Larry Hunt's Bible Commentary

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Isaiah 21

Chapter Twenty-one:

v. 3: The Oxford commentary writes that this pain Isaiah had was “the onset of prophetic ecstasy” (1006), but I believe that the more natural interpretation is that Isaiah was distressed about the contents of the vision he received concerning Babylon.

This prophecy against Babylon reminds me of the one recorded against Moab in chapter sixteen.  For one thing, each prophecy ends by using a similar expression, “years of a hired worker,” (16: 13 and 21:16) to give a specific time for the fulfillment of its predictions.  Another similarity is the sympathetic pain expressed for the enemies of God.  The only difference is that in chapter 16 the pain is God’s, whereas here in chapter 21, the pain is Isaiah’s.

So why does the prophet feel this sympathetic pain for Babylon?  It may simply be that he was a good man.  Evil and suffering must accompany the sacking of any city, and Isaiah may have actually seen such suffering in the vision.  In that case, he may have felt compassion for individual Babylonians while at the same time been glad of Judah’s deliverance from Babylonian captivity.  See v. 10.

v. 4: Barnes believes the second part of this verse references the last night of the Babylonian empire when the king and his court were having a party as the Persians swept into the city; I think it means that Isaiah’s visions disturbed the prophet so much that he could not sleep.

v. 5: The OKJ, the NKJ, and Luther’s version translate this verse as a series of commands; however, the NRSV translates the first clauses in the indicative mood as statements and only translates the last couple as commands: “Rise up commanders, oil the shield.”  In either case, it seems as though the reference here is to the last night of the Babylonian empire when the king and his court prepared for a party as the Persians took the city.

If the NRSV is correct, Isaiah seems to be breaking in on the festivities (in his imagination – he was not actually in Babylon on the night in which it fell) and telling the commanders to prepare for battle.  If this is the true interpretation, then I believe the command was sarcastic; otherwise, it seems as though Isaiah would be acting against the will of God in genuinely trying to help the Babylonians defend themselves.  Even if he felt compassion for the Babylonians, it seems like it would be wrong to try to foil God’s plan in this way.  Besides, if anyone deserved retribution from God it was the king of Babylon, so I would be surprised if Isaiah’s feelings of compassion were directed toward him personally.

If, however, the other translations are correct, then Barnes’ interpretation seems more correct.  He reads the first few clauses as commands from the king to prepare for a party and the last two as commands from the same king after he realizes suddenly that his kingdom is in mortal danger.

v. 6: If God had determined to destroy Babylon, why would he want a lookout posted?  Surely it was not for the practical purpose of actually warning the Babylonians; if God had determined that they should fall, a lookout would not prevent it.  And if he had not made up his mind that Babylon should fall, why would he require a lookout to prevent its potential destruction?  It seems more fitting that he would require their repentance to prevent that.  Therefore, I believe that this call for a lookout is a poetic device, a dramatic way of announcing that the destruction is coming.

v. 10: Barnes and the Oxford commentary both (rightly, I believe) claim that the “threshed and winnowed one” here is Judah, who would have welcomed such news of deliverance after suffering the 70 year captivity at the hands of Babylon.  (Of course, they were not yet captives when Isaiah received the vision.)

v. 11: This is a separate prophecy, but the image of the sentinel (or lookout) is maintained.[1] I wonder why.

The prophecy concerns Edom, and in this particular verse, Edom asks the sentinel (Isaiah), “What of the night?” Barnes and the Oxford commentary both agree that “the night” refers to a time of stress, but Barnes believes that the Edomites are taunting the Jews with the question and that “the night” refers to the Jewish stress suffered during the Babylonian Captivity.  However, the Oxford Commentary suggests that “night” refers to the Edomites’ own calamity, implying that their inquiry is a sincere attempt to learn of their own future, not a taunt against Judah.  Honestly, both options seem equally valid to me; I do not know which one to favor.

v. 12: This is the sentinel’s answer, and it is just as difficult for me as the previous verse.  According to the Oxford commentary, Isaiah’s response means that he currently has no answer to the Edomites’ question about how long their calamity would last but that they may ask him again at a later time.  According to Barnes, Isaiah is rebuking the Edomites for their taunt (see note on v. 11), and telling them that, while the Jews will be delivered from their night (the morning comes), the Edomites will soon be plunged into a night of their own and that if they want to inquire concerning that night, they will have to come back later and ask sincerely.

v. 13: Barnes claims that Arabia used to be identified in three parts:

Arabia Deserta (to the east)                  Tema and Kedar were in this part.

Arabia Petra (just south of Judah)      Dedan was in this part.

Arabia Felix (south of Arabia Petra).

Three places are mentioned in the prophecy: Dedan (Dedanites), Tema, and Kedar.  According to Barnes, the descendants of Dedan, son of Abraham (Genesis 25:3) lived in Arabia Petra.  Likewise, Tema was a son of Ishmael (Genesis 25:15) and thus an Arabian.  He founded the city of Tema in Arabia Deserta (Barnes 360).  Kedar was also a son of Ishmael (Genesis 25:15) and, according to Barnes, the Kedareneans lived in Arabia Deserta (361).  It was this last group of Arabians who were going to suffer from some type of violent oppression.  Isaiah encourages the other two Arabic groups (Dedan and Tema) to care for the needs of their kin.  This might reflect Isaiah’s genuine concern for the suffering of the Kedareneans, but it might also be another instance of sarcasm on his part (see notes on v. 5).  In other words, the rhetorical significance of this encouragement might have more to do with its announcement of Kedar’s future suffering than with Isaiah’s concern that Dedan and Tema care for the Kedareneans.

v. 16: The reason for God’s displeasure with the Kedareneans may have stemmed from their aggression toward Nehemiah after the Babylonian Captivity.  Geshem is listed as one of the key conspirators against Nehemiah in Nehemiah 2:19, and the Oxford Commentary points out that Geshem was the king of Kedar in Arabia (690).  See also 60:7 and 42:11 for other mentions of Kedar in Isaiah.

I wonder if this phrase “according to the years of a hired worker” is supposed to communicate the fact that Isaiah is no longer speaking in the cryptic, metaphorical language of most prophecy, but rather in plain terms that designate openly when a prediction will come to pass.  See notes on 16:14.


[1] Compare with 62:6 and 63:1-6.

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