"Apocalyptic literature;" or prophesy in the apocalyptic style.
Apocalyptic literature is particularly strange to us in the West, as it is the only literature type in the Bible for which we do not have a corresponding style. Some of the peculiar hallmarks of this literature type include: symbolic language making frequent use of hyperbole; focus on a coming divine judgment on a people or a nation often referred to as a “visitation” or “coming” of God; often, apocalyptic literature is written in verse, or in poetic form. In my opinion, these distinctive are vitally important to keep in mind when reading Biblical prophecy that is likely apocalyptic in nature.
Isaiah 13 declares itself to be an “oracle concerning Babylon,” and it’s an excellent example of the apocalyptic style. It is also an passage to learn from because we know a great deal about the fulfillment of this prophesy from both the book of Daniel, the historian Herodotus, and modern archeology.
Vs. 9 – Behold, the day of the Lord is coming, Cruel, with fury and burning anger, To make the land a desolation; And He will exterminate its sinners from it.
The second half of this verse didn’t happen. The land wasn’t made desolate in 539 BC, in fact, Babylon remained a large and important city until well after the life of Alexander the Great. Neither did God literally exterminate sinners from the land around Babylon; sinners lived in the city throughout the time of the Medes and the Persians and through the time of the Greeks as well. In fact, there are records in existence that relate the continuation of pagan sacrifices in the city temples until at least 275 BC, 264 years after the event predicted in Isaiah 13.
While this didn’t literally take place, it paints a picture of severe judgment against the Babylonian empire and its people because of their great sin before God. This part is clearly true and, I think, the intended image Isaiah wished to convey.
None of these things literally occurred in the fall of the Babylonian empire. There were just as many men in the 5th century BC as there were in the 6th, even in and around Babylon. While none of us can say whether the heavens trembled or not, it seems pretty clear that the earth was not shaken from its place.
Vs. 12 13 – I will make mortal man scarcer than pure gold and mankind than
the gold of Ophir. Therefore I will make the heavens tremble, And the earth will
be shaken from it’s place, At the fury of the Lord of hosts, In the day of His
This type of language, the shaking of heaven and earth from their place, is not an uncommon image when the author desires to communicate serious and significant changes. In this case, the greatest empire in the world at this time, Babylon, is going to be overthrown, in a single night no less, and replaced by an entirely new power, the Medes and the Persians.
Vs. 19, 20 – And Babylon, the beauty of kingdoms, the glory of the Chaldeans’
pride, Will be as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah. It will never be
inhabited or lived in from generation to generation; Nor will the Arab pitch his
tent there, Nor will shepherds make their flocks lie down there.
Verse 17 places the time of this whole prophesy unmistakably in 539 BC at the overthrow of the Babylonian empire by the Medes and Persians, yet none of the things in verses 19 and 20 actually happened. God did not burn Babylon off the face of the earth as He did to Sodom and Gomorrah, but it continued to be an important city in the hands of both the Medes and Persians and the Greeks; it was inhabited and lived in for many generations following the Babylonian overthrow.
However, in another sense, God’s judgment on Babylon is exactly like His judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah. In both cases the cities, or nation, under judgment completely vanished in an instant. Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed in a moment by fire from heaven, while Babylon was completely supplanted by an entirely new empire in the space of a night. In both cases the entities under judgment ceased to exist in a virtual instant.
We need to understand the writing in the way the author intended it to be understood: The point of the prophesy is that God is going to bring judgment on Babylon and that the tool of that judgment will be the Medes and the Persians and that the changes brought about by this judgment will be significant.
This is very standard hyperbolic language which is used regularly in this type of Ancient Near Eastern literature. Rather than conveying actual events, its purpose was to convey importance and significance. We know this from many examples this style of literature found in both Biblical and extra-Biblical documents.
For example, consider the extra-Biblical prologue and epilogue written for the book of Esther and attributed by the author to Mordecai:
Prologue:At the end of the book of Esther this epilogue is added:
Behold, noise and confusion, thunders and earthquake, tumult upon the earth! And behold, two great dragons came forward, both ready to fight, and they roared terribly. And at their roaring every nation prepared for war, to fight against the nation of the righteous. And behold, a day of darkness and gloom, tribulation and distress, affliction and great tumult upon the earth! And the whole righteous nation was troubled, they feared the evils that threatened them, and were ready to perish. Then they cried to God and from their cry, as though from a tiny spring there came a great river with abundant water, light came, and the sun arose, and the lowly were exalted and consumed those held in honor.
I remember the dream that I had concerning these matters, and none of them has
failed to be fulfilled. The tiny stream which became a river, and there was light and the sun and abundant water–the river is Esther, whom the King married and became queen. The two dragons are Haman and myself. The nations are those gathered to destroy the name of the Jews. And my nation, this is Israel, who cried out to God and were saved.
You can see how the story of Esther is retold in this apocalyptic paragraph and how the symbols, similar to those found in Isaiah and other apocalyptic passages in the Bible, play a role in depicting the story. I think that from this example we can see how apocalyptic literature tends to retell (or foretell, in the prophets’ case) history in fantastic imagery and sensational symbols. I think the same thing is going on in the case of Isaiah 13, and a number of other passages in the Bible. There certainly is a precedent for it.
It is a mistake to apply the same literal standard to all prophesy in the Bible, nor is it a good way to interpret scripture. Taking the time to examine passages like Isaiah 13, and the extra biblical prologue and epilogue of Esther can give us insight into a style of writing wholly unfamiliar to us, and give us tools for understanding other scriptures where the fulfillment has not been provided.