Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 21

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


A.M. 3290. B.C. 714.

We have here, under a mystical name, a second representation of the overthrow of Babylon by the Medes and Persians, Isaiah 21:1 , Isaiah 21:2 . The prophet, to show the dreadfulness of the calamity, represents himself as being seized with astonishment and horror at the prospect of it, Isaiah 21:3 , Isaiah 21:4 . An emblematical confirmation of it, Isaiah 21:5-10 . The burden of Dumah or Idumea, Isaiah 21:11 , Isaiah 21:12 . Of Arabia or Kedar, Isaiah 21:13-17 .

Verse 1

Isaiah 21:1. The burden of the desert of the sea That is, of Babylon, as is evident from Isaiah 21:9. Some think it is so called prophetically, because, although it was at present a populous city, it was shortly to be made desolate, and turned into a marsh, and pools of water. But מדבר ים may be properly rendered, the plain of the sea: for Babylon stood on a plain, and the country about it, and especially below it, toward the sea, was a great flat morass, often overflowed by the Euphrates and Tigris. “Semiramis,” says Herodotus, “confined the Euphrates within its channel, by raising great dams against it; for before it overflowed the whole country like a sea.” And Abydenus, speaking of the building of Babylon, observes, “It is reported that all this part was covered with water, and was called the sea; and that Belus drew off the waters, conveying them into proper receptacles.” It was only by these means, it appears, and by the many canals that were made in the country, that it became habitable. It, however, still more fully and perfectly answered the title of the plain, or desert of the sea, here given it, in consequence of the Euphrates being turned out of its channel by Cyrus, and afterward suffered still to drown the neighbouring country, by which it became, in time, a great barren, morassy desert, which it continues to be to this day. See note on Isaiah 13:20.

This second prediction, concerning Babylon, (which, with the two short prophecies following, makes the sixth discourse of this second part of Isaiah’s Visions,) “is a passage,” says Bishop Lowth, “of a singular kind for its brevity and force; for the variety and rapidity of the movements; and for the strength and energy of colouring, with which the action and event are painted. It opens with the prophet’s seeing, at a distance, the dreadful storm that is gathering, and ready to burst upon Babylon: the event is intimated in general terms; and God’s orders are issued to the Persians and Medes to set forth upon the expedition which he has given them in charge. Upon this the prophet enters into the midst of the action; and in the person of Babylon expresses, in the strongest terms, the astonishment and horror that seizes her on the sudden surprise of the city, at the very season dedicated to pleasure and festivity. Then, in his own person, he describes the situation of things there; the security of the Babylonians, and, in the midst of their feasting, the sudden alarm of war. The event is then declared in a very singular manner. God orders the prophet to set a watchman to look out, and to report what he sees; he sees two companies marching onward, representing, by their appearance, the two nations that were to execute God’s orders; who declare that Babylon is fallen.”

As whirlwinds in the south, &c. Bishop Lowth’s translation of this passage gives it a peculiar force and elegance.

“Like the southern tempests, violently rushing along,

From the desert he cometh, from the terrible country.

A dreadful vision! it is revealed unto me:

The plunderer is plundered, and the destroyer is destroyed.

Go up, O Elam; from the siege, O Media!

I have put an end to all her vexations.”

By southern tempests, or whirlwinds in the south, the prophet means tempests in those extensive deserts which lay southward from Judea, in which the winds rush along with great force, as meeting with no obstruction from mountains, hills, trees, or buildings. To these he compares the sweeping and irresistible ruin which, by terrible armies, was about to come on Babylon from Media and Persia, through the deserts that lay between it and those countries. “The prophet,” says Lowth, “renews his threatenings against Babylon, as he does afterward, (chap. 47.,) to convince the Jews, by this repetition, of the certainty of the event, and thereby support them under their captivity when it should come.”

Verse 2

Isaiah 21:2. A grievous vision is declared unto me A vision or prophecy, predicting dreadful calamities about to fall upon Babylon. The treacherous dealer, &c. In these words the prophet either describes the sin of the Chaldeans, for which God would send the following judgment upon them, namely, they persisted in the practice of treachery and rapine, to which they had been so long accustomed; or he speaks of the Medes and Persians, and represents them as paying the Babylonians in their own coin, and using the same treachery and violence toward them which they had used toward others. The words may be properly rendered, Thou, O Elam, that dealest treacherously with the treacherous dealer, or, that oppressest the oppressor, and spoilest the spoiler, go up, besiege, &c. Babylon had long oppressed and ravaged other countries: and it was now her turn to be oppressed and ravaged. Elam was an eminent province of Persia, bordering upon Media, and is here put for Persia in general. God here gives the Medes and Persians their commission to go up and take Babylon, and thereby to put an end to the sighs and groans of the captive Jews, and of other nations held in bondage, and oppressed by that tyrannical and cruel empire.

Verses 3-4

Isaiah 21:3-4. Therefore my loins, &c. “We have here a symbolical description of the greatness of the Babylonish calamity; the prophet exhibiting in himself, as in a figure, an emblem of the extreme distress, consternation, and horror, which should ensue on this occasion.” See Isaiah 15:5; Isaiah 16:8-9; Luke 21:26. He speaks of his loins being filled with pain, with a reference to the following similitude of child- bearing. Pangs have taken hold on me Sharp and grievous pains, or extreme anguish, as the word צירים properly means, torments like those of a woman in labour. I was, or, rather, I am, bowed down Oppressed with an intolerable load of sorrow and distress, at the hearing of it Hebrew, משׁמע , that I cannot (that is, cannot endure to) hear it. So Dr. Waterland, who reads the three next clauses thus: I am dismayed that l cannot see it: my heart panteth: horror confounds me. Such was the distress and anguish, the confusion and dismay, undoubtedly, of myriads of the inhabitants of Babylon, on the night when the city was unexpectedly taken; and particularly of Belshazzar, when he saw the hand that wrote, and the writing on the wall, and especially when he heard Daniel’s interpretation of it. Then, indeed, was the night of his pleasure turned into fear unto him, in which remarkable words the prophet alludes to the circumstance of Babylon’s being taken in the night of an annual festival, “while the inhabitants were dancing, drinking, and revelling, which is more fully set forth in the next verse.” According to Herodotus, the extreme parts of the city were in the hands of the enemy, before they, who dwelt in the middle of it, knew any thing of their danger.

Verse 5

Isaiah 21:5. Prepare the table Furnish it with meats and drinks, as it follows. The prophet foretels what the Babylonians would be doing when their enemies were upon the point of entering their city: Watch in the watch-tower To give us notice of any approaching danger, that we may more securely indulge ourselves in mirth and pleasures. Arise, ye princes Either, 1st, Ye princes of Babylon. Arise from the table, and run to your arms: which sudden alarm was the consequence of tidings from the watch- tower. Or, 2d, Ye Medes and Persians; as if he had said, While your enemies, the Babylonians, are feasting securely, prepare and make your assault. Most commentators understand the clause in this latter sense. Dr. Waterland, after Vitringa, renders it, The table is spread: the watchman stands upon the watch; they eat, they drink: Arise now, ye princes, &c. The words paint in lively colours the security and revelling of the Babylonians, at the very time when the divine command is given to the Medes and Persians to seize this proper moment to make the assault. See Jeremiah 51:11; Jeremiah 51:28, &c. The expression, Anoint the shield, means, Prepare your arms: make ready for the battle. The shield is put for all their weapons, offensive and defensive. They used to anoint their shields with oil to preserve and polish them, and make them slippery, that their enemies’ darts might not fix in and penetrate, but slide off from them.

Verse 6

Isaiah 21:6. For thus hath the Lord said unto me I speak only what God hath caused me to see and hear in a vision, the particulars whereof are related in the following verses. “The Holy Spirit, to make Isaiah, and, by him, the church, most certain of this memorable event, confirms the preceding revelation by an elegant emblem, offered to the prophet in vision. This emblem exhibits to us the prophet commanded by God to set a watchman, in this verse; and, in what follows, the consequence of the execution of the command, namely, that the watchman attended accurately to the least motion of the nations against Babylon, and, after long expectation, had discovered” what is afterward related. See Vitringa. The reader will observe, that as the command to set a watchman was given to the prophet in a vision, so it was executed by him only in a vision. It signified, however, what should really be done afterward, namely, when the Medes and Persians should march to besiege and attack Babylon.

Verse 7

Isaiah 21:7. And he saw a chariot with two riders, &c. “This passage,” says Bishop Lowth, “is extremely obscure from the ambiguity of the term רכב ,” (here rendered chariot,) “which is used three times; and which signifies a chariot, or any other vehicle, or the rider in it; or a rider on a horse, or any other animal; or a company of chariots or riders. The prophet may possibly mean a cavalry in two parts, with two sorts of riders; riders on asses, or mules, and riders on camels: or led on by two riders, one on an ass, and one on a camel.” Or, as some think, the verse may be rendered, He saw a cavalcade, two file of horse, ( צמד פרשׁים ,) with ass-carriages, and carriages of camels; and he attended with very close attention. According to this translation, the meaning is, that the watchman saw the army of the Medes and Persians, with their usual cavalcade of horse, (attended by those beasts of burden, asses and camels, which accompanied armies,) moving toward Babylon; upon which he gave the greatest attention possible. Or, according to the common reading, Darius and Cyrus, leading the Medes and Persians, are intended to be distinguished by the two riders, or the two sorts of cattle. The baggage of Cyrus’s army, Herodotus tells us, was carried on camels.

Verses 8-9

Isaiah 21:8-9. And he cried, A lion “The present reading, אריה , a lion, is so unintelligible,” says Bishop Lowth, “and the mistake so obvious, that I make no doubt that the true reading is הראה ,” ( he that saw, or looked out,) “as the Syriac translator manifestly found it in his copy, who renders it by רוקא , speculator,” the observer, or watchman. The bishop, therefore, renders the clause, He that looked out on the watch cried aloud. My lord, I stand continually upon the watch-tower The watchman speaks these words to the prophet, who, by command from God, had set him in this station; to whom, therefore he gives the following account of his discharge of the office wherewith he was intrusted. In the daytime, &c., whole nights According to thy command I have stood, and do stand continually, both day and night, in my ward. This is said to express his great care and attention, and thereby to confirm the truth of the prediction which follows, as that which would as certainly come to pass, as if a watchman had descried the approach of an enemy afar off. And behold, here cometh a chariot, &c. Or, as in Isaiah 21:7, a cavalcade of men; two file of horse, &c. Bishop Lowth renders it, from the Syriac and Ephraim Syrus, Behold, here cometh a man, one of the two riders: and he answered Answered to the prophet, who set him to watch, or the Lord, by whose command he was set. Babylon is fallen, is fallen The expression is doubled, to show the certainty of the event. It is usual, likewise, for the prophets to speak of a thing future as if it were already accomplished, to signify that it will certainly be accomplished; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken, &c. “It is remarkable that Xerxes, after his return from his unfortunate expedition into Greece, partly out of religious zeal, being a professed enemy to image-worship, and partly to reimburse himself after his immense expenses, seized the sacred treasures, plundered or destroyed the temples and idols of Babylon, and thereby accomplished this prophecy.” Bishop Newton.

Verse 10

Isaiah 21:10. O my thrashing, &c. In these words, which form the conclusion of the prophecy, “the application, the end, and design of it, are admirably given in a short expressive address to the Jews, partly in the person of God, partly in that of the prophet.” The first words of the verse, O my thrashing, and the corn of my floor, are supposed to be spoken by God, in which thrashing is put for the corn thrashed, and the corn thrashed for people sorely afflicted and punished: as if he had said, “O my people, whom for your punishment I have made subject to the Babylonians, to try and to prove you, and to separate the chaff (or straw) from the corn, the bad from the good among you; hear this for your consolation: your punishment, your slavery and oppression, will have an end in the destruction of your oppressors.” The reader will observe, “the image of thrashing is frequently used by the Hebrew poets, with great elegance and force, to express the punishment of the wicked and the trial of the good, or the utter dispersion and destruction of God’s enemies.” That which I have heard, &c. Here “the prophet abruptly breaks off the speech of God, and instead of continuing it in the form in which he had begun, and in the person of God, he changes the form of address, and adds, in his own person, That which I have heard, &c., have I declared unto you.” In which words he signifies, that he had faithfully related to them what God had revealed to him, and that the predictions which he had uttered were not his own inventions, but the very word of God, which, therefore, would be infallibly accomplished in their season. See Bishop Lowth.

Verses 11-12

Isaiah 21:11-12. The burden of Dumah Or Idumea, as appears by the mention of mount Seir, which follows. This prophecy, “from the uncertainty of the occasion on which it was uttered, and from the brevity of the expression,” is acknowledged to be extremely obscure. The general opinion of interpreters seems to be, that it refers to the time of some common calamity, which the prophet foresaw would oppress Judea and the neighbouring countries, as suppose the invasion of the Assyrians, or the tyrannical domination of the Babylonians. During this calamity the prophet introduces the Idumeans, inquiring of him concerning the quality and duration of it. He informs them in answer, that “the calamity should soon pass from Judea, and that the light of the morning should arise to the Jews, while the Idumeans should be oppressed with a new and unexpected affliction; so that what should be a time of light to the Jews, should be to them a time of darkness. The prophet, foreseeing that they would scarcely believe his words, admonishes them that the matter was fixed, as they would find the more accurately they inquired into it.” According to this general view of the passage, the particular expressions may be interpreted as follows: Watchman So they term the prophet, either seriously or in scorn, because the prophets were so called by God and by the people of the Jews; what of the night What have you certain to tell us of the state of the night? How far is it advanced? Do you observe no signs of the approach of the morning? That is, what do you observe of our present distress and calamity? Is there any appearance of its departure, and of the approach of the morning of deliverance? The prophet answers enigmatically, The morning cometh Deliverance to the Jews; and also the night To the Idumeans: to them I will give light; you I will leave in darkness. So St. Jerome and the Chaldee Paraphrase. See Dodd. Or the meaning of the prophet’s answer may be, “that the deliverance of the Jews would come in its appointed time; but that the day of their prosperity would be succeeded by a dark night of adversity: or, that after a short continuance of approaching prosperity to the Edomites, a dreadful ruin would come upon them, of which the prophet saw no end.” Scott. The last clause, If ye will inquire, &c, is taken by some to be an exhortation to the Edomites, to consider their ways, to repent and turn to God. Lowth paraphrases it thus: “If you will inquire indeed, and ask questions in earnest, inquire of God first, ask his mercy, and afterward come again, and ye shall have a more favourable answer.”

Verse 13

Isaiah 21:13. The burden of Arabia “While God revealed to his prophet the fate of foreign nations, among others he declares that of those Arabians who inhabited the western part of Arabia Deserta, or Petrea,” and bordered upon the Idumeans last mentioned. They are here termed the companies of Dedanim, being the descendants of Dedan, the son of Jokshan, the son of Abraham by Keturah; and travelling companies, because a great number of them used to travel together the same way, as now companies travelling together in those parts are called caravans. In saying, In the forest shall ye lodge, the prophet foretels that they should be driven into flight by the Assyrians, or that that populous country should be turned into a desolate wilderness.

Verses 14-15

Isaiah 21:14-15. The inhabitants of the land of Tema Another part of Arabia, (of which see Job 6:19; Jeremiah 25:23,) namely, the posterity of Tema, Ishmael’s son; brought water to him that was thirsty To the Dedanites, who are here represented as being reduced to great straits, being forced to flee from the enemy without any provision for their subsistence. They prevented with bread him that fled That is, that fled for his life from the sword of the enemy, as is more fully expressed in the next verse. “To bring forth bread and water, in such cases of distress, is an instance of common humanity; especially in these desert countries, in which the common necessaries of life, more particularly water, are not easily met with, or procured.” See Deuteronomy 23:4.

Verses 16-17

Isaiah 21:16-17. For thus hath the Lord said Hitherto the prophet had spoken figuratively: now he ceases to do so; within a year From the time of the delivery of this prophecy, according to the years of a hireling Namely, an exact year: for hirelings diligently observe and wait for the end of the year, when they are to receive their wages. And this prophecy “was probably delivered about the same time with the rest in this part of the book, that is, soon before or after the 14th of Hezekiah, the year of Sennacherib’s invasion. In his first march into Judea, or in his return from the Egyptian expedition, he might, perhaps, overrun these several clans of Arabians, whose distress, on some such occasion, is the subject of this prophecy.” Bishop Lowth. And all the glory of Kedar shall fail Their power and riches, and all things wherein they used to glory The Kedarenes were another division of the Arabians, descended from Kedar, Ishmael’s son, (Genesis 25:13,) who were famous for the use of the bow, as is intimated in Isaiah 21:17, at which weapon their ancestor Ishmael was very expert, Genesis 21:20. The same people are said to dwell in the tents of Kedar, (Psalms 120:5; Song of Solomon 1:5,) and were remarkable for their swarthiness, the word Kedar signifying black or tawny. It is here foretold that they should suffer a grievous slaughter, whereby their mighty men should be diminished, and that they should be deprived of their flocks, tents, furniture, and wealth, and be obliged to save themselves by fleeing into the interior parts of the desert.

Bibliographical Information
Benson, Joseph. "Commentary on Isaiah 21". Benson's Commentary. 1857.