Woe to the land shadowing with wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia:
Woe to the land - (הוי hôy). This word, as has been already remarked (the note at Isaiah 17:12), may be a mere interjection or salutation, and would be appropriately rendered by 'Ho!' Or it may be a word denouncing judgment, or wrath, as it is often used in this prophecy (the note at Isaiah 5:8).
Shadowing with wings - (כנפים צלצל tsı̂letsal kenāpāı̂ym). This is one of the most difficult expressions in the whole chapter; and one to which as yet, probably, no satisfactory meaning has been applied. The Septuagint renders it, Οὐαὶ γῆς πλοὶων πτέρυγες Ouai gēc1;υγες Ouai gēs ploiōn pteruges - 'Ah! wings of the land of ships.' The Chaldee, 'Woe to the land in which they come in ships from a distant country, and whose sails are spread out as an eagle which flies upon its wings.' Grotius renders it, 'The land whose extreme parts are shaded by mountains.' The word rendered, 'shadowed' צלצל tsı̂letsal, occurs only in this place and in Job 41:7, where it is translated 'fish-spears' - but as we know nothing of the "form" of those spears, that place throws no light on the meaning of the word here. The word is derived, evidently, from צלל tsālal, which has three significations:
(1) "To be shady, dark, obscure;" and hence, its derivatives are applied to anything that "makes" a shade or shadow - particularly "shady trees" Job 40:21-22; the shades of night Sol 2:17; Sol 4:6; or anything that produces obscurity, or darkness, as a tree, a rock, a wing, etc.
(2) It means "to tingle," spoken of the ears 1 Samuel 3:11; 2 Kings 21:13; "to quiver," spoken of the lips Habakkuk 3:16; and hence, its derivatives are applied to anything that makes a sound by "tinkling" - an instrument of music; a cymbal made of two pieces of metal that are struck together 2 Samuel 6:5; 1 Chronicles 15:16; 1 Chronicles 16:42; 1 Chronicles 25:6; 2 Chronicles 5:12; Nehemiah 12:27; Psalm 150:5)
(3) It means "to sink" Exodus 15:10. From the sense of making "a shade," a derivative of the verb צלצל tselâtsâl - the same as used here except the points - is applied to locusts because they appear in such swarms as to obscure the rays of the sun, and produce an extended shade, or shadow, over a land as a cloud does; or because they make a rustling with their wings.
The word used here, therefore, may mean either "shaded, or rustling, or rattling," in the manner of a cymbal or other tinkling instrument. It may be added, that the word may mean a "double shade," being a doubling of the word צל tsêl, a "shade, or shdow," and it has been supposed by some to apply to Ethiopia as lying betwen the tropics, having a "double shadow;" that is, so that the shadow of objects is cast one half of the year on the north side, and the other half on the south. The word 'wings' is applied in the Scriptures to the following things, namely:
(1) The wing of a fowl. This is the literal, and common signification.
(8) "Protection" - as wings are a protection to young birds in their nest (see Psalm 18:8; Psalm 36:7; Psalm 61:4; Psalm 91:4; Matthew 23:37). It has been proposed by some to apply this description to "ships," or the sails of vessels, as if a land was designated which was covered with "sails," or the "wings" of vessels. So the Septuagint, and the Chaldee. But there is no instance in which the word "wings" is so applied in the Scriptures.
That sendeth ambassadors by the sea, even in vessels of bulrushes upon the waters, saying, Go, ye swift messengers, to a nation scattered and peeled, to a people terrible from their beginning hitherto; a nation meted out and trodden down, whose land the rivers have spoiled!
That sendeth ambassadors - That is, "accustomed" to send messengers. What was the design of their thus sending ambassadors does not appear. The prophet simply intimates the fact; a fact by which they were well known. It may have been for purposes of commerce, or to seek protection. Bochart renders the word translated 'ambassadors' by "images," and supposes that it denotes an image of the god Osiris made of the papyrus; but there does not seem to be any reason for this opinion. The word ציר tsı̂yr may mean an idol or image, as in Isaiah 45:16; Psalm 49:15. But it usually denotes ambassadors, or messengers Joshua 9:4; Proverbs 25:13; Proverbs 13:17; Isaiah 57:9; Jeremiah 49:14; Obadiah 1:1.
By the sea - What "sea" is here meant cannot be accurately determined. The word 'sea' (ים yâm) is applied to various collections of water, and may be used in reference to a sea, a lake, a pond, and even a large river. It is often applied to the Mediterranean; and where the phrase "Great Sea" occurs, it denotes that Numbers 34:6-7; Deuteronomy 11:24. It is applied to the Lake of Gennesareth or the Sea of Galilee Numbers 34:11; to the Salt Sea Genesis 14:3; to the Red Sea often (Exodus 13:10; Numbers 14:25; Numbers 21:4; Numbers 33:10, "et al.") It is also applied to "a large river," as, "e. g., the Nile" Isaiah 19:5; Nehemiah 3:8; and to the Euphrates Jeremiah 51:36. So far as this "word" is concerned, therefore, it may denote either the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Nile, or the Euphrates. If the country spoken of is Upper Egypt or Nubia, then we are naturally led to suppose that the prophet refers either to the Nile or the Red Sea.
Even in vessels of bulrushes - The word rendered 'bulrushes' (גמא gôme') is derived from the verb גמא gâmâ', "to swallow, sip, drink;" and is given to a reed or bulrush, from its "imbibing" water. It is usually applied in the Scriptures to the Egyptian "papyrus" - a plant which grew on the banks of the Nile, and from which we have derived our word "paper." 'This plant,' says Taylor ("Heb. Con."), 'grew in moist places near the Nile, and was four or five yards in height. Under the bark it consisted wholly of thin skins, which being separated and spread out, were applied to various uses. Of these they made boxes and chests, and even boats, smearing them over with pitch.' These laminoe, or skins, also served the purpose of paper, and were used instead of parchment, or plates of lead and copper, for writing on. This plant, the Cyperus Papyrus of modern botanists, mostly grew in Lower Egypt, in marshy land, or in shallow brooks and ponds, formed by the inundation of the Nile. 'The papyrus,' says Pliny, 'grows in the marsh lands of Egypt, or in the stagnant pools left inland by the Nile, after it has returned to its bed, which have not more than two cubits in depth.
The root of the plant is the thickness of a man's arm; it has a triangular stalk, growing not higher than ten cubits (fifteen feet), and decreasing in breadth toward the summit, which is crowned with a thyrsus, containing no seeds, and of no use except to deck the statues of the gods. They employ the roots as firewood, and for making various utensils. They even construct small boats of the plant; and out of the rind, sails, mats, clothes, bedding, ropes; they eat it either crude or cooked, swallowing only the juice; and when they manufacture paper from it, they divide the stem by means of a kind of needle into thin plates, or laminae, each of which is as large as the plant will admit. All the paper is woven upon a table, and is continually moistened with Nile water, which being thick and slimy, furnishes an effectual species of glue. In the first place, they form upon a table, pefectly horizontal, a layer the whole length of the papyrus, which is crossed by another placed transversely, and afterward enclosed within a press.
The different sheets are then hung in a situation exposed to the sun, in order to dry, and the process is finally completed by joining them together, beginning with the best. There are seldom more than twenty slips or stripes produced from one stem of the plant.' (Pliny, xiii. 11, 12.) Wilkinson remarks, that 'the mode of making papyri was this: the interior of the stalks of the plant, after the rind had been removed, was cut into thin slices in the direction of their length, and these being laid on a flat board, in succession, similar slices were placed over them at right angles, and their surfaces being cemented together by a sort of glue, and subjected to the proper deuce of pressure, and well dried, the papyrus was completed.' ("Ancient Egyptians," vol. iii. p. 148.) The word used here is translated 'bulrushes' in Exodus 2:3, where the little ark is described in which Moses was laid near the Nile; the 'rush' in Job 8:11; and 'rushes,' in Isaiah 35:7.
It does not elsewhere occur. That the ancients were in the practice of making light boats or vessels from the papyrus is well known. Thus Theophrastus (in the "History of Plants," iv. 9) says, that 'the papyrus is useful for many things, for from this they make vessels,' or ships (πλοῖα ploia). Thus, Pliny (xiii. 11, 22) says, ex ipso quidem papyro navigia texunt - 'from the papyrus they weave vessels.' Again, (vi. 56, 57): 'Even now,' says he, 'in the Britannic Ocean useful vessels are made of bark; on the Nile from the papyrus, and from reeds and rushes.' Plutarch describes Isis going in search of the body of Osiris, 'through the fenny country in a bark made of the papyrus (ἐν βαριδι παπυοινη en baridi papnoinē) where it is supposed that persons using boats of this description (ἐν παπυρινοις ὀκαφεσι πλωοντας en papurinois okaphisi pleontas) are never attacked by crocodiles out of respect to the goddess,' (De Isaiah 18:1-7.) Moses, also, it will be remembered, was exposed on the banks of the Nile in a similar boat or ark. 'She took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it With slime and with pitch, and put the child therein' Exodus 2:3. The same word occurs here (גמא gôme') which is used by Isaiah, and this fact shows that such boats were known as early as the time of Moses. Lucan also mentions boats made of the papyrus at Memphis:
Conseritur bibula Memphitis cymba papyro.
- Phar. iv: 136.
At Memphis boats are woven together from the marshy papyrus
The sculptures of Thebes, Memphis, and other places, abundantly show that they were employed as punts, or canoes for fishing, in all parts of Egypt, during the inundation of the Nile.' (Wilkinson's Ancient Egyptians, vol. iii. p. 186.) In our own country, also, it will be remembered, the natives were accustomed to make canoes, or vessels, of the bark of the birch, with which they often adventured on even dangerous navigation. The circumstance here mentioned of the גמא gôme' (the papyrus), seems to fix the scene of this prophecy to the region of the Nile. This reed grew nowhere else; and it is natural, therefore, to suppose, that some nation living near the Nile is intended. Taylor, the editor of Calmet, has shown that the inhabitants of the upper regions of the Nile were accustomed to form floats of hollow earthen vessels, and to weave them together with rushes, and thus to convey them to Lower Egypt to market. He supposes that by 'vessels of bulrushes,' or rush floats, are meant such vessels. (For a description of the "floats" made in Upper Egypt with "jars," see Pococke's "Travels," vol. i. p. 84, Ed. London, 1743.) 'I first saw in this voyage (on the Nile) the large floats of earthen-ware; they are about thirty feet wide, and sixty feet long, being a frame of palm boughs tied together about four feet deep, on which they put a layer of large jars with the mouths uppermost; on these they make another floor, and then put on another layer of jars, and so a third, which last are so disposed as to trim the float, and leave room for the men to go between. The float lies across the river, one end being lower down than the other; toward the lower end on each side they have four long poles with which they row and direct the boat, as well as forward the motion down.' Mr. Bruce, in his "Travels," mentions vessels made of the papyrus in Abyssinia.
Upon the waters - The waters of the Nile, or the Red Sea.
Saying - This word is not in the Hebrew, and the introduction of it by the translators gives a peculiar, and probably an incorrect, sense to the whole passage. As it stands here, it would seem to be the language of the inhabitants of the land who sent the ambassadors, usually saying to their messengers to go to a distant nation; and this introduces an inquiry into the characteristics of the nation to "whom" the ambassadors are sent, as if it were a "different" people from those who are mentioned in Isaiah 17:1. But probably the words which follow are to be regarded as the words of the prophet, or of God Isaiah 17:4, giving commandment to those messengers to "return" to those who sent them, and deliver the message which follows: 'You send messengers to distant nations in reed boats upon the rivers. Return, says God, to the land which sent you foth, and announce to them the will of God. Go rapidly in your light vessels, and bear this message, for it shall speedily be executed, and I will sit calmly and see it done' Isaiah 17:4-6. A remarkably similar passage, which throws great light on this, occurs in Ezekiel 30:9 : 'In that day shall messengers go forth from me (God) in ships to make the careless Ethiopians afraid, and great pain shall come upon them, as in the day of Egypt, for lo, it cometh.'
Go, ye swift messengers - Hebrew, 'Light messengers.' This is evidently addressed to the boats. Achilles Tatius says that they were frequently so light and small, that they would carry but one person (Rosenmuller).
To a nation - What nation this was is not known. The "obvious" import of the passge is, that it was some nation to whom they were "accustomed" to send ambassadors, and that it is here added merely as "descriptive" of the people. Two or three characterstics of the nation are mentioned, from which we may better learn what people are referred to.
All ye inhabitants of the world, and dwellers on the earth, see ye, when he lifteth up an ensign on the mountains; and when he bloweth a trumpet, hear ye.
All ye inhabitants of the world - These are to be regarded as the words of the prophet summoning all nations to attend to that which was about to occur. Grotius, however, and some others, suppose that they are the words of the Ethiopians. The meaning is, that the events which are here predicted would be of so public a nature as to attract the attention of all the world.
When he - Vitringa supposes that this means the Assyrians lifting up a standard on the mountains of Judea. But the better interpretation is that which refers it to the people of Nubia, mustering their forces for war. 'All nations behold when that people collects an army; sounds the trumpet for war; and arrays its military forces for battle. See then the judgments that God will inflict on them - their discomfiture Isaiah 18:4-7, and their turning to Yahweh, and sending an offering to him Isaiah 18:7.' According to this interpretation, it will refer to the people making preparation for battle; and perhaps it may mean that they were preparing to join the enemies of Judea - "not improbably preparing to join the forces of Sennacherib, and to invade Judea." For this purpose it may have been that the messengers were sent to negotiate the terms of alliance with Sennacherib; and the object of the prophecy is, to assure the Jews that this people, as well as Sennacherib, would be discomfited, and that they would yet bring an offering to God Isaiah 18:7.
Lifteth up an ensign - A military standard (see the note at Isaiah 5:26).
And when he bloweth a trumpet - Also a signal for an army to assemble (see the note at Isaiah 13:2).
For so the LORD said unto me, I will take my rest, and I will consider in my dwelling place like a clear heat upon herbs, and like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest.
For so the Lord said unto me - So Yahweh has revealed his purpose, that is, to execute punishment on the people who have been described in the previous verses. Their state as there described is that of a fierce people making ready for war, and probably designing an alliance with the enemies of Judea, and marshalling their armies for that purpose. Yahweh here reveals to the prophet that they shall be discomfited, and shows the manner in which it will be done. He says he will sit calm while these preparations are going on - as the sun shines serenely on the earth while the harvest is growing, and the dew falls gently on the herb; but that "before" their plans are completed, he will interpose and destroy them, as if one should appear suddenly before the harvest is ripe and cut it down. The "design," therefore, of this part of the prophecy is to comfort the Jews, and to assure them that there is no danger to them from the preparations which were made against them - for Yahweh calmly beholds the proud rage of the enemy.
I will take my rest - I will not interpose. I will remain calm - not appearing to oppose them, but keeping as calm, and as still, as if I seemed to favor their plans - as the sun shines on the herb, and the gentle dew falls on the grass, until the proper time for me to interpose and defeat them shall arise Isaiah 18:5-6.
I will consider - I will look on; that is, I will not now interpose and disarrange their plans before they are complete. We learn here,
(1) That God sees the plans of the wicked;
(2) That he sees them "mature" them without attempting then to interpose to disarrange them;
(3) That he is calm and still, because he designs that those plans shall be developed; and
(4) That the wicked should not indulge in any dreams of security and success because God does not interpose to thwart their plans while they are forming them. He will do it in the proper time.
In my dwelling-place - In heaven. I will sit in heaven and contemplate leisurely the plans that are going forward.
Like a clear heat - A serene, calm, and steady sunshine, by which plants and herbs are made to grow. There seem to be two ideas blended here: the first, that of the "stillness" with which the sun shines upon the herbs; and the other, that of the fact that the sun shines that the herbs "may grow."
Upon herbs - Margin, 'After rain' (עלי־אוי ‛ălēy 'ôry). The word אוי 'ôr usually signifies "light," or "fire." The plural form (ואורות ô'ôrôth) is used to denote herbs or vegetables in two places, in 2 Kings 4:39, and Isaiah 26:19. For in the Shemitic languages the ideas of "sprouting, being grown, growing" etc., are connected with that of the shining of the sun, or of light; that which grows in the light; that is, vegetables. But in the singular phorm the word is not thus used, unless it be in this place. That it may have this signiphication cannot be doubted; and this interpretation makes good sense, and suits the connection. The rabbis generally interpret it as it is in the margin - 'rain.' In proof of this they appeal to Job 36:30; Job 37:11; but the word in these passages more properly denotes a cloud of light or of lightning, than rain. The common interpretation is probably correct, which regards the word אור 'ôr here as the same as אורה 'ôrâh - 'herbs' (see Vitringa). The Syriac reads it על־יאר ‛al-yeor - 'upon the river.' The parallelism seems to require the sense of "herb," or something that shall answer to 'harvest' in the corresponding member.
And like a cloud of dew - Such a dew was still, and promoted the growth of vegetables. The idea is that of stillness and rest where there is no storm or tempest to dissipate the gently-falling dew. This is an emblem of the perfect quietness with which God would regard the preparations for war until the proper time would come for him to interpose. The whole passage is similar to Psalm 2:4-5 :
He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh;
Jehovah shall have them in derision.
Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath,
For afore the harvest, when the bud is perfect, and the sour grape is ripening in the flower, he shall both cut off the sprigs with pruning hooks, and take away and cut down the branches.
For afore the harvest - This verse is evidently figurative, and the image is drawn from that which is commenced in the previous verse. There, God is represented as calmly regarding the plans of the people here referred to - as the sun shines serenely on the herb, or the dew falls on the grass. "That" figure supposes that they had "formed" plans, and that they were advancing to maturity, like a growing harvest, while God surveyed them without interposition. This verse continues the figure, and affirms "that those plans shall not be mature;" that God will interpose and defeat them "while" they are maturing - as if a man should enter the harvest field and cut it down after it had been sown, or go into the vineyard, and cut down the vines while the green grape was beginning to ripen. It is, therefore, a most beautiful and expressive figure, intimating that all their plans would be foiled even when they had the prospect of a certain accomplishment.
When the bud is perfect - The word 'bud' here (פרח perach) denotes either a "blossom," or a sprout, shoot, branch. Here it denotes probably the "blossom" of the grain; or it may be the grain when it is "set." Its meaning is, when their plans are maturing, and there is every human prospect that they will be successful.
And the sour grape is ripening - Begins to turn; or is becoming mature.
In the flower - (נצה netsâh). The blossom. This should be read rather, 'and the flower is becoming a ripening grape.' The common version does not make sense; but with this translation the idea is clear. The sense is the same as in the former phrase - when their plans are maturing.
He shall cut off the sprigs - The shoots; the small limbs on which the grape is hanging, as if a man should enter a vineyard, and, while the grape is ripening, should not only cut off the grape, but the small branches that bore it, thus preventing it from bearing again. The idea is, not only that God would disconcert their "present" plans, but that he would prevent them from forming any in future. Before their plans were matured, and they obtained the anticipated triumph, he would effectually prevent them from forming such plans again.
They shall be left together unto the fowls of the mountains, and to the beasts of the earth: and the fowls shall summer upon them, and all the beasts of the earth shall winter upon them.
They shall be left together - The figure here is dropped, and the literal narration is resumed. The sense is, that the army shall be slain and left unburied. Perhaps the "branches and twigs" in the previous verse denoted military leaders, and the captains of the armies, which are now represented as becoming food for beasts of the field and for birds of prey.
To the fowls of the mountains - Their dead bodies shall be unburied, and shall be a prey to the birds that prey upon flesh.
And to the beasts of the earth - The wild animals: the beasts of the forest.
And the fowls shall summer upon them - Shall pass the summer, that is, they shall continue to be unburied. "And the beasts of the earth shall winter upon them." They shall be unburied through the winter; probably indicating that they would furnish food for the fowls and the wild beasts for a long time. On the multitude of carcasses these animals will find nourishment for a whole year, that is, they will spend the summer and the winter with them. When this was fulfilled, it is, perhaps, not possible to tell, as we are so little acquainted with the circumstances of the people in relation to whom it was spoken. If it related, as I suppose, to the people of Nubia or Ethiopia forming an alliance with the Assyrians for the purpose of invading Judea, it was fulfilled probably when Sennacherib and his assembled hosts were destroyed. Whenever it was fulfilled, it is quite evident that the design of the prophecy was to give comfort to the Jews, alarmed and agitated as they were at the prospect of the preparations which were made, by the assurance that those plans would fail, and all the efforts of their enemies be foiled and disconcerted.
In that time shall the present be brought unto the LORD of hosts of a people scattered and peeled, and from a people terrible from their beginning hitherto; a nation meted out and trodden under foot, whose land the rivers have spoiled, to the place of the name of the LORD of hosts, the mount Zion.
In that time - When shall thus be disconcerted, and their armies be overthrown.
Shall the present be brought... - The word 'present' (שׁי shay) denotes a gift, and is found only in the phrase 'to bring gifts,' or 'presents' Psalm 68:30; Psalm 76:11. It means here evidently a tribute, or an offering to Yahweh as the only true God; and possibly may mean that the people would be converted to him, and embrace the true religion.
Of a people ... - From a people. The description which follows is the same precisely as in Isaiah 18:2. Numerous repetitions of this kind will be recollected by the classic reader in the "Iliad."
To the place of the name ... - The place where Yahweh is worshipped, that is, Jerusalem (compare the notes at Isaiah 1:8-9). We have no means of knowing with certainty when or how this prophecy was fulfilled. That the Jewish religion spread into Upper Egypt, and that the Christian religion was afterward established there, there can be no doubt. The Jews were scattered into nearly every nation, and probably many of this people became proselytes, and went with them to Jerusalem to worship (see Acts 2:10; Acts 8:27). 'The Abyssinian annals represent the country as converted to Judaism several centuries before the Christian era; and it certainly retains many appearances bearing the stamp of that faith. In the fourth century, the nation was converted to Christianity by the efforts of Frumentius, an Egyptian, who raised himself to high favor at court. Abyssinia remained impenetrable to the arms or the creed of the followers of Mahomet, and, affording shelter to the refugees from Egypt and Arabia, it became more decidedly Christian.' 'The Abyssinians profess the same form of Christianity with the Copts of Egypt, and even own the supremacy of the patriarch at Cairo. They combine with their Christian profession many Judaical observances, such as circumcision, abstinence from meats, and the observance of Saturday as well as Sunday as a Sabbath.' ("Encyc. of Geography," vol. ii. pp. 585, 588.) in these facts - in the prevalence of the true religion there in former periods, the prophecy may be regarded as having been in part fulfilled. Still, as is the case with a large portion of the prophecies of Isaiah, we must regard this as having reference to a period of greater light and truth than has yet existed there; and as destined to receive a more complete fulfillment when all lands shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord.