Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Behold, the LORD maketh the earth empty, and maketh it waste, and turneth it upside down, and scattereth abroad the inhabitants thereof.XXIV.
(1) Behold, the Lord maketh the earth empty . . .—The chapters from 24 to 27, inclusive, are to be taken as a continuous prophecy of the overthrow of the great world-powers which wore arrayed against Jehovah and His people. Of these Assyria was then the most prominent within the horizon of the prophet’s view; but Moab appears in Isaiah 25:10, and the language, with that exception, seems deliberately generalised, as if to paint the general discomfiture in every age (and, above all, in the great age of the future Deliverer) of the enemies of Jehovah and His people. The Hebrew word for “earth” admits (as elsewhere) of the rendering “land”; but here the wider meaning seems to predominate, as in its union with the “world,” in Isaiah 24:4.
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) It shall be, as with the people . . .—In the apparently general classification there is, perhaps, in the last two clauses a trace of the prophet’s indignation at the growing tendency of the people to the luxury which led to debt, and to the avarice which traded on the debtor’s necessities. Israel, it would seem, was already on the way to become a nation of money lenders.
The earth mourneth and fadeth away, the world languisheth and fadeth away, the haughty people of the earth do languish.(4) The haughty people of the earth.—Literally, the heights, or, to use an English term with a like history, “the highnesses of the people.”
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.—The verb is used of blood-guiltiness in Numbers 35:33, of impurity in Jeremiah 3:1-2; Jeremiah 3:9. It includes, therefore, all the sins that, in modern phrase, desecrate humanity. Taking the word in its wider range, each form of evil was a transgression of the “everlasting covenant” of Genesis 9:16.
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) Therefore hath the curse . . .—The definite article may be either generic, the curse which always follows on evil-doing, or, more specifically, the curse of the Book of the Covenant, as in Leviticus 26; Deuteronomy 28. The curse is personified as a beast of prey or a consuming fire, ready to devour. (Comp. Genesis 4:7; Genesis 4:11.)
They that dwell therein are desolate.—Better, bear their punishment, or are dealt with as guilty.
Are burned.—The word determines, perhaps, the sense of the word “devour” in the previous clause. The curse, the symbol of the wrath of Jehovah, is the consuming fire that burns.
The new wine mourneth, the vine languisheth, all the merryhearted do sigh.(7) The new wine mourneth.—Each feature takes its part in the picture of a land from which all sources of joy are taken away. The vine is scorched with the fire of the curse, there is no wine in the winepress, the song of the grape-gatherers (proverbially the type of the “merry-hearted”) is hushed in silence.
The mirth of tabrets ceaseth, the noise of them that rejoice endeth, the joy of the harp ceaseth.(8) The mirth of tabrets . . .—The words point to the processions of women with timbrels (tambourines) and sacred harps or lyres, like those of Exodus 15:20; Judges 11:34; 1Samuel 18:6, as was customary in seasons of victory. (Comp. the striking parallel of 1 Maccabees 3:45.)
They shall not drink wine with a song; strong drink shall be bitter to them that drink it.(9) They shall not drink wine with a song . . .—Literally, in their song they drink no wine; i.e., the music of the feasts (Amos 6:5) should cease, and if they sang at all it should be a chant of lamentation (Amos 8:10). The very appetite for “strong drink” (probably the palm-wine of the East) should pass away, and it would be bitter as the wine of gall (Deuteronomy 32:33).
The city of confusion is broken down: every house is shut up, that no man may come in.(10) The city of confusion.—Better, the city of chaos, the tohu of Genesis 1:2, “without form and void.” The world should be cast back out of its cosmos into its primeval chaos. The word is a favourite one with Isaiah (Isaiah 34:11; Isaiah 59:4, and nine other passages).
Every house is shut up—i.e., to complete the picture, not because its gates are barred, but because its own ruins block up the entrance.
There is a crying for wine in the streets; all joy is darkened, the mirth of the land is gone.(11) There is a crying for wine in the streets.—Literally, because of wine in the fields. The Hebrew noun for the latter word hovers between the meaning of an open place within and one without a city. The context seems in favour of the latter sense. Men weep in the fields because there is no vintage.
All joy is darkened.—The English verb exactly expresses the force of the Hebrew, which is used, as in Judges 19:9, of the gloom of sunset. (Comp. Micah 3:6.) The light of joy had passed into the blackness of darkness.
In the city is left desolation, and the gate is smitten with destruction.(12) In the city is left desolation.—Better, of the city. Nothing should be left but its crumbling ruins. The “gate,” usually, in an Eastern town, the pride of the city, and the chief place of concourse, had been battered till it lay in ruins.
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) There shall be as the shaking of an olive tree . . .—The prophet’s characteristic thought of the “remnant” that should escape is presented under familiar imagery, that of the few olives on the olive tree, and the gleaning of the grapes when the vintage is over. (Comp. Isaiah 17:5-6; Judges 8:2.)
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 cry aloud from the sea . . .—The utterers of the praise are obviously the remnant of the saved, whether of the “Jews of the dispersion,” or of the Gentiles. To them there appears in the midst of the desolation, the vision of the glory of the Lord, and far off, from the sea (the Mediterranean, as the great sea of the ancient world) they raise their song of praise.
Wherefore glorify ye the LORD in the fires, even the name of the LORD God of Israel in the isles of the sea.(15) Wherefore glorify ye the Lord in the fires.—The last word, which is identical in form with the Urim of the high priest’s breastplate, has been very differently interpreted:—(1) Taking it in the sense of “light,” it has been taken as meaning the east, as contrasted with the “isles of the sea” as a synonym for the west, and so standing parallel to the familiar phrase “from the rising of the sun to the going down of the same” (Malachi 1:11; Isaiah 59:19), and, we may add, to the like formula in Assyrian inscriptions, e.g., that of Esarhaddon (Records of the Past, iii. 111). So Homer, “the dawn and the sun” (Il, xii. 239) as a phrase for the East; and our Orient and East have substantially the same significance. (2) It has been rendered simply “regions,” or “countries” (Cheyne). (3) It has been interpreted of the “fiery trial” of tribulation, or of the “light” of Divine truth. Of these, (1) has the merit of being more in harmony with the primary meaning of the word, and giving a more vivid antithesis. The “isles of the sea” we have met in Isaiah 11:11.
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) From the uttermost part of the earth . . .—The words “glory to the righteous” sound at first like a doxology addressed to Jehovah as essentially the Righteous One. Two facts militate, however, against this view. The word translated “glory” is not that commonly used in doxologies, but rather “honour” or “praise,” such as is applied to men (Isaiah 4:2; Isaiah 23:9; Isaiah 28:1; Isaiah 28:4-5; 2Samuel 1:19). (2) The term “the Righteous One “is never used absolutely as a name of ‘God. On these grounds, therefore, it seems better to render “honour to the righteous” (comp. Romans 2:7), to the true Israel of God as a righteous people. The “uttermost part” is, literally, the wing or skirt of the earth.
But I said, My leanness, my leanness . . .—The prophet is recalled from the ideal to the actual, from the glory of the future to the shame and misery of the present. “Leanness,” as in Psalm 22:17; Psalm 109:24, was the natural symbol of extremest sorrow. In the “treacherous dealers,” literally, robbers, or barbarians, we may find primarily the Assyrian invaders, who were making the country desolate, or the unjust rulers of Judah, who oppressed the people.
Fear, and the pit, and the snare, are upon thee, O inhabitant of the earth.(17) Fear, and the pit, and the snare . . .—The words paint the rapid succession of inevitable calamities, in imagery drawn from the several forms of the hunter’s work. There is first the terror of the startled beast; then the pit dug that he might fall into it; then the snare, if he struggled out of the pit, out of which there was no escape (Isaiah 8:15). The passage is noticeable as having been reproduced by Jeremiah in his prophecy against Moab (Jeremiah 48:43-44).
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.(18) The windows from on high are open . . .—The phrase reminds us of the narrative of the Flood in Genesis 7:11; Genesis 8:2. There was a second judgment on the defiled and corrupted land like that of the deluge. The next clause and the following verses were probably reminiscences of the earthquake in Uzziah’s reign, and of the panic which it caused (Isaiah 2:19; Amos 1:1; Zechariah 14:5).
The earth is utterly broken down, the earth is clean dissolved, the earth is moved exceedingly.(19) The earth is utterly broken . . .—We note the characteristic form of Hebrew emphasis in the threefold iteration of “the earth.” (Comp. Isaiah 6:3; Jeremiah 22:29.) There the form (more visibly in the Hebrew than in the English) is a climax representing the three stages of an earthquake: the first cleavage of the ground; the wide open gaping; the final shattering convulsion. The rhythm of the whole passage is almost an echo of the crashes.
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) The earth shall reel to and fro . . .—The point of the first comparison is obvious. (Comp. the like illustration of a ship tossed by the waves in Psalm 107:27.) The second becomes clearer if we render hammock instead of cottage, a hanging mat, suspended from a tree, in which the keeper of the vineyard slept, moving with every breath of wind; the very type of instability. In the words that follow the prophet traces the destruction to its source. The physical catastrophe is not the result of merely physical causes. The earth totters under the weight of its iniquity, and falls (we must remember the Hebrew idea of the world as resting upon pillars, 1Samuel 2:8), never to rise again. In its vision of the last things the picture finds a parallel, though under different imagery, in 2Peter 3:10-13.
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 Lord shall punish the host of the high ones that are on high . . .—The prophet’s utterance becomes more and more apocalyptic. He sees more than the condemnation of the kings of earth. Jehovah visits also the “principalities and powers in heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:10) or “on high” (Ephesians 6:12). Perhaps identifying these spiritual evil powers with the gods whom the nations worshipped, and these again with the stars in the firmament, Isaiah foresees a time when their long-protracted rebellion shall come to an end, and all authority and power be put down under the might of Jehovah (1Corinthians 15:25). The antithetical parallelism of the two clauses is decisive against the interpretation which sees in the “high ones on high” only the representatives of earthly kingdoms, though we may admit that from the prophet’s stand-point each rebel nation is thought of as swayed by a rebel spirit. (Comp. Daniel 10:20; Ecclesiasticus 17:14; and the LXX. of Deuteronomy 32:8 : “He set the bounds of the nations according to the number of the angels of God.”) The same thought is found in a Rabbinic proverb, “God never destroys a nation without having first of all destroyed its prince” (Delitzsch, but without a reference).
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) As prisoners are gathered in the pit . . .—The imagery is drawn from the deep underground dungeons of Eastern prisons (Jeremiah 38:6), which are here the symbol of the abyss of Hades, in which the rebel powers of earth and heaven await the final judgment (2Peter 2:4; Jude 1:6).
After many days shall they be visited.—The verb is the same as that translated “punish” in the previous verse, but does not in itself involve the idea of punishing, and in some of its forms is used of visiting in mercy. Interpreters have, according to their previous bias, assigned this or that meaning to it. Probably the prophet used it in a neutral sense, drawing his imagery from the custom of Eastern kings, who, after leaving their enemies in prison for an appointed time, came to inspect them, and to award punishment or pardon according to their deserts. In such a company there might be “prisoners of hope” (Zechariah 9:12), waiting with eager expectation for the coming of the king. The passage is interesting in the history of Christian doctrine, as having furnished to Origen and his followers an argument in favour of the ultimate restitution of all created spirits.
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 . . .—The thought implied is that the most glorious forms of created light will become dim, the moon red as with the blush of shame, the sun turning pale, before the glory of Jehovah’s presence.
And before his ancients gloriously.—Better, and before his elders shall he glory. The “elders” are, like the seventy of Exodus 24:9, like the twenty-four of Revelation 4:4, the chosen ones of the new Jerusalem, to whom it shall be given, as the counsellors of the great King, to see His glory, that glory resting on them as in old time it rested upon Moses.