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Isaiah: Prophet of Salvation Book 4

Isaiah is the prophet of Salvation. He is also known as the truly "Universalist" prophet, by which is meant that He makes it clear that salvation is extended equally to all nations and not just to Israel. He lived to see the fall of Israel and the deportation of the Israelites to Assyria, and he prophesied of their "return" to God (through repentance). He is truly a "major prophet" whose prophecies greatly influenced the Apostle Paul in the New Testament.

Category - Bible Commentaries

Isaiah 21: Babylon, Edom, and Arabia

Chapter 1: Babylon is Fallen

Isaiah 21:1 begins a prophecy against Babylon, as the prophet foresees the rise of the next empire even while Assyria was currently rising. The prophet was taken by the spirit in a vision to the wilderness, or plain, between Babylon and Persia to witness the fall of Babylon.

1 The oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea [yam]. As windstorms in the Negev [or “southland”] sweep on, it comes from the wilderness, from a terrifying land.

This is the oracle that took place in “the wilderness of the sea.” In this case the “sea” is the Euphrates, as we see also in Jer. 51:36, 37 in another prophecy about the fall of Babylon.

36 Therefore thus says the Lord, “Behold, I am going to plead your case and exact full vengeance for you; and I will dry up her sea [yam] and make her fountain dry. 37 Babylon will become a heap of ruins…”

The Hebrew word yam refers to a large body of water, not necessarily a “sea” or “ocean” but also a river. So also we read that the great harlot of Mystery Babylon sits on “many waters” (Rev. 17:1), a reference to the city’s location on both banks of the Euphrates River. Again, the “Sea of Egypt” in Isaiah 11:15 is not the Mediterranean but the Nile River.

The “Negev” in verse 1, relative to Babylon, was the desert of Arabia that lay to its south, from whence came the hot, parching wind. Negev comes from a root word meaning “to be parched.”

The Harsh Vision

The prophet was not transported physically, as was the case with Ezekiel in Ezekiel 3:14 and Philip in Acts 8:39, 40. Isaiah’s experience is described as a vision in Isaiah 21:2,

2 A harsh vision has been shown to me; the treacherous one still deals treacherously, and the destroyer still destroys. “Go up, Elam, lay siege, Media; I have made an end of all the groaning she [Babylon] has caused.”

The Hebrew word for “harsh” is qasheh, which means “hard, obstinate, cruel, firm, or fixed.” No doubt Isaiah used the word to denote its double meaning and application. The harsh cruelty of the Babylonians was matched by the fixed and firm message of the prophetic vision of the fall of Babylon.

So the prophet calls to Elam and Media to bring judgment upon Babylon. In Isaiah’s time, the name Persia was not yet in use, as it was a century later in the time of Ezekiel and Daniel. The territory of Elam was originally settled by Elam, son of Shem (Gen. 10:22). Persia was a name that was used much later. In fact, Persia annexed Elam before conquering Babylon, at which time they became the same country.

So Isaiah speaks to “Elam,” which was essentially Persia by the time the prophecy was fulfilled. Likewise, Media was given the same divine mandate, and so we find that the Medes and Persians were allies in the overthrow of Babylon (Dan. 5:28).

The Harsh Captivity

In the last part of Isaiah 21:2 God says through the prophet, “I have made an end of all the groaning she has caused.” Life in captivity to Babylon was grim. Isaiah saw this in his vision and knew that Judah would be taken to Babylon in the future.

Isaiah’s vision is not dated, so we do not know if he saw this before or after the incident in Isaiah 39:1, 2, where Hezekiah showed the envoys of Babylon all of his riches. Isaiah told the king that he had done foolishly, saying in Isaiah 39:6,

6 “Behold, the days are coming, when all that is in your house and all that your fathers have laid up in store to this day will be carried away, and they will become officials in the palace of the king of Babylon.”

It is clear that Isaiah knew that Judah would be exiled to Babylon in the future, even though God had saved Judah from the Assyrians. He knew that the iron-yoke captivity would be “harsh,” and that the people would groan and sigh during those years.

Isaiah 21:3, 4 continues,

3 For this reason my loins are full of anguish; pains have seized me like the pains of a woman in labor. I am so bewildered [avah, “twisted, bowed down, bent over”] I cannot hear; so terrified [bahal, “alarmed, disturbed, agitated”] I cannot see. 4 My mind reels, horror overwhelms me; the twilight I longed for has been turned for me into trembling.

Seeing the people in captivity horrified the prophet. The pain that he felt was as if he himself had become one of the captives. He described the pain as though he were giving birth: “my loins are full of anguish; pains have seized me like the pains of a woman in labor.” Hence, the prophet was bent over in pain and perhaps in fear, as a woman in labor might be.

The prophet again conveys the surface situation while suggesting a deeper meaning at the same time. The word avah, “twisted,” is also the root word of avon, “iniquity, perverseness,” picturing those whose hearts are twisted and perverse. Hence, Isaiah seems to suggest the cause of Judah’s captivity to Babylon. God was to judge Judah’s iniquity and perverseness by putting them under a perverse nation that would cause their captives to be twisted, bowed down, or bent over.

Judgment on Babylon

Visions are often sketchy, and events often appear abruptly with no time separating them. So Isaiah 21:5-7 moves quickly from the scene of captivity to the scene of Babylon’s fall.

5 They set the table, they spread out the cloth, they eat, they drink; “Rise up, captains, oil the shields,” 6 for thus the Lord says to me, “Go, station the lookout, let him report what he sees. 7 When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs, a train of donkeys, a train of camels, let him pay close attention, very close attention.”

Verse 5 was fulfilled in Dan. 5:1, the night that Babylon fell,

1 Belshazzar the king held a great feast for a thousand of his nobles, and he was drinking wine in the presence of the thousands.

King Belshazzar was holding a banquet for his nobles when the Medes and Persians broke into the city and captured it. Isaiah saw this in a vision nearly two centuries before Babylon fell. It is as if he had been transported to the great hall of Babylon to witness the event personally. Then, just as abruptly, the prophet was taken back in time and heard God’s orders to the captains: “Go, station the lookout.” God was acting as the army general, giving orders on the defense of the city.

Secondly, the prophet hears, “oil the shields.” Many shields in those days were made of leather, which, if not oiled, would crack and weaken. An order to “oil the shields,” then, meant to prepare their defenses and prepare for war.

Verse 7 tells us what the watchmen were to look for—“riders, horsemen in pairs.” Cyrus was the first to train the Persians in horsemanship. The watchmen on the walls were instructed to watch for horsemen riding in pairs, perhaps pulling chariots (as the KJV says). According to The Commentary on the Whole Bible, by Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, page 453,

“The Persians used asses and camels for war. [Maurer.] Horsley translates, ‘one drawn in a car with a pair of riders, drawn by an ass, drawn by a camel;’ Cyrus is the man; the car is drawn by a camel and ass yoked together and driven by two postillions, one on each, is the joint army of Medes and Persians under their respective leaders.”

It appears that the pair of horsemen were meant to picture the alliance between Cyrus the Persian and Darius the Mede as they came to make war on Babylon. In this prophetic picture, the “camel” was Cyrus, who was dominant, and the “ass” was Darius, the Mede. It reminds us of the law in Deut. 22:10,

10 You shall not plow with an ox and a donkey together.

While this law is stated in terms of farming, the underlying principle is about making alliances between unequal partners. Paul applies this law to marriage alliances in 2 Cor. 6:14 (KJV), “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers.”

So Isaiah 21:7 seems to imply that Cyrus and Darius were “unequally yoked,” in that Cyrus was dominant in this political “marriage.” Darius was, in fact, Cyrus’ uncle and later also was his father-in-law, and the two were allied by Cyrus’ marriage to Darius’ daughter. The full story of Cyrus is written in Daniel, Prophet of the Ages, chapter 9.

The law in Deut. 22:10 was mostly concerned with the fact that an ass was an unclean creature, while an ox was a clean creature. In New Testament terms, it was applied to believers being yoked to unbelievers. But in the case of Persia and Media, both the camel and the ass were unclean. They were unequal only in the sense of strength or power.

In another prophecy (Daniel 7), where the coming empires were pictured as beasts, the Medo-Persian empire was pictured as a lopsided bear, “raised up on one side” (Dan. 7:5). This was just another way of portraying the unequal “marriage” relationship between Persia and Media.

The Voice from the Watchtower

Isaiah 21:8, 9 says,

8 Then the lookout called, “O Lord, I stand continually by day on the watchtower, and I am stationed every night at my guard post. 9 Now behold, here comes a troop of riders, horsemen in pairs.” And one said, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the images of her gods are shattered on the ground.”

The prophet either heard a lookout speak in his vision, or he found himself speaking as the watchmen. “Lord” is not Yahweh but Adonai, which refers to one in authority. Sometimes the word is used of God, but in this case it is probably a reference to his superior in the army to whom he was reporting. Hence, it seems likely that the prophet was observing the scene and hearing what the watchman on the tower was reporting to his commander.

As Vigilant as a Lion

The NASB (above) seems to ignore the Hebrew word ariy, “lion,” that appears in the Hebrew text. The KJV reads,

8 And he cried, “A lion [ariy]: My Lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights.”

The “lion” seems totally out of place in the KJV. However, Dr. Bullinger says that we should read, “as a lion, O Lord.” The Commentary on the Whole Bible, by Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown, tells us on page 453,

8. A lion—rather “(the watchman) cried, I am as a lion;” so as is understood… The lion’s eyelids are short, so that, even when asleep, he seems to be on the watch, awake; hence he was painted on doors of temples as the symbol of watchfulness, guarding the places.

The watchman in Isaiah’s vision, then, was being watchful and vigilant. He reported what he saw to the commander—“a troop of riders, horsemen in pairs.” This was taken by another to mean that Babylon had fallen or was about to fall. Such an immediate response from a soldier or the commander would be highly unlikely, but the prophet heard this as a revelation that the fall of Babylon was imminent.

Destroying Babylon’s Images

The prophet also saw the destruction of Babylon’s (graven) “images of her gods.” When Cyrus and Darius took Babylon, they did not destroy its religious system, for it was actually some temple priests who had assisted the Persians in overthrowing Babylon. I wrote about this in Daniel, Prophet of the Ages, Book 1, chapter 8, page 72.

“During the ten years that King Nabonidus was away from Babylon, his son Belshazzar ruled in his place. Nabonidus’ absence meant that some key yearly celebrations of the Babylonian gods could not be celebrated, which angered many of the priests of Marduk. They knew that Nabonidus favored Sin, the moon god, and this ultimately caused them to leave open the gates of the city leading to the Euphrates River, allowing Cyrus’ troops to take Babylon in 537. Cyrus drained the river upstream and walked into the city through the riverbed.”

Isaiah’s vision, then, was only partially fulfilled when the Medes and Persians took Babylon. A greater fulfillment is yet to come when the gods of Mystery Babylon are overthrown and when Jesus Christ is proclaimed King and Heir of all things. To destroy Babylon’s false gods is to set the nations free from the gods that would usurp the rightful position of Jesus Christ. In practice, this means setting the captives free by showing them the truth through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Isaiah’s term “the images of her gods,” is a quotation from Deut. 7:25, which says, “The graven images of their gods you are to burn with fire.” The context shows that the worshipers of the true God were to eliminate the false gods of the people that they conquered.

Under the Old Covenant, such conquest was done by the power of the sword, and the arm of flesh was assisted by God to accomplish this purpose. Under the New Covenant, believers have been given “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God” (Eph. 6:17).

This “word” comes through the tongue, which is pictured as a sword throughout Scripture. Hence, “out of His mouth came a sharp two-edged sword” (Rev. 1:16), and Heb. 4:12 says,

12 For the word of God is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword, and piercing as far as the division of soul and spirit, of both joints and marrow, and able to judge the thoughts and intents of the heart.

This New Covenant sword is far more effective than any carnal weapon. The sword of the Spirit is “able to judge the thoughts and intents of the heart,” and not merely judge men’s actions. When this Sword is used, all heart-idolatry is exposed and cast down, bringing repentance and salvation to the world, instead of bloodshed.

Religions use force and threats of violence when they lack truth and lack the power of the Holy Spirit to change the hearts of the people. Hence, they tend to convert men by force and coercion, creating servants of religion instead of the sons of God.

Fallen, Fallen is Babylon

That which Isaiah heard in his vision applies specifically to Mystery Babylon, for it is in that context that we read in Rev. 14:8,

8 And another angel, a second one, followed, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great, she who has made all the nations drink of the wine of the passion of her immorality.”

Again, we read in Rev. 18:2,

2 And he cried out with a mighty voice, saying, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great! She has become a dwelling place of demons and a prison of every unclean spirit, and a prison of every unclean and hateful bird.”

While we know that this applied to the old city of Babylon, John tells us that it applies in a greater way to the “Babylon” at the end of the age, the spiritual city that opposes the heavenly Jerusalem.

The Threshed People

Isaiah 21:10 concludes the prophecy against Babylon, saying,

10 O my threshed people, and my afflicted of the threshing floor! What I have heard from the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, I make known to you.

Some say that the prophet was referring to the people of Babylon who were to be “threshed” when their city and empire was destroyed. However, Cyrus and Darius took the city of Babylon intact with very few casualties. The Bible records only the death of King Belshazzar. We can hardly say that the people of Babylon were threshed.

It is clear (to me) that Isaiah was speaking of the captives of Judah that he foresaw as captives in Babylon. God had sent them into exile to be “threshed” by the judgment of God. Threshing was a common metaphor for judgment. So we read in Prov. 20:26,

26 A wise king winnows the wicked and drives the threshing wheel over them.

In other words, a wise king judges with compassion. His purpose is first to give justice to the victims of crime, but secondly it is to restore the sinner to the rights of citizenship. If possible, he should winnow them as with barley, but if necessary, he should thresh them as wheat. In both cases, the purpose is to eliminate chaff and preserve the good grain.

John the Baptist said that the purpose of the Holy Spirit was to burn the chaff (Matt. 3:12). Chaff is obtained by winnowing barley or by threshing wheat. The Hebrew word picture is about getting rid of the flesh, the carnal desires and lawless tendencies in men.

Isaiah 21:10, then, was a reference to the divine judgment upon God’s people. Where the NASB (above) reads, “my afflicted of the threshing floor,” the literal Hebrew text reads, “son of my threshing floor.” As we have shown many times, the Hebrew language often used “son” as a metaphor connecting a man with something else. In this case, a son of the threshing floor was a son that was being corrected.

The prophet understood that Judah was destined to go to God’s threshing floor on account of the nation’s persistent disobedience. The threshing floor in question was Babylon itself. God sent them into exile to purify them of their idolatry (“chaff”).

Indeed, the threshing floor did its work, because the Jews thereafter no longer built graven images for themselves. The Old Covenant had this positive effect upon them in that it changed their behavior and actions in regard to idolatry.

The deeper problem of heart idolatry, however, persisted, for only the New Covenant can change the hearts of men. By rejecting the Mediator of the New Covenant, the Jews forsook the only solution to this greater problem. Thus, they remained in bondage as children of the flesh, striving to be justified by the power of their own will through the Old Covenant vow.