Isaiah 18
Keil and Delitzsch OT Commentary
Ethiopia's Submission to Jehovah - Isaiah 18:1-7

The notion that Isaiah 18:4-6 contains an account of the judgment of Jehovah upon Ethiopia is quite an untenable one. The prophet is here predicting the destruction of the army of Sennacherib in his usual way, and in accordance with the actual fulfilment (Isaiah 37:36). The view which Hofmann has adopted from the Jewish expositors - namely, that the people so strangely described at the commencement and close of the prophecy is the Israelitish nation - is equally untenable. It is Ethiopia. Taking both these facts together, then, the conclusion to which we are brought is, that the prophet is here foretelling the effect that will be produced upon Ethiopia by the judgment which Jehovah is about to inflict upon Asshur. But it is altogether improbable either that the prophecy falls later than the Assyrian expedition against Egypt (as Schegg supposes), or that the Ethiopian ambassadors mentioned here are despatched to Judah to seek for friendship and aid (as Ewald, Knobel, Meier, and Thenius maintain). The expedition was still impending, and that against Judah was the means to this further end. The ambassadors are not sent to Judah, but carry commands with the most stirring despatch to every province under Ethiopian rule. The Ethiopian kingdom is thrown into the greatest excitement in the face of the approaching Assyrian invasion, and the messengers are sent out to raise the militia. At that time both Egypts were governed by the Ethiopian (or twenty-fifth) dynasty, Sabako the Ethiopian having made himself master of the country on the Lower Nile.

(Note: See Brugsch, Histoire d'Egypte, i.((1859) 244-246.)

The king of Egypt who was contemporaneous with Sennacherib was the Tirhaka of the Old Testament, the Tarakos of Manetho, and the Tearkon of Strabo - a great conqueror, according to Megasthenes, like Sesostris and Nebuchadnezzar, who had carried his conquests as far as the Pillars of Hercules (Strabo, xv 1, 6). This explains the strangely sounding description given in Isaiah 18:2, Isaiah 18:7 of the Ethiopian people, which had the universal reputation in antiquity of gigantic strength and invincibility. It is impossible to determine the length of time that intervened between the composition of the prophecy and the fourteenth year of Hezekiah's reign, in which the Assyrian army commenced the expedition across Judah to Egypt. The event which the prophecy foretells - namely, that the judgment of Jehovah upon Asshur would be followed by the submission of Ethiopia to Jehovah - was only partially and provisionally fulfilled (2 Chronicles 32:23). And there is nothing to surprise us in this, inasmuch as in the prophecies delivered before the destruction of Assyria the latter always presented itself to the mind of the prophet as the kingdom of the world; and consequently the prophecy had also an eschatological feature, which still remained for a future and remote fulfilment.

Woe to the land shadowing with wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia:
The prophecy commences with hoi, which never signifies heus, but always vae (woe). Here, however, it differs from Isaiah 17:12, and is an expression of compassion (cf., Isaiah 55:1; Zechariah 2:10) rather than of anger; for the fact that the mighty Ethiopia is oppressed by the still mightier Asshur, is a humiliation which Jehovah has prepared for the former. Isaiah 18:1, Isaiah 18:2: "Woe to the land of the whirring of wings, which is beyond the rivers of Cush, that sends ambassadors into the sea and in boats of papyrus over the face of the waters." The land of Cush commences, according to Ezekiel 29:10 (cf., Isaiah 30:6), where Upper Egypt ends. The Sevēneh (Aswân), mentioned by Ezekiel, is the boundary-point at which the Nile enters Mizraim proper, and which is still a depot for goods coming from the south down the Nile. The naharē-Cush (rivers of Cush) are chiefly those that surround the Cushite Seba (Genesis 10:7). This is the name given to the present Sennr, the Meroitic island which is enclosed between the White and Blue Nile (the Astapos of Ptolemy, or the present Bahr el-Abyad, and the Astaboras of Ptolemy, or the present Bahr el-Azrak). According to the latest researches, more especially those of Speke, the White Nile, which takes its rise in the Lake of Nyanza, is the chief source of the Nile. The latter, and the Blue Nile, whose confluence (makran) with it takes place in lat. 15 25, are fed by many larger or smaller tributary streams (as well as mountain torrents); the Blue Nile even more than the Nile proper. And this abundance of water in the land to the south of Sevēnēh, and still farther south beyond Seba (or Mero), might very well have been known to the prophet as a general fact. The land "beyond the rivers of Cush" is the land bounded by the sources of the Nile, i.e., (including Ethiopia itself in the stricter sense of the word) the south land under Ethiopian rule that lay still deeper in the heart of the country, the land of its African auxiliary tribes, whose names (which probably include the later Nubians and Abyssinians), as given in 2 Chronicles 12:3; Nahum 3:9; Ezekiel 30:5; Jeremiah 46:9, suppose a minuteness of information which has not yet been attained by modern research. To this Ethiopia, which is designated by its farthest limits (compare Zephaniah 3:10, where Wolff, in his book of Judith, erroneously supposes Media to be intended as the Asiatic Cush), the prophets give the strange name of eretz tziltzal cenâp. This has been interpreted as meaning "the land of the wings of an army with clashing arms" by Gesenius and others; but cenâphaim does not occur in this sense, like 'agappim in Ezekiel. Others render it "the land of the noise of waves" (Umbreit); but cenâphaim cannot be used of waters except in such a connection as Isaiah 8:8. Moreover, tziltzal is not a fitting onomatopoetic word either for the clashing of arms or the noise of waves. Others, again, render it "the land of the double shadow" (Grotius, Vitringa, Knobel, and others); but, however appropriate this epithet might be to Ethiopia as a tropical land, it is very hazardous to take the word in a sense which is not sustained by the usage of the language; and the same objection may be brought against Luzzatto's "land of the far-shadowing defence." Shelling has also suggested another objection - namely, that the shadow thrown even in tropical lands is not a double one, falling northwards and southwards at the same time, and therefore that it cannot be figuratively described as double-winged. Tziltzal cenâphaim is the buzzing of the wings of insects, with which Egypt and Ethiopia swarmed on account of the climate and the abundance of water: צלצל, constr. צלצל, tinnitus, stridor, a primary meaning from which the other three meanings of the word-cymbal, harpoon (a whirring dart), and grasshopper

(Note: Schrring supposes tziltzal to be the scarabaeus sacer (Linn.); but it would be much more natural, if any particular animal is intended, to think of the tzaltzalya, as it is called in the language of the Gallas, the tzetze in the Betschuana language, the most dreaded diptera of the interior of Africa, a species of glossina which attacks all the larger mammalia (though not men). Vid., Hartmann, Naturgeschichtlich-medic. Skizze der Nillnder, Abth. i. p. 205.)

- are derived. In Isaiah 7:18 the forces of Egypt are called "the fly from the end of the rivers of Egypt." Here Egypt and Ethiopia are called the land of the whirring of wings, inasmuch as the prophet had in his mind, under the designation of swarms of insects, the motley swarms of different people included in this great kingdom that were so fabulously strange to an Asiatic. Within this great kingdom messengers were now passing to and fro upon its great waters in boats of papyrus (on gōme, Copt. ‛gōme, Talm. gâmi, see at Job 8:11), Greek βαρίδες παπύριναι (βαρίς, from the Egyptian bari, bali, a barque). In such vessels as these, and with Egyptian tackle, they went as far as the remote island of Taprobane. The boats were made to clap together (pilcatiles), so as to be carried past the cataracts (Parthey on Plutarch. de Iside, pp. 198-9). And it is to these messengers in their paper boats that the appeal of the prophet is addressed.

He sends them home; and what they are to say to their own people is generalized into an announcement to the whole earth. "Go, swift messengers, to the people stretched out and polished, to the terrible people far away on the other side, to the nation of command upon command and treading down, whose land rivers cut through. All ye possessors of the globe and inhabitants of the earth, when a banner rises on the mountains, look ye; and when they blow the trumpets, hearken!" We learn from what follows to what it is that the attention of Ethiopia and all the nations of the earth is directed: it is the destruction of Asshur by Jehovah. They are to attend, when they observe the two signals, the banner and the trumpet-blast; these are decisive moments. Because Jehovah was about to deliver the world from the conquering might of Assyria, against which the Ethiopian kingdom was now summoning all the means of self-defence, the prophet sends the messengers home. Their own people, to which he sends them home, are elaborately described. They are memusshâk, stretched out, i.e., very tall (lxx ἔθνος μετέωρον), just as the Sabaeans are said to have been in Isaiah 45:14. They are also mōrât equals memorât (Ges. 52, Anm. 6), smoothed, politus, i.e., either not disfigured by an ugly growth of hair, or else, without any reference to depilation, but rather with reference to the bronze colour of their skin, smooth and shining with healthy freshness. The description which Herodotus gives of the Ethiopians, μέγιστοι καὶ κάλλιστοι ἀνθρώπων πάντων (iii. 20), quite answers to these first two predicates. They are still further described, with reference to the wide extent of their kingdom, which reached to the remotest south, as "the terrible nation והלאה מן־הוּא," i.e., from this point, where the prophet meets with the messengers, farther and farther off (compare 1 Samuel 20:21-22, but not 1 Samuel 18:9, where the expression has a chronological meaning, which would be less suitable here, where everything is so pictorial, and which is also to be rejected, because מן־הוּא cannot be equivalent to הוּא מאשׁר; cf., Nahum 2:9). We may see from Isaiah 28:10, Isaiah 28:13, what kâv (kăv, with connecting accusatives and before makkeph), a measuring or levelling line, signifies, when used by the prophet with the reduplication which he employs here: it is a people of "command upon command," - that is to say, a commanding nation; (according to Ewald, Knobel, and others, kâv is equivalent to the Arabic kūwe, strength, a nation of double or gigantic strength.) "A people of treading down" (sc., of others; mebūsah is a second genitive to goi), i.e., one which subdues and tramples down wherever it appears. These are all distinctive predicates - a nation of imposing grandeur, a ruling and conquering nation. The last predicate extols its fertile land. בּזא we take not in the sense of diripere, or as equivalent to bâzaz, like מאס, to melt, equivalent to mâsas, but in the sense of findere, i.e., as equivalent to בזע, like גּמא, to sip equals גּמע. For it is no praise to say that a land is scoured out, or washed away, by rivers. Bttcher, who is wrong in describing this chapter as "perhaps the most difficult in the whole of the Old Testament," very aptly compares with it the expression used by Herodotus (ii. 108), κατετμήθη ἡ Αἴγυπτος. But why this strange elaboration instead of the simple name? There is a divine irony in the fact that a nation so great and glorious, and (though not without reason, considering its natural gifts) so full of self-consciousness, should be thrown into such violent agitation in the prospect of the danger that threatened it, and should be making such strenuous exertions to avert that danger, when Jehovah the God of Israel was about to destroy the threatening power itself in a night, and consequently all the care and trouble of Ethiopia were utterly needless.

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!
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.
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.
The prophet knows for certain that the messengers may be home and announce this act of Jehovah to their own people and to all the world. "For thus hath Jehovah spoken to me: I will be still, and will observe upon my throne during clear weather in sunshine, during a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest. For before the harvest, when the blossom falls off, and the fruit becomes the ripening grape: then will He cut off the branches with pruning-hooks; and the tendrils He removes, breaks off. They are left altogether to the birds of prey on the mountains, and to the cattle of the land; and the birds of prey summer thereon, and all the cattle of the land will winter thereon." The prophecy explains itself here, as is very frequently the case, especially with Isaiah; for the literal words of v. 6 show us unquestionably what it is that Jehovah will allow to develop itself so prosperously under favourable circumstances, and without any interposition on His part, until He suddenly and violently puts an end to the whole, must as it is approaching perfect maturity. It is the might of Assyria. Jehovah quietly looks on from the heavenly seat of His glorious presence, without disturbing the course of the thing intended. This quietness, however, is not negligence, but, as the hortative expressions show, a well-considered resolution. The two Caphs in v. 4 are not comparative, but indicate the time. He remains quiet whilst there is clear weather with sunshine (עלי indicating continuance, as in Jeremiah 8:18; 1 Samuel 14:32), and whilst there is a dew-cloud in the midst of that warmth, which is so favourable for the harvest, by causing the plants that have been thoroughly heated in the day and refreshed at night by the dew, to shoot up and ripen with rapidity and luxuriance. The plant thought of, as v. 5 clearly shows, is the vine. By liphnē kâtzir (before the harvest) we are either to understand the period just before the wheat-harvest, which coincides with the flowering of the grape; or, since Isaiah uses kâtzir for bâzri in Isaiah 16:9, the time at the close of the summer, immediately preceding the vintage. Here again the Caph indicates the time. When the blossoming is over, so that the flower fades away, and the fruit that has set becomes a ripening grape (boser, as in Job 15:33, not in the sense of labruscum, but of omphax; and gâmal, maturescere, as in Numbers 17:8, maturare), He cuts off the branches (zalzalilm, from zilzēl, to swing to and fro; compare the Arabic dâliye, a vine-branch, from dalâ, to hang long and loose) upon which the nearly ripened grapes are hanging, and removes or nips off

(Note: התז equals התז with a pausal sharpening of the tzere, which is lengthened by the tone, from tâzaz or tı̄z in post-biblical Hebrew, to knock off, knock to pieces, or weaken (compare tâshash). On this change of vowels in pause, see at Genesis 17:14; and compare Olshausen, 91, d. For an example of the post-biblical use of the word, vid., b. Sanhedrin 102a, "like two sticks hammattı̄zōth," i.e., one of which "hits the other in two" (hittiz, apparently from tūz, or tiz, like hinnı̄ach from nuach).)

the tendrils (netishoth, as in Jeremiah 5:10, from nâtash, to stretch far out; niphal, to twist about a long way, Isaiah 16:8, compare Jeremiah 48:32); an intentional asyndeton with a pictorial sound. The words of Jehovah concerning Himself have here passed imperceptibly into words of the prophet concerning Jehovah. The ripening grapes, as Isaiah 18:6 now explains, are the Assyrians, who were not far from the summit of their power; the fruit-branches that are cut off and nipped in pieces are their corpses, which are now through both summer and winter the food of swarms of summer birds, as well as of beasts of prey that remain the whole winter through. This is the act of divine judgment, to which the approaching exaltation of the banner, and the approaching blast of trumpets, is to call the attention of the people of Ethiopia.

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.
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.
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.
What effect this act of Jehovah would have upon the Ethiopian kingdom, if it should now take place, is described in Isaiah 18:7 : "At that time will there be offered as a homage to Jehovah of hosts a nation stretched out and polished, and from a terrible people, far away on the other side; a nation of command upon command and treading down, whose land rivers cut through, at the place of the name of Jehovah of hosts, the mountain of Zion." עם (a people), at the commencement, cannot possibly be equivalent to מעם (from a people). If it were taken in this sense, it would be necessary to make the correction accordingly, as Knobel has done; but the important parallels in Isaiah 66:20 and Zephaniah 3:10 are against this. Consequently ‛am and goi (people and nation) must be rendered as subjects; and the מן in מעם must be taken as partitive. Ethiopia is offered, i.e., offers itself, as a free-will offering to Jehovah, impelled irresistibly by the force of the impression made by the mighty act of Jehovah, or, as it is expressed in "the Titan among the Psalms" (Psalm 68:32, probably a Davidic psalm of the time of Hezekiah), "there come kingdoms of splendour out of Egypt; Cush rapidly stretches out its hands to Elohim." In order that the greatness of this spiritual conquest might be fully appreciated, the description of this strangely glorious people is repeated here; and with this poetical rounding, the prophecy itself, which was placed as a kind of overture before the following massa Mitzraim when the prophet collected the whole of his prophecies together, is brought to a close.

Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, by Carl Friedrich Keil and Franz Delitzsch [1857-78].
Text Courtesy of Internet Sacred Texts Archive.

Bible Hub
Isaiah 17
Top of Page
Top of Page