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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Isaiah 21

 

 

Verses 1-10

The Burden of the Wilderness of the Sea (Isaiah 21:1-10).

The interpretations of this prophecy have been varied although all finally must relate it to one of the sackings of Babylon (Isaiah 21:9) of which there were a number. The area around the Persian Gulf in southern Babylonia was called in ancient times ‘mat tamtim’ (‘the land of the sea’, in Akkadian). Perhaps there is then a prophetic recognition here in the term ‘wilderness of the sea’ that it was to be turned into a wilderness. As burdens are always concerning those who will suffer under the prophecy this is a very good possibility.

Or it may be that Isaiah was drawn into the wilderness around the Dead Sea in order to receive the message both verbally and in terms of the surrounding conditions that he found himself in, in that dry, arid desert land. As the whirlwinds swept through the land perhaps he saw them as coming from the direction of Babylon.

Either way the message is stark. Wilderness conditions are involved, as a judgment from God, on Babylon and on all who support her and look to her for support. The message is similar to previously. Neither Babylon nor her allies can be relied on. Great Babylon is doomed.

The Initial News Comes Through, Babylon is Besieged By Its Erstwhile Allies (Isaiah 21:1-5).

Analysis.

a The burden of the wilderness of the sea. As whirlwinds in the south sweep through, it comes from the wilderness, from a terrible land (Isaiah 21:1).

b A grievous vision is declared to me. The treacherous dealer deals treacherously, and the spoiler spoils. “Go up, O Elam, besiege, O Media. I have made all its groaning cease” (Isaiah 21:2).

c Therefore my loins are filled with anguish, pangs have taken hold of me like the pangs of a woman in intensive labour (Isaiah 21:3 a).

c I am pained so that I cannot hear. I am dismayed so that I cannot see (Isaiah 21:3 b).

b My heart pants. Horror has affrighted me. The twilight that I desired has been turned into trembling for me (Isaiah 21:4).

a They prepare the table, they set the watch, they eat, they drink. Rise up, you princes, anoint the shield. (Isaiah 21:5).

In ‘a’ the whirlwinds sweep in from the terrible land (bringing in a terrible vision) and in the parallel this causes the leaders of Judah to prepare a table, set a watch and eat and drink as they confer together, followed by an exhortation to prepare for battle. In ‘b’ a grievous vision is declared to the prophet. Elam and Media may attack and besiege Assyria, but it is too late, Yahweh has made all the groanings of Babylon, their ally cease. Babylon is defeated. That is why in the parallel his heart pants, horror affrights him and the end that he had looked for has turned into one of trembling. In ‘c’ he is filled with anguish and distress, and in the parallel he is so pained and dismayed that he cannot accept what he hears and sees.

Isaiah 21:1-2

‘The burden of the wilderness of the sea. As whirlwinds in the south sweep through, it comes from the wilderness, from a terrible land. A grievous vision is declared to me. The treacherous dealer deals treacherously, and the spoiler spoils.’

As Isaiah possibly stood in the dry, arid conditions of the wilderness around the Dead Sea area in the south of Judah, or in the Negeb (which ‘the south’ regularly means. Compare Genesis 12:9), he was aware of the whirlwinds that swirled around him, and became aware that those treacherous winds were bringing him a message of treachery from another wilderness, the wilderness of a terrible land. ‘Terrible land’ was a name well suited to Babylon (see Isaiah 13:11), although not only limited to them. All who could be a major threat to Judah were ‘terrible’ lands. If the Wilderness of the Sea was ‘the land of the sea’ in southern Babylonia it was the homeland of Merodach Baladan, king of Babylon, at that time a rebel against Assyria, who had asserted and obtained the independence of Babylon.

But Isaiah foresaw that that land would become a wilderness, as the Assyrians swept through it pillaging and destroying, a firm lesson to one they saw as a traitor. He found the picture a grievous one. And he foresaw that there would be treachery involved, and also ravaging and spoiling of the land. Possibly the treachery was something to do with Sennacherib himself, who was known to deal treacherously and renege on treaties (see Isaiah 33:1). Who more likely to be described as the treacherous spoiler? Or possibly the treachery related to the allies of Babylon who are mentioned next, whose dealings may not have been of the most honourable. A defeated army regularly changed sides in order to save itself. The indefiniteness of it may depict a general state of treachery and spoiling among mankind. None can be fully trusted. This is, of course, in contrast with Yahweh Who can be full trusted.

Isaiah 21:2

‘Go up, O Elam, besiege, O Media. I have made all its groaning cease.’

At the time Elam and Media came in as allies of Merodach Baladan and Babylon. Here they are depicted as being called on to enter the fray on her behalf, attacking the Assyrians on another quarter. It is to be noted that Elam ceased to be a positive threat around 639 BC so that this must apply before then while they were still a force to be reckoned with.

It may be that the exhortations are prior to what follows, (Babylon’s vain efforts ceasing), or it may be an indication to Elam and Media that their efforts will be pointless. ‘Carry on, but you are wasting your time’. If ‘I have made all its groanings cease’ refers to the total destruction of Babylon that resulted from Sennacherib’s victory, then the indication is that either way their action was too late. (Once again allies have failed). Sennacherib was merciless. He had had enough of Babylon. He thoroughly destroyed it and carried off its main idols.

Isaiah 21:3-4

‘Therefore my loins are filled with anguish,

Pangs have taken hold of me like the pangs of a woman in intensive labour.

I am pained so that I cannot hear.

I am dismayed so that I cannot see.

My heart pants. Horror has affrighted me.

The twilight that I desired has been turned into trembling for me.’

This is the day of Yahweh for Babylon. As in Isaiah 13:8 her fate arouses anguish and pain like that of a woman in intensive labour, but this time the pain is Isaiah’s. It has affected his hearing and his sight, as well as his heart (or it may mean that he refuses to hear and see). The thought of what will now be done to Babylon, and what it may mean for Judah, leaves him in a state of horror. It was true that he had desired the end of Babylon, its twilight, but not like this. The thought can only leave him trembling. This was no hard hearted prophet of doom. He had to declare his message of judgment, but his tender nature was wracked with concern.

Isaiah 21:5

‘They prepare the table, they set the watch, they eat, they drink. Rise up, you princes, anoint the shield.’

This is possibly a picture of the princes of Judah in discussions with the Babylonian ambassadors, or even just conferring between themselves on the situation, having no idea what is about to happen to Babylon. Calmly they prepare the table, they station sentries, they eat and drink, unaware of the catastrophe that is about to occur. They are waiting for news. And the prophet is moved to cry to the princes in conference that they must anoint their shields and prepare to defend themselves.

Or it may be an emergency conference as the winds sweep in ‘from the wilderness’ with bleak news. Thus they are preparing for whatever news comes through, and at the same time advise each other meanwhile to be ready for battle.

The Final News Comes Through, “Babylon is Fallen, Is Fallen!”

The expected news arrives. Babylon is fallen, is fallen. The repetition stresses both the shock and the certainty.

Analysis.

a For thus has the Lord said to me, “Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he sees (Isaiah 21:6).

b And when he sees a troop, horsemen in pairs, a troop of asses, a troop of camels, he will listen carefully, taking careful note” (Isaiah 21:7).

c And he cried as a lion, “O Lord, I stand continually on the watchtower in the daytime” (Isaiah 21:8 a).

c “And am set in my post whole nights” (Isaiah 21:8 b).

b “And see, here come a troop of men, horsemen in pairs.” And he answered and said, “Babylon is fallen, is fallen, and all the graven images of her gods are broken into the ground” (Isaiah 21:9).

a Oh you who are my threshing, and the corn of my floor, what I have heard from Yahweh of hosts, the God of Israel, I have declared to you (Isaiah 21:10).

In ‘a’ the Lord has told the prophet to set a watchman who is to declare what he sees, and in the parallel says that he has declared to them what he has heard from Yahweh. In ‘b’ he sees a troop, horsemen in pairs, and listens carefully and takes note, and in the parallel a troop, horsemen in pairs, arrive and the reply comes that Babylon is fallen, and all her gods are broken and cast on the ground. In ‘c’ and its parallel the watchman declares that he watches, by day and night.

Isaiah 21:6-7

For thus has the Lord said to me,

“Go, set a watchman,

Let him declare what he sees.

And when he sees a troop,

Horsemen in pairs,

A troop of asses,

A troop of camels,

He will listen carefully,

Taking a great deal of notice.” ’

Yahweh has given Isaiah warning in advance by commanding him to set up a watchman. And he thus knows the tenseness of the position. He knows that bad news is to be expected. He has been told to set a watchman who will honestly declare what he sees, to keep an eye on the road for the bad news that is coming. And when he sees an important embassage arriving the watchman must take careful note of its significance. For its news will be worthy of consideration. The horsemen in pairs, travelling speedily as messengers, have a spare horse so that when their first horse is tired they can transfer to the other.

Shields had to be oiled to keep them in fighting condition. The shields would be made of leather, or of wood covered with leather, and would have leather straps. They had to be kept in trim.

Isaiah 21:8-9

‘And he cried as a lion,

“O Lord, I stand continually on the watchtower in the daytime,

And am set in my post whole nights.

And see, here come a troop of men.

Horsemen in pairs.” ’

Isaiah has taken no chances. He has made himself the watchman. With the heart of a lion he watches, continually day and night, and at last he sees what he is looking for, what Yahweh had warned him of, a troop of men and horsemen in pairs. And he cries out to the sovereign Lord, to Yahweh of what he has seen.

The horsemen in pairs have been variously explained but we are surely to see them in context as representing urgent messengers who bring a spare horse so that they can speed on their journey.

Isaiah 21:9

‘And he answered and said,

“Babylon is fallen, is fallen,

And all the graven images of her gods,

Are broken into the ground.”

Yahweh explains to Isaiah the vision. The horsemen bring news, horrific news. Babylon is truly fallen and her gods with her. The repetition of ‘is fallen’ stresses the greatness and certainty of the disaster. The king who had boasted of his ascent to the gods is on his way to the pit (Isaiah 14:12-19). He will flee the country and die in a foreign land. Thus will Yahweh’s words be fulfilled, and thus will Judah become aware of the folly of trusting in men. The vision of chapters 13-14 has come to partial fulfilment.

Isaiah 21:10

‘Oh you who are my threshing, and the corn of my floor, what I have heard from Yahweh of hosts, the God of Israel, I have declared to you.’

Finally Isaiah brings home the message to Israel. He knows that his words are acting on them like a threshing instrument, that Israel are like grain being threshed, they are like corn on Isaiah’s threshingfloor. But he wants them to know that what he has so declared, is what Yahweh of hosts would say to them. God is still speaking to them and waiting for them to respond. For Yahweh is still the God of Israel.


Verses 1-17

Chapter 21 The Burdens on The Wilderness of the Sea, on Dumah and on Arabia.

We now come to the second five of the ten burdens. And here we pause to note the careful way in which the prophecy has been put together. Like the first of the ten this sixth burden refers to Babylon. But while the first referred to a triumphant Babylon, then humiliated, this time it is a Babylon defeated from the beginning. The third burden spoke of Moab and its search for refuge from Assyria, and ended with the time reference ‘three years as the years of a hireling’ (Isaiah 16:14). The eighth burden speaks of Arabia and a search for refuge from Assyria, and ends similarly, ‘within a year according to the year of a hireling’ (Isaiah 21:16). In both cases the fewness of those who will be left is emphasised. The fourth burden, although addressed to Syria, majored on Israel, the people of God, their destruction and their final hope. The ninth burden, addressed to the valley of vision, majors on Judah, the people of God, although the concentration is on its destruction. However, hope is always there if they repent. And finally the fifth burden deals with Egypt, the ancient and important country to the south with its great claims about itself, which alone had been the one who sought supremacy over that part of the world until the great threat had come from the north. And this burden will result finally in deliverance. And the tenth burden deals with Tyre, the great and important country to the north which had from time immemorial ruled the seas, with its similar great claims, and this burden also ends in deliverance. There is clearly some form of pattern here.


Verse 11-12

The Burden of Dumah (Edom) - (Isaiah 21:11-12).

In her fear at the news of the downfall of Babylon Edom cries to the only one who seems to be able to proclaim the future reliably, Isaiah, the prophet of Judah, and his reply is that if she would enquire of Yahweh, she must first turn from her old ways and come to Him.

Analysis.

a The Burden of Dumah. One calls to me out of Seir (Isaiah 21:11 a)

b “Watchman, what of the night? Watchman what of the night?” (Isaiah 21:11 b).

b The watchman said, “The morning comes and also the night” (Isaiah 21:12 a).

a “If you will enquire, enquire. Turn, come” (Isaiah 21:12 b).

In ‘a’ the cry comes to him from Edom for his help, and in the parallel if they would enquire, they must first turn and then come. In ‘b’ he is asked as Yahweh’s watchman what the night will bring, and in the parallel he warns that morning comes and the comes the night.

Isaiah 21:11-12

‘The Burden of Dumah. One calls to me out of Seir, “Watchman, what of the night? Watchman what of the night?”. The watchman said, “The morning comes and also the night. If you will enquire, enquire. Turn, come.”

That Dumah here represents a section of Edom (note the similar consonants d-m. There is a play on words) comes out in the mention of Seir. The word dumah means ‘silence’. The idea seems to be that Edom is waiting in silence for what is coming, as she cowers in her stronghold Seir (see Genesis 32:3; Genesis 36:20-21; Genesis 36:30; Numbers 24:18). Here is not a nation to depend on but one that is fearful and waiting with nothing to offer but questions and doubts.

In her fear she calls on Yahweh’s watchman (compare Isaiah 21:6; Isaiah 21:8), the only one whom she thinks can offer enlightenment in the circumstances. She recognises that he alone can prophesy the truth and wants to know what the gathering darkness will bring. This call may have been by a special messenger sent to Jerusalem. Isaiah’s fame as a prophet was clearly spreading. So with the twilight of judgment that Isaiah 21:4 has in mind she asks Yahweh’s watchman what the night is going to bring. The doom of Babylon threatens all her erstwhile allies. So what is going to happen to them all, and especially to her? She is basically admitting that her own gods can tell her nothing, and that is why she seeks to Yahweh.

Isaiah’s reply is that morning comes, but then further night. They are right to be concerned about the night. He knew what it meant to watch both morning and night (Isaiah 21:8). So let Edom also watch and wait. But she had enquired of Yahweh through His servant. Well, if she really wanted to know Yahweh’s way, if she would find safety, if she would prosper in the future, if she would find confidence and trust, let her turn from her ways and her gods and let her come to Yahweh (‘Turn, come.’) For if she desires to enquire of Yahweh, that is what is required. It is an offer for her to join the people of God. But we discover later that she refuses it, resulting finally in terminal judgment (34; Isaiah 63:1-6). ‘And also the night’ turns out to be final.


Verses 13-17

The Burden Upon Arabia (Isaiah 21:13-17).

Arabia is not offered such hope. She is rightly apprehensive, and her troops, which had been involved in the alliance, have returned as fugitives. And she has no future. Within one year disaster will come on them. So much for the alliance in which their hopes had been placed.

Analysis.

· The burden upon Arabia. You will lodge in the forest in Arabia, O you travelling companions of Dedanites (Isaiah 21:13).

· To him who was thirsty, they brought water. The inhabitants of the land of Temah met the fugitives with their bread (Isaiah 21:14).

· For they fled from the sword, from the drawn sword, and from the bent bow, and from the grievousness of war (Isaiah 21:15).

· For thus has the Lord said to me, “Within a year, according to the years of a hired servant, and all the glory of Kedar will fail. And the residue of the numbers of the archers, the mighty men of the children of Kedar, will be few.” For the mouth of Yahweh, the God of Israel has spoken it (Isaiah 21:16-17).

In ‘a’ he addresses those who were usually caravanners, travelling the trade routes, and warns them that because of what has happened they will have to take refuge in the forest of Arabia, and in the parallel points out that it will be hopeless, for within a year their glory will fail and their numbers will be few, because Yahweh has declared it In ‘b’ the people of Temah bring the fugitives water and bread, and in the parallel it is because they are fugitives from the sword, and from grievous war.

Isaiah 21:13-15

‘The burden upon Arabia. You will lodge in the forest in Arabia, O you travelling companions of Dedanites. To him who was thirsty, they brought water. The inhabitants of the land of Temah met the fugitives with their bread. For they fled from the sword, from the drawn sword, and from the bent bow, and from the grievousness of war.’

Arabia (or ‘the Arabs’) had been involved in the fighting, and now they fled for their lives. Those who were normally travelling companions (‘caravans’) of Dedanites, fearlessly making their way along the main highways, now hid, ate and slept in the denseness of the thickets in the remote desert scrubland. They dare not come near the regular oases. Sympathisers brought them water, those from the land of Temah brought them bread, for they were without provisions and in hiding and totally dependent on the generosity of others. It was so different from the proud dream that had earlier been theirs. Their fate was a warning to all. You cannot trust in alliances with Babylon or with the world.

The Dedanites were a north Arabian tribe from near Edom (see Jeremiah 49:8; Ezekiel 25:13). Temah was an oasis city in the desert on the main trade route through Arabia.

They were there because they had fled from the drawn sword, the sword drawn ready for battle, and from the bent bow with its arrow fixed ready for the kill, pursued by enemies who were determined on slaughter. But above all they had fled from the grievousness of war. Note the threefold pattern once again, the drawn sword, the bent bow and the grievousness of war indicating the complete nature of their predicament.

Isaiah 21:16-17

‘For thus has the Lord said to me, “Within a year, according to the years of a hired servant, and all the glory of Kedar will fail. And the residue of the numbers of the archers, the mighty men of the children of Kedar, will be few. For the mouth of Yahweh, the God of Israel has spoken it.’

But punishment would follow exactly within a year and would fall especially on Kedar, a powerful north Arabian tribe (Isaiah 42:11; Isaiah 60:7). It would lose its main resources. Its archers and its fighting men would be decimated until they were few in number. The alliance had failed them. And all this would be at the word of Yahweh, the God of Israel.

We know that Kedar were paying tribute to Assyria in 738 BC and that in 715 BC Sargon II was campaigning against the tribes near Temah and that in around 703 BC Arabs supported the rebellion of Merodach Baladan and were finally subdued by Sennacherib. Thus they were continually involved with Assyria and in alliances against them, to their cost. Now their reward will come on their own heads.

‘Within a year, according to the years of a hired servant.’ Compare Isaiah 16:14. Within exactly a year, calculated in accordance with the method used for determining the services of hired servants, it would happen (possibly a 365 day year rather than a twelve moon period year). Their refuge would not save them.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Isaiah 21:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/isaiah-21.html. 2013.

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