William Kelly Major Works Commentary
Woe to the land shadowing with wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia:Isaiah Chapter 18
The true reference to Egypt and Ethiopia is in Isa. 19, 20, which accordingly have the title prefixed, "The Burden of Egypt." It is not so here. Neither is the chapter called a "burden"; nor should the opening exclamation be rendered "Woe" as it often is, but "Ho!" as the context shows. It is a call to a land designedly unnamed, quite outside the bounds of those which Israel knew, and characterized at the time of the action by sentiments of friendship, in contrast with the usual animosity of Gentiles, which here breaks out once more. The last verse intimates that the time when these events occur is the closing scene marked subsequently by Jehovah's interference on behalf of His people, and in full grace their re-establishment in Zion, to which prophecy as a whole points.
Our chapter seems thus to be distinguished from the overthrow of the nations, predicted at the close of the preceding section, "the Burden of Damascus," and so forms a scene sufficiently distinct to be treated separately. It is a deeply interesting episode, and it is plain that the new "burden" opens Isa. 19, and distinguishes the judgement of Egypt from the subject before us.
This it is well to notice distinctly, because Jerome and Cyril, Bochart and Vitringa, among many more, have fallen into the error of supposing that Egypt is the "land shadowing with wings," addressed in verse 1, and that the Egyptians or the Ethiopians are the people to whom the message is sent in ver. 2, some of them being even brought to the grateful worship of God in ver. 7. Others again are no less confident that Ethiopia is meant, as Calvin, Piscator, Michaelis, Rosenmller, Gesenius, Ewald, Delitzsch, Drechsler, and Driver. Yet Jerome and Calvin agree with the more famous Jewish authors that the people spoken of in vers. 2 and 7 are the Jews. All must be confusion where this is not seen. And a nation is here distinguished by favour to the Jew in its own way, but in vain. There follow nations hostile as usually of old. But the main issue is God, Who observes all, at length accomplishing His gracious purpose in Israel.
The reader need not be surprised at confusion, alas! too Common in commentators ever so erudite and otherwise eminent. For there is hardly a portion of Isaiah which has given rise to greater discord and more evident bewilderment among men of note, from Eusebius of Caesarea (who saw in it the land of Judaea in apostolic times, sending Christian doctrine to all the world, an interpretation founded on the ἀποστέλλων . . . .ἐπιστολὰς βιβλίνας of the LXX) down to Arias Montanus, who applied it to America, converted to Christ by the preaching and arms of the Spaniards! Plainly the right understanding of the chapter depends on seeing that the Jewish nation are those intended in verses 2 and 7; and this, not in the days of Sennacherib, save perhaps as an historic starting-point, but for the future crisis, and its glorious issues. A few expressions, especially in verses 1 and 2, may be obscure, but the general scope is remarkably clear and of exceeding interest.
It is true, as Henderson says in common with very many, that the chapter is not a "woe" (as the Sept., the Vulgate, and the A.V. translate), nor yet like the preceding or following "burdens," but rather a call summoning attention - "Ho!" - to the land unnamed, which is to be described. The contrast seems plain between Isaiah 17:12-14 and Isaiah 18:4-6. One nation whose name is not given, will seek to befriend the Jews in the time and way spoken of; while others break out into their old jealousy and hatred, and wreak their vengeance on them all the more. But that the friendly protector is Ethiopia seems wholly without and against the tests of the chapter. According to this idea, when Tirhakah in alarm summons his troops, the Jews send swift messengers to acquaint him with the destruction of Sennacherib's host when it seemed to threaten, not only Jerusalem but Ethiopia. But this dislocates the chapter, making the Ethiopians the prominent figure instead of the Jews, and terminating ineptly with a present offered by the Ethiopians to the God of Israel. It is enough to examine the words of the prophet with care, in order to refute any such speculation.
"Ho! land shadowing (or, whirring) with wings, which [art] beyond [the] rivers of Cush" (i.e. beyond the Nile and the Euphrates). It means a country outside the sphere of those nations, which up to the prophet's day had menaced or meddled with Israel. Usually firm against mere tradition, and careful of scriptural truth, even Dr. Kay has failed to notice the true force of this remarkable expression found here only and in Zephaniah 3:10. The object is not at all to direct attention to the country adjoining the file, nor even to combine with this the land adjacent to the Euphrates. The call is expressly to a land beyond either limit. Egypt and Assyria had been the chief of those powers, for there was an Asiatic as well as an African Cush. The land in question lay (not by any means contiguous to, but perhaps ever so far) beyond these well-known countries. Here is the first indication; and it is of the highest importance, but neglected by most. It expresses a country far away. This comparatively distant land espouses the cause of Israel; but the protection would be ineffectual in result, however loud the proffer and the preparation. The use of "wings" to convey the idea of a cover for the oppressed or defenceless is too common to need proofs. "Ho! land shadowing with wings, which [art] beyond [the] rivers of Cush; that sendeth ambassadors by the sea, even in vessels of papyrus upon [the] face of [the] waters, [saying,]" (vv. 1, 2).
The second verse shows, in addition to the previous characteristics of this future ally of the Jews, that it is a maritime power, for it sends its ambassadors over the sea, and in vessels of bulrushes (i.e. of "papyrus")* on the face of the waters Israel is the object of their interest. "Go, swift messengers, to a nation scattered (or dragged) and peeled, to a people terrible from their beginning and onward, to a nation meted out and trodden down, whose land the rivers have spoiled" (v. 2). The attempt to apply this description to the Egyptians, or the Ethiopians, has largely affected the view taken of the epithets here applied (e.g. "tall and smooth," and "that meteth out and treadeth down"). The mistake of not a few is to introduce Christianity into the chapter; whereas it is really a question of earthly things and the earthly people in presence of a friendly effort, but also of enemies before God's time comes to deliver them Himself. The learned may enquire whether "boats" are really intended by "keli-gem'?" ; in verse 2. Here only is the word so rendered in all scripture. It occurs very frequently for an ornament, implement, or utensil; even for sack, stuff, or any such thing in general; for armour, or weapons; for instruments of music, or furniture, etc. Hence the Seventy here translate by "paper letters," which we can well understand requisite for ambassadors sent on their errand. It is the more worthy of careful consideration, as this phrase more than any other has misled the commentators. Otherwise there is but little difficulty in the chapter.
*This description of their vessels or boats is an apparent difficulty, as it is that which has induced most to conceive that Egypt is meant. For no doubt boats of that slight material sufficient to cross the Nile were notorious of old. But may we not infer that as ships of Tarshish are sometimes used in a general way for those employed on long commercial voyages to whatever land they belonged so the vessels of papyrus may designate rapid cruisers in general whatever the material or wherein employed? Beyond the rivers of Cush must surely exclude Egypt as well as Babylonia, or any country within those limits. The maritime people meant is described as outside the lands which wed to have to do with Israel. Hence we find Bishop Horsley writing (Bibl. Crit. ii. 134, 135), Navigable vessels are certainly meant and if it could be proved that Egypt is the country spoken to these vessels of bulrushes might be understood of the light skiffs made of that material and used by the Egyptians upon the Nile. But if the country spoken to be distant from Egypt vessels of bulrush are only used as an apt image on account of their levity for quick-sailing vessels of any material. The country therefore to which the prophet calls is characterized as one which in the days of the completion of this prophecy should be a great maritime and commercial power forming remote alliances making distant voyages to all parts of the world with expedition and security and in the habit of affording protection to their friends and allies. Where this country is to be found is not otherwise said than that it will be remote from Judaea and with respect to that country beyond the Cushean streams.
But, in fact, there seems no sufficient reason to question the general accuracy of our authorised version, which, as predicating Israel in ver. 2 yields the sole clear and good sense. Above any, they are a nation whose hope is indeed long deferred, and who have suffered indignity beyond all; yet marked by portents from their existence and thenceforth. Upon them has been exactly measured divine judgement, as none other had. Who else trodden down as they? Nor had their land escaped the desolating ravages of powers overwhelming like rivers, as we find the same figure used of it in Isa. 8 and elsewhere. The difference between the land in the first verse which sends out its messengers and ships, and the dispersed people from all time marvellous or hitherto formidable, but of late ravaged by their impetuous enemies, stands on no minute points of verbal criticism, but on the general bearing of scripture history as well as the context, which the English-reading Christian is quite able to judge.
This is the weakest point in Bishop Horsley's (Bibl. Crit. ii. 162) otherwise able investigation of the chapter: "The standard of the Cross of Christ; the trumpet of the gospel. The resort to the standard, the effect of the summons, in the end will be universal." But it is the prevalent bane of theologians to bring in the gospel or the church into the prophets, where the dealings of divine government and ultimately of Messiah's kingdom are really meant.
Thus far we have seen the intervention of this unnamed land, described as the would-be protector of Israel actively engaging with their swift ships, it would seem on a friendly mission in quest of that scattered people, to plant them again in their own land.
But another enters the scene who puts an arrest on the zeal of man. Universal attention is demanded. Great events tremble in the balances. Signs are given visibly and audibly. "All ye inhabitants of the world, and dwellers on the earth, see ye when an ensign is lifted up on the mountains; and when a trumpet is blown, hear ye. For thus Jehovah said unto me, I will take my rest, and I will observe in my dwelling-place like clear heat upon herbs, like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest" (vv. 3, 4). God is contemplating this busy enterprise. Man is active. Jehovah, as it were, retires and watches. It is like a clear heat in the sunlight, like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest. It is a moment of deep stillness and suspense, where He allows apparent advantage of it but does not act Himself, while immense efforts are made to gather in the Jews by the patronage of the maritime nation of verses 1 and 2. All then seemed to flourish: but what is man without God? "For before the harvest, when the bud is finished (or, past), and the blossom becometh a ripening grape, he shall both cut off the sprigs with pruning-knives, and take away And cut down the branches" (v. 6). Thus total failure of the friendly plan ensues. Everything in appearance betokened a speedy ingathering of good to Israel, and their national hopes seemed to be on the eve of being realized, when God brings all to naught by letting loose once more the old passions of the Gentiles against His people. The effect is that "they shall be left together unto the birds of the mountains and to the beasts of the earth; and the birds shall summer upon them, and all the beasts of the earth shall winter upon them" (v. 6).
It was not for that power to interfere, nor was it Jehovah's time; and yet it was for Himself in the end. The shadow of God's wings is the true resource of His people's faith (Ps. 57: 61). For "in that time [a period of course, not an epoch merely] shall be brought unto Jehovah of hosts a present of a people scattered and peeled, and from a people terrible from their beginning and onward, a nation meted out and trodden under foot, whose land the rivers have spoiled, to the place of the name of Jehovah of hosts, the mount Zion" (v. 7). Thus will the presumptuous help of man be rebuked, as well as the renewed wrath of the nations once more preying on the poor but loved people of Jehovah. For as surely as they turn again to rend Israel, He will appear in the midst of the desolation, and with His own mighty hand accomplish that which man as vainly seeks to effect as to frustrate. The Jewish nation, at that very season, shall be brought a present to Jehovah; and they shall come not empty-handed but emptied of self, with lowly and grateful hearts to Jehovah in Mount Zion, after their final escape from Gentile fury in His mercy which endures for ever. They bring the present, and they are the present to Jehovah. Here, as ever, the dealings of God in judgement result in the blessing of His ancient people; and Zion accordingly is the place where His name is manifested in connection with them. We also see how unreasonable it would be to imagine that the church, called to heavenly glory, is concerned as God's object in the chapter. It is Israel only, destined to pass through renewed and bitter trouble, most of all at the close, before Jehovah does His own work of establishing them in the seat of royal grace under Messiah and the new covenant. He has never abandoned this purpose of His for the earth.
The call of the church for union with its glorious Head and heavenly glory came into realization, when the Jews stumbled at the Messiah in humiliation, as they had gone after idols, followed respectively by the Babylonish captivity for the latter, and by the Roman destruction for the former. Meanwhile Christendom enjoys far higher privileges; but not having continued in His goodness, it too shall be cut off, and irrevocably. There is no restoration, but utter destruction for the Babylon of Christian times; there is to be for Jerusalem. The natural branches shall be grafted into their own olive-tree. All Israel shall be saved, and so declares the apostle of the Gentiles as to both. The true members of Christ's body shall be caught up to Christ, and glorified with Him. It is Israel, not the church, which is to be purified on earth, as we see throughout Isaiah and the prophets generally. The restoration of Israel to their land, and supremacy given it over all the nations, we recognize as true and sure. But it is after the heavenly bride has joined the Bridegroom, and purging judgements then fit Israel for its destined place on earth, which is entirely incompatible with the church wherein Jewish and Gentile distinctions are gone, and Christ is all and in all. According to the last great prophecy the church has the promise of being kept out of the hour of temptation that is coming (Revelation 3:10); whereas all the Gentiles shall be in it, though faithful ones come out (Rev. 7). Again Jeremiah 30:7 and Daniel 12:1 are express that the Jews must pass through it but be delivered - those that are "written in the book. "
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.
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.