Thursday, January 23, 2014

Isaiah 21: 1-5

God Commands That Babylon Be Taken

1 The oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea.
As windstorms in the Negev sweep on,
It comes from the wilderness, from a terrifying land.
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 has caused.
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 I cannot hear, so terrified I cannot see.
My mind reels, horror overwhelms me;
The twilight I longed for has been turned for me into trembling.
They set the table, they spread out the cloth, they eat, they drink;
“Rise up, captains, oil the shields,”

It was not long ago that we read prophecies concerning Babylon in Isaiah. We can read back through Chapters 13 and 14 for more details. We will take another look at this powerful nation, as God has revealed more words to the prophet concerning its fate in Chapter 21.

Isaiah opens this word, calling on Babylon as "the wilderness of the sea." (vs. 1) More literally, the words are translated "sandy waters" or "sea country." He is referring to an area of southern Babylon near the Persian Gulf--where the Tigris and Euphrates empty themselves. The Reformation Study Bible is a bit more direct in its definition: "This is probably a sarcastic parody. Babylon’s southern region on the Persian Gulf, known as 'Land of the Sea,' will become a wilderness or as good as a wilderness to anyone looking for salvation from there." From our reading in Chapters 13 and 14, we can recall that Babylon will be devastated by the release of water, previously dammed up, through the city, leaving it a wasteland.

An easterly wind sweeping across the Negev is a picture of trouble. The Negev is located in what we now call the Sinai Peninsula. Per the International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, it means "to be dry," or "desert." East winds in the Bible are notorious for being signs of plagues (Exodus 10), drought (Genesis 41), ill will (Job 15), and damage (Psalm 48). Hot desert winds blowing east represent the danger and speed of the enemy that will sweep an unsuspecting Babylon off its feet.

The vision is "harsh," according to Isaiah, in verse 2, describing the rise of the Elamites and the Medes as part of the Persian army, which will take over Babylon. God will raise up these nations, who have been enemies of Babylon at other times, to continue the use of treachery and cunning Babylon had regularly used, to bring an end to the once-shining nation.

"The Persians shall pay the Babylonians in their own coin; those that by fraud and violence, cheating and plundering, unrighteous wars and deceitful treaties, have made a prey of their neighbours, shall meet with their match, and by the same methods shall themselves be made a prey of."

--Matthew Henry's Commentary on the Whole Bible 

That Isaiah makes a point of labeling the vision as 'harsh' is the beginning of his sharing the burden of his heart through the burden placed on him by God. Note some of the phrases in verse 3: "my loins are full of anguish," "pains of a woman in labor," "bewildered," "terrified," and into verse 4: "horror" and "trembling." What the prophet has been made privy to obviously has him in an awful state, both physically and emotionally, and he shares it all. Isaiah has already given us this view back in Chapter 13 from the perspective of what Babylon will face:

"They will be terrified,
Pains and anguish will take hold of them;
They will writhe like a woman in labor,
They will look at one another in astonishment,
Their faces aflame."
--Isaiah 13:8

But here in Chapter 21, the view is so much more personal. As only a man with Isaiah's sense of compassion and obedience could do, he practically lives out the prophecy as he is telling it. If we weren't aware of his compassion ("Therefore my heart intones like a harp for Moab...."--Isaiah 16:11a) and hadn't witnessed his humble faithfulness in answering the call to be a prophet, we might write off these verses as dramatic prose from an ancient Greek tragedy. Isaiah has too much integrity to present himself a phony for the sake of others. (The prophet who went "naked and barefoot," remember....) It is a message he desperately wants to reach his people.

Verse 4 comes with cross-references and commentary that brought me to Daniel 5. I'm still thinking, wow, how did we get here? Daniel comes quite a bit after Isaiah in terms of timing. (Judah is in captivity then.) But, why is it impossible for God to have given Isaiah a vision that would be carried out in the presence of another prophet, who would have an active hand in its fulfillment? Look at verse 4 in the Amplified Bible:

"My mind reels and wanders, horror terrifies me. [In my mind’s eye I am at the feast of Belshazzar. I see the defilement of the golden vessels taken from God’s temple, I watch the handwriting appear on the wall—I know that Babylon’s great king is to be slain.] The twilight I looked forward to with pleasure has been turned into fear and trembling for me."

For Isaiah, seeing the then-Babylonian king making use of the Temple vessels for his luxurious feast might have been enough to send him over the edge. "Anguish" and "bewilderment" that the Temple was taken? Of course! If he actually did see words on the wall, knowing that there would be more bloodshed [and how much more might his vision show?] would have horrified him. As bad a view as this was for Babylon, what about for Judah? How much did Isaiah understand about where the people of Judah were in this time? If they were alive, how much more dangerous a predicament were they in? 

The Lord had spoken before of what happens to those who do not follow Him in obedience. This is the weightiness of the message that Isaiah bears to Judah:

"Among those nations you shall find no rest, and there will be no resting place for the sole of your foot; but there the Lord will give you a trembling heart, failing of eyes, and despair of soul. So your life shall hang in doubt before you; and you will be in dread night and day, and shall have no assurance of your life. In the morning you shall say, ‘Would that it were evening!’ And at evening you shall say, ‘Would that it were morning!’ because of the dread of your heart which you dread, and for the sight of your eyes which you will see."
--Deuteronomy 28: 65-67

Verse 5 could tack on to Belshazzar's feast--setting the table and such. I am partial to the King James Version translation on this one:

"Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield." 
--Verse 5, King James Version

Truly, it would be more of a command--especially given what was written on the wall that night in Babylon: "...Your kingdom has been divided and given over to the Medes and Persians." (Daniel 5:28) "Arise, ye princes," indeed! Easton's Bible Dictionary says that "shields were usually 'anointed' in order to preserve them, and at the same time make the missiles of the enemy glide off them more easily."

But, for Belshazzar and company, shields would be rendered useless, as God had anointed others to carry out His will against them.

More from the watchtower next week.  ...'Til next Wednesday!
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Next week:  Isaiah 21: 6-10
Note: I read from the New American Standard Bible translation,
specifically, The MacArthur Study Bible (NASB).
I will quote other sources if used in a post.

I also use Strong's Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible
(with notes from the King James Version).