Avraham ben Yaakov
ISAIAH CHAPTER 47
Having prophesied in the previous chapter about the collapse of the gods of Babylon and about the salvation HaShem was to send to Israel with the destruction of her empire, Isaiah now tells Babylon to prepare for her coming exile. He calls her "the virgin daughter of Babylon" (v 1), because until her capture by Darius the Mede and Cyrus king of Persia, she had never been subject to any other nation, like a virgin who has not yet come into any man's domain (Metzudas David ad loc.). Now Babylon was to sit in the dust "with no throne" (v 1) - because she would never again sit on the throne of kingship over others (Metzudas David ad loc.).
It should be born in mind that Isaiah was prophesying the fall of Babylon well over a century and a half before it took place, which was in the year 3389 (-371 B.C.E. according to the dating system of SEDER OLAM), while the prophesies of consolation contained in Isaiah from chapter 40 to the end of the book were delivered either before or shortly after the overthrow of Sennacherib, which took place 176 years earlier in 3213 (-547 B.C.E.). With the fall of the Assyrian empire soon after this, Babylon was only beginning its ascent to world power at the time when Isaiah was prophesying, yet he had already foretold that she would destroy and plunder the Temple and take Judah into exile (Isaiah 39:5-7), and now he foretells that in vengeance for this she herself would be destroyed.
The prophet emphasizes that Babylon would succeed in overcoming Judah only because God was angry with His people and therefore delivered them into her hand (v 6). Babylon was merely intended to be His instrument, but she went beyond her brief, causing Israel unwarranted suffering, and this was the reason why she was to be cast down. "You showed them no mercy; upon the aged you have heavily laid your yoke" (ibid.).
Interestingly, the Midrash applies this verse to Edom as if " Babylon " is a term for Israel 's persecutors in general. "In time to come the Holy One blessed be He will sit in judgment over the kingdom of Edom and ask them: Why did you subjugate my children? Edom will reply: 'Did You not deliver them into our hands? God will then say to Edom : Because I entrusted them to you, does that justify that 'you showed them no mercy' (Isaiah 47:6)? 'Upon the aged (ZAKEN=elder) you have heavily laid your yoke' (ibid.) - This refers to Rabbi Akiva, whom the Roman government persecuted without end" (Tanchuma).
This Midrashic interpretation of the prophecy in our present chapter indicates that it applies not only to Babylon but to all of Israel 's persecutors throughout history. The prophecy that the decree of "widowhood" and being "bereft of children" would strike in one day (verse 9) clearly applies specifically to Babylon, which became a "widow" (i.e. lost her king) and was "bereft of her children" (her population) on one and the same day - the day when Belshazzar was killed and the population of Babylon were taken into exile (Metzudas David on v 9). Yet other aspects of the prophecy can also be seen to apply to Israel 's persecutors until today.
The witchcraft and divination for which the Chaldeans were notorious, and which the prophet derides in vv 9-15, must have been highly sophisticated since they had so much confidence in them. "You have trusted in your wickedness; you have said: No one sees me. Your wisdom and your knowledge have perverted you, and you have said in your heart, I am and none else beside me" (v 10). While applying specifically to Babylon , these words could equally well be seen to apply to the present-day persecutors of Israel (such as Iran Hizbullah, Hamas, Al Qaeda etc.) who put their trust in the wizardry of their secret military technologies with which they plan to overcome their enemies and dominate the world. The prophet warns them that as a result, "Evil will come upon you and you shall not know how to charm it away. and ruin shall come upon you suddenly" (v 11).
"Stand now with your enchantments and with the multitude of your sorceries wherein you have labored since your youth: perhaps you will be able to profit, perhaps you will gain strength" (v 12). Here and in the following verses the prophet mockingly challenges Israel 's persecutors to see the self-destruction to which their ingenious wizardry will lead.
The "astrologers", "stargazers" and "monthly prognosticators" mentioned in v 13 were the ancient equivalent of the contemporary pundits and think tank experts whose job is to assess what the future holds in store. The simple meaning of the last three Hebrew words of verse 13 indicates that these fortune-tellers may provide information about "SOME of what will come upon you". These words are the basis for an important teaching about the difference between the predictions of the astrologers etc. and the prophecies of the true prophets. "In the case of the astrologers and diviners etc. SOME of their predictions may come about but not all of them, as it says, '[they inform about] SOME of what will come upon you' (Is. 47:13) - i.e. SOME of what will happen in the future but not ALL of what will happen, and it might be that NONE of what they say will be fulfilled, whereas in the case of the true prophet, ALL of his words are fulfilled" (Rambam, Hilchos Yesodey HaTorah 10:3).
Having foretold the destruction of Babylon in his prophecy in the previous chapter, Isaiah now castigates the people OF Judah and Benjamin who would thereby be redeemed from their exile, chiding them for being unworthy of redemption in their own merit - for God would redeem them for His own sake. The people are CALLED by the name of Israel (v 1) - outwardly they go by the name of God's chosen people - but when they swear in the name of HaShem, it is not in truth but for outward show. They CALL themselves the people of the Holy City (of Jerusalem) and claim to depend on HaShem, the God of Israel, but these are mere words on their lips but not what is truly in their hearts (RaDaK on v 2). Even so, God would save them in order not to profane His Name, as the nations would otherwise say that if this people are from His city and claim to put their trust in Him yet He still does not save them, it can only be because He lacks sufficient power (Metzudas David on v 2).
"And I told you from the beginning; before it came to pass I let you hear it, lest you should say: My idol has done these things and my carved idol and molten image has commanded them" (v 5). The prophet implies that it was not because of the people's merit that he had to prophesy in advance what would happen to their enemies. On the contrary, his need to do so was because otherwise they would say that it was their own idols that overthrew them rather than acknowledging that it was the work of HaShem, who had already foretold it from the start.
The prophet emphasizes that the patience God shows to Israel despite their backslidings is only for the sake of His Name, and indeed He is to be praised for His forbearance. "For My name's sake I will defer my anger and for the sake of My praise I will show you patience" (v 9). Rabbi Nachman learns from this verse that "praise" (i.e. our prayers) requires patience. When we offer our prayers to God, we must have patience and WAIT for Him to answer instead of necessarily expecting an immediate response (Likutey Moharan I, 2).
"Behold, I have refined you but not into silver, I have tried you in the furnace of AFFLICTION" (v 10) - "This teaches that God considered all the good attributes that He might bestow upon Israel and found nothing better for them than the affliction of poverty" (Chagigah 9b). There is a widespread perception that Jews are rich, but while some, particularly among the non-observant, may be extremely wealthy, the lot of many striving to keep the Torah both in the past and until today has been to have to struggle with the challenges of extremely limited resources. "When a person refines silver he removes all the dross, leaving only pure silver, but I have not done this, because if I did, very few would remain. Instead I afflict the wicked - who are the dross - with illnesses or captivity or through the loss of their children or the fruits of their cattle and their land etc. so as not to cut them off completely" (RaDaK on v 10).
"If only you had hearkened to My commandments, your peace would have been as a river and your righteousness as the waves of the sea; your seed would be as the sand and the offspring of your belly like the fish of the sea." (v 18). God will in any event redeem Israel , but we could enable it to come about with so much less pain if we will heed the voice of His Torah!
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By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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