Isaiah 21 Link to LXE Modernized
Your Neighbors Can’t Help You
The Bible records Israel’s attempts at making alliances with various neighbors from time to time (Isaiah 7:1-9; 17:3). These neighbors also made alliances among themselves (Isaiah 19:4-6). Even the southern kingdom of Judah made an ill-fated alliance with Egypt for help when the Assyrians arrived with ill intent at their doorstep (Isaiah 30:1-7; 2 Kings 18:20-21). But Judah had previously allied itself with that same Assyria, when the empire was in its infancy (2 Kings 16:7-9). The point of Isaiah 21-23 is that your neighbors can’t help you; only God can.
The one thing God has always been after in creation is relationship with his people. We see this when he walked in the cool of the garden where he had placed the first man and woman (Genesis 3:8). We see God’s desire for fellowship again in Christ’s action of opening the veil (Hebrews 10:19-22). Isaiah also develops this theme explicitly in Isaiah 31:1. But in these oracles against the nations (13-23), as they are called, Isaiah demonstrates, rather than explain, the futility of looking anywhere but to the Lord.
And, if anyone doubts this, Isaiah continues in chapter 24 to prophesy the destruction of the whole world. In other words, there will be nowhere to hide. The choices will narrow to two: God or nothing; God or destruction.
One of the defining characteristics about the modern world, especially in America during my lifetime, is the growing irrelevance of God in the popular expressions of our culture, such as schools, government, and media. There are countless places in today’s world to hide from the face of God. There are countless avenues of seeming help that do not involve a confrontation with God. We have many “neighbors” we can turn to. However, these chapters of Isaiah bring out the futility of this approach.
The word most often used to describe Isaiah 21 is “obscure.” Why is Isaiah 21 considered to be obscure?
First, who was the big superpower in Isaiah’s lifetime? Remember he lived during the reign of Uzziah, Jotham, Ahaz, and Hezekiah, kings of Judah. During the reign of Ahaz, Syria was the threat (Isaiah 7:1-9). But Hezekiah ruled for thirty years. During his days, Assyria became the hostile superpower of the entire region.
God used Assyria to punish the wickedness of Israel, Judah, and the surrounding nations. Assyria is the mighty army so often described throughout these chapters (for example, Isaiah 8:7-8).
But second, Babylon appears to be the subject of Isaiah 21:1-10. Verse 2 indicates that it will be the Medes and the Persians who attack and overcome Babylon, as in Isaiah 13. However, Isaiah 20 and then again Isaiah 21:11-17 appear to be describing the Assyrian invasion again. In other words, Isaiah’s prophesies appear to be out of order.
Complicating this is the long history of this area. At times Babylon had ascendancy over Assyria; at other times it was the other way round. Isaiah prophesied from 742 BCE to 686 BCE. The Babylonian captivity of Judah began in 586BCE. Although Isaiah mentions the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians (Isaiah 39:6-7), the bulk of his message concerned an earlier time. The Medo-Persians overcame Babylon while the Israelites were in captivity there. Therefore, if Isaiah 21:1-10 concerns this time frame, it would appear to be sorely out of context, not chronologically grouped.
However, even though the Neo-Babylonians devoured the Assyrian empire along with Jerusalem, prior to this event, the Assyrians overcame Babylon in 729 BCE. This fell within the earlier period of Isaiah’s prophecies.
Therefore, Isaiah 21:1-10 could possibly be predicting this earlier fall of Babylon to the Assyrians, rather than the later fall to the Persians. But then, what do we make of Isaiah 21:2, which mentions the Elamites and Persians? These areas were not part of the Assyrian empire.
To complicate matters even further, how does Isaiah 21:10 fit in? It doesn’t seem to belong with the section beginning in verse 11 about Edom. But neither does it seem to fit in with the prior section, verses 1-9.
Therefore, biblical scholars label this chapter “obscure.” Some argue for the later time period. Others argue for the earlier.
So What Is the Everyday Devotional Reader to Do?
The devotional reader heads straight for the gold. God’s message is clear: Babylon is fallen.
… 9 Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all her images and her idols have been crushed to the ground. 10 Hear, you that are left, and you that are in pain, hear what things I have heard of the Lord of hosts, which the God of Israel has declared to us. (CAB, LXE)
If ever anyone even thought of relying upon Babylon for anything, they had better not. Babylon is not worthy of trust–only the Lord is.