Section introduction

Here begins a second major section of the book.  The various nations dealt with in chapters 13-23 were all under threat from Assyria at some point, and also had been either actual or potential allies with Judah in resisting Assyria.

Jackman remarks that chapters 1-5 dealt mainly with the threat of judgment, and 6-12 with the promise of redemption.  God’s promises concerning his eternal kingdom will be fufilled.  Although Assyria was the dominant power at the time, in chapter 39 we will learn that it is Babylon who would overthrown Judah and take God’s people into exile.  This explains why he begins this section with Babylon.

Oswalt suggests that we have in this section ‘lessons in trust’.  Isa 7-12 has dealt with the question of how Ahaz and Hezekiah approached the various threats to their kingdom: the one with mistrust, and the other with trust.  But it is as though the lesson has not been learned.  The examination will be sat again in chapter 36, but some further learning is required before the student is ready for that.  The question under review in chapters 13-23 is, ‘Why trust the nations when they are under judgment from God?’

There now follows (chapters 13-20:6) a series of five oracles.  They ‘blend the contemporary, the impending and the eschatological so as to show that the Lord is in executive charge of his world for the purpose of keeping his word and fulfilling his promises.’ (Motyer)

Referring to these oracles, and similar passages found in Jer 46-51 and Eze 25:32, Oswalt says that ‘these oracles are God’s way of saying that just because he chooses to use the pagan nations as his tool to judge disobedient Israel and Judah does not mean those nations are going to escape judgment for their sins.  Israel will be restored after disciplinary punishment, but some of these nations are going to disappear from the face of the earth.’

‘Hitherto the prophecies of this book related only to Judah and Israel, and Jerusalem especially; but now the prophet begins to look abroad, and to read the doom of divers of the neighbouring states and kingdoms: for he that is King of saints is also King of nations, and rules in the affairs of the children of men as well as in those of his own children.’ (MHC, who adds that the nations that these prophecies relate to were all connected with Israel in some way.)

Jackman refers to these chapters (13-27) as ‘faithbuilders’, calling God people in every age to trust and obedience.  They reveal the character of God, show how he is working in the world, and expose the folly of opposing his purposes.  The understanding of even we Christians is shaped by secular thinking and the popular media.  We need to recover a vivid sense that God reigns and that everything that happens in under his control, ‘orchestrated towards the fulfilment of his eternal plan.’  God’s people needed to learn to trust in him, and not in ‘the nations’.  We, too, need to do the same.  Too often, our interests, priorities, and plans are indistiguishable from the world’s.  Too often, we accept the world’s assessment of the people of God as pitifully weak and hopelessly outnumbered.  But a fresh perspective on the sovereignty of God in the world and the love of God for his church will give us courage and confidence.

Our own faith is strengthened when we realise that these great events, foreseen by the prophet, actually came to pass.  Earth’s proud empires passed away, one by one.  God’s purposes stand.  The daily news does not tell the whole story.  We need God’s word to tell us us where it is going, who is in control, and what he requires of us.  Ultimately, we do not put our trust in big business, or in technology, or in management techniques or in political power.  We need to look to God.

Watts summarises: ‘The heavenly court is abuzz with excitement. Intensive mobilization of military forces is underway. Yahweh, the Heavenly King, has given the order to mobilize for a massive action. Its goal is destruction of the whole world. Mourning is in order, for Yahweh’s day of reckoning is at hand. Everyone will quail before it.

The extent of the day’s action is again defined. It will desolate the earth (v 9b). It will destroy its sinners. Its cosmic dimensions involve the stars, the sun, and the moon. Evil, iniquity, and the wicked will be punished. The arrogant will be humbled. The earth will have its population drastically reduced. To this end the cosmic upheaval that serves Yahweh’s overflowing wrath will be a time of terrible chaos and of violence.

‘In this way the punishment of Babylon is put into the perspective of the Vision which sees the events affecting Israel and its neighbors from the eighth century to the fifth as facets of “the great and terrible day of Yahweh” which ends the old age and inaugurates the new age.’

Writing of the predictions of the downfall of various nations recorded in chapters 13-24, Calvin says, ‘There is nothing harder to convince people of than the fact that God’s providence governs this world. It is true that many people acknowledge it in words, but very few have it actually engraved on their heart. We tremble and shudder at the very smallest change, and we inquire into the causes as if it depended on human decisions. What will happen, then, when the whole world is thrown into commotion and the face of affairs is so completely changed in various places that it appears as if everything is going toward ruin?  It was therefore very useful that Isaiah and other prophets should teach about calamities of this nature, so everyone might understand that those calamities took place only by God’s secret and wonderful purpose.’

A Prophecy Against Babylon, 13:1-14:23

Isa 13:1 An oracle concerning Babylon that Isaiah son of Amoz saw:

An oracle concerning Babylon – although Babylon is the immediate focus, the language expands to take on a world-wide (v11) or even cosmic dimension.  ‘This is a setting of cosmic upheaval such as the NT uses to depict the last days (cf. vs 10, 13 with Mt. 24:29).’ (NBC)

‘We have here the two contesting superpowers of Isaiah’s day, Babylon and Assyria. Who could doubt that world history would be shaped by them? Who but a prophet of the Lord?! Isaiah takes us behind the scenes: it is the Lord who is in command (13:3), who gathers his forces (13:4) and exacts moral retribution (13:9–11). When earthly forces arise against existing powers, it is the Lord’s initiative (13:17); when dominant powers fall, it is the Lord who has cast them down (14:5–6); arrogance (14:13–14) meets with his judgment (14:22). He has planned and he will act (14:24).’ (Motyer)

We might wonder why Isaiah focuses on Babylon, rather than on the more obvious candidate of Assyria.  In fact, this is often taken as evidence of a late date for Isaiah, since Babylon did not become a powerful force until later on.  The fact is the Babylon was not an insignificant power in Isaiah’s day, and it would be Babylon, and not Assyria, who would overthrow Judah (Isa 39).

Moroever, Babylon came to symbolise in Scripture human rebellion against God.  This theme begins in Gen 11:1-9, continues in Jer 51, and culminates in Rev 14:8; 16:19; 17:5; 18:2,10.

Motyer adds that ‘humanity’s bid to organize life and create security and stability by its own resources and without reference to God began at Shinar/Babel (Gen. 11:1–9). More than any other name, therefore, ‘Babylon’ typifies humankind’s will to be its own saviour.’

‘There are really only two principles of organization for a society: the Babylonian principle (antagonism toward God) and the Jerusalem principle (submission to his purposes). The Babylonian principle is to be seen right through 13:1–14:27.’ (EBC)

This oracle may be expounded ‘as a prediction of the downfall of the Neo-Babylonian empire and its monarch, uttered by Isaiah at the close of the eighth century, and so intended as a warning to Hezekiah and Judah not to put their trust in coalitions against Assyria inspired by Babylon (cf. ch. 39).’ (EBC)

‘In Scripture, Babylon symbolizes the world system man has built in defiance of God. Jerusalem and Babylon are contrasting cities: One is the chosen city of God, the other the wicked city of man. The city of God will last forever, but the rebellious city of man will ultimately be destroyed (Rev. 14:8; 16:19; 17–18).’ (Wiersbe)

Webb reminds us that the prophecies spoken against the nations were almost certainly never heard by them; they were for Israel’s ears, ‘to remind Israel that no matter what the nations do to her, her final destiny is secure, because it is the Lord, not they, who shapes the course of history.’

Isa 13:2 Raise a banner on a bare hilltop, shout to them; beckon to them to enter the gates of the nobles.

Isa 13:3 I have commanded my holy ones; I have summoned my warriors to carry out my wrath—those who rejoice in my triumph.

My holy ones – Holy, not in a moral sense (see v16), but in the sense of being set apart to fulfil God’s purpose of punitive destruction.

‘It intimates…that in God’s intention, though not in theirs, it was a holy war; they designed only the enlargement of their own empire, but God designed the release of his people and a type of the destruction of the New-Testament Babylon.’ (MHC)

Isa 13:4 Listen, a noise on the mountains, like that of a great multitude! Listen, an uproar among the kingdoms, like nations massing together! The LORD Almighty is mustering an army for war.

Listen – The Heb. text has no verb here.

‘The impression is that people from the far ends of the earth will be willing to serve as instruments of God’s wrath in order to bring destruction on his enemies.’ (NAC)

Isa 13:5 They come from faraway lands, from the ends of the heavens— the LORD and the weapons of his wrath—to destroy the whole country.

‘The impression the audience would get from this revelation is that God is going to war with a massive destructive force that is unstoppable. This means that victory is sure.’ (Smith, NAC)

Isa 13:6 Wail, for the day of the LORD is near; it will come like destruction from the Almighty.

The day of the Lord has seven aspects in this passage: ‘it is the Day when the Lord implements his wrath (2–3), marked by worldwide mutual destruction (4–5) from which there is no defence (6–8); it is cosmic in its effect (9–10), moral in its motivation (11); it reverses the work of creation (12–13); there is no escape, only horrific suffering (14–16).’ (Motyer)

‘In the time of Isaiah, the Day of the Lord is related to the final day when God will humble the proud and he alone will be exalted (2:6–22), as well as his final day of vengeance on the nations (34:1–17 and 63:1–6). In some cases an historical nation is employed by God to conquer his enemies but in other texts God seems to act directly in the fullness of his power. Some passages about the Day of the Lord refer to the historical destruction of nations in the near future (Israel and Judah), while others appear to refer to events in an eschatological era (13:1–16; 24:1–23) when God will defeat all his enemies and set up his holy kingdom.’ (Smith, NAC)

‘When the Lord delays his judgment, he appears to stop discharging his office, like judges when they do not ascend the judgment seat. We would gladly make God immediately pass sentence against the wicked. But he has his own appointed time and knows when it is proper both to punish the bad and to assist the good.’ (Calvin)

The day of the Lord is near – Between the 9th century BC and the 6th century, various prophets warned that the day of the Lord was ‘near’ (Joel 1:15; 2:1; 3:14; Obad 15; Isa 13:6; Zeph 1:7, 14; Ezek 30:3). The later prophets would certainly have been aware of the earlier ones.  The point is that there were various partial fulfilments of a final day, to which the NT also looks forward, Mt 7:22; 1 Thess 5:4, 2 Pet 3:12, Rom 2:5-6, 2 Cor 1:14; Phil 1:6, 10.

Isa 13:7 Because of this, all hands will go limp, every man’s heart will melt.

‘The opening verses of the oracle have made it clear that the armies are the instruments of the Lord and that they are coming to execute his wrathful judgment on the whole land.’ (EBC)

‘In vv.7–8 the prophet piles up expression after expression to convey the sense of fear that would overwhelm the objects of God’s judgment.’ (EBC)

‘Even the mightiest and most glorious of earth’s nations is no match for the God who has placed his name on Jerusalem.  Against him there will be no mighty blows, only limp hands and melted hearts.’ (Oswalt)

Isa 13:8 Terror will seize them, pain and anguish will grip them; they will writhe like a woman in labour. They will look aghast at each other, their faces aflame.

A woman in labour – ‘Not here a picture of fruitful pain but of a process reaching its inescapable outcome (1 Thess. 5:2–3).’ (Motyer)

‘People will be completely helpless, dismayed, numb, in shock, and deathly afraid. Unfortunately, no one will be able to help them when God decrees their final destruction. The terror of this day should motivate every person who hears the words of the prophet to not be among those who will experience the wrath of God’s anger on the Day of the Lord.’ (Smith, NAC)

Isa 13:9 See, the day of the LORD is coming—a cruel day, with wrath and fierce anger—to make the land desolate and destroy the sinners within it.

The land – Although this translation suggests that the scene is local, the language of the following verses indicates a universal dimension (EBC).

Isa 13:10 The stars of heaven and their constellations will not show their light. The rising sun will be darkened and the moon will not give its light.

‘God created the natural order as an environment for humans (Gen 1). The Fall disturbed this order, and some indication of this is given in the penalties prescribed by God (Gen 3:14–19). In v.10 we see God’s hand of judgment falling on the great heavenly bodies, whose regular motions provide strong support for one’s belief in an ordered universe. Their light-giving function (cf. Gen 1:14–19) will be hindered (cf. Mt 24:29; Mk 13:24–25; cf. esp. Mt 27:45; Mk 15:33; Lk 23:44–45).’ (EBC)

‘To highlight the fear of God’s judgment, the prophets often added to their warnings exaggerated ways of speaking, to set God’s anger, so to speak, before their eyes and to affect all their senses, as if all the elements were arising to execute his vengeance.’ (Calvin)

‘The sun, the moon, and the stars are mentioned because they are striking proofs of God’s fatherly kindness toward us. Accordingly, when the sun, moon, and stars shine in heaven, God may be said to cheer us by his bright and gracious countenance. Their not showing light indicates the opposite.’ (Calvin)

Isa 13:11 I will punish the world for its evil, the wicked for their sins. I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless.

‘It is clear that Isaiah’s prophecy describes something more significant than the ups and downs of an ancient city. The prophets often began a message by focusing on local events, but then enlarged their vision to reveal something greater. Isaiah saw in the fall of Babylon a picture of “the day of the Lord” (Isa. 13:6, 9, 13), that time when God will pour out His wrath on the whole world (v. 11).’ (Wiersbe)

The universal language indicates that Babylon is being used ‘to represent the pride and glory of all creation and to argue that at its greatest and highest, there is no reason to trust any such creatures, because the Lord God will bring them all down into the dust.’ (Oswalt)

Isa 13:12 I will make man scarcer than pure gold, more rare than the gold of Ophir.

Isa 13:13 Therefore I will make the heavens tremble; and the earth will shake from its place at the wrath of the LORD Almighty, in the day of his burning anger.

‘Verse 13 goes beyond v.10 by depicting the effects of divine judgment on the natural universe. There is to be a general convulsion of the whole created order (cf. 34:4). Thus the instability of the order of things since the Fall will be disclosed (cf. Mk 13), revealing the need for the eternally stable order of the kingdom of God that Christ’s coming will establish.’ (EBC)

Isa 13:14 Like a hunted gazelle, like sheep without a shepherd, each will return to his own people, each will flee to his native land.

‘In turn the verses reveal three facets of the Day: no protection (14), no escape (15), no mercy (16).’ (Motyer)

‘The prophet here [vv14-16] returns…to the more local judgment on Babylon, for it is clear that human agencies of punishment are now being used again. A prediction of the Day of the Lord may expand and then contract again in this way, because each particular judgment foreshadows the great ultimate punishment to fall on the human race as a whole.’ (EBC)

Isa 13:15 Whoever is captured will be thrust through; all who are caught will fall by the sword.

‘Beginning with Tiglath-pileser III, each great empire of Mesopotamia followed a policy of transportation and intermingling of peoples. As Babylonia is entered by its conquerors, those living there who have been exiled from their own homelands feel their isolation; and, like hunted or neglected animals, they try to make for home. Such attempts at survival will be quite fruitless. The bitter enemies of their overlords will make no distinction between the native-born and the unwilling incomer.’ (EBC)

Isa 13:16 Their infants will be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses will be looted and their wives ravished.

‘The picture [in vv14-16] is more horrible than what anyone can imagine or describe. The earth will be in disarray as the dependable forces of nature will disintegrate and people will turn to a savage form of debased animal existence. Government, respect, civility, kindness, and hope will totally disappear. The vile evil of sin and its horrible consequences will be in full view, but God will finally eradicate it all from the face of the earth.’ (NAC)

Isa 13:17 See, I will stir up against them the Medes, who do not care for silver and have no delight in gold.

The Medes were the senior partners in the Medo-Persian empire.  They came from the Zagra mountains (in modern Iran).  Under Cyrus, they conquered Babylon in 539BC.  They are described here as ferocious, and impossible to bribe.

‘The Medes are probably mentioned here rather than the Persians because of their greater ferocity and also because they were better known to the people of Isaiah’s day.’ (EBC)

Isa 13:18 Their bows will strike down the young men; they will have no mercy on infants nor will they look with compassion on children.

Isa 13:19 Babylon, the jewel of kingdoms, the glory of the Babylonians’ pride, will be overthrown by God like Sodom and Gomorrah.

Verses 19-22 sum up the gradual, but eventually total, desertion of Babylon.  The Assyrian king Sennacherib destroyed Babylon in 539BC.  The city was then re-built, only to go into the gradual decline that complete by the endof the 1st century AD and continues to this day.  In the 18th century AD its very location was unknown.

‘The city of Babylon was completely destroyed in 689 B.C. by Sennacherib and the Assyrian army, but it was rebuilt by Sennacherib’s son. In 539 B.C., Darius the Mede captured the city (Dan. 5:31), but he did not destroy it. In the centuries that followed, Babylon had its “shining moments,” but after the death of its last great conqueror, Alexander the Great, the city declined and soon was no more. Isaiah’s prophecy was fulfilled, for the city was not rebuilt.’ (Wiersbe)

Later, the Babylon was a great power, the God of the exiled Judeans humbled the mighty Nebuchadnezzar, so that he ate grass like an ox, Dan 4:24-35 (see the confession this drew from the mouth of that king).  Later still, John would speak of Rom, the Babylon of the day, in similar terms, Rev 18:2-3,10.  And the wealth of once-mighty British empire, on which ‘the sun never set’, has become (in the words of Kipling) ‘one with Nineveh and Tyre’. (See Oswalt’s discussion)

‘The historical invasion may be attributable to the Medes, who with the Persians under Cyrus conquered Babylon, but the true agent, as with the ultimate eschatological judgment, is God himself.’ (Jackman)

Sodom and Gomorrah – Also mentioned in Isa 1:9f.  The name sof these cities conjures up thoughts not only of utter destruction but also the moral cause behind it.

Isa 13:20 She will never be inhabited or lived in through all generations; no Arab will pitch his tent there, no shepherd will rest his flocks there.

Nomads and shepherd will avoid the place, sensing that it is cursed.

Isa 13:21 But desert creatures will lie there, jackals will fill her houses; there the owls will dwell, and there the wild goats will leap about.

The identity of the various animals mentioned here is uncertain, but the sense is that the ruins of Babylons palaces will be haunted by strange, sinister animals.

Isa 13:22 Hyenas will howl in her strongholds, jackals in her luxurious palaces. Her time is at hand, and her days will not be prolonged.

‘The contrast between the jewel of kingdoms (19) and this ‘haunt for every evil spirit, … every unclean and detestable bird’ (Rev. 18:2) reappears in the final overthrow of the ungodly world in Rev. 18, pictured as Babylon—the world whose glory Satan offered to Jesus in Mt. 4:8–9.’ (NBC)

In attempting to pinpoint the historical events to which this prophecy ponts, Smith (NAC) considers that the best option is to assume that ‘Isaiah delivered this prophecy a short time before 701 BC, when Babylon was tempting Hezekiah to rebel and form an alliance with Babylon. If that is the setting, Isaiah would be announcing the demise of the Babylonian kingdom, thus implying that it was useless for Hezekiah to trust Merodach-baladan (39:1–6). It is impossible to determine if the prophet foresaw the coming fall of Babylon in 689 BC when the Assyrian king Sennacherib defeated Babylon, tore down its walls, flooded the area, depopulated the city, and made the city into a meadow or if he was predicting the final end of the political power of Babylon when Cyrus, king of the Medes and Persians, defeated the city in 539 BC (cf. Dan 5). Isaiah was more concerned with assuring his audience that there was no doubt about the fulfillment of this event; he was not concerned with predicting an exact date for these events or trying to specify who would be ruling when this prophecy was fulfilled.’

Webb comments that ‘the fall of Babylon merges, in this oracle, with the fina, great day of the Lord (v6, cf. 9), when all human arrogance will be judged, and all human pomp and power will be exposed for the hollow things that they are (cf. Isa 1:12-22).’

We can be too easily impressed, or intimidated, by this world’s glory.  We think of its powerful leaders, its feted celebrities, its sophisticated technology, and all that its wealth can buy, and think that it represents ultimate reality.  But it does not.  Its most hideous nuclear explosion is but a sneeze compared with the power that launched the ‘big bang’, or which sustains each atom and each galaxy moment by moment.  So why do we persist in trusting anything and everything apart from our God?  All human constructions will crumble and become dust.  The best of humans achievements will be forgotten.  Our vaunted knowledge will be replaced by a superior knowledge, and be regarded as mere fable.  We make godless alliances with our neighbours, who then turn against us and become our sworn enemies.  Our trust, ultimately, should not be placed in that which is fallible and temporary, but in God, who is perfect and eternal.  We must heed Christ’s words, and build, not on the sand, but on a rock, Mt 7:24.  According to 2 Pet 1:10f, if we cultivate the godlike qualities of faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love, we will ‘never fall’, and ‘will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’  (See Oswalt’s discussion)