Isaiah 13 – “Doom for Babylon”

Hebrew-English Text
I. Summary
Babylon’s men will be murdered, its women will be raped, and its children will be slain. The city will lie in ruins for all time to come.

II. Photo
Babylon will experience a day of dread: “The stars and constellations of heaven shall not give off their light; The sun shall be dark when it rises, and the moon shall diffuse no glow.” (v. 10)

III. Important Verses
4-5: Hark! a tumult on the mountains — As of a mighty force; Hark! an uproar of kingdoms, Nations assembling! The LORD of Hosts is mustering A host for war. They come from a distant land, From the end of the sky — The LORD with the weapons of His wrath — To ravage all the earth!
9-10: Lo! The day of the LORD is coming With pitiless fury and wrath, To make the earth a desolation, To wipe out the sinners upon it. The stars and constellations of heaven Shall not give off their light; The sun shall be dark when it rises, And the moon shall diffuse no glow.
14-16: Then like gazelles that are chased, And like sheep that no man gathers, Each man shall turn back to his people, They shall flee every one to his land. All who remain shall be pierced through, All who are caught Shall fall by the sword. And their babes shall be dashed to pieces in their sight, Their homes shall be plundered, And their wives shall be raped.
17-18: “Behold, I stir up the Medes against them, Who do not value silver Or delight in gold. Their bows shall shatter the young; They shall show no pity to infants, They shall not spare the children.”
19-20: And Babylon, glory of kingdoms, Proud splendor of the Chaldeans, Shall become like Sodom and Gomorrah Overturned by God. Nevermore shall it be settled Nor dwelt in through all the ages. No Arab shall pitch his tent there, No shepherds make flocks lie down there.

IV. Outline
1. Introduction: an oracle against Babylon
2-5. God assembles an army for war
6-8. The day of the Lord will be terrifying
9-13. The wicked will perish; The population will dwindle
14-16. The survivors will see their children killed and their wives raped
17-18. The Medes will conquer Babylon
19-22a. Babylon will become a desolate heap
22b. The imminence of the event

V. Comment
Chapter 13, which is an oracle delivered by Isaiah against Babylon, is the first in a group of prophetic pronouncements against the nations. Verse 1 introduces the oracle: “The Babylon Pronouncement, a prophecy of Isaiah son of Amoz.” This type of introduction (i.e. the word massa “pronouncement” followed by a proper name) can be found in the following verses:

  • This pronouncement was made in the year that King Ahaz died: Rejoice not, all Philistia… (14:28-29a)
  • The “Moab” Pronouncement. Ah, in the night Ar was sacked, Moab was ruined; Ah, in the night Kir was sacked, Moab was ruined… (15:1)
  • The “Damascus” Pronouncement. Behold, Damascus shall cease to be a city; It shall become a heap of ruins… (17:1)
  • The “Egypt” Pronouncement. Mounted on a swift cloud, The LORD will come to Egypt; Egypt’s idols shall tremble before Him, And the heart of the Egyptians shall sink within them… (19:1)
  • The “Desert of the Sea” Pronouncement. Like the gales That race through the Negeb, It comes from the desert, The terrible land… (21:1)
  • The “In the Steppe” Pronouncement. In the scrub, in the steppe, you will lodge, O caravans of the Dedanites!  (21:13)
  • The “Valley of Vision” Pronouncement. What can have happened to you That you have gone, all of you, up on the roofs… (22:1)
  • The “Tyre” Pronouncement. Howl, you ships of Tarshish! For havoc has been wrought, not a house is left; As they came from the land of Kittim, This was revealed to them… (23:1)

Verses 17-18 describe how “the day of the Lord” (v. 6) will be brought about: “Behold, I stir up the Medes against them, Who do not value silver Or delight in gold. Their bows shall shatter the young; They shall show no pity to infants, They shall not spare the children.” While the Medes (= Persians) did conquer Babylon, it was in the year 539 BCE. Yet, Isaiah, who lived in the 8th century BCE, writes that this event is imminent: “Her hour is close at hand; Her days will not be long” (v. 22b). As Blenkinsopp writes, this apparent inconsistency has led scholars to view this oracle as a vaticinium ex eventu (i.e. a “prediction” written with the knowledge of the event having occurred): “The final verses have led several commentators to conclude that the poem is predictive of an event to take place in the near future, and must therefore have been composed shortly before the fall of Babylon in 539 B.C.E.” (277)

Yet, Blenkinsopp also points out the weaknesses in this argument: “Commentators who read it as a vaticinium ex eventu are, on the other hand, left with the problem of squaring the poet’s description with known historical events and circumstances. The Cyrus Cylinder talks about the Persian army strolling into the city with their weapons tucked away (ANET, 315), a description that admittedly does not make a good fit with the scenario of violence and bloodshed described here.” (ibid.)

VI. Works Used
(see “Commentaries” page)
Blenkinsopp, Joseph. “Isaiah 1-39” The Anchor Bible vol. 19 (New York: Doubleday, 2000).
Collins, John J. “Introduction to the Hebrew Bible,” (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2004).
Sweeney, Marvin A. “Isaiah 1-39 with an Introduction to Prophetic Literature” The Forms of Old Testament Literature vol. 16 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans, 1996).
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