Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 13

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-22


Isaiah 13:1 — 23:18

All of Israel’s prophets—at least in cases where considerable material from them is preserved—were concerned about the world situation, and it was a part of their calling to issue prophecies against the other nations in the civilized world of their day (see Jeremiah 46-51; Ezekiel 25-32; Amos 1-2). One explanation not infrequently given in the past has been that the prophets were intense nationalists and that their words against the nations were simply a part of their own intense patriotism. According to this view, consequently, it is improbable that we should look to this material for much that is edifying to modern life. Such a view, however, is scarcely adequate to the deeper and theological dimensions of the world view of the prophets. Their language is filled with legal terms and legal conceptions. God is the sovereign Ruler of the world of men, and he rules in the context of law and order. God is not only the Sovereign of Israel and the One who maintains the standards of order in Israel, but he represents also the moral order of the world of men. Consequently, in Israel international treaties and world organization were taken extremely seriously. To Isaiah the various vassal treaties through which Assyria ruled the greater part of the civilized world of the eighth century b.c. were backed by the will of God. It was God’s will that for a time at least, the Assyrians should control the world. When a treaty with its solemn oaths was broken, then one must expect trouble. The divine Suzerain is he who maintains the treaty made in accordance with his will, and he metes out the appropriate punishment due at its breach. To comprehend the prophets’ viewpoint we must take seriously their understanding of God’s role as Suzerain of the world, a world which is bound together in various ways by law. God as the world’s Ruler and Judge maintains world order. Most of the prophecies against foreign nations are against those which have joined Israel or Judah in revolt against the rule of a major power. The role of the current great power, however, is not eternal, but is limited to such time as God determines (see the comment on 10:5-19).

Concerning Babylon (13:1-22)

The editorial superscription to chapter 13 says that it is an “oracle concerning Babylon” and ascribes it to First Isaiah (“Isaiah the son of Amoz”). The term for “oracle” here, however, is generally used only in later prophecy as a term for a message announcing doom to a people. It literally refers to a “burden” which God intends for a people to bear. The only historical reference in the prophecy is in verses 17-18, where the Medes are being stirred up by God to bring an end to Babylon, which at that time is “the glory of kingdoms.” For this reason the setting to which the prophecy is addressed must have been the period after the death of Nebuchadnezzar about 550 b.c. In the time of Isaiah, Babylon was not a great power; though for a brief time it had asserted its independence from Sargon II and from Sennacherib, it was weak. Like all other countries of the west in the second half of the eighth and first part of the seventh century, Babylon was a vassal of Assyria. Furthermore, though older prophetic material may have been used in this prophecy, the conception of universal destruction and the “return to chaos” theme is most typical of the latest period of prophecy, in the sixth and fifth centuries b.c. If we may speak of a “School of Isaiah” (see Introduction), then we can see the work of these disciples of both First and Second Isaiah in inserting certain anonymous prophecies in what were felt to be appropriate places.

In any event, what is pictured in this passage is a scene of war. The nations of the world are gathering together in a great “tumult on the mountains” (vs. 4); but the Lord is also mustering his armies for battle, for the Day of the Lord is coming (vs. 9) and the whole of the earth is to become a desolation. The primordial darkness (vs. 10) will be present and both heavens and earth (vs. 13) will tremble and shake. At that time the evil of the world and the haughtiness and ruthlessness of men will be done away. The Medes will be one of God’s agents to bring to an end the great Babylonian empire (vss. 17-19).

The whole universe is here depicted as in convulsion because God is cleansing it of its evil. The reference to the cessation of light and to the shaking of the foundations is the type of theme which is common only in late prophecy and which belongs to what is usually called “apocalyptic eschatology.” It deals with a return, or threat of a return, to the original chaotic situation before God created the world. This end of known history will come about before God’s new day will dawn. Earlier prophecy tends to be more historically centered and to see things in the context of definite imperialistic armies.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Isaiah 13". "Layman's Bible Commentary".