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Matthew Henry's Commentary – Verses 4–23
Verses 4–23

The kings of Babylon, successively, were the great enemies and oppressors of God’s people, and therefore the destruction of Babylon, the fall of the king, and the ruin of his family, are here particularly taken notice of and triumphed in. In the day that God has given Israel rest they shall take up this proverb against the king of Babylon. We must not rejoice when our enemy falls, as ours; but when Babylon, the common enemy of God and his Israel, sinks, then rejoice over her, thou heaven, and you holy apostles and prophets, Rev. 18:20. The Babylonian monarchy bade fair to be an absolute, universal, and perpetual one, and, in these pretensions, vied with the Almighty; it is therefore very justly, not only brought down, but insulted over when it is down; and it is not only the last monarch, Belshazzar, who was slain on that night that Babylon was taken (Dan. 5:30), who is here triumphed over, but the whole monarchy, which sunk in him; not without special reference to Nebuchadnezzar, in whom that monarchy was at its height. Now here,

I. The fall of the king of Babylon is rejoiced in; and a most curious and elegant composition is here prepared, not to adorn his hearse or monument, but to expose his memory and fix a lasting brand of infamy upon it. It gives us an account of the life and death of this mighty monarch, how he went down slain to the pit, though he had been the terror of the mighty in the land of the living, Ezek. 32:27. In this parable we may observe,

1. The prodigious height of wealth and power at which this monarch and monarchy arrived. Babylon was a golden city, Isa. 14:4 (it is a Chaldee word in the original, which intimates that she used to call herself so), so much did she abound in riches and excel all other cities, as gold does all other metals. She is gold-thirsty, or an exactress of gold (so some read it); for how do men get wealth to themselves but by squeezing it out of others? The New Jerusalem is the only truly golden city, Rev. 21:18, 21. The king of Babylon, having so much wealth in his dominions and the absolute command of it, by the help of that ruled the nations (Isa. 14:6), gave them law, read them their doom, and at his pleasure weakened the nations (Isa. 14:12), that they might not be able to make head against him. Such vast and victorious armies did he bring into the field, that, which way soever he looked, he made the earth to tremble, and shook kingdoms (Isa. 14:16); all his neighbours were afraid of him, and were forced to submit to him. No one man could do this by his own personal strength, but by the numbers he has at his beck. Great tyrants, by making some do what they will, make others suffer what they will. How piteous is the case of mankind, which thus seems to be in a combination against itself, and its own rights and liberties, which could not be ruined but by its own strength!

2. The wretched abuse of all this wealth and power, which the king of Babylon was guilty of, in two instances:—

(1.) Great oppression and cruelty. He is known by the name of the oppressor (Isa. 14:4); he has the sceptre of the rulers (Isa. 14:5), has the command of all the princes about him; but it is the staff of the wicked, a staff with which he supports himself in his wickedness and wickedly strikes all about him. He smote the people, not in justice, for their correction and reformation, but in wrath (Isa. 14:6), to gratify his own peevish resentments, and that with a continual stroke, pursued them with his forces, and gave them no respite, no breathing time, no cessation of arms. He ruled the nations, but he ruled them in anger, every thing he said and did was in a passion; so that he who had the government of all about him had no government of himself. He made the world as a wilderness, as if he had taken a pride in being the plague of his generation and a curse to mankind, Isa. 14:17. Great princes usually glory in building cities, but he gloried in destroying them; see Ps. 9:6. Two particular instances, worse than all the rest, are here given of his tyranny:—[1.] That he was severe to his captives (Isa. 14:17): He opened not the house of his prisoners; he did not let them loose homeward (so the margin reads it); he kept them in close confinement, and never would suffer any to return to their own land. This refers especially to the people of the Jews, and it is that which fills up the measure of the king of Babylon’s iniquity, that he had detained the people of God in captivity and would by no means release them; nay, and by profaning the vessels of God’s temple at Jerusalem, did in effect say that they should never return to their former use, Dan. 5:3. For this he was quickly and justly turned out by one whose first act was to open the house of God’s prisoners and send home the temple vessels. [2.] That he was oppressive to his own subjects (Isa. 14:20): Thou hast destroyed thy land, and slain thy people; and what did he get by that, when the wealth of the land and the multitude of the people are the strength and honour of the prince, who never rules so safely, so gloriously, as in the hearts and affections of the people? But tyrants sacrifice their interests to their lusts and passions; and God will reckon with them for their barbarous usage of those who are under their power, whom they think they may use as they please.

(2.) Great pride and haughtiness. Notice is here taken of his pomp, the extravagancy of his retinue, Isa. 14:11. He affected to appear in the utmost magnificence. But that was not the worst: it was the temper of his mind, and the elevation of that, that ripened him for ruin (Isa. 14:13, 14): Thou has said in thy heart, like Lucifer, I will ascend into heaven. Here is the language of his vainglory, borrowed perhaps from that of the angels who fell, who not content with their first estate, the post assigned them, would vie with God, and become not only independent of him, but equal with him. Or perhaps it refers to the story of Nebuchadnezzar, who, when he would be more than a man, was justly turned into a brute, Dan. 4:30. The king of Babylon here promises himself, [1.] That in pomp and power he shall surpass all his neighbours, and shall arrive at the very height of earthly glory and felicity, that he shall be as great and happy as this world can make him; that is the heaven of a carnal heart, and to that he hopes to ascend, and to be as far above those about him as the heaven is above the earth. Princes are the stars of God, which give some light to this dark world (Matt. 24:29); but he will exalt his throne above them all. [2.] That he shall particularly insult over God’s Mount Zion, which Belshazzar, in his last drunken frolic, seems to have had a particular spite against when he called for the vessels of the temple at Jerusalem, to profane them; see Dan. 5:2. In the same humour he here said, I will sit upon the mount of the congregation (it is the same word that is used for the holy convocations), in the sides of the north; so Mount Zion is said to be situated, Ps. 48:2. Perhaps Belshazzar was projecting an expedition to Jerusalem, to triumph in the ruins of it, at the time when God cut him off. [3.] That he shall vie with the God of Israel, of whom he had indeed heard glorious things, that he had his residence above the heights of the clouds. “But thither,” says he, “will I ascend, and be as great as he; I will be like him whom they call the Most High.” It is a gracious ambition to covet to be like the Most Holy, for he has said, Be you holy, for I am holy; but it is a sinful ambition to aim to be like the Most High, for he has said, He that exalteth himself shall be abased, and the devil drew our first parents in to eat forbidden fruit by promising them that they should be as gods. [4.] That he shall himself be deified after his death, as some of the first founders of the Assyrian monarchy were, and stars had even their names from them. “But,” says he, “I will exalt my throne above them all.” Such as this was his pride, which was the undoubted omen of his destruction.

3. The utter ruin that should be brought upon him. It is foretold, (1.) That his wealth and power should be broken, and a final period put to his pomp and pleasure. He has been long an oppressor, but he shall cease to be so, Isa. 14:4. Had he ceased to be so by true repentance and reformation, according to the advice Daniel gave to Nebuchadnezzar, it might have been a lengthening of his life and tranquillity. But those that will not cease to sin God will make to cease. “The golden city, which one would have thought might continue for ever, has ceased; there is an end of that Babylon. The Lord, the righteous God, has broken the staff of that wicked prince, broken it over his head, in token of the divesting him of his office. God has taken his power from him, and rendered him incapable of doing any more mischief: he has broken the sceptres; for even these are brittle things, soon broken and often justly.” (2.) That he himself should be seized: He is persecuted (Isa. 14:6); violent hands are laid upon him, and none hinders. It is the common fate of tyrants, when they fall into the power of their enemies, to be deserted by their flatterers, whom they took for their friends. We read of another enemy like this, of whom it is foretold that he shall come to his end and none shall help him, Dan. 11:45. Tiberius and Nero thus saw themselves abandoned. (3.) That he should be slain, and go down to the congregation of the dead, to be free among them, as the slain that are no more remembered, Ps. 88:5. He shall be weak as the dead are, and like unto them, Isa. 14:10. His pomp is brought down to the grave (Isa. 14:11), that is, it perishes with him; the pomp of his life shall not, as usual, end in a funeral pomp. True glory (that is, true grace) will go up with the soul to heaven, but vain pomp will go down with the body to the grave: there is an end of it. The noise of his viols is now heard no more. Death is a farewell to the pleasures, as well as to the pomps, of this world. This mighty prince, that used to lie on a bed of down, to tread upon rich carpets, and to have coverings and canopies exquisitely fine, now shall have the worms spread under him and the worms covering him, worms bred out of his own putrefied body, which, though he fancied himself a god, proved him to be made of the same mould with other men. When we are pampering and decking our bodies it is good to remember they will be worms’-meat shortly. (4.) That he should not have the honour of a burial, much less of a decent one and in the sepulchres of his ancestors. The kings of the nations lie in glory (Isa. 14:18), either their dead bodies themselves so embalmed as to be preserved from putrefaction, as of old among the Egyptians, or their effigies (as with us) erected over their graves. Thus, as if they would defy the ignominy of death, they lay in a poor faint sort of glory, every one in his own house, that is, his own burying-place (for the grave is the house appointed for all living), a sleeping house, where the busy and troublesome will lie quiet and the troubled and weary lie at rest. But this king of Babylon is cast out and has no grave (Isa. 14:19); his dead body is thrown, like that of a beast, into the next ditch or upon the next dunghill, like an abominable branch of some noxious poisonous plant, which nobody will touch, or as the clothes of malefactors put to death and by the hand of justice thrust through with a sword, on whose dead bodies heaps of stones are raised, or they are thrown into some deep quarry among the stones of the pit. Nay, the king of Babylon’s dead body shall be as the carcases of those who are slain in a battle, which are trodden under feet by the horses and soldiers and crushed to pieces. Thus he shall not be joined with his ancestors in burial, Isa. 14:20. To be denied decent burial is a disgrace, which, if it be inflicted for righteousness’ sake (as Ps. 79:2), may, as other similar reproaches, be rejoiced in (Matt. 5:12); it is the lot of the two witnesses, Rev. 11:9. But if, as here, it be the just punishment of iniquity, it is an intimation that evil pursues impenitent sinners beyond death, greater evil than that, and that they shall rise to everlasting shame and contempt.

4. The many triumphs that should be in his fall.

(1.) Those whom he had been a great tyrant and terror to will be glad that they are rid of him, Isa. 14:7, 8. Now that he is gone the whole earth is at rest and is quiet, for he was the great disturber of the peace; now they all break forth into singing, for when the wicked perish there is shouting (Prov. 11:10); the fir-trees and cedars of Lebanon now think themselves safe; there is no danger now of their being cut down, to make way for his vast armies or to furnish him with timber. The neighbouring princes and great men, who are compared to fir-trees and cedars (Zech. 11:2), may now be easy, and out of fear of being dispossessed of their rights, for the hammer of the whole earth is cut asunder and broken (Jer. 50:23), the axe that boasted itself against him that hewed with it, Isa. 10:15.

(2.) The congregation of the dead will bid him welcome to them, especially those whom he had barbarously hastened thither (Isa. 14:9, 10): “Hell from beneath is moved for thee, to meet thee at thy coming, and to compliment thee upon thy arrival at their dark and dreadful regions.” The chief ones of the earth, who when they were alive were kept in awe by him and durst not come near him, but rose from their thrones, to resign them to him, shall upbraid him with it when he comes into the state of the dead. They shall go forth to meet him, as they used to do when he made his public entry into cities he had become master of; with such a parade shall he be introduced into those regions of horror, to make his disgrace and torment the more grievous to him. They shall scoffingly rise from their thrones and seats there, and ask him if he will please to sit down in them, as he used to do in their thrones on earth? The confusion that will 6065 then cover him they shall make a jest of: “Hast thou also become weak as we? Who would have thought it? It is what thou thyself didst not expect it would ever come to when thou wast in every thing too hard for us. Thou that didst rank thyself among the immortal gods, art thou come to take thy fate among us poor mortal men? Where is thy pomp now, and where thy mirth? How hast thou fallen from heaven, O Lucifer! son of the morning! Isa. 14:11, 12. The king of Babylon shone as brightly as the morning star, and fancied that wherever he came he brought day along with him; and has such an illustrious prince as this fallen, such a star become a clod of clay? Did ever any man fall from such a height of honour and power into such an abyss of shame and misery?” This has been commonly alluded to (and it is a mere allusion) to illustrate the fall of the angels, who were as morning stars (Job 38:7), but how have they fallen! How art thou cut down to the ground, and levelled with it, that didst weaken the nations! God will reckon with those that invade the rights and disturb the peace of mankind, for he is King of nations as well as of saints. Now this reception of the king of Babylon into the regions of the dead, which is here described, surely is something more than a flight of fancy, and is designed to teach these solid truths:—[1.] That there is an invisible world, a world of spirits, to which the souls of men remove at death and in which they exist and act in a state of separation from the body. [2.] That separate souls have acquaintance and converse with each other, though we have none with them: the parable of the rich man and Lazarus intimates this. [3.] That death and hell will be death and hell indeed to those that fall unsanctified from the height of this world’s pomps and the fulness of its pleasures. Son, remember, Luke 16:25.

(3.) Spectators will stand amazed at his fall. When he shall be brought down to hell, to the sides of the pit, and be lodged there, those that see him shall narrowly look upon him, and consider him (Isa. 14:15, 16); they shall scarcely believe their own eyes. “Never was death so great a change to any man as it is to him. Isa. it possible that a man, who a few hours ago looked so great, so pleasant, and was so splendidly adorned and attended, should now look so ghastly, so despicable, and lie thus naked and neglected? Isa. this the man that made the earth to tremble and shook kingdoms? Who could have thought he should ever come to this?” Ps. 82:7.

5. Here is an inference drawn from all this (Isa. 14:20): The seed of evil-doers shall never be renowned. The princes of the Babylonian monarchy were all a seed of evil-doers, oppressors of the people of God, and therefore they had this infamy entailed upon them. They shall not be renowned for ever (so some read it); they may look big for a time, but all their pomp will only render their disgrace at last the more shameful. There is no credit in a sinful way.

II. The utter ruin of the royal family is here foretold, together with the desolation of The royal city.

1. The royal family is to be wholly extirpated. The Medes and Persians, that are to be employed in this destroying work, are ordered, when they have slain Belshazzar, to prepare slaughter for his children (Isa. 14:21) and not to spare them. The little ones of Babylon must be dashed against the stones, Ps. 137:9. These orders sound very harshly; but, (1.) They must suffer for the iniquity of their fathers, which is often visited upon the children, to show how much God hates sin and is displeased at it, and to deter sinners from it, which is the end of punishment. Nebuchadnezzar had slain Zedekiah’s sons (Jer. 52:10), and, for that iniquity of his, his seed are paid in the same coin. (2.) They must be cut off now, that they may not rise up to possess the land and do as much mischief in their day as their fathers had done in theirs—that they may not be as vexatious to the world by building cities for the support of their tyranny (which was Nimrod’s policy, Gen. 10:10, 11) as their ancestors had been by destroying cities. Pharaoh oppressed Israel in Egypt by setting them to build cities, Exod. 1:11. The providence of God consults the welfare of nations more than we are aware of by cutting off some who, if they had lived, would have done mischief. Justly may the enemies cut off the children: For I will rise up against them, saith the Lord of hosts (Isa. 14:22), and if God reveal it as his mind that he will have it done, as none can hinder it, so none need scruple to further it. Babylon perhaps was proud of the numbers of her royal family, but God had determined to cut off the name and remnant of it, so that none should be left, to have both the sons and grandsons of the king slain; and yet we are sure he never did, nor ever will do, any wrong to any of his creatures.

2. The royal city is to be demolished and deserted, Isa. 14:23. It shall be a possession for solitary frightful birds, particularly the bittern, joined with the cormorant and the owl, Isa. 24:11. And thus the utter destruction of the New-Testament Babylon is illustrated, Rev. 18:2. It has become a cage of every unclean and hateful bird. Babylon lay low, so that when it was deserted, and no care taken to drain the land, it soon became pools of water, standing noisome puddles, as unhealthful as they were unpleasant: and thus God will sweep it with the besom of destruction. When a people have nothing among them but dirt and filth, and will not be made clean with the besom of reformation, what can they expect but to be swept off the face of the earth with the besom of destruction?