Guest Article: Rod MacArthur on Isaiah 21

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We are happy to share with your visitors another fine article by our friend Rod MacArthur, as he continues his march through the wonderful book of Isaiah.

Rod MacArthur shares more great thoughts on Isaiah
Another great article by Rod MacArthur

Guest Article: Rod MacArthur on Isaiah 21: The Nations, Pt. 3

Before considering Isa. 21, recall that it is part of a section beginning in chapter 13 and continues through chapter 23. This eleven-chapter section sketches the wide-spread impact of Israel’s national darkness which Isaiah introduced in chapter seven. It began with the invasion of the Assyrians. It was to affect more than just Israel, but surrounding nations as well. Their push was slightly to the east, but mainly to the west and south. All nations of the “land” would suffer as God disciplined his people: It would impact the rest of the surrounding world.

A compelling truth emerges from this extended reading: Though the diverse nations would handle their security in different ways, the answer for true security was the same for each. Their focus of trust in face of national challenge varied from nation to nation. For example, at the end of chapter 14 Philistia was admonished not to rejoice at the death of a tyrant, because there would be another one arising in his place. It’s like teeth in a shark or the succession of soviet leaders; there will always be the next in line. As a young boy, I got so excited when Nikita Khrushchev died, I didn’t realize that there was another leader coming to replace him. To Moab (15 & 16) God said, your idols are unable to keep this darkness from overtaking you. In chapter 18, Ethiopia was presented as a dreaded army that would hire itself out, yet they couldn’t help themselves. Having a strong army didn’t guarantee security, rather Ethiopia was admonished to bring a gift of homage to Yahweh in Zion. In Egypt (19) wise counselors were chided; how can you call yourselves wise counselors, you can’t even keep the Assyrian from knocking on your door. The answer is not found in having the wise counsel guiding your nation. Finally, as we saw in chapter 20, allies are just about as useful, or useless, as God wants them to be. And so it went, one after another the nations were admonished: take your gift to Zion, find your only security in Zion.

Isaiah 211–10—The Wilderness of the Sea

The oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea.
As windstorms in the Negev sweep on,
It comes from the wilderness, from a terrifying land.
A harsh vision has been shown to me;
The treacherous one still deals treacherously, and the destroyer still destroys.
Go up, Elam, lay siege, Media;
I have made an end of all the groaning she has caused.
For this reason my loins are full of anguish;
Pains have seized me like the pains of a woman in labor.
I am so bewildered I cannot hear, so terrified I cannot see.
My mind reels, horror overwhelms me;
The twilight I longed for has been turned for me into trembling.
They set the table, they spread out the cloth, they eat, they drink;
“Rise up, captains, oil the shields,”
For thus Yahweh says to me,
“Go, station the lookout, let him report what he sees.
When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs,
A train of donkeys, a train of camels,
Let him pay close attention, very close attention.”
Then the lookout called,
“O Lord, I stand continually by day on the watchtower,
And I am stationed every night at my guard post.
Now behold, here comes a troop of riders, horsemen in pairs.”
And one said, “Fallen, fallen is Babylon;
And all the images of her gods are shattered on the ground.”
O my threshed people, and my afflicted of the threshing floor!
What I have heard from Yahweh of hosts,
The God of Israel, I make known to you.

Isaiah Chapter 21 continues the theme of inadequate security. It starts with an oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea. Often in the prophets, sea is metaphoric for the gentile society at large. That it was a wilderness suggests barren fruitlessness.

From the reading it looks as though God had commissioned several nations against Babylon. Verse 9, “Here comes a troop of riders, horsemen in pairs, and one answered and said, fallen, fallen is Babylon.” Clearly, this regards Babylon’s fall. But Babylon hadn’t gained prominence at this point; Assyria was dominant. (In chapter 23 we’ll discuss the emergence of Babylon from Assyria; below we suggest a connection to Daniel’s metal-man image.) Babylon hadn’t emerged, yet here is a comment that she has fallen. I have posited for our consideration on several occasions, that with the emergence of Assyria, Israel and Judah were plunged into national darkness, a “night” without the guiding light of Yahweh. (Pay close attention to the concept of “night” in the NT.) This darkness would not be dispelled until the dominant superintendence of the succession of foreign empires was removed from them and the light of true dawn shone in Judah. Isaiah predicted this light (91ff). For 700+ years the nation, and therefore the Palestinian world and greater Mediterranean world, were plunged into the darkness of being held captive, or dominated by, first Assyria, then Babylon, then the Medo-Persians, then the Grecians, and finally, the Romans. The continual pressure of this darkness was on all these smaller nations., Assyria, Babylon, and then Medo-Persians were the three great powers during the time of Israel’s prophets.

If Babylon is to fall; to whom does she fall? See verse 2. Babylon’s groaning would cease because Medes were going to take over. Historically, we know that the Medo-Persian kings were much gentler in their dealing with the captives than either Assyria or Babylon. King Cyrus caused Judah to go back and rebuild and repatriate (as Isaiah predicted, 4428), but they were still under his dominion. Nevertheless, with Babylon’s fall we expect the rise of the next wave.

It seems from verse 4 that there was a continual hope that when twilight comes, the whole world hopes for some relief. “Twilight” seems to refer to the waning days of the tyrant (Assyria, Babylon, or whomever followed). But the hoped-for twilight turned out to be more terror. There would be no relief when any of these empires crumbled at the hands of another. There was no permanent relief for the world in the removal of one replaceable world-power. What the world needed was a sole-sovereign, benevolent empire of love and grace. It was coming with the light (true dawn).

Eschatological parallels emerge in this prophecy. Even as Babylon symbolized the oppressive domination of God’s old covenant people, so Babylon the Great (Rev. 17) became the oppressor of God’s new covenant Israel. As in verse 9, the fall of Babylon was exciting news; even more, the fall of Babylon the Great was earth-shakingly exciting!

Isaiah 2111–12—Edom: The Night Continues

The oracle concerning Edom.
One keeps calling to me from Seir,
“Watchman, how far gone is the night?
Watchman, how far gone is the night?”
The watchman says, “Morning comes but also night.
If you would inquire, inquire;
Come back again.”

Everyone wanted to know when this night was going to be over; but they weren’t thinking about a 12-hour night, like September 4th turning into September 5th, for example. Isaiah referenced the oppressive night of the foreign domination. How far gone is that night? The answer is perhaps enigmatic, but this thought seems correct. “Morning comes, but also night”; points to the sporadic respites in the tyrannical reigns that were coming. Whether it was the “day” (calm) accompanying the changing of kings; or whether it was the calm with the collapse of one empire and the uprising of the next; just as sure as night follows day, so their night was destined to continue. Do you want to know how deep into the night we are? Ask me again later; because it isn’t yet.

With the fall of Assyria, the world was not out of the darkness. That’s the point. There’s another empire coming. This, in fact, is the point of the metal-man image in Daniel 2: (Assyria gave way to) Babylon; which left its dominion to Medo-Persia; which was followed by Greece; which was ultimately followed by Rome. In Daniel 2, it was only during the Roman rule that Jesus crushed and scattered the dominance of darkness. Isaiah 9 was very clear – the darkness was dispelled when that bright light shone in Naphtali, in Zebulun. When Jesus started his ministry, the light started to dawn; which passage Matthew quoted as beginning to be fulfilled in the ministry of Jesus (Matt. 412–16).

Peter made this point in 2 Peter 119; “We have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts.” And Paul made same point in Romans 1312; “The night is almost gone, and the day is near. Therefore let us lay aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.” Peter was still looking for the dawn of that new day in the mid to late 60s. Though the light started to shine with the ministry of Jesus, but the new day hadn’t burst forth yet. Paul said the same. It’s an intriguing point: God was disciplining and shepherding His nation to bring the Christ into the world, but all the surrounding nations suffered the impact of that discipline. The domination of Israel by the metal-man was also the domination of the surrounding world. Likewise, the day would not come for the rest of the world until it came for Israel. In fact, the day would come for the rest of the world in the Zion of Israel. That’s Isaiah’s point. We do well to pay attention.

Isaiah 2113–17—Arabian Desert, too

The oracle about Arabia.
In the thickets of Arabia you must spend the night,
O caravans of Dedanites.
Bring water for the thirsty,
O inhabitants of the land of Tema,
Meet the fugitive with bread.
For they have fled from the swords,
From the drawn sword, and from the bent bow
And from the press of battle.
For thus Yahweh said to me, “In a year, as a hired man would count it, all the splendor of Kedar will terminate; and the remainder of the number of bowmen, the mighty men of the sons of Kedar, will be few; for Yahweh God of Israel has spoken.”

Here in the last few verses, 13-17, there’s even a concern about the desert area, Arabia. Since the Arabians really didn’t have walled cities, they considered themselves safe. They didn’t seem to need walled cities; they had miles of hot sand as their barrier. But in verse 15 they have fled from the drawn sword, from the bent bow, and from the press of battle. Even in the desert there was no escape from the sword of the looming darkness.

You can’t just go out and be a hermit! There’s no escape. There’s only one refuge: Zion. Though he didn’t mention Zion here; he showed the emptiness of trying to escape into some remote place. There is no escape. Even if you sit on a mountain top the rest of your life; you’ll still need to be in Zion for your soul to have security.

Rod will have other excellent articles on the book of Isaiah coming up, so stay tuned!