“Babylon Has Fallen!”
1, 2. (a) What is the overall theme of the Bible, but what important subsidiary theme appears in Isaiah? (b) How does the Bible develop the theme of the fall of Babylon?
THE Bible may be likened to a great piece of music with a dominant theme and with minor themes introduced to add to the distinctiveness of the whole. In a similar way, the Bible has a major theme—the vindication of Jehovah’s sovereignty by means of the Messianic Kingdom government. It also has other important, recurring themes. One of these is the fall of Babylon.
2 That theme is introduced in Isaiah chapters 13 and 14. It recurs in Isa chapter 21 and again in Isa chapters 44 and 45. A century later, Jeremiah enlarges on the same theme, and the book of Revelation brings it to a thundering conclusion. (Jeremiah 51:60-64; Revelation 18:1–19:4) Every serious student of the Bible needs to be concerned about this important subsidiary theme of God’s Word. Isaiah chapter 21 helps in this regard, for it supplies fascinating details about the prophesied fall of that great world power. Later, we will see that Isaiah chapter 21 stresses another important Bible theme—one that helps us assess our vigilance as Christians today.
“A Hard Vision”
3. Why is Babylon termed “the wilderness of the sea,” and what does that title portend regarding her future?
3 Isaiah chapter 21 opens on an ominous note: “The pronouncement against the wilderness of the sea: Like storm winds in the south in moving onward, from the wilderness it is coming, from a fear-inspiring land.” (Isaiah 21:1) Straddling the Euphrates River is Babylon, with its eastern half in the region between the two great rivers Euphrates and Tigris. It is some distance from the actual sea. Why, then, is it called “the wilderness of the sea”? Because the region of Babylon used to flood annually, creating a vast, marshy “sea.” However, the Babylonians have controlled this watery wilderness by creating a complex system of dikes, sluices, and canals. They ingeniously use these waters as part of the city’s defense system. Still, no human works will save Babylon from divine judgment. A wilderness she had been—a wilderness she will again become. Calamity is heading her way, brewing like one of the fierce storms that sometimes blow in upon Israel from the fearsome wilderness to the south.—Compare Zechariah 9:14.
4. How does the Revelation vision of “Babylon the Great” include the elements of “waters” and “a wilderness,” and what do the “waters” mean?
4 As we learned in Chapter 14 of this book, ancient Babylon has a modern counterpart—“Babylon the Great,” the world empire of false religion. In Revelation, Babylon the Great is likewise portrayed in connection with “a wilderness” and “waters.” The apostle John is carried away to a wilderness to be shown Babylon the Great. He is told that she “sits on many waters” representing “peoples and crowds and nations and tongues.” (Revelation 17:1-3, 5, 15) Popular support has always been a key to the survival of false religion, but such “waters” will not protect her in the end. Like her ancient counterpart, she will end up empty, neglected, and desolate.
5. How does Babylon come to earn a reputation as being “treacherous” and a “despoiler”?
5 In Isaiah’s day Babylon is not yet the dominant world power, but Jehovah already foresees that when her time comes, she will abuse her power. Isaiah proceeds: “There is a hard vision that has been told to me: The treacherous dealer is dealing treacherously, and the despoiler is despoiling.” (Isaiah 21:2a) Babylon will indeed despoil and deal treacherously with the nations she conquers, including Judah. The Babylonians will sack Jerusalem, pillage its temple, and take its people captive to Babylon. There, these helpless captives will be treated treacherously, ridiculed for their faith, and offered no hope of return to their homeland.—2 Chronicles 36:17-21; Psalm 137:1-4.
6. (a) What sighing will Jehovah cause to cease? (b) What nations are foretold to attack Babylon, and how is this fulfilled?
6 Yes, Babylon richly deserves this “hard vision,” which will mean hard times for her. Isaiah continues: “Go up, O Elam! Lay siege, O Media! All sighing due to her I have caused to cease.” (Isaiah 21:2b) Those oppressed by this treacherous empire will have relief. At last, an end to their sighing! (Psalm 79:11, 12) By what means will this relief come? Isaiah names two nations that will attack Babylon: Elam and Media. Two centuries later, in 539 B.C.E., Cyrus the Persian will lead a combined force of Persians and Medes against Babylon. As for Elam, Persian monarchs will possess at least part of that land prior to 539 B.C.E.* The Persian forces will thus include Elamites.
7. How does Isaiah’s vision affect him, signifying what?
7 Note how Isaiah describes the effect of this vision upon him: “That is why my hips have become full of severe pains. Convulsions themselves have grabbed hold of me, like the convulsions of a woman that is giving birth. I have become disconcerted so that I do not hear; I have become disturbed so that I do not see. My heart has wandered about; a shuddering itself has terrified me. The twilight for which I had an attachment has been made for me a trembling.” (Isaiah 21:3, 4) The prophet, it seems, enjoys the twilight hours, a lovely time for quiet contemplation. But nightfall has now lost its charm, bringing instead only fear, pain, and trembling. He suffers convulsions like those of a woman in labor, and his heart “has wandered about.” One scholar renders this phrase “my heart beats wildly,” noting that the expression refers to “a feverish and irregular beating of the pulse.” Why such distress? Evidently, Isaiah’s feelings are prophetic. On the night of October 5/6, 539 B.C.E., the Babylonians will experience similar terror.
8. As prophesied, how do the Babylonians act, even though their enemies are outside the walls?
8 As darkness falls on that fateful night, terror is the last thing on the Babylonians’ minds. Some two centuries in advance, Isaiah foretells: “Let there be a setting of the table in order, an arranging of the location of seats, an eating, a drinking!” (Isaiah 21:5a) Yes, the arrogant King Belshazzar is hosting a feast. Seats are arranged for a thousand of his grandees, as well as many wives and concubines. (Daniel 5:1, 2) The revelers know that there is an army outside the walls, but they believe that their city is impregnable. Her massive walls and deep moat appear to make her capture impossible; her many gods make it unthinkable. So let there be “an eating, a drinking!” Belshazzar gets drunk, and he probably is not alone. The besotted state of the high officials is suggested by the need to rouse them, as Isaiah’s next words prophetically show.
9. Why does it become necessary to “anoint the shield”?
9 “Get up, you princes, anoint the shield.” (Isaiah 21:5b) Suddenly, the party is over. The princes have to rouse themselves! The aged prophet Daniel has been called to the scene, and he sees how Jehovah throws Babylonian King Belshazzar into a state of terror similar to that described by Isaiah. The king’s grandees are plunged into confusion as the combined forces of Medes, Persians, and Elamites breach the city’s defenses. Babylon falls quickly! What, though, does it mean to “anoint the shield”? The Bible sometimes refers to a nation’s king as its shield because he is the defender and protector of the land.* (Psalm 89:18) So this verse in Isaiah is likely foretelling the need for a new king. Why? Because Belshazzar is killed that “very night.” Thus, there is a need to “anoint the shield,” or appoint a new king.—Daniel 5:1-9, 30.
10. What comfort can worshipers of Jehovah draw from the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the treacherous dealer?
10 All lovers of true worship draw comfort from this account. Modern-day Babylon, Babylon the Great, is as much a treacherous dealer and despoiler as was her ancient counterpart. To this day religious leaders conspire to have Jehovah’s Witnesses banned, persecuted, or punitively taxed. But as this prophecy reminds us, Jehovah sees all such treacherous dealing, and he will not let it go unpunished. He will bring an end to all religions that misrepresent him and mistreat his people. (Revelation 18:8) Is such a thing possible? To build our faith, we have only to see how his warnings regarding the fall of both ancient Babylon and her modern-day counterpart have already been fulfilled.
“She Has Fallen!”
11. (a) What is the responsibility of a watchman, and who has been active as a watchman today? (b) What is represented by the war chariot of asses and that of camels?
11 Jehovah now speaks to the prophet. Isaiah reports: “This is what Jehovah has said to me: ‘Go, post a lookout that he may tell just what he sees.’” (Isaiah 21:6) These words introduce another important theme of this chapter—that of the lookout, or watchman. This is of interest to all true Christians today, for Jesus urged his followers to “keep on the watch.” “The faithful and discreet slave” has never stopped telling what it sees regarding the nearness of God’s day of judgment and the dangers of this corrupt world. (Matthew 24:42, 45-47) What does Isaiah’s visionary watchman see? “He saw a war chariot with a span of steeds, a war chariot of asses, a war chariot of camels. And he paid strict attention, with much attentiveness.” (Isaiah 21:7) These single war chariots likely represent columns of chariots advancing in battle formation with the speed of trained steeds. The war chariot of asses and that of camels fittingly represent the two powers, Media and Persia, that will unite to launch this attack. Furthermore, history confirms that the Persian army used both asses and camels in warfare.
12. Isaiah’s visionary watchman displays what qualities, and who need these qualities today?
12 The watchman, then, is compelled to make a report. “He proceeded to call out like a lion: ‘Upon the watchtower, O Jehovah, I am standing constantly by day, and at my guardpost I am stationed all the nights. And here, now, there is coming a war chariot of men, with a span of steeds!’” (Isaiah 21:8, 9a) The visionary watchman calls out courageously, “like a lion.” It takes courage to call out a judgment message against so formidable a nation as Babylon. Something else is required as well—endurance. The watchman remains at his post day and night, never letting his vigilance flag. Similarly, the watchman class in these last days has needed courage and endurance. (Revelation 14:12) All true Christians need these qualities.
13, 14. (a) How does ancient Babylon fare, and in what sense are her idols broken? (b) How and when did Babylon the Great suffer a similar fall?
13 Isaiah’s visionary watchman sees a war chariot advancing. What is the news? “He began to speak up and say: ‘She has fallen! Babylon has fallen, and all the graven images of her gods he has broken to the earth!’” (Isaiah 21:9b) What a thrilling report! At last, this treacherous despoiler of God’s people has fallen!* In what sense, though, are Babylon’s graven images and idols broken? Will the Medo-Persian invaders march into Babylon’s temples and smash the innumerable idols? No, nothing of the sort is needed. Babylon’s idol gods will be broken in that they are exposed as powerless to protect the city. And Babylon will experience a fall when she becomes unable to continue oppressing God’s people.
14 What of Babylon the Great? By engineering the oppression of God’s people during World War I, she effectively held them in exile for a time. Their preaching work was virtually brought to a halt. The president and other prominent officers of the Watch Tower Society were imprisoned on false charges. But 1919 saw an astounding reversal. The officers were released from prison, the headquarters office was reopened, and the preaching work was recommenced. Thus, Babylon the Great fell in that her hold over God’s people was broken.* In Revelation, this fall is twice heralded by an angel using the words of the announcement at Isaiah 21:9.—Revelation 14:8; 18:2.
15, 16. In what sense are Isaiah’s people “threshed ones,” and what can we learn from Isaiah’s attitude toward them?
15 Isaiah concludes this prophetic message on a note of compassion toward his own people. He says: “O my threshed ones and the son of my threshing floor, what I have heard from Jehovah of armies, the God of Israel, I have reported to you people.” (Isaiah 21:10) In the Bible, threshing often symbolizes the disciplining and refining of God’s people. God’s covenant people will become ‘sons of the threshing floor,’ where wheat is forcibly separated from the chaff, leaving only the refined, desirable grains. Isaiah is not gloating over this discipline. Rather, he has compassion for these future ‘sons of the threshing floor,’ some of whom will spend their entire lives as captives in a foreign land.
16 This may serve as a useful reminder to all of us. In the Christian congregation today, some may be inclined to lose their compassion for wrongdoers. And those who receive discipline may often be prone to resent it. However, if we keep in mind that Jehovah disciplines his people in order to refine them, we will neither belittle the discipline and those who humbly undergo it nor resist it when it comes our way. Let us accept godly discipline as an expression of God’s love.—Hebrews 12:6.
Inquiring of the Watchman
17. Why is Edom appropriately termed “Dumah”?
17 The second prophetic message of Isaiah chapter 21 brings the figure of the watchman to the fore. It begins: “The pronouncement against Dumah: To me there is one calling out from Seir: ‘Watchman, what about the night? Watchman, what about the night?’” (Isaiah 21:11) Where is this Dumah? There were evidently several towns with that name in Bible times, but none of them are intended here. Dumah is not found in Seir, which is another name for Edom. However, “Dumah” means “Silence.” So it seems that, as was the case in the previous pronouncement, the region is given a name suggestive of its future. Edom, long a vindictive enemy of God’s people, will end up in silence—the silence of death. Before that happens, though, some will anxiously inquire about the future.
18. How is the pronouncement, “The morning has to come, and also the night,” fulfilled upon ancient Edom?
18 At the time of the writing of Isaiah, Edom lies in the path of the powerful Assyrian army. Some in Edom yearn to know when the night of oppression will end for them. The answer? “The watchman said: ‘The morning has to come, and also the night.’” (Isaiah 21:12a) Things do not bode well for Edom. A glimmer of morning will show on the horizon, but it will be brief, illusory. Night—another dark time of oppression—will follow quickly on the heels of morning. What an apt picture of Edom’s future! The Assyrian oppression will end, but Babylon will succeed Assyria as a world power and will decimate Edom. (Jeremiah 25:17, 21; 27:2-8) This cycle will be repeated. Babylonian oppression will be followed by Persian and then Greek oppression. There will then be a brief “morning” during Roman times, when the Herods—Edomite in origin—gain power in Jerusalem. But that “morning” will not last. Finally, Edom will descend permanently into silence, vanishing from history. The name Dumah will fittingly describe her at last.
19. When the watchman says, “If you people would inquire, inquire. Come again!” what may he mean?
19 The watchman concludes his brief message with the words: “If you people would inquire, inquire. Come again!” (Isaiah 21:12b) The expression “Come again!” may refer to the endless succession of ‘nights’ ahead of Edom. Or because the expression may also be translated “return,” the prophet may be suggesting that any Edomites who want to escape the nation’s doom should repent and “return” to Jehovah. In either case, the watchman invites further inquiries.
20. Why is the pronouncement recorded at Isaiah 21:11, 12 significant to Jehovah’s people today?
20 This short pronouncement has meant a great deal to Jehovah’s people in modern times.* We understand that mankind is deep into the dark night of spiritual blindness and alienation from God that will lead to the destruction of this system of things. (Romans 13:12; 2 Corinthians 4:4) During this nighttime, any glimmerings of hope that mankind can somehow bring about peace and security are like those illusory gleamings of dawn that are followed only by still darker times. A genuine dawn is approaching—the dawn of Christ’s Millennial Reign over this earth. But as long as the night lasts, we must follow the lead of the watchman class by staying spiritually alert and courageously announcing the nearness of the end of this corrupt system of things.—1 Thessalonians 5:6.
Night Falls on the Desert Plain
21. (a) What play on words may be intended in the phrase “the pronouncement against the desert plain”? (b) What are the caravans of men of Dedan?
21 The final pronouncement of Isaiah chapter 21 is directed against “the desert plain.” It begins: “The pronouncement against the desert plain: In the forest in the desert plain you will spend the night, O caravans of men of Dedan.” (Isaiah 21:13) The desert plain referred to is evidently Arabia, for the pronouncement is directed at a number of Arab tribes. The word for “desert plain” is sometimes rendered “evening,” a very similar word in Hebrew. Some suggest that this is a play on words, as if a dark evening—a time of trouble—is about to fall upon this region. The pronouncement opens with a nocturnal scene featuring caravans of men of Dedan, a prominent Arab tribe. Such caravans follow trade routes from one desert oasis to the next, bearing spices, pearls, and other treasures. But here we see them forced to leave their well-traveled tracks to spend the nights in hiding. Why?
22, 23. (a) What crushing burden is about to befall the Arab tribes, and with what effect upon them? (b) How soon will this disaster come, and at whose hands?
22 Isaiah explains: “To meet the thirsty one bring water. O you inhabitants of the land of Tema, confront the one fleeing away with bread for him. For because of the swords they have fled away, because of the drawn sword, and because of the bent bow and because of the heaviness of the war.” (Isaiah 21:14, 15) Yes, the crushing burden of war will fall upon these Arab tribes. Tema, located on one of the most well-watered oases in the region, is forced to bring water and bread to the hapless refugees of war. When will this trouble come?
23 Isaiah continues: “This is what Jehovah has said to me: ‘Within yet a year, according to the years of a hired laborer, all the glory of Kedar must even come to its end. And the ones remaining over of the number of bowmen, the mighty men of the sons of Kedar, will become few, for Jehovah himself, the God of Israel, has spoken it.’” (Isaiah 21:16, 17) Kedar is so prominent a tribe that it is sometimes used to represent all of Arabia. Jehovah has determined that the bowmen and mighty men of this tribe will dwindle in number to a mere remnant. When? “Within yet a year,” no more, just as a hired laborer works no more than the amount of time for which he is paid. Precisely how all of this was fulfilled is uncertain. Two Assyrian rulers—Sargon II and Sennacherib—claimed credit for subjugating Arabia. Either may well have decimated these proud Arab tribes, as foretold.
24. How can we be sure that Isaiah’s prophecy against Arabia was fulfilled?
24 We can be sure, however, that this prophecy was fulfilled to the letter. Nothing can make that point more forcefully than the closing words of the pronouncement: “Jehovah himself, the God of Israel, has spoken it.” To people in Isaiah’s day, it may seem unlikely that Babylon will ascend above Assyria and then be toppled from power during the debauched merrymaking of a single evening. It may seem equally unlikely that powerful Edom will end up in deathly silence or that a night of hardship and privation will fall on the wealthy Arab tribes. But Jehovah says it will, and so it happens. Today, Jehovah tells us that the world empire of false religion will come to nothing. This is not just a possibility; it is a certainty. Jehovah himself has spoken it!
25. How may we imitate the example of the watchman?
25 Let us, then, be like the watchman. Let us remain vigilant, as if posted on a lofty watchtower, scanning the horizon for any sign of impending danger. Let us ally ourselves closely with the faithful watchman class, the remaining anointed Christians on earth today. Let us join them in courageously calling out just what we see—the overwhelming evidence that Christ is ruling in heaven; that he will soon bring an end to mankind’s long, dark night of alienation from God; and that thereafter he will usher in the true dawn, the Millennial Reign over a paradise earth!
The Persian King Cyrus was at times designated “King of Anshan”—Anshan being a region or city in Elam. The Israelites of Isaiah’s day—the eighth century B.C.E.—may have been unfamiliar with Persia, whereas they would have known of Elam. This may explain why Isaiah here names Elam instead of Persia.
Many Bible commentators think that the words “anoint the shield” refer to the ancient military practice of oiling leather shields before battle so that most blows will glance off. While this is a possible interpretation, it should be noted that on the night the city fell, the Babylonians barely had time to put up a fight, let alone prepare for battle by greasing their shields!
Isaiah’s prophecy regarding Babylon’s fall is so accurate that some Bible critics have theorized that it must have been written after the event. But as Hebrew scholar F. Delitzsch notes, such speculation is unnecessary if we accept that a prophet might be inspired to foretell events hundreds of years in advance.
During the first 59 years of its publication, the Watchtower magazine featured Isaiah 21:11 on its cover. The same scripture provided the theme of the last written sermon of Charles T. Russell, the Watch Tower Society’s first president. (See illustration on preceding page.)
[Picture on page 219]
“Let there be . . . an eating, a drinking!”
[Picture on page 220]
The watchman “proceeded to call out like a lion”
[Picture on page 222]
“I am standing constantly by day, and . . . all the nights”