The Burden of Dumah
"The burden of Dumah. He calleth to me out of Seir,
Watchman, what of the night? Watchman, what of the night? The watchman said,
The morning cometh, and also the night: if ye will inquire, inquire ye: return,
come."—Isaiah 21:11, 12
The burden of Dumah comes near the end of a series of "burdens" or
"woes" on the nations surrounding Israel. As in the book of Amos,
where a similar litany of woes introduces the book, the object is not to exalt
Israel but to show that God’s justice is aware of of the unrighteousness of
Israel’s enemies just as it is of Israel’s own sins.
There is confusion as to who or what Dumah referred to literally. Most
expositors take it for a variation of Edom or Idumea, while a sizeable number
of others apply it to a tribe fathered by Dumah, the sixth of the twelve sons
of Ishmael (Gen. 25:14; 1 Chron. 1:30). The main argument for the
identification being Edom is the reference to Seir, a city in the land of Edom.
However, since the Ishmaelites were mainly nomadic traders (Gen. 37:25) and
since the area of Seir (particularly its main city, Petra) was founded as a
stop on the spice routes from India to Egypt, it would not be unusual for an
Ishmaelite to be in Seir.
In fact the question, "What of the night?", is one likely to be
asked by a traveling merchantman as he considers the day’s journey ahead of
him. In balance, we prefer the identification of Dumah with the Ishmaelite
tribe of that name, especially since this spelling is not elsewhere used of
Additional to this is the etymology of the word. Dumah, according to
Strong’s is related to a root meaning "to be dumb," or
"silent" while Edom comes from a root meaning "red." Since
the two words are so different etymologically, it is unlikely that they refer
to a common location.
If this be so, the Dumah is not an alien nation, but a nomadic child of
Abraham through Ishmael. Today we would call him a Bedouin. They may even have
founded a settlement in what was to become the tribe of Judah (John. 15:52).
The name Dumah (Strong’s #1745) is the same as the Hebrew word for
"silence" (Strong’s #1746; compare #1820). It is from this root that
we have the word "silent" in Jer. 8:14: "Why do we sit still?
assemble yourselves, and let us enter into the defenced cities, and let us be
silent there: for the LORD our God hath put us to silence, and given us water
of gall to drink, because we have sinned against the LORD." This is the
class that later calls out: "The harvest is past, the summer is ended, and
we are not saved" (vs. 20).
This "silent" class, those who "heal the hurt of the daughter
of my people slightly, saying, Peace, peace, when there is no peace" we
identify as representing the Great Company. We suggest that this is the
identification we should also make of Dumah in the Isaiah text under
Out of Seir
In our prophecy Dumah is found in Seir. As traveling merchants they may be
found in a different place every night, but now they are in Seir. There is no
question as to the location of Seir. It is the mountainous region of central
Edom, centering around Wadi Musa and the rose red city of Petra, the Sela of
the Bible (Jud. 1:36 NAS; 2 Kings 14:7;
Isa. 16:1). Most Bible students concur that Edom represents mainline Christianity,
Babylon. This fits so well with the story of Esau selling his birthright to
Jacob for a mess of pottage, as well as with the prophecy of the doom of Edom
in the book of Obadiah.
The scenario of our prophecy becomes more evident. We have the voice of the
Great Company making an inquiry while passing through the streets of
The cry is directed to the watchman. Since the call comes from Seir it is
presumed that the wastchman is employed in Edom, probably by the city of Petra.
The word here translated watchman, as distinct from that in verse six of the
same chapter, is more properly translated guard or keeper. The duties of this
office were not only to keep lookout but also to provide protection from any
invading forces. Putting the picture together, we have an inquiry made by those
passing through spiritual Babylon of those put in charge of protecting that
In another picture the watchman of Christendom are pictured as foul
villains: "The watchmen that went about the city found me, they smote me,
they wounded me; the keepers of the walls [same Hebrew word as `watchman’
earlier in this same verse] took away my vail from me" (Song of Solomon
5:7 see also 3:3).
How are we to reconcile the evil watchmen of Christendom with the watchman
found here in Seir with the correct answer to the traveler’s question? The
answer is in the timing of the prophecy’s fulfilment. From the watchman’s
answer we gather that this question is asked before the dawning hours, during
the night time. In a familiar prophecy of the resurrection of the sleeping
saints, Psa. 46:5, we read these words: "God is in the midst of her; she
shall not be moved: God shall help her, and that right early [`just at the
break of dawn’ (NKJ)."
This "break of dawn" we customarily apply to 1878, just after the
Lord’s return in 1874. Up to that time Babylon had not yet been cast off and
her watchmen, or keepers, were a spiritual class. For the details of the
transition from this spiritual class to a non-spiritual one read Jer. 8:7-13
and compare with comments on The Time Is At Hand, pp. 158 ff.
Thus far, then, we have an inquiry from a class traveling through
Christendom to the truly spiritual watchers of Christendom at a time near the
break of day, the time of the return of the Lord himself.
An Enigmatic Question
The question, twice-repeated, seems to be more than simply "what time
is it?" Some translations read: "What from the night?"
"What are the tidings from your watch? How is the weather? What are the
anticipated conditions for traveling? All of these would be on the mind of the
nomadic merchant as he prepares to ply his journey. The repetitiveness of the
question may be for emphasis, implying the importance of the answer to the
Enquirer, or it may refer to the two senses of the words, what time is it and
what news do you have of conditions.
A More Enigmatic Answer
"The morning cometh, and also the night." Not, as many
commentators suggest, the brightness of morning will be followed by the storm
clouds of night; but, in contrast, the morning will be preceded by the darkest
part of night. It is a common expression, "it is darkest just before dawn
," and that is one of the thoughts conveyed in the watchman’s answer.
Today’s fruitless cries of "Peace! Peace!" (Jer. 8:11) followed by
increasing troubles are but troubled nighttime howls before the ushering in of
the glorious Kingdom under the reign of the Prince of Peace. The deepest scenes
of the time of trouble such as earth has ever seen, the darkness of worldwide
anarchy, are predicted just before the rising of the "son of
righteousness, with healing in his beams" (Mal. 4:1). "For, lo, he
that formeth the mountains, and createth the wind, and declareth unto man what
is his thought, that maketh the morning darkness, and treadeth upon the high
places of the earth, The LORD, The God of hosts, is his name" (Amos 4:13).
Morning in the Mountains
There is yet another sense in which this answer can be comprehended. Note
the poetic expression of another of God’s prophets: "A day of darkness and
of gloominess, a day of clouds and of thick darkness, as the morning spread
upon the mountains: a great people and a strong; there hath not been ever the
like, neither shall be any more after it, even to the years of many
generations" (Joel 2:2).
In the mountainous Alps of Switzerland trumpeters patrol the heights. As the
light of rising sun reaches their elevation they blow a blast to announce the
event to the waiting populace below. Layer upon layer the day light filters
slowly into the deepest valleys. Nowhere is this phenomena better observable
than at the capital of Seir, Petra. Situated in a deep narrow basin the town is
accessible only through a mile-long Siq, or canyon, just wide enough for one
animal at a time between rose red walls towering hundreds of feet straight up.
Even fairly late in the day the steep canyon walls keep the road in deep
shadows. Watchmen were situated in early days along the top of the canyon. When
the question would be called up from below, "Watchman, what of the night?"
there observation might well be, "It’s already morning up here, but you
still have a considerable period of night to go through down there where you
For the traveler at the base the answer is puzzling. How can it be morning
while it is yet so dark. It takes faith to believe the watchman’s words. The
picture is fitting for the spiritual seeker of the Millennial morn. High on the
mountain tops of prophecy the signs of the times indicate that it is already
morning, even while our immediate surroundings seem to belie the evidence.
Is it not reminiscent of the words of the young Allegheny haberdasher to the
assembled ministers of his city in 1877, presenting evidence that the Lord had
returned, only to have it rejected because their immediate surroundings did not
seem to support it? They lacked the faith needed by the faithful nomad passing
through the streets of Christendom, antitypical Edom and Seir.
"If ye will inquire, inquire ye; return, come." Further
investigation is encouraged. The basic thought in the word "inquire"
is to have an earnest desire to know, not just a passing curiosity. The
watchman has a deeper message than his simple: "the morning cometh, but
night also." It is almost as though he worded his first response as a
riddle in order to provoke greater curiosity on the part of the inquirer.
Likewise, the word "return," while being the basic Hebrew word for
the usual concept of going back to a prior point in one’s journey, does also
carry a metaphoric meaning. Vine’s Dictionary of Biblical Words has this to
say: "The word can mean "turn away from," as in Psa. 9:3:
"When mine enemies are turned back . . . ," or "reverse a
direction," as in 2 Kings 20:10: " . . . let the shadow return backward
ten degrees." This may include the thought of repenting from a former life
style and making a renewed consecration to press even harder toward the mark
for the prize of the high calling. "Seeing then that all these things
shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation
and godliness" (2 Peter 3:11).
The final word, then, "come" completes the picture. Having
"returned" in his mind through repentance, the sincere seeker for
truth "comes" through conversion with a renewed depth of inquiry as
to what the impending dispensational changes mean to him in a practical way;
how they affect his onward journey.
Days of Waiting
In the "Burden of Dumah" we see a pen picture of
the dramatic turn of events in the religious world in the 19th century with the
onset of Adventism and the Cleansing of the Sanctuary. Isaiah’s mini-prophecy
anticipates the more depthful inquiries of "The Days of Waiting" and
"The Cleansing of the Sanctuary" chapters in Volume Three of
Scripture Studies, The Time Is At Hand.