‹The eighteenth chapter of Isaiah,‘ says bishop Horsley, ‹is one of the most obscure passages of the ancient prophets. It has been considered as such by the whole succession of interpreters from Jerome to Dr. Lowth.‘ ‹The object of it,‘ says Dr. Lowth, ‹the end and design of it; the people to whom it is addressed; the history to which it belongs; the person who sends the messengers; and the nation to whom they are sent, are all obscure and doubtful. Much of the obscurity lies in the highly figurative cast of the language, and in the ambiguity of some of the principal words, arising from the great variety of the senses often comprehended under the primary meaning of a single root.‘
Lowth supposes that Egypt is the country referred to; that the prophecy was delivered before the return of Sennacherib‘s expedition to Egypt; and that it was designed to give to the Jews, and perhaps likewise to the Egyptians, an intimation of the destruction of their great and powerful enemy. Taylor, the editor of Calmet‘s “Dictionary,” supposes that it relates to a people lying in southern, or Upper Egypt, or the country above the cataracts of the Nile, that is, Nubia; and that the people to whom the message is sent are those who were situated north on the river Nile: where the various streams which go to form the Nile become a single river; and that the nation represented as ‹scattered and peeled,‘ or as he renders it, ‹a people contracted and deprived,‘ that is, in their persons, refers to the Pigmies, as they are described by Homer, Sirabo, and others (see this view drawn out in the “Fragments” appended to Calmet‘s “Dict.” No. cccxxii.) Rosenmuller says of this prophecy, that ‹it is involved in so many: and so great difficulties, on account of unusual expressions and figurative sentences, and the history of those times, so little known to us, that it is impossible to explain and unfold it.
We seem to be reading mere “enigmas,” in explaining which, although many learned interpreters have taken great pains, yet scarcely two can be found who agree.‘ Gesenius connects it with the closing verse of the previous chapter; and so does also Vitringa. Gesenius supposes that it refers to a nation in distant Ethiopia in alliance with Israel. To this, says he, and to all the nations of the earth, the prophet addresses himself, in order to draw their attention to the sudden overthrow which God would bring upon the enemy, after he has quietly looked upon their violence for a long time. According to this view, the prophecy belongs to the period immediately preceding the 14th year of Hezekiah, when the Assyrian armies had already overrun, or were about to overrun Palestine on their way to Egypt, and the prophet confidently predicts their destruction. At this time, he remarks, Tirhakah, king of Ethiopia, with a part of Egypt, had armed himself against the Assyrians, for which purpose he had probably entered into an alliance with the Hebrews. To this friend and ally of Israel, the prophet gives the assurance that God was about to destroy completely the common enemy, the Assyrian. By some, the land here referred to has been supposed to be Egypt; by others, Ethiopia in Africa; by others, Judea; by others, the Roman empire; and others have supposed that it refers to the destruction of Gog and Magog in the times of the Messiah. Vitringa supposes that the prophecy must be referred either to the Egyptians or the Assyrians; and as there is no account, he says, of any calamity coming upon the Egyptians like that which is described in Isaiah 17:4-6, and as that description is applicable to the destruction of the Assyrians under Sennacherib, he regards it as referring to him.
Calvin says that many have supposed that the Troglodytes of Upper Egypt are meant here, but that this is improbable, as they were not known to have formed any alliances with other nations. He supposes that some nation is referred to in the vicinity of Egypt and Ethiopia, but what people he does not even conjecture. Amidst this diversity of opinion, it may seem rash to hazard a conjecture in regard to the situation of the nation who sent the messengers, and the nation to whom they were “sent;” and it is obviously improper to hazard such a conjecture without a careful examination of the phrases and words which occur in the prophecy. When that is done - when the characteristics of the nation have been fully determined, then, perhaps, we may be able to arrive at some satisfactory conclusion in regard to this very difficult portion of the Bible. The prophecy consists of the following parts:
1. The prophet addresses him self to the nation here described as a ‹land shadowing with wings,‘ and as sending ambassadors, in a manner designed to call their attention to the great events soon to occur Isaiah 18:1-2.
2. He addresses all nations, calling upon them also to attend to the same subject Isaiah 18:3.
3. He says that God had revealed to him that destruction should come upon the enemies here referred to, and that the immense host should be left to the beasts of the earth, and to the fowls of the mountains Isaiah 18:4-6.
4. The consequence, he says, of such events would be, that a present would be brought to Yahweh from the distant nation ‹scattered and peeled,‘ and whose land the rivers had spoiled Isaiah 18:7.
Woe to the land - (הוי hôy ). This word, as has been already remarked (the note at Isaiah 17:12), may be a mere interjection or salutation, and would be appropriately rendered by ‹Ho!‘ Or it may be a word denouncing judgment, or wrath, as it is often used in this prophecy (the note at Isaiah 5:8).
Shadowing with wings - (כנפים צלצל tsı̂letsal kenāpāı̂ym ). This is one of the most difficult expressions in the whole chapter; and one to which as yet, probably, no satisfactory meaning has been applied. The Septuagint renders it, Οὐαὶ γῆς πλοὶων πτέρυγες Ouai gēs ploiōn pteruges - ‹Ah! wings of the land of ships.‘ The Chaldee, ‹Woe to the land in which they come in ships from a distant country, and whose sails are spread out as an eagle which flies upon its wings.‘ Grotius renders it, ‹The land whose extreme parts are shaded by mountains.‘ The word rendered, ‹shadowed‘ צלצל tsı̂letsal occurs only in this place and in Job 41:7, where it is translated ‹fish-spears‘ - but as we know nothing of the “form” of those spears, that place throws no light on the meaning of the word here. The word is derived, evidently, from צלל tsālal which has three significations:
(1) “To be shady, dark, obscure;” and hence, its derivatives are applied to anything that “makes” a shade or shadow - particularly “shady trees” Job 40:21-22; the shades of night 1 Samuel 3:11; 2 Kings 21:13; “to quiver,” spoken of the lips Habakkuk 3:16; and hence, its derivatives are applied to anything that makes a sound by “tinkling” - an instrument of music; a cymbal made of two pieces of metal that are struck together 2 Samuel 6:5; 1 Chronicles 15:16; 1 Chronicles 16:42; 1 Chronicles 25:6; 2 Chronicles 5:12; Nehemiah 12:27; Psalm 150:5)
(3) It means “to sink” Exodus 15:10. From the sense of making “a shade,” a derivative of the verb צלצל tselâtsâl - the same as used here except the points - is applied to locusts because they appear in such swarms as to obscure the rays of the sun, and produce an extended shade, or shadow, over a land as a cloud does; or because they make a rustling with their wings.
The word used here, therefore, may mean either “shaded, or rustling, or rattling,” in the manner of a cymbal or other tinkling instrument. It may be added, that the word may mean a “double shade,” being a doubling of the word צל tsêl a “shade, or shdow,” and it has been supposed by some to apply to Ethiopia as lying betwen the tropics, having a “double shadow;” that is, so that the shadow of objects is cast one half of the year on the north side, and the other half on the south. The word ‹wings‘ is applied in the Scriptures to the following things, namely:
(1) The wing of a fowl. This is the literal, and common signification.
(2) The skirts, borders, or lower parts of a garment, from the resemblance to wings Numbers 15:38; 1 Samuel 24:5, 1 Samuel 24:11; Zechariah 8:13. Also a bed-covering Deuteronomy 33:1.
(3) The extremities or borders of a country, or of the world Job 37:3; Isaiah 24:16; Ezekiel 17:3, Ezekiel 17:7.
(4) The “wing” or extremity of an army, as we use the word “wing” Isaiah 8:8; Jeremiah 48:40; Daniel 9:27.
(5) The expanding rays of the morning, because the light “expands or spreads out” like wings Psalm 139:9; Malachi 4:2.
(6) The “wind” - resembling wings in rapid motion Psalm 18:10, Psalm 18:21; Psalm 104:3; Hosea 4:19.
(7) The battlement or pinnacle of the temple - or perhaps the porches extended on each side of the temple like wings (Daniel 9:27; compare Matthew 4:5).
(8) “Protection” - as wings are a protection to young birds in their nest (see Psalm 18:8; Psalm 36:7; Psalm 61:4; Psalm 91:4; Matthew 23:37). It has been proposed by some to apply this description to “ships,” or the sails of vessels, as if a land was designated which was covered with “sails,” or the “wings” of vessels. So the Septuagint, and the Chaldee. But there is no instance in which the word “wings” is so applied in the Scriptures.
The expression used here “may,” therefore, be applied to many things; and it is not easy to determine its signification. The “general” idea is, that of “something” that abounds in the land that is stretched out or expanded; that, as it were, “covers” it, and so abounds as to make a shade or shadow everywhere. And it may be applied:
(1) to a nation that abounds with birds or fowls, so that they might be said to shade the land;
(2) to a nation abounding with locusts, shading the land or making a rustling noise; or
(3) to a nation furnishing protection, or stretching out its wings, as it were, for the defense of a feeble people. So Vitringa interprets this place, and supposes that it refers to Egypt, as being the nation where the Hebrews sought protection. Or
(4) to a country that is shaded with trees, mountains, or hills. So Grotius supposes it means here, and thinks that it refers to Ethiopia, as being bounded by high hills or mountains.
(5) It “may” mean a people distinguished for navigation - abounding in “sails” of vessels - as if they were everywhere spread out like wings. So the Septuagint and the Chaldee understand this; and the interpretation has some plausibility, from the fact that light vessels are immediately mentioned.
(6) The editor of Calmet‘s “Dictionary” supposes that it refers to the “winged Cnephim” which are sculptured over the temple gates in Upper-Egypt. They are emblematic representatives of the god “Cneph,” to which the temples are dedicated, and abound in Upper Egypt. The symbol of the “wings” is supposed to denote the “protection” which the god extended over the land.
(7) Gesenius (“Com. on Isaiah”) renders it, ‹land rustling with wings,‘ and supposes that the word rendered ‹shadowing,‘ denotes the “rustling” sound that is made by the clangor of weapons of war. Amidst this variety of interpretation, it is, perhaps, not possible to determine the meaning of the phrase. It has no parallel expression to illustrate it; and its meaning must be left to conjecture.
Almost anyone of the above significations will suit the connection; and it is not very material which is chosen. The one that, perhaps, best suits the connection, is that of the Septuagint and the Chaldee, which refers it to the multitude of ships that expand their sails, and appear to fill all the waters of the land with wings.
Which is beyond - (מעבר mē‛ēber ). This does not, of necessity, mean “beyond,” though that is its usual signification. It properly means “from the passing, the passages, the crossing over,” of a river; and may be rendered what is on the other side; or over against. It sometimes means on this side, as if used by one living on the other side Deuteronomy 4:49; Joshua 13:27; 1 Kings 4:24; in which places it has not the sense of “beyond,” but means either on this side, or lying alongside. The sense here is, probably, that this country was situated “not far” from the rivers of Cush, “probably” beyond them, but still it is implied that they were not “far” beyond them, but were rather at their passings over, or crossing-places; that is, near them.
The rivers of Ethiopia - Hebrew, ‹Rivers of Cush.‘ (On the meaning of the word ‹Cush,‘ see the note at Isaiah 11:11) It is sometimes applicable to Ethiopia or Nubia - that is, the portion of Egypt above the cataracts of the Nile. Compare Jeremiah 13:23: ‹Can the Ethiopian (the “Cushite”) change his skin?‘ (see also Ezekiel 29:10). This word does not determine with certainty the country to which reference is made - for the country of Cush “may” mean that east of the Euphrates, or southern Arabia, or southern Egypt. Egypt and Cush are, however, sometimes connected (2 Kings 19:9; Psalm 68:31; Isaiah 20:3; Isaiah 43:3; Nahum 3:9; compare Daniel 11:43). The “probability” from the use of this word is, that some part of Upper Egypt is intended. Ethiopia in part lies beyond the most considerable of the streams that make up the river Nile.
That sendeth ambassadors - That is, “accustomed” to send messengers. What was the design of their thus sending ambassadors does not appear. The prophet simply intimates the fact; a fact by which they were well known. It may have been for purposes of commerce, or to seek protection. Bochart renders the word translated ‹ambassadors‘ by “images,” and supposes that it denotes an image of the god Osiris made of the papyrus; but there does not seem to be any reason for this opinion. The word ציר tsı̂yr may mean an idol or image, as in Isaiah 45:16; Psalm 49:15. But it usually denotes ambassadors, or messengers Joshua 9:4; Proverbs 25:13; Proverbs 13:17; Isaiah 57:9; Jeremiah 49:14; Obadiah 1:1.
By the sea - What “sea” is here meant cannot be accurately determined. The word ‹sea‘ (ים yâm ) is applied to various collections of water, and may be used in reference to a sea, a lake, a pond, and even a large river. It is often applied to the Mediterranean; and where the phrase “Great Sea” occurs, it denotes that Numbers 34:6-7; Deuteronomy 11:24. It is applied to the Lake of Gennesareth or the Sea of Galilee Numbers 34:11; to the Salt Sea Genesis 14:3; to the Red Sea often (Exodus 13:10; Numbers 14:25; Numbers 21:4; Numbers 33:10, “et al.”) It is also applied to “a large river,” as, “e. g., the Nile” Isaiah 19:5; Nehemiah 3:8; and to the Euphrates Jeremiah 51:36. So far as this “word” is concerned, therefore, it may denote either the Mediterranean, the Red Sea, the Nile, or the Euphrates. If the country spoken of is Upper Egypt or Nubia, then we are naturally led to suppose that the prophet refers either to the Nile or the Red Sea.
Even in vessels of bulrushes - The word rendered ‹bulrushes‘ (גמא gôme' ) is derived from the verb גמא gâmâ' “to swallow, sip, drink;” and is given to a reed or bulrush, from its “imbibing” water. It is usually applied in the Scriptures to the Egyptian “papyrus” - a plant which grew on the banks of the Nile, and from which we have derived our word “paper.” ‹This plant,‘ says Taylor (“Heb. Con.”), ‹grew in moist places near the Nile, and was four or five yards in height. Under the bark it consisted wholly of thin skins, which being separated and spread out, were applied to various uses. Of these they made boxes and chests, and even boats, smearing them over with pitch.‘ These laminoe, or skins, also served the purpose of paper, and were used instead of parchment, or plates of lead and copper, for writing on. This plant, the Cyperus Papyrus of modern botanists, mostly grew in Lower Egypt, in marshy land, or in shallow brooks and ponds, formed by the inundation of the Nile. ‹The papyrus,‘ says Pliny, ‹grows in the marsh lands of Egypt, or in the stagnant pools left inland by the Nile, after it has returned to its bed, which have not more than two cubits in depth.
The root of the plant is the thickness of a man‘s arm; it has a triangular stalk, growing not higher than ten cubits (fifteen feet), and decreasing in breadth toward the summit, which is crowned with a thyrsus, containing no seeds, and of no use except to deck the statues of the gods. They employ the roots as firewood, and for making various utensils. They even construct small boats of the plant; and out of the rind, sails, mats, clothes, bedding, ropes; they eat it either crude or cooked, swallowing only the juice; and when they manufacture paper from it, they divide the stem by means of a kind of needle into thin plates, or laminae, each of which is as large as the plant will admit. All the paper is woven upon a table, and is continually moistened with Nile water, which being thick and slimy, furnishes an effectual species of glue. In the first place, they form upon a table, pefectly horizontal, a layer the whole length of the papyrus, which is crossed by another placed transversely, and afterward enclosed within a press.
The different sheets are then hung in a situation exposed to the sun, in order to dry, and the process is finally completed by joining them together, beginning with the best. There are seldom more than twenty slips or stripes produced from one stem of the plant.‘ (Pliny, xiii. 11,12.) Wilkinson remarks, that ‹the mode of making papyri was this: the interior of the stalks of the plant, after the rind had been removed, was cut into thin slices in the direction of their length, and these being laid on a flat board, in succession, similar slices were placed over them at right angles, and their surfaces being cemented together by a sort of glue, and subjected to the proper deuce of pressure, and well dried, the papyrus was completed.‘ (“Ancient Egyptians,” vol. iii. p. 148.) The word used here is translated ‹bulrushes‘ in Exodus 2:3, where the little ark is described in which Moses was laid near the Nile; the ‹rush‘ in Job 8:11; and ‹rushes,‘ in Isaiah 35:7.
It does not elsewhere occur. That the ancients were in the practice of making light boats or vessels from the papyrus is well known. Thus Theophrastus (in the “History of Plants,” iv. 9) says, that ‹the papyrus is useful for many things, for from this they make vessels,‘ or ships ( πλοῖα ploia ). Thus, Pliny (xiii. 11,22) says, ex ipso quidem papyro navigia texunt - ‹from the papyrus they weave vessels.‘ Again, (vi. 56,57): ‹Even now,‘ says he, ‹in the Britannic Ocean useful vessels are made of bark; on the Nile from the papyrus, and from reeds and rushes.‘ Plutarch describes Isis going in search of the body of Osiris, ‹through the fenny country in a bark made of the papyrus ( ἐν βαριδι παπυοινη en baridi papnoinē ) where it is supposed that persons using boats of this description ( ἐν παπυρινοις ὀκαφεσι πλωοντας en papurinois okaphisi pleontas ) are never attacked by crocodiles out of respect to the goddess,‘ (De Isaiah 18:1-7.) Moses, also, it will be remembered, was exposed on the banks of the Nile in a similar boat or ark. ‹She took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it With slime and with pitch, and put the child therein‘ Exodus 2:3. The same word occurs here (גמא gôme' ) which is used by Isaiah, and this fact shows that such boats were known as early as the time of Moses. Lucan also mentions boats made of the papyrus at Memphis:
Conseritur bibula Memphitis cymba papyro.
- Phar. iv: 136.
At Memphis boats are woven together from the marshy papyrus
The sculptures of Thebes, Memphis, and other places, abundantly show that they were employed as punts, or canoes for fishing, in all parts of Egypt, during the inundation of the Nile.‘ (Wilkinson‘s Ancient Egyptians, vol. iii. p. 186.) In our own country, also, it will be remembered, the natives were accustomed to make canoes, or vessels, of the bark of the birch, with which they often adventured on even dangerous navigation. The circumstance here mentioned of the גמא gôme' (the papyrus), seems to fix the scene of this prophecy to the region of the Nile. This reed grew nowhere else; and it is natural, therefore, to suppose, that some nation living near the Nile is intended. Taylor, the editor of Calmet, has shown that the inhabitants of the upper regions of the Nile were accustomed to form floats of hollow earthen vessels, and to weave them together with rushes, and thus to convey them to Lower Egypt to market. He supposes that by ‹vessels of bulrushes,‘ or rush floats, are meant such vessels. (For a description of the “floats” made in Upper Egypt with “jars,” see Pococke‘s “Travels,” vol. i. p. 84, Ed. London, 1743.) ‹I first saw in this voyage (on the Nile) the large floats of earthen-ware; they are about thirty feet wide, and sixty feet long, being a frame of palm boughs tied together about four feet deep, on which they put a layer of large jars with the mouths uppermost; on these they make another floor, and then put on another layer of jars, and so a third, which last are so disposed as to trim the float, and leave room for the men to go between. The float lies across the river, one end being lower down than the other; toward the lower end on each side they have four long poles with which they row and direct the boat, as well as forward the motion down.‘ Mr. Bruce, in his “Travels,” mentions vessels made of the papyrus in Abyssinia.
Upon the waters - The waters of the Nile, or the Red Sea.
Saying - This word is not in the Hebrew, and the introduction of it by the translators gives a peculiar, and probably an incorrect, sense to the whole passage. As it stands here, it would seem to be the language of the inhabitants of the land who sent the ambassadors, usually saying to their messengers to go to a distant nation; and this introduces an inquiry into the characteristics of the nation to “whom” the ambassadors are sent, as if it were a “different” people from those who are mentioned in Isaiah 17:1. But probably the words which follow are to be regarded as the words of the prophet, or of God Isaiah 17:4, giving commandment to those messengers to “return” to those who sent them, and deliver the message which follows: ‹You send messengers to distant nations in reed boats upon the rivers. Return, says God, to the land which sent you foth, and announce to them the will of God. Go rapidly in your light vessels, and bear this message, for it shall speedily be executed, and I will sit calmly and see it done‘ Isaiah 17:4-6. A remarkably similar passage, which throws great light on this, occurs in Ezekiel 30:9: ‹In that day shall messengers go forth from me (God) in ships to make the careless Ethiopians afraid, and great pain shall come upon them, as in the day of Egypt, for lo, it cometh.‘
Go, ye swift messengers - Hebrew, ‹Light messengers.‘ This is evidently addressed to the boats. Achilles Tatius says that they were frequently so light and small, that they would carry but one person (Rosenmuller).
To a nation - What nation this was is not known. The “obvious” import of the passge is, that it was some nation to whom they were “accustomed” to send ambassadors, and that it is here added merely as “descriptive” of the people. Two or three characterstics of the nation are mentioned, from which we may better learn what people are referred to.
Scattered - (ממשׁך memushāk ). This word is derived from משׁך mâshak “to seize, take, hold fast;” to draw out, extend, or prolong; to make double or strong; to spread out. The Septuagint renders it, Ἔθνος μετέωρον Ethnos meteōron - ‹A lofty nation.‘ Chaldee, ‹A people suffering violence.‘ Syraic, ‹A nation distorted.‘ Vulgate, ‹A people convulsed, and lacerated.‘ It “may” denote a people “spread out” over a great extent of country; or a people “drawn out in length” - that is, extended over a country of considerable length, but of comparatively narrow breadth, as Egypt is; so Vitringa understands it. Or it may mean a people “strong, valiant;” so Gesenius understands it. This best suits the connection, as being a people ‹terrible hitherto.‘ Perhaps all these ideas may be united by the supposition, that the nation was drawn out or extended over a large region, and was, “therefore,” a powerful or mighty people. The idea of its being “scattered” is not in the text. Taylor renders it, ‹A people of short stature; contracted in height; that is, dwarfs.‘ But the idea in the text is not one that is descriptive of “individuals,” but of the “collected” nation; the people.
And peeled - (מרט môraṭ from מרט mâraṭ ) to make smooth, or sharpen, as a sword,” Ezra 9:3; Nehemiah 13:25; Isaiah 50:6). The Septuagint renders it, Ξένον λαὸν καὶ χαλεπόν Cenon laon kai chalepon - ‹A foreign and wicked people.‘ Vulgate, ‹To a people lacerated.‘ The Syriac renders the whole verse, ‹Go, swift messengers, to a people perverse and torn; to a people whose strength has been long since taken away; a people defiled and trodden down; whose land the rivers have spoiled.‘ The word used here is capable of two significations:
(1) It may denote a people who are shaved or made smooth by removing the hair from the body. It is known to have been the custom with the Egyptians to make their bodies smooth by shaving off the hair, as Herodotus testifies (xi. 37). Or,
(2) It may be translated, as Gesenius proposes, a people valiant, fierce, bold, from the sense which the verb has “to sharpen” a sword Ezekiel 21:15-16.
The former is the most obvious interpretation, and agrees best with the proper meaning of the Hebrew word; the latter would, perhaps, better suit the connection. The editor of Calmer supposes that it is to be taken in the sense of “diminished, small, dwarfish,” and would apply it to the “pigmies” of Upper Egypt.
To a people terrible - That is, warlike, fierce, cruel. Hebrew, ‹A people feared.‘ If the Egyptians are meant, it may refer to the fact that they had always been an object of terror and alarm to the Israelites from their early oppressions there before their deliverance under Moses.
From their beginning hitherto - Hebrew, ‹From this time, and formerly.‘ It has been their general character that they were a fierce, harsh, oppressive nation. Gesenius, however, renders this, ‹To the formidable nation (and) further beyond;‘ and supposes that two nations are referred to, of which the most remote and formidable one, whose land is washed by streams, is the proper Ethiopian people. By the other he supposes is meant the Egyptian people. But the scope of the whole prophecy rather requires us to understand it of one people.
A nation meted out - Hebrew, ‹Of line line‘ (קו־קו qav -qav ). Vitringa renders this, ‹A nation of precept and precept;‘ that is, whose religion abounded with rites and ceremonies, and an infinite multitude of “precepts or laws” which prescribed them. Michaelis renders it, ‹A nation measured by a line;‘ that is, whose land had been divided by victors. Doderlin renders it, ‹A nation which uses the line;‘ that is, as he supposes, which extended its dominion over other provinces. The Septuagint renders it, Ἔθνος ἀνέλπιστον ethnos anelpiston - ‹A nation without hope.‘ Aquila, Ἔθνος ὑπόμενον ethnos hupomenon - ‹A nation enduring or patient.‘ Jonathan, the Chaldee, אגיסא עמא ובויזא - ‹A nation oppressed and afflicted.‘ Aben Ezra explains it as meaning ‹A nation like a school-boy learning line after line.‘ Theodore Hasaeus endeavors to prove that the reference here is to Egypt, and that the language is taken from the fact that the Egyptians were early distinguished for surveying and mensuration.
This science, he supposes, they were led to cultivate from the necessity of ascertaining the height of the Nile at its annual inundation, and from the necessity of an accurate survey of the land in order to preserve the knowledge of the right of property in a country inundated as this was. In support of this, he appeals to Servius (“ad” Virg. “Ecl.” iii. 41), where he says of the “radius” mentioned there, ‹The Radius is the rod of the philosophers, by which they denote the lines of geometry. This art was invented in the time when the Nile, rising beyond its usual height, confounded the usual marks of boundaries, to the ascertaining of which they employed philosophers who divided the land by “lines,” whence the science was called geometry.‘ Compare Strabo (“Geo.” xvii. 787), who says that Egypt was divided into thirty “nomes,” and then adds, ‹that these were again subdivided into other portions, the smallest of which were farms αἱ ἄρουραι haiarouraithere was a necessity for a very careful and subtle division, on account of the continual confusion of the limits which the Nile produced when it overflowed, adding, to some, taking away from others, changing the forms, obliterating the signs by which one farm was distinguished from another. Hence, it became necessary to re-survey the country; and hence, they suppose, originated the science of geometry‘ (see also Herodot. “Euterpe,” c. 109). Hence, it is supposed that Egypt came to be distinguished by the use of “the line” - or for its skill in surveying, or in geometry - or a nation “of the line” (see the Dissertation of Theodore Hasaeus, קו קו גוי - “De Gente kau kau,” in Ugolin‘s “Thes. Ant. Sac.” vii. 1568-1580). The word (קו qav ) means, properly, “a cord, a line,” particularly a measuring line Ezekiel 47:3; 2 Kings 21:13: ‹I will stretch over Jerusalem the measuring line of Samaria‘ that is, I will destroy it like Samaria. Hence, the phrase here may denote a people accustomed “to stretch out such lines” over others; that is, to lay them waste.
It is applied usually to the line connected with a plummet, which a carpenter uses to mark out his work (compare Job 38:5; Isaiah 28:17; Isaiah 34:11; Zephaniah 2:1); or to a line by which a land or country is measured by the surveyor. Sometimes it means “a precept, or rule,” as Vitringa has rendered it here (compare Isaiah 28:10). But the phrase ‹to stretch out a line,‘ or ‹to measure a people by a line,‘ is commonly applied to their destruction, as if a conqueror used a line to mark out what he had to do (see this use of the word in 2 Kings 21:13: Isaiah 28:17; Isaiah 34:11; Lamentations 2:8; Zechariah 1:16). This is probably its sense here - a nation terrible in all its history, and which had been distinguished for stretching lines over others; that is, for marking them out for destruction, and dividing them as it pleased. It is, therefore, a simple description, not of the nation as “being itself” measured out, but as extending its dominion over others.
And trodden down - (מבוסה mebûsâh ). Margin, ‹And treading under foot,‘ or, ‹that meteth out and treadeth down.‘ The margin here, as is frequently the case, is the more correct rendering. Here it does not mean that “they were trodden down,” but that it was a characteristic of their nation that “they trod down others;” that is, conquered and subdued other nations. Thus the verb is used in Psalm 44:6; Isaiah 14:25; Isaiah 53:6; Isaiah 63:18; Jeremiah 12:10. Some, however, have supposed that it refers to the fact that the land was trodden down by their feet, or that the Egyptians were accustomed to lead the waters of the Nile, when it overflowed, by “treading” places for it to flow in their fields. But the former is the more correct interpretation.
Whose land the rivers have spoiled - Margin, ‹Despise.‘ The Hebrew word (בּזאוּ bâz'eû ) occurs nowhere else. The Vulgate renders it, Diripuerunt - ‹Carry away.‘ The Chaldee reads it, ‹Whose land the people plunder.‘ The word is probably of the same signification as בזז bâzaz “to plunder, lay waste.” So it was read by the Vulgate and the Chaldee; and this reading is found in four manuscripts. The word is in the present tense, and should be rendered not ‹have spoiled,‘ but ‹spoil.‘ It is probably used to denote a country the banks of whose rivers are washed away by the floods. This description is particularly applicable to Nubia or Abyssinia - the region above the cataracts of the Nile. One has only to remember that these streams continually wash away the banks and bear the earth to deposit it “on” the lands of Lower Egypt, to see that the prophet had this region particularly in his eye.
He could not have meant Egypt proper, because instead of “spoiling” the lands, or washing them away, the Nile constantly brings down a deposit from the upper regions that constitutes its great fertility. The “rivers” that are mentioned here are doubtless the various branches of the Nile (see Bruce‘s “Travels,” ch. iii., and Burckhardt‘s “Travels in Nubia.” The Nile is formed by the junction of many streams or branches rising in Abyssinia, the principal of which are the Atbara; the Astapus or Blue River; and the Astaboras or White River. The principal source of the Nile is the Astapus or Blue River, which rises in the Lake Coloe, which Bruce supposes to be the head of the Nile. This river on the west, and the various branches of the Atbara on the east, nearly encompass a large region of country called Meroe, once supposed to be a large island, and frequently called such. The whole description, therefore, leads us to the conclusion that a region is mentioned in that country called in general “Cush;” that it was a people living on rivers, and employing reed boats or skiffs; that they were a fierce and warlike people; and that the country was one that was continually washed by streams, and whose soil was carried down by the floods. All these circumstances apply to Nubia or Abyssinia, and there can be little doubt that this is the country intended.
All ye inhabitants of the world - These are to be regarded as the words of the prophet summoning all nations to attend to that which was about to occur. Grotius, however, and some others, suppose that they are the words of the Ethiopians. The meaning is, that the events which are here predicted would be of so public a nature as to attract the attention of all the world.
When he - Vitringa supposes that this means the Assyrians lifting up a standard on the mountains of Judea. But the better interpretation is that which refers it to the people of Nubia, mustering their forces for war. ‹All nations behold when that people collects an army; sounds the trumpet for war; and arrays its military forces for battle. See then the judgments that God will inflict on them - their discomfiture Isaiah 18:4-7, and their turning to Yahweh, and sending an offering to him Isaiah 18:7.‘ According to this interpretation, it will refer to the people making preparation for battle; and perhaps it may mean that they were preparing to join the enemies of Judea - “not improbably preparing to join the forces of Sennacherib, and to invade Judea.” For this purpose it may have been that the messengers were sent to negotiate the terms of alliance with Sennacherib; and the object of the prophecy is, to assure the Jews that this people, as well as Sennacherib, would be discomfited, and that they would yet bring an offering to God Isaiah 18:7.
Lifteth up an ensign - A military standard (see the note at Isaiah 5:26).
And when he bloweth a trumpet - Also a signal for an army to assemble (see the note at Isaiah 13:2).
For so the Lord said unto me - So Yahweh has revealed his purpose, that is, to execute punishment on the people who have been described in the previous verses. Their state as there described is that of a fierce people making ready for war, and probably designing an alliance with the enemies of Judea, and marshalling their armies for that purpose. Yahweh here reveals to the prophet that they shall be discomfited, and shows the manner in which it will be done. He says he will sit calm while these preparations are going on - as the sun shines serenely on the earth while the harvest is growing, and the dew falls gently on the herb; but that “before” their plans are completed, he will interpose and destroy them, as if one should appear suddenly before the harvest is ripe and cut it down. The “design,” therefore, of this part of the prophecy is to comfort the Jews, and to assure them that there is no danger to them from the preparations which were made against them - for Yahweh calmly beholds the proud rage of the enemy.
I will take my rest - I will not interpose. I will remain calm - not appearing to oppose them, but keeping as calm, and as still, as if I seemed to favor their plans - as the sun shines on the herb, and the gentle dew falls on the grass, until the proper time for me to interpose and defeat them shall arise Isaiah 18:5-6.
I will consider - I will look on; that is, I will not now interpose and disarrange their plans before they are complete. We learn here,
(1) That God sees the plans of the wicked;
(2) That he sees them “mature” them without attempting then to interpose to disarrange them;
(3) That he is calm and still, because he designs that those plans shall be developed; and
(4) That the wicked should not indulge in any dreams of security and success because God does not interpose to thwart their plans while they are forming them. He will do it in the proper time.
In my dwelling-place - In heaven. I will sit in heaven and contemplate leisurely the plans that are going forward.
Like a clear heat - A serene, calm, and steady sunshine, by which plants and herbs are made to grow. There seem to be two ideas blended here: the first, that of the “stillness” with which the sun shines upon the herbs; and the other, that of the fact that the sun shines that the herbs “may grow.”
Upon herbs - Margin, ‹After rain‘ (עלי־אוי ‛ălēy 'ôry ). The word אוי 'ôr usually signifies “light,” or “fire.” The plural form (ואורות ô'ôrôth ) is used to denote herbs or vegetables in two places, in 2 Kings 4:39, and Isaiah 26:19. For in the Shemitic languages the ideas of “sprouting, being grown, growing” etc., are connected with that of the shining of the sun, or of light; that which grows in the light; that is, vegetables. But in the singular phorm the word is not thus used, unless it be in this place. That it may have this signiphication cannot be doubted; and this interpretation makes good sense, and suits the connection. The rabbis generally interpret it as it is in the margin - ‹rain.‘ In proof of this they appeal to Job 36:30; Job 37:11; but the word in these passages more properly denotes a cloud of light or of lightning, than rain. The common interpretation is probably correct, which regards the word אור 'ôr here as the same as אורה 'ôrâh - ‹herbs‘ (see Vitringa). The Syriac reads it על־יאר ‛al -yeor - ‹upon the river.‘ The parallelism seems to require the sense of “herb,” or something that shall answer to ‹harvest‘ in the corresponding member.
And like a cloud of dew - Such a dew was still, and promoted the growth of vegetables. The idea is that of stillness and rest where there is no storm or tempest to dissipate the gently-falling dew. This is an emblem of the perfect quietness with which God would regard the preparations for war until the proper time would come for him to interpose. The whole passage is similar to Psalm 2:4-5:
He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh;
Jehovah shall have them in derision.
Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath,
And vex them in his hot displeasure.
The idea is, that he would be as calm as the sun is upon the herb, or the dew upon the harvest field, until the time should come when it would be proper for him to interpose, and disconcert their counsels. When and how this would be done is stated in the following verses; and the whole passage is most striking illustration of the manner with which God contemplates the machinations and evil designs of the wicked.
For afore the harvest - This verse is evidently figurative, and the image is drawn from that which is commenced in the previous verse. There, God is represented as calmly regarding the plans of the people here referred to - as the sun shines serenely on the herb, or the dew falls on the grass. “That” figure supposes that they had “formed” plans, and that they were advancing to maturity, like a growing harvest, while God surveyed them without interposition. This verse continues the figure, and affirms “that those plans shall not be mature;” that God will interpose and defeat them “while” they are maturing - as if a man should enter the harvest field and cut it down after it had been sown, or go into the vineyard, and cut down the vines while the green grape was beginning to ripen. It is, therefore, a most beautiful and expressive figure, intimating that all their plans would be foiled even when they had the prospect of a certain accomplishment.
When the bud is perfect - The word ‹bud‘ here (פרח perach ) denotes either a “blossom,” or a sprout, shoot, branch. Here it denotes probably the “blossom” of the grain; or it may be the grain when it is “set.” Its meaning is, when their plans are maturing, and there is every human prospect that they will be successful.
And the sour grape is ripening - Begins to turn; or is becoming mature.
In the flower - (נצה netsâh ). The blossom. This should be read rather, ‹and the flower is becoming a ripening grape.‘ The common version does not make sense; but with this translation the idea is clear. The sense is the same as in the former phrase - when their plans are maturing.
He shall cut off the sprigs - The shoots; the small limbs on which the grape is hanging, as if a man should enter a vineyard, and, while the grape is ripening, should not only cut off the grape, but the small branches that bore it, thus preventing it from bearing again. The idea is, not only that God would disconcert their “present” plans, but that he would prevent them from forming any in future. Before their plans were matured, and they obtained the anticipated triumph, he would effectually prevent them from forming such plans again.
They shall be left together - The figure here is dropped, and the literal narration is resumed. The sense is, that the army shall be slain and left unburied. Perhaps the “branches and twigs” in the previous verse denoted military leaders, and the captains of the armies, which are now represented as becoming food for beasts of the field and for birds of prey.
To the fowls of the mountains - Their dead bodies shall be unburied, and shall be a prey to the birds that prey upon flesh.
And to the beasts of the earth - The wild animals: the beasts of the forest.
And the fowls shall summer upon them - Shall pass the summer, that is, they shall continue to be unburied. “And the beasts of the earth shall winter upon them.” They shall be unburied through the winter; probably indicating that they would furnish food for the fowls and the wild beasts for a long time. On the multitude of carcasses these animals will find nourishment for a whole year, that is, they will spend the summer and the winter with them. When this was fulfilled, it is, perhaps, not possible to tell, as we are so little acquainted with the circumstances of the people in relation to whom it was spoken. If it related, as I suppose, to the people of Nubia or Ethiopia forming an alliance with the Assyrians for the purpose of invading Judea, it was fulfilled probably when Sennacherib and his assembled hosts were destroyed. Whenever it was fulfilled, it is quite evident that the design of the prophecy was to give comfort to the Jews, alarmed and agitated as they were at the prospect of the preparations which were made, by the assurance that those plans would fail, and all the efforts of their enemies be foiled and disconcerted.
In that time - When shall thus be disconcerted, and their armies be overthrown.
Shall the present be brought - The word ‹present‘ (שׁי shay ) denotes a gift, and is found only in the phrase ‹to bring gifts,‘ or ‹presents‘ Psalm 68:30; Psalm 76:11. It means here evidently a tribute, or an offering to Yahweh as the only true God; and possibly may mean that the people would be converted to him, and embrace the true religion.
Of a people - From a people. The description which follows is the same precisely as in Isaiah 18:2. Numerous repetitions of this kind will be recollected by the classic reader in the “Iliad.”
To the place of the name - The place where Yahweh is worshipped, that is, Jerusalem (compare the notes at Isaiah 1:8-9). We have no means of knowing with certainty when or how this prophecy was fulfilled. That the Jewish religion spread into Upper Egypt, and that the Christian religion was afterward established there, there can be no doubt. The Jews were scattered into nearly every nation, and probably many of this people became proselytes, and went with them to Jerusalem to worship (see Acts 2:10; Acts 8:27). ‹The Abyssinian annals represent the country as converted to Judaism several centuries before the Christian era; and it certainly retains many appearances bearing the stamp of that faith. In the fourth century, the nation was converted to Christianity by the efforts of Frumentius, an Egyptian, who raised himself to high favor at court. Abyssinia remained impenetrable to the arms or the creed of the followers of Mahomet, and, affording shelter to the refugees from Egypt and Arabia, it became more decidedly Christian.‘ ‹The Abyssinians profess the same form of Christianity with the Copts of Egypt, and even own the supremacy of the patriarch at Cairo. They combine with their Christian profession many Judaical observances, such as circumcision, abstinence from meats, and the observance of Saturday as well as Sunday as a Sabbath.‘ (“Encyc. of Geography,” vol. ii. pp. 585,588.) in these facts - in the prevalence of the true religion there in former periods, the prophecy may be regarded as having been in part fulfilled. Still, as is the case with a large portion of the prophecies of Isaiah, we must regard this as having reference to a period of greater light and truth than has yet existed there; and as destined to receive a more complete fulfillment when all lands shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord.
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Barnes, Albert. "Commentary on Isaiah 18". "Barnes' Notes on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Third Week after Epiphany