Bible Commentaries

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Isaiah 13

Verses 1-22




THIS double oracle is against the City {Isaiah 13:2-22; Isaiah 14:1-2} and the Tyrant {Isaiah 14:3-23} of Babylon.


{Isaiah 13:2-22; Isaiah 14:1-23}

The first part is a series of hurried and vanishing scenes-glimpses of ruin and deliverance caught through the smoke and turmoil of a Divine war. The drama opens with the erection of a gathering "standard upon a bare mountain" (Isaiah 13:2). He who gives the order explains it (Isaiah 13:3), but is immediately interrupted by "Hark! a tumult on the mountains, like a great people. Hark! the surge of the kingdoms of nations gathering together. Jehovah of hosts is mustering the host of war." It is "the day of Jehovah" that is "near," the day of His war and of His judgment upon the world.

This Old Testament expression, "the day of the Lord," starts so many ideas that it is difficult to seize any one of them and say this is just what is meant. For "day" with a possessive pronoun suggests what has been appointed beforehand, or what must come round in its turn; means also opportunity and triumph, and also swift performance after long delay. All these thoughts are excited when we couple "a day" with any person’s name. And therefore, as with every dawn some one awakes saying, This is my day; as with every dawn comes some one’s chance, some soul gets its wish, some will shows what it can do, some passion or principle issues into fact: so God also shall have His day, on which His justice and power shall find their full scope and triumph. Suddenly and simply, like any dawn that takes its turn on the round of time, the great decision and victory of Divine justice shall at last break out of the long delay of ages. "Howl ye, for the day of Jehovah is near; as destruction from the Destructive does it come." Very savage and quite universal is its punishment. "Every human heart melteth." Countless faces, white with terror, light up its darkness like flames. Sinners are "to be exterminated out of the earth; the world is to be punished for its iniquity." Heaven, the stars, sun and moon aid the horror and the darkness, heaven shivering above, the earth quaking beneath; and between, the peoples like shepherd-less sheep drive to and fro through awful carnage.

From Isaiah 13:17 the mist lifts a little. The vague turmoil clears up into a siege of Babylon by the Medians, and then settles down into Babylon’s ruin and abandonment to wild beasts. Finally {Isaiah 14:1} comes the religious reason for so much convulsion: "For Jehovah will have compassion upon Jacob, and choose again Israel, and settle them upon their own ground; and the foreign sojourner shall join himself to them, and they shall associate themselves to the house of Jacob."

This prophecy evidently came to a people already in captivity-a very different circumstance of the Church of God from that in which we have seen her under Isaiah. But upon this new stage it is still the same old conquest. Assyria has fallen, but Babylon has taken her place. The old spirit of cruelty and covetousness has entered a new body; the only change is that it has become wealth and luxury instead of brute force and military glory. It is still selfshness and pride and atheism. At this, our first introduction to Babylon, it might have been proper to explain why throughout the Bible from Genesis to Revelation this one city should remain in fact or symbol the enemy of God and the stronghold of darkness. But we postpone what may be said of her singular reputation, till we come to the second part of the Book of Isaiah where Babylon plays a larger and more distinct role. Here her destruction is simply the most striking episode of the Divine judgment upon the whole earth. Babylon represents civilisation; she is the brow of the world’s pride and enmity to God. One distinctively Babylonian characteristic, however, must not be passed over. With a ring of irony in his voice, the prophet declares, "Behold, I stir up the Medes against thee, who regard not silver and take no pleasure in gold." The worst terror that can assail us is the terror of forces, whose character we cannot fathom, who will not stop to parley, who do not understand our language nor our bribes. It was such a power with which the resourceful and luxurious Babylon was threatened. With money the Babylonians did all they wished to do, and believed everything else to be possible. They had subsidised kings, bought over enemies, seduced the peoples of the earth. The foe whom God now sent them was impervious to this influence. From their pure highlands came down upon corrupt civilisation a simple people, whose banner was a leathern apron, whose goal was not booty nor ease but power and mastery, who came not to rob but to displace.

The lessons of the passage are two: that the people of God are something distinct from civilisation, though this be universal and absorbent as a very Babylon; and that the resources of civilisation are not even in material strength the highest in the universe, but God has in His armoury weapons heedless of men’s cunning, and in His armies agents impervious to men’s bribes. Every civilisation needs to be told, according to its temper, one of these two things. Is it hypocritical? Then it needs to be told that civilisation is not one with the people of God. Is it arrogant? Then it needs to be told that the resources of civilisation are not the strongest forces in God’s universe. Man talks of the triumph of mind over matter, of the power of culture, of the elasticity of civilisation; but God has natural forces, to which all these are as the worm beneath the hoof of the horse: and if moral need arise, He will call His brute forces into requisition. "Howl ye, for the day of Jehovah is near; as destruction from the Destructive does it come." There may be periods in man’s history when, in opposition to man’s unholy art and godless civilisation, God can reveal Himself only as destruction.


{Isaiah 14:3-23}

To the prophecy of the overthrow of Babylon there is annexed, in order to be sung by Israel in the hour of her deliverance, a satiric ode or taunt-song (Hebrews mashal, Eng. ver. parable) upon the King of Babylon. A translation of this spirited poem in the form of its verse (in which, it is to be regretted, it has not been rendered by the English revisers) will be more instructive than a full commentary. But the following remarks of introduction are necessary. The word mashal, by which this ode is entitled, means comparison, similitude, or parable, and was applicable to every sentence composed of at least two members that compared or contrasted their subjects. As the great bulk of Hebrew poetry is sententious, and largely depends for rhythm upon its parallelism, mashal received a general application; and while another term - shir- more properly denotes lyric poetry, mashal is applied to rhythmical passages in the Old Testament of almost all tempers: to mere predictions, proverbs, orations, satires or taunt-songs, as here, and to didactic pieces. The parallelism of the verses in our ode is too evident to need an index. But the parallel verses are next grouped into strophes. In Hebrew poetry this division is frequently effected by the use of a refrain. In our ode there is no refrain, but the strophes are easily distinguished by difference of subject-matter. Hebrew poetry does not employ rhyme, but makes use of assonance, and to a much less extent of alliteration-a form which is more frequent in Hebrew prose. In our ode there is not much either of assonance or alliteration. But, on the other hand, the ode has but to be read to break into a certain rough and swinging rhythm. This is produced by long verses rising alternate with short ones falling. Hebrew verse at no time relied for a metrical effect upon the modern device of an equal or proportionate number of syllables. The longer verses of this ode are sometimes too short, the shorter too long, variations to which a rude chant could readily adapt itself. But the alternation of long and short is sustained throughout, except for a break at Isaiah 14:10 by the introduction of the formula, "And they answered and said," which evidently ought to stand for a long and a short verse if the number of double verses in the second strophe is to be the same as it is-seven-in the first and in the third.

The scene of the poem, the underworld and abode of the shades of the dead, is one on which some of the most splendid imagination and music of humanity has been expended. But we must not be disappointed if we do net here find the rich detail and glowing fancy of Virgil’s or of Dante’s vision. This simple and even rude piece of metre, liker ballad than epic, ought to excite our wonder not so much for what it has failed to imagine as for what, being at its disposal, it has resolutely stinted itself in employing. For it is evident that the author of these lines had within his reach the rich, fantastic materials of Semitic mythology, which are familiar to us in the Babylonian remains. With an austerity, that must strike every one who is acquainted with these, he uses only so much of them as to enable him to render with dramatic force his simple theme-the vanity of human arrogance.

For this purpose he employs the idea of the underworld which was prevalent among the northern Semitic peoples. Sheol-the gaping or craving place-which we shall have occasion to describe in detail when we come to speak of belief in the resurrection, is the state after death that craves and swallows all living. There dwell the shades of men amid some unsubstantial reflection of their earthly state (Isaiah 14:9), and with consciousness and passion only sufficient to greet the arrival of the newcomer and express satiric wonder at his fall (Isaiah 14:9). With the arrogance of the Babylonian kings, this tyrant thought to scale the heavens to set his throne in the "mount of assembly" of the immortals, "to match the Most High." But his fate is the fate of all mortals-to go down to the weakness and emptiness of Sheol. Here, let us carefully observe, there is no trace of a judgment for reward or punishment. The new victim of death simply passes to his place among his equals. There was enough of contrast between the arrogance of a tyrant claiming Divinity and his fall into the common receptacle of mortality to point the prophet’s moral without the addition of infernal torment. Do we wish to know the actual punishment of his pride and cruelty? It is visible above ground (strophe 4); not with his spirit, but with his corpse; not with himself, but with his wretched family. His corpse is unburied, his family exterminated; his name disappears from the earth.

Thus, by the help of only a few fragments from the popular mythology, the sacred satirist achieves his purpose. His severe monotheism is remarkable in its contrast to Babylonian poems upon similar subjects. He will know none of the gods of the underworld. In place of the great goddess, whom a Babylonian would certainly have seen presiding, with her minions, over the shades, he personifies-it is a frequent figure of Hebrew poetry-the abyss itself. "Sheol shuddereth at thee." It is the same when he speaks (Isaiah 14:13) of the deep’s great opposite, that "mount of assembly" of the gods, which the northern Semites believed to soar to a silver sky "in the recesses of the north" (Isaiah 14:14), "upon the great range which in that direction" bounded the Babylonian plain. This Hebrew knows of no gods there but One, whose are the stars, who is the Most High. Man’s arrogance and cruelty are attempts upon His majesty. He inevitably overwhelms them. Death is their penalty: blood and squalor on earth, the concourse of shuddering ghosts below.

The kings of the earth set themselves

And the rulers take counsel together,

Against the Lord and against His Anointed.

He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh;

The Lord shall have them in derision.

He who has heard that laughter sees no comedy in aught else. This is the one unfailing subject of Hebrew satire, and it forms the irony and the rigour of the following ode.

The only other remarks necessary are these. In Isaiah 14:9 the Authorised Version has not attempted to reproduce the humour of the original satire, which styles them that were chief men on earth "chief-goats" of the herd, bellwethers. The phrase "they that go down to the stones of the pit" should be transferred from Isaiah 14:19 to Isaiah 14:20.

And thou shalt lift up this proverb upon the king of Babylon, and shalt say, -


Ah! stilled is the tyrant,

And stilled is the fury!

Broke hath Jehovah the rod of the wicked,

Sceptre of despots:

Stroke of (the) peoples with passion,

Stroke unremitting,

Treading in wrath (the) nations,

Trampling unceasing.

Quiet, at rest. is the whole earth,

They break into singing;

Even the pines are jubilant for thee,

Lebanon’s cedars!

"Since thou liest low, cometh not up

Feller against us."


Sheol from under shuddereth at thee

To meet thine arrival,

Stirring up for thee the shades,

All great-goats of earth!

Lifteth erect from their thrones

All kings of peoples.

10. All of them answer and say to thee, -

"Thou, too, made flaccid like us,

To us hast been levelled!

Hurled to Sheol is the pride of thee,

Clang of the harps of thee;

Under thee strewn are (the) maggots

Thy coverlet worms."


How art thou fallen from heaven

Daystar, sun of the dawn

(How) art thou hewn down to earth,

Hurtler at nations.

And thou, thou didst say in thine heart,

"The heavens will I scale,

Far up to the stars of God

Lift high my throne,

And sit on the mount of assembly,

Far back of the north,

I will climb on the heights of (the) cloud,

I will match the Most High!"

Ah I to Sheol thou art hurled,

Far back of the pit!


Who see thee at thee are gazing;

Upon thee they muse: I

s this the man that staggered the earth,

Shaker of kingdoms?

Setting the world like the desert,

Its cities he tore down:

Its prisoners he loosed not

(Each of them) homeward.

All kings of people, yes all,

Are lying in their state;

But thou! thou art flung from thy grave,

Like a stick that is loathsome.

Beshrouded with slain, the pierced of the sword,

Like a corpse that is trampled.

They that go down to the stones of a crypt,

Shalt not be with them in burial.

For thy land thou hast ruined,

Thy people hast slaughtered.

Shall not be mentioned for aye

Seed of the wicked!

Set for his children a shambles,

For guilt of their fathers!

They shall not rise, nor inherit (the) earth,

Nor fill the face of the world with cities.


But I will arise upon them,

Sayeth Jehovah of hosts;

And I will cut off from Babel

Record and remnant,

And scion and seed,

Saith Jehovah:

Yea, I will make it the bittern’s heritage,

Marshes of water!

And I will sweep it with sweeps of destruction.

Sayeth Jehovah of hosts.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 13". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary".