Watchman, What of the Night: The Prophet as Town Watchman in Isaiah 21:11-12

In my continuing series on the Biblical Way of War, I would like to comment on a short and relatively obscure prophecy and its demonstration of the “international relations” awareness of Isaiah and, by implication, the prophets of God in general.  Though this prophecy is short and appears to have been fulfilled over 2600 years ago, it is noteworthy for the warning of a gentile people by an Israelite prophet who served as a divinely inspired “town watchman,” revealing one of the tasks of the prophet to warn, and also one aspect of the biblical way of war to provide that warning even to outsiders, as a sign of God’s sovereignty and omniscience.  Prophecy against ungodly nations was itself an aspect of the biblical way of war in showing God’s control of history, often (as is the case in this prophecy) with the offer of evangelism and repentance given along with the warning.

The Prophecy of Isaiah 21:11-12

Isaiah 21:11-12 reads as follows:  “The burden against Dumah.  He calls to me out of Seir, “Watchman, what of the night?  Watchman, what of the night?”  The watchman said, “The morning comes, and also the night.  If you will inquire, inquire; Return!  Come back!”  Though we will shortly enter into the thorny question of geopolitics in examining the location of Dumah and its importance, let us examine what this verse is saying first.

The prophecy is said to be a burden against Dumah, about which much can be said, most of it very obscure.  The fact that this prophecy was a burden suggests that it was an unpleasant task involving judgment.  The reference to Seir suggests that this particular place is related to the Edomites, who dwelt at this time in Seir, though the Bible does comment that the Arabian allies of the Edomites were beginning to infiltrate the area of Edom during the precaptivity time (600’s BC), as was recorded in Obadiah (verses 6 and 7, which state that Edom would be betrayed by members of its own Arab “confederacy”).  The prophet Isaiah responds to the request of the people of Dumah for his report on his “watch” with an unpleasant reply:  “the morning comes, and also the night,” showing that relief from Assyrian domination would be temporary and followed by more foreign domination, which happened when the Babylonians took great interest in control of northern Arabia.  The prophecy itself ends with a gentle evangelistic call for the people of Dumah to inquire if they so wish, to return and come back to the prophet for instruction.  Apparently that will was not present, though, and the call went unheeded.

A Historical Note on Dumah

As I mentioned earlier, Dumah is a very obscure place with regards to biblical history.  Joshua 15:52 mentions Dumah as a city in Canaan, in the mountain country, near a city called Arab, but nothing more is said of this Dumah in scripture [1].  The Dumah of Isaiah 21 is understood to be the people of the Adummatu, whose capital city was Adummatu also.  Presumably, these people were the descendants of the obscure Dumah, the sixth son of Ishmael (Genesis 25:14, 1 Chronicles 1:30). The ruler of this people during the time of Sennacherib was said to be Haza’il, king of the Arabs (which looks similar to Hazael of Syrian fame) and the city itself was a Nabatean Arab city that was the gateway to Northern Arabia and a major oasis at the intersection of various important trade routes [1].

From this information it would be clear why the people of Dumah would wish for news from Isaiah.  Here was an Arab tribe that enjoyed its freedom, wished to trade, and was unhappy about being attacked and exploited by the Assyrians and longed for a return to the status quo ante of freedom and autonomy for Northern Arabia.  Unfortunately, that was not in the cards, as the interest of Mesopotamian empires in the controlling the trade of Northern Arabia would mark the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Roman, and Byzantine periods.  In fact, the Arabs themselves were not to find themselves “free” from foreign domination until the time of Mohammad, and that meant an Arab Empire controlled by the Hejaz and ruled from Syria or Iraq rather than a return to the dates of small city states and confederations with a great deal of freedom.  The days of freedom for the Arab tribes like that of Dumah looked grim, and Isaiah’s message of repentance fell on deaf ears.

The Prophet as Town Watchman

Let us examine, though, why Isaiah would have a prophecy for an obscure Arab tribe anyway, though.  We must realize for one that God is the Creator and Father of all humanity, not merely Israel, and that He wishes to gather up people from all tribes and nations of the earth to Him (a fact borne out repeatedly in books like Zechariah and Galatians, and Isaiah).  In order to understand what Isaiah was doing giving God’s prophecy to Dumah, we must realize that God is concerned about the well being of all of humanity, not merely that part of humanity that we belong to.  Then we may see that God’s desire for all to be saved means that God does not play favorites and ignore others.

Second, this particular passage shows that prophets in the Bible were deeply interested in the global geopolitics of the time and provided advice from God about the course of action nations should take with regards to the momentous events going on around them.  The fact that this advice was seldom followed does not mean that the advice was not inspired, but the advice was often unpleasant and unpopular with the masses.  For example, the Bible shows repeated warnings not to ally with the “broken reed” of Egypt (Isaiah 36:6, 2 Kings 18:21), and also warnings later on for Judah to submit to Babylon rather than face destruction (Jeremiah 27:12-18 being one of these).  What king would not appreciate having God’s advice given directly to him by a prophet, if he believed that God was truly in control instead of he himself.

Let us look also at the role of the prophecy even after its fulfillment.  Given the obscurity of the recipient of the prophecy and the lack of interest in the people of Dumah to “inquire” into the message or to return and come back to God, what is the value of this prophecy for those of us today?  First, we must see that Isaiah’s warning came true, meaning that the advice truly was sound, independent of how it was taken.  Second, we must see that God’s care and concern for all peoples remains true for today, so that if we are given similar warnings here and now they are for our own benefit and that we should listen to them.  A prior record such as is accounted here builds God’s “credibility” for the future.  Who will listen?

[1] http://bibleatlas.org/full/dumah.htm

[2] http://nabataea.net/dumah.html

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in Bible, Biblical Art of War, Biblical History, Christianity, History, Middle East, Military History and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Watchman, What of the Night: The Prophet as Town Watchman in Isaiah 21:11-12

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