Isaiah part 15: The second cycle of oracles - the world in the shadows (chapters 21-23)
In an effort to help us not get lost in this enormous prophetical book, we can look at an outline of where we have been.
Isaiah 1-37 is the Book of the King.
Chapters 1-5 are a preface dealing with Judah - it’s diagnosis and prognosis - and deals with sin in the face of experience, election, and grace.
Chapters 6-12 reveal the triumph of grace.
Chapters 13-27 is the universal kingdom containing three cycles of oracles. This is where we are. We have completed the first cycle where we have seen oracles dealing with Babylon, Philistia, Moab, Syria and Israel (who were an unwise and unwarranted conglomerate), and we now move into the second cycle which is the world in the shadows.
God describes His kingdom in different ways. Very often He refers to the world and its entire history as His kingdom, which of course it is, though it is distinct from the church or the Millennial kingdom of Israel. We label the earth and all its kingdoms as God’s universal kingdom.
I know it is difficult to keep track of it all and remember it all, but as I’ve said before, Isaiah is a Bible within the Bible. It cannot be understood in a day. I have asked myself if I took on too much in this project, but I find that I cannot answer that. I do know that I am a stickler for finishing things, and since I’ve started it, the question of whether I should have is now sufficiently moot. I am going to finish it.
I plan to also try to make these lessons shorter and more frequent (no money back guarantees on this). I think this will help both of us. So in this article we will only deal with chapter 21 only, though the oracle spans from 21-23.
The first cycle of oracles (chap. 13-20) has much judgment and just destruction, but it is also impregnated with the certainty that the world is in the Lord’s hands and His promises will be fulfilled, hence it is embedded with hope. In these there is a light to the redeemed and a promise of a beautiful future for both Jew and Gentile. The second cycle offers a complete contrast. In it Isaiah probes forward into the future and all he can see is the world becoming darker, so much so that Isaiah recoils in horror. The people who live through these times will have to grab hold of the promises in the first round of oracles, but the reality is that the world will go through desperate situations, and man will continue to try to build his millennium on earth, but foolishly and futilely.
A recurring theme in Isaiah’s writing is the danger of making alliances with other nations with the hope that the added strength of two that are greater than one will be a guarantee of security and peace. Two are greater, but to ally with the world is to choose the wrong partner. God is the only alliance that Israel needs. The same temptation occurs in this oracle. The king of Babylon has sent envoys to Judah, to king Hezekiah, to seek a partnership against Assyria. Isaiah, unpopularly, warns the elite and the king that to allow this alliance would be disastrous, for Babylon must fall. As Christians we must understand that there is much suffering in making alliances with the flesh and the world. Our lives are to be Christ and that must not be compromised. We cannot settle down with any sin and make a treaty with it. All sin must be rejected and go, and our sole alliance, our sole dependence for anything good and satisfying must come from the Lord God and none other. I say it constantly from the pulpit that rejection of all sin is not the same as sinless perfection, which is certainly unattainable in this world. The trap, the danger that rises from an understanding that we will never be sinless is to conclude from it that we can allow certain sins by choice, our darling sins. This is what I mean by making a treaty with sin. Any alliance with any sin will stimie the spiritual life, and when we are caught up in any sin (GAL 6:1) - stop; cease immediately, and turn to the solution which is the Lord God and His way, life, and truth. How would you feel if you were the king of Judah, God’s representative of righteousness and good on earth, and the king of Babylon, immoral idolater, fleshly minded, and godless, walked into your meeting chamber and demanded a treaty?
The oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea.
As windstorms in the Negev sweep on,
It comes from the wilderness, from a terrifying land.
2 A harsh vision has been shown to me;
The treacherous one [Assyria] still deals treacherously, and the destroyer still destroys.
Go up, Elam, lay siege, Media;
I [Babylon] have made an end of all the groaning she has caused.
3 For this reason my [Isaiah] 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.
4 My mind reels, horror overwhelms me;
The twilight I longed for [then end of Assyrian power] has been turned for me into trembling.
(additions in brackets are mine)
Isaiah sees a picture of whirlwinds coming one after another across the Negev desert by the Dead Sea. He becomes aware that this picture is dire. As if he were present in the meeting room, Isaiah hears the offer given by the Babylonian ambassadors, that Assyria the bully can no longer be tolerated and that Elam and Media are ready to take up arms against her. If Babylon and Judah join them, then they can rid themselves of Assyria once and for all. The end of Assyrian power was something that Isaiah had longed for (“the twilight I longed for” vs. 4), but this vision fills him with pain and horror.
While Isaiah reels in horror, the politicians of Babylon and Judah are celebrating their alliance. The banquet table is set and as the elites eat and drink their fill while speech after speech is made about the sure victory to come. Isaiah makes them understand that Babylon will fall. No matter how oppressed Judah is under Assyrian domination, an alliance with Babylon would be a disaster of grand proportions.
They set the table, they spread out the cloth, they eat, they drink;
"Rise up, captains, oil the shields,"
6 For thus the Lord says to me,
"Go, station the lookout, let him report what he sees.
7 "When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs,
A train of donkeys, a train of camels,
Let him pay close attention, very close attention."
8 Then the lookout called,
"O Lord, I stand continually by day on the watchtower,
And I am stationed every night at my guard post.
9 "Now behold, here comes a troop of riders, horsemen in pairs."
And one answered and said, "Fallen, fallen is Babylon;
And all the images of her gods are shattered on the ground."
10 O my threshed people, and my afflicted of the threshing floor!
What I have heard from the Lord of hosts,
The God of Israel, I make known to you.
Yet, while we understand these events to be taking place in real time (Babylon, Assyria, Judah, Elam, and Media in a game of thrones), Isaiah’s title for the oracle is rather cryptic, “The oracle concerning the wilderness of the sea.” We might expect him to entitle it “The Oracle of Babylon.” Kaiser says of this, “It seems to draw upon these events in order to portray the imminent fall of the world-city … the onset of the woes of the final age with precedes salvation.” The ruined city of Babylon symbolizes humankind’s ultimate attempt to organize the world without reference to God. Babel, built on the plain of Shinar, became the ultimate type of the human spirit of self-sufficiency. Marxism is a perfect example of this - the most assinine of all political and economic ideologies, yet it has been adopted to the ruin and savage murder of millions, and still continues to be accepted and adopted. The “lookout” of vs. 8 looks on into the future for that troop of riders that is sure to come. Since they return on their horses, they return home as victors. They are the sure picture that Babylon is destroyed, and eschatologically, that the nations of the world are finally destroyed. The nations and the cities of this world are to be judged and ruined.
The vision of the world’s destruction shocks and horrifies Isaiah. Certainly Isaiah longed to see the world put right, as many others do, but there is another side to that wonderful time that is the opposite of wonderful. The day of the Lord is the term given to that time, which is joyfully anticipated by some and dreaded by others, and what Isaiah sees is the judgment that must come first. In addition to this vision of the far-future, Isaiah also sees in real time, King Hezekiah easily making a treaty with Babylon who is to be horribly overthrown by Assyria. The other part of Isaiah’s horror is how lightly, thoughtlessly the people of God identify with the world, and by so doing will suffer the fate of the world. We could conclude that on a deeper level, the banquet table where Hezekiah sits and deals with Babylon represents the church identifying with the world, content with the pleasures of the world, and fighting its battles with weapons of the flesh.
For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh, for the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh, but divinely powerful for the destruction of fortresses.
The Oracle concerning Edom.
As history moves forward and greater darkness envelopes the world, there is greater uncertainty.
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?"
12 The watchman says,
"Morning comes but also night.
If you would inquire, inquire;
Come back again."
Whether an actual Edomite approached Isaiah for guidance or it is the response to another historical event within Edom, we have no way of knowing. The unknown Edomite is asking the prophet if things will change for the better and if the night will lift and light return. The response is that yes, morning will come, but not yet. The questioner is asked to come back again to inquire, which indicates his need to wait in patience until the end.
As the night goes on, not much seems to change, and so this Edomite is a picture of the world. If you’ve ever experienced insomnia, the night drags on and on over long hours and nothing much happens and nothing much changes as you anticipate a distant morning. We’ve all heard that history repeats itself. Things seem to go on and on slowly, cyclically, and forever. But, though things do not seem to change much on the macro scale, on the micro scale, within our own souls, things do change, and can change for the better. The seemingly endless cycle of sin and evil and ugliness amongst the kingdoms of men will one day come to an end. “How far gone is the night?” How much longer do we have to go? “Come back again,” says Isaiah. Morning will come, but it hasn’t come yet. We have to have patience to wait for the end. While we wait, tend to God’s field, tend to your soul. There you will see great and exciting changes as you care for it wisely and reverently.
The oracle about Arabia.
In the thickets of Arabia you must spend the night,
O caravans of Dedanites.
14 Bring water for the thirsty, O inhabitants of the land of Tema,
Meet the fugitive with bread.
15 For they have fled from the swords,
From the drawn sword, and from the bent bow,
And from the press of battle.
16 For thus the Lord said to me, "In a year, as a hired man would count it, all the splendor of Kedar will terminate; 17 and the remainder of the number of bowmen, the mighty men of the sons of Kedar, will be few; for the Lord God of Israel has spoken.
Tema was an oasis city and caravan center about 200 miles east of the Red Sea. The Dedanites were an Arabian tribe of that place. All of Arabia was also under the yoke of the Assyrian Empire, paying tribute to that overlord. Some of those tribes, frustrated with Assyria’s yoke, joined Babylon in her rebellion against Assyria and were subdued. The Arabians are pictured here fleeing from a losing battle and Tema is told to provide help for them. It is a picture of a Gentile world at war and trying to heal its own self-inflicted wounds. Would the resources of the Gentile world prove sufficient? Verses 16-17 the prophet tells us that Kedar [a son of Ishmael], Ishmaelite, nomadic, Arabian tribes, will end in a year. Time will show that the world cannot solve its own problems, which they have themselves created.
In the oracle, again it is night, a motif for tribulation. It is a continuing picture of the Gentiles in a darkening world, and it breaks Isaiah’s heart.
Thanks be to God for His marvelous gift,
Pastor Joe Sugrue