by God and ‘the wicked’, and in this context the refrain, encountered already
, fits naturally into its context. (See the comment on
for the function of this refrain.)
We have seen that proper observance of the sabbath was important for the Isaiah community. Another characteristic religious
observance, fasting, receives a more qualified endorsement. It is most conspicuously practised by those described in
as wicked, and in these verses their devotion—to outward appearance at least—seems manifest. It seems unlikely, therefore,
that they should simply be identified with the idolaters of
, unless, as some scholars have supposed, relations between two groups which were at first no worse than strained deteriorated
rapidly so that all kinds of attacks could be launched. There is evidence from Zech 7–8
, Joel, and Ezra that the desirability of fasting was an issue in the early Second Temple period (and many have supposed that
this part of Isaiah originated at that time). Joel 1:14 and Ezra 8:21
approve of fasting, whereas as in Zech 8:19
fasting is apparently rejected. So here fasting is seen as too readily accompanied by unacceptable behaviour.
raises two important points. First, this passage stands within the prophetic tradition, best known from Amos but well exemplified
as a major theme in Isaiah (cf. 1:10–17
), which warns that religious practice is worse than useless if not accompanied by true social justice. Secondly we are reminded
that prophetic words were characteristically addressed to the upper strata of society—presumably those who had sufficient
leisure to attend to them: it is the one who oppresses the workers rather than the workers themselves who is addressed.
Fasting is no longer the subject of concern. Instead, the theme of social justice is taken a stage further, in a passage which
has become a classic as an expression of one vital side of the prophetic movement. Not least among its attractions for religious
people down the ages is the fact that it is couched in the form of an exhortation, with a powerful promise attached, rather
than in terms of condemnation. Again it is clear that it is the upper strata of society who are being addressed; those who
have bread and a house, as against the hungry and the homeless poor.
This and the following passage (vv. 13–14
) are similar in form: a series of conditions followed by a spelling out of the results which will follow obedience to those
conditions. The contents, however, differ. Here we have a continuation of the promise already made in vv. 6–9a
. Active concern for the needs of others will ensure that God's saving activity becomes available. It is doubtful how far
the language of restoration in v. 12
is to be applied literally, for example as picturing the restoration of ruined Jerusalem. It is at least as likely that this
is a metaphor for the renewal of the community, a theme which runs through so much of Isaiah.
It might seem logical that, having rejected the need for fasting, sabbath-observance could also be considered otiose. But
poetry and religious practice have a habit of resisting logical demands. As in ch. 56
, sabbath-keeping is to be an essential feature of the community. It is the ‘holy day of YHWH’, and we have seen enough of
the importance of holiness in Isaiah to know that this is a guarantee of its status.
After the encouragement implicit in the exhortations of ch. 58
the harsh condemnations of these verses provide a striking contrast. The theme of YHWH as saviour, implicit already in the
name Isaiah itself, has run right through the book from ch. 12
onwards, yet salvation still seems afar off. This is not due to any lack of capacity on YHWH's part. It is the result of
the iniquities (once again the word used is ῾āwôn) of the community, or at least of those opposed by the Isaiah group. A whole catalogue of wrong-doing follows. For some of
the items a literal understanding is possible, though not required (false dealings in the law-courts, v. 4
). Other accusations defy precise interpretation (‘They hatch adders' eggs and weave the spider's web’, v. 5
are quoted by Paul in Rom 3:15–27
, following a quotation from Ps 14
, and then by a curious error these verses came to be incorporated in the Book of Common Prayer version of Ps 14
, with which they have no original connection.
A lament follows. It is not easy to decide whether we are to envisage the ‘they’ of v. 8
as now speaking in the first person, or whether this reflects tensions within the community. The latter is perhaps easier:
the lack of mišpāṭ (justice) among those condemned has had an invasive effect, and this leads to the true worshippers feeling themselves to
be deprived of mišpāt and ṣĕdāqâ. In the Psalms most laments are in effect protestations of innocence, with the fault for present troubles lying elsewhere.
Here, by contrast, there is a confession of sin (vv. 12–13
YHWH's response to these troubles is now set out. This describes YHWH as the Divine Warrior, an image running through much
of the HB from Ex 15:3
on, and frequently used in Isaiah (e.g.
). Here the conflict is spelt out in greater detail. The threat to peace is found in the lack of justice; there is no one
else to intervene, so YHWH himself, pictured as clad like a warrior, brings a retribution which will be acknowledged in world-wide
terms (Hanson 1979: 124). The wording provided the author of Ephesians with the basis for his picture of the Christian's warfare, but it is a theme
which was to have an ominous future in the history of religion, as various fanatical groups have identified themselves with
God's supposedly warlike purposes.
The first verse is better seen as the climax of the preceding poem, stressing that Zion, so prominent in the Isaiah tradition,
will be the locale of the divine triumph manifested to those who ‘turn from transgression’. It is not specified who is involved
here. The following verse, one of the rare prose elements in this part of the book, seems unrelated to its context. It is
not clear who is being addressed; it may be an assertion of the lasting validity of the words of YHWH spoken through prophets,
and the promise of the spirit provides a link with
are often regarded as the high point of the last part of Isaiah, providing many links back with
. Certainly we shall see themes here which encourage us in our reading of the book as a whole. The promise of salvation, muted
in chs. 56–9
, now comes strongly to the fore once again, not least in these opening verses. In some ways it almost seems as if the vision
in ch. 6
undergoes significant modification. There the whole earth was full of the glory of YHWH; here the glory appears over the
saved community, whereas darkness covers the earth. We are warned against too easy a universalism; light and brightness come
to other nations and kings only by way of Israel. This last theme is strikingly similar to
The gathering of the nations is now described in greater detail, though throughout this chapter it is noteworthy that the
nations described are not those who had ruled over Israel (Assyria, Babylon, Persia), but those referred to in its traditions,
especially Genesis. Within Isaiah itself there are literary links, first between v. 4a
, which are identical, and then more generally with such passages as
, spelling out the privileged status of the community's offspring, and also with some Psalms, notably Ps 72
with its description of the bringing of tribute. The gold and frankincense of v. 6
provide part of the literary background to the story of the wise men in Mt 2
. Only in its conclusion, with its emphasis on the temple, is the stress somewhat different from the other passages.
As this extended section moves forward it becomes increasingly clear that it is the holy city Zion which is being apostrophized.
could serve as a summary of a large part of the book as a whole, spelling out how God's wrath against his city and people
has turned to favour. In all this foreigners, the former oppressors, have their part to play, so that v. 12
strikes an unexpectedly harsh note. It is often understood as prose (BHS), and some regard it as ‘a secondary interpolation’ (so Emmerson 1992: 42), but it does represent one strand in the book which speaks of divine vengeance on enemies (cf. 63:1–6
). The remainder of the present passage, however, is more concerned with spelling out the exalted state of Zion than with
the fate of its enemies. It is unwise to try to use poetry of this kind as a guide to the rebuilding of Jerusalem after its
destruction; Williamson (1989: 149) has noted that v. 13
has been used as a proof that the temple both has been and has not been built. In a vivid figure of speech at the climax
) Zion is pictured as a suckling infant—a remarkable transformation of the whore of
. But though still at the breast (of kings!) Zion is mature enough to know what ‘the Mighty One of Jacob’ has done for her.
The verse is clearly meant to be read with
. What had there been shown to ‘all flesh’ is now perceived by Zion herself.
šālôm and ṣĕdāqâ, such prominent terms throughout Isaiah, are now pictured as in full control, guiding the fortunes of the restored city.
With such overseers and taskmasters oppression is far away and yĕšû῾â (‘salvation’, another constantly recurring expression) and tĕhillâ (‘praise’, a much less frequently found term, though cf. 42:10, 12
; notice also that the Hebrew name for the Psalms, with which Isaiah has so much in common, is tĕhillîm) will become the basis of trust. It is clear that here a tendency already implicit in what has preceded is taken further:
we are moving into the world of apocalyptic imagery, in which the realities of daily living are swept up into a vision of
divine possibilities. In
this is taken even further into the thought of new heavens and a new earth. Perhaps equally visionary and removed from everyday
reality is the hope that ‘your people shall all be righteous (ṣăddîqîm)’, but the prophetic vision extends even to this possibility. Finally, in words reminiscent of Gen 12:2
, a population explosion is envisaged. What might today seem a threat was in the ancient world an occasion of joy.
had promised that ‘the spirit of the LORD’ would come upon God's chosen one; here in language reminiscent of the servant passages in chs. 40–55
the claim is made to indwelling by that spirit and through God's anointing—māšaḥ, the word from which ‘messiah’ is derived. Not surprisingly, therefore, the figure here depicted has been understood as an
ideal king (Eaton 1979: 90), though the bringing of good news suggests that prophetic elements are also present. As in
the role of this spirit-filled figure is to bring about justice, particularly to those most liable to be the victims of injustice.
It was natural that Luke should find this an appropriate passage on which to base his presentation of the ministry of Jesus
). The themes of ‘release’ and of a particular ‘year of favour’ recall the Jubilee described in Lev 25
, whereas ‘the day of vengeance’ has already been mentioned in Isaiah (
). But whereas the earlier passage described that vengeance in gruesome detail, here it is no more than a passing allusion,
perhaps introduced as a wordplay with the following promise of comfort. (The words for ‘vengeance’, nāqam, and ‘comfort’, nāḥam, are very similar in Heb.) The comforting provides a link with
, and it is then elaborated using a variety of metaphors. The destruction which has played so prominent a part early on in
the book will now be restored.
The ambivalent attitude to foreigners which has run through the whole book is found again. Here strangers and foreigners are
welcome, but only in a subordinate role; it is the community itself which will enjoy the wealth and riches of other nations. The community itself is to be given priestly status;
and here difficulties of interpretation arise. Is this to be taken literally, for example as providing scriptural warrant
for the belief held by some Christian bodies in the ‘priesthood of all believers’? Or is a sociological reading appropriate,
so that the thrust of this passage is against those who claimed an exclusive priestly status in Second Temple Israel? Or is
it better simply to see here a metaphor, comparable to many others in these chapters, a way of expressing the favoured status
of the true community? v. 7
is difficult; there seems to be a link with
(which would argue against the NRSV emendation of Heb. ‘your’ to ‘their’), but the exact force of the language is not easy
to capture (‘quite unintelligible’, Whybray 1975: 243).
is put into the mouth of YHWH himself, but in the rest of the section the ‘I’ is the prophetic voice. The need for justice
(mišpāṭ) is again reaffirmed. NRSV then follows some ancient versions and the majority of modern commentators in reading ‘robbery
and wrongdoing’, and this may be right. But MT ‘robbery with a burnt offering’ is not to be ruled out; it would tie in well
, and serve as a warning to the community that justice must accompany their sacrifices. The covenant theme is then picked
. As in v. 5
foreigners have a subordinate position, as those who will acknowledge Israel's blessed condition. The chapter ends with the
Zion community expressing its thanksgiving to God in psalm-like language and with very varied metaphors for the blessings
that have been promised.
There has been much dispute as to the identity of the ‘I’ in v. 1
; is it a prophetic voice or YHWH himself? The same problem arises later in the chapter (Emmerson (1992: 76–8) provides a brief survey). We must ask, however, whether we should expect poetry to yield an objective answer to such a question.
Clearly the poem sees as essential to the divine plan the ‘vindication’ (ṣedeq once again) and ‘salvation’ (yĕšû῾â) of Zion. Here the nations are no more than witnesses of the astonishing transformation that is envisaged. A series of blessings
for Zion is spelt out: a new name and royal status. The first of these will be spelt out more fully in the next oracle.
The giving of a new name did not necessarily mean the abandonment of the old one; Jacob was called Israel (Gen 32:28; 35:10
), but still continued to be known as Jacob. The destruction of Jerusalem in 587 seems to have led all the main prophetic
traditions to envisage a new name for the restored city (Jer 33:16; Ezek 48:35
), and the renaming here is in line with that pattern (Pfisterer Darr 1994: 198–200). The ‘desolate’ land described in
is now transformed. Here, perhaps more clearly than anywhere else in the book, the picture of YHWH as the marriage-partner
of the city emerges. With v. 6
the imagery changes once more to that of a city and its inhabitants (and the issue of the first-person reference emerges
again). Now the foreigners are no more than witnesses of all that YHWH is achieving for his own community.
We return to the double imperatives which have been a marked feature of the book from ch. 40
onwards. The link with ch. 40
is strengthened by the building of the highway, the processional way leading up to the restored city, and by the identity
of the last part of v. 11
. The restoration proclaimed as it were from a distance in the earlier chapter is now coming more sharply into focus. This
is emphasized by the names given to the community in v. 12
. The transformation begun in v. 4
is complete; what once was called ‘forsaken’ shall be so no longer.
From these rarefied heights it seems a steep descent to the bloodthirsty language of this passage. The nineteenth-century
hymn-writer may have found himself able to read these verses in terms of Christ's passion (‘Who is this with garments gory
ǀ Triumphing from Bozrah's way?’), but such an understanding is alien to a natural reading of the passage. (The poem also
underlies the American ‘Battle Hymn of the Republic’, which links it with Christ's triumph, but in terms closer to the original:
‘Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; ǀ He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are
stored’.) The poem portrays YHWH as the Divine Warrior, as does
, with which there are several links: cf. 59:16
with v. 5 and 59:18
with vv. 4 and 6
. The form used at the outset is that of the watchman demanding to know the identity of the fearsome figure approaching the
city. His questions provide the opportunity for a divine warrior hymn, exulting in the victory that has been won. Edom, referred
to in v. 1
, was assigned typical status as the enemy in Second Temple Judaism (cf. Ps 137
and Obadiah), and later symbolized such enemies of Judaism as the Roman Empire and the Christian church (Dicou 1994: 204). In this passage the symbolic element is already present, for the hymn is concerned with any hostile nation, not just Edom.
But ch. 34
has already shown that this anti-Edom strand is an important element in Isaiah, and the references to Edom and Bozrah should
certainly be retained, against the widely held emendation, still suggested by BHS, to words meaning ‘stained red’ and ‘one who treads grapes’ (Whybray 1975: 253). The reply takes up once again the theme of ‘vindication’ (ṣĕdāqâ), thereby providing a strong link with what has preceded. The metaphor of the winepress is reused in Rev 19:15
It is widely and probably rightly held that
constitute a single extended unit, comparable to the community laments found in such Psalms as
44 and 74
. We shall look at the constituent elements, while trying to bear in mind the presence of a larger context, a context which
reminds us once again of the close links between the language of Isaiah and that of the Jerusalem temple. The lament begins
with the characteristic recall of past times, when God had been personally active in protecting his people (cf. Ps 44:1–8
). As in
the ‘I’ seems to denote a prophetic voice, but it plays no further part in the lament.
A very characteristic feature of this and of the laments in the Psalms is the vivid description of the disasters that have
befallen the community. There are links also with Lamentations, but there the disaster is largely regarded as inexplicable;
here the context is immediately provided by the acknowledgement of the people's rebellion (v. 10
). The usage, ‘holy spirit of God’ is rare in the HB, and this passage was seized upon by the writer to the Ephesians (
) in the development of a distinctive Christian understanding. The references to Moses are unique in Isaiah; it would be unwise
to build anything on the NRSV description of Moses as ‘servant’; this is based on an emendation to the Hebrew text, and a more natural modification would offer ‘Moses and his people’
(Hanson 1979: 84). The example of the deliverance at the Exodus is used, both because it was the paradigm of God's saving power, and also
because it was so closely juxtaposed in tradition with the community's wilderness rebellion. With v. 15
we reach the next stage of the lament; the complaint that God is taking no notice of his people's fate. It is as if he has
forgotten them. v. 16
has been understood by some (esp. Hanson 1979: 92–3; Achtemeier 1982: 115–18) as indicative of a division within the community, with the names ‘Abraham’ and ‘Israel’ standing for a rival group. But
this is surely to read too specific a reference into allusive poetry. More naturally we may suppose that the poet is hoping
that though Abraham and Israel (Jacob) are long gone, the continuing power of YHWH could and should be used on the people's
behalf. In v. 18
it is natural to see a reference to the destruction of the Jerusalem temple, and to identify that with the Babylonian attack
of 587/6 (2 Kings 25:9
), but once again we should be aware of the danger in attempting precise cross-reference; poetic allusions and historical
statements occupy different frames of reference.
This extended section continues to reflect the characteristic features of the communal lament. There is a good deal of repetition,
but that is not to be regarded as a weakness in this kind of poem. So v. 1
63:15; vv. 2–4
recollect God's past mighty deeds in a way analogous to
. Then comes the renewed acknowledgement of the people's sin, now made more direct by the use of the first person plural (v. 5; cf. 63:10
). This description of sin is further elaborated here, with the interesting logic in v. 7
that they have ceased calling on God because he doesn't listen. The notion of God hiding his face is most characteristic
of the Psalms (cf. Ps 44:24
), but we should also see a link with Isa 8:17 and with 45:15
where the ‘hiddenness’ of God allowed a measure of hope which is scarcely present here. But amid this despair the community
still has a claim upon God as its father, recalling the theme of
, and the poem ends with a final plea that God will be so moved by the unhappy state into which the places of his worship
have fallen that he will stir from his apparently unending silence. Questions of God feature frequently in lament psalms,
but usually in the body of the psalm (Ps 44:24; 74:10–11
); here the lament ends with the question still being asked. We are warned against supposing that the confidence of many of
the later chapters of the book tell the whole story.
This is the first part of a longer unit, which extends to v. 16
. YHWH himself is now pictured as speaking, and in that sense this provides an obvious response to the anxious pleas of the
previous chapter. We are invited to see that idolatrous practices are the cause of the people's continuing rejection. In many
ways, that is to say, we are back in the situation depicted in ch. 1
, though with an important development. Ch. 1
seemed to offer hope to those who would mend their ways (e.g. vv. 18–20
); here it seems as if that door has been closed, and there is now no alternative to punishment (Carr 1993: 73–4). However that may be, the links between these verses and ch. 1
are striking. The ‘gardens’ of v. 3
recall those in
, a verse in which the themes of choosing and delighting are picked up here in vv. 12–13
: 23). This section is clearly a picture of a community rejected because of practices regarded as idolatrous. Less certain is
the attempt to reconstruct what those practices actually were. We are back in the world of religious polemic, in which any
practice, however appalling, can be attributed to one's enemies.
Whereas the first part of the unit 1–16 was concerned only with the looked-for fate of idolaters, here a series of contrasts
is drawn, introduced at vv. 8 and 13
by the prophetic messenger formula ‘says the LORD’. On the one hand is the promise to those who are judged to have remained faithful (vv. 8–10
); on the other further idolatrous practices are listed, ensuring the condemnation of those engaged in them (vv. 11–12
). Following the second prophetic introduction the contrast becomes even sharper as it sets out the different fates awaiting
‘my servants’ (here regularly in the plural; a divided community cannot be addressed as ‘servant’) and ‘you’. The third-person
references of vv. 1–7
are now pictured as spoken directly to the offenders. This contrast is an important difference from the early chapters of
the book, where the community as a whole was apparently condemned (though even there there were presumably those who shared
the standpoint of the author of the poems and expected to escape judgement). In v. 11
NRSV translates the Hebrew words gad and menî as ‘Fortune’ and ‘Destiny’; this is the only direct biblical reference to their worship, though Gad is frequent as one element
in place names. The theme of delighting and of right and wrong choice in v. 12
provides another link with
, and strengthens the impression of a deliberate rounding-off of the completed collection.
The bitterness of the preceding poem gives way to a new promise. ‘For’ at the outset suggests a link with what has preceded,
but this may be an asseverative usage: ‘Surely I am!’ YHWH as creator has been a recurrent theme since ch. 40
, and the last two chapters of the book take this to a climax with a complete renewal of heaven and earth (cf. 66:22
). The ‘former things’ played an important part in the lawcourt-like material of ch. 41
; now, as in
, they are to be set aside. The cosmic picture of v. 17
then narrows down to hopes for Jerusalem in
, but perhaps in view of the way the city is idealized in Isaiah the shift is less dramatic than it seems. The blessings promised
in the following verses are characteristic of the hopes of an agricultural community in the ancient world. The allusion to
a tree in v. 22
may be a deliberate contrast to the rejected trees of
, in view of other allusions to that section in these final chapters (Sweeney 1988a
: 23). However that may be, it is clear that v. 25
offers deliberate allusions to
, several phrases from which are brought together in an idealized description of Jerusalem, ‘my holy mountain’. The prophetic
formula is added as in vv. 8 and 12
to provide additional authenticity to the vision. It is a picture akin to, but not yet fully developed into, the apocalyptic
visions of a later period.
Another messenger formula introduces an oracle which begins conventionally enough, but then develops unexpectedly. Where is
God's dwelling? It is natural, particularly in the light of the immediately preceding reference to ‘my holy mountain’ to speak
of God as dwelling in heaven and not confined to an earthly house (cf. 57:15
). Much more unusual is the apparent rejection of the temple at the end of v. 1
. It is most unlikely that there is a reference here to a sanctuary other than the Jerusalem temple. It is possible that deliberately
exaggerated language is being used, but in any case it is likely that we have a warning, comparable to
, against excessive trust in any earthly building—even the very temple itself (Emmerson 1992: 58). That God is indeed pictured as speaking from the temple emerges clearly from v. 6
. Just as the earlier passage went on to spell out what was required of God's true worshippers, so here v. 2
emphasizes what God really looks for.
The dangers of false worship are now spelt out more fully, though unfortunately not more clearly. The Hebrew consists of a
series of four pairs of statements, the first in each pair describing normal cultic practice, the second an offensive action.
There is no indication of the connection between them. Thus 3a could be translated ‘The one who slaughters an ox, the one who kills a human being’. Most ancient versions and most modern
translations (e.g. NRSV) insert a comparison (‘is like’), with the implication that all sacrificial worship is unacceptable.
This scarcely seems likely. Perhaps more plausible is to suppose that those in charge of the cult are being condemned, their
legitimate actions being no better than the grossest syncretism. (There is a helpful discussion in Schramm 1995: 166–70.) v. 5
seems to stand somewhat apart from what has preceded, and acts as a summary. It is introduced by the solemn formula ‘Hear
the word of the LORD’ found in a similar context at
. The divisions within the community seem less sharp than in the preceding verses, difficult though those are. Here those
who are being opposed are still ‘your own people’, even if they hate and reject you.
is taken by NRSV as an isolated verse, but it is perhaps best seen as linked with the preceding, and claiming that God will
denounce from the temple those whom the poet regards as his enemies. The contrast with the doubts about the temple in v. 1
The theme of Zion as the mother of children is taken up again, as in
. But the most striking contrast is with
. There children came to the birth, but there was no strength to bring them forth. Now, by means of a rhetorical question,
YHWH gives assurance that he will bring to birth (NRSV: ‘open the womb’, the same verb as in
). By an extraordinary metaphor YHWH is pictured as a midwife—so effective in the task that there will be no labour pains.
There have been many references to daughter Jerusalem in the book; now Jerusalem as mother is the centre of celebration. Whatever
divisions the community may display, the holy city is pictured as the kind of faithful city envisaged at
The promise to Jerusalem is underlined by the introductory messenger formula, with a message of comfort reminiscent of ch. 40
. But the comfort is not universal. As is too often the case in the ancient and the modern world, the reassurance of one group
bears with it the assurance of punishment on those perceived as enemies, and the language of the last two verses, using once
again the motif of the divine warrior, is as harsh as anything we have found in the whole book. It is also poetry, which reminds
us that we should not take ‘all flesh’ literally.
A curious prose note is inserted. Someone felt it necessary to be more explicit about what were regarded as abominable practices
carried on in the ‘gardens’ to which
has already referred. The avoidance of food which is not kosher is a widespread religious concern.
Another prose passage, but this time of a very different temper. If v. 17
stressed what seems to us a negative viewpoint, here the positive attitude to foreigners found in ch. 56
is taken further. Though the reference to the coastlands is characteristic (cf. 11:11
), the actual list of foreign places in v. 19
is unexpected, owing more to Ezek 27
than to anything in Isaiah (though cf. Davies (1989: 95) for links within Isaiah). Still more astonishing is the thought, underlined as being a divine oracle, that some of these
foreigners might be enrolled as priests and Levites—a far cry from what is found elsewhere in the HB, e.g. Num 18:7
(Emmerson 1992: 106).
The last poem in the book takes up again the ‘new heavens and new earth’ theme of
, linking it first with the idea of perpetuity (‘shall remain’), then with the concern for new moon (not otherwise characteristic
of Isaiah) and sabbath (much emphasized in
56 and 58
), and finally universalizing it. In v. 16
‘all flesh’ was to be destroyed by the sword; here it is to come to worship. We are reminded for a last time of the dangers
of too literal and referential a reading of poetry.
The high note of v. 23
might have seemed an appropriate closure, and indeed in synagogue readings it is customary to read v. 23
again after v. 24
. For in this last prose note we have a sombre warning, of the possibility of lasting judgement on the rebellious, with the
same rare word ‘quenched’ as we found in
. The HB is often thought of as harsh, so it is ironic to note that this is virtually the only passage in all its contents
to speak of lasting judgement—and that it is a passage seized upon by the New Testament (Mk 9:48
It seems appropriate as we reach the end of the book briefly to reflect upon what we have been reading. As with most collections
of poetry it is inappropriate to ask for a ‘meaning’, but we can readily see that certain themes recur: the hope of salvation,
expressed in the name ‘Isaiah’ (= God saves) and repeated through the book; the need for God's ṣedeq to be expressed in the community of his worshippers; the concern for Zion as potentially the best and too often in practice
the worst of God's creation. This linkage with Zion is underlined by the many allusions to and cross-references with the Psalms.
Dating of all this material is difficult, and is most unlikely to follow the order of the complete book, but a period of 200–300
years may well be implied. Within all this poetry are a number of prose passages, linking it with Isaiah and using episodes
from his life as providing a structure for the whole. Some of these passages may well have been taken from 2 Kings; to what
extent they enshrine reliable tradition or whether any of the poems go back to Isaiah himself we have no means of knowing.
Readers will differ in their perception whether or not this uncertainty is a serious loss. What we do have is a collection
of superb poems driven by their authors' conviction that God was active in all the ups and downs which the community had experienced and must continue to anticipate.
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