Isaiah Chapter 18

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

What people are designated as "scattered and peeled"? Which is the "land that
shadows"? What are the vessels of bulrushes? How can rivers spoil a land?


We have now come to a chapter, short indeed, but full of thrilling interest to every lover of the Word of God, and especially to all to whom the study of Prophecy is a delight, as indeed it should be to every Christian in these portentous days. I say of thrilling interest, since it deals with events which, although future, seem to be so imminent as to bring them within the possibility of many now living seeing their actual accomplishment. I refer to the establishment, under Gentile protection, of a Jewish State in Palestine, with the people as a whole still rejecting their Messiah; but this State becoming disrupted by a return of the most Satanic idolatry, there will be the manifestation of a faithful remnant, and then finally a divinely ordered and everlasting restoration of every Israelite from the uttermost parts of the earth. That Jewish autonomy is not yet effected, but how near it appears to be! [Ed.: First published 1935.]

Fully in accord with this, we note that we are still under the "burden of Damascus," and that another "burden" only begins with the next chapter. We have in the preceding chapter noted the significance of Damascus as a representative Gentile, in alliance with that part of the Jewish nation that had revolted from "David's House." In the past this was the ten tribes, headed by Ephraim, and often so designated. Now, in our chapter, we leap over a long period of already more than 2,500 years, and find a prophecy that can only be understood in the light of a repetition of just such a state of affairs: Jew and Gentile united in a political alliance, and this ended by the revelation of the Lord Jesus, the restoration of the House of David, and the regathering of the still-scattered Israelites.

Thus the one root question that will govern our understanding, and so translations, wherever two or more different renderings are admissible (as is so frequently the case in the Hebrew Scriptures), is of what people is the prophet speaking as "terrible from their beginning hitherto"? Let that be settled, and all becomes comparatively simple. Beyond all controversy the Lord's direct interest among the nations of the earth, is in one people only, and that one is the nation ever and still beloved for the fathers' sakes; for does He not say, "You only have I known of all the families of the earth" (Amos 3:2)? Is not that sufficient to identify that people here?

The chapter again bears on it the number "three" in its divisions, and the significance of that number is with equal clearness marked upon it, for it tells of "God manifested in the salvation" of Israel. Do you think that the human writer, Isaiah, himself could have intended, or indeed have been cognizant of all these wonderful numerical markings, indelibly interwoven into the texture of his prophecy, yet not pointed out, or to be discerned by a superficial reader? It is just such points that the apostle Peter refers to in his first Epistle, chapter 1:10, 11.

The three divisions of the chapter are:

1: Verses 1-3. The divine call demanding the attention of the whole earth.
2: Verses 4-6. Man's political plan; its initial success and final failure.
3: Verse 7. The final and divine recovery of Israel.
We will again attempt a rendering as faithful to the original as we can make it, endeavoring at the same time to make the sense clear.
1: Ho! Land shadowing with wings, beyond the rivers of Cush,
Ambassadors sending by sea, in vessels water-absorbing,
2: Saying, Swift messengers go to a nation scattered and ravaged,
To a people terrible ever, from their beginning and onward,
A nation forever under the line, and so forever downtrodden,
Whose land the rivers have spoiled!
3: All ye inhabitants of the whole world,
All ye dwellers on the whole earth,
When a banner is raised on the mountain-top, look!
When a blast is blown on the trumpet, hark!
It will be necessary to examine with such care as we can, the very words that are here used.

The first may rendered either "Woe," or "Ho!" or "Ah." It is an interjection, either conveying a threat, as in chapter 10:1, or a call demanding prompt attention, as in chapter 55:1; or a sigh, as in chapter 1:4, where it is rendered "Ah!" The second rendering is decidedly preferable here, as introducing an urgent call.

But now comes a most interesting question. What "land" is here addressed? Is it one single country, as if the word "land" were synonymous with "people" or "nation"? Or is it a wide district of undefined boundaries, but including many nations and peoples? As it is the ordinary word for "earth," covering our whole globe, or that part of it that is before the Mind of the Spirit, there would not seem to be the slightest reason why it should not be understood in this sense here, if the correspondence with other scriptures justifies it. As to its geographical position, we are only told that it is "beyond the rivers of Ethiopia, or Cush." But there was not only an African Cush (Isa. 20:3-5), but another in Asia (Gen. 2:13, these rivers are all Asiatic; Num. 12:1, cf. Exod. 2:15-21, Midian was Asiatic); so these two rivers may here be confidently assumed to be the Euphrates in Asia, and the Nile in Africa, which formed the very boundaries of the Land of promise, as given to Abraham in Gen. 15:18, from the river of Egypt, the Nile, the African boundary, unto the great river, the river Euphrates, the Asiatic. As far as this goes, then, all the land outside of Palestine, might here be called with this "Ho!"

But the sphere from which we may select the "Land" becomes rather more contracted by the next words, "shadowing with wings," which is a perfectly correct rendering, and which speaks of this "land" taking under its protection dependent nations, or one dependent nation, and that one possibly lying in the only other sphere mentioned, that is within the bounds already given, the rivers of Cush or Ethiopia. All such possible alternatives must be settled by other scriptures.

The phrase, "beyond the rivers of Cush," occurs in one, and only one, other place in Scripture, and this must lend us its aid: "From beyond the rivers of Cush shall they bring My suppliant, even the daughter of My dispersed to Me as an offering" (Zeph. 3:10). As this evidently deals with the final gathering of Israel from all lands outside of those boundaries (as, among others, in verse 7 here and in chap. 43:5 and Jer. 29:14: "I will gather you from all nations"), we are justified in seeing those same lands here. Only here, in Isaiah, the Jewish State is not under the protecting wing of Jehovah; but (if other scriptures justify such a thought) of a League of Nations unified under one head, be it Emperor or President. That the Roman Empire which ruled the known world for about 500 years, and is now non-existent, shall again be revived, is as sure as that the Jew shall be restored; for so speak many sure foretellings of that revival, as Rev. 17:8, "The Beast was, and is not, and shall come" (R.V.), and Daniel's prophecy. Thus we may finally conclude that the "land" addressed in our first verse is that revived Empire covering all Christendom, and so, of course, this western hemisphere. But it is not the place here to follow this further, other than to repeat that the scene opens with the stage filled by two actors, Gentile and Jew, the former outside the boundaries of the latter's land, but protecting it.

It is surely striking that we are assumed to be interested in knowing in what kind of conveyances the ambassadors carried out their mission! Nearly all translators render it practically as our A.V., "vessels of bulrushes"; but that does not forbid further inquiry. Ships made of literal bulrushes would surely be ill-adapted to travel the seas in safetyto outlive a storm on the Atlantic, or such as brought shipwreck to Paul on the Mediterranean. But dig out the root of the word rendered "bulrushes," gomah, and we find that its first meaning is "to drink," to "absorb" water, and from this root comes the word for bulrush (gomeh), because that mire-loving plant does "drink up water" (see Job 8:11) and thus naturally the word was assumed to refer to "vessels of bulrushes," as in A.V. But why should we not render it quite literally, "in vessels that drink up water"? That is, as the bulrush lives by drinking up water, so do these vessels carry out the purpose of their formation in precisely the same way.

The word for "vessels" strengthens this literal rendering, for it is one that is never used in Scripture for either wind-propelled sailing ship, or oared galley propelled by human strength. There are specific words for these, so that the "vessels" referred to here must have another agent for propulsion. This word for "vessel" always tells of careful construction and delicate adjustment fitting for a specific purpose. As the "vessels" (the same word) of the Tabernacle, were each most carefully prepared for a specific work, so these carefully constructed "vessels" are propelled by "drinking up water"!

In short, no combination of words could be found better calculated to express the modern steamboat! Of course this could not be discerned before the coming of the steam-propelled ship, but now that it has come, it is surely legitimate, and within the limits of sober exegesis, to recognize that in these remarkable words, God had foreseen that invention of man's ingenuity. Nor again, is this other than greatly strengthened by the call to them: "Go, ye swift messengers."

Many have concluded that since the "land shadowing with wings" must send its ambassadors by sea, that it must be insular, and the position of Great Britain, with its marked characteristic of assuming the protection of other peoples, pointed to that being the country intended here. This view I have shared; but of late I have been compelled to abandon it, for the two very simple reasons that there is no other word of Scripture to support it, and that there is another interpretation that has this support.

In the day fast approaching, when once more there is an autonomous Jewish State, Daniel 9:27 tells us that the "Prince" of the revived Roman Empire (the same people that destroyed Jerusalem) shall make a covenant with that State for seven years, thus taking it under its "wing." The "land shadowing with wings" is, therefore, as we have seen, that revived Roman Empire, and the incident here referred to is the making that "covenant" or treaty.

So much for the sender of the embassy. As to the people to whom they are sent, they have ever been marked out "from their very beginning," by portents, prodigies and such interpositions of divine guardianship as has ever made them objects of fear to all others (comp. Gen. 35:5). Yet it is a nation of "line, line" (as it is literally written), that is, constantly under the measuring line of Jehovah, who since they fail to come up to that measure, thus chastens them, as it is written: "I will stretch over Jerusalem the line of Samaria," and if we ask what that means, the words following will answer, "I will wipe Jerusalem as a man wipeth a dish" (2 Kings 21:13). That gives the idea in the word "line" very clearly, and then attach to this the word in Amos 3:2: "You only have I known of all the nations of the earth: therefore I will punish you for your iniquities." We can have no uncertainty as to the force of this "line, line" here: that nation has ever been under the line of divine chastening.

The other mark is, "Whose land the rivers have spoiled." In the clear light of Scripture, the meaning of this is as sure as it is valuable for the correct understanding of other prophecies in which we ourselves have a more direct interest, as for example Rev. 16:12, where we have again the Euphrates used in a symbolic way. Note, then, the divine interpretation of a "river" when thus used in chap. 8:7. There it is "the Assyrian and all his glory," because he and his army, as a river breaking over its banks in irresistible flood, invades Palestine. In the light this gives, there can be no difficulty in seeing in these "spoiling rivers," those nations which have from time immemorial spoiled, by their constant ebb and flow, the land of Israel.

It is surely nothing less than an absurdity to think of literal rivers as spoiling that land. It had but one, the Jordan, and that one, far from being destructive, was really a guard along its eastern frontier. But let Egypt (symbolically the Nile) attack Assyria, or let Assyria (the Euphrates) attack Egypt, in either case, the land lying between them, Palestine, must be overrun and so "spoiled" by those rivers.

Yet spoiled as it ever has been, here are its own people back again in it, but not yet in believing dependence on the God of Jacob; their trust is not in the shadow of His wing. Their return has been simply a matter of world-politics; and instead of honoring the God of their fathers, they, under their leader, honor the god of fortresses or munitions (Dan. 11:38), thus relying on that protection of the "land shadowing with wings" that we are told of here, making a treaty, as Daniel tells us (9:27), for seven years.

The next verse opens with some very striking event that should command the keenest interest of all who dwell within the bounds of the prophetic earth. This is likened to a double call, first to the eye: a banner, high and lifted up on a bare mountain top where no trees can impede the vision, and so within sight of all. Then the ear is appealed to by the sound of the trumpet. Again how impossible it is to take these as being literal, for how few could see a literal banner even on the highest mountain. How few could hear the loudest trumpet-blast! But some event has happened, or is happening, that, as a banner or trumpet, should rivet the attention of everyone on earth who hears of it. In these days how short is the time needed to disseminate any news of interest all over the civilized world. To ear and even to eye, in television, distance is annihilated.

What, then, can that event be, but just what we have been told in the previous verses? The Jews are once more in their land, forming an autonomous Statethat is a "banner" worth looking at! Israel is once more making a treaty as a fully restored nationthat is a trumpet-blast that one must be deaf indeed not to hear. But in these is involved another sign, superseding in its significance all others, for then, and not till then, shall the long-broken thread of Old Testament prophecy be taken up again. Then, and not till then, shall time begin again to be noted; for at this very juncture, the last week of seven years of those "seventy weeks" of Daniel's vision, is beginning, and the nation, so accurately described in verse 2, so marvelously preserved through all the centuries, comes again into God's plan. It is this that is the "banner" lifted up, the "trumpet-blast," so loud that all should heed it.

This is so important that I would linger a little. Those of my readers who are familiar with Daniel's prophecy of "seventy weeks," in his ninth chapter, will remember that that period was divided into three unequal parts, thus: 7-62-1. I cannot now attempt any detailed interpretation of this most interesting of prophecies, save that I would ask, "Why that first pause at the end of seven weeks, or forty-nine prophetic years?" A very little study of the angel's words will show that the starting point of the whole period is the twentieth year of Artaxerxes (Neh. 2:1), or B.C. 445: that forty-nine prophetic years (or forty-eight calendar years) from that date would bring us down to B.C. 397. Now if we turn to the last of the Old Testament prophets, Malachi, and possess a Bible that gives the dates of the book, we shall see that the voice of prophecy ceased in B.C. 397, or exactly "seven weeks of years" after the commission to restore Jerusalem. From the beginning of that silence until Messiah presented Himself to Jerusalem as Prince there were precisely sixty-two weeks of years to a day (Luke 19:42). The consequence of His rejection was, as we know, the destruction of their city, and to the very end the "desolations determined." But during all this present parenthetical time, not one word of Old Testament prophecy is being directly fulfilled, for God is doing quite another character of work altogether, in taking "out of the nations, a people for His Name" (Acts 15:14). But when those ambassadors of whom our chapter speaks, go to the "nation scattered and peeled," then shall the last verse of Daniel 9 be fulfilled, which says, "And he, the prince of the revived empire, shall confirm a covenant with the many for one week." Such a resumption of Old Testament prophecy is then, I take it, a "banner and a trumpet-blast" of unspeakable significance.

When, or by what means, that people is restored to their land, we are not told here, nor am I aware of any prophecy that does tell us a word of the actual returning of the Jews in unbelief to their land. Prophecy takes them up just where it left them, that is, already in their land, and making a treaty there with the one other actor on that stage in the past. How long they may have been there before this, we are not told. One would suppose that the formation of a settled government, capable of executing a treaty, and the rebuilding of the temple, as evidently must be the case, since again the morning and evening sacrifice shall be offered (Dan. 9:27), must have taken an appreciable length of time; but how long, we are not told.

From this it may be deduced that the heavenly witness, the Church, may (not must) be still upon the earth, when that State is formed and that Temple built, since these are not the subjects of Old Testament prophecy. If they were, if we had been told in the Old Testament of the actual transport of the Jews to Palestine in their present unbelief, then the catching up to the Lord of all "in Christ" would, if I err not, necessarily take place before such return, but not as it is, nor can we be on earth when this treaty of which we are here told is made.

The way is now clear to consider the second part of the prophecy:

4: For thus hath Jehovah spoken to me,
I will retire to My dwelling and rest,
There to be still, but closely observant:
As the clear heat of the sunshine,
As the cloud of the dew in the harvest.
5: For ere the harvest when finished the blooming,
The blossom becoming a ripening grape.
Then shall the branches be cut off and pruned,
Then shall the tendrils be taken away.
6: Forsaken to carrion-birds of the mountains,
Left to be trodden by beasts of the field,
The carrion-birds shall summer upon them,
The beasts of the field shall tread them all down.
Verse 4 speaks of Jehovah's attitude toward this arrangement, or "covenant." He has nothing to do with it directly. His will has not been sought. It has simply been the outcome of human politics, and He is not active in the movement. He retires from the earth, as it were, to His own dwelling; leaves the "earth-dwellers" to pursue their own ends. His providences indeed seem to favor the scheme, and just as clear warm days and dewy nights favor the ripening of grape and corn, so do all events seem to further the plan, with which all goes well for a time. The temple is rebuilt; morning and evening sacrifices are smoking once more on Israel's altars; the whole mass of returned Jews go up to worship there, without any discrimination marking out the true from the false; all is about to come to full fruition, nothing could be more promising.

Can we not put ourselves beside some pious Jews of that day? We hearken to the praises that go up for this marvelous recovery after two thousand years of wandering. Surely all Israel's former glory is about to be restoredwhen: crash! A thunderbolt falls out of a clear sky. In an hour everything is changed, and from that time that pious faithful remnant is left a prey to carrion-birds, by which I take it are meant their spirit foes, and beasts, their human political enemies.

What is it that has happened? It is not the way of the Spirit to tell us every detail in one prophecy, or diligence in searching the whole of Scripture would not be needed. Isaiah, and his readers of that day, must wait many centuries to learn what that event is that in a moment will change the whole aspect of the scene. Three years and a half have elapsed since those ambassadors came in their swift vessels to make the covenant. It is "the midst of the week," of Daniel 9:27, and during that time, while things have gone thus on earth, in heaven there has been war; and now the conquered in that war, under the leadership of the Devil, are cast out to the earth, nevermore to defile the realms above it with their presence. Short shall their stay be even here; they are but on their way, via the abyss, to their final abode in that Lake of Fire prepared for them; and a malignancy beyond all that is merely human characterizes that short stay, for the Devil has great wrath, for "he knoweth that he hath but a short time" (Rev. 12:12).

Is that not enough to account for this change? The "abomination of desolation" is now set up in the holy place of that re-built temple. Seven spirits, more wicked than that spirit of idolatry that has been so long cast out of Israel, have now returned, and the last state of that apostate mass is worse than the first. But it is not the mass that we see in verse 5, but rather that afflicted desolate remnant with whom the Spirit of God is concerned, in whose sorrows the heart of our Lord has a part. It is thesenot the mass, still in covenant with the (then) Satan-possessed Prince of the Roman Empirethat are here downtrodden and desolate. These are the desolate who refuse to worship that image, and desolate they must be "till the consummation, and that determined be poured upon" them (Dan. 9:27).

But not forever does this condition of things last. The days are shortened, and the last verse, in the significant third place, gives us the happy scene of a divine restoration. God appears. God manifests Himself for His poor people. The Feet of the Lord have, between these verses 6 and 7, stood upon the Mount of Olives. Let us listen:

7: Then to Jehovah Tzebaoth shall there be brought as a present
A people scattered and ravagedterrible ever and always:
A nation forever under the line; and so forever down trodden:
Whose land the rivers have spoiled,
To the place of the name of Jehovah of Hosts, the mountain of Zion!
Mark the difference in this return from the Zionism of the present day. Jehovah takes no direct interest in this present movement; but here and now the very recovery of the scattered Jews is welcomed and accepted by Jehovah (i.e., Israel's God) as a holy offering, a "gift-offering." It is the time more fully referred to by this same prophet in chapter 66:20, where we shall hope to consider it. It is the time referred to by all the prophets that so clearly foretell the final recovery of all Israel. It is the time referred to by our Lord when He said the Son of Man "shall send His angels with a great sound of a trumpet; and they shall gather His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other" (Matt. 24:31). The fruition of the hopes of the Zionist may possibly be seen by the Church still upon earth, but this joyous recovery shall be witnessed indeed by the heavenly redeemed, only as accompanying the Lord on His triumphant return. May our God win our hearts to Himself by the love this speaks to us as to friends (John 15:14, 15).