Q293 : The Fall of Babylon to the Medes (Isaiah 13:17-19)

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Q293 : The Fall of Babylon to the Medes (Isaiah 13:17-19)

Minister Garland,

I've scoured the Internet trying to get an answer to this question.

I believe Babylon wasn't forced into war against the Medes/Persians as would have been expected, many historians have said there wasn't a bloody war between the kingdoms.

I believe God is going to destroy Babylon as He's said in Isaiah and Jeremiah 50, 51; Revelation 14;18. I believe it will become completely desolate as written in scripture.

My dilemma is: Isaiah 13:17-21. I've not found anyone so far who will explain this scripture in light of how Babylon was taken over by the Medes?

One prominent theologian said America was the Babylon and America was certainly in scripture, I totally disagree with him. He has a long laundry list of reasons to justify his findings, I almost feel sorry for him. I have pondered whether or not his findings were premised upon that very scripture. I understand this country has rejected God in so many ways, first of all, I don't believe America is or ever was a godly nation, besides, God never made promises to this nation, and we were never under theocratic rule. I do believe this country will be judged as other godless nations will be.

I've said all that to say, would you please explain the discrepancies in Isaiah 13:17-21 and Jeremiah 50-51; and Revelation 18?

Dr. Woods, Walvoord, Pentecost, Woodhead and others have not addressed this scripture. Please help...

A293 : by Tony Garland

First, let me commend you on your attention to detail and tenacious desire to wrestle with the text to understand the details. Many people read right past the passage without considering the complications that arise in Isaiah’s prediction of the fall of Babylon, especially as concerns the mention of the Medes and the way in which Babylon is catastrophically judged. This is, without a doubt, one of the most complex prophetic passages to get a handle on. (Which is also why some of the details tend to be glossed over in silence by numerous commentators. They struggle with the same interpretive issues!)

The first thing to consider is the time period when Isaiah made this prediction. It would seem that all of Isaiah’s predictions were made prior to circa 700 B.C.2 Thus, the predictions concern events which occurred after this time.3

Another consideration, as you and I both seem to agree, many aspects of Babylon’s predicted overthrowa have not found fulfillment in history past. This passage contains the oft-encountered prophetic pattern of multiple referents where a single passage mixes elements from different historical events.4 Unless one is prepared to pass off the cataclysmic finality of Babylon’s overthrow as nothing more than a literary device (hyperbole), then it seems we must conclude that no matter the near-term historical event included in the words of the prophet, there remains a yet-future event which is also part of the prophetic mix. For those of us of the futurist persuasion, this future event concerns the final, global “Day of the Lord” which is the subject of various New Testament predictions (e.g., 1Th. 5:2; 2Th. 2:2; 2Pe. 3:10; Rev. 18).

What then, to make of the mention of “Medes” in Isaiah 13:17? Especially in light of what is said concerning their cruel participation in Babylon’s destruction in light of the historical reality of how the Medo-Persian empire, under Cyrus, took Babylon at the end of Belshazzar’s reign (Dan. 5:31)—an event which the Greek historians Xenophon and Herodotus indicate was fairly peaceful?5 (We also know this from the subsequent history of Babylon, including Alexander’s plan to make it his capital, not to mention the ongoing occupation of the city by Jews well into the New Testament era (1Pe. 5:13) — even producing the Babylonian Talmud circa 500 A.D.)

There are two main views I've encountered among those who believe the passage takes in the ultimate future destruction of Babylon:

View #1 - The mention of “Medes” identifies their descendants who participate in the destruction of rebuilt Babylon in the ultimate Day of the Lord yet to come.

The difficulty with understanding Babylon’s defeat as eschatological is the reference to the Medes participating in its destruction (v. 17). This would automatically lead to the conclusion that Babylon’s fall, described here, took place at the hands of Cyrus the Great and his Medo-Persian kingdom in 539 BC. However, in light of the evidence pointing to an eschatological defeat in this passage and the rest of the Bible (see the comments on Jr 50–51 and Rv 17–18), it is preferable to view the mention of the Medes as a reference to one of the nations at the end that will come against Babylon. [Rydelnik & Spencer, Isaiah]6

The Medes are located north of Babylon in what is now southern Turkey and northern Iraq. (It’s possible that the modern-day Kurds are descendants of the ancient Medes.) . . . Babylon’s fall will coincide with Israel’s final restoration (Isa. 14:1-2). [Arnold Fruchtenbaum, Isaiah]7

The Medes were an people of Indo-Iranian (Aryan) origin who inhabited the western and north-western portion of present-day Iran. By the 6th century BC (prior to the Persian invasion) the Medes were able to establish an empire that stretched from Aran (the modern-day Republic of Azerbaijan) to Central Asia and Afghanistan. Today's population of the western part of the Iranian Plateau (including many Persian-speakers, Kurds and Azeris) consider themselves to be descended from the ancient Medes.8

In this view, Isaiah’s passage is much like Ezekiel 38-39: an ancient people group of the prophet’s day serves to identify a region from which their descendants will participate in a future event.9

View #2 - The passage mixes references to three different destructions of Babylon.

The three different destructions of Babylon would be: 1) by the Assyrians (689 B.C.); 2) by the Medo-Persian Empire (539 A.D.; Dan. 5:31); and 3) yet future during the Great Tribulation (Rev. 18-19). In this view, the specific cruelties of the Medes have in view their participation, as subjects of Assyrian rule serving in war, during Assyria’s overthrow of Babylon in 689 B.C. Even though the Medes play a key role in the other two overthrows of Babylon, the mention of “dashing young men to pieces” and having “no pity on the fruit of the womb” would relate, in the main, to this first event. (It may also convey the cruelty of their descendants if they participate in the final overthrow of Babylon future to our day.)

Isaiah wrote these messages [chapters 13-23] when Assyria was about to attack the Syro-Palestine area. The coming devastation caused by the Assyrians would have a tremendous impact on Israel and also on other nations of the Near East. The culmination of Assyrian attacks came when Sennacherib, king of Assyria, sacked the city of Babylon in 689 B.C., thus showing that Babylon, the greatest city in its day, was not immune to the advancing Assyrians. Many commentators have assumed that Isaiah’s message in 13:1–14:27 about the fall of Babylon referred to its fall to Medo-Persia in 539. However, it seems better to see this section as pertaining to the Assyrian attack on Babylon in 689. This ties in better with the Assyrian threat Isaiah had written about in 7:17–8:10, beginning with the attacks under the rule of Tiglath-Pileser III (745–727). . . . Each of the three great writing prophets included prophecies about God’s judgment on Gentile nations (Isa. 13–23; Jer. 46–51; Ezek. 25–32). Isaiah and Jeremiah emphasized the destruction of Babylon (though referring to different destructions) whereas Egypt is singled out for severe judgment in Ezekiel’s prophecies. . . . The statement I will stir up against them the Medes (v. 17) has caused much discussion among Bible students. Many interpreters, because of the mention of the fall of Babylon (v. 19), assume that Isaiah was (in vv. 17–18) prophesying Babylon’s fall in 539 (cf. Dan. 5:30–31) to the Medes and Persians. However, that view has some difficulties. In the Medo-Persian takeover in 539 there was very little change in the city; it was not destroyed so it continued on much as it had been. But Isaiah 13:19–22 speaks of the destruction of Babylon. Also the word “them,” against whom the Medes were stirred up (v. 17), were the Assyrians (referred to in vv. 14–16), not the Babylonians. It seems better, then, to understand this section as dealing with events pertaining to the Assyrians’ sack of Babylon in December 689 b.c. [Martin, Isaiah]10

As Erlandsson points out, (p. 91), the Assyrian king Sennacherib, who detested Babylon, utterly devastated it in 689 B.C. This was, perhaps, a partial fulfillment of the prophecy given here (vv.20–22), just as some of the messianic prophecies in Isaiah received an anticipatory fulfillment before their final realization in Christ (see comment at 7:14–17). Babylon was quickly rebuilt, and no comparable destruction took place in 539 B.C. [Grogan, Isaiah]11

Although details concerning the condition of the Medes during Assyrian rule are somewhat sketchy, various sources indicate they were subject to Assyria and probably would have fought on her behalf.

Medes lived as members of the royal court at Kalhu under Tiglath-pileser and in significant numbers among the inhabitants of the city of Assur from at least the reign of Sargon; under Esarhaddon (681-669 BC), they are attested as bodyguards of the Assyrian royal family.12

From the 10th to the late 7th centuries BC, the western parts of Media fell under the domination of the vast Neo-Assyrian Empire based in northern Mesopotamia, which stretched from Cyprus to Iran, and from the Caucasus to Egypt and the north of the Arabian Peninsula. Assyrian kings such as Tiglath-Pileser III, Sargon II, Sennacherib, Esarhaddon, Ashurbanipal and Ashur-etil-ilani imposed Vassal Treaties upon the Median rulers, and also protected them from predatory raids by marauding Scythians and Cimmerians.13

The local rulers entered vassals treaties with the Assyrian king which gave them protection— against the empire’s aggression but also against other powerful territorial states such as Mannea and Urartu—in return for their loyalty in war and peace and regular tribute payments, which were expected in the form of horses (unlike Assyria’s vassals elsewhere, whose tribute was calculated in metal moneys). . . . The last mention of Medes in an official Assyrian inscription dates to c.656 and describes how three city lords rebelled against Assurbanipal (r. 668–c.627 BC), only to be punished by seeing their cities sacked before being brought to Nineveh before the king (Radner 2003: 61–2). . . . No further Assyrian sources are available that discuss the political situation in Western Iran and would allow us to bridge the forty-year gap before we see Cyaxares leading a united Median army into what is today northern Iraq, allying with Nabopolassar of Babylon after the sack of Assur in 614 and succeeding in bringing down the Assyrian Empire with the fall of Nineveh in 612.14

Eventually, the Medes collaborated with Babylon to overthrow Assyria, but this was after the sack of Babylon by Assyria when the Medes remained under the sway of Assyria. This is what leads some interpreters to see portions of Isaiah’s passage as pertaining to Babylon’s fall in 689 A.D., not just the end of Israel’s captivity under Babylon in 539 A.D.

My own understanding leans toward view #1. I certainly can see the possibility of view #2, but my knowledge of Median history during Assyrian ascendancy is fragmentary so I’m not well placed to comment on this possibility.15 Whichever view one takes, it still seems plain that Isaiah’s passage, along with those of other OT prophets and the NT (mainly Revelation) indicate that Babylon will once more rise as a city to be cataclysmically overthrown in the events immediately preceding the Second Coming.


1.Ref-1297, 6:103
2.“The first period of his ministry was in the reigns of Uzziah (792–740 B.C.) and Jotham (750–738 as regent, 738–732 as sole ruler), in which he called for repentance without success, and consequently had to announce judgment and banishment. The second period extended from the commencement of the reign of Ahaz (735–715) to that of the reign of Hezekiah; the third from the accession of Hezekiah (c. 715) to the fifteenth year of his reign.” Ref-0185, Isaiah
3.“If, as Erlandsson maintains (see the general comment at the beginning of this section), this oracle [Isaiah 13] dates from 701 B.C., it is interesting that Isaiah uses the analogy of the overthrow of Sodom and Gomorrah that we find also in 1:9–10, a passage probably dating from the same period. [Grogan, Isaiah]”1
4.For example: Isaiah 7:13-16 refers to a child born in Ahab’s day and the far future virgin birth of Jesus by Mary. This is not the same as the less precise phrase double fulfilment because different portions of the passage describe different events and the same event does not occur multiple times.
5.I’m in the process of completing chapter 5 of my Daniel commentaryb which discusses the fall of Babylon to Medo-Persia in greater detail. I hope to have it posted to the Internet “soon.”
6.Ref-1411, 1029
7.Ref-1378, 131
8.HOTM, Magi and Enchanters of Old
9.As with Ezekiel 38-39 and some other passages, there remains the challenge of how to understand passages which seem to apply to the future, but describe the use of ancient weaponryc.
10.Ref-0038, 1:1058-1060
11.Ref-1297, 6:103
12.UCL, Assyrian empire builders - The Medes, purveyors of fine horses.
13.WP, Medes
14.AATM, 444,451
15.I find Martin’s assertion that the word “them” (Isa. 13:17) refers to Assyrians unpersuasive. The context of the passage concerns Babylonia (e.g., Isa. 13:1, 19), not Assyria.


AATMKaren Radner, Assyria and the Medesd
HOTMHistory of the Medese
Ref-0038John Walvoord and Roy. B. Zuck, The Bible Knowledge Commentary (Wheaton, IL: SP Publications, 1983).
Ref-0185Merrill F. Unger, R. K. Harrison and Howard Frederic Vos, New Unger's Bible Dictionary (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1988).
Ref-1297Frank E. Gaebelein, ed., The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996).
Ref-1378Tim LaHaye, Ed Hindson, Exploring Bible Prophecy From Genesis to Revelation (Eugene, OR: Harvest House Publishers, 2006). ISBN:978-0-7369-4803-6f.
Ref-1411Michael A. Rydelnik, J. Spencer, eds. The Moody Bible Commentary (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2014).
UCLUniversity College Londong
WPWikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medes

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