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Deeper Commentary

Isaiah 21:1 The burden of the wilderness of the sea- Babylon is clearly referred to; the plain of Babylon was as it were covered with the water of the Euphrates so that it could appear as a sea (Jer. 51:13,36). When the Euphrates was diverted to dry up the river protecting Babylon, the water flooded into the area, turning it into a huge "sea" of marshland.

As whirlwinds in the South sweep through, it comes from the wilderness, from an awesome land- A whirlwind coming from the desert, sweeping up sand before it, recalls the cherubim. I have noted that often the visions of judgment allude to the cherubim obliquely, whereas Ezekiel states their presence specifically. The idea is that God's Angelic chariots were at work preparing and moving the nations; in this case bringing the Medes across the desert area between Elam and Babylon. This whirlwind would be similar to those experienced in "the south" of Israel, the Negev (as in Zech. 9:14). So this prophecy of Babylon's fall was largely for the benefit of the Jews who could recall the whirlwinds in the Negev.

Isaiah 21:2 A grievous vision is declared to me. The treacherous man deals treacherously, and the destroyer destroys. Go up, Elam; attack!-
The vision reads as if Isaiah is the sufferer, as if he feels the grief and tragedy of this judgment to come upon Babylon; he so identifies with the object of the prophecy, even though they are Gentiles being judged for their sin. Our identity with this world and the objects of judgment should be the same; for this was the essence of the cross, where the sinless Lord Jesus identified with every sinner, to the death. This is clear in :3, and in this verse 2 is clearer in the LXX: "The Elamites are upon me, and the ambassadors of the Persians come against me: now will I groan and comfort myself".

GNB has "a vision of betrayal". There is good evidence that when Darius took Babylon, this was as a result of betrayal from within. Layard reports inscriptions which report the pro-Darius supporters within Babylon opening the gates. The scenario here and throughout Jer. 50 concerning Babylon didn't come true as [potentially planned. Her judgment was partly dependent upon Judah's repentance. And there were various other factors which preclude the scenario being fulfilled at the time it could have been. The scale of devastation and "grief" intimated here, rather like Jer. 50:26 saying that the Medes would turn Babylon into "heaps", just didn't happen when the Medes took the city. It was only some time later that Cyrus further demolished parts of Babylon's wall, and there was a rebellion of Babylon at the time of Darius Hystapses. The deportation of some of the population happened even later in the time of Seleucus Nicanor. Apart from the murder of Belshazaar and a few others, it seems that there was little bloodshed and many within Babylon welcomed the Medes. But the impression is given that all this grievous judgment happen immediately at Babylon's fall. It didn't, because the preconditions related to Judah's repentance didn't come about. And so the prophecies were reapplied and rescheduled to the last days, and are alluded to throughout Rev. 18 with reference to the fall of latter day Babylon; which appears to not refer to the literal city of Babylon.

I have stopped all of Media’s sighing- At the burden imposed by Babylon (Is. 14:7,8).

Isaiah 21:3 Therefore my thighs are filled with anguish, pains have taken hold on me, like the pains of a woman in labour. I am in so much pain that I can’t hear; I so am dismayed that I can’t see-
In the same way as Moab would weep for their slain sons, so God says that His heart would cry out for Moab, "therefore I weep [along] with the weeping of Jazer... my soul moans like a lyre for Moab" (Is. 15:5; Is. 16:9,11). God "pitied" Nineveh- a Hebrew word meaning to pity with tears (Jonah 4:11). The mourning of the prophets over Tyre (Ez. 27:1) and Babylon (Is. 21:3,4) was an embodiment of God's grief even over those not in covenant with Him. And how much more does He weep and suffer with His people Israel in their sufferings (Jer. 12:12; 23:10; Hos. 4:2,3); "my heart yearns / moans for him" (Jer. 31:20). Perhaps there was indeed some remission of the full extent of Babylon's potential judgment at the time; see on :2. The image of a woman in labour again implies that new birth could still come out of the judgments; the hope was that a remnant of Babylon would repent, and that a reborn Judah would emerge. Neither of these things happened and so perhaps foreseeing that, God didn't bring the full extent of the judgments at the time.

Isaiah 21:4 My heart flutters. Horror has frightened me. The evening of my pleasure has been turned into trembling for me-
The LXX speaks as if Isaiah totally identified with them to the point of feeling their sin as his; just as the Lord did supremely on the cross: "My heart wanders, and transgression overwhelms me; my soul is occupied with fear". In speaking of "the night of my pleasure" Isaiah is totally identified with Belshazzar, who was dethroned by Darius on the night of his pleasure, probably his birthday celebration.

Having prophesied the fall of hated, pagan Babylon, which was to happen well after his death, Isaiah responded: “Therefore are my loins filled with pain: pangs have taken hold upon me... I am pained so that I cannot hear [the message he had to tell]... my heart panteth, horror hath affrighted me” (Is. 21:3,4 RV). Such was his sensitivity for his enemies, and for things which would happen in the future. It would be rather like us grieving deeply for the fact that within 200 years, millions of human beings may die because of global warming.


Isaiah 21:5 They prepare the table, they set the watch; then they eat and drink! But ‘Rise up, you princes, oil the shield!’-
The GNB seeks to clarify how Isaiah was as it were projected forward to the feast of Belshazzar in Dan. 5: "In the vision a banquet is ready; rugs are spread for the guests to sit on. They are eating and drinking. Suddenly the command rings out: "Officers! Prepare your shields!"".

Isaiah 21:6 For the Lord said to me, Go, set a watchman. Let him declare what he sees-
LXX "declare whatever thou shalt see". Isaiah was the watchman, for the prophets are the watchmen.

Isaiah 21:7 When he sees a troop, horsemen in pairs, a troop of donkeys, a troop of camels, he shall listen diligently with great attentiveness-
LXX "And I saw...". As noted on :6, Isaiah is as it were a watchman on the walls of Babylon; he the Hebrew prophet had a heart that bled even for the enemies of Judah, and he imagines himself on the walls of Babylon seeing the attack coming. The Medes apparently used donkeys and camels to transport their generals and military hardware.


Isaiah 21:8 He cried like a lion-
This prophecy didn't come fully true at the time and so it has been reapplied to the last days; and so this phrase is quoted in Rev. 10:3 in a latter day context.

Lord, I stand continually on the watchtower in the daytime, and every night I stay at my post- Crying on the watchtower is the language of prayer; perhaps Isaiah was as it were praying Babylon might repent so that this grievous situation and the human tragedy of it all need not happen. This is the heart that bleeds for humanity. But the idea may be that the prophetic watchman feels that he has been carefully watching for the fall of Babylon, and it hasn't come. But then it does.

Isaiah 21:9 Behold, here comes a troop of men, horsemen in pairs. He answered, Fallen, fallen is Babylon; and all the engraved images of her gods are broken to the ground-
The claim is made that the Persians apparently despised images and therefore broke them. But that is questionable. The Pulpit Commentary notes: "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". So this is yet another aspect of the prophecy which was not literally fulfilled at the time. And so the prophecies were reapplied and rescheduled to the last days, and are alluded to throughout Rev. 18 with reference to the fall of latter day Babylon; which appears to not refer to the literal city of Babylon.  

Isaiah 21:10 You are My threshing, and the grain of My floor! That which I have heard from Yahweh of Armies, the God of Israel, I have declared to you-
This could be addressed to the righteous remnant, those who had come through the threshing experience as grain. Hence LXX "Hear, ye that are left, and ye that are in pain". Or GNB "My people Israel, you have been threshed like wheat, but now I have announced to you the good news". The good news was the fall of Babylon; the Gospel is the good news of God's reestablished Kingdom, which could then have been established at the time Babylon fell. But most of the Jews preferred to remain in Babylon, and they didn't repent; so that possibility was precluded and delayed until the last days, as the descriptions of "Babylon" being judged and God's Kingdom being established in Rev. 18 makes clear. The language is applied to the repentant remnant of Jewry in Mt. 3:12.

Isaiah 21:11 The burden of Dumah. One calls to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?-
The theme of the prophecies upon the nations beginning in Is. 13 is that after the judgment they experienced from the Assyrians or Babylonians, a remnant of them would repent and join repentant Judah in a reestablished, multi ethnic Kingdom of God in Judah; see on Is. 13:1. So the LXX here reads simply "Call to me out of Seir", as if this is an invitation for Seir or Edom (GNB) to repent. "Turn back" in :12 would then also be an invitation to repentance. "Dumah" means "silence" and implies a total destruction of Edom; but this kind of total wiping out, presumably by supernatural Divine judgment such as came upon Sodom, didn't happen at the time. Again, the scenario presented here is a potential, but the various human preconditions didn't allow it to happen then.

Isaiah 21:12 The watchman said, The morning comes, and also the night-
The idea may be that the morning for Judah was to be the night for her enemies like Edom; just as Yahweh was a light to Israel and darkness to the Egyptians. Or we could paraphrase with GNB "I answer, "Morning is coming, but night will come again. If you want to ask again, come back and ask"". The idea might be that Edom's judgment could have come, but it was deferred due to the various preconditions discussed on :10 and Is. 13:1 not being fulfilled. Judah's morning, in the sense of the light of Zion rising as the dawn, also didn't come at that time. When it does, in the last day, then "Edom" will be destroyed and have its "night".

What hour of the night will it come?- God's purposes at the time were open ended; see on Is. 13:1. Many human variables were preconditions for the various prophetic scenarios which could have come about. The hour of judgment, as in the last days, was therefore variable. So, appropriate to that, we could have here a reference to the meaning of time being collapsed around the time of the Lord's return, when these prophecies shall come to their final fulfilment. Depending how one reads the Hebrew text of Zech. 14:6,7, this idea of collapsed time at the Lord's return is Biblical: "It shall come to pass in that day, that it shall not be clear in some places, and dark in other places of the world; but the day shall be one, in the knowledge of the Lord, not day, nor night: but it shall come to pass, that at evening time it shall be light" (AV mg.). The RVmg. speaks of "the planets shall contract"- the times and seasons they control would somehow contract. Is. 21:12 RV has a similar idea, again in the context of a judgment day: “The morning is come and also the night”. This collapsing of time would also explain why it is impossible to construct a chronology of events in real time for the coming of Christ; the various prophecies of the last days just don't seem to fit together in chronological sequence. If indeed time is collapsed, this would enable all these prophecies to come true, but not in real time. Babylon is to be punished with famine in one day; yet famine is a process (Rev. 18:8). In one day her judgments come, and yet also in one hour (18:10). Surely  the lesson is that time is compressed.

Turn back again- I noted on :11 that this could be read as a call to Seir / Idumea to repent. Hence LXX "If thou wouldest enquire, enquire, and dwell by me", in the restored Zion; the same invitation to come dwell in Zion is made to the other nations in Is. 16:3; 18:4.

Isaiah 21:13 The burden on Arabia. In the forest in Arabia you will lodge, you caravans of Dedanites-
There are no forests in Arabia so the reference may be to brushwood scrub. Sargon did make an incursion into Arabia, but probably as noted on :12, this was part of the potential scenario which didn't fully happen then, and will be fulfilled more completely in the last days.

Isaiah 21:14 They brought water to him who was thirsty. The inhabitants of the land of Tema met the fugitives with their bread-
The LXX reads this as a command to meet the fugitives with bread and water. The remnant of the Arabians who survive are significant to God because it was that remnant of all the nations who are envisaged as repenting and turning to Yahweh.

Isaiah 21:15 For they fled away from the swords, from the drawn sword, from the bent bow, and from the heat of battle-
But no trace of such a battle or war has been found on the Assyrian inscriptions. So probably as noted on :12, this was part of the potential scenario which didn't fully happen then, and will be fulfilled more completely in the last days.

Isaiah 21:16 For the Lord said to me, Within a year, as a worker bound by contract would count it, all the glory of Kedar will fail-
Perhaps the sense is that as a hired hand counts the days of required service exactly, so this calamity would happen within exactly three years. I noted on the prophecies of Isaiah's children in Is. 7:16; 8:1,18 that there was the potential of a very speedy fulfilment of the prophecies, before the newborn child could even speak; and we have a similar period in Is. 16:14. But the complex network of possibilities alluded to be Isaiah were precluded by the lack of repentance by both Judah and the Gentiles

Isaiah 21:17 and the residue of the number of the archers, the mighty men of the children of Kedar, will be few; for Yahweh, the God of Israel, has spoken it
- Again we note the emphasis upon the remnant or "residue". The remnant of the people of Kedar who survive are significant to God because it was that remnant of all the nations who are envisaged as repenting and turning to Yahweh.