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The Abasement and Distress of Zion; Birth of the Messiah Predicted; The Glory of Messiah. (b. c. 720.)
1 Now gather thyself in troops, O daughter of troops: he hath laid siege against us: they shall smite the judge of Israel with a rod upon the cheek. 2 But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting. 3 Therefore will he give them up, until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth: then the remnant of his brethren shall return unto the children of Israel. 4 And he shall stand and feed in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God; and they shall abide: for now shall he be great unto the ends of the earth. 5 And this man shall be the peace, when the Assyrian shall come into our land: and when he shall tread in our palaces, then shall we raise against him seven shepherds, and eight principal men. 6 And they shall waste the land of Assyria with the sword, and the land of Nimrod in the entrances thereof: thus shall he deliver us from the Assyrian, when he cometh into our land, and when he treadeth within our borders.
Here, as before, we have,
I. The abasement and distress of Zion, v. 1. The Jewish nation, for many years before the captivity, dwindled, and fell into disgrace: Now gather thyself in troops, O daughter of troops! It is either a summons to Zion's enemies, that had troops at their service, to come and do their worst against her (God will suffer them to do it), or a challenge to Zion's friends, that had troops too at command, to come and do their best for her; Let them gather in troops, yet it shall be to no purpose; for, says the prophet, in the name of the inhabitants of Jerusalem, He has laid siege against us; the king of Assyria has, the king of Babylon has, and we know not which way to defend ourselves; so that the enemies shall gain their point, and prevail so far as to smite the judge of Israel—the king, the chief justice, and the other inferior judges—with a rod upon the cheek, in contempt of them and their dignity; having made them prisoners, they shall use them as shamefully as any of the common captives. Complaint had been made of the judges of Israel (ch. iii. 11) that they were corrupt and took bribes, and this disgrace came justly upon them for abusing their power; yet it was a great calamity to Israel to have their judges treated thus ignominiously. Some make this the reason why the troops (that is, the Roman army) shall lay siege to Jerusalem, because the Jews shall smite the judge of Israel upon the cheek, because of the indignities they shall do to the Messiah, the Judge of Israel, whom they smote on the cheek, saying, Prophesy, who smote thee. But the former sense seems more probable, and that it is meant of the besieging of Jerusalem, not by the Romans, but the Chaldeans, and was fulfilled in the indignities done to king Zedekiah and the princes of the house of David.
II. The advancement of Zion's King. Having shown how low the house of David should be brought, and how vilely the shield of that mighty family should be cast away, as though it had not been anointed with oil, to encourage the faith of God's people, who might be tempted now to think that his covenant with David and his house was abrogated (according to the psalmist's complaint, Ps. lxxxix. 38, 39), he adds an illustrious prediction of the Messiah and his kingdom, in whom that covenant should be established, and the honours of that house should be revived, advanced, and perpetuated. Now let us see,
1. How the Messiah is here described. It is he that is to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting, from the days of eternity, as the word is. Here we have, (1.) His existence from eternity, as God: his goings forth, or emanations, as the going forth of the beams from the sun, were, or have been, of old, from everlasting, which (says Dr. Pocock) is so signal a description of Christ's eternal generation, or his going forth as the Son of God, begotten of his Father before all worlds, that this prophecy must belong only to him, and could never be verified of any other. It certainly speaks of a going forth that was now past, when the prophet spoke, and cannot but be read, as we read it, his outgoings have been; and the putting of both these words together, which severally are used to denote eternity, plainly shows that they must here be taken in the strictest sense (the same with Ps. xc. 2, From everlasting to everlasting thou are God), and can be applied to no other than to him who was able to say, Before Abraham was, I am, John viii. 58. Dr. Pocock observes that the going forth is used (Deut. viii. 3) for a word which proceeds out of the mouth, and is therefore very fitly used to signify the eternal generation of him who is called the Word of God, that was in the beginning with God, John i. 1, 2. (2.) His office as Mediator; he was to be ruler in Israel, king of his church; he was to reign over the house of Jacob for ever, Luke i. 32, 33. The Jews object that our Lord Jesus could not be the Messiah, for he was so far from being ruler in Israel that Israel ruled over him, and put him to death, and would not have him to reign over them; but he answered that himself when he said, My kingdom is not of this world, John xviii. 36. And it is a spiritual Israel that he reigns over, the children of promise, all the followers of believing Abraham and praying Jacob. In the hearts of these he reigns by his Spirit and grace, and in the society of these by his word and ordinances. And was not he ruler in Israel whom winds and seas obeyed, to whom legions of devils were forced to submit, and who commanded away diseases from the sick and called the dead out of their graves? None but he whose goings forth were from of old, from everlasting, was fit to be ruler in Israel, to be head of the church, and head over all things to the church.
2. What is here foretold concerning him.
(1.) That Bethlehem should be the place of his nativity, v. 2. This was the scripture which the scribes went upon when with the greatest assurance they told Herod where Christ should be born (Matt. ii. 6), and hence it was universally known among the Jews that Christ should come out of the town of Bethlehem where David was, John vii. 42. Beth-lehem signifies the house of bread, the fittest place for him to be born in who is the bread of life. And, because it was the city of David, by a special providence it was ordered that he should be born there who was to be the Son of David, and his heir and successor for ever. It is called Bethlehem-Ephratah, both names of the same city, as appears Gen. xxxv. 19. It was little among the thousands of Judah, not considerable either for the number of the inhabitants or the figure they made; it had nothing in it worthy to have this honour put upon it; but God in that, as in other instances, chose to exalt those of low degree, Luke i. 52. Christ would give honour to the place of his birth, and not derive honour from it: Though thou be little, yet this shall make thee great, and, as St. Matthew reads it, Thou art not the least among the princes of Judah, but upon this account art really honourable above any of them. A relation to Christ will magnify those that are little in the world.
(2.) That in the fulness of time he should be born of a woman (v. 3): Therefore will he give them up; he will give up his people Israel to distress and trouble, and will defer their salvation, which has been so long promised and expected, until the time, the set time, that she who travails has brought forth, or (as it should be read) that she who shall bring forth shall have brought forth, that the blessed virgin, who was to be the mother of the Messiah, shall have brought him forth at Bethlehem, the place appointed. This Dr. Pocock thinks to be the most genuine sense of the words. Though the out-goings of the Messiah were from everlasting, yet the redemption in Jerusalem, the consolation of Israel, must be waited for (Luke ii. 25-38) until the time that she who should bring forth (so the virgin Mary is called, as Christ is himself called, He that shall come) shall bring forth; and in the mean time he will give them up. Divine salvations must be waited for until the time fixed for the bringing of them forth.
(3.) That the remnant of his brethren shall then return to the children of Israel. The remnant of the Jewish nation shall return to the spirit of the true genuine children of Israel, a people in covenant with God; the hearts of the children shall be turned to the fathers, Mal. iv. 6. Some understand it of all believers, Gentiles as well as Jews; they shall all be incorporated into the commonwealth of Israel; and, as they are all brethren to one another, so he is not ashamed to call them brethren, Heb. ii. 11.
(4.) That he shall be a glorious prince, and his subjects shall be happy under his government (v. 4): He shall stand and feed, that is, he shall both teach and rule, and continue to do so, as a good shepherd, with wisdom, and care, and love. So it was foretold. He shall feed his flock like a shepherd, shall provide green pastures for them, and under-shepherds to lead them into these pastures. He is the good shepherd that goes before the sheep, and presides among them. He shall do this, not as an ordinary man, but in the strength of the Lord, as one clothed with a divine power to go through his work, and break through the difficulties in his way, so as not to fail, or be discouraged; he shall do it in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God, so as plainly to evidence that God's name was in him (Exod. xxiii. 21) the majesty of his name, for he taught as one having authority and not as the scribes. The prophets prefaced their messages with, Thus saith the Lord; but Christ spoke, not as a servant, but as a Son—Verily, verily, I say unto you. This was feeding in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. All power was given him in heaven and in earth, a power over all flesh, by virtue of which he still rules in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God, a name above every name. Christ's government shall be, [1.] Very happy for his subjects, for they shall abide; they shall be safe and easy, and continue so for ever. Because he lives, they shall live also. They shall lie down in the green pastures to which he shall lead them, shall abide in God's tabernacle for ever, Ps. lxi. 4. His church shall abide, and he in it, and with it, always, even to the end of the world. [2.] It shall be very glorious to himself: Now shall he be great to the ends of the earth. Now that he stands and feeds his flock, now shall he be great. For Christ reckons it his greatness to do good. Now he shall be great to the ends of the earth, for the uttermost parts of the earth shall be given him for his possession, and the ends of the world shall see his salvation.
(5) That he shall secure the peace and welfare of his church and people against all the attempts of his and their enemies (v. 5, 6): This man, as king and ruler, shall be the peace when the Assyrians shall come into our land. This refers to the deliverance of Hezekiah and his kingdom from the power of Sennacherib, who invaded them, in the type; but, under the shadow of that, it is a promise of the safety of the gospel-church and of all believers from the designs and attempts of the powers of darkness, Satan and all his instruments, the dragon and his angels, that seek to devour the church of the first-born and all that belong to it. Observe, [1.] The peril and danger which Christ's subjects are supposed to be in. The Assyrian, a potent enemy, comes into their land (v. 5, 6), treads within their borders, nay, prevails so far as to tread in their palaces; it was a time of treading down and of perplexity when Sennacherib made a descent upon Judah, took all the defenced cities, and laid siege to Jerusalem, Isa. xxxvi. 1; xxxvii. 3. This represented the gates of hell fighting against the kingdom of Christ, encompassing the camp of the saints and of the holy city, and threatening to bear down all before them. When the terrors of the law set themselves in array against a convinced soul, when the temptations of Satan assault the people of God, and the troubles of the world threaten to rob them of all their comforts, then the Assyrian comes into their land and treads in their palaces. Without are fightings, within are fears. [2.] The protection and defence which his subjects are then sure to be under. First, Christ will himself be their peace. When the Assyrian comes with such a force into a land, can there be any other peace than a tame submission and an unresisted desolation? Yes, even then the church's King will be the conservator of the church's peace, will be for a hiding-place, Isa. xxxii. 1, 2. Christ is our peace as a priest, making atonement for sin, and reconciling us to God; and he is our peace as a king, conquering our enemies and commanding down disquieting fears and passions; he creates the fruit of the lips, peace. Even when the Assyrian comes into the land, when we are in the greatest distress and danger and have received a sentence of death within ourselves, yet this man may be the peace. In me, says Christ, you shall have peace, when in the world you have tribulation; at such a time our souls may dwell at ease in him. Secondly, He will find out proper instruments to be employed for their protection and deliverance, and the defeat of their enemies: Then shall we raise against him seven shepherds and eight principal men, that is, a competent number of persons, proper to oppose the enemy, and make head against him, and protect the church of God in peace, men that shall have the care and tenderness of shepherds and the courage and authority of principal men, or princes of men. Seven and eight are a certain number for an uncertain. Note, When God has work to do he will not want fitting instruments to do it with; and when he pleases he can do it by a few; he needs not raise thousands, but seven or eight principal men may serve the turn if God be with them. Magistrates and ministers are shepherds and principal men, raised in defence of religion's righteous cause against the powers of sin and Satan in the world. Thirdly, The opposition given to the church shall be got over, and the opposers brought down. This is represented by the laying of Assyria and Chaldea waste, which two nations were the most formidable enemies to the Israel of God of any, and the destruction of them signified the making of Christ's enemies his footstool: They shall waste the land of Assyria with the sword, and the land of Nimrod in the entrances thereof; they shall make inroads upon the land, and put to the sword all that they find in arms. Note, Those that threaten ruin to the church of God hasten ruin to themselves; and their destruction is the church's salvation: Thus shall he deliver us from the Assyrian. When Satan fell as lightning from heaven before the preaching of the gospel, and Christ's enemies, that would not have him to reign over them, were slain before him, then this was fulfilled.