Isaiah 21: Babylon has Fallen
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Where we are:
Part 1: Judgment
Part 2: Historical Interlude
Part 3: Salvation
When this takes place:
Isaiah speaks these oracles against Babylon, Dumah (Edom) and Arabia during the reign of Hezekiah, who hopes that a Babylonian uprising will break the grip of the Assyrians. Unfortunately for Judah, the rebellion fails.
Isa. 21:4 – My heart staggers; horror terrifies me. He has turned my last glimmer of hope into sheer terror.
Lawrence O. Richards writes, “Isaiah continues his predictions of judgments destined to soon strike contemporary nations. The prophet foresees the fall of pagan Babylon, not due to emerge as a dominant world power for yet another 100 years (21:1-10). He also prophesies briefly against Edom and Arabia, who will try futilely to resist Assyria’s power (vv. 11-17)” (The Bible Readers Companion, electronic ed., S. 422).
Many commentators assume that this oracle predicts the fall of Babylon to the Medo-Persian Empire in 539 B.C. That future event will produce joy among the Jews because it will result in the end of their captivity. So why does Isaiah liken the fall of Babylon to a time of terror for the Jews? Because Isaiah’s focus is on the more immediate future. In 722 B.C., a Chaldean prince named Marduk-apal-iddina revolts against Assyria, captures Babylon and becomes its king. Hezekiah and his people are hopeful that this rebellion will break the stranglehold of the Assyrians in that part of the world. But by 705 B.C. Marduk-apal-iddina and his ally Elam will be defeated, and by 698 B.C. the area around the Persian Gulf will be destroyed. The Jews’ hopes will be dashed.
A Judgment on Babylon (Isa. 21:1-10)
Rather than introduce a well-known country like Egypt or Moab, this oracle is against the “desert by the sea” (v. 1), a reference to southern Babylon, known for its swampy marshes between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers and the home of Marduk-apal-iddina (also known as Marodach-baladan). The invading army is depicted as a destructive desert storm, likely a reference to the Assyrian attack on Babylon around 689 B.C. Babylon’s neighbors, Media and Elam, are urged to attack the Assyrian forces to divert their attention from Babylon. The phrase, “I will put an end to all her groaning” (v. 2) possibly refers to the common people of Babylon who will finally experience rest from the attacks and counterattacks taking place in their country.
The strong emotional response in verses 3-4 likely is Isaiah’s gut-wrenching realization that Judah’s ally would meet a violent end, leaving Judah to defend herself against the Assyrians. Gary V. Smith writes, “He seems to be describing physical signs of cramps that brought him to his knees and a psychological astonishment that knocked the wind out of him. His heart stopped briefly and a horrendous thought brought great fear over him. He was hoping to enjoy a good night’s rest, but now God has turned this vision into a nightmare” (The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, p. 372).
In verses 6-10 we are given the prophetic report of a watchman, sent by Isaiah at God’s command, to be on the lookout for any signs of battle between Babylon and Assyria. Day and night the watchman peers faithfully at the horizon and questions passers by. Finally the news arrives: “Babylon has fallen, has fallen. All the idols of her gods have been shattered on the ground” (v. 9). If the people of Judah trust in an alliance between King Hezekiah and Babylon’s Marduk-apal-iddina, hoping a Babylonian revolt will break Assyria’s domination over the region, they will be sorely disappointed. The words of the watchman bring Isaiah and the people to their knees. Isaiah reiterates that his message is from God (v. 10). He is only telling them what the Lord Almighty has revealed. The man from the “desert by the sea,” Marduk-apal-iddina, will fail. Judah must trust God, not the Babylonians, to save them.
An Oracle Against Dumah (Isa. 21:11-12)
This is a mysterious oracle. The name Dumah was given to one of Ishmael’s sons (Gen. 25:13-15), as were the names Kedar and Tema (mentioned in Isa. 21:13-16), so the name most likely as associated with an oasis in the northern part of the Arabian desert, northeast of Edom. This site is on the trade route from Mesopotamia to Edom, and traders passing through would bring news about what is happening in Babylon. Since little information is provided, it’s hard to determine when this oracle is given. Likely it is prior to 700 B.C. during the reign of Sargon or Sennacherib (which fits vv. 1-10), or a much later date when the Babylonian king Nabonidus conquers various tribes in the Arabian Desert (500-540 B.C.).
In any case, the message is clear. The people along the trade route closer to Assyria and Babylon want to know, “Watchman, what is left of the night?” When will all the bloodshed and oppression be over? The watchman, perhaps Isaiah himself, replies that morning is coming, but so is another evening. In other words, there will be a brief respite from warfare, and then more troubling times. Finally, the watchman tells the inquirer to ask again later, implying that more information has yet to be revealed.
It’s difficult to grasp the meaning of this oracle to Judah, especially since neither Judah nor God is mentioned. Gary V. Smith offers good insight: “If this prophecy came during the time when the Assyrian kings were oppressing Judah and Babylon (21:9-10), this news would give the people of Judah a general assurance that better days are ahead, but also warn them that these good times would be followed by more dark days. It is possible that Isaiah’s audience might conclude from these words that they must not expect that their alliance with Babylon will quickly solve all their problems with Assyria. The previous oracle tells why: Babylon will fall” (The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39, p. 377).
An Oracle Against Arabia (Isa. 21:13-17)
This oracle foretells the difficult times the people of Arabia would soon experience at the hands of the Assyrians. The Dedanites (v. 13) are from a tribe in southern Arabia. Tema (v. 14) is a well-known oasis in northwestern Arabia, and Kedar (v. 16) is in northern Arabia. Kedar is known for its distinctive black tents (Ps. 120:5; Song of Sol. 1:5; Jer. 49:28-29), but within one year the warriors of Kedar will experience a crushing defeat. The Arabians will become fugitives, running for their lives. In 715 B.C. Sargon writes that he has defeated a number of Arabian tribes and deported them to Samaria.
“The special significance of this oracle lies in its warning to the freest and most inaccessible of tribes that Assyria’s long arm will reach even them, at God’s command,” writes D.A. Carson. “Those of the far south, Tema and Dedan, will have to succour their more exposed brother-tribe of Kedar” (New Bible Commentary : 21st Century Edition, S. Is 21:13).
This chapter informs the people of Judah that the entire Middle East, even the remote desert lands, will be in turmoil under the expansive political and military ambitions of the Assyrians. It’s a reminder to all God’s people that the Lord is sovereign over every nation and tribe, even those refusing to acknowledge Him, and that He directs human history toward its inevitable climax when Messiah comes in power and glory and rules the earth from David’s throne.
Rather than trusting in chariots and horses (Ps. 20:7), or in national alliances, we would do well to trust in God.
Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips