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Bible Commentaries

Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible

Isaiah 18

 

 

Introduction

Chapter 18 Ambassadors Come From Cush and Egypt.

Prior to his burden in respect of Egypt (Isaiah 19:1) Isaiah’s thought now turn towards that land. This was the result of Cushite ambassadors arriving in Jerusalem with the usual purpose, to entangle God’s people in their plots and schemes. The Cushites (Nubians) then ruled Egypt. Whether this was a preliminary enquiry, which was not followed up with action, or a genuine attempt to stir up rebellion with the intention of giving full support depends on the date of the visit. If the former it was sufficient to persuade a number of allies to take on the might of Assyria. If the latter it proved finally ineffective. But it was because the Cushites sought to have contact with God’s people that the burden came on Isaiah, as it had in different ways with Babylon, Philistia, Moab and Syria. Once nations sought to influence God’s people they came under the eye of God, and their attempts to lure God’s people into worldly alliance were his constant burden.

Throughout the whole of these chapters 13-23 we see what is ever true for God’s people, that there will always be those who seek to wean them away from God by any means they can. The world at that time was a hotbed of intrigue, and there were always those who would seek to draw God’s people into it. But Isaiah’s constant message was that Israel must not look to them, but must trust in God.


Verses 1-7

Analysis of Isaiah 18:1-7.

a Ah, the land of the whirring of wings, which is beyond the rivers of Cush, which sends messengers by the sea, even in vessels of papyrus on the waters. “Go you swift messengers to a people tall and smooth (or ‘spread out and ready for action’), to a people terrible from their beginning onwards, a nation which metes out and treads down, whose land the rivers divide” (Isaiah 18:1-2).

b “All you inhabitants of the world, and you dwellers on the earth, when an ensign (a flag or banner) is lifted up on the mountains, see, and when the trumpet is blown, hear” (Isaiah 18:3).

c For thus has Yahweh said to me, “I will be still, and I will behold in my dwellingplace, like clear heat in sunshine, like a cloud of dew (mist) in the heat of harvest” (Isaiah 18:4).

c For before the harvest, when the blossom is over, and the flower becomes a ripening grape, He will cut off the sprigs with pruninghooks, and the spreading branches He will take away and cut down (Isaiah 18:5).

b They will be left together to the ravenous birds of the mountains, and to the beasts of the earth, and the ravenous birds will summer on them, and all the beasts of the earth will winter on them (Isaiah 18:6).

a In that time will a present be brought to Yahweh of hosts, from a people tall and smooth, and from a people terrible from their beginning onwards, a nation which metes out and treads down, whose land the rivers divide, to the place of the name of Yahweh of hosts, The Mount Zion (Isaiah 18:7).

In ‘a’ either Israelite representatives, or returning ambassadors, are told to go to a people tall and smooth, to a people terrible from their beginning onwards, a nation which metes out and treads down, whose land the rivers divide, and in the parallel such a people will bring presents to Yahweh and to Mount Zion. In ‘b’ all the ‘inhabitants of the world’ were to note when an ensign (a flag or banner) was lifted up on the mountains and when the trumpet was blown, and in the parallel they would become food for the birds. In ‘c’ Yahweh has said, “I will be still, and I will behold in My dwellingplace, like clear heat in sunshine, like a cloud of dew (mist) in the heat of harvest” (perfect for ripening harvests), and in the parallel we learn that before the harvest, when the blossom is over, and the flower becomes a ripening grape, He will cut off the sprigs with pruninghooks, and the spreading branches He will take away and cut down. It will not be because Yahweh was not there with His provision, but because He purposes it.

Isaiah 18:1-2

‘Ah, the land of the whirring of wings,

Which is beyond the rivers of Cush,

Which sends messengers by the sea,

Even in vessels of papyrus on the waters.’

‘Ah.’ This connects the passage back to Isaiah 17:12-14 which began with the same expression. Isaiah is sighing because of the coming of these messengers. It does not please him.

‘The land of the whirring of wings which is beyond the rivers of Cush, which sends messengers by the sea, even in vessels of papyrus on the waters.’ The land of the whirring of wings could be any land where insects were a problem. In Deuteronomy 28:42 the whirring ones were locusts. When locusts visited Egypt they tended to be swept down the Nile by winds from North Africa. This tends to point to Sudan/Ethiopia, especially as they had swept down like a cloud of locusts and had conquered Egypt. Alternately some see it as a reference to Sudan/Ethiopia based on the fact that the peculiar sails on their boats looked from a distance, as they approached, like whirring wings (so LXX has ‘wings of the land of ships’).

‘Beyond (over) the rivers of Cush.’ The same description is given by Zephaniah 3:10. It may refer to northern Ethiopia where Jewish colonists had apparently settled along with other Semites from Southern Arabia. For evidence of the close relationship between southern Arabia and Ethiopia see 2 Chronicles 21:16. The phrase was probably a technical term for Sudan/Ethiopia. Geography was not exact in those days.

‘Which sends messengers by the sea, even in vessels of papyrus on the waters.’ The sea may well be the Red Sea across which vessels of papyrus could sail to southern Arabia, and then the messengers would travel via the trade routes to countries including Palestine. Others see it as referring to the Nile, as vessels of papyrus were not generally seagoing, but ‘sea’ is not the usual description applied to the Nile (although see Isaiah 19:5).

Isaiah 18:2-3

‘Go you swift messengers to a people tall and smooth (or ‘spread out and ready for action’),

To a people terrible from their beginning onwards,

A nation that metes out and treads down,

Whose land the rivers divide.

All you inhabitants of the world,

And you dwellers on the earth,

When an ensign is lifted up on the mountains, see,

And when the trumpet is blown, hear!’

The ambassadors of Cush having arrived in Jerusalem, and presumably following discussions, were sent back with suitable flattering and diplomatic compliments, (presumably by Hezekiah and the other members of the alliance). They were told to ‘Go’ back to their own people and return to Cush with the message that even now was about to be circulated to the interested nations, ‘When an ensign (banner) is lifted up on the mountains, see, and when the trumpet is blown, hear!’ They too are to await the signal to act. The world around is waiting to act and at a given time the signal will be given, the banner raised, and the war trumpet will sound. Possibly they were delighted to have such powerful allies and were convinced that they could now defeat Assyria, which was already in trouble due to successful rebellions by Babylon and Elam. Isaiah builds up the picture because he will later condemn it (Isaiah 30:1-5; Isaiah 31:1).

The description as a whole might well be taken from the blurb included in the ambassadorial message that the Cushites brought (compare Isaiah 18:7). The verb translated ‘tall’ here means ‘to draw’ in its various uses, e.g. to draw a bow, time drawn out, to draw on a tablet, to draw a lover, to draw oneself up to one’s full height. It can mean ‘drawn out’ and therefore ‘extended’. Thus here it is translated ‘tall’ but it may equally signify a people who were extended in the sense of being spread over a wide area. The verb translated ‘smooth’ here means to ‘polish, furbish’ (e.g. a sword) and thus make it ready for action. So we could equally translate ‘spread over a wide area and ready for action’, which would fit the purpose of the visit. Their boast was of their conquests and their readiness for war. But the Cushites were taller than average and smooth skinned which is why many translate ‘tall and smooth’, although the word never elsewhere means ‘tall’.

The reference is to the Cushite peoples who in around 715 BC, under their king Piankhi, followed by his successor Shabaka, had conquered Egypt and were seeking to influence affairs to their north, especially against Assyria who would keep threatening her northern borders. At this stage they probably seemed invincible (they would soon learn otherwise). It was from Cush that Nimrod the great conqueror came (Genesis 10:8-12), and thus they were ‘a people terrible from their beginnings onwards’. The reference to meting out and treading down could have in mind their treatment of Egypt, which they had at this time conquered. The division of their land by rivers could look back to Isaiah 18:1, ‘beyond the rivers of Cush’, but may also be a boast as to the fruitfulness of their land, criss-crossed by rivers.

Isaiah 18:4

‘For thus has Yahweh said to me,

“I will be still,

And I will behold in my dwellingplace,

Like clear heat in sunshine,

Like a cloud of dew (mist) in the heat of harvest”.

For before the harvest, when the blossom is over,

And the flower becomes a ripening grape,

He will cut off the sprigs with pruninghooks,

And the spreading branches he will take away and cut down.

They will be left together to the ravenous birds of the mountains,

And to the beasts of the earth,

And the ravenous birds will summer on them,

And all the beasts of the earth will winter on them.’

Isaiah is not impressed. He gives God’s verdict on the situation. God will stand back and be still. He will not intervene on behalf of the alliance. Rather He will watch the disaster that is coming, from His dwellingplace, possibly signifying Mount Zion (Isaiah 18:7), but more probably here signifying His heavenly dwellingplace. But men will be conscious that He is there in the background, ‘like clear heat in sunshine, like a mist in the heat of harvest’. God’s mysterious presence will be active in His own way.

‘Like clear heat in sunshine, like a mist in the heat of harvest.’ Both would be seen as presaging a good harvest. When the harvest failed it would not be because Yahweh was lacking. It would be because He had greater purposes.

And before the rebellion comes to harvest and full growth, He will prune its sprigs and remove its spreading branches. Pruning before harvest would be recognised by men as being portentous, it is thing that no man would do, but it is what God will do. The rebellion will not flourish. Rather it will result in the downfall of the rebels. So His action will result in the foreshortening of the rebellion, and what is pruned will then feed the ravenous birds and beasts for a long time to come, in both summer and winter.

Thus Isaiah warns Hezekiah and the other leaders in the alliance that their efforts will come to nought, and that it is Yahweh Who will do it. And especially he is letting Hezekiah know what the result would be of his trusting in such alliances rather than in Yahweh Himself. His words may well have been heeded. If this was prior to the rebellion of around 713 BC (although it may have been later) we learn from Assyrian sources that Sargon of Assyria was aware of the rebellion and of the possible participants in it, but when he moved down and savagely crushed the rebellion (Isaiah 20:1) over a period of three years Judah appears to have come out of it unscathed, which suggests that Hezekiah had not committed himself. And when the rebel king of Ashdod fled to Egypt for sanctuary, the brave Pharaoh handed him over to Sargon.

If it was at that time Shabaka was trying to keep in with Assyria so that any part he had had in negotiations were only perfunctory. It was only later that Shebitku took positive action and sent his brother Tirhakah to oppose Assyria positively (Isaiah 37:9), an attempt which proved a failure, or at the best only partially successful. (Our knowledge of history is based on sources which are not always reliable. Assyria claimed victory but withdrew, which suggests that it was not a resounding one. We do not have Egypt’s side of the story).

Isaiah 18:7

‘In that time will a present be brought to Yahweh of hosts,

From a people tall and smooth,

And from a people terrible from their beginning onwards,

A nation which metes out and treads down,

Whose land the rivers divide,

To the place of the name of Yahweh of hosts,

The Mount Zion.’

This probably initially has in mind gifts brought by the Cushite ambassadors, either at that time, or later, when the new rebellion was planned, seen as handed over to Yahweh and put in the temple treasury, and again handed over with the complimentary phrases which probably originated from the Cushites themselves. In that case he is simply saying that it had been useless to try to bribe Yahweh with gifts.

We may, however, see in it an indication from Isaiah that they too in the future, after the failure of the rebellion with its devastating results for the participants (‘in that time’), will submit to Yahweh and worship Him (not necessarily immediately). See Acts 8:26-39. (As in chapter 7 of the sign of Immanuel, the fact that it would certainly one day happen, however far distant in time, was to be seen as proof that the rebellion would fail). He sees in a number of these nations who approach Judah/Israel seeking treaties, nations who will one day submit to Yahweh. God’s final purpose for the Gentiles is blessing. Note how in the following chapter the description of what will happen to Egypt in the fairly near future is then capped off with a vision of (to us) the long distant future when Egypt will turn to Yahweh (Isaiah 19:19-25).

Note.

The picturesque and enigmatic language of this chapter has resulted in many differing interpretations, especially by those who whenever they see the word ‘world’ (which can also mean ‘land’) immediately think of eschatological ideas. In our view the above satisfactorily and reasonably in its context expounds its meaning. But certainly some of the themes are in one way or another later applied eschatologically (e.g. Revelation 14:14-19; Revelation 19:17-18), and Isaiah’s prophecies were undoubtedly the seedbed of eschatology, for he saw both near and far as one whole (which from his point of view it was).

End of note.

 


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Bibliography Information
Pett, Peter. "Commentary on Isaiah 18:4". "Peter Pett's Commentary on the Bible ". http://odl.studylight.org/commentaries/pet/isaiah-18.html. 2013.

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