Isaiah 18: Left for the Birds of Prey

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Where we are:

Part 1: Judgment

Part 2: Historical Interlude

Part 3: Salvation

Chapters 1-35

Chapters 36-39

Chapters 40-66

When this takes place:

The oracle in Chapter 18 likely occurs during the reign of Judah’s king Ahaz, or perhaps during the reign of his son Hezekiah. In any case, the oracle is given prior to Assyria’s invasion of Judah in 701 B.C.

Key verse:

Isa. 18:7 – At that time a gift will be brought to the Lord of Hosts from a people tall and smooth-skinned, a people feared near and far, a powerful nation with a strange language, whose land is divided by rivers-to Mount Zion, the place of the name of the Lord of Hosts.

Quick summary:

The land of Cush is told not to move frantically by boat or other means to secure alliances against Assyria, for the Lord will deal directly with the Assyrians and leave their corpses to the birds of prey.

Take note:

Cush, or Ethiopia in many translations, consists of modern-day southern Egypt, the Sudan and northern Ethiopia. Isaiah calls it the “land of buzzing insect wings” (v. 1), not only because of the locusts and other insects that infest the land (like the tsetse fly and winged beetle), but because of the frantic diplomatic activity taking place as envoys from Cush seek alliances to protect them from Assyria. Cush rules Egypt from 715 – 663 B.C.

The Lord’s Message to Cush (Isa. 18:1-7)

In verse 2, Isaiah depicts the ambassadors of Cush making haste in their light, swift boats to seek alliances against Assyria. “Papyrus was used on the Nile for making boats,” according to Manners and Customs of the Bible. “Sometimes bundles of the plant were rudely bound together in the form of a raft. At other times the leaves were plaited like a basket and then coated with bitumen and tar after the boat was constructed. Similar boats were used on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. The boats were circular in shape, and sometimes covered with leather instead of bitumen” (James M. Freeman and Harold J. Chadwick, S. 352).

Some commentators believe that at the time of this prophecy, envoys from Cush are in Jerusalem, seeking an alliance for mutual protection from Assyria. If so, Isaiah tells the diplomats to go home, and He invites the whole world to witness what God is about to do. No alliances among nations are sufficient to defeat the terrifying Assyrians, and none are needed, for the Lord is about to cut them down like ripened vines (v. 5).

The birds and wild beasts will feast on the corpses of the Assyrian soldiers for an extended period of time (v. 6). Keep in mind that the Assyrians first are used of God to punish the northern kingdom of Israel by taking the people captive. But once that is accomplished (in 722 B.C.), God turns His chastening rod against the proud Assyrians. On the hills surrounding Jerusalem, and about to sweep victoriously into the southern kingdom’s capital city, 185,000 Assyrians are struck down by God in a single night (Isa. 37:36). No army, and no alliance of nations, may take credit for this stunning turn of events; it is exclusively the work of the Lord of Hosts. See Rev. 19:17-21, where a similar image is used of end-time judgment.

After the Assyrian defeat, the Lord will prompt the people of Cush to bring gifts to the Lord on Mount Zion, where His name dwells (see Deut. 12:5). Whether this is immediately after the Assyrian defeat, or simply a preview of what will occur during the millennium, is not clear (see Zech. 14:16), but certainly the nations will stream to Mount Zion after Messiah establishes His kingdom on earth (Isa. 2:1-4).

Closing Thought

Gary V. Smith writes in The New American Commentary: Isaiah 1-39 that this chapter features two theological principles that apply to every nation: “First, people should not allow their attention to be sidetracked to focus on human accomplishments, religious ritual, or man-made theological idols, for that will bring God’s judgment. Second, people should pay attention to God their Creator, remember that he is holy, is able to save them, and can protect them in times of trouble. No one today should repeat the mistakes of Israel and Judah, unless they want to suffer the same fate” (p. 352).

Copyright 2009 by Rob Phillips