9/22/2015

Babylon Has Fallen, Has Fallen (Isaiah 21)

Isaiah 21:1-17

"Babylon has fallen, has fallen! All the images of its gods lie shattered on the ground!" (Isa 21:9b)

The whole world in His hands...at the moment and into the future. Isaiah 13-23, a new section of oracles against the nations, began with the Mesopotamian powers of Babylon and Assyria (ch.13-14). Then the oracles moved to the neighbors Philistia (14b), Moab (15-16), Aram and Israel (17a). Isaiah 17b-18 is an interlude chapter (17:12-18:7), where Cush (Ethiopia) was used to declare that Yahweh is the Lord of the nations (Isa 17:13). Then came the oracle against Egypt (ch.19-20). In essence Isaiah 13-20 declares that God rules decisively over the nations. In Isaiah 21-23 he makes more declarations to the same effect, but with an interesting difference. He speaks more allusively, more vaguely, more mysteriously, because he is giving less attention to his immediate surroundings and peering out further into a more remote future. What does Isaiah see? He sees a redeeming God at work in a deeply troubled world.

A contradictory title that smells of anything but life. The title, "A prophecy against the Desert by the Sea" or "wilderness of the sea" (Isa 21:1), is a puzzle. It is a contradiction in terms. The desert is not wet, and the sea is not dry. Isa 21:9 suggests that the subject is Babylon and that she will be destroyed. But Babylon is well inland, not on a seacoast. So why does Isaiah give Babylon this improbable title? He is being sarcastic. A desert cannot sustain human life. And the sea is "water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink" (Samuel Taylor Coleridge, English poet, 1772-1834). The sea cannot sustain human life either. "The desert by the sea" is the worst possible scenario--both dry and wet together, but neither condition conducive to human life. In other words, Babylon, as glamorous, glorious and glittering as she is, has nothing to offer! Do not trust Babylon. Do not admire her. Do not invest your hopes there. Flee from her (Jer 51:6; Rev 18:4), for she WILL be destroyed (Isa 13:19; 21:9; Jer 51:1-46; 52:1-64; Rev 14:8; 16:19; 18:2). God has another kingdom, another glory, another salvation that is lasting and forever.

The mention of Elam (Persia) and Media (Isa 21:2) suggests the final destruction in 540 BC, because prior to that the Medes were allies of Babylon, not enemies.

The uncertain world goes on. In "the prophecy against Dumah" (Isa 21:11), Isaiah is talking about the nation Edom. But he calls it "Dumah," which means "silence." He is playing on words: "edôm" becomes "dûmâh." Why? He is saying that God has no word of hope, nothing but silence, for Edom. In 21:11 an Edomite voice is asking, "Watchman, what time of the night?" In other words, "Mr. Watchman, Mr. Prophet, what time of the night is it? How much more darkness and gloom do we still have to endure? How long until the dawn of a new era?" The prophet responds in 21:12, but his answer is vague. And that's the point. God is not giving Edom a clear word. Everything hangs in suspense, but God puts them off, "Come back again." As history moves forward, greater darkness invariably envelops the world, bringing greater uncertainty, with questions like, "Where is everything going?" as the Edomite asked.

There are needs but no human solutions. In the "prophecy against Arabia" (Isa 21:13), Isaiah is playing on words again. The Hebrew consonants in the word translated "Arabia" are the same as the Hebrew word for "evening." The prophet is using double entendre to portray Arabia slipping into the night. The sun is setting on that nation. It's the twilight of their culture. The net impression Isaiah creates throughout this passage is the civilizations of man in a darkening world. There is no salvation for us in any society of human devising. But — and here is Isaiah's subtext — the sun will never set on the kingdom of God. The Bible says, "But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself. Therefore, my brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and my crown, stand firm thus in the Lord, my beloved" (Phil 3:20-4:1).