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The chapter seems to contain three prophecies, with headings corresponding. The first relates to Babylon, which, though then at the height of its power, is foreseen to be near its downfall.
1. The desert of the sea Babylon lay on an extended plain of its own, and this was contiguous to the great desert of Arabia on the southwest, from which violent winds often rush. Artificial checks preserved the Euphrates from becoming a sea in its overflowings, like the Nile during its inundations. The word “desert” seems to be used in anticipation of what this great plain will become in the fall of Babylon, when all the embankments of the great river shall be removed.
Terrible land This, according to Isaiah 21:2, is Persia and Media. Media, especially “terrible,” because of its wild mountain warriors. A rush of these is to be made upon Babylon, like to the hurricanes from the southern deserts.
2. A grievous vision A sad and most afflictive prophetic view is shown.
The treacherous dealer Babylonian tyranny overreaches itself in its cruelties.
Go up, O Elam: besiege, O Media Persia and Media are summoned to execute terrible judgment upon the insolent empire. God ordains that the sighs of the oppressed shall cease. This prophecy is uttered probably two centuries before its fulfilment.
3, 4. Loins filled with pain In these verses is described the experiences of a mind frenzied by a prospective view of Babylonian wrongs. The words here, taking full effect upon the reader, make him not merely to sympathize with the prophet he in a measure feels the pains of the prophet.
5. The scene of the wildest agitation continues, but it is not unsystematic and insane. There is brevity, rapidity, life, and system in the description.
Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink This is addressed to the Babylonians. The phrase “watch,” etc., is better rendered, Spread the carpets. It describes a banquet scene. However, the usual guard is probably around, and an alarm may have been sounded.
Arise, ye princes Princes of Persia and Media address, as it were, of the prophet.
Anoint the shield Besmear the “shield,” a practice among the ancients, to aid the glancing off of lances and arrows. See VIRGIL’S Eneid, 7.626: “Pars leves clypeos… arvina pingui” shields smooth with fat oil.
This was practiced, some say, for the preservation of the leather.
6. Go, set a watchman As if a degree of languor was already coming on the scene. The watchman, to look, apparently, into the distance, then to report the on-coming of Persian troops, and of successive events of the war upon Babylon.
7. Chariot… horsemen… asses… camels The first report is, the approach of a long procession, headed by horsemen, seen in perspective as two, a column of two, or two abreast, then successions of chariots drawn by asses and camels, which animals were used in ancient campaigns for different purposes, as both Herodotus and Xenophon testify of the Persians. (Xenophon, Cyrop., Isaiah 4:3.) They not only carried baggage and provisions, but were taken into battle to throw the enemy into confusion by fright, etc. The watchman not only saw, but he listened listened with intense listening; yet he heard nothing, so still was the approach.
8. And he cried, A lion This may mean that the appearance in the distance was formidable enough to be represented under the figure of “a lion;” or, more probably, it means that from long listening with no result, but rather, perhaps, even the vanishing away for a time of the processions before seen, the watchman himself, impatient at fruitless results, cries out, as with a lion’s voice, that is, roars or growls out, “Lord, I stand every moment watching, day and night, but see nothing more than this inexplicable procession, and scarcely that at present.” The watchman was not necessarily at Babylon, but probably near it.
9. But soon his complaint is hushed, and then bursts on his view the cavalcade, coming as it were from out of Babylon itself, shouting, Babylon is fallen, is fallen. This is Delitzsch’s explanation, who says of this part of the scene: “It is now clear enough where the procession went to when it disappeared. It had entered Babylon, made itself master of the city, and established itself there, and afterward came forth announcing the downfall.” This is ingenious, and neither the grammar nor the rhetoric of the passage is adverse to such an explanation. That Cyrus was to act as the anointed of Jehovah in this scene is more fully stated in Isaiah 41:2-3; Isaiah 45:1. And the scene here in effect repeats the facts prophesied of in chapter 13.
10. My threshing My crushingly oppressed ones; a sympathetic utterance from the prophet for his chastised brethren. Now appears the bearing this prophecy has on the Lord’s people.
Corn of my floor Rather, son or child of my threshing-floor, the sanctified results of a long disciplinary affliction. The captivity in Babylon was the judicial separation of grains and husks in Israel. Babylon was the threshing floor of God; love now restrains the wrath.
That which I have heard The revelation from God in relation to Israel’s sore providential handling.
Declared unto you Is now made all clear.
11, 12. These verses contain a single prophecy, one entirely distinct from all others.
Burden of Dumah Strictly, “Dumah” means silence. The word is used here probably as emblematic of the long silence that is to come over Edom and its capital, and hence here means Edom.
He calleth to me out of Seir “Seir” was the mountainous tract of Edom. In a rocky defile within this mountainous tract was the capital city, Sela; a name taken from its houses, temples, sepulchres, etc., being cut out of the rocky mountain sides. Its later name was Petra, noticed in chap. 18. The call is, as it were, to one stationed on a watchtower at a distance, not improbably at Jerusalem.
Watchman, what of the night From urgent anxiety the question is repeated. Edom never had kindly feeling toward Israel. Hatred dates back to Esau and his descendants. It was shown in its denial to Israel of a passage through Edom to the land of Canaan. See Numbers 20:17-18. The question may be a taunt to Judah in ideal affliction during a foreseen captivity, when its city is desolate, and its people are at Babylon; or it may be an agonizing inquiry in Edom’s own behalf.
The morning cometh The answer appears as if it were the latter. “The morning cometh, and also the night.” Edom has a short prospect of a returning day of prosperity, but a night, a long night, of adversity, is soon to succeed it. How faithfully true in Edom’s history! The Assyrian period darkened it.
The Chaldean, the Grecian, the Roman, followed each other. Then the light of Edom went out forever: its very capital was unknown for ages till discovered in this our own century. Nevertheless, the watchman’s word encourages. If ye will inquire after the true Jehovah, inquire ye; inquire at once, your chance is not lost.
Return, come Repent, seek, and regain at least your spiritual birthright. The oracle, like the Gospel to impenitent sinners, closes with a yearning entreaty.
13-15. Burden upon Arabia On critical grounds, both Ewald and Delitzsch make it doubtful that Arabia, as a whole, is meant, but rather think that the oracle relates to the sandy desert, the Arabah, the region over which the ancient caravan trade was carried. Their opinion is not simply plausible, it is reasonable. It is still Arabia, though a specific part. The caravans are called Dedanim, a mixture of Cushites and Ishmaelites. Their roads or camel routes to and from Tyre, and probably Gaza, are invaded by a foreign force, possibly the Assyrian, in its foraging parties, as the army passes toward Egypt or toward Tyre; and the caravans are dispersed from their accustomed track of travel far out into inhospitable deserts.
Forest Forests, properly so-called, do not exist in Arabia. In wide and moist wadies thickets grow, and in these the caravans could conceal themselves when pursued.
14. Tema If this place has been identified, as is claimed, it lay on the present pilgrim road from Damascus to Mecca. Its people are commanded to supply provisions to the caravans, who were fleeing from “the drawn sword, the bent bow, and the grievousness of war.”
16. Years of a hireling The desert carriers had probably become rich, and plunder was the object of assaults upon them. The prophet sees that God is to permit them, that is,
Kedar the representative term for all Arabian carriers to be impoverished. These, and all their glory of wealth and protective guards are to be ruined within a year, as the hireling figure runs hired for one year.
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Whedon, Daniel. "Commentary on Isaiah 21". "Whedon's Commentary on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany