Isaiah 13: Babylon’s Time is Almost Up

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Prologue

Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment

Part 2: Historical Interlude

Part 3: Salvation

Chapters 1-35

Chapters 36-39

Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

Chapter 13 likely takes place at the beginning of Hezekiah’s reign.

Key verse:

Isa. 13:13:  Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, and the earth will shake from its foundations at the wrath of the Lord of Hosts, on the day of His burning anger.

Quick summary:

The Lord, who uses Babylon as an instrument of judgment against Judah, will punish the Babylonians for their wickedness. The instrument of God’s wrath will become the object of it.

Take note:

Isaiah’s warning about the brutality of the Medes raises questions about God’s justice. If God is using the Medes to punish the Babylonian leaders and their army, why does Isaiah warn that the “children will be smashed [to death] … and their wives raped” (v. 16)? We will address this issue in the notes that follow.

Prophecies about Babylon (Isa. 13:1-5)

Isaiah plunges headlong into a description of battle complete with banners, cries, and hand signals. While the immediate context of chapter 13 concerns Babylon, Isaiah seems to foreshadow the day in which God will judge the whole earth (see vv. 6-16). Verse 3 illustrates God’s sovereignty. The Lord speaks of “My chosen ones” and “My warriors” who will “exult in My triumph” and “execute My wrath.” These soldiers are serving God and His purposes, whether they know it or not. As D.A. Carson points out, the reference to these warriors is non-moral and does not seek to describe believers (New Bible Commentary: 21st Century Edition, S. Is 13:1). The “army” of verse 4 is that of Medo-Persian troops under the command of Cyrus, who conquers Babylon in 539 B.C.

It is clear that the Lord of Hosts is in command. Matthew Henry writes:

He raises them, brings them together, puts them in order, reviews them, has an exact account of them in his muster-roll, sees that they be all in their respective posts, and gives them their necessary orders…. All the hosts of war are under the command of the Lord of hosts; and that which makes them truly formidable is that, when they come against Babylon, the Lord comes, and brings them with him as the weapons of his indignation, v. 5. Note, Great princes and armies are but tools in God’s hand, weapons that he is pleased to make use of in doing his work, and it is his wrath that arms them and gives them success (Matthew Henry’s Commentary on the Whole Bible : Complete and Unabridged in One Volume, S. Is 13:1).

Judgment on the Day of the Lord (Isa. 13:6-16)

In these 11 verses, Isaiah uses the term “the day of the Lord” twice and the phrase “the day of His burning anger” once. Surely, God will use the Medes to destroy the Babylonians. Yet there is a longer view in mind here – perhaps, as some commentators suggest, a foreshadowing of the tribulation that precedes Christ’s return. “Sometimes when a historical day of the Lord was being described, the writer included some references to future end-time judgment and blessing,” according to Robert B. Hughes and Carl J. Laney. “The events described in 13:10-13 go beyond the historical judgment on Babylon in 539 b.c. and suggest the end-time judgments of the Tribulation” (Tyndale Concise Bible Commentary, S. 262).

But why make Babylon the focus of current and future judgment? Perhaps because Babylon has long been a rallying point of activity against God, beginning with the tower of Babel (Gen. 11:1-9). Throughout the centuries, as various dynasties ruled that part of the world, it was viewed as a center of animosity toward God. Even in the tribulation, this will be so, although some consider the apostle John’s references to Babylon to be figurative rather than literal (see Rev. 17-18).

But now we come to a most thorny issue: If what is about to happen to Babylon is from the Lord, and if what is to come about at the time of Christ’s return is from the Lord, then how can a loving God act in a way that results in human horror, pain and agony (v. 8)? How can the Day of the Lord be described as “cruel, with rage and burning anger” (v. 9)? How can the children of the wicked be “smashed [to death]” and “their wives raped” (v. 16)?

There are several observations to be made:

  • Man is sinful. His heart is “more deceitful than anything else and desperately sick” (Jer. 17:9). All people are sinners (Rom. 3:23).
  • Sin has consequences. All human suffering may be traced to the Fall, including suffering as a result of natural disasters (Rom. 8:22). Even more, the “wages of sin is death,” wrote the apostle Paul (Rom. 6:23). Our rebellion against God leads to spiritual and physical death. In the case of Babylon, the wickedness of its rulers would lead to terrible acts of brutality against her women and children at the hands of the Medes and Persians.
  • God judges sin. Because He is holy, God does not even look upon sin (Hab. 1:13).
  • God’s judgment may be directed against individuals, families, nations and even the whole world.
  • God’s judgment takes on many forms. He may act directly, through angels, through human agents, through armies of wicked men, or even through nature itself. In Isaiah 13, God is going to use the Medes and Persians to judge the Babylonians for their arrogance and wicked acts against His people.
  • God gives ample time for repentance before He wields judgment. The Amorites had more than 400 years to repent before God destroyed them (Gen. 15:16).
  • God takes no pleasure in the death of evil people (Ez. 33:11).
  • God judged our sin in His own Son so that we can be forgiven by God’s grace (2 Cor. 5:21).
  • Those who reject God’s goodness and persist in evil bring judgment upon themselves.
  • The acts of brutality about to be visited upon the Babylonians are the full responsibility of the Medes and Persians, but God will use their sinfulness to bring judgment on the Babylonians.
  • God judges from an eternal perspective. All people will stand before Christ in final judgment one day (John 5:28-29). He will reward and punish based on His holiness and knowledge of all things, including the thoughts and intents of the heart. We have every reason to believe that the truly innocent – babies, for example – will be compensated in eternity for what was taken from them in time.

Gary V. Smith writes that the horrors about to befall Babylon – and later, the world – are best understood as “the immoral pit that sin will eventually lead this violent world to wallow in.” He adds: “The picture is more horrible than what anyone can imagine or describe. The earth will be in disarray as the dependable forces of nature will disintegrate and people will turn to a savage form of debased animal existence. Government, respect, civility, kindness, and hope will totally disappear. The vile evil of sin and its horrible consequences will be in full view, but God will finally eradicate it all from the face of the earth” (The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, p. 302).

Babylon Will Fall to the Medes (Isa. 13:17-22)

Isaiah now takes the principle that God will destroy proud sinners on “the day of the Lord” and applies it to the kingdom of Babylon in the near term. The reference to the Medes as God’s instrument of judgment is parallel to God’s use of Assyria to punish the northern kingdom (Isa. 10:5) and His sending Nebuchadnezzar to defeat Judah (Jer. 25:1, 9). In each case, God directs the course of history through His use of powerful armies.

The Medes are described as determined soldiers who cannot be bribed with gold or silver (v. 17). They will ferociously destroy their enemies with “no compassion on little ones” or “pity on children” (v. 18). Isaiah likens the destruction of Babylon to that of Sodom and Gomorrah, which were not rebuilt. Since prophets like Isaiah usually do not know the date of the fulfillment of their prophecies, it’s impossible to know with certainly whether God is speaking through him about Assyria’s defeat of Babylon in 689 B.C. or Babylon’s defeat at the hands of Cyrus, king of the Medes and Persians, in 539 B.C. It is true that following Assyria’s attack in 689 B.C., King Sennacherib tore down Babylon’s walls, flooded the area, depopulated the city, and turned the city into a meadow.

Closing Thought

J. Vernon McGee comments: “The future Babylon will become a great center on earth. The man of sin, the willful king, called the Antichrist, will reign in that place. It will be destroyed just as the ancient Babylon was destroyed. Babylon is a memorial to the fact of the accuracy of fulfilled prophecy and a testimony to the fact that God will also judge the future Babylon” (Isaiah: Vol. 1, p. 122).

 Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips

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