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Isaiah 18:1-7 | Werner Bible Commentary

Isaiah 18:1-7

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18:1. Masoretic Text: Woe, land of whirring [tsiltsál] of wings that [is] beyond the rivers of Cush,

Septuagint: Woe, wings of a land of ships beyond the rivers of Ethiopia,

The Targum of Isaiah refers to a distant country from which ships come, “with sails spread out like a vulture that soars aloft on its wings.”

Commentary

The opening interjection may be rendered, “woe,” “ah,” or “oh.” In view of the expression of judgment that follows, “woe” appears to fit the context well.

Uncertainty exists about the meaning of the Hebrew word tsiltsál. When regarded as meaning “whirring” and applying to “wings,” the reference could be to insects. “Disaster! Land of the whirring locust beyond the rivers of Cush.” (NJB) “Ah, land of buzzing insects, beyond the rivers of Ethiopia.” (NAB) The region south of ancient Egypt, Cush or Ethopia, is a land of many insects, including locusts, mosquitoes, and tsetse flies.

Like the Septuagint, the Targum of Isaiah reads “ships,” which is the rendering found in The Revised English Bible. “There is a land of sailing ships lying beyond the rivers of Cush.”

The expression tsiltsál has also been linked to the Hebrew word tsel, meaning “shadow.” When tsiltsál is regarded as a doubling of tsel, the term could denote “deep shadow.” “Ah, land in the deep shadow of wings, beyond the rivers of Nubia!” (Tanakh) The expression “deep shadow of wings” could signify a sheltered land, as if it were protected from the sun’s heat by wings that provided welcome shade.

The Blue Nile flows from Lake Tana, Ethiopia’s largest lake. This river may here be designated as the “rivers of Cush,” the plural “rivers” possibly being a plural of excellence. The land “beyond the rivers of Cush” may be understood to mean the territory in the most distant parts of ancient Ethiopia.

18:2. Masoretic Text: [the land] that is sending envoys by sea and in vessels of papyrus on the waters: Go, swift messengers, to a nation tall [literally, “drawn out”] and polished, to a people feared near and far [literally, “from this and further”], a nation very strong [kav, kav] and treading down, whose land the rivers divide.

Septuagint: [the country] that is sending hostages by sea and papyrus letters on the water. For swift messengers will be going to an exalted nation and a foreign and harsh people — who [is] beyond it? A nation [that is] without hope and trampled down. Now the rivers of the land [will be]

The Septuagint rendering is obscure. “Envoys” are called “hostages,” “papyrus ships” are referred to as “papyrus letters.” The swift messengers would be going to a proud nation (which could designate Egypt), one that had been “harsh” in dealing with peoples whom it conquered. Beyond this proud or exalted nation would be a weak nation (possibly the kingdom of Judah), one without hope and that had been trampled down by invaders. Although the thought about the “rivers” is continued in the next verse, there is no verb that completes the sentence.

In the Targum of Isaiah, the messengers appear to be represented as going to the Israelites, “the people robbed and spoiled” but who had been “powerful from of old and onward.” They were the people whose land the nations had spoiled.

Commentary

Possibly the “sea” here could be another designation for the “rivers of Cush.” If the expression “rivers of Cush” applies to the Blue Nile, the term sea would be appropriate. At flood stage, the Blue Nile is a very wide river. Ethiopian envoys are sent forth in boats made from papyrus, a plant that once grew abundantly in marshes along the Nile. (For pictures and comments about papyrus ships and papyrus, see ship, ships, and papyrus.)

The imperative for the envoys to go may be understood to mean that the kingdom of Judah rejected any alliance with Cush or Ethiopia and directed these envoys to return to their own land. “From that land ambassadors come down the Nile in boats made of reeds. Go back home, swift messengers! Take a message back to your land divided by rivers, to your strong and powerful nation, to your tall and smooth-skinned people, who are feared all over the world.” (GNT)

Another view is that Egypt is the land that sends papyrus ships to Ethiopia. “Egypt sends messengers up the Nile River on ships made of reeds. Send them fast to Ethiopia, whose people are tall and have smooth skin. Their land is divided by rivers; they are strong and brutal, feared all over the world.” (CEV)

The Hebrew expression that literally means “drawn out” is commonly understood to mean “tall,” and the dark skin of the Ethiopians appears to have been described as if it resembled polished bronze or was very smooth and beautiful. In the fifth century BCE, the Greek writer Herodotus (Histories, III, 20, 114) referred to the Ethiopians as the “tallest” and “handsomest” men.

On account of their military triumphs, the Ethiopians inspired fear in others. The Hebrew expression that literally means “from this and further” has commonly been understood to mean “from near and far” or “far and wide.” In verse 7, the same expression appears, and there the Septuagint rendering relates to time. This is also a significance found in English translations (“from their beginning onward” [NKJV, Margolis]).

In this context, the Hebrew word kav has been understood to mean “strong,” with the repetition of the word signifying “very strong.” This term, however, basically denotes “line,” that is, one used for measuring. If measuring line is the meaning here and related to military triumphs, it could signify that, after the conflict had ended, measuring lines would be used when establishing land boundaries in the conquered territory. Another possible meaning could be that the annual floods caused changes in the land, requiring the casting out of the measuring line to determine boundaries.

Being a sound an infant might make, the repetition of kav perhaps represents the language of the Ethiopians as unintelligible to other peoples. A number of translations interpretively represent the nation as being one of “gibber and chatter” (Tanakh) or having “strange speech” (TNIV), a “language” different from that of the Israelites (NIRV), or a “strange language” (HCSB).

The reference to “treading down” is probably to be understood as signifying that the Ethiopian forces trampled down their enemies. Repeatedly, they proved successful in warfare. The point about the rivers dividing the land could denote that the land was “divided” or “cut up” with irrigation canals branching out from the Nile.

18:3. Masoretic Text: All inhabitants of the mainland and those who reside on earth: When a signal is raised on the mountains, look. When a horn is blown, listen.

Septuagint: all like an inhabited country. Their country will be inhabited as if a signal were raised from a mountain; like the sound of a trumpet it will be heard.

According to the rendering of the Septuagint, the prime focus is that the country (the land of God’s people) would be inhabited. The Hebrew text, however, is a message directed to all the inhabitants of the mainland.

Commentary

People living in the various lands known to the Israelites would witness a remarkable divine intervention in the affairs of nations. This intervention would be as perceptible as when, with nothing to block the view, a signal or banner is raised on the mountains. People everywhere should look, or take note of the development. They should listen, acting in harmony with what had taken place as if they were responding to the blowing of a horn that served to convey specific signals.

18:4. Masoretic Text: For thus YHWH spoke to me, I will be quiet and I will look from my dwelling place like clear heat [from] light, like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest.

Septuagint: For thus the Lord spoke to me, Security will be in my city, like the light of midday heat, and it will be like a cloud of dew in a day of reaping.

The Septuagint rendering sets forth God's assurance that Jerusalem (“my city”) would enjoy security. That security would be like the midday heat from the light of the sun and like the welcome cloud of dew or a mist during a time of harvest, when it would be dry and hot.

According to the Targum of Isaiah, YHWH would give rest to his people, making it possible for them to enjoy quiet or calm. He would quickly bring “blessings and consolations” to them. The blessings and consolations would be comparable to the heat from the sun and a “cloud of dew in the heat of harvest.”

Commentary

Ethiopia appears to have been engaged in a burst of activity to deal with the Assyrian threat. YHWH, however, did not need to hurry in dealing with the situation nor to be anxious in any way. He would be quiet, calm, or at rest. From his dwelling place, the exalted heavenly realm, he would watch.

The expression “clear heat” could refer to the intense heat that commonly occurred in the land as the time for harvesting approached. Renderings of this expression in modern translations are “dazzling heat” (NASB), “shimmering heat” (NIV), and “shining heat” (NLB). “Light” likely means the light of the sun. A form of the Hebrew word for “light” can designate a plant that is sensitive to light, and this appears to be the reason for the rendering “scorching heat upon sprouts” (Tanakh).

Neither the heat of the sun nor the refreshing dew involve tumultuous activity. Both serve without tumult to promote the maturing of crops. It is with the same kind of calmness, the same kind of tranquility, that YHWH would watch developments until the time came for him to act.

18:5. Masoretic Text: For before the harvest, when the blossom is coming to an end and the flower becomes a ripening grape, he will cut off the shoots with pruning knives, and he will hurl away the tendrils he has removed.

Septuagint: Before the harvest, when the blossom is coming to an end and blooms [develops] as an unripe grape, a sour blossom [fruit], then he will remove the small grape clusters with sickles [pruning knives], and he will remove the small branches and cut [them] off,

The Targum of Isaiah is explicit in identifying YHWH as the one who would “slay the rulers of the nations with the sword” and “remove and take away their mighty men.”

Commentary

In the time of Isaiah, Assyria was the enemy power, and it appears that it is being referred to in a manner that also allows for a fulfillment of the prophetic words in a more distant future. Seemingly, the enemy power is being represented as if at the stage of a vine before the start of the grape harvest. The grape vine has blossomed and the fruit is beginning to develop. YHWH, however, does not allow the fruit to come to maturity, indicating that the enemy power would not see its objective coming to fruition. God cuts off the shoots that bear the clusters of unripe grapes, disposing of everything that had been lopped off. (For pictures of the grape blossoms and the developing grapes, see grapes.)

The Assyrian monarch Sennacherib purposed to capture Jerusalem, but he could not do so. According to the biblical record, YHWH’s angel struck down 185,000 of the Assyrian host, forcing Sennacherib to abandon any attempt to conquer Jerusalem. (2 Kings 19:32-36; 2 Chronicles 32:21; Isaiah 37:33-37) Thus the Assyrian host proved to be like the branches and unripe grapes that had been cut off from the vine.

18:6. Masoretic Text: Together they will be left to the bird [of prey] of the mountains and to the beast of the earth. And the bird [of prey] will spend the summer on them, and every beast of the earth will winter on them.

Septuagint: and he will leave [them] together for the birds of heaven and the beasts of the earth, and the birds of heaven will gather upon them, and all the beasts of the earth will come upon him.

In the Dead Sea Scroll, the Hebrew word for “beast” is plural.

In the Septuagint, the third person singular pronoun “him” may be a collective singular that designates the enemy power that God purposed to bring to its end.

Commentary

In the case of the Assyrians, the dead warriors were like the discarded branches with unripe grapes. Their carcasses may well have provided food for carrion birds and beasts, including jackals. In the Masoretic Text, “bird” and “beast” are collective singulars. The reference to birds of prey spending summer on them and beasts wintering on them may serve to emphasize that many carcasses would be left lying on the ground.

18:7. Masoretic Text: In that time a gift will be brought to YHWH of hosts from a people tall and polished, even from a people feared near and far, a nation very strong and treading down, whose land the rivers have divided. [The gift will be brought] to the place of the name of YHWH of hosts, Mount Zion.

Septuagint: In that time gifts will be brought to the Lord Sabaoth from a people afflicted and plucked and from a great people from now and to time eternal, a nation hoping and trodden down, which is in a part [a region] of the river of its land, to the place where the name of the Lord Sabaoth had been called upon, Mount Zion.

The Targum of Isaiah appears to represent the nations as bringing the Israelites (the people described as “robbed and spoiled” but that had been “powerful from of old and onwards”) to the “land that is called by the name of YHWH of hosts.”

“Sabaoth” is a transliteration of the Hebrew word meaning “armies” or “hosts.”

In connection with the description of the people, the Septuagint rendering is not the same in verses 2 and 7. The reference in verse 7 appears to be to two peoples. The “afflicted and plucked” or mistreated people apparently are the Israelites, whereas the “great people” appear to be the foreign nation to whom the swift messengers had been sent. This foreign nation appears to be the one that came to have hope even though it suffered reverses, being trodden down. Both peoples are represented as bringing gifts or sacrifices to Mount Zion.

In the Masoretic Text, the description of the “nation” or “people” is the same as found in verse 2 (which see for the explanation).

The Dead Sea Scroll of Isaiah (The Great Isaiah Scroll) does not include the expression rendered “of hosts” after the second occurrence of YHWH.

Commentary

The divine intervention leading to the destruction of the enemy power is represented as causing the people mentioned in verse 2 (the Ethiopians) to turn to YHWH of armies, the God with hosts of angels at his service. They would bring a “gift” or sacrifice to him at the temple on Mount Zion, the location of his representative dwelling or where he has caused his “name” to reside. The “name” stands for the person. On this basis, Mount Zion is the “place of the name of YHWH of hosts.” That Ethiopians did become worshipers of YHWH is confirmed by the account in Acts 8:27-38 regarding the Ethiopian eunuch who had gone to Jerusalem for worship.