Here in America in the 21st century, Isaiah 18 seems like a very foreign, very old, and very opaque bit of writing. Why does the Bible contain a judgment against Cush? Is it even a judgment?
Admittedly, some parts of Scripture are more difficult to access than others. Isaiah 18 is one of them. And that’s okay. We pray, take what we can by faith, and try not to frustrate over what we do not understand. Many commentators admit to this chapter’s being difficult, and commentaries differ greatly in their interpretation of it. How will we ever find anything to apply to our own lives? We are like small children faced with an exotic plate of very adult food. Is there anything here for us to eat?
What Can Maps Tell Us?
Step one is to discover the location of biblical Cush. The two maps below begin to open up an explanation of why God even chose to include this country in Isaiah’s section on judgment against the nations.
Andrei nacu at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
The map on the right shows us the approximate location of what used to be Cush, superimposed on a map of Africa today. It lies just south of Egypt and shares the same river system with it.
And, we can see from the map on the left that at one time, the ancient Egyptian empire stretched out to include the geographical areas of Cush, Israel, and Judah. Egyptians were used to traveling in the narrow strip of Israel/Judah. For example, Genesis 37 reveals how Joseph’s brothers sold him to a caravan of Midianite traders bound for Egypt (Genesis 37:28).
Egypt was at times friendly toward Israel. We remember how Pharaoh during the severe famine of Joseph’s day welcomed that man’s family to live in Goshen. They lived there peacefully for at least a few hundred years before a later Pharaoh turned against them.
The map also shows that Assyria lay to the north of Israel. Compared to Egypt and Assyria, Israel (the two kingdoms) was small. Israel lay between Egypt on the south and Assyria on the north. These two nations were like a pincers that squeezed Israel in the middle. But God protected Judah. I am not aware of any portion of biblical history that speaks well of Assyria. They were highly aggressive.
What Can History Tell Us?
Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica (1) reveal that Cush (also known as Nubia), to the south of Egypt, was ethnically distinct from Egypt. The political histories, cultural histories, and as a result, the ethnic histories of the two nations often intertwined. At some points over the millennia, Egypt dominated Nubia. At other points, Nubia dominated Egypt. Cultural and ethnic mixing occurred. During the time of Isaiah, Cush dominated Egypt, even ruling it through its own family line of Pharaohs.
Isaiah prophesied during King Hezekiah’s reign in Judah (Isaiah 1:1). Cush played a critical role in King Hezekiah’s resistance to the Assyrian King. One section of an article in Encyclopedia Britannica (2) coincides nicely with 2 Kings 18:13-19:37. The biblical account mentions the kingdom of Cush in particular in 2 Kings 19:9. Isaiah 36-37 also covers this time period. Clearly, here is another biblical example of Cush/Egypt being friendly to Judah. It helped them resist the Assyrian invasion that had defeated the northern kingdom of Israel (2 Kings 17:6). It was in their own best interest to do so, since Judah stood as a buffer between them and Assyria.
When Assyria carried the northern kingdom of Israel into captivity (2 Kings 17:6 and 2 Kings 18:9-13), they also overran the fortified cities of Judah (2 Kings 18:13), all the way up to the walls of Jerusalem (2 Kings 18:17f). And even though Egypt/Cush was threatening Assyria (2 Kings 18:21, 24, 19:9) on behalf of Judah, it was God himself who saved Jerusalem in King Hezekiah’s day (2 Kings 19:32-37). He had announced that he would do so in Isaiah 8:7-8 and 14:24-25.
What Does Isaiah 18 Say Concerning Cush?
The short answer is: very little. And, one can read these seven verses many times without arriving at definitive clarity. Aside from the first word translated, “Woe,” the prophecy does not seem to be spoken against Cush. Cush is not the aggressor against Judah; Assyria is the aggressor against both nations. Many commentators say that Isaiah 18 is specifically about the history of Hezekiah, Assyria, and Egypt, briefly outlined above. The details of that history are not derived from this passage, however. Rather, they are incorporated into it (read into it.)
Specifically, Isaiah 18:1-2 appear to be the only verses of the chapter that reference Cush. These verses appear to indicate that Israel sends messengers to Cush for help. Then, Isaiah shifts abruptly to speaking about God and his city (verses 3-7).
What Does Isaiah 18 Say Concerning God?
Verses 3-7 form the main body of the oracle, and these verses speak about God and his city.
Isaiah 18:3 All you inhabitants of the world, you who dwell on the earth, when a signal is raised on the mountains, look! When a trumpet is blown, hear! (ESV)
Isaiah 18:3 Now all the rivers of the land shall be inhabited as an inhabited country; their land shall be as when a signal is raised from a mountain; it shall be audible as the sound of a trumpet. (CAB, LXE)
The book of Isaiah mentions the word “signal” or “sign” several times. Most frequently, the sign is from God and makes reference to an action he takes. Look, for example, at the following verse from a portion of Isaiah which speaks of judgment upon Judah.
Isaiah 5:26 He will raise a signal for nations far away, and whistle for them from the ends of the earth; and behold, quickly, speedily they come! (ESV)
But verse 3 is not about destruction, but blessing, especially as read from the Septuagint. In Scripture, inhabited land is blessed land.
Verse 4 confirms what I wrote about verse 3.
Isaiah 18:4 For thus said the Lord to me, There shall be security in My city, as the light of noonday heat, and it shall be as a cloud of dew in the day of harvest. (CAB, LXE)
In verse 4, Isaiah shifts to direct quotation from the Lord. This verse speaks reassurance to God’s people. First, there is no more secure time of day than during the bright, noon sunshine. Next, dew speaks of refreshment. Finally, the day of harvest speaks of promise. These images metaphorically describe God’s city (“My city,” Septuagint version), which is Zion, the city of the Lord Messiah. In confirmation, the entire passage closes with the name of mount Sion in verse 7.
Verses three and four together seem to indicate that there shall be security for all nations of the world in God’s own city. Mt Zion, God’s city, will be like a trumpet calling all nations to God.
Verse 5 introduces the topic of pruning. Many of the commentators I read speak of this verse as referring to the devastation upon Assyria the night that God smote Sennacherib’s army (2 Kings 19:35-36). But the language of agricultural pruning does not necessarily match that kind of devastation. Pruning in Scripture can be a good thing. Pruning strengthens an individual Christian, and it strengthens the church (John 15:2).
Pruning, of course, is not good for the cut off portion (Isaiah 18:6 and John 15:6). And, it is certainly possible, perhaps even likely, that verses 5-6 make reference to God’s havoc upon Assyria. However, it is also possible, that in keeping with the entire section, verses 3-7, God continues to speak in these two verses concerning his own city.
5 Before the reaping time, when the flower has been completely formed, and the unripe grape has put forth its flower and blossomed, then shall He take away the little clusters with pruning hooks, and shall take away the small branches, and cut them off;
6 And He shall leave them together to the birds of the sky, and to the wild beasts of the earth; and the fowls of the sky shall be gathered upon them, and all the beasts of the land shall come upon them. (CAB, LXE)
In other words, God’s city will be pure. Like a good husbandman, he will keep his grapevines well pruned. Verse 6 indicates that the cut off portions have no further use. They will be destroyed. Nothing will mar the city of God.
Two facts in verse 5 bear out the surmise that God is not speaking here of Assyria. First, the pruning occurs “before the reaping time.” However, Assyria was about to be defeated, as concerns King Hezekiah and Judah. Second, the verse clearly states that the grapes were “unripe” and the clusters were “little.” However, Assyria’s sin was already ripe in King Hezekiah’s day. Third, the images Isaiah uses describe a beneficial pruning, rather than a devastation of judgment upon a fully ripened, evil power, such as Assyria. Therefore, in keeping with the unity of verses 3-7 as a whole, I rather think that the entire passage speaks of God’s city, not Assyria.
Isn’t This Interpretation a Non Sequitur?
But wouldn’t that interpretation comprise a sudden shift from the chapters of judgment that preceded these five verses? Possibly so! Isaiah is filled with seeming non sequiturs. Remember, Isaiah’s main message is Messiah in relation to Israel. The prophet established the presence of Messiah in Isaiah 2:2-4, 4:2-6, 7:14, 9:1-7, and 11:1-12:6. There is also a very long apocalyptic vision in Isaiah 13:1-14:32. Having done all this, Isaiah the prophet is free to address his main theme at any time he wishes. And, as we will see, he will continue to do so.
Verse 7: A Picture of the Church
Verse 7 speaks of a time when presents will be brought to the Lord of hosts from all manner of people: from those who are afflicted and “peeled” and from a “great” people. The church draws from all kinds of nations and peoples.
Isaiah 18:7 In that time shall presents be brought to the Lord of hosts from a people afflicted and peeled, and from a people great from henceforth and forever; a nation hoping and yet trodden down, which is in a part of a river of His land, to the place where is the name of the Lord of hosts, the Mount Zion. (CAB, LXE)
On the other hand, perhaps the text speaks of only one nation characterized by two sets of contradictory images. First, the people are both “afflicted” and “great.” Second, the nation is “hoping” and “trodden down.” Don’t these contradictory images describe well the experience of the church as a whole down through the ages? The already/not yet nature of the church on earth matches these descriptors of suffering and fulfillment at one and the same time.
Verse 7 Unifies the Passage
As a means of uniting the passage, verses 3-7, verse 7 actually names the topic of the section that begins in verse 3: “Mount Zion.” Whenever a biblical text speaks of presents, or gifts, being brought to the Lord of hosts, the reference indicates worship. All manner of people shall worship the Lord in Mt Zion, both the “afflicted” and “great.”
As a further indication of unity, verse 7 describes the nation bringing the presents as living “in a part of a river of His land.” This harkens back to verse 3, which also speaks of an inhabited land of rivers. As a means of uniting the passage, verses 3 and 7 function like a set of bookends.
Conclusion and Application
So what is the application which we as Christians today can draw from this ancient text?
- First, God’s dwelling is secure. This security contrasts starkly with the unrest, rumors of war, and actual wars that consume the people and nations here below.
- Second, God’s dwelling is restful. The Masoretic text says in verse 4, “I will quietly look from my dwelling.” God sits high above human history. He calls people to dwell with him in his city. God inhabits his city in peace. As he watches history unfold, he is never surprised or caught off-guard.
- Third, God’s city is pure. As a mindful gardener, he prunes his vine, his people, in season. He tosses away the unprofitable and harmful in order to encourage the strength and growth of his crop as a whole.
- Finally, God’s city is a place of worship. People bring him gifts, offerings of hearts that acknowledge his sovereignty, his independence high above all, his blessings to them, and his power.
- All of this contrasts with the mundane wars ever present on the human level of history, wars such as those between Assyria, Israel, and Cush.
Isaiah begins chapter 18:1-2 by mildly chastising Judah for looking to Cush for help. “Now” (vs 3), however, they have God and his city, Mt Zion. He is more than sufficient for all their needs. Chapter 18 reflects Isaiah’s concern throughout the book to call God’s people back to God.
2 “In 701 bce Shabaka backed the Hebrew king Hezekiah’s revolt against Assyria. The Assyrian king Sennacherib marched into Palestine and defeated an Egypto-Kushite unit at Eltekeh but failed to take Jerusalem, as Prince Taharqa appeared with reinforcements. Peace between Egypt and Assyria followed until the Assyrian king Esarhaddon began aggressive movements in Palestine. An attempted invasion of Egypt in 674 bce failed, but in 671 the Assyrians succeeded and expelled Taharqa from Memphis. Taharqa intermittently reoccupied Egypt, but in 663 bce the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal drove him and his successor Tanutamon out, sacking Thebes.” Available at Encyclopedia Britannica https://www.britannica.com/place/Nubia, accessed February 23, 2021.