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Bible Commentaries

Expositor's Bible Commentary

Isaiah 47

 

 

Verses 1-15

CHAPTER XII

BABYLON

Isaiah 47:1-15

THROUGHOUT the extent of Bible history, from Genesis to Revelation, One City remains, which in fact and symbol is execrated as the enemy of God and the stronghold of evil. In Genesis we are called to see its foundation, as of the first city that wandering men established, and the quick ruin, which fell upon its impious builders. By the prophets we hear it cursed as the oppressor of God’s people, the temptress of the nations, full of cruelty and wantonness. And in the Book of Revelation its character and curse are transferred to Rome, and the New Babylon stands over against the New Jerusalem.

The tradition and infection, which have made the name of Babylon as abhorred in the Scripture as Satan’s own, are represented as the tradition and infection of pride, -the pride, which, in the audacity of youth, proposes to attempt to be equal with God: "Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may touch heaven, and let us make us a name"; the pride, which, amid the success and wealth of later years, forgets that there is a God at all: "Thou sayest in thine heart, I am, and there is none beside me." Babylon is the Atheist of the Old Testament, as she is the Antichrist of the New.

That a city should have been originally conceived by Israel as the archenemy of God is due to historical causes, as intelligible as those which led, in later days, to the reverse conception of a city as God’s stronghold, and the refuge of the weak and the wandering. God’s earliest people were shepherds, plain men dwelling in tents, -desert nomads, who were never tempted to rear permanent structures of their own except as altars and shrines, but marched and rested, waked and slept, between God’s bare earth and God’s high heaven; whose spirits were chastened and refined by the hunger and clear air of the desert, and who walked their wide world without jostling or stunting one another. With the dear habits of those early times, the truths of the Bible are therefore, even after Israel has settled in towns, spelt to the end in the images of shepherd life. The Lord is the Shepherd, and men are the sheep of His pasture. He is a Rock and a Strong Tower, such as rise here and there in the desert’s wildness for guidance or defence. He is rivers of water in a dry place, and the shadow of a great rock in a weary land. And man’s peace is to lie beside still waters, and his glory is, not to have built cities, but to have all these things put under his feet-sheep and oxen and the beasts of the field, the fowls of the air and the fish of the sea.

Over against that lowly shepherd life, the first cities rose, as we can imagine, high, terrible, and impious. They were the production of an alien race, a people with no true religion, as it must have appeared to the Semites, arrogant and coarse. But Babylon had a special curse. Babylon was not the earliest city, -Akkad and Erekh were famous long before, -but it is Babylon that the Book of Genesis represents as overthrown and scattered by the judgment of God. What a contrast this picture in Genesis, - and let it be remembered that the only other cities to which that book leads us are Sodom and Gomorrah, -what a contrast it forms to the passages in which classic poets celebrate the beginnings of their great cities. There, the favourable omens, the patronage of the gods, the prophecies of the glories of civil life; the tracing of the temple and the forum; visions of the city as the school of industry, the treasury of wealth, the home of freedom. Here, but a few rapid notes of scorn and doom: man’s miserable manufacture, without Divine impulse or omen; his attempt to rise to heaven upon that alone, his motive only to make a name for himself; and the result-not, as in Greek legend, the foundation of a polity, the rise of commerce, the growth of a great language, by which through the lips of one man the whole city may be swayed together to high purposes, but only scattering and confusion of speech. To history, a great city is a multitude of men within reach of one man’s voice. Athens is Demosthenes; Rome is Cicero persuading the Senate; Florence is Savonarola putting by his word one conscience within a thousand hearts. But Babylon, from the beginning, gave its name to Babel, confusion of speech, incapacity for union and for progress. And all this came, because the builders of the city, the men who set the temper of its civilisation, did not begin with God, but in their pride deemed everything possible to unaided and unblessed human ambition, and had only the desire to make a name upon earth.

The sin and the curse never left the generations, who in turn succeeded those impious builders. Pride and godlessness infested the city, and prepared it for doom, as soon as it again gathered strength to rise to heaven. The early nomads had watched Babylon’s fall from afar; but when their descendants were carried as captives within her in the time of her second glory, they found that the besetting sin, which had once reared its head so fatally high, infected the city to her very heart. We need not again go over the extent and glory of Nebuchadrezzar’s architecture, or the greatness of the traffic, from the Levant to India, which his policy had concentrated upon his own wharves and markets. It was stupendous. But neither walls nor wealth make a city, and no observant man, with the Hebrew’s faith and conscience, could have lived those fifty years in the centre of Babylon, and especially after Nebuchadrezzar had passed away, without perceiving that her life was destitute of every principle which ensured union or promised progress. Babylon was but a medley of peoples, without common traditions or a public conscience, and incapable of acting together. Many of her inhabitants had been brought to her, like the Jews, against their own will, and were ever turning from those glorious battlements they were forced to build in their disgust, to scan the horizon for the advent of a deliverer. And many others, who moved in freedom through her busy streets, and shared her riches and her joys, were also foreigners, and bound to her only so long as she ministered to their pleasure or their profit. Her king was a usurper, who had insulted her native gods; her priesthood was against him. And although his army, sheltered by the fortifications of Nebuchadrezzar, had repulsed Cyrus upon the Persian’s first invasion from the north, conspiracies were now so rife among his oppressed and insulted subjects, that, on Cyrus’ second invasion, Babylon opened her impregnable gates and suffered herself to be taken without a blow. Nor, even if the city’s religion had been better served by the king, could it in the long run have availed for her salvation. For, in spite of the science with which it was connected, -and this "wisdom of the Chaldeans" was contemptible in neither its methods nor its results, -the Babylonian religion was not one to inspire either the common people with those moral principles, which form the true stability of states, or their rulers with a reasonable and consistent policy. Babylon’s religion was broken up into a multitude of wearisome and distracting details, whose absurd solemnities, especially when administered by a priesthood hostile to the executive, must have hampered every adventure of war, and rendered futile many opportunities of victory. In fact, Babylon, for all her glory, could not but be short-lived. There was no moral reason why she should endure: The masses, who contributed to her building, were slaves who hated her; the crowds who fed her business, would stay with her only so long as she was profitable to themselves; her rulers and her priests had quarrelled; her religion was a burden, not an inspiration. Yet she sat proud, and felt herself secure.

It is just these features, which our prophet describes in chapter 47, in verses more notable for their moral insight and indignation, than for their beauty as a work of literature. He is certain of Babylon’s immediate fall from power and luxury into slavery and dishonour (Isaiah 47:1-3). He speaks of her cruelty to her captives (Isaiah 47:6), of her haughtiness and her secure pride (Isaiah 47:7-8). He touches twice upon her atheistic self-sufficiency, her "autotheism,"-"I am, and there is none beside me," words which only God can truly use, but words which man’s ignorant, proud self is ever ready to repeat (Isaiah 47:8-10). He speaks of the wearisomeness and futility of her religious magic (Isaiah 47:10-14). And he closes with a vivid touch, that dissolves the reality of that merely commercial grandeur on which she prides herself. Like every association that arises only from the pecuniary profit of its members, Babylon shall surely break up, and none of those, who sought her for their selfish ends, shall wait to help her one moment after she has ceased to be profitable to them.

Here now are his own words, rendered literally except in the case of one or two conjunctions and articles, -rendered, too, in the original order of the words, and, as far as it can be determined, in the rhythm of the original. The rhythm is largely uncertain, but some verses- Isaiah 47:1, Isaiah 47:5, Isaiah 47:14, Isaiah 47:15 -are complete in that measure which we found in the Taunt-song against the king of Babylon in chapter 13, and nearly every line or clause has the same metrical swing upon it.

Down! and sit in the dust, O virgin, Daughter of Babel!

Sit on the ground, with no throne, Daughter of Khasim!

For not again shall they call thee

Tender and Dainty.

Take to thee millstones, and grind out the meal,

Put back thy veil, strip off the garment,

Make bare the leg, wade through the rivers;

Bare be thy nakedness, yea, be beholden thy shame

I Vengeance I take, and strike treaty with none.

Our Redeemer!

Jehovah of Hosts is His Name,

Holy of Israel!

Sit thou dumb, and get into darkness,

Daughter of Khasdim!

For not again shall they call thee Mistress of Kingdoms.

I was wroth with My people, profaned Mine inheritance,

Gave them to thy hand:

Thou didst show them no mercy, on old men thou madest Thy yoke very sore.

And thou saidst, Forever I shall be mistress,

Till thou hast set not these things to thy heart,

Nor thought of their issue.

Therefore now hear this,

Voluptuous, Sitting self-confident:

Thou, who saith in her heart,

"I am: there is none else.

I shall not sit a widow, nor know want of children."

Surely shall come to thee both of these, sudden, the same day,

Childlessness, widowhood!

To their full come upon thee, spite of the mass of thy spells,

Spite of the wealth of thy charms-to the full!

And thou wast bold in thine evil; thou saidst,

"None doth see me."

Thy wisdom and knowledge-they have led thee astray,

Till thou hast said in thine heart,

"I am: there is none else."

Yet there shall come on thee Evil,

Thou know’st not to charm it.

And there shall fall on thee Havoc,

Thou canst not avert it.

And there shall come on thee suddenly,

Unawares, Ruin.

Stand forth, I pray, with thy charms, with the wealth of thy spells-

With which thou hast wearied thyself from thy youth up-

If so thou be able to profit,

If so to strike terror.

Thou art sick with the mass of thy counsels:

Let them stand up and save thee-

Mappers of heaven,

Planet-observers,

Tellers at new moons-

From what must befall thee!

Behold, they are grown like the straw!

Fire hath consumed them;

Nay, they save not their life

From the hand of the flame! -

‘Tis no fuel for warmth,

Fire to sit down at!-

Thus are they grown to thee, they who did weary thee

Traders of thine from thy youth up;

Each as he could pass have they fled

None is thy saviour!

We, who remember Isaiah’s elegies on Egypt and Tyre, shall be most struck here by the absence of all appreciation of greatness or of beauty about Babylon. Even while prophesying for Tyre as certain a judgment as our prophet here predicts for Babylon, Isaiah spoke as if the ruin of so much enterprise and wealth were a desecration, and he promised that the native strength of Tyre, humbled and purified, would rise again to become the handmaid of religion. But our prophet sees no saving virtue whatever in Babylon, and gives her not the slightest promise of a future. There is pity through his scorn: the way in which he speaks of the futility of the mass of Babylonian science; the way in which he speaks of her ignorance, though served by hosts of counsellors; the way in which, after recalling her countless partners in traffic, he describes their headlong flight, and closes with the words, "None is thy saviour,"-all this is most pathetic. But upon none of his lines is there one touch of awe or admiration or regret for the fall of what is great. To him Babylon is wholly false, vain, destitute-as Tyre was not destitute-of native vigour and saving virtue. Babylon is sheer pretence and futility. Therefore his scorn and condemnation are thorough; and mocking laughter breaks from him, now with an almost savage coarseness, as he pictures the dishonour of the virgin who was no virgin-"Bare thy nakedness, yea, be beholden thy shame"; and now in roguish glee, as he interjects about the fire which shall destroy the mass of Babylon’s magicians, astrologers, and haruspices: "No coal this to warm oneself at, fire to sit down before." But withal we are not allowed to forget, that it is one of the Tyrant’s poor captives, who thus judges and scorns her. How vividly from the midst of his satire does the prisoner’s sigh break forth to God:-

Our Redeemer! Jehovah of Hosts is His Name, Holy of Israel!

Not the least interesting feature of this taunt-song is the expression which it gives to the characteristic Hebrew sense of the wearisomeness and immorality of the system of divination, which formed the mass of the Babylonian and many other Gentile religions. The worship of Jehovah had very much in common with the rest of the Semitic cults. Its ritual, its temple-furniture, the division of its sacred year, its terminology, and even many of its titles for the Deity and His relations to men, may be matched in the worship of Phoenician, Syrian, and Babylonian gods, or in the ruder Arabian cults. But in one thing the "law of Jehovah" stands by itself, and that is in its intolerance of all augury and divination. It owed this distinction to the unique moral and practical sense which inspired it. Augury and divination, such as the Chaldeans were most proficient in, exerted two most evil influences. They hampered, sometimes paralysed, the industry and politics of a nation, and they more or less confounded the moral sense of the people. They were, therefore, utterly out of harmony with the practical sanity and Divine morality of the Jewish law, which strenuously forbade them; while the prophets, who were practical men as well as preachers of righteousness, constantly exposed the fatigue they laid upon public life, and the way they distracted attention from the simple moral issues of conduct. Augury and divination wearied a people’s intellect, stunted their enterprise, distorted their conscience. "Thy spells, the mass of thy charms, with which thou hast wearied thyself from thy youth. Thou art sick with the mass of thy counsels. Thy wisdom and thy knowledge! they have led thee astray." When "the Chaldean astrology" found its way to the new Babylon, Juvenal’s strong conscience expressed the same sense of its wearisomeness and waste of time.

Ashes and ruins, a servile and squalid life, a desolate site abandoned by commerce, -what the prophet predicted, that did imperial Babylon become. Not, indeed, at the hand of Cyrus, or of any other single invader; but gradually by the rivalry of healthier peoples, by the inevitable working of the poison at her heart, Babylon, though situated in the most fertile and central part of God’s earth, fell into irredeemable decay. Do not let us, however, choke our interest in this prophecy, as so many students of prophecy do, in the ruins and dust, which were its primary fulfilment. The shell of Babylon, the gorgeous city which rose by Euphrates, has indeed sunk into heaps; but Babylon herself is not dead. Babylon never dies. To the conscience of Christ’s seer, this "mother of harlots," though dead and desert in the East, came to life again in the West. To the city of Rome, in his day, John transferred word by word the phrases of our prophet and of the prophet who wrote the fifty-first chapter of the Book of Jeremiah. Rome was Babylon, in so far as Romans were filled with cruelty, with arrogance, with trust in riches, with credulity in divination, with that waste of mental and moral power which Juvenal exposed in her. "I sit a queen," John heard Rome say in her heart, "and am no widow, and shall in no wise see mourning. Therefore in one day shall her plagues come, death and mourning and famine, and she shall be utterly burned with fire, for strong is the Lord God which judged her." [Revelation 17:1-18; Revelation 18:1-24] But we are not to leave the matter even here: we are to use that freedom with John, which John uses with our prophet. We are to pass by the particular fulfilment of his words, in which he and his day were interested, because it can only have a historical and secondary interest to us in face of other Babylons in our own day, with which our consciences, if they are quick, ought to be busy. Why do some honest people continue to confine the references of those chapters in the Book of Revelation to the city and church of Rome? It is quite true, that John meant the Rome of his day; it is quite true, that many features of his Babylon may be traced upon the successor of the Roman Empire, the Roman Church. But what is that to us, with incarnations of the Babylonian spirit so much nearer ourselves for infection and danger, than the Church of Rome can ever be. John’s description, based upon our prophet’s, suits better a commercial, than an ecclesiastical state, -though self-worship has been as rife in ecclesiasticism, Roman or Reformed, as among the votaries of Mammon. For every phrase of John’s, that may be true of the Church of Rome in certain ages, there are six apt descriptions of the centres of our own British civilisation, and of the selfish, atheistic tempers that prevail in them. Let us ask what are the Babylonian tempers and let us touch our own consciences with them.

Forgetfulness of God, cruelty, vanity of knowledge (which so easily breeds credulity), and vanity of wealth, -but the parent of them all is idolatry of self. Isaiah told us about this in the Assyrian with his war; we see it here in Babylon with her commerce and her science; it was exposed even in the orthodox Jews, (Chapter 14) for they put their own prejudices before their God’s revelation; and. it is perhaps as evident in the Christian Church as anywhere else. For selfishness follows a man like his shadow; and religion, like the sun, the stronger it shines, only makes the shadow more apparent. But to worship your shadow is to turn your back on the sun; selfishness is atheism, says our prophet. Man’s self takes God’s word about Himself and says, "I am, and there is none beside me." And he who forgets God is sure also to forget his brother; thus self-worship leads to cruelty. A heavy part of the charge against Babylon is her treatment of the Lord’s own people. These were God’s convicts, and she, for the time, God’s minister of justice. But she unnecessarily and cruelly oppressed them. "On the aged thou hast very heavily laid thy yoke." God’s people were given to her to be reformed, but she sought to crush the life out of them. God’s purpose was upon them, but she used them for her aggrandisement. She did not feel that she was responsible to God for her treatment even of the most guilty and contemptible of her subjects.

In all this Babylon acted in accordance with what was the prevailing spirit of antiquity; and here we may safely affirm that our Christian civilisation has at least a superior conscience. The modern world does recognise in some measure, its responsibility to God for the care even of its vilest and most forfeit lives. No Christian state at the present day would, for instance, allow its felons to be tortured or outraged against their will in the interests either of science or of public amusement. We do not vivisect our murderers nor kill them off by gladiatorial combats. Our statutes do not get rid of worthless or forfeit lives by condemning them to be used up in dangerous labours of public necessity. On the contrary, in prisons we treat our criminals with decency and even with comfort, and outside prisons we protect and cherish even the most tainted and guilty lives. In all our discharge of God’s justice, we take care that the inevitable errors of our human fallibility may fall on mercy’s side. Now it is true that in the practice of all this we often fail, and are inconsistent. The point at present is that we have at least a conscience about the matter. We do not say, like Babylon, "I am, and there is none beside me. There is no law higher than my own will and desire. I can; therefore, use whatever through its crime or its uselessness falls into my power for the increase of my wealth or the satisfaction of my passions." We remember God, and that even the criminal and the useless are His. In wielding the power which His Law and Providence put into our hands towards many of his creatures, we remember that we are administering His justice, and not satisfying our own revenge, or feeding our own desire for sensation, or experimenting for the sake of our science. They are His convicts, not our spoil. In our treatment of them we are subject to His laws, -one of which, that fences even His justice, is the law against cruelty; and another, for which His justice leaves room, is that to every man there be granted, with his due penalty, the opportunity of penitence and reform. There are among us Positivists, who deny that these opinions and practices of modern civilisation are correct. Carrying out the essential atheism of their school-I am man, and there is none else: that in the discharge of justice and the discharge of charity men are responsible only to themselves-they dare to recommend that the victims of justice should be made the experiments, however painful, of science, and that charity should be refused to the corrupt and the useless. But all this is simply reversion to the Babylonian type, and the Babylonian type is doomed to decay. For history has writ no surer law upon itself than this-that cruelty is the infallible precursor of ruin.

But while speaking of the state, we should remember individual responsibilities as well. Success, even where it is the righteous success of character, is a most subtle breeder of cruelty. The best of us need most strongly to guard ourselves against censoriousness. If God does put the characters of sinful men and women into our keeping, let us remember that our right of judging them, our right of punishing them, our right even of talking about them, is strictly limited. Religious people too easily forget this, and their cruel censoriousness or selfish gossip warns us that to be a member of the Church of Christ does not always mean that a man’s citizenship is in heaven; he may well be a Babylonian and carry the freedom of that city upon his face. To "be hard on those who are down" is Babylonian; to make material out of our neighbours’ faults, for our pride, or for love of gossip, or for prurience, is Babylonian. There is one very good practical rule to keep us safe. We may allow ourselves to speak about our erring brothers to men, just as much as we pray for them to God. But if we pray much for a man, he will surely become too sacred to be made the amusement of society or the food of our curiosity or of our pride.

The last curse on Babylon reminds us of the fatal looseness of a society that is built only upon the interests of trade; of the loneliness and uselessness that await, in the end, all lives, which keep themselves alive simply by trafficking with men. If we feed life only by the news of the markets, by the interest of traffic, by the excitement of competition, by the fever of speculation, by the passions of cupidity and pride, we may feel healthy and powerful for a time. But such a life, which is merely a being kept brisk by the sense of gaining something or overreaching some one, is the mere semblance of living; and when the inevitable end comes, when they that have trafficked with us from our youth depart, then each particle of strength with which they feed us shall be withdrawn, and we shall fall into decay. There never was a truer picture of the quick ruin of a merely commercial community, or of the ultimate loneliness of a mercenary and selfish life, than the headlong rush of traders, "each as he could find passage," from the city that never had other attractions even for her own citizens than those of gain or of pleasure.

 


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Bibliography Information
Nicoll, William R. "Commentary on Isaiah 47:4". "Expositor's Bible Commentary". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/teb/isaiah-47.html.

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