Watchman, What of the Night?

Watchman, What of the Night?

October 12th, 1975 @ 10:50 AM

Isaiah 21:11-12

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 enquire, enquire ye: return, come.
Print Sermon
Downloadable Media
Share This Sermon
Play Audio

Show References:


Dr. W. A. Criswell

Isaiah 21:11-12

10-12-75    10:50 a.m.


On the radio and on television we invite you to share with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas.  This is the pastor bringing the message entitled Watchman, What of the Night?  It is an exposition of a passage in the twenty-first chapter of Isaiah, verses 11 and 12.  Isaiah 21:11-12:

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.

A casual cursory reading of the passage would leave one with a feeling of enigma, and riddle, and un-understanding.  But studying the text, and especially its Hebrew words, it unfolds before us a solemn and sober message.

“The burden of Dumah.  He calleth to me out of Seir [Isaiah 21:11].”  Mt. Seir, here called Seir, is the home of Esau [Genesis 36:8].  Esau’s name also is Edom, “red.”  And the Edomites lived in Mt. Seir.  Their ancient capital has been discovered in recent archaeological times; it is Petra, one of the most unusual capitals, carved out of solid rock.  The country was located in that rugged desert terrain south of the Dead Sea.  So, it is the Edomite land, the descendants of Esau, who are crying in their agony and desperation.

“The burden of Dumah” [Isaiah 21:11]; this is an amazing word!  The burden of Dumah, Dumah—the word is an anagram.  When anyone plays anagrams, they take letters and they maneuver them around making other words or adding to the words that are already on the table.  This is an anagram.

The Hebrew word ‘Edom.’ Edom begins with an aleph.  And the prophet here takes the first letter and moves it to the end, and when he does, he makes another word out of it.  You understand what I mean by an anagram, like the word ‘ate.’  He ate an apple—a-t-e.  Take the first [letter] “a” and move it around to the end, and you have t-e-a, ‘tea,’ another word.  This is an anagram.  The prophet had taken the word ‘Edom’ and the first letter, aleph, he’s moved to the end.  And when he does, he creates a new word, another word, dumah.  And dumah is the word for silence, the silence of death, the gloom of the grave.

For example, in Psalms 94:17, is this word dumah: “Unless the Lord had been my help, my soul had almost dwelt in silence”—in dumah, in the silence of the grave.  Just once again, in the one hundred fifteenth Psalm, verse 17: “The dead cannot sing praises to the Lord” here on earth, but we can; “neither any that go down into” dumah, into the silence of the grave [Psalm 115:17].

So the prophet, making that anagram word, speaks of the burden, the agony, the silence, the death, dumah;  “The burden of Dumah.  He calleth to me out of Seir, Watchman, what of the night?  Watchman, what of the night?” [Isaiah 21:11].  The intensity of the cry of Edom is vividly and emphatically expressed in the Hebrew text.  “He calleth to me; he is calling to me.”  It is a present tense.  He is calling in his urgency and desperation; he calls and he calls and he calls.  And the repetitive question emphasizes the urgency of his anxiety: “Watchman, what of the night?  Watchman, what of the night?” [Isaiah 21:11].

It is the identical thing, the cry of a man who is desperately hurt or sick.  And in the agony of the interminable hours of the night, he calls, saying, “How much of the night is passed?”  And that is the Hebrew of the question.  How much far off the night?  How much longer the night?  Does the dawn ever come?  Watchman, what of the night?  What of the night?  The interminable darkness is not containable; it is not bearable.  Watchman, how much far off the night? [Isaiah 21:11].

And the watchman replied, “The morning cometh” [Isaiah 21:12].  And also could we translate it: “And yet the morning cometh; and yet the night continueth”; and yet it is night [Isaiah 21:12].  Then in the text there is a hint of a word of hope.  If you will come back, converted, changed, I will have for you a message of hope.  But if there’s no change and no repentance and no turning, there is no hope, just a people enveloped in the continuing night.

One other thing in the text: the address is to the prophet.  The burden of Dumah.  He is calling out of Seir, out of Edom, “Watchman, prophet, man of God, how much far off the night?  How much longer the night?” [Isaiah 21:11].  And the prophet replied [Isaiah 21:12]: Were there no diviners in Edom to whom the nation could address their query?  Were there no astrologers there?  Were there no worldly-wise there?  Were there no seers there?

Why do they come to this prophet in Jerusalem with their agonizing cry? [Isaiah 21:11].  Isn’t that a strange thing about human life and about human nature?  These astrologers, and these diviners, and these soothsayers, and these necromancers, and these worldly-wise are sufficient for a moment, a temporal time, when things for the most part are going good, great.  But in the hour of agony, of death, of judgment who wants an astrologer or a necromancer or a spiritualist?  Who seeks worldly wisdom?  Who finds answers in culture or in science or in tradition?

What the heart cries for and the soul longs for is does God say anything?  Is there a word from heaven?  Does God speak?  “Watchman, what of the night?  What of the night?” [Isaiah 21:11].  Isn’t that a strange turn in human fortune?  Do you remember one of the most poignant stories in the Old Testament when Ahab—and you sang about him and Elijah just now—when Ahab was preparing to go to Ramoth-gilead, and he asked Jehoshaphat—good King Jehoshaphat from Judah, a man who loved God—he asked Jehoshaphat to join forces with him against that heathen bastion? [1 Kings 22:1-4].

And Ahab had gathered around him all of his diviners and all of his sorcerers and all of his soothsayers, and they all said, “Victory!  Triumph!  Go against Ramoth-gilead.  It will be delivered into your hand” [1 Kings 22:5-6].  But Jehoshaphat, as he looked at the universal cry of those sorcerers, Jehoshaphat turned to Ahab and said, “Is there yet in Samaria, in Israel, is there yet one other, a man of God of whom we might inquire?” [1 Kings 22:7].

And Ahab said, “Yes, yes.  His name is Micaiah.  But I hate him!  I hate him.”

Jehoshaphat said, “Not so, bring him” [1 Kings 22:7-8].  And Micaiah, God’s man, stood before the king.  And Micaiah delivered God’s message: “You will come back from this battle slain,” said Micaiah to Ahab [1 Kings 22:17-28].   And in the battle, a man drew back his bow in a venture, that is, without aiming.  And it found a joint in the harness of Ahab and pierced his heart, and his blood poured out into the chariot.  And when they brought it back to Jezreel, they washed it out, and the dogs licked it up; according to the saying of the man of God [1 Kings 21:19, 22:34-38].

Isn’t that a strange thing?  The soothsayers, and the astrologers, and the spiritualists, and the necromancers; for happy times and good times and affluent times, their words are very interesting.  But in the day of agony and darkness, in the day of desperate need, is there a man of God? [1 Kings 22:7].  Is there a word from the Lord?  And if God speaks, what does He say?  “Watchman, what of the night?” [Isaiah 21:11].

Now we begin in our day and in our time.  The nations of the world have a night.  We sometimes are inclined and persuaded to think that these were peculiar days and different days recorded in the Holy Scripture.  Nay, they’re exactly like our own.  In the days of Isaiah, he had a message for Egypt, and Syria, and Moab, and Lebanon, and Tyre, and Babylon, and Assyria.  And the same Lord God has a message today for all the nations of the world.  And the nations of the world today, as in Isaiah’s day [Isaiah 21:11], have a night.

In 1914, there was a great, godly man who was foreign minister of the British Empire; his name was Lord Gray.  And in a session of the cabinet that extended all night long, it was decided to go to war against Germany.  And in the early hours of the morning, just as it began to dawn toward the day, Lord Gray walked out of the foreign office with one of his cabinet officers, and when he stood on the steps, he saw down the street the lamplighter putting out the gas lights, going down the street.  And Lord Gray, looking at that, turned to his companion and said, “See, the lights are going out.”  Then he added, “The lights are going out over all of Europe.”

Watchman, what of the night? [Isaiah 21:11]. The morning cometh and yet the night continues [Isaiah 21:12].  We won, as you know, the Allied powers won; they were triumphant in the war against Germany between 1914 and 1918.  The morning cometh and for a while, for a while, for a while, there was infinite optimism and rejoicing in the earth. For example, when I grew up in those days, I heard the preacher preach, the great leaders of our denomination and of Christendom.  And I sat at the feet of our teachers, and I was taught—with no deviation—I was taught postmillennialism.  I never heard any other doctrine, nor was I ever taught any other faith—postmillennialism: that is, the world will get better and better and better.  And we’re going to preach the gospel and preach the gospel and bring in the kingdom.  And the day will come when they’ll be no more war.  As President Woodrow Wilson said, “This is the war to end all wars.  This is the day of democracy and freedom.”

And I grew up in that wonderful era of golden optimism—no more war, no more strife.  We will preach and convert, and the whole day of the millennial dawn will be ours to share with the peoples and nations of the earth.  The morning cometh; there’s a dawn [Isaiah 21:12].  And yet it is night.  The nations have a night.

I also lived to see the rise of Hitler.  I also lived to see the great armies of the Allied powers thrown against the bastions of continental Europe.  I also lived in the day when Hitler was destroyed, and we traded Hitler for Stalin.  And we traded fascism for communism.  And we traded the freedoms of that golden vision of those latter 1919 and 1920s and the early 1930s.  We traded the vision for the despair that grips the millions and millions of people of the earth today.  There are something like two billion people that are under the iron hand of communism this hour.

I have just been in Washington, DC in a meeting of our Baptist World Alliance, and I have assumed, as some of you know, a world responsibility to find support for that alliance.  And the reason for it lies in the desperate cry of our brethren, our Baptist brethren, who are ground to death and persecuted to despair in those countries where God’s name is interdicted and the church is forced into collapse.  The only touch we have with them is this group, the World Alliance.

The Foreign Mission Board sends to me their little news digest.  I read the first one, the first article.  I just clipped off the top of the little news digest.  “Johannesburg, South Africa—Southern Baptist missionaries to Mozambique have withdrawn to South Africa.  The overall political climate makes it impossible to continue our missionary work.”  This is the darkness that is settling over the face of the whole earth.

I want to sing lyrics, lyrics

But these have hushed my song.

I am mute at the earth’s great sadness,

And I am stark at the earth’s great wrong.

[from “How Can I Sing?”; author unknown]

The nations of the earth have a night.  There are some nations that have no future and no destiny—the cry of Dumah, of Edom, in the silence of the grave.  There are nations who have no future and no destiny; Edom was one [Isaiah 21:11-12].

In the beautiful one hundred thirty-seventh Psalm: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.  We hanged our harps upon the willows” [Psalm 137:1-2].  You remember it—now the close of it: “Remember, O Lord, the children of Edom in the day of Jerusalem; who said, Raze it, raze it, even to the foundation thereof” [Psalm 137:7].  They rejoiced over the destruction of the temple, Solomon’s temple [2 Kings 25:9], and over the destruction of the nation Judah [Isaiah 3:8], and over the carrying away into captivity into Babylon [2 Kings 24:15].  “O daughter of Babylon, who art to be destroyed; happy shall he be, that rewardeth thee as thou has served us.  Happy shall he be, that taketh and dasheth thy little ones against the stones” [Psalm 137:8-9].

There are nations that have no destiny and no future.  Edom was one [Isaiah 21:11-12]; Russia is another.  I haven’t time to expound the great prophecies of Ezekiel, but Russia has no destiny but one of final absolute destruction and annihilation [Ezekiel 38-39]—the judgments of Almighty God; the burden of Dumah, of the silence of death [Isaiah 21:11-12].

The great scientist Pascal one time cried, saying, “The silence of the universe frightens me.”  How much more when God turns His face, and God refuses to answer, and a nation and a people die in the gloom and in the night of death?  Do you suppose America will live?  I don’t know.  The psalmist said, “The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God” [Psalm 9:17].  And as fast as we can forget, and as rapidly as we can reject God’s holy Word and admonition, America is turning away from God.

Who has a night?  Sin has a night.  Sin has a night.  The fruits and the results of sin work in every man’s soul and in every man’s life.  You don’t have to go around condemning here, judging there.  Sin has its own night.  Sin works out inexorably, impersonally, terribly in the heart of every man.  Sin has a night.  “Be not deceived; God is not mocked: whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap” [Galatians 6:7].  “Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” [Romans 12:19].  And again: “The Lord shall judge His people.  For it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” [Hebrews 10:30-31], for our God is a burning fire [Hebrews 12:29].  Sin has a night.

Do you remember?  “And Jesus took the sop and gave it to Judas Iscariot” [John 13:26].  And Judas, “having received the sop went immediately out: and it was night” [John 13:30].  And it was night.  Why add that extraneous observation to the record?  John, the beloved apostle, watching Judas—and it was night.  Sin has a night.  There was a night in the life of Edom, of Esau [Isaiah 21:11-12].  How poignantly does the Book of Hebrews describe it when the author says, Edom, “Esau, for one morsel of meat sold his birthright . . . And when he would have inherited the blessing, he was rejected; for he found no place for repentance though he sought it carefully with tears” [Hebrews 12:16-17]—the night of Edom, of Esau.

Adam had a night.  “If you eat thereof you shall surely die” [Genesis 2:17].  I wonder if he and Eve remembered that when they stood over the silent form and the dead body of their son Abel [Genesis 4:8].  Sin has a night.  The antediluvians had a night.  “My Spirit shall not always strive with man” [Genesis 6:3].  And God destroyed the race except one family from the face of the earth [Genesis 7:22-23].  Israel had a night.  “Ephraim is joined to her idols: let her alone” [Hosea 4:17]—let her alone.  And Samaria was forever destroyed [2 Kings 17:24].  Jerusalem has a night.  “Behold,” said our Lord, “your house is left unto you desolate” [Matthew 23:38].

The great Christian world has a night.  I was in Istanbul in 1950, and they were building there in Istanbul great monuments.  One of them was a vast, wide boulevard, miles long.  They were getting ready for the five-hundredth anniversary of the destruction of the Christian faith—and the rising of the star and scimitar of Mohammed!  When you look at the greatest church in Christendom, St. Sophia, in old Constantinople, in modern Istanbul, instead of the cross is the star and the scimitar—celebrating the five hundredth year of the destruction of the Christian faith.  And as I stood in sorrow, indescribable, looking upon it, I remembered the word of the Lord: “Except you repent, I will remove your lampstand out of its place, except you repent” [Revelation 2:5].

Sin has a night.  Whether it’s true there in Edom, or there in Assyria, or there in Samaria, or there in Jerusalem, or there in Constantinople, or here in America and in Dallas and in us, sin has a night.  Death has a night.  “And this man tore down his barns to build greater,” said the Lord Jesus.  And when he finished it, he looked over the work; he surveyed the affluence of his hands and the prosperity of his efforts, and he said, “Soul, my soul, thou hast goods forever!  Lead up, now eat and drink and be merry.”  And that night the Lord said, “Thou fool, this night”—death has a night—”this night thy soul shall be required of thee: then whose shall these things be?  So is the man that lays up treasure for himself, and is not rich toward God” [Luke 12:16-21].

Death has a night.  Death is a horror, a fearful ogre, a ghost to a man outside of Christ.  Death has a night.  The judgment has a night.  “Depart from Me; I never knew you” [Matthew 7:23].  And the door was shut.  Judgment day has a night—no Savior, no God, no Mediator, no Pleader, no Counselor, just alone in the presence of our sins and rejection.  The judgment day has a night.

Hell has a night.  And they shall be cast out into outer darkness [Matthew 8:12].  Don’t you ever be persuaded by these lightsome, tripping, frothy, ephemeral cartoonists and storytellers and fiction thinkers who describe hell as being a boon companion, convocation of all of those who are going to eat and drink and be merry in damnation.  My brother, the Bible says you are alone [Luke 16:24].  You are alone; there will be no one with you!  You are alone; you are by yourself.  And you’re alone forever and forever—cast out into outer darkness, weeping, wailing, tormented day and night forever! [Matthew 25:30]. Oh, what a harsh revelation!  You see, there are fads in preaching just as there are fads in everything else in life.  There are fads in clothing.  There are fads in hairdo.  There are fads in television.  There are fads in every other area of life.  There are no less fads in preaching.

The fad in preaching in the last generation has been this: a man stands up there and he thunders about social inequities.  “We must do something,” says the preacher, “about capital and labor.  We must do something,” he says, “about racial discrimination.  We must do something,” he says, “about war and peace.  We must do something about all of these community ghettos.”  He thunders in the pulpit around us concerning economic and social issues.  That’s the fad of the modern pulpit.

Now, the unfad of the modern pulpit, the unpopular message of the modern pulpit is that a man would stand behind the sacred desk and, reading God’s Book, deliver a message on hell, and judgment, and damnation!  Have you heard a message like that in years and years and years?  See, it’s not the fad; it’s not the popular thing to do anymore.

One wag sarcastically replied, “When we had hell in the pulpit, we didn’t have it on the streets.  Now we don’t have hell in the pulpit, but we have it in the streets.”

Now what I’m thinking of is this: does the fad, does the popularity of the man’s subject have anything to do with the reality, the awesome reality of the fact?  Whether it’s popular or unpopular, does that change the fact of Almighty God?  Somehow, our people are persuaded that if we close our eyes or distract our attention to other areas, somehow we will hide away the harsh judgments of Almighty God.  I see that in every area of life. For example, we live in a day of sexual promiscuity; of liberation. This old Victorian idea of virtue and virginity, of one man and one woman as the Bible says—this old medieval theological persuasion of sexual purity is passé.  That doesn’t hide the harsh judgment of Almighty God.  Venereal disease is now epidemic.  And the destruction of virtue and of the home is almost appalling in American life.

Take again, the dole of the government, the dole of the government, the largess of the government, the social benefits of the government.  So the politician gets votes from people who will not work, and won’t work, and don’t care and they dole and they dole and they dole.  That’s fine.  That’s fine.  So the people don’t have to work, they live off of the government!  So they receive from the government hand all kinds of welfare, and they vote for the politician that gives them the most, but that doesn’t hide the awesome judgments of Almighty God.  What are you going to do in the day when deficit spending leads you to New York bankruptcy, and to state bankruptcy, and finally to federal bankruptcy?  What are you going to do?  Ah, ha, God—He is not mocked [Galatians 6:7]—the judgments of Almighty God.

Or take drugs.  The son of the president of the United States says drugs, marijuana, ought to be looked upon in the same way as beer or wine or drugs.  He’s partly right.  Alcohol is liquid pot. That is all that it is.   And one you drink, the other you smoke.  It’s the same.  And in modern American life, we’re permissive and liberated.  Nobody puts around us any circumscriptions.  So we smoke pot!  But God says: When you alter the mind with drugs there’s a payday someday.  However the fad, and however the promiscuity, and however the popularity; that doesn’t change the character or the reality of the judgments of Almighty God.  Damnation has a night.  Our time is far spent.

How does the prophet react to this judgment of Edom?  Do you remember how it begins? “The burden of Dumah, the burden of Edom” [Isaiah 21:11].  I have heard men preach on hell and judgment and damnation as though with triumph and victory—”I’m glad they’re going to get it.  I’m glad they’re going to sink into the night.  I’m glad they’re going to be lost and damned.”  I’ve heard them preach like that.  What is the biblical attitude toward the revelation of that awesome doctrine?  It’s in that text in the very words of it—”The burden of Dumah” [Isaiah 21:11].  It was no rejoicing to Isaiah to see those people sink into gloom, and into silence, and into the grave.  It was a burden to his heart.  Any time that a man preaches on hell and damnation, he ought to do it with tears and a broken heart.  To see a people destroyed, to see a family damned, to see sin wreck its havoc in the human heart, to see people die without Christ, ought to be a subject of weeping and crying and lamentation.

You know, I so well remember the first drunkard who was run over by a car in my first pastorate out of seminary.  He was a vile and evil man. He was as filthy and dirty in his speech and in his life and in his heart as any man could be.  And drunk, somebody ran over him.  And when I held a funeral service, they came from the ends of the earth around there to attend that service, just to hear what the preacher would say about that vile and evil man.

What I did was this.  I said to them, “All of us know him and the life that he’s lived and how he died.  But what I would like to know is, was there anybody here who wept over him, anybody?  Was there anybody here who went to his home and knocked at the door and prayed with him?  Is there anybody here who tried to win him to Jesus, anybody?  Anybody here to whom it was a care that the man was lost, anybody, anybody, anybody?”  And when the service was over it was one of self condemnation.  This is our great assignment; not to condemn, I don’t care what the man does.  Not to judge, I don’t care what kind of a man that he is.  Our assignment is to pray, and to love, and maybe to weep and to visit and to get the man to God.

“Vengeance is Mine; I will repay, said the Lord” [Romans 12:19].  And again, “The Lord shall judge His people” [Hebrews 10:30].  That is God.  Our part is, “If you will turn, if you will repent, if you will come, God is able and mighty to save you” [Acts 3:19].

Do you remember how the twenty-third chapter of the Book of Matthew closes?  That is the most scathing of all of the condemnations in human literature!  There is nothing like in human speech the twenty-third chapter of the Gospel of Matthew.  “Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, whited sepulchers.  Woe unto you hypocrites!” [Matthew 23:27]  Do you remember that?  Do you remember one other thing, do you remember how it closes, how it closes?  It closes in a psalm and in a cry.  This is the way that it closes: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem. . .how oft would I have gathered thy children together, as a hen gathereth her brood under her wings, but ye would not!  Behold, your house is left unto you desolate” [Matthew 23:37-38], in cries, in tears, and in sobs.  It is no joy for a man of God to see a man die without Christ, or to see judgment fall upon a man’s family, or upon his home, or upon his own soul, or upon his children.  To the true prophet of the Lord, it is the burden of love; O God that they might be saved—”My prayer to God that they might be saved” [Romans 10:1].  “For I wish that myself were accursed from Christ that my brethren might be saved” [Romans 9:3].  This is the spirit and the heart of the child of Christ.

We sing our hymn of appeal, and while we sing it, a family you to come, to place heart and hand and life in the fellowship of our church, would you make it now?  Would you come now?  A couple you, take your wife by the hand, “Wife, let’s both go today.  Let’s dedicate our home and house and hearts to the Lord.  Let’s both go.”  Or just one somebody you in this throng in the balcony round, in this press of people on the lower floor, down one of these stairways, down one of these aisles, “Here we come, pastor; my wife, my children, all of us,” or just you.  As God shall press the appeal to your heart, answer with your life.  Do it now, make it now, come now, while we stand and while we sing.


Dr. W.
A. Criswell



I.          Introduction

A.  Seir, home of
descendants of Edom (Esau)

B.  Dumah, an
anagram (Psalm 94:17, 115:17)

C.  Repetitive question
emphasizes urgent need for answer

II.         Who has a night?

A.  The nations of the

      1.  World War I,

      2.  Some nations
do not have a future (Psalm 137:1-9, 9:17)

B.  The lost

      1.  Sin has a
night (Galatians 6:7, Romans 12:19, Hebrews 10:31, 12:29)

a. Judas Iscariot (John
13:26, 31)

b. Edom (Hebrews 12:16-17)

c. Adam (Genesis 2:17,

d. Israel (Hosea 4:17)

e. Jerusalem (Matthew

f. Christian world
(Revelation 2:5)

                        2.  Death has a night
(Luke 12:16-21)

3.  Judgment has a night
(Matthew 7:23)

4.  Hell has a night
(Matthew 22:13, 25:30)

III.       The burden of Dumah

A.  No rejoicing in

B.  We
are not to condemn (Romans 12:19, Hebrews 10:30, Matthew 23:27, 37-38)

Burden of love (Romans 10:1, 9:3)