Isaiah 21

For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning,
that we through patience and comfort of the scriptures might have hope.
Romans 15:4

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A Bible Study - Commentary by Jim Melough

Copyright 2006 James Melough

21:1.  “The burden of the desert of the sea.  As whirlwinds in the south pass through; so it cometh from the desert, from a terrible land.”


The “burden” is an oracle or message; and “the desert of the sea” is Babylon, so described because of its situation.  It stood near the Euphrates river, the “sea” referring to the extensive marshy areas and waters of the many dams that had been built to control the frequent flooding by the river.  Beyond that man-controlled area lay the desert.


Babylon means confusion (by mixing), the propriety of the name being announced in what Babylon represents: the great harlot church, Roman Catholic, and apostate Protestant alike.  Both are the fountainhead of deadly error spawned by the mixing together of Scripture and so-called human wisdom, see Revelation 17, particularly verse 5, “MYSTERY, BABYLON THE GREAT, THE MOTHER OF HARLOTS AND ABOMINATIONS OF THE EARTH.”


Nor would it be easy to find a more fitting symbol of apostate Christendom, for as Babylon stood in the midst of a literal desert, so do Romanism and apostate Protestantism stand in the midst of the spiritual desert of Christendom.


Relative to whirlwinds, other translations render this, “As whirlwinds sweeping over the Negeb come from the desert, from a land of horror - a harsh vision has been shown me,” The Jerusalem Bible; “Disaster is roaring down upon you from the terrible desert, like a whirlwind sweeping from the Negeb.  I see an awesome vision .... God is telling me what He is going to do,” Taylor.  The immediate performance of what is here foretold typologically was the sack of Babylon by “the terrible land” Assyria; but the ultimate fulfillment will occur in the Great Tribulation when the Beast will destroy the apostate church that will be left on earth following the rapture of the true Church, and then demand that all worship him or die.


21:2.  “A grievous vision is declared unto me; the treacherous dealer dealeth treacherously, and the spoiler spoileth.  Go up, O Elam (Persia): besiege, O Media; all the sighing thereof I have made to cease. 


Other renderings of this verse are: “As whirlwinds sweeping over the Negeb come from the desert, from a land of horror - a harsh vision has been shown me,” Jerusalem Bible; “Disaster is roaring down upon you from the terrible desert, like a whirlwind sweeping from the Negeb.  I see an awesome vision; oh, the horror of it all .... God is telling me what He is going to do” Taylor.


The vision is of Babylon’s destruction, for it was she that had dealt treacherously; she that had mercilessly spoiled, and oppressed, and pillaged the other nations; and as discussed already, Babylon represents Roman Catholicism and apostate Protestantism, both of which will unite in the Tribulation, so that the past destruction of literal Babylon by Elam (Persia), and Media (the Median empire), foreshadows the destruction of the false church “the Great Harlot” by the Beast in the Tribulation, see Revelation 17:5.


“... all the sighing thereof I have made to cease,” is generally understood to mean that with her destruction, the misery caused by Babylon would end.  So will it be also with the destruction of the great false church by the Beast in the Tribulation.


21:3.  “Therefore are my loins filled with pain: pangs have taken hold upon me, as the pangs of a woman that travaileth: I was bowed down at the hearing of it; I was dismayed at the seeing of it.”


Widespread wretchedness would be concomitant with Babylon’s destruction, for it would mean the collapse of the whole governmental, social, and economic system; and the prophet’s contemplation of the ensuing misery evoked sorrow in his heart that was the metaphoric equivalent of a woman’s birth pangs.  Isaiah had a very tender heart.


21:4.  “My heart panted, fearfulness affrighted me: the night of my pleasure hath he turned into fear unto me.”


Words were inadequate to convey the measure of the prophet’s distress at what had been revealed to him relative to Babylon’s destruction.  The tranquil twilight hour that had formerly been a time of quiet meditation in preparation for peaceful sleep, had been transmuted into one of terror.  Did we but grasp more clearly what it means for a soul to plunge into hell, we too would be less complacent, far more diligent in our efforts to spread the gospel.


21:5.  “Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.


Isaiah was given a vision of the careless Babylonians preparing the banquet at which they would sit unaware of their danger, and of the need to be preparing to defend themselves, their nonchalance being similar to that of the men of Noah’s day, relative to which the warning is given the men of our own generation, “But as the days of Noah were, so shall also the coming of the Son of man be.  For as in the days that were before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day that Noah entered into the ark, and knew not until the flood came, and took them all away; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be,” Matthew 24:37-39.


To “anoint the shield” was to rub it with oil, thus making the leather “more tenacious, and less pervious to weapons.”  In Ephesians 6:16 we are admonished, “Above all, taking the shield of faith, wherewith ye shall be able to quench all the fiery darts of the wicked.”  That shield of faith is also to be anointed with “oil,” for oil is a symbol of the Holy Spirit, and it is only as He is unquenched and ungrieved that we will enjoy is guidance and protection.


21:6.  “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.”


Taylor’s rendering of this verse is, “Meanwhile (in my vision) the Lord had told me, ‘Put a watchman on the city wall to shout out what he sees.’”  This command applies also to us, for as Babylon was about to be sacked that night, so also is this present evil world about to be devastated by the terrible judgments of the impending Great Tribulation, and it is our responsibility to be warning men to trust in Christ as Savior so that they will be caught up to heaven before those judgments fall.


21:7.  “And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed:”  


Other translations of this verse are, “... and when he seeth a troop, horsemen in pairs ... he shall hearken diligently.” ASV; “When he sees riders in pairs ... tell him, ‘This is it!’” TAYLOR.


The immediate application of this is to the destruction of Babylon by the Medes and Persians, that overthrow being symbolic of the one that will overtake Jerusalem in the coming Tribulation era; and only spiritual blindness will obscure the fact that that destruction is near.  We too are to “hearken diligently with much heed,” for all the signs point to the imminence of that coming catastrophe.


This is the OT counterpart of Luke 21:20, “And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh.”


21:8.  “And he cried, A lion: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights:”


The KJ translation of the first part of this verse is misleading: the correct rendering being “And he cried as a lion,” i.e., he declared with a loud voice, giving the assurance that he was assiduous in his task of keeping watch, day and night.  We would do well to emulate his diligence in connection with the work the Lord has given us to do.


21:9.  “And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen.  And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen: and all her graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.”


Even as the watchman spoke, a company of armed men appeared in a column riding two abreast, one of whom announced that Babylon had been captured, and all her idols destroyed.  That past destruction of Babylon foreshadows the dissolution of apostate Christianity, Roman Catholic and Protestant alike, at the hand of the Beast in the Great Tribulation.


21:10.  “O my threshing, and the corn of my floor: that which I have heard of the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, have I declared unto you.”


The Amplified version reads, “O you, my threshed and winnowed one [my own people the Jews who must be trodden down by Babylon], that which I have heard from the Lord of hosts the God of Israel, I have joyfully announced to you - Babylon is to fall!”


21:11.  “The burden of Dumah (Edom).  He calleth me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night?  Watchman, what of the night?”


“... burden” is variously rendered, “message concerning Duma; Duma, beware; God’s message to Edom; the mournful, inspired prediction concerning Dumah (Edom); and “what of the night?” is also translated, “how far gone is the night? what is left of the night?”  This seems to indicate that the foretold destruction of Babylon was imminent.  The dark spiritual night of her tyrannous rule was about to end.  And so is it relative to the evil system which Babylon represents: the hour of her destruction is also near.


Seir means shaggy; hairy; goat-like, but I regret being unable to see the spiritual significance of its being the place from which the question was asked, unless it is a type of this present evil world in which God warns men to prepare themselves for eternity by trusting in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord.  Those who die in unbelief will enter the impenetrable darkness of an eternal night, first in hell, and ultimately the lake of fire.


21:12.  “The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come.”


Taylor has translated this verse, “The watchman replies, ‘Your judgment day is dawning now.  Turn again to God, so that I can give you better news.  Seek for Him, then come and ask again!’”  For those who die as believers in Christ, the end of earthly life introduces them to a morning that will never be followed by a night; but death takes the unbeliever into a night that will never have a morning.


21:13.  “The burden upon Arabia.  In the forest in Arabia shall ye lodge, O ye traveling companies of Dedanim.”


Arabia too was to suffer judgment, the meaning of the name dusky, mixed indicating that it may represent that vast multitude who are spiritually “dusky” rather than “white,” i.e., they have not been cleansed by the precious blood of Christ; and they are mixed - they are of the world, not having been separated from it by the cross of Christ, as is every true believer, whose condition is identical to that of Paul who declared, “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world,” Galatians 6:14.


Since trees represent men, the lodging of the Arabians “in the forest” continues to point to them as being part of the unconverted “forest” of humanity.


Dedanim means their love: their moving: their proceeding, meanings which would indicate that they may represent believers, so that their lodging in “the forest in Arabia” emphasizes the truth that believers dwell in the midst of a world of unconverted men, their primary business there being to preach the gospel of salvation through faith in a crucified and risen Christ.


Their being described as “traveling companies” is the symbolic reminder of the truth declared in Hebrews 13:14, “For here we have no continuing (permanent, abiding) city, but we seek one to come.”


21:14.  “The inhabitants of the land of Tema brought water to him that was thirsty, they prevented (helped) with their bread him that fled.”


Tema means southerner, and has therefore a good connotation, for in Scripture the south is the direction that speaks of faith, as the north does of human intelligence (almost invariably opposed to God).  The west always speaks of approach to God, as the east does of departure from Him. 

In the present context “prevented” means that they helped the Dedanites by bringing them food and water, etc.  We too are to minister to the needs of others practically and spiritually, the latter by giving them the “bread” and “water” of the Word, for Scripture is the bread for man’s spiritual sustenance, and it is also the “water” which cleanses and refreshes him.


21:15.  “For they fled from the swords, from the drawn sword, and from the bent bow, and from the grievousness of war.”


In the flight of the Dedanites from those who sought their lives, we have a typological picture of the state of all who seek to bear a faithful testimony for the Lord Jesus Christ, for nothing so provokes the animosity of Satan as such a witness.  The truth is that if we are enjoying the friendship of the world we can be sure that we are being unfaithful to Christ.  The Christian life involves warfare with Satan and the world, as it is written, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.  Wherefore take unto you the whole armor of God, that ye may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand,” Ephesians 6:12-13.


21:16.  “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Within a year, according to the years of an hireling, and all the glory of Kedar shall fail:”


The description of the year as being “according to the years of an hireling” means that what was foretold would happen in exactly a year, not one day less and not one day more: the time was being specified precisely, for a hireling would not work beyond the time specified in his contract, nor was it likely that his employer would permit him to work one day less.


Kedar was the name of a powerful Arabian tribe at enmity with Israel.


21:17.  “And the residue of the number of archers, the mighty men of the children of Kedar, shall be diminished: for the Lord God of Israel hath spoken it.”


The diminished ranks of the Kedarite army would ensure peace for Israel; and it may be that that era of tranquility typifies conditions that will prevail in the Millennium, the stamp of certainty being impressed on the promise by the fact that it was given by “the Lord God of Israel.”

[Isaiah 22]

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     Scripture portions taken from the Holy Bible, King James Version
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