Isaiah 21:6-7, “This is what the LORD says to me: ‘Go post a lookout and have him report what he sees . . . be alert, fully alert.”
Exegesis and Application
The context for this verse is Isaiah 39. Isaiah 21 is a vision (vss. 1-2) given to Isaiah as to what will happen in the future (chapter 39). In chp. 39, Judean King Hezekiah has made a treaty with Babylon against the Assyrian empire governed first by Sargon (722-705 BC) and then by his son, Sennacherib (705-681). So the fortunes of Babylon are woven with the western Mediterranean kingdom of Judah. How goes Babylon against the mighty Assyrians goes the small Semitic kingdom of Judah. Thus it is important for the Judeans to know what is happening to Babylon.
Before I get to our verse, however, I want to note a most interesting verse in chapter 39, the last verse, 39:8, “’The word of the LORD you have spoken is good,’ Hezekiah replied. For he said, ‘There will be peace and security in my lifetime.’” Isaiah has just prophesied that “everything in your palace” and “some of your descendents will be taken away” by the Babylonians in the coming judgment of the captivity. The Judean king’s response is akin to today’s political liberals: “What happens in the future to my country and to my children is for them to worry about. Right now, for me, things will be good. I will have peace and prosperity in my lifetime.” We know that Hezekiah was naturally concerned about his health and lifespan because he pleads with God in 38:1-3 to spare his life and return him to health. In chp. 39 he is so pleased that his life and lifestyle will not be interrupted that he breathes a sigh of relief and apparently accepts the consequences of his alliance with the pagan Babylon empire.
To return to Isaiah 21:6-7, we see the vision given to the great prophet years before the Babylonian Captivity that Isaiah should post a lookout (literally “station a watcher”) and warn Jerusalem of any attack on their alliance partner, Babylon. This watchman, is to be fully alert and diligent in reporting back what he sees (“KJV, “and he hearkened diligently with much heed,” “let him pay attention, full attention”). Some commentators believe that the lookout is only visionary and not real since it is part of the vision of Isaiah. But the detail of the watchman’s reporting is too vivid to be dreamlike. Indeed, the watchman changes his report to comport with reality. Calvin notes the following, “As if at the first glance he had not seen it clearly, he says that here is ‘a chariot,’ and afterwards observing more closely, he says that there is ‘a couple of horses’ in the chariot. At first, on account of the novelty and great distance of the objects, the reports given are ambiguous and confusing; but afterwards, when a nearer view is obtained, they are better understood.” John Oswalt comments, “the watchman has no choice but to report what he sees, even if that should be painful and unpleasant. In fact, that is just why he is posted, not for his own sake, to discover interesting intelligence, but to pass on information for the sake of his people.” “Typically one might see a farmer bringing goods to market on the road or a caravan of merchants coming to trade with people in the village. But if the watchman detected chariots, pairs of horsemen, and camels and donkeys carrying baggage, he had to be very alert to notice them immediately and to distinguish them from the regular traffic on the road. He would not want to sound a false alarm, but he dare not sleep while an enemy was quietly approaching’ (Gary Smith).
Two terms are worth looking at in this couplet: “report” and “alert.” The Hebrew word for “report” or “declare” is “nagad.” The Hebrew can mean “to bring forward,” “to explain an enigma,” “to announce,” “to make known.” One Hebrew lexicon notes, “The word can denote that the receptor of the report was usually separated spatially from the original source of the information. It can mean to reveal something which one would not know without revelation (cf, Gen. 3:11, God to Adam; 41:24, Pharaoh to Joseph). Laird Harris has a helpful discussion: “This root basically denotes to place a matter high, conspicuous before a person. Usually the matter was previously unknown or unknowable to the object. The meaning is further enlightened by considering the following synonymous parallels: amar, “to say,” shama, “to make known,” sapar, “to report or recount,” bin “to understand,” dibber, “to speak” and ya, “to advise.””
The Hebrew word for “alert” is “qashav.” The Hebrew word means more than just “listen.” Rather “pay attention to” or “give heed to” or “prick up the ears.” We could say it means “stay focused.”
Christian journalist, this verse urges you to faithfully be alert and understand what’s going on around you. You have been positioned where you are by a sovereign God and your duty is to accurately and quickly with understanding report what you see back to your sending organization, which would be your newsroom. If you are working for a religious publication then it is crucial for you to get the context of what you see correctly in order than your readers will be adequately informed as to what is going on.