The following is an excerpt from Calvin's Commentary on Isaiah 5-26. A profound expositon on the providence of God.
by John Calvin
5.O Assyrian. What now follows relates to the threatening of punishment, but at the same time mingles some consolation for alleviating the distresses of the godly. Indeed, the greater part of the discourse is occupied with this doctrine, that all the afflictions which shall be brought upon them by the Assyrians are a temporary scourge inflicted by God, but that unbelievers, after having too freely indulged themselves, will at length be brought to submission. הוי (hoi) is sometimes an interjection expressive of lamentation, Ah! Sometimes it denotes addressing, O! Sometimes it means, as the old translator rendered it, Wo to. But here it cannot be explained in any other way than that God calls the Assyrians, or assumes the character of one who sighs, because he is compelled to inflict punishment on his people by means of the Assyrians
But when I more closely examine the whole matter, I rather come to this opinion, that here the Lord calls on the Assyrians, as if he armed them by his authority to carry on war. He had formerly said that they would come; but hypocrites are so careless that they are never moved by the fear of God, till his scourges are not only seen but felt. This is the reason why he now addresses them, Come; as if a judge called an officer and ordered him to put a malefactor in chains, or delivered him to the hangman to inflict capital punishment upon him. Thus the Lord calls the Assyrians to execute his vengeance by their hands.
And the staff in their hand is mine indignation. This may be viewed as referring to the Assyrian, and may be explained so as to be a repetition of the same statement, with a slight change of the words. But I distinguish between them in this manner, that the Assyrians are called the rod of God’s indignation; and next, that the swords and weapons with which they are furnished are nothing else than God’s anger; as if the Prophet had said, that God, according to his pleasure, made use of the Assyrians in the same manner as swords for the execution of his anger; and further, that although they bear swords, still there will be no reason to be afraid of them, except so far as the wrath of God shall be displayed against the Jews.
The general meaning is, “All the strength which the enemy shall possess proceeds from the wrath of God, and they are moved by his secret impulse to destroy the people, for otherwise he would not move a finger.” God declares that the staff which is carried in their hand is his anger, in order to inform the Jews that the blind attacks of the enemies are regulated by a heavenly providence. The phrase בידם (beyadam) (160) is rendered by some, in place of them, or, into their country; but I do not approve of this, and it is too far-fetched. In a word, the Lord calls the Assyrians, as the ministers of his wrath, to punish the sins of his people by their hand, and declares that everything that is in their hand is his wrath
This doctrine has two objects in view; first, to terrify the ungodly, and to inform them that not in vain does the Lord threaten their destruction; next, he points out the reason why he punishes them. This was of the greatest importance for shaking off the sluggishness of the ungodly, who laughed to scorn all the discourses and threatenings of the Prophet. Secondly, this doctrine was of great importance when the people themselves began to be afflicted by the Assyrians; for then they actually saw that what the Prophets had foretold was not without foundation, and that these things did not happen by chance.
It will be objected, Why does he afterwards call the staff his anger, since he formerly said that the Assyrian is the rod of his indignation; for he ought rather to have spoken thus: “The Assyrian is my wrath, and the staff which he carries is the staff of my indignation.” But we need not solicitously detain ourselves with the words, when we understand the Prophet’s meaning. He calls men the staff of his anger, because he uses them like a staff. He calls men’s weapons the wrath of God, because they are not regulated by their own choice, but are proofs of the wrath of God. The Prophet therefore spoke appropriately, that we might not think that the wicked rush forward, without control, wherever their lawless passions lead them; but, on the contrary, that a bridle restrains and keeps them back from doing anything without the will of God.
Hence we ought to learn that the Lord acts even by the hand of the wicked. But here we must think and speak soberly; for it is proper to make a wise and judicious distinction between the work of God and the work of men. There are three ways in which God acts by men. First, all of us move and exist by him. (Acts 17:28.) Hence it follows that all actions proceed from his power. Secondly, in a peculiar manner he impells and directs the wicked according as he thinks fit; and although nothing is farther from their thoughts, still he makes use of their agency that they may kill and destroy one another, or that by their hand he may chastise his people. Of this method the Prophet speaks in this passage. Thirdly, when he guides by his Spirit of sanctification, which is peculiar to the elect. Whether, therefore, we are attacked by tyrants or robbers, or any other person, or foreign nations rise up against us, let us always plainly see the hand of God amidst the greatest agitation and confusion, and let us not suppose that anything happens by chance.
6.To a hypocritical nation. He proceeds with the former statement, by which he called the Assyrian the rod of God’s indignation; for as the father does not in vain take up the rod, but has this object in view, to chastise his son, so he declares that the Lord’s rod has no uncertain destination, but is appointed for the chastisement of the unthankful and wicked. He calls it a hypocritical or wicked nation, because it has no uprightness or sincerity. Uprightness is contrasted with hypocritical conduct, because uprightness is the chief of all the virtues; and in like manner hypocrisy is the mother of all the vices. It is therefore no light accusation which he brings against the Israelites; but he charges them with what is most of all to be abhorred, and therefore immediately afterwards he calls them the people of his indignation, as he elsewhere calls the Edomites the people of his curse. (Isaiah 34:5.) Though he means that he is displeased with the Jews, yet the Hebrew phraseology is much more emphatic; for it conveys the idea that the reason why this nation is devoted to destruction is, that nothing is to be found in it but grounds of anger. Indeed, God is never angry with us unless we have provoked him by our sins; but when wickedness has come to its greatest height, his indignation is kindled, and cannot be appeased. Thus he cuts off the hope of reconciliation from hypocrites and wicked men, who ceased not continually to add sin to sin.
I will command him to take the spoil and to take the prey. He says that he has given a loose rein to the fierceness of enemies, that they may indulge without control in every kind of violence and injustice. Now, this must not be understood as if the Assyrians had a command from God by which they could excuse themselves. There are two ways in which God commands; by his secret decree, of which men are not conscious; and by his law, in which he demands from us voluntary obedience. This must be carefully observed, that we may reply to fanatics, who argue in an irreligious manner about the decree of God, when they wish to excuse their own wickedness and that of others. It is of importance, I say, to make a judicious distinction between these two ways of commanding. When the Lord reveals his will in the law, I must not ascend to his secret decree, which he intended should not be known to me, but must yield implicit obedience.
Now, if any one allege that he obeys God, when he complies with his sinful passions, he is guilty of falsehood, by vainly attempting to involve God in the guilt of his crimes, to which he knows that he is led by the failings of his own heart; for on this point no other witness or judge is needed but a man’s own conscience. God does indeed make use of the agency of a wicked man, but the man has no such intention. It is therefore accidental, so far as relates to men, that he acts by the wicked and reprobate; for they neither know that they serve God, nor wish to do so. Accordingly if they seize on this pretext, it is easy to prove that, when they yield obedience to their own sinful passion, they are at the greatest possible distance from obeying God. They have the will of God declared in his law, so that it is in vain for them to seek it anywhere else. So far as they are concerned, they do not perform the work of God, but the work of the devil; for they serve their own lusts. (Ephesians 2:2.) Nothing certainly was farther from the intention of the Assyrians than to give their services to God, but they were hurried along by their lust and ambition and covetousness. Yet the Lord directed their exertions and plans to an object which was totally different, and which was unknown to themselves.
This passage may be thus summed up. “It will be an uncommon and extraordinary instance of God’s vengeance, when the Assyrians shall attack them with unrestrained liberty of action; for they will be sent by God, not to treat them with gentleness and moderation, but to plunder them in the manner of an invading army.” He likewise adds, to tread them down. Nothing can go beyond this, for it means that the vanquished are not spared, but that every possible species of abuse has been heaped upon then.
7.Yet he will not think so. (161) When wicked men vomit out their rage, they disturb weak minds, as if it were not in the power of God to restrain their pride and fury. The Prophet therefore steps forth beforehand to meet them, and exhorts believers, whatever may be the excess to which wicked men indulge their insolence, still to feel that they are justly chastised by a secret judgment of God. He shows, as we lately noticed, that nothing will be farther from the intention of the Assyrians than to give their services to God, and to be the ministers of his wrath; but we must also consider what is their own motive of action.
Many would be ready to object, “Why dost thou, being God’s herald, threaten us with the Assyrian; as if that savage beast would submit to execute the commandments of God?” He therefore replies, that God works with such amazing skill that he brings men to yield obedience to him, even without their knowledge or will. “Although,” says he, “their attempts and plans are totally different, yet this will not prevent God from performing and carrying into execution, by means of them, whatever he has decreed.”
Many might likewise object, that it was a strange subversion of order, that God should place the elect people in subjection to the heathen nations; and that it was not just, however much the Jews had sinned, that their condition should be worse than that of those robbers who, on account of their wickedness and crimes, deserved the severest punishment. The Prophet therefore threatens that the Assyrians also will have their turn, and in due time will receive just punishment; and yet that it is not unreasonable that they should distress, plunder, devour, and slay other nations, because their own reward is reserved for them. Besides, the Prophet soothes the grief of the godly, and alleviates their solicitude and uneasiness, by declaring that God restrains the presumption of wicked men from carrying into effect whatever they think fit. He therefore shows that, however madly wicked men may rage, God mitigates his own judgments from heaven, so as to provide for the salvation of his Church. And thus, though the Assyrian, like a wild beast, may be eager to seize his prey, he bids them lift up their eyes to God, whose decree is far removed beyond the reach of that blind fury.
FT153 I will punish (margin, Heb. visit upon) the fruit of the stout heart. — Eng. Ver.
8.For he will say. He explains the reason why the Assyrian will not think that he is the rod of God. It is because, being blinded by pride, he acknowledges no authority superior to his own; for it is impossible for those who rely on their own superiority, and claim ability to do this or that, to submit to the providence of God. The authority which we ought justly to ascribe to God is, to believe that we cannot move even the smallest finger without his permission. On the other hand, whoever imagines that he can do anything, however small, assumes to himself, with blasphemous pride, the power of God.
Are not my princes altogether kings? The Prophet here gives a lively picture of the presumption of a heathen king in boasting that he had everything in his power. This is especially the case with eminent Princes who, abounding in wealth, resources, and power, are blinded in such a manner as hardly to know that they are men. The opportunities of learning this are too abundant; for what Prince is there at the present day, who knows or remembers that he is a man, and liable to the ordinary calamities of life? Their minds are so entirely intoxicated and deranged, that they believe that whatever they have undertaken they will at once accomplish, and will surmount every obstacle.
9.Is not Calno as Carchemish? Here he mentions by name certain cities, though others think that they were countries; but it is more probable that they were cities, or some fortified places. “Shall it not happen,” says he, “to those places which I have not yet subdued as it has happened to others that opposed me?” He therefore compares Calno, Arpad, and Samaria, which he afterwards subdued, to Carchemish, Hamath, and Damascus, which he had formerly subdued, and says that those will not be stronger than these. Thus wicked men are wont to boast and talk proudly of their former actions, so as to imagine that they will break through every obstruction, and that nothing can stand in the way of their plans and exertions, and even think that they will accomplish everything without the will or knowledge of God.
When we read this history, let us learn that we ought not to be proud of having been strong, or of having succeeded to our wish; for he who hath exalted us will be able to cast us down. And if he reproves the Assyrian for that haughtiness, how much more ought they to be reproved who ascribe to themselves the praise of righteousness and holiness, as if they could be regenerated by their own power; for it cannot be doubted that they rob God of his honor, and claim for themselves what belongs to him!
10.As my hand hath found the kingdoms of the idols. The Assyrian now breaks out into far more outrageous language; for not only does he insult men, but he insults God himself, and even the very gods whom he worshipped. He boasts that the gods, whose protection the other nations enjoyed, could not prevent him from subduing them; and that the God of Israel, in whom Jerusalem and Samaria trusted, would not prevent him any more than they. Wicked men are so proud that they attribute to their own strength the victories which they achieve, and do not hesitate to exalt themselves against God and all that is worshipped. They allege, indeed, that they pay homage to the objects of their own worship, that is, to the idols which they have contrived for themselves, and bow before them, and offer sacrifices to them, by which they give some indication that they ascribe their victories to the gods; but afterwards, as Habakkuk says of Nebuchadnezzar,
they burn incense to their own net, and sacrifice to their drag, (Habakkuk 1:16;)
that is, by boasting of their exploits, wisdom, sagacity, and perseverance. Their hypocrisy is exposed, and their secret thoughts, which lay concealed under those folds of hypocrisy, are revealed, when they immediately claim for themselves what they appeared to ascribe to the objects of their worship. We need not wonder, therefore, that Sennacherib exalted himself against all that is worshipped, for that is the result of ungodliness.
There are two ways in which his blasphemy is expressed. First, he exalts himself above God, and thinks that he will be stronger than God; and, secondly, he makes no distinction between God and the false gods. He sufficiently displayed his ungodliness, when he exalted himself alone even above idols; for although they are nothing but idols, yet as their worshippers ascribe to them some power and divinity, if they scoff at idols, they show that they despise every object of worship; for they treat idols with the same contempt as if they had had to do with God himself. Their own conscience testifies, therefore, that they carry on war against God, and they have no excuse arising from ignorance; for they think that God dwells in graven images. If that tyrant despised Apollo or Jupiter, he undoubtedly despised them, not as idols, but as having in them something divine. The second blasphemy of the tyrant was, that he placed the living God on the same level with the false gods of the heathen, and dared to scoff at him as well as at the others, and to ridicule the confidence of Israel, as if no greater power belonged to God than to idols.
12.But it shall come to pass. Hitherto the Prophet had explained what would be the pride of the Assyrian, after having obtained a victory over Israel; but now he foretells what will happen to the Assyrian himself, and what will be the purpose of God against him. Wicked men do everything in the same manner as if God were not in heaven, and could not frustrate their designs. What else is the meaning of those haughty words, My hand hath found the kingdoms of the idols, than this, that he thought that he would vanquish all the gods? But God opposes his designs, and, after having made use of his agency, punishes himself also.
This verse contains two clauses. First, he declares that God will punish a wicked king. Secondly, he suggests that the time is not yet come, in order to encourage believers to the exercise of patience. He foretells that the time which God regards as fit for doing it will be, when he shall have chastised the sins of his Church; in the same manner as if the master of a house were to settle the disturbances of his own family. The object which he has in view is, that believers may not give way to despondency, when they behold a wicked tyrant in such a state of exultation, and may not abandon the hope of salvation, as if it were impossible to restrain him.
I will visit upon the fruit of the stout heart of the king of Assyria. (162) God promises, in a word, that after having permitted the Assyrian to plume himself beyond measure, he will in his turn be an avenger; for it belongs to him to repress the pride of the flesh, which is connected with sacrilege. Accordingly, the preposition על (gnal) (163) is emphatic, as if it declared that the Assyrian will not be protected by his loftiness from undergoing punishment. Fruit is here taken in a metaphorical sense, for wicked men think that they are happy and prosperous when they swell with pride, as if they gathered some fruit. He places in the foreground the heart, which is the seat of pride, and which, when it swells with haughtiness, pours out fierceness and cruelty. Afterwards, he adds the eyes, by which the inward feelings of the heart are manifested, and which, by being lifted up, are the heralds of secret vice. To whatever extent the Assyrian, in his pride, may elevate himself, God testifies that he has in his own power the means of suddenly changing his glory into dishonor and reproach. Accordingly, he includes contempt, scorn, disdain, and haughty looks, indicative of excessive confidence, which are usually beheld in proud men.
I will visit. He introduces God as speaking, because that which God utters with his own mouth is more impressive, ( ἐμφατικώτερον,) than if he spoke by the mouth of the Prophet. Hence draw a general doctrine. God cannot endure the arrogance of proud men, without suppressing it; for he wages incessant war with the haughty and disdainful. (Proverbs 3:34; James 4:6; 1 Peter 5:5.)
When the Lord shall have finished his whole work. Observe how, in order to repress immoderate haste, the Prophet added this by way of limitation; for as soon as we see a proud man, we wonder that the Lord endures him. Isaiah here shows that God endures that proud tyrant, whatever may be the insolence with which he vaunts and exalts himself, because he chose to make use of his agency, and that the seasonable time for the Lord’s destruction of the wicked is not always at hand, but that we ought to wait patiently for it. When he shall have chastised the kingdom of Judah, as if he were bringing the members of the family into a state of submission, he will not be slow or sluggish in punishing a foreign enemy; as a father commonly throws away or breaks the rod with which he chastised his son.
His whole work on Mount Zion and on Jerusalem. By a figure of speech in which a part is taken for the whole, ( συνεκδοχικῶς,) Mount Zion is here put for the Church, and Jerusalem is employed in the same sense, in order that by means of the Temple and the royal city, as the head, he might describe the whole body, and by means of the most important part might describe the whole kingdom. He calls it the whole work, because through our foolish haste we would draw away God from his work, though it were only begun. More especially, our wrath against wicked men rages so strongly, that it is difficult to restrain our impatience, if God do not instantly comply with our wish in punishing them. To mitigate this fervor, he bids them allow full and ample time for God’s fatherly chastisements.
The whole work denotes a proper measure. This is a useful and highly consolatory doctrine; for we see wicked men, in a wonderfully arrogant and seemingly triumphant manner, mocking God, and uttering reproaches and slanders against his doctrine, so that hardly any words can express their insolence. If the Lord would comply with our wish, he would immediately hasten to subdue and destroy them. But he wishes first to humble his Church by means of them.
On Mount Zion and on Jerusalem. He does not now speak of Syrians or Egyptians, but of the Jews, of Zion, of the Temple and the habitation which he was pleased to consecrate to himself. Thus, at the present day, there are various diseases of the Church, which the Lord determines to heal and remove. He has indeed begun to do so; but we are mistaken if we think that the work is finished; and he will not cease till he has subdued us, so that we may be moved by the true fear of him, and may submit to his yoke with becoming modesty and gentleness. We need not wonder, therefore, that he gives a loose rein to tyrants, and hitherto permits them to rage against the Church. But the consolation is at hand. When he shall have made use of their agency in chastising the Church, he will visit their pride and arrogance. And we need not wonder if God, by striking his elect first of all, expresses in this manner his peculiar regard for their salvation. Judegment must therefore begin at the house of God, and must afterwards extend to those who are without, who will endure chastisements still more severe.
13.For he hath said, By the strength of my hand I have done it. The Prophet again repeats the highly blasphemous words which the Assyrian uttered; for he ascribes to his power and wisdom all the victories which he obtained. By strength of hand he means vast armies collected out of various nations. Yet at the same time he boasts of being a warlike king, as those blusterers are wont to claim the praise of everything that was done under their direction, though they were enjoying the luxury and ease of a retired life. Afterwards he boasts that he was cautious and wary, to use an ordinary phrase of our own, (J’ay este bien entendu et expert ,) I was very skillful and clever. But there can be no doubt whatever that he bestows this honorable appellation on the tricks and dishonest cunning by which he had gained advantage over his neighbors. For what are the stratagems of kings and princes? To disturb the peace by indirect methods, to invent pretences for quarrels, to sow the seeds of discord, and, in a word, by their artifices to level all distinctions.
I have removed the boundaries of the nations. This means, “I have extended the boundaries of my dominion, and have added other countries to my territories, so as to remove their boundary and limit.” Just as if we were to say that the King of France removed the boundaries of Brittany, Burgundy, Aquitaine, Provence, and other countries, when he united them to his own kingdom. He likewise adds, “that nothing was so secret or concealed as not to become his prey;” as if he had said that by his sagacity he drew the neighboring countries into his nets, fished their treasures, and brought into his possession all that lay concealed.
14.And my hand hath found as a nest. He adds, that it cost him no trouble to vanquish kings and amass their wealth; and he illustrates this by a comparison. As if one were to seek a nest and find one deserted by the birds, and consequently to take the eggs without difficulty; for if the parent birds were sitting on the eggs, having an instinctive desire to protect their nest, they would either fly at the robber, and attack him with their bill, or by loud and unpleasant noises endeavor to drive him away. But this tyrant boasts that there was no one who ventured so much as to open the mouth against him, and therefore that he had no difficulty in bringing all the kingdoms under his dominion. Accordingly, he lays claim to all these things, and attributes them to his wisdom, and makes no acknowledgment of the providence of God. These boastful pretensions the Prophet has purposely related as coming from the despot’s own mouth, in order to show that they were so many bellows to kindle the judgment of God; for among men this haughtiness could not be endured, and how would not God restrain it?
15.Shall the axe boast? He now ridicules more strongly the mad effrontery of the Assyrians in imagining that he could create mountains of gold; for he tells us that the case is the same as if an axe or a hammer should despise the hand which sets them in motion, and should be proud of their activity, though it is manifest that they have no power of their own to move. But before explaining the subject more fully, I shall touch briefly on the words.
Like the rising up of a rod against him that raiseth it. (164) This second class of the verse is somewhat obscure. The matter is plain enough, but in the form of expression there is some ambiguity, in consequence of which commentators greatly differ. Yet, when I examine the matter closely, the rendering which I have given appears to flow more naturally than the others. “What is this? If a staff rise against the hand of him that raiseth it, and forget that it is wood, what a shocking exhibition will it be!” For it is not uncommon that the particle את, (eth) which is the sign of the accusative, should mean against; and the copulative ו (vau) is often superfluous. We shall thus have a meaning which is not ambiguous, and which agrees with the words of the Prophet. He formerly reproached the Assyrian for ascribing to his schemes and his army the victories which he had gained. He now says, that in this manner he boasts against God, just as if an axe, reckoning as nothing the hand of him that cuts, claimed the praise of a workman, or a staff, as if it were not dead wood and without any strength of its own, rose up against him that wielded it.
Hence we learn that men rise up against God, whenever they ascribe to themselves more than is proper, and that in such cases they war not with men but with God himself. Away, then, with those proud and blasphemous expressions, “By my power and wisdom and perseverance I have done and contrived and accomplished these things;”
for the Lord is a jealous God, (Exodus 20:5,)
and does not permit his glory to be given to another!
We must attend to those comparisons by which he likens men to instruments; and we must not view it as referring to the universal providence by which all creatures are governed, as some do, who acknowledge that all the creatures are moved by God, because they cannot deny it, but add, that each of them is driven according to its nature, as the sun, the moon, the heavens, and such like. Thus they imagine that man is driven hither and thither by his own choice and by free-will; because God does nothing more than continue that power which he once bestowed at the beginning. Their false explanation amounts to this, that the whole machinery of the world is upheld by the hand of God, but that his providence is not interposed to regulate particular movements. Thus they ascribe to God the rain and the fair weather because he is the Author of nature, but contend that, strictly speaking, God commands nothing, that the rain is produced by vapours, and that fair weather also is produced by its natural causes. But this confused direction, which they leave to God, is hardly the thousandth part of that government which he claims for himself. Justly therefore, does Isaiah show that God presides over individual acts, as they call them, so as to move men, like rods, in whatever way he pleases, to guide their plans, to direct their efforts; and, in a word, to regulate their determinations, in order to inform us that everything depends on his providence, and not on the caprice of wicked men.
It is objected, that it would be absurd to call men axes and swords, so as to take away from them will and judgment, and everything that distinguishes them from inanimate creatures, and to make them, not men, but stocks and stones. But the answer is at hand. Though God compares men to stones, it does not follow that they resemble them in all respects. No one thing is exactly like another, but they agree in some points; for as a staff cannot move itself in any direction, and yet is fit for inflicting blows, so wicked men have something which belongs to them by nature, and yet they cannot be moved hither and thither, without being directed by the providence and secret decree of God. This fitness of things, if we may so call it, is no reason why the action should not be ascribed entirely to God alone.
But the question about the will of man is unseasonably introduced on the present occasion. If God controls the purposes of men, and turns their thoughts and exertions to whatever purpose he pleases, men do not therefore cease to form plans and to engage in this or the other undertaking. We must not suppose that there is a violent compulsion, as if God dragged them against their will; but in a wonderful and inconceivable manner he regulates all the movements of men, so that they still have the exercise of their will.
In this passage Isaiah chiefly shows that all the efforts of men are fruitless, if God do not grant them success; and therefore that the Assyrian, even if he had attempted everything, would not have succeeded, if the Lord had not bestowed the victories; and, consequently, that he had no reason for laying claim to the praise of those things in which his success was owing solely to God. This is confirmed by another metaphor, that the lifting up of a staff proceeds from the will of him who moves it, and not from the nature of the wood. (165)“How hast thou given help ללא כח (lelo choach) to the no-strength?
“ And saved the arm, לא עז (lo gnoz), of the no-power?
“How hast thou given counsel ללא חכמה (lelo chochmah) to the no-wisdom?
“That is, to the man totally deprived of strength, power, and wisdom. (Job 26:2.) So here לא עף (lo gnetz) means him who is far from being an inert piece of wood, but is an animated and active being; not an instrument, but an agent.” — Lowth
16.Therefore shall the Lord, the Lord of hosts, send among his fat ones leanness. He proceeds with the former doctrine, declaring that the Lord will show to the Assyrian how undeservedly he exalts himself, and will throw down his arrogance, in which he foolishly takes delight. As he trusted in his wealth and his forces, Isaiah declares that the Lord will take them away; and he does so under the metaphor of fatness and leanness. By the word fatness he means both riches and warlike power, in which he placed too much confidence; as if he had said, “Everything fat and rich that he possesses, the Lord will make the whole of it lean. ” It is not uncommon to compare prosperity to fatness; for as horses which are too fat become refractory, so as to throw the rider or kick when any one comes near them, so among men abundance produces fierceness of disposition, which is subdued by leanness
And under his glory he shall kindle a burning. There is great beauty in the comparison, that a fire will be laid under his glory; for it means, that the greater the splendor of his prosperity, so much the more abundant will be the fuel for the conflagration. Yet it likewise shows that he will be utterly reduced to nothing; as if one were to cut down a tree from the roots, or overturn a house from the foundation. If nothing more than the branches of a tree be cut down, it quickly sprouts again; or if the roof of a house be consumed by fire, the other parts of it remain uninjured. He therefore leaves him nothing, but asserts that he will be brought down by utter destruction.
As the burning of a fire. (166) The particle as, which points out the comparison, does not mean that the language is metaphorical, but rather that the burning will be such as to consume utterly the glory of the Assyrian.
17.And the light of Israel shall be for a fire. There is an elegant allusion to that burning by which he threatened that he would consume the Assyrians. In fire there are two things, light and heat. As the Lord consumes the enemies by his heat, so he enlightens the godly by his light. It is very customary that God is sometimes called a devouring fire, (Deuteronomy 4:24,) and sometimes, in a different point of view, he is called light, (Isaiah 60:20; Micah 7:8,) because his power produces contrary effects on the godly and the ungodly. When he shines on the godly, he imparts life and nourishment to them, but he consumes and destroys the ungodly. In a word, while he threatens destruction to the Assyrians, he likewise brings comfort to the godly; and he does so in two ways, first, because they will see that God revenges the injuries which they have received, and, secondly, that they will be cheered by his light, and will thus receive a new life.
And his Holy One for a flame. What that light is he states plainly, and without a metaphor, when he adds, his Holy One, so that it is unnecessary to make a more lengthened exposition. The meaning is, that he determines to protect that people which he hath chosen, and which he hath separated from the rest of the nations to be a peculiar people to himself.
And it shall devour its thorns and briers in one day. He now shows that the favor of God, which shines in Israel, will be like a fire to consume enemies. In one day means, that he will burn them with a sudden and unexpected conflagration. It denotes an uncommon and dreadful burning, which usually overtakes the wicked suddenly, when they think that all is well with them, and that danger is at a great distance. He next shows that, whatever defences they may put forth, they will be like tow, which, as soon as it is set on fire, will instantly be consumed.
18.And shall consume the glory of his forest. He goes on with the same comparison of a burning, and declares that the fire will consume both the highest and the lowest, and will leave nothing uninjured. It is possible that a fire might destroy the higher parts of a building, and might leave the lower parts unaffected.
And of his fruitful field. I do not think that כרמל (Carmel) is here a proper name, but rather an appellative, denoting a rich and fertile soil; for to say that Carmel was held as belonging to the dominion of the king of Assyria, would have been inadmissible. The meaning therefore is, that not only will destruction overtake his forests, but the corn will be consumed by the same fire; for it will not only range over the heights, but will penetrate into the lowest places.
From the soul even to the flesh. This comparison is taken from man. As man consists of a body and a soul, so each part of him is liable to separate diseases. It frequently happens that, when the soul is healthy, the body is diseased; and often the reverse takes place; but when both are unhealthy at the same time, the case is most dangerous. By this comparison, therefore, he threatens that the Assyrians will have nothing safe or sound, but that they will be devoted to utter destruction, because they will perish from the flesh even to the soul; not that souls are mortal, but because the vengeance of God will fall upon them also. This is truly dreadful; for the design of chastisements is,
that the spirit may be saved, though the flesh be destroyed,
(1 Corinthians 5:5;)
but when the spirit also is involved in the destruction, what can be said or imagined that is more miserable? The flame only scorches the godly, but does not consume them as it consumes the ungodly, in whom it finds nothing but fuel fit for burning.
And it shall be as the fainting of a standard-bearer. There is an allusion in the words of the Prophet, which cannot be conveyed in another language. The meaning is the same as in the other comparisons, that there will be utter destruction, like the complete rout of an army when the standard has been taken. When the ensigns have been taken, it is commonly followed by a great slaughter; and when historians describe a fearful carnage, they tell us that the ensigns were taken. He does not threaten these things against the Assyrians on their own account, that they may receive advantage from the warning or may be led to repentance, but to yield consolation to the godly, that they may not think that the Assyrians will pass unpunished when they raged so fiercely against the people of God, or entertain fears either that the Lord has forgotten his promise, or that he cannot frustrate their designs. If the Prophet had not put them on their guard, many scruples of this kind might have arisen in their minds.
19.And the remnant of the trees of his forest shall be a number. (167) When he adds that the remnant of them will be a number, he employs a Hebrew idiom to express that they will be few; and thus he only confirms the former statement, that the devastation produced, after the calamity which God will bring on the Assyrians, will be so great that there will be no difficulty in counting them.
That a child may number them. He goes so far as to say, that they will be so few that those who are left of them may be counted even by a child; for children have difficulty in counting as far as three or four. Accordingly, the kingdom of the Assyrians was formerly like some vast forest; but when the trees have been hewn and thrown down, those which are left are few, and scattered at great distances from each other.
20It shall be in that day. Returning now to the elect people, he describes the result of the chastisement which was at hand. As it is painful and disagreeable to us to endure calamities and afflictions, and as we refuse them so far as lies in our power, the Lord points out to us the result of them, that we may be taught to consider the design of them, and may thus bear more patiently: as if he had said, “You would wish that the Assyrians were driven to a great distance from you, and that you could live in comfort and safety. But consider, that this chastisement is as necessary as medicine would be for curing your diseases; for you do not acknowledge the power of God, and you withdraw your confidence from him to give it to wicked men. It is truly wretched to place the hope of salvation in enemies, and to rely on those who aim at nothing but your destruction.” In like manner, Israel relied sometimes on the Assyrians and sometimes on the Egyptians.
But shall stay upon the Lord We ought not to despise this compensation made for the diminished numbers of the people, that the small portion which survived the calamity learned to place their hope in God. Hence we see more clearly how necessary it was that God should chastise Israel. The mitigation which he holds out, that still a remnant is left, among whom the true worship of God is maintained, is fitted to yield very high consolation.
In truth. This phrase is not superfluous; for until the Lord had afflicted them, all wished to be accounted the children of Abraham — all made profession of the faith, and indiscriminately worshipped God; but it was mere pretense. Isaiah therefore reproves this hypocrisy, and says that their hope will afterwards be true and sincere when they shall have been cleansed from impostures; for although they very haughtily boasted of their confidence in God, still they continued to place their confidence in the assistance of the Assyrians. Consequently, when they shall be chastised by their hand, they will learn to trust in God alone, and will withdraw their heart from the assistance of men. Hence infer that we cannot place our confidence in God unless we altogether withhold our heart from creatures; for we ought to rely on God alone in such a manner as not to think it a hardship to renounce all other grounds of confidence. Where this perfect confidence does not exist, there is no room for truth; for the heart is divided and double. (Psalms 12:2.)
21.A remnant shall return. This is a confirmation of the former statement. Yet in the words שאר ישוב, (Shear Yashub,) a remnant shall return, there appears to be an allusion to that passage in which Isaiah’s son was called Shear-jashub. (Isaiah 7:3.) In our observations on it, we stated that this peculiar name was given him in reference to the event, that it might be regarded as a pledge of the future deliverance concerning which his father prophesied. It was necessary that the Jews should be confirmed in various ways, that they might be convinced that the Lord would at length bring them back. This is also the design of what he immediately adds —
To the mighty God; that is, to him whom the people, after having returned from their former apostasy, will acknowledge to be the guardian of their salvation. This attribute, mighty, is ascribed to God for the sake of the occasion on which the words were used. He might have thought it sufficient to have expressed power by the name אל, (El,) God, which also signifies mighty; but he chose likewise to add to it גבור, (gibbor,) that is, strong or mighty, in order to excite the people to greater confidence. How was it possible for the people to betake themselves to the Assyrians and Egyptians, but because they did not think that God was sufficient for them? This is the source of all evils, when we are not fully convinced that in God is everything that can be desired for our salvation.
22.For though thy people be. He casts down hypocrites from foolish confidence; for they reckoned it enough to be the descendants of holy Abraham according to the flesh, and, therefore, on the sole ground of their birth, they wished to be accounted holy. Yet he exhorts the godly to patience, that they may learn to await calmly that calamity and diminution of their number, lest, when it took place, it should be unexpected, and give them uneasiness. He therefore comforts them, that they may not be grieved at so great desolation; for the Lord will at least collect a remnant of it.
The consumption decreed. כלה (chalah) means to finish, and it means also to consume. The latter is more appropriate. He calls this diminution of the people a consumption, and one that is completed; for he employs exaggerated language, the import of which is, that they were not far from utter extermination, there being very few that were saved.
The word Israel may be taken either in the genitive case, of Israel, or in the vocative case, O Israel, (168) so that in this way he addresses the patriarch Jacob, or all the godly under his name. But it is of little importance, for the meaning is the same, in whichsoever of these ways it be taken; and therefore it may be read in the genitive case, of Israel. Yet I am more inclined to view it as a proper name, to denote the true, and not the spurious Israelite. The bold address to the patriarch has a striking effect; for God, addressing a dead man, declares to the living that what he had formerly promised, (Genesis 13:16,) that the posterity of Abraham would be like the sand of the sea, did not apply to a promiscuous multitude, which had apostatized from godliness, but that there would be a kind of interruption in a corrupt nation, till shortly afterwards it should be renewed.
Overflowing with righteousness, oroverflowing righteousness. (169) Another consolation is added, that this very small company will overflow righteousness. When we see the Church distressed by such heavy calamities, that we think that it cannot be far from destruction, we are in danger of giving way to despondency, and of entertaining doubts about the mercy of God. Those whose minds are impressed with just views of the judgment of God, feel that this is the severest of all temptations. It was therefore necessary that godly minds should be fortified against it, that they might soothe their grief by pondering the benefit which would result from this calamity. The benefit was, that righteousness would overflow the whole world like a river; and he had formerly noticed this, when he said (Isaiah 10:20) that the remnant would trust in God in truth
The word righteousness is explained in various ways. Some refer it to the preaching of the gospel, because by means of it, as Paul says,
the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, (Romans 1:17;)
and by the agency of the Apostles, who were a small remnant of the Jews, it spread over the whole world. (Mark 16:15.) Others choose rather to view it as meaning that that consumption was an evidence and proof of the righteousness of God in inflicting punishments so severe on his own people. But I prefer a more general exposition of it, namely, “This consumption will be sufficient to fill the whole world with righteousness. The remnant which shall survive it, though small, will be sufficient to cause such rivers of righteousness to flow, that the whole world shall be overflowed by them.”
23.For the Lord God of hosts shall make a consumption. This repetition again wounds the self-complacency of those who proudly despised God. It was almost incredible that the Jews, to whom so many promises had been given, and with whom God had made an everlasting covenant, should perish, as it were, in an instant; and it appeared to be even inconsistent with the unchangeable nature of God. The Prophet therefore declares that the Lord is the author of this consumption, in order to repress the pride of wicked men, who, relying on their present prosperity, thought that they were beyond all danger, and, swelling with that confidence, ridiculed all threats and warnings. “God,” says he, “will reduce your land to a desert, so that in the very midst it will be desolate, and will resemble a wilderness.”
In the midst of all the land. By the midst of the land he means its very heart, that is, its most fortified and best defended places. Some think that the word נהרצה (neheratzah) is an adjective, determined; but for my part I view it as a substantive, consummation; (170) and in this sense it is used by Daniel and in other passages. (Daniel 9:27.)
Paul quotes this passage, (Romans 9:28,) but in somewhat different words from what the Prophet uses; for he follows the ordinary translation which at that time was generally used. Though Paul wrote correctly and faithfully, and in accordance with the Prophet’s real meaning, yet the words which he quotes from the Greek translation have led many to depart from what the Prophet actually meant. The Greek translator having used the word λόγος, (logos,) that is, a discourse, many have entered into discussions about the Gospel, and have said that it denotes the repeal of the law, because it puts an end to ceremonies and figures, and therefore that it is a short and concise discourse, by which we are freed from the burden of the law under which the people groaned. But that has nothing to do with the Prophet’s meaning; for here he says that the consumption is a diminution, by which the people will be almost ruined. Paul’s design is not different, and the Greek translators meant nothing else; for by λόγος (logos) they meant what is expressed by the Hebrew word דבר, (dabar.) Though the Prophet does not make use of the word דבר, (dabar,) yet the word which he uses means a thing consumed, that is, consumption, and the meaning of both words is the same. In short, Paul there repeats (Romans 9:28) what Isaiah had said in this passage about the future consumption of the people, and shows that this prediction was chiefly fulfilled in his own time, when the Jews were cut off from the kingdom of God on account of their ingratitude, and but a small remnant (Isaiah 1:9) was preserved.
24.Therefore, thus saith the Lord Jehovah of hosts. He goes on with the same consolation, which belongs to the godly alone, who at that time, undoubtedly, were few in number. A great number of persons gloried in the name of God, and wished to be accounted his people; but there were few who actually performed what they professed in words; and, therefore, he does not address all without reserve, but only those who needed consolation. The kingdom having been destroyed, they might entertain fears about themselves and their affairs, and might judge of their own condition from that of others, and therefore it was necessary to comfort them. This distinction ought to be observed, for otherwise it would be inconsistent to address to the same persons statements so different.
And shall lift up his staff against thee in the way of Egypt (171) He adds a ground of consolation, namely, that that calamity will be nothing else than the lifting up of a rod to chastise, but not to destroy them. The preposition ב (beth) denotes resemblance. דרך (derech) means a pattern, and therefore I render it, after the pattern of Egypt. As if he had said, “Though the Assyrian be cruel, and in many ways aim at thy destruction, yet he shall only wound, he shall not slay thee.” He therefore mentioned the pattern of the Egyptian bondage, which was indeed very wretched, but yet was not deadly. (Exodus 1:14.) It is customary with the Prophets, amidst perplexity or disorder, to remind the people to contemplate that deliverance by which God miraculously rescued them from the hands of Pharaoh, who was a most cruel tyrant. The meaning therefore is, “As the Lord was at that time victorious, and destroyed the Egyptians who had leagued for your destruction, so now he will quickly vanquish the Assyrians.”
Others render it, in the way of Egypt, because the Assyrians made war against the Jews on account of the Egyptians. But that exposition cannot be admitted; and if we carefully examine the matter, it will be found that there is none more appropriate than that which I have proposed, and which is also approved by the most learned commentators. There are two clauses which form a contrast; the oppression which the Egyptians laid upon them, and the calamity which should be inflicted soon afterwards by the Assyrians. “As the oppression of the Egyptians was not deadly, so neither will the oppression of the Assyrians be. You have had experience of my strength and power against Pharaoh, and so will you find it on Sennacherib.” If we did not explain the clauses in this way, they would not agree with each other.
25.But yet a little while. He means not only the siege of Jerusalem, when Sennacherib surrounded it with a numerous army, (2 Kings 18:17,) but likewise the rest of the calamities, when Jerusalem was overthrown, (2 Kings 25:4,) the Temple razed, and the inhabitants taken prisoners; for against those dreadful calamities it was necessary that the godly should be fortified by these promises. This ought to be carefully observed; for if we neglect it, as other commentators do, we shall not be able to see how the statements agree. Accordingly, the captivity of the people might be called a consumption; for Babylon was like a grave, and banishment was like death. But when the danger was immediate and urgent, and Sennacherib attacked them with his army, and various straits were felt by them in that siege, this consolation was needful; for Judea seemed to be utterly ruined, and to outward appearance no hope of safety was left.
My fury and indignation shall be spent. (172) The consolation corresponds to this state of things. “The Lord will spare thee. For a time, indeed, he will delay, and will keep his assistance as it were concealed; but he will at length rescue thee, and will revenge thy enemies whom he has determined utterly to destroy.” If it be thought better to interpret כלה (chalah) as meaning to consume or spend, then he says that he spends his anger, in the same way that we speak of spending years and our whole life; that is, “I will cherish my anger until I completely destroy the Assyrians.” But the word finish brings out the meaning more fully; as if he had said, “until I have discharged all my anger.” This is the destruction which he also threatens elsewhere (Isaiah 52:1) to the uncircumcised; for when the hope of mercy has been taken away, he executes his judgment against the ungodly.
26.And the LORD of hosts will stir up a scourge for him. Here Isaiah makes use of the word scourge, and not rod, meaning that the Lord will treat the enemies much more harshly and severely than they had treated the Jews. He threatens them with extermination, and makes it more evident by two examples; first, that of the Midianites, (Jude 7:25,) who were cut off by a dreadful slaughter in the valley of Oreb, which was so named from their leader, and, secondly, that of the Egyptians, whom the Lord, when they pursued after his people, sank in the Red Sea. (Exodus 14:27.) In the former passage, he refers to a narrative which was somewhat more recent, and in the latter to one that was more ancient.
Hence we infer that the Lord hath displayed his power in defending his Church, in order that, when our affairs are in the most desperate state, we may remain steadfastly in the faith, and, relying on his grace, we still may cherish a pleasing hope. By means and in ways that are unexpected he often delivers his Church, as he did by the hands of Gideon and Moses. We ought always, therefore, to call to remembrance those benefits, that we may be excited more and more to confidence and perseverance.
Hence we ought also to infer that all the afflictions which we endure are the Lord’s rods with which he chastises us; and yet he does not permit Satan or his agents to inflict deadly chastisements upon us. On the other hand, an awful destruction awaits our enemies, as we see in the Midianites and Egyptians. It is therefore no small consolation that, when we compare our condition with theirs, we see them, for a time indeed, in all the madness of joy and of wickedness insulting the children of God, but at the same time learn what a dreadful sentence has been pronounced against them; for they are devoted to deadly and everlasting destruction.