Isaiah 13 begins a section ending at Isaiah 23:18 where he prophesies against the nations. It is fitting for judgment to begin at the house of God, so the LORD has first spoken to Israel and Judah. But now, the LORD speaks against the nations, beginning with Babylon.
A. Judgment upon Babylon.
1. (1) The burden against Babylon.
The burden against Babylon which Isaiah the son of Amoz saw.
a. Burden: In the prophets, a burden is a “heavy” message of weighty importance, heavy in the sense that it produces sorrow or grief.
i. “Massa comes from the verb ‘to lift up’ (nasa), and so it can mean ‘to carry’ or ‘to lift up the voice.’ From the first meaning comes the translation ‘burden,’ or ‘load’; and from the second meaning we get the translation ‘oracle,’ or ‘utterance.’” (Wolf)
ii. Grammatically, we may be able to translate the idea as “an oracle.” But since these are heavy oracles, we are justified in calling them burdens.
b. Against Babylon: Isaiah finished his prophetic career in 685 B.C., almost 100 years before Judah finally fell before the Babylonian Empire (586 B.C.). At the time of this prophecy, Babylon was a significant nation, but they were definitely behind the Assyrian Empire in status. Yet the LORD who knows the end of all things can speak of the judgment on the pride of Babylon hundreds of years before the judgment comes.
i. This burden against Babylon will last until the end of Isaiah 14. Adam Clarke says of this passage, “The former part of this prophecy is one of the most beautiful examples that can be given of elegance of composition, variety of imagery, and sublimity of sentiment and diction, in the prophetic style; and the latter part consists of an ode of supreme and singular excellence.”
ii. Why did God speak to Babylon? This prophecy was probably never published in Babylon, so it wasn’t really given as a warning to them. Instead, the reason was for the help of the people of God. First, by showing them that God was indeed just, and would judge the wicked nations around them. Israel and Judah were feeling the sting of God’s discipline, and in such times we wonder if God is unfairly singling us out. This is assurance to them that He isn’t. Second, Babylon (and other nations in this section) were nations that had come against Israel and Judah, and God showed His love to His people by announcing His vengeance against their enemies.
2. (2-8) An army comes against Babylon.
“Lift up a banner on the high mountain,
Raise your voice to them;
Wave your hand, that they may enter the gates of the nobles.
I have commanded My sanctified ones;
I have also called My mighty ones for My anger—
Those who rejoice in My exaltation.”
The noise of a multitude in the mountains,
Like that of many people!
A tumultuous noise of the kingdoms of nations gathered together!
The LORD of hosts musters
The army for battle.
They come from a far country,
From the end of heaven—
The LORD and His weapons of indignation,
To destroy the whole land.
Wail, for the day of the LORD is at hand!
It will come as destruction from the Almighty.
Therefore all hands will be limp,
Every man’s heart will melt,
And they will be afraid.
Pangs and sorrows will take hold of them;
They will be in pain as a woman in childbirth;
They will be amazed at one another;
Their faces will be like flames.
a. The LORD of hosts musters the army for battle: This is an army of judgment against the Babylonian Empire, prophesied decades before they were even a superpower. This powerful army is described vividly, with sights and sounds of battle presented.
b. They will be amazed at one another: When Babylon fell suddenly by a clever, surprise attack by Cyrus, the citizens of the city were completely shocked (Daniel 5).
3. (9-16) The terrors of judgment upon Babylon.
Behold, the day of the LORD comes,
Cruel, with both wrath and fierce anger,
To lay the land desolate;
And He will destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of heaven and their constellations
Will not give their light;
The sun will be darkened in its going forth,
And the moon will not cause its light to shine.
“I will punish the world for its evil,
And the wicked for their iniquity;
I will halt the arrogance of the proud,
And will lay low the haughtiness of the terrible.
I will make a mortal more rare than fine gold,
A man more than the golden wedge of Ophir.
Therefore I will shake the heavens,
And the earth will move out of her place,
In the wrath of the LORD of hosts
And in the day of His fierce anger.
It shall be as the hunted gazelle,
And as a sheep that no man takes up;
Every man will turn to his own people,
And everyone will flee to his own land.
Everyone who is found will be thrust through,
And everyone who is captured will fall by the sword.
Their children also will be dashed to pieces before their eyes;
Their houses will be plundered
And their wives ravished.”
a. The day of the LORD comes: Isaiah now speaks in the “prophetic tense,” having in mind both a near fulfillment (the day of judgment against the Babylonian Empire), and an ultimate fulfillment (the final day of judgment at the return of Jesus).
i. The day of the LORD is an important phrase, used some 26 times in the Bible. It speaks not of a single day of judgment, but of the season of judgment when the LORD sets things right. It is as if today is man’s day, but the LORD’s day is coming.
b. The stars of heaven and their constellations will not give their light; the sun will be darkened: Several prophetic passages describe the cosmic disturbances that will precede and surround the return of Jesus (Joel 2:10, Revelation 6:12-14, Isaiah 34:4). In fact, Jesus was probably quoting or paraphrasing this passage from Isaiah in Matthew 24:29: Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
i. In the near fulfillment of the judgment of Babylon, they felt like the whole world was coming apart. In the ultimate fulfillment connected with the return of Jesus, the whole world will be falling apart.
c. I will punish the world for its evil: This prophetic identification of Babylon with the world, ripe for ultimate judgment, is consistent through the Scriptures. We aren’t surprised that Isaiah has prophetically combined the vision of Babylon’s judgment with the judgment of the whole world for its evil.
i. Babylon is mentioned 287 times in the Scriptures, more than any other city except Jerusalem.
ii. Babylon was a literal city on the Euphrates river. Genesis 11:1-10 tells us that it was at Babylon where, soon after the flood, mankind formally organized in the rebellion against God. In this sense, Babylon “Was the seat of the civilization that expressed organized hostility to God.” (Tenney, Interpreting Revelation).
iii. Later, Babylon was also the Capital of the empire that cruelly conquered Judah. “Babylon, to them (the Jews), was the essence of all evil, the embodiment of cruelty, the foe of God’s people, and the lasting type of sin, carnality, lust and greed.” (Tenney)
iv. To those familiar with the Old Testament, the name Babylon is associated with organized idolatry, blasphemy and the persecution of God’s people. In the New Testament, the world’s system of the last days is characterized both religiously and commercially as Babylon (Revelation 17 and 18). Therefore, Babylon is a “Suitable representation…of the idolatrous, pagan world-system in opposition to God.” (Martin)
d. Therefore I will shake the heavens, and the earth will move out of her place: Haggai 2:6 and Hebrews 12:25-28 echo this same thought. Since God can shake the heavens and move the earth, and since God Himself is unshakable, it makes a lot more sense to trust in God than even the ground we stand on and the air we breathe.
e. It shall be as the hunted gazelle: The idea is that God’s judgment, upon both Babylon and the world in general, is unrelenting. It is like a nature film where the hunted gazelle is overtaken by the lion, and is utterly consumed. There is no escape from God’s unrelenting judgment.
i. If you take comfort in Jesus, remember that this is the same unrelenting judgment that was poured out upon Him on the cross. In this picture from Isaiah, Jesus was the hunted gazelle, and willingly made Himself so.
B. Desolate Babylon.
1. (17-22) Babylon is laid waste.
“Behold, I will stir up the Medes against them,
Who will not regard silver;
And as for gold, they will not delight in it.
Also their bows will dash the young men to pieces,
And they will have no pity on the fruit of the womb;
Their eye will not spare children.
And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms,
The beauty of the Chaldeans’ pride,
Will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah.
It will never be inhabited,
Nor will it be settled from generation to generation;
Nor will the Arabian pitch tents there,
Nor will the shepherds make their sheepfolds there.
But wild beasts of the desert will lie there,
And their houses will be full of owls;
Ostriches will dwell there,
And wild goats will caper there.
The hyenas will howl in their citadels,
And jackals in their pleasant palaces.
Her time is near to come,
And her days will not be prolonged.”
a. I will stir up the Medes against them: If this prophecy was made decades before the Babylonian Empire defeated the Assyrian Empire and became a superpower, it was even longer before the time when the Medes came against the Babylonians, conquering them as instruments of God’s judgments.
i. It is specifically worded passages like this that drive skeptics of the Bible crazy, pushing them to regard Isaiah as written after the events prophesied. But doesn’t God know the future, and know it specifically?
ii. Will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah: “The phrase ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’ suggests not only complete destruction but also its moral cause.” (Grogan)
b. It will never be inhabited: The ancient city of Babylon, once conquered, will never be inhabited again.
i. “When Cyrus conquered Babylon, he did not devastate the city. The walls were left standing until 518 B.C., and general desolation did not set in until the third century B.C. Babylon gradually fell into decay, and the prophecy of Isaiah was fulfilled. Babylon became completely depopulated by the time of the Muslim conquest in the seventh century A.D., and to this day it lies deserted.” (Wolf)
ii. This is also true in its ultimate fulfillment. When Jesus returns in glory and conquers the world system, He will rule the earth for 1,000 years. As He does, there will be no more “world system” in opposition to God as we know it. In this sense, the world system in opposition to God will never be inhabited again.
c. Owls…ostriches…wild goats…hyenas: The animals mentioned here are impossible to identify precisely. The picture is of the darkness and confusion surrounding the fall of Babylon.
i. “The ‘wild goats’ (v. 21) are sometimes associated with demons in goat form that are called ‘satyrs’ (Leviticus 17:7; 2 Chronicles 11:15).” (Wolf)
ii. John Calvin applied the truth of Isaiah 13 in this manner: “Whenever therefore we behold the destruction of cities, the calamities of nations, and the overturning of kingdoms, let us call those predictions to remembrance, that we may be humbled under God’s chastisements, may learn to gather wisdom from the affliction of others, and may pray for an alleviation of our own grief.”
(c) 2021 The Enduring Word Bible Commentary by David Guzik – firstname.lastname@example.org