1 The oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea.
As whirlwinds in the Negeb sweep on,
it comes from the wilderness,
from a terrible land.
2 A stern vision is told to me;
the traitor betrays,
and the destroyer destroys.
Go up, O Elam;
lay siege, O Media;
all the sighing she has caused
I bring to an end.
3 Therefore my loins are filled with anguish;
pangs have seized me,
like the pangs of a woman in labor;
I am bowed down so that I cannot hear;
I am dismayed so that I cannot see.
4 My heart staggers; horror has appalled me;
the twilight I longed for
has been turned for me into trembling.
5 They prepare the table,
they spread the rugs,
they eat, they drink.
Arise, O princes;
oil the shield!
6 For thus the Lord said to me:
“Go, set a watchman;
let him announce what he sees.
7 When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs,
riders on donkeys, riders on camels,
let him listen diligently,
8 Then he who saw cried out:
“Upon a watchtower I stand, O Lord,
continually by day,
and at my post I am stationed
9 And behold, here come riders,
horsemen in pairs!”
And he answered,
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon;
and all the carved images of her gods
he has shattered to the ground.”
10 O my threshed and winnowed one,
what I have heard from the Lord of hosts,
the God of Israel, I announce to you. – Isaiah 21:1-10 ESV
God now turns His attention to the land of Babylon, located on the eastern side of the Fertile Crescent about 55 miles south of modern Baghdad. The oracle describes Babylon as “the wilderness of the sea.” This was likely because of its close proximity to the Persian Gulf. The use of the term “wilderness” seems to contradict the fertile and fruitful nature of that part of the world, so it is more likely a description of its post-judgment condition.
The great city-state known as Babylon has come to symbolize mankind’s attempt to build powerful religious and commercial centers that ultimately stand opposed to God. During the 16th-Century, Reformers like Martin Luther and John Calvin regularly referred to Rome and the papal state as Babylon. Even the apostle Peter used the name Babylon to refer to the city of Rome in his first letter.
She who is at Babylon, who is likewise chosen, sends you greetings, and so does Mark, my son. – 1 Peter 5:13 ESV
In Peter’s day, Rome was the capital of the empire that ruled the world, and it was marked by religious pluralism, immorality, military power, and commercial success. So, in Peter’s mind, Rome was the modern-day embodiment of ancient Babylon.
The book of Revelation speaks of a future Babylon that will be destroyed by God for the role it plays as part of Antichrist’s earthly government during the Tribulation.
“Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!
She has become a dwelling place for demons,
a haunt for every unclean spirit,
a haunt for every unclean bird,
a haunt for every unclean and detestable beast.
For all nations have drunk
the wine of the passion of her sexual immorality,
and the kings of the earth have committed immorality with her,
and the merchants of the earth have grown rich from the power of her luxurious living.” – Revelation 18:2-3 ESV
Chapter 17 of Revelation describes this future city as a “great prostitute…with whom the kings of the earth have committed sexual immorality” (Revelation 17:1-2 ESV). John goes on to provide further details regarding this future incarnation of the infamous city-state known as Babylon.
The woman was arrayed in purple and scarlet, and adorned with gold and jewels and pearls, holding in her hand a golden cup full of abominations and the impurities of her sexual immorality. And on her forehead was written a name of mystery: “Babylon the great, mother of prostitutes and of earth’s abominations.” – Revelation 17:4-5 ESV
The spirit of Babylon is always alive on the earth. Of course, in Isaiah’s day, it took the form of the actual nation of Babylon, which had become one of the major forces vying for control of that part of the world. The Babylonians, Assyrians, Medes, Persians, Elamites, and Egyptians were all in a constant state of warfare, jockeying for position and brokering alliances in an attempt to seize the upper hand in the battle for domination. And during the Chaldean dynasty and under the rule of Nebuchadnezzar II, Babylon would rise to its greatest period of power and influence.
But the oracle describes Babylon’s fall coming as the result of a desert wind, a sirocco, blowing across the land, leaving a wake of destruction in its path. This devastating “wind” would be sent by God in the form of the Elamites and Medes. These two nations would bring an end to Babylon’s reign as a world power. And what is truly amazing is that this prophecy was given 200 years before the events actually took place. At this point in time, Elam and Media were not even major players on the world scene. Media was little more than a tribe and Elam, which would later become the Persian empire, is referred to by its tribal name. And yet, God is predicting the fall of Babylon to the combined forces of the Medes and Persians.
And Isaiah is shocked by what he hears. The news of Babylon’s pending doom leaves him reeling. Not because he had any love affair for the Babylonians, but because it all sounded so far-fetched and unbelievable. The stability of the entire region was up for grabs. Nothing was certain anymore. Just when he thought things had settled down and the geopolitical landscape had stabilized, Isaiah hears news of more change, accompanied by more war and bloodshed. And he reacts accordingly.
“My stomach aches and burns with pain.
Sharp pangs of anguish are upon me,
like those of a woman in labor.
I grow faint when I hear what God is planning;
I am too afraid to look.
My mind reels and my heart races.
I longed for evening to come,
but now I am terrified of the dark.” – Isaiah 21:3-4 NLT
He describes the uncertainty and instability of the times.
“Look! They are preparing a great feast.
They are spreading rugs for people to sit on.
Everyone is eating and drinking.
But quick! Grab your shields and prepare for battle.
You are being attacked!” – Isaiah 21:5 NLT
God commands Isaiah to post a watchman on the wall, to keep a lookout for what is to come. A train of soldiers and their supplies is on its way. The watchman is to remain vigilant, looking for the inevitable signs of God’s judgment against the Babylonians. It will happen just as He has predicted. And, sure enough, the day comes when the watchman sees exactly what God has prophesied.
“Day after day I have stood on the watchtower, my lord.
Night after night I have remained at my post.
Now at last—look!
Here comes a man in a chariot
with a pair of horses!” – Isaiah 21:8-9 NLT
The armies of the enemy have arrived. And the watchman cries out, not a warning, but a statement declaring the inevitable outcome.
“Babylon is fallen, fallen!
All the idols of Babylon
lie broken on the ground!” – Isaiah 21:9 NLT
Isaiah’s day was marked by a constant state of turmoil and political unrest. The nation of Judah was surrounded by powerful enemies who were constantly threatening the stability of the region and the security of Judah. But God was trying to let the people of Judah know that He was in control. He was not dismayed by Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, Media, Elam or any other nation. They were little more than pawns in His hands. What God wanted was for the people of Judah to wake up and realize that He was their hope and help. Their fear of the circumstances surrounding them was unwarranted. God was not only aware of all that was happening, He was in control of it. He was letting them know ahead of time, exactly what was going to take place. The events God predicted were so certain that a watchman would see them coming.
Isaiah reacted to this news as if everything was out of control. The world was falling apart. There was nothing anyone could count on. But God wanted Him to understand that just the opposite was true. God was sovereign over all. He had everything well in hand. There was not reason to panic or fear. Which is why Isaiah was able to say:
“…what I have heard from the Lord of hosts,
the God of Israel, I announce to you.” – Isaiah 21:10 ESV
The chaos of the times was not meant to cause fear, but to instill faith in the people of God, as they looked to Him who was sovereignly orchestrating each and every outcome.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.