Isaiah 13

The Lord Will Judge Babylon

Isa 13–23 contains a series of judgment oracles against various nations. It is likely that Israel, not the nations mentioned, actually heard these oracles. The oracles probably had a twofold purpose. For those leaders who insisted on getting embroiled in international politics, these oracles were a reminder that Judah need not fear foreign nations or seek international alliances for security reasons. For the righteous remnant within the nation, these oracles were a reminder that Israel’s God was indeed the sovereign ruler of the earth, worthy of his people’s trust.
This is a message about Babylon that God revealed to Isaiah son of Amoz:
Heb “The message [traditionally, “burden”] [about] Babylon which Isaiah son of Amoz saw.”

The Lord is speaking here (see v. 3).
On a bare hill raise a signal flag,
shout to them,
wave your hand,
so they might enter the gates of the princes!
I have given orders to my chosen soldiers;
Heb “my consecrated ones,” i.e., those who have been set apart by God for the special task of carrying out his judgment.

I have summoned the warriors through whom I will vent my anger,
Heb “my warriors with respect to my anger.”

my boasting, arrogant ones.
Heb “the boasting ones of my pride”; cf. ASV, NASB, NRSV “my proudly exulting ones.”

In vv. 4–10 the prophet appears to be speaking, since the Lord is referred to in the third person. However, since the Lord refers to himself in the third person later in this chapter (see v. 13), it is possible that he speaks throughout the chapter.
There is a loud noise on the mountains –
it sounds like a large army!
Heb “a sound, a roar [is] on the mountains, like many people.”

There is great commotion among the kingdoms
Heb “a sound, tumult of kingdoms.”

nations are being assembled!
The Lord who commands armies is mustering
forces for battle.
They come from a distant land,
from the horizon.
Heb “from the end of the sky.”

It is the Lord with his instruments of judgment,
Or “anger”; cf. KJV, ASV “the weapons of his indignation.”

coming to destroy the whole earth.
Or perhaps, “land” (so KJV, NAB, NASB, NLT). Even though the heading and subsequent context (see v. 17) indicate Babylon’s judgment is in view, the chapter has a cosmic flavor that suggests that the coming judgment is universal in scope. Perhaps Babylon’s downfall occurs in conjunction with a wider judgment, or the cosmic style is poetic hyperbole used to emphasize the magnitude and importance of the coming event.

Wail, for the Lord’s day of judgment
Heb “the day of the Lord” (so KJV, NAB).
is near;
it comes with all the destructive power of the sovereign judge.
Heb “like destruction from the sovereign judge it comes.” The comparative preposition (כְּ, ke) has here the rhetorical nuance, “in every way like.” The point is that the destruction unleashed will have all the earmarks of divine judgment. One could paraphrase, “it comes as only destructive divine judgment can.” On this use of the preposition in general, see GKC 376 #118.x.
The divine name used here is שַׁדַּי (shaddai, “Shaddai”). Shaddai (or El Shaddai) is the sovereign king/judge of the world who grants life/blesses and kills/judges. In Genesis he blesses the patriarchs with fertility and promises numerous descendants. Outside Genesis he both blesses/protects and takes away life/happiness. The patriarchs knew God primarily as El Shaddai (Exod 6:3). While the origin and meaning of this name is uncertain (see discussion below) its significance is clear. The name is used in contexts where God appears as the source of fertility and life. In Gen 17:1–8 he appears to Abram, introduces himself as El Shaddai, and announces his intention to make the patriarch fruitful. In the role of El Shaddai God repeats these words (now elevated to the status of a decree) to Jacob (35:11). Earlier Isaac had pronounced a blessing upon Jacob in which he asked El Shaddai to make Jacob fruitful (28:3). Jacob later prays that his sons will be treated with mercy when they return to Egypt with Benjamin (43:14). The fertility theme is not as apparent here, though one must remember that Jacob viewed Benjamin as the sole remaining son of the favored and once-barren Rachel (cf. 29:31; 30:22–24; 35:16–18). It is quite natural that he would appeal to El Shaddai to preserve Benjamin’s life, for it was El Shaddai’s miraculous power which made it possible for Rachel to give him sons in the first place. In 48:3 Jacob, prior to blessing Joseph’s sons, tells him how El Shaddai appeared to him at Bethel (cf. chapter 28) and promised to make him fruitful. When blessing Joseph on his deathbed Jacob refers to Shaddai (we should probably read “El Shaddai,” along with a few Hebrew mss, the Samaritan Pentateuch, LXX, and Syriac) as the one who provides abundant blessings, including “blessings of the breast and womb” (49:25). (The direct association of the name with שָׁדַיִם [shadayim, “breasts”] suggests the name might mean “the one of the breast” [i.e., the one who gives fertility], but the juxtaposition is probably better explained as wordplay. Note the wordplay involving the name and the root שָׁדַד [shadad, “destroy”] here in Isa 13:6 and in Joel 1:15.) Outside Genesis the name Shaddai (minus El, “God”) is normally used when God is viewed as the sovereign king who blesses/protects or curses/brings judgment. The name appears in the introduction to two of Balaam’s oracles (Num 24:4, 16) of blessing upon Israel. Naomi employs the name when accusing the Lord of treating her bitterly by taking the lives of her husband and sons (Ruth 1:20–21). In Ps 68:14; Isa 13:6; and Joel 1:15 Shaddai judges his enemies through warfare, while Ps 91:1 depicts him as the protector of his people. (In Ezek 1:24 and 10:5 the sound of the cherubs’ wings is compared to Shaddai’s powerful voice. The reference may be to the mighty divine warrior’s battle cry which accompanies his angry judgment.) Last but not least, the name occurs 31 times in the Book of Job. Job and his “friends” assume that Shaddai is the sovereign king of the world (11:7; 37:23a) who is the source of life (33:4b) and is responsible for maintaining justice (8:3; 34:10–12; 37:23b). He provides abundant blessings, including children (22:17–18; 29:4–6), but can also discipline, punish, and destroy (5:17; 6:4; 21:20; 23:16). It is not surprising to see the name so often in this book, where the theme of God’s justice is primary and even called into question (24:1; 27:2). The most likely proposal is that the name means “God, the one of the mountain” (an Akkadian cognate means “mountain,” to which Heb. שַׁד [shad, “breast”] is probably related). For a discussion of proposed derivations see T. N. D. Mettinger, In Search of God, 70–71. The name may originally depict God as the sovereign judge who, in Canaanite style, rules from a sacred mountain. Isa 14:13 and Ezek 28:14, 16 associate such a mountain with God, while Ps 48:2 refers to Zion as “Zaphon,” the Canaanite Olympus from which the high god El ruled. (In Isa 14 the Canaanite god El may be in view. Note that Isaiah pictures pagan kings as taunting the king of Babylon, suggesting that pagan mythology may provide the background for the language and imagery.)

For this reason all hands hang limp,
Heb “drop”; KJV “be faint”; ASV “be feeble”; NAB “fall helpless.”

every human heart loses its courage.
Heb “melts” (so NAB).

They panic –
cramps and pain seize hold of them
like those of a woman who is straining to give birth.
They look at one another in astonishment;
their faces are flushed red.
Heb “their faces are faces of flames.” Their faces are flushed with fear and embarrassment.

Look, the Lord’s day of judgment
Heb “the day of the Lord.”
is coming;
it is a day of cruelty and savage, raging anger,
Heb “[with] cruelty, and fury, and rage of anger.” Three synonyms for “anger” are piled up at the end of the line to emphasize the extraordinary degree of divine anger that will be exhibited in this judgment.

destroying
Heb “making desolate.”
the earth
Or “land” (KJV, NAB, NASB, NIV, NLT).

and annihilating its sinners.
10  Indeed the stars in the sky and their constellations
no longer give out their light;
Heb “do not flash forth their light.”

the sun is darkened as soon as it rises,
and the moon does not shine.
Heb “does not shed forth its light.”

11 
The Lord is definitely speaking (again?) at this point. See the note at v. 4.
I will punish the world for its evil,
Or “I will bring disaster on the world.” Hebrew רָעָה (raah) could refer to the judgment (i.e., disaster, calamity) or to the evil that prompts it. The structure of the parallel line favors the latter interpretation.

and wicked people for their sin.
I will put an end to the pride of the insolent,
I will bring down the arrogance of tyrants.
Or perhaps, “the violent”; cf. NASB, NIV “the ruthless.”

12  I will make human beings more scarce than pure gold,
and people more scarce
The verb is supplied in the translation from the first line. The verb in the first line (“I will make scarce”) does double duty in the parallel structure of the verse.
than gold from Ophir.
13  So I will shake the heavens,
Or “the sky.” The Hebrew term שָׁמַיִם (shamayim) may be translated “heavens” or “sky” depending on the context.

and the earth will shake loose from its foundation,
Heb “from its place” (so NAB, NASB, NIV, NCV).

because of the fury of the Lord who commands armies,
in the day he vents his raging anger.
Heb “and in the day of the raging of his anger.”

14  Like a frightened gazelle
Or “like a gazelle being chased.” The verb that introduces this verse serves as a discourse particle and is untranslated; see note on “in the future” in 2:2.

or a sheep with no shepherd,
each will turn toward home,
Heb “his people” (cf. KJV, NASB, NIV, NRSV) or “his nation” (cf. TEV “their own countries”).

each will run to his homeland.
15  Everyone who is caught will be stabbed;
everyone who is seized
Heb “carried off,” i.e., grabbed from the fleeing crowd. See HALOT 764 s.v. ספה.
will die
Heb “will fall” (so KJV, NIV, NRSV); NLT “will be run through with a sword.”
by the sword.
16  Their children will be smashed to pieces before their very eyes;
their houses will be looted
and their wives raped.
17  Look, I am stirring up the Medes to attack them;
Heb “against them”; NLT “against Babylon.”

they are not concerned about silver,
nor are they interested in gold.
They cannot be bought off, for they have a lust for bloodshed.

18  Their arrows will cut young men to ribbons;
Heb “and bows cut to bits young men.” “Bows” stands by metonymy for arrows.

they have no compassion on a person’s offspring,
Heb “the fruit of the womb.”

they will not
Heb “their eye does not.” Here “eye” is a metonymy for the whole person.
look with pity on children.
19  Babylon, the most admired
Or “most beautiful” (NCV, TEV).
of kingdoms,
the Chaldeans’ source of honor and pride,
Heb “the beauty of the pride of the Chaldeans.”
The Chaldeans were a group of tribes who lived in southern Mesopotamia. The established the so-called neo-Babylonian empire in the late seventh century b.c. Their most famous king, Nebuchadnezzar, conquered Judah in 605 b.c. and destroyed Jerusalem in 586 b.c.

will be destroyed by God
just as Sodom and Gomorrah were.
Heb “and Babylon…will be like the overthrow by God of Sodom and Gomorrah.” On מַהְפֵּכַת (mahpekhat, “overthrow”) see the note on the word “destruction” in 1:7.

20  No one will live there again;
no one will ever reside there again.
Heb “she will not be inhabited forever, and she will not be dwelt in to generation and generation (i.e., forever).” The Lord declares that Babylon, personified as a woman, will not be inhabited. In other words, her people will be destroyed and the Chaldean empire will come to a permanent end.

No bedouin
Or “Arab” (NAB, NASB, NIV); cf. CEV, NLT “nomads.”
will camp
יַהֵל (yahel) is probably a corrupted form of יֶאֱהַל (yeehal). See GKC 186 #68.k.
there,
no shepherds will rest their flocks
The words “their flocks” are supplied in the translation for clarification. The Hebrew text does not supply the object here, but see Jer 33:12.
there.
21  Wild animals will rest there,
the ruined
The word “ruined” is supplied in the translation for clarification.
houses will be full of hyenas.
The precise referent of this word in uncertain. See HALOT 29 s.v. *אֹחַ. Various English versions translate as “owls” (e.g., NAB, NASB), “wild dogs” (NCV); “jackals” (NIV); “howling creatures” (NRSV, NLT).

Ostriches will live there,
wild goats will skip among the ruins.
Heb “will skip there.”

22  Wild dogs will yip in her ruined fortresses,
jackals will yelp in the once-splendid palaces.
The Hebrew text reads literally, “wild dogs will yip among his widows, and jackals in the palaces of pleasure.” The verb “yip” is supplied in the second line; it does double duty in the parallel structure. “His widows” makes little sense in this context; many emend the form (אַלְמנוֹתָיו, ’almnotayv) to the graphically similar אַרְמְנוֹתֶיהָ (’armenoteha, “her fortresses”), a reading that is assumed in the present translation. The use of “widows” may represent an intentional wordplay on “fortresses,” indicating that the fortresses are like dejected widows (J. N. Oswalt, Isaiah [NICOT], 1:308, n. 1).

Her time is almost up,
Heb “near to come is her time.”

her days will not be prolonged.
When was the prophecy of Babylon’s fall fulfilled? Some argue that the prophecy was fulfilled in 689 b.c. when the Assyrians under Sennacherib sacked and desecrated the city (this event is alluded to in 23:13). This may have been an initial phase in the fulfillment of the prophecy, but the reference to the involvement of the Medes (v. 17) and the suggestion that Babylon’s demise will bring about the restoration of Israel (14:1–2) indicate that the fall of Babylon to the Medes and Persians in 538 b.c. is the primary focus of the prophecy. (After all, the Lord did reveal to Isaiah that the Chaldeans [not the Assyrians] would someday conquer Jerusalem and take the people into exile [see 39:5–7].) However, the vivid picture of destruction in vv. 15–22 raises a problem. The Medes and Persians did not destroy the city; in fact Cyrus’ takeover of Babylon, though preceded by a military campaign, was relatively peaceful and even welcomed by some Babylonian religious officials. How then does one explain the prophecy’s description of the city’s violent fall? As noted above, the events of 689 b.c. and 538 b.c. may have been merged in the prophecy. However, it is more likely that the language is stylized and exaggerated for rhetorical effect. See Isa 34:11–15; Jer 50:39–40 (describing Babylon’s fall in 538 b.c.); 51:36–37 (describing Babylon’s fall in 538 b.c.); Zeph 2:13–15; the extra-biblical Sefire treaty curses; and Ashurbanipal’s description of the destruction of Elam in his royal annals. In other words, the events of 538 b.c. essentially, though not necessarily literally, fulfill the prophecy.

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