William Kelly Major Works Commentary
And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin the king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it.Isaiah Chapter 7
In the last chapter we saw the glory of Christ revealed, and the assurance of a holy seed after the judgement of the land and people. We have now a weighty sequel recounting facts which occurred, not in the year king Uzziah died, nor even in the days of his successor, but strange as it might seem, in those of Ahaz. "This is that king Ahaz," who without faith in Jehovah sent to the kings of Assyria for help. Sacrilegious he and at last apostate, Jehovah brought Judah low because of Ahaz, of David's line; for he made Judah naked, and transgressed sore against Jehovah. Even in the midst of his distress he trespassed yet more. Hence the occasion for a fresh outburst of prophetic light. It could not otherwise have been clearly gathered how the glory of Christ was actually to appear. Our chapter solves this question, and connects His incarnation (for indeed He is God, yea, Jehovah) with His rejection and His final and everlasting triumph (Isa. 8; Isaiah 9:1-7). The first part alone comes before us now.
The occasion was the offensive and profane alliance of Rezin, king of Syria, with Pekah, Remaliah's son and king of Israel, against Judah and Ahaz. "And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, [that] Rezin the king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up to Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it. And it was told the house of David, saying, Syria is confederate with Ephraim. And his heart shook, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind" (vv. 1, 2). There were they in great fear, where no fear was, and this, alas! in Jerusalem and David's house; and no wonder, for the heir of David's throne walked not like David his father, but in the ways of the kings of Israel or worse, and drew Judah with him into sore transgression against Jehovah. Panic-stricken, yet in no way driven by his distress to God, on the self-same spot where Rabshakeh uttered his blasphemies against Jehovah at a later day, "the aqueduct of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field," Ahaz is met by the prophet. "And Jehovah said to Isaiah, Go out now to meet Ahaz, thou and Shear-jashub thy son, at the end of the aqueduct of the upper pool, on the highway of the fuller's field. And thou shalt say unto him, Take heed and be quiet; fear not, and let not thy heart faint before these two ends (tails) of smoking firebrands, because of the fierce anger of Rezin and Syria, and of the son of Remaliah. Inasmuch as Syria hath taken evil counsel against thee, Ephraim and the son of Remaliah, saying, Let us go up against Judah, and harass it, and make a breach therein for us, and set up a king therein, the son of Tabeal" (vv 3-6)
How foolish, as well as base, is unbelief! It is joyous and confident when a labouring volcano is about to burst; it is filled with anguish, when God is going to deal with the evils it dreads. In this case, how could He behold in peace a compact between apostate Israel and heathen Syria? It was not merely that their enterprise, if successful, must vex Judah, but set aside David's line. It was a blow at the Messiah, little as they might have thought of this; and the oath and honour of God were thus at stake. But "thus saith the Lord Jehovah, It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass. For the head of Syria [is] Damascus, and the head of Damascus [is] Rezin; and within sixty-five years shall Ephraim be broken, so as to be not a people. And the head of Ephraim [is] Samaria, and the head of Samaria [is] Remaliah's son. If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established" (vv. 7-9).
How blessed are the ways of God! The effort to destroy, which seemed so awful to its objects, especially as their conscience was bad, led at once to the revelation of the doom of the destroyers. The confederacy came to naught. The Syrian chief would not avail to shield more guilty Ephraim; for it was sentenced - yea, to be so broken as not to be a people, within sixty-five years; and so it fell out to the letter (2 Kings 17). The chief of Ephraim's capital is paraded before us like his ally in due form and title. Such would each remain, and no more. Who were they to dispute the counsels of God as to David's royal line, let Ahaz be personally faithless and false as he was? God at least is God, and His word shall stand for ever, though surely unbelief shall not be established, whether in Ephraim or in Judah. God's people, God's king; how inexcusable, if such failed in faith!
One can understand why rationalists cavil at the sixty-five years, challenge its accuracy, and reason on its being no answer to the anxiety of Ahaz. It does prove how specific is prophecy, and this beyond the present moment; for it is the exact point when Ephraim, suffering repeated blows, was not only swept away but excluded from the land by Esarhaddon's importation of foreigners. It opens the way for the great prediction still farther off. For this was only the prelude to the weightier announcement that follows. "And Jehovah spoke again unto Ahaz, saying, Ask for thee a sign from Jehovah thy God: ask it in the depth or in the height above. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt Jehovah" (vv 10-12). Alas! how often the hypocrisy of unbelief thus essays to hide its contempt of Jehovah; and through presumption, which really despises the word of His grace, assumes the garb of superior reverence and humility. The prophet, however, sees through the cheat put forward by an evil heart of unbelief, and calls now on the house of David to hear, not alone his reproof, but what the Lord Himself was to give. Ahaz shrank from God even in His goodness. Flesh never trusts God. It is bent on its own will and instinctively avoids grace, which must assert and give effect to the will of God.
Ahaz did not like God to draw too near. God answered it by Immanuel - God with us. "And he said, Hear then, house of David. [Is it] a small matter for you to weary men, that ye weary also my God? Therefore will Jehovah Himself give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel. Curds and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil and to choose the good" (vv. 13-15) Was it not the most marvellous grace so to promise to such a man? Yet in truth grace condemns unbelief and all other sin as the law never did or could. Had Ahaz asked any sign within his range of earth and heaven, how immeasurably short of God's! If man refuses to ask through unbelief, God fails not to give a sign for His own glory: the virgin's Son, the woman's Seed, Immanuel! What thoughts, feelings, and facts cluster here together! What grace and truth, God and man united in one person! The security of David's royal line and rights, how much more than the predicted ruin of plotting Ephraim, in the presence of the sign, the truth of truths - God with us! Yet was it the assurance, if its grandeur betokened other and higher glories, that no conspiracy could prosper which struck at the Root and Offspring of David.
It is well known that the Jews have made desperate efforts to evade this luminous testimony to the Incarnation in their own prophet. First they exaggerate the difference between "almah" and "bethulah". (confessedly the latter is the more common word for virgin, for the former occurs in not more than six passages beside the one before us. But it is certain that in Joel 1:8 "b'thulah" is employed for a young married woman, which is never the case with "almah"; see also Deuteronomy 22:19. For the argument on Proverbs 30:19-20 is quite invalid to prove it synonymous with an adulterous woman. In the present instance the context requires the sense of virgin with the utmost precision; for in a young married woman's bearing a son there is no sign or wonder. It was from the first known that the Deliverer of man from the serpent-enemy of the race must be born of woman in some distinctive way; it was known that He must be also son of Abraham, in the line of Isaac and Jacob, of Judah and David. It is now narrowed to a virgin therefore, by necessary implication, of that royal house. The virgin should be pregnant and bear Him; a sign indeed! in one sense explained, in another enhanced, by the capital truth that He should be God - of divine nature as truly as the woman's Seed. The virgin's Son is Immanuel, the Lord Jehovah, Whose glory the prophet had seen in connection with the preservation of a holy seed, spite of their repeated desolations. Thus the person of the Messiah, and specifically the solution of the enigma of His divine being, yet in association with the family of David, is fully cleared up.
Hence the Septuagint (a version made before the dispute arose) very properly gives here (as in Genesis 24:43) ἡ παρθένος, whereas Aquila and Symmachus chose νεᾶνις . But it is plain that even the latter cannot get rid of the truth intended in the context; and the wild interpretations of some Jews and all Rationalists prove how hard set they are to evade its truth. In Solomon's Song (6: 8), where the Septuagint translates the Hebrew term as νεάνιδες the strict meaning of virgins is certain; for it is distinguished from βασίλισσαι and παλλαχαί , and, like our word "maidens," can only be used as "virgins," as Rashi seems to allow in his comment on chapter 1. 3. Nor can there well be a more glaring instance of an offensive prejudice than Gesenius' abandonment of the evident source of the word in "alam", to "hide,"* in order to justify a more vague origin from an Arabic source.
*Even Aquila confirms this, the only true derivation of the word, and its kindred form for the other sex, by giving ἀπόκρυφος in Genesis 24:43.
Again, the most recent Jewish version known to me, that of Isaac Leeser, renders the article by the demonstrative. This is illegitimate. The object clearly is to refer the person in question to a young person then present. Nevertheless Mr. Leeser is more candid in his rendering of "harah" than some of his brethren and their rationalistic followers; for he, like Rashi before him, correctly renders it "shall conceive," not "is with child." Probably the latter considered the prophet's wife to be in question, and the child to be the same as Maher-shalal-hashbaz. Here the Rabbis are in conflict. Thus Kimchi held that the young woman could not be Isaiah's wife (for she must then have been designated the prophetess, as in chap. 8: 3), and therefore conceived her to be the wife of Ahaz, and imagined for them an unknown son named Immanuel. Aben Ezra is at issue with both; for he held it to be a third son of the prophetess, and so rather approached Rashi; but with Kimchi he held the sign to be the child's eating cream and honey as soon as born. No more words are needed to expose such views. Even Kimchi disposes of Isaiah and the prophetess by asking how then the land could be called Immanuel's land.
*Gesenius, who thought so too, tried to escape the difficulty of "ho-almah".
Manifestly the Jews do not agree, save in opposing the only interpretation which carries with it a clear and noble sense, yet to be the joy of repentant Israel. The notion that Hezekiah was the virgin's son is wholly inadmissible; for as Ahaz reigned sixteen years, and he himself was twenty-five years of age when he began to reign, he must have been a boy at least eight years old before his father's reign began; and hence no prediction of his birth could have been made by Isaiah to Ahaz already on the throne. There is not a hint in scripture of Ahaz taking another wife after his accession and the announcement; still less is there room for a personage so wonderful, to say the least, as the Immanuel to be born, Who should altogether eclipse Hezekiah and break off the yoke of the Assyrian from the neck of Israel, the glorious person to bring in the glorious state promised in Isaiah 9:6-7.
It is as plain as can be on the face of these chapters that Shear-jashub (= the remnant shall return) was already born, and was the prophet's companion, as we see at the beginning of Isa. 7. Not less plain is it that Maher-shalal-hash-baz (= hasten prey, speed spoil, Isa. 8) was to be born of the prophetess. Both distinctly set forth the great events of undying interest to Israel, the one pledging the return of the remnant, the other intimating the Assyrian attack and its consequences. Why trust the Assyrian who should spoil the holy land? Why dread the kings who were so soon to be swept away? But between the two comes a wholly different promise, the virgin's Son, excluding in all fairness of exposition both the king and the prophet with their children. His name Immanuel (God with us) speaks incomparably better things; and it reappears after the prophet's second son, and even after the horrors represented by his name, when devastation had done its worst. But woe to those who meddle with Thy land, O Immanuel! Israel, and Judah, and David's house may too justly bring down the chastening, and "the king" in the land at the end be yet worse than the unworthy politician who then held the sceptre. The ruin may seem complete, deliverance hopeless; but Immanuel! that is, God is with us. Such is the general outline. Further details are yet to be given in their place. We shall see that the following chapters, both in the extent and nature of Israel's distress and evil, the changed relation of God to His people, and above all the glorious interposition of Immanuel, go far beyond any present or proximate encouragement to Israel (though there was this of course), and look on to days still future and quite distinct from anything meanwhile accomplished by Christ for the Christian or the church.
Nothing can be more apposite than "the sign" Jehovah gave, little as the feeble and self-willed Ahaz might appreciate it. For the coalition of the king of Israel with him of Syria was to depose the house of David and set up Ben-Tabeal over Judah. Man would have counted it enough to promise that his son Hezekiah, and his son, and so on, should succeed; and this would have been much to comfort one who simply confided in a promise through a divinely sent prophet. But as howsoever many the promises of God, in Christ is the Yea, so through Him too is the Amen for glory to God by us. Hence for the Jew all is made to centre in the Messiah. Not merely shall a remnant return, but the Seed of promise, the virgin's Son, be born. Put this birth as far off as you please from the time of Ahaz, only thereby do you render more conspicuous the voice of God in prophecy and the sure mercies of David. The righteous covenant of God would not fail to judge what an Ahaz and a Manasseh, a Jehoiakim, a Jehoiachin, and a Zedekiah would sow, spite of a faithful Hezekiah or a godly Josiah. But Immanuel was an indefectible assurance that no confederacy could put down David's house finally. Messiah, Son of David, is the divine guarantee. The virgin must bear Him of that stock; the virgin's Son must also be, in some true though mysterious way, God Himself. Immanuel ensures that God's purpose of blessing shall stand and be established for ever.
It has been observed that the "son" Immanuel, in ver. 14 appears not to be "the youth" of ver. 16; which last refers rather to Shear-jashub, who for this reason seems to have accompanied the prophet. And it is pertinent to observe that the Hebrew here is neither "son" nor "child" strictly, but "the youth" or "lad". "For before the youth knoweth to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land, because of whose two kings thou art alarmed, shall be forsaken (Cf. Isaiah 6:11). Jehovah will bring upon thee and upon thy father's house days which have not come since the day when Ephraim turned away from Judah - the king of Assyria" (vv. 16, 17). Great as the disaster had been under Jeroboam, a greater was at hand, with triumph in the end. It will be noticed, accordingly, that here we have Isaiah turning from "the house of David," "ye" and "you" to "thou" etc. that is Ahaz. Compare vers. 13, 14 with 16, 17. And it is certain that the prophet's child Shear-jashub had the character of a "sign" (see Isaiah 8:18), though and of course very distinct from God's great sign, the virgin's Son. From verse 16 the king was to learn, that before the youth (who appears almost certainly to be Shear-jashub) arrived at years of discretion, the allied kings must disappear from the scene. And so they did: for three years more scarce passed when the kings of Israel and Syria fell before the treachery or might of their enemies.
It is only fair to add that some Christians, who fully see the Incarnation here, understand all the verses (14-16) to refer to Immanuel. Some even go so far as to accept the notion of certain Rabbis that the prophet in spirit beholds the virgin already pregnant, on the principle of prophecy anticipating the fact sometimes as though present. Others again, by the youth or lad of v. 16, understand any youngling, not one in particular. but whatever be the shade of difference in detail, the unique fact stands indelible in its majestic outline.
The difficulty urged as to "the land" which should be forsaken, whose two kings were an object of abhorrence or alarm to Ahaz, is imaginary. The land or ground "adamah" is not at all restricted to the sense of a single country. It is a word susceptible of considerable variety of meaning, as the context may require, from land or ground in the narrowest sense, to an entire country or several countries, or even to the superficial world at large the habitable earth. Thus in "all the families of the earth" its force is extended comprehensively; and here the two kings define it as the land, not of one only, but of them both. compare as to this Isaiah 8:4, "For before the child [Maher-shalalhash-baz] shall have knowledge to cry, My father and my mother, the riches of Damascus and the spoil of Samaria shall be taken away before the king of Assyria." See also 2 Kings 15:29-30; 2 Kings 16:9. The "two kings" would seem to be, therefore those of Syria and Samaria or Israel, and "the land," that which pertained to each. The Messianic interpretation of ver. 14 rests on an irrefragable basis, whether or not it be continued to verses 15, 16, and the application of the two kings to those of Israel and Syria.
Should guilty Ahaz and Judah, then, go unpunished? In no wise, as the prophet proceeds to let him know. "And it shall come to pass in that day, [that] Jehovah will hiss for the fly that [is] in the uppermost part of the streams of Egypt, and for the bee that [is] in the land of Assyria; and they shall come and settle all of them in the desolate valleys, and in the holes of the rocks, and on all thorn-bushes, and on all the pastures" (vv. 18, 19). The faith of Hezekiah might stay the execution of Judah's judgement, and the king of Assyria was rebuked for a season. But even Josiah, faithful as he was, suffered for his rash opposition to "the fly that is at the end of the streams of Egypt"; and "the bee that is in the land of Assyria" stung yet more fiercely at the summons of Jehovah. "In that day will Jehovah with a razor hired beyond the river, with the king of Assyria, shave the head and the hair of the feet, yea, it will also consume the beard. And it shall come to pass in that day, [that] a man shall nourish a young cow, and two sheep. And it shall come to pass for the abundance of milk [that] they shall give, he shall eat curds: for curds and honey shall every one eat [that is] left in the land. And it shall come to pass in that day, [that] every place where were a thousand vines at a thousand silverlings shall become briars and thorns. With arrows and with bow shall they come thither, because the whole land shall become briars and thorns. And all the hills that were hoed with the hoe, thither they will not come for fear of briars and thorns; but it shall be for the sending forth of oxen, and for the treading of sheep" (vv. 20-25). The character of Israel's land should thus be wholly changed; and so complete is the desolation ensuing, that the owner of a young cow and two sheep would find the amplest range for his scanty flock in the wilderness that succeeded to the rich cornfields of Palestine, and himself be fed on the nourishment proper to wandering hordes, not on the food of cultivated land. What a picture! Yes, and the best of vineyards (compare Song of Solomon 8:11) becomes a bed of briars and thorns; and men cannot pass unprotected by bows and arrows; and the carefully tended hills are turned into a place for oxen and lesser cattle. So dark as well as minute are the lines in which the sorrowful change in Juda is set before her king.
Thus the league Ahaz dreaded came to nothing; but the Assyrian on whom he leaned became the rod for the guilty king and people. God will be the refuge of His people, and turns the resource of unbelief into their scourge. Here the Assyrian pursues his sweeping ravages unchecked for a season. The figure of shaving as with a razor is expressive and obvious; but here it is carried out into striking details. It is not the head only that is thus stripped bare, but the least and lowest and scantiest parts of the body politic; as the beard represents that which in feelings then prevalent was most sensitive of dishonour. The closing verses set forth a vivid picture of the results of spoliation, where an agricultural people are reduced to a handful of stragglers living on pastoral produce that cost little or no labour. We must not confound a land flowing with milk and honey, the normal state of the land and people, and a man here or there keeping a young cow and two sheep, yet from that scanty stock finding such abundance of milk as to eat curds or butter. No corn, wine, or oil; no grapes or olives, figs or pomegranates; no exchange of harvest or stock produce for commodities amidst a numerous and thriving population; but thorns and briars where had been the richest vineyards, and one going thither with arrows and the bow; and what was once sedulously tilled consigned to cattle great or small.
And it was told the house of David, saying, Syria is confederate with Ephraim. And his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind.
Then said the LORD unto Isaiah, Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou, and Shearjashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field;
And say unto him, Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be fainthearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin with Syria, and of the son of Remaliah.
Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah, have taken evil counsel against thee, saying,
Let us go up against Judah, and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set a king in the midst of it, even the son of Tabeal:
Thus saith the Lord GOD, It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass.
For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus is Rezin; and within threescore and five years shall Ephraim be broken, that it be not a people.
And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah's son. If ye will not believe, surely ye shall not be established.
Moreover the LORD spake again unto Ahaz, saying,
Ask thee a sign of the LORD thy God; ask it either in the depth, or in the height above.
But Ahaz said, I will not ask, neither will I tempt the LORD.
And he said, Hear ye now, O house of David; Is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also?
Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil, and choose the good.
For before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.
The LORD shall bring upon thee, and upon thy people, and upon thy father's house, days that have not come, from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah; even the king of Assyria.
And it shall come to pass in that day, that the LORD shall hiss for the fly that is in the uttermost part of the rivers of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria.
And they shall come, and shall rest all of them in the desolate valleys, and in the holes of the rocks, and upon all thorns, and upon all bushes.
In the same day shall the Lord shave with a rasor that is hired, namely, by them beyond the river, by the king of Assyria, the head, and the hair of the feet: and it shall also consume the beard.
And it shall come to pass in that day, that a man shall nourish a young cow, and two sheep;
And it shall come to pass, for the abundance of milk that they shall give he shall eat butter: for butter and honey shall every one eat that is left in the land.
And it shall come to pass in that day, that every place shall be, where there were a thousand vines at a thousand silverlings, it shall even be for briers and thorns.
With arrows and with bows shall men come thither; because all the land shall become briers and thorns.
And on all hills that shall be digged with the mattock, there shall not come thither the fear of briers and thorns: but it shall be for the sending forth of oxen, and for the treading of lesser cattle.