Signs and Symbols in Jerusalem: A glossary of places, people, and what they tend to represent for Isaiah

Abraham (originally Abram) represents the earliest origins of the Jewish people as God's chosen nation. He was called by God in Genesis 12 to become the progenitor of a great and mighty nation through which the world would be saved.

Ahaz was the king under whom Jerusalem at last succumbed to Assyrian invasion -- for Isaiah, he exemplifies Israel's foolhardy insistence upon trusting futile political alliances rather than God. Ahaz was the son of Jotham and the grandson of Uzziah; he ruled between about 735 and 720 BC.

For the sons of Ammon, see Moab.

Aram, often called 'Syria' in modern translations, formed a coalition with Israel's northern kingdom in an attempt to present a united front against the Assyrian Empire in the 730s BC. The name 'Aram' means 'Highlands'; it refers to the elevated region to the northeast of Palestine ruled by powerful kings in the capital city of Damascus.

Ariel is a mysterious name used by Isaiah for Jerusalem -- in Hebrew, it may mean either 'lioness' or 'altar hearth.'

Ashdod was a city in southern Israel and a warning-sign to Jerusalem that Assyria was growing in power. The Israelites' enemies, the Philistines, controlled Ashdod until the 8th century, when the Jewish king Uzziah briefly conquered it before it was claimed by the expanding Assyrian empire. See further 2 Chronicles 26; Isaiah 20.

Asherah is an example of the false gods worshipped by non-Jewish people and deplored by Isaiah. Also called Elat, she was a fertility goddess popular among Semitic gentiles in the ancient Near East.

Assyria was the instrument of God's judgment and punishment upon an Israel gone astray. Under King Tiglath-Pileser III in the 7th century BC, Assyria began aggressively expanding its territory in the Middle East; later, under King Sennacherib, the empire at last succeeded in forcing Jerusalem to pay tribute.

Babylon is the empire which conquered Jerusalem in 597 and 587/6 BC, leading the Jewish people into slavery and exile and so becoming for Isaiah the great symbol of Israel's persecution and punishment for sin. Babylon attacked Israel under king Nebuchadrezzar II and was eventually conquered itself by Cyrus the Great of Persia in 539 BC (see Chapter 13).

Bashan’s territory represents natural richness and abundant resources, especially forest and pastureland. It was located to the Northeast of ancient Israel, conquered by the Jews in Numbers 21.

For Bozrah, see Edom.

For the Burning Ones, see Seraphim.

The 'Branch (or Twig, or Shoot) of God' is the Messiah whom God will send to save the world at his appointed hour. The idea is that this holy redeemer will be descended from the lineage of Israel's kings, like a branch emerging from a family tree. Since Jesse was the father of King David, into whose line the Messiah would be born, this branch is often depicted emerging from Jesse's Stump.

Canaan represents for Isaiah the pagan state of the ancient Near East before God chose it as the site of his holy land. It was a region centered around what is now Palestine, occupied by native Canaanites and by Philistines (who were probably settlers from Crete) until it was conquered for Israel by King David in the 10th Century BC.

Carmel stands in for territorial riches -- it is a mountainous settlement allotted to the kingly Israelite tribe of Judah as part of their patrimony at Joshua 15:55.

Chaldea appears in Isaiah as the seat of Babylonian power; it is a region in the south of what is now Iraq where the Assyrian and Babylonian kings variously claimed dominance throughout the 700s and 600s BC. Eventually a Babylonian king of Chaldea, Nabopolassar, gained independence in 625 and ushered in a new era of Babylonian dominance -- Nabopolassar's son, Nebuchadnezzar II, is the one who would eventually overthrow Jerusalem in 597 BC.

For Cyrus the Great, see Babylon.

Damascus was the capital city of Syria (or Aram) and the last straw in Israel's disobedience against God. Northern Israel (Ephraim) made an alliance with Damascus to protect itself against Assyria, while Southern Israel (Judah) appealed to the Assyrian king Tiglath-Pileser III for help against both Ephraim and Aram (see 2 Kings 16:7-9). In both cases, Isaiah saw the Jews relying for safety and salvation on foreign, human powers rather than on the God of Israel.

King David was the gold standard for sovereignty in Israel; the downfall of his line was the great catastrophe which God's anointed saviour was expected to rectify. In the 10th Century BC, David became Israel's first great king: his descendants in the tribe of Judah ruled in the holy city of Jerusalem, and it was prophesied that the Messiah would be one such descendant.

The nation of Edom, with its capital city of Bozrah, had been archenemies of Israel since its origins; when Jerusalem was captured the Edomites were supposed to have chanted ‘tear it down, tear it down to its very foundations’ (Psalm 137:7).

Egypt was the archetypal example of Jewish subjugation and liberation; it was the last place before Babylon where the people of Israel had been enslaved. Their liberation in the 13th century BC, described in the Book of Exodus, was the root of all their hope and the central demonstration that God would not abandon them.

For Eliakim, see Shebna and Eliakim.

Ephraim was the northern kingdom of Israel which split off from the southern territory of Judah under the rebel king Jeroboam in the 10th century BC (see 1 Kings, esp. 11:26 and following). It was also be called Israel or Jacob, although both of those words are also used by Isaiah to refer to the Jewish people as a whole, without acknowledging the political split that happened under Jeroboam. The capital city was Samaria, and that name too can be used to designate the whole northern kingdom.

Gibeon valley stands as a reminder that God can do all things, natural and supernatural, for those whom he favours: it is where the sun stood still so Joshua could win victory over the Amorites, and where David beat back the Phillistines after the victory on Mount Perazim. See Joshua 10:1-15; 2 Samuel 5:22-5.

For Gomorrah, see Sodom and Gomorrah.

Hezekiah was the son of Ahaz and the last virtuous ruler of Jerusalem before its fall and the exile in Babylon. He ruled between ca. 715 and 686 BC, overseeing a return to godliness and a revolution against King Sennacherib of Assyria shortly after the death of Sargon II.

Isaiah sometimes uses the word 'Israel' to mean all Jews chosen by God to live in the promised land, even though that land was not a unified territory in the prophet's time. The actual Jewish nation of Israel had split into two kingdoms by Isaiah's day: the southern one, called 'Judah' after its ruling tribe, contained the capital of Jerusalem; the other, in the north, was called 'Israel'. See 1 Kings, esp. 11:26 and following, and for the northern kingdom specifically see Ephraim.

Jacob's name (or ‘Jacob’s house’) often stands in for the Jewish people, because Jacob was the grandson of Abraham and his children founded the tribes of Israel (see Genesis 25-49). He himself was given the name Israel when he wrestled with God (Genesis 32:22-32). The name can sometimes also refer only to the northern territory, for which see Ephraim.

For Jesse or Jesse's Stump, see Branch of God.

The Jews’ possession and management of Jerusalem was considered a sign of the favour they had found with God, whereas if they sinned and incurred his anger the city would be lost or corrupted. Jerusalem was the political and religious center of the territory promised by God to his chosen people from Abraham onwards (Genesis 12, 15, 26; Joshua 1:1-9, etc.).

The Jordan river could often represent the distinction between God's chosen people and the rest of the world, because it was the boundary line which the Jews had to cross to enter their promised land of Israel.

Jotham was the last holdout against the encroaching powers around southern Israel. When Aram and Ephraim tried to force an alliance, he resisted until his death around 735 BC, at which point his weaker son, Ahaz, took over.

Judah represents royalty and nobility in ancient Jewish society. Among the twelve tribes of Israel, Judah was the one from which came the famous kings David and Solomon, and it was the one from which it was predicted the Messiah would come (on the political territory of Judah in the period of the divided kingdoms, see 'Israel').

Kittim (or Chittim) was a great-grandson of Noah by his grandson Javan (see Genesis 10); his descendents probably populated the island now called Cyprus. Thus 'Kittim's land' in Isaiah means Cyprus, which by its proximity to Phoenecia receives word of Tyre's and Sidon's downfall in Chapter 23.

Kush (or 'Ethiopia' to the Greeks) evokes foreignness and distance from Israel. It was a region to the southeast of the promised land, and its people were considered to be descendants of a man named Kush -- son of Noah's cursed son Ham (see Genesis 9).

The mountain ranges of Lebanon represent natural beauty and grandeur – it was a place of sweeping hillsides, grand vistas, tall cedar trees, cool waters, etc. (see e.g. Psalms 29:6, 72:16, 104:16-18). Lebanon is at the Eastern outskirts of Israel’s territory, and although the Israelites tried to capture it they never did (see Judges 3:1-3).

Leviathan (from the Hebrew root לוה, LVH, meaning 'twist') is a mythological water-serpent who represents chaos and disaster. The name is probably associated with Babylonian and Canaanite cosmogonic myths in which creator-gods must fight the forces of chaos in order to rule. See e.g. Job 41, Psalm 104, Enuma Elish.

For Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, see Swift-to-Plunder-Sprint-at-Prey.

Manasseh's opposition to Ephraim meant the total self-destruction of Israel: Manasseh was the tribe of Jacob, who had originally given his name to the entire united Israel and later to the northern kingdom. But by Isaiah 9, the whole nation of Israel is eating itself alive.

Midian was proof that God could beat even the worst odds. In the 12th century BC the Jews found themselves outnumbered and embattled by this southeastern foe, but God empowered Gideon (judge of the Israelites) to defeat the Midianites with only 300 soldiers. See Judges 6-8.

Moab (east of the Dead Sea) and the 'sons of Ammon' (who had territory north of Moab) were among the neighbouring nations with which Israel was in constant conflict. Victory over them represented a restoration of the kingdom that King David had won for the Jews in the 10th century BC — see 2 Samuel 8:2-13 and 10-12.

Zebulun and Naphtali were the first parts of Israel to be conquered by Assyria. They fell in 733 BC.

Ophir represents the rarest and most lovely riches of the earth: it is a region of uncertain location whose mines were known for producing peerless gold.

Pekah son of Remaliah and Rezin ruled northern Israel and Aram, respectively; they joined together in an ultimately fruitless alliance against the Assyrian Empire. To Isaiah, this alliance typified the futility of human endeavor as an alternative to trusting God. Aram and northern Israel made two attempts at bullying southern Israel into joining their doomed coalition, and these led to a crisis in Jerusalem around 735 BC (see 2 Kings 15:37).

Mount Perazim symbolises the power that came with divine favour against all odds. King David was enabled by God to conquer the Philistines on the mountain, solidifying Jewish dominion over the promised land -- see 2 Samuel 5:17-21.

The Philistines were nemeses of the Jews whose presence in the Hebrew Bible usually connotes foreignness or hostility. Originally from the Aegean (east of Greece), they settled territory near and around ancient Israel from the 12th century BC onwards – they were defeated by King David in the 10th century (see 1 Samuel 17; 2 Samuel 5), but their conflicts with Israel remained ongoing.

A Rab-shakeh was (apparently, though we have little evidence other than Isaiah's own narrative in chapters 36-9) a high-ranking official in the hierarchy of Assyria's military dictatorship. Sennacherib sent a Rab-shakeh to intimidate Jerusalem during Hezekiah's revolt.

Remaliah was father to Rezin, on whom see Pekah.

On Rezin, king of Aram, see Pekah.

For Samaria, capital of northern Israel, see Ephraim.

Sennacherib of Assyria was the son of King Sargon II. The coronation of Sennacherib after Sargon's death occasioned a period of unrest during which Hezekiah made an effort at rebellion against Assyria -- Isaiah represents this effort as something like Jerusalem's last stand before the Babylonian exile.

The presence of 'Seraphim' (a Hebrew name meaning 'Burning Ones') lets us know that we are drawing near to God's own infinitely exalted majesty. Seraphim are traditionally the highest-ranking angels in God's kingly retinue – after them come Cherubim, and farther down the hierarchy still are the better-known archangels such as Michael and Gabriel. (This tradition comes to us from Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite's 6th-century AD treatise, Celestial Hierarchy – Chapters 6-10.)

Sharon was a beautiful pastureland in ancient Israel whose mention would have called to mind images of fertility and abundance. See e.g. 1 Chronicles 5:16.

Shear-Jashub is Isiah's firstborn son, a tangible human symbol of God's faithfulness to Israel even during the catastrophic Assyrian invasion. His name means 'a remnant shall return,' which refers to the prophecy that God will preserve a small group (a 'remnant') of faithful Jews who will survive the period of exile in Assyria and return at last to Jerusalem.

Shebna and Eliakim were high-ranking officials in Jeruusalem whose respective tenure demonstrated two ways that humans tend to elevate themselves over God. Shebna (the palace scribe) pridefully aggrandized himself, so his death demonstrated that men are all mortal and have no majesty of their own. Eliakim (the palace administrator) was more measured and competent, but he too was struck down because the people came to rely directly on him rather than on his mediation as a servant of God. See further Chapter 22, verses 15-25.

The pool of Shiloah was a symbol of Jerusalem's trust in God. It was the city's water-supply, filled by the vulnerable spring of Gihon (where kings in the line of David were crowned). Because Gihon could easily be attacked, those living in Jerusalem had to trust that God would protect them from their enemies; looking elsewhere for water represented a vote of no confidence in God.

Shinar is an archaic name for Babylonia, the kingdom where the Jews would be exiled after the conquest of Southern Israel in 598/7 and 587/6 BC. Isaiah uses the name Shinar to refer to Babylon in Chapter 11, verse 11; it was also in Shinar that the tower of Babel was built (see Genesis 11:1-9).

For the Shoot of God see Branch of God.

For Sidon, see Tyre and Sidon.

Sodom and Gomorrah stand in for the heights of venality, corruption, sin, and indecency. God's obliteration of these cities in punishment for their wrongdoing is recorded in Genesis 18-19.

'Swift-to-Plunder-Sprint-at-Prey' translates Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz, the name of Isaiah's second son (after Shear-Jashub). The name indicates that Assyria is hurtling towards Israel to conquer it; the boy's presence was therefore a constant physical reminder of the devastation to come.

Tarshish stands in for the triumphs of human craft and commerce because of its huge trading ships, which carry metals and other valuable raw materials over long stretches of treacherous ocean. It may be the name of a place in Spain or North Africa, or it may simply be a word of Phoenician origin meaning ‘metal mine’ or ‘open sea.’ See Ezekiel 28:2-5.

Topheth is a Hebrew name which suggests connotations of shameful burning, perhaps in an allusion to the fate which Assyria's king will suffer once he reaches God's home on Zion. It is a name for the valley of Hinnom (Greek 'Gehenna') which eventually became synonymous with hell because the Ammonites had once used it as a place to sacrifice children to their false god, Molech. See 2 Kings 21:6, 23:10, Jeremiah 7:31-2, 32:35, etc.

For the Twig of God, see Branch of God.

Tyre and Sidon represent foreignness, abundance, and power -- they were two of the great cities in Phoenicia (now Lebanon), a wealthy seafaring nation which did business with Israel. Their relationship with nearby powers was in frequent flux -- they were under Egyptian rule in the 14th century BC and Assyrian rule in Isaiah's day.

Uriah and Zechariah were noblemen whose word would be trusted when they testified that Isaiah had predicted Assyria's onslaught before it occurred. Zechariah was the maternal grandfather of Hezekiah, son of Ahaz and king of southern Israel. See 2 Kings 16:10–16; 18:2.

King Uzziah represents, in a single person, the prideful fall from grace which Israel has undergone according to Isaiah. Uzziah ruled in Judah and Jerusalem during the height of its prosperity (around 791-39 BC), but this made him over-confident in God's favour so that he performed blasphemous acts of self-aggrandizement such as burning incense in the temple (see 2 Chronicles 26).

For Zebulun, see Naphtali.

For Zechariah, see Uriah.

Zion represents the seat of Jerusalem’s divine majesty: God is said to dwell there, as are rightful and just kings (David, the Messiah, etc.). It is a mountain to the South of Jerusalem captured by King David in the 10th century BC – see Isaiah 8:18, 24:23; Psalms 2:6, 74:2.
(For the phrase the phrase 'Zion's Daughter', referring collectively to all the Jews chosen by God to occupy Israel and especially Jerusalem, cf. commentary on Chapter 3.)

Sign up to receive email updates: