Isaiah 47
Pulpit Commentary
Come down, and sit in the dust, O virgin daughter of Babylon, sit on the ground: there is no throne, O daughter of the Chaldeans: for thou shalt no more be called tender and delicate.
Verses 1-15. - A SONG OF TRIUMPH OVER THE FALL OF BABYLON. The song divides itself into four strophes, or stanzas - the first one of four verses (vers. 1-4); the second of three (vers. 5-7); the third of four (Vers. 8-11); and the fourth also of four (vers. 12-15). The speaker is either Jehovah (see ver. 3, ad fin.) or "a chorus of celestial beings" (Cheyne), bent on expressing their sympathy with Israel Verse 1. - Come down, and sit in the dust; i.e. "descend to the lowest depth of humiliation" (comp. Isaiah 3:26 and Job 2:8). O virgin daughter of Babylon. The "virgin daughter of Babylon" is the Babylonian people as distinct from the city (comp. Isaiah 23:12). "Virgin" does not mean "unconquered;" for Babylon had been taken by the Assyrians some half-dozen times ('Ancient Monarchies,' vol. 2, pp. 58, 130, 149, 157, 164, 175, etc.). Sit on the ground: there is no throne; rather, sit on the ground throneless, or without a throne. Hitherto the "virgin daughter" had sat, as it were, on a throne, ruling the nations. Now she must sit on the ground - there was no throne left for her. It is the fact that Babylon was never, after her capture by Cyrus, the capital. of a kingdom. Under the Achsemenian kings she was the residence of the court for a part of the year; but Susa was the capital. Under Alexander she was designated for his capital; but he died before his designs could be carried out. Under the Seleucidae she rapidly dwindled in consequence, until she became a ruin. Thou shalt no more be called tender and delicate; or, delicate and luxurious (Cheyne). Babylon had hitherto been one of the chief seats of Oriental luxury. She was "the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldees' excellency" (Isaiah 13:19), "the golden city" (Isaiah 14:4). She was given to revelry and feasting, to mirth and drunkenness, to a shameless licensed debauchery (Herod., 1. 199; Baruch 6:43). All this would now be changed. Her population would have to perform the hard duties laid upon them by foreign masters.
Take the millstones, and grind meal: uncover thy locks, make bare the leg, uncover the thigh, pass over the rivers.
Verse 2. - Take the millstones, and grind meal. Do the hard work commonly allotted to female slaves. Turn the heavy upper millstone all day long upon the nether one (comp. Exodus 11:5). Babylon having been personified as a female captive, the details have to be in unison. Uncover thy locks. Babylonian women are represented in the Assyrian sculptures as wearing closefitting caps upon their heads (see 'Ancient Monarchies,' vol. 2, p. 500). Make bare the leg... pass over the rivers. On the way from their own city to the land of their captivity, they would have to wade through streams, and in so doing to expose parts of their persons which delicacy required to be concealed.
Thy nakedness shall be uncovered, yea, thy shame shall be seen: I will take vengeance, and I will not meet thee as a man.
Verse 3. - I will not meet thee as a man; literally, I shall not meet a man; i.e. "I shall not find any one to oppose me."
As for our redeemer, the LORD of hosts is his name, the Holy One of Israel.
Verse 4. - As for our Redeemer, etc. Mr. Cheyne suspects, with some reason, that this is "the marginal note of a sympathetic scribe, which has made its way by accident into the text." It is certainly quite unlike anything else in the song, which would artistically be improved by its removal. If, however, it be retained, we must regard it as a parenthetic ejaculation of the Jewish Church on hearing the first strophe of the song - the Church contrasting itself with Babylon, which has no one to stand up for it, whereas it has as "Redeemer the Lord of hosts, the Holy One of Israel."
Sit thou silent, and get thee into darkness, O daughter of the Chaldeans: for thou shalt no more be called, The lady of kingdoms.
Verse 5. - Sit thou silent, and get thee into darkness. The second strophe begins, like the first, with a double imperative. The fallen people is recommended to hide its shame in silence and darkness, as disgraced persons do who shrink from being seen by their fellows. Thou shalt no more be called The lady of kingdoms. Babylon can scarcely have borne this title in Isaiah's time, or at any earlier period, unless it were a very remote one. She had been secondary to Assyria for at least six hundred years when Isaiah wrote, and under Sennacherib was ruled by viceroys of his appointment. But Isaiah's prophetic foresight enables him to realize the later period of Babylon's prosperity and glory under Nabopolassar and Nebuchadnezzar, when she became the inheritress of the greatness of Assyria, and exercised rule over a large portion of Western Asia. Nebuchadnezzar was, no doubt, as he is called by both Ezekiel (Ezekiel 26:7) and Daniel (Daniel 2:37), a "king of kings;" and Babylon was then an empress-state, exercising authority over many minor kingdoms. It is clear that, both in the earlier and the later chapters, the prophet realizes this condition of things (see Isaiah 13:19; Isaiah 14:4-6, 12-17; as well as the present passage).
I was wroth with my people, I have polluted mine inheritance, and given them into thine hand: thou didst shew them no mercy; upon the ancient hast thou very heavily laid thy yoke.
Verse 6. - I was wroth with my people (comp. 2 Kings 24:3, 4; 2 Chronicles 36:13-17). I have polluted... and given; rather, I polluted and gave. The reference is to the conquest of Judaea by Nebuchadnezzar. Thou didst show them no mercy. We have very little historical knowledge of the general treatment of the Jewish exiles during the Captivity. A certain small number - Daniel and the Three Children - were advanced to positions of importance (Daniel 1:19; Daniel 2:48, 49; Daniel 3:30), and, on the whole, well treated. On the other hand, Jehoiachin underwent an imprisonment of thirty-seven years' duration (2 Kings 25:27). Mr. Cheyne says that "the writings of Jeremiah and Ezekiel do not suggest that the [bulk of the] exiles were great sufferers." This is, no doubt, true; and we may, perhaps, regard Isaiah's words in this place as sufficiently made good by the "cruelties which disfigured the first days of the Babylonian triumph" (Lamentations 4:16; Lamentations 5:12; 2 Chronicles 36:17). Still, there may well have been a large amount of suffering among the rank-and-file of the captives, of which no historic record has come down to us. Psalm 138. reveals some of the bitter feelings of the exiles. Upon the ancient; rather, upon the aged. The author of Chronicles notes that Nebuchadnezzar, on taking Jerusalem, "had no compassion on young man or maiden, old man or him that stooped for age" (l.s.c.). There is no reason for giving the words of the present passage an allegorical meaning.
And thou saidst, I shall be a lady for ever: so that thou didst not lay these things to thy heart, neither didst remember the latter end of it.
Verse 7. - And thou saidst, I shall be a lady for ever. The idea of "continuance" is one of the primary instincts of human nature. Hence we regard it as certain that the sun will rise on the morrow. We expect things to "continue in one stay," and "to-morrow to be as to-day," if not even "more abundant." Babylon was not much more arrogant than other nations when she assumed that silo would be "a lady for ever." And she had more excuse than almost any other nation. Her capital was one of the most ancient cities, if not the most ancient city in the world (Genesis 10:10 ). Though not unconquered (see the comment on ver. 1), she had yet for two millennia or more maintained a prominent position among the chief peoples of the earth, and had finally risen to a prouder eminence than any that she had previously occupied. Still, she ought to have remembered that "all things come to an end," and to have so comported herself in the time of her prosperity as not to have provoked God to anger. So that thou didst not lay these things to thy heart. "These things" must refer to the calamities about to fall upon Babylon, of which she may have heard before the end came - since they had been prophesied so long previously - but which she did not take to heart. The latter end of it; i.e. "the probable issue of her pride and cruelty" (Kay).
Therefore hear now this, thou that art given to pleasures, that dwellest carelessly, that sayest in thine heart, I am, and none else beside me; I shall not sit as a widow, neither shall I know the loss of children:
Verse 8. - Therefore; rather, and now. The third strophe begins here, but with a single, instead of a double, imperative. So also the fourth strophe in ver. 12. Thou that art given to pleasures (see the comment on ver. 1, sub fin.). That dwellest carelessly; or, that sittest securely; i.e. in an imagined security. Herodotus says that, when Cyrus invested the city, the inhabitants "made light of his siege" (1:190), and occupied themselves "in dancing and revelry" (1:191). The Nabonidus Tablet seems to show that very slight and insufficient preparations for defence were made.! am, and none else Beside me. This is not self-deification, but only a boast of superiority to all other earthly powers. Zephaniah expresses in exactly similar terms the pride and arrogance of Assyria (Zephaniah 2:15). I shall not sit as a widow; i.e. in solitude and desolation (Lamentations 1:1), deserted by the crowds who had sought her marts and delighted in her luxury. This result, which now impended, had never been anticipated by the "careless" one, who had expected to be for ever "the lady of kingdoms." The loss of children; i.e. diminution of population.
But these two things shall come to thee in a moment in one day, the loss of children, and widowhood: they shall come upon thee in their perfection for the multitude of thy sorceries, and for the great abundance of thine enchantments.
Verse 9. - In a moment in one day. The day of the capture of the city by Cyrus, which was the third of Marchesvan, B.C. 539. Then, "in a moment," Babylon lost the whole of her prestige, ceased to reign, ceased to be an independent power, became a "widow," had a portion of her population turn from her, was brought down to the dust. Loss of children, and widowhood came upon her in their perfection; i.e. "in the full extent of their bitterness" (Cheyne). Not that Cyrus imitated her common practice by carrying off her entire population; on the contrary, she continued for more than two centuries to be a flourishing and populous town. Twice she revolted from Darius Hystaspis ('Beh. Ins.,' col. 1. par. 16; col 3, par. 13), once, perhaps, from Xerxes (Ctes., 'Ext. Pers,' § 22). Alexander the Great found her walls and her great buildings in ruins, but still she was a considerable place. Cyrus, however, no doubt, carried off a portion of her population, which thenceforth begun to dwindle, and continually became less and less as time went on, until she sank into a solitude. That extreme desolation which the prophets paint in such vivid colours (Isaiah 12:19-22; 14:22, 23; Jeremiah 50:10:15, 38-40; 2:36-43) was potentially contained in the capture by Cyrus, which was the work of a single day. For the multitude of thy sorceries... of thine enchantments (comp. ver. 13; and see also Daniel 2:2; Daniel 5:7). The word here translated "sorceries" probably means "incantations" or "enchantments," while that translated "enchantments" means "spells." The addiction of the Babylonians to marc is largely attested by the classical writers, and has been proved beyond a doubt by the lately discovered native remains. By these it appears that their magic fell under three principal heads:

(1) the preparation and use of spells and talismans, which were written forms engraved on stone or impressed on clay, and worn on the person or attached to the object on which their influence was to be exerted;

(2) the composition and recitation of formulae of incantation, which were supposed to act as charms, and to drive away demons and diseases; and

(3) the taking of observations and framing of tables of prognostics and of omens for general use, together with the casting of horoscopes for the special advantage of individuals (see Rawlinson's 'Egypt and Babylon,' p. 58; and comp. Lenor, mant,'La Magic chez les Chaldaens,' and Professor Sayce's papers in the 'Transactions of the Society of Bibl. Archaeol.,' vol. 3:p. 145, et seqq.; vol. 4:p. 302, et seqq.). The first and second forms of marc are glanced at in the present passage; the third is noticed in ver. 13.
For thou hast trusted in thy wickedness: thou hast said, None seeth me. Thy wisdom and thy knowledge, it hath perverted thee; and thou hast said in thine heart, I am, and none else beside me.
Verse 10. - Thou hast trusted in thy wickedness; i.e. in thy incantations and spells, which were supposed to work in secret, and which could not be counteracted if their victim was not aware of them. Thy wisdom and thy knowledge, it hath perverted thee. The astronomical "wisdom and knowledge" of the Babylonians, confessed by the Greeks to have been the origin of their own astronomical knowledge (Plat., 'Epiuomis,' p. 987; Hipparch. ap. Procl., 'In Tim.,' p. 71; Phoenix Coloph. ap. Athen., 'Deipnos.,' 12:p. 530, E.; Diod. Sic., 2 31, etc.), led them on to that perversion of true science, astrology, which, when once entered upon, seduces the mind from all genuine and fruitful study of the celestial phenomena, and leads it into a labyrinth of absurdities. It also puffed them up, and made them regard themselves as altogether superior to other nations (see the comment on ver. 8, sub fin.).
Therefore shall evil come upon thee; thou shalt not know from whence it riseth: and mischief shall fall upon thee; thou shalt not be able to put it off: and desolation shall come upon thee suddenly, which thou shalt not know.
Verse 11. - Therefore shall evil come upon thee. Connect this with the first clause of ver. 10, "Thou hast trusted in thine own evil (moral), therefore shall evil (physical) fall upon thee." The same word, ra'ah, is used in both places. Thou shalt not know from whence it riseth. So the Vulgate, Vitringa, Gesenius, and Dr. Kay. But the bulk of modern commentators (Hitzig, Ewald, Delitzsch, Nagelsbach, Weir, Cheyne) render, "Thou wilt not know how to charm it away." Both meanings are possible, and are almost equally good; but the parallelism of the clauses is in favour of the latter rendering. Shakhrah should correspond in construction, as in sound, with kapp'rah. To put it off; literally, to expiate; i.e. to get rid of it by means of expiatory rites. Which thou shalt not know; or, of which thou shalt not be aware. (On the carelessness and want of foresight displayed by the Babylonians, see the comment on ver. 8.)
Stand now with thine enchantments, and with the multitude of thy sorceries, wherein thou hast laboured from thy youth; if so be thou shalt be able to profit, if so be thou mayest prevail.
Verse 12. - Stand now. The fourth and concluding strophe now begins; it opens, like the third, with a single imperative. It has, as Mr. Cheyne observes, "a strongly ironical tinge, reminding us of Elijah's language to the priests of Baal in 1 Kings 18:27." The irony is, however, confined to the first half (vers. 12, 13); giving place in vers. 14 and 15 to a scathing sentence of judgment and ruin. Enchantments... sorceries; rather, spells, enchantments (see the comment on ver. 9). If so be, etc.; rather, perchance thou wilt be able to profit; perchance thou wilt cause terror. The prophet gives a pretended encouragement to Israel's adversaries. "If Babylon uses all the resources of her magical art, perhaps she may succeed - who knows? Perhaps she may strike terror into the hearts of her assailants."
Thou art wearied in the multitude of thy counsels. Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up, and save thee from these things that shall come upon thee.
Verse 13. - Thou art wearied in the multitude of thy counsels. Mr. Cheyne's rendering is more intelligible, "Thou hast wearied thyself with the multitude of thy consultations." Those at the head of affairs had consulted the diviners of all classes, till they were utterly weary of so doing (compare the "consultations" of Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar with such persons, Daniel 2:2-11; Daniel 5:7, 8). Yet let one further effort be made. Let now the astrologers, the stargazers, the monthly prognosticators, stand up. These are scarcely three classes of persons, but rather the same class under three designations: "astrologers" (literally, "dividers of the heavens"); "star-gazers," or observers of the stars; and "monthly prognosticators," or almanack-makers. The astronomy of the Babylonians consisted primarily in "dividing the heavens" into "houses," or constellations, and thus mapping them out in such a way that the infinite multiplicity, which at first baffles the beholder, might be grasped, reduced to order, and brought within the sphere of distinct cognizance. This work was an eminently useful one, and maintains its place in astronomy to the present day ('Ancient Monarchies,' vol. 2, p. 573). After the heavens were mapped out, and the courses of the sun and moon through the "houses" laid down, "star-gazers" directed their attention mainly to sun, moon, and planets, noting eclipses, occultations, conjunctions, and the like. All this was legitimate science; but, finally, the greater part of the astronomers launched into astrology, and undertook to prognosticate events from the changing phenomena of the heavens. Almanacks were put forth, in which predictions were made, either specially for a particular year, or generally for all time, based upon astronomical considerations; and on these great dependence was placed. (For a specimen of such an almanack, see 'Records of the Past,' vol. 1. pp. 158-161.)
Behold, they shall be as stubble; the fire shall burn them; they shall not deliver themselves from the power of the flame: there shall not be a coal to warm at, nor fire to sit before it.
Verse 14. - Behold, they shall be as stubble (comp. Isaiah 5:24; Isaiah 40:24; Isaiah 41:2). A favourite metaphor with Isaiah for extreme weakness and incapacity of resistance. In Isaiah 5:24 it is connected, as here, with fire. No doubt in Palestine, as elsewhere, an accidental fire from time to time caught hold of a stubble-field, and speedily reduced it to a mass of blackened ashes. The threat here is that God's wrath shall similarly sweep over Babylon. They shall not deliver themselves from the power of the flame. Mr. Cheyne translates, with much spirit, "They cannot rescue their soul from the clutch of the flame." Like those who are caught in the midst of a fire in a prairie or jungle, they have no escape - the flame is on all sides - and they cannot but perish. There shall not be a coal to warm at; rather, it is not a charcoal-fire to warm one's self at. A return to the sarcastic tone of vers. 12, 13. The conflagration which spreads around is something more than a fire to warm one's self at - it is an awful widespread devastation.
Thus shall they be unto thee with whom thou hast laboured, even thy merchants, from thy youth: they shall wander every one to his quarter; none shall save thee.
Verse 15. - Thus shall they be unto thee with whom thou hast laboured. The foreigners who have participated in the toils and labours of Babylon shall share in her punishment. The flame of judgment shall not spare even them. Even thy merchants. Babylonian commerce is the subject of an important chapter in Heeren's 'Asiatic Nations' (vol. 2, pp. 190-260), and is discussed also in the present writer's 'Egypt and Babylon' (ch. 8, pp. 127-144). It was carried on both by land and sea, and was very extensive, including both a large import and a large export trade. Her merchants were, in part natives, in part foreigners. It is the latter who are here specially intended. Seeing the gradual closing in upon Babylon of the Persian armies, and anticipating the worst, they fly in haste from the doomed city, each one making for his own country, and having no thought of interposing to save the people which have so long encouraged and protected them. Probably the greater number of these foreign merchants were either Phoenicians or Arabians. They shall wander every one to his quarter. Not his own quarter of the town, but his own quarter of the earth; i.e. his own country (comp. Isaiah 13:14, "They shall every man turn to his own people, and flee every one into his own land.").

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