Isaiah 21
Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
Ch. 21. Oracles on Babylon, Edom and Arabia

These three short and difficult oracles form together one of the most singular passages in prophecy. Common to all three are (a) the obscure oracular utterance, in striking contrast to the terse lucidity of Isaiah’s style, (b) the strongly-marked visionary element in the writer’s experience, and (c) a certain readiness of sympathy with the foreign nations concerned in the predictions. These features indicate, if not identity of authorship, at least a peculiar type of prophetic inspiration, to which no complete parallel is found in the acknowledged writings of Isaiah. It is true that expressions characteristic of Isaiah occur in Isaiah 21:1-10, but they are hardly sufficient to remove the impression that the individuality of the writer is distinct from that of Isaiah. In the rest of the chapter the linguistic evidence is decidedly adverse to Isaiah’s authorship.

The oracle on Babel. Isaiah 21:1-10

Like whirlwinds in the desert, the prophet has seen in a “hard vision” the stormy and impetuous advance of the Persian hosts against Babylon, Isaiah 21:1-2.

Unnerved and appalled by what he has seen, his mind is filled with gloom and foreboding; the immediate prospect of carnage and destruction obscures for the moment the brighter hopes beyond, of deliverance for Israel, Isaiah 21:3-4.

Another scene is briefly depicted; a Babylonian carousal within the walls, suddenly interrupted by the call to arms, Isaiah 21:5.

The prophet then describes the mysterious inward process by which the truth had been communicated to him. In spirit he had stationed “the watchman” (his prophetic consciousness) to scan the horizon for some indication of the coming catastrophe. After long waiting “the watchman” descries the appointed sign—a train of riders—and forthwith proclaims its purport, “Babylon is fallen, is fallen,” &c., Isaiah 21:6-9.

The oracle closes with an apostrophe to the writer’s own people announcing that what he has seen is the sure word of Jehovah, Isaiah 21:10.

The question of authorship has to be settled mainly on historical grounds, and we have to consider in the first place, what conquest of Babylon is here referred to? (1) According to an attractive theory propounded by George Smith (the Assyriologist) and elaborated by Kleinert, the reference is to one of the sieges of Babylon which took place in Isaiah’s lifetime, most probably that by Sargon in 710. The king of Babylon at that time was Merodach-baladan (see General Introd., p. xvi, and below on ch. 39), whose friendly intercourse with Hezekiah is thought to account for Isaiah’s interest in the struggle, as well as for the aversion with which he seems to contemplate the triumph of Assyria (Isaiah 21:3-5). (2) The majority of critics hold that the prophecy belongs to the last decade of the exile and relates to the capture of Babylon by Cyrus in 538 (see on ch. 13 f.). This is certainly the more obvious theory, and the exegetical difficulties which have been urged against it seem all to be capable of a satisfactory solution. The “tone of depression” manifested in Isaiah 21:3-4 belongs to the subjectivity of the writer, and merely proves that he is distinct from the author of ch. 13 f.; it has no parallel in Isaiah’s descriptions of the fate of Judah’s allies. The mention of “Elam” and “Media” (Isaiah 21:2) as the conquering foe is not incompatible with Isaiah’s authorship (see Isaiah 22:6), but is most naturally explained of the army of Cyrus. The impression that the author lived at a distance from Babylon is possibly correct (see on Isaiah 21:1); but there may have been inspired seers in Palestine during the time of the Exile. On the other hand, Isaiah 21:10 and the latter part of Isaiah 21:2 seem clearly to imply that Babylon herself, and not her conqueror, is the cruel tyrant under whom the Jews and other nations are languishing.

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

A grievous vision is declared unto me; the treacherous dealer dealeth treacherously, and the spoiler spoileth. Go up, O Elam: besiege, O Media; all the sighing thereof have I made to cease.
2. A grievous (lit. “hard”) vision is declared unto me]—by the “watchman,” Isaiah 21:6. “Hard” may mean either “calamitous” (1 Kings 14:6) or “difficult,” “hard of interpretation” (John 6:60).

the treacherous dealer … spoileth] Cf. ch. Isaiah 24:16. It is difficult to decide whether this is a description of the besieging foe or of the conduct of the Babylonians towards their captives. The former view might be defended by Isaiah 33:1 (assuming that the Assyrians are there alluded to) but it requires us to substitute for “treacherous dealer,” “robber,” which is not the exact sense of the word. The other alternative is supported by the last clause of this verse (see below).

Elam … Media] The dominions of Cyrus. The former lay east of the Tigris and north of the Persian Gulf; Media was the mountainous district adjoining it on the north. Cyrus, according to the Babylonian records, was originally king of Anzan, in the north of Elam; in 549 he conquered Media, uniting the two in one kingdom. The name “Persia” never occurs in pre-exilic books.

all the sighing thereof] The misery produced by her (Babylon’s) ruthless oppressions. The verb shews that Jehovah is the speaker.

Therefore are my loins filled with pain: pangs have taken hold upon me, as the pangs of a woman that travaileth: I was bowed down at the hearing of it; I was dismayed at the seeing of it.
3. are my loins filled with pain] Nahum 2:10.

I was bowed down at the hearing …] or, as R.V. I am pained so that I cannot hear, &c. Similar metaphorical descriptions of mental anguish are frequent.

3, 4. The agitation and terror of the prophet.

My heart panted, fearfulness affrighted me: the night of my pleasure hath he turned into fear unto me.
4. My heart panted] lit. strayeth; as we should say “my reason reels.” “Heart,” as often, is used of the intellect. fearfulness] R.V. horror.

the night of my pleasure] i.e. “my pleasant evening hours,” favourable for visionary communications and therefore dear to a prophet. (Job 4:13).

hath he turned] Better: “is turned”; or “it (the vision) turns.”

fear] trembling (as R.V.).

Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.
5. The prophet contrasts his own lonely vigils with the careless security of the Babylonian revellers (cf. Daniel 5; Jeremiah 51:39; Isaiah 14:11).

Prepare the table, &c.] Render as in R.V. They prepare the table, they set the watch (the only measure of precaution adopted by the revellers), they eat, they drink.

arise, ye princes] The banquet breaks up in confusion, for the foe is at the gates.

anoint the shield] Shields were oiled (2 Samuel 1:21), probably to make the blows glide off them.

For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.
6. Go, set, &c.] Render, Go set the watchman, what he seeth he shall declare.

6–9. Hitherto the prophet has spoken of his vision as a thing “announced” to him; now he proceeds to describe, in a very interesting passage, the method of its communication. The delineation is figurative, but seems in some sense to imply a dual consciousness of the writer. The watchman is the prophet himself in the ecstatic condition; he then sees and hears things beyond human ken. Meanwhile his ordinary waking consciousness is not suspended, but is ready to receive and transmit to the world the “watchman’s” report. The same figure is somewhat differently applied in Habakkuk 2:1. For the expression, cf. Jeremiah 6:17; Ezekiel 3:17; Ezekiel 33:7.

And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed:
7. The verse reads: And if he see a troop, horsemen in pairs (1 Kings 9:25), a troop of asses, a troop of camels, then let him hearken, hearken hard. This apparently is the expected sign that great events are on foot; when the riders are seen the watchman is to listen intently to discover who they are and what they are doing. The word for “troop” means always “chariot” (usually collective); here it must be used in the sense of “riding train” like the Arab. rakb. The procession represents the Persian army. “Asses” and “camels” are probably introduced as beasts of burden, although both animals are reported to have been used by the Persians in actual battle.

And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights:
8. If the text be right, the first clause must read: And he cried (like) a lion (Revelation 10:3).

My lord] The A.V. seems here to assume that the prophet is addressed by his watchman. R.V. and most interpreters render “O Lord” (addressed to Jehovah). Nevertheless A.V. may be right, although it requires the substitution of ’Ǎdônî for ’Ǎdônâi.

in my ward] i.e. “at my post.”

For whole nights read “all the nights.”

And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.
9. Hardly has he spoken when the appointed vision appears: And, behold, here cometh a troop of men, horsemen in pairs (see Isaiah 21:7). And in the same breath the watchman declares its significance: Babylon is fallen, &c. (proph. perf.). Cf. Revelation 18:1 f.

O my threshing, and the corn of my floor: that which I have heard of the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, have I declared unto you.
10. The application to Israel, addressed as my threshing (i.e. threshed one) and my child of the threshing-floor—forcible figurative epithets of Israel as a nation crushed and down-trodden by the brutal tyranny of Babylon (cf. ch. Isaiah 41:15; Micah 4:12 f.; Jeremiah 51:33, &c.).

The burden of Dumah. He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?
11. The burden of Dumah] The best known place of this name is the Dûmat el-Jendel (“rocky Dumah”) of the Arabian geographers (mentioned in Genesis 25:14). It lay to the north of Tema (Isaiah 21:14) and south-east of Seir. Jerome is the sole authority for the statement that there was a Dumah in the land of Seir. The word here, however, is probably a play on the name Edom (which is found in the LXX., and in the margin of some Hebr. MSS.), and at the same time an allusion to the mysterious character of the oracle (=“oracle of silence”).

He calleth] Render as R.V. One calleth.

Watchman, what of the night?] “How far is the night spent: how long till the morning?” It has been suggested that the phrase may have been used in inquiring the time of night of the city watchmen. The word “watchman” here means “guardian” and differs from that employed in Isaiah 21:6 (one who is on the look out).

The oracle on Edom. Isaiah 21:11-12

The prophet hears (whether in reality or in imagination it is impossible to say) an urgent cry from Seir, inquiring whether the night of distress is nearly over (Isaiah 21:11). His reply (Isaiah 21:12) is equivocal and confessedly incomplete; at a later time he may be able to read the signs of the times with a surer vision. The passage is too short and vague to permit any confident conclusion as to its date; but it contains nothing inconsistent with the supposition that it belongs generally to the same period as Isaiah 21:1-10. Towards the end of the Exile the Edomites seem to have been on friendly terms with the Babylonians, from whom they had received a considerable extension of territory (Ezekiel 35:10 ff; Ezekiel 36:5 ff.). But the supremacy of Babylon is now threatened by the victorious Cyrus, and Edom is naturally represented as anxious to learn how the unknown issue of the conflict will affect her national and commercial interests.

The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will inquire, inquire ye: return, come.
12. The morning cometh, and also the night] The watchman’s answer is designedly obscure. It may mean either that the seer has obtained no clear vision of the destiny in store for Edom; or that he foresees a transient gleam of prosperity to be followed by a new night of distress; or that hope is dawning for some and gloom settling down on others.

if ye will inquire …] The answer is not final; another time the purpose of Jehovah may be more clearly indicated, if Edom earnestly desires to know it. For return, come render with R.V. marg. come again. It is impossible to suppose that “return” is used in the sense of “be converted to the worship of Jehovah.” The words for “cometh,” “inquire” (twice) and “come” are Aramaic.

The burden upon Arabia. In the forest in Arabia shall ye lodge, O ye travelling companies of Dedanim.
13. The burden upon Arabia] The Oracle “In Arabia” (or, “In the evening”). The catchword of the heading is taken from the second word of the oracle. LXX. omits the title and in the text renders, with a different pointing, “in the evening,” which gives a good sense (Psalm 30:5). The Massoretic reading may be translated “in Arabia” (Jeremiah 25:24) or “in the desert,” although the word occurs nowhere else in this sense. Forest must here mean either “scrub” or (like the corresponding Arab. wa‘r) “rough, stony ground.”

travelling companies] caravans, as Genesis 37:25.

Dedanim] Dedanites (R.V.). Dedan (Genesis 10:7; Genesis 25:3) was an important trading tribe of Arabia (Ezekiel 27:20; Ezekiel 38:13). Since it is mentioned in connexion with Edom (Jeremiah 49:8; Ezekiel 25:13), its possessions were probably somewhere near the north end of the Gulf of Akaba.

The oracle on Arabia, Isaiah 21:13-17

A vision (Isaiah 21:13-15) and its interpretation (Isaiah 21:16-17). A caravan of the merchant-tribe of Dedan is seen driven by stress of war from the regular route, and lurking in solitary places, destitute of food and water. The travellers are succoured by the hospitality of the neighbouring tribe of Tema (Isaiah 21:13-15). This vision symbolises a great destruction within a short time of the nomadic Arabs, purposed by Jehovah the God of Israel (16 f.). Here again positive indications of date are wanting. If the oracle belongs to the same group as the two which precede, the enemy would be the Persian conquerors of Babylonia, who are represented as attacking the Arabian caravans that traded under its auspices. A similar threat against Dedan forms part of a prophecy of Jeremiah against Edom in the time of Nebuchadnezzar (Isaiah 49:7 f.).

The inhabitants of the land of Tema brought water to him that was thirsty, they prevented with their bread him that fled.
14. The caravans are reduced to the direst straits through having to shun the stations on the regular route where alone their stock of food and water could be replenished. The prophet calls on the inhabitants of Tema to supply their necessities. The verse should be rendered: To the thirsty bring water, O ye inhabitants of the land of Tema, meet the fugitive with bread (suitable) for him. (See R.V. marg.)

Tema (Genesis 25:14; Job 6:19) is the modern Teima in the northern highlands of Arabia, east of the great pilgrim route from Damascus to Mecca. In O.T. times it was the seat of an important commercial tribe, friendly therefore to the Dedanites.

For they fled from the swords, from the drawn sword, and from the bent bow, and from the grievousness of war.
15. The caravans have deserted the frequented paths, because of armed bands scouring the country.

16 f. The interpretation of the vision is regarded by many commentators as a later appendix similar to ch. Isaiah 16:13 f. There is certainly a surprising resemblance between the two passages, which may suggest that they are both from the same hand.

For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Within a year, according to the years of an hireling, and all the glory of Kedar shall fail:
16. according to the years of a hireling] See on Isaiah 16:14.

Kedar] a tribe of pastoral nomads (Isaiah 60:7; Ezekiel 27:21) in the Syrian desert (Jeremiah 2:10), is here apparently a comprehensive designation of the north Arabian tribes (cf. Song of Solomon 1:5; Psalm 120:5).

And the residue of the number of archers, the mighty men of the children of Kedar, shall be diminished: for the LORD God of Israel hath spoken it.
17. the number of archers] Lit. “of the bows.” The bow was the chief weapon of the Northern Arabs, as of their progenitor Ishmael, Genesis 21:20.

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