Chapter 21 describes the fall of Babylon, signifying both the ancient empire and the modern sinful world. The effects of this cataclysm upon other nations are also described. Destruction of modern Babylon will follow the destruction of the modern superpower equivalent of Egypt at the hands of the modern equivalent of Assyria. Egypt’s destruction and humiliation are described in the previous chapters.1
Verse 1 begins: “The burden of the desert of the sea. As whirlwinds in the south pass through; so it cometh from the desert, from a terrible land.” “The burden of the desert of the sea” means “prophecy regarding the desert adjacent to the sea.” The Joseph Smith Translation renders “from the terrible land” for the concluding phrase.2 This statement by Isaiah designates the point of entry of an invading army that came from “the terrible land”—passing through the desert like a vast whirlwind, doubtless raising huge clouds of dust.
Verse 2 begins: “A grievous vision is declared unto me; the treacherous dealer dealeth treacherously, and the spoiler spoileth. Go up, O Elam: besiege, O Media; all the sighing thereof have I made to cease.” “Treacherous dealer” means “one who acts in bad faith” or “deceitfully.”3 The final phrase of verse 2 names the ancient invaders—Elam (Persia) and the Medes.4 As a type, this phrase also refers to their modern counterparts. The effects personally on Isaiah of seeing this grievous vision are described later in verses 3 and 4.
Verse 2 contains a chiasm:
A: (2) A grievous vision is declared unto me;
B: the treacherous dealer dealeth treacherously,
C: and the spoiler spoileth.
C: Go up, O Elam:
B: besiege, O Media;
A: all the sighing thereof have I made to cease.
“The treacherous dealer dealeth treacherously” matches “besiege, O Media,” identifying the treacherous dealer; and “the spoiler spoileth” matches “Go up, O Elam,” identifying the spoiler.
Verses 3 and 4 describe Isaiah’s angst upon seeing the vision. Verse 3 declares: “Therefore are my loins filled with pain: pangs have taken hold upon me, as the pangs of a woman that travaileth: I was bowed down at the hearing of it; I was dismayed at the seeing of it.” These similes describe the great pain Isaiah felt upon being shown this vision. His statements attest that he saw quite vividly as well as heard, indicating his role as both seer and prophet.
Verse 4 continues: “My heart panted, fearfulness affrighted me: the night of my pleasure hath he turned into fear unto me.” Isaiah was astonished at the cataclysmic scene he saw in vision, even though an enemy was the nation destroyed.5 “My heart panted” probably means “my heart pounded;” “The night of my pleasure” means “night of pleasant sleep.”6
Verses 3 and 4 contain a chiasm:
A: (3) Therefore are my loins filled with pain:
B: pangs have taken hold upon me,
C: as the pangs of a woman that travaileth:
D: I was bowed down at the hearing of it;
D: I was dismayed at the seeing of it.
C: (4) My heart panted,
B: fearfulness affrighted me:
A: the night of my pleasure hath he turned into fear unto me.
This chiasm vividly describes Isaiah’s angst upon receiving this revelation.
Verse 5 describes preparations for battle, first attending to adequate nourishment and vigilance: “Prepare the table, watch in the watchtower, eat, drink: arise, ye princes, and anoint the shield.”7 Applying grease or oil to a shield improved its ability to deflect the blows of an enemy’s weapons.
In verse 6, Isaiah proclaims the source of this admonition to prepare for war: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me.” Isaiah then proclaims: “Go, set a watchman, let him declare what he seeth.” A watchman on the tower is symbolic of latter-day prophets declaring the signs of the times, leading up to and including the great destruction of modern-day Babylon. Isaiah uses the symbolism of a watchman also in chapters 52, 56 and 62.8
In verse 7 the watchman sees a parade of chariots, each drawn by different animals: “And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen, a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels; and he hearkened diligently with much heed.” These chariots paired with draft animals symbolize the Medes and the Persians as well as their modern counterparts. The latter-day watchman is diligent; he pays great attention.
Verse 8 begins “And he cried, A lion.” The Great Isaiah Scroll renders “and the seer cried, my Lord,”9 with no reference to a lion. The meaning of the passage is probably “and he cried like a lion,” or shouted loudly. The words shouted are: “My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights.” The watchman offers personal witness of his unfailing diligence, keeping watch both day and night.
Verses 6 through 8 contain a chiasm:
A: (6) For thus hath the Lord said unto me,
B: Go, set a watchman,
C: let him declare what he seeth.
D: (7) And he saw a chariot with a couple of horsemen,
D: a chariot of asses, and a chariot of camels;
C: and he hearkened diligently with much heed:
B: (8) And he cried, A lion:
A: My lord, I stand continually upon the watchtower in the daytime, and I am set in my ward whole nights—
“Go, set a watchman” matches “he cried [shouted like] a lion,” identifying who cried. “Let him declare what he seeth” compares with “he hearkened diligently with much heed,” showing that the watchman is extraordinarily faithful in keeping his charge and reporting what he sees. The watchman’s report presents foreseen events symbolically; chariots drawn by different draft animals represent various invading armies as seen by the diligent watchman.
The watchman’s speech continues in verse 9: “And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen.” The watchman continues: “And he answered and said, Babylon is fallen, is fallen; and all the graven images of her gods he hath broken unto the ground.” The chariot of men and the men on horseback symbolize the fall of Babylon, as explained in the final sentence. The idols of Babylon’s gods have fallen in pieces on the ground; Babylon’s idols are not able to save her. For modern Babylon, neither her wealth nor materialism will be able to save her.10 The faithful watchman upon the tower has borne witness of all, right up to the great destruction.
In modern revelation, the Lord elaborates:
They seek not the Lord to establish his righteousness, but every man walketh in his own way, and after the image of his own god, whose image is in the likeness of the world, and whose substance is that of an idol, which waxeth old and shall perish in Babylon, even Babylon the great, which shall fall.11
Verses 6 through 9 provide insight into the function of a latter-day prophet, as contrasted with an ancient one. Rather than declaring events to occur in the distant future, the modern prophet interprets what he sees in current society and events in terms of ancient prophecy and gospel principles. What is to occur in our time has already been prophesied; now is the time of fulfillment of ancient prophecy. A modern prophet’s task is to warn and to prepare; our task is to give heed to the words of our living prophets.
Verse 9 contains a chiasm:
A: (9) And, behold, here cometh a chariot of men, with a couple of horsemen. And he answered and said,
C: is fallen,
C: is fallen;
B: and all the graven images of her gods
A: he hath broken unto the ground.
“Babylon” matches “all the graven images of her gods,” indicating that “Babylon” connotes idolatry; “is fallen” is repeated twice, for emphasis. An army, symbolized by the chariot of men and the horsemen, overthrows Babylon and destroys her idols. The pronoun he represents both the army—symbolized by the chariot and the horsemen—and the Lord, who would use the army as a proxy to accomplish His purposes.
Verse 10 begins: “O my threshing, and the corn of my floor: that which I have heard of the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, have I declared unto you.” The introductory phrase probably means “Oh my people, threshed and winnowed….” Isaiah addresses the Israelite survivors of the downfall of Babylon;12 he bears testimony that what he has described is what he has heard from the Lord.
Verse 11 states: “The burden of Dumah,” or, prophecy concerning Dumah: “He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night?” The voice cries out, requesting to know of the faithful watchman how much longer the darkness, or oppression, would last. Dumah is located in central Arabia, east of Midian;13 it was named for the sixth of Ishmael’s 12 sons.14 Seir is a mountainous ridge south of the Dead Sea.15
Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone cited this verse: “In Isaiah, the prophet asks, ‘Watchman, what of the night?’ This generation of youth will be the torchbearers in the future, possibly in the darkest period of the world.”16 Isaiah’s meaning of spiritual darkness, or oppression, is clear.
The watchman’s answer comes in verse 12: “The watchman said, The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will enquire, enquire ye: return, come.”17 The end of the oppression—anciently, the Babylonian captivity—would come soon, but after it there would be another night of apostasy, another oppressor; inquire again later.18
Verse 13 changes the focus but not the subject: “The burden upon Arabia,” or, prophecy concerning Arabia. “In the forest in Arabia shall ye lodge, O ye travelling companies [or caravans] of Dedanim.” Dedam—possibly the same place—is located in Arabia, inland from the Red Sea.19
In verse 14, the plight of those fleeing the devastation of Babylon is described: “The inhabitants of the land of Tema brought water to him that was thirsty, they prevented with their bread him that fled.” “Prevented” probably means kept from perishing; the merciful people in Tema would provide water and bread for those fleeing the ravages of war. Tema is located in Arabia northeastward from Dedam.20
As described in verse 15, many would flee the horrors of war: “For they fled from the swords, from the drawn sword, and from the bent bow, and from the grievousness of war.”21
Verses 16 and 17 describe the imminent fall of a tribe in northern Arabia.22 Verse 16 declares: “For thus hath the Lord said unto me, Within a year, according to the years of an hireling, and all the glory of Kedar shall fail.” The glory of Kedar, as used here, means military strength.23 Kedar was a son of Ishmael and an ancestor of Muhammad, according to some Arab genealogists.24 A hireling is a mercenary, or hired soldier, typically hired for a set period of time—in this case, a year.
Verse 17 concludes: “And the residue of the number of archers, the mighty men of the children of Kedar, shall be diminished: for the LORD God of Israel hath spoken it.”25
1. See Isaiah chapters 19 and 20.
2. Joseph Smith’s “New Translation” of the Bible: Herald Publishing House, Independence, Missouri, 1970, p. 200.
3. F. Brown, S. Driver, and C. Briggs, The Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon: Hendrickson Publishers, Peabody, MA, 01961-3473, 1996, Strong’s No. 898, p. 93.
4. See Map 2, LDS edition of the Bible for locations of these ancient nations.
5. See Isaiah 21:3, footnote 3a.
6. Brown et al., 1996, Strong’s No. 2837, p. 366.
7. Verse 5 contains a chiasm: Prepare/watch/eat/drink/arise/anoint.
8. See Isaiah 52:8; 56:10; 62:6 and pertinent commentary.
9. Donald W. Parry, Harmonizing Isaiah: Foundation for Ancient Research and Mormon Studies (FARMS) at Brigham Young University, Provo, Utah, 2001, p. 96.
10. See Isaiah 2:7-9 and pertinent commentary.
11. Doctrine and Covenants 1:16.
12. Isaiah 21:10, footnote 10a.
13. See Bible Map 9.
14. See Genesis 25:13-14.
15. Bible Dictionary—Seir.
16. Vaughn J. Featherstone, “Called As If He Heard a Voice from Heaven,” Ensign, Nov. 1983, p. 36.
17. Verse 12 contains a chiasm: Morning cometh, and also the night/ye/enquire/enquire/ye/return, come.
18. Isaiah 21:12, footnote 12a.
19. See Bible Map 9.
20. See Bible Map 9.
21. Verses 14 and 15 contain a chiasm: Him that fled/they fled/swords/drawn sword/bent bow/grievousness of war.
22. See Bible Map 9.
23. See Isaiah 8:7; 10:18; 16:14; 17:3-4; 20:5; 22:18; 66:12.
24. Victor L. Ludlow, Isaiah: Prophet, Seer, and Poet: Deseret Book Company, Salt Lake City, Utah, 1982, p. 230.
25. Verses 16 and 17 contain a chiasm: Thus hath the Lord said unto me/glory of Kedar/archers/mighty men/ children of Kedar/the LORD God of Israel hath spoken it.