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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 21

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary


Isaiah 21:0


God Commands That Babylon Be TakenThe Fall of Babylon ProclaimedAgainst BabylonA Vision of the Fall of BabylonThe Fall of Babylon
Isaiah 21:1-10(1-5)Isaiah 21:1-2(1b-2)Isaiah 21:1-10Isaiah 21:1-2aIsaiah 21:1-5(1-5)
Isaiah 21:2b
Isaiah 21:3-5(3-5)Isaiah 21:3-4
Isaiah 21:5
(6-7)Isaiah 21:6-9(6-9)Isaiah 21:6-7Isaiah 21:6-10(6-10)
(8-10)Isaiah 21:8
Isaiah 21:9
Isaiah 21:10(10)Isaiah 21:10
Oracles About Edom and ArabiaProclamation Against EdomConcerning EdomA Message About EdomOn Edom
Isaiah 21:11-12(11-12)Isaiah 21:11-12(11-12)Isaiah 21:11-12(11b-12)Isaiah 21:11Isaiah 21:11
Isaiah 21:12Isaiah 21:12
Proclamation Against ArabiaConcerning ArabiaA Message About ArabiaAgainst the Arabs
Isaiah 21:13-15(13-15)Isaiah 21:13-15(13-15)Isaiah 21:13-15(13-15)Isaiah 21:13-15Isaiah 21:13a
Isaiah 21:13-15(13b-15)
Isaiah 21:16-17Isaiah 21:16-17Isaiah 21:16-17Isaiah 21:16-17Isaiah 21:16-17

READING CYCLE THREE (see “Guide to Good Bible Reading”)


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compareyour subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.


A. This chapter lists several nations addressed by YHWH through His prophet, all introduced by the literary marker, “the oracle about.”

B. I have mentioned earlier that I think the oracle addressed to the “king of Babylon” really deals with Assyria (i.e., Isaiah 13:1-27). This chapter (i.e., Isaiah 21:1-10) is about Babylon.

This is not Neo-Babylon of Nabonidus and Nebuchadnezzar, but the Chaldean people close to the mouth of the Tigris and Euphrates. Their capital would be the city of Babylon and their king Merodach-baladan, who rebelled in 720 B.C., but was defeated by Sargon II and escaped into the marshes and fled to Elam in 710 B.C. (IVP Bible Background Commentary, p. 611). The city of Babylon was destroyed by Assyria in 703 B.C. and the King of Assyria took the title “King of Babylon.”

C. This chapter also addresses

1. Edom, Isaiah 21:11-12

2. Arabia, Isaiah 21:13-17

Verses 1-10

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Isaiah 21:1-10 1The oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea. As windstorms in the Negev sweep on, It comes from the wilderness, from a terrifying land. 2A harsh vision has been shown to me; The treacherous one still deals treacherously, and the destroyer still destroys. Go up, Elam, lay siege, Media; I have made an end of all the groaning she has caused. 3For this reason my loins are full of anguish; Pains have seized me like the pains of a woman in labor. I am so bewildered I cannot hear, so terrified I cannot see. 4My mind reels, horror overwhelms me; The twilight I longed for has been turned for me into trembling. 5They set the table, they spread out the cloth, they eat, they drink; “Rise up, captains, oil the shields,” 6For thus the Lord says to me, “Go, station the lookout, let him report what he sees. 7When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs, A train of donkeys, a train of camels, Let him pay close attention, very close attention.” 8Then the lookout called, “O Lord, I stand continually by day on the watchtower, And I am stationed every night at my guard post. 9Now behold, here comes a troop of riders, horsemen in pairs.” And one said, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon; And all the images of her gods are shattered on the ground.” 10O my threshed people, and my afflicted of the threshing floor! What I have heard from the LORD of hosts, The God of Israel, I make known to you.

Isaiah 21:1 “the wilderness of the sea” This may be an attempt to translate (1) the Assyrian name for Babylon (Mat + Amil, cf. JB footnote) or (2) the Akkadian title “Land of the Sea” (Mat tam-tim), but it was now destroyed, so “land” changed to “wilderness.” The Peshitta translates it as “the desert of the sea,” probably referring to the marshy area near the mouths of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. TEV just has “Babylon.” The term “wilderness” (BDB 184) denotes large pieces of uninhabited land.

Isaiah 21:1-2a Isaiah tries to express his deep emotion when he receives this oracle.

1. like a windstorm in the Negev, Isaiah 21:1

2. from a wilderness, Isaiah 21:1

3. from a terrifying (BDB 431, KB 432, Niphal PARTICIPLE) land, Isaiah 21:1

4. harsh (BDB 904) vision, Isaiah 21:2a

Isaiah 21:2b This describes the invader of Babylon (i.e., Assyria, cf. Isaiah 21:9).

1. the treacherous one still deals treacherously, play on BDB 93, KB 108, two Qal ACTIVE PARTICIPLES, Isaiah 24:16; Isaiah 33:1; Jeremiah 3:20; Jeremiah 5:11 (it is possible that the NIV translation “traitor,” REB, “traitor,” or NRSV, “betrayer” historically fits Merodach-baladan, the king of Babylon, better)

2. the destroyer still destroys, play on BDB 994, KB 1418, two Qal ACTIVE PARTICIPLES, Isaiah 16:4; Isaiah 33:1; Jeremiah 6:26

Isaiah 21:2c God commands two northern Mesopotamian powers to attack Babylon.

1. “Go up” (BDB 748, KB 828, Qal IMPERATIVE) Elam (BDB 743). This is surprising since initially Elam helped Babylon to hold off Assyrian domination.

2. “Lay siege” (BDB 848, KB 1015, Qal IMPERATIVE) Media (BDB 552). This was another ethnic group in the northern Euphrates area.

It is possible that these are war cries of those in the anti-Assyrian coalition (i.e., Elam, Media, so says the Jewish commentator Ibn Ezra). This would make more sense if Babylon of Isaiah's day is being addressed.

21:2d The NASB has “I have made an end of all the groaning she has caused.” The MT has “all the sighing I bring to an end” (BDB 991, KB 1407, Hiphil PERFECT). The phrase, “she has caused,” NASB, is not in the MT. If it is to be assumed, it must be stated that this line of poetry fits Neo-Babylon better. This later empire had a much larger area of influence (i.e., Nebuchadnezzar, cf. Daniel 4:0).

Again, some (including me) see this last line as a statement from the Babylonian king (Merodach-baladan) or his deities (Marduk) directed to a “to-be-defeated” Assyria/Nineveh. There are so many speakers in this chapter it is hard to know the intended speaker (the prophet, YHWH, Babylonian king, several watchmen, unknown voices).

Isaiah 21:3-4 The prophet describes the effect the message had on him personally. Daniel also experienced physical distress at YHWH's revelations (cf. Daniel 7:15, Daniel 7:28; Daniel 8:27; Daniel 10:16-17).

1. loins are full of anguish

2. pains have seized me like the pains of a woman in labor, cf. Isaiah 13:8; Isaiah 26:17

3. I am so bewildered I cannot hear, cf. Isaiah 19:14 (i.e., an idiom of drunkenness)

4. so terrified I cannot see

5. my mind reels

6. horror overwhelms me

7. the twilight I longed for has been turned for me into trembling (“twilight” possibly Babylon's defeat meant a stronger, more expansionistic Assyria)

All of these VERBS are PERFECTS, which denote a complete situation. Why was he so distressed? There is no one to stop Assyria now! She is coming!

Isaiah 21:4 This verse expands on Isaiah 21:2a (“a harsh vision”). It describes Isaiah's reaction to this oracle.

1. my mind reels, BDB 1073, KB 1766, Qal PERFECT

2. horror overwhelms me, BDB 129, KB 147, Piel PERFECT

3. the twilight I long for has been turned for me into trembling, BDB 962, KB 1321, Qal PERFECT

The question is, “Why was Isaiah so upset at the fall of Babylon?” Possibly because of

1. the terrible violence involved

2. Babylon kept Assyria in balance. Now Assyria was free to expand region-wide (see Exposition Bible Commentary, vol. 6, p. 134).

Isaiah 21:5 This verse has a series of four Qal INFINITIVE ABSOLUTES (functioning as IMPERATIVES) and then two Qal IMPERATIVES.

1. set the table

2. spread the rugs (see note following)

3. eat

4. drink

This would denote a lavish meal. Some commentators see this as referring to Daniel 5:0. If so, then this chapter refers to Neo-Babylon of a later period (i.e., Nebuchadnezzar).

In the midst of the party a messenger arrives and calls them to military preparations (“captains,” BDB 978).

1. rise up, BDB 877, KB 1086, Qal IMPERATIVE

2. oil the shields, BDB 602, KB 643, Qal IMPERATIVE. The ancient warriors covered their shields with leather so that flaming arrows would penetrate the soft leather and be extinguished, cf. 2 Samuel 1:21.

NASB, NJB“spread out the cloth” NKJV, PESHITTA“set a watchman in the tower” NRSV, TEV, REB“spread the rugs” JB“cover it with cloth”

This phrase is made up of a NOUN and a very similar VERBAL root.

1. NOUN, צפית (BDB 860 II) found only here, some scholars see it as “carpet,” others as “watchman” (BDB 859, מצפה

2. VERBAL, צפה (BDB 860 II, INFINITIVE ABSOLUTE), meaning “lay out” or “lay over”

Since people of the ANE ate sitting on the floor with pillows, this could refer to this type of sitting/eating arrangement (i.e., “arrange the pillows,” cf. NIDOTTE, vol. 3, p. 832).

Isaiah 21:6 Notice the prophet is relaying YHWH's words.

1. go, BDB 229, KB 246, Qal IMPERATIVE

2. station the lookout, BDB 763, KB 840, Hiphil IMPERATIVE (“sentry,” lit. “one who watches,” BDB 859, KB 1044, Piel PARTICIPLE)

3. let him report, BDB 616, KB 665, Hiphil IMPERFECT used in a JUSSIVE sense

Isaiah 21:7 He is instructed to watch for a very specific kind of military formation.

1. riders on horses in pairs

2. a train of donkeys

3. a train of camels

The term “riders” (BDB 935) could be understood as chariots pulled by two horses (NKJV, Peshitta). For #2 and #3, this could also designate riders (cf. NRSV, LXX).

At the sight of this type of military equipment and formation, he is to report immediately (double use of “attention,” BDB 904). Assyria is coming!

Isaiah 21:8 This is a way of announcing a loud military-type (i.e., like a lion) report by the watchman on the wall. He has so far seen nothing.

The MT is difficult and the Hebrew manuscripts from DSS make the watchman call out like a lion, which is the best option for understanding a cryptic Hebrew text.

However, it is possible to see “lion,” אריה (BDB 71) as a copyist's error for “saw,” ראה (BDB 906), thereby resulting in the translation, “then the one who sees the sentry” (i.e., watchman) cries out.

Isaiah 21:9 Suddenly the military formation and equipment come into view! Its presence in Palestine shows the previous fall of the city of Babylon. This fall is expressed by doubling the VERB (BDB 656, KB 709, Qal PERFECTS), which is so common in Isaiah. The city of Babylon fell several times to different Assyrian kings.

Her demise is complete as illustrated by the shattering (BDB 990, KB 1402, Piel PERFECT) of her idols (cf. Isaiah 46-47). With Babylon defeated and Elam and Media inactive, Assyria can resume her expansionistic intentions!

Isaiah 21:10 The prophet tells the oppressed covenant people that their God (i.e., “LORD of hosts,” “God of Israel”) has acted, but how?

1. The fall of Babylon was not a victory for them, but a sure promise that Assyria will come.

2. The question remains which Babylon is the prophet referring to?

a. Babylon of Merodach-baladan of Isaiah's day

b. Neo-Babylon of Nebuchadnezzar of Ezekiel and Jeremiah's day

The issue is not one of the reality of the predictive prophecy, but of historical setting!

Just a note about an alternate way of interpreting this verse. It is possible that the ones who are addressed are the Babylonians who Assyria will destroy. YHWH has earlier heard the fall of Moab (cf. Isaiah 15:5; Isaiah 16:11) and the prayers of the oppressed Egyptians (cf. Isaiah 19:20).

“my afflicted of the threshing floor” This is a Hebrew idiom “son of my threshing floor.” The Hebrew term “son” has many semantic usages in Isaiah.

1. son of fatness, Isaiah 5:1 (see note at Isaiah 5:1)

2. son of dawn, Isaiah 14:12

3. son of the wise, Isaiah 19:11

4. son of man, Isaiah 56:2

5. son of a foreign land (lit. “foreigners”), Isaiah 56:6

Verses 11-12

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Isaiah 21:11-12 11The oracle concerning Edom. One keeps calling to me from Seir, “Watchman, how far gone is the night? Watchman, how far gone is the night?” 12The watchman says, “Morning comes but also night. If you would inquire, inquire; Come back again.”

Isaiah 21:11 A new message starts (i.e., use of the literary marker, “oracle”). The MT has “dumah” (BDB 189). It is a play on the Hebrew term for “silence” (BDB 189). Edom will be silenced. The LXX has “Idumea.” Edom was part of the anti-Assyrian coalition, as was Philistia. All were crushed in 711 B.C. by Sargon II's army.

“Seir” This (BDB 973) can refer to the land of Edom (cf. Genesis 32:3; Genesis 36:30; Numbers 24:18; Deuteronomy 2:4, Deuteronomy 2:8, Deuteronomy 2:12, Deuteronomy 2:22, Deuteronomy 2:29; Judges 5:4).

Isaiah 21:11-12 This is a very cryptic strophe with several IMPERATIVES. A watchman on the wall, as in Isaiah 21:6 and 8, is addressed by an unknown voice which asks about the time of the night (twice). The answer is also strange.

1. morning comes

2. but also night

3. ask again

4. ask again

It possibly means, “when will all this take place?”

Verses 13-15

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Isaiah 21:13-15 13The oracle about Arabia. In the thickets of Arabia you must spend the night, O caravans of Dedanites. 14Bring water for the thirsty, O inhabitants of the land of Tema, Meet the fugitive with bread. 15For they have fled from the swords, From the drawn sword, and from the bent bow And from the press of battle.

Isaiah 21:13 A new message (use of the literary transition marker, “oracle”) is addressed to Arabia. It is unsure who the antagonist is.

1. Assyria (invasion)

2. Kedar (civil war)

It is interesting that “Dumah” (Isaiah 21:11) and Seir (Isaiah 21:11) are also place names in, or close to, Arabia.

“the thickets” Isaiah uses “forestry” imagery often. This term (BDB 420) can mean

1. forest

2. thicket

Since Arabia is desert, the second fits best. It would refer to ravines with thick brushy vegetation, where animals hide. Now fugitives, refugees, and caravan traders (i.e., Dedanites were a Bedouin people associated with Sheba) hide there to escape military invasion (cf. Isaiah 21:15). They could not use the usual roads or resting places.

Isaiah 21:14 The Arabians are commanded (BDB 87, KB 102, Hiphil IMPERATIVE) to bring water and food for them.

“Tema” This was a major northern city, home to the worship of the moon goddess. See Special Topic: MOON WORSHIP.

Verses 16-17

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Isaiah 21:16-17 16For thus the Lord said to me, “In a year, as a hired man would count it, all the splendor of Kedar will terminate; 17and the remainder of the number of bowmen, the mighty men of the sons of Kedar, will be few; for the LORD God of Israel has spoken.”

Isaiah 21:16 “In a year, as a hired man would count it” This same idiom of precise timing is found earlier in Isaiah 16:14.

“Kedar” This is another large city of Arabia. It, and by implication all of Arabia's army, will be defeated. Sargon II attacked this area in 715 B.C.

Again the theological phrase “for the LORD God of Israel has spoken.” It was not the power of ancient armies that directed ANE events, but the God of Israel! This is a claim to monotheism.

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Isaiah 21". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/isaiah-21.html. 2021.
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