Bible Commentary: Isaiah 21

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Isaiah 21

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Babylon to Fall to the Medes and Persians 

Isaiah 21:1-10 is a prophecy addressed to the "Wilderness of the Sea" (verse 1)—wilderness meaning a desert but in the sense of a deserted, uninhabited region. As indicated by verse 9, this apparently refers to Babylon. Various explanations are given for the label. One source says it "may be a sarcastic parody of Babylon, whose southern region on the Persian Gulf was called the 'Land of the Sea'" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verse 1).

Another states: "One Greek writer gave this name to the plain on which Babylon stood, as it was divided by lakes and marshy country" (Bible Reader's Companion, note on verse 1). In fact, the Chaldean rulers of Babylon were of the "Sealands" dynasty—this being the name of their district of marshlands to the south, which bordered on the Persian Gulf. Says another source: "The plain [stretching from Babylon south to Persia] was [originally] covered with the water of the Euphrates like a 'sea'...until [the Babylonian queen] Semiramis raised great dams against it. Cyrus [of Persia, who conquered Babylon] removed these dykes, and so converted the whole country again into a vast desert[ed]-marsh" (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary, note on verse 1). Indeed, this was mentioned in our highlights covering Isaiah 14:23.

The image of Babylon—and the pagan gentile empires following in its tradition—rising from the "sea" is one we find elsewhere in Scripture (Daniel 7; Revelation 13; 17). In Revelation 17 the waters—while probably representing actual waters on one level since ancient Babylon and its later successor, Rome, were both situated near the sea—are also shown to be symbolic of "peoples, multitudes, nations, and tongues" from which Babylon and its successor kingdoms are formed (verse 15). Yet at the same time "Babylon" can signify false religion and man's corrupt civilization sprung from there in general, and thus a figurative desert wilderness—a place of wandering in spiritual confusion, lacking in the much-needed truth of God.

It is interesting to consider that the prophecy in Isaiah 21 may have been given immediately after the fall of Ashdod mentioned in chapter 20. Notice what happened in the wake of the Philistine defeat: "After whipping his client states, possibly including Judah, back into line, Sargon returned to Assyria to deal once more with the intractable Marduk-apla-iddina [Merodach-Baladan] of the Sealands dynasty in Babylonia" (Merrill, Kingdom of Priests, p. 409). Indeed, at this time, in 710 B.C., the Assyrians forced Merodach from power following a 10-year reign.

Yet the prophecy of chapter 21 may also have come following events in 703 B.C. The Assyrian emperor Sargon II "suffered an invasion by the Cimmerians of the north [i.e., captive Israelites] in 706. It is possible that he died in the following year as a result of these hostilities" (p. 409). Following his son Sennacherib replacing him in 705, revolts broke out around the empire.

Sennacherib "had barely come to power when he was faced with a rebellion in Babylonia led by the perennial foe of Assyria, Marduk-apla-iddina [Merodach-Baladan]. This leader of the Aramean Sealands dynasty had just returned from exile imposed upon him by Sargon, but with characteristic tenacity gained support for Babylonian independence from such widely scattered sources as Elam [or Persia] to the east and the Aramean [or Syrian] states to the west... In any case, [after a brief reign by Merodach in Babylon in 703 B.C.] Sennacherib prevailed, took the city of Babylon, and reasserted Assyrian authority. He also undertook a systematic subjugation of the entire Sealands area" (pp. 413-414).

So was Isaiah referring to one of these episodes? There may have at least been a lesson in them. In the previous chapter, Isaiah warned the people of Judah not to put their trust in Egypt to deliver them because it would fall. The only other likely option, then, for relief from Assyria would seem to have been Babylonian revolt. Yet Isaiah was essentially telling the Jews not to put their trust in Babylon either—because it would likewise fall.

However, as in Isaiah 13, chapter 21 presents us with Babylon being overthrown not by Assyria but by Media—and chapter 21 now mentions Elam or Persia as bringing Babylon down too. Yet in Isaiah's day the Medes and Persians were allied with the Babylonians against the Assyrian yoke. It was not until around 170 years later (in 539 B.C.) that the Neo-Babylonian Empire—ascendant after the fall of Assyria—fell to the Medes and Persians. Not surprisingly, because of this fact, many try to postdate this prophecy to after Babylon's fall. Significant in this regard is the fact that Isaiah used the word Elam and not Persia: "The name 'Persia' was not in use until the captivity; it means a 'horseman'; Cyrus first trained the Persians in horsemanship. It is a mark of authenticity that the name is not found before Daniel and Ezekiel" (JFB Commentary, note on verse 2).

Yet while this prophecy did find partial fulfillment in the events of 539 B.C., we should view it, as with so many other prophecies in this section, as an end-time prophecy. Supporting this likelihood is the cry "Babylon is fallen, is fallen!" in verse 9, which is repeated in Revelation 14:8 and 18:2 as applying to the end of this present, evil age.

Yet that would seem to indicate that modern Medes and Persians will be involved in the overthrow of the final Babylon. Who, then, are the Medes and Persians today? No doubt many still live in their ancient homeland of Iran. The name Iran apparently derives from "Aryan"—Indo-European people ranging from India to Europe. That some Persians later migrated eastward is well attested to by the existence of the Parsis (Parsees) in India. But to see the Persians' northern and westward migration, we should perhaps consider the Medes first.

The first-century Roman scholar Pliny the Elder wrote in his Natural History of "the river Don [north of the Black Sea], where the inhabitants are said to be descended from the Medes" (Book 6, sec. 11). The Caucasus Mountains between the Black and Caspian Seas formed the northern border of the Median Empire. When conquered by Alexander the Great, many evidently fled north through the Caucasus, following the migration pattern of the Israelites and Assyrians before them. Thus, the Medes today would appear to refer to people dwelling in northwest Iran, southwest Russia and the Ukraine.

Many of the Elamites or Persians appear to have followed essentially the same course, though traveling along the south coast of the Black Sea as well (through northern Turkey) and going even farther into Europe. The Greeks used the term Elimaei to designate Elam near Babylon. Yet they also stated that the Elimaei lived northwest of them in the area of southern Yugoslavia ("Elimea," Smith's Classical Dictionary).

Strabo, the first-century-B.C. Greco-Roman geographer, referred to the people of Yugoslavia on the Adriatic Sea as the Eneti—from Paphlagonia in Asia Minor or Turkey (Geography of Strabo, p. 227). Thus the Latin word for these people was Eneti (or Veneti)—and the Germans referred to them and the other Slavic peoples in Eastern Europe as Wends. The Elamites had actually named the most famous mountain of their homeland Elwend (George Rawlinson, Seven Great Monarchies, chap. 1: Media)—of which Wend seems a reasonable shortening. In the Persian conquest of the Babylonian Empire, the River Orontes in northern Syria was renamed Elwend. Indeed, it appears that Persians migrated here and into Asia Minor when they ruled the area. Upon Alexander's takeover, these appear to have continued on westward, eventually migrating into Eastern Europe.

Interestingly, a tribal territory of ancient Elam was named Kashu (Encyclopaedia Biblica, map, p. 4845) and in Poland we find a language called Kashubian (Encyclopaedia Britannica, "Lekhitic Languages")

Thus, Elam today would seem to be many of the Iranians, a small minority of India, and many of the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe.

According to Ezekiel 38-39, the people of eastern Eurasia will be allied together at the beginning of the Kingdom age—shortly after the return of Jesus Christ. It is likely that this alliance will have come together prior to His arrival—and that some of the various national leaders of the eastern regions constitute the "kings from the east" mentioned in Revelation 16:12. While some of these nationalities will initially participate in the end-time Babylonian or Tyrian system (Ezekiel 27; Revelation 18), they will later come against end-time Babylon. Thus, in the end, Media and Persia appear to again play a role in Babylon's downfall.

Proclamations Against Edom and Arabia

In verses 11-12, a prophecy is given against "Dumah." Seir, also mentioned here, is a reference to Edom (compare 34:5-17; Genesis 32:3; Ezekiel 35), either the people or the land of Idumea in what is now southern Jordan. Concerning Dumah, it was apparently an actual place "located at the intersection of the east-west trade route between Babylon and Edom and the north-south route between Palmyra (in Syria) and Edom. Dumah played a vital military and economic role in the relationship between Mesopotamia and Edom, and its fate greatly affected Edom" (Nelson Study Bible, note on verse 11). Dumah may also be used for all of Edom here because its name meant "silence" in Hebrew, thus implying that Edom would "soon be reduced to silence or destruction" (Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary, note on verse 11). Indeed, the NIV margin states that Dumah is actually a word play on the name Edom.

The Edomite asks, "What of the night?" (verse 11)—or, rather, "How much of the night is left?" The watchman, Isaiah, answers that "morning comes, and also the night" (verse 12). This is interpreted in various ways. One way is that things will get better for the Edomites before again turning bad. Another way is that things will turn better for God's people yet turn worse for Edom (see Jamieson, Fausset & Brown's Commentary, notes on verses 11-12).

Either way, this would seem to refer in part to ancient events. Edom was about to come out from Assyrian domination for a while—only to come under Judah's dominion. And later, Edom would be subjugated by the Babylonians. Yet the prophecy may also have end-time parallels. Edom will escape out of the hand of the latter-day king of the North (Daniel 11:41). But then, when Israel and Judah are delivered at Christ's return, Edom will be destroyed (see Obadiah). The only way to escape punishment, Isaiah explains, is to "return" (Isaiah 21:12)—the Old Testament term for "repent."

Isaiah then follows with a prophecy against Arabia. Place references are Tema, modern Tayma about 200 miles southeast of Dumah in northwest Arabia, and Dedan, about 90 miles southwest of Tema. However, it is also possible that the name Tema is the origin of the name for the western coastal plain of Arabia, Thiamah, where Mecca sits (see "Arabia," Encyclopaedia Britannica, 1985, Vol. 13, map on p. 872). This entire area, the Hejaz, is extremely holy to Muslims.

Reference is also made to Kedar, a son of Ishmael (compare Genesis 25:13). "The tribe seems to have been one of the most conspicuous of all the Ishmaelite tribes, and hence the rabbis call the Arabians universally by this name" ("Kedar," Smith's Bible Dictionary, 1986).

The year reference in verse 16 is not clear. Sargon did invade Arabia in 715 B.C. If this is what's meant then Isaiah's prophecy would be dated 716 B.C., out of order from surrounding chapters (chapter 20 being dated to 711 B.C.). Perhaps, more likely, the prophecy refers to the Simeonite attack on Edom in the days of Hezekiah about which we will soon read: "Those of the far south, Tema and Dedan, will have to succour their more exposed brother tribe of Kedar. This could mean that the trading caravans will have blundered into war-ravaged parts and returned empty-handed and starving" (New Bible Commentary, note on verses 13-17). This seems to have occurred before Sennacherib's invasion, thus dating this prophecy to shortly before 703 or so.

Yet it is perhaps most likely that the year prior to destruction refers to a point in the end time—perhaps a year from when light begins to dawn on the captive Israelites, at the beginning of the Day of the Lord. This would imply destruction upon Arabia at the return of Jesus Christ.