Bible Commentary: Isaiah 13:1-14:2

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Isaiah 13:1-14:2

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Babylon, the Glory of Kingdoms

Returning to the book of Isaiah, we come to "the burden against Babylon" (verse 1). The word burden paints the picture of the prophet being heavily laden with a message from God that he simply must deliver because it is too heavy to carry.

As was mentioned in the previous highlights, the Assyrians sacked Babylon in 689 B.C. Some see the prophecy of Isaiah 13 as a reference to that episode. However, in verse 17 we see the Medes, not the Assyrians, as the ones conquering Babylon. And this did not happen until much later. The Babylonians eventually conquered the Assyrians, overthrowing the Assyrian capital of Nineveh in 612 B.C. Then the Neo-Babylonian Empire ruled the Middle East until its defeat by the Medes and Persians in 539 B.C. This was the fall of ancient Babylon. And the prophecy does seem to anticipate this event, though it was written around 180 years in advance of it.

However, the passage appears to be primarily directed to a time long after that. It is heavily concerned with the Day of the Lord—a time yet future, which immediately precedes the return of Christ (verses 6, 9; compare Joel 1:15; Revelation 6:12-17). Indeed, the return of God's people to the Promised Land in Isaiah 14:1-2 was not fulfilled by the return of the Jews from Babylonian captivity in the days of Ezra. Only a paltry 50,000 then returned (Ezra 2:64-65), and a few more later—perhaps only 15 percent or so of the Jews in Babylonia. Notice further that Isaiah 14:1-2 says "the house of Jacob" and "Israel"—referring to all 12 tribes, not just the Jews. And in the return from Babylonian exile, the Jews did not then take their oppressors as slaves, as this prophecy says would happen.

It seems clear, then, that while the destruction of historical Babylon is in view here, Isaiah's prophecy at this point is referring primarily to end-time Babylon—which is not merely a single city or province but an economic, political, religious and military power bloc centered in Europe that will seek to rule the world (Revelation 17-18). The leading national force in this union, as explained in the highlights for Isaiah 10, will be modern Assyria—apparently the Germanic peoples of Central Europe. Surprisingly, the European Union actually uses the symbol of the Tower of Babel to represent its forming superstate.

But Assyria is not the only ancient nation with a surprising identity today. Babylon itself may be found elsewhere. As explained in the previous highlights, a great many Babylonians were relocated to Syro-Phoenicia, including Samaria, even before the Chaldean Neo-Babylonian Empire. When Babylon finally fell to the Medes and Persians they set it up as their winter capital. Later, when Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire, he too set up Babylon as the capital of Asia in his Greek empire. When his successor in the region, Seleucus, took over, he declared himself the king of Babylon and made Babylon his first capital. Soon he decided to move the capital to a new location north on the Tigris River and invited those of Babylonia to relocate there. Later, he moved his capital west to Antioch in Syria. In fact, he built 30 new cities throughout his empire, most of them in Syria, and the vast majority of Mesopotamia relocated to them. Thus, though Seleucid Syria was a Greek kingdom in name and language, it was predominantly Babylonian in fact—with large numbers of Phoenicians of old Tyre and Sidon still dwelling along its Mediterranean Coast.

Great numbers of the Babylonian and Phoenician Syrians were later taken to Rome as slaves. Amazingly, in the centuries just before and after Christ, a massive change happened in the Roman population. Through wars and other socioeconomic factors, Italy's native population dwindled. Many of the local freeborn citizens who were left migrated to other parts of Rome's growing empire. At the same time, Rome brought in vast numbers of slaves, mostly from Syria. The first-century Roman satirist Juvenal wrote of them: "These dregs call themselves Greeks but how small a portion is from Greece; the River Orontes [in Syria] has long flowed into the Tiber [in Rome]" (Satire 3, line 62). Over time it became popular to free slaves in Rome—and thousands upon thousands of freed slaves, who were skilled at various trades, displaced even more of the freeborn citizenry. So, as incredible as it may seem, Italy eventually became almost entirely Syrian or—in actuality—Babylonian and Phoenician.

As for the Syrians who had not been taken from the Eastern Mediterranean as slaves, they gained notoriety as merchants and traders, carrying on in the tradition of the Phoenicians of old. Eventually, this lucrative pursuit would cause great numbers of them to spread throughout the entire Roman Empire—particularly through Spain, southern France, northern Italy, etc. (see Franz Cumont, Oriental Religions in Roman Paganism, 1911, pp. 107-109)—so much so that a great part of southern Europe is, in fact, Babylonian and Phoenician. Yet the center of modern Babylon is still Rome. So when God identifies Rome and its empire as Babylon in Revelation 17-18 (and as Phoenician Tyre in Ezekiel 27), He means what He says!

Eventually we will see modern Babylon (or Tyre) and modern Assyria fused together into the same power (as indeed has already happened in times past, such as with the Hitler-Mussolini Axis in World War II). This end-time power will conquer the modern-day Israelite nations and deport their remaining populations. The reference to the Medes coming against Babylon (Isaiah 13:17) may have an end-time fulfillment as well. They may be part of the massive force led by "the kings from the east" (Revelation 16:12) that attack the "kingdom" of "the beast" (verse 10). We will consider this further when we later read another prophecy of Babylon's fall in Isaiah 21.

Babylon will be destroyed and abandoned—apparently referring to its end-time capital, Rome (Isaiah 13:19-22). The reference to wild animals dwelling in its ruins may be dual, as we will see in our next reading.

Clearly, Isaiah 14:1-2 is referring to the same future time—when end-time Babylon falls, Jesus Christ returns to this earth and all Israel returns to the Promised Land. The Israelites' prophesied enslavement of the Assyrians and Babylonians, who had previously enslaved them, will be much different from the wretched picture of slavery our world has sadly witnessed in the past. For this coming short-term slavery, under the rule of Jesus Christ the Savior, will actually be to the benefit of the enslaved enemies. For at that time the Israelite slaveholders, with God's Spirit poured out on them, will be converted in their hearts and minds to the ways of Christ. The gentile slaves, then, will see Christian kindness in action and learn the true ways of God. Once they learn and accept them, they too will be freed to live in the liberty of the truth of God. What a wonderful world God has in store for all peoples!

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