Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 21

Barnes' Notes on the Whole BibleBarnes' Notes


The prophecy which commences this chapter occupies the first ten verses. That it relates to Babylon is apparent from Isaiah 21:2, Isaiah 21:9. The object is to foretell the destruction of that city by the Medes and Persians, and the design is the same as in the more extended and minute description of the same event in Isaiah 13:0; Isaiah 14:0: Whether it was delivered at the same, or at another time, cannot be determined from the prophecy. The purpose, however, of the prophecy is the same as there - to give consolation to the Jews who should be carried captive to that city; to assure them that Babylon would be destroyed, and that they would be delivered from their long and severe bondage. This is indicated in a brief and graphic manner in Isaiah 21:10.

This oracle, or ode, is one of singular beauty. It is distinguished for its brevity, energy, and force, for the variety and the rapidity of the action, and for the vivid manner in which the events are made to pass before the mind. It is the language of strong excitement and of alarm; language that expresses rapid and important movements; and language appropriate to great vigor of conception and sublimity in description. In the oracle the prophet supposes himself in Babylon, and the events which are described are made to pass rapidly in vision (see the Introduction, Section 7, 4) before him. He first sees Isaiah 21:1 the dreadful storm coming at a distance (the hostile armies), approaching like a whirlwind and threatening destruction to everything in its way. He then Isaiah 21:2 hears God’s direction to the invading armies; represents himself as made acquainted with the design of the vision, and hears the command of God to Elam (Persia) and Media to go up and commence the siege.

Regarding himself as among the exiles in the midst of Babylon, he Isaiah 21:3-4 describes himself as deeply affected in view of this sudden invasion, and of the calamities that were coming upon Babylon. In Isaiah 21:5, he describes the state of the Babylonians. They are represented, first as preparing the table, making ready for feasting and revelry, setting the watch on the watch-tower, and giving themselves up to dissipation; and secondly, as suddenly alarmed, and summoned to prepare for war. He then (Isaiah 21:6-9 declares the way in which the princes of Babylon would be roused from their revelry. But it is described in a very remarkable manner. He does not “narrate” the events, but he represents himself as directed to appoint a watchman Isaiah 21:6 to announce what he should see. That watchman Isaiah 21:7 sees two chariots - representing two nations coming rapidly onward to execute the orders of God. So rapid is their approach, so terrible their march, that the watchman cries out Isaiah 21:9 that Babylon is fallen, and will be inevitably destroyed. The prophecy is then closed Isaiah 21:10 by an address to the afflicted Jews whom God had ‘threshed,’ or punished by sending them captive to Babylon, and with the declaration that this was intended by the Lord of hosts to be declared unto them. The whole design of the prophecy, therefore, is to console them, and to repeat the assurance given in Isaiah 13:0; Isaiah 14:0, that Babylon would be destroyed, and that they would be delivered from bondage.

Verse 1

The deserts of Arabia were situated to the south of Babylon, and the south winds are described as the winds of the desert. Those winds are represented as being so violent as to tear away the tents occupied by a caravan (Pietro della Valle, “Travels,” vol. iv. pp. 183, 191). In Job 1:19, the whirlwind is represented as coming ‘from the wilderness; that is, from the “desert” of Arabia (compare Jeremiah 13:24; Hosea 13:15).

So it cometh from the desert - (see Isaiah 13:4, and the note on that place). God is there represented as collecting the army for the destruction of Babylon ‘on the mountains,’ and by mountains are probably denoted the same as is here denoted by the desert. The country of the “Medes” is doubtless intended, which, in the view of civilized and refined Babylon, was an uncultivated region, or a vast waste or wilderness.

From a terrible land - A country rough and uncultivated, abounding in forests or wastes.

Verse 2

A grievous vision - Margin, as in Hebrew ‘Hard.’ On the word ‘vision,’ see the note at Isaiah 1:1. The sense here is, that the vision which the prophet saw was one that indicated great calamity Isaiah 21:3-4.

Is declared unto me - That is, is caused to pass before me, and its meaning is made known to me.

The treacherous dealer - (חבוגד chabôgēd). The perfidious, unfaithful people. This is the usual signification of the word; but the connection here does not seem to require the signification of treachery or perfidy, but of “violence.” The word has this meaning in Habakkuk 2:5, and in Proverbs 11:3, Proverbs 11:6. It refers here to the Medes; and to the fact that oppression and violence were now to be exercised toward Babylon. Lowth renders this:

‘The plunderer is plundered, and the destroyer is destroyed;’

But the authority for so rendering it is doubtful. He seems to suppose that it refers to Babylon. The Hebrew evidently means, that there is to be plundering and devastation, and that this is to be accomplished by a nation accustomed to it, and which is immediately specified; that is, the united kingdom of Media and Persia. The Chaldee renders it, ‘They who bring violence, suffer violence; and the plunderers are plundered.’ Jarchi says, that the sense of the Hebrew text according to the Chaldee is, ‘Ah! thou who art violent! there comes another who will use thee with violence; and thou plunderer, another comes who will plunder thee, even the Medes and Persians, who will destroy and lay waste Babylon.’ But the Hebrew text will not bear this interpretation. The sense is, that desolation was about to be produced by a nation “accustomed” to it, and who would act toward Babylon in their true character.

Go up - This is an address of God to Media and Persia (see the note at Isaiah 13:17).

O Elam - This was the name of the country originally possessed by the Persians, and was so called from Elam a son of Shem Genesis 10:22. It was east of the Euphrates, and comprehended properly the mountainous countries of Khusistan and Louristan, called by the Greek writers “Elymais.” In this country was Susa or Shushan, mentioned in Daniel 8:2. It is here put for Persia in general, and the call on Elam and Media to go up, was a call on the united kingdom of the Medes and Persians.

Besiege - That is, besiege Babylon.

O Media - (see the note at Isaiah 13:17).

All the sighing thereof have I made to cease - This has been very differently interpreted by expositors. Some understand it (as Rosenmuller, Jerome, and Lowth,) as designed to be taken in an “active” sense; that is, all the groaning “caused” by Babylon in her oppressions of others, and particularly of God’s people, would cease. Others refer it to the army of the Medes and Persians, as if “their” sighing should be over; that is, their fatigues and labors in the conquest of Babylon. Calvin supposes that it means that the Lord would be deaf to the sighs of Babylon; that is, he would disregard them and would bring upon them the threatened certain destruction. The probable meaning is that suggested by Jerome, that God would bring to an end all the sighs and groans which Babylon had caused in a world suffering under her oppressions (compare Isaiah 14:7-8).

Verse 3

Therefore - In this verse, and the following, the prophet represents himself as “in” Babylon, and as a witness of the calamities which would come upon the city. He describes the sympathy which he feels in her sorrows, and represents himself as deeply affected by her calamities. A similar description occurred in the pain which the prophet represents himself as enduring on account of the calamities of Moab (see Isaiah 15:5, note; Isaiah 16:11, note).

My loins - (see the note at Isaiah 16:11).

With pain - The word used here (חלחלה chalchâlâh) denotes properly the pains of parturition, and the whole figure is taken from that. The sense is, that the prophet was filled with the most acute sorrow and anguish, in view of the calamities which were coming on Babylon. That is, the sufferings of Babylon would be indescribably great and dreadful (see Nahum 2:11; Ezekiel 30:4, Ezekiel 30:9).

I was bowed down - Under the grief and sorrow produced by these calamities.

At the hearing it - The Hebrew may have this sense, and mean that these things were made to pass before the eye of the prophet, and that the sight oppressed him, and bowed him down. But more probably the Hebrew letter מ (m) in the word משׁמע mishemoa' is to be taken “privatively,” and means, ‘I was so bowed down or oppressed that I could not see; I was so dismayed that I could not hear;’ that is, all his senses were taken away by the greatness of the calamity, and by his sympathetic sufferings. A similar construction occurs in Psalms 69:23 : ‘Let their eyes be darkened that they see not’ (מראות mēre'ôth) that is, “from” seeing.

Verse 4

My heart panted - Margin, ‘My mind wandered.’ The Hebrew word rendered ‘panted’ (תעה tâ‛âh) means to wander about; to stagger; to be giddy; and is applied often to one that staggers by being intoxicated. Applied to the heart, it means that it is disquieted or troubled. The Hebrew word “heart” here is to be taken in the sense of “mind.”

The night of my pleasure - There can be no doubt that the prophet here refers to the night of revelry and riot in which Babylon was taken. The prophet calls it the night of “his” pleasure, because he represents himself as being “in” Babylon when it should be taken, and, therefore, uses such language as an inhabitant of Babylon would use. “They” would call it the night of their pleasure, because it was set apart to feasting and revelry.

Hath he turned into fear - God has made it a night of consternation and alarm. The prophet here refers to the fact that Babylon would be taken by Cyrus during that night, and that consternation and alarm would suddenly pervade the affrighted and guilty city (see Daniel 5:0).

Verse 5

Prepare the table - This verse is one of the most striking and remarkable that occurs in this prophecy, or indeed in any part of Isaiah. It is language supposed to be spoken in Babylon. The first direction - perhaps supposed to be that of the king - is to prepare the table for the feast. Then follows a direction to set a watch - to make the city safe, so that they might revel without fear. Then a command to eat and drink: and then immediately a sudden order, as if alarmed at an unexpected attack, to arise and anoint the shield, and to prepare for a defense. The “table” here refers to a feast - that impious feast mentioned in Daniel 5:0 in the night in which Babylon was taken, and Belshazzar slain. Herodotus (i. 195), Xenophon (“Cyr.” 7, 5), and Daniel Daniel 5:0 all agree in the account that Babylon was taken in the night in which the king and his nobles were engaged in feasting and revelry. The words of Xenophon are, ‘But Cyrus, when he heard that there was to be such a feast in Babylon, in which all the Babylonians would drink and revel through the whole night, on that night, as soon as it began to grow dark, taking many people, opened the dams into the river;’ that is, he opened the dykes which had been made by Semiramis and her successors to confine the waters of the Euphrates to one channel, and suffered the waters of the Euphrates again to flow over the country so that he could enter Babylon beneath its wall in the channel of the river. Xenophon has also given the address of Cyrus to the soldiers. ‘Now,’ says he, ‘let us go against them. Many of them are asleep; many of them are intoxicated; and all of them are unfit for battle (ἀσὺντακτοι asuntaktoi).’ Herodotus says (i. 191), ‘It was a day of festivity among them, and while the citizens were engaged in dance and merriment, Babylon was, for the first time, thus taken.’ Compare the account in Daniel 5:0.

Watch in the watch-tower - place a guard so that the city shall be secure. Babylon had on its walls many “towers,” placed at convenient distances (see the notes at Isaiah 13:0), in which guards were stationed to defend the city, and to give the alarm on any approach of an enemy. Xenophon has given a similar account of the taking of the city: ‘They having arranged their guards, drank until light.’ The oriental watch-towers are introduced in the book for the purpose of illustrating a general subject often referred to in the Scriptures.

Eat, drink - Give yourselves to revelry during the night (see Daniel 5:0)

Arise, ye princes - This language indicates sudden alarm. It is the language either of the prophet, or more probably of the king of Babylon, alarmed at the sudden approach of the enemy, and calling upon his nobles to arm themselves and make, a defense. The army of Cyrus entered Babylon by two divisions - one on the north where the waters of the Euphrates entered the city, and the other by the channel of the Euphrates on the south. Knowing that the city was given up to revelry on that night, they had agreed to imitate the sound of the revellers until they should assemble around the royal palace in the center of the city. They did so. When the king heard the noise, supposing that it was the sound of a drunken mob, he ordered the gates of the palace to be opened to ascertain the cause of the disturbance. When they were thus opened, the army of Cyrus rushed in, and made an immediate attack on all who were within. It is to this moment that we may suppose the prophet here refers, when the king, aroused and alarmed, would call on his nobles to arm themselves for battle (see Jahn’s “Hebrew Commonwealth,” p. 153, Ed. Andover, 1828).

Anoint the shield - That is, prepare for battle. Gesenius supposes that this means to rub over the shield with oil to make the leather more supple and impenetrable (compare 2 Samuel 1:21). The Chaldee renders it, ‘Fit, and polish your arms.’ The Septuagint, ‘Prepare shields.’ Shields were instruments of defense prepared to ward off the spears and arrows of an enemy in battle. They were usually made of a rim of brass or wood, and over this was drawn a covering of the skin of an ox or other animal in the manner of a drum-head with us. Occasionally the hide of a rhinoceros or an elephant was used. Burckhardt (“Travels in Nubia”) says that the Nubians use the hide of the hippopotamus for the making of shields. But whatever skin might be used, it was necessary occasionally to rub it over with oil lest it should become hard, and crack, or lest it should become so rigid that an arrow or a sword would easily break through it. Jarchi says, that ‘shields were made of skin, and that they anointed them with the oil of olive.’ The sense is, ‘Prepare your arms! Make ready for battle!’

Verse 6

Go, set a watchman - This was said to Isaiah in the vision. He represents himself as in Babylon, and as hearing God command him to set a watchman on the watch-tower who would announce what was to come to pass. All this is designed merely to bring the manner of the destruction of the city more vividly before the eye.

Verse 7

And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen - This passage is very obscure from the ambiguity of the word רכב rekeb - ‘chariot.’ Gesenius contends that it should be rendered ‘cavalry,’ and that it refers to cavalry two abreast hastening to the destruction of the city. The word רכב rekeb denotes properly a chariot or wagon Judges 5:28; a collection of wagons 2Ch 1:14; 2 Chronicles 8:6; 2 Chronicles 9:25; and sometimes refers to the “horses or men” attached to a chariot. ‘David houghed all the chariots’ 2 Samuel 8:4; that is, all the “horses” belonging to them. ‘David killed of the Syrians seven hundred chariots’ 2 Samuel 10:18; that is, all “the men” belonging to seven hundred chariots. According to the present Masoretic pointing, the word רכב rekeb does not mean, perhaps, anything else than a chariot strictly, but other forms of the word with the same letters denote “riders or cavalry.” Thus, the word רכב rakâb denotes a horseman 2 Kings 9:17; a charioteer or driver of a chariot 1 Kings 22:34; Jeremiah 51:21. The verb רבב râbab means “to ride,” and is usually applied to riding on the backs of horses or camels; and the sense here is, that the watchman saw “a riding,” or persons riding two abreast; that is, “cavalry,” or men borne on horses, and camels, and asses, and hastening to attack the city.

With a couple of horsemen - The word ‘couple’ (צמד tsemed) means properly a “yoke or pair;” and it means here that the cavalry was seen “in pairs, that is,” two abreast.

A chariot of asses - Or rather, as above, “a riding” on donkeys - an approach of men in this manner to battle. Asses were formerly used in war where horses could not be procured. Thus Strabo (xv. 2, 14) says of the inhabitants of Caramania, ‘Many use donkeys for war in the want of horses.’ And Herodotus (iv. 129) says expressly that Darius Hystaspes employed donkeys in a battle with the Scythians.

And a chariot of camels - A “riding” on camels. Camels also were used in war, perhaps usually to carry the baggage (see Diod. ii. 54; iii. 44; Livy, xxxvii. 40; Strabo, xvi. 3). They are used for all purposes of burden in the East, and particularly in Arabia.

Verse 8

And he cried, A lion - Margin, ‘As a lion.’ This is the correct rendering. The particle כ (k) - ‘as,’ is not unfrequently omitted (see Isaiah 62:5; Psalms 11:1). That is, ‘I see them approach with the fierceness, rapidity, and terror of a lion (compare Revelation 10:3).

My lord, I stand continually upon the watch-tower - This is the speech of the watchman, and is addressed, not to Yahweh, but to him that appointed him. It is designed to show the “diligence” with which he had attended to the object for which he was appointed. He had been unceasing in his observation; and the result was, that now at length he saw the enemy approach like a lion, and it was certain that Babylon now must fall. The language used here has a striking resemblance to the opening of the “Agamemnon” of AEschylus; being the speech of the watchman, who had been very long upon his tower looking for the signal which should make known that Troy had fallen. It thus commences:

‘Forever thus! O keep me not, ye gods,

Forever thus, fixed in the lonely tower

Of Atreus’ palace, from whose height I gaze

O’er watched and weary, like a night-dog, still

Fixed to my post; meanwhile the rolling year

Moves on, and I my wakeful vigils keep

By the cold star-light sheen of spangled skies.’

Symmons, quoted in the “Pictorial Bible.”

I am set in my ward - My place where one keeps watch. It does not mean that he was confined or imprisoned, but that he had kept his watch station (משׁמרת mishemeret from שׁמר shâmar “to watch, to keep, to attend to”).

Whole nights - Margin, ‘Every night.’ It means that he had not left his post day or night.

Verse 9

And, behold ... a chariot of men - This place shows that the word ‘chariot’ (רכב rekeb) may denote something else than a wagon or carriage, as a chariot drawn by men cannot be intended. The sense can be expressed, perhaps, by the word “riding,” ‘I see a riding of men approach;’ that is, I see “cavalry” drawing near, or men riding and hastening to the battle.

With a couple of horsemen - The word ‘with’ is not in the Hebrew. The meaning is, ‘I see a riding of men, or cavalry; and they come in pairs, or two abreast.’ A part of the sentence is to be supplied from Isaiah 21:7. He saw not only horsemen, but riders on donkeys and camels.

And he answered - That is, the watchman answered. The word ‘answer,’ in the Scriptures, means often merely to commence a discourse after an interval; to begin to speak Job 3:2; Daniel 2:26; Acts 5:8.

Babylon is fallen - That is, her ruin is certain. Such a mighty army is drawing near, and they approach so well prepared for battle, that the ruin of Babylon is inevitable. The “repetition” of this declaration that ‘Babylon is fallen,’ denotes emphasis and certainty. Compare Psalms 92:9 :

For lo, thine enemies, O Lord,

For lo, thine enemies shall perish.

Psalms 93:3 :

The floods have lifted up, O Lord;

The floods have lifted up their waves.

A similar description is given of the fall of Babylon in Jeremiah 50:32; Jeremiah 51:8; and John has copied this description in the account of the overthrow of the mystical Babylon Revelation 18:1-2. Babylon was distinguished for its pride, arrogance, and haughtiness. It became, therefore, the emblem of all that is haughty, and as such is used by John in the Apocalypse; and as such it was a most striking emblem of the pride, arrogance, haughtiness, and oppression which have always been evinced by Papal Rome.

And all the graven images - Babylon was celebrated for its idolatry, and perhaps was the place where the worship of idols commenced. The principal god worshipped there was Belus, or Bel (see the note at Isaiah 46:1).

Are broken ... - That is, shall be destroyed; or, in spite of its idols, the whole city would be ruined.

Verse 10

O my threshing - The words ‘to thresh,’ ‘to tread down,’ etc., are often used in the Scriptures to denote punishments inflicted on the enemies of God. An expression likes this occurs in Jeremiah 51:33, in describing the destruction of Babylon: ‘The daughter of Babylon is like a threshing floor; it is time to thresh her.’ In regard to the mode of threshing among the Hebrews, and the pertinency of this image to the destruction of the enemies of God, see the note at Isaiah 28:27. Lowth, together with many others, refers this to Babylon, and regards it as an address of God to Babylon in the midst of her punishment: ‘O thou, the object on which I shall exercise the severity of my discipline; that shall lie under my afflicting hand like grain spread out upon the floor to be threshed out and winnowed, to separate the chaff from the wheat.’ But the expression can be applied with more propriety to the Jews; and may be regarded as the language of “tenderness” addressed by God through the prophet to his people when they should be oppressed and broken down in Babylon: ‘O thou, my people, who hast been afflicted and crushed; who hast been under my chastening hand, and reduced to these calamities on account of your sins; hear what God has spoken respecting the destruction of Babylon, and your consequent certain deliverance.’ Thus it is the language of consolation; and is designed, like the prophecies in Isaiah 13:0; Isaiah 14:0, to comfort the Jews, when they should be in Babylon, with the certainty that they would be delivered. The language of “tenderness” in which the address is couched, as well as the connection, seems to demand this interpretation.

And the corn of my floor - Hebrew, ‘The son of my threshing floor’ - a Hebraism for grain that was on the floor to be threshed. The word ‘son’ is often used in this special manner among the Hebrews (see the note at Matthew 1:1).

That which I have heard ... - This shows the scope or design of the whole prophecy - to declare to the Jews the destruction that would come upon Babylon, and their own consequent deliverance. It was important that they should be “assured” of that deliverance, and hence, Isaiah “repeats” his predictions, and minutely states the manner in which their rescue would be accomplished.

Verse 11

Analysis of Isaiah 21:11, Isaiah 21:12. - VISION 17. Dumah, or Idumea.

The burden - (see the note at Isaiah 13:1). This word ‘burden’ naturally leads to the supposition that “calamity” in some form was contemplated in the prophecy. This is also indicated in the prophecy by the word night.

Of Dumah - Dumah (דוּמה dûmâh) is mentioned in Genesis 25:14, and 1 Chronicles 1:30, as one of the twelve sons of Ishmael. It is known that those sons settled in Arabia, and that the Arabians derive their origin from Ishmael. The name ‘Dumah,’ therefore, properly denotes one of the wandering tribes of the Ishmaelites. The Septuagint evidently read this as if it had been אדום 'ĕdôm - Edom or Idumea - Ἰδουμαία Idoumaia Jakut mentions two places in Arabia to which the name ‘Dumah’ is given, Dumah Irak, and Dumah Felsen. The former of these, which Gesenius supposes is the place here intended, lies upon the borders of the Syrian desert, and is situated in a valley seven days’ journey from Damascus, according to Abulfeda, in lon. 45 degrees E.; and in lat. 29 degrees 30’ N; and about three and a half days’ journey from Medina. Niebuhr mentions Dumah as a station of the Wehabites (see Gesenius, “Commentary in loc.”) There can be little doubt that the place referred to is situated on the confines of the Arabian and Syrian deserts, and that it is the place called by the Arabians “Duma the stony, or Syrian Duma” (Robinson’s Calmet). It has a fortress, and is a place of strength Jerome says, ‘Duma is not the whole province of Idumea, but is a certain region which lies toward the south, and is twenty miles distant from a city of Palestine called Eleutheropolis, near which are the mountains of Seir.’ It is evident from the prophecy itself that Idumea is particularly referred to, for the prophet immediately adds, that the voice came to him from mount ‘Seir,’ which was the principal mountain of Idumea. Why the name ‘Dumah’ is used to designate that region has been a matter on which critics have been divided.

Vitringa supposes that it is by a play upon the word ‘Dumah,’ because the word “may” be derived from דמם dâmam to be silent, to be still; and that it is used to denote the “silence,” or the “night,” which was about to come upon Idumea; that is, the calamity of which this was a prediction. Kocher supposes that the prophet used the word denoting ‘silence’ (דוּמה dûmâh) by a paranomasia, and by derision for אדום 'ĕdôm, as if Idumea was soon to be reduced to silence, or to destruction. Idumea, or the country of Edom, is frequently referred to by the prophets (see Jeremiah 49:7-10, Jeremiah 49:12-18; Ezekiel 35:1-4, Ezekiel 35:7, Ezekiel 35:9, Ezekiel 35:14-15; Joel 3:19; Amos 1:11; Obadiah 1:2-18; Malachi 1:3-4). For a description of Idumea, and of the prophecies respecting it, see the notes at Isaiah 34:0.

He calleth - One calleth; there is a voice heard by me from Seir. Lowth renders it, ‘A voice crieth unto me.’ But the sense is, that the prophet hears one crying, or calling (קרא qorē') to him from the distant mountain.

Unto me - The prophet Isaiah.

Out of Seir - The name ‘Seir’ was given to a mountainous tract or region of country that stretched along from the southern part of the Dead Sea, to the eastern branch of the Red Sea, terminating near Ezion-geber. Mount Hor formed a part of this range of mountains. Esau and his descendants possessed the mountains of Seir, and hence, the whole region obtained the name of Edom or Idumea. Mount Seir was anciently the residence of the “Horites” Genesis 14:6, but Esau made war upon them and destroyed them (compare Genesis 36:8-9; Deuteronomy 2:5, Deuteronomy 2:12). Here it is put for the country of Idumea, and the sense is, that the whole land, or the inhabitants of the land, are heard by the prophet in a taunting manner asking him what of the night.

Watchman - (see the note at Isaiah 21:6). The prophet Isaiah is here referred to (compare Isaiah 52:8; Isaiah 56:10). He is represented as being in the midst of the calamities that had come upon Judea, and as having his station in desolate Jerusalem, and looking for the signs of returning day. The eye is turned toward the east - the source from where light comes, and from where the exiles would return to their own land. Thus anxiously waiting for the indications of mercy to his desolate country, he hears this taunting voice from Idumea, asking him what was the prospect? what evidence there was of returning prosperity?

What of the night? - (compare Habakkuk 2:1). ‘How stands the night? What is the prospect? What have you to announce respecting the night? How much of it is passed? And what is the prospect of the dawn?’ ‘Night’ here is the emblem of calamity, affliction, oppression, as it often is in the Scriptures (compare Job 35:10; Micah 3:6); and it refers here probably to the calamities which had come upon Judea. The inquiry is, How much of that calamity had passed? What was the prospect? How long was it to continue? How far was it to spread? The inquiry is “repeated” here to denote “intensity” or “emphasis,” manifesting the deep interest which the inquirer had in the result, or designed to give emphasis and point to the cutting taunt.

Verse 12

The watchman said - Or rather “saith;” indicating that this is the answer which the prophet returned to the inquiry from Idumea.

The morning cometh - There are signs of approaching day. The ‘morning’ here is an emblem of prosperity; as the light of the morning succeeds to the darkness of the night. This refers to the deliverance from the captivity of Babylon, and is to be supposed as having been spoken near the time when that captivity was at an end - or nearly at break of day after the long night of their bondage. This declaration is to be understood as referring to a different people from those referred to in the expression which immediately follows - ‘and also the night.’ ‘The morning cometh’ - to the captive Jews; ‘and also the night’ - to some other people - to wit, the Idumeans. It “might” mean that the morning was to be succeeded by a time of darkness to the same people; but the connection seems to demand that we understand it of others.

And also the night - A time of calamity and affliction. This is emphatic. It refers to the Idumeans. ‘The morning cometh to the captive Jews; it shall be closely succeeded by a night - a time of calamity - to the taunting Idumeans.’ During the captivity of the Jews in Babylon, the Idumeans invaded and took possession of the southern part of Judea. The prophet here refers to the fact, perhaps, that on the return of the Jews to their native land, they would revenge this by expelling them, and by inflicting punishment on the land of Edom. For a full proof that calamities came upon the land of Idumea, see Keith “On the Prophecies.” Art. “Idumea,” and the notes at Isaiah 34:0)

If ye will inquire, inquire ye - If you choose to ask anything further in regard to this, you can. The sense is probably this: ‘You Idumeans have asked respecting the night in derision and reproach. An answer has been given somewhat agreeably to that inquiry. But if you seriously wish to know anything further respecting the destiny of your land, you can ask me (Isaiah) or any other prophet, and it will be known. But ask it in seriousness and earnestness, and with a suitable regard for the prophetic character and for God. And especially if you wish a more favorable answer to your inquiries, it is to be obtained only by forsaking sin and turning to God, and then you may come with the hope of a brighter prospect for the future.’ The design of this is, therefore:

(1) to “reprove” them for the manner in which they had asked the question;

(2) to assure them that God was willing to direct humble and serious inquirers; and

(3) to show in what way a favorable answer could be obtained - to wit, by repentance. And this is as true of sinners now as it was then. “They” often evince the reproachful and taunting spirit which the Idumeans did. “They” hear only a similar response - that prosperity and happiness await the Christian, though now in darkness and affliction; and that calamity and destruction are before the guilty. They “might” have the same answer - an answer that God would bless them and save them, if they would inquire in a humble, serious, and docile manner.

Return - Turn from your sins; come back to God, and show respect for him and his declarations.

Come - “Then” come and you shall be accepted, and the watch man will also announce “morning” as about to dawn on you. This seems to be the sense of this very dark and difficult prophecy. It is brief, enigmatical, and obscure. Yet it is beautiful; and if the sense above given be correct, it contains most weighty and important truth - alike for the afflicted and persecuted friends, and the persecuting and taunting foes of God. With reference to the interpretation here proposed, which supposes, as will have been seen:

(1) a state of excited feeling on the part of the Jews toward the Idumeans, for the part which they took in the destruction of their city;

(2) the prospect of speedy deliverance to the Jews in Babylon; and

(3) a consequent desolation and vengeance on the Idumeans for the feelings which they had manifested in the destruction of Jerusalem, see the prophecy of Obadiah, Obadiah 1:8-21 :

Shall I not in that day, saith the Lord,

Even destroy the wise men out of Edom,

And understanding out of the mount of Esau?

And thy mighty men, O Teman, shall be dismayed,

To the end that every one of the mount of Esau

May be cut off by slaughter.

For thy violence against thy brother Jacob shame shall cover thee,

And thou shalt be cut off for ever.

In the day that thou stoodest on the other side;

In the day that the stranger carried away captive his forces;

And foreigners entered into his gates, and cast lots upon Jerusalem;

Even thou wast as one of them.

But thou shouldest not have looked on the day of thy brother

In the day that he became a stranger;

Neither shouldest thou have rejoiced over the children of Judah

In the day of their destruction;

Neither shouldest thou have spoken proudly in the day of distress.

For the day of the Lord is near upon all the heathen;

As thou hast done, it shall be done unto thee;

Thy reward shall return upon thine own head, etc.

In this prophecy these circumstances are all to be found;

(1) the hostility of the Edomites against Jerusalem, and the part which they took in the destruction of the city, in Isaiah 21:10-14;

(2) the fact of the deliverance of the Jews from captivity, in Isaiah 22:17;

(3) the consequent vengeance upon the Idumeans Isaiah 34:5-6.

This remarkable coincidence in an independent prophecy is a strong circumstance to prove that the interpretation above proposed is correct. In regard to the general reasons for the interpretation here proposed, and the lessons which the prophecy is suited to convey, I may be permitted to refer to my “Practical Sermons,” pp. 325-341.

Verse 13

Analysis of Isaiah 21:13-17. - Vision 18. “Arabia.”

The burden - (see the note at Isaiah 13:1).

Upon Arabia - (בערב ba‛ărâb). This is an unusual form. The title of the prophecies is usually without the ב (b) rendered ‘upon.’ Lowth supposes this whole title to be of doubtful authority, chiefly because it is missing in most MSS. of the Septuagint. The Septuagint connects it with the preceding prophecy respecting Dumab, and makes this a continuance of that. The preposition ב (b) - ‘upon,’ means here “respecting, concerning,” and is used instead of על al as in Zechariah 9:1. Arabia is a well-known country of western Asia, lying south and southeast of Judea. It was divided into three parts, Arabia Deserta, on the east; Arabia Petrea, lying south of Judea; and Arabia Felix, lying still further south. What part of Arabia is here denoted it may not be easy to determine. It is probable that it was Arabia Petrea, because this lay between Judea and Egypt, and would be exposed to invasion by the Assyrians should they invade Egypt; and because this part of Arabia furnished, more than the others, such retreats and fastnesses as are mentioned in Isaiah 21:13-15.

In the forest - (ביער baya‛ar). The word (יער ya‛ar) ‘forest’ usually denotes a grove, a collection of trees. But it may mean here, any place of refuge from a pursuing foe; a region of thick underwood; an uncultivated, inaccessible place, where they would be concealed from an invading enemy. The word rendered ‘forest’ is commonly supposed to mean a forest in the sense in which that word is now used by us, meaning an extensive wood - large tract of land covered with trees. It is doubtful, however, whether the word is so used in the Bible. The Rev. Eli Smith stated to me that he had visited several of the places in Palestine to which the word (יער ya‛ar) ‘forest’ or ‘grove’ is given, and that he was satisfied that there never was a forest there in our use of the word. The same word יער ya‛ar - the י (y) not being used to begin a word in Arabic, but the ו (v) being used instead of it - occurs often in Arabic. It means, as used by the Arabs, a rough, stony, impassable place; a place where there are no roads; which is inaccessible; and which is a safe retreat for robbers - and it is not improbable that the word is so used here.

In Arabia - (בערב ba‛ărâb). The Septuagint, the Vulgate, and the Chaldee, understand this of the “evening” - ‘In the evening.’ The word ערב ereb, with different points from those which the Masorites have used here, means “evening,” but there is no necessity of departing from the translation in our English version. The sense would not be materially affected whichever rendering should be preferred.

Shall ye lodge - Shall you pass the night. This is the usual signification of the word. But here it may be taken in a larger sense, as denoting that they would pitch their tents there, or that they would seek a refuge there. The sense I suppose to be this: ‘O ye traveling caravans of Dedan! Ye were accustomed to pass through Arabia, and to find a safe and hospitable entertainment there. But now, the Arabians shall be overrun by a foreign enemy; they shall be unable to show you hospitality, and to insure your safety in their tents, and for fear of the enemy still in the land you will be obliged to seek a lodging in the inaccessible thickets of the forests.’ The passage is intended to denote the “change” that had taken place, and to show the “insecurity” for caravans.

O ye traveling companies - Ye “caravans” (ארחות 'orechôt). This word usually signifies “ways, paths, cross roads.” But it is used here evidently to denote those who “traveled” in such ways or paths; that is, caravans of merchants. So it is used in Job 6:19 : ‘The caravans of Tema.’ It is well known that in the East it is usual for large companies to travel together, called “caravans.” Arabia Petrea was a great thoroughfare for such companies.

Of Dedanim - Descendants of “Dedan.” There are two men of this name mentioned in the Old Testament - the son of Raamah, the son of Cush, mentioned in Genesis 10:7; and the son of Jokshan, the son of Abraham by Keturah Genesis 25:3. The descendants of the latter settled in Arabia Petrea, and the descendants of the former near the Persian Gulf. It is not easy to determine which is here intended, though most probably those who dwelt near the Persian Gulf, because they are often mentioned as merchants. They dealt in ivory, ebony, etc., and traded much with Tyre Ezekiel 27:21, and doubtless also with Egypt. They are here represented as passing through Arabia Petrea on their way to Egypt, and as compelled by the calamities in the country to find a refuge in its fastnesses and inaccessible places.

Verse 14

Of the land of Tema - Tema was one of the sons of Ishmael Genesis 25:15, and is supposed to have populated the city of Thema in Arabia Deserta. The word denotes hero one of the tribes of Ishmael, or of the Arabians. Job speaks Job 6:19 of ‘the troops of Tema,’ and Jeremiah Jeremiah 25:23 connects Tema and Dedan together. Jerome and Eusebius say that the village of Theman (Θαιμάν Thaiman) existed in their time. It was, according to Jerome, five, and according to Eusebius, fifteen miles from Petra, and was then occupied as a Roman garrison (Onomas Urb. et Locor). Ptolemy speaks of a city called Themme (Θαιμάν Themmē) in Arabia Deserta. This city lies, according to D’Anville, in longitude 57 degrees East, and in latitude 27 degrees North. According to Seetsen, it is on the road usually pursued by caravans from Mecca to Damascus. Lowth renders it ‘The southern country,’ but without authority. The Septuagint renders it, Θαιμάν Thaiman - ‘Thaiman.’

Brought water - Margin, ‘Bring ye.’ This might be rendered in the imperative, but the connection seems rather to require that it be read as a declaration that they did so. To bring water to the thirsty was an act of hospitality, and especially in eastern countries, where water was so scarce, and where it was of so much consequence to the traveler in the burning sands and deserts. The idea is, that the inhabitants of the land would be oppressed and pursued by an enemy; and that the Arabians, referred to by the prophet Isaiah 21:13, would be driven from their homes; and be dependent on others; that they would wander through the vast deserts, deprived of the necessaries of life; and that they would be dependent on the charity of the people of Tema for the supply of their needs. The following illustration of this passage has been kindly furnished me by the Rev. Eli Smith, missionary to Syria, showing that Isaiah, in mentioning “hospitality” as one of the virtues of the inhabitants of Tema, drew from the life. ‘Even in Hebrew prophecy hospitality is distinctly recognized as a trait in the Arab character. Isaiah says, “the inhabitants of Tema,” etc. Tema is known as an oasis in the heart of Arabia, between Syria and Mecca. And among the scraps of ante-Mahometan poetry that have reached us, is one by Samaciel, a prince of this same Tema. In extolling the virtues of his tribe he says -

“No fire of ours was ever extinguished at night without a guest, and of our guests never did one disparage us.”

‘In the passage quoted from Isaiah, it is to the thirsty and hungry in flight, that the inhabitants of Tema are represented as bringing water and bread, as if hastening to afford them protection. The extent to which this protection is sometimes carried, is finely illustrated by a traditionary anecdote in the life of Samaciel, the prince and poet of Tema just mentioned. In some feud among the tribes in his neighborhood, a prince (Amru el-Keis) fled to Samaciel, left with him his treasures, and was conducted by him beyond the reach of his enemies. They assembled their forces, and marched upon Tema. On their way Samaciel’s son fell into their hands. Presenting the young man before his castle, they proposed to the father the dreadful alternative, of delivering up to them what his guest had left, or seeing his son massacred. Samaciel’s sense of honor dictated the reply -

“He honored me, and I’ll honor him ... Treachery is a chain to the neck that never wears out.” So he defended the rights of his guest, and his son was slain.’

They prevented - Our word ‘prevent’ usually means at present, to hinder, to obstruct. But in the Scriptures, and in the Old English sense of the word, it means to anticipate, to go before. That is the sense of the word קדמוּ qidemû here. They “anticipated” their needs by bread; that is, they supplied them. This was an ancient and an honorable rite of hospitality. Thus Melchizedek Genesis 14:17-18 is said to have come out and met Abraham, when returning victorious from the slaughter of Chedorlaomer, with bread and wine.

Him that fled - The inhabitant of the land of Arabia that fled before the invader, perhaps the inhabitants of Kedar Isaiah 21:16, or of some other part of Arabia. It is not meant that the “whole” land of Arabia would be desolate, but that the invasion would come upon certain parts of it; and the inhabitants of other portions - as of Tema - would supply the needs of the fugitives.

Verse 15

For they fled - The inhabitants of one part of the land.

The grievousness of war - Hebrew, כבד kobed - “the weight, the heaviness, the oppression” of war; probably from the calamities that would result from the march of the Assyrian through their land, either on his way to Judea or to Egypt.

Verse 16

Within a year - What has been said before was figurative. Here the prophet speaks without a metaphor, and fixes the time when this should be accomplished. It is not usual for the prophets to designate the exact “time” of the fulfillment of their prophecies in this manner.

According to the years of an hireling - Exactly; observing the precise time specified Job 7:1. See the phrase explained on Isaiah 16:14.

All the glory - The beauty, pride, strength, wealth, etc.

Of Kedar - Kedar was a son of Ishmael Genesis 25:15. He was the father of the Kedareneans or “Cedrai,” mentioned by Pithy (“Nat. Hist.” v. 11). They dwelt in the neighborhood of the Nabatheans, in Arabia Deserta. These people lived in tents, and were a wandering tribe, and it is not possible to fix the precise place of their habitation. They resided, it is supposed, in the south part of Arabia Deserts, and the north part of Arabia Petrea. The name ‘Kedar’ seems to be used sometimes to denote Arabia in general, or Arabia Deserts particularly (see Psalms 120:5; Song of Solomon 1:5; Isaiah 42:11; Isaiah 60:7; Jeremiah 2:10; Jeremiah 49:28; Ezekiel 26:21).

Shall fail - Shall be consumed, destroyed (כלה kâlâh).

Verse 17

And the residue of the number - That is, those who shall be left in the invasion. Or perhaps it may be read, ‘There shall be a renmant of the number of bowmen; the mighty people of Kedar shall be diminished.’

Of archers - Hebrew, ‘Of the bow;’ that is, of those who use bows in war. The bow was the common instrument in hunting and in war among the ancients.

Shall be diminished - Hebrew, ‘Shall be made small;’ they shall be reduced to a very small number. We cannot indeed determine the precise historical event to which this refers, but the whole connection and circumstances seem to make it probable that it referred to the invasion by the Assyrian when he went up against Judah, or when he was on his way to Egypt.

Bibliographical Information
Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Isaiah 21". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". 1870.