The three oracles contained in chapter 21, all of which contain artistic, cryptic elements, are addressed to nations and people groups located in around Israel and northern Arabia. They may be grouped as a collection because each recipient would be adversely affected by the fall of Babylon.
The opening oracle is addressed to God’s people, Israel—a nation already “threshed and winnowed” (10). The news Isaiah brings to them causes him to be racked with pain and anguish, like a woman in labour (3): “Fallen, fallen is Babylon” (9).
Isaiah begins the first oracle in a very poetic, enigmatic way: “The oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea” (1). The upheaval he sees in this vision sweeps into Judah “as whirlwinds in the Negeb sweep on” (1). Bad news, as the coming verses show, arrives “from the wilderness, from a terrible land” (1).
Isaiah sees a vision of the Medes and Persians (Elam and Media—2) betraying and destroying (2). Later, we learn that the conquest is over Babylon (9). As Babylonian leaders party (5; compare Daniel 5), the Medes and Persians attack. Babylon, along with her gods, is shattered (9).
We might be tempted to think the fall of Babylon would be welcome news for Isaiah and the Jews. Not so. Isaiah responds to the news by doubling up in fear and anguish: “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” (3).
It seems Isaiah had been hoping to see mighty Babylon and its gods humbled. He speaks of, “the twilight I longed for” (4). However, even though Babylon goes down, things aren’t looking up for Israel. Isaiah continues, “the twilight I longed for has been turned for me into trembling” (4). Evidently, the implications of this conquest are dire for Judah.
Verses 5-11, the final section of the oracle, provide a flashback. Verse 6 begins, “For thus the Lord said to me, ‘Go set a watchman.” Isaiah speaks of this watchman using third person pronouns (“he” and “him”); at other times, Isaiah seems to be the watchman (10, 11-12). Either way, Isaiah learns the epic news: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon, and all the carved images of her gods he has shattered to the ground.” (9).
Flowing out of the first oracle’s focus on a “watchman” comes a second oracle “concerning Dumah” (11-12). The reference to Seir (11) links Dumah to Edom, a neighboring nation to Israel’s southwest. The Edomites, like the Israelites, would be affected by what happened to Babylon. No wonder Isaiah hears someone from Seir call out twice, “Watchman, what time of the night?” (11). The watchman (Isaiah or another) answers, “Morning comes and also the night. If you will inquire, inquire; come back again.” Isaiah seems to be saying that things aren’t yet clear; morning has not arrived yet so inquire again later. However, he also warns that another night follows the coming dawn. In other words, like Judah, the events taking place in Babylon will bring darkness and gloom for Edom as well.
The final oracle concerns “Arabia” (13-17). Several people groups are mentioned: Dedan, Tema, Kedar. These were semi-nomadic Arab people living in the wilderness beyond Syria and Edom. Once again, the news they receive in the oracle is grim. Isaiah pictures refugees from battle arriving thirsty and hungry (14). Those who straggle in are the few survivors of a fierce battle: “the remainder of the archers of the mighty men of the sons of Kedar will be few” (17).
The entire region of the Levant is adversely impacted by the ascendancy of the Medes/Persians and the demise of the Babylonians. On one hand, the fall of Babylon is the “twilight” Israel had hoped for (4). However, now it’s dawning on Isaiah (and the surrounding nations) that the change of superpowers casts a deepening shadow over Israel’s hopes.
Behold Your God
The Lord announces and accomplishes His purposes in the clash of nations. This chapter announces the fall of Babylon to the Medes/Persians. But it goes further, showing the fallout this regime change will have on Israel and the surrounding nations. The fact that God speaks these words in advance of their happening reveals His involvement in international events: “for the Lord, the God of Isarel, has spoken” (17). God works out His will in the intrigue (“traitor”—2) and attacks (“destroyer”—2) of historical events.
The Lord’s purposes can stagger and shake his people. Isaiah feels a foreboding sense of terror as he sees God’s plans play out. He doubles over in pain (3) at the implications of Babylon’s fall. While he had “longed for” this day, when it comes, he realizes it will bring a new night to Judah (4). God’s unfolding plan not only overturns nations, it can also bring emotional upheaval to His people.
The Lord is aware and cares about the human suffering caused by war. In the third oracle, the Lord instructs the people of Tema to bring food and water to the battle-weary refugees from Dedan (14). God knows the toll that war brings (“the remainder of the archers of the mighty men of the sons of Kedar will be few”—17). He cares for the needs of the afflicted.
Here Am I
I should feel the pain of the suffering of God’s people. Isaiah doubles over in agony when hearing the news of what will take place in Babylon and how it will impact Israel. He is no passive, detached observer of international and national events. He carries the griefs of God’s people close to his heart. If I am to be a faithful servant of the Lord, I must follow his lead.
I must faithfully announce the Word of the Lord even when it unsettles me. Isaiah is wrecked by the revelation of Babylon’s fall. Still, he fulfills his calling by proclaiming this news in Israel: “what I have heard from the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, I announce to you” (10). If I am to be faithful to my calling as a preacher, I must proclaim God’s Word—even when it’s difficult to hear.