The outlook from the lookout is a working definition of the task of a watchman. A watchmen performed the special service of watching for an approaching enemy and of warning the inhabitants of a walled city of danger. Isaiah 21:5b reads, “Set a watchman in the tower. . ..” The title of Harper Lee’s new book Go Set a Watchman, is based on Isaiah 21:6, which reads, “For thus has the Lord said to me: ‘Go, set a watchman, Let him declare what he sees.’”
Greg Garrison shares the following: “‘That’s what she loved – the elegance of the language of the King James Version,’ said historian Wayne Flynt, a longtime friend of Lee and also a Baptist minister. ‘She grew up in a Bible-reading family. She was imprinted with it as a child’.
Isaiah was a prophet in the Kingdom of Judah, probably between about 740 B.C. and 698 B.C. In this verse, he is prophesying about the fall of Babylon. ‘Nelle (Harper Lee) probably likened Monroeville to Babylon,’ Flynt said. ‘The Babylon of immoral voices, the hypocrisy. Somebody needs to be set as the watchman to identify what we need to do to get out of the mess.’
‘Go Set a Watchman’ means, ‘Somebody needs to be the moral compass of this town,’ Flynt said. ‘Isaiah was a prophet. God had set him as a watchman over Israel. It’s really God speaking to the Hebrews, saying what you need to do is set a watchman, to set you straight, to keep you on the right path. What more elegant title could there be?’
In the case of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird,’ Atticus Finch serves as the watchman.”[i]
Prophets are known as “watchmen on the wall” because they sound the alarm to warn of danger. Isaiah is one of the watchmen in that he faithfully proclaimed God’s word of warning. Dr. Harold L. Willmington writes, “Isaiah was the greatest of the Old Testament prophets, and one of the most eloquent writers who ever lived, at times even surpassing the literary abilities of a Shakespeare, a Milton, or a Homer.”[ii] Dr. Rod Mattoon explains, “Isaiah was a tremendous prophet and very eloquent and descriptive in his writings. Isaiah was quoted in the New Testament more than any other Old Testament prophet. . .. Isaiah has been referred to as the Paul of the Old Testament or the Shakespeare of the prophets.”[iii] Dr. James T. Draper, Jr., writes, “What Shakespeare was to literature, what Spurgeon was among the Victorian preachers, what Billy Graham is in our day among preachers of the gospel, Isaiah was among the prophets.”[iv]
The use of a watchman was a common thing in Bible times. For example, 2 Samuel 13:34 reads, “Then Absalom fled. And the young man who was keeping watch lifted his eyes and looked, and there, many people were coming from the road on the hillside behind him.”
2 Samuel 18:24-27 reads, “Now David was sitting between the two gates. And the watchman went up to the roof over the gate, to the wall, lifted his eyes and looked, and there was a man, running alone. Then the watchman cried out and told the king. And the king said, ‘If he is alone, there is news in his mouth.’ And he came rapidly and drew near. Then the watchman saw another man running, and the watchman called to the gatekeeper and said, ‘There is another man, running alone!’ And the king said, ‘He also brings news.’ So the watchman said, ‘I think the running of the first is like the running of Ahimaaz the son of Zadok.’” 2 Kings 9:17 reads, “Now a watchman stood on the tower in Jezreel, and he saw the company of Jehu as he came, and said, ‘I see a company of men.’ And Joram said, ‘Get a horseman and send him to meet them, and let him say, ‘Is it peace?’’” 2 Chronicles 20:24 reads, “So when Judah came to a place overlooking the wilderness, they looked toward the multitude; and there were their dead bodies, fallen on the earth. No one had escaped.” Nehemiah 4:9 reads, “Nevertheless we made our prayer to our God, and because of them we set a watch against them day and night.” Nehemiah 7:3 reads, “And I said to them, ‘Do not let the gates of Jerusalem be opened until the sun is hot; and while they stand guard, let them shut and bar the doors; and appoint guards from among the inhabitants of Jerusalem, one at his watch station and another in front of his own house.’” Jeremiah 31:6 reads, “For there shall be a day When the watchmen will cry on Mount Ephraim, ‘Arise, and let us go up to Zion, To the Lord our God.’” Isaiah 62:6a reads, “I have set watchmen on your walls, O Jerusalem; They shall never hold their peace day or night.”
Dr. Francis Dixon (1910-1985) former pastor of Lansdowne Baptist Church, Bournemouth, England, writes, “In this 21st chapter of Isaiah there are three ‘burdens’ referred to:- (1) The Burden of Babylon (verses 1-10), and the word ‘Babylon’ means CHAOS. (2) The Burden of Dumah (or Edom) (verses 11-12), and this word means TENSION; and (3) The Burden of Arabia (verses 13-17), and this word means SUSPICION, or contention. How aptly these three words describe the prevailing condition in the world today!”[v]
Isaiah 21:11-12 reads, “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!”
I am deeply indebted to Dr. John S. Wimbish (1915-1982), former pastor of the First Baptist Church of Edgefield, South Carolina, and later the Calvary Baptist Church in New York City, for helping me to understand this passage in a most profound way.
Notice the progression of this prophetic burden.
1. First, there is the interrogation about the miserable night.
Isaiah 21:11 reads, “The burden against Dumah. He calls to me out of Seir, ‘Watchman what of the night? Watchman what of the night?” Dr. E. J. Young (1907-1968) explains, “The ordinary translation, ‘Watchman, what of the night?’ does not bring out the full force of the original. We may more accurately render the question, ‘Watchman, what part of the night is it?’ Underlying the question is the thought, ‘How much of the night has passed, how much more must we endure before the light of morning comes?’ As a sick person lying awake through the long, agonizing hours of night cries out to know what the time is and how much of the night has passed, so Edom, feeling the oppression of Assyria, will call out to the prophet to ask him how much longer the oppression must endure. Only Isaiah can answer that question. It is an importunate question, and the importunateness is seen in that the question is repeated. It is the cry of a suffering people. How far spent is the night?”[vi] Dr. Warren W. Wiersbe explains, “What time of night was it? The advance of the Assyrian army had brought fearful darkness to the nations, and Edom wanted to know if there was any hope, any light.”[vii]
Part Two Coming Soon!
[i]Greg Garrison, “‘Go Set a Watchman’: What does Harper Lee’s book title mean?” Accessed: 12/19/15
[ii]Harold L. Willmington, Willmington’s Guide to the Bible (Carol Steam, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1981), 182.
[iii]Rod Mattoon, Treasures from Isaiah, Volume 1. Database © 2014 WORDsearch Corp.
[iv]Preaching with Passion: Sermons from the Heart of the Southern Baptist Convention, ed. James T. Draper, Jr., “Laughing on the Rooftop” by James T. Draper, Jr. (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishers, 2004), 193. Database © 2004 WORDsearch Corp.
[v]Francis Dixon, “Watchman, What Is Left of the Night?” Great Quotes in the Old Testament, Series 55, Study 8. Accessed: 12/20/15 http://www.wordsoflife.co.uk/bible-studies/study-8-watchman-what-is-left-of-the-night/ .
[vi]Edward J. Young, The Book of Isaiah – Volume 2: Chapters 19 to 39. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1969), 76. Database © 2007 WORDsearch Corp.
[vii]Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary – The Prophets (Colorado Springs, CO: Chariot Victor Publishing, 2002), 27. Database © 2007 WORDsearch Corp.