Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature
is the renderinn in the Auth. Vers. for two Hebrew words: אוֹת, oth (the flag of a single tribe, Numbers 2:2), a sign or token, as elsewhere rendered; נֵס, nes (a lofty signal, e.g. a "pole," Numbers 21:8-9), a ship's standard or flag ("sail," Isaiah 33:23; Ezekiel 27:7), a beacon or signal on a hill, chiefly on the irruption of an enemy, in order to point out to the people a place of rendezvous. There is a third and more emphatic word relating to the subject, namely, דֶּגֶל, de'gel (from דָּגִל, to cover), which, however, is in. variably rendered "standard" (except Song of Solomon 2:1-17, "banner"). The distinction between these three Hebrew terms is sufficiently marked by their respective uses: NES is a signal; DEGEL, a military standard for a large division of an army; and OTH, the same for a small one. Neither of them, however, expresses the idea which "standard" conveys to our minds, viz. a flag; the standards in use among the Hebrews probably resembled those of the Egyptians and Assyrians — a figure or device of some kind elevated on a pole. (See BANNER).
1. The notices of the nes or "ensign" are most frequent; it consisted of some well-understood signal which was exhibited on the top of a pole from a bare mountain top (Isaiah 13:2; Isaiah 18:3) — the very emblem of conspicuous isolation (Isaiah 30:17). Around it the inhabitants mustered, whether for the purpose of meeting an enemy (Isaiah 5:26; Isaiah 18:3; Isaiah 31:9), which was sometimes notified by the blast of a trumpet (Jeremiah 4:21; Jeremiah 51:27); or as a token of rescue (Psalms 60:4; Isaiah 11:10; Jeremiah 4:6); or for a public proclamation (Jeremiah 1:1-19; Jeremiah 2:1-37); or simply as a gathering point (Isaiah 49:22; Isaiah 62:10). What the nature of the signal was we have no means of stating; it has been inferred from Isaiah 33:23, and Ezekiel 27:7, that it was a flag: we do not observe a flag depicted either in Egyptian or Assyrian representations of vessels (Wilkinson, 3:211; Bonomi, pages 166,167); but, in lieu of a flag, certain devices, such as the phoenix, flowers, etc., were embroidered on the sail, whence it appears that the device itself, and perhaps also the sail bearing the device, was the nes or "ensign." It may have sometimes been the name of a leader, as implied in the title which Moses gave to his altar, "Jehovahnissi" (Exodus 17:15). It may also have been, as Michaelis (Suppl. page 1648) suggests, a blazing torch. The important point, however, to be observed is, that the nes was an occasional signal, and not a military standard, and that elevation and conspicuity are implied in the use of the term: hence it is appropriately applied to the "pole" on which the brazen serpent hung (Numbers 21:8), which was indeed an "ensign" of deliverance to the pious Israelite: and again to the censers of Korah and his company, which became a "sign" or beacon of warning to Israel (Numbers 16:38). (See SIGNAL).
2. The term degel is used to describe the standards which were given to each of the four divisions of the Israelitish army at the time of the Exodus (Numbers 1:52; Numbers 2:2; Numbers 10:14 sq.). Some doubt indeed exists as to its meaning in these passages, the Sept. and Vulgate regarding it not as the standard itself, but as a certain military division annexed to a standard, just as a vexilumi is sometimes used for a body of soldiers (Tacitus, Hist. 1:70; Livy, 8:8). The sense of compact and martial array does certainly seem to lurk in the word; for in Song of Solomon 6:4; Song of Solomon 6:10, the brilliant glances of the bride's eyes are compared to the destructive advance of a well. arrayed host, and a similar comparison is employed in reference to the bridegroom (Song of Solomon 5:10); but, on the other hand, in Song of Solomon 2:4, no other sense than that of a "banner" will suit, and we therefore think the rendering in the A.V. correct. No reliance can be placed on the term in Psalms 20:5, as both the sense and the text are matters of doubt (see Olshausen and Hengstenberg, in loc.). A standard implies, of course, a standard-bearer; but the supposed notice to that officer in Isaiah 10:18, is incorrect, the words meaning rather "as a sick man pineth away;" in a somewhat parallel passage (Isaiah 59:19) the marginal version is to be followed rather than the text. The character of the Hebrew military standards is quite a matter of conjecture; they probably resembled the Egyptian, which consisted of a sacred emblem, such as an animal, a boat, or the king's name (Wilkinson, 1:294). Rabbinical writers state the devices to have been as follows: for the tribe of Judah, a lion; for Reuben, a man; for Ephraim, an ox; and for Dan, an eagle (Carpzov, Crit. Ap. page 667); but no reliance can be placed on this. As each of the four divisions, consisting of three tribes, had its standard, so had each tribe its " sign" (oth) or "ensign," probably in imitation of the Egyptians, among whom not only each battalion, but even each company, had its particular ensign (Wilkinson, 1.c.). We know nothing of its nature. The word occurs figuratively in Psalms 74:4, apparently in reference to the images of idol gods. (See STANDARD).
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McClintock, John. Strong, James. Entry for 'Ensign'. Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological and Ecclesiastical Literature. https://www.studylight.org/encyclopedias/eng/tce/e/ensign.html. Harper & Brothers. New York. 1870.