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Bible Commentaries

Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible
Isaiah 21

 

 

Introduction

CHAP. XXI.

The prophet, bewailing the captivity of his people, seeth in a vision the fall of Babylon by the Medes and Persians. Edom, scorning the prophet, is moved to repentance. The set time of Arabia's calamity.

Before Christ 714.


Verse 1

Isaiah 21:1. The burden of the desert of the sea. The sixth discourse contained in this chapter represents, under a mystical name, Babylon, (the rulers whereof made great desolations in the world, and much distressed many other nations as well as the Jews,) besieged and overthrown by the Medes and Persians, after a long and patient expectation hereof by the people of God; and that in the night, when the Babylonians were luxuriously enjoying themselves; an event most pleasing and joyful to the Jewish exiles: and hereto is subjoined the fate of the Edomites, and of the Arabians. It is not certain at what time this prophesy was delivered: but it seems most probable that it was delivered at the same time with that immediately preceding; that is, in the seventh year of king Hezekiah. It contains, first, an inscription, and secondly, the body of the prophesy; wherein we have, first, a prediction of the fall of Babylon, for its crimes committed against the people of God, Isaiah 21:1-5; secondly, an emblematical confirmation hereof; Isaiah 21:6-9; and thirdly, the conclusion, Isaiah 21:10. The desert of the sea, taken literally, signifies a vast tract of plain land, which is surrounded and sometimes overflowed with much water; but figuratively, a vast empire, which is sustained by a populous metropolis. It seems probable, that the prophet uses the expression here figuratively, and yet alludes to some analogous property of those countries which formed a principal part of the Babylonish dominions. See Ezekiel 20:35 and Hosea 2:14. Vitringa is of opinion, that the sea here alluded to was the Euphrates. See Jeremiah 51:36. Zechariah 10:11 and Revelation 17:3; Revelation 17:15 where we find that St. John, when he was to see the spiritual Babylon, was carried into the Wilderness, where he beheld a woman sitting upon a scarlet-coloured beast, and that near many waters. See chap. Isaiah 14:23 and Vitringa.

As whirlwinds—Ver. 2. The spoiler spoileth. This prophesy has principally for its object the fall of Babylon; but, as the divine judgment against the Babylonians had sufficient foundation, the Holy Spirit, before he foretells the fate of Babylon, exhibits to the prophet, in vision, those grievous evils which the kings of Babylon should bring perfidioudly upon other nations, and principally upon the Jews; which done, in an extatic rapture, he calls upon the Medes and Persians to besiege and destroy Babylon. He sees, therefore, in a vision, Nebuchadnezzar moving with his forces from Babylon to subdue those people of Asia who refused his yoke, or had shaken it off; among whom were the Jews. He compares this prince, incited by rage and revenge, and armed with great power, to whirlwinds in the south, rushing with great force, and carrying away whatever opposed them: He beholds him like a southern tempest troubling Asia; promiscuously raging upon all who refuse to obey him; invading Jerusalem, impiously destroying the temple of the true God, and leading the remnant of his people into banishment; which revelation he calls a hard or grievous vision. So I understand these words, says Vitringa, after a long and most serious consideration; and, I think, rightly. Some understand them of Cyrus, to whom yet it is evident the words, the treacherous dealer, &c. cannot be applied. See Jeremiah 4:6; Jeremiah 7:11.


Verse 2

Isaiah 21:2. Go up, O Elam; besiege, O Media! The prophet, in a rapture, had various images succeeding one another before his sight. He had just beheld the Babylonians raging against Asia and Judaea. Presently, this scene being removed, he beholds the city of Babylon itself flourishing in strength and glory; then he observes the motion of a hostile army towards this city, which he understands to consist of the Medes and Persians, raised up by the divine providence to besiege Babylon, and punish it for its pride and wickedness; and he hears at the same moment of time a divine voice, commanding this people to approach and besiege Babylon, with a prediction of undoubted success, which he involves in a short consolatory sentence; All the sighing thereof I have made to cease: that is, "God hath made all that sighing, all those groans and calamities which Babylon had brought upon other nations, and upon the people of God also, to cease and be no more, having determined the destruction of Babylon itself." Elam was an old name for Persia, for the name of Persia does not appear to have been known in Isaiah's time. The Persians seem to have taken their name from becoming horsemen in the time of Cyrus. The country is called Paras, and the inhabitants Parasi, which signifies both Persians and horsemen. Babylon was accordingly besieged by the united force of the Medes and Persians under the command of Cyrus the Persian, the nephew and son-in-law of the king of the Medes. If by Elam we understand the province strictly so called, it is no less true that this also, though subject to Babylon, rose up against it on account of the generous behaviour of Cyrus to Panthea. See Bp. Newton and Vitringa.


Verses 3-5

Isaiah 21:3-5. Therefore are my loins filled with pain, &c.— We have here a symbolical description of the greatness of the Babylonish calamity; the prophet exhibiting in himself, as in a figure, an emblem of the extreme distress, consternation, and horror, which should ensue upon this occasion. See ch. Isaiah 15:5, Isaiah 16:8-9. Luke 21:26. The expression, The night of my pleasure, alludes to the remarkable circumstance of Babylon's being taken in the night of an annual festival, which is more fully set forth in the fifth verse. Vitringa renders it very properly, The table is spread: the watchman stands upon the watch; they eat; they drink: Arise now, ye princes, &c. where, as in a picture, the revelling of the Babylonians is described, when the divine command is given to the Medes and Persians to seize this proper moment; Arise, ye princes; anoint the shield, which is to the same purpose with what Jeremiah says, Jeremiah 51:11; Jeremiah 51:28, &c. To anoint the shield is, in this place, by synecdoche, Prepare your arms; and so the Chaldee paraphrast, wipe, and make bright your arms. It is remarkable, that Cyrus, when all things were prepared to invade Babylon, uses words very similar to these of the prophet, "But come, arise; prepare your arms; I will lead you on by the help of the gods." See Herod. lib. 1: cap. 191 and Xenoph. Cyropoed lib. 7. Nothing can be more remarkable than the completion of this prophesy.


Verses 6-9

Isaiah 21:6-9. For thus hath the Lord said unto me The Holy Spirit, having proposed to make Isaiah, and by him the church, most certain of this memorable event, confirms the preceding revelation by an elegant emblem, offered to the prophet in vision; which confirmation makes the other part of this prophetic. This emblem exhibits to us the prophet commanded by God to set a watchman, in this verse; and in what follows, the consequence of the execution of the command; namely, that the watchman appointed by the prophet attended accurately to the least motion of the nations against Babylon, and at length, after long expectation, had discovered, and, like a lion, had declared with a loud voice what he had seen. The seventh verse should be rendered, And he saw a cavalcade; two file of horse; with ass-carriages, and carriages of camels; and he attended with very close attention. The meaning is, that the watchman saw the army of the Medes and Persians, with their usual cavalcade of horse, attended by those beasts of burden, asses and camels, which accompanied armies in those countries, moving towards Babylon; upon which he gave the greatest attention possible. Vitringa reads in the eighth verse, And he cried as a lion; declaring what he now saw; namely, the hostile cavalcade approaching to Babylon; Behold, here cometh a cavalcade of men; two file of horse: Immediately after which, he declares the consequence of this approach to the enemy; Babylon is fallen, is fallen. See Revelation 18:1-2. This repetition was intended, according to some, to shew the certainty of the event; though Vitringa thinks that it, as well as the whole prophesy, might have a mystical reference to the fall of the spiritual Babylon; as much as to say, "Babylon is fallen, nay, and shall hereafter fall." As to the last expression, All the graven images of her gods he hath broken, it is remarkable, that Xerxes, after his return from his unfortunate expedition into Greece, partly out of religious zeal, being a professed enemy to image worship, and partly to reimburse himself, seized the sacred treasures, plundered or destroyed the temples and idols of Babylon, and thereby accomplished the prophesies of Isaiah; which will gain great light by a comparison with what Jeremiah has written on this subject. See Vitringa and Bishop Newton.


Verse 10

Isaiah 21:10. O my threshing, &c.— These words, which form the conclusion of the prophesy, contain an address of the prophet to the church, signifying that he had faithfully related to them what God had revealed to him. The church is elegantly called the threshing-floor, where the true wheat is separated from the chaff. See chap. Isaiah 28:27. Matthew 3:12 and Galatians 4:19.


Verse 11-12

Isaiah 21:11-12. The burden of Dumah The neighbouring nations insulting the people of God for the common calamities to which they were exposed together with them, though they boasted themselves to be the elect and favourite people of the Lord, the prophet introduces the Idumaeans, in the time of common calamity, inquiring of a Jewish prophet into the quality and duration of that calamity; not quite irreligiously, but doubtfully. The prophet, by whom is meant Isaiah himself, informs them, that the calamity should soon pass from Judges, and that the light of the morning should arise to the Jews, while the Idumaeans should be oppressed with a new and unexpected affliction; so that what should be a time of light to the Jews, should be to them a time of darkness. The prophet, foreseeing that they would scarcely believe his words, admonishes them that the matter is fixed, as they would find the more accurately they inquired into it. The scene of the prophesy must be fixed to the time of the Babylonish captivity. The prophesy, besides the inscription, contains two parts; the first respects the person of the prophet, Isaiah 21:11. The second, the matter itself; namely, the inquiry of some person or persons among the Idumaeans concerning the state of their common calamity, and the answer of the prophet to their inquiry. Out of Seir, or mount Seir, means Idumaea. What of the night? means, "What have you certain to tell us of the state of the night? How far is it advanced? Do you observe nothing of the morning approaching, and about to drive away this troublesome darkness of the night?" that is to say, "What do you observe of our present distress and calamity? Is there any appearance of its departure, and of the approach of the morning of deliverance?" The prophet answers enigmatically, the morning cometh, that is to say; deliverance to the Jews; and the night,—to the Idumaeans; "To them I will give light; you I will leave in darkness." So St. Jerome and the Chaldee paraphrase. Some conceive that the last clause is an exhortation to the Idumaeans to consider their ways, to repent, and turn to God. Schultens renders the 12th verse, The watchman said, the morning is come, and now night; if ye will swell with rage, swell on; return, come.


Verse 13

Isaiah 21:13. The burden upon Arabia While God revealed to his prophet the fate of foreign nations, among others he declared that of those Arabians who inhabited the western part of Arabia Deserta or Petraea; that they should be oppressed and driven into flight by the Assyrians, a calamity which should fall upon them within a year. These Arabians bordered upon the Idumaeans. This prophesy, besides the inscription, contains first, an exordial denunciation of the divine judgment; Isaiah 21:13. Secondly, A figurative declaration thereof, Isaiah 21:14-15. Thirdly, a confirmation, with a discovery of the time when this judgment should be executed, and of the greatness thereof, to be collected from its consequences. The Arabians here mentioned were the Nabathaean Arabians, so called from Nebaioth, who is said to have been the first-born of Ishmael, Genesis 25:13. They are called the children of Kedar, who was the brother of Nebaioth; and also inhabitants of the land of Tema, who was another brother of Nebaioth; and also Dedanim; that is to say, the sons or descendants of Dedan, who was the son of Jokshan, the son of Abraham by Keturah. See Jeremiah 49:28. The time of the delivery, and that of the completion of this prophesy, it is evident, were closely connected; and Vitringa thinks that it was the same year with that mentioned, chap. Isaiah 20:1 when Salmanezer, after having possessed himself of the fortified cities of Palestine, and driven away the Egyptians and Ethiopians, or Cushites, the next year invaded the Nabathaean Arabs, who were of their party, that he might prepare his way for the invasion of Egypt. The meaning of the exordial proposition in this verse is, "O ye Dedanites, who used to follow your business securely in the desarts of Arabia Petraea, you will be compelled, through fear of the enemies' sword, to retire into the inner parts, the forests of Arabia, having left your tents and the furniture behind, and to pass your nights in inhospitable places. See Jeremiah 8:22. Diodorus Siculus says of the Arabians, that when they are attacked by any powerful enemy, they fly into the desart, εις την ερημον, as into a place of defence." The ερημος of Diodorus seems to be the same with the יער iangar of our prophet; that is to say, the interior recesses of the desart.


Verse 14-15

Isaiah 21:14-15. The inhabitants of the land of Tema Or, O ye inhabitants of the land of Tema, bring ye water to him that is thirsty; prevent, or meet the fugitive with bread, Isaiah 21:15. For they flee. We have here a figurative description of this judgment. The prophet beholds the Arabians seized with great fear; flying without their baggage, on account of the Assyrians, who are pursuing them with their drawn swords. He therefore commands the inhabitants of the land of Tema, their relations, to meet them, and relieve their hunger and thirst; under which figure the prophet elegantly sets forth the miserable state of the Nabathaean Arabs, pursued by the Assyrians. The passage elegantly refers to the dry and burning nature of the desarts of Arabia. See Arrian's Hist. Ind. cap. 43: Hosea 13:5 and Vitringa.


Verse 16-17

Isaiah 21:16-17. For thus hath the Lord said, &c.— Hitherto the prophet had spoken figuratively: he now ceases to do so. This period contains, first, the circumstance of the time connected with the execution of this judgment, and the greatness of the judgment itself. Nothing can be more clear than the former: With respect to the latter, the meaning is, that the Arabians should suffer a grievous slaughter, in which the greater part of their heroes and principal men should fall; while they, deprived of their flocks, tents, furniture, and wealth, should be obliged to save themselves by flight into the interior parts of the desart. The deficiency of history, sacred and prophane, renders the completion of this prophesy more difficult to be ascertained. See Vitringa; who renders the former part of the 17th verse, And the remaining number of bows of the mighty men of Kedar.

REFLECTIONS.—1st, As Babylon was appointed for a house of bondage to God's people, her destruction is repeatedly foretold, to comfort them in their low estate; and that, when captives there, they may confidently expect to see her ruin, and their deliverance. This prophesy is intitled, The burden of the desart, or plain, of the sea, as lying in a flat country, surrounded with rivers and lakes; and a burden, because of the heavy doom denounced.

1. The invasion of the Medes is described, swift and resistless as the whirlwind from the south, sweeping all before it. From the desert it, or he, cometh; Cyrus marching his troops through a desert in his way to Babylon, from a terrible land, such as Media was, producing fierce warriors, terrible to their enemies. A grievous vision is declared unto me, full of wrath against the Chaldeans. The treacherous dealer dealeth treacherously; and the spoiler spoileth—Belshazzar, whose wickedness and oppression of God's people brought destruction upon him. Or, as some render the words, the treacherous dealer hath found a treacherous dealer, and the spoiler one that spoileth; the Babylonians being repaid in kind by the Persians for their former ravages in Judaea. Go up, O Elam; besiege, O Media: all the sighing thereof have I made to cease; either that of the Medes and Persians, fatigued with the length of their march, and the labour of draining the river, in order to open a way into the city; or the sighing of the captive Jews and others in Babylon, who, when the city was taken, regained their liberty.

2. The distress of the king of Babylon is set forth under the image of a travailing woman. Amid the revels of that fatal night, when, rioting with his princes, the sacred vessels of the sanctuary were profaned, the hand-writing on the wall struck with sudden pangs the impious king, and spoke his approaching doom, which is scarcely sooner pronounced than executed, the city that very night being taken, and Belshazzar slain. Note; Though the midnight revels of pleasure, and the board of drunkenness, may not be interrupted by such a miraculous hand-writing on the wall, and sinners, joyous and thoughtless, to dance and song devote the day, did they but see what is written in God's book, how quickly would their mirth, like Belshazzar's, be turned into mourning, and their joy into heaviness?

3. The entertainment is made ready at command, and while they sit around the festal board, the watch is set to prevent surprise, and in security they carouse. Note; The security of sinners hastens their ruin.

4. In that critical moment the besiegers are preparing for the assault. The princes arise, the shields are ready, and sudden destruction approaches.

5. The prophet is appointed of God, as a watchman posted on the walls, to declare what he sees. On looking he beholds a chariot with two horsemen, perhaps alluding to Cyrus and Darius, and a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels, representing the two nations of Medes and Persians, and, on hearkening diligently, he perceived the sound of the army rushing on the city, and he cried, a lion; Cyrus, for strength and courage compared to that king of beasts, hasting to seize the prey of Babylon. Thus with unwearied vigilance, day and night, the prophet discharged his trust; and now perceiving the chariot and horsemen above described, the Persian and Median army under their generals, entering the city, he cries, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.

In the state and ruin of this proud city we have a figure of Babylon mystical, which shall thus be surprised and destroyed; and many of the expressions in the Revelations are borrowed from this description, Revelation 17:1-14; Revelation 18:2; Revelation 18:7-8; Revelation 14:8.

6. The prophet addresses the people of God, assuring them of the certainty of the events that he foretold. He calls them, My threshing, either as being smitten with God's word, or afflicted by his providences; and the corn of my floor, as dear and valuable to him, and carefully preserved, as the choicest wheat, when the chaff is winnowed away. Note; (1.) God's dearest children have frequently the sharpest trials; but it is only to purify and cleanse them. (2.) The church is God's floor, where the faithful, his corn, are collected; whilst all false professors and careless sinners are the chaff, which will be burnt with unquenchable fire. (3.) What ministers receive from God they must carefully and diligently deliver, keeping back from the people nothing of the whole counsel of God.

2nd, We have,

1. The burden of Dumah, which some suppose a part of Arabia, see Genesis 25:14 but more generally, and, I believe, justly, it is interpreted Idumaea. See the Notes. What temporal judgment it referred to is uncertain; probably they suffered with their neighbours from the Assyrian army.

2. A question put by one of mount Seir, Watchman, what of the night? watchman, what of the night? what hour, how much remains; or what from the night? what tidings? what danger? The question is repeated, as from a person eager to be resolved; or from several coming quickly after each other; so great is their anxiety, that a second calls before the watchman can answer the first. Note; (1.) Every minister is a watchman; he is to spread the alarm, and the people are to inquire at his mouth. (2.) It is a mercy when a sense of danger drives us to a solicitous inquiry how to escape. (3.) Every soul is by nature in darkness, till Christ, the Sun of righteousness, arises with healing in his wings.

3. The watchman said, The morning cometh: some respite from the calamity. Or, if we suppose the question put by a proselyte Idumaean, waiting for the consolation of Israel under the darkness of the Mosaic dispensation, the answer is, that the morning cometh, when Christ, the day-star, should arise, and light and joy be diffused by his gospel. But he adds, and also the night; their ruin by the army of the Assyrians. Or, taken more generally, it may imply a state of persecution succeeding the first propagation of the gospel; or a state of darkness in the church, when the prevalence of Mahometanism and Popery should almost utterly extinguish the light of truth. If ye will inquire, inquire ye diligently and earnestly, by prayer, meditation, reading God's word, and consulting his ministers, in order to return and come to him; either to God, by repentance, under the affliction; or to the watchman, for constant information and advice. Note; (1.) In the day of prosperity we must not forget to prepare for the night of adversity. (2.) If the morning of our life be lost in vanity, the night of age and death will surprise us unprepared for eternity. (3.) The soul that is inquiring after Christ, is already near to the dawning of the day. (4.) The gospel preaches free grace to all; whosoever will, let him come, and welcome, to Jesus Christ. (5.) Since our time is so short, it should quicken our diligence to improve it: we have no moment to spare.

3rdly, Arabia lying in the way of the Assyrian army, it is probable that their detachments ravaged the country, or subdued it, as they advanced towards Judaea.

1. The miserable case of the travelling companies of Dedanim is set forth (they were descendants of Abraham by Keturah). See the Notes. Terrified by the sword of the Assyrians, they fled to the forests to save themselves from the grievousness of war. They are called travelling companies, because their traffic was carried on by large caravans; or, alluding to their wandering life, in tents and with herds, without any settled abode. In their distress their friendly neighbours supplied them, fainting and famished, with bread and water; or, as the margin of our English Bibles reads it, they are commanded to do so, such kind compassion being ever due to the afflicted.

2. Kedar shares the same fate: all their glory, their riches, their flocks and herds plundered; and their mighty warriors, who stood to defend their country, diminished by the sword of the Assyrians, and few men left. So poor and uncertain a thing is this world's glory, so easily tarnished; and our abundance often proving our ruin, and exposing us to dangers that we otherwise might have escaped.

3. The time is fixed for their ruin: within a year, according to the years of an hireling, who precisely marks the day when his contract expires. And since Israel's God affirms it as sure, his people are warned not to rely on the Arabians as friends, or to fear them as foes.

 


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Bibliography Information
Coke, Thomas. "Commentary on Isaiah 21:4". Thomas Coke Commentary on the Holy Bible. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/tcc/isaiah-21.html. 1801-1803.

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Sunday, September 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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