William Kelly Major Works Commentary
The burden of Babylon, which Isaiah the son of Amoz did see.Isaiah Chapter 13
Here begins a quite distinct section of our prophet, which is not occupied so much as before with Israel, though, of course, we find Israel therein. Still Israel cannot be said to be the immediate object of the new series, but rather the nations and their judgement, running down from circumstances that were then comparatively imminent to the very "completion of the age." It is as general in its character throughout, as the first section is occupied with Israel. Yet naturally we therein heard of the nations in relation to Israel, either as subjected willingly to Zion, as they will be in "that day," or as instruments of providential chastening to the guilty people in this day, even though they may have enticed them from their true allegiance by their idols or any of their other iniquities. But in the second series, from chapters 13 to 27, we shall see how the scope is enlarged in presenting the "Burdens" of the nations (as the various prophecies are here first called), until we open out into the whole world coming under judgement in order to blessing quite as wide, though Israel's part is shown us in corresponding largeness at the close. And here too, as in the first, we have at the close songs in unison with the grand result.
As to the expression, "completion (end) of the age," which occurs so often in the Gospel of Matthew, its application is to that condition of things during which Israel are found under the law and without their Messiah. The new age, on the contrary, will be characterized by their being under the new covenant. Their Messiah will then reign over them in glory. The Old Testament gives us, not only these ages, but the times before them, as the New Testament unveils the eternity that is to follow them. Practically the New, like the Old, speaks of these two ages as connected with Israel: the age that was going on when Christ came and was rejected, and that which is to come when He returns in glory. "In this age" there is a mixture of good and evil, to be closed by an awful conflict in which the Beast and the false prophet will fall. The age to come will see Satan bound and the Lord Jesus governing the earth in displayed power and glory. "End of the world" is an unequivocal mistranslation, which has led astray not only the mass of men but their leaders, particularly in their false expectation of earthly progress and victory for the church, and along with this their unbelief of Israel's restoration to favour and glory under the promised reign of the Messiah, and the universal blessing of the earth and the nation.
Thus the difference of the ages is of incalculable importance. If you do not distinguish the present age from that to come, all must be confused, not for truth only, but for practice also. For now it is a question of grace and faith, evil being allowed outwardly to triumph, as we see in the cross. In the age to come the evil will be externally judged and kept down, and the good will be exalted over all the earth, and fill the whole world with the knowledge of Jehovah and His glory. The completion of the age, therefore, is evidently future; and so scripture speaks. Thus for us it is "this present evil age," from which Christ's death has delivered us (Galatians 1:4); the new age will be good, not evil, as surely as it is a future time. Again, if we think not of the church, but of Israel, it is to be supposed that the age began with their being under the law in the absence of the Messiah. The new age will be when Israel have their Messiah not only come, but come again and reigning; for the presence of the Messiah in humiliation did not interrupt the age; and still less did their rejection of Him bring in the new age.
Only let us not forget, there is now another mighty work of God in process, based on the heavenly glory of Christ and the personal presence of the Holy Ghost, and marked here below by the church of God. During this period mercy is flowing out to the Gentiles; so that we may call it the Gentile parenthesis of mercy. Before, and quite distinct from this, were the Gentile times when God in His providence gave certain nations to take the government of the world, beginning with Nebuchadnezzar, the golden head of the great image. This we may call the Gentile parenthesis of judgement. They are both of them within the limits of "this age," and are going on still. The new age will be brought in by the Lord's coming in the clouds of heaven.
This at once introduces a very important change, namely, that repentant Israel will be delivered, and the nations come up for the judgement of the quick when the Son of man shall have entered on His kingdom. (Compare Matt. 25: 31-48; Rev. 11.-20) The first part of Isaiah we saw to be the judgement of Israel, and then their final blessing. It is always a principle in the dealings of God, that when He judges, He begins at His own house. Hence Peter says, "The time is come that judgement must begin with the house of God"; and then he enquires if "the righteous scarcely [or with difficulty] are saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?" But God has undertaken to save the righteous, although it be with difficulty and in face of an amazing mass of contradiction and trial, as well as of their own utter weakness. All these things make it hard indeed; but what is insuperable to us is an opening for the glory of God and He has got over the greatest difficulty, for this lay in our sins. Is sin - even all sin - any longer a difficulty for Christ? Has He not, for the believer, blotted out sins, and made peace by the blood of His cross? But if there remains no difficulty to God, there are many for us; and the word, "the righteous scarcely are saved," is in relation to our dangers by the way. Now if this be so, what will be the end of the ungodly? The apostle Peter applies it to the Christian, and looks at the world as coming under judgement when the Lord shall appear. In the Old Testament it is not the church but Israel we find to be concerned; but God, in such a dealing, invariably begins with that which has the nearest responsibility to Him. Accordingly all the first twelve chapters of Isaiah have been occupied with Israel as the foreground of the picture, whatever incidental notice there may be of others.
But from this portion onward through a dozen chapters more we have the Gentiles prominent, though Jerusalem too is judged in their midst, ending with the dissolution of the earth and with the higher ones punished on high. He had shown us the judgement of His own house; now He deals with the nations and all else in relationship with His people, one after another: both close, like all others, with triumph.
First of all Babylon comes up: "The burden of Babylon, which Isaiah the son of Amoz did see" (v. 1). Babylon was the great Gentile power first allowed to take possession of Jerusalem. But God shows that, while He may use the strangers to chastise His people, He will turn round ere long and deal with their oppressive cruelty, because their mind was to destroy, while God employed them only to chasten. And inasmuch as there was pride of power without conscience toward God, yea also the main source of idolatry, so Babylon cannot escape, being the first among the Gentiles summoned to judgement. Thus the section we now enter upon is not the divine scrutiny of His house in Israel, but the judgement of the world and of the nations, and hence right early of Babylon. Observe, however, that, if the Spirit of God takes notice of what was ere long to befall the Jews (expressly noticing the ruin of their land and people that was imminent, when they should be taken captive to Babylon), for all that He never confines Himself to any blows, however grave, that were then struck. Human limits do not apply to scripture, which goes on from His first acts to the ultimate end.
This indeed is just a characteristic difference between what is of God and what is of man. If man speaks, there are necessary bounds to the application of his words. In what God says there is invariably a germinant sense deepening farther on, evidence of what God has in view to show what He is and to glorify Christ. This appears to be the true meaning of the scriptural canon in 2 Peter 1:20: "No prophecy is of any private (i.e. its own) interpretation." Apply it but to some isolated event, and you overlook the purpose of God; while prophecy may doubtless include such an event, it as a whole looks onward to the counsels of God in reference to the glory of His Son. Hence the holy prophets needed inspiration in the strictest sense; for whose eye could look onward unerringly and speak of the future according to God? Such therefore is the aim of the Spirit's testimony. Indeed this is true of all scripture, for Christ is the object of God in giving scripture first and last. He is not merely thinking of man, or of his salvation, blessed as it is, nor of Israel His people, nor of the church, Christ's body, but of His Son. This in effect, as in purpose, is the vindication, security, and display of His own glory; while it gives scope to the fullest love and the holiest judgement, it will illustrate His rich grace in the heavens and His righteous and merciful government on the earth. Compare Eph. 1; Phil. 2; Heb. 2; Rev. 20.-22.
God thinks of Christ, Who is more precious to Himself than all besides. It is in virtue of Christ that there can be a holy purpose of good brought to issue in such a world as this has been. For it is not possible that the creature itself could have any intrinsic value in the sight of God. That which merely flows out of the sovereign will and almighty hand of God can cease to be. He that made can destroy; but when you come to Christ, you have that which, we may reverently say, nothing can annul; yea all the efforts of man or Satan to oppose and dishonour Him have been only turned, in the mighty and gracious wisdom of God, into a display of all-surpassing glory.
Hence we arrive at the great truth for our every-day walk, no less than for eternity and God Himself. We have to do with One now, Whose love nothing can exhaust, Whose ways too are all perfect; we have to do with Him day by day, to wait on Him, to expect from Him, to trust Him, and to be sure of His admirable care for us. Christ is worthy that our hearts should confide in Him, and He cannot be confided in without the blessing that ever flows out. Thus God proves Himself greater than all that can be against us. Apart from Christ there is nothing even that He Himself made but what, connected with man on earth, soon had a cloud over it. Nay, it is wider still: look where you may, above or below; look at any creature height or beauty apart from Christ, and what is the security?
What is Satan now, and his angels? Where are those that left their first estate, and broke through all bounds of nature? Is not the earth, once so fair, a wilderness? Is not man a moral wreck, and mortality working in him? Israel were brought out into the wilderness to keep a feast to Jehovah; but they made and worshipped a golden calf to His deep shame and their own. And what was Egypt's wisdom? What is the world's of old or now? In the church of God, called to the unity of the Spirit and the reflection of Christ's heavenly glory here below, what breaches, divisions, schisms, sects, heterodoxies, confusions, and every evil work! What guilty ignorance of the Father, what bold denial of the Son, what flagrant sin against the Holy Ghost! How many antichrists, the sign and forerunner of the last antichrist! For all this goes on at an aggravated and accelerating ratio, as the apostasy draws near and the manifestation of the man of sin; the lawless one, to succeed the mystery of lawlessness, whom the Lord Jesus shall destroy with the breath of His mouth and shall annul by the appearing of His coming (2 Thess. 2).
By the lamp of prophecy we look as it were on the closing history of Christendom, the eve and execution of the judgement that slumbers not. But, thank God, we await first of all our Saviour from heaven - a blessed hope, which may be forgotten by worldliness and unbelief but will never fade, because it is not founded on anything short of the grace and word of the Lord Jesus. He is coming; and as surely as He does, we have the turning-point of all blessing reached for our bodies and all things, even as now by faith for our souls. What a discovery it has been to some of us, that prophecy has the selfsame centre as the rest of scripture, and that its centre in Christ is so much the more conspicuous as it cannot content itself with past accomplishment, but ever looks onward to the grand fulfilment in the future! No matter what it may be, all acquires importance because God is thinking of His beloved Son. And His Son is to inflict the last strokes of judgement: God will deal with man, first by providential means, then in the person of Christ at His return in glory. "Lift up a banner upon a bare mountain, raise the voice to them, wave the hand that they may enter the gates of the nobles. I have commanded my separated ones, yea, I have called my mighty ones for mine anger, even those that exult in my majesty. The noise of a multitude on the mountains, as of a great people! a tumultuous noise of the kingdoms of nations assembled together! Jehovah of hosts mustering the host of the battle! They come from a far country, from the end of the heavens - Jehovah and the weapons of his indignation, to destroy the whole earth" (vv. 2-5).
From the chapter now before us we may gather these two things plainly enough - a preparatory application to the times of the prophet or near them, but the only adequate fulfilment reserved for the great day which is still future. This divine perspective simply and unequivocally meets the difficulty some find in the view of the city, not only taken and ravaged by the Medes, but such as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, the abode of doleful creatures, which was not for centuries after Cyrus conquered. And so it is that Isa. 14 regards its downfall even to the day when Jehovah will yet choose Israel and set them in their own land: a consummation far beyond the return of the remnant of Judah, and only "in that day" fulfilled when Israel shall take them captive whose captives they were, and rule over their oppressors, which in no real sense has been accomplished. Those who explain it away are no friends of God or man. Those who presume to deny its future fulfilment set up to prophesy against scripture; and we need not hesitate to say that they are not prophets but do lie.
For instance, in verses 6-10 one can see there are greater signs than have ever been verified. "Howl ye; for the day of Jehovah [is] at hand; as destruction from the Almighty shall it come. Therefore shall all hands be feeble, and every heart of man shall melt, and they shall be dismayed: pangs and sorrows shall take hold of them; they shall writhe as a woman in travail; they shall be amazed one at another; their faces [shall be] faces of flames. Behold, the day of Jehovah cometh, cruel both with wrath and fierce anger, to make the land a desolation, and to destroy the sinners thereof out of it. For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light; the sun is darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause its light to shine." These things cannot fairly be said to have literally taken place; yet the Spirit of God does not hesitate to connect them with Babylon's fall. To talk of hyperbole or exaggeration is to show unbelieving ignorance of scripture and of the power of God. One understands an infidel talking such language as this; but the moment men begin to allow that the Spirit of God willingly sets Himself to exaggerate, the authority of the whole written word is shaken. If He magnifies a temporal judgement beyond the facts, how can we be assured that He does not exaggerate grace and eternal redemption? And where is the ground in this case for solid peace with God? Is it, or is it not, a fixed principle, that the Holy Ghost always speaks the truth? Still, along with this, we must take care that we understand its application.
"And I will punish the world for evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; and I will cause the arrogance of the proud to cease, and will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible. I will make weak man more rare than fine gold, a man than the pure gold of Ophir. Therefore I will make the heavens to tremble, and the earth shall be shaken out of her place, at the wrath of Jehovah of hosts, and in the day of his hot anger" (vv. 11-13). To restrain this scene to the past judgement of Babylon is to limit the word of God, and make the Spirit seem to be unreliable. But this is merely our own evil misconception and irreverent error. How momentous, then, it is that we should be in malice children, in understanding men! We may well shrink with horror from a pathway that leads to an end so dishonouring to the word of God. On the other hand, that the Holy Ghost did really speak inclusively of a past accomplishment we hold to be just as certain as that He was looking onward to far more than that.
In verses 14-17 the terms imply that it is a temporal judgment that is spoken of, a description of the lawless way in which man wreaks his wrath upon his fellow. "And it shall come to pass, that as a chased roe, and as sheep that no one gathereth, they shall turn every one to his own people, and shall flee every one to his own land. Every one that is found shall be thrust through; and every one that is taken shall fall by the sword. Their infants also shall be dashed in pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their women ravished. Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them, who will not regard silver, and [as for; gold, they will not delight in it." Verses 18, 19 present a total destruction. "And [their] bows shall dash the young men in 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 Chaldeans' pride, shall be as God's overthrowing Sodom and Gomorrah."
Babylon has indeed been judged in its beauty and pride. An almost unprecedented disaster and destruction fell on that golden city; and this, we know, was under God effected by the junction of the Medes and Persians with Cyrus for their leader. Only the closing verses point to the utter ruin that followed centuries after, and is to last for ever. "It shall never be inhabited, neither shall it be dwelt in to generation and generation; neither shall the Arabian pitch tent there, nor shall shepherds make [their flocks] to lie down there. But beasts of the desert there shall lie down; and their houses shall be full of owls (or howls); and ostriches shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there. And wolves shall cry in their palaces, and jackals in the pleasant castles. And her time [is] near to come, and her days shall not be prolonged" (vv. 21-22).
But plainly Jehovah here uses the strongest language to show that it goes on to His day. In reading the New Testament as well as the Old, it is of the utmost moment to understand "the day of the Lord" in its real character and import. It is not the same thing as the Lord's "coming" to receive us. When He comes, the dead saints are raised and the living ones are changed, which is not "the day of the Lord," nor ever so called in scripture . There is one chapter (2 Peter 3) where there might seem to be some difficulty, but there it flows really from this very confusion, for when you distinguish the two phrases and thoughts here as elsewhere, all is plain. What the scoffers of the last day say is, "Where is the promise of His coming?" etc. What the Spirit of God replies is, that the day of the Lord shall come, and come like a thief in the night to judge wickedness upon the earth. They make light of the Christians who are looking for this bright hope, their Master's coming; but the Holy Ghost threatens them with the terrible day of the Lord. The Lord is never represented as coming like a thief by night, except when judgement is distinctly spoken of, as to Sardis (Revelation 3:3). In 1 Thessalonians 5:24 the Spirit brings in the comparison of the thief when He speaks of the day of the Lord coming upon the world, not in relation to the saints who wait for Christ and are not in darkness that the day should overtake them as a thief. (Compare vv. 3-8)
The plain truth is that the expression "coming of the Lord" may apply to His presence before He is manifested to every eye; while "the day of Jehovah" pertains to that part and aspect of His action which inflicts just vengeance upon the world, and after that presents Him judging in righteousness. Here it is the day of Jehovah; and, therefore, of darkness and destruction to sinners. There is not a word about the righteous dead being raised, still less of the living changed; all that which is proper to the New Testament you find therein, and therein only. In the Old Testament you have the dealing of Jehovah with Israel, judging their wrong but finally blessing them, and patient long-suffering with the Gentiles, where He took notice of them at all, till the day of visitation come in punishment of all ungodliness.
This accounts for the language of Isaiah 13. The Spirit of God has in His view Jehovah's judgement of the whole world; and, therefore, it is called "the day of Jehovah." It will be the termination of all the space allowed to man's will and self-exaltation. It will be the manifestation of God's moral ways when all that is high shall be abased, and Jehovah and the lowly whom He loves shall be exalted for ever. But while the Spirit of God goes onward to that day, there was enough to mark Babylon devoted to destruction by a predicted and extraordinary intervention of God near at hand. The truth of the prophecy was thus witnessed by a special accomplishment in those days. Babylon was doomed to become as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. Its desolation at last was as clearly announced in vers. 19-22, as its sudden and unexpected fall in vers. 2-8. If physically it was not so manifestly a divine judgement as that which of old fell on the cities of the plain, it was morally a stupendous event which changed the whole course of the world's history. The conquest of Persia was in no way a type of the final judgement of the world, neither was the fall of Greece of any striking significance in this respect. The final judgement of Rome, of the fourth world-power, will be even more impressive of course; but this is yet future. It has been, as it were, shaken to pieces, and passed into a long transition state of separated kingdoms. The day is coming when Rome will rise again into splendour and commanding political power, when it will become the centre of a revived and godless empire. But it will then rise to meet its final doom from the mouth of the Lord (Revelation 17:11-14; Revelation 19:11-21). The past ruin of Babylon is a type of the future destruction of Rome. When Babylon fell, the children of Israel were delivered, there was nothing of the sort when Persia yielded to Greece, or Greece to Rome; there will be a yet mightier result at the end of the age before and when the Son of man comes in power and glory.
Thus the fall of the first great power of the Gentiles is a type of the doom of the last, when Israel will have been finally set free, a converted people, being delivered spiritually as much as nationally, and thenceforward made to express the glory of Jehovah upon the earth.
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.
I have commanded my sanctified ones, I have also called my mighty ones for mine anger, even them that rejoice in my highness.
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.
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.
Howl ye; for the day of the LORD is at hand; it shall come as a destruction from the Almighty.
Therefore shall all hands be faint, and every man's heart shall melt:
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.
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.
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.
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.
I will make a man more precious than fine gold; even a man than the golden wedge of Ophir.
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.
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.
Every one that is found shall be thrust through; and every one that is joined unto them shall fall by the sword.
Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished.
Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them, which shall not regard silver; and as for gold, they shall not delight in it.
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.
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.
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.
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.