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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible
Isaiah 47

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 47 Babylon Is To Be Destroyed.

If salvation is to triumph, and if righteousness is to be exalted, and if God’s people are to be glorious (Isaiah 46:12-13) then it can only come about through the destruction of evil and of idolatry, and from Isaiah’s religious viewpoint that means the destruction of Babylon. Until Babylon is dealt with the Servant is restrained.

We should note at once that this destruction of Babylon is not attributed to Cyrus. We can only find such an idea there if we read it into the passage. Nor is it directly related to the return of exiles, although it is partly related to her ill-treatment of God’s people. Because she has ill-treated God’s people, God will ill-treat her. Indeed He will destroy her. But even that is not given as the main reason for God’s destruction of Babylon.

Rather what is to happen is seen as God’s judgment on something which is the epitome of evil, just as it was in chapters 13-14. It is because Yahweh is the Redeemer of His people (Isaiah 47:4), and as such must deal with the continuous menace of Babylon. It will occur because to Isaiah Babylon is more than just a city. It is because it is an idea. It represents Babel (Genesis 11:1-9). It has been the symbol of rebellion from the beginning, and is the earthly symbol of all enmity against God. And its total end is therefore necessary because this enmity must be dealt with if the Servant is to perform his task. Here therefore it is to be faced up to head on.

In order to fully appreciate the idea here it is necessary to appreciate that to Isaiah Babylon is set over against the Servant. She is the exact opposite of the Servant. She is proud and boastful. She could never be a servant! In her distant splendour she sums up all that is in opposition against God. It is thus she who must be finally dealt with if the Servant’s work is to prosper. So while even for Egypt and Assyria there is future hope, there is no future hope for Babylon. John recognised this in the Book of Revelation where again Babylon was depicted as summing up man’s opposition to God and His ways, and needing to be destroyed.

Even the nations saw Babylon as exceptional long before it rose to its later period of supremacy, both because of its glory and its proud claims, and because of its past. Conquering kings restored her and treated her with reverence. The world marvelled at her glories and her superlativeness. She was famed for her lascivious lifestyle. If you wanted to really live you went to Babylon. And she was famed for being the home of the occult and of ‘wise men’ and of those who could supposedly delve into all mysteries and understood the past and could discern the future. She was the centre of corrupt civilisation. She was the home of mystery. She was the bastion of the gods.

That is why Isaiah saw her destruction as so totally necessary. It would stress God’s judgment on all such lascivious behaviour and would indicate the certainty of the final defeat of the gods. They could be seen as congregated there, but they would fail in their attempt to protect it, and in that would be their downfall. And it is surely due to that fact that after this description of the downfall of Babylon, the false gods, which have previously been mentioned constantly, are not again mentioned in the section of Isaiah up to chapter 55. They were seen as doomed along with Babylon.

We saw in Isaiah 46:1-2 the weakness of the gods of Babylon. That was a preparation for this. Now we are to see it manifested in the destruction of Babylon itself, the final proof of the inadequacy of what were even seen as the greatest of gods (Bel/Marduk was highly revered even by the conquerors of Babylon). They can only stand by and do nothing because of what Yahweh has determined.

In fact the reason for Babylon’s destruction in context is made clear. It is because she called herself ‘the Lady of the kingdoms’ (Isaiah 47:5 compare Isaiah 13:19). It is because she will oppress the people of God (Isaiah 47:6 as threatened in Isaiah 39:6-7). It is because she considered herself eternal (Isaiah 47:7). It is because she saw herself as the incomparable and the invincible (Isaiah 47:8; Isaiah 47:10). It is because she was full of sorcery and enchantments (Isaiah 47:9), because she thought of herself as divine - ‘I am and there is none beside me’ (Isaiah 47:10 - previously used regularly of Yahweh in chapter 45. See also Isaiah 46:9). She was the anti-God. That was why she had to be destroyed. She is therefore to lose everything.

This was something that Cyrus’ conquest in no way achieved. Indeed the priests of Marduk welcomed him, for he sustained the glory of Babylon and supported its priests with their sorcery and enchantments. Under him they prospered. What is described here is much more extreme than anything that Cyrus did, and awaited Babylon’s final end after many humiliations. The activities of Cyrus, if in mind at all, would only be another stage in its demise, for God had determined a more extreme fate for Babylon. The thought here is of its final end. Isaiah was very conscious of the fact that Babylon must be destroyed for ever.


Verses 1-3

‘Come down and sit in the dust,

O virgin daughter of Babylon,

Sit on the ground without a throne,

O daughter of the Chaldeans.

For you will no longer be called tender and delicate.

Take the millstones and grind meal,

Remove your veil,

Strip off the robe, uncover the leg,

Pass through the rivers.

Your nakedness will be uncovered,

Yes, your shame will be seen.’

The picture is vivid and not suited to the modern Christian mind. It is a picture of a tender and delicate young queen who is dethroned and made to sit on the ground in the dust, then has to take the lowliest and most undesirable of occupations in order to survive, and is finally dragged down and raped. It is the picture of a woman’s worst nightmare, and is describing the fate of Babylon. It will be reduced to poverty and servitude, and will be stripped and raped. The slow progress of her degradation admirably fits the slow progress of judgment on Babylon revealed in history, until its final end came and it was stripped naked of all that it was.

‘Virgin’ is not a strictly accurate translation although it is difficult to think of another which is succint enough. ‘Bethulah’ could at this time be used of a young married woman (married goddesses are called ‘virgins’, and later even temple prostitutes would be called ‘virgins’). It is rather intended here to indicate a woman ripe for sex, but reserved for those seen as chosen (compare the woman in Revelation 17).

‘The Chaldeans.’ These were initially a people in South Babylonia but the name had come to mean Babylonians in general.

She is called on to descend from her throne and to sit on the ground, in the dust, because she is no longer to be looked on as tender and delicate, as a lady. She is to be humiliated and distressed, possibly even becoming a beggar. Then she is told that if she wants to eat and drink she must take millstones and grind meal. This was a task for the very poor, the very humble and for prisoners (compare Exodus 11:4).

Then she is told to unveil herself, take her clothes off, and ‘pass through the rivers’, probably a euphemism for rape, for her nakedness will be uncovered (see Leviticus 18:6-19; Leviticus 20:17-21 where this describes illicit sexual intercourse). To pass through the rivers was to go through difficult times (compare Isaiah 43:2). She is to be totally shamed. The idea is that the worst that can possibly happen will come upon Babylon.

Some, however, see ‘pass through the rivers’ as an indication of going into ignominious captivity, for captives were often led off naked (compare Isaiah 20:4), while still others see the picture as depicting a woman taking off her long skirt and uncovering her legs so she that she could do work in the fields and wade through the irrigation ditches of the rivers. She would become not only a beggar (Isaiah 47:1) but a field servant.

Isaiah 41:3

“I will take vengeance,

And I will meet no man.”

This is the reality. God will exact vengeance on Babylon in full because of her behaviour. Her sin will receive its deserved punishment to the full. There will be no quarter. ‘I will meet no man’ may mean that God is saying, ‘I will spare no man’, or it may indicate a refusal to parley, a refusal to draw back from complete punishment. Either way it is now too late for mercy. Babylon must face its final doom.


Verse 4

‘Our redeemer, Yahweh of hosts is his name, the Holy One of Israel.’

But Who is this ‘I’. This interjected comment gives the answer. It is an indication of how Isaiah sees it. This judgment on Babylon will in fact deliver Israel from Babylon’s unwanted attentions. Yahweh is acting as Israel’s Redeemer. A ‘redeemer’ was someone who paid up on behalf of a poor relative (Leviticus 25:25; Leviticus 25:48). So here Yahweh may be seen as acting on behalf of Israel, looked on as His poor relative, although it is only an interjection and secondary to the main gist of the passage.

The idea of redemption indicated delivery by the exercise of power (Genesis 48:16; Exodus 6:6) . The basic meaning was delivering by the payment of a price; by the payment of money, the provision of a substitute or by the expending of power. We are not told which is the basic idea here. Possibly all three. The name ‘Yahweh of hosts’ brings out that He is the God of battle and of all power. Thus His redemption will succeed. ‘The Holy One of Israel’ is a reminder of His purity and grandeur (Isaiah 6:3). He is the unique and righteous One, and acts righteously against the unrighteous.


Verse 5

‘Sit there silently, and get into darkness, O daughter of the Chaldeans,

For you will no more be called ‘the Lady of the kingdoms’.’

Here Babylon is depicted as being degraded and becoming like a lowly ladies’ maid or servant who is dismissed to sit quietly in the darkness, away from the lighting, until bidden, and is not allowed the luxury of sharing the bright lighting. She is excluded from the inner circle. Thus Babylon is no longer to be the proud ‘Lady of the kingdoms’, feted by all. She is to lose her position, her luxuries and her privilege. She is to be humiliated and to become a serving woman. And in the end her silence and darkness will be permanent.

Others see ‘silence’ as signifying loss of authority and therefore of a right to speak, with darkness possibly indicating imprisonment.

(Some see ‘darkness’ as always referring to Babylon in this section (see Isaiah 42:7; Isaiah 45:19) but it is difficult to see how that is so here. It could be seen as indicating exile, away from the land of light, but why should Babylon be the land of light? It is far better to see it as a general expression of lack of what is good or as lack of light).


Verse 6

“I was angry with my people,

I profaned my inheritance and gave them into your hand.

You showed them no mercy.

You have very heavily laid your yoke on the aged.’”

At certain stages Babylon fronted for Assyria in oppressing God’s people. It was to Babylon that Manasseh was taken in chains. But that was only the outward manifestation of an oppression that had been going on for years. And in Isaiah 39:6-7 Isaiah had demonstrated that Judah and Jerusalem were to be invaded by Babylon and stripped of their wealth because Hezekiah had been unable to resist showing it off. To God it was as though that also had already happened. But as ever with invaders they would overplay their hand and exact more than was reasonable. They would make the heaviest of demands extracting heavy tribute, and also possibly forced labour, from the old. The old were one of the classes for which God had a special care, and He expected the same attitude from others. ‘The aged’ may, however, represent the distinguished leaders. This particular form of inhumanity is blamed on the Babylonians by Jeremiah twice in Lamentations 4:16; Lamentations 5:12, and in both cases he connects the word with a parallel term denoting rank or office, viz. priests and princes.

It should again be noted that there is no reference to the exile of the large numbers of citizens that did in fact take place, indicating that this was written before the event.

‘I was angry with my people.’ That is He felt it necessary to punish their sins as they deserved. ‘I profaned my inheritance.’ He allowed unclean Babylon to invade the land that was His inheritance. His own people had rendered it unclean, so He magnified its uncleanness.


Verse 7

“And you said, ‘I will be a lady for ever,

So that you did not lay these things to your heart,

Nor did you remember its latter end.’ ”

But Babylon was supremely arrogant (compare chapter 14). She abrogated the role of the everlasting God. No one could be sure of the future for ever except God. But she was so sure of her own everlastingness that she did not consider her behaviour or her doings, nor consider that all earthly things have an end, and that that end would be determined by her behaviour. She believed that she would last for ever and retain all her privileges. She did not need God.

To be a lady meant to be pampered and cosseted, and because of Babylon’s glory, and her reputation, that was what happened to her. She tended to be treated as special even by conquerors. Esarhaddon of Assyria restored her. Assyrian princes ruled over her. Cyrus the Persian made her a capital city. She was clearly used to such treatment. Thus because she was used to being pampered she assumed that the gods, even Yahweh, would pamper her. That is why she did not consider her ways. She was presumptious. Nor would she bring to mind what the consequences of such evil behaviour would be. (Even though history had revealed it often enough). She thought she was eternal.


Verse 8

“Now therefore hear this, you are who are given to pleasures,

You who dwell carelessly, who say in your heart,

‘I am and there is none else beside me.

I will not sit as a widow, nor will I know the loss of children.’ ”

This is all one with the previous statement. She was given to excessive pleasures and considered that she had a unique right to them. And history records the extravagant living in Babylon. She was noted for it. She dwelt carelessly, confident that no one could call her to account. And above all she spoke as though she was above all others, almost the equal of Yahweh (compare Isaiah 45:5-6; Isaiah 45:18; Isaiah 45:21; see Isaiah 14:12-14). And she arrogantly assumed that no harm could befall her, and that she could not lose her protector, either her king or her god Marduk (Bel), nor see her children, her citizens, slaughtered. This may be seen as reflecting a time when she was virtually independent, but not necessarily. Babylon felt herself superior even to her conquerors. She seduced them to her will. It was an attitude that prevailed whatever condition she was in.

Isaiah sees no inconsistency between ‘bethulah’ in Isaiah 47:1 and widowhood and children here. At this time a ‘bethulah’ could be married and have children (unlike an ‘almah). She was not at this time an intact virgin in the modern sense.


Verse 9

“But these two things will come to you in a moment in one day,

The loss of children, and widowhood.

They will come on you in their full measure,

In spite of the multitude of your sorceries,

And the great abundance of your enchantments.”

Her claims would be repudiated by events. She would lose her protector and see her children slaughtered. And this would happen in spite of all her multiplied sorceries and enchantments. And Babylon, famous for its priests, its sorcerers and its enchanters who would one day be exclusively given the name of Chaldeans (but not yet), would discover that in the end they could not save her.

‘In a moment, in one day.’ When her judgment came it would come extremely quickly. And in that day she would lose everything.

‘They will come on you in their full measure.’ Not just a normal defeat, but an overwhelming humiliation and end. The idea far exceeds that of Cyrus. The point all the way through is that this Babylon is an unusual case and will be dealt with unusually.


Verse 10

“For you have trusted in your wickedness.

You have said, ‘No one sees me.’

Your wisdom and your knowledge, it has perverted you,

And you have said in your heart, ‘I am and there is none else beside me’.”

Her trust was in her wickedness. This probably signifies all the host of her methods of magic and of the involving of the supernatural by occult means (compare Zechariah 5:8). But that it also includes other forms of wickedness comes out in the claim, ‘No one sees me.’ She did shameful things that had to be done in the dark. Note what the words imply. She knew in her heart that what she did was wrong. She just thought that if no one knew she could get away with it.

Indeed her very wisdom and knowledge had perverted her. She thought that she knew so much that she was almost the equal of God, that she was unique and that her citizens were above all ordinary mortals. Great knowledge often makes men think foolishly.


Verse 11

“Therefore will evil come on you.

You will not know its dawning.

And mischief will fall on you.

You will not be able to ward it off by atonement.

And desolation will come on you suddenly,

Which you know not.”

Because she has trusted in extreme wickedness, wicked things (same word) will come on her. She will sow what she has reaped. And it will come surreptitiously, she will not know its dawning (in spite of her fortune-tellers and diviners). And she will not be able to ward off what is coming by atonement. She has gone too far for atonement. Her sin is unforgivable. So will come on her such desolation as she could not even begin to comprehend, for it is beyond anything she has ever known or heard of.

Again the ideas go far beyond anything Cyrus would do. What is being described here does not have Cyrus in mind. It is the ultimate judgment that will leave her stripped and bare.


Verse 12

“Stand now with your enchantments,

And with the multitude of your sorceries,

In which you have laboured from your youth.

If so be that you will be able to profit.

If so be that you may prevail.

You are wearied in the multitude of your counsels.

Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators,

Stand up and save you from the things that will come on you.”

Isaiah now calls on her to do what she can with what she has. It will be of no use. Her enchanters and sorcerers have many decades of experience of magic and sorcery, let them now take their stand with it. It will not benefit her, but she may as well try. She will not prevail, but again, she may as well try. Indeed she is worn out by all the advice and words from the gods, and from their ancestors, and from the stars, described as the ‘multitude of your counsels’. And she was so proud of them. Well, let all those who engage in foretelling the future now stand up and save her from what is to come on her. But they will not be able to.

The multiplicity of their counsels, conflicting advice from many sources, is in stark contrast to the one counsel of Yahweh (Isaiah 44:26; Isaiah 46:11). Yahweh’s counsel does not weary men by its continual contradictions. It has simply to be responded to or ignored.

‘Enchantments’ (what binds) are those means used to bind the supposed heavenly powers to perform on their behalf, the ‘sorceries’ are the actual incantations which they utilise in the process. The astrologers divided up the heavens into sections and sought to read the future from the stars (not unknown today, and just as spurious. At least the ancients believed they were gods. The moderns believe they are fate). The stargazers interpreted unusual signs in the heavens. The monthly prognosticators did their work at the new moon.

We are probably to see that all these people are in stark contrast with Yahweh’s Servant. He would not seek to such extremes, he would simply listen to the voice of God


Verse 14

“Behold they will be as stubble,

The fire will burn them.

They will not deliver themselves from the power of the flame.

It will not be a coal to warm at, nor a fire to sit in front of.”

All such people will be burned up along with all their paraphernalia, as stubble is burned in the fields. They will be unable to deliver themselves from the flames because of their intensity, for this will be no friendly brazier but intense flames.


Verse 15

“Thus will be the things to you in which you have laboured.

Those who have traded with you from your youth,

Will wander every one to his quarter.

There will be none to save you.”

The things in which they have laboured, all their magic and sorcery, will have been burned up along with the practitioners. Those who have traded with them even from youth will wander off back to their own trading centre. So they will have no religious guides, and no trading partners. They will have no one to look to for deliverance.

Their trading partners might have been potential allies. But God will make them lose interest in the partnership so that they do nothing, simply ignoring Babylon’s need. Such is what happens to those who think and behave like Babylon. Babylon will be deserted by all. Babylon is doomed.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Isaiah 47:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/isaiah-47.html. 2013.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 23rd, 2019
the Week of Proper 24 / Ordinary 29
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