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Isaiah 18


Message to Ethiopia Proclamation Against Ethiopia Concerning Ethiopia God Will Punish Ethiopia Against Cush
18:1-2 18:1-6
  18:7 18:7 18:7 18:7

READING CYCLE THREE (see introduction)


This is a study guide commentary, which means that you are responsible for your own interpretation of the Bible. Each of us must walk in the light we have. You, the Bible, and the Holy Spirit are priority in interpretation. You must not relinquish this to a commentator.

Read the chapter in one sitting. Identify the subjects (reading cycle #3). Compare your subject divisions with the five translations above. Paragraphing is not inspired, but it is the key to following the original author's intent, which is the heart of interpretation. Every paragraph has one and only one subject.

1. First paragraph

2. Second paragraph

3. Third paragraph

4. Etc.



1Alas, oh land of whirring wings
Which lies beyond the rivers of Cush,
2Which sends envoys by the sea,
Even in papyrus vessels on the surface of the waters.
Go, swift messengers, to a nation tall and smooth,
To a people feared far and wide,
A powerful and oppressive nation
Whose land the rivers divide.
3All you inhabitants of the world and dwellers on earth,
As soon as a standard is raised on the mountains, you will see it,
And as soon as the trumpet is blown, you will hear it.
4For thus the Lord has told me,
"I will look from My dwelling place quietly
Like dazzling heat in the sunshine,
Like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest."
5For before the harvest, as soon as the bud blossoms
And the flower becomes a ripening grape,
Then He will cut off the sprigs with pruning knives
And remove and cut away the spreading branches.
6They will be left together for mountain birds of prey,
And for the beasts of the earth;
And the birds of prey will spend the summer feeding on them,
And all the beasts of the earth will spend harvest time on them.
7At that time a gift of homage will be brought to the Lord of hosts
From a people tall and smooth,
Even from a people feared far and wide,
A powerful and oppressive nation,
Whose land the rivers divide -
To the place of the name of the Lord of hosts, even Mount Zion.


NKJV, Peshitta"woe"

This interjection (BDB 222) is used often in the prophets (cf. 1:4,24; 5:8,11,18,20,21,22; 10:1,5; 17:12; 18:1; 28:1; 29:1,15; 30:1; 31:1; 33:1; 45:9; 55:1). Mostly it expresses a negative reaction to the coming pain of divine judgment. However, in some contexts it denotes sympathy or pity, as in 18:1; 55:1; Jer. 47:6.

NASB, NRSV"land of whirring wings"
NKJV"the land shadowed with buzzing wings"
TEV"a land where the sound of wings is heard"
NJB"Land of the whirring locust"
LXX"wings of a land of ships"
Peshitta"the land of shadowing wings"
REB"a land of sailing ships" (from Arabic and Aramaic cognates, Targums, and LXX)
JPSOA"land of the deep shadow of wings"

This root (צלצל, BDB 852) has several possible meanings.

1. 852 I, whirring, buzzing as of the wings of insects

2. 852 II, spear whizzing in flight (cf. Job 40:7)

3. same consonants, but different vowels, whirring locust (cf. Deut. 28:42)

4. plural, musical percussion instrument (cf. II Sam. 6:5; I Chr. 13:8; Ps. 150:5).

5. related verb (צלל, BDB 852), tingle (cf. I Sam. 3:11; II Kgs. 21:12; Jer. 19:3) or quiver (cf. Hab. 3:16)

6. 853 II, sink (cf. Exod. 15:10)

7. 853 III, grow dark (cf. Neh. 13:19; Ezek. 31:3)

8. related noun, צל, shadow (cf. Isa. 4:6; 16:3; 25:4,5; 30:2,3; 32:2; 34:15; 38:8; 49:2; 51:16 (this is how JPSOA translates the phrase)


NJB, REB"Cush"
NRSV footnote"Nubia"

This refers to the land area south of the first cataract of the Nile. It was known in Genesis as "Cush" (BDB 468, cf. Gen. 2:13; 10:6,7,8). In the Greek period it was called "Ethiopia." Today it would include the Sudan and parts of modern Ethiopia (TEV footnote, p. 625).

In this context (i.e., chapter 19), it may refer to the 25th Dynasty of Nubian rulers of Egypt (i.e., Pianchia, Shabaka).

However, notice that the people addressed are "beyond the rivers of Cush." Maybe Egypt herself is looking for mercenaries!

18:2 "papyrus vessels" At first one would think this must refer to sailing vessels on the Nile, but these same kinds of boats also were used on the Tigris and Euphrates (cf. James M. Freeman, Manners and Customs of the Bible, p. 2560

▣ "Go" This is a Qal imperative. To whom is this addressed?

1. envoys from Cush

2. envoys from Egypt

3. envoys from mercenary groups south of Cush

4. envoys from Assyria

5. all human armies opposing YHWH and His covenant people

Isaiah regularly switches from a historical setting or event to an eschatological setting. The events and crises of his day foreshadow the events of the climatic conclusion of history. This fluidity is difficult to lock down into one historical referent (time, place, people). Cosmic consequences and purposes are at work behind existential events.

This verse characterizes the nation.

1. seafaring people (i.e., reed boats of the Nile, BDB 479 construct BDB 167)

2. tall people (BDB 604, KB 645, Pual participle, lit. "to extend")

3. smooth people, BDB 598, KB 634, Pual participle (used of bald heads, but also polished swords and people's skin: [1] no blemishes, REB, TEV, "smooth-skinned' [2] consistent color, "bronzed", NJB; or [3] clean shaven, no facial hair)

4. feared far and wide

5. a powerful nation (Hebrew uncertain, but possibly an idiom for "strange language")

6. an oppressive nation (Hebrew uncertain)

7. land divided by rivers (Hebrew uncertain, this verb, BDB 102, KB 107, Qal perfect, occurs only in this chapter, twice. The translation "divide" is based on an Aramaic root. REB has "scourged," referring to an annual flood, however, it could refer to the Tigris and Euphrates)

Numbers 2-6 are repeated in v. 7. This description fits the people south of the first cataract of the Nile, a tall, dark, warlike people group.

However, this context could be understood as Egypt seeking military alliances against Assyria. The term translated "tall" is never translated this way anywhere else. The universal ring of v. 3 could turn this poem into a message from YHWH that there is no one who can save a nation from His judgment. Egypt herself, nor any other notorious warlike people, can help Judah (cf. chapter 7), only YHWH.

Contextually the question

1. is chapter 18 an independent poem?

2. is chapter 18 related to chapter 17?

3. is chapter 18 related to chapter 19?


NASB"a powerful and oppressive nation"
NKJV"a nation powerful and treading down"
NRSV"a nation mighty and conquering"
TEV"a strong and powerful nation"
JPSOA"a nation of gibber and chatter"

The LXX and Peshitta translate this text as addressing a defeated nation, but this is not followed by modern translations.

There are two descriptive nouns used of these people.

1. The term "mighty" (BDB 876) is doubled. This could intensify the term (i.e., sound of their marching armies, IVP Bible Background Commentary, p. 608) or, like JPSOA, change it into a description of their language.

2. The second term (BDB 101) is literally "to tread down" (NKJV) in the metaphorical sense of conquer.


18:3 "All you inhabitants of the world and dwellers on earth" Isaiah has addressed this larger group several times (cf. 2:2-4; 9:7; 11:10,11-12; 12:4-6; 17:7-8; 26:9). What happens to YHWH's covenant people affects all nations. The term can refer to worldwide redemption or judgment (cf. 13:11; 24:4; 34:1). In a sense, the use of this term "world" (BDB 385) shows YHWH's universal significance, power, and presence, as does the literary unit of judgment on the surrounding nations. YHWH's acts affect all the earth. He is the Lord of creation!

Who sends the message of v. 3 and to whom is it addressed?

1. Cush to Assyria

2. Anti-Assyrian coalition to Cush (NRSV footnote)

3. Anti-Assyrian message of possible cooperation to Syria and Israel (REB footnote)

4. Cush responding to a message for help from Judah (Jewish Study Bible footnote)

5. JB footnote says that this whole passage refers to Egypt because at this period the Pharaohs were Nubian. So it would be a literary unit with chapter 19, not 17!

6. Assyria to the world

7. YHWH to all human enemies who oppose His purpose and people (cf. Psalm 2)

Thus we see again the ambiguous, yet powerful, imagery of Hebrew poetry.

These were means of communicating in battle (i.e., raised standard and trumpet). These symbols could be for

1. judgment (cf. vv. 5-6)

2. salvation (cf. v. 7)

How wonderfully this little poem depicts the chaos of earth vs. the tranquility of heaven, as well as what looked like a judgment becomes an invitation (i.e., 2:2-4; 11:10; 49:6; 51:4-8).

18:4 "For thus the Lord has told me" This is another specific reference to Isaiah's claim of inspiration. His message was not his own, but YHWH's! This is the issue of biblical authority! Has God spoken? Can we understand it? Can we trust it? These are foundational questions that must be answered by everyone and anyone who comes in contact with the Bible. See the sermons "The Trustworthiness of the Old Testament" and "The Trustworthiness of the New Testament" online at in "Biblical Interpretation Seminar," Lesson Two.

Lines 2-4 describe God's message to Cush or to Assyria. He speaks securely (two cohortatives) from (1) Mt. Moriah, the temple where He dwells between the wings of the Cherubim over the Ark of the Covenant or (2) a reference to heaven (cf. I Kgs. 8:39,43,49). His presence is radiant!

In the book of Isaiah Jerusalem will never be taken. This verse may reflect that theology. The world may be at war (v. 3), but Judah is secure in YHWH's security (i.e., 7:4; 8:8). Judah need not form an alliance with Syria/Israel or Egypt. Assyria will be totally defeated.

YHWH's security, tranquility, and peace in heaven are contrasted with the chaos on earth. This is very similar to the literary structure of the NT book of Revelation, where chaos on earth is described in chapters 2-3, but the heavenly throne room is quiet and peaceful in chapters 4-5! History is not a flux, but a means to a teleological climax designed and orchestrated by God!

18:5 YHWH's message of judgment is given in agricultural metaphors, which are so common in Isaiah. A lost harvest would devastate those who depended on annual food crops.

This is a metaphor of rapid judgment (cf. 17:14).

18:6 The death of the human population will become a banquet for the birds of prey and wild beasts.

18:7 A time is coming when the remnant of these people (or possibly the whole Gentile world) will send another message, but this time not a threat (cf. v. 3), but an offering to YHWH in Jerusalem (cf. v. 7, line 6). The gift would be a cultural/religious symbol acknowledging YHWH's lordship and reign. The enemies of v. 1-2 are now worshipers! This is the fulfillment of Gen. 3:15 (see SPECIAL TOPIC: BOB'S EVANGELICAL BIASES at 1:3). The redemptive purpose is wider than Abraham's physical seed. It encompasses his spiritual seed (cf. Rom. 2:28-29)!

NJB"on behalf of"

The MT has the noun "people" (BDB 766 I), but no preposition. Possibly the people themselves are the offering.

The DSS and Septuagint and Vulgate have the preposition "from."


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