Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Woe to the land shadowing with wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia:XVIII.
(1) Woe to the land shadowing with wings.—A new kingdom, hitherto unnamed by Isaiah, comes now within his horizon. The movements of Tirhakah, king of Cush or Ethiopia, from the upper valley of the Nile, subduing Egypt, and prepared to enter into conflict with the great Assyrian king (Isaiah 37:9), had apparently excited the hopes of such of Hezekiah’s counsellors as put their trust in an arm of flesh. To these Isaiah now turns with words of warning. The words “shadowing with wings” have been very variously interpreted as implying (1) the image of a mighty eagle stretching out its imperial wings (Ezekiel 17:1-8); (2) the urœus or disk with outspread wings which appears in Egyptian paintings as the symbol of Ethiopian sovereignty; (3) the rendering resounding being adopted instead of “shadowing,” the swarms of the tse-tse fly that have been the terror of all travellers in Abyssinia. Of these (2) has most to commend it, and receives confirmation from the inscription of Piankhi-Mer-Amon, translated by Canon Cook in Records of the Past (2 p. 89), in which that king, an Ethiopian, who had conquered Egypt, appears with the urœus on his head, and the chiefs of the north and south cry out to him, “Grant us to be under thy shadow.” (Comp. Isaiah 30:2-3.) The phrase, “beyond the river,” points, as in Zephaniah 3:10, to the region of the White and the Blue Nile, south of Meroe or Sennar, and not far from the Lake Nyanza of modern explorers.
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) That sendeth ambassadors . . .—The words point to the embassies which the Ethiopian king had sent, in the papyrus boats used for the navigation of the Upper Nile, down that river to Hezekiah and other princes, inviting them to join the alliance against Assyria.
Go, ye swift messengers . . .—The interpolated “saying” being omitted, the words that follow are as the prophet’s address to the messengers, as he sends them back to their own people. Instead of “scattered and peeled, “we are to read tall and polished, as describing the physique which had probably impressed itself on Isaiah’s mind. (Comp. the Sabeans as “men of stature” in Isaiah 45:14.) They were terrible then, as they had ever been (i.e., imperious and mighty), a nation that treadeth down its foes. Instead of “meted out and trodden down,” they are a nation of command, command (or, perhaps, “strength, strength”). The rivers are literally the affluents of the Nile that intersect and fertilise (not “spoil”) the hills and valleys of Nubia. Some commentators, however, though with less probability, accept the Authorised version, and refer the words to Israel, as “scattered and plundered,” with its land “spoiled” by the “rivers of invading armies (Isaiah 8:7).
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) When he lifteth up an ensign . . .—Both clauses are better taken as indefinite, when an ensign is set up . . . when a trumpet is sounded. The prophet calls on all nations (Ethiopia being specially included) to watch for the signal that shall be given, distinct as the beacon-fire on the hill, or the alarm of the trumpet, to proclaim the downfall of Assyria.
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, 5) I will take my rest . . .—The words that follow paint with marvellous vividness the calmness and deliberation of the workings of Divine judgments. God is at once unhasting and unresting. He dwells in His resting-place (i.e., palace or throne), and watches the ripening of the fruit which He is about to gather. While there is a clear heat in sunshine, while there is a dew-cloud in harvest-heat, through all phenomenal changes, He waits still. Then, before the harvest, when the blossom is over, and the fruit becomes the full-ripe grape, He comes as the Lord of the vineyard, and cuts off the branches with His pruning-hooks. (Comp. the striking parallels of Æsch. Suppl. 90-98, and Shakespeare, Henry VIII., 3:2.)
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) They shall be left together unto the fowls of the mountains . . .—The figure and the reality are strangely blended. The grapes of that vintage cut off by those pruning-hooks are none other than the carcases of the host of the Assyrians left unburied, to be devoured by the dogs and vultures.
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) In that time shall the present be brought . . .—Not “of the people,” but a people, as being themselves the present. The prophet foresees, as one result of the defeat of the Assyrian armies, that the nation, which he again describes instead of naming, will offer themselves to the service of Jehovah. So taken the words have an interesting parallel in Psalm 68:31, “Ethiopia stretches out her hands unto God,” or in the mention of Ethiopia in Psalm 87:3, as among the nations whose children are to be enrolled among the citizens of Zion. Messengers who may have justified Isaiah’s words were probably found among the envoys mentioned in 2Chronicles 32:23. Here, again, the words have been referred as before, to Israel.