In our last essay we studied chapter 46, which dealt with God’s superiority over the idol-gods of the nations. In this essay we are studying chapter 47, in which Isaiah dramatically pictorializes the coming fall and humiliation of Babylon. He pictures her as a beautiful, protected virgin who is forced into slavery.
Notice in verses 1-4 that the language of the poem is rather harsh. Although Babylon thought of herself as a queen worthy of a throne, she is commanded to sir on the ground in the dust. And she no longer would be called “tender and delicate.” The name Chaldea is parallel to Babylon, because the city of Babylon was located in a geographical area called Chaldea. Thus the Babylonians also were known as Chaldeans.
Grinding grain at the millstone was the lowest form of work that usually was done by slaves. As a slave, the woman no longer needed her finery. She would have to dispense with the veil and the long gown of her high-class life, because she would need her legs free for the work of a slave. The “rivers” mentioned could be a reference to irrigation ditches.
The statement in verse three, “Your nakedness shall be uncovered,” is very strong language. According to John Oswalt, in the Old Testament this language at the very least means severe humiliation, and in some cases may mean rape. Notice that it is the Lord who will bring about the humiliation.
Verse four is interesting in that it is so unexpected. It ends the segment with an ejaculatory praise of “Our Redeemer” who is “the Lord of hosts: and “the Holy One of Israel.” Of course liberal scholars say that this statement doesn’t belong here, that someone stuck it in later. But Oswalt and others say it “stands well in this context.”
Next, verses 5-11 detail the Lord’s charges against Babylon. Verse five tells us that the great virgin queen, Babylon, will sit in silence and darkness in addition to sitting in the dust (as we were told in verse one). She has been “mistress of kingdoms,” because of her many conquests of other nations. But she will be mistress no longer, because she will be conquered.
Verse six tells us that like Assyria before her, Babylon took pride in her many conquests. She believed that she had conquered all of those nations by her own might. But at least in the case of Judah, that was not true. Babylon had been able to conquer Judah and take most of her people into captivity, not because of her strength, but because the Lord had wanted her to do it. The Lord was chastising Israel for her disobedience and sinfulness. And that was why he allowed Babylon to take her captive.
Although Babylon in a sense was doing God’s will when she conquered Judah, that fact did not give her the right to treat the captives harshly. According to the Lord, she had no mercy, or compassion on the captives. And she put an especially heavy burden the old people. Now we do not know exactly what the Lord was referring to. We know that some of the Jewish exiles were treated quite well. Daniel and his friends are a good example. And when Cyrus allowed the Jews to return to Palestine, many of them did not want to return, because they had forged good lives in Babylon. That suggests that the Babylonians could have been much more harsh than they were. At any rate, the Lord was unhappy with their treatment of some of the Jews, especially the aged.
In verse seven, the Lord refers to Babylon’s arrogance. She assumed that she would be the mistress of the kingdoms forever. That seems to be a common idea in powerful nations, including our own. It is easy to think that the power will last forever, but it never has; and it never will. Oswalt suggests that Babylon’s arrogance is what led her to believe that she would never be held accountable for the way she treated her captives.
In verses 8-11 Isaiah contrasts Babylon’s arrogant self-confidence with her coming complete humiliation. Notice the “therefore” in verse eight (NRSV). Therefore, “now hear this you lover of pleasures [NIV, wanton creature”] who sit securely.” In effect God was saying, because of your arrogance, because of your mistreatment of the captives, because you didn’t “lay these things to your heart,” this is what will happen.
But there was something else Babylon had done that was even more serious. She had put herself in the place of God. Do you see it? She had said in her heart, “I am, and there is no one besides me.” Wow! That is exactly what God had said about himself. Indeed it is a theme in chapters 45 and 46. Look at 45:5; 45:6; 45:18; 45:22, and 46:9. No wonder Babylon brought an announcement of judgment on herself!
We see more arrogance as Babylon continues to speak in the last two lines of verse eight: “I shall not sit as a widow or know the loss of children.” Of course widows were completely without support, and that was the point being made. Babylon never expected to be in that situation. Nor did she ever expect to be alone in the world, which was the case when a woman lost her children. She thought she was above all of that. But it wasn’t true. Indeed verse nine tells us that both of those things were going to happen to her quite suddenly. E.J. Young suggests that widowhood represents the loss of the empire, and loss of children represents the loss of population in the war. Oswalt thinks that stretches the metaphor too far, but I don’t.
At the end of verse nine, Isaiah says that all of this would l happen in spite of Babylon’s sorceries. Babylon was famous for her magic arts and sorcery. This was so much so that in the book of Daniel the court magicians were called Chaldeans. But the magic and sorcery would not help her against God. She had put herself in the place of God, and he would bring her down.
Verses 10-11 basically repeat the ideas of verses 5-9. Babylon felt secure in her “wickedness.” The wickedness referred to likely is the magic and sorcery, which were at the heart of her wisdom and knowledge. The claim to be God is repeated, and so is the judgment that would come upon her. The uselessness of her magic arts also is mentioned again. She will not be able to “charm away” the disaster that is coming.
Verses 12-15 bring the denunciation of Babylon to a climax. Some scholars believe Isaiah was making a serious demand of Babylon in verses 12-13. Others, including Oswalt and myself, believe that Isaiah was being sarcastic. In this latter case, Isaiah was saying in effect, “Why don’t you try the foolishness of the magic arts that you have practiced for so long. Perhaps they will help you. Babylon had sought wisdom to guide its future in many ways. The astrologers were especially prominent in the process. That is why Isaiah sarcastically declares that now is the time for those people to “step up” and save Babylon, if they can.
In verses 14-15 Isaiah announces the final outcome. The magicians and astrologers are like stubble that will burn up when the fires of adversity come. And the coming fire would be no tame campfire around which they can warm themselves. It would be a conflagration that burns everything up. The magicians and astrologers won’t be able to save themselves let alone anyone else. Babylon “trafficked” or “traded” with the sorcerers for centuries, but in the end it will do them no good. The sorcerers will wander about trying to save themselves, and there will be no one to save Babylon.