The prophecies of Isaiah against other nations in 13-23 took me a while because I had to read both Goldingay’s treatment in The Theology of the Book of Isaiah and those chapters in Isaiah. What I mean is that, while the first 12 chapters of Isaiah contained material that I was already familiar with, these next chapters I had not read for a long time.
Goldingay says that there are three reasons that Isaiah goes on from addressing Judah to talking about other nations. First, Isaiah wants to allay the fear people have of their heavily armed and powerful neighbors. These nations may seem strong, but God is in control. Second, he wanted to oppose Judah’s inclination to make alliances with some of these nations and to trust them rather than God. And finally, he talks about some nations that were more irrelevant to Judah–like Dedan way out in the Arabian desert–to show the universality of God. God’s reach is even to far away and exotic places.
When I reread these chapters, I was impressed that the first nation addressed and the nation most featured is Babylon. During the life of Isaiah ben Amoz, the founder of the Isaiah prophetic school, Assyria was the more existential threat. But these prophecies were no doubt arranged later after the Babylonian conquest.
There is no reason to think that they did not originate with Isaiah himself. During Isaiah’s time Babylon was a rising power. So he likely did issue prophecies against Babylon. But if they consist of short items, their arrangement by the disciples and successors of Isaiah is almost as important as their content.
Goldingay sees Babylon as the great representative of all superpowers and empires. There is something to this. But I would also point out that in Second Isaiah the Persian Empire is in some contrast to the Babylonian Empire. So empire as an abstract concept comes up against the concrete actions of empires, which are not all the same.
What I wondered about was that after the initial prophecy about Babylon’s destruction comes an oracle against the Philistines. Is this meant as a way of marking Philistia and Babylon as historical bookends of the Davidic dynasty? Philistia was the first enemy and Babylon the last. This is my speculation. Goldingay doesn’t mention it.
He does talk about the fact that in Isaiah’s day the Egyptian empire was ruled by a Sudanese (Cushite) dynasty and that this is reflected in the very short chapter 20.
All these prophecies fit into the Israelite expectation of the “Day of Yahweh” (see 2:12). Perhaps this was not so much a specific day in the future as a reference to the fact that over against all proud human power God will have his day. It is not a prophecy of the end of history. The Day happens in history and it can happen more than once.
Amid all the horrific details about the coming devastation of the nations, there are passages of good news for Judah. The little oracle in Isaiah 14:1-2 is a good example:
For the Lord will have mercy on Jacob, and will yet choose Israel, and set them in their own land: and the strangers shall be joined with them, and they shall cleave to the house of Jacob.
And the people shall take them, and bring them to their place: and the house of Israel shall possess them in the land of the Lord for servants and handmaids: and they shall take them captives, whose captives they were; and they shall rule over their oppressors (KJV).
Properly understood, this is good news for the people of Babylon and the other nations. They are the strangers who will be joined with Israel. It is the kings and generals who are the captors who will become captives.
The healing of the nations mentioned in Second (exilic) Isaiah has a precedent in the historical (preexilic) Isaiah. Goldingay, in an aside, suggests that the reason God chose Canaan, a place where Asia, Europe and Africa cross paths, as the home of his people is so that they can fulfill their purpose to bless all nations.