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Threshing the mountains

February 8, 2012

Isaiah 41:15-16 says that Israel will become a threshing sledge, which will thresh mountains and hills, and beat them small. The prophecy is similar to Isaiah 40:4, and no doubt the interpretations of each prophecy are connected. Three questions are presented to the expositor; (1) what Israel is in view? (2) what are the mountains? (3) how is the threshing done?

Many commentators stumble on the first question; they suppose that ethnic Jews are the subject, and consequently they try to discover ways in which Jews might become so wonderfully powerful, they will thresh mountains and hills; this approach was proposed by Rabbi David Kimchi (1160–1235) in his comments on Isaiah 41:15. As noted by Adam Clarke in his Commentary, Kimchi wrote: “Mountains and hills are here used metaphorically for the kings and princes of the Gentiles.”

Joseph Addison Alexander was one of a few who resisted Kimchi’s opinion, which had become the traditional view; instead, Alexander suggested they represent unspecified obstacles. In Isaiah translated and explained, Vol 2 he wrote:

15. Behold I have placed thee for (i.e. appointed thee to be, or changed thee into) a threshing-sledge, sharp, new, possessed of teeth (or edges); thou shalt thresh mountains and beat (them) small, and hills like the chaff shalt them place (or make). The erroneous idea that he simply promises to furnish Israel with the means of threshing mountains, has arisen from the equivocal language of the English Version, I will make thee, which may either mean, I will make for thee, or will make thee to become, whereas the last sense only can by any possibility be put upon the Hebrew, as literally translated above. The oriental threshing machine is sometimes a sledge of thick planks armed with iron or sharp stones, sometimes a system of rough rollers joined together like a sledge or dray. Both kinds are dragged over the grain by oxen. (See Robinson’s Palestine, vol. III p. 143.) The word translated teeth strictly denotes mouths; but like the primitive noun from which it is derived, it is sometimes applied to the edge of a sharp instrument, perhaps in allusion to the figure of devouring. Here it signifies the edges, blades, or teeth, with which the threshing-wain is armed. The image presented is the strange but strong one of a down-trodden worm reducing hills to powder, the essential idea being that of a weak and helpless object overcoming the most disproportionate obstacles, by strength derived from another.

Albert Barnes expressed some doubt about the views of Kimchi and others in Barnes’ Notes on the Whole Bible:

The words ‘mountains’ and ‘hills’ in this verse seem designed to denote the kingdoms greater and smaller that should be opposed to the Jews, and that should become subject to them (Rosenmüller). Grotius supposes that the prophet refers particularly to the Medes and Babylonians. But perhaps the words are used to denote simply difficulties or obstacles in their way, and the expression may mean that they would be able to overcome all those obstacles, and to subdue all that opposed them, as if in a march they should crush all the mountains, and dissipate all the hills by an exertion of power.

Walter Brueggemann seems to have applied an interpretation tailored for the prophecy in  Isaiah 40:4 to Isaiah 41:15. For him, the mountains were not objects that could be “threshed.” He wrote [Walter Brueggemann. Isaiah: 40-66. Westminster John Knox Press 1998, p. 35]:

The metaphor is of a farm implement with sharp teeth (threshing sledge) that is dragged over the land to smooth the soil, forcibly crushing and breaking and refining what is not yet amenable to planting. This is exceedingly vigorous language whereby Israel is imagined to become a force and an agent who can “rough up” even Babylon. Thus the speech imagines a complete role reversal between powerful Babylon and pitiful, wormlike Israel, whereby Israel becomes threshing sledge and Babylon is left to be leveled, abused soil.

J. B. Coffman assumed that the mountains which are threshed are nations, but they are threshed not by ethnic Jews, but through the influence of Christianity. In Coffman’s Commentary he wrote:

In these verses (including also the text through Isa. 41:20) Israel is assured (1) of the faithfulness of God, Isa. 41:8,9; (2) that they will receive strength from God, Isa. 41:10, (3) that weakness will afflict their enemies, Isa. 41:11,12; (4) that God will raise up aid for them, Isa. 41:13,14; (5) that their enemies shall be scattered, Isa. 41:15,16; (6) and that they shall receive spiritual refreshment during their worst experiences, Isa. 41:17-19. … The metaphor here of Israel’s threshing the mountains and hills, i.e., all nations great and small, large as it is, does not exaggerate the influence of Judaic-born Christianity over all the nations of mankind.

Franz Delitzsch and S. R. Driver supposed that mountains and hills were “plainly a figure of lofty, powerful foes, just as wind and storm are a figure of God’s irresistible help.” [Franz Delitzsch and Samuel Rolles Driver. Biblical commentary on the prophecies of Isaiah (1890). p. 157.] They wrote:

The comforting word “Fear not” is once more taken up, in order to add to the promise, that Israel shall not succumb to its foes, the positive promise that it shall acquire power over them, vers. 14–16: “Fear not, thou worm Jacob, thou petty people Israel! I help thee, saith Jehovah; and thy Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel. Behold, I have made thee a threshing-roller, a sharp one, new, with double edge. Thou shall thresh mountains and crush them, and thou shall make hills like chaff. Thou shalt winnow them, and the wind carries them off, and the storm scatters them; and thou shall exult in Jehovah, and boast thyself in the Holy One of Israel,” Israel, now helplessly oppressed, is sympathetically called worm of Jacob (gen. appos.), i.e. Jacob like a worm, perhaps not without allusion to Ps. xxii. 6; for the picture of the Messiah is enriched in these discourses, Israel itself being regarded in a Messianic light, so that the second David does not stand beside Israel, but is Israel’s own true, inmost nature. Then the nation is addressed as “people of Israel” in allusion to the phrase … i.e. countable, few people, Gen. xxxiv. 3; Deut. iv. 27 (LXX, … ; Luther: ye poor crowd of Israel); they now no longer form the compact mass of a nation, the bond of the commonwealth is broken, they are resolved into individuals scattered here and there. But it shall not remain so: “I help thee ” (perfect of certainty) is Jehovah’s solemn utterance, and the Redeemer (redemtor. Lev. XXV. 48 i.) of His now enslaved people is the Holy One of Israel, whose love again and again triumphs over wrath. But not merely will He set it free. He will endow it with power over its oppressors; … is perfect of assurance (Gesen. § 106. 3); … , or according to another reading … , means a threshing-roller (Arab, naureg, noreg), which here has … (xxviii. 2 7) along with … as a by-name, and is described as furnished (… , cf. Eccles. x. 20, and on the same xii. 11) on the under part of the axles, which are joined by two sledge-frames, not only with sharp, but two-edged iron (… , reduplication, like … , xxvii. 8). Like such a threshing-machine, Israel henceforth threshes and crushes mountains and hills; here plainly a figure of lofty, powerful foes, just as wind and storm are a figure of God’s irresistible help. The enemies’ might is broken to its last remnant, whereas Israel can rejoice and boast in its God, who is absolute being and absolute light.

Jan L. Koole mentioned several interpretations that have been proposed for the mountains and hills of Isaiah’s prophecy, including: literal mountains; Babylonian temple towers; Babylonian idols; powers that oppose God’s plan of salvation; hostile nations, especially Babylon; spiritual or eschatological obstacles; all religious obstacles that thwart Israel. [Jan L. Koole. Isaiah: Historical commentary on the Old Testament. Part 3, Volume 1. Peeters Publishers, 1997. p. 171.]

Paul E. Kretzmann supposed that the mountains were “mighty enemies” of Israel. In The Popular Commentary he wrote:

V. 15 Behold, I will make thee a new sharp threshing instrument having teeth, the sledge used in the Orient to cut up the straw for fodder and to separate the grain from the hull, sometimes used to put captives to death; thou shalt thresh the mountains, and beat them small, and shalt make the hills as chaff, the very world-powers being compelled to yield to the army of the Lord. V. 16 Thou shalt fan them, as the husbandman winnows his grain, and the wind shall carry them away, like useless chaff, and the whirlwind, the strong tempest, shall scatter them and thou, seeing this marvelous victory over the mighty enemies, shalt rejoice in the Lord and shalt glory in the Holy One of Israel, properly giving all honor to Him who is the zealous Deliverer of His people. Not only will the enemies be overthrown, however, but the Church of God will find divine refreshment in the midst of the tribulation of this world.

Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset and David Brown also said the mountains represent enemies of Israel. They wrote in their Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible:

15. God will make Israel to destroy their enemies as the Eastern corn-drag (Isa 28:27, 28) bruises out the grain with its teeth, and gives the chaff to the winds to scatter.
teeth-serrated, so as to cut up the straw for fodder and separate the grain from the chaff.
mountains . . . hills-kingdoms more or less powerful that were hostile to Israel (Isa 2:14).

Carl Wilhelm Eduard Nägelsbach, commenting on Isaiah 41:14-16, emphasized the contrast between verse 14 and the following two verses. He thought that threshing the mountains was related to the church’s spiritual victories. He wrote [Carl Wilhelm Eduard Nägelsbach. A Commentary on the Holy Scriptures: Isaiah. Johann Peter Lange, Philip Schaff, Eds. Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. 1878. p. 440.]:

The expressions ”little worm,” “little people” are evidently intended to paint the wretchedness and weakness of Israel. The former recalls Ps. xxii. 6 “I am a worm, and no man,” and also the description of the suffering servant of God, Isa. liii. 2 sqq. Comp. too, Job xxv. 6. Yet one cannot but see in this ”worm Jacob” the transition of the servant of God to the “form of a servant,” and thus recognize an intimation that the suffering people of God is also a type of the suffering Saviour.

Yet what a contrast! The Lord makes this worm Jacob a mighty instrument of judgment against the nations. … , that occurs x. 22 in a figurative sense, and xxviii. 27 as designation of the threshing roller itself, signifies here a quality of the latter, viz.: the being sharp. Sharp, new, and double-edged ( … only here in Isaiah, comp. Ps. cxlix. 6) shall the roller be. As such a roller lacerates the bundles of grain, and as the similarly formed harrow crushes the clods, so shall Israel rend and crush mountains and make hills like chaff, etc. This prophecy has not been fulfilled by the fleshly Israel, or at least only in a meager way, the best example being the Maccabees. But by the spiritual Israel it has had glorious fulfilment in spiritual victories.

Nägelsbach applied the metaphor of threshing to the influence of the church upon the Roman Empire, and upon the Germanic nations, which he said, “will in turn be threshed in pieces that the church may become the free.” Was it a premonition of events to come in the 20th century? He wrote: [Ibid., p. 447.]

On ver. 14 sqq. What a contrast! A poor little worm, and a new threshing instrument with double-edged points that rends mountains to pieces! When was the church of either the Old or New Testament ever such a threshing instrument? First of all, the Babylonian Empire was threshed to pieces that Israel might be free. Afterwards many kingdoms and nations were threshed in pieces and made subject to the Roman Empire that the church of the New Testament might grow and spread abroad. Afterwards the Roman Empire itself was threshed in pieces to gain for the church a new, fresh, healthy soil in the Germanic nations. But finally the Germanic nations will in turn be threshed in pieces that the church may become the free, pure kingdom of Christ ruling over all. So the church, the poor little worm Jacob, rends in pieces one form of the world-power after another, until it issues from the last as the glorious bride of the Lord.

Matthew Poole wrote in is commentary on Isaiah:

The mountains; the great and lofty potentates of the world, which set themselves against thee; such persons being frequently expressed in Scripture under the notion of hills and mountains.

The Pulpit Commentary states:

Ver. 15.–I will make thee a new sharp threshing-instrument. Israel is to be more than sustained. Strength is to be given her to take the aggressive, and to subdue her enemies under her. She is to “thresh them” and “beat them small,” as with a threshing-instrument (comp. 2 Kings 13:7; Amos 1:3; Micah 4:13). In the literal sense, no earlier accomplishment of this prophecy can be pointed out than the time of the Maccabean war. Metaphorically, it may be said that Israel began to conquer the world when her literature became known to the Greeks through the expedition of Alexander the Great, and completed her conquest when the Roman empire succumbed to the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Having teeth. Threshing-instruments of the kind described are still in use in Syria (Thomson, ‘The Land and the Book,’ p. 539) and Asia Minor (Fellows, ‘Asia Minor,’ p. 70). The corn is spread out on the ground, and the machine, which is sometimes armed with sharp stones, sometimes with saws, is dragged over it. The Arabic name is still noreg, a modification of the Hebrew moreg. Thou shalt thresh the mountains … the hills; i.e. “thou shalt subdue proud and mighty foes” (Delitzsch).

John Wesley said in Wesley’s Explanatory Notes: “The mountains – The great and lofty potentates of the world.”

Edward J. Young thought that the mountains of Isaiah 41:15 represent enemies of Israel, but he identified Israel with the church, as did J. A. Alexander. He wrote [Edward J. Young. The Book of Isaiah: Chapters 40-66. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1972. p. 89.]:

Not only will the Holy One redeem Israel but He will also cause her to prevail over her enemies and all obstacles. This is a new and important element of their salvation, and to call attention to its dignity Isaiah uses the word Behold! By this means he arouses the attention to face the comfort and consolation of which he proceeds to speak. God has placed (appointed, set) Israel as a threshing sledge. This was a flat plank or board, with rollers underneath studded with iron or basalt spikes. This instrument is sharp, and new, so it is effective in its working (cf. ). Furthermore it is possessed of mouths (edges?) so that it will cut sharply.

In the second line the prophet addresses Israel, and tells her that she will be such an instrument as will thresh even mountains and pulverize them. The language is figurative to show that no peoples, be they ever so great or powerful, even as mighty as the kingdom of man that was then overshadowing the world, could stand in the way of Israel. Not that Israel in herself had the strength to withstand and destroy her enemies, but as the redeemed people of God she would in the strength of her God do valiantly. The parallel thought lends strength to the idea, Israel will render the hills like chaff. Israel, weak and downtrodden, a worm, will overcome obstacles far greater than herself, and that with the help of God.

Claus Westermann correctly connected the mountains in Isaiah 41:15 with those of Isaiah 40:4, but he incorrectly (in my opinion) interpreted these prophetic mountains as representing obstacles to Israel’s return from Babylon. [Claus Westermann. Isaiah 40-66. Westminster John Knox Press 2001, p. 77] If that were the case, John the Baptist would hardly have chosen Isaiah’s prophecy that every mountain will be made low and every valley will be exalted as a theme for his ministry.

There may be several ways in which the mountains were made low because of the advent of Christ, and the Gospel, the mountains being symbolic of the revelations and promises made to Israel. Whereas before, Jews were confident that they possessed an élite status, now Christ had come, that had passed away, but circumcision of the heart was necessary. The Mosaic system of worship became obsolete; the temple was destroyed; Jerusalem had become a heavenly city, while the earthly Jerusalem was identified with Hagar, an Egyptian bondwoman. Lowering of the mountains also refers to the mysteries connected with the interpretation of prophecies being solved, as Isaiah connected it with revealing the Glory of God. Westermann wrote:

The metaphor of threshing in v. 15a fits in with the grain and chaff of v. 16a, but not with the object ‘mountains and hills’ in 15b. On the other hand, the metaphor of the verbs in vv. 15b and 16a, ‘threshing…crushing…making into chaff…winnowing’ is uniformly carried through. Obviously then, in introducing the odd and incongruous object ‘mountains and hills’ into the old and common metaphor for the destruction of a foe, Deutero-Isaiah had something particular in mind to emphasize. There can be no doubt that the phrase alludes to these same words in the prologue ( ‘every mountain and hill shall be made low’). There they represent the obstacles blocking Israel’s return. It is prophesied that they are to be levelled to make a smooth road on which the nation can make its journey home. However, in the prologue it is not Israel herself who removes these obstacles. We have to take it that by inserting ‘mountains and hills’ into the traditional metaphor for the destruction of foes–threshing and crushing corn–Deutero-Isaiah’s real intention was to say, in a deliberately cryptic way, that God is proclaiming to Israel, ‘Behold, I make of you an instrument capable of overcoming the obstacles set up by your foes, which separate you from your home-land.’ The way in which this is to come about is not specified here, but at all events there is no idea of God’s raising Israel afresh to power in the realm of politics that will enable her to destroy her foes with her own arms. The prophet’s cryptic way of speaking, using traditional forms and metaphors to express a meaning different from their original one, is characteristic of him. But it has given rise to much false exegesis.

The mountains of Isaiah’s prophecy may be taken to be the mountains of Israel, but they are symbolic, not of nations or rulers, as many commentators suppose, but of God’s promises, and revelations, including prophecies, as explained in Mountains as promises. The Israel which is to become a threshing sledge is the church. The centuries-long struggle to interpret prophecy and extract from it the truths of the Gospel, is the threshing process. The chaff that is blown away by the wind represents all the flawed interpretations. The kernels of grain which remain are spiritual nourishment for the saints.

The New Testament supports this approach, as when Paul was teaching that those who labour in the word are worthy of support and honour from those who benefit from their labours, he referred to a Mosaic precept regarding threshing:

1 Corinthians 9:9-10
For it is written in the law of Moses, thou shalt not muzzle the mouth of the ox that treadeth out the corn. Doth God take care for oxen?
Or saith he it altogether for our sakes? For our sakes, no doubt, this is written: that he that ploweth should plow in hope; and that he that thresheth in hope should be partaker of his hope.

And similarly, he wrote in the first epistle to Timothy,

1 Timothy 5:17-18
Let the elders that rule well be counted worthy of double honour, especially they who labour in the word and doctrine.
For the scripture saith, thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn. And, The labourer is worthy of his reward.

The commentators have laboured, and if they did not discover the meaning of Isaiah’s prophecy about threshing the mountains, at least they helped to fulfill it.