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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 13

Whedon's Commentary on the BibleWhedon's Commentary



The collection of prophecies in regard to the heathen, chaps. 13-23. INTRODUCTION.

In Jeremiah and Ezekiel, as well as in Isaiah, the prophecies in regard to the heathen are placed together by themselves. They are arranged here, possibly not in chronological order, but probably as most suitably following the cycle of Messianic prophecies contained in chapters vii-xii, where the thought is, that all kingdoms shall, in Messianic times, be embraced in the kingdom of Immanuel; and in this collection the same thought is virtually expanded. These prophecies, relating to Immanuel, were given in the period when the great world-kingdoms, especially the Assyrian, were the occasion of alarm for the fate of Israel and Judah; and minor heathen kingdoms, having no love for these, were like to follow up advantages in their own interest against them. Though arranged in a series, the prophecies are really independent, yet the foregoing prophecy in chapters vii-xii forms a fundamental unity and substance for them all.

The first in the series is embraced in Isaiah 13:1 to Isaiah 14:27.


Some of these prophecies exhibit a peculiar variety of style, and not a few of the German critics see in this a reason for Isaiah not being their author; as if such a versatile mind, capable of dealing in every imaginable phase of poetic representation, and having throughout his writings at ready command every several kind of style and every several change of delineation, is to be ruled out of authorship for a slight change of style and diction here and there! Such a canon rigidly applied would upset confidence in the now unquestioned authorship of half the ancient and modern classics; of Horace, of Virgil, of Shakspeare, of Racine, and indefinitely of others. The same critics are put to their worst because these two chapters prophesy and treat of historic facts implying knowledge of what happened hundreds of years after the lifetime of Isaiah. With them there is no such thing as prophetic inspiration; and, of course, with them the writer here must have written during or after the events. Of all their criticisms this is the most important issue. If there cannot be prophetic foresight, then, of course, the writing is ex even-tu. But if there be inspiration and prophetic foresight, as has been claimed by the title, the terms, and the immemorial uniform position of these writings a position as old as the text itself then, regardless of the assumption of varieties of phraseology, diction, syntax, and style, assumed as obvious to the delicate critical sense by one set of this school, though denied by another set of the same school then, be it repeated, the claim that Isaiah cannot be their author fails entirely. The argument for prophetic inspiration may be waived here; it belongs to apologetic theology. Nor is it here legitimate, as the burden of proof falls upon its doubters and deniers.

There is a difficulty created by even orthodox interpreters, which needs a brief notice. It is that of finding in this prophecy its fulfilment in the immediate and complete downfall of Babylon, as apparently predicted; whereas Babylon was totally blotted out only in a long course of ages. The true solution of this difficulty is, that this prediction, like some others uttered by Isaiah, is generic, not specific; “not a detailed account of one event exclusively, but a prophetic picture of the fall of Babylon considered as a whole, some of the traits being taken from the first and some from the last stage of the fatal process, while others are indefinite or common to all. The same idea may be otherwise expressed by saying, that the king of Babylon whose fall is here predicted is neither Nebuchadnezzar nor Belshazzar, but the kings of Babylon collectively; or rather, an ideal king of Babylon, in whom the character and fate of the whole empire concentrated.” Alexander.

Verse 1

1. The burden of Babylon The word massah, “burden,” is from a verb, meaning to lift, raise, and impliedly to bear; a secondary meaning is, to utter: hence the noun may mean a “burden” mental burden a verdict, or oracular utterance; or, a declaration prophetic and menacing a judicial sentence upon Babylon. See 1 Kings 9:25.

Did see The whole vision was serious, substantive truth, pictorially enacted.

Verse 2

2. Lift ye up a banner See Isaiah 5:26 and Isaiah 11:12, and the notes there.

Upon the high mountain Literally, bald mountain, from which the reared standard could be seen from afar, and a rally thither could be made.

Unto them The Medes. The Median power, with that of Persia, is to conquer Babylon. The point of time in the vision is, when Babylon is flushed with power and prosperity, and stained with crime. The Median mountainous country lay to the northeast, the Persian to the east. Cyrus, though not named, is the great instrument of God, who is now summoning.

Verse 3

3. My sanctified ones Not inwardly and consciously belonging to God as designated for this work, but in God’s order actually but unconsciously executing divine retribution on the Babylonian power. See Joel 3:9-10; Jeremiah 22:7. The Persians destroyed idolatry. They were morally much in advance of the highest civilized powers in Mesopotamia. And it is quite probable, that at this conquest of Babylon, and their settlement over that country, the great moral recoil against idolatry was made complete among the exiled Jews.

Verse 4

4. Noise of a multitude No sooner summoned than aroused. Armies in the mountains gather instantly. The noise of preparation sounds afar.

In the mountains The Median mountains.

Kingdoms of nations Medes, Persians, Armenians, possibly also Parthians, if the vision be of prophetic space, not of time, which, judging from the next verse, is probable.

Verse 5

5. From a far country… end of heaven A region but dimly definite to the mind, so very distant is it, extending out to the lowest horizon. The prophet sees the mustering hosts actually coming from the remotest point of sight.

The Lord… weapons… indignation The armies are under his guidance, and unconsciously become instruments of punishing (literally, seizing) the whole land, Septuagint, the whole world which means Babylonia as a symbol or type of all human opposition to divine authority. Isaiah 14:7; Isaiah 14:9; Isaiah 14:16.

Verse 6

6. Howl ye Ye Babylonians.

Day of the Lord See Isaiah 2:12; also Joel 1:15.

At hand Soon to befall; also, to be of long continuance; this from the perspective nature of the prophecy.

As a destruction The fall of Babylon was a judgment, and was accompanied with judgments upon all thereafter through the ages under Babylonian rule.

From the Almighty Hebrew, Shaddai; most powerful, omnipotent: an epithet of Jehovah, used by the prophets only here and Ezekiel 1:24; Ezekiel 10:5; and Joel 1:15.

Verse 7

7. Be faint Hanging down in nerveless despondency.

Shall melt Both clauses describe bodily effects indicating despairing mental states.

Verse 8

8. Afraid Dismayed. Poetic power is manifest in the figures here used, which are to the effect that contortions from agonizing pain fall on the people; men stare at each other in helpless fright; their faces are faces of flame red as fire.

Verses 9-10

9, 10. Day of the Lord cometh The meaning the same as in Isaiah 13:6.

Cruel Applied to “day,” etc., and means, rather, terrible, inexorable; a judgment so viewed abstractly, and to human view.

Wrath… fierce anger Predicates also applying to “day,” and characterizing it. If the preposition “with” is to be used, (which from the text is doubtful,) the sense remains the same.

Sinners They who in Babylon had incurred such fierce retribution.

Stars of heaven The Chaldeans were of note, far and near, as cultivators of astronomy; hence Isaiah’s use of this illustration.

Shall not give their light No metaphor so vividly represents calamity as extinguishment of light. (See Isaiah 34:4; Matthew 24:29, et plura.) Not Babylonians alone, but Egyptians and Phenicians gave much attention to astronomy, as evidenced by very early attempts at regulating time divisions by the solar and lunar motions and revolutions. Exodus 7:11; Leviticus 20:27; Leviticus 19:31; Deuteronomy 18:10. These passages show that astrology, which was interdicted to the Hebrews, was connected with their study of astronomy.

Verses 11-12

11, 12. Punish the world The Babylonian world, the symbol (Isaiah 13:5) of all resisting human wills and kingdoms of the earth hostile to God. Here the prophet, as afterward elsewhere, resolves his figures into literal expressions. Isaiah 1:22; Isaiah 11:9.

Arrogancy Babylon’s prevailing sin.

The terrible Tyrants and oppressors.

Make a man more precious More scarce or rare than fine gold.

Than the… wedge of Ophir “Wedge,” כתם , ( kethem,) properly means “gold” Ophir’s gold. For the probable location of “Ophir,” see notes on 1 Kings 9:28; 1 Kings 10:11. But the main point of the text is the scarcity of man, weak and frail, אנושׁ , ( Enosh,) and man אדם , ( Adam,) men of the common origin. Both words would seem to include man exhaustively. Babylon’s defenders shall be so cut off that a single man will be more scarce than the finest gold. This is the common explanation. But Kay ( Bible Commentary) hints another meaning. It is in substance this: “I will make a man,” the lowly man, in comparison with the “haughty,” “arrogant,” “the terrible ones,” of more consequence to me in caring, providing, etc., for him (Psalm viii) than the choicest gold. The lowly man, the man formed out of the dust, is the holy man of my “remnant” preserved in Babylon to be returned to Jerusalem. He shall be kept safe amid the terrible judgments upon Babylon by the army of Cyrus. This seems far-fetched, yet it has some plausibility.

Verse 13

13. Therefore Rather, because; because of the wickedness described in Isaiah 13:11.

Shake the heavens… earth shall remove Strong figures are now resumed; and what the darkening of the lights of heaven before expressed is here denoted by the general commotion of the frame of nature. Similar examples in the use of such figures are in 1 Samuel 22:8; Habakkuk 3:6; Habakkuk 3:10; Revelation 20:11.

Verse 14

14. It shall be That is, Babylon shall be.

As the chased roe The figure is, Babylon shall be as timid and panting when seeking an escape as a “chased” gazelle. Swift enemies from the east shall play the falcon and the dogs upon her, just as does the huntsman upon the trembling gazelle in the chase.

As a sheep Strayed in the wilderness.

That no man taketh up Alone, bereft of its shepherd, exposed to wild beasts, afraid of every thing.

They shall… turn Literally, Each to his people they shall turn, and each to his country they shall flee. Babylon was a great capital whither transient trading peoples gathered. And these are probably meant here. On the fall of the imperial city, this motley mass would scatter in wildest flight. Those who remained would be treated as described in the next verse.

Verse 16

16. Their children Whose children? Either those of foreigners, or of foreigners and natives, according as slaughter was seen to be restricted or general. It was likely to be general, in which case all children are to be slain, every house despoiled, and every woman ravished.

Verse 17

17. Will stir up the Medes against them That is, “I am he who causeth to arouse as out of sleep,” etc. The Hiphil participle is used of a verb having, according to Gesenius, three, according to Furst, six, several sets of meanings, of which one set chiefly uses the Hiphil with the above characterizing idea. Compare Zechariah 9:13; Song of Solomon 2:7; Isaiah 10:26. The “Medes” are here for the first time mentioned by name, and are alone mentioned, as they were the chief nation to be used, with Persia, in overthrowing Babylon. They had been subject to Assyria till B.C. 708 or 703, or B.C. 650, according to Rawlinson, when they threw off the yoke and became a federation of small kingdoms in their country of mountains and valleys situated east of old Assyria, south of Armenia and the Caspian Sea, and north of Persia, from which they were separated by the desert running out southwest from near the ancient Aryan seats. They had no friendship for their old masters of Mesopotamia. Prosperity and power came to them after they became independent, and were finally organized under one monarchy, and so on till Cyaxares becomes, at length, the probable true founder of the Median dynasty, B.C. 633, and the one who appears to begin what is the truly authentic history of the Medes. See SMITH’S Dictionary of the Bible; SMITH’S History of the World; RAWLINSON’S Five Great Monarchies; RAWLINSON’S Herodotus; LENORMANT’S Manuscript Ancient History, etc. In the final taking of Babylon the Median was chief over the Persian element of the instrumentality, (namely, Cyrus,) because it was really the chief power before Persia was connected with it as an empire. Hence the “Medes” constituted the chief foreseen figure with the prophet in the predicted event of the overthrow of the Babylonian power.

Shall not regard silver Was this a national characteristic? Xenophon ( Cyropaedia) makes Cyrus say to the Medes that they did not join him from a desire of ( χρηματων ) money.

Verse 18

18. Their bows Of very ancient use, generally made of wood, in a few instances of brass. Persian archers are spoken of with applause in profane history. See also Isaiah 22:3; Isaiah 22:6, and Jeremiah 49:35; Jeremiah 50:9; Jeremiah 50:14; Jeremiah 50:29; Jeremiah 50:42.

No pity Anciently, if the conqueror came in revenge of former wrongs it was the law of war to spare neither men, women, nor children. (On the subject of ancient war, see JAHN’S Hebrew Archaeology.)

Verse 19

19. Babylon… shall be as… Gomorrah With such inhuman work of the foe, Babylon becomes like Elohim’s overthrowing judgment upon Sodom and Gomorrah.

Glory of kingdoms Because it became the centre of many conquered realms.

Beauty of the Chaldees’ excellency Babylon was the seat of the ancient Chaldean culture, in which respect writers of antiquity all concur in stating she was always superior to Nineveh. All Assyrian learning and science came to them from Chaldea; but in plastic arts the Chaldeans were behind their northern neighbours. In Assyria was the birthplace of the great school of ancient art which exercised so decisive an influence on the opening period of the Grecian school. ( Lenormant.)

Verses 20-21

20, 21. Never be inhabited This is a statement of certainty of the event, not its nearness, not its occurrence immediately after the capture by Cyrus. It did not become a perfect desert for five hundred years. The prophecy is seen in space, not in definite time.

Neither… pitch tent there The Arabian is mentioned as being the nomad of the ages past, just as he is now. It is stated by travellers that superstition or dread of evil spirits operates to make this statement still true. Some of them say that the Bedouins still have a superstitious fear of lodging near the ruins of Babylon.

Wild beasts Tzizyim, desert animals indefinitely, or whatever inhabits dry and desolate situations. Lexicographers find much difficulty in settling the import of the word.

Owls Or, literally, daughters of screaming. Ostriches are intended, as some think, but that is doubtful.

Satyrs Literally, shaggy creatures; perhaps a species of goat, though Tristram ( Natural History of the Bible, page 132,) thinks the “goat-god” of Egypt, with which the children of Israel became acquainted in Egypt, furnished the popular myth of the satyr half goat and half man and poetically the prophet Isaiah painted horrible desert places with this ideal creature. Nevertheless, he countenances another interpretation of the word, namely, a creature of the dog-faced baboon, also an object of worship with the Egyptians, as shown from their monuments, like to the mocko, or maccacus Arabacus, a baboon which is now disseminated from Central Africa as far north as to the continence of the Tigris and the Euphrates.

It is observable that our Lord, in Matthew 12:43, recognised the sentiment, current even in his day, that the desert is the abode of demons or unclean spirits. Virgil also calls them saltantes satyros, dancing satyrs. The Yezides of Syria and Mesopotamia are a sect of devil worshippers.

Joseph Wolf, missionary, and traveller to Bokhara, saw pilgrims of this sect upon the ruins of Babylon performing strange and horrid rites by moonlight, dancing and howling, and reminding him of this passage. ( Delitzsch.)

Verse 22

22. Beasts of the islands See note on Isaiah 11:11. Literally, the first idea is islands, then coasts, and, on further advance of the conception, some desolate place.

Shall cry As in responsive wailing, like that of jackals.

Dragons The word may mean serpents, and when the idea is fitted to the conditions of the place, it probably does mean this. See further in notes on Job 7:12; Job 30:29. No man ever excelled Isaiah in painting deep, strong, tragic, thrilling words into a scene. Compare Isaiah 10:28-32.

That Cyrus, at the head of the greet Medo-Persian army, is seen in the foreground as the commencing agency of this terrific desolation, there can be no doubt. Unbelievers admit this. But the point of chief importance in this prediction is, the thorough eventual desolation of Babylon. For hundreds of years the prophecy has been completely fulfilled. Travellers furnish a description quite well enough answering to a state of things presented in the prediction. It answers little for an objection to this, even if here and there, on the large tract once occupied by the great city, a miserable village or larger town like Hillah has now and then sprung up, for the main truth stands; and as to Hillah, a town of ten thousand inhabitants, (NEWMAN’S Babylon and Nineveh,) Rawlinson is authority for doubt whether it stands on any part of the ancient site. Be it that it does so stand, it occupies but a speck in the area of two hundred square miles or more of old Babylon. The prophet’s vision had “its appointed time;” but at the end it spake, and did not lie: it came and tarried not. Habakkuk 2:3.

Bibliographical Information
Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Isaiah 13". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/whe/isaiah-13.html. 1874-1909.
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