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Lowell Brueckner

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Babylon’s Destruction


15. An expository study of Isaiah, chapter 13

I am impressed by Isaiah’s knowledge, not only of his own country’s history and social condition, but also that of the countries around about Israel. It extends to Babylon, of which he also has heard much from the Lord. Of course, the history of Babylon goes back to the book of Genesis 10, where Nimrod is shown as the grandson of Noah. He founded Babel and in chapter 11, we read of the infamous Tower of Babel and the language confusion that followed. Babylon is particularly known as the mother of many pagan religious beliefs and deities. In Revelation she is called the mother of harlots.

International prophecies

Isaiah’s knowledge of things to come reflects upon his personal relationship with God. He speaks in this chapter of a destructive power, not giving its name until verse 17, but is the Medio-Persian Empire that will arise against Babylon.

In this and the following chapters, thirteen through twenty-three, Isaiah looks outside Israel and prophesies of the future of other nations. He shows us the Lord’s concern for all of creation, sending His Word to the people in those nations, who have a fear of God. He has done this since the time that Israel was in Egypt and Egyptians, who had learned to fear God through Moses, took warning and made proper preparations for the disasters that were to come (Ex.9:19-20).

In Old Testament times, while God favored His people Israel, he also showed his mercy towards the heathen. The stories are too many to tell in this space, but just for example, the book of Jonah gives the account of His kindness towards Nineveh, which was actually Israel’s enemy! It is at the end of that story that He opens his heart to Jonah and to us, as we read: “Should I not have compassion on Nineveh, the great city in which there are more than 120,000 persons who do not know the difference between their right and left hand, as well as many animals? (Jon.4:11). You may also remember the story of the Syrian enemy’s commander, Naaman, who came to Israel for healing and was cleansed of his leprosy.

The man after God’s own heart, David, was probably the greatest evangelist to the nations of all the Old Testament writers. In the Psalms he expressed the desire that the God of Israel should be known in all the world. Solomon caught the burden in his father’s heart and reached out to enlighten foreign kings and queens. In the last chapter, we noticed Isaiah also had the spirit of an evangelist, desiring that the Lord’s work would be known throughout the earth.

Isaiah begins his international prophecies by addressing the Babylon situation. In Isaiah’s time, Babylon had not yet come into its glory; in fact, it was a subject of Assyria. Later on, King Hezekiah was ignorant of the Babylonian threat and entertained its ambassadors, showing them Israel’s treasury. He earned a sharp rebuke from Isaiah by doing so. Isaiah, by the Spirit, not only saw the rise of this mighty empire, but in this chapter, he reveals its end. His word is being projected into the future and the Israelites would one day take comfort in it. What a mighty book this is! What other book speaks to the nations of the world, not only in the present tense, but also tells the future, as if it had already taken place?  We have considered a future Millennium, but Isaiah will reach farther still into new heavens and a new earth!

An Oracle, meaning a Burden

This prophecy is literally a burden, as the Hebrew word declares; it is a weighty message, not easily borne (v.1). God does not take pleasure in the destruction of the wicked, but that he should turn from his wickedness and live. Therefore this prophecy is a burden to God and the reader should also see it as a burden.  

I have alluded to the fact before that God, in His Sovereign wisdom, has designed prophecy in such a way that it will order itself, as time goes by. Daniel is told that what he has been shown is being sealed until the time of the end (Dn.12:9). As in making a puzzle, the prophet lays the pieces before us and they will fall into place progressively. God raised up the prophets originally, and along the way, he raises up interpreters. Isaiah disclosed two separate advents of Christ to the earth, something against which no one today can possibly argue. It is now very clearly seen, although Isaiah knew little or nothing about this. .

In Isaiah’s day, Babylon was a great nation, but not a world-dominating power. However, God showed him that Babylon would reach that position, come down, besiege Judah, tear the government from its hands and carry its leading people into captivity. He saw that God would raise up the Medes against Babylon and destroy it. What Isaiah did not know is that this prophecy would carry into the last days and describe a mysterious Babylon that would usher in the anti-christ and eventually be overthrown.

God musters the Medes and the Persians

God’s anger shifts from the Assyrians, who conquered the northern kingdom of Israel, to the Babylonians, who will come out from under the dependency of Assyria and defeat the southern kingdom, Judah. First of all, see how the Lord of Hosts will summon the Medio-Persians to war against Babylon. It is evident that, as He is Lord of Hosts, He not only commands angels to battle, but He is sovereign over the armies of earth.

The Cyrus Cylinder from London's British Museum
He is clear in His direction, raising a flag of loyalty and purpose, as a rallying point, and does so on a bare hill, where it is easily seen. Then a loud cry rings out, so that no one can turn a deaf ear to it. The Medio-Persians will see the flag, hear the war cry and see a waving hand summoning them to battle (v.2). They won’t miss it. These will enter Babylon, under Cyrus, without a fight, and deal with her nobility. The Cyrus Cylinder, which describes the event, can be seen in the British Museum in London. In the steele, as well, Cyrus tells of encouraging the conquered people to return to their native lands.

God emphasizes that the Medes and the Persians are set apart (consecrated) for His purposes and this is His doing. He is motivated by anger, because of the Babylonian cruelty against Israel, and He has called forth the mightiest army of the day for their defeat (v.3). Belshazzar was actually grandson to Nebuchadnezzar and his father, Nabonidus, was unpopular in the city and so he left Belshazzar in charge, while he went to battle. So Nabonidus was the first ruler of the empire, Belshazzar second, and Daniel was offered the position of third ruler (Dn.5:16).  

The Apocalyptic Babylon

Now, we begin to see a similarity between the overthrow of literal Babylon and the great city of the end times (v.4-5). Cyrus united the Medes and the Persians for that purpose and in the time of the Apocalypse, there will be a united force of 10 kingdoms, along with the anti-christ, against an economical, political, and religious entity called Babylon. John saw her as “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth”, certainly Rome in his day (Rev.17:18).  

The Medio-Persian empire stretched out towards the north and east, far beyond the reaches of the Babylonian borders. They begin to fulfill the prophecy, but it will see an ultimate fulfillment, when “the great day of their (the One who sits on the throne and the Lamb) wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Rev.6:17).  The Day of the Lord is a day of wrath, judgment and fear. This prophecy is met by fear and it is described in verses 7 and 8: “All hands will fall limp, and every man’s heart will melt. They will be terrified, pains and anguish will take hold of them; they will writhe like a woman in labor, they will look at one another in astonishment, their faces aflame.” On the Lord’s part, the day is “Cruel, with fury and burning anger” (v.9). No one with stable character can take any pleasure, hearing such news, and therefore this word is called the burden; it is accompanied by wailing (v.6)

Now we go certainly beyond the defeat and destruction of literal Babylon to the cosmic upheaval of end times. Sinners are destroyed, and the sun, moon and star will not give their light to earth. This is the Great Tribulation time (v.10), when the whole world is punished. Notice the great abomination of the human race, with which God is dealing: “Evil… iniquity… pomp… arrogant… pompous pride… ruthless” (v.11). Always on top of the list of foolish, little man is his arrogance and God absolutely cannot tolerate it. His wrath falls, decimating the population on earth. You will have to search for men, like you search for gold, as the heaven’s tremble and the earth is shaken (v.12-13).

The utter destruction of historic Babylon

The prophecy expanded like a mighty storm from the Old Testament Babylon to the destruction upon the whole world and now it contracts again. We will look once more at what God will do after Isaiah’s day and after Israel’s captivity. Like wild animals and sheep without a shepherd, the Babylonians will scatter as before a hunter. Those who are found and caught, will be executed on the spot (v.14-15). Verse 16 is almost too horrible to contemplate, as homes are destroyed, infants are massacred and women are raped.

The invaders are the Medio-Persians, who cannot be bought or caused to accept a ransom, because of their bloodthirsty love of violence (v.17). They will kill the young, abort the babies in the womb and have no mercy for little children (v.18). Ah, but if you will go back to the Babylonian conquest, you will see Nebuchadnezzar’s similar behavior against Judah. “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Is.63:4).

Germans began excavations early 20th Century
This mighty wonder of the world, described by Nebuchadnezzar as “he was walking on the roof of the royal palace of Babylon… ‘Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?’” (Dn.4:29-30), became like Sodom and Gomorrah. Who has even discovered the ruins of those two cities? The mighty Lord of Host has spoken and Babylon lies uninhabited, not even giving shelter to nomadic shepherds. The ruins of homes, where people ate and rested, is only fit as dens for wild animals (v.19-21)

This destruction is coming soon, Isaiah said, as the time spans of nations go, and so it happened (v.22) 174 years later. Remember, however, that this prophecy is meant to comfort the Jews in captivity and from that time, the fulfillment was considerably shorter… in fact, right up to the day that it occurred. It happened in the very night that Daniel interpreted the handwriting on the wall. God laid bare His mighty arm and fulfilled His word. To this day, Babylon remains, as described, and it was never rebuilt.

Interesting accounts

Albert Barnes provides a number of interesting accounts written by travelers, who visited Babylon, in his time or before:

‘There are many dens of wild beasts in various parts.’ ‘There are quantities of porcupine quills.’ ‘In most of the cavities are numberless bats and owls.’ ‘These caverns, over which the chambers of majesty may have been spread, are now the refuge of jackals and other savage animals. The mouths of their entrances are strewed with the bones of sheep and “goats;” and the loathsome smell that issues from most of them is sufficient warning not to proceed into the den.’ - (Sir R. K. Porter’s “Travels,” vol. ii. p. 342.)

‘The mound was full of large holes; we entered some of them, and found them strewed with the carcasses and skeletons of animals recently killed. The ordure of wild beasts was so strong, that prudence got the better of curiosity, for we had no doubt as to the savage nature of the inhabitants. Our guides, indeed, told us that all the ruins abounded in lions and other wild beasts; so literally has the divine prediction been fulfilled, that wild beasts of the deserts should lie there.’ - (Keppel’s “Narrative,” vol. i. pp. 179, 180.)

From Rauwolff’s testimony it appears, that in the sixteenth century ‘there was not a house to be seen;’ and now the ‘eye wanders over a barren desert, in which the ruins are nearly the only indication that it had ever been inhabited. It is impossible to behold this scene and not be reminded how exactly the predictions of Isaiah and Jeremiah have been fulfilled, even in the appearance Babylon was doomed to present, “that she should never be inhabited.”’ - (Keppel’s “Narrative,” p. 234.)

‘Babylon is spurned alike by the heel of the Ottoman, the Israelites, and the sons of Ishmael.’ - (Mignan’s “Travels,” p. 108.)

‘It is a tenantless and desolate metropolis.’ - (Ibid. p. 235; see Keith “On Prophecy,” p. 221

‘Ruins composed, like those of Babylon, of heaps of rubbish impregnated with nitre, cannot be cultivated.’ - (Rich’s “Memoir,” p. 16.)

‘The decomposing materials of a Babylonian structure doom the earth on which they perish, to lasting sterility. On this part of the plain, both where traces of buildings are left, and where none stood, all seemed equally naked of vegetation; the whole ground appearing as if it had been washed over and over again by the coming and receding waters, until every bit of genial soil was swept away; its half-clay, half-sandy surface being left in ridgy streaks, like what is often seen on the flat shores of the sea after the retreating of the tide.’ - (Sir R. K. Porter’s “Travels,” vol. ii. p. 392.)

‘The ground is low and marshy, and presents not the slightest vestige of former buildings, of any description whatever.’ - (Buckingham’s “Travels,” vol. ii. p. 278.)

‘The ruins of Babylon are thus inundated so as to render many parts of them inaccessible, by converting the valleys among them into morasses.’ - (Rich’s “Memoir,” p. 13.)

They traverse these ruins by day without fear; but at night the superstitious dread of evil spirits deters them from remaining there. ‘Captain Mignan was accompanied by six Arabs completely armed, but he “could not induce them to remain toward night, from the apprehension of evil spirits. It is impossible to eradicate this idea from the minds of these people, who are very deeply imbued with superstition ... And when the sun sunk behind the Mujelibe, and the moon would have lighted his way among the ruins, it was with infinite regret that he obeyed the summons of his guides.”’ - (Mignan’s “Travels,” as quoted by Keith, pp. 221, 222.)

‘All the people of the country assert that it is extremely dangerous to approach the mound’ (the mound in Babylon called Kasr, or Palad) ‘after nightfall, on account of the multitude of evil spirits by which it is haunted.’ - (Rich’s “Memoir on the Ruins of Babylon,” p. 27.)

Joseph Wolff, speaking of his visit to Babylon, says, ‘I inquired of them (the Yezeedes), whether the Arabs ever pitched their tents among the ruins of Babylon. No, said they, the Arabs believe that the ghost of Nimrod walks amidst them in the darkness, and no Arab would venture on so hazardous an experiment.’

The Septuagint renders it Δαιμόνια  Daimonia - ‘Demons, or devils.’ The Vulgate, Pilosi - ‘Shaggy, or hairy animals.’ The Chaldee, ‘Demons.’ The essential idea is, that such wild animals as are supposed to dwell in wastes and ruins, would hold their revels in the forsaken and desolate palaces of Babylon. The following remarks of Joseph Wolff may throw light on this passage: ‘I then went to the mountain of Sanjaar, which was full of Yezeedes. One hundred and fifty years ago, they believed in the glorious doctrine of the Trinity, and worshipped the true God; but being severely persecuted by the neighboring Yezeedes, they have now joined them, and are worshippers of the devil. These people frequent the ruins of Babylon, and dance around them. On a certain night, which they call the Night of Life, they hold their dances around the desolate ruins, in honor of the devil. The passage which declares that “satyrs shall dance there,” evidently has respect to this very practice. The original word translated “satyr,” literally means, according to the testimony of the most eminent Jewish rabbis, “devil worshippers.”’ 


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