Isaiah 13: The Oracles
Updated: May 5
Here begins the next section of Isaiah. Chapters 13 through 23 are a series of “oracles” addressed to Israel and the nations around her. Way back when, the word “oracle” was used to identify a medium through whom advice was sought from the gods. In the case of Isaiah, though, the oracle is the message itself: “a prophecy, often obscure or allegorical.” You can say that again. Like all of Isaiah’s prophecies, the oracles reveal both the imminent and the eschatological (a big word that means “things relating to the final days”). The best way I can get my head around it is by picturing a piece of elastic, held in my hand with one end in my mouth. (You know, like we used to do with balloons before they were inflated.) It can extend and contract, out and in, in and out, stretching, stretching, then snapping back. Prophecy is like that. Sometimes the ends—the origin and the destination, the speaking and the fulfilling—are close together and sometimes they’re far apart. Sometimes their fulfillment is all along the way, beginning the moment the word is spoken to the very end of time as we know it.
So, in pronouncing these oracles, Isaiah moves back and forth between past, impending, and future. When I look at his broad statements I have to carefully evaluate: has all of this already happened or are there things that are left undone? Though it seems that something has been fulfilled, is there room for a fuller, more final fulfillment at a later time? Is he using poetic language or describing something concrete? How much is metaphor? How much is fact?
Then there is the matter of place names. Borders change and rulers change so place names change. Some places are no longer recognized, and some places are known by more than one name at a time: Babylon and Shinar, for example. And although I love maps, the maps are confusing. Who decides which cities and regions and nations are worthy of a place on the map? Each cartographer seems to have a different opinion, so one map isn't enough.
I’m tempted to quit, but I said I would do this, so here we are.
I'm learning to slow down and look for clues, for keywords repeated throughout. I remind myself that just because Isaiah was speaking to one group in one verse doesn’t mean he’s still speaking to them in the next. I’m no longer (very) surprised that his words can be harsh in one breath and tender in the next. I can’t just accept what sounds right to me; I have opinions and ideologies that can change from day to day. So I lean heavily on others’ teachings and commentaries and hope they all agree. And if they don’t? I have to set the details aside and ask, “What is God’s intention behind all of this? What does it tell me about God?” And especially, “Does He have something to say to me?” Hidden in the lines of these oracles, amidst the metaphors and the harsh realities, He must, or I wouldn’t be here and neither would you.
So, on to it. I’m not going to cover things in detail like I have in previous chapters. Not only would that take us forever, but for me it would get tedious. I think it’s more important to see what is behind God’s judgment of the nations and what it reveals about Him. Rather than focus on the gory details, I’ve tried to identify what God considers each nation’s most grievous sin, His judgment of it, and the destiny of each nation once their sin is judged.
The oracles were probably given during the reign of Hezekiah. The nations Isaiah addressed were all part of a coalition resisting the Assyrian advance. The oracles for Damascus (Israel) and Jerusalem (Judah) are found right in the mix, right along with the others, as if they held no special place in the heart of God while they were part of a manmade coalition. God, throughout their history, had set them apart, but now it seemed God was seeing them as they wanted to be seen—a nation in the midst of nations, nothing less, but nothing more. And God seemed to be saying to the lot of them, “Even if you all stand together you can’t stand against the judgment of the LORD.” Unity outside of the hand of God is sure to fail, so although the nations had a common goal, God pronounced their fates individually. Each oracle is tailor-made. Each addresses a certain nation, its pet sins, its coming judgment, and, in most cases, its redemption.
By far, the nation that gets the most attention is Babylon, and for good reason. When Isaiah spoke this oracle about Babylon, Assyria was still the regional bully, and I doubt the oppressed had the energy to sit around and ponder who their next oppressor would be. As Isaiah expounded on the evils of Babylon, I can see the people of Judah shaking their heads, counting him a madman, a wanna-be prophet with his facts confused, wondering why he wasn’t ranting and raving about Assyria. They didn’t know what we know now—that Babylon was the one they needed to fear. Their role in Israel’s past and in the entire world’s future is huge. And it’s not good.
Babylon was in the land we now call Iraq. It is recognized as the first kingdom established in ancient Mesopotamia but it appears in Bible history long before that. Back in Genesis, we read that it was founded by Nimrod and was the location of the tower of Babel. It’s where Abram lived when God said, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you.” Most notably, it was the region where all of human history began: the garden of Eden and the place where Satan got his foothold on the earth God had created for man. And since that time, every time Babylon is mentioned, she is involved in something evil. She is the poster child for sin and corruption.
It’s in that sense the word “Babylon” is used in the book of Revelation. “Babylon” was not just a place in the ancient world, it is the name given to a world system in opposition to God, in every sense, in every place, and for all time, until it is brought down in judgment in the day of the LORD. Yet here in Babylon’s oracle, Isaiah makes it clear that she was raised up by God’s power for God’s purposes, that God was in the middle of it all. That’s made clear in verse 3, where God refers to the armies of Babylon as “my warriors.” He didn’t claim them because he approved of their arrogance but because he was directing their arrogance to His own ends. (An important note, though: If you are using an NIV Bible, as I usually do, you need to know that verse 3 is a bad translation. While the NIV makes it sound like the armies of Babylon rejoice in God’s triumph, other common translations make it clear that in their arrogance, they claim God’s triumph as their own. Meaning, they have no idea that it is God who is pulling the strings.) So as violent and destructive as the Babylonians become, God is using their evil to bring about His glory, and, at the right time, to reveal His goodness.
Remember that band of elastic? In verses 1-5, Isaiah’s words begin to stretch and Babylon’s fate begins to take on worldwide significance. By verse 6, it’s evident that Isaiah’s oracle has morphed into a revelation of the end-time earth. He begins to speak in terms of “all hands” and “every heart,” “every land” and “all the earth”. In verse 9, he clearly assigns the chaos and destruction to “the day of the LORD.” And smack-dab in the middle, in verse 11 of the 22, is the reason for it all: “I will put an end to the arrogance of the haughty and will humble the pride of the ruthless.” Wow. I couldn’t have planned that better myself. (I retract my statement a few blogs back that the divisions of chapter and verse hold no significance. That may have been a little presumptuous.)
After verse 13, the prophecy begins to contract again, and by verse 17, Isaiah is prophesying an event only 130 years away: Babylon’s defeat by the Medes and its gradual decline into utter desolation. (To this day, Babylon has not been rebuilt, and is deserted except for the archeologists who are trying to resurrect her.)
Babylon’s oracle continues into chapter 14, but the stuff at the beginning of that chapter is just too good to address at the end of this blog.
So, what did I glean from chapter 13?
That although the violence involved in the LORD’s judgments bothers me, He is God and I am not. I say this not in offense that He didn’t ask my opinion, but in sincere appreciation that He is wiser than I.
That God uses the nations for His purposes even when they think it’s their idea. He empowers rulers to fight His battles although they think it is their own strength.
That the cause of all of God’s judgment is man’s arrogance.
That without God, man’s tendency toward evil is unrelenting, but God will have His way, and His way is good.