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the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 21

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries

Verse 1




Three "burdens" are delivered by the prophet in this chapter: that of Babylon (Isaiah 21:1-10), that of Edom (Isaiah 21:11-12), and that of Arabia (Isaiah 21:13-17).

THE BURDEN OF BABYLON (Isaiah 21:1-10)

The critical community as a whole have decided that this prophecy applies to the fall of Babylon to Cyrus and Darius, which occurred long after Isaiah's lifetime; and, of course, in keeping with their crazy rule that there is no such thing as predictive prophecy they imagine that it had to have been written "after the exile," in 539 B.C.[1] It is true that there are expressions in these ten verses which seem to point squarely to that drunken feast of Belshazzar and the fall of Babylon to the Medo-Persians; but our confident conviction remains the same. Even if this passage does apply to that overthrow, Isaiah must still be accepted as the author of the chapter, because, as Cheyne said, "Both the ideas of the passage and the phraseology are in harmony with the authorship of Isaiah."[2] As a matter of fact, it is altogether possible that the prophecy, looking forward to the distant future, has a double application, as we shall see. In a similar manner, the prophecy of Jesus Christ in Matthew 24 applies: (1) to the destruction of Jerusalem, an event that occurred within forty years, and (2) to the final advent of Christ, an event that has not occurred yet.

That the "burden" here is a reference, primarily, to an event much earlier than the exile was affirmed by Dummelow thus:

"This siege can scarcely be the one at the close of the exile. Assyrian researchers have revealed three earlier sieges: (1) in 710 B.C. by Sargon; (2) in 703 B.C., and (3) in 696 B.C. by Sennacherib. Accordingly, the prophecy may be dated after 710 or 703 B.C. (but prior to conquest and fall of the city in 696 B.C.)."[3]

Thus, Dummelow joined Cheyne and other discerning scholars in rejecting the post-exilic date and in the acceptance of a date consistent both with Isaiah's authorship and the predictive nature of the prophecy. We shall cite some of the reasons why this understanding is absolutely required by the passage itself.

(1) The facts presented, the style and spirit of the author, the phraseology used, and the correspondence with the other writings of Isaiah all point squarely at the great eighth century prophet as the author. (2) Note the grief and depression of Isaiah upon reporting this revelation from God. The notion of some that Isaiah was simply overcome emotionally at the fall of Babylon makes no sense at all. Why should he have been grieved at the overthrow and destruction of that wicked power that had defeated Judah, carried them into captivity, etc.? On the other hand, if this is a prophecy of the fall of Babylon to Sennacherib in 696, which we believe it is, then it is clear why the prophecy was bad news to Isaiah. It meant that Judah's last hope of some earthly power to intervene against Assyria had failed, and that Judah would have to face the full terror of Assyrian assault, which, of course they did, only a few years after this prophecy was given. (3) The author of this prophecy (humanly speaking) was not in Babylon but in Jerusalem when it was written. "Isaiah 21:6-9 imply a distance from Babylon."[4] (4) The conclusive argument against the event of 539 B.C. as being the primary focus here lies in the character of the conqueror prophesied. Note that, "All of the graven images of her gods are broken down to the ground" (Isaiah 21:9). By no stretch of imagination is this a view of the fall of Babylon in 539 B.C.; but it was definitely a picture of what happened under Sennacherib in 696. It is a known fact that, "Cyrus was not an iconoclast; he did not break into pieces, nor in any way destroy or insult the Babylonian idols. On the contrary, he retained them in their several shrines, or restored them where they had been replaced."[5]

The fact thus cited, namely, that the fall of Babylon in 539 B.C., did not provide the "broken images" required by the prophecy's fulfillment lies behind statements like that of Hailey: "This (the prophecy) does not necessarily indicate that the conqueror has destroyed the images, but that Jehovah's power has triumphed over the powerless gods of the heathen."[6] Barnes, in a similar statement, said that it means, "In spite of its idols, the whole city would be mined."[7] These comments are not untrue as regards what they say, but they have no reference whatever to this prophecy or its fulfillment; but one writer even wrote that the fulfillment was "spiritual," admitting that no images were broken! Such an interpretation is incorrect. There could not possibly have been anything "spiritual" about a conquest of Babylon, either by the Assyrians or the Medo-Persians.

There are further evidences which we shall note in the comments below; but these are sufficient to demonstrate that the 539 B.C. fall of Babylon cannot possibly be the primary focus of these verses.

Isaiah 21:1

"The burden of the wilderness of the sea. As whirlwinds in the South sweep through, it cometh from the wilderness, a terrible land."

This is a surprising title of Babylon; "But it plainly means Babylon,"[8] as clearly stated in Isaiah 21:9 below. Why, then, should it have been called "wilderness of the desert"? Lowth believed it was because the whole area of Babylon was indeed once a desert, and that it was recovered by an intricate system of irrigation, using the waters of the Euphrates. There could also be an overtone here of the ultimate fate of Babylon, which included its return to desert status. "This title probably includes the whole tract of waste land west of the Euphrates."[9]

The reference to the Euphrates as "a sea" is not uncommon in the Bible. Barnes says this probably came about due to a fact mentioned by Herodotus, that before the system of irrigation was developed, "The river often overflowed the whole area like a sea."[10] For the very same reason, the Nile also was called "a sea."

Verse 2

"A grievous vision is declared unto me; the treacherous man dealeth treacherously, and the destroyer destroyeth. Go up, O Elam; besiege, O Media; all the sighing thereof have I made to cease."

The true meaning here is that the vision brought great pain and sorrow to the heart of the prophet, a statement that cannot possibly be reconciled with the destruction of the oppressor of God's people in 539 B.C.

Note also that Elam is the principal force mentioned here in the overthrow of Babylon, not the Persians. Could any sixth century writer have been guilty of such an error? The only answer is that it cannot refer to that particular fall of Babylon.

"The treacherous man ... the destroyer ..." "These," according to Dummelow, "Are references to the Assyrians."[11]

Verse 3

"Therefore are my loins filled with anguish; pangs have taken hold upon me, as the pangs of a woman in travail: I am pained so that I cannot hear, I am dismayed so that I cannot see. My heart fluttereth, horror hath affrighted me; the twilight that I desired hath been turned into trembling unto me."

It is simply impossible that the news of Babylon's fall in 539 B.C. could have been the occasion of the reaction on Isaiah's part, as described in these two verses. He was so upset, dismayed, astounded, and pained that he could not hear, could not see, and could not rest. Even twilight, when ordinarily he would have rested became a time of trembling. This verse makes it mandatory to see the object of this prophecy in a prior fall of Babylon in 696 B.C., long before the captivity, in the ruin of the city by Sennacherib.

Verse 5

"They prepare the table, they set the watch, they eat, they drink: rise up ye princes, anoint the shield."

This is the verse which some say points inevitably to the drunken feast of Belshazzar on the night of the Medo-Persian capture of Babylon. It surely does suggest it; but there are some problems with thus accepting it. "Spread the table," as used here is a "far from certain rendition."[12] Furthermore, "Anointing the shield" suggests a preparation for battle that was not evident at all on the night when Belshazzar was slain and Darius took the kingdom. Thus, upon closer examination, the "certain" reference to that feast appears to be very questionable.

Verse 6

"For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman; let him declare what he seeth: and when he seeth a troop, horsemen in pairs, a troop of asses, a troop of camels, he shall hearken diligently with much heed."

All are agreed that Isaiah himself was the "watchman" set to announce the coming destruction. Hailey believes this to be indicated by the expression, "O Lord" in Isaiah 21:8.[13]

The mention of asses and camels as participating in the overthrow has been used to bolster the false theory that we have a prophetic reference to 539 B.C. They quote Herodotus to show that some of the Persians in that overthrow rode on asses and camels; but it would have been no distinctive mark at that time. After the siege of Babylon in 710 B.C., "Asses and camels are expressly mentioned as having been left on the field of battle by Merodach-Baladan, and we may assume that the Assyrians also employed them in the Assyrian army."[14]

Verse 8

"And he cried as a lion: O Lord, I stand continually upon the watch-tower in the day-time, and am set in my ward whole nights; and, behold, here cometh a troop of men, horsemen in pairs. And he answered and said, Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the graven images of her gods are broken unto the ground."

Here is the same language employed by the Lord through the apostle John in describing the fall of the Great Harlot of the times of the Apostasy (Revelation 14:8; 17:5). It is this fact, more than any other, which supports the view that there could be a great deal more in this passage than a prophecy of one of the several falls of ancient Babylon. Babylon became, in time, a symbol of all wickedness and unrighteousness, giving her name to the Great Apostasy itself.

Verse 10

"O thou my threshing, and the grain of my floor! that which I have heard from Jehovah of hosts, the God of Israel, have I declared unto you."

This verse is in the form of a lament by Isaiah over the fate of God's people as it looms in this prophecy. There will be no help from Babylon. Assyria will completely subdue it and rule over it; and now there is absolutely nothing left in the whole world to protect God's people (from the earthly viewpoint) from the terrifying cruelty and oppression of Assyria. Grieved as Isaiah assuredly was at this tragic news, he reminds the Lord's people here that he has surely spoken unto them the true Word of God, that the "threshing" they are sure to receive will only expose the true grain as distinguished from the chaff.

Verse 11

THE BURDEN OF EDOM (Isaiah 21:11-12)

"The Burden of Dumah. One called unto me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will inquire, inquire ye; turn ye, come."

Dumah is usually understood as some kind of a name for Edom, due to the mention of Seir in the passage, which city was the capital of Edom. No one knows exactly how this designation came about. Dumah was one of the twelve sons of Ishmael who settled in Arabia, but he may have moved into Edom (Genesis 25:14). The Septuagint (LXX) rendered Isaiah 21:14 as the "burden of Thaeman" another great Edomite city.

It is not known if there was actually an appeal to Isaiah from Seir in this passage, or if it is prophetically projected and honored with the reply here given.

What is the reply? Yes, the morning cometh, but the night also! There will be morning and an end of the long night for Judah, but for Edom there will continue to be night and darkness. If Seir would really have relief, let them turn to the Lord; let them repent and return to the God of their fathers.

Verse 13

THE BURDEN OF ARABIA (Isaiah 21:13-17)

"The burden upon Arabia. In the forest in Arabia shall ye judge, O ye caravans of Dedanites. Unto him that was thirsty they brought water; the inhabitants of the land of Tema did meet the fugitives with their bread. For they fled away from the swords, from the drawn sword, and from the bent bow, and from the grievousness of war. For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Within a year, according to the years of a hireling, all the glory of Kedar shall fail; and the residue of the number of the archers, the mighty men of the children of Kedar, shall be few, the God of Israel hath spoken it."

This is the prophecy of the distress that shall come to the neighboring peoples of Judah when the long-expected assault from Assyria will finally occur in circa 702 B.C. As any marauding army would have done, the invading force here is foreseen as overrunning and destroying such neighbors of Judah as the Edomites and the Arabians. As Lowth said, "The distress of those peoples noted here is the subject of this prophecy."[15]

"Kedar ..." This word is the name of one of the twelve sons of Ishmael (Genesis 25:13); but the name was also used as a collective term to describe the desert-dwellers, the Bedouin generally.[16]

Along with Lowth, we identify the fulfillment of this prophecy with the last year prior to Sennacherib's attempt to sack Jerusalem; and this means that the prophecy was uttered only a year before that. See the line, "As the year of a hireling." This was a common way of saying "exactly one year." The hireling would see to it that it was no more than a year; and the master who hired him would see to it that it was no less! If this prophecy was given about 715 B.C.,[17] as Payne thought, then the destruction and warfare foreseen took place about a year later in one of the many incursions of Assyria into this part of the Mid-East. In that case, "Sargon's recorded invasion in 715"[18] would have been the occasion of fulfillment.

The destruction of the majority of the military men of Kedar is merely an example of what happened to all of the countries destroyed by the ruthless Assyrians, "the Breakers," as they were called throughout the world.

What about the Dedanites mentioned at the head of this paragraph? Norman noted that there is some obscurity about the people called by this name. One such place is the modern Alula, seventy miles south of Taima. "It was once a flourishing caravan city, as now known from cuneiform inscriptions."[19]

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Isaiah 21". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/isaiah-21.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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