Avraham ben Yaakov
KNOW YOUR BIBLE
ISAIAH CHAPTER 13
Following Isaiah's prophecy about the fall of Assyria in chapter 10, his prophecy against Babylon in this and the following chapter begins a cycle of prophecies against the various peoples that surrounded and oppressed Israel, including Egypt, the Philistines, Moab and Tyre. The cycle begins with the retribution against Babylon because of the great power and prestige of Nebuchadnezzar's empire at its height and the fact that he destroyed the First Temple .
The prophecy against Babylon opens with God's call to the warriors of Medea and Persia to gather for war against Babylon (vv 1-5). It was Darius of Medea together with his son-in-law, Cyrus of Persia, who eventually captured Babylon and killed king Belshazzar exactly seventy years after Nebuchadnezzar's rise to power. The fall of Babylon , as prophesied in our present chapter, came over ONE HUNDRED AND NINETY YEARS after the death of King Ahaz of Judah , which is given as the date of the prophecy in the next chapter (Is. 14:28), indicating that the prophecy in our present chapter was said before that. In Isaiah's time Babylon had not even attained global stature, yet the prophet already saw that she would knock out Assyria (which came about when Nebuchadnezzar captured Nineveh) and finally - 190 years later - be knocked out herself.
"I have commanded my sanctified ones." - "These are the Persians, who are sanctified and marked out for Gehennom" (Berachos 8b).
Vv 6-8 depict the terrible fear that will fall on the inhabitants of Babylon . "Howl, for the day of HaShem is at hand: it will come like destruction (SHOD) from the Almighty (SHA-DAI)" (v 6). This Divine Name (which should be pronounced SHAKKAI except in prayer or when chanting the Hebrew Bible text) reveals the power of the Sefirah of Yesod, which channels Godly power into the world. The play on words in the Hebrew text indicates that the attribute of Yesod, expressed by SHA-DAI, includes the vengeful power of destruction (SHOD) in retribution for wickedness.
Vv 9-18 depict God's anger against Babylon and the terrible punishment destined to come upon them. "All the stars of the heavens and their constellations will not radiate their light." (v 10). RaDaK (ad loc.) explains that the prophets speak figuratively and talk of a person struck by some trouble as sitting in darkness so that the sun and the stars do not shine upon him. The vengeance against Babylon was primarily on account of its overweening arrogance (v 11).
"But I shall make a man more honored than finest gold." (v 12). Rashi explains that this verse alludes to Daniel, who was called by Belshazzar to his feast in order to explain the meaning of the "writing on the wall" and whose holy spirit was revealed to all when he said that it signified the fall of Babylon , which took place that very night (Daniel ch 5).
"Therefore I shall shake the heavens and the earth shall quake and move from her place." (v 13). This verse reveals that God "shakes the heavens" BEFORE the earth quakes. From here we learn that God does not exact retribution from a nation without first exacting retribution from its guardian angel in the higher world (Rashi). The same idea also comes out from the verse in the following chapter: "How are you fallen out of the heaven, O bright star, son of the morning" (Is. 14:12). The "star of the heaven" is NOGAH (=Venus), Babylon 's guardian angel (see Rashi on Is. 14:12).
Verses 19-22: The lot of the once glorious Babylon will be total destruction and devastation. Its ruins, haunted only by wild animals, will be enduring testimony to God's stern, relentless justice.
V 1: "For HaShem will have mercy on Jacob." The fall of Babylon , about which most of the present chapter continues to prophesy, would itself be a salvation for Israel because Cyrus of Persia, who succeeded Darius the Mede one year later, began his reign by permitting the exiles from Judah to return to Jerusalem under Zerubavel, and they started to rebuild the Temple .
".and He will yet chose Israel and set them in their land." (ibid.) This refers to the future redemption, which will be complete (Rashi on verse 1).
"And it shall come to pass on the day when HaShem will give you rest. and you shall take up this proverb against the king of Babylon " (vv 3-4). Nebuchadnezzar was proverbial for his cruelty: anyone who entered his prison was never released to go back home (v 17). But now his ignominious end would make him a byword for God's retribution against the proud. With his demise, feelings of joy and relief would come to all the nations (v 8).
Vv 9-17: Hell itself would shudder and tremble with the arrival of Nebuchadnezzar. Isaiah's depiction of all the amazed shadows in hell, the souls of the dead kings and mighty of history, as they wonder over the fall of the mighty Nebuchadnezzar, opens a tiny chink for us into the netherworld, where the souls of the wicked seem to be imprisoned in a never-ending time warp.
"And you said in your heart, I shall ascend to the heavens. I shall sit on the Mount of Assembly, on the flanks of the north" (v 13). The "Mount of the Assembly" alludes to the Temple Mount, Israel's meeting place on the pilgrim festivals. The choicest part of the AZARAH (central Temple courtyard) was the north, where holy of holies sacrifices had to be slaughtered. It was because Nebuchadnezzar dared to set his hand against God's Temple that he came to such an ignominious end.
Vv 18-19: "All the kings of the nations lie in glory. but you are cast out of your grave like an abhorred branch." Rashi (on v 19) tells that when Nebuchadnezzar was reduced to the status of a wild beast (as told in Daniel ch 4), his son Eveel Merodach became regent, but after Nebuchadnezzar returned to the throne, he put Eveel Merodach in prison. When Nebuchadnezzar died, the people released Eveel Merodach and asked him to become king, but he refused, fearing that his father was not really dead and that if he returned to the throne he would kill him. In order to prove that Nebuchadnezzar was dead they pulled him out of his grave - in fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecy.
The contemporary relevance of the present prophecy about Nebuchadnezzar's fall may become clearer if we reflect that Saddam Hussein of Iraq - who is known to have considered himself the reincarnation of Nebuchadnezzar - also met a highly ignominious end. He was actually filmed being hanged after some years of imprisonment following his capture while hiding in an underground pit. Likewise the bloodshed and destruction that have overtaken Iraq since the invasion of the country in 2002 seem to be a latter-day fulfillment of these ancient prophecies about the calamity that would befall Babylon .
24-27: The prophesied fall of Assyria, which actually came about in Isaiah's own time in Hezekiah's fourteenth year, would be proof that God's word would later be fulfilled against Babylon as well.
Verses 28-32 make up a complete prophecy in itself about the retribution that was to come upon the Philistines. The specific dating of this prophecy to the year of the death of King Ahaz suggests that the previous prophecies about the fall of Babylon and Assyria were delivered prior to this. Ahaz practiced blatant idolatry in Judah and was punished by being beset by enemies. The earlier chapters of Isaiah (chs 7ff) spoke about the invasion of Judah by Retzin king of Aram and Pekah ben Remaliah king of Israel . We also learn in the Book of Chronicles (II Chron. 28:18) that the Philistines rebelled against Judean dominion in the lowlands and coastal region in the time of Ahaz. The present prophecy, dating from his death and the ascent to the throne of his son the righteous Hezekiah, foretells that "out of the serpent's root shall come a viper" (our present chapter verse 29). The "serpent" refers to Ahaz, while the viper - which is much more dangerous - refers to Hezekiah, who "smote the Philistines to Gaza and her borders from the watchers' tower up to the fortress city" (II Kings 18:8, see Rashi on our verse).
We look forward to the re-fulfillment of this prophecy against the Philistines in our time, when the fire of violence and destruction that today emanate from Gaza will be extinguished forever "and the firstborn of the poor [i.e. the people of Israel , see Rashi] shall feed and the needy shall lie down in safety" (v 30).
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By Rabbi Avraham Yehoshua Greenbaum
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