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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 13

Benson's Commentary of the Old and New TestamentsBenson's Commentary


A.M. 3274. B.C. 730.

We now enter upon the second part of Isaiah’s prophecies, containing a wonderful account of God’s dealings with the enemies of his church and people. It begins at this chapter and extends to the twenty-fourth, comprising eight discourses. The first respects the fate of Babylon, and occupies this whole chapter and the next, to Isaiah 14:28 . We have here God’s armies, Isaiah 13:1-5 . The destruction of Babylon by the Medes and Persians; their great distress, and anguish, and utter destruction, Isaiah 13:6-22 .

Verse 1

Isaiah 13:1. The burden of Babylon Of the city and empire of Babylon. The original word, משׂא , here rendered burden, is, by Dr. Waterland, after Vitringa, translated, The sentence upon, or, delivered concerning Babylon. It is “derived from a verb, which signifies to take, or lift up, or bring; and the proper meaning of it is, any weighty, important matter or sentence, which ought not to be neglected, but is worthy of being carried in the memory, and deserves to be lifted up, and uttered with emphasis.” See Revelation 2:24, and Vitringa. Bishop Newton and others have observed, that “the prophecies uttered against any city or country, often carry the inscription of the burden of that city or country: and that by burden is commonly understood a threatening, burdensome prophecy, big with ruin and destruction: which, like a dead weight, is hung upon the city or country to sink it.” But it appears that the word is of more general import, and sometimes signifies a prophecy at large, sometimes a prophecy of good as well as of evil, as in Zechariah 12:1; and sometimes, where the original word is used, it is translated prophecy, where there is no prophecy, but only a grave moral sentence.

This prophecy against Babylon, which consists of two parts, the former contained in this chapter, the latter in the next, was probably delivered, as Vitringa has shown, in the reign of Ahaz, about two hundred years before the completion of it, and a hundred and thirty before the Jews were even carried captive to Babylon; which captivity the prophet does not expressly foretel here, but supposes, in the spirit of prophecy, as what was actually to take place. “And the Medes, who are expressly mentioned, Isaiah 13:17, as the principal agents in the overthrow of the Babylonian monarchy, by which the Jews were to be released from that captivity, were at this time an inconsiderable people; having been in a state of anarchy ever since the fall of the great Assyrian empire, of which they had made a part under Sardanapalus; and did not become a kingdom till about the seventeenth of Hezekiah.” Bishop Lowth. The great design of God in inspiring his prophet with the knowledge of these future events, and exciting him to deliver these prophecies concerning them, seems to have been, 1st, To set forth the reasons of his justice, in punishing the enemies of his church, in order to console the minds and confirm the faith of the pious. 2d, With respect to this prophecy especially, concerning the destruction of Babylon, the design was to comfort the minds of true believers against that sad and sorrowful event, the Babylonish captivity. And, 3d, Under the figure of that destruction, to announce the destruction of the spiritual Babylon, the whole kingdom of sin and Satan. See Vitringa, and Revelation 14:8; Revelation 17:5.

“The former part of this prophecy,” says Bishop Lowth, “is one of the most beautiful examples that can be given, of elegance of composition, variety of imagery, and sublimity of sentiment and diction, in the prophetic style: and the latter part consists of an ode of supreme and singular excellence. The prophecy opens with the command of God to gather together the forces which he had destined to his service, Isaiah 13:2-3. Upon which the prophet hears the tumultuous noise of the different nations crowding together to his standard; he sees them advancing, prepared to execute divine wrath, Isaiah 13:4-5. He proceeds to describe the dreadful consequences of this visitation; the consternation which will seize those that are the objects of it; and transferring unawares the speech from himself to God, Isaiah 13:11, sets forth, under a variety of the most striking images, the dreadful destruction of the inhabitants of Babylon, which will follow, Isaiah 13:11-16; and the everlasting desolation to which that great city is doomed, Isaiah 13:17-22. The deliverance of Judah from captivity, the immediate consequence of this great revolution, is then set forth without being much enlarged upon, or greatly amplified, chap. 14:1, 2. This introduces, with the greatest ease, and the utmost propriety, the triumphant song on that subject, Isaiah 13:4-22. The beauties of which, the various images, scenes, persons introduced, and the elegant transitions from one to another, I shall endeavour to point out in their order.”

Verses 2-3

Isaiah 13:2-3 . Lift up a banner To gather soldiers together for this expedition; upon the high mountain Whence it may be discerned at a considerable distance. Exalt the voice unto them To the Medes, named Isaiah 13:17. Shake the hand Beckon to them with your hand, that they may come to this service. That they may go into the gates of the nobles That they may go and take Babylon, and so may enter into the palaces of the king, and of his princes, and spoil them at their pleasure. I have commanded my sanctified ones Or, my appointed ones, as Dr. Waterland renders מקדשׁי , namely, the Medes and Persians, who were solemnly designed and set apart by God for his service, in this sacred work of executing his just vengeance upon the Babylonians. I have called my mighty ones Those whom I have made mighty for this work; even them that rejoice in my highness Or, exult in my greatness, as Bishop Lowth renders it, that is, in the doing that work which will tend to the advancement of my glory, in destroying the Babylonian empire. Not that the Medes and Persians had any regard to God or to his glory, in undertaking and prosecuting this war: they certainly had only the gratifying their own ambition, and lust of power and empire, in view.

Verses 4-5

Isaiah 13:4-5. The noise of a multitude in the mountains No sooner had the Almighty given the command, than the multitude assembles to his banners; like as a great people Not rude and barbarous; but well- disciplined, regular, and veteran troops, such as are wont to be furnished by a great and powerful people; of the kingdoms of nations Cyrus’s army was made up of different nations besides the Medes and Persians. The Lord of hosts The God of armies; mustereth the host of the battle He raises the soldiers, brings them together, puts them in order, reviews them, keeps an exact account of them, sees that they be all in their respective posts, and gives them their necessary orders. The expressions are noble, and contain a lively description of that terror which the appearance of a hostile army strikes into the beholders. They come from a far country Many of Cyrus’s auxiliary forces came from very distant countries: see Jeremiah 50:41; Jeremiah 51:27-28. The prophet adds this as an aggravation of the judgment. From the end of heaven This is not to be understood strictly and properly, but popularly and hyperbolically, as such expressions are commonly used, both in sacred and profane authors. Even the Lord, and the weapons of his indignation The Medes and Persians, who were but a rod in God’s hand, and the instruments of his anger, as was said of the Assyrian, Isaiah 10:5. To destroy the whole land Namely, of Babylon, of which he is now speaking.

Verses 6-8

Isaiah 13:6-8. Howl ye We have here a very elegant and lively description of the terrible confusion and desolation which should be made in Babylon by the attack which the Medes and Persians should make upon it. They who were now at ease and secure are premonished to howl, and make sad lamentation, 1st, Because God was about to appear in wrath against them, and it is a fearful thing to fall into his hands. And, 2d, Because their hearts would fail them, and they would have neither courage nor comfort left them; would neither be able to resist the judgment coming, nor bear up under it; neither to oppose the enemy nor to support themselves. For the day of the Lord is at hand A day of judgment and recompense, when God would act as a just avenger of his own and his people’s injured cause, and severely chastise the Babylonians for their pride and luxury, their inhumanity and cruelty, their idolatry and superstition, and, above all, their sins against the people of God, his religion and sanctuary, and so against God himself: see Jeremiah 50:31. It shall come as a destruction Or, rather, A destruction shall it come, not merely as, or like a destruction, but such in reality, and that most awful, as being from the Almighty, whose power is irresistible, and wrath intolerable. “The prophet begins here to describe the calamity coming upon them, but in figures, according to his manner, grand, and adapted to raise a terrible image of it.” All hands shall be faint Hebrew, תרפינה , shall fall down, and be unable to hold a weapon; and every man’s heart shall melt So that they shall be ready to die with fear. God often strikes a terror into those whom he designs for destruction. Pangs, &c., shall take hold of them The pangs of their fear shall be like those of a woman in hard labour. They shall be amazed one at another To see such a populous, and, apparently, impregnable city, so easily and unexpectedly taken. Their faces shall be as flames Hebrew, shall be faces of flames; either pale with fear, or inflamed with rage and torment, as men in great misery often are. Bishop Lowth renders it, Their countenances shall be like flames of fire.

Verses 9-10

Isaiah 13:9-10. Behold the day cruel both with wrath and fierce anger Dr. Waterland renders the clause, fierceness, wrath, and hot anger: divers words are heaped together, to signify the extremity of the divine indignation; to lay the land desolate Hebrew, לשׁום לשׁמה , to make it a desolation, an entire and perpetual desolation, Isaiah 13:19-22. And he shall destroy the sinners thereof The inhabitants of that city, who had persisted in their idolatries, oppressions, and all sorts of luxuries, notwithstanding the faithful testimony against their practices borne by Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, and other pious Jews, and the solemn warnings given by God himself to Nebuchadnezzar, in repeated dreams and visions, and the humiliating and distressing affliction wherewith that monarch was chastised: see Daniel 4:13-33. For the stars of heaven Here the calamity to be brought upon them is set forth “under the figure of a dreadful tempest, inducing such a face of things in the heavens as the prophet describes.” It would be so grievous as to “deprive them of all light, that is, of all joy and consolation, as well as of the causes of them, and would fill them with sorrow and distress, and a fearful sense of the divine wrath poured forth from heaven upon them.” Or, rather, the prophet foretels the utter subversion of their republic, and the entire overthrow of their religion and polity, under the emblem of the extinction or passing away of the sun, moon, and stars, and all the heavenly bodies. For, as Bishop Lowth observes, the Hebrew writers, “to express happiness, prosperity, the instauration and advancement of states, kingdoms, and potentates, make use of images taken from the most striking parts of nature; from the heavenly bodies, from the sun, moon, and stars, which they describe as shining with increased splendour, and never setting; the moon becomes like the meridian sun, and the sun’s light is augmented seven-fold: see Isaiah 30:26. New heavens and a new earth are created, and a brighter age commences. On the contrary, the overthrow and destruction of kingdoms are represented by opposite images; the stars are obscured, the moon withdraws her light, and the sun shines no more; the earth quakes, and the heavens tremble; and all things seem tending to their original chaos.”

Verses 11-16

Isaiah 13:11-16. I will punish the world The Babylonish empire, which is called the world, as the Roman empire afterward was, (Luke 2:1,) because it was extended to a great part of the world, and because it was very populous, and Babylon itself looked more like a world than one city. I will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible Of them who formerly were very terrible for their great power and cruelty. I will make a man more precious, &c. The city and nation shall be so depopulated, that few men shall be left in it. I will shake the heavens, &c. A poetical and prophetical description of great confusions and terrors, as if heaven and earth were about to meet together. And it shall be as the chased roe That Babylon, which used to be like a roaring lion and a raging bear to all about her, shall become like the timid, frighted roe, pursued by the hunter, and as a sheep which no man taketh up In a most forlorn and neglected condition. And the army they shall bring into the field, consisting of troops from divers nations, as great armies usually do, shall be so dispirited by their own fears, and so dispersed by their enemies’ sword, that they shall turn every man to his own people Shall each shift for his own safety. Or the prophet may refer to those inhabitants of Babylon who were originally of different nations, but had settled there: as many of these, he signifies, as can, shall flee out of it, and endeavour to escape to their own countries. Every one that is found In Babylon, at the taking of it; shall fall by the sword The fear of which shall make them flee away with all speed. Their children also shall be dashed, &c. As a just recompense for the like cruelty acted by them upon the Jews, 2 Chronicles 36:17, which was also foretold Psalms 137:9.

Verses 17-18

Isaiah 13:17-18. Behold, &c. Here follows the second part of this prophecy, in which the calamity which the prophet had foretold, principally in figure, is plainly related and set forth in its causes and consequences. Its causes are stated to be the Medes, raised up by God himself against the Babylonians, and described as being extremely full of cruelty and avidity of revenge, Isaiah 13:17-18. The consequences are, the desolation of Babylon, and the calamity to be brought upon it, Isaiah 13:19-22. I will stir up the Medes Under whom he comprehends the Persians, who were their neighbours and confederates in this expedition. Which shall not regard silver, &c. That is, comparatively speaking. They shall more eagerly pursue the destruction of the people than the getting of spoil. Their bows also Under which are comprehended other weapons of war; shall dash the young men to pieces Or, shall pierce the young men through, as the Chaldee renders it. But, as both Herodotus and Xenophon affirm that the Persians used τοξα μεγαλα , large bows, according to the latter, bows three cubits long, and undoubtedly proportionably strong; we may easily conceive, as Bishop Lowth observes, that, with such bows, especially if made of brass, as bows anciently often were, (see Psalms 18:35; Job 20:24,) the soldiers might dash and slay the young men, the weaker and unresisting part of the inhabitants, (here joined with the fruit of the womb and the children,) in the general carnage in taking the city.

Verse 19

Isaiah 13:19. Babylon, the glory of kingdoms Which once was the most noble and excellent of all the kingdoms then in being, and was more glorious than the succeeding empire, and therefore is represented by the head of gold, Daniel 2:37. The beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency The famous and beautiful seat of the Chaldean monarchy; shall be as when God overthrew Sodom, &c. Shall be totally and irrecoverably destroyed, as is more fully expressed in the following verses. Babylon, “according to the lowest account given of it by ancient historians, was a regular square, forty-five miles in compass, enclosed by a wall two hundred feet high and fifty broad; in which there were one hundred gates of brass. Its principal ornaments were the temple of Belus, in the middle of which was a tower of eight stories,” (or towers placed one above another, diminishing always as they went up,) “upon a base of a quarter of a mile square; a most magnificent palace; and the famous hanging gardens, which were an artificial mountain, raised upon arches, and planted with trees of the largest, as well as the most beautiful sorts.” What is very remarkable, “this great city was rising to its height of glory at this very time, while Isaiah was repeatedly denouncing its utter destruction. From the first of Hezekiah to the first of Nebuchadnezzar, under whom it was brought to the highest degree of strength and splendour, are about one hundred and twenty years.” See Bishop Lowth.

Verse 20

Isaiah 13:20. It shall never be inhabited After the destruction threatened shall be fully effected. This was not done immediately upon the taking of the city by Darius the Mede and Cyrus the Persian, his nephew; but was fulfilled by degrees, as is recorded by historians, and as appears at this day. It will be satisfactory to the reader to note some of the steps by which this prophecy was accomplished. “Cyrus took the city by diverting the waters of the Euphrates, which ran through the midst of it, and entering the place at night by the dry channel. The river, being never restored afterward to its proper course, overflowed the whole country, and made it little better than a great morass: this, and the great slaughter of the inhabitants, with other bad consequences of the taking of the city, was the first step to the ruin of the place. The Persian monarchs ever regarded it with a jealous eye; they kept it under, and took care to prevent its recovering its former greatness. Darius Hystaspis, not long afterward, most severely punished it for a revolt, greatly depopulated the place, lowered the walls, and demolished the gates. Xerxes destroyed the temples, and, with the rest, the great temple of Belus. The building of Seleucia on the Tigris exhausted Babylon by its neighbourhood, as well as by the immediate loss of inhabitants taken away by Seleucus to people his new city. (Strabo, lib. 16.) A king of the Parthians soon after carried away into slavery a great number of the inhabitants, and burned and destroyed the most beautiful parts of the city. Strabo says, that in his time a great part of it was a mere desert: that the Persians had partly destroyed it, and that time, and the neglect of the Macedonians while they were masters of it, had nearly completed its destruction. Jerome (on the place) says, that in his time it was quite in ruins, and that the walls served only for the enclosure of a park or forest, for the king’s hunting. Modern travellers, who have endeavoured to find the remains of it, have given but a very unsatisfactory account of their success. Upon the whole, Babylon is so utterly annihilated, that even the place where this wonder of the world stood cannot now be determined with any certainty.” Bishop Lowth.

Verses 21-22

Isaiah 13:21-22. The wild beasts of the desert shall lie there Which was literally fulfilled, as we have just seen, in Jerome’s time, when it was a forest for breeding wild beasts, or a royal chase for hunting. And their houses shall be full of doleful creatures This likewise has been exactly accomplished. Benjamin of Tudela, a Jew, in his Itinerary, written above seven hundred years ago, asserts, “Babylon is now laid waste, excepting the ruins of Nebuchadnezzar’s palace, which men are afraid to enter, on account of the serpents and scorpions that have taken possession of it.”

This account is confirmed by Rauwolf, who informs us, “that the supposed ruins of the tower of Babylon are so full of venomous creatures, that no one dares approach nearer to them than half a league.” It must be observed, however, that interpreters are not agreed as to the precise meaning of the word אחים , here rendered, doleful creatures. Some connect this clause with the preceding, and read it, And shall fill (namely, the wild beasts shall fill) their houses with their howlings. It is more probable, however, that some living creatures are intended, but whether reptiles, quadrupeds, or fowls, is uncertain. It is also doubtful what creatures are meant by several of the other Hebrew words here used, particularly by the word שׂעירים , seirim, translated satyrs. The term indeed signifies goats. And many have supposed that evil spirits often appeared, of old time, in the shape of goats. “Upon which account,” says Lowth, “the word is sometimes taken for devils, and is so translated, Leviticus 17:7,” (where see the note,) “and in 2 Chronicles 11:15. But here, and Isaiah 34:14, it is rendered satyrs. The expression may be taken from a vulgar opinion, that desolate and forlorn places are inhabited by evil spirits. See Bar 4:35 ; Revelation 18:2. Accordingly our Saviour, in his parable of an unclean spirit, says, that he walks through dry, or uninhabited places, Matthew 12:43.” And dragons in their pleasant places The word תנים , rendered dragons, signifies any large creature of the creeping kind, whether upon land or in the sea. Here it seems to be taken for a great serpent, such as are usually found in deserts and desolate places. But instead of wasting time in a fruitless attempt to ascertain what kind of creatures are meant by the different Hebrew words here used, which would only perplex and not edify the reader, we shall present him with Bishop Lowth’s translation of these two verses.

“But there shall the wild beasts of the deserts lodge;

And howling monsters shall fill their houses:

And there shall the daughters of the ostrich dwell;

And there shall the satyrs hold their revels.

And wolves shall howl to one another in their palaces;

And dragons in their voluptuous pavilions.”

What makes the present desolate condition of Babylon the more wonderful is, that Alexander the Great intended to have made it the seat of his empire, and actually set men to work to rebuild the temple of Belus, to repair the banks of the river, and to reduce the waters again to their own channel; but he met with too many difficulties to proceed with the work. And now, how justly may we reflect with Bishop Newton, (Dissert. xth.,) “How is Babylon become a desolation! How wonderful are such predictions, compared with the events! And what a convincing argument of the truth and divinity of the Holy Scriptures! Well might God allege this as a memorable instance of his prescience, and challenge all the false gods, and their votaries, to produce the like, Isaiah 45:21; Isaiah 46:10. And indeed where can be found a similar instance, but in Scripture, from the beginning of the world to this day?”

Bibliographical Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 13". Benson's Commentary. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/rbc/isaiah-13.html. 1857.
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