An ancient cuneiform inscription gives these titles to Cyrus the Great of Persia:
"King of Persia, King of Anshan, King of Media, King of Babylon, King of Sumer and Akkad, King of the four corners of the World".Isaiah has already informed his readers that God will use a future ruler of Persia by the name of Cyrus to conquer Babylonia and let the Israelites return to their land (Isaiah 44:28; 45:1, 13). But he has yet—in this part of his prophecy—to address Babylonia directly and decree her fate. He will do that in the present chapter.
1. Come down and sit in the dust, virgin daughter city Babylon! Sit on the ground without a throne, daughter city of Chaldea! For you shall no more be called tender and delicate. 2 Take the millstones and grind meal, remove your veil, strip off your robe, uncover your legs, pass through the rivers. 3 Your nakedness shall be uncovered, and your shame shall be seen. I will take vengeance, and I will spare no one. 4 Our Redeemer—Yahweh of hosts is his name— is the Holy One of Israel. (Isaiah 47:1-4)
This chapter is about the humiliation of the Babylonians, addressed by the name of their glorious and proud capital city, Babylon. The name "Babylon" derives from a phrase in their language bāb ilī which means "Gate of the gods". And indeed the city in Isaiah's time was famous for its grand city gate and processional street, down which the conquering armies paraded together with the statues of their gods. This is Hebrew poetry. And like Babylonian poetry as well, Hebrew poetry is characterized by balancing couplets in which the second half mirrors the first, using synonyms. So "daughter city (named) Babylon" is mirrored in the second half by "daughter city of Chaldea," Chaldea being a name for the entire region surrounding the capital city.
The city is depicted as a woman, a convention that persists as late as the New Testament Book of Revelation, where the final rebellion against God and Christ is centered in a "city" Babylon the Great, which is depicted as a whore (see Revelation 18). Babylon in the days leading up to its conquest by Cyrus is called a "virgin". This alludes to the fact that she fancied herself as unconquered, a virgin intact.
As Isaiah continues, it is clear that Babylon's conception of herself is also of a glorious queen, "tender and delicate" (v 1), who sits on a throne. But God warns her through his prophet that her proud record of unsullied victories has come to an end. Cyrus is the LORD's chosen instrument to conquer her and drag her down from her throne to sit in the dust. Down where the poor and down-trodden live, she will scratch out a living like a woman of the poorer classes, grinding her own meal for her family. Furthermore, with her legs uncovered, instead of being a virgin—in any sense—she will look like a whore, shamefully used and cast off (v 3).
Although it will be Cyrus of Persia who will actually breach the city's defenses and march into the city to sack it, Isaiah informs the Babylonians that the real conqueror is Yahweh of hosts, our Redeemer, the Holy One of Israel. The "hosts" of Yahweh are whatever armed forces he chooses to command. In some passages of the Old Testament the reference is to angelic forces. In others to Israel's own soldiers under His command. In this case it probably refers to Cyrus' own soldiers, whom Yahweh is actually controlling. By using the word "our", he indicates his solidarity with the Israelite exiles in Babylonia.
2. Sit in silence, and go into darkness, daughter city of Chaldea! For you shall no more be called the queen of kingdoms. 6 I was angry with my people, I desecrated my heritage; I gave them into your hand, you showed them no mercy; on the aged you made your yoke exceedingly heavy. 7 You said, “I shall be queen forever,” so that you gave no thought to your actions, nor did you consider their outcome (Isaiah 47:5-7)
It is still the custom in traditional Jewish funerals to sit in silence. Silence and darkness are associated here with disaster and death. Babylon has lost irrevocably her position of political and military dominance over the nations of the Middle East. She gave no thought to the fact that her victory over Judah was due to Yahweh's anger at his people's sins. She miscalculated, thinking it was due to the power and cleverness of her people and their gods. And when she exploited the prisoners she carried away to Babylonia, including the aged, she didn't think about how Yahweh would get around to calling them also to the bar of his judgment.
Now that Jesus, our Savior, has suffered in our place the judgment for our sins, there is for us who believe no condemnation, as Paul reminds us in Romans 8:1. But for all who do not receive God's gracious forgiveness in the Savior, what remains is the "outcome" of their actions (John 3:36; Revelation 20:11-15). God is not only "our Redeemer", but he is a righteous Judge of all peoples, Babylonians as well as Judeans and Americans, who do not seek refuge in his provided Savior.
3. Now therefore hear this, you lover of pleasures, who sit securely, who say to yourself, “I am, and there is no one besides me; I shall not sit as a widow or know the loss of children”— 9 both these things shall come upon you in a moment, in one day: the loss of children and widowhood shall come upon you in full measure, in spite of your many sorceries and the great power of your enchantments. 10 You felt secure in your wickedness; you said, “No one sees me.” Your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray, and you said in your heart, “I am, and there is no one besides me.” 11 But evil shall come upon you, which you cannot charm away; disaster shall fall upon you, which you will not be able to ward off; and ruin shall come on you suddenly, of which you know nothing. 12 Stand fast in your enchantments and your many sorceries, with which you have labored from your youth; perhaps you may be able to succeed, perhaps you may inspire terror. 13 You are wearied with your many consultations; let those who study the heavens stand up and save you, those who gaze at the stars, and at each new moon predict what shall befall you. 14 See, they are like stubble, the fire consumes them; they cannot deliver themselves from the power of the flame. No coal for warming oneself is this, no fire to sit before! 15 Such to you are those with whom you have labored, who have trafficked with you from your youth; they all wander about in their own paths; there is no one to save you. (Isaiah 47:8-15)
In vv 8-9 the Babylonian leaders are described as feeling secure. They foresee no rival to their dominance ("I am, and there is no one else"). There is no possibility, they think, that they will be deprived of the revenues coming to them from conquered kingdoms, states and provinces in the Middle East. Babylon's condition as bereft of these revenues is described by the metaphor of a childless widow. A woman's financial support usually came from her husband and her children. A widow without children to support her was the typical image of a truly needy person (Mark 12:41-43; Luke 7:12). The Old Testament law of levirate marriage was intended to provide husbands and children for such destitute women (Deut 25:5-6). In the New Testament such women became wards of the congregations of believers (Acts 6:1; 9:39-41; 1 Timothy 5).
It was not just the sense of false security that characterized the Babylonians: it was security in their wickedness (v 10). The text does not specify the sins of the Babylonians. But they are easy to imagine. As the world rulers of the day, they doubtless oppressed the peoples whom they now dominated. But in addition the "ordinary" sins that beset us all were theirs. And without a knowledge of the Creator and Redeemer, who was the Holy One of Israel, they had no light to guide them to his forgiveness and grace. They were like Nineveh in the days of the prophet Jonah.
The wickedness for which they did not fear judgment was hidden from God, or so they thought: "No one sees me" (v 10). Is this not always what we think when we do something wrong? But God sees everything. This is why David, after he had taken what he thought was every conceivable measure to hide his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of her husband, when finally confronted by Nathan the prophet, prayed to God: "Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment" (Psalm 51:4). Nothing that we do or think is hidden from God. Therefore it is imperative that we live lives that are always open to his examination. Knowing that he not only sees all, but understands our weaknesses, makes it possible for us to appeal to him for help in times of temptation. "Lord, you know my weakness and my susceptibility to this deed. Protect me, Savior, by your mercy!"
In vv 11-14 the Babylonians are warned that nothing they or their gods can devise can save them from Yahweh's judgment. They cannot "charm it away" (v 11) with magic spells. Isaiah taunts them in vv 12-13, challenging them to just try to avoid God's judgment by these feeble means. Astrology will not save them either (v 13). All of Babylonia's allies, who helped her in the past—those who "did business with" her politically and economically—will have their own problems to contend with: nor will they care what happens to the former "queen of the kingdoms" (v 15)!
Three times in v 11 Isaiah predicts disaster will befall Babylonia, each time using a more intense term for that event: the NIV uses the translations "disaster", "calamity" and "catastrophe". It adds a certain color to the term translated "catastrophe", when one knows that it is Hebrew shô'ah, the word which in Modern Hebrew describes the Holocaust created by Hitler and the Nazis during World War II. Six million innocent Jews were slaughtered during Hitler's "final solution" to the "Jewish problem"! What awaits Babylon at the hands of Cyrus, Isaiah writes, is such a catastrophe.
Babylonia's former friends and allies will forget her, when that time of humiliation occurs. It is striking how quickly a popular or powerful person is forgotten. People are fickle. They are your friends only as long as you are popular and powerful. You may think everyone admires you. But what do they say about you in private? If your popularity is due to the power you wield, what will happen to it when you fall out of favor? The only enduring favor that counts is the favor we enjoy with a God who loves us enough to give his only Son as the sacrifice for our very actions of rebellion against him. This God is not fickle. His love, once given, is not retracted in hard times. He is the faithful Lover of our souls. But his love can be refused or ignored. Let that not be the case with us, dear friends! As the season of Advent and Christmas approaches, let us receive the greatest gift ever given: the Savior who was born at Bethlehem, died for us on Calvary, and rose to live for us on Easter morn.