Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
The burden of Babylon, which Isaiah the son of Amoz did see.XIII.
(1) The burden of Babylon . . .—The title “burden,” which is repeated in Isaiah 15:1; Isaiah 17:1; Isaiah 19:1; Isaiah 21:1; Isaiah 22:1; Isaiah 23:1, indicates that we have in this division a collection of prophetic utterances, bearing upon the future of the surrounding nations, among which Babylon was naturally pre-eminent. The authenticity of the first of these oracles has been questioned, partly on the ground of differences of style, partly because it seems to anticipate the future destruction of Babylon with a distinctness which implies a prophecy after the event. The first of these objections rests, as will be seen from the numerous coincidences between these and other portions of Isaiah, on no sufficient evidence. The second implies a view of prophecy which excludes the element of a divinely given foreknowledge; and that view the present writer does not accept.
Accepting the two chapters as Isaiah’s, we have to ask how Babylon came at the time within the prophet’s historical horizon, and what were at the time its political relations with Assyria. (1) It is obvious that the negotiations which Ahaz had opened with Tiglath-pileser, the passage to and fro of armies and ambassadors, the journeys of prophets like Jonah and Nahum, the commerce of which we have traces even in the days of Joshua (Joshua 7:21), must have made Babylon, as well as Nineveh, familiar to the leading men of Judah. As a matter of fact, it was probably more familiar. Babylon was the older, more famous, more splendid city Nineveh (if we accept the conclusions of one school of historians) had been overpowered and destroyed by the Medes under Arbaces, and the Babylonians under Belesis (B.C. 739), the Pul of Bible history, under whom Assyria was a dependency of Babylon (Lenormant, Anc. Hist., p. 38). In Tiglath-pileser the Assyrians found a ruler who restored their supremacy. The Chaldæans, however, revolted under Merôdach-baladan, and Sargon records with triumph how he had conquered him and spoiled his palace. As the result of that victory, he took the title of king of Babylon. Merôdach-baladan, however, renewed his resistance early in the reign of Sennacherib, and though again defeated, we find him courting the alliance of Hezekiah either before or after the destruction of that king’s army (Isaiah 39). We can scarcely doubt that the thought of a Babylonian, as of an Egyptian, alliance had presented itself to the minds of the statesmen of Judah as a means of staying the progress of Assyrian conquests. The chapters now before us, however, do not seem written with reference to such an alliance, and in Isaiah 14:25 Babylon seems contemplated chiefly as the representative of the power of Assyria. It seems probable, accordingly, that the king of Babylon in Isaiah 14:4 is to be identified with Sargon, the Assyrian king, who took the title of “Vicar of the Gods in Babylon” (Records of the Past, vol. xi. 17).
The word “burden,” prefixed to this and the following prophecies, is a literal translation of the Hebrew. It seems to have acquired a half-technical sense as announcing the doom which a nation or a man was called to bear, and so to have acquired the meaning of an “oracle,” or “prophecy.” This meaning, which is first prominent in Isaiah (in Proverbs 30:1; Proverbs 31:1 it is used of an ethical or didactic utterance thought of as inspired), was afterwards given to it in the speeches of the false prophets (Lamentations 2:14); and in Jeremiah 23:33-40 we have a striking play upon the primary and derived meaning of the word. (See Note on Jeremiah 23:33.) It continued in use, however, in spite of Jeremiah’s protest, and appears in Zechariah 9:1; Zechariah 12:1; Malachi 1:1. Oracle is perhaps the best English equivalent. We note as characteristic (see Isaiah 1:1; Isaiah 2:1), that the “burden” is described as that which Isaiah saw.
Lift ye up a banner upon the high mountain, exalt the voice unto them, shake the hand, that they may go into the gates of the nobles.(2) Lift ye up a banner upon the high mountain . . .—Strictly speaking, a bare mountain. where there were no trees to hide the standard round which the forces that the prophet sees were to rally. The word and thought are the same as in Isaiah 5:26; but there the summons lies for the invaders of Israel, here for its avengers. The voice that summons is, as the next verse shows, that of Jehovah. The “shaking the hand” is, as in Isaiah 10:32, the act of the generals pointing with emphatic gesture to the city that is to be destroyed.
The gates of the nobles.—The word is used to heighten the contrast between the greatness of the city to be destroyed, with its gates that had witnessed for centuries the entrance of kings and princes, and the wild roughness of the barbarian destroyers.
I have commanded my sanctified ones, I have also called my mighty ones for mine anger, even them that rejoice in my highness.(3) I have commanded my sanctified ones . . .—The word is applied even to the fierce tribes of the future destroyers, as being appointed, or consecrated, by Jehovah for that special work. The thought and the words (there translated “prepare”) appear in Jeremiah 6:4; Jeremiah 22:7; Jeremiah 51:27. So in the later prophecies Cyrus appears as “the anointed” of the Lord (Isaiah 45:1).
Even them that rejoice in my highness.—In Zephaniah 3:11 the same phrase occurs in a bad sense. Here, apparently, it denotes the proud consciousness of the invaders that they are doing God’s work.
The noise of a multitude in the mountains, like as of a great people; a tumultuous noise of the kingdoms of nations gathered together: the LORD of hosts mustereth the host of the battle.(4) The noise of a multitude . . .—The prophet hears, as it were, the tramp of the armies gathering on the mountains north of Babylonia (possibly the Zagros range, or the plateau of Iran, or the mountains of Armenia; but the prophet’s geography was probably vague) before they descend to the plain, and march against the haughty city. (Comp. Jeremiah 51:27.)
They come from a far country, from the end of heaven, even the LORD, and the weapons of his indignation, to destroy the whole land.(5) They come from a far country . . .—The same phrase is used of Cyrus in Isaiah 46:11, and in Isaiah 39:3 of Babylon itself in relation to Jerusalem. The “end of heaven” represents the thoughts of Isaiah’s time, the earth as an extended plain, and the skies rising like a great vault above. The phrase represents (Deuteronomy 4:32; Psalm 19:6), as it were, the ultima Thule of discovery. For the “whole land,” the Hebrew noun hovers, as often elsewhere, between the meanings of “earth,” or “country.” The LXX. favours the former meaning.
Howl ye; for the day of the LORD is at hand; it shall come as a destruction from the Almighty.(6) Howl ye; for the day of the Lord is at hand.—The verse is an almost verbal reproduction of Joel 1:15. On the “day of Jehovah,” see Note on Isaiah 2:12.
As a destruction from the Almighty.—The Hebrew shodmish-Shaddai comes with the emphasis of assonance, possibly coupled with that of etymology, the Hebrew Shaddai being derived by many scholars from the verb Shadad =to destroy. On this assumption, “destruction from the destroyer” would be a fair equivalent. The name, occurring frequently in the earlier books of the Old Testament (twenty-three times in Job and eight in the Pentateuch), was characteristic of the pre-Mosaic creed of Israel (Exodus 6:3), and occurs but seldom in the prophets: here, and in Joel 1:15; Ezekiel 1:24; Ezekiel 10:5.
Therefore shall all hands be faint, and every man's heart shall melt:(7) Shall all hands be faint.—Better, be slack, hanging down in the helpless despondency of the terror which the next clause paints (Hebrews 12:12).
(7) They shall be in pain as a woman that travaileth.—The image of powerless agony occurs both in earlier and later prophets (Hosea 13:3; Micah 5:9; Jeremiah 6:24, et al.). Perhaps the most striking parallelism is found in Psalm 48:6, probably, like the other psalms of the sons of Korah, contemporary with Isaiah.
Their faces shall be as flames.—The comparison seems at first to describe those who cause terror rather than those that feel it. What is described is, however, the moment of horror, when the dejected pallor of ordinary fear flashes into a new intensity, and the eyeballs glare, and the face glows as with a terrible brightness.
For the stars of heaven and the constellations thereof shall not give their light: the sun shall be darkened in his going forth, and the moon shall not cause her light to shine.(10) The constellations thereof.—The noun in the singular (kesîl, foolhardy, or impious) is translated as Orion in Job 9:9; Amos 5:8. It is significant, as pointing to some widely-diffused legend, that the Persian name for the constellation is Nimrod and the Arabian Giant. In Greek mythology Orion is a giant hunter, conspicuous for acts of outrage against the gods, and finally slain by Zeus. It is obvious that the words in their first application had a figurative, and not a literal, fulfilment. Such imagery has been at all times the natural symbolism of a time of terror (Joel 2:31; Joel 3:15; Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24; Luke 21:25).
I will make a man more precious than fine gold; even a man than the golden wedge of Ophir.(12) I will make a man more precious.—Both the words for man (e̓nosh and a̓dam) express, as in Psalm 8:2, the frailty of man’s nature. The words may point to the utter destruction, in which but few men should be left. The “gold of Ophir” (the gold coast near the mouth of the Indus) was proverbial for its preciousness (Job 22:24; Job 28:16; 1Chronicles 29:4; 1Kings 9:28; 1Kings 22:48).
Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth shall remove out of her place, in the wrath of the LORD of hosts, and in the day of his fierce anger.(13) Therefore I will shake.—The description of the great day of the Lord meets us in like terms in Haggai 2:6, Hebrews 12:26, carried in both instances beyond the overthrow of Babylon or any particular kingdom to that of every world-power that resists the righteousness of God.
And it shall be as the chased roe, and as a sheep that no man taketh up: they shall every man turn to his own people, and flee every one into his own land.(14) And it shall be as the chased roe.—Better, as with a chased roe . . . . as with sheep . . . The roe and the sheep represent the “mixed multitude” (Ӕsch., Pers. 52) of all nations who had been carried into Babylon, and who would naturally take to flight, some, though without a leader, returning to their own lands on the approach of the invader.
Every one that is found shall be thrust through; and every one that is joined unto them shall fall by the sword.(15) Every one that is joined unto them.—Better, every one that is caught. The first clause of the verse refers to those that are in the city at the time of its capture, the second to those who are taken as they endeavour to escape.
Their children also shall be dashed to pieces before their eyes; their houses shall be spoiled, and their wives ravished.(16) Their children also shall be dashed.—Better, their sucklings. The words of the prediction seem to have been in the minds of the exiles in Babylon when they uttered their dread beatitude on those who were to be the ministers of a righteous vengeance (Psalm 137:9). Outrages such as these were then, as they have been ever since, the inevitable accompaniments of the capture of a besieged city.
Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them, which shall not regard silver; and as for gold, they shall not delight in it.(17) Behold, I will stir up the Medes.—The Hebrew form Madai meets us in Genesis 10:2, among the descendants of Japheth. Modern researches show them to have been a mixed people, Aryan conquerors having mingled with an earlier Turanian race, and differing in this respect from the Persians, who were pure Iranians, both in race and creed. The early Assyrian inscriptions, from Rimmon Nirari III. onward (Cheyne), name them, as also does Sargon (Records of the Past, xi. 18), among the enemies whom the kings subdued. Their name had been recently brought before the prophet’s notice by Salmaneser’s deportation of the Ten Tribes to the cities of the Medes (2Kings 17:6). In naming the Medes, and not the Persians, as the conquerors of Babylon, Isaiah was probably influenced by the greater prominence of the former, just as the Greeks spoke of them, and used such terms as “Medism” when they came in contact with the Medo-Persian monarchy under Darius and Xerxes. So Ӕschylus (Pers. 760) makes “the Median” the first ruler of the Persians. It is noticeable that they were destined to be the destroyers both of Nineveh and Babylon: of the first under Cyaxares, in alliance with Nabopolassar, and of the second under Cyrus the Persian, and, we may add, the Mede Darius of Daniel 5:31. If we accept the history of a yet earlier attack on Nineveh by Arbaces the Mede and Belesis of Babylon, we can sufficiently account for the prominence which Isaiah, looking at Babylon as the representative of Assyrian rather than Chaldæan power, gives to them as its destroyers. (See Lenormant, Anc. Hist., 1, p. 337.)
Which shall not regard silver.—The Medes are represented as a people too fierce to care for the gold and silver in which Babylon exulted. They would take no ransom to stay their work of vengeance. So Xenophon, in his Cyropædia (5:3), represents Cyrus as acknowledging their unbought, unpaid service.
Their bows also shall dash the young men to pieces; and they shall have no pity on the fruit of the womb; their eye shall not spare children.(18) Their bows also shall dash the young men to pieces.—These, as in Isaiah 22:6, Jeremiah 1:9-14, were the characteristic weapons of the Medo-Persian armies.
And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees' excellency, shall be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.(19) And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms.—The words paint the impression which the great city, even in Isaiah’s time, made upon all who saw it. So Nebuchadnezzar, though his work was mainly that of a restorer, exulted in his pride in the greatness of the city of which he claimed to be the builder (Daniel 4:30). So Herodotus (i. 178) describes it as the most famous and the strongest of all the cities of Assyria, adorned beyond any other city on which his eyes had ever looked. (Compare the descriptive notices in Jeremiah 51:41, and the constantly recurring epithet of “gold-abounding Babylon” in the Persians of Ӕschylus.)
As when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.—The phrase had clearly become proverbial, as in Isaiah 1:9; Jeremiah 50:40; Deuteronomy 29:23, carrying the picture of desolation to its highest point. The present state of the site of Babylon corresponds literally to the prediction. It is “a naked and hideous waste” (Layard, Nineveh and Babylon, p. 484). The work was, however, accomplished by slow degrees, and was not, like the destruction of Nineveh, the result of a single overthrow. Darius dismantled its walls, Xerxes pulled down the Temple of Belus. Alexander contemplated its restoration, but his designs were frustrated by his early death. Susa and Ecbatana, Seleucia and Antioch, Ctesiphon and Bagdad, became successively the centres of commerce and of government. By the time of Strabo (B.C. 20) the work was accomplished, and “the vast city” had become a “vast desolation” (Strabo, xvi. 15). At no time within the range of Old Testament literature did such a consummation come within the range of the forecast which judges of the future by an induction from the past.
It shall never be inhabited, neither shall it be dwelt in from generation to generation: neither shall the Arabian pitch tent there; neither shall the shepherds make their fold there.(20) Neither shall the Arabian pitch tent there . . .—The word “Arabian” is used in its widest extent, as including all the nomadic tribes of the Bedouin type east and north of Palestine as far as Babylon (2Chronicles 21:16; Strabo, xvi., p. 743). Here, again, we note a literal fulfilment. The Bedouins themselves, partly because the place is desolate, partly from a superstitious horror, shrink from encamping on the site of the ancient temples and palaces, and they are left to lions and other beasts of prey. On the other hand, Joseph Wolff, the missionary, describes a strange weird scene, pilgrims of the Yezidis, or devil-worshippers, dancing and howling like dervishes amid the ruins of Babylon.
But wild beasts of the desert shall lie there; and their houses shall be full of doleful creatures; and owls shall dwell there, and satyrs shall dance there.(21) Wild beasts of the desert . . .—The Hebrew term, which in Psalm 72:9, and perhaps in Isaiah 23:13, is used of men, has been rendered by “wild cats,” but is probably generic, the ferœ naturœ that haunt such desolate regions. The “doleful creatures” (literally groaners) are probably “horned owls;” while the word rendered “owls (literally, daughters of screaming) may be taken as ostriches (Job 39:13-18). In the “satyrs” (literally, hairy or shaggy ones) we may find either “goats (as in Leviticus 4:24; Leviticus 16:9), or, as the English version suggests, a mythical form of grotesque animal life (the “demons” or “devils” of Leviticus 17:7; 2Chronicles 11:15, a goat-shaped form, like that of the Greek Pan), or more probably (with Tristram), the species of baboon (Macacus Arabicus) still found in Babylonia.
And the wild beasts of the islands shall cry in their desolate houses, and dragons in their pleasant palaces: and her time is near to come, and her days shall not be prolonged.(22) Wild beasts of the islands . . .—The Authorised version rests on a false etymology of the words, which strictly mean “wailers,” and in its form ey probably represents the cry of a wild beast, such as the jackal, with which it is commonly identified (see Isaiah 34:14; Jeremiah 50:39), or, possibly, the hyæna. Perhaps, however, as the word “jackal” is wanting in the next clause, it would be best to keep “wailers.”
In their desolate houses.—Literally, as the text stands, among their widows; but the word closely resembles that for “castles” or “fortresses” in Isaiah 32:14; Isaiah 34:13. The Authorised version is either an attempt to combine the two meanings, or to take the word “widow” figuratively, as in Isaiah 47:8, for a house bereaved of its owner.
The whole passage finds a singular parallel in an inscription of Assurbanipal’s recording his devastation of the fields of Elam: “Wild asses, serpents, beasts of the desert and galhus (bull-shaped demons), safely I caused to lie down in them” (Records of the Past, i., p. 80). Isaiah may have known of such boasts, and if so, his words may have pointed to the working of a law of retribution like that invoked by the Babylonian exiles in Psalm 137:8. The doom that Babylon had inflicted on others was to come upon herself. The language of modern travellers illustrates the fulfilment of the prediction. “Owls start from the scanty thickets, and the foul jackal stalks among the furrows” (Layard, Nineveh and Babylon, p. 484, quoted by Kay).