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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 18

Coffman's Commentaries on the BibleCoffman's Commentaries



We have avoided the use of the word “burden” in this title, because this prophecy is not a prophecy against Ethiopia, but about Ethiopia. This is called by ancient and present-day commentators alike “The most difficult chapter encountered thus far,”(F1) and “One of the most obscure prophecies in Isaiah.”(F2)

This little chapter falls into two divisions, or stanzas of three verses each, followed by an epilogue of a single verse.(F3) As we shall more completely explain below, this little gem gives absolute proof of the predictive nature of Isaiah’s prophecy regarding the destruction of the army of Sennacherib.

Regarding the date of the chapter, in our conviction, all of Isaiah must be dated in the lifetime of Isaiah; but in regard to the date of this particular chapter within his lifetime, we have this from Kelley: “Ethiopia and Egypt in Isaiah are used almost synonymously; and this was because Egypt was ruled by Ethiopia by an Ethiopian dynasty (the 25th) from 715 until 603 B.C.;…Bright dates the oracle at 714 B.C.”(F4) This is undoubtedly correct; because the messengers, or ambassadors, appearing in this passage came from Ethiopia, apparently for the purpose of enlisting Israel (under Hezekiah) in an alliance against Assyria. At this point in time, Samaria had already fallen in 722 B.C. It is most important to keep this date in mind, that is, the date of the oracle in 714, some twelve or thirteen years prior to Sennacherib’s siege of Jerusalem. Thus, whatever encouragement Isaiah extended to those Ethiopian ambassadors most certainly occurred before the event of Sennacherib’s siege; and that encouragement, as we shall see, included the predicted slaughter of Sennacherib’s army (Isaiah 18:5-6).

Kidner indicated that the Hebrew word for Ethiopia in this passage, and throughout Isaiah, actually means “Cush.”(F5) The word is used loosely to refer to countries as distant as the Tigris river; and the principal reason for certainty that modern Ethiopia is meant lies in the reference to a land of flies, and to the tall men with polished skins, clearly indicating the Ethiopians.

The rendering “Woe” in the KJV for Isaiah 18:1, resulted in the erroneous classification of this prophecy as “Burden of Ethiopia.” Jamieson noted that, “The Hebrew word here does not express a threat, but is rather an appeal for attention.”(F6) God is not here speaking against Ethiopians, but to them, appealing for them to hear his prophecy against Assyria, pertaining especially to Sennacherib.

Verses 1-3

“Ah, the land of the rustling wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia; that sendeth ambassadors by the sea, even in vessels of papyrus upon the waters, saying (this word is italicized in the ASV, indicating that it is not in the text) Go ye, swift messengers, to a nation tall and smooth, to a people terrible from their beginning onward, a nation that meteth out and treadeth down, whose land the rivers divide. All ye inhabitants of the world, and ye dwellers on the earth, when an ensign is lifted up on the mountains, see ye; and when the trumpet is blown, hear ye.”

Here is an excellent analysis of what is described in these verses:

“About 725 B.C. Piankhi, the Ethiopian king of Egypt sent ambassadors to the king of Judah, Hezekiah; we can be certain that their purpose was to involve Judah in a coalition against the Assyrians. Isaiah warned Hezekiah against any such folly by providing God’s answer to the ambassadors.”(F7)

It is also sure that such a coalition with Ethiopia would have been very attractive to one like Hezekiah. Note that the message beginning with the word “Go” is the message of Isaiah, not a message from the ambassadors. The erroneous injection of the interpolated “saying” into this passage is confusing and should be ignored. The terse message of these three verses to the ambassadors is, “Do not be anxious, just go home and watch and see what is going to happen.” (Paraphrased).(F8)

“The restling of wings… the rivers of Ethiopia” “describe Ethiopia with special reference to the swarms of flies and the rivers, which are the Blue and White Nile.”(F9) The mention of the ambassadors coming “by sea” primarily refers to the Nile, which is called “sea” in Nahum 3:8, and in Isaiah 19:5.

Verse 4

“For thus hath Jehovah said unto me, I will be still, and I will behold in my dwelling place, like clear heat in sunshine, like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest.”

The first clause positively identifies the speaker of the message “Go… etc.” as Jehovah through Isaiah, not as any kind of message from the ambassadors. The meaning is clear. God does not need any allies, nor does he need anyone to tell him what the dangers are; he is watching everything very carefully from his dwelling place On High. Jamieson paraphrased the meaning thus: “I (God) will not interpose but calmly look on while everything promises success to the enemy; but when it reaches maturity, I will destroy it.”(F10) The serenity, composure, and calmness of God are here contrasted with the hustle and bustle of the Ethiopians and Assyrians. God never needs to get in a hurry. As predicted by Isaiah in Isaiah 14:25, the enemy will reach the very mountains of Judah. God is here allowing the sins of Assyria to mature; and when the time is ripe judgment will fall.

Verse 5

“For before the harvest, when the blossom is over, and the flower becometh a ripening grape, he will cut off the sprigs with pruning-hooks, and the spreading branches he will take away and cut down.”

This is an agricultural metaphor to illustrate what God had just said in Isaiah 18:4 about when the judgment would come. It would be delayed until just before harvest, just before the enemy would reach to claim the prize. Then the disaster would fall.

Verse 6

“They shall be left together unto the ravenous birds of the mountains, and to the beasts of the earth; and the ravenous birds shall summer upon them, and all the beasts of the earth shall winter upon them.”

“At length the imagery is dropped. The `vine’ is shown to be an army, slaughtered all together, and left a prey to kites and vultures, and to jackals and hyenas.”(F11)

As is often true in the Bible, every reference to any subject upon which God has spoken, always carries a wealth of new and pertinent information. It was already prophesied in Isaiah 17:14 that the predicted disaster regarding Sennacherib’s invasion would last only a single night and that it would terminate his threat to Judah. Here it is additionally revealed (1) that a whole army shall be slaughtered “together,” all at once, (2) that the dead would remain unburied, (3) that the bodies would provide food for ravenous birds throughout the summer, and (4) that there would be so many of them that the food supply would also be sufficient to take all of the wild beasts of the earth through the winter. All of this is right here in Isaiah 18:6!

God through Isaiah prophesied every line of this to the ambassadors of Ethiopia in the act of turning down their request for an alliance against Assyria. Could it possibly be that the threatened nation of Judah would have turned down such a source of aid unless there had been absolute certainty in the ultimate fulfillment of God’s prophecy? and also the absolute certainty that this prophecy was God-given some dozen years before its fulfillment?

For the Biblical account of how this great prophecy was literally fulfilled, see 2 Kings 19, especially 2 Kings 19:35-37. Also, if available, read Byron’s poetical account of it, ending in the lines:

“For the might of the Gentile unsmote by the sword

Hath melted like snow in the glance of the Lord!”(F12)

Verse 7

“In that time shall a present be brought to Jehovah of hosts from a people tall and smooth, even from a people terrible from their beginning onward, a nation that meteth out and treadeth down, whose land the rivers divide, to the place of the name of Jehovah of hosts, the mount Zion.”

Despite the fact of there being no pagan records of such a gift ever having been sent from Ethiopia to Jerusalem, it certainly took place. Biblical records need no confirmation from pagan sources; but the opposite is always true.

Besides that, in all probability, what is prophesied here is the conversion of many Ethiopians in the Messianic era, as frequently prophesied, not only here, but throughout the Bible. See Isaiah 2:3; Isaiah 11:10; Isaiah 60-62; Psalms 68:31; Psalms 87:4, and Romans 15:16.


In this chapter we have another example of how God’s prophecies are “proved” by their very presentation, a phenomenon this writer first noticed in work on his Commentary on Micah (Vol. 2 in the Minor Prophets Series).

A. The example in Micah. This great prophet announced the future total destruction of Samaria in the most graphic language (Micah 1:6-7). Of course, critical scholars must deny all predictive prophecy, it matters not at all upon what grounds; but it has always occurred as a mystery to us why the prophet who predicted over seven hundred years before the event the very town where the Son of God would be born should be questioned regarding the authenticity of his prophecy against Samaria.

God, however, built in the proof of this prophecy in the bizarre behavior of the prophet who gave it. Note:

Micah 1:8 - For this, I will lament and wail; I will go stripped and naked; I will go wailing like the jackals, and a lamentation like the ostriches.”

Now, who can imagine a man taking off all of his clothes, except perhaps a small loin cloth, going up and down among the people crying the blood-curdling screams of a jackal and the horrible moanings of an ostrich and yelling his heart out that Samaria is going to be destroyed, when at the very moment of such antics everybody on earth knew that Samaria had already been destroyed? How can such a thing be imagined? Why then did Micah behave in such a bizarre fashion? The answer is obvious. The very idea that Samaria would be destroyed appeared as an absolute impossibility to the whole nation; and Micah was striving to get their attention and to persuade them to heed his prophecy. Otherwise, that is, if the town had already been demolished, whatever authority remained would have locked the man up as a raving lunatic. Thus, in the very behavior of the prophet, God locked up the proof of its authenticity and of its existence before the event.

B. The example in this chapter. That the embassy from Ethiopia had to come before the Assyrian invasion is inherent in the fact that if no invasion had been threatened, they would have sent no embassy at all. The fact of Isaiah’s encouragement to that embassy being composed of the most solemn assurances (prophecies) of the destruction of an entire Assyrian army is all the proof that anyone ever needed of the authenticity of it and of its existence before the event.

Bibliographical Information
Coffman, James Burton. "Commentary on Isaiah 18". "Coffman's Commentaries on the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/bcc/isaiah-18.html. Abilene Christian University Press, Abilene, Texas, USA. 1983-1999.
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