Isaiah’s Oracles Against The Nations (13-23).
In this series of oracles against the nations, interspersed with other prophecies, which are to be seen as in contrast with the glorious song of triumph in chapter 12, Isaiah reveals his awareness of God’s sovereignty over the nations. He is revealing that while His people will finally triumph, the nations of the known world must also all finally bow before Him in one way or another. The future of all of them is in His hands. In the end every knee will bow to Him, and every tongue confess to God.
But the second lesson that is also continually prominent, is what folly it would be for Israel to rely on these nations for their security. It is made clear that they cannot even deliver themselves, how then can they be relied on to deliver others? For it will be noted that the specific ‘burdens’ all concern peoples who in one way or another sought to influence Israel/Judah to rebel against Assyria. By seeking to influence God’s people in ways not conducive to faith in Yahweh they came within God’s notice.
Israel/Judah lived in an international world, with the constant to and fro of information and trade, and the constant attempts by some to enter into alliances with others to further their own aims. This was partly the cause of their downfall, for it regularly meant that they took their eyes off God, preferring to trust in others. Thus they forgot that they had been separated out to be a holy nation, to be God’s own people, so that they could be a kingdom of priests to the people. And at this time nothing was more relevant.
The oracles outline a number of ‘burdens’. The word is expressive. It was not easy to be a prophet of Yahweh, and the burden of the judgment that Isaiah proclaimed was heavy on him, even though it was followed sometimes by promises of deliverance. These burdens are stated to be: of Babylon (Isaiah 13:1); of Philistia (Isaiah 14:28); of Moab (Isaiah 15:1); of Damascus, but including northern Israel (Isaiah 17:1); of Egypt (Isaiah 19:1); of the wilderness of the sea - to do with the fall of Babylon (Isaiah 21:1); of Dumah (Isaiah 21:11); on Arabia (Isaiah 21:13); of the valley of vision, concerning Judah (Isaiah 22:1); and of Tyre (Isaiah 23:1), ten in all, a number indicating completeness. Apart from Babylon, and, of course, themselves, these were the nations that surrounded Israel and Judah and all without exception, including Babylon, suffered at the hands of Assyria.
The ten can be divided into two sequences of five, each significantly headed by Babylon as the most ominous of them all. Note that northern Israel comes fourth in the first five (although humiliatingly being included under Damascus as the one on whom they relied, a judgment in itself) and Judah fourth in the second five. Egypt, the power to the south ends the first five, Tyre the maritime power to the north ends the second five. Thus the series is carefully patterned.
We note immediately that Assyria is not mentioned in the list, for the list is of those opposed to Assyria, and the resulting consequences for them. But its looming presence is made clear (Isaiah 20:1-6), and it is Assyria along with Egypt will enjoy the future blessing of God (Isaiah 19:23-25). Besides, Isaiah has already declared judgment on Assyria in Isaiah 10:12-19; Isaiah 10:33-34, and that is confirmed in Isaiah 14:24-27. But that was not a ‘burden’ because they were the ones who afflicted the nations and would deserve all that they received. What came to them would be due to their behaviour towards the world and especially towards God’s people. The burden was with regard to what would happen to these other nations in the future, mainly through Assyria. Assyria will briefly receive further mention in Isaiah 14:24-27, but having already received its sentence of judgment from Yahweh (Isaiah 10:12-19) it is no longer important from that point of view. Isaiah’s thoughts have turned more towards the future of those who oppose Assyria and seek to influence Judah. But among all these nations engaged in conspiracy against Assyria one stands out, and that is Babylon whose destruction is mentioned twice. We will therefore now consider Babylon.
It should be noted that Babylon is mentioned twice, and is first in each group. That is because Isaiah sees it as above all others the great enemy of God. It looms large over all the others, and is depicted as the essence of evil. But it should be noted that it is numbered among the ten and is not described as though it was a large empire. Indeed Isaiah never mentions Babylon in such terms. Always he is speaking of the city and its immediate locality.
No one who reads chapters 13-23 can fail to notice the difference between the first burden, and the remaining nine burdens. All the others (including the second one on Babylon) speak of devastation by the enemy who is coming with no thought of it being permanent. But the first burden is clearly pronounced in apocalyptic terms (Isaiah 13:9-13) and results in eternal destruction (Isaiah 13:19-20). In none of the others is their king mentioned, but in the first the king of Babylon is described in supernatural terms (Isaiah 14:12-14). It can be seen as parallel with the similar picture of world destruction in chapter 24.
Babylon is thus mentioned initially because he saw it as the epitome of evil. It alone faces a future without hope (Isaiah 13:20). This was possibly accentuated for Isaiah because he saw that it was largely Babylon who would seek to influence God’s people against Assyria (Isaiah 39:1-8), and foresaw that it would be a great threat to Israel/Judah in the future (Isaiah 39:6-7). But in the final analysis it is important to him because behind that threat he sees the Babylon which is the great earthly rival of God (Once he begins to deal with the question of Babylon he recognises that he is dealing with something which is not just of the ordinary. That is why Babylon is dealt with twice, firstly as the primeval enemy (13-14), and then secondly as one of the rebels (Isaiah 21:1-10).
To Isaiah Babylon expressed all that opposed God. It was the Babel of old which from the beginning had sought to conquer and establish an empire under Nimrod (Genesis 10:9-11). It was the dreaded Babel that had sought to build a tower up to Heaven and had caused the nations to be scattered, the primeval enemy (Genesis 11:1-9). It was the leader of the enemies of Abraham who had invaded Canaan and had carried Lot off captive (as Shinar - Genesis 14:1). It was the great centre of the occult with its huge quantities of magicians and soothsayers (chapter 47). It was the Babylon whose great traditions of the past and whose impact on history were well known through extant literary works. It was the great city Babylon that was known throughout the world, and had been known for centuries past, for its corrupt splendour, and for its mysterious and mystical knowledge off the gods. It was the city that lorded itself, through its king, above the stars, even to heaven itself (Isaiah 14:12-14). It was the city that called itself ‘the Beauty’, ‘the glory of the kingdoms’ (Isaiah 13:19; compare 2 Samuel 1:19 and the use of the word in Deuteronomy 26:19; Psalms 96:6; Isaiah 62:3). It was the ultimate enemy of God (Isaiah 14:13-14).
To see this as a prophecy of the later defeat of the Babylonian empire would be to miss the point. Isaiah is not concerned with that (he nowhere suggests that he knows of it). He is concerned with Babylon because of what it is. It is a symbol. For to him Babylon was no ordinary nation. This is demonstrated by the way in which the description of the judgment he pronounces on them is given in very general, even apocalyptic, terms, demonstrating how he views them. In the end he sees Babylon as the great apocalyptic threat to the world, and to Yahwism, a threat that must be destroyed, an idea taken up in Revelation.
A glance at chapter 13 brings out that the description of the judgment on Babylon is seen as specifically orchestrated by God, and is because of their overweening pride and grandiose, universal claims, and it is mainly anonymous. It is only in Isaiah 13:17 that the passage becomes more specific, and in that verse there is reference to attack by the Medes. But that is not because the Medes are seen as the sole attackers, for they are only one among many gathered nations, mainly anonymous (Isaiah 13:4-5). Indeed in Isaiah 21:2 they are paralleled with Elam in the attack on Babylon. It is because the Medes are seen as particularly voracious opponents. And we immediately gain from the passage the firm impression that Babylon is to be seen as the enemy of the whole world, and as doomed by God. It is the Great Enemy. There is therefore no morsel of hope for Babylon. This is in contrast with all the other nations mentioned. (Although it will also later be true of Edom in chapter 34, who are seen as the great Betrayer).
Note that Babylon is said to be attacked by ‘the nations’, and the point is made that Babylon is doomed because of its overweening pride (Isaiah 13:11) and because of what it is, not because of its treatment of Judah and Jerusalem, or because of any empire it may gain. It is God’s enemy waiting to be destroyed. For it is the great subversive. And the passage then leads on to describe Babylon’s final and ultimate doom. So Isaiah foresees the attacks of the anonymous nations on Babylon as because they are God’s ultimate enemy who must be destroyed.
In considering this we must recognise the purpose of prophecy. Prophecy was not primarily in order that people might later say, ‘look, the prophecy has been fulfilled. How marvellous!’ (although that often followed and is regularly called on as evidence later in Isaiah). It was in order to declare what God was going to do, and in some way bring it about. So the point in these two chapters is not to ‘foretell the future’ about Babylon in specific terms, it is to bring out what Babylon essentially is and to emphasise the fact that Babylon’s fate will be at the hands of God and to render it inevitable.
But why should Babylon be so important, and why should it become so prominent in Isaiah’s thinking at this time?
The answer to the first question lies in the very nature of Babylon. From its very foundation it was the enemy of the world (Genesis 10:9-11), and within a short time it had tried to invade Heaven itself (Genesis 11:1-9). Furthermore when invaders arrived in Abraham’s Canaan, Shinar (Babylon) was prominent among them (Genesis 14:1), while in contemporary history Babylon was renowned throughout the world for its splendour and its interest in the occult.
The answer to the second question may lie in chapter 39. Merodach Baladan, king of Babylon, which had also at this time been under Assyria’s domination, and had broken free, or was considering doing so, had sent ambassadors to Hezekiah, king of Judah, seeking to arouse him to take part in a conspiracy against Assyria. Hezekiah had responded with willingness, and had shown all his resources and treasures to the ambassadors. But when Isaiah learned of it his heart grew cold. He was wise enough to know that such powerful nations, and especially Babylon the primeval empire builder, were not safe allies for smaller nations, and God showed to Isaiah the dreadful significance of this willingness to trust in Babylon rather than in Yahweh. Just as Israel had been smitten and taken into exile because it had trusted in Rezin and Syria (Isaiah 5:13; Isaiah 8:5-7) so would Judah be smitten, and the sons of David be taken into exile, because it had trusted in the king of Babylon and had revealed to him its riches (Isaiah 39:6-7 compare Isaiah 6:11-12). Thus did Babylon come to his immediate attention, bringing back to him all that he knew about Babylon..
That is no doubt why, at the news of appeals from and possible association with Babylon, Isaiah was so horrified. Other treaties were bad enough, but a treaty with Babylon by the people of God? It could not be condoned. For as we have seen his dread reached back further in time. Did Hezekiah not realise what Babylon was? Did he not know that it was from ancient times the rabid empire builder? That it was the Babel of old which from the beginning had sought to conquer and establish an empire under Nimrod (Genesis 10:9-11)? That it was Babel who had sought to build a tower up to Heaven and had caused the nations to be scattered, the primeval enemy (Genesis 11:1-9)? That it was the prime enemy of Abraham, an enemy which had invaded Canaan and had carried Lot off captive (as Shinar - Genesis 14)? That it was the great centre of the occult with its great quantities of magicians and soothsayers (chapter 47)? That it was the city that lorded itself, through its king, above the stars, even to heaven itself (Isaiah 14:12-14)? That it was the city that called itself ‘the Beauty’, ‘the glory of the kingdoms’ (Isaiah 13:19; compare 2 Samuel 1:19 and the use of the word in Deuteronomy 26:19; Psalms 96:6; Isaiah 62:3)? That it was the ultimate enemy of God (Isaiah 14:13-14).
And that is why this prophecy against Babylon is given in universal terms. The picture is of the whole of the known world round about raised up against Babylon. Here Babylon was not part of a conspiracy. It was not an empire controlling many nations. It was itself the enemy of the nations. For Isaiah wanted it recognised that Babylon was doomed of God at the hands of the world because of what it represented, ultimate rebellion against God (this picture is again brought out in Revelation 17-18). Let Judah take note. Babylon was no safe refuge, for it was the enemy of all men.
That end would not in fact come immediately, although Isaiah would not have known it. Time was not his to determine. What he was called on to do was reveal God’s final intentions regardless of time. He nowhere speaks of it as a world empire. We have no reason to think that he thought of it in that way. Assyria was the world empire, seeking to control the world. But Babylon was worse than that. It stood out stark and alone. It was the primeval enemy of God. It was all that was worst in the idea of ‘the City’ in its opposition to God (compare Isaiah 24:10; Isaiah 25:2-3; Isaiah 26:5).
Babylon and Babylonia were in fact invaded by the nations any number of times before the final cessation of Babylon as a city. It had been constantly in the past, for it was constantly seeking to rid itself of the Assyrian yoke. Indeed it often enjoyed periods of full independence (and succeeded in the end) and Isaiah himself was witness of the time when Sargon II of Assyria, having for a time lost control of Babylonia, finally invaded and sacked Babylon, accompanied by the Medes over whom he had established his authority. And Sargon actually described its demise in Assyrian annals in similar terms to here. Some of its inhabitants were transported to Samaria, while Israelites were transported to Media (2 Kings 17:6), which confirms the prominent participation of the Medes in the general events. So this ‘burden’ may very well come on Isaiah around that time.
Babylon rebelled again when Sargon died, only again to be defeated, but in a later rebellion a decade later they were more successful and did at one stage defeat Sennacherib’s army. But only for Sennacherib to return and exact his revenge. It was at that stage that he removed the gods of Babylon and took them back to Assyria as described in Isaiah 46:1-2. Some think that it was because he was aware that Sennacherib would return with an even larger army that the overtures to Hezekiah by Merodach Baladan of Babylon (Isaiah 39:1), which Isaiah condemned (Isaiah 39:4-7), occurred around this time, although most relate these overtures to Hezekiah to the first rebellion. Either way the overtures were certainly connected with one of the Babylonian rebellions against Assyria.
However, in spite of Isaiah’s warning Hezekiah appears to have joined wholeheartedly in revolt in response to Babylon’s approach. Assyrian inscriptions tell us that he imprisoned Padi, king of Ekron in Jerusalem because Padi wanted to remain loyal to Sennacherib. This may well be when Babylon first especially imprinted itself in Isaiah’s mind. Sennacherib of Assyria then moved against Babylon and sacked it, assisted by Medan bowmen as mercenaries (Isaiah 21:2). The Medes were a fierce people and coveted as mercenaries. In the later sacking he removed from it its sacred statues (Isaiah 46:1-2). Meanwhile he supplemented the attack by also attacking Judah and Jerusalem.
But the magnetism of Babylon continued. It was restored by Esarhaddon of Assyria, who gave it prime importance, and, after further rebellion, taken once more by Ashurbanipal when it was severely damaged by fire. After that it rose to glory, defeating the Assyrians with the help of the Medes, and established a great empire (although there is no reference to such in Isaiah). But then it was later taken by the Medo-Persian empire in the time of Cyrus II, who also made it a capital city. And it was even later destroyed by Xerxes of Persia, inevitably accompanied by the ever present Medes, and then partly restored again, until ultimately it fell into final disrepair and ruin. All these attacks would have been accompanied by widespread devastation of the surrounding area. All contributed to its final end. And in most, if not all, the feared Medes were involved.
Thus the ‘day of Yahweh’ on Babylon may be seen as including any or all of these sackings. It is depicting all the future enmity of the nations against Babylon. They are all the result of Yahweh’s assault, and possibly chapter 13 is to be seen simply as describing all attacks which would take place on Babylon until it finally ceased to exist. It is Babylon’s fate, and how it is brought about, that is Isaiah’s concern, not the detail of how it would happen. His message was that Babylon must be destroyed.
Yahweh’s ‘day’ is not to be seen as necessarily limited in time. It is a set purpose not a time limit. It symbolises God’s activity against Babylon once He has determined its final end, however long it takes, His day will go on until that end is finalised. If this oracle followed Isaiah’s warning to Hezekiah, then the sacking by Sennacherib must be favoured as one initial fulfilment of it, but it may equally have been given earlier and have included reference to the previous sacking by Sargon with his Medan allies, whom Isaiah may have mentioned specifically because of their effective bow work. However, it also included the whole of Babylon’s future, for it would not be finally fulfilled until Babylon was no more.
It may, however, be asked, if the reference has in mind sackings by the Assyrians, why is the credit given to the Medes (Isaiah 13:17)? The answer is that it is not. The credit is given to a huge gathering of the nations under an unnamed leader who establishes his tent on the bare mountain (Isaiah 13:2). It is deliberately anonymous. It covers all the anger of the nations against Babylon. The specific mention of the Medes is to strike terror into men’s hearts. They above all nations were feared because of their warlike ferocity and their wildness. To have the Medes stirred up against them was the one thing all nations feared. (It was the ancient equivalent of having the dogs set on them). And it may also have been because of the major part the Medes always played in attacks with their superb bowmanship. But it is the awed fear in which they were held which is the reason why their part in it is singled out. The invasion will not only be by the nations of the known world, it will include the dreaded Medes in particular, stirred up by God. When you looked from your city walls and saw the Medes, you were filled with terror. Their bows could strike you down even where you stood. Nothing escaped the Medan bowmen.
Indeed if the Medes were at the time seen as acting as mercenaries, or in promise of reward, it would certainly explain why an attempt was made to buy the Medes off (Isaiah 13:17), an attempt which they refused. They liked warfare, and knew that they could do better from the booty. Thus they could not be bought off. The ‘kingdoms of the nations’ (Isaiah 13:4) could well initially signify the Assyrian confederacy, composed of many nations, and the little mention of Assyria in the oracles seems to be a deliberate ploy. Isaiah appears to be mainly ignoring them. He had declared their fate in Isaiah 10:12-19 and would do so again in Isaiah 14:24-27, but as far as he was concerned their doom had been pronounced. They were no longer important to him. It was the world of nations that was against Babylon.
Babylon was an enigma. Every sacking of Babylon might have seemed to be the last, but it would not die. It kept rising again. Thus further attacks became necessary. But of one thing Isaiah was certain. One day the nations of the world would ensure the completion of what they had begun. All the humiliation that it suffered from Babylon’s claims would only hasten that final end.
In fact the later capture of Babylon by the Medes and Persians in 539 BC does not fit into the picture outlined here. For it did not result in the sacking of the city, nor in the taking away of their gods (Isaiah 46:1-2). At that time it was taken by surprise with little fighting and the priests of Marduk may well have welcomed the invaders in view of the ‘apostasy’ of Nabonidus and Belshazzar, who had turned to strange gods. On the other hand it would certainly have resulted in the devastation of Babylonia, which is probably to be seen as included in the term ‘Babylon’. All that is described here would to some extent have been experienced by Babylonia at that time, as it would be before and since. That therefore may also be seen as part of the picture, but it is not primarily in view in the prophecy, any more than is its later capture by Xerxes the Persian.
So to Isaiah Babylon represented all that was evil, all that opposed God, and it had to be wiped out. Assyria might be the rod of God’s anger, and very powerful, but Babylon was nothing other than the primeval enemy. Thus we can understand why the appearance of their ambassadors and Hezekiah’s willingness to listen to them (chapter 39) would have come as the most unpleasant of shocks to him. He could not believe his ears. How could the son of David listen to a nation which had such a past, which had made such great and blasphemous claims and which by its own claims denied Yahweh’s very power?
But in chapter 13 he is looking both before that and beyond that, and even beyond the return of the world-wide exiles. He is looking at the whole future of Babylon until its final eclipse. However, while he is certainly concerned with the certain judgment of God on Babylon here, in 15-23 he is concerned with God’s judgment on all the nations who have afflicted and sought to embroil His people, of whom Babylon is one. And thus, as a result of his prophecies, in all their tribulations His people will be able to comfort themselves in this, that things have not got out of God’s control. All those mentioned are seen as suffering in ways of which God was already aware, and which He had declared beforehand. However, it should be noted that while for these nations hope for the future is not excluded, and is even emphasised for Egypt and Assyria, none is posited for Babylon, for it symbolised all that was against God. It would share the fate of Sodom and Gomorrah (Isaiah 13:19).
Oracle Against Babylon
Yahweh Raises His Forces For The Destruction of Babylon
The first burden borne by Isaiah was the burden of Babylon, a heavy burden indeed. And it begins with the calling together of a world army to destroy Babylon once and for all. This great symbol of all that is evil must be destroyed. It is not describing a particular point in history (although Isaiah may have thought so) but a kind of apocalyptic judgment levelled at Babylon which in earthly terms will come about over the period of time necessary for Babylon to be finally destroyed. While it would take time for it to happen, from this point on Babylon is doomed.
Analysis of Isaiah 13:1-5.
· The burden of Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz did see. Set yourselves up an ensign on the bare mountains, lift up the voice to them, wave the hand, that they may go into the gate of the princes (Isaiah 13:1-2).
· I have commanded my consecrated ones (‘holy ones’), yes, I have called my mighty men for my anger, my proudly exulting ones (Isaiah 13:3).
· The noise of a multitude in the mountains, like as of a great people, the noise of a tumult of the kingdoms, of the nations gathered together (Isaiah 13:4 a).
· Yahweh of hosts musters the host for battle. They come from a far country, from the uttermost part of heaven, even Yahweh and the weapons of his indignation, to destroy the whole land (earth) (Isaiah 13:4-5).
In ‘a’ Yahweh calls on His chosen leader to set up his banner on the bare mountains calling together his forces together under their princes, while in the parallel it is Yahweh of hosts Who is mustering them for battle, calling them together from the farthest parts of the earth as the weapons of His indignation. In ‘b’ those called to fulfil Yahweh’s anger are both consecrated and highly exultant, and in the parallel they gather in the mountains in a great noise of tumult of nations gathered together.
‘The burden of Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz did see.’
The fact that Babylon comes first in the list emphasises Isaiah’s growing awareness that the Babel of old (Genesis 10:8-10; Genesis 11:1-9), God’s old enemy, was raising its head again as the leader of the attempted conspiracy. The ogre had again taken charge. He was aware from Scripture of the place of Babel in the scheme of things as the great enemy of freedom and truth, and proponent of world disintegration as revealed in Genesis 10-11; Genesis 14. And the burden had come on him that Babylon must be destroyed.
This awareness of the old traditions of Babylon’s one time greatness, and its present proud boasting made him aware that this nation, which was at this point already again demonstrating its rising power, would continue to be the great enemy of God’s people and the instrument of His great judgment on them (Isaiah 39:6-7). It had to be. For was not Babel traditionally the symbol of all that was proud and evil (Genesis 11:1-9), the great challenger of God (Isaiah 13:19; Isaiah 14:13-14), and even in Isaiah’s day, the great boaster about its future, and its past?
But he was now being made aware that, as in Genesis, Babel/Babylon was doomed, even before it began its present meteoric rise. For God’s judgment had been pronounced on it from the beginning. This was all part of the burden that lay on Isaiah’s heart as he prophesied against Babylon, aware of what it had been, knowing what it was, recognising what it was becoming, surmising what it would do to God’s people, and declaring the end that must finally result, its ultimate destruction, because God was against it. (As with the destruction of the Amalekites promised in Exodus 17:14; Exodus 17:16, which took generations to unfold, it would happen in God’s time).
Babylon is truly spoken of here in apocalyptic terms. Much of the language used here will reappear in speaking of the end times. And similar language is used of the other arch-enemy of God’s people, the Edomites (chapter 34). Yet although it may be the great enemy of God, Isaiah roots Babylon firmly in history. For while it might be portentous, there was nothing mythical about it. The rising again of Babylon was to be curtailed as a result of ‘world’ forces gathered against them (Isaiah 13:4-5), and these included the dreadful Medes (Isaiah 13:17), who would continually be set on them like a man sets his dog on an intruder. And its final destruction would inevitably follow, although how much later Isaiah did not know.
As with all the prophets he saw the future as one whole. The purpose of prophecy was to declare what God was going to do, not when. He foresaw the assaults by the nations that must take place on Babylon; and in its continuing devastations, following its risings again (which he would witness at least twice under Sargon and Sennacherib), he saw the prospect of its final desolation. How they would all fit together he did not know. It was not his concern. That was in God’s hands.
‘Set yourselves up an ensign on the bare mountains,
Lift up the voice to them,
Wave the hand,
That they may go into the gate of the princes.’
The nations are called together against Babylon to a perpetual, unceasing battle. A banner is to be set up where all can see it, on the bare mountains (compare Isaiah 18:3). The banner may well be seen as over an overlord’s tent, from which the orders go out to the nations, both by voice and a directing motion of the arm. The mountains are bare to stress the starkness of the picture. The whole picture is deliberately anonymous. It is the whole world that is being summoned to destroy the monster Babylon.
‘That they may go into the gate of the princes, (or ‘of those who are willing’).’ This was in order that they might enrol under their chosen leaders, or in order to align themselves with the willing volunteers. The gate was always the place of assembly, for the public square, such as it was, would be there. Thus they go there in order to enrol under their leaders, or as willing volunteers. (‘Nadib’ can mean either those who are willing, or the nobility, those willing to take responsibility. Either is possible here). All nations will willingly volunteer to go against Babylon.
‘I have commanded my consecrated ones (‘holy ones’), yes, I have called my mighty men for my anger, my proudly exulting ones.’
These are a people consecrated to Yahweh’ purposes (although they probably do not know it). They are His mighty men, there to reveal His anger against Babylon. They are men of great pride and of warlike demeanour. They are joined together with one purpose, the destruction of Babylon, the enemy of the ages. They have been set apart by God for this sacred task.
We are not to see them as particularly morally righteous. Their status lies in the fact that God is using them to fulfil His purpose, (just as ungodly Assyria had previously been described as the rod of God’s anger (Isaiah 10:5)), and not because of what they are. But they are not just one nation. They are all nations from the ends of the world. (All would participate in it at different times, or will do one day in its reproduction in Revelation, for Babylon was not only a city it was an idea)
‘The noise of a multitude in the mountains,
Like as of a great people,
The noise of a tumult of the kingdoms,
Of the nations gathered together.
Yahweh of hosts musters the host for battle.
They come from a far country,
From the uttermost part of heaven,
Even Yahweh and the weapons of his indignation,
To destroy the whole land (earth).’
Anyone who reads and listens can hear the sound in the mountains of an army, a great international army, gathered together and inevitably noisy as the different nations expressed themselves, for it is Yahweh ‘of hosts’ who has mustered ‘the host’ to battle. And He has mustered them from a distant country, from the farthest parts, and they have come as the weapons of His anger to destroy the land of Babylon. Such a host would be necessary against the Babylon of Isaiah’s visions.
This could equally describe either an Assyrian confederacy, with its widespread alliances, or the later Medo-Persian army which would include forces from far afield, for prior to attacking Babylon they had expanded to the east, and even the later Persian army under Xerxes. Indeed in the end it was describing all of them. Isaiah does not name the leader of the adversaries. He is not told who it is. It is the one appointed by God to do His bidding. But he knows that such world forces will rise and humiliate Babylon, and will not cease until the task is fulfilled. The fulfilment of this would in fact occur over the centuries until at last the task was complete and Babylon was no more thus it is describing events that occurred more than once. (And Revelation indicates that the idea of Babylon would continue, and would also have to be destroyed). Chapter 13 thus covers a continuous process until the fate of Babylon is accomplished (compare again how God in the same way decreed the end of the Amalekites (Exodus 17:14; Exodus 17:16; Numbers 24:20; Deuteronomy 25:19), even though it was to take many centuries, and how in chapter 34, He decrees the end of Edom in similar language to here. Babylon, the Amalekites and Edom were all symbols of what was totally rejected by God). This burden cannot be strictly compared with the burdens that follow, for they will be ‘temporary’ in the particular historical situation, but this one is unswerving and final.
There are no particular grounds for seeing anything here as referring specifically to behaviour towards Judah, although they would be seen as being caught up in the general overall picture (see Isaiah 14:1-3). They were a part of the whole, even if an exclusive part. Furthermore as the account goes on all the nations surrounding Judah will be mentioned, north, south, east and west. So in one sense Judah is in the middle of it. But Babylon’s doom goes beyond all that. It has been necessary almost from the beginning of history. And many nations will be involved in it.
The Apocalyptic Destruction of Babylon (Isaiah 13:6-16).
The forces having been gathered by Yahweh on the remoteness of the bare mountain, they are to be unleashed in ‘the Day of Yahweh’, and it will seem as though the whole earth is involved.
Analysis of Isaiah 13:6-15.
a Howl, for the day of Yahweh is at hand. As the destruction from the Almighty (Shaddai) will it come. Therefore will all hands be feeble, and every heart of man will melt, and they will be dismayed.
b Pangs and sorrows will take hold of them. They will be in pain like a woman in labour. They will be amazed at one another. Their faces will be faces of flame
c Behold, the day of Yahweh comes, cruel with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation, and to destroy its sinners out of it (Isaiah 13:9).
d For the stars of heaven and its constellations will not give their light, the sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon will not cause her light to shine (Isaiah 13:10).
d And I will punish the world for evil, and the wicked for their iniquity, and I will cause the arrogance of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible. I will make a man more rare (’oqir) than fine gold, even a man than the pure gold of Ophir (’ophir) (Isaiah 13:11-12).
c Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of her place, in the wrath of Yahweh of hosts, and in the day of His fierce anger (Isaiah 13:13).
b And it will come about that as the hunted roe, and as the sheep that no man gathers, they will turn every man to his own people, and will flee every man to his own (Isaiah 13:14).
a Every man who is found will be thrust through, and everyone who is taken will fall by the sword. Their infants will be dashed in pieces before their eyes, their houses will be spoiled, and their wives ravished (Isaiah 13:15-16).
In ‘a’ the Day of Yahweh is at hand (compare Isaiah 13:9), coming as destruction from the Almighty, so that all hands will be feeble and ‘every heart of man’ melt, and in the parallel ‘every man’ will be thrust through, infants will be dashed in pieces, houses will be despoiled, wives will be ravished. In ‘b’ pangs and sorrows will take hold of them, they will be in pain like a woman in labour, they will be amazed at one another and their faces will be faces of flame, and in the parallel they will turn and flee to their own countries and their own kindred like hunted animals. In ‘c’ the day of Yahweh comes, cruel with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation, and to destroy its sinners out of it, and in the parallel He will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will be shaken out of her place, in the wrath of Yahweh of hosts, and in the day of His fierce anger. In ‘d’ the stars of heaven and its constellations will not give their light, the sun will be darkened in its going forth, and the moon will not cause her light to shine, and in the parallel he will punish the world for evil, and the wicked for their iniquity, and will cause the arrogance of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible. He will make a man more rare than fine gold, even a man than the pure gold of Ophir.
‘Howl, for the day of Yahweh is at hand.
As the destruction from the Almighty (Shaddai) will it come.
Therefore will all hands be feeble,
And every heart of man will melt.
And they will be dismayed.
Pangs and sorrows will take hold of them.
They will be in pain like a woman in labour.
They will be amazed at one another.
Their faces will be faces of flame.’
The day that is coming and is in view will be Yahweh’s day. ‘The day of Yahweh’ means that period in which He reveals His power in judgment, whenever it is, as He carries forward His purposes, so that through history there are different ‘days of Yahweh’. (Thus various such days are to be seen in Daniel’s description of the four empires, as one follows another into destruction, although there not mentioned as such). But it would eventually, as a result of such writings as this, come to signify a great final day when God and His opponents would, as it were, come face to face in one last great war, before the everlasting kingdom was established. That is how John in Revelation saw it, a city that represented what Babylon symbolised, although it was not necessarily the literal Babylon. That had been destroyed long before (Revelation 14:8; Revelation 17-18).
‘At hand.’ This refers to space rather than time. It is near in the sense that it was within striking distance. All would inevitably be caught up in it, first their neighbours and then themselves. It would be unavoidable.
The command is to ‘howl’ (plural). Compare Amos 5:16-17. All are to howl for it will inevitably be a day of destruction. Both the Almighty and the world are here exacting vengeance on Babylon and what it stands for, and this series of events will inevitably concern Jerusalem/Judah, or what remains of them. The destruction will be like the descriptions of the destruction of Jerusalem and Judah, but on a vaster scale. The whole world will be shaking. The descriptions are of people in panic and terror, in fear and perplexity, their faces burning with horror and dismay. No one knows when, but Babylon is doomed. Such things would in fact happen time and again as Babylon was on its way to its destruction. Through Babylon great suffering would come on men.
‘Destruction from the Almighty’ (sod mi ssadday). Note the assonance. Isaiah constantly uses assonance to emphasise his meaning and make it memorable. In all that would happen men were to recognise that this came from Yahweh as judgment on men’s sins.
‘Behold, the day of Yahweh comes,
Cruel with wrath and fierce anger,
To make the land a desolation,
And to destroy its sinners out of it.’
The moral purpose behind what is happening is here described. It is the day of Yahweh when He steps in to put right particular situations. Note the stress on His ‘anger’, His revulsion against their sin. Babylon has sinned against Judah and Jerusalem, it has sinned against the nations, it has sinned against God. It had once proudly asserted itself against God (Genesis 11). It would do so again and again (Isaiah 14:13-14). Thus His anger towards it, and thus the reason why His day will come on it. As it desolated the land of others, so its own land will be desolated. Its sinners would be destroyed.
‘For the stars of heaven and its constellations,
Will not give their light,
The sun will be darkened in its going forth,
And the moon will not cause her light to shine,
And I will punish the world for evil,
And the wicked for their iniquity,
And I will cause the arrogance of the proud to cease,
And will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible.’
In a world where the heavenly bodies were seen as gods and goddesses, and natural phenomenon were interpreted astrologically, it was inevitable that the destruction of such a nation would be seen in heavenly terms, especially in the case of a city so imbued with the occult as Babylon (chapter 47). What was happening to Babylon was happening to its gods. Bel was bowing down, Nebo was stooping (Isaiah 46:1). Furthermore, as the smoke welled up from burning fields and cities, and the skies became distorted, and blood and smoke filled men’s eyes, natural phenomena would take on an eerie look. The stars would become hidden, the sun dark, the moon unshining. Astrologers would search the heavens and find in them portents of what was happening. Thus the very heavens themselves would be seen as involved.
Isaiah had earlier described God’s judgment on Israel in terms of darkness and distress (Isaiah 5:30), how much more so the judgment on Babylon. We can compare here how when God was punishing Egypt one of the plagues was a plague of thick darkness which resulted when Moses stretched his hand towards heaven (Exodus 10:21-23) when exactly this situation would have been true. All of heaven would have been invisible.
And inevitably so, for Yahweh the Creator would be punishing the world for its evil and the wicked for their iniquity. Men had put light for darkness, and darkness for light (Isaiah 5:20). God would do so too. The lights would go out for Babylon. He was humbling the proud, and bringing low the haughty, especially the ‘haughtiness of the terrible’. (Note that the literal events are those happening on earth). Something of this haughtiness comes out in Isaiah 14:12-14. Kings of Babylon, terrible in the eyes of the world, and especially of a small nation like Judah, saw themselves as exalted above the stars of God. Thus the very stars themselves must be blotted out (compare Daniel 8:10; Daniel 11:36).
‘I will make a man more rare (’oqir) than fine gold,
Even a man than the pure gold of Ophir.’
In the day of Babylon’s doom in its continual occurrences the land would appear deserted as populations melted away from before the invading forces. They would seemingly disappear, until the enemy had moved on. The armies would search and find no one. All would have fled, in some cases leaving their gold behind. That could still be found. Note the play on words in ’oqir and ’ophir, they would be ‘more oqir than ophir’. Ophir has not been identified (Arabia, East Africa and India have all been suggested) but was famous for its gold (1 Kings 9:28; 1 Chronicles 29:4; 2 Chronicles 8:18; Job 22:24; Job 28:16; Psalms 45:9).
‘Therefore I will make the heavens tremble,
And the earth will be shaken out of her place,
In the wrath of Yahweh of hosts,
And in the day of his fierce anger.’
Note how this is paralleled with Isaiah 13:9. It is the Day of Yahweh, the day of His fierce anger, the time for dealing with sin. The continuing destruction of Babylon is to be an earthshaking event. Even the heavens will tremble. For it is Yahweh revealing His wrath against the pride of rebellious man from the beginning. Similar language was used by great kings as they described their progress in warfare. In their arrogance they saw the world shaking before them. But in Yahweh’s case it would regularly be true, and it would be true for Babylon.
Here the term ‘Yahweh of hosts’ is particularly poignant, for His anger is revealed in ‘the hosts’ He has gathered together against Babylon whose continual activity will bring Babylon down (again and again).
‘And it will come about that as the hunted roe,
And as the sheep that no man gathers,
They will turn every man to his own people,
And will flee every man to his own land.
Every man who is found will be thrust through,
And everyone who is taken will fall by the sword.
Their infants will be dashed in pieces before their eyes,
Their houses will be spoiled, and their wives ravished.’
Here are described man’s experiences during that Day. The hunted roe and the wild sheep are unprotected and vulnerable. They are on their own. And so it will be with the people who gather to Babylon, drawn by the magnet of the pomp and glory that draws all men. Now they are to be left without a protector, and will have to flee to their homelands. And those who are caught will be summarily slain, for to be involved with the sinful is to be sinful and to be punished with them. The consequences in infant deaths, houses ravaged, and women raped are the normal consequences of war, when men lose control of themselves. The vivid language has become very realistic. This is war as it was known. What happened in detail was not God’s purpose, it was the consequence of the kind of instruments He had to use.
A Vivid Picture of Babylon’s Future And Its End (Isaiah 13:17-22).
Having depicted the destruction of Babylon in apocalyptic terms Isaiah brings it down to earth. He partly does it in terms of the Medes. The Medes participated in a number of invasions of Babylon from Sargon II onwards and were very much feared. They founded their own empire and up to around the time of Cyrus II (whose father was Persian and whose mother was Medan) were the senior partners of the Medo-Persian alliance. While they sometimes had to pay tribute to a particularly powerful Assyrian king, (and at one stage to the Scythians), they were never really subjugated, and in the end assisted in the destruction of first Assyria, and then Babylonia. They were wild fighters of Indo-Iranian origin who came from the north and settled in the Near East and were expert bowmen, and they were feared by all. Sargon spoke of them as ‘madaia dannuti’ (‘the mighty Medes’). No one wanted to see the Medes approaching their city. It struck a cold chill to the heart.
Analysis of Isaiah 13:17-22.
a Behold I will stir up the Medes against them, who will not regard silver, and as for gold, they will not delight in it (Isaiah 13:17).
b And their bows will dash the young men in pieces, and they will have no pity on the fruit of the womb. Their eye will not spare children (Isaiah 13:18).
c And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldeans’ pride, will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah (Isaiah 13:19).
c It will never be inhabited, nor will it be dwelt in from generation to generation, nor will the Arabian pitch tent there, nor will shepherds make their flocks to lie down there (Isaiah 13:20).
b But the wild beasts of the wilderness will lie there, and their houses will be full of howling creatures, and ostriches will dwell there, and he-goats (‘goat-satyrs’) will dance there (Isaiah 13:21).
a And wolves will howl in their castles, and jackals in the pleasant palaces, and her time is near to come, and her days will not be prolonged (Isaiah 13:22).
These parallels are significant in the understanding of the reputation of the Medes. In ‘a’ the Medes who cannot be bought off will be stirred up against Babylon and in the parallel wolves and jackals will dwell there, and her time is near to come, and her days will not be prolonged. In ‘b’ Medan bows will dash young men in pieces, and the Medes are totally merciless as regards children, and in the parallel the ruins of Babylon will be inhabited by wild beasts, howling creatures, and ‘goat-satyrs’, bringing out the reputation of the Medes. In ‘c’ glorious Babylon will become like Sodom and Gomorrah, a desolate and forgotten heap, and in the parallel it will never be inhabited and it will be avoided by men.
‘Behold I will stir up the Medes against them,
Who will not regard silver,
And as for gold,
They will not delight in it.
And their bows will dash the young men in pieces,
And they will have no pity on the fruit of the womb.
Their eye will not spare children.’
If we would interpret Scripture truly we have no right to rip this verse from its context. Here we are told quite clearly that what has been described, ‘the burden of Babylon’ (Isaiah 13:1), is to occur at the hands of the nations, and partly, but only partly, at the hands of the Medes, those fearsome peoples from beyond Babylon.
In view of what we know of history the temptation for us here is to assume that this refers to the taking of Babylon in 539 BC by the Medes and the Persians. But it is important to note that the total emphasis here is on the Medes alone, and the Medes were a constant threat to Babylon from the very moment of their arrival from the steppes, even though spasmodically ‘controlled’ by Assyria. There is no mention, or even hint, here of the Persians. The point here is that the Medes will be let loose on them, those dreadful Medes whose bows shoot a man to pieces. But while they were to be specially feared they would only be one invader among many (Isaiah 13:4). Humanly speaking the fierce Medes would be an obvious ally for any attack on Babylon. They loved warfare and were just waiting there on its eastern borders, looking for their opportunity. Isaiah’s prophecies were enlightened common sense inspired by God. And the Medes would certainly be closely involved in most of Babylon’s downfalls. Thus there is no reason for reading a Medo-Persian conflict here.
But when the Medes struck, said Isaiah, it would be because God had stirred them up. They would not be able to be bought off by bribery or offers of gold. They would be ‘under divine orders’. And the bows for which they were famous would destroy the enemy, and the usual consequences of war would then follow, for the Medes would particularly have no pity. It is unusual to see a bow as ‘dashing in pieces’ but the words are picked up from Isaiah 13:16. In mind, however, may be the picture of someone torn apart by arrows, the idea being of the multitude of arrows that the Medes would let loose.
‘And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldeans’ pride, will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.’
‘The glory of kingdoms, the Beauty.’ These were probably descriptions that Babylon was applying to itself in its connections with Judah (Isaiah 39:1). As they boasted of their wealth and success, in order to impress Hezekiah, this would be the kind of language that they had used, and Isaiah takes it up and mocks it. He is angry because they are depicting themselves in terms that challenge Yahweh’s supremacy. That is what makes him realise that Babel/Babylon has not changed. And he is angry that Hezekiah has yielded to it. But such boasting would explain why Hezekiah felt it necessary to reveal his own comparatively puny treasures, comparatively puny but of which he was so proud (Isaiah 39:2). No doubt the Babylonian embassy had brought large gifts in their hands.
So Babylon even now saw itself as ‘the glory of kingdoms’. It was the ‘Beauty’ of which the Chaldeans were so proud. They gloried in themselves though the centuries, and no nation boasts like the resurrected nation. The ‘Chaldeans’ were a prominent group in southern Babylonia and the term was later used of all Babylonians, as here. Babylon was recognised throughout the known world for its splendour. Even Nineveh could not compare with it and its ancient civilisation. And their pride in the fact knew no bounds.
But the same words ‘glory’ and ‘beauty’ were used of the ‘sprouting of Yahweh’ in Isaiah 4:2 and of Yahweh Himself in Isaiah 28:5. Thus Isaiah saw Babylon as exalting itself to the same status as God and His ways. It was the Anti-God. And in its blasphemy it would suffer the same fate as Sodom and Gomorrah, which were bywords for sinfulness.
‘Will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.’ This is Babylon’s final destiny. Isaiah sees it as clearly as if it were in his own day. The Medes will continue to be a thorn in their sides, and would be a part of the alliances that would continually and finally break them, until they would in the end be nothing but a ruin on a mound of earth.
It is the genius of the Hebrew prophets that they prophesied of trends and purposes which in the end became more true than they at first realised. These words of Isaiah are a good example of this. He did not know that the Medan impact on Babylon would be far greater than he realised, nor at this stage did he realise quite how great Babylon would become in the not too distant future. That was a realisation that possibly grew on him as he contemplated that future. For once he knew that Assyria’s end was ‘near’, he may possibly have begun to see Babylon as the obvious candidate for rising to prominence and then have come to recognise what the consequences for Israel/Judah would be. And then this prophecy would be even more true. But if so that would come later when he realised that the Assyrian venture against Babylon had not been the final end for Babylon, in respect of a future that he knew must come.
‘It will never be inhabited,
Nor will it be dwelt in from generation to generation,
Nor will the Arabian pitch tent there,
Nor will shepherds make their flocks to lie down there.
But the wild beasts of the wilderness will lie there,
And their houses will be full of howling creatures,
And ostriches will dwell there,
And he-goats (‘goat-satyrs’) will dance there.
And wolves will howl in their castles,
And jackals in the pleasant palaces,
And her time is near to come,
And her days will not be prolonged.’
For its end would inevitably come. The ‘world’ invasions would do their work. The contrast here is with its glory and its beauty. It will become a ghost town, a deserted city, an eerie place. The fact that the wandering Arab, the caravanners, or shepherd will not pitch tent or settle their sheep there may suggest the idea that it would be seen as cursed or haunted. And this is borne out by the following description.
These descriptions parallel the mention of the Medes. They bring out just how much the Medes were feared, and how they were looked on. The ruined castles and palaces will become homes for wild beasts and ghostly creatures, places where wolves and jackals will be king, and mysterious presences, howling creatures and goat-satyrs, the invention of fevered minds, will wander. Paradoxically we too do not need to believe in ghosts to be conscious of ghostly presences in such a situation.
This was to be the final end of ancient Babylon, as today we know it was. It did happen eventually, and the Medes would have a big hand in it, and that is all that Isaiah foresaw and was prophesying. The fact that it did not happen quite as simply as portrayed is proof that it is genuine prophecy.
‘And her time is near to come, and her days will not be prolonged.’ This desolation of Babylon, ‘the glory of the kingdoms’, described throughout the chapter, is neither dated nor specifically connected with Israel and Judah. And there is no mention of the exile. It is thus quite possible that it was the coming of the ambassadors from Babylon that set up this train of thought, and resulted in this burden, with its certainty of Babylon’s final total destruction. Thus Isaiah warns that Babylon’s time is coming, and that, in divine terms, in the not too distant future. In spite of all her boasting her future glory will only be temporary, for among her enemies will be the dreaded Medes.
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Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Isaiah 13". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/
the Second Week after Epiphany