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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 21

The Expositor's Bible CommentaryThe Expositor's Bible Commentary

Verses 1-10



720-705 13. B.C.

Isaiah 20:1-6; Isaiah 21:1-10; Isaiah 38:1-22; Isaiah 39:1-8

FROM 720, when chapter 11 may have been published, to 705-or, by rough reckoning, from the fortieth to the fifty-fifth year of Isaiah’s life-we cannot be sure that we have more than one prophecy from him; but two narratives have found a place in his book which relate events that must have taken place between 712 and 705. These narratives are chapter 20: How Isaiah Walked Stripped and Barefoot for a Sign against Egypt, and chapters 38 and 39: The Sickness of Hezekiah, with the Hymn he wrote, and his behaviour before the envoys from Babylon. The single prophecy belonging to this period is Isaiah 21:1-10, "Oracle of the Wilderness of the Sea," which announces the fall of Babylon. There has been considerable debate about the authorship of this oracle, but Cheyne, mainly following Dr. Kleinert, gives substantial reasons for leaving it with Isaiah. We postpone the full exposition of chapters 38 and 39 to a later stage, as here it would only interrupt the history. But we will make use of chapters 20 and Isaiah 21:1-10 in the course of the following historical sketch, which is intended to connect the first great period of Isaiah’s prophesying, 740-720, with the second, 705-701.

All these fifteen years, 720-705, Jerusalem was drifting to the refuge into which she plunged at the end of them-drifting to Egypt. Ahaz had firmly bound his people to Assyria, and in his reign there was no talk of an Egyptian alliance. But in 725, when the "overflowing scourge" of Assyrian invasion threatened to sweep into Judah as well as Samaria, Isaiah’s words give us some hint of a recoil in the politics of Jerusalem towards the southern power. The "covenants with death and hell," which the men of scorn flaunted in his face as he harped on the danger from Assyria, may only have been the old treaties with Assyria herself, but the "falsehood and lies" that went with them were most probably intrigues with Egypt. Any Egyptian policy, however, that may have formed in Jerusalem before 719, was entirely discredited by the crushing defeat, which in that year Sargon inflicted upon the empire of the Nile, almost on her own borders, at Rafia.

Years of quietness for Palestine followed this decisive battle. Sargon, whose annals engraved on the great halls of Khorsabad enable us to read the history of the period year by year, tells us that his next campaigns were to the north of his empire, and till 711 he alludes to Palestine only to say that tribute was coming in regularly, or to mention the deportation to Hamath or Samaria of some tribe he had conquered far away. Egypt, however, was everywhere busy among his feudatories. Intrigue was Egypt’s forte. She is always represented in Isaiah’s pages as the talkative power of many promises. Her fair speech was very sweet to men groaning beneath the military pressure of Assyria. Her splendid past, in conjunction with the largeness of her promise, excited the popular imagination. Centres of her influence gathered in every state. An Egyptian party formed in Jerusalem. Their intrigue pushed mines in all directions, and before the century was out the Assyrian peace in Western Asia was broken by two great explosions. The first of these, in 711, was local and abortive: the second, in 705, was universal, and for a time entirely destroyed the Assyrian supremacy.

The centre of the Explosion of 711 was Ashdod, a city of the Philistines. The king had suddenly refused to continue the Assyrian tribute, and Sargon had put another king in his place.

But the people-in Ashdod, as everywhere else, it was the people who were fascinated by Egypt-pulled down the Assyrian puppet and elevated Iaman, a friend to Pharaoh. The other cities of the Philistines, with Moab, Edom, and Judah, were prepared by Egyptian promise to throw in their lot with the rebels. Sargon gave them no time. "In the wrath of my heart, I did not divide my army, and I did not diminish the ranks, but I marched against Asdod with my warriors, who did not separate themselves from the traces of my sandals. I besieged, I took, Asdod and Gunt-Asdodim . . . I then made again these towns. I placed the people whom my arm had conquered. I put over them my lieutenant as governor. I considered them like Assyrians, and they practised obedience." It is upon this campaign of Sargon that Mr. Cheyne argues for the invasion of Judah, to which he assigns so many of Isaiah’s prophecies, as, e.g., chapters 1 and Isaiah 10:5-34. Some day Assyriology may give us proof of this supposition. We are without it just now. Sargon speaks no word of invading Judah, and the only part of the book of Isaiah that unmistakably refers to this time is the picturesque narrative of chapter 20.

In this we are told that "in the year" the Tartan, the Assyrian commander-in-chief, "came to Ashdod when Sargon king of Assyria sent him" [that is to be supposed the year of the first revolt in Ashdod, to which Sargon himself did not come], "and he fought against Ashdod and took it:-in that time Jehovah had spoken by the hand of Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, Go and loose the sackcloth," the prophet’s robe, "from off thy loins, and thy sandal strip from off thy foot; and he did so, walking naked," that is unfrocked, "and barefoot." For Egyptian intrigue was already busy; the temporary success of the Tartan at Ashdod did not discourage it, and it needed a protest. "And Jehovah said, As My servant Isaiah hath walked unfrocked and barefoot three years for a sign and a portent against Egypt and against Ethiopia" [note the double name, for the country was now divided between two rulers, the secret of her impotence to interfere forcibly in Palestine] "so shall the king of Assyria lead away the captives of Egypt and exiles of Ethiopia, young and old, stripped and barefoot, and with buttocks uncovered, to the shame of Egypt. And they shall be dismayed and ashamed, because of Ethiopia their expectation and because of Egypt their boast. And the inhabitant of this coastland" [that is, all Palestine, and a name for it remarkably similar to the phrase used by Sargon, "the people of Philistia, Judah, Edom, and Moab, dwelling by the sea"] "shall say in that day, Behold, such is our expectation, whither we had fled for help to deliver ourselves from the king of Assyria, and how shall we escape-we?"

This parade of Isaiah for three years, unfrocked and barefoot, is another instance of that habit on which we remarked in connection with Isaiah 8:1: the habit of finally carrying everything committed to him before the bar of the whole nation. It was to the mass of the people God said, "Come and let us reason together." Let us not despise Isaiah in his shirt any more than we do Diogenes in his tub, or with a lantern in his hand, seeking for a man by its rays at noonday. He was bent on startling the popular conscience, because he held it true that a people’s own morals have greater influence on their destinies than the policies of their statesmen. But especially anxious was Isaiah, as we shall again see from chapter 31, to bring, this Egyptian policy home to the popular conscience. Egypt was a big-mouthed, blustering power, believed in by the mob; to expose her required public, picturesque, and persistent advertisement. So Isaiah continued his walk for three years. The fall of Ashdod, left by Egypt to itself, did not disillusion the Jews, and the rapid disappearance of Sargon to another part of his empire where there was trouble, gave the Egyptians audacity to continue their intrigues against him.

Sargon’s new trouble had broken out in Babylon, and was much more serious than any revolt in Syria. Merodach Baladan, king of Chaldea, was no ordinary vassal, but as dangerous a rival as Egypt. When he rose, it meant a contest between Babylon and Nineveh for the sovereignty of the world. He had long been preparing for war. He had an alliance with Elam, and the tribes of Mesopotamia were prepared for his signal of revolt. Among the charges brought him by Sargon is that, "against the will of the gods of Babylon, he had sent during twelve years ambassadors." One of these embassies may have been that which came to Hezekiah after his great sickness (chapter 39). "And Hezekiah was glad of them, and showed them the house of his spicery, the silver, and the gold, and the spices, and the precious oil, and all the house of his armour and all that was found in his treasures: there was nothing in his house nor in all his dominion that Hezekiah showed them not." Isaiah was indignant. He had hitherto kept the king from formally closing with Egypt; now he found him eager for an alliance with another of the powers of man. But instead of predicting the captivity of Babylon, as he predicted the captivity of Egypt, by the hand of Assyria, Isaiah declared, according to chapter 39, that Babylon would some day take Israel captive; and Hezekiah had to content himself with the prospect that this calamity was not to happen in his time.

Isaiah’s prediction of the exile of Israel to Babylon is a matter of difficulty. The difficulty, however, is not that of conceiving how he could have foreseen an event which took place more than a century later. Even in 711 Babylon was not an unlikely competitor for the supremacy of the nations. Sargon himself felt that it was a crisis to meet her. Very little might have transferred the seat of power from the Tigris to the Euphrates. What, therefore, more probable than that when Hezekiah disclosed to these envoys the whole state of his resources, and excused himself by saying "that they were come from a far country, even Babylon," Isaiah, seized by a strong sense of how near Babylon stood to the throne of the nations, should laugh to scorn the excuse of distance, and tell the king that his anxiety to secure an alliance had only led him to place the temptation to rob him more in the face of a power that was certainly on the way to be able to do it? No, the difficulty is not that the prophet foretold a captivity of the Jews in Babylon, but that we cannot reconcile what he says of that captivity with his intimation of the immediate destruction of Babylon, which has come down to us in Isaiah 21:1-10.

In this prophecy Isaiah regards Babylon as he has been regarding Egypt-certain to go down before Assyria, and therefore wholly unprofitable to Judah. If the Jews still thought of returning to Egypt when Sargon hurried back from completing her discomfiture in order to beset Babylon, Isaiah would tell them it was no use. Assyria has brought her full power to bear on the Babylonians; Elam and Media are with her. He travails with pain for the result. Babylon is not expecting a siege; but "preparing the table, eating and drinking," when suddenly the cry rings through her, "‘Arise, ye princes; anoint the shield.’ The enemy is upon us." So terrible and so sudden a warrior is this Sargon! At his words nations move; when he saith, "Go up, O Elam! Besiege, O Media!" it is done. And he falls upon his foes before their weapons are ready. Then the prophet shrinks back from the result of his imagination of how it happened-for that is too painful-upon the simple certainty, which God revealed to him, that it must happen. As surely as Sargon’s columns went against Babylon, so surely must the message return that Babylon has fallen. Isaiah puts it this way. The Lord bade him get on his watchtower-that is his phrase for observing the signs of the times-and speak whatever he saw. And he saw a military column on the march: "a troop of horsemen by pairs, a troop of asses, a troop of camels." It passed him out of sight, "and he hearkened very diligently" for news. But none came. It was a long campaign. "And he cried like a lion" for impatience, "O my Lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower by day, and am set in my ward every night." Till at last, "behold, there came a troop of men, horsemen in pairs, and" now "one answered and said, Fallen, fallen is Babylon, and all the images of her gods he hath broken to the ground." The meaning of this very elliptical passage is just this: as surely as the prophet saw Sargon’s columns go out against Babylon, so sure was he of her fall. Turning to his Jerusalem, he Says, "My own threshed one, son of my floor, that which I have heard from Jehovah of hosts, the God of Israel, have I declared unto you." How gladly would I have told you otherwise! But this is His message and His will. Everything must go down before this Assyrian.

Sargon entered Babylon before the year was out, and with her conquest established his fear once more down to the borders of Egypt. In his lifetime neither Judah nor her neighbours attempted again to revolt. But Egypt’s intrigue did not cease. Her mines were once more laid, and the feudatories of Assyria only waited for their favourite opportunity, a change of tyrants on the throne of Nineveh. This came very soon. In the fifteenth year of his reign, having finally established his empire, Sargon inscribed on the palace at Khorsabad the following prayer to Assur: "May it be that I, Sargon, who inhabit this palace, may be preserved by destiny during long years for a long life, for the happiness of my body, for the satisfaction of my heart, and may I arrive to my end! May I accumulate in this palace immense treasures, the booties of all countries, the products of mountains and valleys!" The god did not hear. A few months later, in 705, Sargon was murdered; and before Sennacherib, his successor, sat down on the throne, the whole of Assyrian supremacy in the southwest of Asia went up in the air. It was the second of the great Explosions we spoke of, and the rest of Isaiah’s prophecies are concerned with its results.

Verses 1-17




736-702 B.C.

Isaiah 14:24-32; Isaiah 15:1-9; Isaiah 16:1-14; Isaiah 17:1-14; Isaiah 18:1-7; Isaiah 19:1-25; Isaiah 20:1-6; Isaiah 21:1-17; Isaiah 23:1-18

THE centre of the Book of Isaiah (chapters 13 to 23) is occupied by a number of long and short prophecies which are a fertile source of perplexity to the conscientious reader of the Bible. With the exhilaration of one who traverses plain roads and beholds vast prospects, he has passed through the opening chapters of the book as far as the end of the twelfth; and he may look forward to enjoying a similar experience when he reaches those other clear stretches of vision from the twenty-fourth to the twenty-seventh and from the thirtieth to the thirty-second. But here he loses himself among a series of prophecies obscure in themselves and without obvious relation to one another. The subjects of them are the nations, tribes, and cities with which in Isaiah’s day, by war or treaty or common fear in face of the Assyrian conquest, Judah was being brought into contact. There are none of the familiar names of the land and tribes of Israel which meet the reader in other obscure prophecies and lighten their darkness with the face of a friend. The names and allusions are foreign, some of them the names of tribes long since extinct, and of places which it is no more possible to identify. It is a very jungle of prophecy, in which, without much Gospel or geographical light, we have to grope our way, thankful for an occasional gleam of the picturesque-a sandstorm in the desert, the forsaken ruins of Babylon haunted by wild beasts, a view of Egypt’s canals or Phoenicia’s harbours, a glimpse of an Arab raid or of a grave Ethiopian embassy.

But in order to understand the Book of Isaiah, in order to understand Isaiah himself in some of the largest of his activities and hopes; we must traverse this thicket. It would be tedious and unprofitable to search every corner of it. We propose, therefore, to give a list of the various oracles, with their dates and titles, for the guidance of Bible-readers, then to take three representative texts and gather the meaning of all the oracles round them.

First, however, two of the prophecies must be put aside. The twenty-second chapter does not refer to a foreign State, but to Jerusalem itself; and the large prophecy which opens the series (chapters 13-14:23) deals with the overthrow of Babylon in circumstances that did not arise till long after Isaiah’s time, and so falls to be considered by us along with similar prophecies at the close of this volume. (See Book V)

All the rest of these chapters-14-21 and 23-refer to Isaiah’s own day. They were delivered by the prophet at various times throughout his career; but the most of them evidently date from immediately after the year 705, when, on the death of Sargon, there was a general rebellion of the Assyrian vassals.

1. Isaiah 14:24-27 -OATH OF JEHOVAH that the Assyrian shall be broken. Probable date, towards 701.

2. Isaiah 14:28-32 -ORACLE FOR PHILISTIA. Warning to Philistia not to rejoice because one Assyrian king is dead, for a worse one shall arise: "Out of the serpent’s root shall come forth a basilisk. Philistia shall be melted away, but Zion shall stand." The inscription to this oracle (Isaiah 14:28) is not genuine. The oracle plainly speaks of the death and accession of Assyrian, not Judaean, kings. It may be ascribed to 705, the date of the death of Sargon and accession of Sennacherib. But some hold that it refers to the previous change on the Assyrian throne-the death of Salmanassar and the accession of Sargon.

3 Isaiah 15:1-9 - Isaiah 16:12 -ORACLE FOR MOAB. A long prophecy against Moab. This oracle, whether originally by himself at an earlier period of his life, or more probably by an older prophet, Isaiah adopts and ratifies, and intimates its immediate fulfilment, in Isaiah 16:13-14: "This is the word which Jehovah spake concerning Moab long ago. But now Jehovah hath spoken, saying, Within three years, as the years of a hireling, and the glory of Moab shall be brought into contempt with all the great multitude, and the remnant shall be very small and of no account." The dates both of the original publication of this prophecy and of its reissue with the appendix are quite uncertain. The latter may fall about 711, when Moab was threatened by Sargon for complicity in the Ashdod conspiracy or in 704, when, with other states, Moab came under the cloud of Sennacherib’s invasion. The main prophecy is remarkable for its vivid picture of the disaster that has overtaken Moab and for the sympathy with her which the Jewish prophet expresses; for the mention of a "remnant" of Moab; for the exhortation to her to send tribute in her adversity "to the mount of the daughter of Zion"; {Isaiah 16:1} for an appeal to Zion to shelter the outcasts of Moab and to take up her cause: "Bring counsel, make a decision, make thy shadow as the night in the midst of the noonday; hide the outcasts, bewray not the wanderer;" for a statement of the Messiah similar to those in chapters 9 and 11; and for the offer to the oppressed Moabites of the security of Judah in Messianic times (Isaiah 16:4-5). But there is one great obstacle to this prospect of Moab lying down in the shadow of Judah-Moab’s arrogance. "We have heard of the pride of Moab, that he is very proud," {Isaiah 16:6, cf. Jeremiah 48:29; Jeremiah 48:42; Zephaniah 2:10} which pride shall not only keep this country in ruin, but prevent the Moabites prevailing in prayer at their own sanctuary (Isaiah 16:12)-a very remarkable admission about the worship of another god than Jehovah.

4. Isaiah 17:1-11 -ORACLE FOR DAMASCUS. One of the earliest and most crisp of Isaiah’s prophecies. Of the time of Syria’s and Ephraim’s league against Judah, somewhere between 736 and 732.

5. Isaiah 17:12-14 -UNTITLED. The crash of the peoples upon Jerusalem and their dispersion. This magnificent piece of sound, which we analyse below, is usually understood of Sennacherib’s rush upon Jerusalem. Isaiah 17:14 is an accurate summary of the sudden break-up and "retreat from Moscow" of his army. The Assyrian hosts are described as "nations," as they are elsewhere more than once by Isaiah. {Isaiah 22:6; Isaiah 29:7} But in all this there is no final reason for referring the oracle to Sennacherib’s invasion, and it may just as well be interpreted of Isaiah’s confidence of the defeat of Syria and Ephraim (734-723). Its proximity to the oracle against Damascus would then be very natural, and it would stand as a parallel prophecy to Isaiah 8:9: "Make an uproar, O ye peoples, and ye shall be broken in pieces; and give ear, all ye of the distances of the earth: gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces; gird yourselves, and ye shall be broken in pieces"-a prophecy which we know belongs to the period of the Syro-Ephraimitic league.

6. Isaiah 18:1-7 -UNTITLED. An address to Ethiopia, "land of a rustling of wings, land of many sails, whose messengers dart to and fro upon the rivers in their skiffs of reed." The prophet tells Ethiopia, cast into excitement by the news of the Assyrian advance, how Jehovah is resting quietly till the Assyrian be ripe for destruction. When the Ethiopians shall see His sudden miracle they shall send their tribute to Jehovah, "to the place of the name of Jehovah of hosts, Mount Zion." It is difficult to know to which southward march of Assyria to ascribe this prophecy-Sargon’s or Sennacherib’s? For at the time of both of these an Ethiopian ruled Egypt.

7. Isaiah 19:1-25 -ORACLE FOR EGYPT. The first fifteen verses (Isaiah 19:1-15) describe judgment as ready to fall on the land of the Pharaohs. The last ten speak of the religious results to Egypt of that judgment, and they form the most universal and "missionary" of all Isaiah’s prophecies. Although doubts have been expressed of the Isaiah authorship of the second half of this chapter on the score of its universalism, as well as of its literary style, which is judged to be "a pale reflection" of Isaiah’s own, there is no final reason for declining the credit of it to Isaiah, while there are insuperable difficulties against relegating it to the late date which is sometimes demanded for it. On the date and authenticity of this prophecy, which are of great importance for the question of Isaiah’s "missionary" opinions, see Cheyne’s introduction to the chapter and Robertson Smith’s notes in "The Prophets of Israel" (p. 433). The latter puts it in 703, during Sennacherib’s advance upon the south. The former suggests that the second half may have been written by the prophet much later than the first, and justly says, "We can hardly imagine a more ‘swan-like end’ for the dying prophet."

8. Isaiah 20:1-6 -UNTITLED. Also upon Egypt, but in narrative and of an earlier date than at least the latter half of chapter 19. Tells how Isaiah walked naked and barefoot in the streets of Jerusalem for a sign against Egypt and against the help Judah hoped to get from her in the years 711-709, when the Tartan, or Assyrian commander-in-chief, came south to subdue Ashdod.

9. Isaiah 21:1-10 -ORACLE FOR THE WILDERNESS OF THESEA, announcing but lamenting the fall of Babylon. Probably 709.

10. Isaiah 21:11-12 -ORACLE FOR DUMAH. Dumah, or Silence - Psalms 94:17; Psalms 115:17, "the land of the silence of death," the grave - is probably used as an anagram for Edom and an enigmatic sign to the wise Edomites, in their own fashion, of the kind of silence their land is lying under-the silence of rapid decay. The prophet hears this silence at last broken by a cry. Edom cannot bear the darkness any more. "Unto me one is calling from Seir, Watchman, how much off the night? how much off the night? Said the watchman, Cometh the morning, and also the night: if ye will inquire, inquire, come back again." What other answer is possible for a land on which the silence of decay seems to have settled down? He may, however, give them an answer later on, if they will come back. Date uncertain, perhaps between 704 and 701.

11. 21:13-17 -ORACLE FOR ARABIA. From Edom the prophet passes to their neighbours the Dedanites, travelling merchants. And as he saw night upon Edom, so, by a play upon words, he speaks of evening upon Arabia: "in the forest, in Arabia," or with the same consonants, "in the evening." In the time of the insecurity of the Assyrian invasion the travelling merchants have to go aside from their great trading roads "in the evening to lodge in the thickets." There they entertain fugitives, or (for the sense is not quite clear) are themselves as fugitives entertained. It is a picture of the "grievousness of war," which was now upon the world, flowing down even those distant, desert roads. But things have not yet reached the worst. The fugitives are but the heralds of armies, that "within a year" shall waste the "children of Kedar," for Jehovah, the God of Israel, hath spoken it. So did the prophet of little Jerusalem take possession of even the far deserts in the name of his nation’s God.

12. Isaiah 23:1-18 -ORACLE FOR TYRE. Elegy over its fall, probably as Sennacherib came south upon it in 703 or 702. To be further considered by us.

These, then, are Isaiah’s oracles for the Nations, who tremble, intrigue, and go down before the might of Assyria.

We have promised to gather the circumstances and meaning of these prophecies round three representative texts. These are-

1. "Ah! the booming of the peoples, the multitudes, like the booming of the seas they boom; and the rushing of the nations, like the rushing of mighty waters they rush; nations, like the rushing of many waters they rush. But He rebuketh it, and it fleeth afar off, and is chased like the chaff on the mountains before the wind and like whirling dust before the whirlwind." {Isaiah 17:12-13}

2. "What then shall one answer the messengers of a nation? That Jehovah hath founded Zion, and in her shall find refuge the afflicted of His people." {Isaiah 14:32}

3. "In that day shall Israel be a third to Egypt and to Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, for that Jehovah of hosts hath blessed them, saying, Blessed be My people Egypt, and the work of My hands Assyria, and Mine inheritance Israel". {Isaiah 19:24-25}


The first of these texts shows all the prophet’s prospect filled with storm, the second of them the solitary rock and lighthouse in the midst of the storm: Zion, His own watchtower and His people’s refuge; while the third of them, looking far into the future, tells us, as it were, of the firm continent which shall rise out of the waters-Israel no longer a solitary lighthouse, "but in that day shall Israel be a third to Egypt and to Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth." These three texts give us a summary of the meaning of all Isaiah’s obscure prophecies to the foreign nations-a stormy ocean, a solitary rock in the midst of it, and the new continent that shall rise out of the waters about the rock.

The restlessness of Western Asia beneath the Assyrian rule (from 719, when Sargon’s victory at Rafia extended that rule to the borders of Egypt) found vent, as we saw, in two great Explosions, for both of which the mine was laid by Egyptian intrigue. The first Explosion happened in 711, and was confined to Ashdod. The second took place on Sargon’s death in 705, and was universal. Till Sennacherib marched south on Palestine in 701, there were all over Western Asia hurryings to and fro, consultations and intrigues, embassies and engineerings from Babylon to Meroe in far Ethiopia, and from the tents of Kedar to the cities of the Philistines. For these Jerusalem, the one inviolate capital from the Euphrates to the river of Egypt, was the natural centre. And the one far-seeing, steady-hearted man in Jerusalem was Isaiah. We have already seen that there was enough within the city to occupy Isaiah’s attention, especially from 705 onward; but for Isaiah the walls of Jerusalem, dear as they were and thronged with duty, neither limited his sympathies nor marked the scope of the gospel he had to preach. Jerusalem is simply his watchtower. His field-and this is the peculiar glory of the prophet’s later life-his field is the world.

How well fitted Jerusalem then was to be the world’s watchtower, the traveller may see to this day. The city lies upon the great central ridge of Palestine, at an elevation of two thousand five hundred feet above the level of the sea. If you ascend the hill behind the city, you stand upon one of the great view-points of the earth. It is a forepost of Asia. To the east rise the red hills of Moab and the uplands of Gilead and Bashan, on to which wandering tribes of the Arabian deserts beyond still push their foremost camps. Just beyond the horizon lie the immemorial paths from Northern Syria into Arabia. Within a few hours’ walk along the same central ridge, and still within the territory of Judah, you may see to the north, over a wilderness of blue hills, Hermon’s snowy crest; you know that Damascus is lying just beyond, and that through it and round the base of Hermon swings one of the longest of the old world’s highways-the main caravan road from the Euphrates to the Nile. Stand at gaze for a little, while down that road there sweep into your mind thoughts of the great empire whose troops and commerce it used to carry. Then, bearing these thoughts with you, follow the line of the road across the hills to the western coastland, and so out upon the great Egyptian desert, where you may wait till it has brought you imagination of the southern empire to which it travels. Then, lifting your eyes a little further, let them sweep back again from south to north, and you have the whole of the west, the new world, open to you, across the fringe of yellow haze that marks the sands of the Mediterranean. It is even now one of the most comprehensive prospects in the world. But in Isaiah’s day, when the world was smaller, the high places of Judah either revealed or suggested the whole of it.

But Isaiah was more than a spectator of this vast theatre. He was an actor upon it. The court of Judah, of which during Hezekiah’s reign he was the most prominent member, stood in more or less close connection with the courts of all the kingdoms of Western Asia; and in those days, when the nations were busy with intrigue against their common enemy, this little highland town and fortress became a gathering place of peoples. From Babylon, from far-off Ethiopia, from Edom, from Philistia, and no doubt from many other places also, embassies came to King Hezekiah, or to inquire of his prophet. The appearance of some of them lives for us still in Isaiah’s descriptions: "tall and shiny" figures of Ethiopians {Isaiah 18:2}, with whom we are able to identify the lithe, silky-skinned, shining-black bodies of the present tribes of the Upper Nile. Now the prophet must have talked much with these strangers, for he displays a knowledge of their several countries and ways of life that is full and accurate. The agricultural conditions of Egypt; her social ranks and her industries (chapter 19); the harbours and markets of Tyre (chapter 23); the caravans of the Arab nomads, as in times of war they shun the open desert and seek the thickets {Isaiah 21:14} -Isaiah paints these for us with a vivid realism. We see how this statesman of the least of States, this prophet of a religion which was confessed over only a few square miles, was aware of the wide world, and how he loved the life that filled it. They are no mere geographical terms with which Isaiah thickly studs these prophecies. He looks out upon and paints for us, lands and cities surging with men-their trades, their castes, their religions, their besetting tempers and sins, their social structures and national policies, all quick and bending to the breeze and the shadow of the coming storm from the north.

We have said that in nothing is the legal power of our prophet’s style so manifest as in the vast horizons, which, by the use of a few words, he calls up before us. Some of the finest of these revelations are made in this part of his book, so obscure and unknown to most. Who can ever forget those descriptions-of Ethiopia in the eighteenth chapter?-"Ah! the land of the rustling of wings, which borders on the rivers of Cush, which sendeth heralds on the sea, and in vessels of reed on the face of the waters! Travel, fleet messengers, to a people lithe and shining, to a nation feared from ever it began to be, a people strong, strong and trampling, whose land the rivers divide"; or of Tyre in chapter 23?-"And on great waters the seed of Shihor, the harvest of the Nile, was her revenue; and she was the mart of nations." What expanses of sea! what fleets of ships! what floating loads of grain! what concourse of merchants moving on stately wharves beneath high warehouses!

Yet these are only segments of horizons, and perhaps the prophet reaches the height of his power of expression in the first of the three texts, which we have given as representative of his prophecies on foreign nations. Here three or four lines of marvellous sound repeat the effect of the rage of the restless world as it rises, storms, and breaks upon the steadfast will of God. The phonetics of the passage are wonderful. The general impression is that of a stormy ocean booming in to the shore and then crashing itself out into one long hiss of spray and foam upon its barriers. The details are noteworthy. In Isaiah 17:12 we have thirteen heavy M-sounds, besides two heavy B’s, to five N’s, five H’s, and four sibilants. But in Isaiah 17:13 the sibilants predominate; and before the sharp rebuke of the Lord the great, booming sound of Isaiah 17:12 scatters out into a long yish-sha ‘oon. The occasional use of a prolonged vowel amid so many hurrying consonants produces exactly the effect now of the lift of a storm swell out at sea and now of the pause of a great wave before it crashes on the shore. "Ah, the booming of the peoples, the multitudes, like the booming of the seas they boom; and the rushing of the nations, like the rushing of the mighty waters they rush: nations, like the rushing of many waters they rush. But He checketh it"-a short, sharp word with a choke and a snort in it-"and it fleeth far away, and is chased like chaff on mountains before wind, and like swirling dust before a whirlwind."

So did the rage of the world sound to Isaiah as it crashed into pieces upon the steadfast providence of God. To those who can feel the force of such language nothing need be added upon the prophet’s view of the politics of the outside world these twenty years, whether portions of it threatened Judah in their own strength, or the whole power of storm that was in it rose with the Assyrian, as in all his flood he rushed upon Zion in the year 701.


But amid this storm Zion stands immovable. It is upon Zion that the storm crashes itself into impotence. This becomes explicit in the second of our representative texts: "What then shall one answer the messengers of a nation? That Jehovah hath founded Zion, and in her shall find a refuge the afflicted of His people". {Isaiah 14:32} This oracle was drawn from Isaiah by an embassy of the Philistines. Stricken with panic at the Assyrian advance, they had sent messengers to Jerusalem, as other tribes did, with questions and proposals of defences, escapes, and alliances. They got their answer, Alliances are useless. Everything human is going down. Here, here alone, is safety, because the Lord hath decreed it.

With what light and peace do Isaiah’s words break out across that unquiet, hungry sea! How they tell the world for the first time, and have been telling it ever since, that, apart from all the struggle and strife of history, there is a refuge and security of men, which God Himself has assured. The troubled surface of life, nations heaving uneasily, kings of Assyria and their armies carrying the world before them-these are not all. The world and her powers are not all. Religion, in the very teeth of life, builds her a refuge for the afflicted.

The world seems wholly divided between force and fear. Isaiah says, It is not true. Faith has her abiding citadel in the midst, a house of God, which neither force can harm nor fear enter.

This then was Isaiah’s Interim-Answer to the Nations-Zion at least is secure for the people of Jehovah.


Isaiah could not remain content, however, with so narrow an interim-answer: Zion at least is secure, whatever happens to the rest of you. The world was there, and had to be dealt with and accounted for-had even to be saved. As we have already seen, this was the problem of Isaiah’s generation; and to have shirked it would have meant the failure of his faith to rank as universal.

Isaiah did not shirk it. He said boldly to his people, and to the nations: "The faith we have covers this vaster life. Jehovah is not only God of Israel. He rules the world." These prophecies to the foreign nations are full of revelations of the sovereignty and providence of God. The Assyrian may seem to be growing in glory; but Jehovah is watching from the heavens, till he be ripe for cutting down. {Isaiah 18:4} Egypt’s statesmen may be perverse and wilful; but Jehovah of hosts swingeth His hand against the land: "they shall tremble and shudder". {Isaiah 19:16} Egypt shall obey His purposes (chapter 17). Confusion may reign for a time, but a signal and a centre shall be lifted up, and the world gather itself in order round the revealed will of God. The audacity of such a claim for his God becomes more striking when we remember that Isaiah’s faith was not the faith of a majestic or a conquering people. When he made his claim, Judah was still tributary to Assyria, a petty highland principality, that could not hope to stand by material means against the forces which had thrown down her more powerful neighbours. It was. no experience of success, no mere instinct of being on the side of fate, which led Isaiah so resolutely to pronounce that not only should his people be secure, but that his God would vindicate His purposes upon empires like Egypt and Assyria. It was simply his sense that Jehovah was exalted in righteousness. Therefore, while inside Judah only the remnant that took the side of righteousness would be saved, outside Judah wherever there was unrighteousness, it would be rebuked, and wherever righteousness, it would be vindicated. This is the supremacy which Isaiah proclaimed for Jehovah over the whole world.

How spiritual this faith of Isaiah was, is seen from the next step the prophet took. Looking out on the troubled world, he did not merely assert that his God ruled it, but he emphatically said, what was a far more difficult thing to say, that it would all be consciously and willingly God’s. God rules this, not to restrain it only, but to make it His own. The knowledge of Him, which is today our privilege, shall be tomorrow the blessing of the whole world.

When we point to the Jewish desire, so often expressed in the Old Testament, of making the whole world subject to Jehovah, we are told that it is simply a proof of religious ambition and jealousy. We are told that this wish to convert the world no more stamps the Jewish religion as being a universal, and therefore presumably a Divine, religion than the Mohammedans’ zeal to force their tenets on men at the point of the sword is a proof of the truth of Islam.

Now we need not be concerned to defend the Jewish religion in its every particular, even as propounded by an Isaiah. It is an article of the Christian creed that Judaism was a minor and imperfect dispensation, where truth was only half revealed and virtue half developed. But at least let us do the Jewish religion justice; and we shall never do it justice till we pay attention to what its greatest prophets thought of the outside world, how they sympathised with this, and in what way they proposed to make it subject to their own faith.

Firstly then, there is something in the very manner of Isaiah’s treatment of foreign nations, which causes the old charges of religious exclusiveness to sink in our throats. Isaiah treats these foreigners at least as men. Take his prophecies on Egypt or on Tyre or on Babylon-nations which were the hereditary enemies of his nation-and you find him speaking of their natural misfortunes, their social decays, their national follies and disasters, with the same pity and with the same purely moral considerations with which he has treated his own land. When news of those far-away sorrows comes to Jerusalem, it moves this large-hearted prophet to mourning and tears. He breathes out to distant lands elegies as beautiful as he has poured upon Jerusalem. He shows as intelligent an interest in their social evolutions as he does in those of the Jewish State. He gives a picture of the industry and politics of Egypt as careful as his pictures of the fashions and statecraft of Judah. In short, as you read his prophecies upon foreign nations, you perceive that before the eyes of this man humanity, broken and scattered in his days as it was, rose up one great whole, every part of which was subject to the same laws of righteousness, and deserved from the prophet of God the same love and pity. To some few tribes he says decisively that they shall certainly be wiped out, but even them he does not address in contempt or in hatred. The large empire of Egypt, the great commercial power of Tyre, he speaks of in language of respect and admiration; but that does not prevent him from putting the plain issue to them which he put to his own countrymen: If you are unrighteous, intemperate, impure-lying diplomats and dishonest rulers-you shall certainly perish before Assyria. If you are righteous, temperate, pure, if you do trust in truth and God, nothing can move you.

But, secondly, he, who thus treated all nations with the same strict measures of justice and the same fulness of pity with which he treated his own, was surely not far from extending to the world the religious privileges which he has so frequently identified with Jerusalem. In his old age, at least, Isaiah looked forward to the time when the particular religious opportunities of the Jew should be the inheritance of humanity. For their old oppressor Egypt, for their new enemy Assyria, he anticipates the same experience and education which have made Israel the firstborn of God. Speaking to Egypt, Isaiah concludes a missionary sermon, fit to take its place beside that which Paul uttered on the Areopagus to the younger Greek civilisation, with the words, "In that day shall Israel be a third to Egypt and to Assyria, a blessing in the midst of the earth, for that Jehovah of hosts hath blessed them, saying, Blessed be Egypt My people, and Assyria the work of My hands and Israel Mine inheritance."

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 21". "The Expositor's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/teb/isaiah-21.html.
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