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Bible Commentaries
Isaiah 18

Utley's You Can Understand the BibleUtley Commentary


Isaiah 18:0


Message to EthiopiaProclamation Against EthiopiaConcerning EthiopiaGod Will Punish EthiopiaAgainst Cush
Isaiah 18:1-7(1-7)Isaiah 18:1-2(1-2)Isaiah 18:1-2(1-2)Isaiah 18:1-2Isaiah 18:1-6(1-6)
Isaiah 18:3(3)Isaiah 18:3-6(3-6)Isaiah 18:3-6
Isaiah 18:4-6(4-6)
Isaiah 18:7Isaiah 18:7Isaiah 18:7Isaiah 18:7

READING CYCLE THREE (see “Guide to Good Bible Reading”)


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). Compareyour 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.

Verses 1-7

NASB (UPDATED) TEXT: Isaiah 18:1-7 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.

Isaiah 18:1


This INTERJECTION (BDB 222) is used often in the prophets (cf. Isaiah 1:4, Isaiah 1:24; Isaiah 5:8, Isaiah 5:11, Isaiah 5:18, Isaiah 5:20, Isaiah 5:21, Isaiah 5:22; Isaiah 10:1, Isaiah 10:5; Isaiah 17:12; Isaiah 18:1; Isaiah 28:1; Isaiah 29:1, Isaiah 29:15; Isaiah 30:1; Isaiah 31:1; Isaiah 33:1; Isaiah 45:9; Isaiah 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 Isaiah 18:1; Isaiah 55:1; Jeremiah 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. Deuteronomy 28:42)

4. PLURAL, musical percussion instrument (cf. 2 Samuel 6:5; 1 Chronicles 13:8; Psalms 150:5).

5. related VERB (צלל, BDB 852), tingle (cf. 1 Samuel 3:11; 2 Kings 21:12; Jeremiah 19:3) or quiver (cf. Habakkuk 3:16)

6. 853 II, sink (cf. Exodus 15:10)

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

8. related NOUN, צל, shadow (BDB 853, cf. Isaiah 4:6; Isaiah 16:3; Isaiah 25:4, Isaiah 25:5; Isaiah 30:2, Isaiah 30:3; Isaiah 32:2; Isaiah 34:15; Isaiah 38:8; Isaiah 49:2; Isaiah 51:16 (this is how JPSOA translates the phrase)

NASB, MT, NJB, REB“Cush” NKJV, LXX, PESHITTA“Ethiopia” 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. Genesis 2:13; Genesis 10:6, Genesis 10:7, Genesis 10:8). 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., Isaiah 19:0), 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!

Isaiah 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 Isaiah 18:7. 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 Isaiah 18:3 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. Isaiah 7:0), only YHWH.

Contextually the question

1. is Isaiah 18:0 an independent poem?

2. is Isaiah 18:0 related to Isaiah 17:0?

3. is Isaiah 18:0 related to Isaiah 19:0?

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.

Isaiah 18:3 “All you inhabitants of the world and dwellers on earth” Isaiah has addressed this larger group several times (cf. Isaiah 2:2-4; Isaiah 9:7; Isaiah 11:10, Isaiah 11:11-12; Isaiah 12:4-6; Isaiah 17:7-8; Isaiah 26:9). What happens to YHWH's covenant people affects all nations. The term can refer to worldwide redemption or judgment (cf. Isaiah 13:11; Isaiah 24:4; Isaiah 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 Isaiah 18:3 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 Isaiah 19:0, not 17!

6. Assyria to the world

7. YHWH to all human enemies who oppose His purpose and people (cf. Psalms 2:0)

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. Isaiah 18:5-6)

2. salvation (cf. Isaiah 18:7)

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., Isaiah 2:2-4; Isaiah 11:10; Isaiah 49:6; Isaiah 51:4-8).

Isaiah 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 www.freebiblecommentary.org 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. 1 Kings 8:39, 1 Kings 8:43, 1 Kings 8:49). 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 (Isaiah 18:3), but Judah is secure in YHWH's security (i.e., Isaiah 7:4; Isaiah 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 Isaiah 4-5! History is not a flux, but a means to a teleological climax designed and orchestrated by God!

Isaiah 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. Isaiah 17:14).

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

Isaiah 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. Isaiah 18:3), but an offering to YHWH in Jerusalem (cf. Isaiah 18:7, line 6). The gift would be a cultural/religious symbol acknowledging YHWH's lordship and reign. The enemies of Isaiah 18:1-2 are now worshipers! This is the fulfillment of Genesis 3:15 (see Special Topic: YHWH's ETERNAL REDEMPTIVE PLAN). The redemptive purpose is wider than Abraham's physical seed. It encompasses his spiritual seed (cf. Romans 2:28-29)!

NASB, NKJV, NRSV, REB, LXX“from” 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.”

Bibliographical Information
Utley. Dr. Robert. "Commentary on Isaiah 18". "Utley's You Can Understand the Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/ubc/isaiah-18.html. 2021.
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