Isaiah 21:1-17

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21:1. Masoretic Text: A pronouncement [regarding] the wilderness of the sea. Like storm winds in the Negeb passing on, it comes from the wilderness, from a fear-inducing land.

Septuagint: The vision [regarding] the wilderness. Like a storm wind through a wilderness might pass, coming from a wilderness, from a land; horrifying

In the Septuagint, the word for “horrifying” starts a phrase that is completed in the next verse and indicates that what the vision revealed occasioned dread.

The Targum of Isaiah refers to armies coming from the wilderness, passing through like waters of the sea. The armies are said to come from the south and from a land where terrifying things had been done.


The Hebrew word massá’ is commonly understood to mean a “pronouncement,” “oracle,” “utterance,” or “burden.” Whereas the Vulgate renders the term as onus (“load” or “burden”), the Septuagint reads “vision,” indicating this to have been the means by which the prophet received the “pronouncement” or message.

The reference to the fall of Babylon in verse 9 provides a basis for linking the “wilderness of the sea” to Babylon. The city itself was situated on the Euphrates River in the plain extending eastward to the Tigris. At flood stage, the two rivers formed what could be called a “sea,” and this may be the reason for the expression “wilderness of the sea.” This “wilderness” (more specifically, Babylon) would experience a calamity comparable to that of fierce winds passing through the Negeb, the arid region south of the territory of Judah. The source of the severe destructive element is identified as the wilderness, suggestive of hot winds that sear everything in their path. This wilderness is called a “fear-inducing land,” for what was destined to come from there would fill those about to face it with great dread.

21:2. Masoretic Text: A hard vision has been told to me. The deceitful dealer is dealing deceitfully, and the despoiler is despoiling. Go up, O Elam; lay siege, O Media. All the sighing [caused by] her I am ending.

Septuagint: and hard [was] the vision [that] was announced to me. The deceitful dealer deals deceitfully and the lawless one acts lawlessly. Upon me the Ailamites [are coming], and the envoys of Persians are coming upon me. Now I will groan and comfort myself.

The Targum of Isaiah represents the prophet as sighing or groaning for all those who sighed on account of the king of Babylon. This, however, does not fit the wording of the Hebrew text.


This vision is called “hard,” suggesting that something of a harsh, grim, or cruel nature was revealed to Isaiah. It portended a severe crash for Babylon, the deceitful or treacherous dealer and the despoiler or, according to the Septuagint rendering, the “lawless one.”

Although Assyria was then the dominant power in the region, the first sign of Babylon’s treachery became evident during the reign of Judean King Hezekiah. The report of his recovery from serious illness had reached Babylon, as also must have the news about Sennacherib’s loss of thousands of his warriors in one night, thwarting the Assyrian monarch’s aim to take Jerusalem. Merodach-baladan, the king of Babylon, sent a delegation with letters and a gift for Hezekiah. Upon their arrival, Hezekiah showed the Babylonians all his treasures. The courtesy visit and expressions of well wishes to Hezekiah, however, did not constitute an assurance of continued friendly relations. There would be treachery. As Isaiah afterward revealed to Hezekiah, everything the delegation had seen would be taken to Babylon and even members of the royal family would be carried off to serve in the palace of the Babylonian monarch. (39:1-7)

In its treatment of other peoples, especially the inhabitants of Judah and Jerusalem, Babylon would be a treacherous dealer, initially seeming to extend the hand of friendship but later taking on the role of an attacker and a despoiler, devastating towns and cities and seizing booty.

Elam and Media are prophetically commissioned to lay siege to Babylon, bringing an end to the sighing for which tyrannizing Babylon would make itself responsible. YHWH is the one who would be bringing the sighing to an end, as he had determined beforehand by letting the Elamites and Medes play a prominent role in the downfall of Babylon.

Possibly the Septuagint rendering is to be understood from the standpoint of the impact of the vision on Isaiah, as if he expressed himself according to what would befall the Babylonians as though he were sharing the experience. He saw the “Ailamites” or Elamites and envoys of Persia coming to him, evidently as adversaries and then groaned on account of the distressing developments. His comforting himself could be taken to signify that he derived comfort from the fact that the calamity would be an expression of divine justice.

21:3. Masoretic Text: Therefore, my loins are filled with trembling. Pangs have seized me, like pangs of a woman in labor. I am bewildered so that I cannot hear. I am senseless so that I cannot see.

Septuagint: Therefore, my loin was filled with feebleness, and pangs seized me like one giving birth. I did injury so as not to hear. I did hasten so as not to see.

The Hebrew word here rendered “senseless” is bahál, which term can convey the thought of hastening (as rendered in the Septuagint) or rushing, being startled, alarmed or disturbed, or being out of one’s senses.

Possibly the Septuagint rendering can be understood to mean that the vision was so horrifying to Isaiah that he did everything possible neither to hear nor to see.

In the Targum of Isaiah, the application is to the people who would be facing calamity. They would experience the pangs like those of a woman in labor. Being foolish, they would not hear. Having gone astray, they would not be able to see.


On account of the horror of the vision conveyed to him, Isaiah’s inward parts trembled. According to the rendering of the Septuagint, he began to feel weak within himself. The pain he felt was comparable to that of a woman about to give birth. The vision left him in a state of confusion as if he had been knocked senseless, preventing him from hearing and seeing. What Isaiah experienced served to indicate what would befall the Babylonians at the time of the vision’s fulfillment.

21:4. Masoretic Text: My heart has strayed; shuddering has overwhelmed me. The twilight of my desire has been turned into trembling for me.

Septuagint: My heart strays, and lawlessness overwhelms me. My soul is fixed in fear.

The Targum of Isaiah continues to refer to the people, with their heart having gone astray and their being seized with distress and terror. The place where they sought refuge would become a place where they would face destruction.


In his heart, either meaning his mind or his deep inner self, Isaiah experienced the sensations of someone who had strayed and did not know which path needed to be taken. A person who thus wandered would come to be in a state of disquietude, foreboding, and alarm. All that Isaiah could do was to shudder on account of what had been revealed to him. Trembling had completely taken possession of his very being. Perhaps the reading “lawlessness” in the Septuagint could be understood to mean that Isaiah felt as though he had been reduced to a state of fear and helplessness as would be a victim of lawlessness. His “soul,” or his very being, came to be overtaken by fear.

Laborers would look forward to the coming of twilight at the end of the workday, as it would bring the welcome evening coolness and mark the approach of a time for refreshment and rest. For Isaiah, the desirable aspects associated with twilight gave way to trembling in view of the powerful impact the content of the frightening vision had on him.

What Isaiah felt is what the Babylonians would come to experience in the time of their calamity.

21:5. Masoretic Text: [Let them be] preparing the table, laying out the rug, eating, drinking. Arise, O princes, anoint the shield.

Septuagint: Prepare the table. Drink; eat. Arise, O rulers, prepare shields.

The Hebrew word rendered “rug” (tsaphíth) designates something that is spread out or laid out.


On the night of October 5/6, 539 BCE, when the Medes, Persians, and Elamites under the command of Cyrus conquered Babylon, Belshazzar and the Babylonian nobles were feasting. So it proved to be that they obeyed the prophetic command to set the table and arrange everything for eating and drinking.

The anointing of the shield could refer to preparations for defending Babylon. To make shields smooth and slippery so that the arrows of the enemy forces would glance off, warriors would apply oil to their shields. In the case of metal shields, applications of oil would prevent rusting, and oil would serve to make leather shields more pliable and resistant to moisture. The plural “shields” in the Septuagint supports considering the reference to be to literal shields. In the Targum of Isaiah, mention is made of polishing and making the weapons bright.

The singular “shield” in the Masoretic Text would allow for the possibility of attributing a figurative meaning to the designation. As a ruler, Belshazzar functioned as a protective shield to his subjects. His death on the night that Babylon fell would have called for the anointing of a new ruler, or a new shield.

21:6. Masoretic Text: For thus said my Lord to me, “Go, station a lookout. Let him announce what he sees.”

Septuagint: For thus said the Lord to me, “Having gone, station a lookout for yourself, and announce whatever you see.”

The Septuagint rendering appears to represent Isaiah as commissioned to declare what he would see on the basis of his having stationed a lookout.


Apparently in the vision, Isaiah received God’s directive to post a lookout, and this one would then report what he did see. This made it possible for the prophet, from the vantage point of a watchman atop a wall, to make known what Babylon would face.

21:7. Masoretic Text: And he saw riders — a pair of horsemen, a rider of an ass, a rider of a camel. And let him give attention [with] attentiveness, great attentiveness.

Septuagint: And I saw two mounted horsemen, mounted on an ass and mounted on a camel. Listen, much listening.

The reading of the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah indicates that each man had a pair of horses.

According to the Septuagint, Isaiah is the one who saw the developments. The words suggest that each one of the two horsemen had a different mount — one, an ass; the other, a camel.


The Hebrew word here translated once as “riders” and the other times as “rider” is rékhev. It is singular in all occurrences, and may be a collective singular in all three cases, requiring that “ass” and “camel” be likewise regarded as collective singulars. Based on the context that mentions more than one mount, the rendering “riders” is appropriate for the first occurrence of rékhev. This, however, is not the only possible rendering, for rékhev can also mean “chariotry” or “chariot.” This is the reason for the differences in the renderings of various translations. “He will see mounted men, horsemen in pairs — riders on asses, riders on camels.” (Tanakh) “When he sees riders, horsemen in pairs, riders on donkeys, riders on camels, let him listen diligently, very diligently.” (NRSV) “When he sees chariots with teams of horses, riders on donkeys or riders on camels, let him be alert, fully alert.” (NIV) “And he saw chariots, horsemen by pairs, a chariot with asses, a chariot with camels.” (Darby)

In view of the different meanings of the word rékhev and a measure of uncertainty about whether it should be regarded as a collective singular in all cases, one cannot be sure concerning what the posted lookout saw or what Isaiah perceived from the vision.

If the lookout saw a chariot and a pair of horsemen, these could have been representative of the attacking forces that would be coming against Babylon. The “chariot of an ass” and the “chariot of a camel” could then be understood to apply to hitched animals used for transporting baggage and supplies. According to Herodotus (the Greek writer of the fifth century BCE), the Persian army under the command of Cyrus used camels to transport food and equipment and then in a battle against the Lydians. (Histories, I, 80) He also mentioned that the Persian army under Darius had donkeys and mules during their campaign against the Scythians. (Histories, IV, 129)

Another possibility is that the lookout observed riders on different mounts — horses, asses, and camels. All the animals and their riders could then be regarded as representing the military force advancing toward Babylon.

If the development mentioned in verse 9 differs from what the lookout is reported to have seen earlier (as recorded in verse 7), another explanation (based on viewing rékhev as a collective singular for “rider”) has a measure of validity. Initially, the lookout is represented as seeing the ones approaching as “riders.” Then, more specifically, he first sees horsemen. Instead of being the horses of the attacking army, these could be the horses that messengers would be riding, hastening to bring the news about the advance of the invaders. The asses and camels could then be regarded as coming later as part of caravans that were heading away from the invading army.

21:8. Masoretic Text: And he cried out [like] a lion, “On a watchtower, O my Lord, I stand continually by day, and I am stationed at my post all the nights.”

Septuagint: And call Ourias to the lookout of the Lord. And he said, “I stood throughout the entire day, and I stood over the encampment the whole night.”

The Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah does not include the word “lion,” but identifies the one watching as the one who cried out.

When waw (W) is inserted as the second letter in the Hebrew word for “lion,” the consonants are those of the name Uriah (Ourias).

The reference to the “lookout of the Lord” could mean the place that God had designated as the location for being on the watch.


If “lion” is part of the original text, then the lookout cried out with a powerful voice, comparable to the roar of a lion. His words indicate that he faithfully discharged his duty, watching attentively day and night. For a time, though, there appear to have been no developments to report.

21:9. Masoretic Text: And look here at what is coming: a man [in] a chariot [with] a pair of horses. And he answered and said, “She has fallen; Babylon has fallen, and all the images of her gods he has shattered to the ground.”

Septuagint: And look! He himself is coming mounted on a team. And he answered and said, “Babylon has fallen, and all her images and her handmade things [idols] have been crushed to the ground.”

The Septuagint rendering could be understood to refer to the attacking force as the mounted one who is coming.


After having watched diligently, the lookout (based on one understanding of the Hebrew text) saw a horse-drawn manned chariot. “Here he comes now: a single chariot, a pair of horses.” (NAB) “Look, here comes a man in a chariot with a team of horses.” (NIV) The “chariot” could represent the entire chariotry of the invaders.

The Hebrew expression rendered a “pair of horses” could also mean “horsemen in pairs.” This could mean that all the forces coming against Babylon are represented as “horsemen in pairs,” “column after column of cavalry troops” (CEV). “And there they come, mounted men — horsemen in pairs!” (Tanakh)

The announcement that Babylon had fallen indicates that the invaders had captured the city. If the reference is to a single manned chariot, the one reporting the news could be the charioteer. Otherwise the lookout is the one who called out that Babylon had fallen. The gods whom the Babylonians worshiped could not prevent the calamity, and the images of the deities lay shattered on the ground.

21:10. Masoretic Text: O my threshed one and son of my threshing floor, what I have heard from YHWH of hosts, the God of Israel, I have announced to you.

Septuagint: Hear, you who have been left remaining and are suffering pain. Hear the things I have heard from the Lord Sabaoth. The God of Israel has announced [them] to us.

“Sabaoth” is a transliteration of the Hebrew designation meaning “armies” or “hosts” and indicates that YHWH has hosts of angels in his service.

Instead of threshing floor, the word in the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah can be rendered “stone wall.”

The Targum of Isaiah continues with an apparent thought regarding Babylon. Kings skilled in warfare would come against her, despoiling her. Their expert ability in fighting would be like that of a husbandman who is skilled in threshing grain.


The Septuagint rendering suggests that the threshing experience had left behind a remnant in a state of pain. It appears that Isaiah’s own people, fellow Israelites, are here represented as YHWH’s threshed ones. The Israelites would also be the “sons” of YHWH’s “threshing floor,” or the products of the threshing experience. In expression of his anger on account of their waywardness, YHWH had allowed them and would allow them to be submitted to harsh treatment from their enemies. To the Israelites, Isaiah would announce what YHWH, their God, had revealed to him.

21:11. Masoretic Text: A pronouncement [regarding] Dumah. To me, one is calling from Seir, “Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?”

Septuagit: A vision [regarding] Idumea. To me, one calls from Seir, watch the fortifications.

Concerning the Hebrew word translated “pronouncement,” see verse 1.

According to the Septuagint rendering, the watchman is admonished to be on guard respecting the fortifications on which the security of the people depended.

The Targum of Isaiah mentions the “cup of cursing,” which Dumah is to be given to drink. The voice resounds from heaven, instructing the prophet to interpret the prophecy, to interpret what was destined to come.


“Dumah” means “silence,” and the rendering of the Septuagint provides a basis for considering the designation to apply to Edom or Idumea, which land would be desolated and, therefore, brought to silence. Apparently Isaiah is the one to whom the question is directed. This question (“What of the night?”) appears to mean, How much longer will the darkness continue for the land of Edom?

21:12. Masoretic Text: The watchman said, “Morning is coming and also the night. If you would ask, ask; come back again.”

Septuagint: I guard in the morning and in the night. If you would seek, seek; and dwell by me.

The Targum of Isaiah transforms the thought into an admonition. After mentioning that there is a “reward for the righteous” and “vengeance for the wicked,” the prophet’s exhortation is to repent while there is still the opportunity to do so.


The Septuagint rendering and the Targum of Isaiah provide a basis for identifying Isaiah as the watchman. His answer about the morning coming and also the night appears to mean that, although the morning would be coming, the gloom of the night would not be ending. There was then no message of hope regarding the approach of morning light for Edom. Still, the option for returning to make further inquiries remained open.

The Septuagint rendering could be understood to mean that Isaiah kept on the watch both day and night, alert for any revelation regarding future developments. “Seeking” would denote “inquiring.” “Dwelling” with the prophet could signify resorting to or remaining in his presence for answers.

21:13. Masoretic Text: The pronouncement [regarding] the steppe. O caravans of Dedanites, you will lodge in the thickets of the steppe.

Septuagint: In the thicket you will lie down in the evening in the way of Dedan.

The Targum of Isaiah refers to the Arabians as the ones to be given the “cup of cursing.”

Regarding the Hebrew word translated “pronouncement,” see verse 1.


According to the rendering of the Vulgate, the “steppe” designates “Arabia.” The nomadic Dedanites, descendants of Abraham by his concubine Keturah (Genesis 25:1-3), appear to be represented as having to depart from their usual routes because of a military invasion. This forced them to pitch their tents in more isolated thickets, desert areas where broom trees, dwarf junipers, and tamarisks grew.

The Septuagint rendering “the way of Dedan” could mean the road leading to Dedan. This would mean that individuals in Seir or Edom are portrayed as spending the night in the thicket, with the implied reason being an enemy invasion.

21:14. Masoretic Text: To meet the thirsty one, bring water. O inhabitants of the land of Tema, meet the fleeing one with his bread.

Septuagint: Bring water for meeting with the one thirsting, O inhabitants in the country of Thaiman [Teman]; meet with bread those [who are] fleeing,

The Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah (the Great Isaiah Scroll), like the Septuagint, says “bread,” not “his bread.”


In view of the earlier reference to Seir or Edom, the area around Tema in Edom evidently is the land of Tema. The Temanites are here encouraged to be hospitable to those who are fleeing from the advancing invaders, providing the refugees with water and food. Flight would have prevented the fugitives from obtaining necessities. While the reading of the Hebrew text of verse 13 identifies the ones fleeing as Dedanites, the Septuagint rendering does not.

21:15. Masoretic Text: For from the swords they have fled, from the drawn sword, and from the bent bow, and from the pressure of battle.

Septuagint: because of the multitude of those fleeing and because of the multitude of those straying and because of the multitude of the sword and because of the multitude of the bent bows and because of the multitude of those fallen in battle.


The reason for the hasty flight and the need for a compassionate response to the fugitives are clearly set forth. They are seeking to escape becoming war casualties.

21:16. Masoretic Text: For thus my Lord has said to me, Within a year, according to the years of a hireling, and all the glory of Kedar will end.

Septuagint: For thus the Lord has said to me, Yet a year, like the year of a hireling, the glory of the sons of Kedar will vanish.

Instead of “my Lord,” the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah says “YHWH.” Before the words translated “glory,” this scroll does not include “all.”

The Targum of Isaiah says “years,” not “year.”


Kedar was a son of Ishmael, and his descendants are here referred to as Kedar, an Arab tribe. (Genesis 25:13) Their glory or noble position as a distinct independent people, including a significant number of skilled warriors, would come to an end within a relatively short time — one year or, according to the Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah, “three years.” A hired laborer worked for a specific period, and so the year of a hireling would have a fixed beginning and a fixed end. The mention of a short time indicates that the Kedarites would suffer from Assyrian aggression, and extant Assyrian records confirm this as having happened during the period of Isaiah’s prophesying. Annals of Sargon II relate that, among those he crushed, were Arabs who lived in the desert. Assyrian monarch Esar-haddon referred to his father Sennarcherib as having defeated the Arabs.

21:17. And the remnant of the number of archers, the mighty ones of the sons of Kedar, will be diminished, for YHWH, the God of Israel, has spoken.

Septuagint: And the remnant of the bows of the mighty sons of Kedar will be few, for the Lord, the God of Israel, has spoken.


Many Kedarites would fall in battle, with only few archers and other warriors being among the survivors. The fulfillment of the prophetic words was sure, for Isaiah made known what YHWH, the God of Israel, had revealed to him.