Watchman, What of the Night?
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.
Herodotus (i. 184), says, that 'Semiramis confined the Euphrates within its channel by raisin great dams against it; for before, it overflowed the whole country like a sea.' And Abydenus, in Eusebius, ("Prepara. Evang.," ix. 457) says, respecting the building of Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar, that 'it is reported that all this was covered with water, and was called a sea - λε´γεται δε` πα´ντα μεν ε?ξ α?ρχη?ς υ?´δωρ ει??ναι, θαλασσων καλουμε´νην legetai de panta men ech archeŻs hudoŻr einai, thalassoŻn kaloumeneŻn (Compare Strabo, "Geog." xvi. 9, 10; and Arrianus, "De Expedit. Alexandri," vii. 21). Cyrus removed these dykes, reopened the canals, and the waters were suffered to remain, and again converted the whole country into a vast marsh (see the notes at Isaiah 13; 14)
The words “of the sea” are wanting in the LXX. Some render “deserts” (reading midbarîm for midbar-yâm). Others, again, regard the fuller form as an emblematic designation of Babylon or Babylonia: the country that was once a sea (θ?λασσα Herod. i. 184) and shall be so again. It (the undefined danger) cometh from the desert] probably the flat region S.E. of Babylon, between it and Elam. a terrible land] cf. Isaiah 30:6; Deuteronomy 1:19; Deuteronomy 8:15, &c.
2 A grievous vision is declared unto me; the treacherous dealer dealeth treacherously, and the spoiler spoileth. Go up, O Elam: besiege, O Media; all the sighing thereof have I made to cease.
“Hard” may mean either “calamitous” (1 Kings 14:6) or “difficult,” “hard of interpretation” (John 6:60). The treacherous dealer … spoileth] Cf. ch. Isaiah 24:16. It is difficult to decide whether this is a description of the besieging foe or of the conduct of the Babylonians towards their captives. The former view might be defended by Isaiah 33:1 (assuming that the Assyrians are there alluded to) but it requires us to substitute for “treacherous dealer,” “robber,” which is not the exact sense of the word. The other alternative is supported by the last clause of this verse (see below).
Elam … Media] The dominions of Cyrus. The former lay east of the Tigris and north of the Persian Gulf; Media was the mountainous district adjoining it on the north. Cyrus, according to the Babylonian records, was originally king of Anzan, in the north of Elam; in 549 he conquered Media, uniting the two in one kingdom. The name “Persia” never occurs in pre-exilic books.
all the sighing thereof] The misery produced by her (Babylon’s) ruthless oppressions. The verb shews that Jehovah is the speaker.
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.
4 My heart panted, fearfulness affrighted me: the night of my pleasure hath he turned into fear unto me.
as we should say “my reason reels.” “Heart,” as often, is used of the intellect.
5 Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield (Orion is eating a meal on a lunar plate with a spoon; then he is oiling his lunar shield).
Prepare the table - This verse is one of the most striking and remarkable that occurs in this prophecy, or indeed in any part of Isaiah. It is language supposed to be spoken in Babylon. The first direction - perhaps supposed to be that of the king - is to prepare the table for the feast. Then follows a direction to set a watch - to make the city safe, so that they might revel without fear. Then a command to eat and drink: and then immediately a sudden order, as if alarmed at an unexpected attack, to arise and anoint the shield, and to prepare for a defense. The "table" here refers to a feast - that impious feast mentioned in Daniel 5 in the night in which Babylon was taken, and Belshazzar slain. Herodotus (i. 195), Xenophon ("Cyr." 7, 5), and Daniel Dan. 5 all agree in the account that Babylon was taken in the night in which the king and his nobles were engaged in feasting and revelry. The words of Xenophon are, 'But Cyrus, when he heard that there was to be such a feast in Babylon, in which all the Babylonians would drink and revel through the whole night, on that night, as soon as it began to grow dark, taking many people, opened the dams into the river;' that is, he opened the dykes which had been made by Semiramis and her successors to confine the waters of the Euphrates to one channel, and suffered the waters of the Euphrates again to flow over the country so that he could enter Babylon beneath its wall in the channel of the river. Xenophon has also given the address of Cyrus to the soldiers. 'Now,' says he, 'let us go against them. Many of them are asleep; many of them are intoxicated; and all of them are unfit for battle (α?συ`ντακτοι asuntaktoi).' Herodotus says (i. 191), 'It was a day of festivity among them, and while the citizens were engaged in dance and merriment, Babylon was, for the first time, thus taken.' Compare the account in Daniel 5.
5. The prophet contrasts his own lonely vigils (Orion with torch at night) with the careless security of the Babylonian revellers (Orion eating a banquet; cf. Daniel 5; Jeremiah 51:39; Isaiah 14:11).
Render as in R.V. They prepare the table, they set the watch (the only measure of precaution adopted by the revellers), they eat, they drink.
arise, ye princes] The banquet breaks up in confusion, for the foe is at the gates.
anoint the shield] Shields were oiled (2 Samuel 1:21), probably to make the blows glide off them.
6 For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth (Orion with torch at night).
7 And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen (Sagittarius with two heads), a chariot of asses (Auriga with Aries and another lunar head), and a chariot of camels (Auriga with Taurus and another lunar head); and he hearkened diligently with much heed:
This apparently is the expected sign that great events are on foot; when the riders are seen the watchman is to listen intently to discover who they are and what they are doing. The word for “troop” means always “chariot” (usually collective); here it must be used in the sense of “riding train” like the Arab. rakb. The procession represents the Persian army. “Asses” and “camels” are probably introduced as beasts of burden, although both animals are reported to have been used by the Persians in actual battle.
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:
If the text be right, the first clause must read: And he cried (like) a lion (Revelation 10:3).
My lord] The A.V. seems here to assume that the prophet is addressed by his watchman. R.V. and most interpreters render “O Lord” (addressed to Jehovah). Nevertheless A.V. may be right, although it requires the substitution of ’?dônî for ’?dônâi.
in my ward] i.e. “at my post.”
For whole nights read “all the nights.”
9 And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men (Auriga with Gemini), with a couple of horsemen (two-headed Sagittarius). And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.
Hardly has he spoken when the appointed vision appears: And, behold, here cometh a troop of men, horsemen in pairs (see Isaiah 21:7). And in the same breath the watchman declares its significance: Babylon is fallen, &c. (proph. perf.). Cf. Revelation 18:1 f. two chariots - representing two nations
10 O my threshing, and the corn of my floor (lunar sack of grain at Auriga's feet): that which I have heard of the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel, have I declared unto you.
The application to Israel, addressed as my threshing (i.e. threshed one) and my child of the threshing-floor—forcible figurative epithets of Israel as a nation crushed and down-trodden by the brutal tyranny of Babylon (cf. ch. Isaiah 41:15; Micah 4:12 f.; Jeremiah 51:33, &c.).
11 The burden of Dumah. He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night? (Orion with lunar torch)
The burden of Dumah] The best known place of this name is the Dûmat el-Jendel (“rocky Dumah”) of the Arabian geographers (mentioned in Genesis 25:14). It lay to the north of Tema (Isaiah 21:14) and south-east of Seir. Jerome is the sole authority for the statement that there was a Dumah in the land of Seir. The word here, however, is probably a play on the name Edom (which is found in the LXX., and in the margin of some Hebr. MSS.), and at the same time an allusion to the mysterious character of the oracle (=“oracle of silence”). Towards the end of the Exile the Edomites seem to have been on friendly terms with the Babylonians, from whom they had received a considerable extension of territory (Ezekiel 35:10 ff; Ezekiel 36:5 ff.). But the supremacy of Babylon is now threatened by the victorious Cyrus, and Edom is naturally represented as anxious to learn how the unknown issue of the conflict will affect her national and commercial interests.
12 The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come.
The morning cometh, and also the night] The watchman’s answer is designedly obscure. It may mean either that the seer has obtained no clear vision of the destiny in store for Edom; or that he foresees a transient gleam of prosperity to be followed by a new night of distress; or that hope is dawning for some and gloom settling down on others.
if ye will inquire …] The answer is not final; another time the purpose of Jehovah may be more clearly indicated, if Edom earnestly desires to know it. For return, come render with R.V. marg. come again. It is impossible to suppose that “return” is used in the sense of “be converted to the worship of Jehovah.” The words for “cometh,” “inquire” (twice) and “come” are Aramaic.
13 The burden upon Arabia. In the forest in Arabia shall ye lodge, O ye travelling companies of Dedanim.
13. The burden upon Arabia] The Oracle “In Arabia” (or, “In the evening”). The catchword of the heading is taken from the second word of the oracle. LXX. omits the title and in the text renders, with a different pointing, “in the evening,” which gives a good sense (Psalm 30:5). The Massoretic reading may be translated “in Arabia” (Jeremiah 25:24) or “in the desert,” although the word occurs nowhere else in this sense. Forest must here mean either “scrub” or (like the corresponding Arab. wa‘r) “rough, stony ground.”
travelling companies] caravans, as Genesis 37:25.
Dedanim] Dedanites (R.V.). Dedan (Genesis 10:7; Genesis 25:3) was an important trading tribe of Arabia (Ezekiel 27:20; Ezekiel 38:13). Since it is mentioned in connexion with Edom (Jeremiah 49:8; Ezekiel 25:13), its possessions were probably somewhere near the north end of the Gulf of Akaba.
The oracle on Arabia, Isaiah 21:13-17
A vision (Isaiah 21:13-15) and its interpretation (Isaiah 21:16-17). A caravan of the merchant-tribe of Dedan is seen driven by stress of war from the regular route, and lurking in solitary places, destitute of food and water. The travellers are succoured by the hospitality of the neighbouring tribe of Tema (Isaiah 21:13-15). This vision symbolises a great destruction within a short time of the nomadic Arabs, purposed by Jehovah the God of Israel (16 f.). Here again positive indications of date are wanting. If the oracle belongs to the same group as the two which precede, the enemy would be the Persian conquerors of Babylonia, who are represented as attacking the Arabian caravans that traded under its auspices. A similar threat against Dedan forms part of a prophecy of Jeremiah against Edom in the time of Nebuchadnezzar (Isaiah 49:7 f.).
14 The inhabitants of the land of Tema brought (lunar bucket of) water to him that was thirsty, they prevented with their (solar golden) bread him that fled (lunar water for Orion; solar loaf of bread for Sagittarius).
The caravans are reduced to the direst straits through having to shun the stations on the regular route where alone their stock of food and water could be replenished. The prophet calls on the inhabitants of Tema to supply their necessities. The verse should be rendered: To the thirsty bring water, O ye inhabitants of the land of Tema, meet the fugitive with bread (suitable) for him. (See R.V. marg.)
Tema (Genesis 25:14; Job 6:19) is the modern Teima in the northern highlands of Arabia, east of the great pilgrim route from Damascus to Mecca. In O.T. times it was the seat of an important commercial tribe, friendly therefore to the Dedanites.
15 For they fled from the (red radius line) swords, from the (red radius line) drawn sword, and from the (Sagittarius) bent bow, and from the grievousness of war (fled clockwise).
The caravans have deserted the frequented paths, because of armed bands scouring the country.
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 (701 B.C.):
And this prophecy “was probably delivered about the same time with the rest in this part of the book, that is, soon before or after the 14th of Hezekiah (702 B.C.), the year of Sennacherib’s invasion. In his first march into Judea, or in his return from the Egyptian expedition, he might, perhaps, overrun these several clans of Arabians, whose distress, on some such occasion, is the subject of this prophecy.” — Bishop Lowth.
Sennacherib is actually called "king of Arabians and Assyrians" (compare Josephus, Ant. x. 1, 4); and both Sargon and Sennacherib, in their annalistic inscriptions, take credit to themselves for the subjugation of Arabian tribes. In one year, exactly computed (comp. on 16:14), the glory of Kedar shall have an end. As Isaiah beyond a doubt uttered this prediction, its fulfilment must have taken place while the might of Assyria flourished. We know generally that the Assyrians subdued the Arabians, for Sennacherib is called by HERODOTUS (II., 141) “King both of the Arabians and Assyrians,” and that while mention is made of his expedition against Egypt. This is not without significance. For when HERODOTUS states that Sennacherib as “King of the Arabians and Assyrians” attacked Egypt, he thereby gives us to understand that he marched against Egypt with an army composed of Arabians and Assyrians. And this fact tallies well with our remark on Isa 21:11 and 12, that the Assyrian in invading Egypt must have cared for the covering of his left flank and line of retreat. This object could be secured only by placing himself free from danger from the inhabitants of Arabia Petraea and Deserta. Our prophecy was therefore delivered before Sennacherib’s invasion of Egypt, which according to the Assyrian monuments, must have occurred in the year 700 B. C. (comp. SCHRADER,The Cuneiform Inscriptions and the Old Testament, p. 196).
Kedar] a tribe of pastoral nomads (Isaiah 60:7; Ezekiel 27:21) in the Syrian desert (Jeremiah 2:10), is here apparently a comprehensive designation of the north Arabian tribes (cf. Song of Solomon 1:5; Psalm 120:5).
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.
17. the number of archers] Lit. “of the bows.” The bow was the chief weapon of the Northern Arabs, as of their progenitor Ishmael, Genesis 21:20.