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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 21

Ellicott's Commentary for English ReadersEllicott's Commentary

Verse 1


(1) The burden of the desert of the sea . . .—The title of the prophecy is obviously taken from the catch-word of “the desert” that follows. The “sea” has been explained (1) as the Euphrates, just as in Isaiah 18:2; Isaiah 19:5, it appears as used of the Nile (Cheyne). (2) As pointing to the surging flood of the mingled myriads of its population. (3) Xenophon’s description of the whole plain of the Euphrates, intersected by marshes and lakes, as looking like a sea affords, perhaps, a better explanation.

As whirlwinds in the south . . .—The “South” (or Negeb) is here, as elsewhere, the special name of the country lying south of Judah. The tempests of the region seem to have been proverbial (Zechariah 9:14; Jeremiah 4:11; Jeremiah 13:24; Hosea 13:15).

So it cometh.—The absence of a subject to the verb gives the opening words a terrible vagueness. Something is coming “from the wilderness, a terrible land,” beyond it. The “wilderness” in this case is clearly the Arabian desert, through part of which the Euphrates flows. The context determines the “terrible land” as that of Elam and Media.

Verse 2

(2) A grievous vision . . .—The verse contains, as it were, the three tableaux that came in succession before the prophet’s gaze: (1) The treacherous dealer, the Assyro-Chaldæan power, spoiling and oppressing, breaking treaties, and, as its kings boasted (Habakkuk 2:5; Records of the Past, vii. 42, 44), “removing landmarks.” (2) The summons to Elam and Media to put an end to this tyranny. (3) The oppressed peoples ceasing to sigh, and rejoicing in their liberation.

Elam appears here as combined with Media, which is named in Isaiah 13:17 as the only destroyer of Babylon, and this has been urged as evidence of a later date. As a matter of fact, however, Sargon at this very time was carrying on a fierce war against Elam (Records of the Past, cvii. 41-49) as well as against Media (ibid, p. 37). In Ezekiel 32:24, Elam is numbered among the extinct nations, but the name, at all events, re-appears as applied to the Persians, though they were of a distinct race. It was, even as a mere forecast, perfectly natural that the two should be associated together as the future destroyers of the Nineveh and Babel empires, which to the prophet’s eye were identical in character and policy. The advance described as “from the wilderness” implies a march of part at least of the Medo-Persian army down the Choaspes and into the lowland of Chuzistan, bordering on the great Arabian desert.

Verse 3

(3) Therefore are my loins filled with pain . . .—Comp. Nahum 2:10; Ezekiel 21:6; and for the image of the “woman in travail,” Isaiah 13:8; Jeremiah 30:6. The vision of destruction is so terrible that it over-powers all feeling of exultation, and oppresses the prophet like a horrible nightmare.

Verse 4

(4) The night of my pleasure . . .—The words point to the prophet’s longing for the darkness of night, either as a time of rest from his labour, or, more probably, for contemplation and prayer (Psalms 119:148), and to the invasion of that rest by the vision of terror. The suggestion that the prophet speaks as identifying himself with the Babylonians, and refers to the capture of their city during a night of revelry (Daniel 5:1; Daniel 5:30; Herod., i. 121; Xenoph. Cyrop., vii. 23), is hardly tenable.

Verse 5

(5) Prepare the table, watch in the watch-tower.—The words (historical infinitive) are better taken as indicative: They prepare . . . they watch. The last clause has been variously rendered, they spread the coverlet; i.e., for the couches of the revellers (Amos 6:4); and they take a horoscopes (Ewald). Here, with hardly a shadow of a doubt, there is a reference to the temper of reckless revel such as was the immediate forerunner of the capture of Babylon. The prophet had, perhaps, an analogue of such blind security before his eyes at the very time he wrote (Isaiah 22:13), which led him to anticipate a like state of things in Babylon.

Anoint the shield . . .—The summons is one which in the prophet’s vision breaks in on the songs and music of the revel. The shields thought of were those covered with leather, which was oiled, partly to protect it from wet, partly to make the stroke of the sword glide off from it. The call implies that even this precaution had been neglected by the revellers.

Verse 6

(6) Go, set a watchman . . .—The prophet is, as it were, placed in vision on a lofty watch-tower, and reports what meets his gaze, or that of the watchman with whom he identifies himself (Ezekiel 33:7). (Comp. the striking parallel of Habakkuk 2:1-2.)

Verse 7

(7) A chariot with a couple of horsemen.—Better, a troop, a couple. Both asses and camels were employed in the Persian army (Herod., i. 80, iv. 129). They probably indicate, the former an Arab, the latter a Carmanian contingent. Both are named (11,173 asses, 5,230 camels) among the spoil taken by Sennacherib on the defeat of Merôdach-baladan (Bellino Tablet in Records of the Past, i. 26).

He hearkened diligently with much heed.—Literally, he listened sharply, listened sharply, with the iteration of intensity. What had met the watchman’s eye in his vision had passed by in silence, and had left him in doubt as to its meaning. Was it the symbol of a Babylonian army marching out against rebels, or of a rebel army on the way to attack Babylon? He listened, but no voice came out of the darkness to interpret the vision for him.

Verse 8

(8) And he cried, A lion.—Better, As a lion. The cry seems to be the low murmur of the eager, almost angry, impatience by which the prophet or the ideal watchman was stirred.

Verse 9

(9) And, behold, here cometh . . .—Better, Behold, there came . . . The words narrate a second vision, not the watchman’s narrative of the first. He sees now, as it were, a part of the cavalcade which he had beheld before, and now it is no longer silent, but reports what has been accomplished. “Babylon is fallen, is fallen!” The words are applied to the destruction of the mystical Babylon in Revelation 14:8; Revelation 18:2. Stress is laid on the destruction of the idols of Babylon by the iconoclastic Persians.

Verse 10

(10) O my threshing, and the corn of my floor.—Literally, and child of my threshing-floor. . . The words are abrupt, and we have to read the thoughts that lie below them. The “child of the threshing-floor “is none other than Israel, thought of as the corn which is under God’s chastisements, Assyrian and Chaldæan invasions, Babylonian exile, and the like, severing the wheat from the chaff (Micah 4:12-13; Jeremiah 51:33; Matthew 3:3). The prophet looks on those chastisements with yearning pity, but he cannot “go beyond the word of the Lord” (Numbers 24:13), and this is all that he has to tell his people. The oppressor shall in the end be overthrown, but that which lies between the present and that far-off future is, as yet, concealed from him.

Verse 11

(11) The burden of Dumah.—Several places of the name are mentioned in the Old Testament (Genesis 25:14; Joshua 15:52), but these are not in the direction of Seir. Probably here, as in Isaiah 21:1 and Isaiah 22:1, we have a mystical prophetic name, Edom being altered to Dumah, i.e., “silence,” as in Psalms 94:17; Psalms 115:17, the silence of the grave. In this case, as in the preceding, there is first the oppressive silence of expectancy, and then of desolation.

He calleth . . . out of Seir . . .—The subject is indefinite: one calleth. The watchman hears the silence of the night broken by a voice from Seir. It is probable that the prophet had actually been consulted by the Edomites, and that this is his answer to their enquiries. The cry is, “Watchman, what part of the night?” In the weary night of calamity the sufferer desires to know what hour it is, how much of the darkness still remains to be lived through. The answer is mysterious and ill-boding. There is a “morning” coming, a time of light and hope, but the day which is so opened closes too quickly in the blackness of night (Amos 5:18). The words sum up the whole future of Edom, subject as it was to one conqueror after another, rising now and then, as under Herod and the Romans, and then sinking to its present desolation.

Verse 12

(12) If ye will enquire . . .—The words pre-suppose a craving to know the meaning of the mysterious oracle just given. The prophet declines to answer. If they like to ask, they may, and return and go back after a bootless journey. Some interpreters, however. have seen in the “return” a call to repentance like that conveyed by the same word in Jeremiah 3:22, but hardly on sufficient grounds. We should, in that case, have expected “return to Jehovah.”

Verse 13

(13) The burden upon Arabia.—Better, of the evening land. Here, again, the prophet alters the form of the word (Arab into Ereb) so as to convey a mystic meaning. The land of which he is about to speak is a land of shadow and of gloom. Evening is falling on it. It is a question whether the second Arabia is to retain its geographical form or to be translated “evening,” as before. In any case, of course, Arabia is the country spoken of. The “Dedanites” appear in Jeremiah 49:8; Ezekiel 25:13, and seem from Ezekiel 27:15 to have been dwelling in the neighbourhood of the Edomites (Jeremiah 49:8) as a commercial people trading with Tyre in ebony and ivory. The point of the oracle against them is that they shall be compelled by the presence of the Assyrian armies to leave the main lines of their traffic, probably, as before, on their way westward to Tyre, and to take bye-paths, pitching their tents not near towns and villages, but in the low brushwood of the wilderness.

Verse 14

(14) The inhabitants of . . . Tema . . .—Another element of suffering comes into the picture. The Dedanites, driven out of their usual route into the desert, find their provisions fail them, and the men of Tema, fearing to invite them to their tents, lest they too should be smitten by the invader, are compelled to take out bread and water stealthily. The name of Tema (now Taima), is found on the pilgrim route from Damascus to Mecca, and again on that between Palmyra and Petra, on the east of the Haurân mountains.

They prevented with their breadi.e., they went out to welcome him (the fugitive), without waiting till he came as a suppliant. Their very hospitality, in strange contrast with Arab usage, had to be practised in secret.

Verse 15

(15) For they fled from the swords.—The fourfold repetition of the somewhat full form of the Hebrew preposition (literally, from the face of) seems as if intended to emphasise the several stages of retreat.

Verse 16

(16) According to the years of an hireling . . . The prophet uses, as in Isaiah 16:14, the formula which expressed the most precise measurement, and so gives a test as to his forecast of the future.

And all the glory of Kedar shall fail.—Kedar is used, as in Psalms 120:5, Song of Solomon 1:5, generically for the nomadic tribes of Arabia, including Dedan.

Verse 17

(17) And the residue . . .—The Hebrew word is the same as the characteristic “remnant” of Isaiah’s earlier prophecies. The words point primarily to the subjugation of Arabia by Sargon and Sennacherib, who narrate their victories over the Arabian tribes (Records of the Past, vii. 34). In Jeremiah 49:28-29 we have an echo of the prediction, which, in that case, pointed to their conquest by Nebuchadnezzar.

Bibliographical Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Isaiah 21". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ebc/isaiah-21.html. 1905.
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