At first glance, this oracle seems to encompass a final day of judgment and wrath that sweeps over the entire globe in an event still future to us today.
Yet, tucked into this far-reaching oracle are also mentions of Babylon, an empire long since crumbled into dust, with only the remnants of its grandeur ensconced in museums here and there.
What do we make of this strange juxtaposition?
Let us go back and examine what Isaiah saw.
Day of the Lord
Early in Isaiah’s book, there is an echo of the later prophet Zechariah’s oracle.
In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains
and shall be raised above the hills;
all the nations shall stream to it.
Many peoples shall come and say,
“Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.”
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
[God] shall judge between the nationsIsaiah 2:2-4 (NRSV, brackets mine)
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
We find out from the prophet Zechariah that the Day of the Lord will begin when Messiah returns and plants His feet on the Mount of Olives, bringing with Him His consecrated ones.
Mount of Olives
See, a day is coming for the Lord …For I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem to battle … On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the mount shall withdraw northward and the other half southward.Zechariah 14:1-4 (NRSV)
Signs in the Sky
Accompanying this epic earthquake will be ominous celestial portents.
For the stars of the heavens and their constellationsIsaiah 13:10 (NRSV)
will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
and the moon will not shed its light.
Jesus also described this scene in Matthew’s gospel, quoting from Isaiah’s prophecy.
“Immediately after the suffering of those days
the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;
the stars will fall from heaven,
and the powers of heaven will be shaken.
“Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see ‘the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven’ with power and great glory. And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.”Jesus on the Apocalypse, Matthew 24:29-31 (NRSV)
Isaiah continued by adding more details of this massive convulsing that will cause the solar system to shudder and the earth to shake.
Therefore I will make the heavens tremble,Isaiah 13:13 (NRSV)
and the earth will be shaken out of its place
at the wrath of the Lord of hosts
in the day of his fierce anger.
This is what Jesus described as well when He said, “and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.“
So, Isaiah was seeing the far future time when Messiah would return in power and glory to judge all the nations of the earth.
But there was a foreshadowing of this judgement when Jesus died.
Foreshadowing of the Cross
When we put all the gospels together, we find out that when Jesus died the sky suddenly turned black for three hours, and there was an earthquake so severe it literally shook the dead from the graves, and tore the temple curtain in two.
Perhaps from the heavenly perspective, the swirl of God’s wrath against evil, and the rage of all the dark powers that seek to envelope humankind created the kind of pressure system that shook the physical universe. But the calm that came after that cosmic storm was accomplished through God’s great victory over corruption and death.
And God’s victory is ours as well.
Shades of Babylon
As authentication of the veracity of this far future prophecy, Isaiah now turned to the destruction of Babylon in the near-term.
The prophet provided horrific details of the terrible massacre the Assyrians would bring down on the Babylonians just twelve years after Isaiah delivered this oracle. Among the details were the unspeakable deaths of infants and children and the savaging of women. Innocent lives, not responsible for the decisions the leaders of their nations made, still would endure horror and trauma, and would still be put to death.
It is one of the hard questions people ask of God. And answers are hard to come by.
How is it that the innocent suffer at the hands of the guilty? How is it that the guilty seem so often to escape without consequences?
All the people in a nation go through anguish under the judgment that has been brought against their government when it is set in opposition to God.
What decisions do current leaders make that have brought difficulty and misfortune on the people they govern?
For that matter, in what ways do you and I bring hardship into the lives of those who must live through the self-serving decisions we make?
Sennacherib’s son and successor rebuilt Babylon which again fell to the Medes, as Isaiah foretold in verse 17, a hundred and fifty years later. That story is told in the Book of Daniel. For the next five hundred years Babylon had its ups and downs, but by the time Jesus was born, Babylon was just a pile of rubble,
And Babylon, the glory of kingdoms,Isaiah 13:19-22 (NRSV)
the splendor and pride of the Chaldeans,
will be like Sodom and Gomorrah
when God overthrew them.
It will never be inhabited
or lived in for all generations;
Arabs will not pitch their tents there;
shepherds will not make their flocks lie down there.
But wild animals will lie down there,
and its houses will be full of howling creatures;
there ostriches will live,
and there goat-demons will dance.
Hyenas will cry in its towers
and jackals in the pleasant palaces;
its time is close at hand;
and its days will not be prolonged.
In the Apocalypse of John, this final and complete fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy against Babylon, whether as a specific city, or as a world culture, will come to pass.
The Lord reigns over all rivals
Almighty God is not a local deity, the God of America, or the God of the west. Other people groups do not have equally powerful gods with their own turf. God is the Lord of the nations, every nation of the earth.
As the apostle Paul said,
The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth,
- does not live in shrines made by human hands,
- nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything,
since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.
From one ancestor he made all peoples to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps fumble about for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us.
For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
‘For we, too, are his offspring.’
“Since we are God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the deity is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of mortals.
While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent,
because [God] has fixed a day on which [God] will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom [God] has appointed, and of this [God] has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”Apostle Paul, Acts 17:24-31 (NRSV, brackets mine)