Isaiah 59
Pulpit Commentary
Behold, the LORD'S hand is not shortened, that it cannot save; neither his ear heavy, that it cannot hear:
Verses 1-8. - A GENERAL REBUKE OF ISRAEL FOR ITS MANIFOLD SINS, The command given to the prophet in Isaiah 58:1 to "show God's people their transgression, and the house of Jacob their sins " - partly executed in Isaiah 58:4-7 and 13 - is now further carried out by a scathing denunciation of various forms of wickedness, more or less prevalent in Israel, the effect of which has been to separate between Israel and God, to "shorten God's hand" and "make his ears heavy." The passage has many analogies with Isaiah 1:2-23. Verse 1. - The Lord's hand is not shortened; i.e. God is not less able to help than of old; his "hand" has lost none of its power. That he does not help is owing to the iniquities of his people, which have separated between him and them (ver. 2). It is the same fact which has made his ear heavy. He cannot hear prayers that are not sincere - not from the heart.
But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.
Verse 2. - Have separated; literally, have been separating. The force of the form used is continuous, and implies that Israel had now for a long time been heaping up a barrier between itself and Jehovah. Your sins have hid his face; literally, your sins have caused his face to be hidden from you, i.e. "have made him avert it."
For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue hath muttered perverseness.
Verse 3. - Your hands are defiled with blood (comp. Isaiah 1:15, 21). (On the "innocent blood" shed by the Jews of the later Judaean kingdom, see 2 Kings 21:6, 16; 2 Kings 24:4; 2 Kings 25:25; 2 Chronicles 24:21; 2 Chronicles 28:3; 2 Chronicles 33:6; 2 Chronicles 36:16, etc.) It consisted in

(1) sacrifices of children to Moloch;

(2) persecution of prophets; and

(3) judicial murders, either actual (like that of Naboth, in Israel) or virtual, i.e. such perversion of justice as produced general poverty and misery, and tended to shorten men's lives (see the comment on Isaiah 1:15). Your lips have spoken lies (comp. Isaiah 32:7). The wicked oppressors "devised wicked devices to destroy the poor with lying words."
None calleth for justice, nor any pleadeth for truth: they trust in vanity, and speak lies; they conceive mischief, and bring forth iniquity.
Verse 4. - None calleth for justice; rather, none preferreth his suit in justice (so Lowth, Gesenius, Ewald, Knobel, and Mr. Cheyne). "No one," that is, "who engaged in a suit, limited himself to just pleas and honest courses in his prosecution of it." Nor any pleadeth for truth; rather, none pleadeth in truthfulness. They trust in vanity; literally, in chaos; i.e. "in a mass of false and vain statements." The whole basis of the dealings between man and man was unsound, corrupt, chaotic. Where truth and plain dealing are set aside, all shortly becomes ruin and confusion. They conceive mischief, etc. (comp. Psalm 7:14).
They hatch cockatrice' eggs, and weave the spider's web: he that eateth of their eggs dieth, and that which is crushed breaketh out into a viper.
Verse 5. - They hatch cockatrice' eggs. (On the cockatrice, see the comment upon Isaiah 11:8.) The meaning here is that the people gave themselves to brooding on and hatching purposes which were as pernicious and destructive as the eggs of venomous serpents. And weave the spider's web; i.e. "their purposes were as flimsy and unsubstantial as the web of the spider." He that eateth, etc. If a man partake of their plans, he becomes morally as bad as they, and is smitten with spiritual death. If an attempt be made to "crush" and destroy their plans, the only result is the premature birth of a viper.
Their webs shall not become garments, neither shall they cover themselves with their works: their works are works of iniquity, and the act of violence is in their hands.
Verse 6. - Their webs shall not become garments. The unsubstantial fabrics which they weave shall not serve them in any way as garments, or be of any real value or utility. Their devices shall not take objective shape in such sort as to afford them "cover" or protection. Their works are works of iniquity; rather, works of nothingness, works that make a mere pretence of being works at all, and are in reality mere shams, impotent and delusive. And the act of violence is in their hands; rather, and it is an act of violence that is in their hands. Violence creates nothing. At the best, it destroys.
Their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed innocent blood: their thoughts are thoughts of iniquity; wasting and destruction are in their paths.
Verse 7. - Their feet run to evil. It is, however, only too true that they have a power to work evil. They cannot construct, their devices fall through, their "spinning" is to no purpose; but they can, in a rough and blind way, do enormous mischief. "Their feet run to evil" - rush to it at full speed - brook no delay, but hurry on into act. It is an easy thing to shed innocent blood; and those who are conscious of constructive impotence are very apt to seek compensation by doing destructive work, which at least shows that they have a power of some kind. Hence "Reigns of Terror" when revolutions are at the last gasp. The strong expressions with respect to shedding innocent blood, used here and in 2 Kings 21:16 and 2 Kings 24:4, seem to imply something like a massacre of the more godly Israelites by the ungodly in Manasseh's time. Wasting and destruction (compare the "destruction and misery" of Romans 3:16, which is a quotation of the present passage).
The way of peace they know not; and there is no judgment in their goings: they have made them crooked paths: whosoever goeth therein shall not know peace.
Verse 8. - The way of peace they know not. They have no desire for "peace," and neither "seek" it nor "ensue" it (1 Peter 3:11). Peace can only be obtained through righteousness (Isaiah 32:17). There is no judgment in their goings; rather, no justice - no recognition of other men's rights, no endeavour to observe right in their own acts and proceedings (comp. ver. 4; and see also Isaiah 1:17, 21, 23; Isaiah 3:14, 15, etc.). They have made them crooked paths (comp. Proverbs 2:15; Proverbs 10:9; Proverbs 28:6). The way that leadeth to life is straight. They have wandered from it, and made for themselves "crooked" paths, which can only lead to destruction. In such paths there neither is nor can be "peace."
Therefore is judgment far from us, neither doth justice overtake us: we wait for light, but behold obscurity; for brightness, but we walk in darkness.
Verses 9-15. - ISRAEL HUMBLY CONFESSES ITS SIN'S TO GOD. Isaiah, anxious to bring the people to confession and amendment, makes humble confession in their name, joining himself with them, as if he had been a participator in their iniquities. Verse 9. - Therefore - i.e. on account of these sins - is judgment far from us; i.e. "does God refrain from judging our enemies." Neither doth justice - i.e. the righting of the wrongs which we suffer at the hands of the heathen - overtake us. We are left by God unavenged, and our enemies are left unpunished on account of our many transgressions. We wait for light. We look for a bright dawn to succeed the night of our trouble; but we wait in vain - the obscurity continues.
We grope for the wall like the blind, and we grope as if we had no eyes: we stumble at noonday as in the night; we are in desolate places as dead men.
Verse 10. - We grope for the wall; rather, we grope along the wall (comp. Deuteronomy 28:29; and for the "blindness that had happened unto Israel" see above, Isaiah 29:10, 18; Isaiah 35:5; Isaiah 42:16, etc.). We stumble at noonday. It was not that light was really wanting, but they had no eyes to behold it. We are in desolate places; rather, in dark places (Vulgate, Rodiger, Kay, Knobel). The word occurs only in this place, and is of doubtful signification.
We roar all like bears, and mourn sore like doves: we look for judgment, but there is none; for salvation, but it is far off from us.
Verse 11. - We roar all like bears; rather, we growl. The verb is used commonly of the "roaring" of the sea (Isaiah 17:12; Isaiah 51:15; Jeremiah 6:23; 31:45; 50:42; 51:55); but is applied also to the noise made by a dog (Psalm 59:6, 14). Here it represents the deep murmur of discontent, which alternates with the mournful tones of Israel's despondency - the latter being compared to the melancholy cooing of the dove (see ch. 38:14). We look for judgment, but there is none, etc. The same complaint as in ver. 9, clause 1.
For our transgressions are multiplied before thee, and our sins testify against us: for our transgressions are with us; and as for our iniquities, we know them;
Verse 12. - Our transgressions are multiplied before thee; i.e. they are very numerous; and they come "before God," so as to attract his attention and call for his animadversion. Our sins testify against us; i.e. "rise up against us as witnesses, whose evidence we cannot disprove, and have not even the face to dispute." Our transgressions are with us - i.e. "constantly haunt us" - and as for our iniquities, we know them; i.e. we are aware of them, we acknowledge them, we have them continually in our memories. It is one of the most certain phenomena of consciousness that grievous sins, deadly sins, haunt the mind, and cannot in this life be wiped out from the memory.
In transgressing and lying against the LORD, and departing away from our God, speaking oppression and revolt, conceiving and uttering from the heart words of falsehood.
Verse 13. - An enumeration of special sins. First, sins of the heart. Transgressing and lying against the Lord; or rather, treason and unfaithfulness to Jehovah (Cheyne); followed by departing away from God, or the secret act of apostasy. Next, sins of the tongue: Speaking oppression and revolt; or, oppression and wrong - the "wrong," probably, of false accusation (comp. Deuteronomy 19:16); and, lastly, conceiving and uttering · . . words of falsehood generally.
And judgment is turned away backward, and justice standeth afar off: for truth is fallen in the street, and equity cannot enter.
Verse 14. - Judgment is turned away backward. In conclusion, the crying sin of perversion of justice is admitted with much amplification.

(1) Right judgment is exactly inverted - the innocent are condemned, the guilty acquitted.

(2) Justice standeth afar off - too far off to be able to hear those who make appeal to it.

(3) Truth is fallen in the street; i.e. false witness prevails over true in the courts of justice.

(4) Equity cannot enter - is not admitted inside the courts, but waits without.
Yea, truth faileth; and he that departeth from evil maketh himself a prey: and the LORD saw it, and it displeased him that there was no judgment.
Verse 15. - Yea, truth faileth. Truth itself is altogether gone, is missing, not forthcoming. "Tetras Astraea reliquit." This is the worst of all. For truth is the basis of the social fabric, the groundwork of all morality. Once let there be no regard for truth in a state, no discredit attaching to lying, and all virtue is undermined, all soundness is vanished - nothing remains but "wounds, and bruises, and putrifying sores" (Isaiah 1:6). He that departeth from evil maketh himself a prey. Evil-doers prosper. The man who "eschews evil," and declines to employ (as others do) the weapons of fraud and violence, simply gives himself over as a prey to those who are less scrupulous than himself. Verses 15-21. - A PROMISE OF DELIVERANCE. TO OPPRESSED ISRAEL. The godly in Israel were suffering a double oppression:

(1) at the hand of their ungodly brethren;

(2) at the hand of the heathen.

The prophet promises a deliverance from both. The deliverance will be followed by the establishment of Messiah's kingdom, which will continue for ever. Verse 15. And the Lord saw it. The division of the verses here requires alteration. The opening clause of ver. 15 belongs to what precedes; the second clause to what follows. "The Lord saw" that condition of things in Israel which is described in vers. 3-15; and it displeased him; literally, it was evil in his eyes, especially in that there was no judgment. Justice was not done between man and man; no one thought of pronouncing just judgments. The circumstances were such as to invite a Divine interposition.
And he saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor: therefore his arm brought salvation unto him; and his righteousness, it sustained him.
Verse 16. - He saw that there was no man, and wondered that there was no intercessor; i.e. God looked for some champion of the oppressed to arise; it was to be expected under the circumstances. But, alas! "there was no man." None stood up to resist the unrighteous and protect the innocent; much less did any stand up to deliver Israel from its heathen adversaries. When it is said that God "wondered" at no champion appearing, we must understand the expression as an anthropomorphism· Therefore his arm brought salvation unto him. As them was no human champion, it became necessary that God should arise in his own Person, and show himself. "His arm" and "his righteousness" were enough; no human aid was needed, or could have added anything to the resistless strength of his might (comp. Isaiah 63:5).
For he put on righteousness as a breastplate, and an helmet of salvation upon his head; and he put on the garments of vengeance for clothing, and was clad with zeal as a cloke.
Verse 17. - He put on righteousness as a breastplate. The Isaiah anthropomorphism is far less gross than the Homeric. The gods in Homer put on actual armour, and take sword and shield. Jehovah arms himself for the battle in a way that is manifestly metaphoric. He puts on a "Divine panoply" - righteousness as his breastplate, salvation as his helmet, vengeance for garments, and zeal, or jealousy, for a cloak. He takes no offensive weapons - "the out-breathing of his Spirit (ver. 19) is enough" (Kay).
According to their deeds, accordingly he will repay, fury to his adversaries, recompence to his enemies; to the islands he will repay recompence.
Verse 18. - According to their deeds; rather, according to their deserts (comp. Psalm 28:4, ad fin.). He will repay. The ordinary future here, and in the remainder of the prophecy, replaces the "perfect of prophetic certitude," which has been employed in vers. 16, 17. Fury to his adversaries, recompense to his enemies. God's "adversaries" are those of his own household - his people, the ungodly Israelites; his "enemies" are the heathen that oppress his people (comp. Isaiah 1:24, which is very similar). To the islands; i.e. the maritime lands, which, under Assyria, and afterwards under Babylon, took part in the oppression of his people.
So shall they fear the name of the LORD from the west, and his glory from the rising of the sun. When the enemy shall come in like a flood, the Spirit of the LORD shall lift up a standard against him.
Verse 19. - So shall they fear; rather, and they shall fear. The result of the triumphant exhibition of God's might will be a conversion of the Gentiles, who will flock in both from the west - the quarter of "the islands" - and from the east, to do reverence to the name and to the glory of the Lord. When the enemy shall come in (rather, come on) like a flood; literally, like the river; i.e. the Euphrates (comp. Isaiah 8:7, "The Lord bringeth up upon them the waters of the river, strong and many, even the King of Assyria and all his glory," etc.). When this shall be the case, then the Spirit of the Lord - hypostasized or nearly so - shall lift up a standard against him (comp. Isaiah 10:18; Zechariah 9:16), and easily vanquish him. The metaphor of "lifting a standard" for making an armed resistance is common in Isaiah (Isaiah 5:26; Isaiah 13:2; Isaiah 18:3; Isaiah 31:9, etc.).
And the Redeemer shall come to Zion, and unto them that turn from transgression in Jacob, saith the LORD.
Verse 20. - And the Redeemer shall come to Zion; rather, and there shall come a Redeemer for Zion, and for those who turn, etc. When the "adversaries "and the "enemies" shall have been punished, repentant Israel shall be saved by the coming of Messiah. As usual, the prophet does not note, or perhaps see, intervals of time, but blends events of various periods into one glorious vision of triumphant deliverance, redemption, and prolonged spiritual life in the Redeemer's kingdom.
As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the LORD; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed's seed, saith the LORD, from henceforth and for ever.
Verse 21. - As for me; literally, and I. The prophet begins with one construction, and then checks himself, and introduces another. This is my covenant (comp. Jeremiah 31:31-34; and see the comment on Isaiah 53:3). The new covenant involved the giving of God's Spirit to his people (Joel 2:28); and this Spirit, it is here promised, shall not depart from God's people while time endures. The Spirit will be accompanied with certain "words" which will be put into the Church's mouth; and these words will remain unchanged and pass on from mouth to mouth, age after age, for ever. The "words" intended are probably those of the entire Bible - "all God's revelations" (Cheyne) - which the Church will maintain as inspired truth through all ages. Upon thee; i.e. upon Israel. The change of number and person ("with them... upon thee") is not unusual in Isaiah (Isaiah 1:29; Isaiah 33:2; Isaiah 49:5; Isaiah 62:11, 12, etc.).

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