Isaiah 21

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Isaiah has been warning the people of Judah and its surrounding countries about the coming attack of Assyria.  He has told them that the Lord is calling the people back to Him, and will use Assyria as a tool to chasten those who have turned away.   The Lord does not want to destroy the people, but the people are choosing destruction – and it will come in the form of Assyria’s attack.

While the Lord will honor the agency of the people, even to choose destruction, and while He will use Assyria as a tool to deliver that chastening, Assyria still has to pay their own consequences for the evil that they will do to Israel and Judah and the other children of Abraham.  The days of the rule of Assyria will be limited, and Isaiah says they will be conquered by Babylon.

This comes true in 605 B.C., about a hundred years after Isaiah lived.  Babylon won a decisive victory over Assyria, and Assyria never recovered.  Babylon was immediately wealthy, gaining all the spoils and riches Assyria had stolen from the countries it conquered.  They became so rich, actually, that they had far more wealth than all the other surrounding nations.  They became the “head of gold” in Daniel’s vision (Daniel 2:31-38).

Babylon’s king was Nabonidus, but due to his mental illness the kingdom was led by his son, Belshazzar.  But even though Assyria was conquered due to its own consequences of having done such things as they did during the wars, that didn’t make it okay for Babylon to do the same thing.  So once again, even though Babylon was a tool used by the Lord to chasten a people (the Assyrians), Babylon would also pay its consequences for such bad behavior.   Isaiah says here that Babylon will be conquered by the Persians even more swiftly than they conquered Assyria, and this comes true in an unbelievable way:  Babylon was literally conquered overnight (see Daniel 5).

This chapter is not just Isaiah’s vision of the coming destruction of Babylon, but also his feelings about what will happen.   Because Babylon was conquered so swiftly in its prime, “Babylon” is often used to refer to apostasy within the church and those who will be surprised by the sudden return of the Savior (and so “conquered” because they have not prepared for Him nor kept His laws).  This gives us several layers to this chapter: what literally happened to Babylon, what has happened to specific groups of people during every period of apostasy, and what will happen to the Church, those within the covenant, when the Savior returns again (see Matthew 25).

This message (burden) is to Babylon (verse 1), who was the desert (land) of the sea (Persian Gulf).  Like a tornado that is sudden with quick destruction, so would be the armies that conquer Babylon.  As we experience many of these storms, especially in the night, so was Babylon conquered literally overnight when the Persians invaded.

These visions of destruction upon so many affect Isaiah personally.  He experiences these visions and sees what will happen, and it is his role as a prophet to declare them so that the people may be warned.  He must testify of what he knows, showing the people their coming consequences.  But for him as a person, the person Isaiah, it does grieve him (verse 2).  He sees how the people have gotten their wealth through deception, describing it a meta-poem in classic Hebrew form:

the treacherous dealer
dealeth treacherously

It is this treating people badly, this financially oppressing others, this taking advantage instead of caring for the poor, it is this bad behavior that is earning them consequences.  Isaiah warns them the consequences are coming, pointing out the alliance between Elam (Persia, East of Babylon) and Media (Medes, North of Babylon).  Isaiah is saying that those oppressed by Babylon will be delivered when Persia and the Medes conquer Babylon, that mourning will finish because the justice will be served.

Isaiah again describes his personal reaction towards knowing the destruction that is to come, so great an emotional response that it caused him physical pain to know it (verse 3).

He then tells us something even more personal: telling us that he was first given us the vision by angelic messenger (“the hearing of it”), and then he was given a full vision of it to see for himself (“the seeing of it”).  This is a pattern we can apply to our own lives, that we must first be worthy of receiving it vicariously through messenger, whether that be sacred records like our Scriptures, or Holy Spirit teaching directly to our Spirit, or actual personages.  But it is not given to us without us doing our part.  It happens within the work of covenant keeping, where He does His part to deliver the message, but wee must do the work to receive the message, including scripture study and prayer and the sacrifice of service, of giving ourselves for others.  Only then when we are emptied of ourselves enough to truly be filled with His Spirit (not just have it with us, or near us, but in us), are we prepared to endure (even physically) the actual vision or His actual presence.

My heart panted,
fearfulness affrighted me:
the night of my pleasure hath he turned into fear unto me (verse 4).

Isaiah is describing the physical reaction he had as this vision opened up before Him.  The normal peace and instruction and steadiness one has to actually do whatever task is given when the Lord speaks to us was replaced by the severity of what he saw.  And what he saw has several layers to it, again the physical (Aaronic) and spiritual (Melchizedek) layers:

Prepare the table,
watch in the watchtower,
eat, drink:
arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.

There is the literal and physical layer of this, where Babylon’s leader Belshazzar was literally hosting a banquet when the Persians attacked (see Daniel 5).  Isaiah was warning them to watch, even during the party, because an invader was already on its way.  The soldiers, or “princes”, really did have to pick up their shields and weapons in the middle of the party and fight.

There is also the spiritual likening unto us in our time.  The world is in a great big party, where hedonistic needs are met and pleasure is sought.  People are in the mode of “eat, drink, and be merry”, spoiling themselves with immediate gratification in every way: fast food, sex, credit cards, texting, online and even mobile movies and television.  Food and money and sex and conversation and entertainment are not bad in and of themselves, but our society has moved to a place of “what I want, and I want it now, and a lot of it”.  It is what is sought, rather than something that is shared.  It is not in balance, but everything is over-proportioned and out of context, out of Order.

In our day, in these Latter-days, the “watchtower” is the Prophet as it has always been.  General Conference, the Ensign, our local priesthood leaders – these are our “watchtower” that warn us and guide us and prepare us for what we need to know before we are attacked, so that we are ready for battle.   The Savior is preparing a table (see John 14:2, Ether 12:32, 37; Enos 1:27; D&C 59:2, 72:4, 76:111, 81:6, 98:18, 106:8, 135:5), a place of celestial-ness for us.  We can only return with Him if we do the work He has done, which is to sacrifice our lives for others through service and testifying of the Father.  But if we do so, then we are princes and princesses, prepared not only for resurrection (“arise”) but also for eternal lives – to be anointed (set apart, made holy) as our Father’s children of holiness.  We do all of this by faith (the shield, see Ephesians 6:16 and D&C 27:17), and are even now anointed to become what He has promised.  But we must do the work to practice, prepare, and present ourselves as such – and to do so by serving others and testifying (verse 6).

Isaiah says that the Lord has said that Babylon should set a watchman in the tower to report all he sees.  Again, we have this in our Prophet, just as Isaiah was the prophet of his day. All of these layers are both literal and spiritual!

Isaiah then goes into a narrative, telling the story that describes what the watchman will see and report (verse 7).  He sees a couple of horsemen (two countries, each with its own leader).  He sees a chariot of asses (Cyrus leading the Persians) and a chariot of camels (Darius leading the Medes).  The watchman did report, meaning that the prophets will warn the people – but the people must pay attention.

Most scholars agree that the “lion” in verse 8 is a mistranslation of another Hebrew word that is referring to the watchman.  He is saying that he is doing his duty, is being faithful, has returned to the king and is reporting that he has done what is asked.  This is just as our prophets are faithful in their duties and report to the Savior that he has done what is asked of Him, just as we report to our Bishops that we have been faithful in our duties and done what is asked of us.   The watchmen then tells them what he has seen, and Isaiah interprets it in the story, identifying these two leaders as being those who will conquer Babylon because the people did not turn to the Lord for help.

Isaiah then returns to his physical reaction, describing how he feels after the vision and after testifying to the people.  He is completely wiped out, like corn after it has been harvested and threshed.  We experience this on a tiny scale when we give talks, or testify in some way to someone, or work long hours in the temple with food and rest and are just fine because we are quickened by the Spirit – until we have finished the task, and then we collapse, hungry and exhausted.  Joseph Smith and Olivery Cowdery both describe similar experiences of collapsing in exhaustion after visions or after being in the Lord’s presence.  Our spirit is ancient and can handle the work if we are worthy and prepared (and expect it), but our bodies are new and not yet strong.  Part of preparing our soul (body and spirit) for celestialness is becoming strong through these experiences that do naturally occur when we are striving to seek out the Savior, His presence, and His instruction – by doing what He has asked and asking what else to do.   This pattern is even in our morning prayers, in which we should ask what our task(s) is (are) for that day, and our evening prayers when we report on what we have done and accomplished and what progress we have made (as well as weaknesses and failings we have had).  This is how we grow, and how we progress, and how we begin to unite our body and spirit together to become at-one as a soul, and at-one with Him.

Verse 11 begins a “part two” of this chapter, now speaking to Dumah which represents the people of Edom. Isaiah is jumping back in time again, back to the Assyrians.  But the very small word of Dumah represents a lot, and is really important, enough to take a time out for some genealogy.

Abraham and Sarah did not have children for many years, but had been promised blessings to all their children (Genesis 12, Genesis 15Genesis 17, Genesis 22).  Sarah gave her servant to Abraham to try and fulfill the prophecy of Genesis 18, and that is when Ishmael was born (Genesis 16).  Only after this did she herself have a son, Isaac (Genesis 21).  This younger son Isaac got the blessing of inheritance instead of his older brother Ishmael, but did not change the promises given to Abraham for all his children.  However, focused on the physical and land inheritances (instead of the spiritual), this remains the conflict today between the Muslims (children of Ishmael) and the Jews (children of Isaac).  As descendants of Abraham, both the Jews and the Muslims have sacred records, as they should in the keeping of family records passed down generations.  However, their records have been passed down through different sons and so have different perspectives.  Rather than conflict, these should be like two sides to the same coin, and the (un-altered) records should complement each other.

This sets the pattern of the narratives with brothers fighting against each other instead of being at-one, and so also passing this fighting down to their children who grow up and hate and even kill each other instead of being cousins who are at-one.

Isaac’s sons were Esau and Jacob.  They were twins, but Esau was born first.  The same thing happened again, where the younger son received the inheritance instead of the older son – except this time it was by choice, and an impulsive one at that (Genesis 25).  This trading of what is of eternal value (“birthright”) for immediate gratification (“bowl of pottage”) is high price to pay.  It is not just false traditions passed down that need to be corrected, but it is an internal choice to sell out what is most valuable to meet a selfish need in the moment.  This is having affairs instead of honoring marriage covenants; it is bad choices instead of covenant-keeping; it is being impulsive instead of wise.  It is being short-sighted and selfish to meet your own needs in the moment, instead of having an eternal perspective that helps you serve others so that they can also succeed.

Esau’s bad behavior continued as he married women outside of the covenant (Genesis 26).  He was not keeping the Law of Sarah, and did not have permission from the Lord to marry many women.  As his consequences continued to mount, instead of turning to the Lord for help he compared himself to Jacob who was making good choices and being blessed with those good consequences.  Esau, filled with pride and jealousy, began to resent Jacob until his heart filled with hate and even began to plan to kill him (Genesis 27).

But then we see a beautiful thing happen.  Esau begins to repent.  Because we have the records of Jacob, instead of Esau’s records specifically, you have to pay close attention to catch it.  Esau begins to understand that Isaac does not favor Jacob, so much as Jacob is making good choices and so having good results (positive consequences) from those good choices.  He realizes that some of the trauma-drama he is enduring is because he has gone outside the covenant and married many women without permission.  His repentance process even progresses to the point that he tries to please his parents by marrying a girl who understands the covenant, one of the daughters of Ishmael (Genesis 28).

We don’t hear much about Esau after that, but we know that he has not only progressed through his repentance process but he has also become a man of holiness, a man of the covenant.  After many years of their families being apart, Jacob and Esau meet again as adults – as patriarchs of their own families, and they greet each other in peace and love (Genesis 33).  This only could happen if Esau has applied the atonement in his own life, even to being softened toward his brother and gaining confidence in his own recognition of his own blessings from his own good choices.

The other clue we have to Esau’s restoration to the covenant is in Genesis 36, where we are told his new name is Edom.  New names are always associated with covenant making, just like Abram’s name was changed to Abraham (and his wife Sarai to Sarah) (see Genesis 17).  Esau, now Edom, had many personality traits that were challenges and many weaknesses that were passed down also to his children.  The Edomites continue to behave in many of the ways Esau did before his repentance.  The Edomites have had to (and will have to) do their own work to release themselves from the “false traditions of their fathers”, both individually and collectively.  The seed of this was in the impulsive choice to let go of eternal values for immediate gratification, and it is a pattern that continues today.  The Edomites will play a role in the Latter-days and final battles with Israel, a serious and significant role related to the reclaiming of agency.

But for now, Isaiah is talking to the Edomites, descendants of Esau and Ishmael’s daughter, grandchildren of Abraham.  Here is a chart of that is more helpful than the stories of the people (Edomites on the bottom right):

This warning Isaiah gives is to the Edomites.  He tells them of the “watchman” (prophet) story, and the people ask why destruction will happen again and again (first the Assyrians, second the Babylonians, third the Persians), just like night happens after every day (verse 11).  Isaiah the prophet, now as the watchman, tells them that to find the answers they must ask for them, again and again, just like day always follows night (verse 12).  Isaiah is telling them they must seek revelation, and do the work to receive it, but then also ask for more – again and again, always returning for more.  Not just more on a different topic to learn other things, but returning again and again to the same topic to gather depth.

We, like the Edomites, tend to be impulsive and forget our eternal perspective on what is most important.  Isaiah says that to overcome these weaknesses, we must depend on the Lord and return to him again and again.  We return to Him again and again both in repentance and in seeking revelation.  Our relationship with the Lord should be deep and broad and constant.  This is not only our Liahona for direction and safe arrival, but also our depth of knowledge and understanding.  Anytime we receive revelation from the Lord, we should ask for and look for and sort through the other layers that are also there – if we are willing and do the work to receive them.  Sometimes we feel our prayers are not answered when really it is us who have not returned to Him for more information and added layers of understanding.

Isaiah then talks to Arabia, or Dedanim who has already been scattered (verse 13).  Dedan was the grandson of Abraham through his third wife Keturah (Genesis 25, not shown on the chart above).   The “im” is just a Hebrew plural, meaning the people of Dedan, or rather, his descendants.  These are the people of Arabia:  Dedanim, Ishmaelites, and Edomites.  When they flee south trying to escape the Assyrians (verse 15), Isaiah says they will be fed and nourished by the people of Tema (the land of the southern desert) (verse 14).

When Isaiah again uses the phrase “according to the years of an hireling”, he means to say that the year he talks about is a literal year and not a symbolic year.  It doesn’t mean a thousand years this time, but really only one literal Earth-time year.  He says that within this year, “Kedar shall fail” (verse 16; see also Isaiah 60:7).  Kedar was the second son of Ishmael (see 1 Chronicles 1:29).  Isaiah is saying that within the year, the Assyrians will conquer the Arabians – even though they are known for their skills of war (verse 17).

Because all of this would be almost impossible to believe culturally, that the strongest warriors would be conquered, that kingdoms would fall with no warning, that destruction could happen overnight, Isaiah closes with his testimony that he has only said what the Lord has shown him, and so he knows it to be true (verse 17).

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About Emily

I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2009. I serve as a Chaplain, and work as a counselor. I got bilateral cochlear implants in 2010, but will always love sign language. I choose books over television, and organics over processed. Nothing is as close to flying as ballroom dancing - except maybe running, when in the solo mood. I would rather be outside than anywhere else, especially at the river riding my bike or kayaking. PhD in Marriage and Family Therapy, and currently doing a post-doc in Jewish Studies and an MDiv in Pastoral Counseling. The best thing about Emily World is that it's always an adventure, even if (not so) grammatically precise. The only thing better than writing is being married to a writer. Nathan Christensen and I were married in the Oklahoma City temple on 13 October 2012, and have since fostered more than eighty-five children. We have adopted the six who stayed, and are totally and completely and helplessly in love with our family. Nathan writes musical theater, including "Broadcast" (a musical history of the radio) and an adaption of Lois Lowry's "The Giver". He served his mission in South Korea, has taught song-writing in New York City public schools, and worked as a theater critic for a Tucson newspaper. This is not an official Web site of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.


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