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This is not a simple chapter. But it does not have to scare us to try to discover the meaning of the prophecy. In any case, it will keep us humble and make us aware that we depend on the enlightenment of God’s Spirit for the explanation.
If we encounter difficulties in the examination of the prophetic word, it may give us an extra incentive to ask the Lord to give us clarity. Then He will always give us clarity as to what extent we can grasp and which is useful for the building up of our life of faith. It is not a question of increasing our intellectual knowledge of future events, but that our hearts will be more directed toward Him. A difficulty in the explanation of prophecy, if our heart is directed toward Him, has that effect. At the same time, it will make us cautious to make overly firm claims in certain cases.
This chapter is a continuation of Isaiah 17. It does not begin with the word “burden” (or: oracle) but with the word “alas” which is also mentioned in the previous chapter (Isa 17:12), which indicates a continuation. In Isaiah 17 it is about the destruction of Ephraim by the king of the North; in this chapter it is about the destruction of Israel, in this case especially Judah, by the same king of the North. This chapter explains the position of Judah at the time of the attack of the king of the North.
The Land Beyond the Rivers of Cush
Remarkable is that the chapter does not start with a new ‘burden’, but with an “alas” (Isa 18:1). An ‘alas’ [in other translations: ‘woe’] is an announcement of a message of judgment. As noted above, this seems to indicate that it is a direct continuation of the previous chapter (Isa 17:12-14), where an ‘alas’ (Isa 17:12) is pronounced over the raging of the nations.
The first characteristic of the land about which Isaiah is now going to prophesy is found in the indication that it is a land of “whirring wings” or that it is “shadowing with wings” (Darby Translation). A wing refers like shadow to protection (Rth 2:12; Psa 17:8; Psa 36:7; Psa 57:1b). Only this is not the wing or protection of the LORD. It is a mighty land characterized by the sound of flying creatures. Can we think of an air force? The expression whirring wings is also connected to the sound of a locust swarm. Cush is a land where many locust infestations occur.
The description then speaks of a land “which lies beyond the rivers of Cush” (Gen 10:6; cf. Zep 3:10). This does not only mean Ethiopia. Cush included today’s southern Egypt, Sudan and northern Ethiopia. The land lies “beyond the rivers” (plural). These rivers are the Nile and the Euphrates. The Cushites can also be found in Mesopotamia, near the Euphrates and the Tigris.
It also says that it is a land “beyond” those two rivers. This does not necessarily mean that it is directly across, because ‘beyond’ can also be translated as ‘along’. The Hebrew word me-eber also means ‘to beyond’. Then it can also be further away than just next to it. It is a different land than the lands and peoples spoken of in the prophecies, which are close to Israel. This country must be far away from Israel.
Envoys to Israel
That land sends “envoys by the sea” – meaning that the land is not nearby – “to a nation tall and smooth” or “a nation scattered and ravaged [or: plucked]” (Isa 18:2). This last translation corresponds exactly with the conclusion of the previous chapter. Israel is that scattered and plucked nation. Its enemies have taken it out of its land and plucked it bare. It is a “feared” people, in the sense of marvelous or formidable, because it has a marvelous and formidable God Who has a marvelous plan with His people. The purpose of the envoys seems to be to persuade Judah to make an alliance with him against Assyria.
The envoys, “swift messengers” uses “papyrus vessels” (cf. Job 9:26a). They are “swift” messengers because time is running out for that land. Judah seems to be a good ally, because it has a strong army and a reputation that instils fear. Egypt, Canaan and the surrounding peoples have experienced it in the past. The fact that it must be Judah is also clear from the alternative Darby Translation: “A nation of measure, measure and of treading down.” God has given them His laws, the Torah, with all kinds of measurements.
It is also a people “of treading down” because it has been treaded down many times in its history. It is a land which “the rivers divide” or “the rivers have spoiled”, which means that Israel has been robbed of its freedom many times by lands on its rivers. We can think of Assyria (Isa 8:7; Isa 17:12).
The faraway land beyond the rivers is making an effort to make an alliance with the Jews and it all seems to succeed. If the historical explanation of this section is difficult, the prophetic explanation seems clearer. A comparison with other parts of the Bible suggests – seen from the perspective of Isaiah – that this distant land may be the future restored Roman Empire, Europe with allies. The prophet Daniel speaks of a firm covenant with the many and the wing of abominations (Dan 9:27) and the honoring by the antichrist of a god of fortresses, i.e. a strong military power (Dan 11:38).
Israel Returned to His Land
After the description in Isa 18:1-2 comes the call to “all inhabitants of the world and dwellers on earth” to attentively “see” and “hear” everything that this nation from the distant land does to Israel (Isa 18:3). They will succeed in bringing Israel into their land under their own standard or flag. The fact that the standard is raised on the mountains means that the state of Israel is going to occupy a prominent position in the world. We can already see this now.
They will also blow the trumpet of freedom. This happened in 1948 before the eyes of the entire world. This is only a pre-fulfillment to what else is going to happen (Eze 37:1-28). All the dwellers on earth will testify that the future belongs to Israel (cf. Isa 11:12).
The LORD Looks Quietly
Then we read in this verse what the LORD will do during all the activities of the distant people and of His people. He will quietly watch all that hustle and bustle, without interfering. He will keep quiet, it does not have His blessing. These are activities in which He is not involved. That does not mean that everything is outside of Him.
Although He Himself has no active part in it, He allows all these actions to happen. He allows it because it fits into His plan. It happens in His providence. However, in the background He is “like dazzling heat in the sunshine” and “like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest” preparing His people for the blessing of the land.
Prophetically this points at the first phase of Israel’s restoration. Compare the vision of the valley with the bones (Eze 37:1-10). The scattered bones are restored to bodies, but they are still without spirit, not yet alive. Thus Israel is now back in the land, but without spiritual life.
The messengers of the distant land (cf. Isa 39:1-8) may be in a hurry, the LORD is not. That is why Israel should not rush to connect with that land, as if it offered them some strength against the advancing enemy. Seeking support from people will always result in disappointment (Isa 20:5-6; Psa 118:8-9). That is what the unbelieving Israel will experience in the end time. It will suffer badly, despite all the covenants and promised help.
The LORD Is Going to Act
Then comes the moment He goes to work (Isa 18:5). When all efforts seem successful and the goal is almost reached, the LORD will suddenly give free rein to all the anger of the surrounding peoples toward Israel. The pruning knife that the LORD is going to use is Assyria or the king of the North (Dan 11:6-15; 28; 40). Two third of Israel will be pruned away (Zec 13:8).
In the end, the friendly plan of the distant people, which seemed to be an enormous success, will fail. Their army will arrive in Israel too late. The people of Israel who have relied in unbelief on the protective power of this faraway land will become prey to the nations around them who are presented as predators (Isa 18:6). But this is not the end.
The LORD presents Himself as the only reliable Refuge. His people must learn to see Him. He remains quiet, has everything under control, while the circumstances develop until the right time has come to intervene. This time is figuratively referred to as the time “before the harvest”. Then He will prune the enemies of Israel, limit them in their power, and make their territory a dwelling place for the predators (Isa 18:5-6). He will destroy the enemies, that is the king of the North or Assyria in the end time, together with the false allies, that is Babylon, or the restored Roman Empire, or the united Europe (Dan 2:45; Dan 11:45).
This is the fate of any people who turn against God’s people, which is the faithful remnant. It teaches us that we can quietly wait for God’s time to intervene for our benefit. In all our faith exercises, we may be assured that everything is under His absolute control. We face trials and difficulties so that we will throw ourselves upon God in simple and unshakable dependence.
A Gift of Homage for the LORD
If the LORD has thus acted in favor of His people, this people will honor Him in the place He has given for this purpose: the temple on mount Zion. After the vine is pruned, after the destruction of Israel by the king of the North, a small remnant survived the slaughter. Those who make up this little remnant will repent and come to full faith. In the realm of peace, they will thank and honor the LORD through gifts that they will bring to Mount Zion, “the place of the name of the LORD of hosts”.
In this verse we see the beginning of the realm of peace, while Isa 18:1-2 show us the establishment of the state of Israel in unbelief. Between the time leading up to the establishment of the state of Israel and the establishment of the kingdom of peace lies the present time in which the final establishment of the state of Israel in unbelief took place on May 15, 1948.
In retrospect, in the twenty-first century, this is not difficult for us to recognize. But let us keep in mind that believers already gave this explanation at the beginning of the nineteenth century. At that time there was no question of the events now confirming the explanation of that time. Circumstances seemed to point to the opposite of the explanation, but they have concluded these thoughts as a result of the study of the Word of God.
In this context, it is interesting to pass on the short comment J.N. Darby gives on this chapter in his commentary (Synopsis, written around 1850!):
‘Israel shall be restored by means of some powerful nation, outside the limits (the rivers of Cush, Nile and Euphrates) of their then national relationships; but Jehovah stands apart from His own relationship with them, though ordering all things. Then, when Israel shall begin to bud as a vine in the land, they shall be given up as a prey to the nations. Nevertheless in that time they shall be brought as an offering to Jehovah, and shall themselves bring an offering too.’ [End of comment]
Kingcomments on the Whole Bible © 2021 Author: G. de Koning. All rights reserved. Used with the permission of the author
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de Koning, Ger. Commentaar op Isaiah 18". "Kingcomments on the Whole Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
the Week of Proper 8 / Ordinary 13