Does Isaiah 33:23 Address Israel or Israel’s

Bibliotheca Sacra 152 (July-September 1995): 273-78

Does Isaiah 33:23 Address Israel or Israel’s Enemy?
Harold R. Holmyard III

The prophet Isaiah pronounced five woes beginning in Isaiah 28:1 and concluding in 33:24. The first four woes address Israel, but concerning the fifth woe (33:1-24), commentators disagree as to the addressee in verse 23, which reads, ’Your tackle hangs slack; it cannot hold the base of its mast firmly, nor spread out the sail. Then the prey of an abundant spoil will be divided; the lame will take the plunder.’

Does the ship in verse 23 refer to Israel or Israel’s enemy? More than a century ago Delitzsch noted that most commentators believed the floundering ship in this verse represents Israel’s enemy. He argued, however, for Drechsler’s position that the ship is Israel. More recently Wolf, citing Young, claimed that ’interpreters generally have not identified this ship as the enemy vessel of verse 21 but as Zion.’ Oswalt observes that ’most modern commentators consider verse 23a to be intrusive, having come from some oracle like that against Tyre in chapter 34.’ Wildberger held that verse 23 broke the connection between verses 22 and 24 ’in an intolerable way.’ This article seeks to examine the context to defend the older interpretation that the ship depicts Israel’s enemy.

The Ship Need Not Be Jerusalem

Drechsler may have viewed the ship in Isaiah 33:23 as Zion because he regarded the water and ships of verse 21 as only metaphors. The enemy was like a powerful yet failing ship. By contrast, an unfit yet successful ship in verse 23 could seem to be Jerusalem. Since Jerusalem is indicated by a feminine singular suffix in 33:24 (the one dwelling ’in her,’ HB*), does the feminine singular suffix in verse 23 (y]l*b*j&, ’your ropes’) also refer to Jerusalem? This conclusion might seem obvious, expect for the fact that verse 23 is an apostrophe, personifying the ship which it rhetorically addresses. For centuries it has been customary to name and speak of ships in the feminine gender. Most of the biblical Hebrew words for nautical vessels are feminine, including the most general and common word for ship (hY`n]a^). Similarly in Ezekiel 27 the address to Tyre, personified as a ship, uses the feminine gender and singular number. Some argue that the adverb ’then’ (za*) in verse 23, implies a contrast between the city’s weakened condition (v. 23a) and her glorious future (v. 23b). It is more likely, however, that za* is emphasizing a particular feature of the description. This adverb often indicates consequential action within a given time period. Thus the expectation in Isaiah 33:23 is that the clause initiated by za* will immediately follow the previous clause temporally. If there were a shift between the present and the future, a temporal adverb like hT*u^ (’now’) would be appropriate for the first clause. Such a modifier would also signal transition from the future in verse 22 to the present in verse 23a. Since the setting of chapter 33, starting in verse 3, is futuristic, a reversion to the present in verse 23a would break the mood. Also Isaiah dramatically developed Israel’s transition from dishonor (vv. 7-9) to victory. God’s defeat of the enemy (vv. 10-12) will also purge Israel of its wicked (vv. 13-16). Israel’s king will rule in glory (v. 17) with all trace of foreign subjugation of Israel having vanished (vv. 18-19). Verse 20 compares future Israel to a tent for the purpose of noting the immovable security of the nation, free from further threat of deportation or destruction. The picture of Jerusalem as a place of broad rivers and streams (v. 21) accords with eschatological prophecy elsewhere (Ezek. 47:1-12; Joel 3:18; Zech. 14:8), which speaks of such waters being produced by changes in the earth’s surface around Jerusalem (Zech. 14:4-11). The transition from dishonor to victory extends over 16 verses (Isa. 33:7-22), with no need for introduction of a drifting Israelite ’ship of state’ in verse 23 to highlight it. If there is a change of subject from future Israel in verses 21-22 to present Israel in verse 23, the text ill prepares the reader for this change, since the ship in verse 21 is clearly not Israel but an enemy attacking eschatological Israel. If Isaiah used poetic license to make such a transition, then he used a seafaring image for a nation that generally consisted of landlubbers. A disabled ship as a national symbol would suit Tyre or Egypt better than Israel. Where would a victorious ship depicting Israel be sailing away to take spoil (v. 23b), since the spoil taken in verse 4 is that of defeated nations that had attacked Israel? The woes in Isaiah 28-33 addressed a besieged nation which God rescued in order to give it a peaceful future. Also the terms used of the people in 33:24 do not comport with metaphorical Israelite sailors on a victorious ship in verse 23b. Any symbol an author employs requires sufficient development for the referent to be determinable. Ridderbos rightly objects to an Israelite shipwreck in verse 23a because the second half of the verse shows Jerusalemites dividing spoil. There is no picture of a victorious ship unless verse 23b provides it; but verse 23b would man the ship of verse 23a with the lame, who would be unlikely sailors in the rigging. It is better to see verse 23b as directly linked with verse 24, which speaks of Jerusalem as a city with inhabitants dwelling in it (cf. ’city,’ ’Zion,’ ’Jerusalem’ in v. 20). Thus verse 23 provides no image of a victorious ship.

An Enemy Ship Is Wholly Suitable

Verses 22-23 correspond to the two parts of verse 21. The first half of verse 21 promises Yahweh’s presence as the Mighty One in Jerusalem surrounded by great waters. The second half of verse 21 assures that the Israelites need not be concerned about a maritime invasion. Verse 22, returning to Yahweh, explains that as a great military leader He will save them. Verse 23 then displays His saving action in the midst of the enemy’s naval collapse.

Oswalt says there is no indicator that the second person, which addresses Israel in verses 13-20, can shift to the enemy in verse 23. However, the subject of enemy ships in verse 21 can continue through verse 23. Isaiah prepared his reader to hear the foe addressed in the second-person singular in verse 23 by switching to the first-person plural (’our’) for Israelites beginning with verse 20 (’our’ and ’us’ are used six times in verses 20-22). Moreover, the Zion resident receives a second person address (vv. 6, 17-20), not Zion itself as the case would be in verse 23. This earlier address is masculine, while in verse 23 it is feminine. Furthermore the enemy also receives a second person address (masculine singular in v. 1; masculine plural in vv. 4, 11). Finally references to Jerusalem in chapter 33 are in the third person apart from verse 23. Literary apostrophes are often emotional; the device of personification permits the venting of feelings on an impersonal object. Isaiah 33:23 expresses the prophet’s satisfaction at the crippling of the enemy’s power. It is wonderful to hear that no enemy ship will reach Jerusalem because Yahweh is a warrior King. But how much more vivid it is to see that the once mighty (ryD]a^, v. 21b) enemy will be helpless before even the lame in Jerusalem (v. 23b). Mention of the lame taking spoil is reminiscent of David’s capture of Jerusalem from the Jebusites. Because of their confidence that David could not invade their city (2 Sam. 5:6), the Jebusites boasted that even the blind and lame could keep David out. David used this word against the Jebusites when he attacked them, and it became an Israelite proverb (2 Sam. 5:8). Isaiah 33:23 proudly announces a fulfillment of the original word, as the lame in Jerusalem prevail against the shipborne invaders. Verse 23 is the fourth and final second person address to the enemy in this woe oracle directed at him (vv. 1, 4, 11-12). Between the addresses to the enemy are messages to Israel in the first and second person (vv. 2-3, 5-6, 13-22). While verses 13-22 are a series of short messages (vv. 13-16, 17-19, 20-22), they are all for Israel. Verse 23 reflects back to verse 1, which states that the enemy will ’suffer destruction’ (dV^WT) when it has ceased ’destroying’ (dd}ov¿). In Isaiah 21:2 this word dd^v* is used of looting (’the looter takes loot,’ NIV). ’Despoil’ is one of the lexical senses of dd^v*. The particle ’then’ at the beginning of 33:23 points up the promised reversal of the enemy’s fortunes: The battleship undergoes a disabling of its assault (v. 23a); ’then’ the people of Jerusalem rush to finish the destruction of the ship by stripping it of everything valuable (v. 23b). But why would Isaiah depict attacks on Jerusalem in verses 21-23 after he had already shown the defeat of the eschatological foe in verses 10-19? Duhm objects by saying, ’Division of booty and plundering are no longer in place in the description of the golden future.’ This objection would not hold if the scene in verses 21-23 were a generalized restatement of the eschatological battle. The woe oracle, composed during the time of Assyrian threat, transcends the time limits of the Assyrian danger to speak of ultimate peace for Jerusalem. The watershed conflict with worldly power is past, with Jerusalem’s security never again in doubt. On the other hand Isaiah 33:21-23 resembles Isaiah 11:14-16 in possibly depicting militarism subsequent to eschatological defeat of the imperial foe. Other prophetic passages also attest to this possibility (Zech. 14:17-19; Rev. 20:8-10). But a subsequent foe would be of the same type as the foe of Isaiah 33:1 and so could be addressed as the same; in their alignment against the Lord all Israel’s foes are alike. This principle underlies Isaiah’s use of his contemporaries as types of the subsequent eschatological foe (Babylon in 14:1-3; Moab in 25:7-26:6; Assyria in 30:19-33; Edom in 34:1-35:10). If the martial efforts of verses 21-23 are subsequent to the onset of Israel’s golden age, the conflict may occur in a transitional period. Jerusalem still has lame residents, whereas Isaiah promised that someday the ’lame will leap like the deer’ (35:5). Alternatively, despite the nations ceasing to learn war in the golden age (2:4), a rare rogue may appear. While not entirely figurative, the language in 33:21-23 may betray eighth-century B.C. limitations. Isaiah 65-66 presents judgments leading to ultimate blessedness for Israel, blending millennial and eternal states. Likewise Isaiah 33 may look to final blessedness, blending tribulational and millennial realities. Isaiah 33:1 addresses a worldly power that has plagued Israel’s history, and verses 21-23 are a graphic declaration that this ungodly opposition to Israel will have no force in the golden age. Israel, through Yahweh, will enjoy absolute safety.


Neither grammatical nor contextual factors require that the ship in Isaiah 33:23a symbolizes Zion, or Israel. The lack of development of the naval imagery of verse 23a in 23b militates against the view that the ship is Israel. The context favors the interpretation that the ship represents Israel’s enemy, and the grammar is compatible with this view. An apostrophe to a ship requires the second person address, which is consonant with the second person address to the enemy earlier in the chapter. This apostrophe provides a triumphal cry of victory over the enemy as a fitting conclusion to the woe oracle aimed at him in Isaiah 33.

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