Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
It is admitted on all hands that this interesting and difficult group of chapters, although without a heading, forms a distinct section of the book of Isaiah. They consist of a single connected prophecy, interspersed with lyrical and devotional passages, which appear in some instances to interrupt the sequence of thought. The general theme is one of the most familiar in prophecy; it is the “day of Jehovah” in its terrors, and with its blessed consequences for Israel and for humanity. But the treatment of that theme is in many respects unique in the prophetic literature. That the writer had a definite historical situation in view is abundantly manifest; but its features are designedly veiled by the use of mysterious and symbolical language, the precise significance of which frequently eludes our grasp. This is one characteristic of the class of writings known as apocalypses, and the strongly-marked apocalyptic character of the ideas and imagery has impressed nearly all commentators. There has perhaps been a tendency to exaggerate this feature; if we compare the passage with a typical apocalypse, like the book of Daniel, the differences are certainly more striking than the resemblances. In religious importance and depth the chapters are second to nothing in the prophets. Two great truths in particular, the universality of salvation and the hope of immortality, stand out with a clearness and boldness of conception nowhere surpassed in the Old Testament.
The critical questions which arise in connexion with these chapters are so intricate, and depend so much on the explanation of obscure allusions, that it will be convenient to economise space by postponing the consideration of them until the detailed exposition is finished.
Ch. 24. The day of Judgment and its premonitory signs
The chapter is mainly an announcement of the last judgment, but partly also a gloomy survey of the actual state of the world. The writer feels that he is living in the last days, and in the universal wretchedness and confusions of the age he seems to discern the “beginning of sorrows.” His thoughts glide almost imperceptibly from the one point of view to the other, now describing the distress and depression which exist, and now the more terrible visitation which is imminent. It is only at Isaiah 24:21 that the transition is finally made to the absolute language of prophecy. The line of thought is as follows:
Isaiah 24:1-3. The prophecy opens with a “word” of Jehovah,—the announcement of an imminent and sweeping catastrophe affecting the whole earth, and involving all ranks and classes of society in a common destruction.
Isaiah 24:4-9. The earth is described as withering under a curse, because of the universal depravity and guilt of its inhabitants (4–6). Wine and music, the customary tokens of social enjoyment, have ceased; life has lost its zest; the world is profoundly unhappy (7–9).
Isaiah 24:10-12 depict the desolation and misery of an unnamed city, which, however, is but typical of the state of things everywhere.
Isaiah 24:13. Resuming the language of prophecy, the writer foretells, under an image borrowed from Isaiah, the almost complete extermination of the race of men (cf. Isaiah 24:6).
Isaiah 24:14-16. Here for a moment, “the vision of ruin is interrupted: borne from afar, over the western waters, the chorus of praise rising from the lips of the redeemed, falls upon the prophet’s ear” (Driver). Yet, under the influence of his immediate surroundings, he feels that such rejoicing is premature; and the response of his heart is a cry of agony. For he knows that judgment has not yet had its perfect work; and accordingly, in
Isaiah 24:17-20, he returns to his main theme, accumulating images of destruction, in order to set forth the appalling magnitude of the catastrophe about to overwhelm the earth.
Isaiah 24:21-23. Here the prophecy reaches its climax in the announcement of Jehovah’s appearance to vanquish the powers of evil in heaven and in the high places of the world, and to establish His everlasting throne in visible splendour on Mount Zion.
Concluding Note on Ch. 24–27
The above exposition has left some general questions in suspense; and for the most part they are such as cannot be adequately discussed in this commentary. There are two, however, on which a few additional observations are necessary, viz., (1) the unity and (2) the date, of the prophecy.
(1) The question of unity, as raised by the recent criticisms of Duhm and Cheyne, relates principally to the lyrical passages already marked off in the notes (Isaiah 25:1-5; Isaiah 25:9-12, Isaiah 26:1-19, Isaiah 27:2-6), although it is acknowledged that the section Isaiah 27:7-11 presents difficulties almost as great. As has been hinted above, the commonly accepted view has been that the lyrics represent flights of the author’s imagination, depicting the feelings of the redeemed community after the great judgment is past. The chief considerations urged against this view are as follows. (a) If we read consecutively 24, Isaiah 25:6-8, Isaiah 26:20 to Isaiah 27:1, Isaiah 27:7-13, we have a series of conceptions which readily fit into a consistent picture of the future, and (at least up to Isaiah 27:1) a very natural sequence of thought. (b) the songs are distinguished from the main prophecy in poetic structure and rhythm, as well as in the point of view they represent. (c) They do not occur at places where their insertion would be natural if due to the literary plan of the composition, while one of them (Isaiah 25:1-5) appears to interrupt a close connexion of thought. (d) The most important of all (Isaiah 26:1-19) is written in a vein of mingled exultation and despondency inappropriate to the supposed situation. Although the reader is naturally averse to entertaining the idea of interpolation if it can possibly be avoided, it can hardly be denied that these arguments have a considerable cumulative force. (b) counts for little or nothing by itself, while the others may involve merely subjective differences of critical judgment. The crucial case is probably (d), where the ‘ideal standpoint’ theory could only be maintained by assuming that the writer’s imagination lacks the strength of wing needful to bear him triumphantly away from the discouraging outlook of his actual present. It must be pointed out, however, that the demarcation of the lyrics given in the notes is adopted from Duhm and Cheyne, and to discuss the question of unity on this basis necessarily does some injustice to the views of other critics, who might prefer a different division.
(2) The question of the date of the prophecy is of course influenced by the view held as to its unity, although to a less extent than might be imagined, since both the critics named agree in regarding the whole series of compositions as belonging to the literature of a single general period. Duhm assigns them to the reign of John Hyrcanus, and finds allusions to the Parthian campaign of Antiochus Sidetes (b.c. 129) and the destruction of Samaria (c. 107). But there is really nothing to warrant these precise determinations, and the theory is negatived by well-established conclusions as to the close of the O.T. Canon. Cheyne’s view is free from this objection and is in itself very attractive. The historical background of the prophecy is found in the events which preceded the dissolution of the Persian Empire (say 350–330). The gloomy survey of ch. 24 is explained by the “desolating and protracted wars” of the period, in which the Jews are known to have suffered severely and during which Jerusalem was not improbably laid waste by Persian armies. The premature songs of triumph referred to in ch. Isaiah 24:16 are supposed to have been called forth by rumours of the expedition of Alexander the Great, whilst the interspersed lyrical passages celebrate the Jewish deliverance achieved by the Macedonian victories. Perhaps the least convincing part of the hypothesis is the identification of the conquered city of Isaiah 25:2, Isaiah 26:5, with Tyre or Gaza, destroyed by Alexander; but in spite of that Cheyne’s view is probably the one which best harmonises the varied indications of the prophecy (see his Introduction, pp. 155 ff., and the refs. there).
Of rival theories there is perhaps but one that deserves careful examination, that, viz., which seeks the occasion of the prophecy in the age immediately succeeding the Exile, particularly the Babylonian troubles under Darius Hystaspis. There is, indeed, a surprising number of coincidences between the phenomena of this prophecy and the circumstances of that time or the contemporary literature. The expectation of a great overturning of existing political conditions occurs in the writings of Haggai (Isaiah 2:6-7; Isaiah 2:21-22) and Zechariah (Isaiah 1:11 ff.); the idea of a world-judgment in Isaiah 13:6 ff.; the universalism of Isaiah 25:6-8 finds nowhere a more sympathetic response than in Isaiah 40-55; and even the ‘songs of the righteous’ (Isaiah 24:16) have a certain resemblance to Isaiah 45:10. The allusion to recent idolatry in Isaiah 27:9 is amply accounted for; and the “city” (although too much has been made of this point) of Isaiah 24:10 ff., Isaiah 27:10 f., Isaiah 25:2, Isaiah 26:5 might be Babylon, the “world-city,” now humbled and soon to be utterly destroyed.
The ultimate decision probably turns on certain general features of the prophecy, which are thought to point to a very late age. These are (a) its apocalyptic colouring and imagery (see, however, the caveat on p. 179 above), (b) the advanced form in which it presents the doctrines of immortality (Isaiah 25:8) and the resurrection (Isaiah 26:19); and (possibly) (c) the belief in tutelary genii of the nations. With regard to these phenomena many will agree with Cheyne that they “become the more intelligible the later we place this composition in the Persian period.”
Behold, the LORD maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof.1. Behold, the Lord maketh … waste] The construction in Heb. is the fut. instans,—“is about to empty.” The metaphor of the verse (cf. Nahum 2:10) is exceedingly expressive, the words being “those which were used for cleaning a dirty dish” (G. A. Smith). Cf. 2 Kings 21:13. The language exhibits the fondness for assonance which is a marked peculiarity of the writer’s style, far in excess of anything of the kind in Isaiah.
the earth] Not “the land” (R.V. marg.) of Judah or Palestine. “The prophecy leaps far beyond all particular or national conditions.”
1–3 briefly announce the theme of the whole discourse, a final and universal judgment on the world.
And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the servant, so with his master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the taker of usury, so with the giver of usury to him.2. The judgment affects all classes alike, without distinction of rank or fortune.
as with the people … priest] Cf. Hosea 4:9. It would hardly be safe to infer from this proverbial expression that at the time of the author the priests formed the aristocracy of the Jewish people. the buyer … the seller] Ezekiel 7:12. the taker … the giver of usury] Jeremiah 15:10.
The land shall be utterly emptied, and utterly spoiled: for the LORD hath spoken this word.3. For land read earth as Isaiah 24:1; Isaiah 24:4, &c.
The earth mourneth and fadeth away, the world languisheth and fadeth away, the haughty people of the earth do languish.4. mourneth … languisheth … fadeth away] Another instance of paronomasia in the original. Cf. ch. Isaiah 33:9; Hosea 4:3; Joel 1:10.
the haughty people] Lit. “the height of the people,” i.e. the noblest of the people. It is the only case where the word is so used (though cf. Ecclesiastes 10:6).
4–6. The earth lies under a curse on account of the wickedness of its inhabitants.
The earth also is defiled under the inhabitants thereof; because they have transgressed the laws, changed the ordinance, broken the everlasting covenant.5. The earth also is defiled (literally, profaned) under the inhabitants thereof] That the land of Israel is profaned by the sins of its people, is a prominent idea in the O.T.; the conception is here extended to the whole earth. The condition of the world resembles that which preceded the Deluge (Genesis 6:11).
changed the ordinance] Rather, disregarded (lit. “passed by”) the ordinance.
the everlasting covenant] The expression is taken from Genesis 9:16, and refers to the covenant made after the flood with Noah and his family as representatives of the human race. The sin of the world lies in the violation of these fundamental dictates of morality, especially the law against murder, which is the principal stipulation of the Noachic covenant (Genesis 9:5-6). The conception is probably a late one.
Therefore hath the curse devoured the earth, and they that dwell therein are desolate: therefore the inhabitants of the earth are burned, and few men left.6. hath the (or a) curse devoured the earth] Cf. Zechariah 5:3.
are desolate] Render with R.V., are found guilty.
the inhabitants of the earth are burned] or burn under the curse, which is the expression of the Divine wrath. The verb (ḥârar) means “to glow” (Ezekiel 24:11) or “be parched” (Job 30:30), not “be burned up.”
few men left] Desolating and protracted wars have reduced the population of all countries; but the process of extermination is not yet at an end (see Isaiah 24:13).
The new wine mourneth, the vine languisheth, all the merryhearted do sigh.7. Cf. Joel 1:10; Joel 1:12.
7–9. Joy has vanished from the earth.
The mirth of tabrets ceaseth, the noise of them that rejoice endeth, the joy of the harp ceaseth.8, 9. On the use of music at feasts, along with wine, see ch. Isaiah 5:11-12; Amos 6:5. The verbs in Isaiah 24:9 should be rendered in the present tense.
They shall not drink wine with a song; strong drink shall be bitter to them that drink it.
The city of confusion is broken down: every house is shut up, that no man may come in.10. The city of confusion] (or of chaos, Genesis 1:2) need not mean “the city destined to become a chaos,” still less “the city of idolatry,” which of course would be epithets inapplicable to Jerusalem. It may simply be equivalent to “the wasted city.”
every house … come in] (cf. ch. Isaiah 23:1) i.e. the surviving inhabitants have barred their doors, suspicious of the intrusion of unbidden guests.
10–12. Even the “city,” usually the scene of busy and joyous life, shares in the universal sadness. It is difficult to say whether a particular city is meant, or whether the word is used collectively for cities in general. The fulness of the picture gives the impression that the writer has a particular city before his mind, although it stands as a type of many others throughout the world. If this be so, it is most natural to refer the description to Jerusalem, where the prophecy seems to have been written.
There is a crying for wine in the streets; all joy is darkened, the mirth of the land is gone.11. a crying for wine] Rather, as R.V.: a crying because of the wine. The word for streets, meaning strictly “that which is without,” is by some rendered “fields”; but this is less natural.
the mirth of the earth is gone] Lit. “gone into exile.”
In the city is left desolation, and the gate is smitten with destruction.12. In the city is left desolation] after its mirth has gone into banishment.
When thus it shall be in the midst of the land among the people, there shall be as the shaking of an olive tree, and as the gleaning grapes when the vintage is done.13. The whole human race must perish, with the exception of an insignificant remnant. Render: For so shall it be in the midst of the earth among the peoples as at the beating of an olive-tree, as the after-gleaning when the vintage is over. The images are borrowed from ch. Isaiah 17:6, and are used in the same sense.
They shall lift up their voice, they shall sing for the majesty of the LORD, they shall cry aloud from the sea.14. They shall lift up their voice] Rather: These lift up their voice. The pronoun at the beginning is emphatic and stands in contrast to the “I” of Isaiah 24:16.
they shall sing, for the majesty …] Better (following the accents) they shout: for the majesty of Jehovah they cry aloud, &c. The last words from the sea (i.e. the Mediterranean) point to the West as the quarter whence the songs of triumph proceed. Cf. “in the coasts,” Isaiah 24:15.
14–16. Already, indeed, the prophet can hear songs of praise ascending from distant parts of the earth, hailing the dawn of a better day; but he himself cannot share these enthusiastic hopes. It is not likely that this representation is purely ideal. Events must have occurred which excited the premature expectation of an immediate deliverance. It is difficult to conceive the historical situation which is presupposed. The most natural supposition will be that the singers referred to are Israelites of the Dispersion, who follow with sympathetic interest the development of some great crisis in the fortunes of the people of God, but whose vision is unable to perceive the darker signs of the times which are manifest to the prophet. A more exact determination of the circumstances must depend on the date which is found best to harmonise all the indications of the prophecy.
Wherefore glorify ye the LORD in the fires, even the name of the LORD God of Israel in the isles of the sea.15. The words are those of the hymn of praise from over the sea, as is shewn by the particle Wherefore, referring to the unexpressed cause of rejoicing.
in the fires] This gives no sense. R.V. has in the east; strictly “the (regions of) lights,” which is the translation adopted by the majority of commentators. The idea would then be that the West calls on the East to join in the praise of Jehovah. But the form does not occur elsewhere and is not improbably written by mistake for “coasts,” which is repeated in the next line in accordance with what is called ‘the ascending rhythm.’
the Lord God of Israel] The singers, therefore, are in all probability Israelites.
in the isles] in the coasts.
From the uttermost part of the earth have we heard songs, even glory to the righteous. But I said, My leanness, my leanness, woe unto me! the treacherous dealers have dealt treacherously; yea, the treacherous dealers have dealt very treacherously.16. Other voices from the uttermost part (strictly, “the skirt”) of the earth are heard singing “Glory to the righteous,” i.e. the righteous people, Israel. But these jubilant utterances of his more fortunately situated fellow-believers only extort from the prophet a cry of despair.
My leanness] Lit. “emaciation to me,” hence R.V. “I pine away.”
the treacherous dealers …] Cf. ch. Isaiah 21:2, Isaiah 33:1. Assonance is here carried to an extreme: “deceivers deceive, yea with deceit do deceivers deceive.”
Fear, and the pit, and the snare, are upon thee, O inhabitant of the earth.17–20. This description of the judgment on the earth and its inhabitants seems to connect immediately with Isaiah 24:13.
17, 18a recur almost verbatim in Jeremiah 48:43 f. (cf. also Amos 5:19).
18b—20 describe the physical convulsions which accompany the day of Jehovah.
the windows from on high are opened] An allusion to the story of the Deluge (Genesis 7:11; Genesis 8:2). The rest of the imagery is based on the phenomena of the earthquake.
And it shall come to pass, that he who fleeth from the noise of the fear shall fall into the pit; and he that cometh up out of the midst of the pit shall be taken in the snare: for the windows from on high are open, and the foundations of the earth do shake.
The earth is utterly broken down, the earth is clean dissolved, the earth is moved exceedingly.19. is clean dissolved] Better, is utterly shivered. For is moved render staggereth.
The earth shall reel to and fro like a drunkard, and shall be removed like a cottage; and the transgression thereof shall be heavy upon it; and it shall fall, and not rise again.20. reel to and fro like a drunkard] Cf. Psalm 107:27.
shall be removed like a cottage] Better as in R.V. shall be moved to and fro like a hut. The word for “hut” is that used in ch. Isaiah 1:8 of the watchman’s frail shelter in the cucumber-field. It might here be fitly rendered “hammock.”
the transgression thereof shall be heavy upon it] The material fabric of the earth is as it were crushed beneath the accumulated guilt of its inhabitants (cf. Isaiah 24:5, Isaiah 26:21).
it shall fall, and not rise again] Apparently a citation from Amos 5:2.
And it shall come to pass in that day, that the LORD shall punish the host of the high ones that are on high, and the kings of the earth upon the earth.21. the host of the high ones that are on high] Lit. the host of the height in the height. The “host of the height” is equivalent to the “host of heaven” (Jeremiah 33:22; 1 Kings 22:19; Nehemiah 9:6); but (as these passages shew) the expression may be used either of the stars or of the angels. It is impossible to say which sense is intended here, or whether both are combined. That celestial beings of some kind are meant appears clearly from the emphatic contrast with the “kings of the earth” in the second half of the verse. The heavenly bodies, conceived by the ancients as animated, and as influencing the destinies of men, were objects of false worship, and so might be represented as part of the evil system of things which has to be overthrown. On the other hand the idea of patron angels of the various nationalities appears in the later literature (Daniel 10:13; Daniel 10:20-21; Daniel 12:1; Sir 17:17) and these, as mysteriously related to the earthly sovereignties, might also be thought of. (On a similar conception in Psalms 58, 82, see Cheyne’s Bampton Lectures, pp. 120, 337.)
21–23. The judgment on the powers of evil, and the enthronement of Jehovah on Mount Zion.
And they shall be gathered together, as prisoners are gathered in the pit, and shall be shut up in the prison, and after many days shall they be visited.22. after many days shall they be visited] See Judges 6, “reserved in everlasting chains, under darkness, unto the judgment of the great day” (cf. 2 Peter 2:4); and the following passages from the book of Enoch (ch. 18:14, 16). “This … place … serves as a prison for the stars of heaven and the host of heaven … And he was wroth with them and bound them unto the time when their guilt should be complete in the year of the secret.” (See also Enoch Isaiah 21:6.) It is true that the verb “visited” may bear a favourable sense, and many commentators prefer that sense here. But this is opposed both to the tenor of the passage and the analogy of eschatological representations.
Then the moon shall be confounded, and the sun ashamed, when the LORD of hosts shall reign in mount Zion, and in Jerusalem, and before his ancients gloriously.23. the moon shall be confounded … ashamed] i.e. shall “pale their ineffectual fires” before the light of Jehovah’s presence (see ch. Isaiah 60:19). A punishment of the sun and moon, as representatives of the “host of heaven,” is not to be thought of. The words “moon” and “sun” are poetic, signifying respectively “the white” and “the hot.” (Cf. ch. Isaiah 30:26)
the lord of hosts shall reign] Lit. “hath proclaimed Himself king.”
before his ancients gloriously] Render with R.V. marg. before his ancients (elders) shall be glory. There is an allusion to the Theophany seen by the seventy elders of Israel at Mount Sinai, recorded in Exodus 24:9-10. It is significant that the representatives of the redeemed community who stand nearest to Jehovah are not a king and princes, as in ch. Isaiah 32:1, nor priests, as in Ezekiel’s Temple-vision, but a council of elders.