What does Isaiah 21 mean?
Chapter Commentary:
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).
Verse Context:
Chapter 21:1–10 contains Isaiah's prophecy against Babylon. God sends Isaiah a fierce vision which causes him great physical suffering and emotional terror. His heart falters, and his body trembles at what he witnesses. Isaiah calls the leaders to prepare for battle. He obeys the Lord's call for a watchman, taking his post on the tower until the riders come. When they arrive, the prophet announces that Babylon is fallen and her gods have all been smashed.
Chapter 21:11–12 contains a very brief oracle against a place called Dumah. This was an oasis town in northern Arabia. The name also means "stillness" or "silence," and it rhymes with the Hebrew word for "Edom." From Edom, also called Sier, comes a man to the assigned watchman: Isaiah. This man asks how long remains in the night, likely referring to Edom's suffering at the hands of the Assyrians. Isaiah's answer promises that morning will come, along with more night. He tells the Edomite to return and to ask again if he wants to.
Chapter 21:13–17 contains Isaiah's oracle from the Lord various tribes of Arabia (Jeremiah 24:23–24). Due to conflicts in the region, the descendants of Dedan (Genesis 25:3) will become refugees. They will be forced to move their caravans off the main roads and hide in the thickets. Isaiah calls for the people of wealthy Tema to bring them food and water in their distress. Within a year, the glory of the people of Kedar will be ended and most of their warriors wiped out. Isaiah is certain this will happen because the Lord has spoken. What the Lord says will happen, will happen.
Chapter Summary:
This chapter delivers oracles against three people groups. Isaiah is terrified to the point of physical pain by the vision he sees. God reveals the terrible things coming for Babylon. Isaiah answers the Lord's call to be a watchman. When he sees the arrival of riders approaching the city, he announces that Babylon has fallen. The oracle against Dumah presents a question from an Edomite with an unsatisfying answer. The oracle against Arabia pictures starving refugees that must be fed and declares that the warriors of Kedar will be nearly wiped out within a year.
Chapter Context:
Earlier chapters included prophecies about nations such as Aram, Egypt, and Cush. Chapter 21 presents three more oracles against Israel's regional neighbors. What Isaiah sees is so horrific that he suffers intense physical pain just from watching. He answers the call to be a watchman, eventually announcing that Babylon has fallen. An oracle against Dumah provides no real answer to the question of how long the night of suffering will continue for Edom. Arabia, too, will suffer at the hand of powerful regional forces. Next is a prophecy about Jerusalem.
Book Summary:
Isaiah is among the most important prophetic books in the entire Bible. The first segment details God's impending judgment against ancient peoples for sin and idolatry (Isaiah 1—35). The second part of Isaiah briefly explains a failed assault on Jerusalem during the rule of Hezekiah (Isaiah 36—39). The final chapters predict Israel's rescue from Babylonian captivity (Isaiah 40—48), the promised Messiah (Isaiah 49—57), and the final glory of Jerusalem and God's people (Isaiah 58—66).
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