Cambridge Bible for Schools and Colleges
ch. 18. A prophetic charge to the Ethiopian Ambassadors
The theme of this striking prophecy is, like that of the preceding, the impending overthrow of the Assyrian power; its peculiar dramatic form is explained by the occasion which suggested it. This appears to have been the arrival in Jerusalem of an embassy from the Ethiopian monarch, probably Taharqa (Tirhakah), whose reign is supposed to have begun about the same time as that of Sennacherib (705). The object of the embassy must have been either to form an alliance with Hezekiah against Assyria, or to encourage him in resistance by renewed assurances of support. The only period at which such an incident is historically probable is that which preceded the final rupture between Judah and Assyria (c. 702). A date much earlier is inconsistent with ch. 20, where (in 711) Isaiah predicts an Assyrian conquest of Egypt and Ethiopia. On the other hand the tone of the prophecy seems to point to an early stage of the rebellion. There is no trace of the fierce indignation with which the Egyptian alliance is denounced in ch. 28–31; the prophet does not seem as yet to have anticipated that the proposals of Tirhakah would be seriously entertained. Hence we may suppose that his reply to the envoys was intended as a guide to the policy of the king and his advisers. (See further General Introd., pp. xvi f.) In that reply Isaiah exhibits a fine combination of the character of the statesman with that of the man of faith, of the suaviter in modo with the fortiter in re. While the language breathes the courtly urbanity and respect due to distinguished strangers from a far country, we can easily read between the lines a firm rejection of their overtures. Jehovah, he says in effect, will crush the Assyrian in His own time without human help; and that signal judgment will be a demonstration to Ethiopia and all the world of His supreme Godhead.
The prophecy contains two equal strophes and an epilogue:
i. Isaiah 18:1-3. The prophet’s message to Ethiopia, prefaced by an imaginative description of the mysterious land and its inhabitants. The message itself is contained in Isaiah 18:3, and is an invitation to all nations of the earth to be spectators of Jehovah’s crowning act of retribution on Assyria.
ii. Isaiah 18:4-6. The divine revelation on which this assurance is based. For it is as an inspired prophet that Isaiah thus ventures to guide the policy of his country at this critical juncture. The meaning of the figure is that Assyria shall be cut down, just when its gigantic plans of conquest seem to be maturing under the most favourable conditions.
iii. Isaiah 18:7. The epilogue, describing the effect of this display of Jehovah’s power on Ethiopia. Other embassies, of a far different character, shall then come from the remote land to do homage to the name of Jehovah at Mount Zion.
Woe to the land shadowing with wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia:1. The word rendered woe is here neither a ‘cry of pity’ nor (as usually in Isaiah) of indignation. It is simply a particle of salutation (heus) as in ch. Isaiah 55:1; Zechariah 2:6-7 (10, 11 Heb.). Render: Ha, the land, &c.
the land shadowing with wings] a much disputed phrase. The most probable sense is that followed by R.V., the land of the rustling of wings. The Hebr. noun for “rustling” çělâçâl or çilçal means a kind of “locust” (Deuteronomy 28:42), a “harpoon” (Job 41:7, A.V. “fish-spears”), and a very similar form means “cymbals” (Psalm 150:5). The common root-idea is that of “clanging” or “jingling”; and if the above translation be correct the allusion is to the booming swarms of insects which abound in the Nile-lands. There may even be a special allusion to the dreaded Tsetse-fly, whose name among the Gallas (çalçalja) closely resembles the Hebr. word here used. The expression is to be understood literally, not metaphorically of armed hosts. Something might be said for the rendering of the LXX. and Targ. (“land of winged ships”) if it did not anticipate Isaiah 18:2. Others render, “land with the shadow on both sides” (ἀμφίσκιος)—a supposed allusion to the fact that between the tropics the shadow falls sometimes on the north and sometimes on the south. But this seems very fanciful.
beyond the rivers of Ethiopia] The phrase is repeated in Zephaniah 3:10. Ethiopia (Kush) is used in the Bible somewhat vaguely of the region south of Syene (Assouan), at the first cataract of the Nile (Ezekiel 29:10), corresponding generally to the modern Soudân (“land of the Blacks”). The empire of Tirhakah, which Isaiah has particularly in view, had its seat at Napata on the great westward bend of the Nile between Dongola and Berber. Hence it is not inappropriately described as lying “beyond” the rivers of Kush, i.e. the Nile itself and its numerous affluents (the Atbara, the Blue Nile, &c.).
1–3. The charge to the Ethiopian envoys, along with a poetic description of the land and people. The tendency of the ancient world to idealise the Ethiopians is familiar to students of classical literature. To the Greeks they were the “blameless Ethiopians” (Homer), “the tallest and handsomest of all men” (Herodotus). Isaiah would seem to have been struck by the fine physique of the ambassadors, and perhaps it was their narrative that furnished his vivid imagination with the picturesque details crowded into these three verses.
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!2. The ambassadors are those who have arrived in Jerusalem. They had descended the Nile (here called the sea, as in ch. Isaiah 19:5; Nahum 3:8) in vessels of bulrushes (R.V. papyrus). These light skiffs, constructed for one or two passengers, and capable of being carried where the river ceased to be navigable, are frequently mentioned by ancient writers (cf. Pliny Isaiah 13:11 “ex ipso quidem papyro navigia texunt,” and other authorities cited by Gesenius). Their great speed is referred to in Job 9:26 (“ships of reed”).
Go, ye swift messengers] Isaiah’s charge to the ambassadors begins here; they are to return to their own country with this answer. (The “saying” of A.V. and R.V. is quite misleading.)
a nation scattered and peeled] Render as R.V.: a nation tall and smooth (lit. “drawn-out and polished”). The latter epithet probably denotes the bronze-like appearance of the skin of the Ethiopians; some, however, take it in the general sense of “beautiful” (μέγιστοι καὶ κάλλιστοι). The Nubians of the Soudân are still a remarkably tall and handsome race.
terrible from their beginning hitherto] Better: dreaded near and far. Lit., perhaps, “from where it is and onward,” cf. 1 Samuel 10:3; 1 Samuel 20:22; 1 Samuel 20:37. The temporal sense, however, is possible (1 Samuel 18:9), although less natural here.
meted out and trodden down] Render: strong and victorious (lit. “of strength and treading down”). The Hebr. for “strength” presents some difficulty. If read as pointed (qav-qav) it looks like a repetition of the word for “measuring-line” (qav); and this is the origin of the ‘meting out” of E.V. (“people of line-line”). But this sense has little probability; and the translation “strength” is warranted by the analogy of the cognate Arabic noun quvva. It is perhaps better to read it as a reduplicated form (qavqav), although the word occurs nowhere else. Note that R.V. rightly takes both nouns in an active sense.
have spoiled] The word is found only here and is of uncertain meaning. A more likely translation is “intersect” or (as R.V.) divide.
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.3. This verse gives the message which the ambassadors are to carry home to their countrymen, although it concerns all the world as much as the Ethiopians.
Render: when a signal is lifted up … when a trumpet is blown. Cf. ch. Isaiah 13:2. Since the whole process is supernatural it is idle to enquire what the “signal” and “trumpet” signify. The verse is simply a summons to be prepared for the moment of Jehovah’s decisive intervention.
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.4. I will take … consider] Better: I will quietly look on, the first verb being subordinate to the second.
like a clear heat upon herbs] Translate as R.V.: like clear heat in (or, along with) sunshine. The overpowering heat of the atmosphere in the height of summer seems something superadded to the effect of the sun’s rays.
like a cloud of dew] The Hebr. word for “dew” means really a fine drizzling mist: what is meant is possibly the stationary cirrus-cloud in the upper air, which is called a ‘mist-cloud,’ in distinction from the rain-cloud near the earth (so Duhm).
Both expressions are rightly construed as comparisons. The temporal construction suggested by R.V. marg. (“when there is, &c.”) is grammatically possible in the first case, but hardly in the second. The points of comparison are apparently two: (1) the motionless stillness of the noon-tide heat and the fleecy cloud are an emblem of Jehovah’s quiescence. (2) As these natural phenomena hasten the ripening of the fruit, so all providential agencies appear to further and mature the schemes of Assyria. But the development is suddenly arrested just before its fruition.
4–6. The purpose of Jehovah, as disclosed to Isaiah by special revelation. The opening words point back to a definite time when this illumination came to him,—whether in a moment of ecstasy or not it is impossible to say.
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.5. Assyria is here compared to a vine, ripening its grapes under the favourable influences indicated in Isaiah 18:4. The word for harvest does not strictly denote “vintage” (see on ch. Isaiah 16:9); either the more general term is employed for the particular, or the vine is conceived as cut down at that stage of its growth which coincides with the (wheat-) harvest.
Continue as in R.V., when the blossom is over and the flower becometh a ripening grape, &c.
take away and cut down] Rather (to avoid a hysteron-proteron) new away, the first verb having merely adverbial force.
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.6. The figure is now abandoned; instead of the “sprigs and branches” of the vine, we have the dead bodies of the Assyrian soldiers left as carrion for unclean beasts and birds, summer … winter] a whole year. The idea is amplified, with somewhat gruesome details, in Ezekiel 39:11 ff.; cf. also Jeremiah 7:33; 1 Samuel 17:46; 2 Samuel 21:10.
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.7. Ethiopia shall then pay homage to Jehovah at Mount Zion, the earthly seat of His sovereignty.
For the present read a present. The word is rare, occurring again only in Psalm 68:29; Psalm 76:11, in both passages coupled with the same poetic word as is here used for “brought.”
of a people] Read from as in the next clause. The idea meant to be conveyed by the E.V. might be justified by an appeal to ch. Isaiah 45:14, but it is far more likely that the preposition has been accidentally omitted in the Hebr. text.
the place of the name of Lord] See 1 Kings 8:17; Deuteronomy 12:5; Deuteronomy 12:11.
For other anticipations of the conversion of Ethiopia, cf. ch. Isaiah 45:14; Zephaniah 3:10; Psalm 68:31; Psalm 87:4.