Isaiah 21: Sticking It Out
Updated: May 5
Chapter 21 ends with two short oracles, and both are quite puzzling. I want to say, “Isaiah, give me something to work with here!” Then I remember he wasn’t talking to me. So, all I can do is try to imagine myself in his world, take into account what I know of what was going on, and read what lots of other people think he was saying. Here’s what we came up with.
Isaiah, the wordsmith, addresses the oracle in verses 11 and 12 to a city in Edom named Dumah. The city, as far as we know, was nothing special, but its name, Dumah, fits to a “T” the message Isaiah has for them. Dumah means “silence.”
Someone calls to me from Edom,
“Watchman, how much of the night is left?
Watchman, how much longer will it be night?”
The watchman answers,
“Morning is coming, but then night will come again.
If you have something to ask, then come back and ask.”
"Isaiah imposed on his enquirer the bitterest medicine of all, the discipline of sticking it out."
(Motyer, J. Alec, The Prophecy of Isaiah, pg.177. InterVarsity Press)
Isaiah, the watchman, hears a lone voice calling out of the darkness, “Watchman? How long? When is this nightmare going to end?” It’s a desperate voice, a weary voice. It’s the voice of one holding on but wondering, “Is there any kind of end in sight?”
Now remember, Edom was experiencing all that Israel was. Powers shifting. Constant tension. Approaching destruction. What was happening in the land of God’s people was happening in the land of their neighbors. There was one difference though: while God’s people weren’t paying attention to God’s prophet, someone in Edom was crying out for a word.
And yet, the word God’s watchman had for Dumah was—silence. Or as close to silence as you can get. The voice from Edom was looking for some assurance that this long night of oppression had an end—good, bad, it didn’t matter anymore. Just let tomorrow come! (Like waking up at 3 a.m. and then again every 30 minutes after that.) Isaiah’s answer to that weary voice was really no answer at all. “Morning is coming. But then the sun will circle round, and nighttime come will again.” Not, “Hang in there! Just a little while longer! Not long now!” But, “Settle in. More of the same ahead.” What a hard thing it must be for a prophet when the Lord is saying nothing. Yet a faithful prophet says only what the Lord says, and when there is silence, he is silent.
Yet Isaiah didn’t discourage the asking. He said, “I can’t promise you anything now. But check back.”
“God’s programme is carried forward not only in great dramatic acts but also in long tracts of time when nothing seems to be happening. Isaiah imposed on his enquirer the bitterest medicine of all, the discipline of sticking it out.”
(Motyer, J. Alec, The Prophecy of Isaiah, pg. 177. InterVarsity Press)
Can I hear an “amen,” somebody?
A group of traders from Dedan
spent the night near some trees in Arabia.
They (the Arabs) gave water to thirsty travelers;
the people of Tema gave food
to those who were escaping.
They were running from swords,
from swords ready to kill,
from bows ready to shoot,
from a hard battle.
This is what the Lord said to me: “In one year all the glory of the country of Kedar will be gone. (This is a year as a hired helper counts time.) At that time only a few of the archers, the soldiers of Kedar, will be left alive.” The Lord, the God of Israel, has spoken.
The Arabs, even today, are known for their hospitality. Some tribes are still nomadic, and if you venture past their tents set up among the herds, they'll invite you in for coffee. But war changes things. Here is what Isaiah sees: the Dedanites and their camel caravans traveling south from Tyre are driven off the well-traveled trade route because of the advancing armies. The oases where they are accustomed to finding rest have become a battleground, so they are camping out in the bush, off the beaten track, trying to avoid the heat of war. The locals, the men of Tema, are afraid to invite them into their tents for fear of enemy attention, so they stealthily deliver food and water to them in the outback.
Isaiah is watching a rescue operation in progress, and he sees that even unselfish acts of hospitality toward fugitives are not enough to turn aside the judgment headed their way. His odd statement about the “year as a hired helped counts time” leaves no question about the ”when.” The hired help—the clockwatchers— know exactly how long it is until the end of their shift. In this case, Isaiah tells them, it’s one year. One more year of safety for the tribes of Arabia, and then their time will be up. They, too, will fall before the great Assyrian army. And when it’s all over, only a few of their defenders will be left.
The lesson for us? Man’s efforts, regardless of how noble, are not enough to save. Only in the LORD can we find refuge.
So, there they are: two short oracles, both short on words but filled with meaning for those of us living in the long “not yet.”