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Bible Commentaries

The Biblical Illustrator
Isaiah 13

 

 

Verses 1-5

Isaiah 13:1-5

The burden of Babylon

The prophet’s burden

Whenever we find the word “burden” in this association it means oracle, a speech of doom; it is never connected with blessing, hope, enlarged opportunity, or expanded liberty; it always means that judgment is swiftly coming, and may at any moment burst upon the thing that is doomed.
(
J. Parker, D. D.)

The power to see

“Which Isaiah did see.” How did he see it? The word “see” needs to be defined every day. Blind men may see. We do not see with the eyes only, else truly we should see very little; the whole body becomes an eye when it is fun of light, and they who are holiest see farthest. “Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.” Men see morally, intellectually, sympathetically, as well as visually. How could Isaiah see this burden of Babylon when it did not fall upon the proud city for two centuries! Is there, then, no annihilation of time and space? Are we the mean prisoners we thought ourselves to be is it so, that we are caged round by invisible iron, and sealed down by some oppressive power, or blinded by some arbitrary or cruel shadow? We might see more if we looked in the right direction; we might be masters of the centuries if we lived with God. Isaiah is never weary of saying that he “saw” what he affirms. He does not describe it as having been seen by some other man; having written his record he signs it, or having begun to deliver his prophecy he writes it as a man writes his will; he begins by asserting that it is his testament, his own very witness, for he was there, saw it, and he accepts the responsibility of every declaration. (J. Parker, D. D.)

“Babylon” stands for the spirit of the world

In the New Testament, Babylon, more than any other city, stood for the personification of the forces of the world against God. In the history of Israel Babylon was the scourge of God to them. They were as grain under the teeth of the threshing machine. In the Captivity the Jews felt the weight of Babylon’s cruelty, so that in the prophetic literature of the Exile, Babylon became the type of oppression and of the insolence of material force. Thought is carried back to primitive times in the Book of Genesis, in which Babylon is pictured in the vain and arrogant attempt to rival God: “Go to, let us build us a city, and tower whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” So deeply had the experience of Babylon’s cruelty entered into the heart of Israel that even in the New Testament, St. John, in the Book of Revelation, uses the word “Babylon” to describe the material power of Rome. He could not get a better word than just the old word “Babylon” to represent the overwhelming force of the great Roman Empire, with its legions of soldiers, with its policy which made the whole world a network of nerves running back to their sensitive centre in the haughty city on the Tiber. St. John saw past the glitter and the conquest, and recognised in pagan Rome the mighty Babylon which lifts her impious head against God. To him she was the “scarlet woman”; he heard, her say in the pride of her heart, as the prophet had heard Babylon say, “I sit a queen and am no widow, and shall see no sorrow.” Thus the very name “Babylon” came to take on the religious signification of the spirit of the world; it stood for the dead weight of the material which resists the spirit. (Hugh Black, M. A.)

The doom of Babylon

Here the prophet pronounces doom upon the bloated empire which seemed to stand so secure, and notes the evidence of weakness in spite of apparent prosperity and careless trust in material resources. Disregard of human rights, lusts, and selfishness and pride of life, and the impious atheism which disregarded all this he declared would all exact their inevitable price. Cruelty and oppression would react upon the tyrant after their usual historic fashion. The huge accumulations on which they rested would only attract the foe, would weaken her hands in her hour of trial, and make her, in spite of her wealth, an easy prey to the spoiler. To Babylon would come a time when she would have more money than men. It is a picture of absolute ruin which the prophet gives, when the great city would be depopulated (Isaiah 13:12). (Hugh Black, M. A.)

The Babylonian spirit

The Babylonian spirit has not left the world, and every great civilisation (for it is not confined to one) is menaced in the same way by the temptation of forgetfulness of God, cruelty of sheer force, insolence of pride, and the empty trust of wealth. Our foes are the old foes with a new face on them. (Hugh Black, M. A.)


Verses 1-22

Verse 12

Isaiah 13:12

I will make a man more precious than fine gold

Dearth of men a judgment from God

When God caused His scythe to swing through the harvests of Babylon it was not expected that a single ear would be left in the devastated field.
Thus the utterance is a menace, a judgment; it is not part of a lecture upon the dignity of human nature, it is an illustration of the vastness of the sweep of the judgments of God
. (J. Parker, D. D.)

The worth of man

Our text is a promise in the guise of a threat. It is a threat to one nation, but a promise to mankind.

1. A true prophetic insight led to the insertion of this poem in the story of the troubles of Assyria. Babylon was in her full career of conquest when Assyria was trembling to her fall. But the history of Babylon was already written; in that contempt of man, which at the first her pride and lust of possession revealed, was hidden her own doom. The nation so lavish of human life was to die utterly out; the empire which sets no value on men, for lack of men shall perish.

2. How often has this story been repeated! The Italian Campagna was once the home of a multitude of farmers; the conquests of Rome demanded that legions should be hurled against the barbarian tribes. Because there were not men to till the ground, the Campagna has become a foul marshland, the haunt of fevers, desolate and uninhabitable. Spain sent out her brave and stalwart sons to ravage the lands of the Indians, to seize on Mexican and Peruvian gold; and Spain has never since been able to produce and nourish the men who should enable her to hold her place among the foremost nations.

3. There are other ways in which want of regard for men is evinced beside that of conquest, and the doom is ever the same. “Peace hath her victories no less renowned than war”; the victories are, alas! too often equally immoral, equally fatal. In the heat of business competition, professed philanthropists, and men personally humane--these two expressions do not always mean the same thing--become as reckless of lives as the general in the field. We feel a man to be more precious than gold in the face of sickness and suffering; if we did but habitually recognise it, much sickness and suffering would be spared. The ladders are reared against a burning house; one after another of the inmates is rescued; and when the fire is at its fiercest, and all are supposed to be out of danger, the frightened face of a child appears at an upper window. There are tears among the crowd, and wringing of hands. “A thousand pounds,” says someone, “to him who will rescue that child!” A few years after, the child is an engine driver, and, drowsy through long hours of work, he misreads a signal, wrecks his train, and dies, himself the involuntary instrument of an appalling calamity. And it may be that the very man who offered the reward, and would have doubled it, made it fivefold, for the saving of the child, is a director of the railway company whose increasing exaction of toil from its servants has been the cause of the disaster. And we all are responsible for these things; we keep up the pressure which compels directors, managers, merchants, to work their business at full strain. We humane Englishmen need to he scourged into habitual practical humanity. God has, by His judgments, to “make a man more precious than fine gold.”

4. In our discussions of what we call “the population question,” there is a great deal of unconscious inhumanity which will assuredly entail its curse upon our country. The population of these islands is ever pressing more and more on the means of the people’s support. In two ways the pressure may be lightened. Emigration is one of them. But we might do much by the amendment of our laws, by alteration of our social customs and personal habits, by a check on extravagant expenditure, and by a juster distribution of the strain of living, to lighten the pressure at home. It is an anxious question whether we are encouraging emigration in the best and wisest mode. Consider whom we are sending out and the result on our future.

5. Our text is prophetic, moreover, of the doom and discipline of the exclusive spirit. Tennyson has given us a parable of this in the “Palace of Art.” Browning, too, in his story of Paracelsus, the gifted man who degenerated into a quack, has marked it as one of the sins of that strangely complex soul that he would be a philanthropist, but without sympathy, without dependence upon others. No life of pride or self-sufficiency or exclusiveness is possible to us, either in the Church or the nation. Nothing on earth is valuable when man has lost his value. The worth of wealth is what you can do with it for your fellows. The loftiest prince would gladly mate with the humblest beggar were they cast alone on some desert island.

6. How wonderful is the fulfilment of our text in the Gospel! It is the worth of lost humanity which is revealed to us in the redemption by Christ. Christ will not let us love Him if we love not our brethren for whom He died. If men are not more precious to us than gold, Christ becomes to us of none effect.

7. The passion which Christian humaneness becomes in the heart of Christians is the final earthly fulfilment of our text. The first feeling of the saved man is gratitude for the grace of God which saved him; and it is a feeling that abides. To it is added, in the maturity of Christian life, an abounding confidence that the grace which saved him can save any and every man. (A. Mackennal, B. A.)

The value of human life

Probably it is not true that human life is held more dear in times of war; but some sense of the value of the lives sacrificed is apt to dawn upon the people after the war is over, when the nation finds its resources wasted, and the people sit desolate in their homes, waiting for the strong and the brave who shall return no more. It is a hard school in which to learn this lesson of the preciousness of man; but if it can be learned in no other way it may well be enforced upon the world, even by such fiery tuition. (W. Gladden, D. D.)

“How much is he worth?”

One who listens to the talk of the street and the shops, might easily get the impression that the value of man is a subject of general interest. “How much is he worth?” is a question often heard. What answers do you hear? He is worth five thousand dollars; ten thousand; a million; ten millions. And of one and another it is said with a mixture of pity and contempt, “He is not worth anything!” Before the war men and women were actually bought and sold for money. How much is he or she worth, was then in some quarters a question simply commercial; a question to which a perfectly literal answer could be given. May it not be well to go a little deeper than the common usage goes into the meaning of this phrase, and ask, with all seriousness, not concerning this man or that man, but concerning man, any man, every man, “How much is he worth?”

I. MAN IS WORTH MORE THAN HIS INSTITUTIONS. Many persons have supposed that the chief end of man was to support certain institutions. We get many a hint of this error in our study of the people whose history is contained in the Bible. They thought that their ceremonial law was vastly more sacred than the men who worshipped by means of it. If their ritual obstructed human growth, crippled virtue, or killed charity, no matter; these must stand back and let the ritual be exalted. And when Christ told them that the Sabbath was made for man and not man for the Sabbath--that men were of more account than all this ritual machinery, they were astonished and scandalised; they called Him a blasphemer. This is no singular phenomenon. History is full of the outworking of this tendency. All over the world, all along the ages, men have been made the slaves of systems. When Christ came, His teachings were so entirely out of harmony with this notion that the people were fairly bewildered by them. What has been said of religious systems is equally true of political systems. There is now and always has been a prevalent notion that people were made for governments, and not governments for people; that it is more important that certain dynasties should reign, or that certain political institutions should be kept intact, or that certain parties should remain in power, or that certain policies should be adopted, than that men should be free and wise and good and prosperous. It is not true that human institutions are of no value; they are often of great value. But they are not ends; they are instruments. It follows that those systems are best which best assist the development of manhood.

II. MAN IS WORTH MORE THAN HIS COSTLIEST POSSESSIONS. This is another of those truths, often on our lips, but not more than half believed. Evidence of this is visible in the respect paid to wealth, even when it is joined to one who is but a caricature of manhood; even when it is the spoil that has been won by the debasement of manhood. How plain are the proofs before our faces every day that the multitudes do not believe a man to be more precious than gold! It is not the rich alone whose judgment in this matter goes astray; the poor fall into the same error. They say that money does not make the man, say it angrily and bitterly, not seldom; but their conduct often shows that they think, after all, that money does make the man. Their envy of the rich convicts them. Are there not in our own conduct, sometimes, clear illustrations of this fact? Do we not often find ourselves preferring gold to manhood; labouring more diligently to enlarge our possessions than to improve ourselves? It is not true that property is of no consequence; man’s belongings are good just in proportion as they assist in the development of his character.

III. IT IS BECAUSE OF HIS KINSHIP TO GOD THAT MAN IS OF SUCH ILLUSTRIOUS WORTH. And nothing seems more certain than that these powers may, by disuse or misuse, be impaired and finally lost. And so cut off by his own act from the source of all light and love, he is deserted by all generous impulses, by all holy aspirations, and is left to grovel in the mire of selfishness and carnality. “How much was he worth when he died? “some man may ask. What if the seer must answer: “He was the heir of immortality, but he sold his birthright for a song.” (W. Gladden, D. D.)

The end of civilisation

The end of civilisation is not money, but men. (Hugh Black, M. A.)

The true history of a man

The true history of a man is the history not of his wars and conquests, not even of his commerce; the true history of a man is the history of his conscience, the history of his moral development; for only that can give permanence and security to his other achievements in science, art, invention, thought. (Hugh Black, M. A.)

Faulty civilisation

If, in Bacon’s phrase, the “breed and disposition of the people be not stout,” its civilisation is a dismal failure. (Hugh Black, M. A.)

Christianity dignifies man: agnosticism tends to decade him

In the teaching of Christ man is so dignified by his connection with God and by his immortal destiny, that everyone who really believes this creed must feel himself condemned if he treats his brother ill. But strip man, as agnosticism does, of all the greatness and mystery with which Christianity invests him--cease to believe that he comes from God, that he is akin to beingsgreater than himself who care for him, and that his soul is of infinite worth because it has before it an unending development--and how long will it be possible to cherish for him the reverence which wins him consideration and help? The brevity of man’s existence gives him, according to the present teaching of agnosticism, a pathetic claim to instant help; but who knows whether in a society given over to unbelief the argument might not tell the other way, the selfish heart reasoning that sufferings which must end so soon do not matter? It was in the generation preceding the French Revolution that atheistic philosophy took its rise. The prophets of the time were predicting an age of peace and brotherhood, when selfish passion should disappear and cruelty and wrong no more vex the world. But, when their teaching had done its work, its fruit appeared in the Revolution itself, whose unspeakable inhumanities afforded our race such glances into the dark depths of its own nature as can never be forgotten. It is painful to recall that Rousseau himself, the most eloquent and, in some respects, the noblest apostle of the new faith, while preaching universal brother hood, sent his own children one by one, as they were born, to the Foundling Hospital, to save himself the trouble and expense of their support. The Revolution did much destructive work for which the hour had come; but it was a gigantic proof that the love necessary for the work of reconstruction must be sought in a superhuman source. (J. Stalker, D. D.)

John Ruskin on the value of manhood

With this accords the great lesson of John Ruskin’s teaching and of his life--one of the greatest of Englishmen, greatest of all as a political teacher, with somewhat of the passion and power of a prophet. He never wearied of insisting upon this distinction between money and men. It is at the root of all his economical writings. He has been rated as a fanatic, as opposed to machinery and railways and it is not necessary to accept his teachings on money on all points; all this is but a misunderstanding of him by unthinking and casual readers. The best of his thought is just a protest against the prevailing materialistic creed. He lived and died protesting that man is more precious than discoveries or engineering appliances or electrical contrivances. He said in his noble language: “It may be discovered that the true bases of wealth are spiritual and not in rock but in flesh. Perhaps even the time will come when it will be seen that the consummation of all wealth is in producing as many as possible full-blooded, bright-eyed human creatures. In some far-away extremity I can even imagine that England can cast all thoughts of possessing wealth back to barbaric nations, and that while the suns of Indus may flash from the turban of the slave, she as a Christian mother may at last attain to the virtues and treasures of the heathen one, and be able to lead forth her sons, saying, ‘These are my jewels.’” (Hugh Black, M. A.)

Men more valuable than money

Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey,

Where wealth accumulates and men decay.

(O. Goldsmith.)

Money for men

The preacher was promising a day of trouble for great Babylon. “Behold,” he cried, “the day of the Lord cometh, cruel,” etc. Then he came to the very abyss and extremity of their desolation. Bad enough to have the land shorn of its harvests, and all the standing grain trampled under the feet of war horses; bad enough to have the consuming fire lay hold upon its houses; bad enough to have pride turned into shame, wealth into poverty, power into captivity. But, thus far, hope was left, for men were left. Leave us men, and we may live. Leave us men, and you may do your worst; the day will pass, and tomorrow we will repair the damage, and begin over again, and get our revenge upon you yet. But there shall be no men. The widows and fatherless children shall search about the ruined streets, and a man shall be as rare a sight as a purse of gold. The text sets the emphasis, not on money, but on men. And that is Christianity. That is what the Master taught. What we all need, whether we have great possessions or small possessions, is to be interested in men. The part of a Christian man or woman is to set about making somebody’s life better. The best good is got when one helps one; when a man goes to his neighbour and gets acquainted with him, and becomes his personal friend, and sympathises with him, and uplifts him. You won’t have to go very far to find somebody who is worse off than you are. Take that somebody up. Interest yourself in that unhappy life. Perhaps it will take money; perhaps it will take time; perhaps it will take yourself. Give yourself, anyhow, and as much else as you need to. But, above all, be generously interested. One of the most helpful people I know lives in a back, street, in an unpleasant neighbourhood, in a small house. Everybody in that neighbourhood knows her, and she knows them and their children. They go to her in their troubles, and she gives them her sympathy. As for money, she would give that too if she had any to give. She gives herself. The whole street is better because she lives in it. But if she had the means which some have, what would she do, I wonder? Would she fall before the temptation of a comfortable life? Would she get, perhaps, to thinking that because she had plenty of butter on her bread, so had everybody else? and because she was contented, all the mutterings of discontented people were but needless grumblings? Anyhow, it is true that the kindest, most thoughtful, most helpful people, quickest to bear the hardest inconveniences for a neighbour, readiest to lift up those that are down, are the poor. It is not your money that we want so much as your interest. We want your own personal, hand to hand and heart to heart endeavour. The best use that can be made of money is to use it for the uplifting of men. (George Hedges, D. D.)

Christ discovered the human soul

I have heard that one of the diamond fields of South Africa was discovered on this wise. A traveller one day entered the valley and drew near to a settler’s door, at which a boy was amusing himself by throwing stones. One of the stones fell at the stranger’s feet, who picked it up and was in the act of laughingly returning it, when something flashed from it which stopped his hand and made his heart beat fast. It was a diamond. The child was playing with it as a common stone; the peasant’s foot had spurned it; the cart wheel had crushed it; till the man who knew saw it and recognised its value. Was it not the same careless treatment the soul was receiving when Jesus arrived in the world and discovered it? A harlot’s soul, sunk in the mud and filth of iniquity! why, a Pharisee would not stain his fingers to find it. A child’s soul! the scribes used to discuss in their schools whether or not a child had a soul at all. (J. Stalker, D. D.)

Manhood more than belongings

Have you ever seen the Apollo Belvedere? It is the statue of a man, chiselled out of marble, one of the noblest figures that art has ever produced. Do you think that this statue would be made any nobler or more beautiful if men should put gold rings on its fingers and gold bracelets on its wrists, and strings of gold beads upon its neck, and should trick it out with ribbons and buttons and fringes! Would not these tawdry ornaments detract from the simple dignity and majesty of that model of manly grace and strength! Well, the accidents of wealth and rank and office and station cannot add much more of ornament or value to a true man than could trinkets like these to the beauty of the Belvedere Apollo. His manhood itself, to all clear insight, is something infinitely grander and diviner than these belongings. (W. Gladden, D. D.)

The wealth of manhood

A Highland chieftain on a visit to England was taunted with the poverty of his country, at the table of his host, the occasion being when the large silver candlesticks were lighted in the spacious hall of the English castle, and in a gust of mistaken patriotism (common enough in a Scot) the Highlander declared he had seen better candlesticks in his own castle in Scotland. A wager was put up, and he could not draw back. The laird’s brother, who understood the terrific fix his brother was in, placed at the table on either side a gigantic Highlander holding in his right hand a drawn sword and in his left a blazing torch, and ere the strangers had recovered from their surprise, he said, “Behold the chandeliers of my brother’s house! Not one of these men knows any law but loyalty. Would you compare to these the riches of gold? How say you, cavaliers, is your wager won or lost?” (H. Black, M. A.)


Verse 17

Isaiah 13:17

Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them

The Medes

The Medes care not for gold, but for blood, though it be the blood of boys and infants.
(
Sir E. Strachey, Bart.)

The Medes and gold

“Ye Medes and others who now hear me, I well know that you have not accompanied me in this expedition with a view of acquiring wealth.”--Speech of Cyrus to his army. (Xenophon, Cyrop. V.)

The Medea

The worst terror that can assail us is the terror of forces, whose character we cannot fathom, who will not stop to parley, who do not understand our language nor our bribes. It was such a power with which the resourceful and luxurious Babylon was threatened. With money the Babylonians did all they wished to do, and believed everything else to be possible. They had subsidised kings, bought over enemies, seduced the peoples of the earth, The foe whom God now sent them was impervious to this influence. From their pure highlands came down upon corrupt civilisation a simple people, whose banner was a leathern apron, whose goal was not booty nor ease but power and mastery, who came not to rob but to displace. (Prof. G. A. Smith, D. D.)


Verses 19-22

Isaiah 13:19-22

Babylon . . . shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah

The re-entries of nature

All this we may say is historical and local.
On the other hand, all this is moral and suggestive. This process may take place in the Babylon of the mind. The greatest mind is only safe whilst it worships. The most magnificent intellectual temple is only secure from the judgment and whirlwind of heaven in proportion as its altar is defended from the approach of every unworthy suppliant. If we hand over God’s altar, whether mental or ecclesiastical, to wrong custodians, or devote either to forbidden purposes, then make way for God’s judgments: wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and the houses that were full of beauty and colour and charm shall be full of doleful creatures; and the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces. This may happen to any one of us. Beware of arrogancy, pride, worldliness, self-sufficiency; beware of the betrayal of trusts: nature will re-enter if we be unfaithful. We speak of our wisdom in putting cautionary covenants into all our legal documents, and especially a man assures himself that he is doubly safe when he has secured the right of re-entry under certain breaches of agreement; he says to himself with complacency, That is justifiable; I have arranged that in the event of certain things failing I shall re-enter. Nature always puts that clause into her covenants. She re-enters in a moment. If the gardener is too late by one day with his spade or seed or other attention, nature begins to re-enter; and if he tarry for a week he will find that nature has made great advances into the property. It is so with education, with the keeping up of intelligence, with the maintenance of healthy discipline; relax a month, and nature re-enters, and nature plays the spoiler. Nature is not a thrifty, careful husbandman. Nature has a function of desolation; she will grow weeds in your richest flower beds if you neglect them for a day. God re-enters by the spirit of judgment and by the visitations of anger. Herein His providence is but in harmony with the kingdom which He has instituted within the sphere which we call husbandry, and even within the sphere which we denominate by education or discipline. It is one government. Neglect your music for a month, and you will find at the end that nature has re-entered, and you are not wanted; you have not brought with you the wedding garment of preparation up to date. There must be no intermission; the last line must be filled in. Nature will not have things done in the bulk, in the gross: nature will not allow us simply to write the name; she will weave her web work all round the garment if we have neglected the borders, and paid attention to only the middle parts
. (J. Parker, D. D.)

Babylon: an Arab superstition

It is said that at this very day the Bedouin or wandering Arab has a superstitious fear of passing a single night on the site of Babylon, and that the natives of the country believe it to be inhabited by demons in the form of goats. (Sir E. Strachey, Bart.)

Satyrs

There seems to have been an ancient belief among the Jews themselves that demons took the form of goats--appeared as satyrs in fact. (Sir E. Strachey, Bart.)

Satyrs

The word which most versions and commentators agree with the LXX in rendering “demons” or “satyrs” is used in Leviticus 17:7, 2 Chronicles 11:15 for demons which the Jews worshipped. (Sir E. Strachey, Bart.)
.

 


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Bibliography Information
Exell, Joseph S. "Commentary on "Isaiah 13:4". The Biblical Illustrator. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tbi/isaiah-13.html. 1905-1909. New York.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, June 19th, 2019
the Week of Proper 6 / Ordinary 11
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