Students of Bible prophecy have generally overlooked an important tool for understanding this chapter; mainly, the archaeologist's spade. Archaeology has a direct bearing on this passage from two different angles. First, there are ancient inscriptions that give first hand accounts, or historical reflections, of the fall of Babylon in 689 BC. Second, there is confirmation of this destruction by the German excavation at the beginning of the 20th century. With this, let us turn our attention to Isaiah 21.
During the First Gulf War - Operation Desert Storm - Saddam Hussein was brought to the forefront of world events. Students of Bible prophecy asked, “What, if anything, does he or Iraq have to do with prophetic events?” Passages concerning Babylon were studied to see where Saddam Hussein, or Iraq for that matter, might fit into a particular prophetic scheme. One passage which deals with the fall of Babylon is Isaiah 21. Verse 9 states, “Babylon is fallen, is fallen! And all the carved images of her gods He has broken to the ground.” I would like to re-examine this passage of Scripture and ask the question, “Was this passage fulfilled, or even partially fulfilled during Operation Desert Storm?” (as some prophecy teachers suggest), or, “Was the passage actually fulfilled in Isaiah’s day?”
One of the best-selling books on the place of Babylon in prophecy during the First Gulf War was The Rise of Babylon by Dr. Charles Dyer. It is interesting that Dr. Dyer never addressed this passage in the book, nor does he address it in his follow-up book, World News and Bible Prophecy.
Noah Hutching, the radio pastor for Southwest Radio Church in Oklahoma quoted Isaiah 21:9 in his book The Persian Gulf Crisis and the Final Fall of Babylon (1990: 27). Yet surprisingly, in the chapter entitled “Isaiah Against Babylon” (chapter 9), he only discusses Isaiah 13 and ignores completely chapter 21.
Other popular prophecy teachers did address this chapter. J. R. Church, in his prophetic magazine Prophecy in the News, states: “While researching the prophets for their perspective on the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, we came across Isaiah’s prediction of doom upon the ‘desert of the sea’ (Isaiah 21). The description fits the Persian Gulf nations perfectly” (1990: 1). He goes on to identify the “lion” in verse 8 with Great Britain because the British Petroleum Company was given half of the oil rights in Kuwait (1990: 1). At the end of the article he predicted (prior to Operation Desert Storm) that “during the upcoming war with Iraq, Israel will become involved and occupy Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. When Israel destroys Damascus, Russia will retaliate. The U.S.S.R. has a 20-year defense treaty with Syria, promising to come to Syria’s aid in case of attack. The eventual Israeli invasion of Syria will precipitate Russian involvement. Ezekiel called this the Battle of Gog and Magog” (1990: 4). Apparently Rev. Church has not consulted Dr. Edwin Yamauchi’s excellent work (1982) on the proper identification of Gog and Magog! And, with 20-20 hindsight, his predictions were not fulfilled.
Another popular prophecy teacher, Dr. Robert Lindsted, in his book Certainty of Bible Prophecy had a little more to say about this chapter. In his chapter entitled “Saddam Hussein, The Persian Gulf, and the End Times” written just prior to Operation Desert Storm, he speculated that the “chariot of men” in verse 9 are the Israeli manufactured “Merkavah” tanks, the word meaning chariot (1990: 21-22). He goes on to quote a bit more of the verse “Babylon is fallen, is fallen” and suggested “again again, two fallings, one an ancient one under the Medes and Persians, and another which could be just around the corner” (1991: 22). Interestingly, he does not quote or comment on the last part of the verse which deals with the smashing of idols.
Students of Bible prophecy have generally overlooked an important tool for understanding this chapter; mainly, the archaeologist’s spade. Archaeology has a direct bearing on this passage from two different angles. First, there are ancient inscriptions that give first hand accounts, or historical reflections, of the fall of Babylon in 689 BC. Second, there is confirmation of this destruction by the German excavation at the beginning of the 20th century. With this, let us turn our attention to Isaiah 21.
The Context of Isaiah 21
This chapter falls within the “Burden against the nations” section of the book of Isaiah (Isaiah 13-23). It was pronounced by Isaiah around 713 BC, just prior to the “14th year of the reign of King Hezekiah” (713/12 BC), in an attempt to influence Judean foreign policy. It seemed that a group within the “State Department” of Judah, led by Prime Minister Shebna (the royal steward), wanted to join an anti-Assyrian coalition of surrounding nations, lead by Merodah-baladan of Babylon. Isaiah tried to point out the futility of trusting in these foreign powers. He predicted that they would all soon be destroyed. He encouraged Hezekiah to trust only in the LORD for deliverance (Franz 1987: 28-30).
Possibilities for Historical Fulfillment
There are several candidates for the fulfillment of this passage in the history of ancient Babylon. The older commentaries stated that this was fulfilled when Cyrus captured Babylon in 539 BC. In fact, the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, translates verse 2 as, “Against me are the Elamites, and the princes of the Persians are coming against me.” The “banquet” in verse 5 was seen as Belshazzar’s feast the night of the fall of Babylon. However, when Cyrus entered Babylon he did not treat the carved images the way it was described in verse 9. In fact, “on the contrary, we are expressly assured that his entrance, save for the attack on the palace in which Belshazzar was slain, was a peaceful one, and that there was no cessation whatever of the temple worship” (Bautflower 1930: 148-149).
Another possibility is Sargon II’s campaign against Merodah-baladan in 710 BC. This possibility was first suggested by the Assyriologist George Smith and expanded on by Kleinert. George Adam Smith follows this idea in his commentary on Isaiah (nd: 1:201-204). More recently, John Hayes and Stuart Irvine, in their commentary on Isaiah, likewise adapted this view (1987: 271-276). This view, however, also has problems. The entrance of Sargon II into Babylon to assume the throne in 709 BC is described in the Assyrian sources as quite peaceful. Joan Oates in her book on Babylon states: “The cities of northern Babylonia are alleged to have welcomed the Assyrian king, throwing open their gates ‘with great rejoicing’” (1991: 116). Sargon II boastfully inscribed on the wall of his palace in Khorsabad: “Into Babylon, the city of the lord of the gods, joyfully I entered, in gladness of heart, and with a beaming countenance. I grasped the hand(s) of the great lord Marduk, and made pilgrimage (lit., completed the march) to the ‘House of the New Year’s Feast’” (ARAB 2:35). Hardly the way Isaiah described it!
The best candidate is Sennacherib’s conquest of the city in 689 BC. When Sargon II died in battle in 705 BC, his son Sennacherib ascended to the throne. In so doing, he assumed the kingship of Babylon as well. In 703 BC, Marduk-zakir-shumi II seized the throne of Babylon. Soon after, Merodah-baladan made a bid for the throne as well. Sennacherib turned his attention on him and he fled to the marshes. A Babylonian puppet, Bel-ibni, was installed as king. He lasted several years until he was replaced by Sennacherib’s son, Assur-nadin-shumi, who ruled in relative peace for about six years (699-694 BC). In 694 BC, Sennacherib launched a daring campaign against the Chaldeans on the western frontier of Elam. While Sennacherib’s forces were engaged near the Persian Gulf, some Elamites made a bold “end-run” and captured Sennacherib’s son at Sippar. The son was never heard from again, so it is assumed he was murdered by the Elamites. An Elamite puppet, Nergal-ushezib, was placed on the throne of Babylon (694 BC). The Assyrians removed him on their way back to Nineveh several months later. A certain Mushezib-Marduk seized the throne with Aramaean support. This support prompted the new king and his Elamite alliance, paid for with silver, gold, and precious stones from the treasuries of the temples in Babylon, to attack Assyria. A major battle ensued at Halule on the Tigris River. The outcome of the battle depends on whose account you believe. Sennacherib boasted a victory with 150,000 of the enemy dead. The Babylonian Chronicles said the Assyrians retreated. The fact that Sennacherib did not continue the attack suggests that he suffered a reversal so he had to regroup. In 690 BC, he returned to lay siege against Babylon (Oates 1991: 116-119).
The Bivian Inscription described the fall of Babylon in 689 BC in these terms. “In a second campaign of mine I advanced swiftly against Babylon, upon whose conquest I had determined. Like the on-coming of a storm I broke loose, and overwhelmed it like a hurricane. I completely invested that city, with mines and engines my hands [took the city]. The plunder ...... his powerful ..... whether small or great, I left none. With their corpses I filled the city squares (wide places). Shuzubu, king of Babylonia, together with his family and his [nobles], I carried off alive into my land. The wealth of that city, - silver, gold, precious stones, property and goods, I doled out (counted into the hands of) to my people and they made it their own. The gods dwelling therein, - the hands of my people took them, and they smashed them. Their property and goods they seized” (ARAB 2:151-152). That is exactly what Isaiah “saw” in verse 9. In fact, A. A. Macintosh points out, “the Assyrian word used for ‘broke them in pieces’ (ushabbiruma) is ‘radically identical to the shbr of verse 9’” (1980: 72). It was as if Isaiah “saw” (prophetically) an advance copy of the “Nineveh News” with the headlines blaring “Babylonian Gods Smashed, Assyrian Army Victorious Over Babylonia” and he lifted the words right off the page and placed them in his book. You’ll pardon the pun, but this prophecy was literally fulfilled to the letter!
Sennacherib goes on to describe the total destruction of Babylon in these terms: “The city and (its) houses, from the foundation to its top, I destroyed, I devastated, I burned with fire. The wall and outer wall, temples and gods, temple towers of bricks and earth, as many as there were, I razed and dumped them into the Arahtu Canal. Through the midst of that city I dug canals, I flooded its site (lit., ground) with water, and the very foundations thereof (lit., the structure of its foundation) I destroyed. I made its destruction more complete than that by a flood. That in days to come the site of that city, and (its) temples and gods, might not be remembered, I completely blotted it out with (floods) of water and made it like a meadow” (ARAB 2:152).
Is it any wonder that Isaiah predicted the destruction of Babylon in similar words? “And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms, the beauty of the Chaldeans’ pride, will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It will never be inhabited, nor will it be settled from generation to generation ...” (13: 19-20a). He later wrote, “’for I will rise up against them,’ says the LORD of Hosts, ‘and cut off from Babylon the name and remnant, and offspring and posterity,’ says the LORD. ‘I will also make it a possession for porcupine, and marshes of muddy water; I will sweep it with the broom of destruction,’ says the LORD of Host” (14: 22-23). That is exactly what happened in 689 BC!
Esarhaddon, after building a new city of Babylon eight years later, reflected on what happened during his father’s reign. He comments that the Arahtu overflowed and turned the city into ruins, and became a wasteland. Reeds and poplars grew in the abandoned city, while birds and fish lived there. The gods and goddesses of Babylon left their shrines and went up to heaven and the people fled for unknown lands (Brinkman 1983: 39). However, nowhere does he mention the devastating deeds of his father. Brinkman concludes that the purpose of this is that, “within a narrative structured around divine involvement in human affairs, the former debasement of the city and its abandonment by god and man acted as a perfect literary foil for its glorious resurrection under Esarhaddon and the restoration of its exiled deities and citizens” (1983: 42).
Nabonidus, the king of Babylon from 555-539 BC, reflected on Sennacherib’s deeds in these words. “[Against Akkad] he (i.e. Sennacherib) had evil intentions, he thought out crimes [agai]nst the country (Babylon), [he had] no mercy for the inhabitants of the co[untry]. With evil intentions against Babylon he let its sanctuaries fall in disrepair, disturbed the(ir) foundation outlines and let the cultic rites fall into oblivion. He (even) led the princely Marduk away and brought (him) into Ashur” (ANET 309). In the footnote on “disturbed their foundation outline”, the meaning is “Lit.: ‘to blot out; (suhhu). This seems to have been done to make it impossible to retrace the outlines of the original foundation-walls and therefore to rebuild the sanctuary.” Is this what the excavations show?
The German Excavation of Babylon
Morris Jastrow wrote in his monumental work, The Civilization of Babylonia and Assyria, in 1915, “The result of fourteen years of steady and uninterrupted excavations has been to reveal ... in the case of Babylon the excavations have shown that King Sennacherib of Assyria, did not exaggerate when, in his inscriptions, he told us that weary of the frequent uprisings in the south against Assyrian control, he decided to set an example by completely destroying the city of Babylon --- razing its large structures to the ground and placing the city under water in order to make the work of destruction complete. This happened in the year 689 B.C. While some remains of the older Babylon have come to light (chiefly through the discovery of clay tablets belonging to earlier periods), the city unearthed by the German Oriental Society is the new city, the creation chiefly of Nebopolassar (625-604 B.C.), the founder of the neo-Babylonian dynasty, and of his famous son, the great Nebuchnezzar II (604-561 B.C.)” (1915: 55).
An example of the earlier city is found in the Southern Citadel. Koldewey described the area thus: “North-west of the palace of Nabopolassar, the deep below the three fortification walls which here lie in front of the southern Citadel, there are remains of four ancient walls, the discovery of which has been of great importance for the topography of Babylon. ... The wall of Sargon (S on the diagram) is the thickest, but with its crown its only attains a height of .27 metres below zero, where it is covered over with a thick layer of asphalt” (1914: 137). In the section of the Southern Citadel, one can clearly see the wall of Sargon is below the level of the Arachtu (or some would say, the Euphrates River). This demonstrates the fulfillment of the words of Isaiah 13:19-20; 14:22-23; 21:9.
Some students of Bible prophecy might question whether this destruction was a literal fulfillment of the words of Isaiah. He said God would overthrow Babylon like Sodom and Gomorrah and it would never be inhabited again. After all, Esarhaddon rebuilt the city only eight years later. I think an archaeologist would understand this better than most. We know that when a city is destroyed by a military campaign or natural calamities it falls into ruins. When someone comes back to rebuild the city, they either fix up the previous buildings, if there is anything left, or reuse the stones that may be scattered on the surface to build an entirely new city. When Esarhaddon surveyed what used to be Babylon he found an uninhabited marshy area with some ruins of houses and palaces inhabited by wildlife. The city that he built was a completely new city on top of the previous one. So Isaiah, in truth, could say, “Babylon ... will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It will never be inhabited, nor will it be settled from generation to generation.” And, “I will also make it a possession for the porcupine, and marshes of muddy water.” The city that Sennacherib destroyed was completely covered over when Esarhaddon rebuilt it so that level was never inhabited again. Esarhaddon built a completely new city on top of the marshy ruins of the old one. The words of Isaiah were literally fulfilled. I do not believe there is any need to speculate whether Saddam Hussein is in any of these passages. They were already fulfilled in Isaiah’s day.
The Elamites and Medians – Isaiah 21:1
A. A. Macintosh has seen the phrase in verse 2, “Go up, Elam! Besiege, O Media! All its sighing I have made to cease” as a depiction of the attitude of the inhabitants of Jerusalem. They were relying on Babylon and its king (cf. Isa, 39:1) to defeat the Assyrians. In reality, this was the Judeans cheering for the Elamite/Medians/Babylonian coalition. Yet Isaiah’s message from the Lord is “that Babylon will fall to the Assyrians and reliance upon her is as foolish as reliance upon any other foreign power” (1980: 112).
The Conclusion of the Matter
I think it is safe to say that the words of Isaiah were literally fulfilled by the destruction of Sennacherib in 689 BC. There is no need to look for a fulfillment in Operation Desert Storm, or say that we are at “half-time” now and the second half will resume soon.1
The purpose of Bible prophecy is to bring people to faith in the Lord Jesus Christ as their Savior and to encourage believers in the Lord Jesus to live lives pleasing to Him so we will not be ashamed at His coming (1 John 2:28-3:3). The purpose is not to make fancy charts, try to identify who the big toe is in Daniel’s image, or play “pin-the-tail-on-the-Antichrist”!
Interestingly, the prophet Jeremiah used similar language to warn Nebuchadnezzar of the coming destruction of Babylon (Jer. 50-51). It was written in a letter and sent to the courts of Babylon (Jer. 51:59-64) to be a reminder and warning to Nebuchadnezzar that God had acted in the past and fulfilled His Word and He could be counted on to act again in the near future. I believe that the Spirit of God used Jeremiah’s inspired words, as well as the humbling process that God put Nebuchadnezzar through (Dan. 4), and the prayers of the Judean believers in Babylonia (Jer. 29:7; cf. Dan. 6:10), to bring him to faith in the God of Heaven. In so doing, Nebuchadnezzar averted the judgment of God on Babylon for the time being (Jer. 18:6-12; cf. 26:17-19; Jonah 3:10; 4:2). Jeremiah 50 and 51 were not literally fulfilled, nor does it have to be because it fulfilled the purpose of Bible prophecy which was to bring Nebuchadnezzar to faith. After all, isn’t that what Bible prophecy is all about? To bring men and women to faith and change the way we live. Even so, come Lord Jesus!
 When this essay was written in 1993, the Second Gulf War had not started.
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This paper was first read at the Evangelical Theological Society meeting on November 18, 1993 in Tyson’s Corner, Virginia.