Isaiah (Part 20): Judgment – Babylon and Jerusalem (Ch 21:6–22:14)
In chapter 21, the oracle against Babylon, we read in verses 6 through 9 of a watchman ordered to look for horses and riders. This is more of a lookout than a watchman, specifically tasked with looking for riders with news from Babylon. In Isaiah’s emphasis on paying close attention, he is really telling Judah to watch closely to see what happens to Babylon. The watchman promises that he will hold to his post with the tenacity of a lion, watching what unfolds. When the riders and horsemen come and the watchman hails them, the riders answer that Babylon has been defeated. This is the defeat that dethrones Merodach-Baladan again in 702 before final, complete Assyrian dominance established by 689.
Verse 10 lets us know that Judah, the nation of covenant, is crushed by the news that Babylon—their hope against Assyria—has fallen. The note of declaration urges them to pay attention to God.
The next oracle is against Dumah. Dumah was the name of a son of Ishmael (Gen 25:14). It is a city in the south—in Edom—in the desert. Seir is another name for the land that Edom occupies (Gen 32:3). Another watchman is presented. The Hebrew word is different here. In the Babylon oracle, it was a lookout. Here it is a watchman who declares the time. This watchman says that night is gone (one terror) but the morning brings another night (another terror). This hints at the ultimate judgment of Christ’s return, just as we saw previously (Is 14:29 and 15:9).
The last couplet in this oracle must also be explained. The word translated “ask” would be better rendered as “seek.” The idea is that he is saying, if you want to seek relief through trust in other nations/gods, keep seeking (but it will do you no good). The next line “Come back again” is better rendered in the same form as the first line—“if you want to, or are willing to, repent, then turn back.” Thus, the idea here is that if you want to seek relief through other alliances, go ahead, but it will do you no good. If you repent and return to trust in God, you’ll find the security you had been seeking.
Chapter 21 ends with the oracle against Arabia. The structure of verse 13 is different from the Hebrew structure of the other verses proclaiming “an oracle against….” Literally translated, it would read “an oracle against Arabs” (ba’ rab). The LXX translates this “an oracle in the evening” (ba’ ereb). The meaning here is probably that the evening—or darkness of judgment—is being prophesied.
Tema was an oasis in this Arabian desert. And the oasis was a place to which those in battle with Assyria could come for care. In other words, care would come to those who turn from the battle with Assyria and find rest elsewhere (in God). But (verse 16) the judgment would be complete.
Chapter 22 presents the oracle against Jerusalem. Again, as in the first round of judgments against those in Immediate Proximity, this round (the Expansion) ends in Israel. Jerusalem/Judah was a nation that committed the same sin as the surrounding nations. They looked, not to God, but elsewhere for security, provision, and relief.
Rather than directly identifying Jerusalem in the first verse, Isaiah calls them the Valley of Vision. This is quite a derogatory term. In all previous figurative mentions of Jerusalem, they are called a mountain (Is 4:5; 8:18; 10:12; 10:32; 11:9; 16:1; 18:7). But those were references to God’s strength in her. Left alone in its sin, Jerusalem is pictured as a mountain brought low—a valley. The reference to vision is also sarcastic. Their very sin was their failure to have a right vision of God—the ability to view situations with trust and dependence on God. Their false vision led them to Babylon to seek allied security against Assyria.
The first four verses of the oracle show Judah’s false reliance and false conclusion. Isaiah recognizes both the heaviness of God’s judgment through Assyria and the sin of allying with Babylon. His first statement is a Hebrew idiom of disbelief at their unthinking failure. He says (in idiom), “What’s the matter with you! Are you nuts?!” The city is doing the exact opposite of what any concerned, repentant city would do. They are celebrating (“the jubilant town is filled with revelry). Isaiah tells them that though their hope has been placed in Babylon for protection against Assyria, they have already been defeated, “captured without a bow” by giving themselves over to alliance with another nation.
The next several verses show a breakdown of Jerusalem’s exterior defense (meaning, other nations – 22:5-8) and interior defense (meaning, their own walls and armament – 22:9-11). God repeats the sarcastic name in verse 5—Valley of Vision—emphasizing that these who should be on their knees before God had cast all hope on Babylon. The verses mention the build-up of the exterior defense. Elam takes up quiver and chariots. Kir uncovers the shield. The valleys and positions outside the gates were filled with defenders. And then verse 8: “He (God) removed the defenses of Judah.” Just like that, this alliance, which Jerusalem celebrated, was brought to nothing.
They also had attempted to strengthen their internal defenses. The reference in verse 8 to “House of the Forest” was a hall in Solomon’s palace lined with siding from the cedars in Lebanon. From this place they took the implements for war to defend themselves. They tore down houses to use the stone for repairing walls (22:9). Hezekiah constructed a reservoir to bring the water of the spring within the fortress walls of Jerusalem. Verse 11 is very poignant. The minds of these people were intent on supply of water in case of siege, but they had no thought of where the water came in the first place. They had no thought of God—the Provider and Sustainer of life—who had placed the spring there with his almighty, creative hand.
And so, verses 12 through 14 then show Jerusalem’s sin and its result. They had no remorse (verse 12). Instead, their attitude was that they had done all they could (alliance and fortification). They felt comfortable in their own efforts to rejoice and celebrate. The attitude of “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” was not giving up to the inevitable, but rather assuming that if their efforts could not save them, nothing could. Again, they had no thought of God and his protection.
The statement of verse 14 was earth-shaking across centuries: “This sin of yours will never be wiped out!” Literally, the Hebrew implies that the sin would persist until they die. In the near term, that death would be in reference to the judgment of God by Assyria. In its greater impact, God is telling the nation of Judah that they would persist in their sin until the nation dies—a reference to its covenant end in AD 70. Looking back at this section of the judgment of nations, the lesson repeated over and over is to rest in the hands of God. He has revealed his care-giving desire and activity. Our faith response is to say, “Yes, Lord, we trust in you.”