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Isaiah chapter 21

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What does Isaiah chapter 21 mean?

Chapter 21 contains three brief prophecies against three separate nations. All three of these people groups may be connected to each other and to a specific era and region.

Isaiah begins with an oracle from the Lord about the "wilderness of the sea" or the "Desert by the Sea." From historical context, we know the region to include the city of Babylon, in modern day Iraq south of Baghdad. The region also included the territory between Babylon and the Persian Gulf (Isaiah 21:1).

Receiving this prophecy from the Lord requires Isaiah to witness a fierce vision of the suffering that will one day be experienced in Babylon. He sees a terrible thing sweeping toward Babylon just as storm winds sweep across the desert of the Negeb region (Isaiah 21:1–2).

The oracle itself is vague about the details of what is coming. But it is incredibly specific regarding Isaiah's emotional reaction to what the Lord shows him. He calls out to regions such as Elam and Media to either help or join in the attack against Babylon. He also laments that the traitor will betray and the destroyer will destroy. Nothing can change the outcome of what is to come (Isaiah 21:2).

The prophet's body is overcome by physical pain in his significant anguish and horror over what he sees. He describes cramps like those of a woman in labor. He is so bent over in pain he can't stand up, or even see or hear. The terror causes his heart to falter and his body to tremble. No relief will come even at twilight as he had hoped (Isaiah 21:3–4).

Isaiah realizes the people of Babylon are going about their daily routines, or perhaps even celebrating, unaware of the intense terror about to fall on them. He calls out to their leaders to prepare for battle. The Lord tells Isaiah to set a lookout on the tower. This watchman must watch for riders approaching the city in pairs and listen carefully to what the riders say (Isaiah 21:5–7).

Isaiah takes the role of watchman upon himself, staying in the tower day and night until he finally sees the riders coming. He may see, in his vision, the great attack coming on Babylon. Or perhaps the prophet sees riders approaching Jerusalem with news of the battle. Either way, Isaiah knows the outcome and announces that Babylon has fallen. All the carved images of her gods have been shattered (Isaiah 21:8–10).

This dramatic and painful oracle is followed by a short one about a place called Dumah. Dumah is an oasis town in Arabia. The word "Dumah" also means "stillness" and sounds like the Hebrew word for "Edom." This wordplay fits with the person from Seir, another name for Edom. This person asks Isaiah, the Watchman, how long is "left in the night." He wants to know how long Edom's suffering will continue, likely at the hands of the Assyrians (Isaiah 21:11).

Isaiah offers the tiniest hope that morning will come eventually. But night will also come again. He tells the Edomite to come back and to ask his question again if he wants to (Isaiah 21:12). He is saying that there is hope, but the dark times are not over.

The final oracle is against the Arabian region. This was a wilderness territory between Judah to the north and Babylon to the south. The focus is on a group of refugees from a place called Dedan. These caravanning merchants will be forced off the main roads into hiding among thickets to avoid being captured or killed. Isaiah calls on the people of a town called Tema to bring bread and water these refugees who have been displaced, likely by the conflict between Assyria and Babylon (Isaiah 21:13–15).

Isaiah concludes this chapter by warning that the glory of the people of the Kedar region will be taken away within a year. Not only will their power be removed, their warriors will be mostly wiped out. This will all happen because the Lord deemed it to happen (Isaiah 21:16–17).
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