The Burdens of countries, known by emblems. Babylon first; why emblemed by "desert of the sea."
expedition. Babylon fallen. Burden of Dumah: the source and meaning
of that word. God hears the cry of a condition. Burden of Arabia.
Verses 1 to 10, then, deal with Babylon (as is evident from verse 9) under the emblematic phrase "Desert of the Sea," and may be rendered thus:
1: As sweep the whirlwinds through the south
First, we must ask, Why is Babylon called "Desert of the Sea"? No doubt a natural reason might be found in the topographical situation of that most ancient city, in a vast plain or desert, and yet with its precise location amid marshes, broad sheets of water, and intersected by the great river Euphrates. Jeremiah's description (chap. 52:13) as "dwelling upon many waters," would appear literally more correct, and so nullify Isaiah's "Desert."
We who have a more spiritual light from the completed volume in our hands, can throw that light on the strange paradoxical term that unites dry desert with a sea of waters, and can interpret it with deeper significance, and more value to ourselves than that derived from a mere geographical position. She is "desert," because God is not "known in her palaces for a refuge"; and wherever that is the case, though all the glories of the world, all its wealth, learning, honors and refinements, be there, yet it is really a "dry and thirsty land where no water is," or, in one word, "desert." So, in order that he may see the antitypical Babylon, our Seer, John, must be taken into the desert (Rev. 17:3), for there only will she ever be found, there only can she find an environment in any degree congenial to her own proud, vain boastings. This desert-world well suits that harlot church which will soon include and unify all the denominations of Christendom. Even in that vast multitude itself, we may discern the many waters on which she is sitting, as indeed Rev. 17:15 necessitates our saying.
Thus nothing could give a better idea of Babylon, whether ancient or still future, than that conveyed by the double emblem of "Desert" and "Sea," that is, "without God" as desert, and ever restlessly chafing in unsatisfied discontent, as sea.
This city, then, which it is again well to remember had not yet attained, when Isaiah wrote, to the place of imperial dominance over the whole earth, is the subject of this burden, and a very heavy burden it evidently is. The prophet's eye is caught by the march of an invading army, sweeping swiftly along, reminding him of a storm-wind in the southern desert where there is no obstruction to its full powers. Then he gives the cause of the visitation. The doomed city is seen sending out its spoilers and devastating armies, till moved by an overwhelming indignation the prophet cries, and in so crying, gives voice to the command of God, "Go up, O Elam (i.e., Persia). Besiege, O Media, for thus will I make those sighs, that are ever sounding in My ears from Babylon's oppressed prisoners, to cease," that is, those who have hung their harps on Babylon's willows shall cease their weeping (Ps. 137:1, 2). Then he gives us to enter into what is passing before his eyes by telling us of its effect on himself, the most graphic way of speaking.
So swift, so sharp, so terribly severe is the blow, that the prophet, while he knows well that Babylon is to be the oppressor of his own people, yet cannot repress the most profound emotions of humanity that such a sight naturally produces. His heart throbs violently, horrors affect every part of his being, till he trembles in every limb. Perhaps the still hour of twilight that so often communicates its own calm to man's spirit, will afford him some relief. No, not now; even that quiet hour only brings with it further terrors that increase those tremblings.
Let us still listen, and we shall learn what is passing before his far-seeing eyes. He is looking at a scene that, at that day, was still nearly two centuries in the future,2 and he sees a banqueting hall wherein is revelry by night; a watch has been set, giving the revellers such a sense of security as permits them to enjoy their feast without fear, for the words he hears are:
5: Set the table! Watch in the watch-tower!When, lo, in the very midst of the revelry there is the startling shout from the watchmen that tells of a thorough surprise:
"Up, princes, up! The shield anoint!"Another prophet, Daniel, who shall actually live among those scenes, shall give us in his fifth chapter as history what is here prophecy, and add the divine sentence on Babylon's plaster walls, but nothing of the surprise attack itself. This shall be supplied by still another, Jeremiah, who tells us of couriers running to tell the king of Babylon of the capture of the city (Jer. 51).
Here Isaiah, in the very way that he uses words, tells us the same thing—the crisis is so imminent that the watch seems to bark out a few short, sharp words; there is no time for more. Princes who should have been at the head of their companies are reclining at their ease. "Up, princes!" the watch shouts. Their shields, which should have been ready for instant use, are hard and dry, without the necessary oiling that shall divert the strokes they may receive. "Anoint shield!" is enough to tell what is threatening.
Then that vision fades, and its place is taken by another. Jehovah directs him:
6: Go, set a watchman on the walls,This being done, Isaiah, himself the watchman, again tells us what is passing before him:
7: A cavalcade of cavalry—they are going two by two—
That is all. It is evidently some military expeditionary force, which the prophet-watchman would not have been thus shown did it not have vital reference to his own people. Not only cavalry, but in those wars even asses and camels were used, not only for carrying the necessary impedimenta, but were also taken into the fighting line, and by throwing the enemy into confusion, more than once turned the tide of battle. But the swiftly moving army passes out of sight, leaving him to ask on what errand they are being sent. Against what power can they be moving? What will be the outcome of the expedition?
For the answers to these unspoken, yet surely to be supplied questions, for only by something of this character can the proper connection be seen, he listens intently.
8: Then he cried as a lion:If commentators, like Delitzsch and others, are to be followed, this must be interpreted thus: Weary with watching day after day and night after night, with nothing occurring, no tidings, nothing to be seen, his overstrained nerves at length succumb, and he breaks out in irritable complaint. "He loses all patience and growls as if he were a lion, with the same long deep breath out of full lungs, complaining to God that he has to stand so long at his post without seeing anything, except that inexplicable procession that has vanished away" [Delitzsch].
We are not compelled to accept this: feeble, tame and pointless as it is. Is such impatience altogether consistent with the submissive obedience of the prophet? Is this an adequately and scripturally sustained reason for that lion-like roar? Will it not be safer to let Scripture interpret for us?—and doing so, we gather that the lion's roar is a cause of terror to those who hear, and never the expression of irritable discontent. On the contrary, "Shall the lion roar when he hath no prey? Will the young lion cry when he hath taken nothing?" (Amos 3:4). These questions surely demand a negative answer, and must mean that whenever the lion does roar, he is not at all discontented, but well satisfied, for his prey is within his power. He roars—springs—kills! The roar foretells the death of the quarry.
So in Revelation 10, in that cloud-clad personage with sun-like visage, we discern our Lord, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, who Himself "cries as when a lion roareth," and immediately seven thunders utter their voices, echoing, as it were, that roar, and apparently putting it into articulate phrase—for John, you remember, understood what the thunders said, and would have recorded it had he not been forbidden. But what follows? A most solemn oath that there shall be no longer any delay, but that the "mystery of God," the long inexplicable permission of, and the triumph of evil, shall end in the sounding of the seventh trumpet. But that trumpet, since itself going down to the very end, must include in the final fulfilment, the seven vials; and if we trace these to their end, we find the wrath of God filled up, and falling on apostate Christendom, and finally ending, as here, in His visitation on Great Babylon and her utter fall (Rev. 16). The lion's roar then in Rev. 10 spoke clearly, as it does in nature, of the doom of the quarry, of swift-coming judgment on Babylon.
Precisely so here. The lion's roar does not speak of the impatience of the watchman; but as in Revelation, the prophet's lion-like roar is really interpreted for us in what follows, in articulate phrase. After watching day and night, at length his vigil is rewarded, he does see something. It is the reappearance of that cavalcade of cavalry, but this time not merely crossing the line of vision on the horizon, but approaching him. As soon as near enough to be heard, the riders call out their tidings, and in their report the lion's roar has its interpretation and significance. It is a kind of triumphant chant:
Babylon is fallen! Babylon is fallen!We hear the same triumphant song in Revelation (14:8), and still again in chap. 18:2; not the literal city this time, but its spiritual antitype, all that which proud religious man is, even up to this very day, building on the earth, till "Rome" shall put her headstone on that proud "tower," and give her vile character to it all. So shall end all that, under the name of Christ, has been utterly anti-Christian, and has made that Name which of all names is dear to God, to be a symbol of all that is crafty and false in her Jesuits.
Alas, that we have to see such sorrow still in the future for our poor insensate race, and that over the future, and ever drawing nearer, there still hangs a thick cloud of divine judgment! Alas, that the false prophets from so many pseudo-Christian pulpits still prophesy smooth things for hire, knowing well what the itching ears of those who hire them demand, and are soothing consciences with their false forecasts of prosperity and peace, which they gild with the pleasant word "optimism," as might have done those ancient "optimists" of whom we read in 2 Chron. 18:5-11, that they led Ahab to shame and defeat with their optimistic promise, "Go and prosper!"
But well for us, since all the present ecclesiastical profession shall soon merge into "Babylon the Great," to be thus forewarned; for this gives a present application to the command, "Come out of her, My people, that ye be not partakers of her sins, and that ye receive not of her plagues."
One more verse remains to complete this burden on Babylon, but it is, as it were, the consequence of that "burden" as it affects Israel, and thus a word of comfort to that beloved remnant who shall pass through their destined time of suffering, called the "Great Tribulation."
10: O thou, My threshing, and the child of My threshing-floor!Here the prophet, who expresses the emotions and tender sentiments of Him who has sent him, turns to his own nation, and speaking as the very representative of Jehovah, he addresses it with all the tenderness of a parent who has been chastising his child, and has himself suffered in so doing. All fathers, worthy of the name, can surely enter into that. O child of My threshing-floor whom, by these various world-powers, I have stricken as wheat is threshed on the threshing-floor; I have now shown thee in this last vision what I am about to do to the "flail" that I have used in thy chastisement, and when I so deal with the instrument, thou mayest be quite sure that I need it no longer. It has done its work, it has brought thee back to My embrace in penitence, and I can cast it away.
All this most surely points forward to a still future day, when the place of that world-power that oppressed the Jew in the past shall be taken by another, the "Beast from the sea" of Revelation, and which in its final form shall be so identified with the great enemy of mankind, the devil, as to bring the poor remnant of Israel into a time of sorrow, which, for its intensity, can only be likened to the threshing-floor of our prophet. But when the Lord does intervene on Israel's behalf, the "threshed" becomes at once the "thresher," as Micah distinctly assures us (chap. 4:13): "Arise, thresh, O daughter of Zion!" It is like the two buckets of a well: one being up, the other must be down: Babylon, up, Israel down. So that chant, "Babylon is fallen," though a dirge for Babylon, is a triumph song for Israel.
This justifies our saying that the judgment on the spiritual Babylon, the harlot-church, equally involves the full and final deliverance of the true bride of Christ, by her rapture to be with Him forever. In other words, that seventh vial, that sees the final judgment on "Babylon the Great" and that follows the recent world conflict called (however mistakenly) Armageddon, must really be introduced by that rapture since it is poured upon "the Air," which is as apt a symbol of the spiritual witness, the Church, as "the Land" is of the Jew, or "the Sea" of the Gentile. If so, then the Lord's coming for us must be near indeed, the very next event foretold by our own prophetic book of Revelation!
The next burden is that of Dumah, which by an Isaiahan play on words is a form of the word "Edom," only with the removal of the vowel sound "E" from the beginning to the end of the word, in order to give it that double meaning so characteristic of Isaiah's use of words, and introducing into it that of "deep silence," for that is the English equivalent of "Dumah." Thus the name Edom is turned into an emblem of the future fate of Edom. It becomes the land of death-like silence;4 nor can we afford to be indifferent to this strange, short "burden," since we hear in it that oft-repeated inquiry that so many weary spirits have uttered throughout the centuries, and never with more earnestness than today; for the crowding of portents into the last few years has both awakened hope, and certainly deepened this longing. The whole "burden" consists of just this one question and its answer:
11: A cry comes to me from Seir:It is certainly cryptic enough, but not the less eloquent on that very account. The cry comes from no specified person, but from "Seir." Nor can it be without any significance that again the name is changed; the same country is no longer either Edom or Dumah, but Seir. That very name, then, will suggest to us the reason for, or significance of, the cry. What is Seir? The word means "rough, hairy," precisely as is said of Esau, the first settler in this land (Gen. 25:25); he was the hairy (seir) man, and as is not uncommon in Scripture, the man and his land are identified by some striking characteristic that they have in common. Here the rough, hairy man Esau, "goes to his own place," finds his suited dwelling in a rough, mountainous, forest-covered and storm-swept country.5 It is not without interest that, as the topography of Babylon corresponded to the spiritual significance of the emblem used, so here; all travellers report that the land of Edom has indeed become "Dumah," a silence of death ever brooding over its desolate and storm-swept mountains. Thus we again have precisely the same anomaly as in the apparently incongruous terms of "Desert" and "Sea," in this "Dumah" and "Seir"; Silence and Storm.
Again, as in that earlier burden, we will not stop at superficial topography, but let the light of the New Testament put its deeper and truer meaning into these words. How strikingly, then, does the present condition of the present prophetic earth answer to both "Dumah" and "Seir"; it is silent Godward, as Babylon was "desert" from that same point of view. No songs of adoring praise are rising to God from its masses of lifeless professors, for they have neither felt the burden of their guilt, the terrors of a coming judgment, nor seen that guilt borne by Another. In this respect it is also "silent" as Dumab. Yet from the manward side, how filled is that same scene today with tumult, how tossed with storm it is! What a tumult! It is Seir.
Again I say, how true is this to the actual condition of the antitype of Dumah and Seir today! The very condition of this prophetic earth, the sphere in the consideration of the Spirit of prophecy, cries for intervention. A cry is ever coming from it, from its tumult, from its restlessness, from the evident failure of the last experiment in the form of human government, Democracy, from its death-shadowed silence Godward, from the storm-swept earth, a pathetic longing cry comes, not only from a few human lips, but from that very condition. It comes "out of Seir," and this is the burden of the cry: "Watchman, what of the night? O watchman, what of the night?"
Nor is this simply a repeated question. There is a very slight difference in the way it is put that leads Delitzsch to say:
"The more winged form of the second question is expressive of heightened anxious urgency and haste,"6 just as a sick man, who has tossed through many weary hours, longs for the night to end, and ever and again asks, "What time is it? Oh, tell me, is it not nearly daybreak?"
Whether it be a legitimate deduction or not, there has arisen within the last hundred years an extraordinary, ever-spreading interest in, and a longing expectation for, the ending of the night, or, in other words, the return of the Lord. This, if one considers it thoughtfully, is such a remarkable—or one may say, supernatural—phenomenon as to assure its own fulfilment! I mean that when we think of One who, to external sight, was during the greater part of His short life only a poor mechanic, living in a conquered country, and in a peculiarly despised region of that country, who apparently achieved nothing in the way of political or economic reform, or military achievement, was not what we call a successful man in business, for He was always poor, and ended that brief and apparently (from the world's point of view) inglorious career by being executed amid criminals, as being Himself a criminal, and yet here today are thousands upon thousands of the most sober and thoughtful of the race, not ashamed to say that they are confidently expecting that Galilean carpenter, in whom they have discerned the very Son of God, by whom the worlds came into being, and by whom alone the whole universe subsists, to return and take possession of the earth, to "hush its groan," and to awaken its joyful song, by Himself reigning over it! That undeniable phenomenon can only be accounted for in one of two ways. Either it is an unprecedented, and (one must surely say) unaccountable miraculous delusion, affecting not the thoughtless, the fanatical, the unintelligent, or the careless, as delusions have done and still do, but those who are the very reverse of these! Or, on the other hand, it is a divine certainty—one or the other. The first is so utterly unreasonable, that it becomes impossible to any reasonable person, and then the last becomes a clear and sure foreshadowing of its own fulfilment.
It is not in the least difficult to trace the path of the Church through the watches of that night, as to which the cry comes, for these we are not only told are four, but their significant characteristics are given us by the very lips of our Lord Himself in Mark 13:35. Nor is he very clear-sighted who cannot discern "the evening watch" in the gradual loss of the light of truth, the shades that began to veil the Church in the first centuries. Deeper the darkness thickened, till, in the sway of Rome and her efforts to quench the Light altogether, the "midnight watch" came slowly on, in what are significantly called "the dark ages," and passed slowly off. At length the Nazarite spirit, like Samson in Gaza, awoke, and burst the gates and bars of that Philistine Rome in the Reformation, and in this who will deny that we have the re-awakening or cock-crowing, watch? We come down to our own time in which, in the recovery of many a long-lost truth, the light that faded in the first centuries is returning, another day is breaking, and we are in the fourth, the last, or morning watch; so that we, too, join the sweet singer in crying that we "wait for the Lord more than they that watch for the morning" (Ps. 130:6).
Thus, and it is of unspeakable value, we can get such an answer to that cry out of Seir as was then impossible; we know, with an intelligence that even the beloved Apostle who wrote the words could not know, that "the night is far spent"; three of its watches are already past and gone altogether, and since we are in the fourth, or last, "the day is at hand." Thus it is really most fitting for us to embrace the hope that we, even we, may be "alive and remain" till the Morning Star, that first herald of the new day, shall arise, and all the prophecies that refer to the waiting Church and her rapture to be with the Lord have their fulfilment in our own brief day of life. Do you not long for it, dear reader?
At all events, the prophet Isaiah, though writing seven hundred years before the Christian era, is in perfect harmony with the apostle of the first century of this era, for he, too, in his response to the cry, cheers with the hopeful word: "The morning comes!" We can see that,
"The summer morn we've sighed for,for Israel (and it is Israel that is always primarily in view in these prophecies relating to the earth), a morning, as her poet speaks, "without clouds, as clear shining after rain." All her storms shall then be as yesterday, as a tale that is told; all her future shall then be one long bright morrow, in which the sun, her own Sun of Righteousness, shall flood the happy scene with His beams.
"The morning comes," says the prophet; "The day is at hand," says the apostle, and so far they are in perfect accord. But here our apostle stops, and rightfully and happily stops, for there shall never be night to that day whereof he is speaking. Not so with the prophet; the morning comes indeed, but "also the night." That is, in full accord with the cryptic oracular character of the whole "burden," the same moment that ushers in the perfect day, ushers in the night too! That should present no difficulty to us who have the light of 2 Thess. 1:6, 7 upon it. It is "the day of the revelation of the righteous judgment of God"; "seeing it is a righteous thing with God to recompense tribulation to them that trouble you, and to you who are troubled, rest." There we get both the night and the day, as another prophet writes: "Woe unto you that desire the day of the Lord! To what end is it for you? The day of the Lord is darkness and not light" (Amos 5:18). That must mean that even when that longed-for day does break in blessing on the penitent Jew and Gentile, it is "night" still, and (alas) forever for the impenitent. Thus interpreted, the "morning" and the "night" are in absolute harmony with the other apparent anomalies of Desert and Sea, of Silence and Tumult.
Is there still perplexity in your mind? Are you still uncertain as to the meaning of this strange combination of "day" and "night"? Then inquire. No honest inquirer is ever denied. Only be careful to inquire at the right source; for today there be many who assume to be able to answer every prophetic question, till the very air is filled with wild speculations and hypotheses that are asserted with all the assurance of being directly inspired of God (discordant and mutually destructive as they are), to be answers, till the simple inquirer is bewildered, discouraged, and tempted to drop the whole matter as being beyond the possibility of solution. That is not wise. Far better is it to wait patiently on the Lord. His Spirit is still with us to lead into all truth. Nor does that mean that we shall acquire everything in a moment, leaving no more to be learned, but by slow degrees, testing our faith and patience, ever leaving much still unsolved that shall serve to maintain our dependence, and which shall also be communicated as we are fitted to receive it; not refusing, in what is spiritual pride, light from others who may have been taught of the Lord before us; yet, on the other hand, whilst not accepting quickly every new thing, yet not hastily abandoning what we have long believed; ever testing all, not by some fragments, but by the whole of the written Word.
The oracle ends with two words, "Return! Come!" The first can only refer to those who need to return, that is, who have wandered away, and we must surely assume from God. That strange "day" of both light and darkness is near. Let us make very sure that for us it shall be light, not the darkness; the morning, not the night. So this answer to the "cry out of Seir" ends with that gospel word of invitation as to the weary and heavyladen: "Come." Oh, come to an embrace that will hold thee safe amid all the storms that are lowering on our horizon, and have still to beat on this earth!
Verse 13 begins "The burden against Arabia," which may also be read, "The oracle in the evening," for in this case, as if to guide us into seeing an emblematic designation where we might possibly question it, there is added what is entirely lacking in the others, the preposition "in," so that just as we have in "Dumah" a word with two meanings, and itself thus telling of the over-hanging penalty, so here. The very word "Arabia," with only a difference in the vowel-points, means "evening," telling surely of Arabia's day drawing to an end, and the night approaching. This is in perfect accord with our prophet's love of a play on words, over-ruled by the inspiring Spirit for His own ends.
13: In the forest in Arabia (or, in the evening)Here, then, we have an evening picture. Caravans of Dedanim, those people who are so mysteriously connected both with Ham (Gen. 10:7) and Shem, through Abraham and Keturah (Gen. 25:1-3), and who here represent Arabia, are first seen travelling their accustomed route, but are being driven out of it by a powerful military expedition, from which they can only hope for safety by flight and concealment. The picture in verse 15 is intensely graphic with its fourfold repetition of the expression, "flying from." From swords they flee, aye, from drawn flashing swords ready for use, and bows all strung and ready to follow even those at a distance, and the last line sums up all, comprehensive enough to all who know what war is, with its widespread miseries. So these Dedanim hide wherever thickets promise shelter.
The prophet's sympathies are again wakened, and he cries for water to be brought, whilst those who live in Tema recognize their blood-relation to the fugitives (Gen. 25:13-15) by stealing to them with bread. But the burden goes on:
16: For thus hath Jehovah said unto me:Kedar stands here as representative of all the Arabians, and again the very word speaks in its mournful meaning of the gloomy cloud that overhangs them, for it means "black" as the sign of sorrow and mourning. But gloom never ends God's ways with men. We turn over a few pages of our prophet and we hear Kedar even bidden to sing with joyful exultation (chap. 42:11), "Let the wilderness and the cities thereof lift up their voice, the villages that Kedar doth inhabit: let the inhabitants of the rocks sing, let them shout from the top of the mountains." What has caused such a difference? Jehovah's Servant has been manifested, and joy ever comes with His coming. So mournful Kedar echoes rough Seir's cry for the Morning. I am able to say little more as to this "burden," but we may all be very thankful that the "evening" never ends God's ways. Always is it, as at first, "the evening and the morning" that make up the days; every evening being but a new beginning, the morning of another day.
1 These lines, it will be noted, differ from the A. V., but the above rendering is not far from the Revised, and gives the sense intended.
2 Assuming that the accepted chronology is at least approximately correct, Isaiah prophesied 714 B.C.; Babylon was taken by the Medes, 538 B.C.
3 The word rendered in A. V. "chariot" is given not only for the occupants of one chariot (Gesenius), but for the whole of the horsemen of an army.
4 See the very word thus used in Ps. 94:17: "My soul had almost dwelt in silence" (dumah).
5 This added idea of "storm-swept" is fully justified; the root "sahar" has for its prime meaning "to bristle up," hence the derived noun "hair"; and then "to shudder," and so it is used of the commotion of a storm; hence "to sweep away in a storm"— Gesenius.
6 What he means by "the more winged form" consists in the word for "night," "milailah," being shortened to "mileil," the last merely paragogic syllable being cut off. This heightened urgency I have retained by introducing the exclamatory "O."