Tuesdays with Isaiah (Chapter 13)

Beginning in chapter 13, we enter a new section of the book that runs through chapter 35.  In these chapters, Isaiah brings messages to the nations and the entire world.  While the Lord rules over His people (chapters 7-12), He is also the King over all peoples.  The oracles in this section, grouped together as an anthology of prophetic words for the world, begin with a pronouncement of coming destruction upon Babylon: “The oracle concerning Babylon which Isaiah, the son of Amoz saw” (13:1).

Babylon, a nation that become the world’s superpower, is given a grisly picture of its demise and destruction.  Its pride will be leveled along with its towers (22).  Its people, along with the warriors who defend them, will meet a violent end.  It will go from Superpower to Ghost town.

The chapter begins with the Lord signaling the surrounding nations, especially the Medes (17), to gather and attack Babylon.  While these nations undoubtedly had their own reasons for invading, they are seen as accomplishing God’s will: “I myself have commanded my consecrated ones, and have summoned my mighty men to execute my anger, my proudly exulting ones” (3).  God commissions and consecrates (sets apart) nations that do not acknowledge Him to carry out His purposes.

The nations, unwittingly complying with God’s directive, muster for battle, creating “the sound of a tumult” as they gather together (4). Coming from distant and divergent places on earth (5), these armies carry out God’s indignation on Babylon—and, it seems, upon one another (“the whole land/earth”—5).

The attack and ensuing battle constitute “the day of the Lord” (6, 9).  This phrase is a prophetic favourite, referring to times when God acts decisively to judge nations (including the people of Israel) and establish His will on a rebellious earth.  This “day” (a period of time) triggers a fearful wailing as hearts melt and hands fall limp (7).  Like a woman in labour, people cry out in anguish.  “They will look aghast at one another; their faces will be aflame” (8).  Even the heavens (stars, sun and moon) reflect the upheaval and darkness on earth (10).

What is the reason for this terrifying Day of the Lord?  “I will punish the world for its evil, and the wicked for their iniquity; I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless” (11).  Not only will the pride of Babylon be leveled, so will its population (“I will make people more rare than fine gold”—12) and its great city (And Babylon…will be like Sodom and Gomorrah when God overthrew them”—19). 

God’s judgment will visit death on all demographics of Babylonian society: infants “dashed in pieces” (16, see also 18); women ravished by invading troops (16), young men slaughtered (18).  Older people, while not specifically mentioned, will stand little chance in such an overwhelming attack.

When the dust settles, the great, majestic city of Babylon will lie in ruins, never to be inhabited again (20).  Instead, with its towers torn down and inhabitants gone, it will become the home of “howling creatures, ostriches, wild goats and hyenas” (21-22).

Isaiah ends this oracle with an ominous pronouncement: “its time is close at hand and its days will not be prolonged” (22).  Although the fulfillment of these words would not come for several centuries, from God’s perspective (“a thousand years as one day”—2 Pet 3:8), it’s about to happen and is as good as done.

Behold Your God

The Lord orchestrates world events to accomplish His purposes.  When describing the gathering of nations to attack Babylon, Isaiah says, “The Lord is mustering a host for battle” (4).  These troops are described as “the weapons of his indignation” (5). Unknowingly, these nations carry out His will in attacking Babylon.  Here is a reminder that history must be viewed on two levels.  On the human level, it is a series of man-made decisions and actions.  However, in the bigger picture, we see God working out His will.  As Ephesians 1:10 reveals, God has a plan “for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.”  History is ultimately His story.

The Lord’s righteous wrath visits devastation and destruction on nations.  The contemporary picture of God as a benevolent, harmless patron for humanity does not find support in Isaiah 13 (or in numerous other biblical passages).  Author John White was right when he said God doesn’t just become angry, he is perpetually angry with all sin and wrongdoing.  God is “slow to anger” in the sense of being slow to bring judgement on sinners who deserve it (2 Pet 3:9).  But when “the day of the Lord” arrives, it comes “to make the land a desolation and to destroy its sinners from it” (9).  The destruction sweeps away men, women and children (18). This devastation is a demonstration of His righteousness.

As the writer of Hebrews reminds all of us: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb 10:31).  The only refuge from the coming Day of the Lord is found in the Lord Himself.  Isaiah 66:2 records comforting words from the God of heaven and earth: “But this is the one to whom I will look; he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.”  Humility, repentance, and trust in the Lord get His attention and bring His help.

As I study this chapter (March 23 – 29, 2020), the Coronavirus pandemic is sweeping the globe.  Starting in Wuhan, China, it has moved from Asia to Europe and now to North America (actually almost 200 countries have been hit).  Currently, Ontario (and much of Canada) is shut down.  Half of American states have issued “stay at home” directives.  The infection rate is spiking; many are sick, and some are dying.

While on a human level, this Coronavirus pandemic can be explained in scientific terms, reading Isaiah 13 gives a different perspective.  The God who controls all things has allowed, or sent, this virus to devastate the world.  Like an invisible, invading army it has marched into our cities and homes, infecting the old but also the young.  We are left, like the Babylonians facing a multi-national attack, humbled (gone is much of our pomp and arrogance) and fearful (“every human heart will melt”—7).  Unless the Lord shows mercy, like the Babylonians, our cities will be devastated economically (overthrown like “Sodom and Gomorrah”—19) and our populations reduced (“I will make people more rare than fine gold”—12). We are facing a “day of the Lord” (6, 9) from which only the Lord can rescue us.  Lord, in wrath, remember mercy. 

Here Am I

I must resist the pull of pride and pomp for God brings low the proud and pompous.  The Lord Himself declares, “I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless” (11, see also verse 19).  It’s instructive that pride and pomp are repeatedly mentioned as the sins of Babylon.  Certainly, they were guilty of other sins—idolatry, immorality, injustice and more.  But their pride and pompous attitudes get specifically called out by God.  As I Peter 5:5 reminds us (also in James 4:6), “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”  Pride puts us on the wrong side with God—a disastrous place to be.  Since I want God’s grace, I want to follow the admonition of 1 Peter 5:6: “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you.”

I must warn people of coming judgment.  The judgment God visits upon Babylon is severe and thorough.  It takes out those we would see as the “innocents”—the infants (16) and children (18). Yet from God’s holy perspective, there are no innocents: “I will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their iniquity” (11).  Indeed, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23).  This outlook is not shared by those in our western society.  We see children, and the rest of us, as basically good.  We sing along with Our Lady Peace, “We are all innocent.”  So, the idea of God sending judgment upon us—especially on the vulnerable—seems heartless and ludicrous.  We judge a God who would dare to judge us.  But that doesn’t change reality.  We answer to a holy God who sees our pride and sinfulness.  We are all indicted.  We are all headed for “the day of the Lord.”  I find myself reluctant to speak this message as it runs so counter to prevailing sentiment.  Lord, give me courage to warn people (as a watchman—Ezekiel 3).  Most of all, give me grace to preach the gospel, the only message that points the way to salvation from coming judgment.

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