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.…
It is thought, by some recent commentators, that the description refers to the siege of Babylon in B.C. 710 by Sargon the Assyrian. The King of Babylon at that time was Merodach-Baladan, who sent letters and a present to Hezekiah when he was sick (Isaiah 39:1; 2 Kings 20:12). The prophet may well grieve over the fall of Babylon, as likely to drag down with it weaker kingdoms.
I. THE SOUND OF THE TEMPEST. What sublime poesy have the prophets found in the tempest! We are perhaps impressed more through the perception of the ear than that of the eye, by the sense of vague, vast, overwhelming power working through all the changes of the world. The sweeping up of a tempest from the southern dry country of Judah is like the gathering of a moles belli, and this, again betokens that Jehovah of hosts is stirring up his might in the world unseen. Hence his arrows go forth like lightning, his trumpet blows (Zechariah 9:14). This movement comes from the terrible land, the desert, the haunt of serpents and other horrible creatures.
II. THE VISION OF CALAMITY. The march of the barbarous conqueror is marked by cruelty and devastation. The prophet's heart is overpowered within him. He writhes with anguish as in the visions of the even-tide the picture of Babylon's fall passes before his mind. He beholds a scene of rivalry. There is feasting and mirth. We are reminded of that description which De Quincey adduced as an example of the sublime: "Belshazzar the king made a great feast unto a thousand of his lords, and drank wine before the thousand" (Daniel 5:1); and of Byron's description of the eve of the battle of Waterloo at Brussels. Suddenly an alarm is given; the walls have been stormed, the palace is threatened; the banqueters must start from the couch and exchange the garb of luxury for the shield and the armor. The impression of the picture is heightened by the descriptions in Herodotus (1. 191) and Xenophon ('Cyrop.,' 7:5), whether they refer to the same event or no. It is the picture of careless ease and luxury surprised by sudden terror. "Let us go against them," says Cyrus in Xenophon. "Many of them are asleep, many intoxicated, and all of them unfit for battle." The scene, then, may be used parabolically to enforce those lessons of temperance, of watchfulness, of sobriety, and prayerfulness which our religion inculcates.
III. THE WATCHMAN. The word of Jehovah directs that a watchman shall be posted, the prophet "dividing himself into two persons" - his own proper person and that of the speculator or scout upon the height of the watch-tower. So Habakkuk "stands upon his watch, and sets him upon the tower" (Habakkuk 2:1). And what does the prophet see? Cavalry riding two abreast, some on horses, others on asses, others (with the baggage) on camels. This he sees; but he hears no authentic tidings of distant things, though straining his ear in utmost tension. Then he groans with the deep tones of the impatient lion. How long is he to remain at his post? We cannot but think of the fine opening of the 'Agamemnon' of AEschylus, where the weary warder soliloquizes -
"The gods I ask deliverance from these labors,
Watch of a year's length, whereby, slumbering thro' it
On the Atreidai's roof on elbow, dog-like,
I know of mighty star-groups the assemblage,
And those that bring to men winter and summer."
(R. Browning's translation.) As he waits for "the torch's token and the glow of fire," so does Isaiah wait for certain news about Babylon. And, no sooner is the plaint uttered, than the wish is realized. The watchman sees a squadron of cavalry, riding two abreast, and the truth flashes on him - Babylon is fallen! The images, symbols of the might of the city, protected by the gods they represented, are dashed to the ground and broken. What was felt under such circumstances may be gathered by the student of Greek history from the awful impression made, on the eve of the expedition to Sicily, by the discovery of the mutilation of the statues of the Hermai. It is all over with Babylon.
IV. THE ANGUISH OF THE PATRIOT. "O my threshed and winnowed one!" Poor Israel, who has already suffered so much from the Assyrian, how gladly would the prophet have announced better tidings! The threshing-floor is an image of suffering, and not confined to the Hebrews. It may be found in old Greek lore, and in modern Greek folk-poesy. No image, indeed, can be more expressive (comp. Isaiah 41:15; Micah 4:12, 13; Jeremiah 51:33). "But love also takes part in the threshing, and restrains the wrath."
V. GENERAL LESSONS. The Christian minister is, too, a watcher. He must listen and he must look. There are oracles to be heard by the attentive ear, breaking out of the heart of things - hints in the distance to be caught by the wakeful and searching eye. "They whom God has appointed to watch are neither drowsy nor dim-sighted. The prophet also, by this example, exhorts and stimulates believers to the same kind of attention, that by the help of the lamp of the Word they may obtain a distant view of the power of God." - J.
Parallel VersesKJV: 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.