Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 21

Dr. Constable's Expository NotesConstable's Expository Notes


The second series of five oracles chs. 21-23

Compared to the first series of oracles against the Gentile nations, this second series is more negative. Also, the nations and cities against which they were sent, are not as clearly defined, suggesting that they apply more broadly to all the nations, not just the historical ones addressed.

Verse 1

This oracle concerns the wilderness of the sea. This enigmatic title probably refers to the flat Mesopotamian plain northwest of the Persian Gulf, which the Assyrian and Babylonian empires occupied (cf. Isaiah 21:9). This area would become a wilderness because of God’s judgment. The oracle came as a sirocco (a hot, desert wind) from the Negev, a region infamous in Judah for its barrenness and heat. The destruction coming on Babylonia from a terrifying land would be similar to the devastation that blew into Judah periodically from the Negev.

Verses 1-10

The second oracle against Babylon 21:1-10

This is a message of the destruction of the anti-God religious and commercial system that Babylon has symbolized throughout history (cf. Revelation 17-18).

Verse 2

Isaiah received this harsh vision. Treachery and destruction continued to mark the Persian Gulf area. Elam and Media were to go up against this foe to put an end to her evil ways that produced groaning in her victims. Elam ceased to oppose the Mesopotamian powers by 639 B.C., so Isaiah evidently gave this oracle before then, possible as early as the Babylonian Merodach-baladan’s visit to Jerusalem about 701 B.C. (cf. ch. 39).

"Elam and Media were peoples from the Iranian highlands who were becoming active in Mesopotamian affairs near the end of the eighth century . . ." [Note: Watts, p. 272.]

Verses 3-4

The thought that God would destroy Babylon completely undid the prophet (cf. Isaiah 13:7-8). His reaction evidences some compassion for the Babylonians, even though they were a threat to Judah’s security, as well as shock that the destruction would be so great.

Verse 5

If the setting for the prophecy was the embassy of Merodach-baladan, the people who set the table and provide a meal refers to the Judeans. They entertained representatives of the nation under divine judgment (Babylon) who, as they dined with the Judeans, planned war against them among themselves. [Note: Motyer, p. 175.] The Assyrians captured and destroyed Babylon in 686 B.C. Another possibility is that Isaiah saw a banquet in Babylon (cf. Daniel 5). The plan for battle would, in that case, be that of Babylon’s invading enemy, perhaps the Medes and Persians. [Note: Oswalt, p. 394; Archer, p. 624.]

Verses 6-7

The sovereign God told Isaiah to post a reliable sentry who would report what he saw. When the sentry saw horsemen in pairs with a train of donkeys and camels, he should pay close attention. According to the Greek historian Xenophon, this is how the Persian army marched. [Note: Xenophon, Cyropaedia 1.6, 10; 4.3-5; 6.1, 28; 7.4, 17.]

Verses 8-9

The lion-like sentry reported to his sovereign Lord that he was not neglecting his duty but was paying close attention to what he saw. He reported that a troop of riders in pairs had appeared and had announced the fall of Babylon (cf. Revelation 18:2). Her fallen idols symbolized their inability to protect her from her enemy (cf. Jeremiah 51:47; Jeremiah 51:52). Babylon fell several times: to the Assyrians in 710, 702, 689, and 648, and to the Medes and Persians in 539 B.C., among others. The Medes were allies of the Babylonians in the earlier battles. But Babylon will fall again (Revelation 16:19; Revelation 17-18).

Verse 10

Isaiah concluded this oracle by telling the Judeans, a people whom he compared to a threshed crop because of their oppressions, that what he had announced about Babylon’s destruction was from Yahweh of armies, the God of Israel.

This oracle would have admonished the Judeans to put their trust in God rather than in the Babylonians, as tempting as their power would have been. Babylon would come to an end.

Verse 11

An Edomite kept asking Isaiah, the watchman who saw by prophetic revelation how things would go (cf. Isaiah 21:6-9), how long the night of oppression on his nation would last. "Edom" is "Dumah" in the Hebrew text, a word play. Dumah also may have been the name of a place in Edom or the Akkadian designation for Edom (Udumu). The Dumah in Genesis 25:14 was one of Ishmael’s rather than Esau’s descendants. Dumah means "silence," which is appropriate here since this oracle is silent (Heb. dumah) concerning Edom’s (Heb. ’edom) ultimate fate.

"As a sick person lying awake through the long, agonizing hours of night cries out to know what the time is and how much of the night has passed, so Edom, feeling the oppression of Assyria, will call out to the prophet to ask him how much longer the oppression must endure." [Note: Young, 2:77.]

Verses 11-12

The oracle against Edom 21:11-12

Compared to the second oracle in the first series of five, this one reveals greater ignorance about what is coming.

Verse 12

The watchman responded that there was hope, but there were also more bad things coming. When morning came, it would still seem like night. The Edomites could request further information about the future again later.

Edom would experience a kind of darkness that would last a long time before her night would pass, even though better times would come. Therefore it was foolish for Judah to trust in her.

Verse 13

"Arabia" describes the territory southeast of Edom, which was also in danger of Assyrian takeover. The Dedanite Arabian caravans would have to hide among the bushes because they were in danger from an enemy.

Verses 13-17

The oracle against Arabia 21:13-17

The preceding oracle promised prolonged recurring trouble for Edom, but this one warns that the Arabians would suffer defeat soon.

"Evening darkness is settling upon Arabia, and the morning-land is becoming an evening-land." [Note: Delitzsch, 1:386.]

Verses 14-15

Other Arabians would provide sustenance for the refugees of war who would seek them out (cf. Isaiah 16:2-3).

Verses 16-17

Within precisely a year, however, these Arabians would suffer destruction and their army would dissolve. Their end would be due to the sovereign Lord, not to the force of opposing armies. The Lord Himself assured the prophet of this.

The place that refugees from advancing Gentile armies would seek security, Arabia, would soon prove insecure. Israel should not trust in this neighbor but in her Lord.

Bibliographical Information
Constable, Thomas. DD. "Commentary on Isaiah 21". "Dr. Constable's Expository Notes". 2012.