Isaiah 33
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 33 The Present Distress and the Future Glory of Jerusalem

The last of the six “Woes” (see p. 206) is not addressed, like the others, to the ungodly rulers of Judah, but to some unnamed tyrant and “spoiler,” by whom the land has been reduced to the utmost straits. The course of thought is as follows:

i. Isaiah 33:1-13 contain the prophet’s appeal to Jehovah against the oppressors of his country. Commencing with a threat of retribution on the cruel and treacherous foe (Isaiah 33:1), he turns for a moment in supplication to God, the only hope of Israel in this time of trouble (Isaiah 33:2); and anticipates the speedy dispersion of the enemy before the presence of Jehovah (3, 4), Who has filled Zion with righteousness and judgment (5, 6).—At present the city is in the utmost distress through some perfidious act of the enemy; and the whole land lies waste, mourning in sympathy with its inhabitants (7–9).—But again the prophet’s faith rises triumphant in the midst of danger; the voice of Jehovah is heard announcing the swift annihilation of the invaders (10–13).

ii. Isaiah 33:14-16. The effect of Jehovah’s appearing on the two classes within the community; on the ungodly, who are seized with terror (14), and the righteous who dwell securely with the consuming fire of Divine holiness (15, 16).

iii. Isaiah 33:17-24. The poem concludes with a picture of the coming age, when the present danger shall be but a distant memory (18, 19). The description includes: the vision of the “King in his beauty,” and a far-stretching peaceful land (17); the perfect security of Jerusalem, protected by Jehovah (20, 21); freedom from disease and forgiveness of sins, as privileges of the redeemed people (24).

If the chapter be Isaiah’s, there can hardly be two opinions as to the circumstances in which it was composed. The unnamed enemy would necessarily be the Assyrian, and the scene pictured in Isaiah 33:7 (the ambassadors of peace weeping bitterly) would seem to refer to some unrecorded embassy of Hezekiah, which must have returned from Lachish with the alarming intelligence that Sennacherib, violating every consideration of honour, insisted on the surrender of the capital (see Gen. Introd., p. xx). The prophecy would thus follow closely on ch. Isaiah 22:1-14; and the striking contrast between the two passages might throw light on the prophet’s change of attitude at this time. To this theory, which is in many ways attractive, there are certain objections arising from the character of the passage. The style and imagery are both unlike Isaiah’s, and the pathetic and plaintive tone of Isaiah 33:2; Isaiah 33:8 f. is hardly in keeping with the decisiveness which marks all his utterances. Such a prayer as that in Isaiah 33:2, where the author identifies himself with his people, is without parallel in the acknowledged writings of Isaiah. Some scholars have tried to explain these characteristics by the hypothesis that the chapter is the composition of a contemporary and disciple of the prophet, or a working up of Isaianic material by a later writer. Critics of a less conservative type pronounce the passage to be post-Exilic and refer it to some episode of the Jewish struggle for independence against the Persian or Syrian kings.

Woe to thee that spoilest, and thou wast not spoiled; and dealest treacherously, and they dealt not treacherously with thee! when thou shalt cease to spoil, thou shalt be spoiled; and when thou shalt make an end to deal treacherously, they shall deal treacherously with thee.
1. The enemy is described by epithets which recur in ch. Isaiah 21:2, Isaiah 24:16. The obscurity of the reference is somewhat unlike Isaiah, who is usually perfectly explicit in his references to the Assyrian.

when thou shalt make an end] The Heb. verb used is supposed to mean “attain”; but it occurs nowhere else, and the reading is probably at fault. The substitution of a Kaph for the Nun gives the common verb killâh, “finish,” which is the exact sense given by the E.V.

O LORD, be gracious unto us; we have waited for thee: be thou their arm every morning, our salvation also in the time of trouble.
2. The nation’s prayer to Jehovah. The writer seems to make himself the spokesman of the community, a thing which Isaiah rarely does (see Isaiah 32:15); nowhere, as here, in a prayer. Cheyne, however, suggests that he speaks in the name of his own disciples, for whose sake he prays that the whole nation may be spared.

be thou their arm] i.e. their strength and defence (Jeremiah 17:5). The force of the pronoun “their” is uncertain; some change it (needlessly perhaps) to “our.” On the phrase “every morning,” cf. ch. Isaiah 28:19.

At the noise of the tumult the people fled; at the lifting up of thyself the nations were scattered.
3. At the noise of the tumult] the convulsions which attend the manifestation of Jehovah. The phrase is found in 1 Kings 18:41 of a rain storm, and in Isaiah 13:4 of a multitudinous host.

3, 4. Assurance of Jehovah’s victory, founded on the great deliverances of the past. The perfects in Isaiah 33:3 may be either those of experience, expressing a general truth often verified in history, or of prophetic assurance. Isaiah 33:4 seems to apply this truth to the present crisis.

And your spoil shall be gathered like the gathering of the caterpiller: as the running to and fro of locusts shall he run upon them.
4. like the gathering of the caterpillar] i.e. “as the caterpillar gathers.” The last word (meaning “devourer”) is one of many names for the locust. It is sometimes taken as gen. of obj. (“as men gather locusts”), the creature being an article of diet among the poorer classes in the East; but this is opposed to the next clause. On the “running” of the locust, see Joel 2:9, where the same verb is employed. The locusts in the figure represent the Israelites (Isaiah 33:23).

The LORD is exalted; for he dwelleth on high: he hath filled Zion with judgment and righteousness.
5. judgment and righteousness can mean nothing else than personal and civic virtues in the inhabitants of the city. Isaiah could not have written thus of the Jerusalem he knew (cf. Isaiah 1:21); if he is the author the words must express a vivid anticipation of the great change in the national character which is now on the eve of accomplishment.

5, 6. The writer draws encouragement from two thoughts: (1) from the nature of Israel’s God; He is a spiritual Being, dwelling on high, beyond the reach of His enemies: (2) from the spiritual blessings He has conferred on His people. The connexion of these two may be gathered from ch. Isaiah 32:15; it is the outpouring of “spirit from on high” that has produced the fruit of righteousness in the state. That Israel possesses a religion which is essentially spiritual appears to be the ultimate ground on which the expectation of deliverance is based.

And wisdom and knowledge shall be the stability of thy times, and strength of salvation: the fear of the LORD is his treasure.
6. The verse is difficult and may be construed in several ways. We might either render “and the stability of thy times shall be a store of salvation, wisdom, and knowledge” (virtually as R.V. marg.); or take the words “stability of thy times” as a complete sentence (see Davidson’s Synt. § 3, Rem. 2), and translate as follows: And there shall be stability in thy times; wisdom and knowledge are a store of salvation; the fear of Jehovah is his (Israel’s) treasure. The general idea is that a right religious attitude is the true strength of the nation and the pledge of its deliverance from all dangers. That the words “store” and “treasure” were suggested by the depleted treasury of Hezekiah is not a natural supposition.

The word times is used, as in Psalm 31:15, in the sense of “predetermined lot.”

Behold, their valiant ones shall cry without: the ambassadors of peace shall weep bitterly.
7. their valiant ones] This word is hopelessly obscure. It is usually translated “God’s lions,” i.e. ‘picked warriors, each as fierce as a lion and as invincible as his God’ (Cheyne: see on Isaiah 29:1, and cf. 2 Samuel 23:20; 1 Chronicles 11:22); and this is probably the sense intended by E.V. Another suggestion is that it is a gentilic name, meaning “inhabitants of Ariel.” It is impossible to get beyond conjecture. The reading of the text (’er’ellâm) appears to rest on a false etymology. It should probably be pointed as a simple plural, ’ar’çlîm or (if necessary) ’ǎrî’çlîm. The verbs shall cry and shall weep should both be translated as presents (R.V.).

the ambassadors of peace (omit shall) weep bitterly] Cf. ch. Isaiah 22:4. Taken in connexion with the last half of Isaiah 33:8, these words seem to point to the conclusion of a treaty of peace, which had been shamelessly violated by the enemy. Those immediately responsible for the arrangement are naturally loudest in their expression of dismay. We have no certain knowledge of such negotiations between Hezekiah and Sennacherib, although such an incident might very well have happened then.

7–9. For a moment the prophet’s faith seems to relax its hold on the great principles he has enunciated, as he turns to contemplate the misery and desolation of the present. But in reality this is an additional plea for the Divine intervention, to be followed by the exultant outburst of Isaiah 33:10-13.

The highways lie waste, the wayfaring man ceaseth: he hath broken the covenant, he hath despised the cities, he regardeth no man.
8. The highways lie waste … ceaseth] cf. Jdg 5:6.

he hath broken the covenant] See on Isaiah 33:7.

he hath despised the cities] For ‘ârîm (cities) Duhm proposes to read ‘çdîm (witnesses), i.e. the witnesses to the broken treaty. There might no doubt be an allusion to the capture of the fenced cities of Judah, 2 Kings 18:13.

The earth mourneth and languisheth: Lebanon is ashamed and hewn down: Sharon is like a wilderness; and Bashan and Carmel shake off their fruits.
9. The earth mourneth and languisheth] (cf. ch. Isaiah 24:4; Isaiah 24:7) in sympathy with the distress of God’s people. It is the language of poetry. The “earth” is neither the whole world, nor merely the land of Palestine; its equivalent in modern parlance might be “Nature.” The spots mentioned are those famous for their luxuriant vegetation, and the standing types of natural beauty and perennial verdure (cf. ch. Isaiah 35:2; Zechariah 11:2; Song of Solomon 7:4 f.). Instead of hewn down render with R.V. withereth away. The verb “shake off” requires an object to be supplied, but “their leaves” (as in R.V.) is decidedly better than “their fruits.”

Now will I rise, saith the LORD; now will I be exalted; now will I lift up myself.
10–13. Jehovah’s answer to the complaint and prayer of His people.

Ye shall conceive chaff, ye shall bring forth stubble: your breath, as fire, shall devour you.
11. Still the words of Jehovah, addressed to the enemy. The present tense would be better than the future. For the first figure see ch. Isaiah 59:4; Job 15:35; Psalm 7:14.

your breath …] Better as R.V. your breath (i.e. “anger”) is a fire that devours you.

And the people shall be as the burnings of lime: as thorns cut up shall they be burned in the fire.
12. as the burnings of lime] i.e. “as if burned to lime.” An image probably suggested by Amos 2:1. The word rendered cut up (R.V. cut down) only occurs again in Psalm 80:16.

Hear, ye that are far off, what I have done; and, ye that are near, acknowledge my might.
13. The signal deliverance of Jerusalem will be a great demonstration to all the world of the omnipotence of Israel’s God. The verse is usually taken, and perhaps rightly, as an introduction to the second half of the poem, which deals mainly with the consequences of the great act of judgment.

The sinners in Zion are afraid; fearfulness hath surprised the hypocrites. Who among us shall dwell with the devouring fire? who among us shall dwell with everlasting burnings?
14. The sinners … hypocrites] Rather: The sinners are afraid in Zion, trembling hath seized the impious (see on ch. Isaiah 9:17). An ungodly party still exists, in spite of the fact that Zion is filled with judgment and righteousness (Isaiah 33:5). The reason of their terror is expressed in what immediately follows.

Who among us shall dwell …] The questions are not merely rhetorical, introducing the description of the righteous man, as in Psalm 15:1; Psalm 24:3; but an exclamation put into the mouths of the sinners. They realise at last what Jehovah is, and begin to wonder how they can live with Him who is a consuming fire. The word “dwell” means strictly “sojourn as a protected guest,” and is the same as that used in Psalm 15:1.

everlasting burnings] There is of course no allusion here to eternal punishment. The “fire” is Jehovah’s holiness, manifested in the destruction of His enemies; and this is called eternal because the Divine wrath against sin is inexhaustible.

14–16. Being thus assured of a speedy answer to his prayers, the writer proceeds, in language of great force and beauty, to describe the moral effect on the Jewish people.

He that walketh righteously, and speaketh uprightly; he that despiseth the gain of oppressions, that shaketh his hands from holding of bribes, that stoppeth his ears from hearing of blood, and shutteth his eyes from seeing evil;
15, 16. A triumphant answer to the fearful self-questionings of the ungodly. The passage closely resembles Psalm 15:2 ff; Psalm 24:4 f. First the character of the true citizen of God’s Kingdom is expressed in general terms, and then the details are given in which the character is revealed.

that shaketh his hands] The metaphor is a very suggestive one, the verb being the same as that used in Isaiah 33:9 of the trees shaking off their leaves. All these phrases, indeed, denote the keenest abhorrence of evil.

He shall dwell on high: his place of defence shall be the munitions of rocks: bread shall be given him; his waters shall be sure.
16. he shall dwell on high] (lit. “inhabit heights”), i.e. in absolute security, as is said of Jehovah Himself in Isaiah 33:5. the munitions of rocks] inexpugnable rock-fortresses.

bread shall be given …] The image of a siege is still kept up: the righteous inhabits a fortress that shall never be starved into surrender.

Thine eyes shall see the king in his beauty: they shall behold the land that is very far off.
17. the (or a) king in his beauty] The reluctance of many expositors to interpret this phrase of the Messiah is incomprehensible. Delitzsch says that “the king of Isaiah 33:17 is no more the Messiah than the Messiah in Micah 5:1 [E.V. Isaiah 33:2] is the same person as the king who is smitten on the cheek in Isa 4:14 [E.V. Isaiah 33:1].” But in Micah the humiliated king is replaced by the Messiah, and surely the same conception would be in place here. That the king is Jehovah (Vitringa) is no doubt a possible alternative in view of Isaiah 33:22, but since whatever be the date of the passage the Messianic hope must have been a living idea of Jewish religion, there seems no reason for trying to evade what seems the most natural explanation. On the “beauty” of the king see Psalm 45:2.

the land that is very far off] Rather as R.V., a far stretching land (lit. “a land of distances”), the spacious and ever-extending dominions of the Messiah. Few verses of the O.T. have been more misapplied than this.

17–24. The idea of the perfect security of the righteous man leads by an easy transition to more positive features of the golden age.

Thine heart shall meditate terror. Where is the scribe? where is the receiver? where is he that counted the towers?
18. shall meditate terror] Or, better, shall muse on the terror (R.V.),—strive to realise its various circumstances which have so completely disappeared.

Where is the scribe?… receiver] Render with R.V. where is he that counted, where is he that weighed; the officers who exacted the tribute.

that counted the towers] calculating the strength of the city with a view to attack it.

18, 19. In those days it will require an effort of imagination to recall the dangers of the present, from which the nation shall have been so suddenly and so marvellously saved.

Thou shalt not see a fierce people, a people of a deeper speech than thou canst perceive; of a stammering tongue, that thou canst not understand.
19. Thou shalt not see the fierce people] Some render “people of barbarous speech”; cf. ch. Isaiah 28:11.

of a deeper speech, &c.] (Ezekiel 3:5), of too deep speech to be understood.

that thou canst not understand] Or, without sense.

Look upon Zion, the city of our solemnities: thine eyes shall see Jerusalem a quiet habitation, a tabernacle that shall not be taken down; not one of the stakes thereof shall ever be removed, neither shall any of the cords thereof be broken.
20. For solemnities, render festal assembly.

a tabernacle that shall not be taken down] Better (as R.V.), a tent that shall not be removed. For the figure, cf. Jeremiah 10:20.

20, 21. The permanent peace and inviolability of Jerusalem, the centre of the true religion: see ch. Isaiah 32:18.

But there the glorious LORD will be unto us a place of broad rivers and streams; wherein shall go no galley with oars, neither shall gallant ship pass thereby.
21. Here Jerusalem is represented like the great cities of the Nile and Euphrates (cf. Nahum 3:8), as surrounded by an expanse of waters, protecting it from the approach of an enemy. The idea of course is purely poetical.

the glorious Lord] Strictly, a glorious One, Jehovah. For a place of read instead of, as Hosea 1:10 (where see R.V.).

galley with oars] probably should be flotilla of boats. The meaning appears to be that the city shall not be approached by any description of vessels of war. “Pass thereby” may be rendered “pass over it.”

For the LORD is our judge, the LORD is our lawgiver, the LORD is our king; he will save us.
22. In the New Jerusalem Jehovah is Judge, Lawgiver and King, and therefore also its Deliverer from every danger.

Thy tacklings are loosed; they could not well strengthen their mast, they could not spread the sail: then is the prey of a great spoil divided; the lame take the prey.
23. The abrupt transition from the glorious future to the present or the past, in the first part of the verse, is somewhat surprising at this point. It is not Assyria but Zion which is compared to an unseaworthy ship, a comparison natural enough in itself, as when we speak of the “ship of state.”

Thy tacklings are loosed] Or, thy ropes hung slack.

they could not well strengthen, &c.] they could not hold fast the foot of their mast, they did not spread out the sail (or, “the ensign”).

The subject here is the ropes; they could not serve the two purposes for which they were intended, supporting the mast and extending the sail. The word rendered well must from its position be a substantive; it denotes the μεσόδμη, the cross-beam into which the mast was let, or else the hole in the keel which received its foot (ἱστοπέδη). The rendering “sail” is doubtful. The word means elsewhere “ensign,” and one is tempted to translate it “flag.” But it is said that ships had no flags in ancient times (Cornill on Ezekiel 27:7).

the prey of a great spoil] Rather, “prey of spoil in abundance.” The expression “prey of spoil” is perhaps to be explained like the Latin praeda exuviarum. The figure of the ship is entirely dropped. On the word for “prey” see on ch. Isaiah 9:6.

And the inhabitant shall not say, I am sick: the people that dwell therein shall be forgiven their iniquity.
24. The healing of disease and the forgiveness of sin are combined as in Psalm 103:3; Matthew 9:2 ff., &c. To the Old Testament saints sickness was the proof of God’s displeasure and of sin unforgiven. Hence in the conception of the Messianic community, the abolition of sickness, the chief evil of life, is the indispensable pledge that guilt is taken away. Cf. Exodus 23:25.

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