Isaiah 18
Pulpit Commentary Homiletics

I. AGITATION IN ETHIOPIA. The oracle opens with a scene full of life. Hosts of Egyptian and Ethiopian warriors are seen, like buzzing swarms of flies moving to and fro. Messengers are speeding in papyrus boats to announce the approach of the Assyrians. The Ethiopians are described as a nation "tall and polished," terrible, strong, and all-subduing, whose land rivers cut through. A sense of mystery and greatness hung about this! and from the earliest times - the land of the source of the Nile, opened up by our countryman Spoke and others. The prophet lifts up his voice to this people. A signal will be seen on the mountains, the blast of a trumpet will be heard. There will be symptoms of the Divine presence, restraining, overruling the wrath of men for ends of Divine wisdom. "When wars are carried on, every one sees clearly what is done; but the greater part of men ascribe the beginning and end of them to chance. On the other hand, Isaiah shows that all these things ought to be ascribed to God, because he will display his power in a new and extraordinary manner; for sometimes he works so as to conceal his hand, and to prevent his work from being perceived by men, but sometimes he displays his hand in it in such a manner that all men are constrained to acknowledge it; and that is what the prophet meant" (Calvin).

II. THE WAITING OF JEHOVAH. Impressive is the contrast between the noise and stir and agitation below, and the calmness above. Jehovah "will be still" - as the blue sky behind a moving host of clouds, above a surging sea below. In the second psalm we have the picture of him sitting in the heavens and "laughing" at the vain attempts of the enemies of the Messianic kingdom. There are three thoughts here.

1. The repose of God. It seems as if we must ever contemplate him resting from his toils of designing and creating and providing - entered on an eternal sabbath. The consciousness of vast force, sleeping, held in reserve, we must conceive of in God. Hence his stillness amidst our excitement. At times when vague movements are passing through the bosom of society, many voices rend the air with opposing cries, deep questions agitate the heart and conscience of thoughtful men. We long to hear the one infallible voice, to see the signal extended; and yet "God speaks not a word." Perhaps it may be said, a still small voice, saying, "Be still, and know that I am God!" may be heard by acuter spiritual ears. His stillness must be the effect of infinite strength and profoundest confidence.

2. His contemplativeness. He "looks on in his mansion." Not as the Epicureans represented the gods of the heathen, sitting apart, reckless of the weal or woe of men; but intently watchful of the development of things, the ripening of good, the gathering up of evil towards the day of sifting and judgment. In a powerful biblical image, "his eyes are in every place, beholding the good and the evil." And our thought, to be in harmony with his, must in many matters and at many times fall into the mood of contemplation. Instead of seeking to theorize rashly upon the strange mixture of tendencies life at any troubled epoch presents, it were well to possess our souls in patience - to look on and "let both grow together till the harvest."

3. His waiting attitude. "While there is clear heat in sunshine, while there are clouds of dew in harvest-heat," he is waiting "till the fruit of Assyrian annoyance is all but ripe." The heat and the clouds of dew hasten the powers in nature; there are corresponding forces at work in the moral world, seen by him to be working towards certain results. God can wait because he knows. And may not we in a measure compose our souls into that attitude of waiting? Some things we, too, know; about many others we can say, "God knows," and so leave them. Especially so in times or in moods of alarm. In the present case men below see one picture of the future; quite another is seen by God above. To them a vast black cloud is gathering over the horizon; he sees the sun that will presently smite it asunder. They see a fell harvest of woe for themselves ripening; he has the pruning-knife in his hand, with which he will make havoc among the growth. They see an immense host of irresistible warriors; he the birds of prey and the beasts that will soon be feeding upon their remains. Let us think of the immense reserves of force at the disposal of Jehovah. The statesman, in times of alarm, assures a trembling country that the "resources of civilization" are not yet exhausted; yet they have their limit. Behind them lie the absolutely inexhaustible resources of the living and eternal God. Let our hearts be stayed on him, and all will be well.

III. THE EFFECT ON ETHIOPIA. They will bring a tribute to Jehovah Sabaoth, to the Lord of hosts, in his seat on Mount Zion. It is he who has done these things. We find the like impressive picture passing before a prophetic eye in Psalm 68:32: "Kingdoms of splendor come out of Egypt, Ethiopia stretches out her hands to God." The gathering of so glorious a people into the true Church is to be the result of the manifestation of the power of Israel's God.


1. The providence of God over the Church. "He shows that he takes care of the Church, and that, though he determines to chastise it, still he comes forward at the proper season to hinder it from perishing, and displays his power in opposition to tyrants and other enemies, that they may not overthrow it or succeed in accomplishing what they imagined to be in their powers. In order, therefore, to excite them to patience, he not only distinguishes them from the Ethiopians, but likewise reminds them that God mitigates his judgments for their preservation" (Calvin).

2. The indestructibility of the spiritual life. This must not be confounded with the institutions in which it dwells for a time. But, understanding the "Church in the spiritual or mystical sense, it cannot perish. Calvin wrote in his day, The Church is not far from despair, being plundered, scattered, and everywhere crushed and trodden underfoot. What must be done in straits so numerous and so distressing? We ought to lay hold on these promises so as to believe that God will still preserve the Church. The body may be torn, shivered into fragments and scattered; still, by his Spirit, he will easily unite the members, and will never allow the remembrance and calling on his Name to perish."

3. The self-concealment of God. The trial of faith in all ages. Oh that he would show his face, bare his arm, disclose his majesty, exert his power, appear as Judge to end once for all the strifes of the world! But we must learn to say, "God's in his heaven, all's right with the world." At the proper season he will come forth. "If he instantly cut the wicked down and took them away like a sprouting blade of corn, his power would not be so manifest, nor would his goodness be so fully ascertained, as when he permits them to grow to a vast height, to swell and blossom, that they may afterwards fall by their own weight, or, like large and fat ears of corn, cuts them down with pruning-knives."

4. The unity of religion the prophetic ideal. Mount Zion was its ancient symbol; for us it is not Rome, nor any other city or mount, - it is the human heart, with all its pathos, its faith, hope, and love, its regenerate life and aspirations, it is one spirit universal in mankind. - J.

The most striking and distinctive truth this chapter contains is that of the patience of Divine power, which permits evil to rise and to mature, and which, at the right moment, effectually intervenes. But there are other points beside this; they are -

I. THE MISDIRECTION OF HUMAN INTELLIGENCE. Whatever may be the right translation and the true application of these verses, it is clear that reference is made to a warlike people - a people "terrible" to their neighbors, a people "of command" or "treading underfoot," aggressive and victorious. It shows how far we have fallen from our first estate and from the condition for which we were created, that it does not, strike us as strange that this should be the description of a people; that the number of nations whom it characterizes is so great that we fail to identify the nation which is in the prophet's vision. Under sin it has become common, not to say natural, that a nation should be "terrible," should be treading down or crushing, and full of commands to its neighbors. But to how much better purpose might the strong peoples of the earth devote their strength! God has made rich provision for the peaceable and fruitful exercise of our largest powers. There are rivers and seas (ver. 2) for travelling, exploration, commerce; there is vegetation (bulrushes, papyrus), which may be made to carry men's bodies, or which, by the exercise of human ingenuity, may be made to convey their thoughts to distant lands and remotest times; there is land and there are seeds, there is sunshine and there is dew, which can be made to produce golden harvests that will satisfy man's wants and minister to his most refined tastes (vers. 4, 5); there are birds and beasts (ver. 6), with whose habits men may become intelligently familiar; there is wealth beneath the soil in precious metals, which can not only be raised and collected to enrich the homes of men, but which can be conveyed, as the tribute of piety, to the house of the Lord (ver. 7). But, despising and neglecting such materials and such ambitions as these, nations have aspired to rule over others - have perfected themselves in all the arts and enginery of war, have congratulated themselves on nothing so much as in being "terrible" to those on the other side the river or across the mountain range.

II. THE COMPLETENESS OF MAN'S OVERTHROW IN THE DAY OF DIVINE ANGER. The destruction threatened (vers. 5, 6) probably refers to that of the army of Sennacherib; but if the reference be to some other national calamity, it certainly points to an overthrow, signal and fearful, from which the imagination turns away oppressed. So has it been found, both by individual men and nations, that when God arises to judgment, their feeble defenses are scattered to the winds, and their doom is utterly irreversible by anything they can do to mend it (see Psalm 2; Psalm 68:17-20; Psalm 92:6, 9).

III. THE LESSON OF GOD'S JUDGMENTS. The result in this case is seen in the bringing of a tribute to the Lord (ver. 7). If God puts forth his power in overwhelming retribution, it is, chiefly if not wholly, that they who witness it (men or nations) may repent of their own misdeeds or impiety, and may return unto the Lord in penitence, in prayer, in consecration; for the most acceptable "present" that can be "brought unto the Lord of hosts" is the humbled, believing, obedient heart.

IV. THE PATIENCE OF DIVINE POWER. (Ver. 4.) The Lord said, "I will fake my rest [I will be calm or still], I will consider in my dwelling-place [I will look on from my habitation] like a clear heat upon herbs, like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest." God will not be provoked into hurried and impatient judgments; he will retain a Divine composure, he will manifest the patience which belongs to conscious power; the heavens should be as still as on the calmest summer day while evil was working to its bitter end, while sin was advancing to its doom. Here is a contrast to us and here are lessons for us. We, in our finite feebleness, are often impatient in spirit and hurried in action. We are afraid that, if we do not strike at once, we shall not have time to strike at all, or that our resources of retribution will fall, or that our adversary will be out of our reach. God can entertain no such fear and be affected by no such thought.

1. All time is at his command.

2. All resources are in his hands.

3. The men (nations) whom he may find it needful to chastise can never be beyond the reach of his power.

Hence his calmness in place of our confusion, his patience in contrast with our feverish restlessness.

(1) Let not the wicked presume on Divine disregard; God will put forth his hand in punishment at his own chosen time.

(2) Let not the righteous be surprised or disheartened by his delay; he does not count time by our chronometry; he has not the reasons for haste which urge us to immediate action; the hour of his merciful intervention will arrive in time. - C.

This comes to view in a more precise translation of the passage. The King of Ethiopia, who was nominally also King of Egypt, alarmed by the near approach of the Assyrians, is aroused to the exhibition of great energy, and sends messengers in the light river-vessels to spread the news through the empire as rapidly as possible, and call the troops of all his dependent nations to his standard. Geikie translates, or paraphrases the passage thus: "O land of the buzz of fly-swarms - emblems of countless armies - by the rivers of Ethiopia, which art sending messengers upon the seas, and in swift, light, papyrus boats along all your waters, to gather allies, and muster all the force of your empire: Go back to your homes, ye swift messengers - go back to Ethiopia - the tall and strong race, terrible in war from their rise till now, - the nation very strong and all-subduing, whose land is seamed with rivers! Jehovah, alone, will destroy the invader!" The energy of the Ethiopian king is so far commended, but the prophet urges that in this case it is not needed, for God proposes to take to himself all the glory of driving back the Assyrian invasion.

I. MAN'S ENERGY IS CALLED FOR. Whatsoever a man findeth to do he should do "with his might," "heartily." Success in life greatly depends on the strength and vigor in our touch of life's duties and claims. Energy includes strength of will, decision, promptness, perseverance, power to overcome obstacles and hindrances, and fertility of resources. Energy is the quality most commended in business life; and it is found to make up for the absence of actual abilities. The man of energy compels life to yield him some of its best. It is thought of as a characteristic of American business life, and is illustrated in the man who put together the blackened rafters and boards of his burnt warehouse, and commenced business again before the great fire was fully quenched, putting up this for a sign, "William D. Kerfoot; all gone, save wife, children, and energy." However much this energy may be a peculiarity of individual disposition, it is also subject to culture, and may be nourished into strength by a firm self-mastery of our life and habits. Exercise thyself thereunto.

II. MAN'S ENERGY IS CONSISTENT WITH DEPENDENCE ON GOD. Only the weak man fails to make try harmonize with trust. Here the point may be fully argued and illustrated, that the submission which God seeks is no slavish lying down to bear, which is the Islam, or submission of Mohammedanism, but the submission of an active and cheerful obedience, which expects God's will to be doing rather than bearing, and carries a noble spirit of watching for God and waiting on him, into every detail of life. To suffer and submit is no very great triumph; to carry the spirit of submission at the heart of our work is the sublime victory of Christian life. And just this is the glory of the energy illustrated in the Apostle Paul. To men's view "beside himself;" his secret this, "To me to live is Christ."

III. MAN'S ENERGY MUST NEVER BE PUT IN THE PLACE OF GOD. But just in this the worldly man is constantly failing. "This is great Babylon, which I have builded." "I will pull down my barns and build greater." "See this business which I have established." "My might, and the strength of my arm, have gotten me this victory." Nothing tends more readily to separate a man from God, and God from a man, than life-success attending energy. And of this great peril the Christian man needs to beware. Even he may find that he has dethroned God from the rule of his life, and raised up in his place the old idol of self, dressed in the garments of "energy."

IV. SOMETIMES MAN'S ENERGY MUST BE PUT ASIDE, THAT GOD ALONE MAY WORK. As in this case, the Ethiopian king must stop his hurrying messengers, and be still; for Jehovah would work the needed rescue. There are times m our lives when we cannot work, when we must not work; and in those times we learn how to put energy and enterprise into their right place. God puts us in his school, and teaches us the hard lesson of practically uniting "energy" with "dependence." And yet this is but the same lesson as joining harmoniously together "faith and "works;" or, as the apostle expresses it, "working out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God that worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure." - R.T.

I will rest. God was apparently inactive and unobservant, while the Assyrian was maturing his plans and taking all his first steps. But God watches the influences gathering round the growing-time of the trees, though men trace his working almost only in their fruitage. The words of this passage "paint with marvelous 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. his 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" (Dean Plumptre). The figure of a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest is well illustrated by Thomson, in 'The Land and the Book,' who writes of a cloud which "absolutely reposed upon the vast harvest-fields of Philistia, lying on the corn serene and quiet as infancy asleep. I have never seen such a cloud in this country except in the heat of harvest." Cheyne brings out the point of this verse. "In the midst of all the excitement, of the Assyrians on the one hand, and of the Ethiopians on the other, Jehovah is calmly waiting till the fruit of Assyrian arrogance is all but ripe. Favoring circumstances are hastening the process (clear heat, etc.), and when perfection seems just within reach, God will interpose in judgment." God can wait - quietly wait - until the fullness of time has come. God reproaches our restlessness by his example, for our time is "always ready," and by our impatience and failure in self-control we spoil a thousand things. This subject may be opened in the following way.

I. IN SECURING MATERIAL ENDS THERE IS OFTEN GREAT NEED FOR WAITING. Illustrate from the failure of the general, because he did not wait until preparations were complete; or from the farmer who loses his crops by cutting them too soon, before the weather has become settled; or the artist who cannot wait to give his work the perfecting touches of his own criticism; or the pastor who injures the young blade by worrying anxiety over it, and cannot wait to let young soul-life gather quiet strength in its own simple ways. The wisdom of waiting is harder to learn and practice than the wisdom of acting and working. Yet the motto, by no means untruthfully, says, "All things come round to him who can wait."

II. IN SECURING MORAL ENDS THERE IS OFTEN ABSOLUTE NEED FOB WAITING. Because moral processes can never bear forcing. They vary in different individuals. The lesson of virtue which one person learns at once, another grasps only as a final result of the training of a long life. This point may be opened up in relation to the work of mothers and teachers. They seek moral ends. They are often distressed by the slowness of the approach to the end. They must learn the importance of active, watchful waiting. And in the highest sense, in relation to God's moral working, we all need to hear the voice that pleads, "Wait thou his time." Marvelous is the long-suffering patience of him who waited while the ark was building, and waited through the ages until the "fullness of times" for his Christ had come.

III. IN MAN WAITING MAY BE EITHER STRENGTH OR WEAKNESS. It may be "masterly inactivity," and it may be that "procrastination" which loses golden opportunities.

IV. IN GOD WAITING IS ALWAYS WISDOM AND STRENGTH. So we never need fret under it, or make mystery of it, or think untrustful things about it. God acts on the absolutely best moment, and we should wait on for ages, and never want a thing until God's best moment for it has come. Because God can wait, we should trust. - R.T.

When his time has come. Then, before man can do his harvesting work; when the blossoming and the growing times are over, through which God had waited; when the fruit becomes the full ripe grape, - then God will show how he can work, putting in his implements, and proving himself to be a Deliverer and a Judge. God's working here referred to is doubtless the sudden, unexpected, and complete overthrow of the Assyrian army under Sennacherib, which came at the time when it would prove absolutely overwhelming, and perfectly effective as a deliverance. Matthew Henry states the case in this way: "When the Assyrian army promises itself a plentiful harvest in the taking of Jerusalem and the plundering of that rich city, when the bud of that project is perfect, before the harvest is gathered in, while the sour grape of their enmity to Hezekiah and his people is ripening in the flower, and the design is just ready to be put into execution, God shall destroy that army as easily as the husbandman cuts off the vine with pruning-hooks, or because the grape is sour and good for nothing, and will not be cured, takes away and cuts down the branches. This seems to point at the overthrow of the Assyrian army by a destroying angel, when the dead bodies of the soldiers were scattered like the branches and sprigs of a wild vine, which the husbandman has cut to pieces."

I. GOD'S WORKING IS WELL-TIMED. This is the point made specially prominent here. What was needed, for the due impression of Judah and the surrounding nations, was some startling deliverance; something that should be at once complete, and yet should be manifestly beyond man's accomplishing. Such a working must be exactly timed. When the success of Assyria seemed assured, when its prey seemed within its grasp, and when men's hearts were failing them for fear, - just then the wild hot Simoom blast swept over the army, and as in a moment there were heaps of dead men, and few escaped to tell the awful story. For the timeliness of God's judgment-workings find illustration in the Flood, the destruction of Sodom, the extirpation of the Canaanites, the captivities, and the final siege of Jerusalem.

II. GOD'S WORKING IS FULL OF ENERGY. Ever setting before us the example of thoroughness in the doing of whatever work has to be done. This is in great part the reason why, in making Israel his executioner, God required Israel to treat everything belonging to the Canaanites as accursed, and doomed to destruction. It was, for the first ages, a Divine lesson in thoroughness, energy, and promptitude. God never works with a slack hand, and his servants must not.

III. GOD'S WORKING IS ALWAYS EFFECTIVE TO ITS END. And that, not because it is almighty working, so much as because it is all-wise working. Power is quite a secondary thing to adaptation. A thing fitted to its end will accomplish it, and it will be accomplished better through the fitness than by any displays of power. The end here designed was an adequate impression of the sole and sovereign rights of Jehovah, and a loud call to the nations to put their trust in him. The overthrow of a mighty army, in the fullness of its pride, by purely natural - which are purely Divine - forces, was exactly adapted to secure this end. Illustrate by the moral impression produced by great and destructive earthquakes. When the end of God's working is the persuasion of his fatherly love, then we find his means marvelously adapted and effective. "He gave his Son, his only begotten Son." And herein we say is love, "not that we loved God, but that lie loved us, and sent his Son to be the Propitiation for our sins." Be it work of judgment or work of mercy, of this we may be quite sure - God accomplishes that which he pleases, and his work prospers in that to which he sends it. - R.T.

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