(1) Leviathan the piercing serpent.—Rather, fleet, or fugitive. The verse paints in vivid symbolic language the judgment of Jehovah on the great world-powers that had shed the blood of His people. The “sword of the Lord” (primarily, perhaps, representing the lightning-flash) is turned in its threefold character as sore, and swift, and strong, against three great empires. These are represented, as in Ezekiel 17:3; Ezekiel 29:3 Daniel 7:3-7, by monstrous forms of animal life. The “dragon” is as in Isaiah 51:19; Psalm 74:13-14; Ezekiel 29:3; Ezekiel 32:2, the standing emblem of Egypt: the other two, so generically like, that the “leviathan” (“crocodile” in Job 41:1, but here, probably, generically for a monster of the serpent type) serves as a common type for both, while each has its distinctive epithet, may refer respectively to Assyria and Babylon, the epithets indicating (1) the rapid rush of the Tigris and the tortuous windings of the Euphrates; and (2) the policy characteristic of each empire, of which the rivers were looked upon as symbols, one rapidly aggressive, the other advancing as by a sinuous deceit. By some commentators, however, Egypt is represented in all three clauses; while others (Cheyne) see in them the symbols not of earthly empire, but of rebel powers of evil and darkness, quoting Job 26:12-13 in support of his view.
When it shooteth forth, thou wilt debate With it.—Better, When thou didst put her away, thou didst plead with her. The prophet falls back upon the thought of Hosea 1-3, that Israel was the adulterous wife to whom Jehovah had given, as it were, a bill of divorcement, but against whom He did not carry the pleadings to the furthest point that the rigour of the law allowed. Comp. for this meaning Isaiah 1:1; Deuteronomy 24:1; Malachi 2:16.
He stayeth his rough wind . . .—The words have become familiar, as expressing the loving-kindness which will not heap chastisement on chastisement, lest a man should be swallowed up of overmuch sorrow, which keeps the “rough wind” from completing the devastation already wrought by the scorching “east wind.” That rendering, however, can scarcely be maintained. The word translated “stay” is found elsewhere in Proverbs 25:4-5, and there has the sense of “separating,” or “sifting.” And this is its sense here also, the thought expressed asserting, though in another form than the traditional rendering, the compassion of Jehovah, in that He sifts with his rough wind in the day of east wind; though punishment come on punishment, it is reformatory, and not simply penal, to sift, and not to destroy. A rendering accepted by some critics gives, He sigheth with His rough wind, as though with a sorrowing pity mingled with the chastisement.
This is all the fruit to take away his sin.—Better, of taking away his sin. The words repeat the thought of the previous clause. The fruit of repentance and forgiveness will be found in rooting out all vestiges of idol-worship. The LXX., “when I shall take away their sins,” is quoted by St. Paul in Romans 11:27.
The groves and images.—Literally, as elsewhere, the Asherahs, or the sun-images, the two leading features of the cultus which Israel had borrowed from the Phœnicians. In the action of Josiah (2 Chronicles 34:3-4) we may, with little doubt, trace a conscious endeavour to fulfil the condition which Isaiah had thus proclaimed. He sought to “purge” Judah and Jerusalem from the “groves and the carved (sun) images, and molten images.”
For it is a people of no understanding.—The words are generic enough, and may be applied, like similar words in Isaiah 1:3; Jeremiah 8:7; Deuteronomy 32:28, to Israel as apostate, or to the world-power, which was the enemy of Israel. In this case, as we have seen, the context turns the scale in favour of the latter reference. So taken, the words are suggestive, as witnessing to the prophet’s belief that the God of Israel was also the Maker and the Former of the nations of the heathen world.
The channel, or flood of the river, is the Euphrates.
The stream of Egypt.—As in Genesis 15:18, 1 Kings 8:65, not the Nile, but the river which divides Palestine from Egypt, known by the Greeks as Rhinocolura, and now the Wady-el-’Arish.