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Bible Commentaries

Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary
Isaiah 21



Verse 11


Isa . Watchman, what of the night?

Some calamity or sad moral condition is foreseen by the prophet. Moral evil is fitly compared to darkness. The term "night" is used to express error and sin. This was a time of darkness. The burden of Dumah was: "Watchman, what of the night?" What is the prospect? Are there any signs of coming day?

The world in its moral history had been for the most part in darkness. It commenced with a bright and sinless morning; but this was succeeded by a time of dark clouds and desolating storms. After the Deluge the world started anew from another head. The new world, however, differed but little from the old. Then God called Abraham, and made his seed His chosen people, through whom He might accomplish His beneficent designs. Outside of Judea there was not much to dispel the darkness. Greece furnished a Socrates and a Plato; but because of her vices and crimes Greece soon went down to ruin. The once magnificent empires Egypt, Assyria, Greece, and Rome were alike involved in the moral night of error and sin. We may inquire, as the voice out of Seir did, "Watchman, what of the night?" What prospect is there for this sin-darkened world? And we may respond in the words of the prophet: "The morning cometh." The morning cometh; but also the night—a night whose duration we may not be able to tell.

I. How will this inquiry apply to Isaiah's time? It was indeed for the chosen people a time of darkness. But the day is about to break! The breathings of better things come like the morning air. "The morning cometh," but also the night—the morning to the sad-hearted Jews, but the night to others—to the Idumeans, who had long cherished unfriendly feelings to the Jews, and appear to have rejoiced in their sorrow. The voice from Dumah was probably a sneering taunt, "Where is now your God in whom ye trusted?"

Isaiah had a grander vision and saw another morning. The long night of the olden dispensation still lingered, but the prophet saw the breaking day, and told of the advent of One who was to be the light and glory of the world (Isa , Isa 60:2-3; Isa 60:20). The vision which Isaiah saw we also are permitted to see. To him it was the Saviour to come, to teach, to suffer, to scatter the darkness; to us it is the Saviour who has come, and taught, and suffered, and died, and rose again, and whose glorious light has not only gilded the mountain-tops, but is spreading over all the whole land. And there are signs which will not fail that his grandest visions will be realised.

II. How will this inquiry apply to our own times?

1. What mysteries has science unveiled! How great the historical and geographical research of our day! How successful our time has been in bringing unity out of the variety of the universe and harmony out of its apparent discord!

2. Ours has been a time of moral progress. Slavery has been abolished from our realm. A great work has been done for the arrest of intemperance. The cause of missions has grown into large proportions.

3. The religious progress of the world is remarkable. Religious liberty is rapidly spreading. There is encouraging advance in the social or loving element. In the Church the working element is growing. Never has the giving element assumed such proportions. Amid this varied growth there is a strong tendency towards Christian unity. The enemy is vigilant; it is yet the night of battle, of temptation, and of peril, but the morning surely cometh.

III. How will this inquiry apply to ourselves personally?

1. There is a night of scepticism, or partial scepticism, in which some are involved. There are two classes of sceptics: some are sceptics because they want to be so; some are honest doubters, as Thomas the disciple was—constitutionally a doubter, but honest withal. And therefore he did not turn away from the light, and "My Lord and my God!" exclaimed the enlightened, convinced, and believing Thomas. To the earnest and sincere inquirer the response must be, "The morning cometh;" if thou art willing to be convinced, thou art not far from the kingdom of God. If thou shouldst reject Jesus, whither wilt thou go for a refuge and for a guide?

2. There is a night of worldliness. Many are living for selfish gratification and for this life only. For the worldly the morning waiteth. Behold, Christ stands at the door and knocks! He is the light and the life of men; with His entrance into the heart the morning cometh.

3. There is a night of penitential sorrow. When the morning cometh to the awakened sinner, the light is sometimes, as with Saul of Tarsus, a blinding as well as revealing light. To him—the sorrowing, praying, believing penitent—the morning came. And so it ever is.

4. There is the night of suffering. There never comes an hour in this world when suffering is unknown. Count it all joy, if it must needs be that ye shall suffer.

5. There is the night of weariness and disappointment. The Christian worker, toil-worn, may sometimes inquire, "Watchman, what of the night?" He has wrongly hoped, it may be, at the same time to carry the seed-basket, to put in the sickle, and to bring his sheaves with him. Learn to labour faithfully and to wait. The Son of God is come!

CONCLUSION.—Fail not to remember that while the morning cometh for all who willingly hear and obey the Gospel, the night also cometh for the disobedient and unbelieving. Come, ye who wander in the darkness, while yet there is room, to Him who is the bright and morning star, the sun of righteousness, the light and life of the world, and for you there will come a morning which will be the beginning of a blissful, glorious, and never-ending day.—D. D. Currie: Christian World Pulpit, vol. vi. pp. 213-215.

Verse 11-12


Isa . The burden of Dumah, &c.

There are three distinct prophecies in this chapter, and they are all termed burdens, as denoting heavy judgments. The first respects Babylon; the next, Dumah, Idumea, or Edom, inhabiting Mount Seir; and the last, Arabia.

The fall of Babylon by the Medes and Persians is announced under the form of a watchman stationed to discover approaching objects, with orders to declare what he saw (Isa ). It was an event peculiarly interesting to Judah. Babylon was the floor on which Judah was to be thrashed, till the refuse should be separated from the grain. The event which destroyed the one delivered the other (Isa 21:10).

The fall of Babylon was interesting to other nations as well as Judah; particularly to the Idumeans or Edomites, who were reduced to servitude within a few years after the taking of Jerusalem. Now, seeing that Judah had received a favourable report, Edom must needs inquire of the watchman (like Pharaoh's baker) of Joseph, after he had announced good tidings to the butler, whether there was nothing equally favourable to them. [We are not to understand, however, that messengers were really sent out of Edom to Isaiah; the process was merely a pneumatical one.—Delitzsch.] The answer is, NOTHING but, on the contrary, the lot of Judah's enemies, "a burden."

The revolution would indeed, for a time, excite the joy of the conquered nations (chap. Isa ); but the Edomites should meet with a disappointment. To them a change of government should only be a change of masters. The fair morning of their hopes should issue in a long and dark night of despondency. In the day of Babylon's fall, according to the prayer of the captives, when every prisoner was lifting up his head in hope, Edom was remembered, as excepted from an act of grace, on account of his singular atrocities (Psa 137:7-9).

The Edomites were very impatient under the Babylonish yoke, and very importunate in their inquiries after deliverance; reiterating the question, "What of the night? Watchman, what of the night?" When will this dark and long captivity be ended? And now that their hopes are repulsed by the watchman's answer, they are exceedingly unwilling to relinquish them. Loth to depart with an answer so ungrateful, they linger, and inquire again and again, in hopes that the sentence may be reversed. But they are told that all their lingering is in vain. "If ye will inquire, inquire ye, return, come" again; yet shall your answer be the same.

And what was the crime of the Edomites that should draw down upon them this heavy burden, this irresistible doom? Their inveterate hatred of the people of God (Oba ). Perhaps there was no nation whose treatment of Israel was so invariably spiteful, and whose enmity was accompanied with such aggravating circumstances. They were descended from Abraham and Isaac, and were treated by Israel, at the time they came out of Egypt, as brethren; but as they then returned evil for good (Num 20:14-21), so it was ever afterwards. Their conduct, on the melancholy occasion of Jerusalem being taken by the Chaldeans, was infamous (Oba 1:10-16).

The passage affords a tremendous lesson to ungodly sinner, and especially to those who, having descended from pious parents, and possessed religious advantages, are, notwithstanding, distinguished by their enmity to true religion. The situation of the Edomites rendered it impossible for them to be so ignorant as other heathen nations of the God of Israel; and their hatred appears to have been proportioned to their knowledge. Such is the character of great numbers in the religious world. They have both seen and hated the truth. The consequence will be, if grace prevent not, they will flatter themselves awhile with vain hopes; but, ere they are aware, their morning will be changed into an endless night.

Edom was once addressed in the language of kindness and brotherly affection; but having turned a deaf ear to this, all their inquiries after deliverance are now utterly disregarded. Such will be the end of sinners. "When once the Judge hath risen up and shut the door," they may begin to knock, may inquire and return, and come again, but all will be in vain; a night of ever-during darkness must be their portion.

The passage also, taken in its connection, holds up to us the different situation of the friends and enemies of God under public calamities. It is natural in such circumstances for all to inquire, "What of the night? Watchman, what of the night?" Each, also, may experience a portion of successive light and darkness in his lot. But the grand difference lies in the issue of things. God's people were thrashed on the floor of Babylon; and, when purified, were presently restored. To them there arose light in darkness. Weeping continued for a night, but joy came in the morning. Not so with Edom; their night came last. Such will be the portion of God's enemies: they may wish for changes, in hope of their circumstances being bettered; but the principal thing wanting is a change in themselves. While strangers to this, the oracles of Heaven prophesy no good concerning them. A morning may come, but the night cometh also.—Andrew Fuller: Complete Works, pp. 514, 515.

The whole Bible has, as its common and pervading argument, one mighty subject, which, appearing in a thousand different forms, is substantially the same in every page of the sacred volume. That subject is, the salvation appointed for the chosen of mankind, and the ruin decreed for those who reject the offer. Therefore when the prophetic Scriptures publish to us promises of peace and denunciations of woe, let us never deem that the Divine Spirit had no ulterior purpose in these predictions. Let us never cast aside the volume and cry that we are not Edom, or Egypt, or Babylon, or Tyre; and that, therefore, we have nothing to do either with their crimes or their punishment. Let us not vainly dream that the mighty machinery of the prophetic messages was put into play merely to call down curses on a few of the temporary dynasties of this perishable world! "All Scripture was written for our use," and these "springing and germinant prophecies" (as they have been called) have a significancy beyond the revolutions of petty kingdoms. They represent, in majestic order and manifest type, the great truths of eternal salvation and eternal ruin; they exhibit, in the sensible language of exterior imagery, what the great Teacher of after-times gave in the higher language of spiritual truth. If the laws of God be uniform and unchangeable, we are justified in reading by this light from heaven the prophetic declarations of the course and principles of His earthly providences.

With such views as these elevating our thoughts beyond the details of perished empires into the mightier truths of the eternal empire of our God, let us reflect briefly upon the words before us.

The prophet appears to introduce himself as addressed in scorn by the people of the land which he is commissioned to warn. "Watchman, what of the night?" What new report of woe hast thou to unroll, who hast placed thyself as an authorised observer and censurer of our doings? But the prophetical watchman—the calm commissioner of Heaven—replies, adopting their own language, "Yes, the morning (the true morning of hope and peace) cometh, and also the night (the real and terrible night of God's vengeance); if ye will (if ye are in genuine earnest to inquire), inquire! Return, come." Obtain the knowledge you seek, the knowledge of the way of life; and, acting upon this knowledge, repent and return to the Lord your God.

Regard, then, the guilty Edom that is warned; and the office and answer of the watchman who warns it.

I cannot now undertake to count over the array of those who address the spiritual watchmen of the Church of Christ in tones of derision, and mock their ministry. Some there are who ask the report of "the night" with utter carelessness as to the reply; some there are who ask it in contempt.

But what is still the duty of him who holds the momentous position of watchman in the city of God? On the occasion before us, remark—

1. He did not turn away from the question, in whatever spirit it was asked.

2. He uttered with equal assurance a threat and a promise.

3. He pressed the necessity of care in the study, and earnest inquiry after the nature, of the truth; and he summed up all in an anxious, a cordial, and reiterated invitation to repentance and reconciliation with an offended but pardoning God. Thus, the single verse might be regarded as an abstract of the duties of the ministerial office.—W. Archer Butler: Sermons, vol. ii. pp. 339-345.


Isa . Watchman, what of the night?

That there is night in this world few will question. He must be a bold optimist who thinks everything as it is, is for the best possible in the best possible of worlds. Darkness still covers the earth. God's children, who have a glorious light within them, have a dark night all round about them. Night is the symbol of gloom and suffering; and it is the season of sin. It is moral night, because "men love darkness rather than light." Every true-hearted, earnest Christian is a watchman: he watches for his own soul, and for the souls of others; and he longs for the advent of the world's new morning, when the shadows shall flee away. Regarding the earnest Christian as the person accosted in the text, what are his thoughts and fears about the night? What are his hopes about the morning?

I. When the Christian looks out upon the world, he sees himself surrounded by the night of unbelief and irreligion, and yet he beholds streaks of sunny dawn. There are many things at which if he looked exclusively he would despair—materialism taught by popular teachers, atheism the creed of not a few, abounding luxury, sensuality defiling and degrading all classes of the community. But, looking beyond these, he sees evidences of Christian faith and hope such as the world never before witnessed—Sunday-schools, tract societies, home and foreign missions, various organisations for Christian labour, generously supported and efficiently maintained; and, as he looks, he feels that the morning draweth nigh.

II. When the Christian man looks into his own heart, he sees much that speaks of the night, but much also that tells of the coming morning.

III. The Christless man, as well as the Christian, may well ask, "What of the night?" He may relieve the gloom of his existence by a few sparks of transient merriment, but soon they will be all extinguished; and for him there will be no morning!—W. M. Statham: Christian World Pulpit, iii. 193.

Passing from the historical application of this oracle, we observe that it may be taken as setting forth the spirit of inquiry first raised in the soul by the hand of God, the form that inquiry will take, the answer it will receive, and the direction in which it will find ultimate satisfaction.

I. Thoughts on the spirit of religious inquiry. The picture before us is that of a walled city; the middle watch of the night, when the citizens are asleep. But one anxious spirit cannot sleep; he turns out into the dark, silent, deserted street, oppressed by a strange feeling that something is going to happen. He hears the heavy footfall of the watchman pacing to and fro on the city walls. With eagerness not to be repressed, he cries, "Watchman," &c. This is symbolical; it has its counterparts in our own time.

1. This restless inquirer is the exception. The many sleep, only one wakes and inquires. The danger is common, but only one feels any apprehension of it. There are multitudes of sinners, few inquirers concerning the way of salvation.

2. The spirit of inquiry appears in an unexpected quarter. A man of Seir, an Edomite, lifts up eager questions; the men of Israel sleep. The old, old story. Many lepers in Israel: Naaman cleansed; ten healed, the Samaritan only returns to give thanks. The boldest ventures of faith were made by the Gentile centurion and the Syro-Phœnician woman. Those who pressed into the kingdom were not Scribes and Pharisees, but publicans and sinners. So it is still.

3. The inquiry was well directed. The appeal was not to the citizens who were asleep, but to the watchman who was awake. If you have questions to ask, ask of the man of quick perception, keen sensibility, high standing, broad and firm basis of hope in Christ. Not necessarily of the minister, but of the man who is spiritually wide-awake; he is the true watchman.

4. The inquiry was weighty. What of the night? Is it far spent? When will the day dawn? What of the foe? Are they quiet in their camp? Or are they endeavouring to surprise and capture the city? We have all cause to put questions of corresponding importance.

5. This inquiry was earnest. In some cases the inquiry is listless, is only a matter of compliment; or it is entered upon reluctantly, as an unpleasant duty. But this man is in earnest. He calls again and again. He will be heard; it is a matter of moment to him. He does not know what is about to happen; the watchman should know—placed high, outlook wide, senses trained. The inquirer will not submit to be disregarded. Oh, for more of this earnestness.

II. Thoughts on the answer.

1. The answer comes through the watchman. Human lips start inquiries, and through human lips the answer comes. One heart is filled with fear; another heart filled with faith must be its helper. Let those to whom the answer has been entrusted give it promptly, clearly, joyfully.

2. The answer declares God's methods with men. God has two great methods: one has its image in the morning, the other in the night. Let morning set forth compassion, tender mercy, loving gifts; night, judgment, awful anger, heavy inflictions. If the morning be neglected or resisted, then the night will certainly fall upon you. Note the order in which these methods are employed. Morning, fresh, clear, dewy, bracing, beautiful, comes first. So in the history of the world, of the Church, of the individual. First the morning of youth! prize it highly, use it wisely. Upon the sinner comes first the morning of mercy, of invitation, of entreaty and promise. Alas that he should despise and neglect it!

2. But the night comes afterwards! True, the night of death comes to all, but there is an infinite distance between death in Christ and death out of Christ. He who dies in Christ, passes into the eternal day; he who dies out of Christ, is cast into "the outer darkness!"

"Inquire"—seek to know the way of salvation. "Return"—as the prodigal from the far country. "Come"—blessed word! "Come" penitently, believingly, NOW!—J. R. Wood.

"Night" is suggestive of anxious, perplexed, critical states; e.g., travellers in the desert, voyagers on the ocean, sufferers in the sick-chamber. Very naturally do we transfer such thoughts as these to our spiritual experiences (Psa ; Psa 130:8). Our text may be taken as suggestive of the World's Cry and the World's Hope in all ages.

I. THE WORLD'S CRY. "What of the night?" This is—

1. The cry of a soul awakened to its guilt. The very purpose of conviction is to show the sinner his wandering, downward, benighted state. Hence the terror which first views of guilt usually cause. The flash which in the midnight hour shows the traveller the path of safety, also shows him the dreadful precipice which yawns at his feet. When the sinner is aroused from his sinful career, he is bewildered by the many voices of hope and fear, of warning and promise, which greet his ear; he is oppressed with anxiety to know how such a night of danger and heart-searching will end.

2. The cry of a soul struggling with its doubts. The night of mystery often burdens the hearts of true believers, as Job and David found when they struggled with the great problems of life. Life is a new thing to each of us, and many of the same problems perplex us still: e.g., the existence of moral evil, the infinite goodness of God, the truth of Divine revelation. These sometimes press upon us with unusual weight, and shroud us in thick darkness.

3. The cry of the Church in its hours of anxiety and peril. These have been frequent, and have been due to many causes: e.g., persecution from without, indifference within, general ungodliness and unholy living, tides of scepticism. The watchmen of the Church have to keep an earnest and anxious vigil when such nights as these settle upon her.

4. The cry of humanity itself. There are times when not merely a few men are oppressed by the burdens of their time, but when men in the mass become awake to them. The world betrays its keen sense of disease by the strong remedies it employs. Against wide-spread ignorance, it opposes vast educational schemes; for deep-rooted vices, it contrives various measures of reformation; under a sense of the terrible ravages of the war-spirit, it yearns for international peace. Nations, as well as individuals, have trying experiences of the terrors of social and moral night.

II. THE WORLD'S HOPE. "The morning cometh." In the midst of all the world's darkness we may cherish this blessed hope (H. E. I., 3421-3423). But whence is it derived? Solely from the fact that God in Christ is reconciling the world unto Himself. It is along the track of Divine revelation that we look for the bright rays of the morning. There is hope for our race because of what Christ is—the Revealer of God, the Saviour of sinners, the Head of the Church, the Restorer of humanity. The way, then, to help on the dawning of that day we all long to see, is to live in Him, to live for Him. Life derived from Him, and spent for Him, will be truly blessed in itself, and will be a means of blessing others.—William Manning.

Verse 15


Isa . The grievousness of war.

In our quiet sanctuary, so full of holy and peaceful memories, let us think about war; the more deeply we do so, the more will the aptness of the phrase which forms our text become apparent to us.

I. The grievousness of war is seen in its causes. War is grievous in its origin and in all the things that foster it. It has its origin in the unholy lusts and pitiful mistakes of mankind (Jas ). These lusts and mistakes, what are they?

1. The lust for increased possessions and for power (P. D., 143, 150).

2. The false glory with which war has been invested. To steal and kill on a small scale is infamous, but to do so on a huge scale is heroic! The wholesale butcher surrounds himself with pomp and pageantry that dazzle the eye and enslave the mind (P. D., 3470, 3476).

3. Blindness to the real fields on which true courage and heroism are manifested. The Christian courage which can meet and overcome the assaults of wickedness, which can turn aside the edge of scorn, and hurl back the weapons of temptation; that can urge men through living martyrdoms which do not keep time to music or song, which carries Moffat into South Africa, &c.,—this is too ethereal for most men to discern or admire. They have no suspicion of the moral victories that might be theirs on the fields of humble service and self-sacrifice.

4. Insensibility to the worth of human souls. A suspicion of the value of life would unnerve the warrior for his task; he could not then, as he does now, regard men as mere food for powder.

II. The grievousness of war is seen in its effects. These are twofold:—

1. Physical. "The grievousness of war" cannot be exaggerated, if we look at it from this point of view alone. Think—

(1) of the physical and mental suffering that is caused by it (P. D., 3468, 3469, 3472, 3476);

(2) of the far-reaching and crushing desolation caused by it (P. D., 3466);

(3) of the frightful cost of preparation for war; of the armed truce in which the nations of Europe live.

2. Moral. These are still more terrible.

(1.) War brutalises those actually engaged in it (P. D., 3464).

(2.) War makes criminals by producing a state of want.

(3.) War aggravates national animosities, and leaves to unborn generations a legacy of hatred. Every war sows the seeds of future conflict.

(4.) War and preparation for war check the progress of those agencies by which the misery of our race would be abated, and its happiness indefinitely increased. The cause of education, of missions, of the Gospel, languishes under the blight of the war-spirit. The cost of a very few wars would evangelise the world (P. D., 3476).

Let this meditation move us to action.

1. Let us exert our utmost influence to bring it to pass that national power shall be wielded by men who love peace.

2. Let us encourage everything that tends to facilitate international intercourse (P. D., 3461).

3. Let us on every possible occasion exalt moral qualities above mere physical daring (P. D., 1798, 1801-1803).

4. Let us put forth every effort to diffuse the principles of Christianity. The Gospel is the only true and effectual peacemaker; only in Christ will men ever be lastingly reconciled to each other.—William Manning.


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Bibliography Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on Isaiah 21:4". Preacher's Complete Homiletical Commentary. Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1892.

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