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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 13

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes

Verse 1

A general title for chapters 13-23, and particularly the oracle against Babylon (Isaiah 13:2 to Isaiah 14:27), opens chapter 13. An oracle (or burden) is a message from God. Babylon was at this time an ancient city, it would later be an empire, and it had been in the past the historical source of arrogant self-sufficiency (Genesis 11:1-9). When Isaiah wrote, it was a town within the Assyrian Empire that was asserting itself and was a real threat to Assyrian supremacy. Merodach-baladan was its king at this time (ca. 702 B.C.; cf. ch. 39). Isaiah "saw" the oracle in the sense that God enabled him to understand the things He proceeded to reveal (cf. Isaiah 1:1).

Verses 1-22

B. God’s sovereignty over the nations chs. 13-35

This major section of the book emphasizes the folly of trusting in the nations rather than in Yahweh. The section preceding it shows how King Ahaz trusted in Assyria and experienced destruction (chs. 7-12). The section following it shows how King Hezekiah trusted in the Lord and experienced deliverance (chs. 36-39). In this present section, the prophet expanded his perspective from Israel to include the world. The God of Israel is also Lord of the nations. This whole section of the book expands the idea that all the kingdoms of the world will become the kingdom of God and His Christ, Immanuel (cf. Daniel 2:44).

1. Divine judgments on the nations chs. 13-23

"This second section of the book’s first main unit [chs. 1-39] presents a series of judgment oracles against various nations (chapters 13-23). This litany of judgment sets the stage for a vision of worldwide judgment that ushers in the Lord’s kingdom on earth (chapters 24-27)." [Note: Chisholm, Handbook on . . ., p. 46.]

The recurrence of the Hebrew word massa’, translated "oracle" or "burden," prescribes the boundaries of this section of text. There are 10 oracles beginning in Isaiah 13:1; Isaiah 14:28; Isaiah 15:1; Isaiah 17:1; Isaiah 19:1; Isaiah 21:1; Isaiah 21:11; Isaiah 21:13; Isaiah 22:1 and Isaiah 23:1. Chapters 13-23 present the nations over which Immanuel is ruler, and they announce judgment on them all for their pride (Isaiah 10:5-34; cf. Isaiah 2:6-22; Isaiah 13:11; Isaiah 13:19; Isaiah 14:11; Isaiah 16:6; Isaiah 17:7-11; Isaiah 23:9). They are announcements of doom on these nations, but they are also announcements of salvation for Israel if she would trust in Yahweh. Isaiah delivered them to the Israelites, rather than to the nations mentioned, at various times during his prophetic ministry. Thus they assured God’s people of Yahweh’s sovereignty over the nations with a view to encouraging them to rely in the Lord (cf. Jeremiah 46-51; Ezekiel 25-32; Amos 1-2). It would be foolish to trust in nations whom God has doomed. The unifying theme is the pride of these nations. Exalting self and failing to submit to God results in destruction.

". . . He [God] will hold every nation accountable for its actions." [Note: A. Martin, Isaiah . . ., p. 47.]

Alec Motyer provided a helpful diagram of the structure of this section (chs. 13-23) and the one that follows it (chs. 24-27). [Note: Adapted from Motyer, p. 133.]

(Isaiah 13:1 to Isaiah 14:27)
Political overthrow
The desert by the sea (Babylon) (Isaiah 21:1-10)
Religious overthrow
The city of emptiness
(Isaiah 24:1-20)
Broken laws and gates
(Isaiah 14:28-32)
A Davidic king will yet reign in Zion
Silence (Edom)
(Isaiah 21:11-12)
Indefinite continuance of things as they are
Zion’s king
(Isaiah 24:21-23)
"After many days"
(chs. 15-16)
Moab in need, but through pride suffers destruction in spite of shelter in Zion
Evening (Arabia)
(Isaiah 21:13-17)
Desert tribes in need: no ultimate refuge in mutual security
The great banquet
(ch. 25)
All nations feasted in Zion save Moab, excluded by pride
(chs. 17-18)
Strong cities forsaken; the forgotten rock
The Valley of Vision (Jerusalem)
(ch. 22)
The city torn down
The city of God
(ch. 26)
The strong city; the everlasting rock
(chs. 19-20)
Co-equal membership: Egypt, Assyria and Israel
(ch. 23)
Holiness to the Lord
The final gathering
(ch. 27)
The harvest from Egypt and Assyria

Note that each of the first two columns of oracles (chs. 13-23) begins with Babylon, and the fourth section of each of these columns deals with Israel, which the peoples of the world surround in the literary structure of the passage. In the first column: Babylon is to Israel’s north, Philistia to the west, Moab to the east, and Egypt to the south. In the second column: Babylon is to the north, Edom to the south, Arabia to the east, and Tyre to the west. Thus the selection of these nations in the literary structure of the passage suggests that Israel occupies the central place in God’s plans, and the surrounding nations are vulnerable. [Note: See the map of Palestine at the end of these notes.]

"The oracles probably had a twofold purpose. For those leaders who insisted on getting embroiled in international politics, these oracles were a reminder that Judah need not fear foreign nations or seek international alliances for security reasons. For the righteous remnant within the nation, these oracles were a reminder that Israel’s God was indeed the sovereign ruler of the earth, worthy of his people’s trust." [Note: The NET Bible note on 13:1.]

The first series of five oracles chs. 13-20

The first series (column) shows that God has placed Israel at the center of His dealings with the Gentile nations. The second series of oracles projects the principles revealed in the first series into the future, moving from concrete historical names to more enigmatic allusions. The third series points far ahead into the eschatological future but shows that the same principles will apply then. God’s dealings with the nations in Isaiah’s day were a sign of His similar dealings with them in the future.

Verses 1-27

The first oracle against Babylon 13:1-14:27

The reader would expect that Isaiah would inveigh against Assyria, since it was the most threatening enemy in his day, and since he referred to it many times in earlier chapters. However, he did not mention Assyria in this section but Babylon, an empire that came into its own about a century after Isaiah’s time. Babylon was a symbol of self-exalting pride, and its glory, dating back to the tower of Babel (cf. Isaiah 13:5; Isaiah 13:10-11). Thus what he said about Babylon was applicable to Assyria and other similar self-exalting powers in the eastern part of Israel’s world. Similarly, what marked the Medes (Isaiah 13:17-18) was their fierce destruction of their enemies, which was already in view but would become more obvious in the years that followed. When the prophet lived and wrote, Babylon was a real entity within Assyria, but Isaiah used it to represent all the nations in that area that shared its traits (cf. Genesis 9:20-25; Revelation 17-18). Behind Assyria Isaiah saw the spirit of Babel, which he condemned here. Yet this is also a prophecy against real Babylon. "Babylon" is the Greek name for "Babel."

The literary structure of this oracle, omitting the introduction (Isaiah 13:1), is chiastic.

"A The day of the Lord: the beckoning hand, a universal purpose declared (Isaiah 13:2-16)

B The overthrow of Babylon: the end of the kingdom, the fact of divine overthrow (Isaiah 13:17-22)

C The security and future of the Lord’s people: a contrasting universal purpose (Isaiah 14:1-2)

B’ The overthrow of Babylon: the end of the king, the explanation of divine overthrow (Isaiah 14:3-23)

A’ The end of Assyrian power: the outstretched hand, a universal purpose exemplified and validated (Isaiah 14:24-27)" [Note: Motyer, p. 135.]

Verses 2-16

This section is an introduction to all 10 oracles that follow in chapters 13-23, as well as to the first oracle against Babylon. It explains why God will judge Gentile nations: they refuse to acknowledge Yahweh’s sovereignty and instead exalt and glorify themselves. The story of the building of the tower of Babel is the classic expression of this hubris (overweening pride; Genesis 11:1-9).

Isaiah related a message from God, summoning His warriors to assemble, so they could carry out His will in judging those with whom He was angry. Raising a flag on a hilltop and calling warriors to assemble pictures God doing this (Isaiah 13:2-3; cf. Revelation 9:16). Many warriors from many kingdoms far away would respond to the Lord’s command, and gather together to do battle as His instruments (Isaiah 13:4-5; cf. Daniel 11:40-45; Revelation 14:14-20; Revelation 16:12-16; Revelation 19:17-19). The day of the Lord, the day in which He will actively intervene in history, would be close by (Heb. qarob). The Hebrew word describes the total preparedness of that day to dawn whenever the Lord decides that its time has come. It does not necessarily mean that the day is imminent. Therefore everyone should wail (or howl; cf. Amos 5:16-17). It would be a day when the Almighty would send destruction (Isaiah 13:6; cf. Isaiah 13:9; Isaiah 13:13).

"In the Hebrew Bible the title ’Almighty’ (Heb. ’Shaddai’) depicts God as the sovereign king and judge of the world who both gives and takes away life." [Note: Chisholm, Handbook on . . ., p. 48. For a study of proposed derivations of the Hebrew name, see T. N. D. Mettinger, In Search of God, pp. 70-71.]

The prospect of sudden, inevitable, inescapable destruction at the hand of the Almighty would make everyone tremble with fear. They would not know where to turn (Isaiah 13:7-8; cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:3). The coming judgment would desolate the whole earth and exterminate sinners from it, specifically those who miss the mark of righteousness (Isaiah 13:9). This judgment would involve the darkening of the sun, moon, and stars (cf. Isaiah 34:4; Ezekiel 32:7; Joel 2:10; Joel 2:30-31; Joel 3:15; Zechariah 14:6-7; Matthew 24:29; Revelation 8:12). Since the pagans worshipped these objects, this announcement signals the judging of them as idols as well (Isaiah 13:10).

The reason for this wrathful judgment is the evil of wicked people, especially their pride and haughtiness (Isaiah 13:11). Rather than human pride resulting in increasing good conditions for ever-expanding numbers of people, it will result in the cutting back of the human population (Isaiah 13:12; cf. Revelation 6:8; Revelation 9:15). The heavens and the earth would shake at the fury of Yahweh of armies when His anger would burn against the wicked (Isaiah 13:13; cf. Isaiah 24:18; Joel 2:10; Joel 3:16; Haggai 2:6-7; Haggai 2:21-22; Revelation 6:12; Revelation 8:5; Revelation 11:13; Revelation 11:19; Revelation 16:18). People will scatter like frightened gazelles and sheep in that day as they seek security (cf. Revelation 6:15-17). God’s warriors will slay all the wicked that they can find. Children will be unmercifully slaughtered in the sight of their parents. Houses will be looted and women raped (Isaiah 13:14-16).

"If we don’t have a just God to trust in, we will have no logical reason not to become violent ourselves. It is Isaiah’s vision of God’s final justice that moderates our anger and frustration right now." [Note: Ortlund, p. 125.]

Verses 17-22

This pericope foretells the destruction of Babylon. Prophecies of the day of the Lord may describe the eschatological judgment coming (Isaiah 13:2-16), or a more recent, limited judgment coming (Isaiah 13:17-22). Each soon-coming judgment on a particular segment of humanity foreshadows the great eschatological judgment that will fall on the whole human race in the Tribulation. This destruction of Babylon was a judgment of the Lord in a day that would be closer to Isaiah’s own time, a near and limited fulfillment of the day that the prophet just described. The fall of Assyria (Isaiah 14:24-27) was one fulfillment, and the later fall of Babylon (Isaiah 13:17-22) was another. The same principles that operate in the eschatological day of the Lord just described also operate in the earlier days of the Lord. [Note: See G. von Rad, "The Origin of the Concept of the Day of Yahweh," Journal of Semitic Studies 4:2 (1959):97-108; and A. Joseph Everson, "The Days of Yahweh," Journal of Biblical Literature 93:3 (September 1974):329-37.]

Part of the Lord’s warriors would be the Medes, who occupied what is now central Iran. In Isaiah’s day, the Medes were already a powerful people that the Assyrians dreaded. They would destroy Babylon. They united with the Babylonians to destroy the last vestiges of the Assyrian Empire in 609 B.C. Still later, it was the Medes and the Persians who overthrew Babylon in 539 B.C. (cf. Esther 10:2; Daniel 5:30-31; Daniel 6:8; Daniel 6:12; Daniel 6:15). The Medes valued silver and gold less than military conquest; they could not be bought off, but mercilessly slew every enemy (Isaiah 13:17-18). Revenge motivated them more than booty. [Note: Delitzsch, 1:303.]

"The Medes are probably mentioned here rather than the Persians because of their greater ferocity and also because they were better known to the people of Isaiah’s day. According to the Greek historian Xenophon, Cyrus acknowledged that the Medes had served his cause without thought of monetary reward." [Note: Grogan, p. 103. Cf. Delitzsch, 1:302-3.]

In the late 700s B.C., Babylon was the showcase of the ancient world, specifically the showcase of the Assyrian Empire. She was culturally and economically superior to Assyria and was ascending politically. The Chaldeans were the ruling class that had been responsible for the supremacy of Babylon. However, Isaiah announced, Babylon would experience the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah: destruction from the Lord’s hand (Isaiah 13:19). After her judgment, Babylon would be uninhabitable even by nomads. Wild animals would be the only residents of the once great city. This destruction would come soon, and it would not be delayed (Isaiah 13:20-22).

Babylonia was under the Assyrian yoke when Isaiah gave this prophecy, probably during Hezekiah’s reign (715-686 B.C.). She was one of the nations, along with Egypt, to which Judah was looking as a possible savior. This prophecy showed that Babylon was not a safe object for trust because God would destroy her.

Has this prophecy been fulfilled? Babylon suffered defeat in 689 B.C. when Assyria (including the Medes), under Sennacherib, devastated it (cf. Isaiah 23:13), but the city was rebuilt. Many interpreters believe that the fall of Babylon in 539 B.C. to Cyrus fulfilled this prophecy, [Note: E.g., Archer, p. 621; the NET Bible note on 13:22.] but Cyrus left the city intact. Others believe the destruction-that Darius Hystaspes began in 518 B.C., and that Xerxes later completed-was the fulfillment. [Note: E.g., Delitzsch, 1:304.] Some scholars believe that what Isaiah predicted here never took place literally, at least completely, so the fulfillment lies in the future. [Note: E.g., G. H. Lang, Histories and Prophecies of Daniel, pp. 33-34; Kenneth W. Allen, "The Rebuilding and Destruction of Babylon," Bibliotheca Sacra 133:529 (January 1976):19-27; and Charles H. Dyer, The Rise of Babylon: Sign of the End Times; J. Martin, p. 1060.] Many conservatives argue for a near and a far fulfillment. I think the destruction in 689 B.C. that resulted in Babylon’s temporary desolation fulfilled this prophecy (cf. Isaiah 13:22 b), and I believe there will also be an eschatological judgment of Babylon (Revelation 17-18), though not necessarily one that requires the rebuilding of the city. Destruction terminology, such as appears in this passage, is common in the annals of ancient Near Eastern nations. It speaks generally and hyperbolically of devastating defeat and destruction, but it did not always involve exact or detailed fulfillment. [Note: See Homer Heater Jr., "Do the Prophets Teach that Babylonia Will Be Rebuilt in the Eschaton?" Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 41:1 (March 1998):36, for further specifics.]

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 13". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/dcc/isaiah-13.html. 2012.
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