The Burdens Upon The Nations Isaiah 13:1—23:18
This next major section of the Book of Isaiah contains judgments against the nations before the establishment of the reign of the Messiah. The time of the judgment certainly would be in the immediate future of the prophetic vision, perhaps with the Assyrian invasion; but at times they will reach down through time to anticipate later, even eschatological judgments. So these chapters have been taken by commentators to anticipate some of the judgments found in Revelation 4-19. The cursing here is an outworking of the oracle of Genesis 12:1-3 where the promises based on the covenant were first made.
We must remember that Isaiah is a prophet, and as such he was called upon to interpret history, past, present and future. How would he know that this invasion was part of God’s judgment? Was that just his opinion? Well, because he predicted things he was known as a prophet of the LORD. So these oracles were seen as divine revelation.
Divine Judgment on the Evil Kingdom
There is a good deal of critical debate about this chapter, which you may read at your pleasure. On the surface the passage is clearly a taunt of proud Babylon. That would put a Babylonian message in the first half of the book, a real problem for some critical scholars who strictly put Babylonian material into the second half of the book, and attribute it to a second Isaiah. So this section is often classified by them as a later insertion from Deutero-Isaiah of Babylon.
Other scholars see it as a taunt of the Assyrian king, Sennacherib, and not Babylon at all, since Assyria is mentioned in verse 25. But Babylon is very clearly the focus of chapter 13; and whereas verses 24-27 may be about Assyria, the section in chapter 14 that we are addressing seems to follow clearly on the oracle against Babylon in chapter 13, and claims to be against Babylon. There is no reason why “Babylon” here should be replaced by “Assyria” in the text. It is possible that Babylon is mentioned but Assyria meant if at the time of the oracle Babylon was a subject state to the Assyrian Empire. Of course, all these kings of Assyria and Babylon were proud and ruthless, and so it would fit either setting. But in this context the passage is part of the oracle on the end of the Babylonian empire that would rise again and capture Judah.
Prologue (14:1, 2)
The prophet begins this oracle with a word of comfort and hope for Israel—in line with his theme of “a remnant shall return.” He declares that God will have mercy on them and restore them to their land. More than that, they will rule over their oppressors.
I. The righteous may confidently anticipate the LORD’s judgment on evil oppressors (14:3, 4)
The passage begins with words of comfort and hope for the righteous who must endure suffering and oppression in this world at the hands of the wicked who rule and terrorize the world.
Verse 3 announces the promise of rest from oppression (the verse is the prodasis [“when”] of verse 4): “When Yahweh shall give you rest … .” The verb “rest” (haniah [pronounced hah-nee-ack] from nuah [noo-ack]) is a common theme in the prophetic literature about the future; it picks up the theme about the sabbath rest from the beginning of creation (Gen. 2:1-3) and the conquest of the land (Ps. 95), and anticipates a final restoration to it i the age to come (Heb. 3, 4). Of course, the agent who grants this rest is the Lord Jesus, the Messiah Himself: “I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).
The rest promised here is from sorrow (me’osbeka [pronounced may-ots-beh-kah] from ‘asab [ah-tsav]), from fear (mirogzeka [mi-rog-zeh-ka] from ragaz) and from bondage (ha’abodah [hah-a-vo-dah] from ‘abad [ah-vad]). These three expressions describe the difficulty of the people of God in this fallen world, notably under the pagan—Babylonian—domination. The first word, “sorrow,” is right out of the curse narrative of Genesis 3—pain in childbirth for the woman, and pain in tilling the ground for the man. Fear and bondage are the other two agonies that Israel would have to experience, and only divine rest from such servitude would heal. The fear described here is the agitation, quivering, trembling—not the pious term for “fear” or reverence. So the writer anticipates a time when the people will be set free from their troubles and sing a victory song.
Verse 4 is the apodasis ( … then): when you have this rest, [then] you may take up this taunt against Babylon. The word for “taunt” is masal (mah-shal), a term normally used for a “proverb”—a wayside saying, observation, similitude, aphorism. The taunt here is: “How the oppressor has come to an end!”
The taunt that follows delights in the sudden collapse of the nation of Babylon. Two things are worth noting here. First, Assyria was the major threat in the early days of the prophet, from his call in 742 down to the invasion of Sennacherib in 701. But the prophet later turned his attention on Babylon when the King welcomed the emissary and showed him the treasury. As mentioned above, here we have the theme of Babylon in the first half of the book, although Babylon is not yet the power it was to become in a few decades. Here the prophet looks ahead to the enemy who, like Assyria, will oppress the people. The word is that all such oppressors will be destroyed before the great Messianic Age.
Second, the destruction of Babylon would lead to the restoration of Israel in 536 B.C., but the promise of the glorious appearance and reign of Messiah would not come about in that year, or shortly thereafter, as history shows. So “Babylon” would be the immediate fulfillment, the immediate reference point; but “Babylon” would also typify a greater “Babylon” of the future (whether actually Babylon rebuilt or a nation like Babylon was is too difficult to say; see Revelation 19). The reason the typology works is that the real power behind either empire—Babylon then or the Babylon to come—is the evil one. So this song celebrates both victory over the physical enemies of the people as well as the spiritual powers behind those enemies.
II. When evil is judged, great joy and security will prevail on earth, and in hell great commotion will accompany those entering judgment (14:5-11).
A. There will finally be great joy on earth (5-8).
Verses 5 and 6 declare that God will break the ruthless tyrant. The pride of Babylon is focused on her ruthless king, or her kingship in general that characterized the proud nation. The terms “rod” and “staff” refer to the dominion of the pagan rulers, and so they are metonymies—they are the symbols of authority. (If you argue that there was no rod or staff in their hand as a symbol, then you would have to classify these as hypocatastases, implied comparisons). The point is that the power of these oppressors is t be broken (sabar [shah-bar]). They ruled with a continuous stroke of anger, afflicting other nations; but soon they would be broken down. Here is another expression of talionic justice.
Verse 7 affirms that this judgment will bring great joy to the people. The key terms here are “rest and quiet” (nahah saqetah [nah-khah shah-keh-tah]) and the joy, or ringing cry (rinnah from ranan) that will break out in all the earth. These are the joyful shouts that exclaim the cessation of oppression and the beginning of lasting peace.
Verse 8 speaks of security restored. The “trees” rejoice since no one has ever come up to cut them down. If these are implied comparisons, then they indicate Israel is the trees and the oppressor the cutter. But if the actual trees are meant, the figure would be personification; the forests would be delighted that the enemies no longer will come through cutting down trees to burn their fires and make their ramps. This seems to be what the verse is saying.
B. There will be great commotion in Hell (9-11).
Verses 9-11 give the other half of this section, describing the commotion in Hell when the oppressor has been cast down. Here a word study on “sheol” (se’ol [sheh-ole]) would be in order.57 The Babylonian world had such a common use of the themes of magic, demons, Shades, or Hell,58 that this approach in the taunt would be obviously appropriate to those who knew about them. Here sheol refers to the realm of the departed spirits, all those who died in unrighteousness, without God, without hope, without their pomp, and left to wander in darkness (see Ps. 49).
Verse 9 announces that sheol is in tumult (the same word for “rage” of the nations in Psalm 2:1). The meeting party is made up of the kings of the earth and others who are already there. “Shades” (often translated “spirits”) is a term for departed spirits (Hebrew: repa’im [teh-fah-eem); it needs a good bit of study in its usages to see its range of meanings and applications..
Verses 10 and 11 record their taunt of the descending oppressor. “Your pomp” has been brought down to sheol. The “maggots are spread over // the worms cover” is a graphic line of their physical destruction. The term “maggots,” rimmah, is actually a term for the destroying power of decay. In Ugaritic texts it was venerated as a god, the god Rimmon, if the link is correct. But that term could possibly be from another root since Rimmon was also a god of vegetation. Nevertheless, there could be a word play here, a paronomasia; it certainly would suggest to the Hebrew reader an allusion to the Canaanite material. The figures with the words “maggots” and “worms” are probably metonymies, referring to the starting of the decay in the grave that changes pomp into putrification, and bringing down the arrogant to sheol, the land of the shades.
III. God will bring down the proud (14:12-23).
The taunt now focuses on how far the brilliant king has fallen. The prophet makes the comparison between him and the morning star, and then writes the taunt out fully that the people will sing.
Verse 12 addresses the “shining one, the son of the morning.” The Hebrew term for “shining one” (NIV “morning star”) is helel (hay-lale); the root word means “shining, brilliant” (it is probably related to halal, the verb “to praise,” as in a glowing report). The classical translation was “Lucifer” (etymologically connect to “light”), although that has been replaced in modern renderings.
With this section we discover that we have a possible double meaning—not unusual for Hebrew poetry. The word helel describes the brilliance of the oppressing king, claiming to be the son of the morning star. But some scholars have seen a second reference in it to Satan, or a spirit force behind the throne. In the Old Testament “stars” may refer to angelic or demonic powers. And the pagan kings claimed to be divine, or at least the offspring of the gods. It is the view of the Hebrew writers that back of the major powers in the empires is a satanic or demonic spirit. The prince of Persia, for example, is both a king and the spirit force behind him in Daniel. In Ezekiel 28 we have a song to the King of Tyre. But the language seems to transcend the king of Tyre, for he is described as the anointed Cherub who was perfect in every way when he walked in the holy mountain (heaven) with God in Eden, until evil was found in him. So the language of the chapter goes way beyond the King of Tyre, although it is about the King of Tyre. As such, the chapter traces the beginning of evil to Satan when he was in heaven. But it will not explain to our satisfaction how evil began; it only uses the passive voice: “evil was found in you.” The Bible will trace it back no further than that; but the Bible will make it clear that God is not the author of sin.
Now if Isaiah 14 is the same kind of chapter, then it may be referring to that same evil—the pride that led to Satan’s being cast down from heaven. Lucifer, or Helel if you prefer, would then show the glory that Satan once had. Indeed, Paul says that he still can change himself into an angel of light to deceive people. But the primary meaning of the chapter is the human king who was filled with pomp and vainglory, who fell quickly from his exalted position. The hint to the spirit force behind him is not very strong, but rather subtle.
The passage is prophetic, looking to the future time of the destruction of this wicked king, and that is why it is written in the past tense.
Verse 13 portrays the great pride of this one who said he would exalt himself above God: “I will ascend to heaven, // I will raise my throne above the stars of God.” He arrogantly thought that he was suitable for heaven, higher than the angels, fit to join the assembly of the gods. In verse 14 he thought he could make himself like the Most High. Such was the ambition of these powerful despots who thought they were divine. But the contrast is: “But you are brought down to the grave // to the depths of the pit” (note bor // she’ol), according to verse 15.
So this section shows the age-old pattern in divine judgment—great human pride will be abased. Pride should not be trivialized to thinking more highly of oneself in mundane matters. It is religious pride that tries to usurp God’s throne and will in no way submit to the LORD.
Verse 16 records the amazement of those in hell of those who witness his fall; it is in the form of a question, an erotesis: “Is this the one who shook the earth and made kingdoms tremble?” Here too it would refer primarily to the king of Babylon, the empire builder who kept puppet empires at bay and who would not let captives go home. When divine judgment has fallen, such kings are nothing. This evokes the amazement over them. Where is all their power now?
Verses 18-19 show that this one will not even have a state funeral. Kings normally lie in state when they die, but this one will be cast out of his tomb. To stress the indignity of this the prophet uses a couple of similes: “like a rejected branch” and “like a corpse trampled under foot.” The image of a branch is used here ironically; it often is used for a king who continues a dynasty. Here it is cut off and cast down. The other simile is of a trodden carcass. He will be like the rest of the carnage on the battle field. There will be no honor or dignity in his death.
The section ends with a brief summation (verse 20-23) that there would be no normal burial for this one, because he has ruined his land and his people. The idea of remaining nameless forever, which is the thrust of the last few lines, is an expression that signifies non-existence. His death will be ignominious. To be forgotten is to be utterly destroyed—even from memory.
But the death will also be for the land, the great land of Babylon. It will be turned into a place for owls, a swampland; God would sweep it with the broom of destruction (implied comparison). Babylon was destroyed by Persia in 538 B.C.; and after a while the city itself was ruined, and lay in ruins for 2500 years, until Sadam Hussein began rebuilding it as part of the cultural heritage of Iraq.
In the days of Isaiah, the people of Judah had no idea of the length of time between the oracle and its fulfillment. They might have expected it soon. But they did not know how the sequence of judgment with the exile, deliverance from Babylon, and judgment on Babylon would work out in Old Testament times, nor could they have known that there would be a glorious future destruction of “Babylon” at the end of the age when Messiah comes in glory (Rev. 19).
In this little section Isaiah declares that this kind of destruction is what God had purposed for Assyria as well. So it looks like he has made an application of his prophetic taunt song to the immediate situation.
But this little addition, especially within the context of the Assyrian crisis, has led many scholars to conclude that Sennacherib was the one intended in chapter 14. Babylon would then have been referred to figuratively for the Mesopotamian region in a comparison of Assyria’s immense pride with that of Babylon. This avoids having to have the prophet look down the future for an oracle against Babylon; but it still retains the difficulty of the Babylonian motif so early. And besides, the straightforward use of the name Babylon would lead to the conclusion he meant Babylon. The other oracles are against the nations so named. And he certainly was not hesitant in using the name Assyria when that is what he meant.
The passage then has the tone of triumph for the people of God. Its primary application would be jubilation for the believers. They will have the rest, the release from fear, bondage, and oppression. Only faith in the LORD leads to this. Believers can anticipate that their oppressors—and the evil force behind them—will be completely and utterly destroyed, since God has no tolerance for pride and arrogant oppression. Many passages about divine judgment come to mind in connection to this. Among them the New Testament oracle about how Babylon has fallen, Babylon—that symbol of the present evil world system, the anti-kingdom.
Certainly on a much smaller level (by secondary application) we may say that there is a warning here for anyone not to live according to the standards of the evil empire. God will abase the proud.59 But do not make this point in place of the main point about divine judgment on the greatest pride, rejection and replacement of God. The scope here is cosmic; the victory is spiritual and final; the time is eschatological. With all that in mind, it is worth noting that anyone choosing pride and oppression is heading for destruction, the same destruction as their god, the god of this world.
Alden, Robert L. “Lucifer, Who or What?” Bulletin of the Evangelical Theological Society” 11 (1968):35-39.
Craigie, P. C. “Helel, Athtar and Paethon (Jes. 14:12-15).” ZAW 85 (1973):223-226.
Eareckson, Vincent O. “The Originality of Isaiah 14:27.” VT 20 (1970):490-491.
Erlandsson, Seth. “The Burden of Babylon, A Study of Isaiah 13:2—14:23.” Springfielder 38 1974):1-12.
McKay, J. W. “Helel and the Dawn-Goddess: A Reexamination of the Myth in Isaiah 14:12-15.” VT 20 (1970):451-464.
Orlinsky, Harry M. “Madhebah in Isaiah 14:4.” VT 7 (1957):202-203.
Vanderburgh, Frederick A. “The Ode on the King of Babylon, Isaiah 14:4b-21.” AJSL 29 (1913):111-121.
57 In the little book on the Gilgamesh Epic written by Alexander Heidel, there is a whole chapter on death and afterlife in the ancient world. Heidel shows that Hebrew se'ol can mean (1) death, (2) the grave, (3) the realm of departed spirits or Hell, and (4) extreme danger. He also observes that when the righteous are said to go to sheol, it is never usage number 3, but one of the others.
58 Read "The Descent of Ishtar into Hades" in Ancient Near East Texts, edited by James Pritchard.
59 But be careful here again. Christians certainly can become proud, and God will bring them down--but not down to Hell like Satan. "Pride" in the Old Testament, especially pride like this, belongs to the unbeliever who rejects, or better yet, tries to replace God.