Isaiah 13
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. Isaiah 13:1 to Isaiah 14:23. The Fall of Babylon

This is the first of the collection of oracles, dealing mainly with foreign nations, which forms the second great division of the first part of the Book of Isaiah (see General Introd., pp. lxxii f.). It contains two distinct and complete pieces: (1) a prophecy of the impending sack and capture of Babylon by the Medes (Isaiah 13:2-22), and (2) an ode of triumph to be sung by the Jews over the downfall of their oppressor, the king of Babylon (Isaiah 14:4 b–21). These are connected by a few verses in a style different from either (Isaiah 14:1-4 a); and the ode is followed by a couple of verses which reaffirm the doom pronounced on Babylon in the end of ch. 13. (Isaiah 14:22 f.). It is not impossible that the amalgamation of the two principal sections may be due to an editor; but the historical situation assumed is the same in both, and reasons for assigning them to separate authors are not to be found.

That neither the passage as a whole nor either of its component parts was written by Isaiah appears from the following considerations. (a) In Isaiah’s time Babylon was either a subject province of the Assyrian Empire or engaged in unsuccessful revolt against it. Here she is represented as the supreme world-power, the glory of kingdoms, intoxicated with her own success, and exercising a cruel tyranny over many nations (Isaiah 13:11; Isaiah 13:19, Isaiah 14:5 f., 12 ff., 16 f.). (b) In particular she is the power that has long held Israel in the thraldom of exile (Isaiah 14:1-3); an event which might conceivably have been foreseen by Isaiah, but which he could not have assumed as known to the men of his time. But (c) a transference of the world-empire from Assyria to Babylon is really excluded by Isaiah’s scheme of history, since he conceives the overthrow of Assyria as followed immediately by the Messianic age. (d) The style and language are not those of Isaiah; and the spirit of fierce and vindictive triumph over the fallen foe, while explicable in a writer of the exile period, would be unnatural in the case of Isaiah. The prophecy, therefore, must have been unintelligible to the contemporaries of Isaiah; and on the principle that the prophet always addresses himself primarily to the circumstances of his own time, we must assign these chapters to the closing years of the Babylonian captivity. A more exact determination of their date is scarcely possible. Even on the question whether they were written before or after the consolidation of the Median and Persian power by Cyrus in 549, conflicting inferences are drawn from Isaiah 13:17 (see on the verse below). It may be added that by such a view the passage is not robbed of its predictive character. It was certainly composed in anticipation of the fall of Babylon (538); and hence it is a prediction to precisely the same extent as Isaiah’s own announcements of the destruction of Assyria and the deliverance of Jerusalem (Driver, Isaiah, p. 127).

Chap. 8 falls into three main divisions. A subdivision of each into two nearly equal strophes (Duhm) is possible, though less clearly marked.

i. Isaiah 13:2-8. A magnificently poetical description of the impending attack.

(1) The mustering of Jehovah’s host on the north-eastern mountains (2–4).

(2) The approach of the avengers, Jehovah at their head, inspiring terror and dismay in the city (5–8).

ii. Isaiah 13:9-16. The meaning of the judgment.

(1) The day of Jehovah has at last arrived, heralded by physical convulsions, to sweep wickedness and tyranny from the face of the earth (9–12).

(2) The flight of foreign merchants from the doomed city and the massacre of her population (13–16).

iii. Isaiah 13:17-22. The fate of Babylon.

(1) At length the writer lays aside the veil of poetic imagery and announces in express terms that the invaders are the pitiless barbarians of Media, and the object of their attack is Babylon (17–19).

(2) The prophecy then closes with a weird picture of the eternal desolation reserved for the imperial city.

The burden of Babylon, which Isaiah the son of Amoz did see.
1. The superscription, prefixed by an editor who attributed the prophecy to Isaiah.

The burden] Rather, The utterance, or “oracle.” The word occurs ten times in the headings of this section of the book (also in ch. Isaiah 30:6). The Heb. is massâ’, and means literally a “lifting up (of the voice).” See 2 Kings 9:25. The A.V., following several ancient versions, takes it in its commoner sense of “burden” (thing lifted), a confusion which seems as old as the time of Jeremiah (Jeremiah 23:33-40) and Ezekiel (Ezekiel 12:10).

which Isaiah … did see] See on Isaiah 1:1, Isaiah 2:1.

Lift ye up a banner upon the high mountain, exalt the voice unto them, shake the hand, that they may go into the gates of the nobles.
2. Lift ye up a banner] a signal, ch. Isaiah 5:26.

upon the high mountain] Render, upon a bare mountain; i.e. one denuded of trees, so that the signal might be clearly distinguished.

the gates of the nobles] The city gates through which the Babylonian magnates passed to and fro. The name Babel (Bab-ilu) signifies “Gate of God.”

2–4. Jehovah musters His hosts.

I have commanded my sanctified ones, I have also called my mighty ones for mine anger, even them that rejoice in my highness.
3. Jehovah speaks.

my sanctified (or consecrated) ones] In ancient times a campaign was inaugurated with religious ceremonies (1 Samuel 13:9; Jeremiah 22:7; Jeremiah 51:28 [R.V. marg.]) and each warrior was a consecrated man (1 Samuel 21:5).

them that rejoice in my highness] Translate as in R.V. my proudly exulting ones, Zephaniah 3:11.

The noise of a multitude in the mountains, like as of a great people; a tumultuous noise of the kingdoms of nations gathered together: the LORD of hosts mustereth the host of the battle.
4. Already the prophet seems to hear from afar the din of the gathering multitude.

The noise of a multitude] Better as an exclamation, Hark, a tumult. And so in the next clause, Hark, the uproar of … The “mountains” are those beyond the Zagros range, N.E. of Babylonia, where the territory of the Medes lay. To understand them as “ideal barriers” (Cheyne) weakens the poetry of the passage.

They come from a far country, from the end of heaven, even the LORD, and the weapons of his indignation, to destroy the whole land.
5. The host is now seen in motion, advancing under the guidance of Jehovah to its appointed goal.

the whole land] Rather, the whole earth. The judgment is directed against the Babylonian Empire, which from the writer’s point of view was practically co-extensive with the civilised world.

Howl ye; for the day of the LORD is at hand; it shall come as a destruction from the Almighty.
6. The verse is almost identical with Joel 1:15. On the “day of Jehovah” see on ch. Isaiah 2:12.

as a destruction from the Almighty] The Heb. phrase contains an alliteration which cannot be easily reproduced in English. The Germans render “wie Gewalt vom Gewaltigen.” The word for “Almighty” is the Divine name Shaddai (see Exodus 6:3), but its etymology is doubtful. According to one derivation it comes from the same root as the word for “destruction,” so that we might almost venture to translate “like destruction from the Destroyer.” This verse, however, can hardly be appealed to in support of that view, since it may imply nothing beyond the mere play upon words. (See further Robertson Smith, Old Test. in Jewish Church, pp. 423 f.)

Therefore shall all hands be faint, and every man's heart shall melt:
7. “Hands hanging down” and “hearts melting” are frequent images of despair (ch. Isaiah 19:1; Ezekiel 21:7; Job 4:3; Joshua 7:5, &c.).

And they shall be afraid: pangs and sorrows shall take hold of them; they shall be in pain as a woman that travaileth: they shall be amazed one at another; their faces shall be as flames.
8. they shall be amazed one at another] i.e. “look in horror on each other.”

their faces shall be as flames] Lit. faces of flames are their faces, burning with feverish excitement, or perhaps with shame (Ezekiel 7:18). There are no exact parallels to the expression; cf. Joel 2:6; Nahum 2:10.

Behold, the day of the LORD cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to lay the land desolate: and he shall destroy the sinners thereof out of it.
9. land] Rather, earth, as in Isaiah 13:5.

9–16. The middle division of the prophecy enlarges on the nature, purpose and effects of this day of Jehovah.

For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine.
10. “The day of the Lord is darkness, and not light,” Amos 5:18.

the constellations thereof] The Heb. word (kěsîl) is used in the singular in Amos 5:8; Job 9:9; Job 38:31, of a particular constellation, probably Orion (but according to another tradition, the star Canopus). Its meaning, ‘fool’ or ‘foolhardy rebel,’ seems to point to some legend of a Titan chained to the sky for his defiance of the gods (Job 38:31). In the plural (“the Orions”) it denotes here Orion and other constellations that vie with it in brilliancy.

And I will punish the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; and I will cause the arrogancy of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible.
11, 12. Jehovah is again the speaker, as in Isaiah 13:3. The prophet has already in Isaiah 13:9 intimated the purpose of the judgment; here the thought is added that in its execution the existing generation will be all but exterminated; so wide-spread is the wickedness and tyranny of the world.

I will make a man more precious than fine gold; even a man than the golden wedge of Ophir.
12. golden wedge] Render simply gold. Both the words for gold are rare and poetic.

Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, in the wrath of the LORD of hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger.
13. By the outbreak of Jehovah’s wrath the material universe is shaken to its foundations. Such representations are common in the descriptions of the day of the Lord, and are not to be dismissed as merely figurative. Cf. ch. Isaiah 2:12 ff.

And it shall be as the chased roe, and as a sheep that no man taketh up: they shall every man turn to his own people, and flee every one into his own land.
14. Those who flee to their own land are the foreign residents who had been attracted by the wealth and commerce of Babylon from all parts of the world, cf. Jeremiah 51:44; Nahum 2:8; Nahum 3:16.

a sheep that no man taketh up] Better: sheep with none to gather them, Nahum 3:18. For the figure cf. 1 Kings 22:17; Ezekiel 34:5; Matthew 9:36.

14–16. The dispersion and slaughter of the population of Babylon. The prophecy from this point becomes more explicit in its main reference to Babylon.

Every one that is found shall be thrust through; and every one that is joined unto them shall fall by the sword.
15. Every one that is found] Chiefly the natives of Babylon, who had no land to flee to. The phrase ‘every one that is joined unto them’ is better translated, every one that is caught.

Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished.
16. That the capture of Babylon should be marked by the atrocities here spoken of was no doubt to be expected from the character of the Medes (Isaiah 13:17 f.), but no such crimes appear to have stained the actual victory of Cyrus. According to Babylonian records he took possession of the city peacefully. (Records of the Past, New SeR.V. 144 ff.) Cf. Psalm 137:9; Nahum 3:10; Hosea 13:16; 2 Kings 8:12. The last half of the verse is repeated in Zechariah 14:2.

Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them, which shall not regard silver; and as for gold, they shall not delight in it.
17. the Medes] This Iranian people first became a leading power in Asia when it divided with the Chaldæans the spoils of the Assyrian Empire (b.c. 606), but it was not till the rise of the great conqueror Cyrus that it became a formidable enemy to Babylon. Cyrus, according to the classical historians, was originally a vassal king of the Median Empire, reigning over the narrow territory to which the name Persia or Persis was at first restricted. He is called, however, in Babylonian inscriptions “King of Anzan,” which is explained by Assyriologists to be a small kingdom in the north of Elam. (See Sayce, in Rec. of the Past, l.c.) About the year 549 he overthrew the ruling Median dynasty and placed himself at the head of the whole empire. It has been argued by some scholars that previous to that event there could be no expectation of a conquest of Babylon by the Medes, and that therefore the prophecy must be dated between 549 and 538. Others again hold that if it had been written after 549 the enemy would have been called the Persians. Both inferences, however, are inconclusive. The first overlooks the fact that before the accession of Cyrus the Medes were a powerful nation, and indeed the only probable human agents of a chastisement of Babylon. And against the second it has to be borne in mind that the name Persia, for the united empire, made its way slowly in antiquity. In the Bible it first becomes common in the time of Ezra, although long after that we still read of Medes and Persians (Daniel 5:28; Daniel 6:8; Daniel 6:12) or Persians and Medes (Esther 1:3; Esther 1:14; Esther 1:18). Greek writers also speak of the wars of independence against Xerxes as τὰ Μηδικά. The verse, therefore, furnishes no particular indication of the date of the prophecy.

which shall not regard (regard not) silver …] They cannot be bought off by a ransom. Xenophon puts into the mouth of Cyrus in addressing the Medes the words: οὐ χρημάτων δεόμενοι σὺν ἐμοὶ ἐξήλθετε (Cyrop. Isaiah 13:1; Isaiah 13:20).

17, 18. The description of the character of the invaders, perhaps even the mention of their name, is of the nature of a climax to the terrors of the picture.

Their bows also shall dash the young men to pieces; and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb; their eye shall not spare children.
And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees' excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.
19. the Chaldees’ excellency] The territory of the Chaldæans lay near the head of the Persian Gulf. Their dominion over Babylon began with Nabopolassar, the father of Nebuchadnezzar.

as when God overthrew, &c.] See on Isaiah 1:7 and cf. Amos 4:11, where the same phrase occurs (also Jeremiah 50:40).

It shall never be inhabited, neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation: neither shall the Arabian pitch tent there; neither shall the shepherds make their fold there.
20. the Arabian] Cf. Jeremiah 3:2. The word seems originally to mean “dweller in the desert,” but ultimately acquired the force of a proper name (see Jeremiah 25:24; 2 Chronicles 9:14, &c.). The site of Babylon will be shunned even by the wandering nomad, as an accursed and “uncanny” place.

20–22. Babylon, after its overthrow, shall be a perpetual desolation.

But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there.
21. wild beasts of the desert] The word used means strictly “dwellers in the desert” and is applied to men in Psalm 72:9. In ch. Isaiah 34:14 it seems to denote a particular kind of desert creature.

doleful creatures] Probably “howlers,” but what kind of howlers are meant is altogether uncertain. Some render “owls,” others “jackals,” &c. The word does not occur elsewhere. Owls should undoubtedly be ostriches. The Heb. name (běnôth ya‘ǎnah), as explained by Wetzstein (see Delitzsch, Comm. on Job , 2 nd Ed., Eng. Tr., vol. II., p. 340) means “daughters of the desert.” The Arabs have a similar designation for the bird,—abu eṣ-ṣaḥârâ, “father of the desert.”

satyrs shall dance there] The noun also means “goats,” as in Genesis 37:31; but the old translations have mostly perceived that goatshaped demons are here intended (so also in ch. Isaiah 34:14), the same beings to which Jewish superstition offered sacrifices (Leviticus 17:7; 2 Chronicles 11:15—A.V. “devils”). The transition from the natural to the supernatural seems strange to our minds, but in the East the belief in weird creatures (jinn) inhabiting waste places and dangerous spots is a commonplace.

21, 22. It shall be haunted by wild beasts and creatures of demon kind, like the jinn of the Arabs. See ch. Isaiah 34:11-15; Zephaniah 2:14 f.; Jeremiah 50:39; Jeremiah 51:37.

And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces: and her time is near to come, and her days shall not be prolonged.
22. the wild beasts of the islands] R.V. wolves. The word has certainly nothing to do with that for “island.” It probably comes from another root meaning “to howl”; but again it is impossible to specify the particular animal.

their desolate houses] The word is ’almânôth, “widows,” which A.V. following, as so often, Jewish authorities understands figuratively. It is either a by-form or a copyist’s error for ’arměnôthâm, their palaces (see ch. Isaiah 34:13). For dragons render jackals (R.V.).

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