2 Nephi Chapter 17
Chapter seven of the book of Isaiah, which is the source of 2 Nephi 17, is often called the "Virgin Birth" chapter or the chapter of the Immanuel Prophecy, and it is often quoted at Christmas time. Let us review the historical setting for this chapter.
Isaiah's vision and calling, spoken of in chapter 16, had occurred about 742 BC, the year the good King Uzziah died of leprosy. Uzziah had ruled Judah since 783 BC. He was succeeded by his son Jotham who was also a righteous king who ruled until about 736 BC. When Jotham died, his unrighteous son Ahaz succeeded him and ruled until about 715 BC. Ahaz was eventually to apostatize completely from the truths of the gospel and even embrace the heathen cult of the Canaanites and "burn his children in the fire, after the abomination of the heathen" (2 Chronicles 28:3). The events of 2 Nephi chapter 17 took place before he had degenerated that far, in fact they probably occurred during the first year or two of his rule.
In about 745 BC, a capable leader had gained the throne in Assyria. This was Tiglath-Pileser III or "Pul" as he is called in the Bible. Under his leadership, the terrible Assyrian army began moving out from Nineveh (capital city of Assyria) and sought to force the small Palestinian nations to the southwest into a state of vassalage and tribute. To avoid a massacre and blood bath, for which the Assyrian army was infamous, some nations volunteered to pay tribute. One of these nations was the Kingdom of Israel (inhabited by the northern ten tribes) led by King Menahem. After the death of Menahem in 738 BC, his son Pekahiah succeeded him and intended to continue paying tribute to Assyria. Menahem's son, however, was assassinated by Pekah, the captain of the guard who thus became king of Israel in a military coup in about 737 BC. Pekah refused to pay tribute. In fact, he wrote a letter to King Ahaz of Judah and to King Rezin in Damascus, Syria urging that they join together in a federation to resist and fight the Assyrians (Rezin had already been paying tribute to the Assyrians). Rezin agreed to join with Pekah and Israel, but Ahaz of Judah did not. Rezin will eventually be killed in a battle against Assyria (2 Kings 16:7-9). Pekah would reign over the kingdom of Israel for about five years and then be murdered by his successor to the throne, named Hosea. It will be during King Hosea's reign that the northern tribes of Israel (the ten tribes) will be captured and deported by Assyria.
Because Ahaz refused to join their alliance, Pekah and Rezin decided to attack Judah and replace Ahaz with a leader more sympathetic to their anti-Assyrian policies, a man known only as the son of Tabeal. It was under the gloom of this impending assault on Jerusalem that the events in chapter 17 took place.
The war between the anti-Assyrian coalition and Judah was to be a bitter one. In one battle, Pekah's army slew 120,000 men of Judah and took 200,000 captives in one day (see 2 Chronicles 28:6-15). It appeared that Judah would fall. Reports of enemy successes in the north caused Ahaz to fear greatly for the safety of Jerusalem.
As chapter 17 opens, Judah had already been attacked by the combined armies of Israel and Syria, but Ahaz's forces had been successful in repulsing the attack. Expecting further attacks and realizing that Jerusalem's most vulnerable strategic point of military assault was its water supply, Ahaz was out inspecting the city's water system.
Before beginning our study of chapter 17, it should be noted that the prophecy contained therein was literally fulfilled in the days of the prophet Isaiah. Nevertheless, it likely also has a direct application for us today. Assyria is a type and symbol of the warring nations that will exist in the latter days shortly before the Lord's second coming. The message we may take from this chapter is that if we trust in the Lord's words, as communicated to us by his prophets, rather than rely on the arm of flesh, we will be protected during the wars in the last days.
verses 1-2 In order to understand the various references to places in chapter 17, let us review the names by which the nations involved in this incident were called. A nation might be referred to by the name of its king, its capital city, or its predominant tribe:
Nation Judah Syria Israel
King Ahaz, of the house of David Rezin Pekah, son of Remaliah
Capital City Jerusalem Damascus Samaria
Predominant Tribe Judah Aram Ephraim
1 And it came to pass in the days of Ahaz the son of Jotham, the son of Uzziah, king of Judah, that Rezin, king of Syria, and Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel, went up toward Jerusalem to war against it, but could not prevail against it.
verse 1 "Ahaz the son of Jotham" Remember, that Jotham was a righteous king and was the son of Uzziah. Ahaz is also the father of Hezekiah who will turn out to be a righteous king of Judah.
"Pekah the son of Remaliah, king of Israel" In the Book of Mormon "Israel" is most often used in reference to all of the descendants of Jacob, especially in the phrase "house of Israel" and the titles of Deity such as "God of Israel" and "Holy One of Israel." In this verse, however, Isaiah uses the term Israel in referring to the descendants of Jacob in the northern kingdom as opposed to those in the southern kingdom of Judah (see also 2 Nephi 19:8; 2 Nephi 19:12; 2 Nephi 19:14; 2 Nephi 21:12).
"went up toward Jerusalem" Jerusalem, of course, is at higher elevation than the surrounding country side.
"but could not prevail against it" As stated in the introduction, as this chapter opens, there had already been a preliminary attack on Jerusalem which had been repelled.
2 And it was told the house of David, saying: Syria is confederate with Ephraim. And his heart was moved, and the heart of his people, as the trees of the wood are moved with the wind.
verse 2 The "house of David" refers to the kings of the Davidic dynasty in Judah including Ahaz. Ahaz and the people of Judah had heard of the initial successes of their enemy, and both Ahaz and his people were shaken and frightened ("his heart was moved, and the heart of his people") like trees of the forest are shaken by the wind.
"Confederate with" means united with or in league with.
3 Then said the Lord unto Isaiah: Go forth now to meet Ahaz, thou and Shearjashub thy son, at the end of the conduit of the upper pool in the highway of the fuller's field;
verse 3 Isaiah is instructed to take his son, Shear-jashub and meet with Ahaz. The name of Isaiah's son means "a remnant shall return." This boy was to become a living symbol to the Jews (2 Nephi 8:18) and a reminder to the Israelites that a remnant would return to their land and to their God (2 Nephi 6:11-13).
At the time of Isaiah's visit, Ahaz is inspecting the city's water supply to the east of the city. The only water source for Jerusalem was the Gihon Spring located just outside the city wall in the Kidron Valley. This external water supply made Jerusalem more vulnerable to attack since an enemy could cut off the water supply without having to enter the city. Since Ahaz would be deciding how to protect the water supply from the two invading forces, this would be an opportune time for Isaiah to deliver his message regarding how the city might be protected by the Lord.
Isaiah will find Ahaz at the end of the "conduit" which means canal, aqueduct, or tunnel. In this case it is likely the aqueduct or canal that carried water from a pool formed by the Gihon spring in the Kidron valley that borders the eastern side of ancient Jerusalem. This pool was on the road to the fuller's field. A "fuller" is a launderer, one who cleans, shrinks, and bleaches newly shorn wool and newly woven cloth before it is used in making garments. Perhaps he also cleaned the finished clothing. Thus, the fuller located his plant near a water supply. Also a field was used in which the material was sun bleached. Because of its unpleasant odors, the fuller's plant was located outside the city walls. This particular fuller's field is thought to have been located at the confluence of the Hinnom and Kidron valleys to the south of Jerusalem.
In biblical times the concept of the fuller's cleansing is used metaphorically in referring to persons who are cleansed of evil (Psalm 51:7; Jeremiah 2:22; Jeremiah 4:14). The messenger of the Lord is a "refiner" or "fuller" (Malachi 3:2). The garments of the transfigured Christ are whiter than any fuller could make them (Mark 9:3; Matthew 17:2).
4 And say unto him: Take heed, and be quiet; fear not, neither be faint-hearted for the two tails of these smoking firebrands, for the fierce anger of Rezin with Syria, and of the son of Remaliah.
verse 4 Isaiah is instructed to say to Ahaz, "take heed" (be careful, watch for danger), "be quiet" (keep calm), and "fear not, neither be faint-hearted" (don't be afraid).
Webster's 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language defines firebrand as, "An incendiary; one who inflames factions, or causes contention and mischief." The two angry kings of Israel and Syria are likened to "two tails of these smoking firebrands." The other meaning of the word firebrand is the smoldering remains of a piece of wood or a torch that has been burned. When it has served its purpose and burned out, it becomes nothing but a "smoking firebrand" with tails of smoke rising from its spent ashes. The implication is that while these kings were once burning fires with the power to consume (firebrands), the days of their power are numbered. They are now merely "two tails of . . . smoking firebrands." They had been or would soon be spent, and they were no longer to be feared. In other words don't lose heart because of the smoke of these two burned out kings. Also don't be frightened by the anger of Rezin and Pekah. Note the scorn Isaiah evidences as he refers to Pekah. Isaiah refers to him as "the son of Remaliah" rather than calling him by name.
Isaiah is commanded to say to Ahaz, in effect, "Don't be afraid of ("for") these two burned out kings. Also don't be afraid of ("for") the anger of Rezin of ("with") Syria and Pekah.
5 Because Syria, Ephraim, and the son of Remaliah, have taken evil counsel against thee, saying:
verse 5 Because Syria, Israel, and Israel's leader Pekah have plotted your ruin, saying:
6 Let us go up against Judah and vex it, and let us make a breach therein for us, and set a king in the midst of it, yea, the son of Tabeal.
verse 6 To "vex" is to disturb, and to "breach" is to make a hole by continual attacks. Let us invade Judah, terrorize it, tear it apart, and divide it among ourselves. We will make Tabeal's son king over Judah.
Tabeal or Tabeel was apparently a Syrian whose son would function as a puppet king over Judah while it was controlled by Israel and Syria. Tabeel's son apparently fought with the armies of Israel and Syria.
verses 7-9 The divine pronouncement in these verses contains five segments-three prophetic and two historical. The combination of history and prophecy is characteristic of Isaiah's writings.
The three prophetic segments are: (1) The alliance's goals will not come to pass. (2) Within sixty-five years, Ephraim (Israel) will be scattered. (3) If you (Ahaz and Judah) do not believe, you will not be protected.
The fulfillment of the first prophecy came to pass because Tiglath-Pileser III (Pul) attacked Syria and Israel in 732 BC, distracting these two countries from their assault on Judah. The second prophecy began to be fulfilled between 732 and 722 BC (within twelve or thirteen years of the time the prophecies were made) when Assyria besieged Samaria, and Samaria fell. After the Israelite captives were taken from Samaria to Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria, large groups of Israelites fled from Assyria to the remote areas northward and became the ten lost tribes of Israel. Within about fifty years of their leaving Assyria, they were scattered so widely that many tribes no longer existed as cohesive groups. Therein was Isaiah's prophecy to Israel fulfilled and just within the prescribed time table. The third prophecy or warning was not heeded by Ahaz. Rather than rely on the Lord, Ahaz relied upon the Assyrians for deliverance. Consequently Judah found herself paying tribute to Assyria to avoid annihilation.
The two historical segments are merely statements of historical fact that are self explanatory: (1) For the head (center or capital) of Syria is Damascus, and the head (king) of Damascus is Rezin. (2) For the head (center) of Ephraim (Israel) is Samaria, and the head (leader) of Samaria is Remaliah's son (Pekah).
7 Thus saith the Lord God: It shall not stand, neither shall it come to pass.
verse 7 "Thus saith the Lord" This phrase is found some forty-six times in the writings of Isaiah and introduces prophetic language-prophecy. Its purpose is to announce both the divine authority and the origin of the revelation (Isaiah in the Book of Mormon, edited by Donald W. Parry and John W. Welch, a FARMS publication, "Nephi's Keys to Understanding Isaiah," Donald W. Parry, 54).
Now, the prophetic message of comfort is delivered to Ahaz and Judah: The feared destruction of Jerusalem will not take place, it will not happen.
In subsequent verses, Isaiah will pronounce a fate upon Israel that Israel sought to impose upon Judah-a destruction and scattering.
8 For the head of Syria is Damascus, and the head of Damascus, Rezin; and within three score and five years shall Ephraim be broken that it be not a people.
9 And the head of Ephraim is Samaria, and the head of Samaria is Remaliah's son. If ye will not believe surely ye shall not be established.
10 Moreover, the Lord spake again unto Ahaz, saying:
11 Ask thee a sign of the Lord thy God; ask it either in the depths, or in the heights above.
verses 10-11 In order to prove the authenticity of his words, Isaiah invites, even commands Ahaz in the name of the Lord to ask for a sign. Not just any sign but a spectacular sign ("either in the depths, or in the heights above"). This situation is obviously somewhat unique and different from the setting in which divine signs are usually given to mortals. Ordinarily signs are not given to the wicked but only to the righteous (see D&C 63:9). The Savior's once said of signs, "an evil and adulterous generation seeketh after a sign" (Matthew 12:39). Ahaz was not deserving, but for the sake of the Lord's chosen people he was offered a sign.
12 But Ahaz said: I will not ask, neither will I tempt the Lord.
verse 12 To "tempt" is to test or to try. Ahaz refused to ask for a sign even when the prophet of the Lord gave him the opportunity. This verse makes Ahaz's refusal sound almost virtuous-he refused to put the Lord to a test. However, it is probable that Ahaz refused to ask for a sign because he had no confidence in the Lord. He was more inclined to place his trust in the military protection of the king of Assyria. Ahaz quotes Deuteronomy 6:16 ("Ye shall not tempt the Lord your God.") in order to justify his act of refusing the proffered sign. The irony of quoting a scripture out of context in refusing to follow the prophet of the Lord further evidences his disbelief.
13 And he said: Hear ye now, O house of David; is it a small thing for you to weary men, but will ye weary my God also?
verse 13 Isaiah is speaking. Again, addressing Ahaz as "house of David," Isaiah expresses his exasperation at Ahaz's intransigence. To "weary" is to wear out. The word is used to indicate that someone has had enough of an opponent's argument. "It is one thing for you to frustrate me, but will you frustrate the Lord as well"?
verses 14-25 These verses contain the best known and most quoted prophecy in all of the Isaiah's writings, the Immanuel Prophecy. Simply stated, as a sign to Ahaz and the people of Judah, Isaiah prophesies the birth of a male infant to a virgin who will name the child "Immanuel." The Hebrew appellation Immanuel literally means "with us [is] God," clearly foreshadowing the coming of God himself into the world (Matthew 1:21-23). Actually the Immanuel Prophecy consists of three parts or segments, each a "sub-prophecy" in its own right. Each segment is contained in a separate verse (verses 14, 15, and 16). Verse 14 contains the prophecy that the infant will be born, verses 15 and 16 prophesy more about the child Immanuel.
One might assume, as many have, that Isaiah's prophecy refers to the virgin birth of Jesus Christ in the meridian of time. Secular biblical scholars, however, have objected to this interpretation, claiming that such a sign-the miraculous birth of a Messiah more than seven centuries later could hardly have served as a sign to Ahaz or to Ahaz's Judah. We will consider this question further in the next verse.
14 Therefore, the Lord himself shall give you a sign-Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and shall bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.
verse 14 Here is the important first segment of the Immanuel Prophecy. An interesting question, then, is whether the Immanuel Prophecy is a Messianic prophecy-a prophecy of the future birth of Jesus Christ-or a prophecy having to do with a male child to be born in the days of Isaiah. It seems most likely that the prophecy will find application in both time periods. An interesting ancillary question is: What meaning did Isaiah himself intend or understand for this prophecy? Did he know of the virgin birth of the Lord, or did he have in mind only a contemporaneous application? Again, Isaiah was an inspired prophet of God and surely knew of the future birth and ministry of the Savior (Jacob 4:4; 3 Nephi 23:1-3).
To reiterate the question, then: Is the Immanuel Prophecy a Messianic prophecy, or was its fulfillment to occur in the eighth century BC, or is it both? Let us explore the scriptural and "reasonable" evidences.
Let us first consider the evidences supporting the idea that the sign was to occur in Isaiah's day.
1. A careful reading of verses 13 and 14 certainly leaves the impression that Isaiah intended for the sign to be witnessed by his contemporaries in Judah. Ahaz and his people needed to develop faith in the fact that the Lord could deliver them from Pekah and Rezin. The sign seems to have been intended to engender that faith.
2. Some maintain that the Hebrew word almah which is translated "virgin" in the King James Bible is actually more correctly translated "young woman of marriageable age." And, if Isaiah had intended to make clear the idea of a miraculous virgin birth, he would have used the more specific Hebrew term bethulah which means "virgin." The biblical scholars that have raised this objection do concede however, that the "young woman of marriageable age" might be a virgin. Others contend that the Hebrew almah does indeed mean "virgin."
3. Isaiah promised the sign when Jerusalem was being threatened by the Syro-Ephraimite coalition. The Immanuel Prophecy goes on to promise that before the child Immanuel is old enough to know good from evil, the threat will be removed (verse 16).
As to what particular event, or which particular child in Isaiah's time might have fulfilled this prophecy, only speculations can be made. It has been suggested that Isaiah's second son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz might have been intended. This suggestion would depend upon a rather contrived set of circumstances including the fact that the wife would have to be a second wife (actually an anticipated second wife) of Isaiah's, since Isaiah already has a son, and therefore his wife was not a virgin. Or, perhaps Isaiah's wife was "virgin" in the sense that she was pure and undefiled by the world. This son would also have to have a second name-Immanuel. Some scholars see this as a reference to the birth of Hezekiah, son of Ahaz, who will become a righteous king of Judah.
Perhaps the prophecy refers to a child of a specifically designated woman. The Hebrew article rendered "a" virgin in verse 14 is actually more correctly translated "the" virgin. But who might this woman be?
Perhaps no specific child was implied. Possibly a number of children named Immanuel were intended. Could it be that because of the rapid dissipation of the Syro-Ephraimite threat, women who were then pregnant would, in gratitude, name their children "God is with us," or "Immanuel."
Now let us turn to those evidences which suggest that the Immanuel Prophecy is in fact a Messianic prophecy that foretells the birth of our Lord.
1. In New Testament times, Matthew referred to Isaiah's prophecy in trying to convince the Jews of Matthew's day that Jesus was in fact born in a miraculous way and was in fact the Messiah. Referring to Mary, Matthew wrote: "And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us" (Matthew 1:21-23). Some of the critical Bible scholars suggest that Matthew was overzealous and misguided in doing so and shouldn't have used this Isaiah passage. They point out that Matthew would have used for his Old Testament source the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament writings which used the word "virgin" rather than the earlier Hebrew manuscripts which might have simply implied "young woman." However, Elder Hugh B. Brown considered Matthew's quoting of Isaiah 7:14 an evidence that Isaiah was prophesying of the Savior's birth (CR, October 1960, 93). Elder Mark E. Petersen agreed (CR, October 1965, 60). Actually many general authorities in this dispensation have expressed their belief that the Immanuel Prophecy applies to the Savior's birth.
2. Other Old Testament and Book of Mormon prophets have also testified of the birth of the Savior (see Jacob 4:4, Luke 24:27; Luke 24:44), and so it should not be surprising for Isaiah to do so. For example, Nephi had a vision of a beautiful virgin, exceedingly fair, who was carried away in the Spirit and who returned bearing the Son of God in her arms (1 Nephi 11:13-21). King Benjamin prophesied specifically about Jesus's birth (Mosiah 3:8). Alma prophesied that a virgin in the land of Jerusalem was to be the mother of the Son of God (Alma 7:10).
3. Verse 13 implies that the sign was intended for the house of David or Judah ("Hear ye now, O house of David"). God had promised David that "thy kingdom shall be established forever" (2 Samuel 7:16). The "King of Kings" was to come through Judah and David's lineage (Genesis 49:10). The Immanuel Prophecy, then, might be regarded simply as a reminder of this promise to Judah and David and a declaration of how the Lord would bring about its fulfillment in spite of a wicked king or a wicked generation.
15 Butter and honey shall he eat, that he may know to refuse the evil and to choose the good.
verse 15 This is the second segment of the Immanuel Prophecy. The child Immanuel will eat "butter" or curds and "honey"-in other words the food of poverty, the fare of the common man. Curds were prepared by pressing the churning fresh milk in a goatskin. The symbolic meaning here is that he will experience the hardships, temptations, and vicissitudes of mortality and thus learn first hand the differences between good and evil. Remember that only Jesus Christ learned perfectly the differences between good and evil and thus lived a sinless life.
16 For before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land that thou abhorrest shall be forsaken of both her kings.
verse 16 This is the third segment. Before the child Immanuel is old enough to know right from wrong, the land of the two kings that are threatening Judah will be laid waste. If we assume that the Immanuel Prophecy applies only to the birth and childhood of Jesus, then it is difficult to explain this verse. The verse seems to indicate that the birth of the child Immanuel was a sign to the Judah of Isaiah's day, and before the child is old enough to know the difference between good and evil, the current threat from the Kingdoms of Israel and Syria will have passed. Those who contend that Isaiah intended that his own wife might be the contemporaneous fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy find support in Isaiah 8:3-4 (2 Nephi 18:3-4). Isaiah's son Maher-shal-hash-baz was still under the age of eight when both Syria and Israel fell to Assyria.
In a rather imaginative, if somewhat contrived, explanation of how this verse might still apply only to Jesus's birth, Brother Monte S. Nyman in his book Great Are the Words of Isaiah wrote:
Most of the critics have assumed that the child spoken of in verse 16 is the same child spoken of in verses 14 and 15. Could not the child in verse 16 be just any child? A child is accountable at age eight in the eyes of the Lord (see D&C 68:25). In his first eight years he is to learn to distinguish between good and evil. Therefore, Isaiah could be prophesying that the kings of Syria and Ephraim [Israel] are both going to be forsaken of their kings in less than eight years (58).Most of the critics have assumed that the child spoken of in verse 16 is the same child spoken of in verses 14 and 15. Could not the child in verse 16 be just any child? A child is accountable at age eight in the eyes of the Lord (see D&C 68:25). In his first eight years he is to learn to distinguish between good and evil. Therefore, Isaiah could be prophesying that the kings of Syria and Ephraim [Israel] are both going to be forsaken of their kings in less than eight years (58).
Pekah, king of Samaria, was killed about three years after Ahaz became king. Rezin, the king of Syria, was killed by the Assyrians in response to Ahaz's plea for help. Thus, this third segment of the Immanuel Prophecy was fulfilled within three years of the time it was delivered.
The question of the proper application of the Immanuel Prophecy is still an open one, and each student must decide for himself. What did Isaiah understand, and what did the Lord intend in inspiring Isaiah to write this prophecy? It seems likely that Isaiah intended at least in part that the sign would be given to Ahaz and the Judah of the eighth century BC. Whether or not Isaiah understood or intended another application is unknown. Could it be that Isaiah understood that the sign would apply to the people of his day, and yet the Lord would properly have us interpret Isaiah's writings as a prophecy of his own miraculous birth? Perhaps so.
17 The Lord shall bring upon thee, and upon thy people, and upon thy father's house, days that have not come from the day that Ephraim departed from Judah, the king of Assyria.
verse 17 After prophesying to Ahaz that trusting in the Lord would result in deliverance from Syria and Israel, Isaiah then prophesies of the dangers of inviting Assyria to come to Judah's aid. Isaiah knew that Ahaz was inclined toward requesting Assyria's help in the conflict, and he issues a stern warning against such action.
In this verse, which is constructed somewhat awkwardly, Isaiah warns Ahaz that if he does enlist Assyria's help, he will bring upon Judah a situation even worse than that which occurred at the time of the rebellion of the ten tribes under the leadership of Jeroboam in 931 BC., and the problems will be caused by Assyria. The Lord will use the king of Assyria and his armies to punish King Ahaz, his family ("upon thy father's house"), and his kingdom ("upon thy people").
18 And it shall come to pass in that day that the Lord shall hiss for the fly that is in the uttermost part of Egypt, and for the bee that is in the land of Assyria.
verse 18 "in that day" This is a phrase used by Isaiah which often seems to pertain to our day (see also verses 20, 21, 23), though certainly it also has application to Isaiah's day.
"the Lord shall hiss for the fly . . . and for the bee" The Lord shall whistle for, or call for a tormentor. The fly was, and still is, notorious in Egypt, and the honeybee was apparently notorious in Assyria-possibly a type of killer bee? It has been suggested that the reference to the fly might be symbolic of the swarming nature of invading Egyptian armies. The nation of Egypt was seeking resurgence during Isaiah's time.
It seems clear that the Assyrian armies, and their stinging nature, are here referred to as "bees." Bee-keeping was common in Assyria. The Lord shall signal or prompt the Assyrian armies to come down on Judah. The Lord's whistling to the bees is a symbol built on an actual ancient practice, for Cyrillus of Alexandria (ca. AD 400) wrote about beekeepers who whistled to bees to get them to return to their hives (Watts, John D. W. Isaiah 1-33, [Waco, Texas: Word Books, 1985], 107).
Some have tried to suggest that the flies represent the armies of Egypt. This seems unlikely, however, since the invasion by the latter never really occurred.
19 And they shall come, and shall rest all of them in the desolate valleys, and in the holes of the rocks, and upon all thorns, and upon all bushes.
verse 19 Just as the bee and the fly are able to penetrate every area of the valleys, rocks, thorns, and bushes, so too would the Assyrian soldiers penetrate every area of the kingdom of Judah. No part of the land will be free of enemy occupation.
20 In the same day shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired, by them beyond the river, by the king of Assyria, the head, and the hair of the feet; and it shall also consume the beard.
verse 20 After Isaiah prophesied to Ahaz, Ahaz summarily rejected Isaiah's words. Ahaz then went straight to the temple, stripped off all its precious ornaments, and sent them to the king of Assyria as a bribe to induce him to immediately attack Syria and Israel before they attacked Judah.
"shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired" A hired foreign mercenary will destroy the people. Isaiah continued prophesying: The "hired gun" (or in this case the "hired razor"), Assyria, will one day turn on him who hired it. Verse 20 is more smoothly translated: "In that day the Lord will use a razor hired from beyond the river [Euphrates]-the king of Assyria-to shave your head and the hair of your legs, and to take off your beards also" (NIV). The shaving of the head, feet, and face symbolizes the complete conquest of the people and the land.
The Assyrians cut off all the hair from their captives for three reasons: humiliation, sanitation (especially while traveling under crude conditions to Assyria), and separation. If any slaves escaped while being moved from their home land, they could not blend in with other peoples since their hairless state would betray them. Thus they could be quickly recaptured.
It is interesting to note that Isaiah occasionally, as in this verse, uses the metaphor of sea and river to denote an evil power. This may have originated in ancient Near Eastern mythology wherein the terms sea and river denote the evil powers which the god Baal must overcome before he assumes the throne of El, the father god. A few other passages in Isaiah associate the arch tyrant with sea or river (see also 2 Nephi 15:30; 2 Nephi 15:18:7).
21 And it shall come to pass in that day, a man shall nourish a young cow and two sheep;
22 And it shall come to pass, for the abundance of milk they shall give he shall eat butter; for butter and honey shall every one eat that is left in the land.
verses 21-22 People will retain only a fraction of their original herds and flocks, yet the population will be so decimated that even this limited livestock will provide ample milk and curds. Verse 22 is more clearly rendered: "And because of the abundance of the milk they give, he will have curds to eat. All who remain in the land will eat curds and honey" (NIV).
23 And it shall come to pass in that day, every place shall be, where there were a thousand vines at a thousand silverlings, which shall be for briers and thorns.
verse 23 The abundance of honey in the land doubtless results from the large land areas that are left uncultivated and turn to wild flowers, weeds, and other blossom-producing plants. The once valuable and carefully cultivated lands (planted with a thousand vines) will turn to briers and thorns. "Silverlings" are small pieces of silver. The expression "at a thousand silverlings" means worth a thousand silver shekels-very valuable.
24 With arrows and with bows shall men come thither, because all the land shall become briers and thorns.
verse 24 The land will be overrun with "briers and thorns" (a metaphor for desolation), and only hunters will use the land.
25 And all hills that shall be digged with the mattock, there shall not come thither the fear of briers and thorns; but it shall be for the sending forth of oxen, and the treading of lesser cattle.
verse 25 A modern translation is clearer: "As for all the hills once cultivated by the hoe [mattock], you will no longer go there for fear of the briers and thorns; they will become places where cattle are turned loose and where sheep run" (NIV).