Isaiah 66 COMMENTARY (Ellicott)

Isaiah 66
Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Thus saith the LORD, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest?

(1) The heaven is my throne . . .—We are left to conjecture the historical starting-point of this utterance of a Divine truth. Was the prophet condemning in advance the restoration of the temple on the return from Babylon, or, as some critics have supposed, the intention of some of the exiles to build a temple in the land of their captivity, as others did afterwards at Leontopolis in Egypt? Was he anticipating the vision of the Apocalypse, that in the new Jerusalem there was to be “no temple” (Revelation 21:22)? Neither of these views is satisfactory, Isaiah 56:7; Isaiah 60:7, and the writings of Ezekiel, Haggai, Zechariah, all pre-supposing the existence of a new temple. It seems better to see in the words the utterance, in its strongest form, of the truth that God dwelleth, not in temples made with hands, that utterance being compatible, as in the case of Solomon himself (2 Chronicles 6:18), of our Lord (John 2:16-17; John 4:21-23), of St. Stephen, who quoted this passage (Acts 7:48-50), with the profoundest reverence for the visible sanctuary. Cheyne quotes a striking parallel from an Egyptian hymn to the Nile of the fourteenth century B.C., in which we find the writer saying of God, His abode is not known . . . there is no building that can contain Him.” (Records of the Past, iv. 109.)

For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the LORD: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.
(2) All those things . . .—The sequence of thought runs thus:—God, the Maker of the universe, can need nothing that belongs to it. The most stately temple is to Him as the infinitely little. What He does delight in is something which is generically different, the spiritual life which answers to His own, the “contrite heart,” which is the true correlative of His own holiness. He who offers that is a true worshipper, with or without the ritual of worship; in its absence, all worship is an abomination to the Eternal. Here 1 and 2 Isaiah are essentially one in teaching. (Comp. Isaiah 1:11-18; Isaiah 57:15.)

He that killeth an ox is as if he slew a man; he that sacrificeth a lamb, as if he cut off a dog's neck; he that offereth an oblation, as if he offered swine's blood; he that burneth incense, as if he blessed an idol. Yea, they have chosen their own ways, and their soul delighteth in their abominations.
(3) He that killeth an ox . . .—The truth of the previous verse is emphasised by iteration, each clause presenting a distinct illustration of it. Chapter Isaiah 65:3-11 had pointed to tendencies, not yet extinct, which led to open apostasy. Now the prophet declares that there may be as real an apostasy beneath an orthodox creed and an irreproachable ritual. Each act of the hypocrite’s worship is as an idolatrous abomination.

I also will choose their delusions, and will bring their fears upon them; because when I called, none did answer; when I spake, they did not hear: but they did evil before mine eyes, and chose that in which I delighted not.
(4) I also will choose their delusions . . .—The Hebrew noun conveys the thought of the turnings and windings of fortune—what has been called the irony of history. These are the instruments with which God, as it were, mocks and has in derision those who mock Him by their hypocrisy. Their choice did not delight Him; what He chooses will be far other than delightful for them. (Comp. Psalm 2:4; Proverbs 1:24-26.)

Hear the word of the LORD, ye that tremble at his word; Your brethren that hated you, that cast you out for my name's sake, said, Let the LORD be glorified: but he shall appear to your joy, and they shall be ashamed.
(5) Hear the word of the Lord . . .—The prophet turns from the hypocrites to the persecuted remnant. The self-righteous, self-exalting Pharisee (comp. Isaiah 65:5) repudiates, and, as it were, excommunicates, the true worshippers, and taunts them with their devotion to a God who does not help them. In words which find an echo in Matthew 27:42, they said, “Let Jehovah glorify Himself, that we may look on your joy.” The prophet adds the doom that shall fall upon the mockers: “They, and not those whom they deride, shall be put to shame.”

A voice of noise from the city, a voice from the temple, a voice of the LORD that rendereth recompence to his enemies.
(6) A voice of noise . . .—The form reminds us of Isaiah 13:4. The words represent dramatically the wonder with which men will behold the great judgments of God, proceeding, as with the thunders of Sinai (Amos 1:2; Joel 3:16), from the city and the temple, that seemed to have been given over to destruction.

Before she travailed, she brought forth; before her pain came, she was delivered of a man child.
(7) Before she travailed . . .—The mother, as the next verse shows, is Zion; the man-child, born at last without the travail-pangs of sorrow, is the new Israel, the true Israel of God. The same figure has met us in Isaiah 49:17-21; Isaiah 54:1, and is implied in Matthew 24:8. Its antithesis is found in Isaiah 37:3.

Who hath heard such a thing? who hath seen such things? Shall the earth be made to bring forth in one day? or shall a nation be born at once? for as soon as Zion travailed, she brought forth her children.
(8) Shall the earth be made . . .—Better, Shall a land be made to travail. The usually slow processes of national development are contrasted with the supernatural rapidity of the birth and growth of the new Israel.

Shall I bring to the birth, and not cause to bring forth? saith the LORD: shall I cause to bring forth, and shut the womb? saith thy God.
(9) Shall I bring to the birth . . .—The implied thought is that God will not leave His work of national restoration unfinished. There shall not be that frustration of hopes when they seem just on the point of being fulfilled which the history of the world so often records. (Comp. Isaiah 37:3.)

Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her: rejoice for joy with her, all ye that mourn for her:
(10) Rejoice ye with Jerusalem . . .—The holy city is still thought of as a mother rejoicing in her new-born child; friends and neighbours (i e., the nations friendly to Israel) who had shown pity for her sufferings are now invited to participate in her joy.

That ye may suck, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations; that ye may milk out, and be delighted with the abundance of her glory.
(11) That ye may suck . . .—The figure takes a new and bolder form. The friends who visit the rejoicing mother are invited to take their place with the new-born child, and to share his nurture. The underlying thought is, of course, that the heathen nations who had been friendly to Zion were to become converts, and be incorporated with her citizens.

For thus saith the LORD, Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the Gentiles like a flowing stream: then shall ye suck, ye shall be borne upon her sides, and be dandled upon her knees.
(12) Ye shall be borne upon her sides.—Better, upon the side, or upon the knee, or hip. (See Note on Isaiah 60:4.) The outward figure is now presented as in an inverted form, to express a new spiritual fact. The children of Zion will find a maternal tenderness and care at the hands of the heathen nations, who are to be as their “nursing mothers.” (Comp. 60:16.)

As one whom his mother comforteth, so will I comfort you; and ye shall be comforted in Jerusalem.
(13) One whom his mother comforteth . . .—The image of maternal love, with which the prophet’s mind is full, is presented in yet another aspect. The love which Zion gives, the love which her children receive from the nations, are both but shadows of the infinite tenderness of Jehovah. In this instance the object of the mother’s love that comforts is not the child at the breast, but the full-grown man, returning, like the prodigal, to his home after long years of exile. The words are characteristic at once of the special tie which unites the son to the mother, almost more than to the father, in most Eastern nations, and, perhaps also, of the prophet’s personal memories of his own mother’s love.

And when ye see this, your heart shall rejoice, and your bones shall flourish like an herb: and the hand of the LORD shall be known toward his servants, and his indignation toward his enemies.
(14) Your bones shall flourish . . .—“Heart” and “bones” stand respectively as symbols of the inner and outer life. The “bones,” the branches, so to speak, of the body, which had been dry and sere, should revive as with the sap of a new life, and be as the succulent herbage. His “hand,” i.e., His manifested power, will show itself in love to His people, in indignation to their enemies.

For, behold, the LORD will come with fire, and with his chariots like a whirlwind, to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire.
(15) With his chariots . . .—i.e., the storm-clouds sweeping on their way, while the lightnings and the winds do their work. (Comp. Psalm 18:10; Psalm 68:33)

For by fire and by his sword will the LORD plead with all flesh: and the slain of the LORD shall be many.
(16) Will the Lord plead . . .—Better, will the Lord hold judgment. The thoughts of the seer pass on to the retributive side of the Divine righteousness. Fire and sword have been used by the enemies of God against His people, and shall, in turn, be the instruments of His vengeance. The “sword” may, however, be the symbol of the Divine judgment, apart from any reference to its human instrument (Deuteronomy 32:41; Revelation 1:16).

They that sanctify themselves, and purify themselves in the gardens behind one tree in the midst, eating swine's flesh, and the abomination, and the mouse, shall be consumed together, saith the LORD.
(17) They that sanctify themselves . . .—Better, they that consecrate themselves . . . As in Isaiah 65:3-4, the prophet has in his thoughts the apostates, who gloried in mingling heathen rites with the worship of Jehovah. Such a blending of incompatible elements was, as we have seen, eminently characteristic of the reign of Manasseh. We have no trace of anything corresponding to it among the. Babylonian exiles, either before or after their return. The “consecration” and “purification” are the initiatory rites of heathen mysteries, connected probably with the worship of Baal or Ashtoreth, or, as the context, with its reference to gardens and swine’s flesh, renders probable, with that of Thammuz. (See Note on Isaiah 64:4.)

Behind one tree in the midst.—The noun “tree” is a conjectural explanation. The Hebrew text gives the “one” in the masculine, and is explained as referring either (1) to the Hierophant, who led the worshippers; or (2), as with a contemptuous reluctance to utter the name of the false deity, to Thammuz. The Hebrew margin gives “one” in the feminine, and this may have been meant for the Asherah, the “grove,” or Phallic symbol of idolatrous worship. If we adopt the masculine, and refer it to Thammuz, the word may connect itself with the lamentations of the Syrian maidens over Thammuz (Adonis) as over an only son. (Comp. Milton, Paradise Lost, i.)

The abomination.—The word stands in Leviticus 7:21; Leviticus 11:11, for various kinds of unclean beasts, among which the mouse, or jerboa, still eaten by the Arabs, was conspicuous (Leviticus 11:29). It is probable that all these, as well as the swine’s flesh, were used in the idolfeasts. In any case the apostate worshippers would seem to have exulted in throwing off the restraints of the Mosaic law.

For I know their works and their thoughts: it shall come, that I will gather all nations and tongues; and they shall come, and see my glory.
(18) For I know their works . . .—The Hebrew has no verb, either—as in the Quos ego . . . of Virgil, Æn., 1:139—for the sake of emphasis, or through an accidental omission in transcription. I know is supplied by many versions and commentators; I will punish or I have seen by others. The thought, in any case, is that the eye of Jehovah sees the evil things that are done in the secret places, caves or groves, in which the heathen rites were celebrated.

All nations and tongues . . .—The phrase, though not incompatible with Isaiah’s authorship, is specially characteristic of the prophets of the Exile (Daniel 3:4; Daniel 3:7; Daniel 3:29; Daniel 4:1; Zechariah 8:23).

They shall come, and see my glory.—The “glory” in the prophet’s thoughts is that of Jehovah manifested in His righteous judgments on open enemies and concealed apostates.

And I will set a sign among them, and I will send those that escape of them unto the nations, to Tarshish, Pul, and Lud, that draw the bow, to Tubal, and Javan, to the isles afar off, that have not heard my fame, neither have seen my glory; and they shall declare my glory among the Gentiles.
(19) I will set a sign among them . . .—The “sign” may be one of supernatural terror in the work of judgment, or, as the context makes more probable, of supernatural deliverance. The thought of a “remnant” to be saved is still characteristically dominant, and that “remnant” is to act as heralds of Jehovah to the far-distant nations who had not been sharers in any open antagonism to Israel, and who were, therefore, not involved in the great judgment. Of these the prophet names Tarshish, either definitely for Spain, or vaguely for the far west.

Pul is not found elsewhere as the name of a nation, and stands probably for “Phut,” as in the LXX., found in common with “Lud” in Ezekiel 27:10; Ezekiel 30:5, and standing for an African people (Phint, or Phet) on the east coast of Northern Africa.

Lud, joined with “Pul” here, in Ezekiel 27:10 with Phut, and with Ethiopia and Libya in Ezekiel 37:5, stands, in the judgment of most scholars, not for the Lydians of Asia Minor, but for an African nation, the Ludim of Genesis 10:13 and Jeremiah 46:9, where they are named, as here, as famous for their skill as archers. On the other hand, Mr. Sayce (Cheyne, 2:287) identifies “Pul” with the Apuli of Italy and “Lud,” with the Lydian soldiers, by whose help Psammitichus made himself independent of Assyria.

Tubal (comp. Ezekiel 27:13; Ezekiel 38:2-3; Ezekiel 39:1) points to the shores of the Black Sea and tribes of Scythian extraction.

Javan (Ionia), Genesis 10:2, is here used widely for any Greek settlements, and points probably to those on the Black Sea, which, together with Tubal and Meshech, carried on an active slave-trade with Tyre (Ezekiel 27:3). It completes the list of nations named as representing the far-off lands that had not before heard of the God of Israel, but were now to know Him through the preaching of the remnant.

And they shall bring all your brethren for an offering unto the LORD out of all nations upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon swift beasts, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, saith the LORD, as the children of Israel bring an offering in a clean vessel into the house of the LORD.
(20) They shall bring all your brethren . . .—The offering is the minchah, the bloodless meatoffering of the Levitical law (Leviticus 2:1-2). The underlying thought is that the returning exiles would be the most acceptable offering that could be brought to Jehovah. The same idea appears in Zephaniah 3:10, and a similar one, transferred, however, to the Gentile converts, in Romans 15:16.

Upon horses, and in chariots . . .—The list of the modes of transport, as in Zechariah 14:15, points to the various habits of the many nations who are to be sharers in the work.

As the children of Israel . . .—The “clean offering” is, as before, the minchah. The heathen, or, perhaps, even the chariots and litters on which they brought the exiles, are as the “clean vessels” in which the minchah was brought to the Temple.

And I will also take of them for priests and for Levites, saith the LORD.
(21) I will also take of them for priests . . .—We are left to determine whether the promise is that even Gentile converts should be enrolled among the priests and Levites of the new Jerusalem, or that Israelites of the non-priestly tribes should be so enrolled. Was the prophet breaking down in thought the middle wall of partition, or clinging to its maintenance? Isaiah 61:6 seems in favour of the latter view, and we are probably right in looking on this thought, that of all Israel being eligible for the priesthood, as that which was in the prophet’s mind. Like other such thoughts, however, it was capable of expansion, so as to include the whole Israel of God, who were by faith the children of Abraham. (Comp. 1 Peter 2:5; 1 Peter 2:9, with Exodus 19:6.)

For as the new heavens and the new earth, which I will make, shall remain before me, saith the LORD, so shall your seed and your name remain.
(22) As the new heavens and the new earth . . .—The transformation of Isaiah 65:17 is pre-supposed, but that future kingdom of God shall perpetuate the historical continuity of that which has preceded it. Israel (the prophet’s range of vision seems limited to the outward Israel, while St. Paul extends it to the spiritual) shall still exist. The ideal represented by that name will have an indestructible vitality.

And it shall come to pass, that from one new moon to another, and from one sabbath to another, shall all flesh come to worship before me, saith the LORD.
(23) From one new moon to another . . .—Under the Mosaic law Israelites were bound, at least in theory, to attend the temple at the three great feasts. In the new Jerusalem, as the prophet thought of it, the pilgrimages would be both more frequent and more universal. Every sabbath and new moon would witness not Israel only, but “all flesh,” thronging into the courts of the temple. It lies in the nature of the case that the words never have received, and never can receive, a literal fulfilment. The true realisation is found in the new Jerusalem of Revelation 21:22-27, of the perpetual sabbatism of Hebrews 4:9, and even that glorious vision is but the symbol of spiritual realities.

And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh.
(24) And they shall go forth . . .—As at the close of Isaiah 48, 57, each ending a great section of the volume, so here, the vision of restoration and blessedness is balanced by that of the righteous condemnation of the wicked. The outward imagery is suggested, as in Joel 3:12; Zechariah 14:12, by that of the great battle of the Lord (Isaiah 66:15-16). Those who are slain in that battle are thought of as filling the valleys round about Jerusalem, especially the valley of Jehoshaphat (“Jehovah judges “), devoured by worms, or given to the flames. Taken strictly, therefore, the words do not speak of the punishment of the souls of men after death, but of the defeat and destruction upon earth of the enemies of Jehovah. The words that tell us that “the worm shall not die” and that “the fire shall not be quenched” point, however, to something more than this, to be read between the lines. And so those words became the starting-point of the thoughts of later Judaism as to Gehenna (Ecclesiasticus 8:17; Judith 16:17, and the Targum on this passage), of the words in which our Lord Himself gave utterance to what, at least, seemed to express those thoughts (Mark 9:44-48), of the dominant eschatology of Christendom. Even so taken, however, with this wider range, it is still a question whether the words are to be taken literally or figuratively (though this, perhaps, is hardly a question), whether the bodies, which represent souls, are thought of as not destroyed, but only tormented, or as consumed to nothing, by the fire and by the worm, whether those two agents represent sufferings of sense or spirit. The one aspect of the future life which they tend to exclude is that which presents the idea of a suffering that may be purifying. That idea is not without apparent support in other passages of Scripture (e.g., Romans 5:17-21; Romans 11:32; 1 Peter 3:19; 1 Peter 4:6); but we cannot say that it entered into the prophet’s thoughts here. What he emphasises is the eternal antagonism between the righteousness of God and man’s unrighteousness, and this involves the punishment of the latter as long as it exists. In any case there is a strange solemnity in this being the last word of the prophet’s book of revelation, even as there is a like awfulness in the picture of the final judgment, which appears in Matthew 25:46, at all but the close of our Lord’s public teaching. Cheyne quotes a singular rubric of the Jewish ritual, that when this chapter, or Ecclesiastes 12, or Malachi 3, was read in the synagogue, the last verse but one should be repeated after the last, so that mercy might appear as in the end triumphant after and over judgment.

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