Isaiah 21
Pulpit Commentary
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.
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.
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.
Verse 2. - A grievous vision; literally, a hard vision; not, however, "hard of interpretation" (Kay), but rather "hard to be borne," "grievous," "calamitous." The treacherous dealer dealeth treacherously; rather, perhaps, the robber robs (Knobel); or, the violent man uses violence (Rosenmüller). The idea of faithlessness passes out of the Hebrew boged occasionally, and is unsuitable here, more especially if it is the army of Cyrus that is intended. Go up, O Elam. The discovery that Cyrus, at the time of his conquest of Babylon, Bore the title of "King of Ansan," not "King of Persia," coupled with the probability that "Ansan" was a part of Elam, lends a peculiar interest to these words. Isaiah could not describe Cyrus as "King of Persia," and at the same time be intelligible to his contemporaries, since Persia was a country utterly unknown to them. In using the term "Elam" instead, he uses that of a country known to the Hebrews (Genesis 14:1), adjoining Persia, and, at the time of his expedition against Babylon, subject to Cyrus. Besiege, O Media. Having given "Elam" the first place, the prophet assigns to Media the second. Eleven years before he attacked Babylon, Cyrus had made war upon Astyages (Istuvegu), King of the Medes, had captured him, and become king of the nation, with scarcely any opposition (see the 'Cylinder of Nabonidus'). Hence the Medes would naturally form an important portion of the force which he led against Babylon. All the sighing thereof have I made to cease. The "sighing" caused by Babylon to the nations, to the captives, and to the kings whose prison-doors were kept closed (Isaiah 14:17), God has in his counsels determined to bring to an end.
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.
Verse 3. - Therefore are my loins filled with pain, etc. (comp. above, Isaiah 15:5; Isaiah 16:9-11). The prophet is horrorstruck at the vision shown him - at the devastation, the ruin, the carnage (Isaiah 13:18). He does not stop to consider how well deserved the punishment is; he does not, perhaps, as yet know how that, in smiting Babylon, God will be specially avenging the sufferings of his own nation (see the introductory paragraph). I was bowed down at the hearing, etc.; rather, I am so agonized that I cannot hear; I am so terrified that I cannot see.
My heart panted, fearfulness affrighted me: the night of my pleasure hath he turned into fear unto me.
Verse 4. - My heart panted; rather, my heart trembleth, or fluttereth. The night of my pleasure; i.e. "the night, wherein, I am wont to enjoy peaceful and pleasant slumbers."
Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.
Verse 5. - Prepare the table, etc. With lyrical abruptness, the prophet turns from his own feelings to draw a picture of Babylon at the time when she is attacked. He uses historical infinitives, the most lively form of narrative. Translate, They deck the table, set the watch, eat, drink; i.e. having decked the table, they commit the task of watching to a few, and then give themselves up to feasting and reveling, as if there were no danger. It is impossible not to think of Belshazzar's feast, and the descriptions of the Greek historians (Herod., 1:191; Xen., 'Cyrop.,' 7:23), which mark at any rate the strength of the tradition that, when Babylon was taken, its inhabitants were engaged in revelry. Arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield. In the midst of the feast there enters to the revellers one from the outside, with these words, "Rise, quit the banquet; get your shields; anoint them; arm yourselves." That shields were greased with fat or oil before being used in battle appears from Virg., 'AEneid,' 7:625, and other places. It was thought that the enemy's weapons would more readily glance off an oiled surface.
For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.
Verse 6. - Go, set a watchman. The event is not to be immediate, it is to be watched for; and Isaiah is not to watch himself, but to set the watchman. Moreover, the watchman waits long before he sees anything (ver. 8). These unusual features of the narrative seem to mark a remote, not a near, accomplishment of the prophecy.
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:
Verse 7. - And he saw... he hearkened; rather, he shall see... he shall hearken (Kay). He is to wait and watch until he sees a certain sight; then he is to listen attentively, and he will hear the crash of the falling city. A chariot with a couple of horsemen; rather, a troop of horsemen riding two and two. This is exactly how a cavalry force was ordinarily represented by the Assyrians. Chariots are not intended either here or in ver. 9. They were not employed by the Persians until a late period of their history (see 'Ancient Monarchies,' vol. 4. pp. 113, 122). A chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; rather, men mounted on asses and on camels. It is well known that both animals were employed by the Persians in their expeditions to carry the baggage (Herod., 1:80; 4:129; Xen., 'Cyrop.,' 7:1, etc.). But neither animal was ever attached to a chariot.
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:
Verse 8. - And he cried, A lion; rather, he cried as a lion; i.e. with a loud deep voice (comp. Revelation 10:3). The watchman, after long waiting, becomes impatient, and can contain himself no longer. He makes complaint of his long vain watch. My lord; rather, O Lord. The watchman addresses his complaint to Jehovah.
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.
Verse 9. - And, behold, here cometh, etc. Our translators make the words those of the watchman. But they are better taken as the prophet's statement of a fact, "And behold, just then there cometh a troop of men, riding two and two" - the sign for which he was to watch (ver. 7), or rather the first part of it. We must suppose the rest of the sign to follow, and the watchman then to listen awhile attentively. Suddenly he hears the sound of a sacked town, and he exclaims, Babylon is fallen, is fallen, etc. All the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground. Recent documents, belonging to the time of Cyrus, and treating of his capture of Babylon, show that this expression is not to be understood literally. Cyrus was not an iconoclast; he did not break into pieces, or in any way destroy or insult the Babylonian idols. On the contrary, he maintained them in their several shrines, or restored them where they had been displaced; he professed himself a worshipper of the chief Babylonian gods - Bel, Nebo, and Merodach - he repaired the temple of Merodach; he prayed to Bel and Nebo to lengthen his days; he caused his son, Cambyses, to take part in the great religious ceremony wherewith the Babylonians opened the new year. Thus his conquest of Babylon did not bring upon its gods a physical, but only a moral, destruction. The Persian victory discredited and degraded them. It proclaimed to Western Asia that the idolatrous system so long prevalent in the region between Mount Zagros and the Mediterranean was no longer in the ascendant, but lay at the mercy of another quite different religion, which condescended to accord it toleration. Such was the permanent result. No doubt there was also, in the sack of the city, much damage done to many of the idols by a greedy soldiery, who may have carried off many images of gold or silver, and broken up others that were not portable, and stripped off the plates of precious metal from the idols of "brass, and iron, and wood, and stone" (Daniel 5:6).
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.
Verse 10. - O my threshing, and the corn of my floor. These are the words of the prophet to Israel. Her chastisements have long been "threshing" Israel, separating the grain from the chaff, and will do so still more as time goes on. The prophet's message is for the comfort of those who shall have gone through the process and become the true "children of the threshing-floor" - pure wheat, fit to be gathered into the garner of God (Matthew 3:12).
The burden of Dumah. He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?
Verses 11, 12. - THE BURDEN OF DUMAH. This short "burden" is probably to be understood as uttered with reference to Edom, which the prophet prefers to call "Dumah," i.e. "silence," in reference to the desolation which he sees to be coming upon the country. Such a play upon words is very usual in the East. Isaiah has already given an instance of it in the name under which he has designated Heliopolis (Isaiah 19:18). Verse 11. - Dumah. There were at least two towns of this name ('Dict. of the Bible,' vol. 1. pp. 459, 460); but neither of them is in the district of Seir. It is best, therefore, to regard "Dumah" here as representing Edom, or Iaumaea (so the LXX., Jarchi, Rosenmüller, Kay, Cheyne, and others). He calleth to me; rather, one calleth to me; i.e. I seem to hear a call from Mount Seir, as of one making inquiry of me. There is no need to suppose that the inquiry was actually made. Mount Self, or the district south-south-east of the Dead Sea, was the heart of the Idumaean country, which thence extended vaguely eastward and westward. What of the night? i.e. what hour, or, rather, perhaps, what watch of the night is it? May we consider that "the night is far spent, and the day at hand? Edom had offended Sargon by joining with Ashdod (G. Smith, 'Eponym Canon,' p. 130), and was probably at tiffs time oppressed by Sargon in consequence.
The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will inquire, inquire ye: return, come.
Verse 12. - The morning cometh, and also the night. An oracular reply, but probably meaning

(1) that a brighter time would soon dawn upon the Edomite people; and

(2) that this brighter time would be followed by a return of misery and affliction. We may (conjecturally) understand the "morning" of the earlier part of Sennacherib's reign, when Edom was at peace with Assyria, merely paying a moderate tribute (G. Smith, 'Eponym Canon,' p. 132), and the "night" of the later period in the same king's reign, when (about B.C. 694-690) the country suffered from another Assyrian invasion, in which the king's treasures and his gods were carried off to Nineveh (ibid., p. 137). If ye will inquire, inquire ye; return, come. Some take this very literally, as meaning, "If ye would inquire further into the meaning of this answer, do so; return to me; come again." But this implies that the Edomites had sent an actual messenger to make the inquiry of ver. 5, which is improbable. Others understand a reproach to Edom: "If ye will have recourse to God in the time of trouble, do so; but then do more - return to him altogether; come, and be one with Judah."
The burden upon Arabia. In the forest in Arabia shall ye lodge, O ye travelling companies of Dedanim.
Verses 13-17. - THE BURDEN OF ARABIA. Edom will have companions in misfortune among the Arab tribes upon her borders, Dedan, Tema, and Kedar. War will enter their territory, derange their commerce (ver. 13), cause flight and privation (vers. 14, 15), and within a year greatly diminish the number of their fighting men (vers. 16, 17). The date of the prophecy is uncertain, but can scarcely be earlier than B.C. 715, when Sargon made an expedition into Arabia (O. Smith, 'Eponym Canon,' p. 66). Verse 13. - The burden upon Arabia; rather, in Arabia. The phrase is varied from its usual form, probably because it is not Arabia generally, but only certain of the more northern tribes, on whom calamity is about to fall. In the forest... shall ye lodge. The word used is commonly translated "forest;" but Arabia has no forests, and the meaning here must be "brushwood." Thorny bushes and shrubs are common in all parts of Arabia. The general meaning is that the caravans will have to leave the beaten track, and obtain such shelter and concealment as the scanty brushwood of the desert could afford. Ye traveling companies of Dedanim. The Dedanim, or Dedanites, were among the chief traders of the Arabian peninsula. They had commercial dealings with Tyre, which they supplied with ivory, ebony, and "precious clothes for chariots" (Ezekiel 27:15, 20). This trade they carried on by means of large caravans - the "travelling companies" of the present passage. They are thought to have had their chief settlements on the shores of the Persian Gulf, where the island of Dadan may be an echo of their name.
The inhabitants of the land of Tema brought water to him that was thirsty, they prevented with their bread him that fled.
Verse 14. - The inhabitants of the land of Tema brought water; rather, bring? water, O inhabitants. Tema is reasonably identified with the modern Taima, a village of the Hauran, on the caravan route between Palmyra and Peira. Its inhabitants are exhorted to bring water to the thirsty Dedanites, as they pass along this route with their "travelling companies." (For other mentions of Tome, which must not be confounded with Teman, see Job 6:19 and Jeremiah 25:23.) They prevented with their bread him that fled. Several commentators take this clause as imperative, like the last, and render, "With his bread meet the fugitive;" but the existing Hebrew text seems to require the rendering of the Authorized Version. Dr. Kay understands the prophet to mean that the men of Tema did not need exhortation; already of their own accord had they given of their bread to the fugitive Dedanites.
For they fled from the swords, from the drawn sword, and from the bent bow, and from the grievousness of war.
Verse 15. - For they fled; rather, they have fled. The Dedanites have been attacked with sword and bow, and have fled from their assailants. Probably the enemy was Assyria, but no trace of the war has been found on the Assyrian monuments.
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:
Verse 16. - Within a year, according to the years of an hireling (see the comment on Isaiah 16:14). All the glory of Kedar shall fail. "Kedar" is a name of greater note than either Dedan or Tome. It seems to be used here as inclusive of Dedan, perhaps as a designation of the northern Arabians generally. The people of Kedar, like those of Dedan, carried on trade with Tyro (Ezekiel 27:21). They dwelt partly in tents (Psalm 120:5; Jeremiah 49:29), partly in villages (Isaiah 42:11), and were rich in flocks and herds and in camels. Though not mentioned in the inscriptions of Sargon, Sennacherib, or Esarhaddon, the contemporaries of Isaiah, they hold a prominent place in those of Esarhaddon's son and successor, Asshurbanipal, with whom they carried on a war of some considerable duration in conjunction with the Nabathaeans (G. Smith, 'History of Asshur-bani-pal,' pp. 261-290).

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.
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