Isaiah 21:1
The burden of the desert of the sea. As whirlwinds in the south pass through; so it comes from the desert, from a terrible land.
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EXPOSITORY (ENGLISH BIBLE)
XXI.

(1) The burden of the desert of the sea . . .—The title of the prophecy is obviously taken from the catch-word of “the desert” that follows. The “sea” has been explained (1) as the Euphrates, just as in Isaiah 18:2; Isaiah 19:5, it appears as used of the Nile (Cheyne). (2) As pointing to the surging flood of the mingled myriads of its population. (3) Xenophon’s description of the whole plain of the Euphrates, intersected by marshes and lakes, as looking like a sea affords, perhaps, a better explanation.

As whirlwinds in the south . . .—The “South” (or Negeb) is here, as elsewhere, the special name of the country lying south of Judah. The tempests of the region seem to have been proverbial (Zechariah 9:14; Jeremiah 4:11; Jeremiah 13:24; Hosea 13:15).

So it cometh.—The absence of a subject to the verb gives the opening words a terrible vagueness. Something is coming “from the wilderness, a terrible land,” beyond it. The “wilderness” in this case is clearly the Arabian desert, through part of which the Euphrates flows. The context determines the “terrible land” as that of Elam and Media.

Isaiah 21:1. The burden of the desert of the sea — That is, of Babylon, as is evident from Isaiah 21:9. Some think it is so called prophetically, because, although it was at present a populous city, it was shortly to be made desolate, and turned into a marsh, and pools of water. But מדבר יםmay be properly rendered, the plain of the sea: for Babylon stood on a plain, and the country about it, and especially below it, toward the sea, was a great flat morass, often overflowed by the Euphrates and Tigris. “Semiramis,” says Herodotus, “confined the Euphrates within its channel, by raising great dams against it; for before it overflowed the whole country like a sea.” And Abydenus, speaking of the building of Babylon, observes, “It is reported that all this part was covered with water, and was called the sea; and that Belus drew off the waters, conveying them into proper receptacles.” It was only by these means, it appears, and by the many canals that were made in the country, that it became habitable. It, however, still more fully and perfectly answered the title of the plain, or desert of the sea, here given it, in consequence of the Euphrates being turned out of its channel by Cyrus, and afterward suffered still to drown the neighbouring country, by which it became, in time, a great barren, morassy desert, which it continues to be to this day. See note on Isaiah 13:20.

This second prediction, concerning Babylon, (which, with the two short prophecies following, makes the sixth discourse of this second part of Isaiah’s Visions,) “is a passage,” says Bishop Lowth, “of a singular kind for its brevity and force; for the variety and rapidity of the movements; and for the strength and energy of colouring, with which the action and event are painted. It opens with the prophet’s seeing, at a distance, the dreadful storm that is gathering, and ready to burst upon Babylon: the event is intimated in general terms; and God’s orders are issued to the Persians and Medes to set forth upon the expedition which he has given them in charge. Upon this the prophet enters into the midst of the action; and in the person of Babylon expresses, in the strongest terms, the astonishment and horror that seizes her on the sudden surprise of the city, at the very season dedicated to pleasure and festivity. Then, in his own person, he describes the situation of things there; the security of the Babylonians, and, in the midst of their feasting, the sudden alarm of war. The event is then declared in a very singular manner. God orders the prophet to set a watchman to look out, and to report what he sees; he sees two companies marching onward, representing, by their appearance, the two nations that were to execute God’s orders; who declare that Babylon is fallen.”

As whirlwinds in the south, &c. — Bishop Lowth’s translation of this passage gives it a peculiar force and elegance.

“Like the southern tempests, violently rushing along,

From the desert he cometh, from the terrible country.

A dreadful vision! it is revealed unto me:


The plunderer is plundered, and the destroyer is destroyed.

Go up, O Elam; from the siege, O Media!

I have put an end to all her vexations.”


By southern tempests, or whirlwinds in the south, the prophet means tempests in those extensive deserts which lay southward from Judea, in which the winds rush along with great force, as meeting with no obstruction from mountains, hills, trees, or buildings. To these he compares the sweeping and irresistible ruin which, by terrible armies, was about to come on Babylon from Media and Persia, through the deserts that lay between it and those countries. “The prophet,” says Lowth, “renews his threatenings against Babylon, as he does afterward, (chap. 47.,) to convince the Jews, by this repetition, of the certainty of the event, and thereby support them under their captivity when it should come.”21:1-10 Babylon was a flat country, abundantly watered. The destruction of Babylon, so often prophesied of by Isaiah, was typical of the destruction of the great foe of the New Testament church, foretold in the Revelation. To the poor oppressed captives it would be welcome news; to the proud oppressors it would be grievous. Let this check vain mirth and sensual pleasures, that we know not in what heaviness the mirth may end. Here is the alarm given to Babylon, when forced by Cyrus. An ass and a camel seem to be the symbols of the Medes and Persians. Babylon's idols shall be so far from protecting her, that they shall be broken down. True believers are the corn of God's floor; hypocrites are but as chaff and straw, with which the wheat is now mixed, but from which it shall be separated. The corn of God's floor must expect to be threshed by afflictions and persecutions. God's Israel of old was afflicted. Even then God owns it is his still. In all events concerning the church, past, present, and to come, we must look to God, who has power to do any thing for his church, and grace to do every thing that is for her good.The burden - (see the note at Isaiah 13:1).

Of the desert - There have been almost as many interpretations of this expression, as there have been interpreters. That it means Babylon, or the country about Babylon, there can be no doubt; but the question why this phrase was applied, has given rise to a great diversity of opinions. The term 'desert' (מדבר midbâr) is usually applied to a wilderness, or to a comparatively barren and uncultivated country - a place for flocks and herds (Psalm 65:13; Jeremiah 9:9 ff); to an actual waste, sandy desert Isaiah 32:15; Isaiah 35:1; and particularly to the deserts of Arabia Genesis 14:6; Genesis 16:7; Deuteronomy 11:24. It may here be applied to Babylon either historically, as having been "once" an unreclaimed desert: or by "anticipation," as descriptive of what it "would be" after it should be destroyed by Cyrus, or possibly both these ideas may have been combined. That it was "once" a desert before it was reclaimed by Semiramis is the testimony of all history; that it is "now" a vast waste is the united testimony of all travelers. There is every reason to think that a large part of the country about Babylon was formerly overflowed with water "before" it was reclaimed by dykes; and as it was naturally a waste, when the artificial dykes and dams should be removed, it would again be a desert.

Of the sea - (ים yâm). There has been also much difference of opinion in regard to this word. But there can be no doubt that it refers to the Euphrates, and to the extensive region of marsh that was covered by its waters. The name 'sea' (ים yâm) is not unfrequently given to a large river, to the Nile, and to the Euphrates (see the note at Isaiah 11:15; compare Isaiah 19:5). Herodotus (i. 184), says, that 'Semiramis confined the Euphrates within its channel by raisin great dams against it; for before, it overflowed the whole country like a sea.' And Abydenus, in Eusebius, ("Prepara. Evang.," ix. 457) says, respecting the building of Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, that 'it is reported that all this was covered with water, and was called a sea - λέγεται δὲ πάντα μεν ἐξ ἀρχῆς ὕδωρ εἶναι, θαλασσων καλουμένην legetai de panta men ech archēs hudōr einai, thalassōn kaloumenēn (Compare Strabo, "Geog." xvi. 9, 10; and Arrianus, "De Expedit. Alexandri," vii. 21). Cyrus removed these dykes, reopened the canals, and the waters were suffered to remain, and again converted the whole country into a vast marsh (see the notes at Isaiah 13; 14)

As whirlwinds - That is, the army comes with the rapidity of a whirlwind. In Isaiah 8:8 (compare Habakkuk 1:11), an army is compared to an overflowing and rapid river.

In the south - Whirlwinds or tempests are often in the Scriptures represented as coming from the south, Zechariah 9:14; Job 37:9 :

Out of the south cometh the whirlwind,

And cold out of the north.

So Virgil:

- creberque procellis

Africus -

AEneid, i.85.

The deserts of Arabia were situated to the south of Babylon, and the south winds are described as the winds of the desert. Those winds are represented as being so violent as to tear away the tents occupied by a caravan (Pietro della Valle, "Travels," vol. iv. pp. 183, 191). In Job 1:19, the whirlwind is represented as coming 'from the wilderness; that is, from the "desert" of Arabia (compare Jeremiah 13:24; Hosea 13:15).

So it cometh from the desert - (see Isaiah 13:4, and the note on that place). God is there represented as collecting the army for the destruction of Babylon 'on the mountains,' and by mountains are probably denoted the same as is here denoted by the desert. The country of the "Medes" is doubtless intended, which, in the view of civilized and refined Babylon, was an uncultivated region, or a vast waste or wilderness.

continued...

CHAPTER 21

Isa 21:1-10. Repetition of the Assurance Given in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Chapters to the Jews About to Be Captives in Babylon, that Their Enemy Should Be Destroyed and They Be Delivered.

He does not narrate the event, but graphically supposes himself a watchman in Babylon, beholding the events as they pass.

1. desert—the champaign between Babylon and Persia; it was once a desert, and it was to become so again.

of the sea—The plain was covered with the water of the Euphrates like a "sea" (Jer 51:13, 36; so Isa 11:15, the Nile), until Semiramis raised great dams against it. Cyrus removed these dykes, and so converted the whole country again into a vast desert marsh.

whirlwinds in the south—(Job 37:9; Zec 9:14). The south wind comes upon Babylon from the deserts of Arabia, and its violence is the greater from its course being unbroken along the plain (Job 1:19).

desert—the plain between Babylon and Persia.

terrible land—Media; to guard against which was the object of Nitocris' great works [Herodotus, 1.185]. Compare as to "terrible" applied to a wilderness, as being full of unknown dangers, De 1:29.The prophet’s fear and trouble at his vision of Babylon’s ruin by the Medes and Persians, Isaiah 21:1-4. He mocketh Babel, Isaiah 21:5-9. Edom, scorning the prophet, is called to repentance, Isaiah 21:11,12. The time of Arabia’s calamity set.

The desert of the sea; Babylon, as is evident both from her destroyers, the Medians, Isaiah 21:2, and especially from Isaiah 21:9, where she is named. She seems to be called

desert prophetically, to intimate, that although she was now a most populous city and kingdom, yet shortly she should be turned into a desolate wilderness, as was threatened, Isaiah 13:19, &c. But the word here rendered desert sometimes signifies a plain, as a very learned interpreter hath observed, and thus it most properly agrees to Babylon, and the land about it, which geographers note to be a very plain country, without any considerable mountains in it. It is called the desert of the sea, because it is situate by the sea, as the isles of the sea, Esther 10:1, are those countries which were beside the sea. And the title of the sea might well be given to the waters of Babylon, because of the great plenty and multitude of them, the great channel of Euphrates, and the several several lesser channels cut out, and the vast lakes of water; in which respects it is said to sit upon many waters, Jeremiah 51:13, the name of sea being given by the Hebrews to every great collection of waters.

In the south; in those parts which lay southward from Judea where there were many and grreat deserts, in which the winds have greater force. See Job 1:19 Jeremiah 4:11. Pass through; as meeting with no stop or opposition. It; the burden or judgment. Or, he, the Median, as it is in the next verse.

Cometh from the desert; from Media and Persia; thus expressed, either because those countries were full of deserts, or because a great desert lay between them and Chaldea, as geographers and historians report.

From a terrible land; from the Medes, a warlike and formidable people, as appears both from sacred and profane writers.

The burden of the desert of the sea,.... That this is a prophecy of the destruction of Babylon is clear from the express mention both of the Medes and Persians, by whom it should be, and of Babylon itself, and its fall, Isaiah 21:2 which, though prophesied of before, is here repeated, partly for the certainty of it, and partly for the comfort of the people of the Jews, who would be captives in it, and so break off and prevent their confidence in a nation that would be ruined; and perhaps this prophecy might be delivered out about the time or on account of Merodach king of Babylon sending letters and a present to Hezekiah, who showed to his messengers all his treasures. Babylon is here called "the desert of the sea", not because it was a desert land, for it was a very fruitful one; or because it would be laid desolate, and become as a wilderness; but either because there was one between that and the countries of Media and Persia, as Kimchi, from whence its destroyers would come; or rather, because it was, as the word may be rendered, a "plain", for so the land of Chaldea was, and the city of Babylon particularly was built in a plain, Genesis 11:2 and because this country abounded with pools and lakes, which with the Hebrews are called seas; and especially since the city of Babylon was situated by the river Euphrates, which ran about it, and through it and which therefore is said to dwell upon many waters, Jeremiah 51:13 hence it has this name of the desert of the sea; besides, Abydenus (l), from Megasthenes, informs us, that all the places about Babylon were from the beginning water, and were called a sea; and it should be observed that mystical Babylon is represented by a woman in a desert, sitting on many waters, which are interpreted of a multitude of people and nations, Revelation 17:1 and some here by "sea" understand the multitude of its riches, power, and people. The Targum is,

"the burden of the armies, which come from the wilderness, as the waters of the sea;''

understanding it not of Babylon, but of its enemies and invaders, as follows:

as whirlwinds in the south pass through; and nothing can hinder them, such is their force and power; they bear all before them, come suddenly, blow strongly, and there is no resisting them; see Zechariah 9:14,

so it cometh from the desert; or "he", that is, Cyrus; or "it", the army under him, would come with like irresistible force and power as the southern whirlwinds do, which come from a desert country; at least that part of it in which their soldiers were trained up, and which in their march to Babylon must come through the desert, that lay, as before observed, between that and their country, and through which Cyrus did pass (m):

from a terrible land; a land of serpents and scorpions, as Jarchi; or a land afar off, as Kimchi and Ben Melech; whose power and usage, or customs, were not known, and so dreaded, as the Medes and Persians were by Nitocris queen of Babylon, who took care to preserve her people, and prevent their falling into their hands. The Targum is,

"from a land in which terrible things are done.''

(l) Apud Euseb. Prepar. Evangel. l. 9. c. 41. (m) Xenophon. Cyropaedia, l. 5. c. 5, 6.

The burden of the {a} desert of the sea. As whirlwinds in the south pass through; so it cometh from the desert, {b} from a terrible land.

(a) On the seaside between Judea and Caldea was a wilderness, by which he means Caldea.

(b) That is, the ruin of Babylon by the Medes and Persians.

EXEGETICAL (ORIGINAL LANGUAGES)
1. The burden of the desert of the sea] Perhaps, The oracle, “Desert of the Sea.” The first of a series of enigmatic headings, all but peculiar to this section of the book: Isaiah 21:11; Isaiah 21:13, Isaiah 22:1 (cf. Isaiah 30:6). In the majority of cases they are to be explained as catchwords, taken from the body of the oracle (in this instance the fourth word of the original, “desert”). Similarly David’s lament over Saul and Jonathan is entitled the song of “the bow,” 2 Samuel 1:18, cf. 2 Samuel 21:22. The words “of the sea” are wanting in the LXX. Some render “deserts” (reading midbarîm for midbar-yâm). Others, again, regard the fuller form as an emblematic designation of Babylon or Babylonia: the country that was once a sea (θάλασσα Herod. i. 184) and shall be so again.

in the south] Lit. “in the Negeb,” the dry pastoral region in the south of Judah and beyond. The inference that the prophecy was written in Palestine is plausible, but not inevitable, since the word is used of the southern direction. For pass through, render sweeping along.

it (the undefined danger) cometh from the desert] probably the flat region S.E. of Babylon, between it and Elam. a terrible land] cf. Isaiah 30:6; Deuteronomy 1:19; Deuteronomy 8:15, &c.

1, 2. The “hard vision” of Babylon’s fate.Verses 1-10. - THE BURDEN OF THE DESERT OF THE SEA. This is a short and somewhat vague, but highly poetic, "burden of Babylon" It is probably an earlier prophecy than Isaiah 13. and 14, and perhaps the first revelation made to Isaiah with respect to the fall of the great Chaldean capital. It exhibits no consciousness of the fact that Babylon is Judah's predestined destroyer, and is expressive rather of sympathy (vers. 3, 4) than of triumph. Among recent critics, some suppose it to refer to Sargon's capture of the city in B.C. 710; but the objection to this view, from the entire absence of all reference to Assyria as the conquering power, and the mention of "Elam" and "Media" in her place, is absolutely fatal to it. There can be no reasonable doubt that the same siege is intended as in Isaiah 13, where also Media is mentioned (ver. 17); and there are no real grounds for questioning that the event of which the prophet is made cognizant is that siege and capture of Babylon by Cyrus the Great which destroyed the Babylonian empire. Verse 1. - The desert of the sea. The Isaianic authorship of this title is doubtful, since "the desert of the sea" is an expression elsewhere wholly unknown to biblical writers. Some regard "the sea" as the Euphrates, in which case "the desert of the sea" may be the waste tract west of the Euphrates, extending thence to the eastern borders of Palestine. As whirlwinds in the south pass through; rather, as whirlwinds in the south country, sweeping along. The "south country" is that immediately to the south of Judaea. Its liability to whirlwinds is noticed in Zechariah 9:14 and in Job 37:9 (compare Major Palmer's 'Sinai,' p. 33). It cometh. What cometh? Dr. Kay says, "God's visitation;" Rosenmüller, "a numerous army." But is it not rather the "grievous vision" of the next verse? From the desert. The great desert bounding Palestine on the east - a truly "terrible land." Across this, as coming from Baby-Ionia to Palestine, seemed to rush the vision which it was given to the prophet to see. This section, commencing in the form of historic prose, introduces itself thus: "In the year that Tartan came to Ashdod, Sargon the king of Asshur having sent him (and he made war against Ashdod, and captured it): at that time Jehovah spake through Yeshayahu the son of Amoz as follows," i.e., He communicated the following revelation through the medium of Isaiah (b'yad, as in Isaiah 37:24; Jeremiah 37:2, and many other passages). The revelation itself was attached to a symbolical act. B'yad (lit. "by the hand of") refers to what was about to be made known through the prophet by means of the command that was given him; in other words, to Isaiah 20:3, and indirectly to Isaiah 20:2. Tartan (probably the same man) is met with in 2 Kings 18:17 as the chief captain of Sennacherib. No Assyrian king of the name of Sargon is mentioned anywhere else in the Old Testament; but it may now be accepted as an established result of the researches which have been made, that Sargon was the successor of Shalmanassar, and that Shalmaneser (Shalman, Hosea 10:14), Sargon, Sennacherib, and Esarhaddon, are the names of the four Assyrian kings who were mixed up with the closing history of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah. It was Longperrier who was the first to establish the identity of the monarch who built the palaces at Khorsabad, which form the north-eastern corner of ancient Nineveh, with the Sargon of the Bible. We are now acquainted with a considerable number of brick, harem, votive-table, and other inscriptions which bear the name of this king, and contain all kinds of testimony concerning himself.

(Note: See Oppert, Expdition, i.-328-350, and the picture of Sargon in his war-chariot in Rawlinson's Five Great Monarchies, i. 368; compare also p. 304 (prisoners taken by Sargon), p. 352 (the plan of his palace), p. 483 (a glass vessel with his name), and many other engravings in vol. ii.)

It was he, not Shalmanassar, who took Samaria after a three years' siege; and in the annalistic inscription he boasts of having conquered the city, and removed the house of Omri to Assyria. Oppert is right in calling attention to the fact, that in 2 Kings 18:10 the conquest is not attributed to Shalmanassar himself, but to the army. Shalmanassar died in front of Samaria; and Sargon not only put himself at the head of the army, but seized upon the throne, in which he succeeded in establishing himself, after a contest of several years' duration with the legitimate heirs and their party. He was therefore a usurper.

(Note: See Oppert, Les Inscriptions Assyriennes des Sargonides et les Fastes de Ninive (Versailles, 1862), and Rawlinson (vol. ii. 406ff.), who here agrees with Oppert in all essential points. Consequently there can no longer be any thought of identifying Sargon with Shalmanassar (see Brandis, Ueber den historischen Gewinn aus der Entzifferung der assyr. Inschriften, 1856, p. 48ff.). Rawlinson himself at first thought they were the same person (vid., Journal of the Asiatic Society, xii. 2, 419), until gradually the evidence increased that Sargon and Shalmanassar were the names of two different kings, although no independent inscription of the latter, the actual besieger of Samaria, has yet been found.)

Whether his name as it appears on the inscriptions is Sar-kin or not, and whether it signifies the king de facto as distinguished from the king de jure, we will not attempt to determine now.

(Note: Hitzig ventures a derivation of the name from the Zend; and Grotefend compares it with the Chaldee Sârēk, Daniel 6:3 (in his Abhandlung ber Anlage und Zerstrung der Gebude von Nimrud, 1851).)

This Sargon, the founder of a new Assyrian dynasty, who reigned from 721-702 (according to Oppert), and for whom there is at all events plenty of room between 721-20 and the commencement of Sennacherib's reign, first of all blockaded Tyre for five years after the fall of Samaria, or rather brought to an end the siege of Tyre which had been begun by Shalmanassar (Jos. Ant. ix. 14, 2), though whether it was to a successful end or not is quite uncertain. He then pursued with all the greater energy his plan for following up the conquest of Samaria with the subjugation of Egypt, which was constantly threatening the possessions of Assyria in western Asia, either by instigation or support. The attack upon Ashdod was simply a means to this end. As the Philistines were led to join Egypt, not only by their situation, but probably by kinship of tribe as well, the conquest of Ashdod - a fortress so strong, that, according to Herodotus (ii. 157), Psammetichus besieged it for twenty-nine years - was an indispensable preliminary to the expedition against Egypt. When Alexander the Great marched against Egypt, he had to do the same with Gaza. How long Tartan required is not to be gathered from Isaiah 20:1. But if he conquered it as quickly as Alexander conquered Gaza - viz. in five months - it is impossible to understand why the following prophecy should defer for three years the subjugation of Ethiopia and Egypt. The words, "and fought against Ashdod, and took it," must therefore be taken as anticipatory and parenthetical.

It was not after the conquest of Ashdod, but in the year in which the siege commenced, that Isaiah received the following admonition: "Go and loosen the smock-frock from off thy loins, and take off thy shoes from thy feet. And he did so, went stripped and barefooted." We see from this that Isaiah was clothed in the same manner as Elijah, who wore a fur coat (2 Kings 1:8, cf., Zechariah 13:4; Hebrews 11:37), and John the Baptist, who had a garment of camel hair and a leather girdle round it (Matthew 3:4); for sak is a coarse linen or hairy overcoat of a dark colour (Revelation 6:12, cf., Isaiah 50:3), such as was worn by mourners, either next to the skin (‛al-habbâsâr, 1 Kings 21:27; 2 Kings 6:30; Job 16:15) or over the tunic, in either case being fastened by a girdle on account of its want of shape, for which reason the verb châgar is the word commonly used to signify the putting on of such a garment, instead of lâbash. The use of the word ârōm does not prove that the former was the case in this instance (see, on the contrary, 2 Samuel 6:20, compared with 2 Samuel 6:14 and John 21:7). With the great importance attached to the clothing in the East, where the feelings upon this point are peculiarly sensitive and modest, a person was looked upon as stripped and naked if he had only taken off his upper garment. What Isaiah was directed to do, therefore, was simply opposed to common custom, and not to moral decency. He was to lay aside the dress of a mourner and preacher of repentance, and to have nothing on but his tunic (cetoneth); and in this, as well as barefooted, he was to show himself in public. This was the costume of a man who had been robbed and disgraced, or else of a beggar or prisoner of war. The word cēn (so) is followed by the inf. abs., which develops the meaning, as in Isaiah 5:5; Isaiah 58:6-7.

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