When examining any prophecy of Scripture from a faith perspective, we must begin with the premise that God is very intentional in His communication. Every message regarding future events He is conveying to us is significant, and will ultimately have a clear and obvious fulfillment.
Isaiah 18, containing only seven verses, is widely regarded as one of the most obscure and difficult to interpret prophetic passages in the Bible. Some commentators have (weakly) attempted to ascribe it to vague events which may have occurred in Isaiah's time, though many have contended there is no clear historical fulfillment. None have been able to conclusively link it to any meaningful contemporary events involving the Assyrian empire and the region of Cush in Africa, or any events thereafter.
Thus, we can conclude that God has other intentions to convey. Whatever those are, they have a future fulfillment, as there is no clear significant historical fulfillment. As we begin to see more end-time Biblical prophecies take place before our eyes (exhibit A being the regathering of the Jews after centuries-long exile to their land promised by God in an eternal unilateral covenant), we can expect many prophecies which had been "sealed" for centuries will suddenly emerge into clearer understanding. As with any commentary, our efforts here to interpret God's Word are imperfect suggestions only.
In his fascinating 1799 commentary "Critical Disquisitions on Isaiah 18", Samuel Horsley provides prescient insight regarding the unknown nation which is the primary subject of this prophecy, as well as the context. He says that nation "is destined to be principal instrument in the hand of Providence, in the great work of re-settlement of the Jews in the Holy Land, by characters by which they will be evidently known, when the time arrives." Amazingly, Horsley wrote these words a century before the Zionist movement commenced to restore the Jewish people to their historical land.
Rather than starting at the beginning of this prophecy, we will first focus on verse three, which is a fabulous focal event yet to happen.
All you inhabitants of the world,
you who live on the earth:
when a banner is hoisted on the mountains, look!
When the shofar is blown, listen!
(v 3 CJB)
We immediately notice that whatever this event it is, it attracts world-wide attention. This further reinforces the assertion that this chapter is not about obscure events in Isaiah's time, but God has something much more significant to tell us. If we are aware of the spiritual significance of prophetically ordained events in the world today, we have an idea what this extraordinary event is.
The same Hebrew word נס nes meaning a banner, signal, or flag, is also used in Isaiah 11 in the context of regathering the dispersed people of Israel "a second time". This is certainly referring to the modern day reestablishment of the nation of Israel, and provides us the first solid clue as to the meaning of the banner in verse three. God "will assemble the banished of Israel" (Isaiah 11:12 ESV) to become a nation once again in their own land, which was enacted in 1948, and is an ongoing process.
The location of "the mountains" is not specified here. However, if we affirm this prophecy is indeed about significant future events, we can propose "the mountains" are the mountains of Israel. This is the Biblical heartland of Israel, Judea and Samaria (what the world refers to as the "West Bank") where the nations are obsessed with creating an Arab/Muslim nation of Palestine. They are on a collision course with the purposes of the Almighty for that land.
So we perceive that something of global significance is happening in Judea and Samaria. And we can confidently propose what that is. A flag is being raised, and a shofar being blown. The blowing of the shofar, even today, is indicative of victorious outcomes in Israel. For example, the shofar was blown in Jerusalem during the Six Day War in 1967 at the triumphal declaration of "The Temple Mount is in our hands!"
This leads to the fantastic conclusion that the other detailed prophecies of Scripture regarding that land of Judea and Samaria are coming to fruition in this context, most specifically, Ezekiel 36. The enemies of Israel who have been attempting to usurp that land have been vanquished. The shofar of victory is being blown, and the flag of Israel is being raised on the hills of Judea and Samaria. "O mountains of Israel, I will bring people to live on you once again. I will make you even more prosperous than you were before. Then you will know that I am the LORD." (Ezekiel 36:11 NLT) (See also the Ezekiel 36 commentary They Arrogated My Land)
With that focal event in mind, let us examine the chapter verse-by-verse from the beginning. The broader context of Isaiah 14-17 contains some scenes that may take place in the relatively near future, and the following chapter 19 also contains prophecies not yet fulfilled. This reinforces the notion that Isaiah 18 is yet future.
In verse 1, a specific nation is to be the primary recipient of this warning. The first Hebrew word הוי hoy, is an emphatic interjection which conveys both a sense of alert and dissatisfaction with the party being addressed. As we will see later in the chapter, that nation is apparently attempting to lead the efforts for an ill-fated objective which is contrary to God's.
The identification of the nation to whom this chapter is primarily addressed is found in verses 1, 2, and 7, and contains a number of detailed specifications. (Several different Bible translations will be used here). As we examine the specifics, it will become clear that no modern nation fits the description as closely as does the United States, and no ancient nation fulfilled the prophecy.
First, it is a nation of "whirring wings", "where the sound of wings is heard", or the "land of clamorous wings". The Hebrew word צלצל tslatsal may denote very loud sounds caused by vibrations. Given that the military prominence of this nation figures largely later on, we can propose this is a reference to the sounds of jets and helicopters. No other nation has the fearsome air power of the US.
Next, it is a nation that "lies beyond the rivers of Cush". Geographically, this refers to an area that corresponds to portions of modern-day Sudan and Ethiopia in Africa. But notice the verse does not say it is Cush itself, but beyond there. Obviously, in those days, eastern northern Africa would have seemed like the ends of the earth to someone in Israel. So if Isaiah was trying to convey the idea of a land far, far away from where he was, wouldn't he probably say it is beyond the farthest area with which he was familiar?
This idea is reinforced by usage of a similar phrase in Zephaniah 3:10, "From beyond the rivers of Cush my worshipers, my scattered people,will bring me offerings." (NIV) This is clearly in an end-times context, after the Lord has assembled the rebellious nations for His final showdown with them. After that, in celebration, God's people from all over the world, "beyond the rivers of Cush", will assemble at Jerusalem to bring the Lord offerings of worship.
Therefore, we can see that "beyond the rivers of Cush" is used elsewhere in the Bible to describe far-flung areas in the world. This Isaiah 18 prophecy is therefore apparently not about Ethiopia or Sudan or that region, but a nation far beyond there.
This nation in question "sends envoys (ambassadors) over the sea" , "shipping emissaries all over the world". What nation is most known for sending envoys overseas? The United States. With what political situation are the US diplomats and envoys most involved to an extraordinary degree? It is the Middle East conflict. For decades, the United States has been at the forefront of the ill-conceived "peace process" in an attempt to accomplish a political settlement to this most intractable morass. Also, "envoys over the sea" is another indicator that the prophet was not speaking about a nation in northeast Africa, which does not have direct access to oceans for extended international travel, only the Red Sea.
Also interesting is the Hebrew word used to describe the construction material of the vessels in which these envoys are being transported. The Hebrew word גמא gome is the material from which those vessels are made, and literally means reed or papyrus. As numerous commentators have pointed out, small boats made of papyrus were light skiffs only capable of navigation locally on relatively calm waterways. They would not be suitable for the kind of international long-range travel described here. However, this material could be interpreted in modern terms as the kind of strong, light structural material used to manufacture airliners to carry envoys "over the waters". So at first glance, in this verse we have overseas travel depicted using vessels seemingly not suited for it, which does not make sense. But it does make sense if this is actually referring to modern air travel.
Samuel Horsley likewise noted in 1799 that "vessels of bulrushes" were not suitable for the kind of long-distant sea travel described, and remarkably predicted, "The country, therefore, to which the prophet calls, is characterized as one, which, in the days of the completion of this prophecy, should be a great maritime and commercial power, forming remote alliances, making distant voyages to all parts of the world, with expeditions of security, and in the habit of affording protection to their friends and allies. Where this country is to be found is not otherwise said, than that it will be remote from Judea, and with respect to that country, beyond the Cushean streams."
To further qualify the nation being addressed, Isaiah then describes its people and its power. The people are described as tall and smooth-skinned. Handsome and bronzed are words used in other translations. What image do other parts of the world have of the appearance of Americans, especially from American TV shows piped all over the world? Tall, attractive, clean-shaven people. The geography of the land these people live in is "a land divided by rivers". That also describes the United States.
Finally, the military and political might of the nation to which Isaiah is prophesying are described. Various Bible translations convey "a people inspiring awe through out their history", "a nation that inspired awe since it came into being", "a strong nation, crushing down its haters", "feared all over the world", "a mighty and masterful nation," "strong and victorious" -- could these be describing the world's preeminent superpower? Horsley describes those characteristics of that nation as "majestic, sublime, grand, awful, and sometimes terrible." Those characteristics do not correspond to any nation in geographical Cush.
But the clincher regarding the identification of this nation may be found in verse 7, the final verse of the chapter.
"At that time gifts will be brought to the LORD of hosts from a people tall and smooth, from a people feared near and far, a nation mighty and conquering, whose land the rivers divide, to Mount Zion, the place of the name of the LORD of hosts." (Isaiah 18:7 RSV)
After the events described in Isaiah 18 transpire, the people of this nation (presumably US Christians and Jews) will be noted for the gifts they bring to "the place of the name". This is, of course, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. One can speculate these gifts are certainly not designated for the Islamic structures that currently stand there, but perhaps for the rebuilding of the Temple after the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque are obliterated? And what nation's citizens are better prepared, equipped, and motivated to send monetary gifts and supplies to Mount Zion for rebuilding the Temple than the United States?
Given this strong circumstantial case, we propose that no other nation, ancient or modern, fits the description as closely as the United States. But this prophecy is a message of discomfort and warning for that nation. A bit of irony is expressed here as well. While noting this country sends messengers all over the world, Isaiah is essentially telling those messengers "go home, you messengers, and give this message of calamity to your own country".
"Go back quickly, O representatives, to a nation tall and smooth, to a people causing fear through all their history; a strong nation, crushing down its haters, whose land is cut through by rivers." (Isaiah 18:2 BBE).
If that nation, a world superpower, is leading the attempts to thwart God's vigorously stated intentions regarding the Biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria, the surprising outcome will not bode well for that nation.
This brings us back to verse 3.
"All you people of the world, you who live on the earth, when a banner is raised on the mountains, you will see it, and when a trumpet sounds, you will hear it." (Isaiah 18:3 NIV)
As stated earlier, we can surmise that the mountains are the mountains of Israel (the West Bank) and the banner is an Israeli flag. The shofar is blown during battle. Therefore, it is likely whatever is happening to the nation described in this chapter is happening in conjunction with Israel fully retaking Biblical Judea and Samaria back as their own possession. Perhaps this is through a military operation, or perhaps through direct Divine intervention. The victory trumpet blast and flag-raising would happen once the Palestinians are vanquished and that land becomes part of Israel formally, as detailed in Ezekiel 36. So, God is telling the entire world, "when this happens, pay attention."
The nation that is the primary subject of this chapter, presumably the United States, is increasingly at the forefront of the push to create a Palestinian state. We are assured by the prophetic Scriptures that ancestral heartland of Israel, which is the object of contention today, will one day fully belong to Israel, in spite of the world's efforts to seize it. So verse 3 has a defiant tone to it, addressed at the entire world, that God's intentions for that land will be accomplished. Israel's banner will be raised on the mountains of Israel, visible to all.
And we know, especially from Ezekiel's detailed prophecies, that one of God's primary purposes for that marvelous event is the entire world, but especially the Jewish nation, will recognize and understand the He is the one who accomplished the absolutely amazing outcome.
As we shall see in verse 5, the efforts by others to seize that land will appear to be succeeding for awhile, but just as they is about to come to fruition, God will take dramatic action to put a stop to them. This is the point where we (Americans) might begin to get a little nervous, because if this chapter is addressing the United States, and if the time of fulfillment is soon, the next verses do not bode well at all.
"This is what the LORD says to me: "I will remain quiet and will look on from my dwelling place, like shimmering heat in the sunshine, like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest."" (Isaiah 18:4 NIV)
Something spectacularly brilliant and perhaps ominous is going to happen, but first the Lord declares He is giving the appearance of impassively sitting and quietly observing the nefarious process. While He appears to be doing nothing about it, the enemy's schemes are progressing, apparently heading towards sure success. God calmly looks on without interfering, seemingly unconcerned about the looming catastrophe.
According to the Keil and Delitzsch Biblical Commentary on the Old Testament, "The prophecy explains itself here, as is very frequently the case, especially with Isaiah; for the literal words of v. 6 show us unquestionably what it is that Jehovah will allow to develop itself so prosperously under favourable circumstances, and without any interposition on His part, until He suddenly and violently puts an end to the whole, must as it is approaching perfect maturity.... Jehovah quietly looks on from the heavenly seat of His glorious presence, without disturbing the course of the thing intended. This quietness, however, is not negligence, but, as the hortative expressions show, a well-considered resolution."
Similarly, Barnes' Notes On The Bible states, "(God) says he will sit calm while these preparations are going on - as the sun shines serenely on the earth while the harvest is growing, and the dew falls gently on the herb; but that "before" their plans are completed, he will interpose and destroy them, as if one should appear suddenly before the harvest is ripe and cut it down. The "design," therefore, of this part of the prophecy is to comfort the Jews, and to assure them that there is no danger to them from the preparations which were made against them - for Yahweh calmly beholds the proud rage of the enemy. "
Is this describing some kind of traumatic event which will effectively put a halt to the so-called "peace process"? Another translation of that verse provides a different view of one aspect of God's intentions. "I will look after My Place of Foundation." (Stone Edition Tanach) As God plants His banner and sounds His shofar to confirm His designation of the entire land of Israel to the people of Israel, He takes special care to look after the Temple Mount (which the Palestinians claim as their Islamic property in East Jerusalem). Though the world powers, in conjunction with Islam, attempt to keep their grip on the place God founded as the place for His name to dwell forever, they will not succeed.
The JPS translation of verse 4 ends, "like a rain cloud in the heat of reaping time." The notes of the JPS Bible explain "i.e. like a threat of disaster". During the harvest period, it is the threat of rain that can turn that process into a failure. That use of the word harvest leads us to the next verse, where the harvest which will be aborted is presumably the "land for peace" effort, propelled by the US, to form a Palestinian state.
For, before the harvest, when the blossom is gone and the flower becomes a ripening grape, he will cut off the shoots with pruning knives, and cut down and take away the spreading branches. (Isaiah 18:5 NIV)
Just before the harvest, just before the sinister endeavor is consummated, God lops off the branches ripe with fruit. If we link this back to the proclamation to the whole world back in verse 3, we deduce the attempts to create a Palestinian state will be approaching ripeness when God severs them. The spreading branches he will chop off away are the contrivances of the Palestinian Authority to spread into Israel's land.
Therefore, you watchmen who intercede for the Lord's purposes, in the future when it looks like a Palestinian state is just about to come into being, do not despair. The Lord God Himself will intervene as He has proclaimed in verse 5 to put a final stop to those efforts.
(Isaiah 18:6 NIV) They will all be left to the mountain birds of prey and to the wild animals; the birds will feed on them all summer, the wild animals all winter.
For this verse, the "Pulpit Commentary" notes: "At length the imagery is dropped. The vine is shown to be an army, slaughtered all "together," and left a prey to kites and vultures, jackals and hyaenas."
After the conclusive, forceful action to terminate the nearly-culminated process of arrogating Israel's land, apparently the remains of those God has cut down will be devoured by the carrion animals for an extended period. This unpleasant outcome may make us uncomfortable in its graphic depiction. However, it is the Lord's declaration.
Barnes Notes on the Bible comments that the defeated enemy, whomever they may be, "shall be unburied through the winter; probably indicating that they would furnish food for the fowls and the wild beasts for a long time. On the multitude of carcasses these animals will find nourishment for a whole year, that is, they will spend the summer and the winter with them... it is quite evident that the design of the prophecy was to give comfort to the Jews, alarmed and agitated as they were at the prospect of the preparations which were made, by the assurance that those plans would fail, and all the efforts of their enemies be foiled and disconcerted."
Even so, the chapter ends on a very positive note. Could it be that whatever events take place here are also simultaneous to the liberation of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem? Verse 7 seems to imply that.
(Isaiah 18:7 NIV) At that time gifts will be brought to the LORD Almighty from a people tall and smooth-skinned, from a people feared far and wide, an aggressive nation of strange speech, whose land is divided by rivers-- the gifts will be brought to Mount Zion, the place of the Name of the LORD Almighty.
The nation that is the focus of this prophecy, once again identified here, will finally play a role of blessing to Israel. That nation will be singled out as the primary contributor of gifts designated for the Temple.
Let's tie it all together in a what is sure to be a controversial proposition: This prophecy may be a warning to the United States regarding its spearheading of the efforts to form a nation of "Palestine", on land God has promised to the descendants of Jacob. As the process to create a Palestinian state appears to be approaching consummation, God takes forceful and final action to thwart it. But afterwards, Christians and Jews in the US will bring gifts to the Temple Mount for the rebuilding of the Temple.