Hebrew schoolchildren were taught the yearly “round” of feasts (Is. 29:1) at an early age. But the Lord is never impressed by insincere religious observances.
The sieve of destruction. Farmers used two different kinds of sieves when working in the fields. The larger sieve was used to sift out big rocks and stones from the fields. A smaller one was used to sift out smaller particles from the grain being harvested. This smaller sieve is the one mentioned in Is. 30:28; the Lord is separating those who are his people (the grain) from those who are not.
Watchtowers (Is. 32:14) sometimes served as signal beacons when an invading force was approaching. By lighting small fires at the tops of the towers, watchmen could signal other towns that danger was near.
“He who counted” (Is. 33:18) refers to tax collectors. If people couldn’t pay their taxes, their property might be seized or they might become forced laborers. If the official failed to collect all the taxes due, he himself was punished.
To eat of your own vine and fig tree was a traditional blessing found in both the historical and prophetic books of Israel (36:16; 1 Kings 4:25). It was a reward for trusting in the Lord. On the other hand, to lose those precious resources was a sign of God’s disfavor (Jer. 5:17).
Cut off from the loom. Weaving on a loom involves warp threads, which are attached to the top and bottom of the loom, and weft threads, which are woven through the warp. When the weaver finishes a piece, he cuts the warp threads from the loom. When Hezekiah was ill, he felt as if he had been cut off from the loom of God’s presence (Is. 38:12).
The highways of the ancient Near East were not paved like many modern highways around the world today. Rather, they were maintained by the people living along the roads. They did their best to keep the roads level and free of obstacles (see Is. 40:3).
The craftsmen and goldsmiths mentioned in Is. 41:7 were fashioning idols. The craftsman would begin by making a mold from an existing image. He would then cast the new image in metal. The goldsmith would then add gold plating, smooth it out with a hammer, and burnish it to give it a shine.
Long-term imprisonment was not as common in the ancient world as it is today. Prisons housed criminals awaiting trial. If there was no room in the jail, a pit or hole would be dug to hold the prisoner until his fate was decided (Is. 42:22).
The prophecy about Cyrus.
King Cyrus of Persia would one day make it possible for the Jews to return home from their exile in Babylon (see the book of Ezra). Isaiah predicted this great event, even mentioning Cyrus by name (Isa. 44:28; 45:1), some 150 years before Cyrus’s time.
In Isaiah’s day, people treated idols almost as if they were human. Some even fed, bathed, and dressed their idols. Isaiah spoke of how foolish it was for people to worship something that they themselves had made (Is. 46:6).
To pass through the rivers (Is. 47:2) would have been humiliating for most people of Isaiah’s day. Since there were few bridges, people had to find shallow places, called fords, when crossing a river. It was the duty of slaves to carry their masters across.
A mouth like a sharp sword. The Bible often describes either the mouth or words coming from the mouth as a sword (Is. 49:2). One Hebrew word for mouth actually means “edge,” as in “edge of a sword.” It is certainly an accurate picture of the power of words, for good or ill (James 3:1–12).
The head of the street (Is. 51:20) referred to prominent corners or intersections within a city. Few cities were laid out according to a specific plan. Most had buildings scattered randomly, with narrow streets and dead-end alleys.
In Isaiah’s time, the feet of him who brings good news referred to a messenger announcing a great deed, usually a military victory. Paul quotes 52:7 in Rom. 10:15, as he urges believers to spread the good news of salvation in Christ, freely available for all peoples around the globe. The word “gospel” means “good news.”
Enlarging the tent.
Tents were assembled from strips of goat hair about a yard wide. As the family grew, more strips of goat hair would be sewn onto the tent to make more room. Like an expanding tent, Israel would go from desolate exile to becoming increasingly great among the nations of the earth (Is. 54:2).
Keeping the Sabbath was an important expression of faith for Israelites (Is. 56:2). All of life was organized around the weekly Sabbath. It also set them apart from the surrounding nations, none of whom kept the seventh day of the week as a holy day.
Finger-pointing (Is. 58:9) was a very serious gesture that had several potentially negative meanings. It could be taken as an official accusation against someone or could mean that the person was the subject of gossip (Prov. 6:12–13).
The phrase ships of Tarshish (Is. 60:9) describes huge ships, able to go on voyages as long as three years (1 Kings 10:22). Isaiah says that ships like these will someday bring the nations to Israel to worship the Lord.
“The Spirit of the Lord God is upon me . . . ” (Is. 61:1). Jesus would quote this verse in Nazareth more than 500 years later (Luke 4:17–21).