The Oracle Concerning Babylon

21: 1-10

    DIG: In Isaiah’s day, Babylon sought allies among the other nations, including Judah (see Chapter 39), to help her resist Assyria. Why is that a faulty, even fatal hope? How does this dire vision affect Isaiah? Why is he so upset? What does this show you about him? Compare Isaiah 21:5 to Daniel 5:1-30. What were the leaders of Babylon doing the very night of their final overthrow? What does that say about the people of Judah? If Judah hoped that Babylon might protect them from Assyria, how would they react to the news that Babylon has fallen?

    REFLECT: What Babylon are you betting on to shelter you from the uncertainties of life? Knowing that such temporal security will be swept away, like Babylon, how do you feel? What can you do to fulfill that God-shaped void of insecurity? When was the last time you were betrayed? How did it feel? What could you have done differently? How does the LORD enter into the equation?

    There are two series of oracles in the Oracles Against the Nations (13:1 to 23:18). The first series, from 13:1 to 20:6, is marked by great optimism. Even the world’s super powers are subject to ADONAI, and His word is full of promises. The second series of oracles that starts here at 21:1 and ends at 23:18, is very different. Even though the content of each oracle makes its subject clear, each oracle has an air of mystery, even foreboding. There is, in fact, an all-encompassing sense of doom and darkness around each one.

    One of the classic examples of the failure of a web of deceptive alliances in our time is the story of Russia and Germany during World War II. One of Hitler’s greatest fears growing out of World War I was of a “two-front” war. So, in order to secure his eastern flank while campaigning in the west, he negotiated what must surely be one of the most cynical alliances of all time. Knowing that he would one day attack Russia (already having said so in his book, Mein Kampf), he still got Russia to agree to a nonaggression pact. For his part, Stalin was frightened of the rapidly growing German war machine and congratulated himself for having effectively stopped it at his borders.

    Both of these pirates had built their empires on lies and looting, and now they were announcing their “mutual understanding and trust.” It is amazing that Stalin could not see what sort of person Hitler was after all the promises he had broken from Czechoslovakia onward, but perhaps the Russian tyrant thought he saw a kindred spirit in Hitler. It may also be true that Stalin was afraid of his remaining generals (after the purges of 1937-1938) amassing power within the country if he permitted a great buildup with the pact.

    In any case, once Hitler felt the west was secure, he turned to gobble up the great wheat field of Byelorussia and the Ukraine, sure that a cowed Stalin would hide behind the Ural Mountains and sue for peace. But if Stalin misread Hitler, Hitler also misread Stalin. Hitler did not know that he had kicked a bulldog. The former Orthodox priest had pursued his goals of absolute power for twenty years with incredible tenacity and stubbornness, and those traits would serve him well in “The Great Patriotic War.” Both men thought they had put something over on their neighbor that would be to their own advantage. But in the end, both countries were devastated.

    This section is not referring to the fall of Babylon to the Medo-Persian Empire in 539 BC. The end of the Babylonian Captivity was something that Israel would rejoice in. Then they would look forward to the return to their homeland. This fall of Babylon, however, was terrifying and something to be feared. In 722 BC a Chaldean prince from the Persian Gulf region named Merodach-Baladan (39:1) had revolted against Assyria, captured Babylon, and was crowned king of Babylon. Hezekiah, king of Judah, and other members of his royal court felt that Merodach-Baladan would be able to break the strength of the Assyrian Empire (see Ha – The King of Babylon Sent Hezekiah a Gift). But Isaiah warned them that would not happen (see Go – Hezekiah and the Assyrians).

    In this oracle, Isaiah pictures an invasion from the Desert by the Sea, or from Babylon by the Persian Gulf, as being like an approaching desert storm (21:1a). The invader was probably Meradach-Baladan who arose suddenly from the desert regions to revolt against Assyria. The present oracle was God’s attempt to discourage Judah from joining Babylon in an alliance against Assyria. It plays the same role in relation to Merodach-Baladan and Babylon as 19:1-15 does in relation to an Egyptian alliance.65 Why should Judah trust Babylon when Babylon herself was doomed?

    Like whirlwinds sweeping through the southland, an invader comes from the desert, from a land of terror (21:1b). The whirlwinds sweeping through the southland refer to hot winds that move from the east, out of a land of drought and death, where no one lives or even travels (Jeremiah 2:6). These storms come with deadly suddenness and force (Job 1:19, 37:9; Jeremiah 4:11, 13:24; Hosea 13:15; Zechariah 9:14).

    God gave Isaiah a vision about the Babylonian uprising against the Assyrian empire. A dire vision had been shown to him, and he didn’t like what he saw. Just because he prophesied about doom and bloodshed didn’t mean he delighted in it. The same sensitivity that made Isaiah aware of what the LORD was saying to him also made him empathize with the human tragedy that he saw coming (21:a). This is why Jeremiah is called the weeping prophet (Lamentations 1:16).

    Elam and Media were allies of Babylon in the 700s, Isaiah heard the battle cry for Elam, to attack, and Media (north of Elam) to lay siege! Merodach-Baladan and Babylon were encouraging their allies to join her in the attack on Assyria. But it was to no avail. Sennacherib launched a campaign against Elam in 694 BC and ravaged the land. In that sense the traitor betrays (33:1), and the looter takes loot. Nevertheless, the Babylonian invader Merodach-Baladan thought he could bring to an end all the groaning caused by the traitor, the Assyrian Empire (21:2). She had caused most of the nations in the area to groan under the devastation caused by her conquests. Evidently, Merodach-Baladan thought he could stop the Assyrian advance and liberate the entire Mesopotamia region.

    The prophet then contrasted his feelings with those around him. At this my body is wracked with pain, pangs seize me, like those of a woman in labor; I am staggered by what I hear, I am bewildered by what I see (21:3). The prophecy he was about to utter had specific effects upon Isaiah himself. First, his body is wracked with pain. The Hebrew word here means contortions, induced by cramps. Secondly, pangs seize him, like a woman in labor, a simile often used by the prophets (Isaiah 26:17; Jeremiah 4:31, 6:24, 13:21, 22:23, 30:6, 48:41, 49:22 and 24, 50:43; Micah 4:9-10). Thirdly, he is staggered by what he was hearing. He could hardly stand up. Fourthly, he was bewildered by what he was seeing in Jerusalem. The people around him were living their lives as if nothing was going to happen (21:5a), totally unaware of the impending danger. Possibly Isaiah had in mind the feasting that would occur when king Hezekiah received Merodach-Baladan and his envoys from Babylon (39:1-8).

    Isaiah declared: My heart falters, fear makes me tremble; the twilight I longed for has become a horror to me (21:4). Fifthly, his heart falters, he suffers irregular heartbeats. Sixthly, he is so fearful, that he shakes. And finally, the twilight, which would normally be a relief to someone having a nightmare, only brings more horror. While Merodach-Baladan lived in a fantasy world thinking that Babylon could actually defeat Assyria, Isaiah saw the reality. Not only were the Judeans unsuspecting of the dangers ahead, neither were the Babylonians themselves.

    The Babylonians, rather than living life as usual, should have been preparing for battle with the Assyrians. Isaiah said of the Babylonians: They set the tables, they spread the rugs, they eat, and they drink! Instead, their military leaders should have been saying: Get up, you officers, and oil the shields (21:5). To oil the shields was the first step in the preparation for combat. And they would anoint the shields with oil, because swords, spears, and arrows would more easily glance off. Shields were made of bull-hide, of two or more thicknesses, stretched over a frame of wood, and sometimes strengthened with metallic rims, and ornamented in various places by pieces of metal. An occasional rubbing with oil was necessary to prevent the leather from becoming dry and cracked, and to keep the metallic portions from rust. This was especially necessary in getting ready for battle, hence, to oil the shields was equivalent to a preparation for war. When shields were not in use, they were kept in cases, or covers, probably made of leather, to preserve them from dust. To “uncover the shields” would be equivalent to a preparation for battle, and is an expression having the same meaning as oil the shields. Also see Habakkuk 3:9.66 At the very last minute the Babylonians realized that they were in danger, but it was too late. Like the Titanic, they were about to go down.

    God told Isaiah to have someone be on the lookout for the battle between Babylon and Assyria. This is what ADONAI says to me: Go, post a lookout and have him report what he sees (21:6). The LORD sent a lookout, or watchman, to his post and Babylon to its doom. Once appointed, he is told to report what he sees. When he sees a military caravan of chariots with teams of horses, riders on donkeys or riders on camels, let him be alert, fully alert (21:7). The lookout was to be alert, fully alert. Even strong walls and double gates would not of themselves secure a city from the enemy. Men were therefore employed to watch day and night on the top of the walls, especially by the gates and this is what Isaiah saw. A figure of a lookout and his work is beautifully seen also in Ezekiel 32: 2, 6-7, and Habakkuk 2:1.67

    Muslim doctrine distorts the Bible by saying that Isaiah wrote these verses after he saw a vision of a chariot of donkeys and a chariot of camels. But this is not how the text reads. The verse reads: When the watchman sees chariots with teams of horses, riders on donkeys or riders on camels, let him be alert (21:7). The Muslims teach, however, that the chariot of donkeys turned out to be Jesus who entered Jerusalem on a donkey. They even quote Matthew 21:5 and John 12:14 to substantiate their misinterpretation of this Scripture. Then they ask, “Who then was the chariot of camels?” They say it could be no other than Muhammad who came about six hundred years after the birth of the Messiah, who they believe is a prophet of Allah. Therefore, they ask all mankind to accept Muhammad as “the Seal of the Prophets,” or the last of the Prophets. This is an amazing corruption of this text and shows to what extent the god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God (Second Corinthians 4:4).

    But the lookout grew impatient when he neither saw nor heard anything. And then he shouted, literally, called out like a lion, “How much longer do I need to keep on looking?” Day after day, my lord (another way of saying sir, responding respectfully to Isaiah, the one who appointed him in 21:6) I stand on the watchtower; every night I stay at my post (21:8). When the answer finally came, the watchman saw what he was told to look for, he blurted out: Look, here it is, here comes a manned chariot with a pair of horses (21:9a). The watchman saw the Assyrian military procession (21:7) was returning victorious. That signified that Babylon had fallen and the gods of Babylon had been judged.

    And Isaiah gave back the answer to him when he said: Babylon has fallen, has fallen. The repetition of the verb adds to the impact of the statement. All the images of her gods lie shattered on the ground (21:9b). The prophets emphasized that God would punish the gods of Babylon when He judged them (Jeremiah 51:47 and 52). Later in Isaiah we learn that Nebo was the son of Bel Marduk and these two most important gods of the Babylonian pantheon were then seen to be stooped low as if they were in carts being carried away: Bel bows down, Nebo stoops low (46:1a). The expressions, bows down and stoops low, evidently refer to the downfall of these idols, and of the system of idolatry of which they were the symbols. So utterly helpless were Nebo and Bel, that they could not deliver themselves from captivity, and so worthless that they were counted only as burdensome images that are carried about by beasts of burden (46:1b).68

    Isaiah says that they are a burden for the weary (46:1c). Furthermore, he tells us that they were unable to rescue themselves (46:2a). Nebo and Bel Marduk could not deliver Babylon from the invasion of Sennacherib. Now, they themselves go off into captivity (46:2b), the property of the Assyrian king. It is important to see here that the gods of Babylon were gods that needed to be carried. That is his main point.

    The emotional impact of this message on the people of Judah, who were hoping for Babylon’s revolt against Assyria, was devastating. They had hoped that the alliance king Hezekiah had made with Babylon would break the Assyrian domination. But it was not to be. So the people of Judah felt crushed emotionally, like a grain of wheat on the threshing floor (21:10a).

    Isaiah reiterated that his message was from God. He was only telling what he had heard from the LORD of heaven’s angelic armies (CJB), the God of Israel (21:10b). Judah should not and could not rely on the Babylonians to save them. This man from the Desert by the Sea, Merodach-Baladan, would not be successful. They should not hitch their wagon to his falling star.


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